This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series
Movie Review – The Haunted Castle (1921)
A year before making the timeless Nosferatu (1922), F.W. Murnau created the minor whodunit thriller The Haunted Castle (1921), a screenplay by Carl Mayer. The English title is deceiving as there is no haunting to speak of. Instead, the chamber-drama surrounds a group of aristocrats who have gathered at an estate to hunt but find themselves shut in due to persistent storms. An uninvited guest arrives – a local Count who many believe murdered his brother a few years before but avoided conviction. To make matters more uncomfortable, due to arrive also is his brother’s widow and her new husband, who stay only because an old friend, a priest, is going to be arriving from Rome. Soon after his arrival the priest disappears and all fingers point to the Count.
The sets are richly decorated and Murnau makes use of some nice location shots, and the ending actually has a pretty nice twist. However, most of the film is plodding and the overall direction is fairly rudimentary, having none of the flair or drama Murnau would evoke in later films. Despite being made in German Expressionism’s heyday, there is no evidence of that revolutionary movement here.
F.W. Murnau would of course go on to great things afterward. If he had only then made Nosferatu his remembrance would be guaranteed, but he would make several other critically acclaimed classics of the era, including The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), and his American romantic masterwork Sunrise (1927).
Unfortunately, Murnau would die in 1931 at the age of 42 from injuries suffered in a car accident while driving in California on the Pacific Coast Highway. For reasons not entirely known but saucily speculated upon, Murnau allowed a handsome Filipino teenager named Garcia Stevenson to chauffeur his Packard limo. Driving erratically, Stevenson crashed into an electric pole and while he was uninjured, Murnau cracked his head open. Rumors soon spread that Murnau had been performing fellatio on the young man while he was driving. Because of the scandalous nature of his death, very few people attended his funeral. However, Greta Garbo (who biographers also believe was bisexual), an admirer of Murnau, did attend and even had a death-mask made of the late, great director. Curiously, in 2015 his grave would be broken into and his skull stolen in what authorities believed (due to the presence of wax residue) was part of an occult ceremony.