Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Cat and the Canary (1978)

          John Willard’s 1922 play The Cat and the Canary, which blends comedic and horrific elements while telling the story of would-be heirs trying to survive an evening in a spooky house, has enjoyed a long cinematic afterlife. The first screen adaptation was a 1929 silent picture, and two additional versions were filmed in between the silent movie and a successful 1939 remake starring Bob Hope. (The 1939 movie did so well that costars Hope and Paulette Godard reteamed for another funny/scary romp, 1940’s The Ghost Breakers, which, incidentally, was among the inspirations for the 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters.) By the time this 1978 version of the story was produced, social mores had changed considerably. As helmed by Radley Metzger—who spent most of the ’70s directing hardcore porn flicks—the 1978 Cat and the Canary is rougher than its predecessors, and, not coincidentally, a lot less charming.
          Whereas the Hope Cat and the Canary blends gentle suspense with lighthearted laughs, the 1978 Cat and the Canary tries to spruce up old material by adding gore, sex, and torture. Yet the underlying material is so fundamentally old-fashioned that it doesn’t gel with Hammer Films-style extremes. Instead of seeming bold and shocking, the 1978 Cat and the Canary comes across as desperate, disjointed, and even a bit vulgar. The movie is watchable, thanks to the fun storyline and a parade of familiar actors, but it does not improve upon its predecessors.
          Set in a grand English mansion, the story concerns a group of relatives who gather for the reading of a will. The deceased party is a rich eccentric named Cyrus West (Wilfrid Hyde-White), who attaches weird conditions to his bequests. After naming a sole beneficiary, the will states that if the beneficiary is ruled insane within 30 days, the fortune will pass to a successor. These conditions, naturally, prompt everyone but the initial beneficiary to attempt mischief. Adding to the macabre mix is a visit from a psychiatrist who says that a maniac recently escaped from a nearby mental hospital.
          When this storyline works, as in the Hope classic, the narrative is a ghoulish lark. In the hands of Metzger and his collaborators, the narrative is artificial and stilted. Worse, nearly all the humor is drained from the material by flat performances; only Hyde-White and pithy costar Wendy Hiller lock into the right jovial groove. Leading lady Carol Lynley is amateurish, leading man Michael Callan is forgettable, and costars Honor Blackman and Olivia Hussey are merely ornamental. The X factor is Edward Fox, who camps it up after a plot twist reveals a new side of his character. Speaking of camp, this version of The Cat and the Canary has overt gay content (including a pair of lesbian characters), which adds a certain novelty.

The Cat and the Canary: FUNKY

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