Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Waxworks (1924): Paul Leni's Early Horror Anthology Film Is Big on Style



If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying early film, it’s that one has to be very careful about throwing around the word “first.” With so many silent films gone forever, what we think of as the first example of a type of film is often merely the first surviving example. (See the Film Dirt post on the first werewolf film, which may just turn your ideas about film werewolfery upside down.) 

Paul Leni’s Waxworks is often referred to as the earliest horror film anthology, and while it could be argued that it’s the first influential one (or the first good one), it’s predated by 1919’s Eerie Tales. (If you know of one that beats Eerie Tales, by all means, let me know.) If there’s anything makes Waxworks questionable as an anthology horror film, it’s the fact that the stories are not strictly horrific, but a mix of fantasy, adventure, and horror—in a similar vein to a Weird Tales comic, if you ask me, and those are classified as horror. Horror takes many forms, from the somewhat thrilling to the truly gruesome, and  Waxworks covers the gamut. Most everyone who sees it will have a favorite segment, and which segment that is may depend largely on a person’s preferred genre (or favorite actor).

Wax figures on display in Waxworks. Note the third figure, whose segment was cut from the film due to budget constraints.


Waxworks was director Paul Leni’s last film in Germany before he headed to Hollywood at the behest of Carl Laemmle and made some of the most important horror films of the late silent era: The Cat and the Canary (1927)—which practically invented the “old dark house” genre—and The Man Who Laughs (1928). The film’s German title is Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, an example of the kind of thing Mark Twain likely had in mind when he wrote that “some German words are so long that they have a perspective.” If the “kabinett” part evokes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s no accident. Leni didn’t just make use of Caligari’s two leads (Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss); he patterned the whole film on its successful predecessor, right down to the fairground setting.

The film begins as a young poet (William Dieterle) answers a newspaper ad seeking a writer “for publicity work in a wax museum.” Though nothing seems to make sense about a wax museum needing an in-house writer, he takes a what-could-possibly-go-wrong attitude and applies within. The proprietor is played by John Gottowt, who silent horror fans will know from The Student of Prague, Genuine, and as Nosferatu’s version of Van Helsing. He has a lovely daughter as an assistant (of course), and they ask the writer to come up with some “startling tales” about the wax figures on display, hoping it will somehow drum up business. (“I wish there were more here to read”--said no wax museum patron ever.) While the three are perusing the figures in the wax collection, Harun al-Rashid’s arm falls off (making it even more puzzling that the proprietor thinks hiring a poet is the best use of his budget). The writer—proving he’s really keen to earn his paycheck—gets right to work, saying he’ll write a story about how the figure lost his arm.

Seems legit.
If he continues to print the whole story like this, he's going to need a lot of paper.


Thus, we are transported into an Arabian Nights tale, with Emil Jannings playing against type as a rather goofy, huge-bellied Caliph. The poet imagines himself as a humble pie baker whose billowing smoke causes al-Rashid to lose a game of chess and subsequently demand the baker’s head. He sends his Grand Vizier to do the head-chopping, but he returns sans head to report that the baker may be in possession of something much more interesting than his noggin: his sexpot of  a wife. The Caliph, in disguise, sets out to seduce the baker’s wife, and he couldn’t be more repulsive, making the hourglass shape with his hands, calling her “my casket of honey,” and practically drooling all over her. Meanwhile, the baker has stolen into the Caliph’s abode and stolen his magic ring (a pretty adventurous, not to mention stylish, scene unfolds as he is pursued). Hijinks ensue when he returns home, where his wife has locked the door and hidden the Caliph in the oven to avoid the appearance of infidelity. The magic ring ends up saving the day, and everyone ends up pretty happy.

