The Cat and The Canary (1927)

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!)

The Woman In Black

Like many people, I do like going to the cinema – it can turn what is simply something to watch into an event, an occasion to be shared with friends or enjoyed purely on your own.  If only the cinematic experience was always like this, unfortunately there are a few aspects which put me off going to the cinema more often.  One is simply the price – it can cost as much as a Blu-ray disc (which I could watch over and over again whenever I wanted to).  In other words, I would go far more regularly if it simply cost less.  Another reason is the lack of the theatricality that used to be such a part of the whole experience – no plush carpets, no velvety sofas and no dramatic drawing back of the curtain to reveal the silver screen.  The now ubiquitous multiplex has no glamour – where once we had palaces of Arabian splendour, or the Jazzy lines of Art Deco to sweep us to our seats, they are now all alike – identical warehouses, shoe boxes with small screens, not much larger than those found in many living rooms.

Not that I remember the age of glamour of course, but I do at least remember a pause before the main feature and usherettes with trays selling ice-creams  (the last gesture towards movie going as an extravagance, a night out, something special) before the now anonymous production-line delivery of our entertainment.  Without wanting to put too much of a downer on the idea of a trip to the movies, the final reason for my reluctance to go more often is the serial disappointment I get during and after the event – the feeling that I should have simply held onto my money and put it towards a film on disc that I know I’d enjoy.

To contradict what I’ve just said, seeing a good film at the cinema can be an amazing experience, well worth the price of entry, and when it is an amazing experience, it goes a long way to negate those accumulated disappointments.  It has the power to excite you, move you, shock you or make you laugh – whatever the intended effect of the film, the viewing of it in a cinema is something quite different to watching it at home in your living room.  It offers a rare sense of shared experience, as though you as part of a group were there to witness something quite special and it can leave you with a warm feeling for days if not weeks afterwards.

I was a little wary about seeing The Woman in Black.  I had no preconceptions about the story, I had not read Susan Hill’s book, nor seen the previous TV film or hugely successful stage adaptation, yet there was a lot riding on this movie – would Daniel Radcliffe be any good in a grown up film, and as this was the first major release from the resurrected Hammer studios, would it do justice to the history of that studio?

The horror of this film is definitely in the gothic mode – it’s not the blood soaked gore of pointless torture, or the crazy men in masks running after stupid teenagers type of film (thank goodness!).  This is the horror of the desolate countryside, strange villagers fearing a curse and a decayed, haunted house – so far, so Hammer!  The mood from the beginning of this film is one of dark, cluttered rooms, wood panelling, rich buttoned up fabrics and the gloomier side of the Edwardian era.  This style of the supernatural depends completely on mood, the slow building up of expectation and tension, and that is what this film does extremely well.  The atmosphere is heavy and consistent, with the direction aided significantly by the quality of the production design, which is convincing throughout.

The story begins with Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) contemplating ending his life years after losing his wife during childbirth.  His continuing state of depression has been affecting his work and when his boss sends him to deal with the estate of a recently deceased woman it is obviously his last chance to retain his job.  It is the history of events surrounding the house of this woman that is the crux of this story.  Throughout there are images of frilly Edwardian childhood, mechanical toys, tea sets and dolls; and the innocent paraphernalia of the nursery is increasingly used to creepy effect and provides plenty of shocks (which did give me goose bumps on a number of occasions).  Of course all of this is part of the clichéd stock in trade of the traditional gothic movie, but when it is done well we remember just how effective such trappings can be.  This point, coincidently, raises my main problem with this type of film – when compared to the 2005 BBC adaptation of Bleak House, which had equally impressive production values, sense of place and script writing, should films in the style of The Woman In Black be left to television companies to produce; and wasn’t this partly why Hammer fell from film production into television in the first place?

The Woman in Black herself is largely seen through dirty windows and in the shadowy passages of the house, or in the distance wrapped in mist and foliage.  Unfortunately we do see her more closely later on in the film, which is a shame because her distance and half seen appearances are more effective than seeing the clear sight of her face, however briefly.  Daniel Radcliffe is quite convincing as as the desperate Mr Kipps, although he is still too boyish for this role and in a few more years would  suited the role better.  His precarious emotional situation is tested by the woman in black while he tries to hold his life together as the mystery of why the children of the village are dying and the implication for his own son, who is due to visit, start to overwhelm him.  The rocking chair (another old-style horror prop) is used to great effect but I found the dragging of the car out of the marsh, or more significantly, what was found there, to be the least convincing part of the film.  The end of The Woman In Black, which is apparently different to the ending in the original book, was extremely satisfying – but whether you will find it satisfying or not will depend on your frame of mind.

Apparently the British theatrical release of this film had a number of cuts made so that it could be issued with a 12A certificate, evidently to take advantage of the teenage market that Daniel Radcliff and his Harry Potter connection would bring.  Although it would be interesting to see the fuller version, I was satisfied with what I saw.  From early on the atmosphere was there and it really felt like a Hammer Production (minus the wobbly sets, of course) – the main fault was that some of the scenes dragged a little, with no more reason to them but to build the atmosphere.  This is the fifth offering from the new Hammer Films and by far the highest profile production to date (that said, Let Me In did quite well too) – if they can maintain this level of quality they could again claim this corner of the horror genre for themselves.

It has been well over a month since I saw the Woman In Black and that warm feeling, although not there now, has become a good memory – a sure indication of money well spent and good film seen.

Link:-  Hammer Films