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.