A very stylish Baghdad,


The second segment features Ivan the Terrible, played by the unmatchable Conrad Veidt. Veidt is exciting even at the film’s beginning when he’s merely posing as the wax version of Ivan. He no doubt got some practice at being still when he played Caligari’s somnambulist, but here he’s wide-eyed, and somehow almost as expressive as when he’s in motion. His Ivan is appropriately terrible, skulking around in torture dungeons and relishing the deaths of his victims. The official Poison Mixer, who also seems to be something of a mystic, announces an impending victim by writing his name on an hourglass. After the glass is turned over and the poison introduced, the victim dies as the last bit of sand falls. Ivan becomes increasingly paranoid that he will be targeted, and even manages to have a nobleman killed by trading clothes with him and letting him be assassinated. We know Ivan’s number is up, though, when the Poison Mixer writes “ZAR IWAN” on his hourglass. Veidt is deliciously manic as he continuously turns over the hourglass, hoping to postpone his inevitable end. 

Veidt doing what he does best: playing insanity.


Segment three is the shortest, but is perhaps the most memorable of all the stories. The title cards refer to the third villain as “Spring Heeled Jack,” while the credits refer to “Jack the Ripper.” The Werner Krauss character bears the most resemblance to an updated Ripper as his wax figure comes to life and stalks the poet and the owner’s daughter through the museum’s twisted, expressionistic halls—which easily call to mind a stylized version of the streets of London, foreshadowing 1927’s The Lodger. (Spring Heeled Jack, it should be noted, was a character from urban legends, known for looking like a demon and jumping off of rooftops. Though many sources think he’s the character being referenced here, I respectfully disagree, and believe Leni simply confused his name with the other notorious Jack.) In somewhat predictable fashion (though common for the time), the poet awakes just as Jack begins to do his ripping. 

Screenshot from the exceptionally expressionistic Ripper scene.


The brief Ripper sequence was meant to segue into a fourth story, though budget constraints are said to have led to its elimination. The missing tale was to be the story of Rinaldo Rinaldini, a robber captain who appeared in a popular penny dreadful of the late 18th century. You can still see the wax figure of Rinaldini, who was to be played by Dieterle, in the film’s early scenes. (He’s the guy in the big hat.)

Even with all the German film luminaries involved, the film’s design is the true star of Waxworks. Leni has given Caligari  a run for its money with his deep shadows, neon signs, merry-go-rounds and warped staircases. While it’s far from realistic—the city of Baghdad looks like an abstract charcoal painting—it’s exactly what Leni wanted. In his own words, the director said, “For my film Waxworks I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evidence no idea of reality. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines, and curves.” And: “I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun the world seen everyday and to attain its true sinews…”

Waxworks production sketch by Paul Leni.

 
Part of the cast and crew of Waxworks.

A word should be said about the score, composed and performed by Jon C. Mirsalis on the version I watched (part of Kino’s 2004 German Horror Classics collection, and also available as a standalone DVD). I’ve been lucky enough to hear Mirsalis play at live screenings, and here he is appropriately stylish—a musical counterpart to Leni’s work—without ever overshadowing the film. A perfect accompaniment.

Though not the first true horror anthology film, Waxworks set the standard for anthology films to follow, and its influence is evident in non-anthology films as well. Veidt’s performance as Ivan was the model for Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in 1946, and the Harun al-Raschid reportedly inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make Lawrence of Arabia. Leni’s influence would no doubt have made his name as huge as Murnau’s or Browning’s is today, had it not been for his death, in 1929 at age 44, from blood poisoning caused by an infected tooth. Leni was slated to direct Dracula, for which Universal had recently acquired the rights, with Conrad Veidt to star. The teaming of Leni and Veidt for Universal’s Dracula may be one of Hollywood’s greatest what-might-have-beens  (though no one can really argue with the success of the resulting Browning/Lugosi film).

Leni may not have lived long enough to become one of the household names in horror, but all of his films deserve a long look, and Waxworks deserves its place in early horror film history. 


This film was originally watched as part of Film Dirt's 31 Days of Silent Horror. See the full list here.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Mantan Moreland: The Black Comedian Who Was Almost One of the Three Stooges

When I first saw Mantan Moreland in King of the Zombies, I became an instant fan. Really, I can think of no better instance of someone stealing the show from the supposed main characters.

I’ve written a piece on Moreland's career (and his connection with the Stooges) over at the Today I Found Out site. 

I’d love it if you’d take a look (and feel free to comment either here or there—all feedback is very welcome).


Mantan Moreland and frequent co-star Frankie Darro. In the pre-integration era, it's pretty cool that Moreland and Darro were always depicted as not only co-workers, but also friends and equals.

