The Bells (1926)

The Bells

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.

8/10

The Last Warning (1928)

The Last Warning

Directed by Paul Leni [Other horror films: Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924), The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Man Who Laughs (1928)]

Much like Paul Leni’s previous mystery/horror, The Cat and the Canary, The Last Warning takes a moderately cliché plot (even for the time) and dresses it up in a way that makes the movie a special and enjoyable treat.

While this film contains some comedic portions (just as The Cat and the Canary did), I feel it’s noticeably toned down, and for most of the film, I think the plot’s played pretty straight. Which is only a positive, as this mystery, boasting no less than something like ten possible suspects, has a lot of potential from the beginning, and too much comedy would bring it down. Luckily, that didn’t happen.

As aforementioned, the cast of this film is rather large, all the more to make the mystery identity of the killer more fun to figure out. It wasn’t uncommon to see five, six, as much as ten or eleven, characters all in a single shot. Of course, trying to keep track of everyone throughout the film is close to impossible, but it still helped out the feeling of pandemonium, especially toward the end (during a deeply enjoyable chase sequence).

Laura La Plante (who also starred in The Cat and the Canary) didn’t get as much screen-time as you might hope, but still played her character sympathetically (which, given how unlikable she was at the beginning, was sort of necessary). Her love interest, played by John Boles (who later appeared in Frankenstein), was quite competent in his role. As most of the cast members were. In fact, all of the follow actors and actresses stood out positively as their roles: Montagu Love, Margaret Livingston, Roy D’Arcy, Burr McIntosh, Mack Swain, Bert Roach, and Carrie Daumery. Perhaps, out of all these names, the true standouts are Love, Livingston, and McIntosh.

Perhaps one of the reasons I like this film as much as I do (when I first saw it years back, I was quite happy, and luckily this rewatch hasn’t changed that) is because of the large amount of suspects. True, given the film is only an hour and 17 minutes, there’s not enough time to flesh out every single character and potential motivation (which, while in theory would be welcomed, it more likely than not would come out dull), but still, it’s the thought that counts. The mystery was fun, more fun than many old dark house flicks (since this film takes place in a dilapidated theater house, the setting made it even more unique), and certainly still comes across as strong.

The most common print for this movie is far from perfect, with a very scratchy feel, and general lack of great preservation, but at the same time, in this case, I think it helps give the movie additional character. It does help, though, that the score is mostly solid, without any real issues.

The Last Warning is a favorite of mine from the silent era, and sadly, I think it’s mostly overlooked. The Cat and the Canary and Waxworks are both far more widely-known Leni films, and how many other silent flicks are more well-known than this one? From Nosferatu to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, from The Phantom of the Opera to The Bat, The Last Warning has sort of been overlooked (not as badly as 1926’s Midnight Faces, sure, but The Last Warning is, at least, a Leni movie), which is a great shame. Leni died in 1929 due to blood poisoning, and did fantastic things for the genre, and his final movie is no less a great addition to horror.

8.5/10

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

man laugh

Directed by Paul Leni [Other horror films: Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924), The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Last Warning (1928)]

Directed by Paul Leni, The Man Who Laughs is a masterfully moody, occasionally tragic, piece of melodrama, with a few spices of horror thrown in.

The historical nature of the plot did the movie well, as the set pieces and costumes all looked rather authentic. The brooding nature of the story was well-done too, helped by the score, which, while not perfect, felt as though it could have been the score when first this movie came out, over ninety years ago.

It’s the actors who should get the most accolades, though; Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Brandon Hurst, Cesare Gravina, and George Siegmann all make this movie a film well worth watching.

Veidt, by this point, may need no introduction. He was in a plethora of silent horror classics, including Furcht (or Fear, from 1917), Unheimliche Geschichten (Eerie Tales, 1919), Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac, 1924), Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, 1924), Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague, 1926), and The Last Performance (from 1929). That’s not even counting the unfortunately-lost Der Januskopf (The Head of Janus, 1920), which was an unauthorized version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (much like Nosferatu was to Dracula).

Conrad Veidt got around, and it’s clear, from this movie, to see how. He possessed an extraordinarily emotional range, and his character, the tragic figure of Gwynplaine, was very well-acted. Throughout the film, Veidt’s performance is truly a treat to watch.

