Thursday, July 18, 2019

Cat and the Canary (film)

I have adapted Agatha Christie mysteries for the stage, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Secret Adversary. However, it was my older brother Henrik who was mystery-obsessive. It was he who introduced me to Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, and he was quite an expert on Sherlock Holmes.

I say he “introduced” me because though throughout my childhood these tales were in the atmosphere, I didn’t take an interest. I wasn’t into puzzles and plotting, and to be honest, mysteries scared me. Someone’s dead -- and we don’t know why or how it happened? The unknown is horrifying to me.

I understand that it is the solution to mysteries than many find so reassuring, they bring order to chaos, and suggest that every problem has an answer, that all loose ends will eventually be tied. These people are also probably have religion for the same reason.

I always flash back to that moment when the victim is dying, perhaps violently, shocked, and afraid and alone. The tragedy itself is not made softer by there existing an explanation. Perhaps I am an atheist for the same reason.

My brother took me to this film once -- twice, actually. He would have been fourteen, I was only ten. We went twice on two different days, probably over a weekend. Maybe we took the bus, maybe my parents dropped us at the mall, can’t remember, I was ten. The film was Cat and the Canary, a stylish, period remake of a film made famous as a Bob Hope picture in the 30s. This 1978 version was considerably more bloody. Grisly. It was the seventies.

Cat and the Canary is one of those "bumped-off-one-at-a-time" mysteries in which the house itself is the murder weapon. I was fascinated by the twists and turns, the disappearances, the horrible, clever ways people were separated from each other, and then craftily dispatched. I was also horrified. I was unable to sleep. I was terrified someone would come through my window or stab me through the bed.

My brother was scolded for taking me to see it, to see it twice. I protested that I had asked him to take me to see it again, and so attention was turned to me. I was made to feel foolish. “If it scared you so, why would you want to see it again?”

I carried this with me as I became an adolescent and we moved into the era of the slasher film -- and cable TV. From Michael Myers to Jason Voorhees to Freddy Kruger, I abstained. I just didn’t watch them.

Now, slasher movies aren’t necessarily mysteries, but mysteries can be slasher films (see: Psycho) and I have watched each, but it is the moments of isolation and despair which frighten me the most. The Vanishing comes to mind. Never seen it, know how it ends, that’s enough to keep me awake at night.

So when it came time to adapt a Sherlock Holmes mystery into a play for children, there was more than one reason to avoid plots featuring violent crimes -- or any violence at all. When we produced Jabberwocky three years ago, there is a scene where a child confronts a bully the wrong way, but hitting back. With a stick.

It was meant to be an example of making a bad choice. And yet, talkback after talkback, this was the kids’ favorite part. It was what they best remembered, it elicited the most joyful reaction. They loved seeing that one kids hit the other kids with a stick -- and they hadn’t even seen it! The beating took place off stage, with one child character chasing the other behind a curtain and then hearing the bully cry out in pain.

Now, many of Doyle’s mysteries are murder mysteries, so it couldn’t be any of those. There are a few thefts in his tales, but none presented situations that interested me -- or more importantly, supporting characters that would interest children.

The education department brainstorm non-violent crimes, which included theft, extortion, vandalism, fraud, embezzlement, forgery, pickpocketing, arson, the receipt of stolen goods, and counterfeiting.

For the past several months, these ideas have been simmering, and I have been making notes, and reading story after story, and stringing together original ideas for a brand new mystery of my own.

Because there was one very important element lacking in all of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, and it was that which would not only set this story apart, but satisfying a great many details of the upcoming outreach tour.

Strong female characters.

To be continued.

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