Unheimliche Geschichten (1919)

Unheimliche

Directed by Richard Oswald [Other horror films: Der Hund von Baskerville, 3. Teil – Das unheimliche Zimmer (1916), Der Hund von Baskerville, 4. Teil (1916), Nächte des Grauens (1917), Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray (1917), Nachtgestalten (1920), Cagliostro – Liebe un Leben eines großen Abenteurers (1929), Der Hund von Baskerville (1929), Unheimliche Geschichten (1932)]

The first anthology horror movie ever made, Unheimliche Geschichten (known as Eerie Tales, or Uncanny Tales) further cements Germany’s domination in the horror genre, but also presents us a mixed bag of uninspired stories.

Out of the five stories within this anthology (The Apparition, The Hand, The Black Cat, The Suicide Club, and The Spectre), the only one that I really didn’t like was the final story, The Spectre, which is based off a poem and has a much more light-hearted feel to it. But that’s not to say the other four stories are good – in fact, really, only one story is above average, being The Suicide Club, while the other three are either average or below, being held back by either my perceived unoriginality or too stagy a vibe.

The Apparition is, for the most part, decent, and there is a rather spooky vibe to it, and I even like the ending reveal, but it was just lacking additional meat to the story. The Hand was decently well done, but again, there’s not much to it. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Black Cat was enjoyable to a degree, but just fell short of actually captivating me. The Spectre, which is unfortunately the worst story within and the worst to end the flick on, wasn’t my thing whatsoever.

The framing story wasn’t amazing, but I’m giving that a break – being the first anthology horror movie (preceding the 1945 classic Dead of Night by 26 years), I don’t expect an amazing set up. The actors throughout were okay, but some were prone to overacting even within the silent era of film, which is saying something. Perhaps Conrad Veidt did the best, playing roles in all five stories, along with the framing sequence (something also done by both Reinhold Schunzel and Anita Berber).

Unheimliche Geschichten is a piece of history, and for fans particularly of anthology horror movies, it might be worth a look, but to say that it is occasionally stale, and comes across far more average than you could hope, would be understating it. By no means a bad film, when all is said and done, there are plenty of other silent German films I would recommend before this one.

6/10

Die Augen der Mumie Ma (1918)

Eyes of the Mummy

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch [Other horror films: N/A]

This is a moderately difficult flick to talk about, mainly because it straddles the line between horror and non-horror. Ultimately, I do think that Die Augen der Mumie Ma (The Eyes of the Mummy, as it’s commonly known) is a horror movie, but I would not at all excuse anyone else for thinking otherwise.

If you’re expecting an actual mummy, as many viewers tend to, then that might lead to many of the disappointments this movie brings. It’s a heavy drama-laden flick, not to mention romance, which overshadows the horror aspects. Luckily, toward the end, things do pick up. Not that much, though. While I’m a fan of the ending, it comes in far too late to make that positive an impact, and unfortunately, there were too few scenes prior that had much a threatening feel to them.

Another thing that I can’t help but criticize: most of the times, actors in silent flicks are about as good as you would expect, with a few standing out above the others. Here, it just seems to me that many of the actors’ and actresses’ hearts weren’t into it. Harry Liedtke was fine, but didn’t have the power to really carry the protagonist side of the plot, and sadly, neither did Pola Negri (her dancing didn’t do much for me either, on a side-note).

Emil Jannings did the best, by far, with his performance. While he was nowhere near as good as other early mad men (he’s no Lorre from Mad Love, or Barrymore Svengali), to be sure, and he didn’t get a hell of a lot of characterization, I still felt that most of the time, Jannings came across as a threat. I just wish he had more screen-time to do so.

Die Augen der Mumie Ma will probably disappoint most horror fans going in expecting a Nosferatu or Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. Perhaps one of the few missteps Germany took during their reign over the horror genre (and it is entirely possible that this flick was meant far more a drama/romance than horror), this movie just doesn’t have much to recommend, especially considering far better movies that came out around the same time.

5/10

Pikovaya dama (1916)

Pikovaya

Directed by Yakov Protazanov [Other horror films: Satana likuyushchiy (1917)]

This Russian flick (often known as Queen of Spades) comes to us a year before the Russian revolution, before the USSR came into power, and so it certainly feels historic when watching. But having seen it twice now, it really doesn’t leave that much an imprint on me.

The biggest problem, for me, at least, is that while the horror elements are there (apparitions, a man losing his mind, and the like), they come so late into the film to really make a positive difference. Which isn’t to say the story isn’t good before that, but it feels far more a drama than anything resembling even the 1910’s standards of horror.