Philbin wasn’t in all that many films, but she did co-star in the 1925 Phantom of the Opera, with Lon Chaney, and again, with Veidt, in the 1929 The Last Performance. Here, she plays a beautiful blind woman, named Dea, who is deeply in love with Gwynplaine, despite never having seen his disfigured face. Playing her role convincingly, Philbin stood out strong.

Brandon Hurst, who had small roles in various early horror flicks (such as 1932’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and 1932’s White Zombie) gets credit for playing one of the slimiest silent characters with his portrayal of Barkilphedro. Sinister, yet suave, Hurst did well in showing the sleaziness of his character throughout the whole of the film, and from his very first scene, you can’t help but hold Barkilphedro in abhorrence.

Gravina isn’t much known outside of this movie. He had a few uncredited roles in classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera (1923 and 1925), and mainly dabbled in early Italian shorts. Here, he doesn’t get a whole lot of screen-time, but during one scene in particular, his performance broke my heart. Such sad, moving scene generally aren’t what I’d expect from silent films, but that one just killed me.

Siegmann, who I spoke about also in my review for The Cat and the Canary, isn’t that big a name insofar as horror is concerned, though he did appear in the 1909 short The Sealed Room and 1914’s The Avenging Conscience. Here, he played Dr. Hardquanonne, a rather sadistic individual who disfigured Gwynplaine. I wish that he got more screen-time than he did, because like Hurst, he was a dark force to be reckoned with, but still, this being his final role before his early death, Siegmann did quite well.

The cast of this movie is amazing, and the film, as a whole, is an atmospheric, moody piece of art. While it would be unfair to call it a horror film in the purest definition, The Man Who Laughs is a dark classic, and while the ending is not nearly as tragic as one might expect, there are plenty of sad scenes throughout. I didn’t really appreciate this when I first saw it, and even now, it makes a better drama film than a horror film, without a doubt, but even so, this Leni classic is one that any movie fan should look out for.

8.5/10

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Cat and the Canary

Directed by Paul Leni [Other horror films: Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924), The Man Who Laughs (1928), The Last Warning (1928)]

A classic of silent cinema for a reason, The Cat and the Canary is a wonderfully-made dark house horror-comedy mix that stands up to this day.

Directed by Paul Leni (Waxworks, The Man Who Laughs, and The Last Warning being his greatest additions to horror besides this), The Cat and the Canary is a very well-done and atmospheric movie, which certainly feels as though it possesses the artistic flair of Leni’s previous Waxworks. The comedy isn’t too pervasive (though one gag does run a little long), and it’s even moderately welcomed at times (the line “I thought I had an appointment, now I’m sure of it” still got a kick out of me).

This silent flick has a lot of flair to it. The inter-titles are cleverly used to indicate mood (shaky text when one is scared, all caps when someone shouts, etc.), and the setting of an old, dark mansion was fun. As was the plot – who doesn’t like a good will-reading, old, dark house mystery, and a killer known as The Cat? Toward the end, when everyone was running around doing their own things, it amazed me how much action a silent movie was able to emulate. And I do mean silent. The print I happened to see this time around had no score, but unlike most silent films, that didn’t really seem to take anything away from the movie. It was still suspenseful when suspense was called for, so it worked out well.

The cast was pretty solid throughout. Laura La Plante (who is also in Leni’s 1929 The Last Warning) did fantastic as the main woman, who everyone thought was going insane. Creighton Hale (who starred also in Seven Footprints to Satan, 1929), who started off a comic relief character, slowly became the hero of the film, and held his own against the killer toward the end of the movie is a show of bravery. Though Tully Marshall wasn’t onscreen for that long a period of time, he also stood out positively.

Martha Mattox, who played a grim housekeeper to great effect, was another solid performance. Mattox, coincidentally, appeared in a couple of early 30’s films I really liked (Murder by the Clock from 1931 and The Monster Walks from 1932) before her early death at 53 in 1933. George Siegmann, like Marshall, only appeared a handful of times, but was also pretty solid. Siegmann, like many of the others I’ve mentioned, has a history with silent horror, not only appearing in Leni’s next movie, The Man Who Laughs from 1928, but also appeared back in 1914’s The Avenging Conscience. As it turns out, Siegmann died in 1928, so The Man Who Laughs would be his final movie.

Lastly, playing a seemingly-sinister doctor, Lucien Littlefield did fantastic. Unfortunately, he only appears toward the tail-end of the film, but it’s still solid enough to stand out.

The Cat and the Canary is a silent horror flick with style, and while I admit I didn’t care for it much the first time I saw it (many years ago, when I was something like 14 or 15), it certainly comes across a far more enjoyable movie now, and is a highlight of the 1920’s.

8.5/10

Midnight Faces (1926)

Midnight Faces

Directed by Bennett Cohen [Other horror films: N/A]

At under 55 minutes, Midnight Faces doesn’t appear to have a lot going for it on the surface. But if you’re a fan of the old dark house mystery type movies (old dark houses, reading of wills, secret passages, multiple suspects, etc), then I think you’d have a blast with this one.

The plot isn’t any better or any worse than any other dark house mystery, but the setting (a mansion in the Florida swamps) is decently fun. Mildly related, while the copy I saw had multiple issues (which I’ll expand on in a bit), I did like the greenish tint most of this movie had. Really helped the audience feel the more swampy atmosphere.

Despite being short, Midnight Faces has no lack of characters, with eleven individuals popping up now and again. Luckily, most of these people, despite the blurriness of the copy, are easily distinguishable. Francis X. Bushman Jr. does a good job as the main character, and despite the ever-present racial stereotypes of the times, his body man, a character named Trohelius Washington Snapp (played by Martin Turner) was occasionally amusing at times also.

The print I viewed, and I believe to be most common, has a multitude of problems, including color tinting fading from a lighter to a darker shade (at times, almost appearing black-and-white), cropped poorly, generally bad picture quality (even for a silent movie), and a repetitive score (it seemed to loop only three pieces of classical music). On the upside, one of the pieces was Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major, which was pleasantly calming.

In short, the commonly available print may not be up to high standards, but if you got a kick out of movies like The Cat and the Canary, The Bat Whispers, One Body Too Many, The Monster Walks, or any number of old dark house mysteries, or if you’re into silent movies, I’d give this one a shot. After seeing this one a few times, I still enjoy it, so maybe others will too.

7.5/10

Maciste all’inferno (1925)

Maciste

Directed by Guido Brignone [Other horror films: N/A]

Provided you’re in the right mood, this early Italian flick may be a hell of a lot of fun.

A small note, first: Maciste is one of the earliest reoccuring characters in the history of cinema, and is very well-known throughout Italy. A Hercules-type figure, Maciste is a man of much physical and moral strength. Played by actor Bartolomeo Pagano, Maciste appeared in over 25 silent films from 1914 to 1926 (Maciste all’inferno being one of the last ones).

The plot of this movie is about as simple as it sounds: being of strong moral fiber, King Pluto (or the Devil) takes it upon himself to tempt, and damn, Maciste, in order to destroy his morality. And once Maciste gets taken down to Hell, which happens about twenty minutes in, we’re in for a fun time.

It may sound a serious melodrama, of sorts, which certainly aren’t uncommon insofar as silent cinema is concerned, but Maciste all’inferno is a lot of fun. It’s an hour and five minutes of fantastic special effects (that hold up to this day), fist-fighting brawling action (seeing Maciste brawl with the legions of Hell is damn fun), and amazing fantasy, albeit certainly dated. It didn’t take itself seriously, and what we have is a light-hearted (though certainly, there’s still some real drama at points), often fun flick.

There were some really great scenes in this movie, from multiple decapitations (and after one of these, a demon re-attaches his head, which was creative), to all-out brawls between two factions of Hell, to a scene with Maciste flying on a dragon over the depths of Hell. Some things looked a little hooky, but was it fun? Hell yeah (pun certainly intended).

The main problem I had was a subplot that seemed to come out of nowhere. Wanting to usurp King Pluto’s place, another demon named Barbariccia led a revolt in order to satisfy his “revenge.” Perhaps it just flew by me, but I have no idea what exactly he wanted revenge for. It was a cool bunch of sequences, but still, I felt I was missing context, which may well have to do with the version I watched.

About the copy of the film I watched: there’s a 95-minute version of this movie out there, which can be found online, but I opted for the shorter 65-minute version, for two reasons. Most importantly, the alternative version was in it’s native Italian with French captions. I speak neither Italian nor French, and would look very idiotic trying to. Secondly, it uses the score of the French progressive/death metal band Gojira. While I have nothing against Gojira’s music, it’s not the type of stuff I want to listen to while watching a silent movie.

