The Cat And The Canary Review
"On a dark and stormy night..." So began thousands of stories told over campfires and beside dimmed lamps, being the perfect setting for tales of horror, terror and shadows that flit out of sight. Best suited for tales of hauntings in remote country houses in which the flapping of a door suggests the entrance of a stranger with ill intentions, it also opens the tale of one canary pursued by several cats with little on their mind but the pursuit of wealth.
On a dark and stormy night in 1934, twenty years after the death of Cyrus West, his living relatives gather at the stately home of the West family to hear the reading of Cyrus' will. As West's selfish and unpleasant grandchildren bicker over who will inherit his fortune, the man himself makes a guest appearance at dinner as the star of a film in which he chides and rebukes his relatives before naming his sole heir as his only next of kin to bear the family name, Annabelle West (Lynley). Cyrus' only stipulation is that Annabelle's mental state is never once brought into question as they are required to spend one night in West's mansion. As thunder cracks and the rain pours down outside, Hendricks (Fox) visits from the local mental hospital to say that one of his patients, a psychotic killer, has escaped and may take refuge in the house...
Frank Willard's one-act play, written in 1922, is a classic story of greed set within a mansion that has been isolated from events outside by a terrible storm that batters it throughout a single night. Willard's writing places Cyrus West as the cat and his guests, invited some twenty years after his death, as the cats and, although it could be described now as creaky and cliched, it was written before a glut of similar stories left it so. The most famous adaptation of The Cat And The Canary is the 1939 version starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard that was played both for laughs and for chills but, looking back now, it appears to be as much a film in itself as it is a rehearsal for the next year's The Ghost Breakers, which reunited Hope and Goddard and is one of Hope's best. There were, however, two other versions of Willard's story, one of which was the first Hollywood film directed by the expressionist German director, Paul Leni, in 1927, which influenced many subsequent films set within haunted houses despite, as with the 1939 and 1978 versions, mixing comedy with the scares.
This version doesn't stray much from the template laid down by the 1927 and 1939 versions but unlike Hope and Goddard's still-funny film, neither the horror nor the comedy ever really gels but neither can you imagine it being a success had it only followed the 1939 version by a few years. There can be little doubt that part of the problem is the innocence of the film, which makes it seem out of touch with the films that were its contemporaries. Whilst no one would have been expecting the horror in the film to match The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it even seems mild in comparison to a film like Asylum, which predated The Cat And The Canary by six years but which is both more horrific and handles its rare moments of comedy better. Yet a bigger problem is that the comedy and, therefore, much of the script seems entirely out of place in a film made in 1978. Whilst understanding that The Cat And The Canary is set in 1934, the apparent references to events of the time, the emerging film industry in Hollywood and the social lives of the ambitious West family gives the film the feeling of being an adaptation of an authentically thirties script but which is an anachronism some forty-five years later. Any faults with the film are not the fault of the cast, who work hard with the material they've been given but who eventually come across as being as lost in the thirties dialogue as the audience is.
But, at its end, the major fault with the film is simply in not being very frightening. Despite The Cat And The Canary setting up the terror inside the West home really quite effectively, particularly with the arrival of Edward Fox's Hendricks, there really is too little of the killer and too few of the occupants picked off from the judicious placement of secret passages for this to offer nervous laughter between the murders. Not quite funny enough and not quite frightening enough - hardly a glowing recommendation for a comedy-horror.
Oh Anchor Bay, however did we ever enjoy the reissues of creaking, age-old British horrors before your decision to add a DTS soundtrack to them all. As faithful as the rising of the sun in the morning, Anchor Bay have transferred The Cat And The Canary onto DVD with 2.0 Stereo and Dolby Digital and DTS Surround mixes. The surround sound mixes are fine but the rear speakers lack presence whilst the stereo mix is the best of the three, sounding more natural and immediate.
As clean as the soundtrack is, however, the print used by Anchor Bay in the transfer of this film is soft, marked by blemishes and appears to have been slightly cropped in the transfer or badly framed. Some of this is no doubt due to the quality of the original print as the colour is good and there is little sign of compression but the number of scratches on the print in the first forty minutes and bright spots thereafter means this is not as good as it could be.
The full list of bonus features included on this DVD release are listed below:
Trailer (2.25s): "It was a dark and stormy night, not a creature was stirring...except a homicidal maniac"...is a collection of clips from the film and plays up on the number of stars in the film.
Biographies: Seven pages of biographical information are provided both for Honor Blackman and Edward Fox.
Stills Gallery: Forty-six still images from the film and from behind the scenes are included in this bonus feature.
Audio Commentary: Tom Weaver hosts this commentary in which he interviews producer Richard Gordon and, despite working hard to keep the commentary interesting, Weaver cannot help Gordon's drifting into silence on as many occasions as he does.
The Cat And The Canary is fairly entertaining but it's not an experience that improves on a second or third viewing. Indeed, there's only something to recommend The Cat And The Canary on leaving a gap of years between viewings, thereby allowing yourself the chance to become reacquainted with both the good and the bad points in the film without much memory of either.