mhesselius

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Reviews

Noah's Ark
(1928)

Zanuck tries to out DeMille DeMille
This is a very disappointing effort by producer-writer Darryl F. Zanuck and Michael Curtiz in his American directorial debut. The film is obviously an attempt to replicate the DeMille formula of selling pre-code cheesecake in a biblical package. Which is OK if you have some original ideas. But this film has very little new to offer, and steals not only from DeMille, but from Rex Ingram's THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE and Frank Borzage's SEVENTH HEAVEN.

The WWI story is blatantly derived from FOUR HORSEMEN, and carries over some of that film's problems. The idea that war can have a moral impact and yet remain immoral in the abstract doesn't cohere; and the portrayal of Travis (played by George O'Brien) and his buddy Al (played by Guinn Williams) as untroubled by moral misgivings about taking part in an apocalyptic war undercuts the anti-war message Zanuck seemed to be striving for.

The maudlin sentiment - Al has a picture of "Mother" in his helmet - and facial mugging of the actors gives NOAH'S ARK the appearance of a film made ten years earlier. And the scene in the biblical section of a sightless Japheth divinely led to his lover Miriam (Dolores Costello) works no better than Charles Farrel's blind search for Janet Gaynor in SEVENTH HEAVEN.

However, criticism of the incompatibility between the the modern and biblical sections is not valid. Both stories have apocalyptic themes; the comparison of God's decision to destroy "all flesh" in the flood, and the endgame specter of ten million dead in WWI would not be lost on audiences of 1929. Also the melodramatic tale of lust that leads the villain Nickoloff to condemn Travis' German wife to execution as a spy does roughly parallel King Nephilim's determination to sacrifice a virgin to an idol in the biblical section.

More jarring than the parallel stories - or the ridiculous leopard skin costumes worn by Noah's sons - is the inclusion of spoken lines in the modern section. The actors' slow, careful, halting enunciation, and the drivel that come out whenever they open their mouths, kills the pace of the film and shows why Murnau believed the transition to sound was premature.

The saving grace of the film is the spectacle of the ancient city and the flood itself, but the sets in the biblical section bear more than a little resemblance to the Babylonian sets in Griffith's INTOLERANCE, and the flood could not help but be realistic since Curtiz saw fit to let loose tons of water on extras who didn't know it was coming.

The Magician
(1926)

Pioneering supernatural silent
In the 1920s films dealing with supernatural evil were extremely rare. However, director Rex Ingram, obviously influenced by earlier German forays into the supernatural, cast German actor Paul Wegener of DER GOLEM in this adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel THE MAGICIAN. Wegener's menacing performance as an evil Yogi in LEBENDE BUDDHAS (1925) made him a good choice to play Oliver Haddo, obsessed with creating life from an ancient formula requiring the heart's blood of a maiden, played by Ingram's wife Alice Terry.

John F. Seitz' cinematography is superb, especially in the depiction of the heroine's hallucinatory descent into Hell where she is figuratively ravished by a lustful and athletic satyr. And although Haddo doesn't succeed in creating the grisly, half-complete humans as in the novel, the controversial subject matter was nevertheless strong enough to insure the film's failure at the box-office in 1926.

Interesting comparisons have been made between this film and James Wale's FRANKENSTEIN, but the subject of black magic also invites comparison with later films - THE BLACK CAT (1934), THE NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957), and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968) - featuring characters who like Oliver Haddo were modeled on real-life occultist Aleister Crowley.

The Raven
(1935)

Universal horror past its prime
In THE RAVEN Lugosi hams shamelessly, and the plot, involving an obsessed Poe fanatic using torture methods from Poe stories on unsuspecting guests in his weird mansion, is a poor attempt to cash in on the success of the earlier Karloff/Lugosi vehicle THE BLACK CAT, only this time with Lugosi taking Karloff's place as the arch fiend.

I am convinced Karloff's make-up is meant to recall his role as Morgan the butler in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, but it's extremely artificial-looking. THE RAVEN, together with THE INVISIBLE RAY - a Sci Fi film with a few pointless Gothic touches - are parodies of the Universal style, and show that in 1935 Universal had begun to run out of ideas and was starting to cannibalize its original releases.

White Zombie
(1932)

Lugosi and budget doom "White Zombie"
A pair of intense eyes floats through the throbbing Hatian night. A horse-drawn coach halts at a ritual burial in the road, and the young couple inside is accosted by Zombie-master Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi). The coachman flogs his horses into a gallop to avoid the arrival of Legendre's gang of walking dead.

After this promising opening the only good scenes are of the Zombies toiling in Legendre's mill. But it's unfortunate there is even one good moment because the rest of the film is terrible. Actors stumble through lines and pause for long periods to remember them. Apparently there was little time for rehearsal and no opportunity for re-takes. The actors' movements are stiff, which is fine if you're a Zombie, but unforgivable if you have a speaking part. The story is as simple as can be, which isn't necessarily bad, unless you have to stretch it into a feature-length hour.

Lugosi struggles with his English, tries to burn holes in the camera with his eyes (Why do people like that stuff?), and serves us a generous portion of ham. Madge Bellamy acts like a Zombie even before she becomes one, and her fiancée/husband (John Harron) is completely ineffectual. In fairness, producer Edward Halperin and director Victor Halperin never had a chance to make a good movie, considering the budget and the caliber of performers. They later proved they could do fine work when Paramount gave them an adequate budget and Carole Lombard for the underrated film "Supernatural." So I would urge anyone not already in Lugosi's legion of walking dead to watch "Supernatural" and avoid "White Zombie" before it's too late!

Viy
(1967)

Little known Russian horror gem
I bought "Viy" on DVD with some trepidation, worried by comments that it wasn't scary, that the special effects were crude, and it was slow. Don't believe it, unless you are one of those who rate movie horror by the numbers of mutilations and amounts of blood.

Based on a little known and lesser story by Nikolai Gogol, the film actually improves the original with effectively creepy music (where appropriate), and with special effects that were very good for a movie made nearly forty years ago. The carefully faithful adaptation concerns a seminary student on holiday who is propositioned by a hag who turns out to be a witch. She rides him through the air like a broomstick, and when they land he beats her off with a club only to discover that, near death, she has transformed into a beautiful young woman, the daughter of a Cossack chieftain. Her father sends to the seminary for the student because his daughter requested that only he be summoned to read the prayer for the dead three consecutive nights over her corpse. What happens in the locked chapel until dawn during those nights is what the story is about.

