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A Play of Light and Shadow

Movie Review – The Penalty (1920)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Penalty (1920)

The Great War (1914-1918) left countless scars, both apparent and hidden, among the Lost Generation. The conflict slaughtered men on an unprecedented scale. Yet as the weapons technology which dismembered young men had advanced, so too did the medicines used to treat the injured. Whereas gangrene would often finish the work that a bullet or bomb had begun, soldiers now stood a chance of surviving their injuries at the cost of their limbs, their teeth, or even their face. The U.S., which only entered the war after years of fighting had already claimed countless lives in Europe, could count more than 4,000 amputations. At first these returning amputees were viewed as heroes, yet as the costs of long term pensions and welfare assistance began to worry government officials, efforts were put forth to re-enter these so-called “war cripples” into the workforce as quickly as possible. The American Red Cross founded organizations such as the Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men in New York, which worked to get prosthetic limbs for these young men and to get them the necessary job training. For various reasons these efforts were largely unsuccessful, but nevertheless the public could not deny the presence of these disfigured men, and the horrific reminders of that tragic, senselessly violent conflict.

American Red Cross. Future Ship Workers—A One-Armed Welder, 1919. Halftone poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (182.01.00)
American Red Cross. Future Ship Workers—A One-Armed Welder, 1919. Library of Congress.

Whereas German Expressionism focused more upon the psychological costs of the war, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, American post-war cinema, which largely shunned the supernatural and leaned more towards Romantic realism, dealt more directly with the obvious physical costs of the conflict. There is no argument that the actor who most embodied these examinations of physical horror, both figuratively and literally, in the 1920s was Lon Chaney.

1920’s The Penalty is considered Chaney’s breakout role, and it is his first starring one. The plot, based on the 1913 novel of the same name by pulp writer Gouverneur Morris, revolves around a gangster named Blizzard, played by Chaney, who had his legs mistakenly amputated as a young boy and who now seeks revenge on the doctor, Ferris, who performed the surgery and lied to cover the error. This plan of retribution includes corrupting Ferris’s daughter, Barbara, and forcing the doctor to cut off the legs of Barbara’s fiancé, Wilmot, and graft them onto Blizzard. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that silent film plots are boring.

It’s easy to see how Chaney became a star after this role. His dedication and screen presence are incomparable. In order to create the illusion of being a double-amputee, Chaney devised a harness made of buckets and leather, where his knees sat in the buckets and the leather straps pulled his lower legs back. The actor was wiry, and to compensate for the thick legs he padded his chest and arms, making him look like a hulking bruiser. The effect is shockingly realistic and Chaney sells it completely. It was also extremely painful and he could only wear the harness for up to twenty minutes at a time before the pain became unbearable. The studio doctors cautioned him against it but the man was dedicated entirely to his craft, and he would suffer problems with his knee muscles afterward. It would not be the last time he was physically damaged in pursuit of his art, though it can be difficult at times to distinguish fact from Hollywood promotional fiction when it comes to the tortures it is said Chaney endured. The effect, however, is entirely convincing, and Chaney is even able to closely imitate the illustrations by Howard Chandler Christy of Blizzard which were found in the 1913 novel.

The Penalty 1913 illustration.
Illustration by Howard Chandler Christy, from the 1913 novel.

In addition to his impressive illusion, Chaney’s acting is filled with primal aggression. Even as an amputee he is intimidating, a dominant force of nature in every scene. Blizzard’s criminal hideout is filled with pegs, ropes, and various contraptions that allow him to move about independently, and Chaney uses them with the graceful ease of a man who has had to rely on such things for a lifetime. The other actors do a capable job but always pale in comparison when he is in the frame. This is wholly Chaney’s picture.

The Penalty 1920 still
Lon Chaney, force of nature.


The direction here by a talented Wallace Worsley, who had been wounded in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and who would go on to direct Chaney in A Blind Bargain (1922) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), is also quite good and the editing moves the pace along nicely. The film breaks away from the trappings of the stage and uses cut scenes to allow the viewer to be at two places at once. The cinematography and lighting are also beautiful, particularly in a sequence of scenes where a female undercover agent named Rose is searching Blizzard’s secret underground tunnels. The film also pushed the boundaries of acceptability at the time, featuring drug addicts knifing women and a nude model, things which would have not been allowed in the later years of the Hays Code.

The script is, for the most part, quite good, and improves upon the melodrama of the book. A motif of Satan’s fall from grace runs throughout and there are some choice lines uttered by the characters, such as when Blizzard states, as he plays the piano while a girl he wants to kill pushes the instrument’s pedals expertly, “I can murder anything but music.” Chaney’s acting is spotlighted in this scene as he goes from murderous rage to musical euphoria to contemplation and regret. And then there is this great line: “Don’t grieve for me, dear – death interests me.” The plot is often dark and makes one who loves the macabre excited to see where the story is heading.

