There are few doubts that Universal Studios is one of the biggest influences on the horror movie genre, having had a hand in the production of fright films since the earliest days of the silent era. The name Universal is synonymous with monster movies, earning their reputation with classic films like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man, but not all of their horror films dealt with mythological creatures and sympathetic beasts. In 1927, with Hollywood’s silent era quickly coming to a close, Universal made a highly influential haunted house movie called The Cat and the Canary.
The Cat and the Canary begins with elderly millionaire Cyrus West on the brink of death. His relatives can’t wait for him to die so that they can inherit his money, so he devises a plan; he orders that his will be locked in a safe for twenty years after his death. When the time has passed, his lawyer, Roger Crosby (The Stranger’s Tully Marshall) finds a second will sealed in with the first with instructions that it should only be opened if the stipulations of the first will are not met. One by one, Cyrus’ relatives arrive, including his timid nephew Paul Jones (Creighton Hale from Orphans of the Storm), another nephew named Charlie Wilder (Her Accidental Husband’s Forrest Stanley), still another nephew Harry Blythe (The Phantom of the Opera’s Arthur Edmund Carewe), Cyrus’ sister Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch from The Scarlet Letter), Susan’s daughter Cecily (Gertrude Astor from The Strong Man), and distant niece Annabelle West (The Love Trap’s Laura La Plante). The will leaves Cyrus’ fortune to Annabelle, but only on the condition that she is judged sane by a doctor after spending the night in Cyrus’ spooky and allegedly haunted house. Annabelle finds herself surrounded by a group of people who are determined to drive her crazy over the course of the night, hoping that her insanity will trigger the opening of the second envelope, giving them a second chance at the huge inheritance. Things are complicated further by the appearance of a policeman (George Siegmann from The Birth of a Nation) who claims that an escaped lunatic, known only as The Cat, is hiding somewhere in the house. Annabelle has to avoid both The Cat and her jealous relatives as she spends the night in the allegedly haunted house, and she has no idea who she can and cannot trust.
The screenplay for The Cat and the Canary was adapted from the play by John Willard (The Mask of Fu Manchu) by Robert F. Hill (The Black Ghost) and Alfred A. Cohn (The Jazz Singer). The film was directed by German silent movie director Paul Leni (Waxworks, The Man Who Laughs), who successfully merges the humor of the play with the horror that Universal wanted. Leni’s vision is a bit like German Expressionism meets American Commercialism; the abstract and surreal imagery is there, but is toned down quite a bit to be more accessible to Hollywood audiences. The Cat and the Canary is a mystery, dressed as a comedy, wrapped in a horror movie.
The production design for The Cat and the Canary laid the groundwork for some of Universal’s most important films. Although drawn out by Leni, the sets were designed, built, and decorated by Charles D. Hall, who would go on to construct the famous looks for dozens of Universal classic horror films such as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man, and The Black Cat. The German Expressionist influence is apparent in the elongated, angular set pieces, but the house is also realistic and down-to-earth. The combination between the surreal and natural is what gives The Cat and the Canary, and all of the Universal horror films for that matter, their spooky look and feel.
For a silent film director, Paul Leni had always been pretty creative with his visuals, and his work in The Cat and the Canary is no exception. In addition to the long shadows and heavy backlight that many horror films of the era utilize, Leni and cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton (Panic in Year Zero!) add tasteful superimpositions and camera trick shots to help sell the story. The opening scene is a trick shot, featuring a miniature Cyrus surrounded by giant cats, symbolizing how he felt about his relatives waiting for his death. Superimposed door knockers and skulls strategically placed throughout the film help to keep the characters and audience on their toes. Even the title cards, the silent movie equivalent of dialogue, are creative; thanks to title writer Walter Anthony (The Man Who Laughs), the fonts and letter sizes change and the cards are even primitively animated in places, with moving words or flashing shapes, making them more than just letters on a screen. The Cat and the Canary was very much ahead of its time in a visual sense.
The influence of The Cat and the Canary has been felt ever since its release. It was remade by Universal a short three years later with sound under the title The Cat Creeps, but that film is one of many early talkies that have been lost. The Cat and the Canary was remade again in 1939 as a pure comedy starring Bob Hope, and that is the version that is not only the most well known, but also served as one of the inspirations for Disneyland’s The Haunted Mansion. The images in The Cat and the Canary live on as well, with films like The Legend of Hell House, The Haunting, and The Amityville Horror paying tribute. One scene in which Annabelle is searching under her bed is echoed by Tobe Hooper in Poltergeist. Wes Craven even includes a wink to the film in A Nightmare on Elm Street during a scene where his Final Girl sleeps while the killer’s claw looms over her head; the image is taken right from Leni’s shot list. For such a buried film, The Cat and the Canary casts a long cinematic shadow.
When movie fans think of Universal Studios horror, the pictures that come to mind are monsters, either images from classics like Frankenstein or Dracula or visions from later films such as Jaws or Jurassic Park. Before all of these, however, Universal proved that it didn’t need to rely on monsters to make an effective and influential horror movie with The Cat and the Canary.