It is as scary as most of the Hammer films of the same era, only with Gogol's trademark sense-of-humor. Hammer would have made the witch more grotesque, and the young dead woman sexier. The only let-down is that Viy's appearance at the end of the movie is not very scary and even somewhat comical. But he's only on screen a few seconds. The creatures that crawl out of the walls ahead of Viy are as grotesque as anything to be found in films of that time, and make the lead-up to Viy's arrival very suspenseful

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(1923)

Chaney saves poor production
I saw the Hunchback the other day, and when Lon Chaney is on screen, which isn't nearly enough, you can see why he is considered by some to be the greatest actor of silent film. As the grotesque bell-ringer Quasimodo, Chaney's pantomime shows the complexity of a man with a beautiful soul imprisoned within a contorted form, fated to hate the world that sees him as a freak. Chaney's make-up is as usual superb. The rest of the cast doesn't fare as well.

Second best is Patsy Ruth Miller. Pretty and petite, her performance is natural and understated, but she's the girl-next-door, and doesn't possess the sex appeal required of the role of the dancing-girl Esmaralda. Ernest Torrence as Clopin, and Raymond Hatton as Graingoire are adequate. The other featured players are awful. Norman Kerry as Phoebus, and Brandon Hurst as the villain Jehan are stock characters out of melodrama, types that give silent film an undeserved reputation for always being florid and stagy. Blame director Wallace Worsley and the writers for not demanding the same complexity of other characters as Chaney brings to the Hunchback. The results are often unintentionally humorous, as when Hurst strides into a scene with his cloak thrown over his face, and when Kerry rakishly bares Esmaralda's shoulder, but repents and, with a pained look of remorse, covers it up again.

Set design is impressive and real—no CGI. Notre Dame Cathedral is an actual prop with gargoyles and statues that Chaney climbs on. But the sets are unimaginatively used by Worsley. There are no perceptible lighting effects. Exterior daylight scenes weren't shot in the studio, but always outside in bright sunlight and were sepia-tinted. Blue-tinted exterior night scenes were actually shot at night (unusual for the time) as the vapor on the actors' breath shows.

Anyone acquainted with the novel will also realize that this adaptation is sub-par. For instance, how does Esmaralda's mother know gypsies stole her child? There were no witnesses. In the novel gypsies leave the hunchback in her place. Why is the Hunchback the slave of Jehan? We have no background information to explain their relationship. And what's Gringoire's purpose other than as a messenger from Esmeralda to Phoebus? In the film Phoebus is a conventional romantic hero, not the selfish, lascivious rogue as in the book. Chaney achieves pathos with his character, but audiences in 1923 could never stomach the novel's grand tragic ending in which Esmaralda dies. Also, fear of offending the church caused Universal to make the villain not a priest but the saintly priest's brother, who in the novel is an amiable chap.

Some may be interested in this as an early horror film. But although there are elements of horror in the original story, Worsley's uninspired direction leave those avenues unexplored. The dark, Gothic atmosphere of the story would have to wait for German émigré director William Deiterle and cinematographer Joe August, who created a shadowy nightscape for the 1939 film. Nevertheless, it is nice to see a new print of this film which, although still scratchy, reveals much more detail, and moves at the correct projection speed, giving us a better idea of how the film originally looked.

Orlacs Hände
(1924)

Excellent performances, ponderous pacing needs better musical score
I've been looking for a DVD of THE HANDS OF ORLAC ever since I knew the film existed. Now it's finally here, and like most silent films it's a mixed bag. I find the image on the new KINO disc to be acceptable considering the problematic nature of the source material. There's a loss of definition in some scenes, but there are also moments of sharpness in the restored Murnau Foundation print. It's a shame we can never experience non-talking films the way 1920s audiences did, without washed-out contrasts, image-flickers, frame-jitters, dirt, and print damage. Even the best restorations don't look new.

The plot concerns a concert pianist whose hands are smashed in a train wreck. A surgeon replaces them with the hands an executed criminal. Soon the pianist is obsessed with thoughts he might be a killer. The performances are generally excellent in the Expressionistic style. Conrad Veidt's exaggerated grimacing as his character Paul Orlac approaches madness is tempered by moments that are extremely moving.

The score of mostly string music on the KINO disc is creepy and works well for a while, but is so monotonous over the entire length of an already ponderously paced film that I grew tired of it. This film cries out for music that varies its mood to fit what is happening on screen. Contrasts in the mood of the music would make the creepy parts seem even creepier. An optional score in a traditional style would have been nice. Nevertheless, the Gothic set design and shadow-infested cinematography by Gunther Krampf - particularly the scenes at Orlac's father's house - create the atmosphere we know and love in early horror films. These chiaroscuro light-and-shadow effects just cannot be achieved with color.

However, to evoke fear without the modern cheats of gore and violence - to create what the Germans call "stimmung" (mood) - requires not only imaginative lighting and set design, but time. Unfortunately director Robert Weine spends too much time on the actors' very deliberate expressionistic movements at the expense of pacing.

The ending is likewise unsatisfactory, although it does follow Maurice Renard's novel. I won't give too much away other than to say the ending undercuts an apparently fantastic element, yet makes the "logical" explanation seem almost as implausible. Nevertheless, the build-up to the resolution as well as Veidt's engrossing performance makes this a worthwhile, if uninspired, film.

La maschera del demonio
(1960)

Succeeds because of Bava's B&W artistry
A ruined abbey; Gothic interiors of a medieval crypt and castle; a matte painting of the moon illuminating the castle's exterior; a deep pit, the stonework glistening with moisture; claw-like branches against the white mist, all beautifully photographed for shadowy effect by master cinematographer Mario Bava, make this film worth watching. The thin plot involves two incestuous siblings, Asa and Javutich Vajda, executed for witchcraft in the Balkan kingdom of Moldavia, who return from the grave on Walpurgis night two centuries later to reek supernatural vengeance on their descendants.

Unfortunately the B&W beauty of this movie is compromised somewhat by Bava's awkward direction of actors whose performances range from adequate (Andrea Checci as Dr. Kruvaijan, and Ivo Garrani as Prince Vajda) to inept (Barbara Steele as both Princess Katia Vajda and Asa Vajda), to awful (John Richardson as Dr. Gorobec). The writing is likewise sub-par, and seems to borrow elements from the vintage American films "Mark of the Vampire" and "The Black Room," which Bava may have seen.

Plot holes are numerous and obvious. For instance, after draining the life from Katia's father, how does the vampire form of Dr. Kruvaijan find a ready-made coffin, and how does he bury himself? How does Katia's brother Constantine survive a fall down a deep pit to come back and destroy Javutich? The schmaltzy piano love theme is distracting, beginning immediately after Katia's first meeting with Gorobec. Nevertheless, camera poetry abounds. The slow-motion vision of the phantom coach driven by Javutich is a stunner. All of the genuinely unsettling moments are the result of Bava's uncanny use of lighting, shadow, and perspective; not the poor use of artificial-looking wax figures and lens filters to create the effects of aging on Katia's and Asa's face.

