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?