Sunday, 6 November 2011

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)

Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Starring: Fredric March
             Miriam Hopkins
             Rose Hobart
Run time: 98 mins
Studio: Paramount
Black & White

Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is regarded by many as the best movie version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale, and it’s not hard to see why. Quite apart from its lavish production values, its attention to detail, its magnificent central performance (which earned Fredric March a well-deserved Academy Award - a rare distinction for a horror film) and its famous special effects, the film benefits enormously from having been made before the full enforcement of the censorious Motion Picture Production Code (popularly known as the Hays Code, after Hollywood’s chief censor Will H. Hays), allowing Mamoulian to explore his subject matter with considerably more frankness and honesty than he might have been able to had the film been made a few years later. Basically, anyone who’s ever suspected that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is really the story of one man’s repressed sexuality erupting to the surface need look no further than Mamoulian’s film for confirmation of their suspicions.

That the film is to be an exploration of one man's psyche is established from the outset, with Mamoulian using subjective camera lensing in the opening scene to place the audience directly inside Jekyll’s head. The man we encounter there is a cultured and seemingly untroubled individual, used to the luxuries of life and happy to spend his time reciting Bach amid the opulent surroundings of his London home (and gently rebuking his manservant Poole (Edgar Norton) for failing to be moved by the music) rather than attending the local doctors’ symposium, where he is due to give a lecture that evening. Jekyll’s lectures, we are told, are popular and always sensational. He is quite the celebrity and clearly one of the leading intellectuals of his day; but Mamoulian’s use of the subjective camera alerts us to the fact that with this success has come an unhealthy degree of self-absorption, possibly bordering on narcissism, a point that is underscored by the fact that our first sight of Jekyll (while we are still viewing the world through is eyes) is his reflection in a hall mirror as he is preparing to leave the house.

Jekyll, we quickly learn, sees himself as a visionary who recognises no limits to scientific enquiry, unlike his learned colleagues.  During his lecture at the symposium he chides them for allowing the London fog to penetrate their minds and cloud their reason. He informs them that he has analysed the human soul and has come to believe that man is not truly one. Part of man strives for nobility (the good side) while the bad side seeks an expression of impulses that ‘bind him to some dim animal relation’ of the earth. The two sides are chained together but carry out a struggle – repression to the evil, remorse to the good. Jekyll believes that if he splits the two sides then the good will reach greater heights and the bad will be able to fulfil itself and leave us alone. To this end, he has begun experimenting with certain chemicals.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Dracula (1931)

Directed by: Tod Browning
Starring:   Bela Lugosi
               Helen Chandler              
               David Manners
               Dwight Fry
               Edward Van Sloan
Running time: 75 mins
Studio: Universal
Black & White

Dracula is a frustrating film to watch. It is undoubtedly of historical importance (in the year 2000 it was selected for inclusion in the USA's National Film Registry), it made a star of its leading man, Bela Lugosi, and its huge box-office success helped usher in the Golden Age of Hollywood horror. Unfortunately, however, I don't think it's terribly good. "Blasphemy!" I hear you cry? Well, maybe - but as a film by Tod Browning, who was still one of the leading Hollywood directors of his day, Dracula is a long way from representing his best work. Indeed, some sources suggest that Browning had very little interest in the material and left much of the shoot up to his cinematographer, Karl Freund. There are several reasons why this might have been the case. For a start, Dracula was originally envisaged by Universal as a major spectacle along the lines of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, but the Great Depression put paid to that idea. Also, the screenplay was based not on the original novel but on the heavily abridged stage version that had been running very successfully on Broadway, giving Browning no opportunity to reimagine the material for himself. Finally, and probably most importantly, the original plan had been to cast Browning's long-time friend and collaborator Lon Chaney in the lead role, but Chaney died in 1930 after contracting lung cancer and suffering a throat haemorrhage. Apparently, Lugosi only got the part (which he had played in the Broadway production) because he effectively pestered the studio to give it to him and agreed to a substantial cut in his salary. All in all, it was a very inauspicious start.