Austensibly based upon Nikolai Gogol's short story "Viy," there is only one scene in the film that is recognizable from the source material. The scene in the crypt when Krubaian is alone with, and trying to escape from the reanimated Asa, parallels the attempts of Gogol's protagonist to escape from a witch who has arisen from her coffin. Barbara Steele's makeup, the spike holes left in Asa's face by the mask of Satan, is very effective here.

Mark of the Vampire
(1935)

Atmosphere without ideas
During the early part of the movie we get the best depiction of vampires in American cinema to that time. We get great foggy sets beautifully photographed by James Wong Howe, the first apparent morphing of a bat into a vampire, a scene of a female vampire flying, the first female-on-female vampire action, the first vampire hiss, the use of real bats hanging from coffin lids and on walls (slow-flying artificial bats look bad). We also get the ridiculous appearance of an opossum (they were apparently necessary to stand in for rats because rats were too disgusting).

***SPOILERS GALORE***

Through most of the movie we are encouraged to believe vampires are attacking people. It is a real let-down, therefore, to discover the vampires are impersonators being used by the police to catch a murderer. The impersonators act exactly as you would expect vampires to act, even when there is no reason for them to remain in character. We naturally assume they are vampires. Our expectations are dashed, however, when a self-professed vampire hunter, well played by Lionel Barrymore, sees the vampire ruse is not working and hypnotizes the real killer to get him to re-enact the crime. Just why the police think fake vampires will get the killer to confess is baffling; and the abrupt change from a supernatural to a conventional mode undercuts everything that works best in the movie.

I don't know who to blame more: Tod Browning and the writers for the clumsy mix of mystery and horror, or MGM for axing 20 minutes from the final cut. Whoever is to blame, the result is a muddled remake of Browning's silent "London After Midnight."

The incongruous combination of supernatural and conventional elements makes one wonder if Browning and writer Guy Endore started out to make a true vampire movie (hence the original title "Vampires of Prague") but were forced to mute potentially salacious content by restraining it within the fictional devise of Browning's earlier film. Even before strict enforcement of the production code the studios knew they were playing with fire. Before MGM released this movie suggestions of incest between Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carol Borland), and a murder/suicide that led to their becoming vampires, were cut from the final print. What's left is pretty tame (notwithstanding the cool imagery) and shows why horror projects dried up in the second half of the decade. "Dracula's Daughter" from Universal in 1936 may have been the greatest vampire movie of all if James Whale had been allowed to proceed with the script he collaborated on. But a prologue set in the 14th century explaining the origin of Dracula's vampirism was excised along with references to his daughter's present day sadism and hints of how she tortured her victims. The project was given to Lambert Hillyer when Whale backed off.

Murders in the Rue Morgue
(1932)

Under-rated Universal horror
I saw "Murders in the Rue Morgue" when I was just a child in the sixties and wasn't impressed. But now that I've seen the uncut original on Universal's Lugosi collection, I believe "Murders" is one of the most under-rated films from the golden age of horror.

Direction by Robert Florey, cinematography by Karl Freund, and art direction by Charles Hall will satisfy the cravings of atmospheric horror fans. And the sources that Florey uses—the Poe story and the silent classic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"—dovetail nicely. What seems rather silly in the Poe story (an ape escapes from a sailor to commit senseless murder) is more plausible and horrific when the ape's owner becomes Dr. Mirakle, a mad scientist intent on proving humans and apes are evolutionary cousins. Why else inject ape's blood into nubile young women if not to find a suitable mate for his side show attraction Erik? I was also impressed by the way director/writer Florey zeroed in on one of Poe's themes. The confusion of tongues scene from Poe's story in which people of different nationalities (ear-witnesses to a murder) mistake the ape's language for unintelligible human speech, demonstrates that humans are no different from Erik, another species of savage primate inhabiting the planet. Seeing Dr. Mirakle talk with Erik and translate for the carnival audience doesn't seem as far-fetched today considering the recent research into primate communication.

These thematic elements, together with Lugosi's sinister but surprisingly low-key (for him) performance, and the scene in which Dr. Mirakle injects the street walker with ape blood (Arlene Francis made a good screamer), and in which fiendish assistant Noble Johnson (who made an art of playing such roles) cuts the ropes that bind her Christ-like between crossbeams, releasing her body through a trap door into the river, make this one of the most daring of pre-code horror films.

The print Universal included in its Lugosi collection looks fine, much better that the one I saw in the sixties. And neither the bland performances of the romantic leads, nor the man in the ape costume detracts from the over all effect. The inter-cutting between the actual animal and the costumed double is really not that jarring when you consider what was being done elsewhere in this era.

Körkarlen
(1921)

Fantasy film too sentimental to be called horror
It's a mistake to refer to any film of this era as a horror film. Most early German films with supernatural themes are not so much horror films as they are dark fantasies borrowed from the works of early German Romantics like E. T. A. Hoffman and others. In Fritz Lang's "Der Mude Tod" (also from 1921) Death personified takes a young man away from his sweetheart, but in Lang's film the characters' destiny cannot be mitigated by behavior. Neither of the young lovers deserves to die, but they are destined by circumstances to be reunited only in death.

In Victor Seastrom's "Korkarlen," however, repentance is always an option. Destiny can be altered - and death deferred - through the characters' choices. Although scenes of the Phantom Carriage collecting souls are genuinely eerie, these horrific images of Death as the great leveler are compromised by Death's offer of redemption to the real monster of this tale, David Holm, a brutal drunk who, because of a perverse hatred of humanity, spreads tuberculosis and emotional misery to everyone he comes in contact with.

One New Year's Eve Holm is struck down in a fight with a drinking companion. As the first person to die on the stroke of midnight Holm must become the driver of the Phantom Carriage and collect souls during the new year. The Phantom Carriage, driven by an old acquaintance who had started Holm on his road to ruin, comes for his soul and takes him on a journey of self discovery. Along the way Holm sees the horror he has inflicted on his family and the people who tried to help him.

Perhaps my disappointment with the film's ending is a criticism of the Selma Lagerlöf novel on which the film is based. But I would have preferred to see David Holm unable to escape his destiny, and to see his repentance come too late to prevent his wife from poisoning his two children and herself, and to see Holm suffer for the consequences of his sins by being made to collect their souls. It would have been a fitting punishment and a horror more immense than witnessing the abuse he inflicted on others. In the film, however, the unalterable nature of destiny isn't the message; redemption is. The driver of the carriage allows Holm's spirit to return to his body, and he rescues his family in the nick of time. His repentance smacks of Scrooge's repentance in "A Christmas Carol."

