There's a particular subgenre of movies that's really popular, and relied on so heavily that just a few years after it broke out, the Hollywood studios have almost driven it into the ground. Hoping to freshen things up, one of the savviest producers around decides to offer a job to one of the most impressive directors working in another country, to bring a bit of that foreign stylistic flair to the moribund genre. And it works - the film that immigrant produces is broadly regarded as one of the best, and maybe the best ever made in that style. But it didn't do anything to prop up the ailing genre, which just got staler and more hackneyed until it finally died out a few years later.

I'd add the rhetorical flourish, "remind you of anything?", except that it's happened enough times, with some of the details more or less true in different cases, that what it reminds you of and what it reminds me of might not even be the same. Which is one of the most enjoyable parts of studying history: it's how you realise that things really are exactly the same now that they always used to be. In this case, anyway, the story applies to The Cat and the Canary from 1927 (it's the first adaptation of a stage play by John Willard that would filmed twice more under the same title, and at least a couple of times under various pseudonyms). Let's fill in those blanks: the foreign director was Paul Leni, director and art director, whose 1924 Waxworks was one of the key films of the German Expressionist movement; the producer who was so immensely impressed by Waxworks was German expatriate Carl Laemmle, founder and mastermind of Universal Pictures. And the subgenre was the "old dark house" movie, a later name (the film of that title wouldn't come out for five years yet) for what, in retrospect, we might call the very first trend in American horror cinema.

A trend, moreover, just as inflexible and formulaic as the giant insect pictures of the 1950s or the slasher movies of the 1980s. You take one old, dark house, add a layer of intrigue around a pile of money, plug in a mystery where it seems like some kind of paranormal event might be happening, until it turns out to all be human machinations designed to trick people into overreacting. And in making it, try very hard to split the difference between comedy and horror to the point where it's not terribly funny nor very scary, but it doesn't ever seem like it was trying to be. The style was born, cinematically, with D.W. Griffith's 1922 production of One Exciting Night, an original riff on the stage hit The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood (itself adapted into film multiple times, including a tremendously popular version in 1926), and it inspired numerous imitators, though the rigidity of the genre guaranteed that it would start to burn out fairly quickly. By the time of The Cat and the Canary, it was already old hat, which is undoubtedly why Laemmle thought to bring in a great stylist with a proven skill at seamlessly marrying an unusual flavor of light comedy with extravagant horror. Something to let the movie stand out from the crowd. And thus, quite by accident, Laemmle changed the fate of American horror, a form so new that it hadn't even been named as such.

For what Leni did wasn't merely film a movie with a florid, exaggerated visual style that gave it vastly more personality than its entirely generic script, by Alfred A. Cohn and Robert F. Hill, could have achieved by itself. Thanks to his presence, The Cat and the Canary is more or less the first movie to introduce Expressionist aesthetics into Hollywood filmmaking in a systematic and consistent way. That, in turn, led to Universal's entire population of genre-defining movies in the 1930s, and all the things that followed on their model.

We'll return to that, but just to keep everybody on the same page, allow me to recap the plot of the movie. In the Hudson River Valley there lived a wealthy man named Cyrus West, whose family hounded him "like cats around a canary", hoping for a taste of his riches. To get back at the scheming greedy bastards from beyond the grave, the first condition of West's will is that it can't be opened until 20 years after his death, by which point a second will has mysteriously appeared, to be opened in the event that the first cannot be fulfilled. The sole living resident of West's decaying mansion, the sour-faced housekeeper Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox) is convinced that it's her late employer's ill-tempered ghost, while the executor of West's estate, Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall), brooks with no such paranormal nonsense. But something unexplained is going on - a living moth was in the safe where the wills were kept, despite it supposedly having been locked for 20 years, with Crosby the sole person who knew the combination. And somebody took a peak inside the documents.