The Penalty 1920 gif

And that’s when it falls apart. The tension and menacing story that builds for the first 80 minutes is suddenly, well, amputated in favor of a deus ex machina that leads to a sappy redemption story. The last ten minutes are unrealistic, hokey, and sour a lot of what had come before.

There are other elements that do not age well. Modern women will not appreciate Wilmot when he says to Barbara, as he tempts her away from her art, “True women need love, a home, children” – and they will certainly not appreciate the female character who then immediately concedes to marrying such a man. Barbara is a talented artist and both Wilmot and Dr. Ferris treat her as a miscreant for not giving it up to make babies. The more Wilmot was on screen the more I looked forward to seeing his legs sawed off. Blizzard is a villain, but he’s more sympathetic to a modern audience than these chauvinists. And before such criticism is dismissed due to the era in which it was made, it should be remembered that women were highly active in film throughout the 1910s (Mary Pickford co-founded United Artists in 1919) and many female characters were written as being strong and counter to the preceding Victorian mold, being independent and sometimes even saving the men. The Gibson Girls and the New Women were popular models for womanhood, emphasizing independence and education among females. This was also an era when film was more influenced by the sexually egalitarian world of the stage. After WWI, however, this began to change as movie budgets increased and the world of finance – a decidedly male world at that time – became more assertive. I can’t help but see a parallel between Barbara’s artistic impulse being suppressed and the time when women were beginning to be pushed out of the artistic realm of film. There was promise in the role of the undercover female agent, Rose, who at first is fearless and strong-willed before the character inexplicably becomes emotionally driven, swooning as a lovesick mess and bowing to the machismo of Chaney’s Blizzard.

And this is admittedly nitpicky to mention, but we also get an odd “sissy” archetype cameo that has no bearing on the plot. Such an archetype was already well known to audiences of 1920 even though it would not see its heyday until the 1930s. There isn’t much to say here other than that its inclusion solely provides an opportunity for Wilmot to bully one of Barbara’s artistic friends and solidify his alpha-male status. I’m not sure if we’re meant to dislike Wilmot for this or cheer him.

Attention should also be paid to the depiction of the handicapped in this film. Chaney’s Blizzard is clearly capable and self-reliant, but people react with distaste when they first see him as a cripple. In the pre-war novel, such sentiments are magnified and can say a lot about people’s sensibilities at the time, with lines such as, “Some pitied him because he was a cripple; others, upon suddenly discovering that he had no legs, were shocked with a sudden indecent hatred of him,” or “She forgot that he was a cripple, a thing soured and wicked.” Wilmot says of Blizzard that he “isn’t a man. He’s a gutter-dog, a gargoyle, half a man,” and after railing about his criminality goes on to add, “And at that – good God, you might stand it, if he was a whole man! But he isn’t. It’s horrible! He has no legs – and you want to stamp on him till he’s dead.” Such reactions to Blizzard are tempered in the film, though not entirely absent. To Chaney’s credit, though Blizzard is a killer, the actor manages to convey sympathy and understanding to the crime boss’s personal plight and his feelings of inadequacy. One can only imagine how Chaney’s depictions would have affected those veterans just returned from Europe only two years before, and would have “spoke suggestively of the impotent rage of maimed war veterans who were being assimilated back into society in unprecedented numbers” (Skal 65). It would not be the first amputee Chaney would effectively portray, and “although he never appeared in a movie in which his disfigurement was blamed on battle, his physical and mental victimization in story after story clearly struck a chord in this post-war audience” (Haberman 118). His later famous characters would also serve as ghostly reminders of the war, with Quasimodo and The Phantom both resembling the thousands of facially scarred veterans seen by bystanders in the Armistice Parades.

The Penalty 1920 advertisement
Advertisement for The Penalty (1920)

Finally, a few words must be said about Lon Chaney. He is without a doubt one of the greatest actors of all time and any fan of horror should be proud to count him among our disrespected pantheon. He was born to deaf and mute parents and learned from the start the importance of pantomime while cultivating an intense empathy for those who were different, which would no doubt affect the roles he chose and the way he chose to play them. He was considered a premier actor of his day and a pioneer in the field of make-up effects, even writing the 1929 entry for the subject in the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was very private, seldom giving interviews, and stayed out of Hollywood drama, preferring to entertain close friends at his home and spend time with his family. Unfortunately, he would pass away from cancer in 1930, perhaps from a flake of fake snow that lodged into his lungs while filming. Of course, most horror fans will know his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., who would play the title role in The Wolf Man in 1941 and in several sequels after.