If the trite and sentimental ending does not offend you, there is still much to admire in the film's images. The special effects are astonishing when measured by the standards of the day, and still hold up, which is more miraculous when you consider that these double exposures were created inside a hand-cranked camera. Also, the restored film on Tartan's new DVD looks fabulous.

The Phantom of the Opera
(1925)

It might have been a lot worse
It's difficult to assess how good or bad "The Phantom of the Opera" is because you first have to ask "Which Phantom?" The original 1925 release is rarely seen because it only exists as a scratchy 16mm print. More widely known is the 1929 re-release and the 1930 sound release with passages of dialog on a super-imposed sound track. The 35mm 1930 release is in excellent shape, but although aesthetically superior, it was cut down and re-edited to a point where the plot often makes no sense. Entire scenes necessary to the continuity of the story are missing or out of place, and new ballet sequences with Universal studio head Carl Laemmle's niece were added. It's a shame no one has reassembled the film as it was originally released, using the 16mm footage where necessary (color tinting added of course), with scenes restored and in their proper places. There's no question that director Rupert Julian was a hack, but he does not deserve to be judged by the incomplete re-release.

Art direction by Ben Carre, the Technicolor Bal Masque sequence (a survivor of several color sequences), together with Lon Chaney's makeup and performance, and his own uncredited direction, compensate for Julian's incompetence and for cuts that were made after previews. A scene in which we see the Phantom's shadow as he plays the violin for Christine Daae in a churchyard, and in which he rolls skulls to frighten Christine's lover, Raoul de Chagny, was cut because it was too intense for 1925 audiences. Chaney objected to the part of the scene requiring him to reveal his true face to Christine's lover. He correctly assumed the scene as written would undercut the effectiveness of the unmasking. I guess it never occurred to Julian that he could photograph the Phantom from behind to capture Raoul's reaction. Likewise, a scene of rats scurrying ahead of a rat catcher in the subterranean chambers beneath the opera house was deemed too horrifying, and leaves us to wonder "Whose face was that?" and "What were Raoul and the Persian grimacing at?"

Realistically, you have to accept any film as a product of its time and take it for what it can give you. But it's a mistake to believe silent acting was always florid and overstated. It is disappointing, therefore, to see the pantomime so necessary in the silent era carried to absurd heights in this film. Chaney always worried that without competent direction he was prone to over-act. And after the unmasking he becomes a stock villain out of melodrama. Before the unmasking, however, Chaney's hand gestures are graceful, natural, and appropriate for someone who has lived a vicarious, theatrical fantasy existence beneath the Paris opera house. Also Chaney created several masks for the Phantom, each subtly evoking a different emotion. The unmasking itself is a masterpiece of direction, editing, and acting, and can still deliver a shock eighty years after it was filmed. Chaney's gruesome makeup is justly famous, and follows the Phantom's description in the Leroux novel.

Finally, we must give credit to the preview audiences for demanding a change in the emotionally overwrought ending adapted from the novel, in which the Phantom dies of a broken heart after being kissed by Christine. Preview audiences craved retribution. The Phantom was a murderer and would have tortured Raoul and the Persian to death had not Christine agreed to surrender to him sexually. Another director was brought in to film a mob pursuing the monster through the streets of Paris with flaming torches. It was not the last Universal horror film that would end this way. But Chaney's acting elevates this particular ending. He reaches into his coat and temporarily halts the mob by threatening them with a bomb that doesn't exist. He gradually opens his hand to reveal nothing and laughs madly as the mob descends upon him. It is a brilliant piece of pantomime emblematic of his genius, to threaten the audience with nothing and, as Ray Bradbury has said, make them believe it's real.

The Undying Monster
(1942)

Weak plot, exceptionally creepy atmosphere
I think the film is exceptionally moody and sinister—and subtly subversive. Director John Brahm may not have been an auteur, but this German director imported by Fox from England certainly was a master at using light and shadow to induce the creeps. Or was celebrated cinematographer Lucien Ballard the genius? Much has been made of similarities between "The Undying Monster" and "Hound of the Baskervilles" released by Fox three years earlier. But there is more to the similarity than Fox's attempt to cash in on an earlier success. In "Hound of the Baskervilles" Sherlock Holmes debunked the Baskerville curse as a diversion used to cover up a murder attempt. The writers of "The Undying Monster" subverted the audience's belief that there would be a similar natural explanation of an apparently supernatural attack in which a member of the Hammond family is injured. The Hammond curse concerns an ancestor who is supposed to have made a pact with the devil for immortality. The ancient ancestor is still rumored to live in a secret room in the castle's cellar from which he preys on his descendants, thereby prolonging his unnatural life. In this film the murderer is indeed a werewolf.

But this astonishing revelation is muted by a curiously unconvincing final scene in which a forensic pathologist from Scotland Yard, who has witnessed the creature's transformation back into human form, tosses off the unprecedented phenomenon as something perfectly natural. Lycanthropy, says the investigator, is merely a person's delusion that he can change into a wolf. The family doctor admits he has been treating the monster for a genetic brain affliction. But we have seen it was much more that a delusion. We remember what the investigator conveniently forgets, that a sample of wolf's fur from the crime scene miraculously disappeared during chemical analysis. The unwarranted insertion of a "logical" explanation for the curse steers the film away from an uncomfortably audacious premise, and toward the inoffensive conventions of an old dark house mystery.

But the film began with something much more sinister in mind. When Helga, the mistress of the manor, leads investigators to the Hammond family crypt, we see that near Crusader Sir Reginald Hammond's sarcophagus stands a statue of Sir Reginald and a beast that has a dog's, wolf's, or jackal's face and paws, but human arms and unmistakable female breasts. The pathologist dismisses the beast's odd appearance with the facile comment "Man has always bred the dog into fantastic shapes." There are no further references to Sir Reginald, and the final scene feels as if it had been tacked on in post-production, more so because Heather Angel who played Helga, the investigator's love interest, is not in the scene. My guess is that fear of the Hayes office caused Fox not to carry through with the dark suggestion that Sir Reginald's pact unleashed evil upon his descendants. The otherworldy combination of male and female, human and animal characteristics of the wolf in Sir Reginald's statue suggests at the very least he was involved in an unholy union that may have spawned male descendants genetically tainted with diabolical traits. If detected, such a theme would surely have roused the ire of the censors. Fox's timidity may therefore have cost this handsomely mounted film, that sported more elaborate sets and technique than Universal had at its disposal, any chance to join the A list of B films from the 1940s horror cycle.

