Lawyer Allison Crosby (Wendy Hiller, Murder on the Orient Express) summons the remaining members of the West clan to the West mansion for the reading of the will of Cyrus West (Wilfred Hyde-White, The Third Man). The will is most unusual-put on film in 1914, twenty years earlier, recorded with synchronized sound and kept in refrigerated storage until the appointed date! It is (of course) a dark and stormy night and the West cousins assemble-big game hunter Susan Silsby (Honor Blackman, Lola), slightly unhinged Cicily Young (Olivia Hussey, The Man with Bogart’s Face), unpleasant ex-surgeon Harry Blythe (Daniel Massey), war “hero” aviator and Hollywood stuntman Charlie Wilder (Peter McEnery), third-rate American song writer Paul Jones (Michael Callan, Mysterious Island) and sweet, slightly dim Annabelle West (Carol Lynley, Bunny Lake is Missing). Serving the assembled guests is Cyrus’s maid, Mrs. Pleasant (Beatrix Lehmann).
Cyrus was a wicked man, and he presumes his relatives equally wicked. His last trick was to assemble them all, name his heir (Annabelle) and keep them all together for twelve hours, during which time any one who wants to can bump Annabelle off-and failing that, at the end of the twelve-hour period, she must pass a psychiatric exam, for insanity runs in the West blood. There’s also the small matter of an extraordinarily valuable necklace that is hidden in the house. To make matters worse, a doctor from the asylum up the road, Hendricks (Edward Fox, Robin Hood) arrives and informs the guests that a madman who thinks he is a cat and uses his claws and fangs to murder his victims is loose. Can Annabelle survive a night in the West mansion with a madman on the loose and her greedy relatives under foot? Is anything what it seems, and what secrets do the guests hide from one another?
The Cat and the Canary is the fourth and, at the time of writing, final film adaptation of the 1922 play of the same name. Famed erotica director Radley Metzger (perhaps best known for Score) directed and wrote the screenplay, updating John Willard’s (The Mask of Fu Manchu) play with a tongue-in-cheek attitude and references to the various character’s sexualities. The killers’ crimes become more sexually charged, Cicily and Susan are in a sexual relationship, Annabelle was previously romanced by all of her cousins, Cyrus and Mrs. Pleasant were an item twenty years earlier, and Charlie is a gigolo and is implied to be gay, and Charlie and Harry have violent confrontations. The film becomes less about thrills (perhaps advisable as the Old Dark House genre that The Cat and the Canary belongs to was quaint by the mid-1930s, if not earlier) and more about innuendos and nudges and winks. The film is amusing, but could do with a bit more attention given to updating the scares along with the updates to the characters.
A comparison of the 1927 and 1978 versions: