Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920): John Barrymore Explores Man's Dual Nature

Film #7 in 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is perhaps the most famous of the Jekyll and Hyde adaptations—though far from the first.

Full review to come, so watch this space.

(I'm dealing with a personal emergency which has slowed down the full posts, but I'm still watching a film a day and should play catch-up soon. Thanks for your patience.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Un Chien Adalou (1929): The Surrealist Influence on the Horror Film

Film #6 in 31 Days of Silent Horror Film's is Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's surrealistic masterpiece Un Chien Andalou. Check back for a full review to come.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Waxworks (1924): Paul Leni's Anthology Film Brings Weird Tales to Life

Film #5 in Film Dirt's 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is Paul Leni's Waxworks. That's Conrad Veidt on the right as Ivan the Terrible. Watch this space for the full review.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Lon Chaney as an Armless Knife-Thrower in Tod Browning's The Unknown (1927)

Film #4 in  31 Days of Silent Horror Films features Lon Chaney in a weird and wonderful role. Watch this space for the upcoming full review.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Haxan (1922): The History of Witchcraft From a Silent Film-Era Perspective

Benjamin Christensen's Häxan or Witchcraft Through the Ages is sort of a documentary, and it’s the “sort of” that makes it still unlike any other film. The Swedish film blends fact and fiction in a purported attempt to explore the history of ideas about witchcraft from ancient times to 1922, when the film was made. Without meaning to, Christensen extended his film’s examination of changing attitudes almost one hundred years into the future. In other words, it’s almost impossible to reach the end of the film without reflecting on our own culture and how different it is from the world of 1922, when women were detained against their will and treated for “hysteria.” The fact that Häxan is still watched in 2015 also says a lot about what hasn’t changed: our interest in atrocities and perversions.

Demonic rites in Haxan.

Let’s face it. The main reason Häxan is still famous when other silent films have been forgotten, the reason it’s screened in the background at rock shows and underground dance clubs, and the reason it appeals to a broad range of people, young and old, is because of those atrocities and perversions. And I think Christensen knew full well what he was doing. While Häxan covers some parts of the history of witchcraft in detail (the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in particular), it never alludes to the Salem Witch Trials. Also absent is any mention of the witch in stories or fables. Christensen’s film style may be documentary-like, but it’s suspiciously subjective. He’s culled the material down to its most provocative and titillating. If woodcuts existed of naked young lasses being accused of witchcraft in Salem, I have a feeling it might have made the cut.

For all the facts—however accurate—Christensen presents us with, his main purpose seems to be to entertain, and to entertain by shocking the audience. And it works. Many people (and I’ll admit to being one of them) like their smut smart. We like nudity and violence and all manner of depravity best when it’s dressed up a little with facts, or history, or something artistic—something to make us feel as if our own urges and compulsions and interests are somehow superior to those of the unthinking masses. It’s worth noting that Christensen himself plays the Devil in the live-action scenes. The young women in the film who line up and kiss the Devil’s ass are kissing Christensen’s ass. The naked maiden who is lured by the Devil to the cemetery at night, where she falls to her knees at his feet, is lured by Christensen. The director himself wasn’t just intrigued by the perversions of witchcraft, but wanted to directly participate in them.

Director Christensen as the Devil himself.

Häxan’s seven parts begin with a study of the historical origins of witchcraft, from Ancient Babylon through Medieval times. Gruesome woodcuts are displayed: men boiled alive in cauldrons, devils pouring sulfur down men’s throats. To punctuate that this is serious business, perhaps, crucial details are highlighted by a hand with an academic pointer, as if we are attending an actual lecture. A steam-powered mechanical representation of Hell features animated demons torturing live victims, like a macabre vignette on a Disneyland ride. Eventually we learn a little about witchcraft, and the things witches were said to do, such as setting villages on fire, bewitching cows, and dancing naked with the Devil. I’ll leave you to guess which of these three we’ll hear more about as the film progresses.

Part two of Häxan features live-action sequences, presented as sort of pseudo-historical re-enactments of things witches were purported to do. The film becomes a bit more gruesome, but also darkly humorous. An old witch rips fingers from the hand of a dead thief to make one of her concoctions, which is decidedly gruesome (the scene was cut by Swedish censors), but later tells a woman who wants a love potion to drop some cat feces into his drink (try not to giggle at that one). Things take a turn for the dark (and depraved) when the Devil shows up, and boy, is he repulsive. I have no idea how Christensen’s real face might have looked without his satanic makeup, but his body is hairy and barrel-chested, and his waggling tongue just looks downright dirty. And he is dirty, as we soon see, seducing a woman as she lies in bed with her husband sleeping right beside her, or furiously working a butter churn in a not-very-well-disguised pantomime of masturbation.

The film’s worst atrocities come into play with the introduction of the Inquisition, as we see innocent women betrayed by other women who want to save their own skin. The scenes of a beggar woman being tortured are harsh by any decade’s standards, and the extreme close-ups of her face, and the agony it betrays, are forerunners of Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. (Those close-ups were also cut by early censors, which is a sign of how great the acting is—that mere faces were deemed too brutal, as they betrayed the severity of the torture so explicitly). There’s plenty more torture to come. A young monk is flogged as punishment for sinful thoughts, and again, we see his face in close-up. It’s not a way of shying from the violence (we are later shown his stripes), but of driving home the agony.

A witch's body being marked by a demon.

And there’s a stew of salacious stuff left to depict. Witches transforming into cats to sneak out at night to defecate in altars. Women stomping on crosses and giving birth to demons. Nuns given over to mass insanity. Christenson doesn’t miss a thing if it seems shocking, which is why it seems so strange (especially by modern standards) that he ends the film as he does. The director points out that women accused of witchcraft in older times were often just old ladies with unappealing features that made them targets: humpbacks, or tremors, for example. Often they were suffering from mental illnesses. Today, though, they are taken in by nursing homes and charity organizations.

Young women fare less well, though, in this enlightened year of 1922, though Christensen presents their difficulties and the “modern” treatment as sort of a “Gee whiz, look how lucky we are today” coda. He talks about “hysterical” women—a term we know encompassed anything from an array of mental issues to simply being vocal or opinionated—and how today they are detained and treated in a clinic. Today we know a bit about what those treatments may have been, which makes this ending to the film one of accidental horror. “It would be a pity if your daughter were to have an unpleasant exchange with the police,” says a doctor, before committing a woman’s daughter to confinement and treatment. 

Haxan may be full of atrocities, but relax: it's art.

Häxan was cut down and re-released in 1968 with a bizarre narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz soundtrack, and it’s this version that made the rounds of college film festivals and underground film nights. I highly recommend watching the full, uncut version, though, with its original title cards and classical soundtrack with Wagner and Chopin. No need to feel guilty: this is smart smut.

You can watch Häxan for free on Hulu, or buy it on DVD or instant streaming at Amazon.

This is post #3 for Film Dirt’s 31 Days of Silent Horror Films. See the link for the full list of films so far.

Friday, October 2, 2015

A Page of Madness: 1926 Japanese Silent Film Depicts Asylum Terrors

Somehow, a film that ought to be impenetrable manages to be compelling. 

Silent scream in A Page of Madness.

Both silent films and foreign films sometimes require a bit of decoding. A Page of Madness requires even more codebreaking than most. It’s got just about everything possible working against a viewer’s understanding. For starters, it’s missing about a third of its footage. After its release in 1926, the film went missing, and was believed lost for good in the 1950 Shimogamo studio fire that destroyed all of its films. Director Teinosuke Kinugasa stumbled on a print hiding in his own storehouse in 1971. He re-released it in 1973, but not before cutting it for reasons no one seems to be quite sure of. Some have suggested that he cut out narrative sequences in order to make the film even more avant-garde by 1970s standards.

And then there’s the fact that the film has no intertitles. We’re left on our own to figure out what’s going on in silent conversations. The lack of titles, though, isn’t part of some artistic experiment. Their absence is a relic of history. In Japan, silent film screenings were accompanied by benshi—live narrators who explained the film to the audience in a theatrical style. The lack of a benshi makes us have to solve some of the plot elements that may have been crystal clear to the original viewers. It’s rather like watching a talking film with the sound turned down (as far as deciphering the plot, I mean—the film has a strikingly gorgeous musical soundtrack).

The asylum.

But here’s the thing: A Page of Madness is so visually stunning, and so simultaneously beautiful and disturbing, that you’ll want to solve its mysteries. Even if you don’t understand every moment of it, you’ll likely keep watching.

The opening moments of the film are  a cacophony of sound and moving image fragments that feel disturbing, even if we’re not yet sure how they fit together: a drum, a screaming baby, a torn photograph, a car arriving in a downpour. We see a beautiful dancer in an elaborate headpiece dancing on a stylized stage. As the camera backs away from her, suddenly we are seeing her through bars, like those of a prison. When the scene cuts to a girl in a ragged dress, dancing frenziedly  in her cell as if compelled by an unseen force, it becomes clear that she is an asylum inmate, and the beautiful woman we first saw is her delusion. 

Some patients are as catatonic as others are frenetic.

Though you might be fuzzy on the details (or they might come to mean something to you that is different from the interpretation of others), a plot ultimately emerges. An old man works as a janitor at the asylum, and his wife is a patient there. When one day their daughter arrives to inform her mother of her engagement, the family’s story begins to piece together in the form of flashbacks. The janitor attempts to free his wife from the asylum, but she seems unwilling to go—perhaps she knows it is where she belongs, although there are signs that she may be afraid of her husband, who may well be going mad himself.

A Page of Madness is often compared to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but that’s a naive comparison, I think, and mostly borne out of the fact that it’s a horror film set in an asylum. Unlike many films with scary asylums, though, it’s not the asylum itself that’s scary (though the angles and shadows certainly make it seem foreboding). There are no depraved orderlies or torturous punishments. And while there are terrifying scenes of the patients leering and pawing at the dancer, and later rioting, they’re not the most frightening aspect of the film. The true horror comes from the madness itself. It’s what’s inside the patient’s own heads, from current delusions to flashbacks of horrific life events. And what makes this film unusual is that we see these horrible things from the patient’s point of view. Just as we saw the dancer’s delusion in the opening sequence, we sometimes see people in the asylum as the janitor’s wife sees them, with their eyes swollen and their heads misshapen. 
Through the eyes of madness.

There are elements of the film that I never divined. What is the significance of the torn photograph? Did the janitor’s wife drown a baby, or is she clutching at a baby that she found drowned? Did the janitor abuse his wife? These are things I might never know, or I may change my mind in subsequent viewings (and this is a film I will see again). And then there are images that I know will never leave me: the rioting inmates calming down when they put on their eerie Noh masks and sit in silence, for one. The wife’s horrifying, though silent, scream.

The music, added by Kinugasa for the ‘70s re-release is notably unsettling. At times, though it is obviously played on Japanese instruments, it resembles shrieks of fright or pain. At other times, it is repetitive and percussive, reminiscent of the mechanical sounds so favored by David Lynch. Its dissonance mimics the disconnect between the asylum patients and the real world. 

Just when you thought the film couldn't be any more disturbing, the masks arrive.

A Page of Madness might be difficult for some, if not just because of its obfuscation, then for its disturbing images of mental illness. I think there’s no denying that it’s a masterpiece of film making, and not merely by silent film standards. In fact, you may be startled by how modern it actually looks.

You can watch the film free at I highly recommend watching the incredible opening sequence. You’ll know right away if it’s for you.

This post is part two of my 31 Days of Silent Horror Films event, which kicked off with Wolf Blood, the earliest existing werewolf film. Subscribe to Film Dirt or like on Facebook to see all 31 silent horror reviews as they appear. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Wolf Blood (1925) : The Earliest Surviving Werewolf Film

Wolf Blood is arguably the second werewolf film ever made, yet it’s often inaccurately listed as the first. Countless books and articles cite it as the first werewolf film, thanks to the fact that lost films are often treated as if they never existed at all. Regular Film Dirt readers know that the first film werewolf was, in fact, a woman, appearing in The Werewolf a full twelve years before Wolf Blood hit the theaters. Wolf Blood is still pretty important, though. It’s the first film to feature a male werewolf, and, as luck would have it, the oldest werewolf film to actually survive. 

Title card for Wolf Blood.

It’s worth noting that both Wolf Blood and The Werewolf take place in the Canadian woods. That means that the werewolf lore they draw from is French, and the creature in question is based on folk tales of the loup-garou, influenced by Native American tales of the half-beast creature known as the Wendigo. 1935’s Werewolf of London is often said to have established “the rules” of werewolf films—transformations taking place under a full moon, werewolves walking upright on two legs, being vulnerable to silver bullets, etc.—but I often wonder how they might have been different if these early, non-Hollywood werewolf films had gained more foothold.