Nevertheless, it's an entertaining film if you can look past the ending and the comic relief provided by an assistant investigator who comes off as a female version of the bumbling Dr. Watson of the Holmes movies.

Vampyr
(1932)

Best vampire movie of the '30s
Too often horror films are thought of as light-weight entertainment. Even the best are under-appreciated for what they can tell us about human nature. In the case of Carl Dreyer's "Vampyr," however, all you seem to hear is high-brow rhetoric about how the film's dream-like illogic makes it a meditation upon death. For just once forget all the intellectual mumbo-jumbo and watch this film for what it is, one creepy little flick and the pioneering vampire film of the '30s. It was in production a year before "Dracula" but released the year after, and is a better and scarier film, unless bats on strings scare you.

It's not a silent movie but feels like one - an exceptionally fine one. So if you are put off by non-talking films be warned, dialog is spare, cut to the bone; but the musical score is very good and sinister. The main attractions are the images: shadows that kill people, a spirit that leaves its body, a corpse-eye view of a burial, and other uncanny occurrences that lead young Allan Grey to a girl suffering from a mysterious illness, and to her doctor, a vampire's accomplice who supplies his crone-like patroness with fresh victims.

Possibly the film's poor reception by critics and audiences was because the 1930 soundtrack was too primitive to be appreciated by viewers in 1932, who by then were used to lots of chatter - and because the earlier release of "Dracula" blunted its impact. But with little dialog and without the stagnating influence of a stationary microphone our eyes feast on Hermann Warm's eerie art direction, and are guided by Rudolph Mate's camera, which keeps us off balance, misdirecting our point of view as when it pans to a door through which a nurse exits her patient's room, then pans back again to reveal an empty bed just before the victim's sleep-walking rendezvous with the vampire.

The film bears even less resemblance to its source (Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla") than "Dracula" does to Stoker's novel, possibly because it borrows from another story, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "Good Lady Ducayne," in which a young man comes to the aid of a young paid female companion of an extremely aged woman whose doctor draws the young woman's blood for his patient to consume. And if "Vampyr's" plot often seems incoherent, so does "Dracula's." The performances, however, are vastly superior. Sybille Schmitz in particular, as the vampire's victim, conveys with her subtle expressions emotions for which spoken language is inadequate.

For those who already know this film, Martin Koerber's restoration on the Criterion release eliminates the large, black-bordered, Gothic subtitles, and corrects the too-bright day-for-night scenes that were so distracting on the Image disc. For others seeing "Vampyr" for the first time, relax, don't think too much, and enjoy!

Frankenstein
(1931)

The brain's the thing
Differences between the sensitive, articulate creature in Mary Shelley's novel and the monster in the movie are not because original director Robert Florey, his replacement James Whale, and writer John Balderston dismissed Shelley's original ideas. They were working not from the novel but from Peggy Webling's dramatic adaptation. It was her changes to Shelley's novel that Baldertson dismissed. The creature in the movie is therefore twice removed from its source, its face the face of the corpse, its reactions those of a caged beast.

Christopher Frayling in his otherwise excellent commentary on the latest DVD release suggests that Robert Florey's contribution to the script - the implantation into the creature of a "criminal" brain - makes for a less complicated and interesting story. But uncertainty about the creature's brain adds a dimension of ambiguity that didn't exist in the novel, in which the creature understandably lashes out at his creator's rejection and society's hostility. In 1931, however, the influence on this film of German cinema (the expressionist design of "Caligari" and "Der Golem") may have prompted Florey to address troubling questions about the nature of evil raised earlier that year by Peter Lorre's tortured portrayal of a child molester in Fritz Lang's "M." Could the killer control his impulses? And if not, is he morally guilty?

Those parts of the film not scripted by Florey go even further, questioning whether a "criminal" brain even exists. "After all," says Frankenstein to his mentor Professor Waldman, "it's just dead tissue." Also, a lecture Waldman delivers to students on the behavioral effects of certain "convolutions" characteristic of the very brain implanted in creature aren't born out by his actions. He never demonstrates the impulses one expects of a "criminal," and has ample justification for killing Frankenstein's assistant who tormented him with fire, and for killing Waldman who attempted to dissect him. The most damning evidence against the creature - his inadvertent drowning of a child - is the result of his own innocence in believing she will float on the water like her flowers.

Nevertheless, the creature's unsophisticated reactions to a world he does not understand make him utterly unpredictable and a real danger. He lives in a nightmare world that assaults our own senses in the wonderfully angular and expressionistic props and sets constructed by art director Charles D. Hall (who had worked with German director Paul Leni on THE MAN WHO LAUGHS three years earlier).

It is easy to retrospectively dismiss this movie as tame. But in its day no one knew what the echoing footsteps in the watch tower would bring through the door. It is only because of budget sequels and performances of lesser actors than Karloff that the Frankenstein monster has become such a comfortable cliché.

Dracula
(1931)

Cult status the only reason to watch
I know a lot of people love Lugosi. His "Dracula" has many admirers, and the Spanish version is considered by some to be a technical triumph. But I wonder what might have been if, in the late 1920s, Universal's top director Paul Leni had directed Conrad Veidt in the role of the Count. I have heard that Papa Laemmle wanted Veidt and Laemmle Jr. wanted Lon Chaney. Whether or not this is true, German director Leni and German actor Veidt had developed a rapport, teaming twice before in the the German film "Waxworks" and in "The Man Who Laughs" for Universal. If you want to know how much better the performances and camera-work would have been, watch these films.

It was obvious in 1931 that Tod Browning, without his old pal Chaney, could not get excited by the project. Some in the cast gave German émigré cinematographer Karl Freund credit for directing much of the film.

But in spite of the troubled production "Dracula" was a box office smash. Critics, however, focused their praise on Freund's eerily atmospheric photography in the Transylvania sequence, commenting on the film's stiffness when the action shifts to London. Unsure of Lugosi's appeal, Universal hadn't risked any more than absolutely necessary on production, and Browning's lack of interest made the budget limitations even more obvious.

You hear excuses for "Dracula's" staginess, but you only have to see the Spanish version to realize sound equipment didn't necessarily immobilize the camera. And it isn't enough to blame depression-era production cuts. The limits of a sound stage didn't limit James Whale's creativity on "The Old Dark House."

The film may have come alive if it had been made as a silent a few years earlier. In non-talking film you have to show the horrors; you can't convey horror through dialog as was attempted in 1931. Too much dialog makes any film static. Lon Chaney might have changed that. While his acting may not have matched Veidt's, his make-up would surely have been a revelation, and most likely would have followed Bram Stoker's description of the Count, his pallid "aquiline" face, his "peculiarly arched nostrils," "hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere," his "massive eyebrows almost meeting over the nose," with a "heavy mustache," and "sharp white teeth" protruding over his lip. "For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed."

