Meddling in things best left alone

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Released 13 November 1933, TIM was the American screen début of Claude Rains. The film was directed by James Whale, who’d done Frankenstein two years earlier.

A snowstorm grips the village of Iping the night a mysterious stranger appears at the Lion’s Head Inn. His head is wrapped in bandages, and his eyes are covered by dark goggles. He demands a room, which Mr. and Mrs. Hall grant only very reluctantly.

The stranger demands complete privacy, and is outraged when Mrs. Hall interrupts his dinner to bring him mustard. He covers the lower half of his face, horrified to be walked in on. Mrs. Hall reports to her husband and the patrons that half of his face is missing.

We now discover the stranger is Dr. Jack Griffin, who’s been missing for almost a month while working on a secret experiment, and hasn’t communicated with anyone since. His fiancée Flora, daughter of his employer Dr. Cranley, is beside herself with worry.

When Mrs. Hall comes to bring Jack dinner, she discovers a full chemistry lab. Jack demands she scram. Livid at being interrupted and having a whole day’s work destroyed, he throws a vial on the floor and retreats to his desk.

Mr. Hall comes to evict him for being a week behind on rent and driving away customers. Jack begs Mr. Hall to let him stay, saying he’s been disfigured by a horrible accident, and that he’ll have the money in a week. It’s a matter of life and death that he be left alone to conduct his experiment.

When Mr. Hall refuses to relent, Jack attacks him and throws him down the stairs in a rage. The locals run to get a constable.

Jack talks back to the constable and resists arrest. When the constable and angry locals refuse to leave him alone, he finally reveals himself as invisible. Naturally, this scares the daylights out of everyone, and they flee.

When they return, he’s stripped down to just a shirt. He has some fun teasing everyone with his invisibility, attacks the constable and several locals, and slips away to play practical jokes.

The constable calls the chief detective, who thinks this was brought on by too much drinking.

Dr. Cranley and his other assistant, Dr. Kemp, search Jack’s lab and find a note with a list of chemicals. Last on the list is monocane, which Cranley explains is very dangerous. A German experiment turned a dog mad.

He suspects Jack used monocane without knowing it causes madness, since he himself only learnt of the German experiment in an old book by chance. The English books only describe the bleaching power, and came out before the incident with the dog.

Cranley asks Kemp not to tell anyone about the monocane when they call the cops.

That night, a radio broadcast breaks the news of the goings-on in Iping. Kemp freaks out when the radio suddenly shuts off, and Jack’s voice enters the room, followed presently by objects moving around. Jack orders him to get clothes, bandages, and dark glasses.

Jack also orders Kemp not to tell anyone he’s there.

Once he’s covered, Jack returns to Kemp, and lays out his plans for a scheme to take over the world. He wants Kemp to be his partner in crime. Jack explains how he went to Iping to finish his experiment and find the antidote, but those fools wouldn’t let him work in peace.

The chief detective has just declared this Invisible Man is a hoax when Jack springs into action and attacks him. Everyone runs screaming, and soon the entire country is living in terror.

Kemp calls the cops while Jack is asleep, and then calls Dr. Cranley. Not long afterwards, Jack wakes up and goes to find Kemp. He’s very suspicious about why Kemp locked the door, and even more so when he sees a car driving up.

Jack believes Kemp was frightened and unable to sleep, and is overjoyed when he learns Flora is there. He reiterates his plan to take over the world with the power of invisibility.

Then the cops arrive, and Jack removes his clothes. Things go from bad to worse when he tells Kemp he’ll kill him at 10 PM.

How much more terror will Jack wreak before he’s caught, and will he ever become visible again?

TIM was Universal’s most successful horror film since Frankenstein, and critics loved it. H.G. Wells also enjoyed it, though didn’t like how Jack was turned into a raving lunatic. In the book, Jack is already insane and amoral before becoming invisible.

In 2008, the Library of Congress selected TIM for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry.

I really enjoyed this film, and would highly recommend it.

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WeWriWa—A tiny trick-or-treater

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This year, my Halloween-themed snippets come from Chapter 45, “October Oblectations,” of my WIP, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. Most of this chapter is set over Halloween 1949.

This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, when Bogdana’s cabbie and doctor’s assistant Achilles brought her Halloween-colored roses and her aunt Fyodora asked him to introduce his companion. Achilles, a 28-year-old widower, is taking his 18-month-old daughter Klara for her first trick-or-treating.

This has been slightly edited to fit ten lines.

Achilles gently nudges her forward, smiling the biggest smile Bogdana’s ever seen him use. “What do you say, Klarika?”

“Trick-or-treat,” she says in a voice as tiny as she is, holding out an orange cloth bag with yellow jack-o-lantern cut-outs sewn on.

Bogdana puts an Almond Joy bar in her bag, then adds a pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, since the poor girl has no mother, and deserves extra sweets from somewhere.