Unfortunately, despite the well-done set up of the plot, this lack of horror early on is rather damaging. Utilizing flashbacks as a way to unfold the story was certainly fun (and perhaps even innovative), but after the first 15 minutes, the movie drags until around the last ten. Sure, the movie as a whole is just over an hour, so it’s not as though it drags for a long time, but it was still noticeable.

One thing Pikovaya dama did really well, though, is the score, which is superb. Suspenseful when it needs to be, the music in this flick was a real treat, and even during portions where I was less than enthralled, the music helped keep me engaged. The other high point was our main actor, Ivan Mozzhukhin, who did a perfectly enjoyable job throughout as a man obsessed with discovering a secret best left untouched.

The final showdown, as it was, lacked the suspense one would hope, and Pikovaya dama wraps up extraordinarily quickly, which was a bit of a let-down. Still, this is a movie I would recommend a fan of silents view once, as there are some clever and enjoyable parts to be found. As a horror flick, though, there’s not a whole lot to recommend this movie for.

5.5/10

The Avenging Conscience: or, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ (1914)

Avenging

Directed by D.W. Griffith [Other horror films: One Exciting Night (1922)]

One of the earliest full-length horror films, and one of the USA’s first of note, this D.W. Griffith feature, while enjoyable, is a mixed bag.

The main problem is that this is a moderately meandering, melodramatic morality tale (alliteration FTW!). Murder is bad, and thou shalt not kill, and all that rot, but it doesn’t make for an amazing story. Still, for the most part, things worked out okay.

The first 55 minutes were all solid, with a few seemingly-less necessary portions, but after a certain point, things felt as they were dragging. It picked up again at the end, with a twist of sorts (though really, it makes sense in the context of the story), and I rather enjoyed the conclusion.

Henry B. Walthall did a good job as a young man on the edge of sanity – you could tell that toward the end, his character was drenched in uncertainness. Walthall, overall, did quite well here. His uncle, played by Spottiswoode Aitken, was memorable also, though I wish we saw a bit more of him. While no one else stood out to me, everyone played their roles fine.

Making many references to Edgar Allan Poe (constantly quoting ‘Annabel Lee’, and alluding to both The Cask of Amontillado and The Tell-Tale Heart), portions of The Avenging Conscience do come across as perhaps darker than you would think. The score, at times jovial, at times almost frantic, really helped to make some scenes more suspenseful.

The Avenging Conscience: or, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ may not come across to many as a real horror movie, despite both murder and revenge from beyond the grave, because of the amount of romantic drama, but I’d urge any fan of horror to still give it a shot. It’s far from perfect, and not even close to the best silent horror flick, but it’s still solid despite the flaws, and is definitely a piece of horror history.

7.5/10

Der Student von Prag (1913)

Student

Directed by Paul Wegener [Other horror films: Der Golem (1915), Der Golem und die Tänzerin (1917), Die Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920)] & Stellan Rye [Other horror films: N/A]

One of the earliest full-length horror movies ever made (despite also being a self-described “romantic drama”), Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague) is a true piece of horror and cinema history, and while that doesn’t mean that the film is utterly amazing, this movie still has a lot of charm, and is worth seeing.

While certainly tame by today’s standards, the story is still pretty fun, and occasionally even creepy. Making a deal with the devil-morality tales have never been high on my enjoyment list, but this movie makes it work out pretty well, despite the age of the film.

Certainly, drawbacks are present – while we do get some good action toward the third and fourth acts, the first two are muddled with, well, romantic drama sequences. It is worth noting, though, that despite this, even at an hour and 22 minutes, generally speaking, Der Student von Prag doesn’t feel as though it drags at any point. Sure, these melodramatic scenes are a bit much, but you’re still invested enough in the characters so that it doesn’t really come across a burden.

There are also some scenes that don’t feel believable (for instance, the ease in which multiple people can break into the mansion of a Count strikes me as a security threat), but it’s a small thing. Believe it or not, though, there are a few creepy scenes, especially one toward the end when the main character, Balduin, realizes he has no reflection. That was well-shot, as was the downbeat ending (though, without a doubt, you can see it coming from a mile away).

Three actors stand out above the others, being Paul Wegener (Balduin), John Gottowt (Scapinelli), and Lyda Salmonova (Lyduschka). Wegener (also the director of this film) gives an incredibly expressive performance throughout, and sure, it’s occasionally over the top, but what else would you expect from a silent movie? Gottowt does a damn fine job playing the sinister Scapinelli, and has an engaging screen presence. While Salmonova doesn’t have much to do in the last few acts, she’s fun throughout her appearances early on.

Germany was, as far as I’m concerned, the undisputed king of horror from the release of this film (1913) to around the mid-1920’s, and while this certainly isn’t Germany’s most memorable silent horror flick, or their most enjoyable (plenty of others come to mind), having watched this three times now, I can say that it does stand the test of time despite it’s flaws.

7.5/10