However, B-list directors seemed to have a knack for this kind of material. They never felt the subject matter was beneath them. Therefore George Melford, director of the Spanish version, was challenged by the project in a way Tod Browning was not. Later Browning, as if to prove he could match Melford, directed "Mark of the Vampire," a remake of his own silent "London After Midnight," with a flair that Dracula lacked, and followed it up with another stylish horror flick, "The Devil Doll." Alas, Leni died of blood poisoning, Chaney died of cancer, and Veidt returned to Germany in part because he believed his German accent was too strong to appeal to American audiences. Irony of ironies, Universal cast Lugosi whose struggles with English are well documented. Lugosi quickly, and deservedly, faded into obscurity, and what might have been a cinematic achievement is nothing more than a cult classic.

The Unknown
(1927)

Ludicrous contrivance shows Browning's & Chaney's weaknesses
Have the fans of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney ever stopped to consider the utter absurdity of the premise of THE UNKNOWN? A fugitive from the law must hide deformed thumbs that would give him away. The best idea he can think of is to pretend to be armless and get a job in the circus throwing knives with his feet. Before he can carry out this ideal plan, he only needs to manage enough pedal dexterity to be able to miss by inches his female partner played by Joan Crawford. And he does! After he overcomes this one small obstacle, he masters all the other tasks he had once performed with his hands: smoking, eating, and drinking. It boggles the mind!

As for Chaney's acting, he could be great; he could also be God-awful. In THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA he at least had that wonderful make-up to hide behind. In this film his emotionalism is annoying and schmaltzy.

Supernatural
(1933)

Horror film not for Lombard fans
Negative reviews of this film should be seen in context. Most Carole Lombard fans are looking for light comedies and romances, certainly not horror pictures. Horror fans, however, must be delighted to find Lombard starring in this movie from the Halperins, who produced the successful Lugosi vehicle "White Zombie" in 1932.

Only a few times in the 1930s' golden age of horror did these films get the star power and production they deserved. Among major studios Paramount led the way with this type of film, even predating Universal with John Barrymore's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" in 1920 when the only horror films were coming out of Germany. In the '30s Paramount, encouraged by Universal's success, cast Charles Laughton in "The Island of Lost Souls" and Frederic March in a remake of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." In "Supernatural" Lombard is fine in the lead role of a woman possessed by the evil spirit of a murderess. And while this film is not a classic, it is an effective horror film by a major studio. The fact that it rates 6.0 stars is amazing when you consider what types of films Lombard's fans are used to seeing her in.

Fahrenheit 451
(1966)

Prophetic movie about importance of ideas
"Fahrenheit 451" opened to poor box office in 1966 and has been unfairly criticized ever since. Truffaut's fans didn't like his foray into Sci-Fi and away from films about relationships. To Sci-Fi fans the film seemed to lack action and pace. Modern audiences are distracted by effects that were crude even by the standards of the day. An up-to-date, technically sophisticated remake must be better, right? What about Ray Bradbury's mechanical hound? Wouldn't CGI do a great job with that? What about the houses with interior walls that are nothing but televisions that blare advertisements at people? But the nit-pickers miss the point. This film, concerning a society that fears books and employs firemen to burn them, isn't a New Wave or a Sci-Fi film, but a film about ideas.

The amazing thing is that Truffaut was able to turn a movie about words into a visual experience without excess verbiage, like fine Hitchcock. The images of books consumed by fire, the disappearing words on paper, speak more eloquently than dialog about a society that suppresses thought, and about the determination of peaceful rebels to preserve humanity's literary and intellectual heritage.

Bradbury was disappointed that Truffaut eliminated the Mechanical Hound, a spider-like robot that detects firemen who don't conform and injects dissidents with poison. Given the state of special effects at the time, it's a good thing the hound was not literally interpreted. In the film the fireman's pole detects non-conformity. Bradbury also wanted Clarisse - who challenges fireman Guy Montag's complacency - to be an adolescent as in the novel. But for reasons of pacing Truffaut condenses her character with another from the novel, a former university professor to whom Montag turns for help. Truffaut makes Clarisse an attractive young elementary school teacher, a double for Montag's wife Linda, whose self-obsession exemplifies the ennui and hedonism of a society that has no outlet for it's intellectual and imaginative life.

But Bradbury's comments are not all negative. He praises Bernard Hermann's musical score and Truffaut's hopeful ending which differs radically from the novel's apocalyptic vision. At the end of the film the "Book People," who memorize and become their favorite books, are a friendlier, more accessible group than the disgruntled philosophical vagabonds in the novel. Indeed, almost all of the books cited in the novel come from philosophy, whereas Truffaut includes many titles and styles that appeal to a variety of readers in the audience.

The casting is perfect. Oskar Werner's German accent as fireman Guy Montag evokes memories of Nazi book burnings; and Julie Christy does an excellent job shifting back and forth in her dual role as vacuous Linda and her intellectually stimulating doppelganger Clarisse.

My one regret about the film is that the Fire Chief is such a stereotypical autocrat. In the novel he is a complex human being who simultaneously admires and hates the books he burns; and by drawing a pistol on Montag, who is armed with a flame thrower, he invites is own immolation.

The remake by director/writer Frank Darabont will surpass Truffaut's film in every technical aspect. But it will not have Bernard Hermann's magnificent music. Also, a film about the value of the written word will be more of a tough sell to movie audiences of teens obsessed with Youtube and Myspace than to a generation that valued the complexity of ideas expressed in books. Young audiences will care more about CGI effects that don't require a contribution from their own imaginations; and they will ironically confirm that since 1966 we have come closer to the narcissistic society of "Fahrenheit 451" than we dare admit.

Gaslight
(1940)

It's Walbrook's show
This is the first film adaptation of the British stage drama "Angel Street," and in many instances it betters it's famous Hollywood counterpart. Diana Wynyard, Frank Pettingell, and Cathleen Cordell don't have the acting chops of Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, and Angela Lansbury, but Anton Walbrook's performance as the sinister Paul Mallen blows away Charles Boyer as Gregory Anton. Where Boyer comes across as an obsessed schemer trying to find the missing rubies of Alice Alquist, Walbrook is quite mad, always walking on the edge of the abyss. It's basically the same role he would play nine years later in the fine supernatural thriller "Queen of Spades," also directed by Thorold Dickinson with a surer hand. Whenever Walbrook is on screen he is fascinating to watch, and commands our attention in the way Peter Lorre often did.

