Screened as part of NZIFF 2009
The Festival, in conjunction with the Vector Wellington Orchestra, brings you the rare opportunity to experience Paul Leni's 1927 haunted house classic, The Cat and the Canary, accompanied by the exhilarating score composed by 2009 Festival guest Neil Brand [see Neil Brand – The Silent Pianist Speaks and The Black Pirate]. Perfectly capturing the dizzy events of this hilariously spooky tale, the score will be played by musicians from the Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by US maestro Timothy Brock. A particular highlight will be a rare performance on the theremin, one of the earliest electronic instruments to be invented – and possibly the eeriest. Theremin players are thin on the ground – it takes a lot of skill to play an instrument that you don't actually touch.
The film starts, naturally, on a wild and stormy night at a Gothic mansion. Exactly 20 years after his death, Cyrus West's eccentric relatives have been summoned for the reading of his will. Considered mad by his family while he was alive, West has taken the opportunity to wreak revenge from the grave by disinheriting his next of kin. Instead, he's chosen his distant relative Annabelle West – so long as she can be proven to be of sound mind after spending a night in the creepy house. If she's not, the money will go to a secret heir named in an envelope held by the lawyer, Mr Crosby. As soon as he's dropped his bombshell, Crosby disappears – removed from the proceedings by a disembodied hand. The disgruntled guests are left in an uproar, suspicious of every bump and squeak, and of Annabelle in particular: she too fears for her own safety. After interruptions all night by unwelcome guests – including a cat-like claw which appears from nowhere and steals her diamond necklace – Annabelle must undergo a sanity test given by a sinister doctor. Is she mad? Is there a murderer at large? Does the ghost of Cyrus West still walk?
Director Paul Leni was an accomplished German art director prominent in the Expressionist movement before being invited to Hollywood in 1926. The Cat and the Canary was originally a wordy stage play by John Willard. In his adaptation Leni had to rely on creating a sense of mood and mystery through set design and camera work, rather than spoken dialogue. This he does magnificently with the turreted mansion, the panelled gallery of family portraits, secret passages, cobwebs, billowing curtains and flickering shadows. The film was so successful that it became the prototype for Hollywood Gothic, the atmospheric, architectural style adopted by Universal in their classic horror movies of the 1930s such as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy.
Since the premiere of his Piano Concerto in G minor (1980) at the age of 17, Timothy Brock has been an active composer and conductor who has specialised in concert works of the early 20th century and silent film. In 1999 he was asked by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, in cooperation with the Chaplin Estate, to restore and reconstruct for live performance Charlie Chaplin's 1936 score for Modern Times. This led to an enduring involvement in the reconstruction and international performance of Chaplin's scores – and brought him to the Festival for the first time in 2000. In 2001, on a commission from the Festival, he restored the 1929 manuscript of Dmitri Shostakovich's only silent film work, New Babylon, and gave that restored score's live cinematic premieres in Auckland and Wellington. Subsequently he has conducted this work in many performances throughout Europe. In 2007 he was commissioned to restore the last of the great Chaplin features, The Gold Rush, which he will perform in Auckland on 26 July before returning to Wellington to conduct Neil Brand's score for The Cat and the Canary.