Yet do a Google search for the best silent film actors and you’ll be unlikely to find him on a Top Ten” list. When people think of the silent era, they often think of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp or Buster Keaton’s stone-faced stoicism, men who finely crafted their personas and characters over many years, or a charismatic romantic like Rudolph Valentino. They were geniuses, absolutely, and what they achieved deserves reverence and remembrance. But Chaney took the opposite road, morphing himself into different characters continuously, becoming known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” unrecognizable behind makeup that still has the power to shock and awe. Perhaps because of this and his untimely passing at the dawn of “the talky” the general public has largely forgotten him. Of course, being an icon of horror means an artist will rarely receive the recognition they deserve from those outside the genre.

When I saw The Phantom of the Opera for the first time as a young man I was stunned by him, and in The Penalty Chaney gives all indication of the magic he would put to film in the decade to come. The final ten minutes of the film disappoint me, but Chaney never could.

Grade: C+

Works Cited

Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 2003.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Faber and Faber, Inc., 1993.

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Movie Review – The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger: A Story of London Fog (1927) is not Alfred Hitchcock’s first film, though it is arguably the first film that could properly be called “Hitchcockian.” Here begins many of the themes that would come to be closely associated with the brilliant director for the rest of his career, particularly the connection between sex and death, lust and homicidal intent, while allowing his penitent for German-style filmmaking to truly shine. It also marks his first film cameo appearance, though his back is turned to the camera, as a newspaper editor talking on the phone (the actor had not shown up that day and Hitchcock improvised).

the-lodger-1927-still2

The story is an amalgam of two sources: a 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes based upon the Jack the Ripper serial killings, and a comical stage adaptation of the same novel called “Who Is He?” It tells of a killer known as The Avenger who targets blonde women each Tuesday night. A lovable older couple, the Buntings, with a fair-haired daughter named Daisy, played by June Tripp, takes in a new lodger (Ivor Novello), a young man who they gradually suspect may be the killer and who is growing ever closer to Daisy.

Hitchcock allows the actors, who are all terrific, and the editing, which is also wonderful, do most of the storytelling, leaving little reliance on intertitles. He presents information in interesting ways, such as a news ticker or a telegraph machine. He allows ambiguity to build tension, making even the simplest of the lodger’s actions seem potentially sinister.

the-lodger-1927-still3

Influence from the German Expressionists is evident in the odd angles, lighting, and shadows. Novello even evokes Count Orlock at times, with his slow movements and long, slender fingers. Novello was a huge star at the time, renowned for his beauty. His immense popularity even necessitated a script change – the original script had the character’s guilt left ambiguous, however, according to Hitchcock, “They wouldn’t let Novello even be considered as a villain.” Indeed, Hitchcock even goes so far as to evoke Christ imagery around Novello during the film’s climax. The actor was also openly and flamboyantly gay, even counting the talented World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon as among his lovers, and a few lines of dialogue in the film suggest that the other characters suspect the same of his. Whether this was accidental or not is difficult to guess, but I am apt to believe that it was Hitchcock’s cinematic equivalent of a wink and a nod.

Hitchcock makes London come alive with point-of-view shots in speeding cars, people walking outside windows in backgrounds, and car headlights sliding across the walls through closed curtains. It all feels lived in and one forgets that the action is taking place on sets. He uses, too, other innovative techniques, such as a transparent ceiling in order to see the lodger pacing in the room above. When he completed the film, the studio was unhappy with the product and hired a young Ivor Montagu to make some changes, which included little more than reducing the number of title cards, adding symbolic triangles to them, and a few minor reshoots. Hitchcock was furious at first but Montagu’s intrusion was slight and Hitchcock ultimately approved of the changes, and what remains is unquestionably Hitchcock’s work.

the-lodger-1927-still

The Lodger helped to create the modern thriller and is, in Steve Haberman’s assessment, “the only British horror film of note” (96). The September 16, 1926 issue of the trade journal Bioscope went further, declaring that “it is possible that this film is the finest British production ever made.” Of course, Hitchcock, known as the “Master of Suspense,” would time and again set the standards for filmmaking in the coming decades, most notably in the horror genre with 1960’s masterpiece Psycho and 1963’s The Birds. Born in 1899, Hitchcock struggled his whole life with obesity, yet his signature silhouette, coupled with his gallows humor, made him perhaps one of the most recognizable filmmakers in history.

Works Cited:

Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 2003.

Grade: B+

Movie Review – Midnight Faces (1926)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Midnight Faces (1926)

1926’s Midnight Faces is another entry into the “old dark house” subgenre, and is heavily influenced by The Bat, which had a tremendously successful run on Broadway beginning in 1920 and a film version which came out also in 1926. By comparison, Midnight Faces is a rather cheap imitation. Though the film is classified as a horror-thriller, comedy could easily be added to its descriptors.

The plot involves a young man, played by Francis X. Bushman, Jr., who inherits a mansion from his uncle which is nestled in a dismal Florida swamp. Though the house is supposed to be empty we see an intruder enter, and soon after the servants arrive it becomes apparent that threats are hiding within the dark recesses and behind secret passageways.