There are no scenes in the 1944 Hollywood remake as suspenseful as the opening of the 1940 version where an unknown assailant strangles Alice Barlow then savagely knifes the chair cushions in his search for - what? Or even at the end where Mallen's wife grips a knife with which she seems about to stab her husband. In the middle of the film, however, we must sit through some rather stiff direction and mechanical plot devices. Still MGM thought enough of this version to purchase and suppress it in advance of their own production.

Unlike the slick Hollywood version that provides a gratuitous romantic interlude to showcase Boyer's and Bergman's sex-appeal, the British film doesn't need to explain why the abused wife found her husband appealing in the first place. It focuses rather on the story's Victorian milieu, in which husbands are tyrants who treat their wives as possessions like the gaudy furnishings that clutter their rooms.

The one change in the Hollywood version that makes sense is the inclusion of Joseph Cotten as a romantic hero. It seems necessary if only to give him a plausible reason for taking a personal interest in Bergman's plight.

Danza macabra
(1964)

Good intentions pay off despite clichés
It's hard to explain the appeal of this movie. It's not a gem as some have said. But I wouldn't characterize it as Euro-trash either. The plot is not very original, and relies on standard haunted house conventions, perhaps pirating some from Robert Wise's THE HAUNTING (1963). It may also have a literary source in Bulwer-Lytton's story "The Haunters and the Haunted," which also tells the story of a disbelieving rationalist who wagers he can spend a night in a mysterious house where spirits relive incidents from past lives. The film is full of continuity holes (or should I say "challenges"), because many may be explained away. But the execution is flawed. Feral cats, sudden scenes of carnage, and other fright effects do not deliver the shudders.

I must say, however, that the film held my interest, primarily because of the creepy, fog-shrouded sets that look better than they ought to on such a small budget, and because the performances are above average for this type of fare. And although the plot is full of old dark house clichés—slamming doors, billowing curtains, and mysterious portraits—some nice dialog makes it all seem less contrived somehow. There is no doubt that the director and writers were absolutely sincere.

There is also some provocative sexual content and nudity following a tradition of salaciousness that seems to have been a necessary ingredient of horror films as far back as Hollywood's pre-code days. So if I were forced to assess whether this glass is half empty or full I would say it is slightly more than half full. This one might appeal to all those baby boomers who watched the soap opera DARK SHADOWS when they were teenagers in the '60's. It has that feel to it, only with better acting and writing.

Bride of Frankenstein
(1935)

Not as good as Frankenstein
BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of my favorites. But unlike most film buffs, I don't think it lives up to Whale's original, or even to THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932). In BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN comic relief featuring the usually marvelous Una O'Connor and E.E. Clive is much too broad, and the monster's meeting with the blind hermit is maudlin. Mel Brooks did not have to add too much to get laughs from scenes that were already unintentionally funny.

Also a giant continuity gap opens when Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein's actual bride, who was being held captive in a cave, suddenly and with no explanation appears at the door of the laboratory pleading for Dr. Frankenstein to escape with her. In John L. Balderston's original treatment they all die. And a sub plot about murders committed by Dr. Pretorius' assistant Karl played by Dwight Frye (who bears some resemblance to "M" star Peter Lorre) was edited out of the original release along with a scene showing the body of a child being carried away. These were changes the studio demanded because of negative public reaction during previews, and they point to a much darker story.

Whale may not have wanted to make another monster movie, but when he began work he did try to deal seriously with themes he explored in FRANKENSTEIN. Only after Whale's homosexuality became the subject of legend did critics motivated by cultural politics re-interpret the film as a dark comedy of sexual identity.

Having said that, I do think Ernest Thesiger's Doctor Pretorius is deliciously wicked. But his character is not obviously homosexual, and I can only surmise that such a reading is a retrospective interpretation based on Thesiger's openly Gay lifestyle. Pretorius' character seems to have been suggested by the villainous alchemist Oliver Haddo in Somerset Maugham's THE MAGICIAN, a book that was filmed by Rex Ingram in 1926, starring Paul Wegener of THE GOLEM.

Whale may have seen Ingram's film. He may have read the book. The thing that made the best directors of the '20s, '30s, '40s, and '50s better than the best directors of today is they created the art of cinematic storytelling by reading literature, not by viewing film. Details from Maugham's novel - Haddo's celibacy and his obsession with creating homunculi (little people) - are elements of Dr. Pretorius' character that could only have come from the literary source because Ingram never used them in his film.

Negative comments aside, the film is a masterpiece of art direction (Whale's and Charles D. Hall's), cinematography (John J. Mescall's), and music (Franz Waxman's). And there is the brilliantly edited set piece of the bride's creation, and Elsa Lanchester's performance as the bride that bookends the story with the wonderful prologue where she plays FRANKENSTEIN author Mary Shelley.

Cat People
(1942)

Is what you don't see that scares you
The 1942 film "Cat People" isn't a bloody schlock/shock fest like the 1982 remake. Instead, it's a stylish thriller that relies for effect on the tension between rationality and fantasy, the feeling that the shadow we see is probably nothing, or might be the monster we've almost convinced ourselves does not live under the bed. The film is also a parable of America's awakening from the comforting dream of isolationism to the reallity of old world barbarism in the early '40s. Producer Val Lewton was a childhood Russian émigré, and Director Jacques Tourneur was a Frenchman, son of the great visual stylist Maurice Tourneur who at the time his son was working on "Cat People" in America directed his own horror film, "The Devil's Hand," in Nazi occupied France.

As a writer whose literary sensibilities were shaped by an old world background, Lewton was familiar with European folklore and aware of its influence on early romantic and modern occult fiction. And "Cat People" does contain thematic similarities to a 1908 Algernon Blackwood novella "Ancient Sorceries," in which a hapless English tourist visiting a medieval French villa is drawn irresistibly to a beautiful young woman who, with the rest of the villagers, transforms into a cat to attend a black Sabbath in the forest.

In the first scene of "Cat People" American Oliver Reed, a draftsman whose work requires drawing precise geometrical designs, puts the moves on Serbian immigrant Irena Dubrovna, who sketches a panther in a New York zoo. Her image of the panther pierced by a sword demonstrates her preference for the emotional and dramatic possibilities of art. Their differences literally draw the lines that divide the aesthetics of American rationalism from those of European romanticism.

In Irena's apartment Oliver is introduced to another image of a cat impaled on the sword of a statue of King John of Serbia, destroyer of the witches in Irena's village, the cat people who she says "bowed down to Satan and said their masses to him." She tells Oliver that "the wisest and most wicked" of the cat people escaped King John's vengeance. And Oliver discovers after their marriage that Irena is obsessed with a belief that she is their descendant, and that her sexual passion, if aroused, will cause her to kill Oliver, who is nevertheless drawn to her animal warmth and her scent. Irena makes it clear they cannot be physically intimate until she rids herself of the curse.

