Film review: The Cat and the Canary (1978), directed by Radley Metzger
Based on a play by John Willard, The Cat and the Canary is a film in the style of the boardgame Cluedo, but with a more sinister twist. In 1914, an old man called Cyrus West (Wilfrid Hyde White) records a film of his last will and testament. This film is to be locked up for twenty years and then his relatives are meant to gather to hear who has inherited the big house and the fortune.
The will is safely locked away by his legal representative Allison Crosby (Wendy Hiller) and the housekeeper, Mrs Pleasant (Beatrix Lehmann). Twenty years pass, and on a dark and story night in 1934 the remaining relatives start to turn up, summoned by an invitation.
After dinner, it’s revealed who the heir or heiress is, and how that person will only inherit everything if he or she can stay the night and be of sound mind (there is insanity running in the family). If not, everything will pass to the person next in line.
When Hendricks (Edward Fox), a doctor from a nearby lunatic asylum, shows up to tell them there’s a madman on the loose, believing himself to be a cat and will attack and shred people to pieces, the mood isn’t exactly lightened. Especially as people start to disappear and then turn up dead …
The potential inheritees are Honor Blackman as Susan Sillsby, Michael Callan as Paul Jones, Olivia Hussey as Cicily Young, Carol Lynley as Annabelle West, Daniel Massey as Harry Blythe and Peter McEnery as Charlie Wilder.
This was described as a mystery/crime comedy, so I think I expected something more akin to Clue, as in, a parody of exactly these types of films. But that’s not what it is. It’s this type of film, just that it has some lighthearted moments, which is different.
People going missing, killers hiding in hidden passageways, and people re-appearing dead, a dark and stormy night, an old, disused mansion and a group of people summoned for a common purpose … you’ve seen it all before, many times. This is the stuff that made Agatha Christie’s career, let’s not forget.
However, to think you know exactly what’s going to happen because you’re familiar with Christie et al, not quite so! Okay, there was one thing that was a fairly obvious lie, realistically, but I still found the outcome not just a lot darker than expected – it is, technically, also a thriller – but also “okay, well, I didn’t quite expect it to go that way.”
Actor-wise I enjoyed the cast. Most of them were unknown to me (as far as I know, anyway), except for former Bond girl Honor Blackman, whom I associate more with the grandmother in The Upper Hand than James Bond; and the stunningly beautiful Olivia Hussey – Rebecca in the only version of Ivanhoe I’ve seen (the 1982 one with Sam Neill, go fig). She seems to have been fairly big in the 1970s and early 1980s but appears to have kept a low profile since, doing mainly voice acting. I hope we get to see her on screen again, even though she always seems sort of quiet and unassuming.
All in all, The Cat and the Canary is an okay film, but it also feels like you’re always waiting for something to happen, which it then doesn’t, or happens too late. The characters themselves weren’t particularly interesting, as you never really got to grips with either of them, as they’re too busy trying to not get murdered. And really, who puts on a necklace that’s spent the past twenty years in the freezer? You’d get frostbite!
2.8 out of 5 black cats.