Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 2

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

 9. The Cat and the Canary (1927- dir. Paul Leni)

The canary is Cyrus West, the rich old guardian of the “famous West diamonds” who died twenty years ago today. The cats are West’s greedy relatives who stand to inherit the loot. But wait! There’s another cat on the loose: an escaped lunatic haunting West’s castle where everyone has gathered for a very belated will reading. Who’s the canary now? Who cares! Director Paul Leni is a lot more concerned with wild film techniques than plot in his adaptation of John Willard’s hit play The Cat and the Canary. Surreal superimpositions of clawing cats and chattering skulls, faces that elongate as if reflected in a fun house mirror, shots from the perspective of West’s tumbling portrait, ones that prowl down corridors or zoom-in with cheetah speed. Even the intertitles are zany: quivering, dropping in reverse, exploding with animated comic-strip expletives. Universal’s first old dark house flick is also a treasury of hokey clichés: furry claws reach out of sliding panels and swiveling bookcases, pin lights make eyes shine eerily, and a spooked goofball stammers “G-g-g-ghosts?” There’s also a monster-impersonating huckster who would have gotten away with his evil scheme if not for some meddling kids. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine there’d be a “Scooby Doo” if not for The Cat and the Canary. All of this adds up to great, cheesy, spooky fun executed with no shortage of artistry. Leni’s imagery and camerawork spring directly from his background in German Expressionism. By employing that style for such a crowd-pleasing blend of horror and comedy, Leni helped American audiences acclimate to the more idiosyncratic side of cinema, and as writer Harry Long suggests in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy, that blend must have had a profound influence on James Whale too. Laura La Plante’s utterly charming turn as our heroine, Annabelle West, certainly helped win over moviegoers as well.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1920s here.
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