Radley Metzger's reputation as a cult director has been cemented by a unique brand of soft-core porn movie he was responsible for developing from the early-sixties to the mid-seventies. Metzger's work was distinguished by the unusual artistry, exemplary aesthetic taste, and philosophical rumination they brought to the "genre"; eroticism and sex were just two of the elements amid an elaborate mise-en-scene of beautifully composed images and lavishly designed sets. Later works saw Metzger push the boundaries even further, as he ventured into XXX territory in a series of movies directed under the pseudonym, Henry Paris! But in 1979, the director made his most radical move yet: a completely unexpected shift into mainstream movies with his remake of John Willard's classic 1922 stage play "The Cat And The Canary". This classic whodunit had already been filmed several times before: first of all as a 1927 silent movie directed by Paul Leni, and later in a 1939 adaptation starring Bob Hope. Now Metzger the pornographer found himself directing his own version (from his own screenplay) with an all-star cast that included such luminaries as Honor Blackman and Edward Fox!
The project came about through Metzger's long-time association with producer Richard Gordon. The two had met back when Gordon had employed Metzger to direct the English language versions of the films he was importing from Europe at the time; and when Metzger began directing his own movies, the two talked about eventually working together at some point. Years later — when Gordon was looking to cash-in on the recent success of a series of Agatha Christie movie adaptations such as "Death On The Nile" (1978) — they finally got their chance to collaborate. "The Cat And The Canary" turned out to be the perfect vehicle: affording Metzger the chance to bring his obvious talents to a mainstream theatre audience, and providing producer Richard Gordon with a winning combination of comedy and murder mystery -- toped with a smattering of light horror of the traditional haunted house variety!
The story (set in 1933) assembles a varied list of characters as, twenty years after his death, the relatives of the late Cyrus West are gathered together at the family home, Glencliff Manor, for the reading of the rich old eccentric's will. The event is presided over by West's trusted family lawyer Mrs Crosby (Wendy Hiller) and as the group of grasping relatives arrive, the dark, stormy weather closes in around them. The relatives include bitchy Susan Sillsby (Honor Blackman), an ex-hunter and (nudge, nudge) "lady friend" of Cicily Young (Olivia Hussey) who is also among the guests ("We're cousins and flatmates … but don't worry, we don't plan to have any children"). Charlie Wilder (Peter McEnery) is a war hero turned film stunt man; Harry Blyth (Daniel Massey) an ex-surgeon with a sordid past; Paul Jones (Michael Callan) is a carefree American songwriter, while Annabelle West (Carol Lynley) is the apparently "dizzy" blonde. Crosby reveals that Cyrus West actually filmed his will and developed the first synchronised sound recording — years ahead of it's time — in the process! The feuding guests are ushered into a dining room with a screen-projector set up at the head of the table, and it is revealed that there are two films, the second of which is only to be played in the event that the heir to the vast West fortune is either dead or declared insane within twelve hours of the first film being played -- in-which-case, the fortune will pass to the next in line, named in the second film.
The first heir is revealed to be Annabelle, who will not only receive the money, but is also secretly informed of the whereabouts of the valuable family necklace. The rest of the relatives feign delight at Annabelle's happy news, but immediately set about plotting to drive her insane and to find out the identity of the second heir! But events take another unexpected turn with the arrival of Dr. Hendricks (Edward Fox): a psychiatrist from the local mental hospital who turns up to tell the guests that a lunatic — nicknamed "The Cat" because he rips his victims apart with grotesque, cat-like claws — has escaped from the institute, and is believed to be on the loose in the area! The guests all go off to check the house and soon people are disappearing, secret rooms are discovered, and a cloaked, disfigured prowler does indeed appear to be sneaking around the large, creaky Manor! Can Annabelle survive both the killer and her relative's greed to claim her fortune after the twelve hour time limit?
Metzger takes what could have been terminally boring, old-fashioned material and concocts a rather witty, tongue-in-cheek little film that has actually stood the test of time rather better than the slick Agatha Christie movies it, to some extent, parodies! The typical "Christie" trick of using big names as part of an ensemble cast giving extended cameo performances is deployed rather effectively, and Metzger's screenplay gives them all plenty of meaty dialogue to chew on. In fact, the stage play origins of the film are often all too apparent in the first act -- where the audience is required to absorb a huge amount of exposition in order to learn about the large cast of characters, and for the basic plot situation to be set up. But Metzger finds ingenious methods of holding the viewers' interest throughout some necessary, but long, talky scenes. The will reading scene it's self is a case in point: the idea of having the late Cyrus West pictured on film, seated at the head of the table in the exact place where the screen projector has actually been situated, is an amusing conceit that plays with cinematic conventions in a similar way to Metzger's arty erotic films of the sixties and seventies -- but also provides the viewer with great visual trickery in the midst of what is a very long dialogue scene. The idea is taken to absurd levels ... with Cyrus not only eating exactly the same meal in the film as his relatives who are actually seated around the table, but also pictured having wine poured into his glass by the same woman (twenty years younger) who is serving the guests: as she disappears behind the screen to serve the guests on the other side of the table, she appears on screen to serve Cyrus at exactly the right moment! This is the most blatant example of an otherwise very subtle strain of self-conscious humour that permeates the entire film -- the actors deliberately pitch their performances at a slightly larger-than-life level than they normally would, thereby mimicking the acting style of a 1930's movie and giving us a subconscious reminder of the stage origin of the material. Metzger's screenplay takes a slightly ironic stance and incorporates a few digs at the taboos that would have existed in the movies of that period. The implied lesbianism of Honor Blackman and Olivia Hussey's characters is dealt with in a way which parodies the methods such an issue might be skirted around at the time, while simultaneously making it blatantly obvious to the modern audience what is really going on between the two! The second half of the movie sees Metzger having obvious fun with the horror genre — as the cast are bumped off one by one by the hideous "cat" prowler. The gore is kept pretty light and there is always a slight tension between the mystery and horror elements: since the bright, overlit style of the movie is geared more towards mimicking the look of an Agatha Christie film than an atmospheric gothic chiller; but there are still many wonderful sequences featuring "the cat", and the film builds to a satisfying climax with Edward Fox returning to provide the requisite twist in the tail!
"The Cat And The Canary" is beautifully made, and still plays as a delightfully classy and intelligent horror/comedy-thriller of a type that is rarely seen these days. The entire cast work very well together with particularly noteworthy performances from the acid-tongued Honor Blackman and the dashing, but possibly sinister Edward Fox. Anchor Bay UK have generally done a good job with the transfer, which is anamorphic and framed at 1.85:1. The print shows obvious sighs of wear & tear with many scratches and sparkles appearing throughout, but is otherwise relatively sharp and clear, with few instances of grain apparent. The audio tracks consist of the original 2.0 stereo mix — which is nice and clear and perfectly adequate — and Anchor Bay's usual synthetic 5.1 DTS mix!
Extras consist of a commentary track featuring producer Richard Gordon and interviewer Tom Weaver; a stills gallery; biographies of all the major stars; and the original theatrical trailer. The commentary track is loaded with information but is otherwise rather dry — although there are a few entertainingly bitchy comments about a couple of the cast members! This is a nice presentation of a rather underrated film and makes a good (if rather misleading) introduction to the work of a skilled but very unusual filmmaker.