The film genre ‘Comedy/Horror’ has produced a number of well known classics and many that are definitely not classics. Some that might come to mind may include ‘Scream‘, ‘Shaun of The Dead‘ and ‘The Cabin in The Woods‘. Or, examples slightly further back, could include ‘An American Warewolf in Paris‘, ‘Re-Animator‘ and ‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes‘. As we’re on the subject it would be a shame not to mention earlier examples like ‘Abbott and Costello Meet the Frankenstein‘, ‘Little Shop of Horrors‘ and ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers‘ – I could go on, but it’s probably best not to!
What I didn’t realise until quite recently was that the genre goes even further back than that. In the early sound era there was ‘The Old Dark House‘ (1932), which was directed by James Whale (better known for the classics ‘Frankenstein‘ (1931), ‘The Bride of Frankenstein‘ (1935) and ‘The Invisible Man‘ (1933)). Even more surprisingly are the pre-synchronised sound examples (in other words the era of ‘silent films’ – I didn’t use that term on purpose and I’ll explain why later). I was also unaware that the classic Universal Studios horror films of the 30’s and 40’s (which included those just mentioned) actually began in the ‘silent era’ and ‘The Cat and The Canary’ was one of them – a plane flew around the globe at the beginning with a smoke trail of the word ‘universal’ behind it.
In 1927, the year of ‘The Jazz Singer‘ and the breakthrough that was synchronised sound, there was a ‘silent’ comedy/horror directed by Paul Leni called ‘The Cat and The Canary‘. I am not going to do a plot summary in this article, there are numerous ones on the internet. Essentially it is an example of the old dark house sub-genre of the horror film. Although it is now a well established cliché of cinema, it was essential a new thing in the 1920’s; but it had already become such a well known trope by 1932 that the previously mentioned James Whale film was named after it!
The 1927 film has had numerous remakes since (including one starring Bob Hope in 1939, which unsurprisingly played it more for laughs), but it was the original version that was screened during the Chichester Film Festival 2019 on Friday the 23rd August.
Every era of film has good examples, not so good examples, bad examples, and occasionally, outstanding ones. ‘The Cat and The Canary‘ is well worth seeing, which for me categorises it as a good one (it’s not outstanding, but very, very few films are!).
The term ‘silent movie’ is misleading, there was always music to accompany the images – that may be an orchestra on big budget premiers, or small ensembles, or simply an organ or a piano, particularly in small town cinemas and village halls. What made this screening so appealing was the addition of live music – a rare experience in the age of blu-rays and downloads. Also, it was a comedy/horror screened in an old chapel (St. John’s Chapel, Chichester, England) – it couldn’t get anymore atmospheric.
Silent films can be fantastic to watch at home with a pre-recorded soundtrack (and it is always worth supporting the restoration of old movies by actually buying them), but the opportunity to see one with live music should not be missed. It makes the film become an event, a performance, and as close to the way the films would have been seen when originally released. It is something which everyone interested in silent films should experience whenever possible. The music on this occasion was provided by Stephen Horne and he made fantastic use of a keyboard (largely with the piano sound), an Accordion, a Flute and a few other ‘instruments’ – it suited and enhanced the film perfectly!
On entering the Chapel were were given a photocopied A5 piece of paper which had the cast list one one side and a 1927 New York Times review of the film on the other. The review is by the fantastically named Mordaunt Hall, who was apparently The New York Times first regularly assigned film critic. I did not know the film and didn’t want to spoil it, so I actually read it the following day. I thought it would be a good idea to include it here if anyone’s interested (by the way, if you right click on the image and ‘open image in new tab’ the click on it again it should become easily readable!)