It’s our Frightening Flix Horror Titans of Yore come to celebrate our HorrorAddicts.net anniversary!
It’s our Frightening Flix Horror Titans of Yore come to celebrate our HorrorAddicts.net anniversary!
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.
Three or four months ago, I had just discovered the Russian funeral-doom band known as Ankhagram. As is customary at such times, I listened to a selection of the group’s musical offerings on YouTube. At some point I chose a video entitled Song to Say Goodbye. As the mournful music began, a scene from what could only have been a silent film appeared on my computer screen.
A man sits at his desk smoking a cigarette pensively. Without warning, he opens a desk draw and removes a pistol. The scene changes and a ghostly figure wearing a hood and long robe appears. The figure walks through the solid doors and gazes upon the lifeless body of the suicide victim lying on the floor. The sorrowful figure lifts the dead man’s spirit out of his body and carries it outside, where he places it in the back of a phantasmal carriage led by a horse. Thus began my interest in a 1921 Swedish film called The Phantom Carriage.
The production, which both starred and was directed by Victor Sjostrom, opens with Syster Edit (Astrid Holm), a Salvation Army worker, lying in her death bed. She makes one final request of her friend and co-worker, Syster Maria (Lisa Lundholm), asking that she attempt to find a certain David Holm (Victor Sjostrom) and bring him to her one last time.
Meanwhile, Mr. Holm is sitting in the darkness of a nearby cemetery getting drunk with a couple of friends. It’s New Year’s Eve and as the midnight hour approaches, Holm decides to tell his companions a ghost story about a former friend named Georges, who had imparted some valuable information one New Year’s Eve.
On that night Georges had told his companions that whoever dies on New Year’s Eve must drive the cart of death, a task for which the driver would be greeted only by sorrow and despair. “The last soul to die each year,” Georges had told him, “the one to give up the ghost, at the stroke of midnight, is destined to be death’s driver during the coming year.” Georges himself, Holm added, had passed from this world on the previous New Year’s Eve.
As Holm finishes his story, Gustafsson, another associate of Syster Edit, discovers him in the cemetery. The drunk man refuses to accompany Gustafsson back to Syster Edit’s death bed and the gentleman has no choice but to leave without him. Holm’s companions however, attempt to convince him that he must go to honor the dying lady. Holm’s reluctance continues and a fight ensues. The struggle ends when one of the men strikes a blow to the defiant man’s head with a bottle. Holm falls to the ground—his body limp. The men gaze upward to see that the hands a nearby clock have just arrived at 12:00 midnight. Horrified, the two scatter. Shortly after, the ghost of David Holm rises from his limp body only to confront the death cart and it’s driver, his old friend Georges.
The Phantom Carriage is a film about selfishness and redemption. Through the use of flashback, a narrative style almost unused at the time, David Holm is revealed as a man of vile character, a rude drunkard who has exposed the kindhearted Syster Edit as well as his own wife to the ravages of consumption (tuberculosis) without a care. In a style somewhat reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Georges attempts to show Holm, who must now relieve him as the driver of the carriage, the error of his ways. When the ghostly drunkard sees his distraught wife, Anna, preparing to take her own life as well as those of their children, he pleads with Georges to intervene. The death cart driver sadly informs him that he has no power over the living.
The Phantom Carriage, which was based on a novel entitled Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness by the Nobel Prize winning author Selma Lagerlof, is regarded as a vital piece of the Swedish film legacy. The production is highly regarded for its special effects and its unique style of narration. It is also an early example in the evolution of horror films.
For those who would like to watch the movie, it’s available on YouTube, as is an official trailer. That said, the Ankhagram video that first attracted this reviewer to the film serves as an excellent trailer in and of itself. And, if you enjoy doom metal, you’ll be in for a real treat.
If you ask the common movie fan what they know of the Silent Movie genre, you often get the same type of answer. They will usually reference the comedic actors of the period such as Buster Keeton and Charlie Chaplin. However, many film fans will tell you that the Silent Movie genre offered up hundreds of films that dealt with everything from tragedy to comedy. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first films to introduce viewers to the Horror genre.
Having been produced in Germany during the early years of the Silent Movie genre; the stars are unknown by many modern film viewers. But if there is one star whose name has withstood the test of time it would be actress, Lil Dagover. Her career spanned over 50 years and is well known to fans of German films and television.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opens with two men sitting on a bench sharing a little life philosophy. One of the men, Francis, begins to tell the other about the death of his friend Alan. We are then treated to a flashback type of story were the events of Francis’ story unwind.
We are introduced to Dr. Caligari, a man who wishes to enter the town’s festival with his act. The star of Dr. Caligari’s act is a somnambulist (sleepwalker), who has been asleep most of his 23 years of life. However, when the somnambulist, Cesare, awakes he is able to answer any questions much like a psychic. Caligari goes about getting the proper documents to enter his act into the town’s festival and begins to scout the festival to find a location to setup his tent. Meanwhile, we find Francis and his friend Alan looking for something to do in town when they decide to head out to the festival. They eventually end up in Dr. Caligari’s tent and when Alan asks Cesare a simple question, dread strikes Alan as he is told he only has till dawn to live.
Thus the horror of the story comes into to play; Alan is found dead the next morning having been murdered in the night. Alan is not the first to have died in a mysterious manner and it appears the small town has a killer living among them. Francis leads an investigation with his betrothed, Jane, in order to expose the killer.
What made this film unique for its period are the set pieces and designs used. The creepy backdrops and sets are like those you would find on the set of a Tim Burton film. Warped and oblong pieces that give a shadow of foreboding and dread. The film makers also used lighting to help accent the periods of dread in the film, and at the same time brighten the mood when needed. As words cannot be used to convey what is going without breaking a scene with a cue card with the appropriate wording the actors had to sell the emotions. So it’s not to shocking that some will see the acting as over the top at moments while viewing a film such as this.
What really makes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari stick out is the way the plot moves and how the story unfolds. The amazing factor of this film would have to be the twist at the end of the film. It is much like something you would find in modern Hollywood films, even as recent as a 2010 Martin Scorsese blockbuster. In all aspects of the film, the only thing missing is the dialogue, but if you can get past that you will find a great classic Horror film.