Dracula is very much a film of two halves: the first twenty minutes, and the rest of the film. It begins promisingly: A carriage rattles along through a lonely Transylvanian mountain pass – on board a group of travellers including English solicitor, Renfield (Dwight Frye) are thrown from side to side while one of their number reads aloud from a guide book warning of the many evils abroad in this remote part of the world. Arriving at one of those Transylvanian villages that were to become a staple of horror movies for decades to come, the travellers alight; but Mr Renfield is travelling on to Borgo Pass to meet another carriage at midnight. The news invokes terror among the peasants. Where is he going? To Castle Dracula, he informs them. But he cannot! Dracula and his wives live there and they are shape-shifting, coffin-dwelling bloodsuckers! He must stay, especially now that the sun is setting. Renfield protests –he has no choice: it’s a matter of business and he is obliged to go. The peasants hurry away inside, but not before one of them has given Renfield a crucifix for his protection. Puzzled but not especially concerned by the peasants’ warnings, Renfield boards the coach again and disappears off into the sunset.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Last Warning (1929)

Directed by: Paul Leni
Starring: Laura LaPlante
              Montagu Love
              Roy D'Arcy
              John Boyles
Run time: 88 mins
Studio:    Universal
Black & White

The Last Warning was Universal Studio’s unsubtle but entirely understandable attempt to cash in on the huge success of 1927’s The Cat and the Canary. Unfortunately, however, as a follow-up to the earlier film, The Last Warning can only really be regarded as a qualified success. Indeed, if truth be told, it’s something of a disappointment. This is doubly sad when you consider that it was director Paul Leni’s last film (tragically, he died of blood poisoning not long after it was made). I should make it clear from the outset, however, that the disappointment doesn't stem from any lack of ability on Leni's part - he remained to the end one of early Hollywood's most inventive directors. No, the problem lies entirely with the script (and yes, you guessed it - it's another stage play adaptation!).

The film opens with a dizzying montage sequence depicting 1920s Broadway - the so-called “electric highway of happiness” - with its bright lights, limousines, dancing girls and blackface minstrels. We arrive at the Woodford Theatre (in reality the re-used Paris Opera House set from Phantom of the Opera) on the opening night of a play called The Snare; but there is panic in the stalls -  John Woodford (D'Arcy Corrigan), leading light of the Broadway stage, has been murdered during a mysterious blackout in the play's first scene (the obvious joke about actors dying on stage is mercifully resisted) and his fellow actors are in the process of being questioned backstage by the police. The theatre's owners, Josiah and Robert Bunce (Burr McIntosh and Mack Swain), brothers who speak in unison, are also in attendance. During the questioning, Irish stage manager Mike Brady (Bert Roach) reveals how he overheard a terrible argument between the play's director, Richard Quayle (John Boles) and Woodford coming from the leading lady's dressing room the night before. It turns out that the leading lady, Miss Doris Terry (Laura La Plante) is a very popular young lady indeed - not only is her dressing room filled with ostentatious floral bouquets from John Woodford (who apparently considered Terry the love of his life), but there are roses from Richard Quayle, too. In addition, there is a framed photograph of caddish-looking fellow actor Harvey Carleton (Reg D'Arcy) inscribed with Carleton's own message of adoration.  The film is barely fifteen minutes old and already the suspects are lining up. Things become even more suspicious when the Coroner (Harry Northrup) arrives and discovers that while everyone has been talking, Woodford's body has mysteriously disappeared. So far, so good - it looks as if we might have a decent mystery on our hands.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

West of Zanzibar (1928)

Directed by Tod Browning
Starring: Lon Chaney          
              Lionel Barrymore
              Mary Nolan
              Warner Baxter
Run time: 65 mins
Studio: MGM
Black & White

West of Zanzibar was the penultimate collaboration between director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney (the following year's Where East is East was the last) and explores familiar territory, with Chaney cast as yet another down-at-heel showman grievously wronged in love and out for revenge. But whereas 1927's The Unknown, morbid though it is, had an almost fairy-tale quality to it (owing to its circus setting and central love story) West of Zanzibar has no such redeeming feature; it’s a nasty, grubby little film, and quite possibly the most morally depraved of its era. That sounds as if I’m getting ready to knock it, but nothing could be further from the truth: although critical opinion generally favours The Unknown, I actually prefer West of Zanzibar. Indeed, it's one of my favourite films from the 1920s.

Browning wastes no time in laying his cards on the table: the film begins with a quote from the Anglican burial service - “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” – before cutting to a shot of a bleached skeleton propped in an upright coffin. Having symbolically established that death is going to be a prominent feature of the film, Browning then reveals that the coffin is part of a cheap trick being performed by a downmarket stage magician named Phroso (Lon Chaney), in which the skeleton is transformed into the beautiful form of Phroso’s wife, Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden).

