THE CAT AND THE CANARY (U.S. / 1927)
F.W. Murnau wasnt the only German expressionist filmmaker to be imported by Hollywood in the mid-1920s, so was Paul Leni (Waxworks ), who started his American career at Universal with the delightful silent horror-comedy The Cat and the Canary, a classic in every sense of the word. An adaptation of John Willards 1922 play of the same name, this trend-setting "old dark house" film requisitely unfolds in a foggy mansion, here belonging to a millionaire named Cyril West who in his final days vindictively leaves a will with a maturity date of twenty years. When the appropriate moment arrives one stormy night, several potential (and greedy) heirs amass inside the ghastly manor which is now also believed to be hosting the dead mans ghost. Needless to say, the events that follow unveil many surprises, both for us and, more unfortunately so, for the scheming visitors who are compelled to spend the night for selfish reasons. Featuring such silent-era stars as Laura La Plante (who reunited with Leni for 1929s The Last Warning) and Creighton Hale, The Cat and the Canary ostentates a variety of expressionist tendencies throughout its duration-- the prologue in particular is a highlight of visual ingenuity. To his credit, however, Leni doesnt allow his formalism to overshadow (no pun intended) the films compelling narrative arc and its modernist self-deprecating humor (perhaps its no surprise that the effort has been remade nearly half a dozen times). Leni, who started his film career as an art director, only made three more features for Universal (The Chinese Parrot , The Man Who Laughs , and the aforementioned Warning). Much like Murnau, his death was untimely: Leni died in Los Angeles in 1929 at the age of 44.