Directed by James Young [Other horror films: N/A]
I’ve seen this once before many years back, and was rather bored by it. This time around, I was in a better state of mind to enjoy it, though I can’t deny it’s moderately derivative, as this movie doesn’t have much that The Avenging Conscience didn’t bring forth 12 years prior.
Plenty of solid performances can be found here: Lionel Barrymore (this was his first voyage into the horror genre – he later appeared in such classics as Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll) does well here as the innkeeper. He’s a good man put under immense stress, and snaps. It’s easy to both feel pity for his characterization and to abhor his acts. Great with this role, Barrymore pulls it all together. Gustav von Seyffertitz (who we later see in the 1930 classic The Bat Whispers) does well here as a rather unlikable, but ultimately harmless, money-hungry individual.
The innkeeper’s daughter and her soldier lover (played by Lola Todd and Eddie Phillips, respectfully) make a pretty cute couple, though they end up not really being all that relevant to the plot (despite Phillips’ character being charged with finding the murderer). Of perhaps most interest, Boris Karloff makes a few appearances here. Most known for playing the Frankenstein monster in the 1931 classic, he’s been in various horror films from the 1930’s to the early 1970’s. In his first horror role, he plays a mesmerist (taking more than a few cues from Caligari) who, despite his relatively short screen-time, does make quite an impression.
As aforementioned, though, the rough story here can be found earlier in The Avenging Conscience: or, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’, and a few other murder melodramas, where one’s conscience effectively haunts the main character after they commit the ever-sinful act of murder. Despite this, though, I actually thought this film was put together more cohesively than The Avenging Conscience. It certainly looks better, and given it came out ten years later, it does feel a bit more fresh, insofar as cinematography goes.
Many find this just too derivative and perhaps even stale to stand out as a classic of silent cinema. They’re right, in part – The Bells shouldn’t be seen as a classic (especially the version I watched, which had a six-and-a-half minute piece of music looped through the whole hour and ten minute film). However, I think there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had from the solid performances and some of the scenes (including a quick ax to the back, leaving drops of blood on the snow, or the epic dream sequence near the end).
I fully admit I was bored when I first saw this. Luckily, it broke past previous my previous views of the film, and ended up being, while not the best horror film of the 1920’s (or even 1926), a pretty solid watch.