Silent Film Scares!
By Kristin Battestella
Here are but a few early film frights to catch your tongue!
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Sleepwalking, hypnosis, and a demented carnival atmosphere are just the beginning for this influential 1920 paragon. From the German intertitles complete with a madcap, unreliable narrator font to the eerie, off key merry go round score, the distorted perceptions and exaggerated visuals force the viewer to pay attention. Green patinas, teal evening scenes, golden up close shots, and opening and closing irises layer on the dream like retelling alongside askew, Expressionist angles and a stage like design – a play within a play to which we the audience are willingly privy. Contrasting triangles, shadows, lighting, and more surreal architecture parallel the lacking reality, for there is no external frame of reference and forced perspectives belie a fun house whimsy. The actors, makeup, and abstract period styles are fittingly macabre, and the stilted contortionist movements evoke a poetic but unsettling ballet where a misused seemingly innocent, forgotten pawn needlessly dies once his job no longer computes. Though very indicative of its early interwar time, this remains immediately progressive – man is misled, controlled, even compliant in his misdeeds but not willing to be responsible for his actions when it is easier to be led astray and defer your killing hand to the orchestrating puppeteer. Do we not let popcorn entertainment and social media dictate our needs because someone somewhere told us so? Are we living in a fantasy if we think otherwise? Maybe so. The mass sheep consequences are indeed frightening, and some may find it tough to view this picture objectively knowing the catastrophic calamities to come. The appropriately named Cesare, deadly predictions, a perceived loved triangle, escalating murders, and crazy case connections twist and turn while satirical police sit on high up stools like toy soldiers waiting to be told what to do – like us in our 9 to 5 cubicles. Ignorance is bliss, and that is mighty scary. This is must see genre at its finest thanks to heaps of real world fears and social commentary for horror fans and classroom studies.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – This 1920 John Barrymore silent classic still looks good, with fine style and design and eerie organ music to match. There’s a lovely level of atmosphere for a spooky event- project this baby on some creepy cloth and you’re set! Granted, it’s a little slow to start and long for a silent film at 80 minutes. The presentation itself is almost Victorian in establishing the parlor goodness before its hint of pre-code sauce- the dance and proposition of Nita Naldi (The Ten Commandments). The posturing and makeup for Hyde may seem hokey, there isn’t that much of a visual difference compared to today’s high tech effects transformations. Nonetheless, Barrymore (Don Juan) sells the depravity without over exaggerating as the era often dictates, and the result is quite timeless. There aren’t many title cards, either. As the film progresses, the good and evil torment steadily increases thanks to the freaky pictures and creepy performance. A must see.
Fall of the House of Usher – This very early 1928 silent adaptation of Poe’s macabre tale is only 13 minutes. There are no inter cards to read, nor what we would call dialogue. The fashions are decidedly Roaring instead of Victorian, too. The visuals are so out there-even nonsensical-that it’s almost tough to see Edgar in any of it. Nonetheless, this moody piece is perfectly disturbed with great, haunting organ music and eerie, distorted photography. It’s trippy, unexpected, and a little scary. This is another one of those old films that makes for a great demented projection during a spooky party or ghoulish gallery presentation. Though not for everyone, anyone who is a fan of early film experimentation or audiences who just like weird shows should definitely check this out.
Faust – This 1926 F. W. Murnau biggie waxes on all the good and evil one can muster thanks to its Old World appeal, supernatural surreal, and timeless story. Familiar strings and sweeping orchestration ground the Expressionist horror framework with frenetic ills or melodic tender as needed while stunning images of angels both light and dark are fittingly disproportionate with oversized wings. So maybe the mounted skeletons may seem hokey, but the smoke and mirrors, creepy eyes, and evil horns make for superb overlays and superimposed shadows. Why do we toy with spectacular effects when each frame here is like a seamless painting – unlike contemporary, noticeably shoddy CGI. Ghoulish makeup, severe looks done with very little, dark hoods, rays of light, and religious iconography loom large, telling the tale with symbolic light and dark objects dueling for our attention – just like the delicate titular ballet. The battle for one man’s soul is set amid our earthly plague fears, and despite the torment and somewhat odd, dragging domestic humor, the acting is not over the top but subdued for the weighty subject. This macabre is closer to the past than the present, setting off the repentance questions and plague as divine retribution debate. His Old Testament gives no answer, and evil enters in on Faust’s doubts, trading decadence with quills to sign in blood, hourglass measures, alchemy, superimposed flames, and mystical books to match the thee and thou spells. Our deceiving little old man becomes more traditionally devilish looking with each lavish temptation, duplicitous with his immediate tricks of pleasure and unfulfilling youthful elixirs that cannot be sustained. Could you do good with such power? Flight and winds show not how high one goes but how far we will fall, and despite a somewhat overlong hour and forty minute full length edition, the grim sense of dread here snowballs as the looming evil drapes the bedchamber within his robes. Will innocence and love triumph and restore the divine? This stunning attention to detail not only makes me want to tackle Goethe again, but shows what can be done when time is taken to ensure a picture lasts 90 years rather than be a consumed and quickly forgotten 90 minutes. The multiple versions and assorted video reissues will bother completists, but we’re lucky to have these copies at all and horror fans and film students must see this still influential morality play.