Friday, November 20, 2015

I'm Original, Apparently! (My First Blog Award.)


I'm humbled, surprised, and honored to have been given one of the jury selection awards in the Criterion Blogathon. My recent post on David Lynch's Eraserhead and silent film
was selected as "most original" among the posts for the day.  It's always nice to have positive feedback, and I can use the boost to help fuel my work on my book.




It's even more of an honor considering the company I'm in. Have a look at some of the other entries on the Criterion Blogathon roster— some of the most amazing critical work I've read in a long time. I found lots of new blogs to subscribe to, and you probably will too.








Wednesday, November 18, 2015

David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and Silent Film





Like a lot of people, my first introduction to Eraserhead was at a midnight movie on a college campus. It resonated with me in a way that it didn’t with my companions, who dismissed it as nonsense. The film is still divisive, and for every person who praises it as a masterpiece, you’re likely to find one or two who didn’t make it through the first five minutes. It’s understandable, really, considering that films like Eraserhead and its surrealist counterparts are practically a whole different medium than traditional films. Like opera, or poetry, or improvisational jazz, it requires an understanding and acceptance of the genre to crack its code. It’s not a matter of elitism. It’s simply a matter of some people just don’t like this kind of stuff.

It occurs to me that the manner in which some people don’t “get” Eraserhead is similar to the way that some people don’t get silent film. I’m willing to bet that there may be a few silent film fans out there that appreciated Eraserhead when it came out because they were already used to weird films with little dialogue. For me, it was the opposite. When I first started to seriously watch silent films, part of why they appealed to me right away was because I came to love the world of Eraserhead so long ago.

In a lot of ways, Lynch’s first feature film is a silent film. It’s almost a full 11 minutes before anyone speaks at all (“Are you Henry?” asks the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall). There’s only brief, intermittent dialogue thereafter, amounting to only a few minute’s worth. Jack Nance (the film’s lead, and a Lynch regular until his death in 1996) remarked in an interview that it was “a little script.” He continued: “It was only a few pages with this weird imagery and not much dialogue and this baby kind of thing." He wasn’t being hyperbolic. The entire transcript of the dialogue takes up surprisingly little space (have a look). It’s easy to imagine the dialogue being presented silent film-style, on intertitle cards, without it changing very much about the film at all. You could even remove the spoken words entirely and still have something quite special (I’d argue the same with the title cards for F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise).

Harold Lloyd.


Those who mention the fact that Eraserhead is like a silent film are usually quick to point out that, of course, it does have sound. It’s an easy way to launch into a paragraph about the film’s soundtrack, which is as important as its visual imagery. Lynch went to unusual lengths to record just the right sounds for his film (filling bottles with microphones and putting them in a bathtub, for starters), and the results show. The atmosphere is pervaded by constant, unsettling sounds that seem alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) industrial and corporeal. The hissing sounds might be the steam releasing from a machine, but sometimes you’d swear you also detect the gurgling of saliva. It’s a disturbing effect, and a distinctly Lynchian one, that keeps the lines blurred between what is alive and what is mechanical. (Metropolis, anyone?) Keep in mind, though, that silent films were never presented soundlessly, and if you’ve ever tried to watch one without music, you know that they lose their atmosphere just as much as Eraserhead does with its sound turned down.

Eraserhead’s similarities to silent films go beyond the fact that it has little dialogue or even that it’s filmed in black and white. Its whole world is within the silent film milieu. The bleak factory setting is straight out of the Depression, with trappings far older than the year the film was made: a wall telephone with a flared mouthpiece, an old phonograph (used to play Fats Waller records from the 1920s), a curtained stage straight out of vaudeville. Henry’s filthy, sparse room looks like something from Chaplin’s The Kid, while the factory elements are as unsettling as those of Modern TImes. From the very beginning, Eraserhead looks both bizarre and familiar. Lynch would come to reuse many of the elements from the set, so the lobby will evoke both Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge and Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio for those who have seen his later films. But, that’s not the only reason it’s so recognizable. It’s a world we know, because it’s an old one. It’s been captured on film for more than a hundred years.