Midnight Faces 1926 still

The movie has not aged well. The writing is rudimentary and mostly implausible nonsense and is overly reliant on stereotypes and genre tropes. As comic relief the film provides the character of Trohelius Snapp, played by Martin Turner, the loyal manservant to the protagonist. Turner was a talented physical comic who is nonetheless trapped in the racist stereotype of the black buffoon, spooked by every creak and bump and unable to exert self-control over his fear. He is not alone in the paper-thin tropes, as we have a Fu Manchu-looking Asian and a black cape-wearing prowler to add to the warmed-over stew. The director, Bennett Cohen, borrows heavily if not entirely successfully from Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu with its use of disembodied shadows grasping and reaching along walls and fixtures.

In the end, Midnight Faces is sometimes fun, most times flawed, and ultimately forgettable.

Grade: D

Movie Review – The Student of Prague (1926)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Student of Prague (1926)

1926’s The Student of Prague, also known as The Man Who Cheated Life, is a remake of Hanns Heinz Ewers’ 1913 film, which starred Paul Wegener, was directed by Stellen Rye, and which had been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839). The film is directed by Henrik Galeen, who wrote and co-directed 1915’s The Golem and co-wrote Wegener’s 1920 classic, wrote the screenplay for Nosferatu (1922) and Waxworks (1924), and wrote this screenplay as well. In 1928 he would go on to direct Alraune. In this film Galeen uses some of the tricks learned from Murnau in Nosferatu, such as Scapinelli’s disembodied shadow manipulating physical objects.

The Student of Prague 1926 still

The story is of a Prague student named Balduin who signs a contract with the mysterious Scapinelli, promising him anything in Balduin’s room in exchange for 600,000 florins. To Balduin’s horror, Scapinelli chooses the young man’s reflection and commands the doppelganger to ruin the real Balduin’s reputation and good name. The movie follows the same story-line and structure as Stellen Rye’s original movie but with understandably more flair and sophistication as filmmaking had advanced considerably in the intervening years. Steve Haberman writes of Galeen’s style:

“[He] incorporates a Romantic use of natural locations, cinematic subject shots and montage, studio-built landscapes of the mind, chiaroscuro lighting and camera-sensitive acting. Whereas Rye in 1913 staged scenes in a single static shot, like illustrations to a storybook, Galeen marshaled all of the arsenal of cinema to involve the audience emotionally in each moment. The result is one of the most moving and filmically complex works of the German screen.” (Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Film, pg. 78)

The Student of Prague 1926 still2

This film once again reunites Conrad Veidt, who plays Balduin, and Werner Krauss, who plays Scapinelli, both of whom had appeared in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Waxworks (1924). Seeing Krauss commanding Veidt’s slow-moving double draws direct parallels to their earlier Caligari and somnambulist roles, both in their spirit and in their mannerisms. Veidt, in particular, carries the central role well and, as always, hands in a master-class performance. The sets are designed by Herman Warm, who created the exquisite Expressionist sets for Caligari, and though more realistic are perfectly suited to enhance both the mundane and fantastical elements of the film.

Student of Prague 1926 gif

Unfortunately, as of this writing the only copy currently available is a poor VHS transfer from Alpha Video, and The Student of Prague is a film that deserves a good print. It’s a solid movie which effectively uses special effects to bring the haunting story to the screen.

Grade: B-

Movie Review – A Page of Madness (1926)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – A Page of Madness (1926)

Cinema, as an entertainment medium, is a balance between storytelling and visuals. Some movies strike a harmonious balance while others, particularly genre films, tend to lean towards one aspect or the other, often to the movie’s detriment. Horror movies, in particular, not always but generally rely more upon the images on the screen than upon the strength of the story being told. However, there are some movies where the visuals are so captivating that the story, present though muddled into incoherence, becomes almost unnecessary. A Page of Madness (1926), directed by Japanese filmmaker Teinosuke Kinugasa, is such a film.

A Page of Madness still2

It is perhaps a small miracle that we still have it. Most of Japan’s silent films are lost forever. Already accustomed to moving pictures via the tradition of Magic Lantern shows, the country’s foray into cinema began in 1897, and the following year they were making ghost movies. Heavily influenced by traditional theater, cinemas began incorporating benshis who became integral parts of the filmmaking industry. These performers, following a rich tradition of oral storytelling, would narrate the silent films, often accompanied by music, spouting the dialogue of characters, explaining scenes, or sometimes even informing the audience of scenes that were missing. They gave viewers an immersive peek into the filmmaking process. With the rise of talkies, the benshi’s place quickly waned. Yet they alone would not disappear. The early twentieth century was not kind to film – almost no one saw the merit in preserving it, and the nitrate film quickly decayed, particularly in Japan’s humid climate. The earthquake of 1923 sent many more movies into the nether, but perhaps no eater of films was as voracious as the U.S. bombers that rained fire and destruction upon Tokyo in World War II.