Wolf Blood was the only film released by independent outfit Ryan Brothers Productions, and marks the only time actor George Chesebro (pronounced “cheese-bro”) took the director’s reins during a career that included around 400 films. Chesebro was known best for playing brutes and baddies in B-westerns and serials, but here he not only directs, but also plays the leading romantic role. Marguerite Clayton, nearing the end of her career, plays the female lead. Contemporary newspaper and magazine reviews praised the strong acting, and they agreed on something else, too: the strangeness of the subject matter. 

Marguerite Clayton in a rare lobby card for Wolf Blood.

“Probably one of the strangest stories ever filmed,” wrote a UK newspaper after the film’s release, and nearly every other review uses words like “startling” and “unique.” That’s perhaps not surprising given how novel the werewolf storyline would have been at the time, and how unusual a plot twist it is for a movie that is otherwise a fairly tepid romance story set in the midst of a lumber company.

Yes, it needs to be said: Wolf Blood is not the kind of film that will make new silent film fans out of folks who have not seen them before. In fact, it would be a real snoozer if not for the odd plot element that the press remarked on. After the film reaches past the halfway point, it’s dying so fast that you’ll likely be thinking the only thing that could possibly save it would be a blood transfusion. Luckily, that transfusion arrives in the form of wolf’s blood, and not a moment too soon.

Exhibitors Herald announcement for the completion of Wolf Blood.

Wolf Blood begins in the Canadian woods with a sequence of logging scenes in a lumberjack camp. It’s not bad as location photography goes, and it might be nice to see on a large screen, but the repeated shots of falling trees and axes chopping led at least one modern critic to title his review “Travelogue for the Lumber Industry of 1925.” (If you’re impatient, you might even wonder if this film is the origin of “sawing logs” as a synonym for sleep.)

George Chesebro plays Dick Bannister (probably one the manliest character names imaginable), the Ford Logging Company’s new field boss. The company’s rival is the Consolidated Lumber Company, who might as well be a gang. Employees of the Consolidated have resorted to thuggish tactics to put Ford out of business, including sniping at unsuspecting loggers with rifles to put them out of work. When one of the Ford men is wounded, Bannister calls on the big-city boss to send a real surgeon to the camp. That boss turns out to be Miss Edith Ford (Clayton), who is more accustomed to hosting depraved flapper parties with lots of bootleg booze.

Miss Ford arrives at the camp with her fiance, a doctor, in tow, and immediately catches the eye of Bannister. A flirtation ensues, despite her engagement. Not long after her arrival, Bannister confronts the rival loggers, who have now built a dam across a river needed for log transport. A lengthy fistfight ensues (even a dog gets involved at one point), and Bannister is ultimately beaten down and left for dead. Dr. Horton (Miss Ford’s fiance) takes Bannister to a nearby cabin and attempts to save his life, but knows a transfusion is needed. He glances through a handy book he happens to have which tells him all about using animal blood for transfusions. It’s safe enough, it seems, though there’s an awfully worrisome caveat: the recipient of the transfusion may take on characteristics of the animal whose blood has been used.

Bannister receiving his transfusion.

Horton doesn’t hesitate, motivated in part by the fact the he knows Bannister is a rival for Miss Ford’s affections. It’s here, post-transfusion, that the film gets interesting, though there’s not much left of it. Of course we know, as modern film-goers, that Bannister is probably not really a werewolf now, it doesn’t matter. Rumors go around the camp about his transfusion, and suddenly none of the loggers will have anything to do with him. He’s become untouchable. Other. It’s difficult not to compare Bannister’s purported lycanthropism with the fear of AIDS, or even the recent ebola scare. With his former friends treating him as less than human, it’s easy for Bannister to believe that he is, in fact, a monster. When Jules Deveroux, boss of the rival camp, turns up with his throat mauled by wolves, it confirms his—and the rest of the camp’s beliefs.

Bannister begins to go mad with the idea that he has become a monster, and he actually starts hearing the call of the wolves. Ghostly images of wolves appear as he is compelled to follow the pack. There’s a touch of Frankenstein here, as Bannister wrestles with what he has become. And while he may not actually have become anything, when others decide you are a monster, is it really any different than being one? 

Wolf Blood is available as a double feature on DVD with Murnau’s The Haunted Castle, or can be streamed on the net from various sources (the film is in the public domain). 

Be sure and subscribe to read about the 30 other silent horror films that will be featured as part of the 31 Days of Silent Horror Films event this October.