No sooner has that unnerving discovery been made than the potential heirs to the West fortune start to turn up, prior to the midnight reading: Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe), Charlie Wilder (Forrest Stanley), Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch), Cecily Young (Gertrude Astor), Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), and Annabelle West (Laura La Plante). The latter three are much younger, and weren't so involved in the general avarice that drove Cyrus literally mad, so it's not too surprising when Annabelle turns out to be the solitary heir (the will specifies the most distant of West's relatives to share his surname). There's only one catch, and it's eminently survivable: she must be found sane by a medical doctor, or the fortune goes to the individual named in the second will. Which unfortunately gives the unknown person who took an early look into the documents plenty of time to remove her from the picture entirely. And it might not even be as difficult as all that: a guard (George Siegmann) from the local sanitarium shows up to announce that a very dangerous inmate has escaped and his tracks reveal him to be on the mansion grounds. This is the Cat, a serial killer noted for tearing his victims apart "like canaries".

Ghosts, serial killers, and at least one potentially murderous, pissed-off family member: just another night in a spooky old house, really. 90 years down the road, it takes very little effort to predict the ending, and I don't know that it was all that much different in 1927. What makes The Cat and the Canary stand head-and-shoulders above the rest of its genre, then, isn't its crafty storytelling. And it's not its scintillating characters - these are all stock characters, and there's not a genuinely impressive performance in the lot - La Plante is a thoroughly generic blonde heroine, and Hale (who graduates from tepid comic side character to tepid romantic comic lead) is notable mostly for his distracting Harold Lloyd glasses. With the remainder of the ensemble required to play either daft foolishness (Finch) or unchecked rage (everybody else, basically), there's little room for making any strong impression.

What it does have is the most impressive style of any American proto-horror movie of the 1920s, or probably the three decades of "true" horror to follow. It's a little daft to compare the two films, but it honestly seems to me that it can only be appropriately compared to fellow 1927 release Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, the only other Hollywood production I can name that is so plainly a German movie in all but language, and that's a largely irrelevant concern in silent cinema. Not just in the sense of extreme shadows and the creation of shocking splashes of feeling through compositions that emphasise line and shape more than narrative content, the inheritances of film noir and later horror movies right up to the modern day. The Cat and the Canary uses everything it can within the medium of cinema itself to visually depict psychological states - the exact characteristic that "Expressionism" refers to in the first place - and constantly challenge the viewer's relationship to the image. Right from the start, the movie launches with a montage of inconceivable brashness, establishing Cyrus West's empire, his family, his death, and blasting us forward 20 years through a combination of title cards, newspapers, and discontinuous images. The film calms down a lot after that, but it's still full of impressive touches. Throughout, text and title cards are manipulated to depict not just what is said, but how it's said. Tinted images are used with unusual fluidity and surprising creativity (like the legitimately terrifying jump from "interior lighting" yellow to "hellbound nightmare" red as a character bolts up in fright), enough to suggest that there was a future for this already old-fashioned technique, which was completely abandoned after sound arrived in the same year.

Not all of the film works - the Cat, so suggestive when all we see is flashes of a freakish-looking clawed hand, is pretty unabashedly dopey when it appears, in a way that make sense with the script but isn't any more satisfying because of it, and Aunt Susan is a enervating liability, comic relief going wrong in the most conspicuous way - but the overall use of image manipulation to place us inside the psychology of the people experiencing this particular old dark house redeems just about everything. The generic trappings are intensified and made to seem new and bold - and that's after almost a century of movies using those same trappings! - and the flat characters are turned practically into a legitimate strength. For the film requires psychologically uncomplicated figures to clear the way for it being a psychological performance itself.

The one thing it never is, is scary (hell, even for the rather dubious Susan and Paul, both entirely unlikable comic relief characters, the film scrapes up the energy to be funny more reliably than it's ever scary). Maybe they thought it was in '27. That's the one form of "pretend you're living in a different time period" I've never been good at. It is sometimes good and creepy, usually thanks to the Cat's paw; mostly, though, it's just damn impressive, playing with cinematic form and representation like few movies of any style have gotten away with under the aegis of a big Hollywood studio. Small wonder that it ended up forming the kernel of something very like a new genre: suggesting that all mainstream American horror starts with The Cat and the Canary is blatantly untrue, but it's less blatantly untrue here than for any other individual movie. And even after all those descendants, its strengths are still as unique and powerful as they ever might have been.

Body Count: 1 only, which speaks ill of the commitment of a killer who rips his victim apart like canaries.