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  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

The Cat and the Canary (1927) Blu-ray Review

Eureka Entertainment

Blu-ray Release: April 23, 2024

Video: 1.37:1/1080p/Color (monochromatically tinted)

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (music only)

Subtitles: English intertitles

Run Time: 86:50

Director: Paul Leni

Twenty years after the death of millionaire Cyrus West, his surviving relatives are called together in a decaying mansion on the Hudson River. There, they gather to hear West's lawyer Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall) read his last will and testament and discover that West has left everything to his niece Annabelle (Laura La Plante). That is, at least, on the condition that she is judged to be legally sane. As the family settles in for the evening, tensions rise when they are informed that a murderer nicknamed the Cat has escaped from a nearby asylum and is suspected to be somewhere on the grounds. (From Eureka’s official synopsis)

Two decades after the turn of the last century, after the Great War, before the Wall Street crash, comedic horror whodunnits were thrust into the spotlight. Motion pictures were gaining ground on other narrative media, but the stage was still the location of choice for wide audiences. Mary Roberts Rinehart & Avery Hopwood’s 1920 play The Bat (1920, based on Rinehart’s 1908 novel Circular Staircase) was the most likely progenitor of the movement*. The Bat’s success spawned similarly successful stageplays, notably Crane Wilbur's The Monster (1925), Ralph Spence's 1925 parody The Gorilla, and John Willard’s The Cat and the Canary (1922).

The Bat was officially adapted to film three times – The Bat (1926) and The Bat Whispers (1930), both directed by Roland West, and Wilbur’s The Bat (1959), which was a more horror-centric take starring Vincent Price (pre-The Bat, Circular Staircase was also adapted in 1914 as a series of shorts, then again as a feature in 1915) – and its influence cannot be overstated. But, among its progeny, none of the spooky comedy-mysteries had a bigger impact on the big screen, in terms of recognition and ticket sales, than The Cat and the Canary, which hit theaters in 1927 from German director Paul Leni in his Hollywood debut. It would outpace its inspiration and go on to become one of the most influential films, horror, comedy, or otherwise, of the silent era.

Leni cut his teeth as a forefather of the German Expressionist movement – alongside such preeminent names as Stellan Rye, Robert Wiene, Paul Wegener, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang – and that skillset helped designate The Cat and the Canary as a special entry in a largely utilitarian, block & shoot subgenre. The Bat and D. W. Griffith's One Exciting Night (which featured Cat and the Canary stage star Henry Hull, 1922) were fine artistic achievements, but the sheer style and technical aptitude on display transcends the confines of a stage adaptation and the limitations of earlier old dark house movies. And by dampening the most avant-garde aspects of Expressionism (likely in an effort to appease mainstream American audiences), while maintaining the flamboyant framing, severe lighting techniques, and composite shots, Leni helped draft the blueprint for Universal Studios’ next decade of horror films, alongside the Gothic mystique of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera (co-directed with Rupert Julian, Edward Sedgwick, and Ernst Laemmle, 1925).

The Cat and the Canary’s box office kept the haunted house/whodunnit comedy subgenre relevant, leading to The Haunted House (1928, also based on a stageplay) and The House of Horror (1929), both from Haxan director Benjamin Christensen, James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), and Leni’s own follow-up, The Last Warning (1928). There were also a slew of remakes, including Rupert Julian’s talkie, The Cat Creeps (1930), George Melford’s The Will of the Dead Man (Spanish, La voluntad del muerto, 1930), Elliott Nugent’s parody version, also titled The Cat and the Canary (1939) and starring Bob Hope, Jan Molander’s TV movie Katten och kanariefågeln (1961), Ron Honthaner’s blaxploitation variant, The House On Skull Mountain (1974), and Radley Metzger’s The Cat and the Canary (1978).

The subgenre and Leni’s influence mutated into Abbot & Costello’s horror spoofs, the aforementioned Bob Hope movie, and the tongue-in-cheek camp of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959). Beyond its comedy and light-hearted chills, The Cat and the Canary’s stalking masked murderer elements, combined with those of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, also released in 1927, and the Jack the Ripper section of Leni’s own Waxworks (1924), constitute some of the earliest slasher movie templates. The early P.O.V. tracking shots are particularly indicative of slashers and their European cousins, known as the gialli. But The Cat and the Canary’s greatest legacy is probably Scooby Doo, in all of its incarnations. From the spooky manors and faux-supernatural happenings to trap doors, hidden corridors, convoluted money-making schemes, and cries of “g-g-g-ghosts,” the only things missing are the meddling kids and their talking dog.