The Hands of Orlac – Art and music meet the grotesque for this 1924 tale of pleas, surgeries, and will power. Precious few newspaper clippings and streamlined, made to look old intertitles accent the ominous locomotives, vintage vehicles, smoke stacks, and well done but no less hectic disaster filmmaking before the macabre executions and madcap medicine. Doctors in white coats with terrible news, a saintly woman in white, bleak black trees against the clouded white sky – rather than our beloved silver screen, the picture here is truly a black and white negative with bright, symbolic domestic scenes and nighttime outdoor filming. Overwhelming buildings loom tall, and the sharp, gothic arches of a sinister father’s house reflect his uncaring. Eerie superimposed faces, phantom feelings, and impatience to remove the bandages build toward the eponymous hysterics, but the simple agony of handwriting changes and crooked hands so skilled with a killer blade but unable to master the piano wonderfully increase the torment and self doubt. Is it the mind doing these fatal repeats or the appendages themselves taking over? The full near two hour restored version feels somewhat overlong, with melodramatic scenes and unnecessary transitions interfering with the anguish. At times, contrived fingerprint exposition and solving the crime clichés pull the rug out from under the horrific hands possibilities, but fortunately, the blackmail, murder investigation, and bittersweet love anchors the monstrous appendage swapping. Where today we would have all kinds of bent, hairy, or special effects to hit the viewer over the head with how evil these hands should be, it’s amazing how these wicked hands psyching out our pianist don’t look evil per se but actually fairly normal. With our contemporary pick and choose genetics and scientific advancements, the concept of these influential limbs out for themselves is perhaps more disturbing. Could you loose your art and livelihood when calamity takes your hands or would you use extreme science to restore your limbs, accepting the inadvertent trade of music for something more barbarous? This is an excellent must see both for the ghastly what ifs and the inner turmoil at work.
The Unknown – Lon Chaney (The Phantom of the Opera) and Joan Crawford (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) star in this short but memorable 1927 silent from writer and director Tod Browning. Similar to Browning’s Freaks in many ways, the grotesque yet tender and sympathetic love triangle here is fast paced and well edited with intense twists and a great, revitalized score. Sure, it may be a Leap of Faith in taking Chaney as armless and the carnival set-ups are hokey- but trust me. There’s no over the top acting, only perfect expressions and emotions all around. Crawford looks dynamite, too, with great eyes and readable lips that don’t need inter titles. It’s not all Chaney’s footwork and bravo to his double Paul Desmuke; their combination is strangely delightful to watch. It’s probably a tough concept for some contemporary, effects-obsessed audiences to comprehend, but hearing or reading words aren’t required for the viewer to receive the trauma here. Yes, some of the essential plot points are fairly obvious today. However, the performances keep it splendid nonetheless. This hour is by necessity of the silent style yet also very modern in its own way. It’s definitely a must see for classic fans, lovers of the cast, and film makers or would be actors- who should definitely take a lesson on the big reveal here!
Wolf Blood – This 1925 silent hour plus is the earliest remaining onscreen lycanthrope picture, complete with Canadian flavor, old fashioned logging, spooky forestry, railroads, and jealous love triangles to match the desperate titular transfusion and its would be consequences. A befitting green hue graces the outdoor scenes while standard black and white reflects the bleak interiors and golden tints accentuate the high society parties. The focus is blurry at times, the print understandably jumps, and the music is surprisingly loud. However, the rounded iris close ups add a dreamlike quality, and the vintage jazz tunes and period fashions are a real treat. If you’re looking for a time capsule logging documentary, this is it! Flirtations, camp injuries, company rivalries, drunken dangers, and medical debates give the first half of the picture a purely dramatic pace, but the wolfy fears, mob mentality, and deadly possibilities build in the latter half. Fantastic medicine, superstitious leaps, dreams of becoming the wolf – this isn’t a werewolf film as we know it but the key pieces are here. How fast people turn on you once you have wolf’s blood! The wolf footage is also quite nice, with what looks like real mixed wolf or husky dogs. No, there is no werewolf transformation and it’s all a bit of a fake out in that regard, but the community fears and early man versus beast melodrama is still fun to see.