Splitting heirs

The SF Silent Film Festival's winter event brings the spinal chills
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The Cat and the Canary

SILENT FILMS Horror movies have never been more plentiful or popular than they are now — which says more about the times we live in than there's room to discuss here — yet in film's first decades they barely made an appearance. The early 20th-century rush to modernity, particularly in the U.S., made anything that smacked of superstition seem childish, silly, even distasteful; the simple life of yore, with all its greater hardships, was still too fresh to invite nostalgia. Not until the one-two punch of Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) did the genre flourish, and for years afterward many quasi-horror films ended with protracted, often ludicrous explanations as to how their supernatural events were faked by ingenious criminals or undercover detectives.

The template for all subsequent "old dark house" chillers — including James Whale's 1932 The Old Dark House — was provided by Paul Leni's 1927 hit, The Cat and the Canary, which the Silent Film Festival screens this Saturday at the Castro. Based on a popular stage play by San Francisco–born John Willard, this was the first of at least six versions to date. All were horror comedies, both exploiting and sending up the hoary conceit of greedy heirs gathered in a creepy mansion for the reading of a vengeful late relative's will.

In Leni's take, they're estranged relatives drawn to the "grotesque mansion of an eccentric millionaire" 20 years after his demise. In life, he'd imagined them as giant black cats clawing at him; in death, he designates the youngest and most distant niece (Laura La Plante) as sole recipient of his fortune. There's a catch, of course: the dough goes elsewhere if she's proven — or driven — mad during a long night bedeviled by escaped lunatics, fanged fiends, secret passageways, and so forth.

A German art director who'd directed the Expressionist horror classic Waxworks (1924), Leni arrived in Hollywood with a Universal contract and a wealth of visual imagination. Cat remains goofy gothic fun, from ill-named housekeeper Mammy Pleasant to animated intertitles that "shudder" with fright. Beyond Murnau's own rapturous Sunrise (1927), the day's other features are slapstick gems: vintage Buster Keaton outing Our Hospitality (1923) and A Kiss from Mary Pickford (1927), a vehicle for equally beloved Russian comic Igor Ilyinsky utilizing footage of the Soviet Union visit that "America's Sweetheart" and Douglas Fairbanks made in 1926. (Dennis Harvey)

SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL'S WINTER EVENT

Sat/14, noon, $14–$17 (four-movie pass, $52)

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

www.silentfilm.org

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