* Edit: after watching the extras on this very disc, I have learned that Oscar Apfel & Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ghost Breaker technically predates The Bat, but it didn’t have the same impact. It was, however, remade starring Bob Hope after Nugent’s version of Cat and the Canary was a hit.


  • Rough Guide to Horror Movies by Alan Jones (Penguin Group, 2005)


The Cat and the Canary is currently in the public domain, though I’m not sure how long that has been the case. Regardless, it has remained relevant for nearly 100 years, because of its healthy life on home video and television. There have been countless VHS tapes and various DVDs from budget labels, Image Entertainment, and Kino, the latter two of which produced special editions remasters. Surprisingly, though, this simultaneous US, UK, and Canadian disc is the first official Blu-ray available from any country. This 1080p, 1.37:1 presentation was culled from a 4K restoration of the original nearly 100 year-old negatives performed by the Museum of Modern Art.

To reiterate, The Cat and the Canary is very nearly 100 years old, predating regular use of synced sound and most modern cinematography techniques. The fact that it still exists and is watchable is a miracle and I legitimately don’t think you could improve on this, outside of having the full 4K resolution. Fine grain is natural with a hint of posterization that is enhanced by the pin-pointed lighting schemes and the fact that there’s only so much detail to be juiced from the material. Notable print damage is limited mostly to little scratches, thanks to extensive, but tasteful digital clean-up. Like many silent films of its era, it isn’t black & white, but monochromatic with specific scenes and locations being tinted sepia, blue, or green. These colors are consistent and rarely overwhelm the otherwise deep black shadows, all of which helps create strong shapes in the otherwise fuzzy compositions.


The only audio option here is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 rendition of a symphonic score with a handful of simple effects that a top-of-the-line silent theater may have produced (wind and door knocks, for instance). A post film credit explains that the music was compiled, synchronized, and edited by orchestrator Gillian B. Anderson, based on a cue sheet issued by M.J. Mintz (I assume the pen name of silent era animation producer Margaret J. Winkler Mintz) and compiled by James C. Bradford for the original release. It was conducted by Robert Israel, though the ad copy claims it was composed by him. Personally, I tend to prefer several options for music with my silent film DVD/Blu-ray releases, because it’s a unique forum for creative composers to work in, but the score here definitely has an authentic period feel and would probably end up being the one I’d revisit, anyway. The 5.1 arena ensures a nice, warm sound, as if a small chamber orchestra is playing live in your living room.


  • Commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman – Jones, the editor of the Best New Horror series (PS Publishing) and Newman, the author of Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s (Bloomsbury, 2011, 2nd Edition), are reteamed for the first of two Eureka exclusive commentaries. The fellas explore the careers and other films of the cast & crew, contemporary German and American films, the source material (book and play), the Old Dark House tradition, The Cat and the Canary’s place in the pantheon (several pantheons, really), and the ongoing history of the visual and narrative tropes.

  • Commentary with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby (2024) – The second new track features critic and BFI contributor Lyons alongside English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema (Reynolds & Hearn, 1999) author Rigby. There’s a lot of overlap between the tracks – both of which are very friendly and warm in tone – but Lyons and Rigby tend to describe plot and themes a little more than Jones and Newman do. Throughout my sampling (I didn’t listen to both commentaries in their entireties), they also read from contemporary reviews.

  • Mysteries Mean Dark Corners (29:02, HD) – A new visual essay by filmmaker and Shadowplay critic David Cairns and author/critic Fiona Watson that digs into the roots of Old Dark House cinema, going back to Apfel & DeMille’s The Ghost Breaker (again, something I missed during my limited research) and The Bat, the innovations The Cat and the Canary brought to the genre, Paul Leni’s previous work and style, and the wider careers of author John Willard and the main cast members. It includes plenty of footage from the other Cat and the Canary adaptations.

  • Pamela Hutchinson on The Cat and the Canary (13:04, HD) – The critic and author of BFI Film Classics: The Red Shoes (Bloomsbury, 2023) praises the film and discusses the end of the silent period, Leni’s pre-feature jobs and early films, Charles Hall’s Gothic set and production design, and, again, the cast’s larger careers.

  • Phuong Le on The Cat and the Canary (9:11, HD) – The BBC and Sight & Sound critic rounds out the featurettes looking back on Leni’s transition from Germany to Hollywood, lighting techniques and camera movement throughout the film, the connection between visuals and themes, and the use of animated effects on the intertitles.

  • Audio extracts from the original stageplay:

  • "A Very Eccentric Man" (3:11, HD)

  • "Yeah, a Cat!" (2:15, HD)

  • Lucky Strike cigarette brand endorsement by Leni (0:53, HD)

The images on this page are taken from the BDs and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.



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