Originally released in 1926, the movie was lost until Kinugasa found it in his storehouse in 1971. The movie was unlike anything Japan was producing at the time. Movies in that era were played in one of two types of the theaters: ones that played foreign films and ones that played domestic films, which were generally viewed as inferior. Kinugasa took inspiration from outside Japan, particularly among the French and German Expressionist directors, and A Page was a rare domestic product which played in Japan’s foreign theaters.

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It was a collaborative effort of talented writers and artists. Yasunari Kawabata, who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, wrote the original story, which would be elaborated upon by Kinugasa and others. Kinugasa then worked with a group of avant-garde performers known as the School of New Perceptions (Shinkankaku-ha), who, to save money, often slept on set over the course of the month-long filming. The star of the movie, Masao Inoue, forwent pay in order to support its making.

The print today is missing nearly a third of its original state, and the lack of inter-titles makes the story confusing at times. The famous benshi Musei Tokugawa narrated the film at its premiere, but without this element to guide modern viewers some scenes are confusing, or their place within the timeline uncertain. The viewer is left guessing and trying to piece together images like a puzzle which we know is missing pieces. Nevertheless, a story can be salvaged: A man’s wife is placed into a mental asylum after, we can guess from various images (a crying baby in a drain, etc.), she tried to drown a baby. He takes a job as the asylum’s janitor, not revealing his identity, to stay near her, though it appears she is unable to recognize him through her hallucinations. One day his daughter and son arrive to visit their mother, seemingly surprised to see their father there, and we can gather that the daughter is there to announce to her mother her recent engagement. At some point the man has an argument with his daughter which compels him to hatch an escape for his wife, but things don’t go as planned. It’s unclear if the final third of the movie is a representation of the man’s own sanity slipping, or his realization of the repercussions that his actions may cause, though this viewer takes it to be the latter.

A Page of Madness still

Nevertheless, the story is largely a mystery, but it is also beside the point. It’s the visuals, which continually place the viewer in the skewed perspective of insanity, that make the movie mesmerizing, and the seeming incoherence of the story only serves to emphasize this aspect. A Page of Madness is a combination of influences, most notably the German Expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by Robert Weine, which dealt with an asylum and the perceptions of madness, and Abel Gance’s experimental 1915 French film La Folie du Docteur Tube, which used distorting lenses to simulate people being high after inhaling a white powder.

A Page begins like a fever dream, with images of an elegant dancing woman in a club intercut with a rainstorm and drums and brass instruments. Gradually the viewer realizes that the music and elegant setting is in the head of a tattered dancing girl in an asylum, played by the captivatingly beautiful Eiko Minami. Though the film is silent, the images and rapid rhythmic editing make the viewer disorientated and think that they too can hear the drums. From there the movie slides back and forth between sobriety and unhinged indulgence, depending on whose eyes the lens is peering through. It’s an experience that, though the viewer is not quite sure what they saw or how to explain it, will linger.

A Page of Madness gif

Grade: A-

Movie Review – Maciste in Hell (1925)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Maciste in Hell (1925)

The Hercules-like character of Maciste, one of cinema’s oldest recurring characters, first hit Italian screens in the 1914’s Cabiria, with Bartolomeo Pagano playing the central role. Throughout the silent era (27 films starring Pagano before 1927), and again in the 1960s, the physically and morally strong hero was placed in fantastical situations, usually involving evil rulers and black magic, and the macho Maciste needing to rescue a beautiful damsel. It’s all very much the stuff of boys’ pulp fantasies.

On rare occasions Maciste would venture into the horror realm, sometimes literally. In 1925’s Maciste in Hell, the hero (once again played by Pagano) is kidnapped by a demon and sent to the underworld where he must use his bulk to battle his way out. The movie borrows heavily from the images of 1911’s L’Inferno, a feature-length adaptation of Dante’s work in which the author is shown through the levels of Hell via a series of imaginative special effects (coincidentally, it was the first feature length Italian movie and the first feature length film shown in its entirety, in one screening, in the United States). Maciste in Hell borrows that film’s volcanic landscape, the tortured souls chained and tormented by demons, and even the giant Satan snacking on souls like they were milk duds. We even have a giant help the hero get to another level.

Maciste in Hell 1925 still

Yet whereas L’Inferno was a serious film, Maciste is an adventurer’s romp where the bruiser smashes his adversaries and smiles at the metal-bikini clad she-devils. Truly, the special effects are both terrific and creative, such as when Maciste punches off a demon’s head, which then lands on a trident and is healed, thrown back to the standing body, and reattached to allow the demon to keep fighting. Other special effects are just as impressive and add to the sense of fun, and any young boy can’t help but smile as Maciste uses his brute force to push a crowd of demons over a precipice.

