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The Cat And The Canary (1977)

Oft filmed, but rarely as good as this version, the story of The Cat And The Canary is your standard haunted house yarn, usually populated by at least one comedian and featuring most of the tricks in the book, if not all of them.

On this occasion, however, someone (a porn director, apparently) has actually come up with the goods and created a haunted house, then-there-were-none, will-reading nutcase family extravaganza which manages to entertain and spook in equal measure. I may even go so far as to say it's better than House Of The Long Shadows in that respect (a shocking statement, if ever there was one).

After an opening scene which sees a cat menace a canary and then get (seemingly) killed itself by a horrendous child in a "Little Lord Fauntleroy" outfit, things move on 30 years (to 1934), where it's a dark and stormy night™.

A clanking freezer, closed 20 years ago, is prised open by a lady lawyer and the housekeeper ("Happy anniversary, Mr West… welcome to 1934"), but inside there's just a box and a live moth. They hardly have time to acknowledge this before some house guests start arriving, and a right motley bunch they are, comprising of Harry (Daniel Massey), a surgeon; Susan (Honor Blackman) and Cicely (Olivia Hussey), a couple of lesbians ("We're cousins and flatmates… but don't worry, we don't plan to have any children"); Charlie (Peter McEnery), an ex war hero and sometime film actor; Paul (Michael Callan) an American; and Annabel (Carol Lynley), an out-of-breath blonde.

The clock then strikes, for the first time in 20 years (allegedly). It strikes seven times, and there are eight people in the house - which, according to the housekeeper, means that one of them will die. Or, it could just mean that it's seven o'clock. That's what it means in my house.

Of course, everyone who's just arrived is a member of the West family, and they're there for the reading of a will. The freezer-coffin actually contained a brace of Super-8 films - the first tells who the heir to the West fortune is, the second is only to be shown if the heir dies during the night, or is judged to be insane.

"But…" gasps one of the family, "this is a licence to kill!"

No love, that's a different film. Keep up.

 

"Good evening, leeches… first of all, let me tell you you're all a bunch of bastards!"

The film is shown, and what a treat it is, featuring the wonderful Wilfred Hyde-White as Silas West, who opens his monologue with "Good evening, leeches… first of all, let me tell you you're all a bunch of bastards!"

As Silas tells them what he thinks of them ("Some men seek immortality… that is a mistake. These people are too greedy, they ask for too much"), the housekeeper fusses around the table, and (in a stroke of "so daft it's brilliant" genius) appears on the screen as a younger woman every time she walks behind it. This scene alone is worth watching the film for, but such lovely touches don't end there. Annabel is named as the heir(ess), and everyone else is shunted out of the room as Silas tells her, and her alone, where the priceless West family necklace is hidden.

It's safe to say that the lovely Annabel's card is now marked, as the entire family must stay the night… just in case the second film needs to be shown…

The squabbles start immediately, but are silenced when Edward Fox smashes through a window gun in hand, and announces himself as Hendrix, a psychologist from the local nuthouse on the lookout for an escaped mentalist, who he describes as "a real killer". "He believes that he's a cat… he kills his victims by slowly ripping them apart!" he tells his hosts, adding: "I'm not here to alarm you."

He then goes on to insult the lot of them, explaining that in his eyes they're all killers - a blacklisted surgeon, a war hero, a hunter, a woman who killed in "self defence"… and a songwriter ("from what I hear on the radio, songwriters are the worst killers of all" - I'm assuming he means they're murdering tunes). Even the lawyer is "a shark".

Annabel wasn't present at the spectacular entrance, and they make a group decision not to tell her about the escaped lunatic.

Of course it's not long before someone has, in a bid to send her loopy and thus claim the inheritance. But it's at this point that some far more disturbing things start happening, as people disappear, mutilated bodies turn up, and it becomes clear that very few of the assembled cast are what they appear…

For a gothic horror film, The Cat And The Canary is distinctly over-lit, with very few dark corners for people to hide in. But this actually helps give the film a very original look, with much less of the dark wooden panelling and ornate drapes that you'd find in a Hammer film. It still manages to be spooky, as well - scenes such as Annabel being menaced in bed or Susan taking a sneak peek at the body whilst something creeps up on her from behind are more than effectively done. The whole thing has an endearing eccentricity about it which even stretches to the brilliant end credit sequence. The only slight problem is that it seems unsure as to whether it's a comedy or a straight thriller, but when a film is this entertaining, it doesn't really matter.

Last updated: February 17, 2010

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The Cat And The Canary 1977

The Cat And The Canary 1977

The Cat And The Canary 1977

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All photos, posters, sounds and videos are reproduced in good faith with the sole intention of promoting these films. Why should I be the only one to suffer watching them? If any film makers feel particularly strongly about abuse of copyright on the site, they obviously haven't got anything better to do. You could try Watchdog, but frankly, I think they've got bigger fish to fry...