Irena's reluctance to consummate their marriage some critics have argued points to a preference for women, which—given American morality at the time—identifies her as part of an unconventional and European-influenced lifestyle. Oliver's average American wholesomeness, therefore, is a buffer insulating Irena from her homo-erotic passions. We also learn that Irena's father met a mysterious death in the forest, suggesting perhaps that cat women kill males after mating with them. Lewton's aunt was the actress Nazimova, who had many affairs with women, and whose marriages to men concealed her sexual orientation. Since we know Lewton closely supervised his productions as story editor, it is quite possible he inserted those issues of sexual identity with which he was familiar. And to his credit Irena emerges as a sympathetic character, exuding just enough moral ambiguity to make us distrust her outward friendliness.

Oliver's co-worker, Alice Moore suppresses her own love for Oliver to befriend Irena. But even before she lets Oliver know her true feelings, we can see Alice is a better match for him. They both smoke cigarettes, they speak the same American vernacular. But their continued friendship, even after Oliver's marriage, arouses Irena's territoriality, and she stalks Alice—we are invited to believe in the form of a giant cat.

Tourneur evokes our dread of the supernatural in the scenes that follow not only with creative use of shadow, but with sound—footsteps on a deserted sidewalk, the low growl of what may (or not) be an angry animal, and Alice's echoing screams as a growling shadow glides through the quivering reflections of an indoor swimming pool. The stalking animal eventually corners Alice and Oliver at their office, and a desperate Oliver holds the beast at bay with a T-square. Oliver's resort to a symbol of rationalism seems to frustrate the beast, but we see that the supernatural beast's reaction is actually to the T-square's shadow, which appears to be a cross.

The film is uncompromising in its vision of evil as something that cannot be defined or controlled. And the characters' powerlessness against evil haunts us even after the film is over and Irena is dead, impaled on the phallic sword-cane of psychiatrist Louis Judd, who attempts to seduce Irena and coincidentally to prove her belief in the cat people is a delusion, but who finds out differently at the cost of his life.

Black Moon
(1934)

Tame Columbia horror offering
"I Walked with a Zombie" may not have been the first Voodoo film adapted from Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," which is not surprising when you consider the West Indies was where Edward Rochester courted his mad wife. Perhaps it's a stretch, but "Black Moon" seems to contain several plot elements from Bronte's novel as Stephen Lane—whose West Indian born wife is drifting into madness—forms a close personal bond with his secretary.

When the wife (Dorothy Burgess), under the influence of a Voodoo curse, returns to her childhood home in the West Indies, Lane's secretary (Fay Wray) accompanies her. Lane (Jack Holt) soon follows. Here the secretary becomes a substitute mother for Stephen's child, recalling a similar relationship between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester's ward Adele. Also, Stephen, like Edward Rochester, can finally have the woman he truly loves only when his wife dies as a result of her madness, in this case leading a native uprising.

Judging from other comments about this being a good example of pre-code horror, my expectations were high. But the director and writers never adequately explored the terror of situations. There are no build-ups of suspense. Things just happen. People are found dead after the fact. Killings and Voodoo sacrifices that happen on-screen are clumsily directed. Nevertheless, performances are uniformly good, the script is literate, and there are a few moments of cinematic art. The print I saw on Turner Classic Movies is very clean; and I was impressed by Joe August's cinematography in the scene in the tower as it filled with smoke from the burning tunnel. The interplay of light and smoke created an eerie atmosphere that I wish had been made more of.

7th Heaven
(1927)

Hit film reveals American shallowness
I wanted to like "7th Heaven," and I did for most of the first half. I like the way it begins in a literal and figurative sewer, with one worker trying to look up the skirts of a couple of women standing on a sewer grate. I like Chico's cynicism and atheism, believing society has kept him in the sewers in spite of the fact he's "a remarkable fellow." I like how the camera moves ahead of Diane—played by Janet Gaynor—as her alcoholic sister chases her through the streets with a whip. Gladys Brockwell is marvelous as the sister who led them into prostitution and crime. I like how Chico rescues Diane by suspending the sister by her wrists over a man hole, threatening to drop her into the muck where she belongs. I like Chico's misogyny that doesn't jibe with his random acts of kindness, and how he takes care of Diane in spite of himself. I like Gaynor's wide, sad eyes. She is very good and deserved her Academy award.

What I did not like is how the presence of the Church influences the development of the characters' lives. The Parish Priest promotes Chico to street washer, and asks him to guard religious medals, making it seems as if the medals alone are the reason for Chico's and Diane's blossoming love. I also did not like how WWI jarringly erupts midway through the film without foreshadowing, and how Chico, heretofore a critic of society, responds unquestioningly to France's appeal to patriotism. I didn't like how his love for Diane is no longer implied and subtle, but emerges full blown, heightened by the prospect that they are to be parted by war.

From the beginning of the film Charles Farrell as Chico overacts. But he gets worse as the film lapses into overt sentimentality that makes us all too aware our emotions are being manipulated. From the point where the war intrudes the film wallows in undiluted melodrama, and Farrell's mugging becomes as annoying as the clumsy and confused montage of the mobilization of Paris' taxicabs to transport troops to the front. Diane's sister comes back to reassert her dominance, and sweet little Diane literally and uncharacteristically turns the whip on her sister. Chico returns from the trenches, converted by "the Bon Dieu" who made him blind so that he could see.

All these arbitrary transformations, however, distract us from the fact that these characters were good people to begin with. As long as they are good in spite of themselves, as long as they unselfconsciously transcend their circumstances the action seems natural and the characters real. It's when they become romantic stereotypes that the film breaks the mirror it had been holding up to life.

I don't see silent films as separate from talking films. Any movie that relies on language for character exposition (telling and not showing) has failed. Non-talking film has an advantage because it must pack a maximum of information in every frame to engage the mind and eye. The tracking shot that shows Diane fleeing her whip-wielding sister, the camera's point of view as the sewer worker looks up the women's dresses, and as we look down through the man hole through which Chico seems about to drop Diane's sister shows how inventive the camera can be when it has to be. But silent cinema's need to stick to simple themes did not relieve film-makers of the responsibility to examine the ambiguities inherent in real life.

"7th Heaven" was a huge hit. But the box office success and Oscar wins for Borzage and Glazer as best director and writer speak more about Americans' fondness for sentimentality and need for tidy endings than it does about the nature of non-talking cinema in general. In Europe performances were often more naturalistic and the plotting more realistic than in American film. Hence the reason for the box office failure of the critically acclaimed "Sunrise," made with complete artistic freedom by German émigré director F. W. Murnau in the same year.

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