Anna, we quickly learn, is a very unhappy woman. Leered at by the unsavoury-looking audience, she smiles and goes through the motions of putting on a show; but behind the scenes she is wracked by guilt and self-doubt as she contemplates leaving her husband and running away to Africa with a businessman named Crane (Lionel Barrymore) who is hoping to establish himself in the Congo region as an ivory merchant. We are given to distrust Crane from the start: when we first meet him he is lurking in the corner behind the dressing room door, waiting like some predatory animal for Anna's return. Realising that Anna's guilt is preventing her from telling Phroso about their affair, Crane offers to do the job for her and confronts Phroso in the theatre flies. As might be expected, Phroso is devastated on hearing the news, and the situation is only made worse by Crane's manifest delight at the sight of the magician's heartbreak and despair. Since there is no evidence of any history between the two men, or that Phroso has ever treated Anna badly, one can only assume that Crane's unfeeling behaviour stems from him simply being a sadistic bastard rather than from anything Phroso might have done to deserve such cruelty. Unfortunately, the confrontation turns physical and ends with Phroso falling from the balcony and breaking his spine on the stage below.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Bat (1926)

Directed by Roland West
Starring: Jewel Carmen
               Jack Pickford
               Emily Fitzroy
               Tullio Carminali
Run time: 88 mins
Studio: United Artists
Black & White

Whoops. My plan to review the horror films of the 1920s in chronological order has come unstuck. Somehow I managed to forget about The Bat, even while I was writing my review of West's The Monster (1925). It was only while searching for the next film to review (another Lon Chaney) that I discovered the The Bat wedged between Roger Corman's The Terror and Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre (I really need to organise my DVDs better!). As I fed the disc into the player I did worry that maybe I'd forgotten about The Bat because I didn't like it or because it wasn't very good; but happily I can report that although my personal preference is for The Monster, The Bat is in fact a better film and further proof that West deserves to be better remembered than he is.

The Bat is yet another old dark house thriller based on yet another successful Broadway stage play (although, in fact, it began life as a novel) and, like The Monster, its storyline has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese; but West's frenetic direction doesn't allow us much time to ponder them - as with The Monster, the action in The Bat moves at a furious pace. Characters don't just creep around the old dark houses in West's films - they race through them, run up and down the stairs, leap over furniture, and swing through windows. The Bat is essentially a farce, characterized as it is by an elaborate and improbable plot, multiple chase scenes, and a generous helping of verbal and physical humour.

The Bat of the title is a master criminal (and, incidentally, an acknowledged inspiration for Bob Kane's Batman) who has been running rings around the police for some time. Something of a celebrity, whose escapades are reported regularly in the papers, the Bat is famous for the sinister costume he wears to mask his real identity. Though he is known primarily as a thief, the Bat has a darker side to his nature, as revealed in the opening scene in which he breaks into the penthouse of a jewel collector named Gideon Bell (George Beranger) and murders him for the sake of stealing just one of the "fabulous Favre emeralds" (in fairness to the Bat, however, it should be noted that he does give Bell advance warning of his intention to rob him, so maybe Bell should have heeded the warning and cleared out of the apartment instead of waiting with a gun to catch the thief in the act). Escaping through the window and across the rooftops, the Bat leaves behind a bat-shaped calling card informing the police that he is going to take a short break in the countryside.

This trip to the countryside turns out to be a trip to Oakdale County, where it transpires that the Bat intends to rob the county bank. Unfortunately, however, someone has beaten him to it. As the Bat watches through the skylight, a mysterious Man in a Black Mask (Charles Hertzinger) opens the safe and removes a large sum of money. Scurrying away from the bank with the cash in a bag, the Man in the Black Mask gets into a car and speeds off into the night. Disconcerted and annoyed, the Bat decides to follow in his own prototype batmobile. The Man in the Black Mask leads him to a lonely, moonlit mansion built and designed, we are told, by a certain Courtleigh Fleming, recently deceased president of the Oakdale Bank. The Bat watches from the trees as the Man in the Black Mask breaks into the house through a basement window.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Unknown (1927)

Directed by Tod Browning
Starring: Lon Chaney
              Joan Crawford
              Norman Kerry
Run time: 49 mins (originally 63)
Studio: MGM
Black & White

The Unknown is an example of a certain kind of horror movie that flourished in the 1910s and ‘20s, one that dealt with deformity and mutilation and fixated on the idea of the ugly as monstrous. The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera are two obvious examples, but there were many others. It has been suggested (in the documentary film Universal Horror, for instance) that one of the reasons people responded to these films may have been because of the unprecedented numbers of maimed and mutilated soldiers that were returning from the Great War; soldiers who in previous conflicts would have died from their injuries but who now acted as unwelcome reminders of mankind's capacity for senseless cruelty and violence. It was the horror film as catharsis.