Where Maciste doesn’t excel is in the story itself, which is understandably simple and geared towards younger viewers, where the line between good and bad is clearly drawn. When the demons take human form they become the mustache-twirling villains in black capes and black top hats that early silent comedies employed as their antagonists, famously tying people to railroad tracks or saw tables. While many people today associate these Snidely Whiplash-like characters with silent cinema, few understand that these archetypes were seen at the time as products of clichéd Victorian melodramas and were used purely to comic effect, and the same is true in Maciste, where they come off more as pranksters trying to get people to blaspheme than truly potent menaces. Children watching the movie could feel confident in resisting them as well as Maciste himself.

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Maciste no doubt influenced and was influenced by pulp fiction, and probably had a hand in creating comic book heroes in the following decade. Likewise, we would begin seeing many of the same tropes in blockbuster cinema of the late 1970s and 1980s, from Princess Leia’s slave attire to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ultra-macho shows of strength, such as in Commando (1985). Likewise, the idea of an otherworldly being playing with their severed head would arise in a movie like Labyrinth (1986).

Maciste in Hell is another example of silent cinema pushing creative boundaries even as it retreads earlier works. With the advent of “talkies” and therefore bulky sound equipment, it became more difficult for filmmakers to create the spectacle of chaos that silent films could muster, where the sounds on stage or at a location didn’t matter. It would be a few more generations before movie technology and directors’ visions could once again catch up to the standards of fantasy set by movies like this.

Grade: B

Movie Review – Wolfblood: A Tale of the Forest (1925)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Wolfblood: A Tale of the Forest (1925)

Wolfblood: A Tale of the Forest (1925), also known simply as Wolf Blood, is saddled with some modern misconceptions. Firstly, it is often erroneously described as the first werewolf film, but that honor belongs to the now lost The Werewolf from 1913, considered by some to also be the first true Universal monster, though the much later The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1925) would have far greater impact in establishing that studio’s series. The Werewolf involved a Navajo witch who transformed into a wolf to kill white settlers, and then returned a century later to kill again. (Some are even more in error in calling 1935’s Werewolf of London the first werewolf film, but it was merely the first mainstream Hollywood one.) Nevertheless, Wolf Blood can properly be considered the earliest surviving werewolf movie.

Secondly, Wolf Blood is today advertised as a horror film, but really it’s a drama-romance with some werewolf elements coming into play in the second half. It tells of the manager of a logging camp named Dick Bannister who falls in love with his pretty young boss. After a fight with a business rival he requires a blood transfusion, and the only blood available is that of a she-wolf. Worries about the effects soon spring forth and he fears that the blood is changing his brain, edging him ever further toward homicide and madness.

Lycanthropy comes fairly late in the film, more than half-way through. There is no transformation scene. Instead, we see Bannister running through the forest in a fit of madness alongside ghostly wolves. Before the release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, American films generally shied away from inserting the sincerely supernatural into their narratives, unlike their German and Scandinavian counterparts. American plots had a tendency to explain away the seemingly supernatural with human agency, misunderstanding, or mental breakdown, and the trend is no different here.

The director and star, George Chesebro, was a regular fixture in B-movie Westerns, often playing a villain. Likewise, his co-stars were also well-known to contemporary Western fans, and the influence of that genre can be felt throughout. Also present are numerous jokes about Prohibition and jazz, as well as a pinch of racism, placing this film firmly within the time in which it was created.

The forest vistas, with the stately pine trees, are beautiful to behold, but the rest of the movie is very dimly lit and at times difficult to discern. The story is simple and the curious ideas about blood transfusion innocently quaint, but there isn’t much to invest the viewer’s attention. I couldn’t find contemporary reviews, but I imagine this was seen as pretty middling-fare even in the 1920s.

Wolf Blood, while not being a bad film, does not have a great deal to offer the modern audience except for its novelty as the longest surviving runt in a very particular pack.

Grade: D

Movie Review – Häxan (1922)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Häxan (1922)

Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen received rave reviews for his 1916 film Blind Justice when it toured in America. While showing the film to prisoners at Sing Sing in Ossining, New York, one convict knifed another, deeply disturbing Christensen. When discussing the incident with famed prison reformer Thomas Mott Osborne during his brief but influential tenure as the warden, he was told that even the most career criminals possessed an emotional humanity that could be reached through the right methods. From this meeting, “Christensen began to think about how a belief in absolute evil caused mankind to dehumanize and persecute those with mental illness, deformity, and in poverty” (Steve Haberman, Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film, pg. 84).

In 1919, in a Berlin bookshop, Benjamin Christensen found a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, the fifteenth-century treatise on witch persecution, and spent the next two years studying the history of witchcraft, determined to make an entirely new kind of film that would serve to explore the subject. The causal link between the historical Inquisition and inmate treatment in the modern world, being ignorance and inhumanity, was a pronounced and natural one. Häxan (1922), also known as Witchcraft Through the Ages, is certainly one of the most unconventional films of the silent era, and for a viewer today the experience will be a unique one. Really a horror-docudrama about witchcraft, the film is at turns academic, horrifying, hilarious, and ultimately sobering.