Still, even the shorter version of Maciste all’inferno was a lot of fun (and probably more digestible if you’re not into silent films), and everyone involved seemed to have a good time. One of Italy’s earliest-surviving horror films (though no doubt this could also simply be called either a fantasy or action flick), Maciste all’inferno was a deeply enjoyable watch the first time around, and it was no different this time.

8.5/10

Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924)

Waxworks

Directed by Leo Birinsky [Other horror films: N/A] & Paul Leni [Other horror films: The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Man Who Laughs (1928), The Last Warning (1928)]

A far more well-known silent anthology than Unheimliche Geschichten (1919), this Paul Leni film (commonly known as Waxworks) has an entire different set of problems, but at the same time, still comes out a slightly better film.

With two stories comprising most of the hour and 23 minute film (each story an average of 38 minutes), the biggest issue with Das Wachsfigurenkabinett is that it’s tone isn’t that consistent. The first story is a bit of a light-hearted adventure, with jaunty sequences and music. The second was a much slower, almost somber, historical piece about Ivan the Terrible. And the last sequence was a mere six minutes or so, which is where most of this movie’s horror elements come from.

So an adventure/history/horror mix is certainly an interesting idea, and the framing story (a writer comes up with stories on some waxworks figures) is certainly decent, but how is the movie as a whole?

The first story, starring Emil Jannings (previously seen in the 1918 Die Augen der Mumie Ma) as a Caliph, was lot of fun, with some great looking set pieces and an enjoyable story. The second, with Conrad Veidt (from 1919’s Unheimliche Geschichten and 1920’s classic Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) was certainly more in the vein of horror, but the story didn’t do much for me until the pay-off at the end. And the third sequence, with Jack the Ripper/Spring-heel Jack was just too short to really warrant strong opinions one way or the other.

For any anthology movie, I feel that there should be a base of three to four stories, and not counting the framing story, Waxwork had two, all things considered. And while one of them was pretty fun, and many sequences looked cool (along with a fight on top of a temple), this movie didn’t have what I really look for in anthology films.

Paul Leni, who later directed such titles as 1927’s The Cat and the Canary, 1928’s The Man Who Laughs and The Last Warning (perhaps one of my favorite silent horror films), did an okay job, but again, the tone didn’t really work for me. That said, this is still considered a classic for a reason, and providing that you’re able to locate the right print, if you’re a fan of silent flicks, this is still worth a watch (if for nothing else, the expressionist set pieces), but all-in-all, it falls a bit below average for me.

6.5/10

Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (1923)

Warning

Directed by Arthur Robison [Other horror films: Nächte des Grauens (1917), Der Student von Prag (1935)]

Known most commonly as Warning Shadows, this German classic, originally titled Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (what a mouthful that is), is a somewhat difficult movie to talk about. On one hand, I deeply appreciate and like the idea of what director Arthur Robison was going for, but on the other hand, past a certain point, I can’t help but think that the movies drags.

It’s not a lengthy film, at only an hour and 23 minutes. But most silent films have intertitles (in order to get dialogue across to the audience), and Robison decided to opt out of using those. Which means without paying attention to the characters and their relationships with each other, given there is zero dialogue given throughout the film, you’ll most likely feel lost.

Which is, in theory, a neat idea, and really lends to the film’s expressionist and often moody feeling. But after forty minutes, it’s a bit much.

The plot, in which a shadow-player’s (think a magician of sorts who focuses on manipulating light and shadows) arrival at a dinner party exasperate the already struggling relationship between a baron and his flirtatious wife, is decently fun, although I do think there’s a few too many characters afoot. The route the film takes is an interesting one, and while I do think it drags, I’d say the story works out pretty well.

This is true, in part, due to many factors. Most of the actors and actresses do well at expressing themselves without the use of intertitles, with Alexander Granach (also in the classic Nosferatu), Fritz Kortner, and Ruth Weyher standing out the most.

The color scheme for the version I saw was mostly a purple tint, which I thought went a long way in helping create the moody atmosphere of the flick. The score, too, added to the effect. While the score I heard wasn’t at all the original (an electronic portion showcasing that much), it went from dark and brooding to festive in all the right moments. Lastly, the visuals of the movie were pretty cool, which, given it’s an expressionist movie, you probably wouldn’t expect anything less.