The director most associated with this kind of film is Tod Browning, and together with actor Lon Chaney he produced a string of films during this period in which Chaney played a variety of violent and murderous cripples. Browning, who at the age of sixteen had run away to join the circus, was able to draw inspiration for several of these films from his experiences as a traveller with various carnivals, where he had mixed with the extraordinary individuals who made up the freak shows that were popular in their day. Thus he was able to bring to his work a very personal perspective on the theme of physical deformity. Browning certainly acknowledged the horror that his audiences felt at the sight of disfigurement, but he refused to let them have it all their own way - in his most famous film, 1932's Freaks, he subverted expectations by presenting the sideshow freaks as basically honourable and decent people, while it was the 'normal' characters who were evil and monstrous, exploiting the freaks for personal gain. While it was quite possibly an expression of natural sympathy on the director's part, this theme of exploitation might also have been Browning's indictment on a society that came to his films in the hope of justifying its prejudices and assuaging its guilt. The theme of exploitation is also present in The Unknown, where the central character, an evil amputee, isn't quite what he at first appears to be.

The film opens with crowds arriving at Antonio Zanzi's gypsy circus, where Alonzo the Armless (Chaney), "sensation of sensations...wonder of wonders", is about to perform his death-defying knife act with Zanzi's daughter, the beautiful Nanon (Joan Crawford). Using his feet in lieu of arms, Alonzo fires bullets and hurls knives at the moving target against which Nanon is standing. On hand to assist with placing the weapons between Alonzo's feet is the dwarf Cojo, dressed as the Devil. The act is a great success and is followed by another of the circus's highlights: Malbar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), who performs incredible feats of strength.

Malbar, it transpires, is in love with Nanon, a fact that doesn't sit well with Alonzo, who harbours his own infatuation for the young woman. Nanon tries to reassure Alonzo that he has nothing to worry about - brute strength just doesn't interest her - but her eyes tell a different story: she is clearly attracted to the strongman despite her claim that she has had enough of being 'pawed' by men, whom she regards as 'beasts'. Alonzo offers his sympathies - "Always fear them," he tells her. "Always hate them." - while in secret confessing to Cojo that he intends to have Nanon all to himself. It might be easier if Malbar were the kind of brutish male that Nanon professes to hate, but in reality he is a thoroughly decent chap, and Alonzo knows it. Declaring his love, Malbar offers Nanon hands to caress her and strength to protect her; but, drawn to him though she is, she still flinches from his touch. 

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Directed by Paul Leni
Starring: Laura La Plante
              Creighton Hale
Run time: 82 mins
Studio: Universal
Black & White

Based on John Willard’s popular Broadway stage play, Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary holds the distinction of being the first 'proper' horror film produced by Universal Studios following the success of 1925's The Phantom of the Opera. As such, it marks the beginning of a cycle of films that would go on to have a profound influence on the genre; and for all that it is a very early entry in the ‘old dark house’ sub-genre, it’s probably fair to say that The Cat and the Canary remains the definitive example of the form, responsible for countless imitations and the subject of no less than five remakes. Noting the success of previous film adaptations of similar Broadway material (such as The Monster (1925)) Universal Studios were perhaps playing it safe by opting to film John Willard’s play; but the result is a film that bids fair to be called the first classic American horror movie.
Leni was a German Expressionist filmmaker whose previous works had included the fantasy anthology Waxworks (1924), and it was this film that brought him to the attention of Universal founder, Carl Laemmle. What set Leni apart from his Expressionist contemporaries, however, was his willingness to adapt the non-realist tropes of Expressionism (such as geometrically absurd sets) to satisfy the needs of a more mainstream audience, without sacrificing the movement's use of shadow, lighting and scenery to influence mood. He also seemed possessed of a playful sense of humour, which was undoubtedly another reason why Laemmle felt that he was the right man for the job - The Cat and the Canary is another horror comedy, after all. There’s no denying that the film's plot is simplistic (and was probably verging on the hackneyed even in 1927) but Leni set out to transcend the story's limitations by concentrating instead on the film's mise en scène. The result is a veritable triumph of style over substance, hugely entertaining, and one of the most forward-looking horror films of its day.
From the start, Leni takes every opportunity to do something different with the material: the opening credits, for example, are standard title cards, but are revealed by a hand brushing away cobwebs. The film's prologue isn't simply narrated on intertitles, but is told in a series of extraordinary dissolve shots. We meet Cyrus West, a dying millionaire, trapped in his fortress-like mansion, besieged and driven to the verge of madness by his greedy relatives. The spiky towers of his grotesque house are seen transforming into towering medicine bottles, symbolising West's terminal condition, which then transform into a clowder of giant hissing cats representing the relatives who are tormenting him and goading him towards death. We learn that West's last will and testament isn't to be read until twenty years after his death. It is sealed in an envelope and locked away in a hidden safe; but whose hairy, spider-like hand is this we see removing it from the safe? And what of the second envelope, never to be opened if the terms of the will are carried out?

Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Monster (1925)

Directed by Roland West
Starring: Lon Chaney
             Johnny Arthur
             Gertrude Olmstead
Run time: 86 mins
Studio: MGM
Black & White

Picture the scene: It is a dark and stormy night. Betty and Amos, a young, carefree couple have just left a party together and are driving through the woods in Amos's car. An accident forces them off the road and into a ditch. Owing to the relentless downpour and the fact that the car is wrecked, they are forced to take shelter in the only building for miles around - an old dark house whose lights they have spied through the trees...

This could be a scene from any number of horror films; but there had to be a first time, and The Monster is probably it. Of course, like many horror films of the '20s and '30s, The Monster was based on a successful stage play, so this particular plot device may already have been familiar to its audience. Even so, The Monster is notable for being the first to present, if not necessarily originate, a number of elements that would later become some of the most recognised conventions (oh ok, cliches!) of the genre.

The Monster is a horror comedy, one of several that followed in the wake of D.W.Griffith's haunted-house spoof One Exciting Night (1922); but the haunted-house elements in The Monster are taken to a much more surreal level than in Griffith’s film, and they feel more authentic, for all that they remain non-supernatural. It’s also the first horror film to present us with a particular kind of Mad Doctor in the character of Dr Ziska (Chaney).  Of course, Doctors Caligari and Jekyll were mad as well (or, at the very least, misguided), but Ziska belongs to a different class of Mad Doctor all together – that of the raving, white-coated variety: a deranged scientist who conducts his evil experiments in a laboratory that looks more like a torture chamber, and whose cinematic descendents will one day include Henry Frankenstein, Herbert West, and, yes, Dr Frank N. Furter.

The story begins, however, with a variation on the scene described above. The wealthy Farmer Bowman is driving his car through a lonely nocturnal wood.  Lurking in the trees up ahead is a “human monster”, a hunched and caped figure with a corpse-like complexion, who lowers a huge camouflaged mirror down onto the road so as to confuse the approaching motorist into believing that he is about he collide with another car. It’s an unwieldy but effective device, and Farmer Bowman does indeed swerve to avoid hitting his reflection, sending his car crashing into a ditch.  At this point another figure emerges from the ground, like some precursor to the zombies that would claw their way out of their graves decades later, and the good farmer is snatched away. It’s a great opening scene that moves at a rollicking pace and sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Directed by Rupert Julian
Starring: Lon Chaney
              Mary Philbin
              Norman Kerry
Running time: 94 mins
Studio: Universal
Black & White

The Phantom of the Opera was a troubled production. Cast and crew clashed with its director, Rupert Julian, who walked off the project after a disastrous preview . The film's producer, Carl Laemmle, was forced to reshoot large chunks of the movie. (Even Lon Chaney found himself having re-direct some of his own scenes.) The result is a visually impressive but frustratingly uneven film. Nevertheless, it’s ultimate success made Universal Studios sit up and and take notice of horror. The rest, as they say, is history.

Chaney's performance as the horribly disfigured Erik - the Phantom of the title - is of course at the heart of this film, but the first thing to grab our attention is the spectacular Paris Opera House set (apparently parts of the set still exist at Universal Studios) and it's clear from the start that a great deal of attention and money was lavished on this production. The Opera is under new management and the new season has opened with an extravagant version of Gounod's Faust. As the new executives celebrate in their office, they are warned to beware of the Phantom, a mysterious masked stranger who has reserved Box 5 for his exclusive use. So far, so good.
Rumours are rife backstage that the Phantom has returned and it is during the scenes involving the over-excited stage hands and ballerinas that things start to look less promising. We are told that the Phantom has eyes "like holes in a grinning skull" and that his skin is like "leprous parchment...drawn tight over protruding bones." Yet the scenes are played for laughs. When one of the ballerinas anounces that she thinks she's seen the Phantom emerging from a secret panel, they all run around like hyperactive children in a fairground haunted house. Coming so early on in the proceedings, these scenes give the unfortunate impression that the film you're about to watch isn't to be taken too seriously. (On the other hand, it's quite possible that the intention was to lull the original audience into a false sense of security.)