HŠxan (1922) Filmografinr: 1922/06

Christensen takes a rationalist’s approach to witchcraft. He first approached scholars to help him with his film, but the low culture stigma of cinema and the unsavory subject matter meant their refusal. Left to his own devices, the first part of the film is Christensen’s own semi-scholarly lecture complete with artwork, moving diagrams, and a kickass mechanical model of hell. He explains the views of the pre-scientific world and how they shaped people’s absurd ideas about witches. He states, “The belief in evil spirits, sorcery and witchcraft is the result of naïve notions about the mystery of the universe.” Based only upon this dry but nevertheless interesting opening, one might be forgiven for thinking this film will be dull, and they would be entirely, tragically wrong. While he does this presentation, he shows titillating and scandalous images from woodcuts and paintings, promising to show them to us with actors in due time. Christensen is a true showman who is building anticipation in his audience.

The second part is where the dramatic reenactments begin, and this is when the film gets trippy. Here Christensen shows us what medieval people believed was happening, not what truly was. The production quality is superb and is certainly some of the finest to be seen in the silent era. The attention to detail in the costumes, sets, lighting, and especially make-up is extraordinary, especially when Christensen himself enters the scene as the horny horned trickster Satan, with mottled skin and a darting tongue. Heavy with sexual overtones and libidinal metaphors – demons vigorously churn butter in obvious imitation of masturbation – the film features discreet but nevertheless tantalizing nudity and Christensen’s images continually fly in the face of accepted decency. As Steve Haberman writes, “the overall impression is of sex stripped of beauty and romance and made monstrously vile” (pg. 86). Häxan was the most expensive Swedish film up to that point and the effort shows. The quality of the make-up effects and props are not just surprising because of the era, but because they’re superior to most of what would come after for the next few generations. Additionally, there is even included an impressive stop-motion animation of a small demon tearing through a door.

haxan 5

The next part of the film is concerned with the realities of historical witch-hunts and how the infectious nature of accusations was inescapable and how they ruined countless lives. While Christensen employed horror imagery earlier, here he presents us with the true source of horror: ignorance and irrationality. Under the Inquisition the Church becomes a hell on Earth, complete with rotten-toothed, sadistic clergy and all the tortures the human mind can conjure. We see men of science accused of devilry and innocent women suffering for the lust they drive in men. Satan and witches are not horrifying, but the irrational mind frame which creates them is, and therefore “Christensen relates the Church to both ignorance and sadism, giving the impression that religion at its core is inseparable from evil” (Haberman, pg. 88). He mirrors the earlier scenes of demons with those of the clergy, visually driving home the view that they were essentially cut from the same blood-soaked ecclesiastical cloth. The sexual repression of the priests is displaced into deviance and perversion, and women – whose countenances so tempted them – are the objects of their unnatural release.

Finally, the film ends with an examination of modern medicine and offers some scientific explanations for the myths surrounding witches. Attention is especially paid to hysteria (in part what we would today call “conversion disorder”), which was seen as an exclusively female disorder from the nineteenth century until around the time this film was released, when Sigmund’s Freud’s theories were in vogue. Here Christensen is not only offering rational alternatives, but also criticizing the contemporary treatment of women and the less fortunate. He asks of his audience, “We no longer burn our old and poor. But do they not often suffer bitterly? And the little woman, whom we call hysterical, alone and unhappy, isn’t she still a riddle for us? Nowadays we detain the unhappy in a mental institution or – if she is wealthy – in a modern clinic.” He suggests that we haven’t moved as far as we think from the mindset that caused the witch-hunts and need some further self-examination to move forward, especially for the sake of women and those less fortunate who are still the victims of authority and misunderstanding. As Haberman notes, a theme of male apprehension regarding female independence crops up many times throughout the film, and each time it is a male authority figure, often through violent means, who suppresses:

“The final impression of Haxan is that women throughout history have been subjected to the control of men, sometimes mercifully, more often cruelly. Females are tempted and degraded by Satan, unfairly judged and punished by the Church, and diagnosed and shut away in clinics by modern doctors. The implication is that men fear the opposite sex and seek to control them. The final image in the film is a silhouette of the charred bodies of several accused witches bound to stakes after being burned alive: the ultimate method of male restraint and domination” (pg. 91).

Haxan 1922 Devil

The performances are strong throughout the film, with special attention to be paid to Maren Pedersen, whose elderly Maria the Weaver is tortured by the Inquisition as the camera keeps upon her lined face, allowing our imaginations to fill in the rest of what’s happening to her. She was not a professional actress but a woman Christensen found who was selling flowers on the street. According to the director, Pederson told him that the Devil was real and that she saw him sitting by her bed at night. She is truly pitiable and her visage on film is striking, both when she’s hungrily slobbering on stew and when tears are running down her cheeks. These close-up shots of faces in agony, in particular, riled many censors and caused the film to be banned or recut in many countries.

