- A review by Richard Harrison (2024)

The late 1920s are a particularly fascinating time in general – not least in terms of cinematic output. As “the Talkies” were gradually emerging, the silent cinema reached a point of near-perfect artistry as epitomised in such American films as Wings , Sunrise and The Cat and the Canary, all released in 1927. The latter may seem an odd choice to make up this triumvirate, but in essence Paul Leni’s Expressionist film laid the blueprint for the Universal horror cycle of the early 1930s. These included Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933). Put simply, were it not for the box-office success of The Cat and the Canary , it is hard to imagine Universal embarking on these later horror films with such gusto.

The scenario of The Cat and the Canary is simple – relatives of the late Cyrus West arrive to hear the reading of the will. In the event of the sole beneficiary (whose name is in envelope one) being proven insane, the entire estate will go to another – whose name resides in envelope two. The success of the film lies in its restrained atmosphere of claustrophobic terror rather than having each of the relatives murdered in turn. Despite avoiding being a ‘whodunnit?’ style mystery, the film does create a strong sense of atmosphere – its chilling and creative opening titles setting the tone for what follows. In many respects, the psychological horror implicit in The Cat and the Canary binds us with Annabelle, for, besides her, we are the only witnesses to events that are then doubted by her fellow guests and put down to Annabelle’s growing lack of sanity.

The ‘old dark house’ plot of The Cat and the Canary is given a European twist by Stuttgart-born director Paul Leni, and utilises (as does Sunrise, another American film made by a German director) a strong Expressionist aesthetic. Thus The Cat and the Canary is able to rise above being merely a commercial genre picture and become a work of Euro-American artistry, as shown in several aspects from innovative intertitles to a variety of superimpositions – such as the ailing Cyrus West being surrounded by medicine bottles and then cats near the start of the film. It is this blend of differing approaches that helps make the film lively, though additional points of interest are gained from comparing this silent version to the wonderful 1939 Paramount Pictures re-make, which, though of the highest calibre, is more out for commercial success than artistic experimentation. Two points in the 1927 version which (for this reviewer at any rate) make for unfavourable comparison are the casting of Creighton Hale (who swiftly grates, in the way that Bob Hope in the sound version does not) and the two fight scenes – which are over-done and have dated badly in their comic slapstick. But, to do Paul Leni justice, he cannot rely on quick-fire verbal gags but must balance his terror with other forms of humour.

On a technical level, The Cat and the Canary is beautifully shot – and definitely enhanced by the stunning tinted version provided here by Eureka. Gilbert Warrenton worked with director Paul Leni again the following year (on The Man Who Laughs ), but it is odd – given the quality of his work – that largely forgotten B-pictures awaited him for the remainder of his career. The director-cinematographer rapport is crucial, and produces in The Cat and the Canary a film that is continually creative and vibrant, enchanting and atmospheric. One particular moment is when Crosby talks to Annabelle about the provisos in the will. As she enters the room, the establishing shot is taken through the slats of a chair – a strikingly unusual choice that reveals the influence of European cinema and on symbolism (entrapment) rather than a strict focus on suturing the audience into the narrative. Robert Israel’s score and its presentation by Gillian B. Anderson (based on cue sheets for the original release) also enhance the film, and, particularly in its moments of synchronised sound effects, make this 1927 movie come instantly alive once more. Were the superb quality of the print not enough, the BluRay comes with several extras – though these are best consumed after the film rather than before as they give away some of the key moments.

The Cat and the Canary is available from

Eureka Video

or from all good stockists.