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1921)

Directed by F. W. Murnau
Starring: Max Schreck
Running time: 94 mins
Studio: Prana Film
Black & White

Murnau’s Nosferatu is of course a pared down and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Famously, when Stoker’s widow sued, orders went out for all prints of the film to be destroyed, but fortunately some survived. How much of Murnau’s original cut remains is still open to conjecture, but what we do have is more than enough to be able to say with confidence that not only is Nosferatu one of the absolute masterpieces of the horror genre, it is also one of the great films of all time. That makes reviewing it a little bit daunting, but here goes:

Nosferatu is a film about many things; but primarily it’s a film about Death. Death with a great big capital D. Presented as a chronicle of the Great Death in Wisborg of 1838, we are informed at the outset that the very word ‘Nosferatu’ is like “the midnight cry of the Deathbird” and is capable of causing one to lose the will to live. The story opens, though, with images of life in abundance – bright sunshine; playful kittens; blossoming flowers; and a husband and wife in love – but we are reminded almost immediately that life and its pleasures come at a cost, usually to something or someone else. When our hero, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), presents his wife  Ellen (Greta Schroeder) with freshly picked flowers from the garden, she is upset by the fact that the flowers have had to die in order for Hutter to show his affection.

Hutter, however, doesn’t seem to let such things bother him. He is a man who believes, or at least is told, that he has a destiny. We are introduced to his employer in Wisborg, a property agent by the name of Knock (Alexander Granach). Knock is the subject of “all sorts of rumours”. We are never told what these rumours are, but given his appearance and suspicious behaviour, it is not unreasonable to assume that they are of an unsavoury nature (more on this later). When we meet him he is deciphering a letter written in some strange code. The letter is from a Transylvanian Count by the name of Orlok, who is looking to buy a “fine, deserted” house in Wisborg; but Knock's reaction to the letter's contents suggests that there's more going on. Tellingly, he thinks that the tottering and near-derelict pile that sits opposite Hutter’s own house would make the perfect home for the Count; and he decides that Hutter would be the ideal person to make the transaction, although it will mean travelling the long distance to Transylvania to meet the Count in person.  This doesn’t sit well with Ellen, who is immediately afflicted with dread on learning the news from her husband; but Hutter seems eager – perhaps too eager - to go, and soon he sets off on horseback, leaving his anguished wife in the care of friends.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde (1920)

Directed by John S. Robertson
Starring: John Barrymore
Running time: 82 mins
Studio: Famous Players - Lasky
Black & White

The earliest horror film in my collection (yes, I know it should be The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but to be honest I’m not a fan, masterpiece though it is) this seems like a good place to start. The author Clive Barker once described Robert Louis Stevenson’s original novella as ‘a Victorian conceit with a boring moral dichotomy at its  centre’ (or words to that effect) and nowhere is this more true than in this film version, one of several produced during the silent era. That’s not surprising, really, when you consider that it was based on an 1897 stage version. This is a world where women are “Paradise for the eyes but Hell for the soul” and are banished from the dining room when the wine arrives; but dated though it is, it’s still very watchable.

John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather) plays the handsome, upright Dr Henry Jekyll, “idealist and philanthropist”. The point is perhaps somewhat laboured; his surgery, for instance, is packed with the kind of poor people usually reserved for a Dickens-style comedy sketch. Here, in his “human repair shop”, Jekyll works tirelessly to justify his belief that a man can truly know himself only when he is engaged in helping others. And the Poor love him for it. Sick old crones gaze wistfully into his eyes, while gum-chewing street urchins regard him with something like awe.

Unfortunately, when Jekyll attends a dinner party hosted by Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst), father of Jekyll’s beautiful fiancee, Millicent (Martha Mansfield), he finds himself taunted by his fellow guests, who regard his avoidance of the baser pleasures in life as a sign of male weakness. Surely, they insist, even a man like Jekyll must acknowledge that he has a dark side to his nature. In an effort to tempt him into sin, they take him to a sleazy music hall in the heart of a London slum, where Jekyll encounters an erotic dancer who, despite not actually dancing that erotically, has a disturbing effect on him. He is horrified but transfixed by her performance. Later, when she is introduced to him and tries to kiss him, the whole experience proves too traumatic for the good doctor and he flees the scene.