Jack Nance’s Henry is a throwback as well, with a fright hairdo that resembles Harold Lloyd’s at the end of Haunted Spooks and an ill-fitting suit that’s the trademark of every silent clown. Like most of the popular silent comedians, Henry is a hapless innocent in bizarre circumstances, and he faces most of them with the stone-faced stoicism of a Buster Keaton. When his facial expression isn’t blank, it’s puzzled. Henry is part of a big, crazy world that he doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t do things so much as things happen to him. One of the first things we see Henry do is one of the oldest comedy tropes in the book, but it establishes his character in an instant: he steps in a mud puddle. We’re on very familiar turf, and we know something that is equally true for both silent comedy and surrealism. Anything can happen (and it probably will). As soon as Henry enters the warehouse, things turn dark, strange, industrial. The silent clown enters Metropolis.


Chaplin and Nance as caretakers.


Reduced to its basic plot elements, Eraserhead is a sequence of familiar ideas. While the more bizarre elements and visual effects make it difficult for some viewers to distill, there’s nothing here, story-wise that would be out of place in a classic film. Henry is a factory worker whose girlfriend’s parents convince to marry their daughter after she has a child (if that is indeed what it is). Mary has a hard time with motherhood and leaves Henry to largely care for the child on his own. Henry is seduced by a beautiful woman (the classic vamp of the silent film world) and things begin to fall apart. It’s the absurd details that make the film what it is, but those details are also part of what makes the film an echo of the films that precede it.

Take, for example, the film’s opening: a double exposure trick juxtaposes Jack Nance’s giant, sideways head with what appears to be a planet, or a moon. As we get closer, the planet/moon looks like it’s not made of rock, but something organic. It’s a rotten orange, or decaying meat. It’s possibly even alive. It’s not only a photographic trick that’s more than 100 years old, but it’s a visual that looks strikingly like something Georges Méliès would have done, or even more precisely, Segundo de Chomón.

Some of Lynch’s most grotesque elements in Eraserhead would be right at home in a de Chomón short, and both directors have a fascination with disembodied heads and decay. In one of Eraserhead’s scenes, Henry pulls sperm-like ropes from Mary’s body and flings them against the wall. One of them cavorts around in a stop-motion segment that de Chomón would have found quite familiar. A pioneer of stop-motion, he often used it to shock or disgust, as he did in Panicky Picnic (1909), wherein a cake is cut open to reveal an interior filled with worms. Lynch’s animated, blood-filled chicken in the family dinner scene is no more absurd than de Chomón’s sequences featuring self-slicing sausages or cracked eggs with live rats inside.


Above: de Chomon. Below: Lynch.


The tiny theater inside Henry’s radiator is not far removed from the miniature performances that take place in de Chomón’s Metamorphoses, but Henry is not controlling the show. He is merely a voyeur. When Henry steps into the radiator, it’s a shocking moment. We’ve come to accept the woman in the radiator as part of a different world—why, it’s not even his size! Like Keaton stepping into the movie screen in Sherlock, Jr., it’s a breathtaking moment that shatters the reality we’ve come to accept, and in this case, it was a bizarre reality to begin with. Henry has broken a fourth wall that exists inside a larger four walls. While things get pretty crazy on that stage, with Henry’s head falling off and the creepy baby wearing his suit, my favorite moment is one that’s easy to miss.

As the giant tree (or miniature tree, as we’re inside the radiator) is wheeled onto the stage, something unusual happens. Henry looks afraid, and at first it seems as if the big tree, an exact copy of the one on his bedside table that sits potless in a pile of dirt, is what has him in a panic. But, he looks out to the audience. As he backs away, he continues to steal nervous glances at the theatre’s audience, at us. He is acutely aware of being watched, of going from voyeur to the object of the voyeurism. The camera pans out to remind us that this is all taking place on a stage, perhaps to emphasize that it’s not taking place in the “real” outside world. It reminds me of the convention in some very early silents wherein the film would begin and end with a curtain’s rise and fall, especially in the case of thrillers, as a way of making the audience feel more at ease. (“It’s not real, folks!”)

