"The Cat and the Canary" (1927) must've been a popular entry in what was already a crowded field of old-dark-house horror comedies in the final years of the silent era. One need look no further for evidence of that fact than this followup film, "The Last Warning," which reunited director Paul Leni and star Laura Le Plante, as well as a couple of the same writers and art director, for a similar spooky murder mystery with the slight novelty that it's set in a theatre this time. Moreover, the next year, following Leni's death, Universal released a talkie remake of "The Cat and the Canary," the now-lost "The Cat Creeps" (1930). (Likewise, "The Last Warning" was later remade as "The House of Fear" (1939), which is the title of the book from which the play and, thus, the films were derived.) Although Leni's two films were based on different plays, it seems that many of these narratives tended to be strikingly similar, with perhaps the stage version of "The Bat" being the originator of the formula, which itself was made twice for the screen by Roland West ("The Bat" (1926) and "The Bat Whispers" (1930)). The other successful Universal property that "The Last Warning" clearly borrows from is "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) by reusing its auditorium set, and like Gaston Leroux's story, the stage setting of "The Last Warning" features a play-within-a-play structure--offering a self-reflexive twist on the familiar old-dark-house formula.
Personally, although I've been reviewing quite a few of these films lately, I'm not a fan of the formula--at least not until James Whale introduced a more campy sense of humor and more twisted subject matter with "The Old Dark House" (1932). Before that, they tended to be exceedingly silly, relying on characters' fear of ghosts, and the mysteries are hardly interesting, if not appallingly convoluted. That of "The Last Warning" is especially of little concern, with nary a clue offered throughout the proceedings before an intricate resolution clumsily ties everything together in the end. The main point of the construction, though, was to replay the antics of the 1927 film. So, once again, there's a whodunit, the body of which disappears, and a group of suspects are brought together under one roof, where they're excessively scared that a ghost is behind all of the horrors. As in "The Bat" and "The Cat and the Canary," there's a masked menace creeping through hidden passages haunting the place. By employing "The Phantom of the Opera" set, the similarity between these haunted house plays to Leroux's story becomes blatant, as well, with both featuring a masked menace terrorizing its occupants. Unlike Leroux's Phantom, however, this one has no Christine, but rather insists that no play be performed at all.
Like "The Cat and the Canary," Leni's style here goes a long way in at least making them visually appealing. The superimpositions, including kaleidoscopic images, the moving title effects and moving-camera shots stand out. Originally, there were also sound effects and dialogue scenes, making this late silent film a goat gland and offering the additional technical marvelry of sound. More interesting, though, and why I like this a bit more than "The Cat and the Canary" and most of the other early old dark houses is the honesty of the self-reference of how shamelessly this film imitates its predecessors. In it, the same cast and crew are brought back together to perform the same play they performed years ago, when the original murder occurred, and this is essentially what Leni and the rest of the Universal staff were doing in making the film--bringing back the same cast and crew to perform basically the same play they performed years ago. Even where the cast isn't exactly the same in the two films, the different actors mimic some of the same types of the prior one--so much so that I initially thought that at least a couple others besides Le Plante had appeared in "The Cat and the Canary" as well. Appropriately, the play-within-the-play is titled "The Snare," the play itself being a snare to uncover the murderer in the narrative. In fact, the most we ever get of the inner play is from the point-of-views of the producer and stage hands as spectators of the culprit being lured in by their ruse, and not of the actual play performed for the theatre audience, whose perspectives we don't share. But, the real snare is the trap set by the filmmakers to lure audiences back for the same film in a new guise.
(Note: The reduction prints out there for home viewing are horrendous, but there is a restored version that has appeared at festivals. Hopefully, it'll receive a home video release someday like its companion piece, "The Cat and the Canary.")