Home

Review of THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade: B+
Comedy-Horror-Mystery
Not rated (would be PG)

If your family enjoyed Knives Out, you also might be entertained by an early entry in the self-conscious light mystery genre.

In The Cat and the Canary (1939)—based on a 1921 stage play by the same name—comedian Bob Hope plays it mostly straight, an actor without the ham in this tongue-in-cheek whodunit with a dash of horror. A year later, hitting the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, Hope would develop his famous persona as a bumbling coward of a second banana to Crosby’s straight man, but in this one he’s less goofy and more believable as a love interest for Paulette Goddard. Hope is a considerably more suave and in control than later characters he’ll play, and as a result viewers find themselves focused more on the atmosphere and plot.

The Cat and the Canary was so popular that Hope and Goddard would team up for a second haunted house picture in 1940—The Ghost Breakers—and the sets and gimmicks from both films would provide the inspiration for Disney’s popular Haunted Mansion theme park attraction.

There are revolving bookcases, secret panels, and a Louisiana bayou mansion that wasn’t exactly prime real estate even before it fell into decrepit disrepair. Why would anyone visit now, especially when you have to be paddled there by various canoeists? As it turns out, all are relatives and named parties to attend the ceremonial reading of the will, according to instructions left by a reclusive millionaire who died 10 years ago. The deceased specified that his will must be read exactly at midnight, of course. One more thing: worried that insanity might run in the family, the eccentric recluse specified that the one bearing his surname (Norman) will inherit everything. But there’s a catch. If the named heir, Joyce Norman (Goddard), goes crazy before 30 days have passed, then a second replacement heir will be read from a second sealed envelope.

Kind of makes you want to run the other direction, right? Except that the canoe paddlers don’t operate late at night (they must have a strong union). But how else can you ensure that everyone has to spend the night in this spooky place?

Gale Sondergaard is delightfully creepy as the rich man’s housekeeper, and those summoned include two eccentric little old ladies (Nydia Westman, Elizabeth Patterson), two gentlemanly would-be suitors (John Beal, Douglass Montgomery), and a wisecracking actor (Hope) who shares a brief high-school past with Joyce.

It’s all very campy, and as Hope’s character reminds everyone throughout the film it features all the tropes of a theatrical or radio mystery, including a big black cat, an alligator-infested bayou that functions as a moat, hidden doors, flickering lights, secret passageways, hinged bookcases, a graveyard, a creepy hand that reaches out, paintings with eyes that move, and an escaped homicidal inmate from the local insane asylum. But I can tell you right now that the butler didn’t do it . . . because there is no butler.

It all adds up to some unexpected fun, and I say unexpected because this film came out in 1939, when the closest thing to family viewing was The Wizard of Oz. But if you’ve been to Disney World and the kids can tolerate old black-and-white films, this one makes for a pretty good evening’s entertainment. And don’t worry about jump scares. Compared to today’s horror-slasher films, this one is pretty tame.

Kind of like Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

Entire family: Maybe (though it might not hold the attention of really young ones)
Run time: 75 min. (Black and white)
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some frightening situations)

Language: 0/10—The old movies are refreshingly clean-cut

Sex: 0/10—I don’t count a couple of innocent pecks on the lips

Violence: 2/10—The most serious thing a stabbing in the back, but it’s not graphically shown; apart from that, one person is found dead

Adult situations: Nothing really noticeable except for Hope’s character briefly lighting a cigar but then tossing it into the bayou (and an alligator’s mouth)—presumably the whole point of the joke

Takeaway: Keep your arms and legs inside the attraction at all times. And enjoy the ride.

Review of BLOOD QUANTUM (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade: B-
Horror-thriller
Not rated (would be R)

Blood Quantum isn’t a title that screams “family friendly”—just plain screams, is more like it, considering that this 2019 horror film finds a few inventive new ways to kill zombies. There’s blood and gore and f-bombs galore, but if we’re being honest it’s the kind of film that appeals to older teens and families that enjoy a good frightfest every now and then.

Plus, Blood Quantum deserves a shout-out because this 2019 Canadian film from Jeff Barnaby is that rare horror film made by a First Nations director. Barnaby, a Mi’gmaq, shot much of the film on the same reserve in Listuguj, Quebec where he was born and he spotlights a large cast of First Nations actors. The history of indigenous people in North America is a history of segregation and forced relocation, but this film gets its own symbolic revenge (a theme suggested by two animated segments) by having the reserve be a place where all of the whites now want to go. The film’s key concept is that indigenous people are immune to the zombie plague. While they can be killed, they can’t be turned into zombies themselves. That is, they are immune to whatever zombie virus is being transmitted through zombie bites. As a result, the reserve, ironically, has become the only safe haven in the world.

The title itself is also ironic, because “blood quantum” or “Indian blood” laws were enacted by the U.S. government as a way of legally defining racial groups—too often a first step toward isolation and persecution. Here, blood quantum is a saving grace, and the political statement that Barnaby makes in his second full-length feature (the politically charged Rhymes for Young Ghouls was his first) is unmistakable. More