Given all of these positive elements, though, I just can’t get beyond the fact that, after half the run-time, I found myself losing focus. In truth, I feel sort of ashamed of it, as this is one of those classic movies you really want to like and spread the word on, but I was struggling to care past a certain point. Because of that, despite the plenty of positive aspects, I’m giving it a bit below average.

That said, this is one of those films I recommend anyone check out, because I think that it’s the type of movie that most people would get a kick out of, at least to a certain extent.

One last note: Arthur Robison, the director, made 21 movies, most of them lost with time. The only other movie of note is a 1935 version of Der Student von Prag, the 1913 version being the first intact full-length horror film, which was previously reviewed. Just a little factoid.

Warning Shadows is worth a watch, but like I said, don’t be surprised if you find it a little sluggish.

6/10

Häxan (1922)

Haxan

Directed by Benjamin Christensen [Other horror films: Hævnens Nat (1916), The Haunted House (1928), Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), House of Horror (1929)]

Häxan is a deeply interesting movie. Part documentary, part dramatized sequences of things from torturing the confession of witchcraft out of women and covens of old women crafting potions, Häxan isn’t a movie that you’re soon to forget.

Throughout the film, we’re given some information and historical context for the belief in the devil and, more specifically, witchcraft and the trials of those accused of such black magic. These portions, while to some may seem dry, are pretty interesting, especially from a modern-day perspective. At times, sure, you might wish they focused more on the dramatized sequences as opposed to a lecture, but I thought it was balanced decently well, a section on middle age torture devices standing out.

There’s some wild stuff in this movie, too. Perhaps not surprisingly gruesome given the subject matter, there’s all manner of torture and depictions of Hell through the film, and while the demons and Devil have a certain whimsical feel to them, there are still some horrific stuff being done.

Many of the special effects are pretty cool, especially a sequence showing witches flying over a small village. Some of the costumes are a bit ridiculous, but at the same time, it’s a Swedish movie from 1922, so I’m not inclined to judge that too harshly.

There are a few of the dramatized scenes that run a bit long, I think, without much interesting content, and the movie does run an hour and 45 minutes (at least the print I saw this time around), so at times it can feel like a bit much. Still, the visuals and effects the movie boasts certainly makes it worth a look.

Directed by Benjamin Christensen (who also directed the 1929 Seven Footprints to Satan, a movie I deeply enjoyed when last I saw it), Haxan is an interesting experience that, if you’re a fan of silent films, is very much worth looking into. While it’s arguable that it loses some of the power with rewatches, having seen the movie twice, perhaps three times now, it’s still a solid viewing.

8/10

Schloß Vogelöd (1921)

Haunted Castle

Directed by F.W. Murnau [Other horror films: Satanas (1920), Der Bucklige und die Tänzerin (1920), Der Januskopf (1920), Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926)]

Directed by F.W. Murnau (who later directed both Nosferatu and Faust), Schloß Vogelöd (or The Haunted Castle) does a pretty good job at creating an interesting early mystery/horror hybrid, held back by it’s length and related, some of the scenes.

This compelling story, revolving around possible lies about a three-year old murder, has a lot of mystery and secrets, with a twist or two, throughout. It has a moderately dark atmosphere, and is overall a fun movie.

It does run on a bit longer than it really needs to, though. At an hour and 22 minutes, I can’t help but think that things dragged a bit through some of the acts (this movie is divided into five acts), especially the second and fourth. There’s a dream sequence that, while not overly lengthy, feels a bit out of place, and I could have done without that.

Arnold Korff (who played the host) and Paul Hartmann (Oetsch, who was accused of killing his brother) both do really well in their roles, and while no one in this movie does a bad job (aside from maybe Julius Falkenstein, and that may have just been because his character was more comedic relief than anything else), Korff and Hartmann stand out the most.

To many, if not most, The Haunted Castle would be a minor German movie, a silent mystery, of little interest. Personally, I think the story is very solid, and while many may not, I’ve seen this movie twice and still consider it a horror flick, albeit one very borderline. Regardless, though, if you like silent movies, or are willing to give one a shot, aside from the fact that this runs a bit long (though I would recommend the 1 hour and 22 minute version over the 55 minute, more common, cut), I think you’d enjoy this one.

7.5/10