Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926)

Directed by F.W. Murnau [Other horror films: Satanas (1920), Der Bucklige und die Tänzerin (1920), Der Januskopf (1920), Schloß Vogelöd (1921) Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)]

Obliviously much more a drama than a horror, Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage still has enough dark elements in it for it to clearly count as horror, which I’m grateful for, because otherwise, I’d probably never have seen this beautiful-looking movie.

The story here is one, of course, of a morality tale, in which Mephisto makes a wager with an angel that he can corrupt Faust, and the angel’s all like “Brah, men are too good to corrupt, I take your wager and if I lose, the world is yours.” And of course, through the tragedy and misery, the grace of God reigns supreme, and because of love, Mephisto’s wager fails.

Now, I can do without all of the religious bullshit, but I admit that I love how some movies back then had the cojones to work within such a strongly fantastical story. Morality tales were the basis of horror films (just look at 1913’s Der Student von Prag), and stories that took place primarily in Hell have too been done (Italy’s 1925 Maciste all’inferno), so a movie like this that deals with a theological wager between two high entities is certainly welcomed. And you know that, if a newer movie did this, it would just look ridiculous, but here, it doesn’t look too shabby at all.

The pleasure of watching silent films is seeing exactly how much they were able to do with the limitations they had, and there are plenty of scenes in this film that really look great, and in fact far more impressive than modern-day special effects. While I do wish the latter half of the story had had more carnage in it (aside from that provided by the religious bigots who were going to burn a woman to death for killing her child, but the only reason that child died was because the religious bigots considered the woman a ‘whore’ and thus she had no support system – just another reason to stand against religious beliefs, I feel), I cannot deny that the special effects here all look stupendous.

Emil Jannings (Die Augen der Mumie Ma and Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) was solid as Mephisto, though there were a few light-hearted scenes surrounding him and a woman who was chasing after him (played by Yvette Guilbert) that I could have done without. As Faust, Gösta Ekman had an expressive and expansive range, and came across very impressively. And as for Camilla Horn – well, let me put it this way: I’m not usually one to find women from older movies attractive, but her – hubba hubba. I mean, she was one smokin’ piece, as the kids say, and her performance too, once the story turned more tragic, was certainly admirable.

Valentin, played by William Dieterle (the aforementioned Das Washsfigurenkabinett being his only other venture into horror) was a solid character, big and strong, until he went after his sister’s lover (after saying, basically, that she should put herself out more) and then calling her a ‘whore’ and also calling for her death. So basically, fuck this guy.

So with a fine cast, amazing special effects, and an interesting set-up, Faust is definitely one of those German classics that people like me sometimes like to bring up. It’s a damn fine piece of cinema, and while it’s not a personal favorite from the silent era for me personally, it’s still very much worth seeing.

7.5/10

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

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