The Cat and the Canary is a stage play by John Willard from 1922 that was highly influential in the Haunted House horror genre.
Its plot concerns the inheritance of Cyrus West, an eccentric old man with much contempt towards his relatives and who decreed that his will is to be read in his mansion twenty years after his death, at midnight with all his living relatives present.
Twenty years later, on a dark and stormy night, six of his relatives arrive at the mansion to hear out the will. The old family lawyer opens the envelope containing the will and it is written that Cyrus' fortune goes to his most distant relative with the surname of West, who happens to be Annabelle. Only On One Condition, though; she must be deemed sane, as Cyrus felt that his relatives were insane like he was during his last days. If she fails to fulfill this condition, the fortune goes to Cyrus' second most distant relative, named in another letter.
This is a start for one very long night, as an Ax-Crazy mental patient who slashes at his victims like a cat is stalking the West mansion grounds, and Annabelle's sanity is put into question after the lawyer suddenly vanishes.
The play has been adapted into several movies, notable ones being the 1927 silent film (which was one of the earliest Universal Horror movies), its 1930 sound remake titled The Cat Creeps and its Spanish version La Voluntad del Muerto (both are now unfortunately lost), the 1939 version starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, and a British version in 1979 with Olivia Hussey.
The play features:
- Bookcase Passage: The lawyer is last seen alive standing in front of a bookcase with a hidden passage behind. His Peek-A-Boo Corpse appears in a different hidden passage behind Annabelle's bed.
- Closed Circle: Nobody is allowed to leave the house — supposedly.
- Creepy Housekeeper: Mammy Pleasant.
- Cut Phone Lines: The "cat" indeed cuts the phone lines.
- Faint in Shock:
- Annabelle faints after being molested by the hand.
- Annabelle faints a second time after discovering the corpse of the lawyer.
- The Favourite: Charlie was this to Cyrus.
- For Doom the Bell Tolls: An ominous bell tolls, and the caretaker says it means someone will die.
- His Name Is...: When Crosby attempts to tell Annabelle the name of the other possible inheritor, he is dragged inside the Bookcase Passage.
- Hand of Death: Multiple times, a hand comes out of a hidden passage to strangle someone or attempt to strangle someone.
- Mammy: The housekeeper, Mammy Pleasant is this, and she was played by a white actress in blackface in the original Broadway run. The film adaptations portray the character as white.
- The Noun and the Noun
- Old, Dark House: Possibly the Trope Codifier for the old, spooky house with hidden passages where creepy things take place.
- On One Condition: Cyrus's heir must keep her sanity.
- Peek-a-Boo Corpse: Crosby's corpse mysteriously disappears.
- "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: The "Cat" ends up being one of the heirs, whose purpose was to drive the girl given the fortune insane so that he (the next heir in line) could inherit it.
- The Shrink: Doctor Patterson arrives at the house to examine Annabelle.
- When the Clock Strikes Twelve: That's when the will is read.
The 1927 film features:
- Accidental Pervert: Paul when he in a state of panic (he thought he saw a ghost) hides under the bed in the room of aunt Susan and her daughter Cecilly and catches glimpses of them undressing.
- All in the Eyes: Used on Paul when Susan finds him under her bed.
- Big Ol' Unibrow: Sported by the character credited as Guard.
- Color Wash: One version has different color schemes for certain moods: Lighted indoor scenes are sepia tone, moments in the dark are dark blue and the horror moments are red.
- Extreme Close-Up: Annabelle gets this when The Cat snatches her necklace while sleeping.
- Femme Fatalons: In a fake-out, a clawed hand reaching across a couch is revealed not to belong to the monster.
- Madness Montage: Shown in the opening where Cyrus literally sees cats descending as if he was a canary.
- Nerd Glasses: Paul, signifying his cowardice up to a point.
- Rule of Symbolism: Cyrus West sees his relatives as "cats circling around the canary".
- Secret Path: The house is filled with secret stashes and paths.
- Symbol Swearing: Susan's swearing when she sees that it was Paul under her bed.
- Took a Level in Badass: When Paul finds himself confronted by the killer, he removes his glasses and shit goes down.
The 1939 version features:
- The Big Easy: Or rather, the swamps of Louisiana not far from the Big Easy.
- Death by Adaptation: Charles and Hendricks, apprehended in the play, are killed here.
- Dramatic Unmask: The villain is identified when Wally dramatically rips his mask off.
- Face Framed in Shadow: A very arty shot of a beam of light illuminating only the bad guy's eyes.
- Fanservice: No other reason for a shot showing Paulette Goddard in a slip changing clothes.
- Inadvertent Entrance Cue: Wally (Bob Hope) is an actor. He remarks that their setting resembles some plays he's been in. He predicts that a woman will show up, saying "In every one of these plays, there was a young lady—young, beautiful, modern, charming." Joyce (Paulette Goddard) enters immediately after he says this.
- Instant Death Bullet: Instant Death Knife, as Hendricks the security guard keels over after one stab in the back.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Larry keeps comparing the events of the film to his plays, calling out the Narrative Beats as they happen. At the end of the first act of the movie, he says "You know how it is in a play, when just before the first act is over somebody always comes to the beautiful heroine and tells her that she's in great danger, and sometimes she is?" Naturally, this immediately happens.
- Portrait Painting Peephole: There's one in the library, which the bad guy uses to watch Joyce.
- She Is All Grown Up: Wally and Joyce were childhood friends but he doesn't recognize her. When he finds out, he says "Say, when did you grow up and get pretty?"
The 1979 version features:
- Adaptational Villainy: Although already a crooked accomplice, Hendericks here becomes a full-blown murderer, assisting Charlie in mutilating the faces of the victims.
- Anachronism Stew: The film is set in 1934, and Cyrus West's Will is a Sound-on-Film Reel that was made in 1914. Although there were experimental Sound films dating to the early century, they were Sound-on-Disc Films, dependent on an independent sound disc that was played with the film. Sound-on-Film would not be created until the late 1920s.
- Bad People Abuse Animals: A prologue has a child kill a cat. This child ends up becoming a murderer.
- Death by Adaptation: Susan, Charles, and Hendericks.
- Dramatic Irony: The second Will Film-Reel of Cyrus West is played, with Cyrus congratulating the new inheritor- Charlie- and commenting on the insanity fate of the previous heir Annabelle. The thing is, the reel is being viewed by the quite sane Annabelle, while Charlie's corpse is being taken away.
- Gender Flip: The family lawyer is now an elderly woman named Allison Crosby.
- Video Wills: Technology!