If there’s a single silent film that Eraserhead resembles, though, it’s Un Chien Andalou, the surrealist Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali collaboration from 1929. It’s often been remarked upon, but easily dismissed because Lynch claims to not have seen it prior to making his film. Even if the similarities are unintentional, they’re relevant, as the list of oddities the films have in common is long enough that it could be a separate post, so I’ll just name a few. Both films deal with voyeurism, first depicted in each film when a violent act is seen through the window. Both contain scenes of mundane domesticity  punctuated by gruesomeness. Un Chien Andalou’s most famous scene, still cited more than seventy years later as one of the most disturbing ever filmed, features a woman’s eyeball being sliced with a razor. Shock factor aside, what’s oddest about it is the fact that it seems to take place in an ordinary home, as if it’s an ordinary event, much like the disturbing aspects of the family dinner in Eraserhead. 

Un Chien Andalou's most famous sequence.

Both films contain dismembered body parts as well as live creatures emerging from human body parts. (It’s hard to believe that the ants crawling from the hole in a hand in Un Chien Andalou didn’t inform the infested ear in Blue Velvet, so even if Lynch hadn’t seen the short film in 1977, he probably saw it before 1986). In some ways, Eraserhead is Un Chien Andalou in reverse, as the Bunuel film opens with the slicing of an organ, while Lynch’s film saves it for last. Both films contain a ray of hope at the end, or at least of finality. Eraserhead’s baby is destroyed, and Henry steps into the world of the radiator, embracing the woman who has continually sung to him that “In heaven, everything is fine.” In Un Chien Adalou, it’s the mysterious box that’s destroyed, and the protagonists frolic on the beach. The final title card of the latter film informs us that it is spring, and we see the couple unmoving, buried in the sand up to their necks. Are they dead? Is this a happy ending or not? You could ask the same questions at the end of Eraserhead.

Bunuel and Dali insisted that their film had no meaning at all, and that creating a meaningless film was their whole purpose. “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted” said Bunuel of the filming process. Lynch’s film is presumed to have some meaning, but the director has said repeatedly that no one has ever interpreted it correctly, and he’s keeping mum about what it (or any other film) really means. Is there a big difference between a film having no meaning and one whose meaning is kept in the dark? Even with Bunuel and Dali’s attempt at making a meaningless film, it’s impossible to watch it and not begin to form a plot in your head. As humans, we see patterns and make connections between things. It’s what we do.

And perhaps it’s what I’m doing when I spot silent film influences in Eraserhead. Maybe they are there, and maybe they are not. It’s funny to me, though, that even people who claim Eraserhead “makes no sense” also describe it as disturbing, or as a nightmare. That means they’re making sense of it in some way. Something recognizable is coming through to them as fear. And that’s because Eraserhead, like the best silent comedies (or the best surrealist works), speaks to universal truths. It’s about universal human struggles. The awkward family dinner, the fear of parenthood—it’s all really very simple. Those moments that are never explained (why are there peas in the dresser drawer?) are absurd, but so are our lives, and there are just as many questions in our own that we will never answer.

This post was written for the Criterion Blogathon. You can find the full roster of entries, each featuring a different Criterion film, at Criterion Blues. 

David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and Silent Film

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Phantom of the Moulin Rouge (1925)


More of a comedy-fantasy than a horror flick, despite the tempting title. This film has a little too much Moulin Rouge and not enough phantoms about it for a true horror fans taste, but it's still a fun diversion from Rene Claire, who went on to make the talkies I Married a Witch and It Happened Tomorrow. Full review to follow.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Fall of the House of Usher / La Chute de la Maison Usher (1928)


Not to be confused with the Watson and Webber short of the same year, this Poe adaptation is directed by Jean Epstein with a script co-written by surrealist Luis Bunuel (of Un Chien Andalou fame). Full review to follow.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Hands of Orlac (1924)


A re-watch of one of my favorite films with one of my favorite silent film actors: The Hands of Orlac with Conrad Veidt. A concert pianist has his hands crushed in a train accident, but has new ones grafted on. The hands, which belonged to a murdered, take on a life of their own, and begin to do terrible things that are beyond Orlac's control. Full review to follow.