When eccentric millionaire Cyrus West finally kicks the bucket, the kooky recluse stipulates his potential heirs must now wait twenty whole years (!) before his last will and testament can even be read (!!), and leaves specific instructions that nobody gets nothing unless these peculiar demands are met. Seems old Cyrus felt his relatives were like cats, ready to pounce on a helpless canary; the canary in question being him and his money. Which explains why, for the past two decades, with his last will and testament securely locked up in the mansion's wall safe, rumors have been running rampant that stately West manor -- unoccupied those many years, except for the creepy maid, who has, and I quote, "No use for the living" -- has been haunted by the restless spirit of its former paranoid proprietor.
Now, with the fateful day of the big payoff just waiting for the stroke of midnight, the six heirs gather once more in the creepy and cobwebbed and haunted halls, where things get off to a rocky start when Crosby, the lawyer and executor (Marshall), finds some etymological evidence showing the documents might have been tampered with. Breaking the seal anyway, the will stipulates everything goes to one heir, and one heir only: Cyrus's daughter, Annabelle West (La Plante). However, there is a codicil, stipulating a doctor must first diagnose Annabelle and attest that she, unlike her whackadoodle father, isn't completely bug-nuts in the head. And if she is found to be bonkers, the estate will revert to another heir, named in another sealed envelope that Crosby is to safeguard until the diagnosis is completed.
With the doctor not due until morning, the heirs split up into separate corners of the giant house. And things turn sinister when Crosby professes to Annabelle his suspicions as to who was most-probably tampering with the will; but before he can reveal the culprit's identity, a secret passage opens up behind him and a cloaked and clawed figure in a large fedora snatches him into the darkness while the girl's back is turned. Suddenly alone, after the ensuing hysterics subside, the others fear Annabelle might just be a little cracked when the heiress tries to explain how the lawyer disappeared into thin air mid-sentence. And as the night progresses, the same sinister figure continues to use more secret passages to stalk and torment the poor girl; and if Annabelle wasn't crazy before the evening began, then, by morning, she might just be ready for her own personalized straight-jacket.
So who is this dastardly cad putting the screws to our poor heroine? Was it one of her bickering male cousins (-- one of them the hopeless comedy relief)? Her dotty, ghost-obsessed aunt and her even dottier niece? Or maybe the butler did it -- well, in this case, the brooding maid, who's always lurking about (played wonderfully by Mattox). And did I mention the asylum guard prowling around, who's looking for an escaped lunatic who likes to slash his victims to ribbons, just like a cat? *shrug* The bigger question, however, is, as the bodies, red-herrings, and probable suspects keep piling up, will they actually succeed, robbing poor Annabelle of her rightful inheritance, her sanity, and perhaps even her life?
It was the abundant box-office returns on Carl Laemmle's The Cat and the Canary that planted the seeds for Universal Studios' horror boom of the 1930's, that reached first bloom with the producer's own Dracula and Frankenstein. And with talkies firmly establishing a beachhead in Hollywood by late 1927, the film also kinda marked the end of the silent era; and it's a fond farewell. Based on the play by John Willard, the stage version of The Cat and the Canary was more of a black comedy than a mystery driven spook-show. We'll get to the comedy in a sec, but as for the mystery itself, well, it comes off as excessively convoluted -- Wouldn't it be easier to just kill her? -- and over-stacked with subplots and characters crawling out of the woodwork who then just as quickly disappear again. (I mean, Where in the hell did the milkman come from?) Still, the film achieves some genuinely spooky moments, and we need to give some credit where credit is due: the film is actually kinda funny when it's actually trying to be funny -- and for something coming from the stage-bound silent era, I'm sorry, but that's really saying something. (There's even some risqué, Pre-Code buffoonery as Hale clandestinely watches the ladies undress.)
But the real star of the show is the house itself. With all those secret passages and hidden compartments, and the impossibly long and Escher-esque hallways, to the shadowy layouts of the murky rooms, it truly is a wonder to behold. Director Paul Leni, fresh off the boat from Germany, and who brought all his Teutonic film-making idiosyncrasies with him, together with his art-director, Charles D. Hall, gives us plenty of expressionistic eye-candy to look at. From the opening scenes of Cyrus West trapped behind the super-imposed images of those giant medicine bottles our attention is grabbed by the nose and firmly held until the killer is finally revealed. Sadly, Leni only made two more films, most notably helming Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs, before dying unexpectedly of blood poisoning just two short years after this film's release. But his efforts, here, proved so successful Laemmle remade it as a talkie, The Cat Creeps (-- that sadly appears to be lost forever), and it was later adapted again a decade later at Paramount as a full-blown comedic vehicle for Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard.
As a sucker for any kind of old haunted house flick, The Cat and the Canary didn't have to work all that hard to win me over. Like I said before, Leni delivers the goods, the cast is game, and the comedy relief doesn't overstay its welcome. What more could you ask?
Other Points of Interest:
The Cat and the Canary (1927) EP: Carl Laemmle / P: Paul Kohner / D: Paul Leni / W: Robert F. Hill, Alfred A. Cohn, John Willard (play) / C: Gilbert Warrenton / E: Martin G. Cohn / M: Hugo Riesenfeld / S: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley, Tully Marshall, Gertrude Astor, Flora Finch, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Martha Mattox