Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni) ***1/2

Paul Leni

Cast: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Martha Mattox, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley, Tully Marshall, Flora Finch

Background: Paul Leni had made a name for himself with the 1924 German horror film Waxworks and was brought to America by Universal Studios. His first film was the adaptation of John Willard's stage play, The Cat and the Canary.

The Story: A group of relatives get together at a creepy mansion for the reading of their late uncle's will. Annabelle West is the one named to inherit his fortune, but the will has a stipulation. She has to be found sane by a doctor, or the fortune goes to a person named in a separate envelope. The problem is that a series of events begin to make her seem insane to the others.

Thoughts: This is a very creepy early horror film. Leni was one of the German Expressionist filmmakers, but perhaps lesser known than his counterparts Murnau and Lang. That doesn't mean he didn't know what he was doing. Leni invents the classic haunted house genre by lending some vivid atmosphere to the intense psychological premise. A strong cast helps, with Laura La Plante making an excellent heroine, but it is Martha Mattox's wonderfully dry turn as the mansion caretaker Mammy Pleasant that steals the show. There's a great use of sound effects, especially when an ancient clock suddenly starts working again. Leni perhaps could have milked the heroine is crazy theme a bit longer and Creighton Hale's bumbling performance as the male lead is difficult to watch, but this is still a solid horror film.

Postscript: The Cat and the Canary was a success and ended up being a very influential horror film. It was remade several times, but the most successful was the 1939 version starring Bob Hope and Paulette Godard. Director Paul Leni would only make three more films before succumbing to food poisoning. Laura La Plante kept very busy throughout the 30s and then made brief appearance in the 40s and 50s. Martha Mattox would make 38 more films, but mostly in minor roles.

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