A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #13: “The Cat and the Canary” (1978)

by A.J. Hakari

"The Cat and the Canary" poster

For old dark house aficionados and community theatre groups who need a cheap show to put on, The Cat and the Canary is a godsend. John Willard’s 1922 stage play lasted a modest 148 performances, but it established the standard against which all murder mysteries set on a dark and stormy night to come would be judged. A number of movie adaptations followed in its wake (including The Cat Creeps, one of the most famous lost films), but the most curious of the lot has to be the one that came about in 1978. Written and directed by erotica auteur Radley Metzger, The Cat and the Canary presents neither an overly-traditional or -contemporized take on the material; it’s just your average thriller, with enough oddities built into the script to prevent you from tuning out.

After a long life of spreading misery and woe, wealthy old weirdo Cyrus West (Wilfrid Hyde-White) has finally kicked the bucket. But not even death can stop him from screwing around with people, particularly the greedy relatives gathered for the reading of his will. From a bunch that includes a flying ace (Peter McEnery) and an American songwriter (Michael Callan), it’s innocent young Annabelle (Carol Lynley) who’s pronounced sole heir to the West fortune. However, her newfound riches come with some suspicious stipulations. Before any dough is doled out, the entire group must spend the night in Cyrus’ mansion, after which Annabelle gets nothing if she’s found to be either insane…or dead. But if it wasn’t enough to be on the lookout for her own kin, an escaped lunatic who fancies himself a cat makes Annabelle’s hopes of claiming her inheritance even trickier to accomplish.

The show having been mined for more direct laughs in previous adaptations (especially in 1939’s Bob Hope vehicle), Metzger’s The Cat and the Canary adopts a decidedly more subdued stance. The humor is dry as dry can be, to the point that many of the jokes and one-liners are rattled off with next to no added inflection. In that respect, you might assume the flick to be old-fashioned and defiantly British, but there are a few offbeat elements that say otherwise. While still set during the 1930s, The Cat and the Canary comes with traces of modernization that add to its wicked streak. Here, Cyrus West messes with his family from beyond the grave by way of a filmed will, allowing for a playful sequence in which the maid (Beatrix Lehmann) walks behind the screen while emerging on it. Moments like these are refreshing in their oddness, but they end up coming so few and far between, they’re actually kind of jolting when they take place. You can tell Metzger wants to pay tribute to a classic mystery fiction formula while making his own hip mark on the genre, but the film begs for a better balance of the two mindsets than what it gets.

Excusing these tonal hiccups, The Cat and the Canary is still the prototypical drawing room chiller. If anything, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of the play’s other big-screen renditions, so keeping me in the dark as to which of the sizable pool of suspects was the culprit was no problem. Metzger establishes a foreboding atmosphere and is obviously proud of the huge estate in which the film is almost entirely set, but perhaps a few excised shots that linger a little too long on mile-long corridors would have made for a less languid pace. As for the actors, most of their lips are affirmed in the stiff and upper position, but only because the script forces them so often to be wry without cracking the slightest smirk. They’re just fine for the most part, a handsome mixture of youngbloods like Olivia Hussey and veterans like Wendy Hiller holding their own against one another. Hyde-White’s Cyrus steals the show with little effort, and Lynley does alright for herself in a take on the source material that actually positions her as the lead, as opposed to previous versions focusing on her eventual love interest.

With its release sandwiched between the giallo boom and looming renaissance of American slashers, The Cat and the Canary comes across as pretty damn quaint. It’s not an entirely successful throwback to the golden age of cinematic killers stalking about huge old mansions, but the film has the right look down pat and at least has respect for its roots. Though it easily could’ve made itself of more divertingly devious distinction, The Cat and the Canary is a harmless genre jaunt that knows the value of a thunderclap’s lullaby.