Yet while there are aspects of horror and serious social commentary, Christensen still employs his own morbid sense of humor to liven the film. Many scenes are playful and tongue-in-cheek, especially when dealing with medieval beliefs, such as the witches lining up to kiss Satan’s ass. The scenes are lively and nightmarish and could easily be put to a modern heavy metal soundtrack. And where else can you see Satan pop out and gleefully club a nun on the head? The transitions are almost dreamlike, leaving the viewer to question whether they are witnessing hallucinations or reality. Nevertheless, when dealing with historical or contemporary reality Christensen stays his hand and presents it matter-of-factly so as to not diminish its effect. All the while he maintains a reassuring, almost conversational tone with the viewer, reminding them that despite the seeming chaos on screen, there is method to all the madness.

Haxan 1922 still

Chris Fujiwara, in an essay written for The Criterion Collection, bestows high praise on Christensen’s artistry:

“Under any title and with any modifications, Häxan endures because of Christensen’s tremendous skill with lighting, staging, and varying of shot scale. The word “painterly” comes to mind in watching Christensen’s ingeniously constructed shots, but it is inadequate to evoke the fascination the film exerts through its patterns of movement and its narrative disjunctions. Christensen is at once painter, historian, social critic, and a highly self-conscious filmmaker. His world comes alive as few attempts to recreate the past on film have.”

Many silent films, even in horror, can have a sense of innocence to them. But there is no innocence here. Christensen offers an intelligent yet entertaining adult fantasy filled with adult humor, yet it is all coupled with important contemplations and explanations. In every scene can be felt the deliberate touch of an eccentric, macabre genius. The film was well-received in Denmark and Sweden but was banned in countries like the United States for what was considered graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion. In France, Catholic organizations mobilized against the film because of its negative depictions of the Church.

While largely a critical success, the film’s experimental nature meant limited distribution and audience attendance, making the film a financial failure and putting a pause on Christensen’s career for two years. He had originally intended Häxan to be the first installment of a trilogy, with the other movies being The Saint and The Spirits, which would have further explored themes of suspicion towards Christian institutions and an objective approach to spiritual matters. For The Saint Christensen had planned to explore religious hysteria, and for The Spirits he wanted to assemble the world’s foremost mediums and hold a séance, hoping to capture an actual spiritual manifestation on film. Though a few scenes were shot for The Saint, neither film was finished.

Haxan 1922 still3

In the late 1960s the film received new life from British exploitation filmmaker Anthony Balch who shortened the film and added a jazz soundtrack as well as a narrative by “beat” writer William S. Burroughs. The film became a unique “midnight movie” rediscovered by a generation who appreciated its dark humor and deliberate touches of insanity. It’s time today’s horror fans rediscovered it as well.

Christensen’s 1916 Blind Justice is my favorite pre-Caligari horror/thriller, and Häxan is unquestionably floating, like a witch rubbed with flying ointment, somewhere at the top of my list of favorite silent horror films, and manages to even bespell the eras beyond.

Grade: A+

Movie Review – Warning Shadows (1923)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Warning Shadows (1923)

Warning Shadows (1923), known in German as Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (“Shadows – a Nocturnal Hallucination”), is a work which uses the characteristics of the German Expressionist movement as an interesting, and seemingly inevitable, tool for storytelling. Directed by American-born but German-raised Arthur Robison, the tale is about a flirtatious wife who adores the fawning attention she receives from four foppish dinner guests while her husband’s jealousy steadily brews. Into this mix an uninvited guest arrives, a disheveled and likely mad shadow-player who borrows the diners’ shadows to use with a kind of magic, revealing the tragic consequences that will come if they continue as they have been – a literal ‘foreshadow’. The shadow-player is performed by Alexander Granach, who played the memorable Renfield-type character in Nosferatu (1922) the year before, and again presents the screen with an eccentric, memorable performance.

That there are no inter-titles makes the narrative difficult to follow at times, and the film is experimental in many ways and uses Expressionistic elements in its approach. The costumes and hairstyles are exaggerated in the stylistic manner of the times and shadows are employed throughout the film as a way to expose a truth which light, ironically, hides. The shadows are used cleverly and add to the dream-like quality of the film.

Warning Shadows 1923

However, there are times when the film seems to get too artistic for its own good, at the cost of storytelling. The narrative tends to ramble and the generalized acting can be a distraction, especially after eighty minutes of continually watching the husband’s anguished jealousy play painfully on his face. The sets, too, are surprisingly unremarkable.

Warning Shadows is a film which attempts something novel and unique. Silent films are themselves a play of light and shadows, and here the art form appears to appropriately comment upon itself. Unfortunately, the final product has not aged as well as some of its contemporaries.

Grade: C

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