Twenty years ago, the reclusive millionaire Cyrus West went to his grave, but he left instructions about his will that they were not to be read out to his money-grabbing family until now. He made his home in a sprawling mansion which gained a reputation for being haunted, one which only increased as time went by: was the spectre of Cyrus wandering its bleak corridors, unseen by anyone? The surviving relatives are about to find out, as although most of them only have a distant connection to one another, they are gathered this evening to finally hear how much they will be getting of the old man's fortune...
This celebrated silent told a tale that even in 1927 had been done to death, in theatre, books as well as the cinema, but nevertheless the original version of the hit stage play The Cat and the Canary was such a success on the big screen that it breathed new life into the genre as all the Hollywood studios and certain ones abroad found the basic plot of assembling a group of people, some of them suspicious, and terrorising them in an old dark house pretty lucrative. Just like the slasher boom of the late seventies and eighties, there were other horror movies being made, but if you were to go to see one at random it would most likely be fitting this template.
There were crossovers in terms of style, so you could have a mixture of ODH movie and mad scientist movie for example, but the concept of a remote location where all sorts of fiendish events manifested themselves was a very attractive one, and proved undeniably influential in the decades to come. You couldn't place that entirely at the feet of The Cat and the Canary, but it was a significant contributing factor, and much of this was down to the artfulness of its director Paul Leni. A German emigré, he didn't spend much time in Hollywood before his untimely death, but he assuredly made his mark in works noted for their innovative camerawork, of which this was the most famous.
The sense of a director taking a hoary old plot and sprucing it up with as much imagination as he could muster was well to the fore here, creating a silent movie which still had much to attract in the following century, with its roving shots, superimpositions of such images as laughing skulls and clock mechanisms striking midnight, or that old favourite, the dead body falling out of a door into the audience, or so it seemed, popularly parodied by Tex Avery in his classic spoof Who Killed Who? Except, of course, The Cat and the Canary was already a spoof, as you would notice when you caught sight of the hero, the anxiety-ridden Paul Jones, played by Irish actor Creighton Hale, sporting round, black-rimmed glasses to make him appear all the more alarmed.
Not that he needed much help in that department as Hale jittered his way through his scenes until he finally made good on his promise to protect the leading lady, Laura La Plante in the role of the actual, sole heiress Annabelle West. A well-liked star of the silent era, her career petered out after sound, leaving this as her most enduring legacy; Leni evidently knew he was on to a good thing with her acting as time and again he returns to closeups of the actress looking frightened, as if to cue the audience, though these were more giggly scares than outright terror. When Annabelle is informed at the reading that she is to inherit the whole fortune, she seems relieved though her relatives have misgivings, but the lawyer then goes on to say she will only inherit if proven sane, which seems to spark someone ensuring by the end of the night she will be anything but as secret panels open to reveal spider-like claws grasping, and news reaches them of an escaped lunatic in the area. Nowadays, this is as creaky as the conventions it was sending up, but no less entertaining for that.