“What do you say now, Klarika?” Achilles asks.  When Klara doesn’t say anything, he kneels and whispers in her ear.

“Thank you.”

“Can you tell the nice lady that in another way?” He whispers to her again.

“Hvala.”

Achilles is Slovenian–American, though his first name doesn’t reflect that at all. He’s raising Klara to be bilingual. I have a great deal of love, respect, and admiration for the Slovenian people, in part because their beautiful national anthem expresses a hope for the day when all nations of the world will be friends and toast to peace.

The Fall of the House of Usher times two

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1928 saw the release of two film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic 1839 story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” One was a French feature; the other was an American short. Poe’s story is told by an unnamed narrator who arrives at his friend Roderick Usher’s house, after getting a letter mentioning illness and asking for help.

Roderick is suffering from what we now call hyperesthesia (hypersensitivity to light, smells, sounds, textures, and tastes), severe anxiety, and hypochondria. His twin sister Madeline is ill too, and frequently falls into death-like trances. The twins are the only surviving members of their family line.

The narrator loves Roderick’s paintings, and agrees to listen to his impromptu musical compositions for the guitar. The narrator also reads with Roderick. After Roderick sings “The Haunted Palace,” a 48-line poem, he says he believes the house is alive, and that his fate is connected to the house.

Roderick later says Madeline is dead, and insists she can’t be buried until she’s been in the family tomb in the house for two weeks. The narrator notices her rosy cheeks as they’re putting her in the tomb. During the following week, both of them become very agitated for no apparent reason.

When a storm strikes, Roderick enters the narrator’s bedroom, right above Madeline’s tomb, and opens the window. The lake around the house glows in the dark, just as it does in Roderick’s paintings.

The narrator tries to calm Roderick by reading The Mad Trist, a novel about a knight named Ethelred, also set during a storm. When Ethelred breaks into a hermit’s home, he finds a piece of gold guarded by a dragon.

Cracking and ripping sounds are heard as the narrator reads about Ethelred breaking and entering. When he describes the dragon’s shrieks, a real shriek is heard in the house. Finally, when the narrator reads about a shield falling off the wall, a hollow, metallic reverberation is heard.

Roderick becomes more and more hysterical, and claims Madeline is still alive. Even more horrors follow, as the promise of the title becomes reality.

The American film (which I can’t find the release date for) runs 13 minutes, and was directed by James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Folsom Webber. It stars Webber (the narrator), Hildegarde Watson (Madeline), and Herbert Stern (Roderick). In 1959, composer Alec Wilder (a friend of Watson and Webber) wrote a soundtrack.

The film was shot in a very avant-garde style, with its lighting, shadows, reflections through prisms, movement of objects, and letters and words floating across the screen. There are no intertitles. As someone who’s seen a lot of silent avant-garde films, I know this is an acquired taste for most people.

In 2000, the Library of Congress deemed it a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film,” and preserved it in the National Film Registry.

The French version, released 5 October 1928, was directed by Jean Epstein, and stars Marguerite Gance, Jean Debucourt (Roderick), and Charles Lamy (Allan). The screenplay was co-written by Epstein and Luis Buñuel. Like the American film, it’s very avant-garde.

Allan gets a letter from Roderick, urging him to come to the House of Usher. Allan’s companions are horrified when he asks if anyone can give him a ride, but he eventually gets a volunteer.

Allan’s driver refuses to take him all the way to the door, so terrified by the spectre of the gloomy, horrific house.

In the film, Madeline is Roderick’s wife. He’s holding her in the house in a derelict manner, dominated by his tyrannical nervousness. Scientists and doctors are baffled by her illness, and Roderick is driven to painting her portrait.

Allan notices Roderick has a fever, which Roderick brushes off. Roderick plays his guitar for awhile, until he’s absorbed once again by the thought of painting Madeline, and how to dismiss Allan. He tells Allan he’s touched by his concern, but begs Allan not to trouble himself. Roderick suggests he take a walk before retiring.

Like a magic wand, Roderick’s paintbrush makes Madeline’s image grow ever more vivid, while she herself grows weaker. The portrait draws from her vitality.

Roderick is stunned and in disbelief when Madeline expires. He insists she not leave the house, and forbids his servants to nail the coffin shut, but his orders aren’t obeyed.

Days and weeks pass in monotony, as Roderick waits, on-edge, for any little sign, exacerbating his nervous condition.

Then the night storm hits.

The Joker’s genesis

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The Man Who Laughs, released 27 April 1928, was the third Hollywood film for both German director Paul Leni and wonderful actor Conrad Veidt. Universal Pictures gave Lon Chaney, Sr., a contract to play the lead role of Gwynplaine, but failed to acquire film rights to Victor’s Hugo’s least-successful novel from Sociéte Générale des Films. Lon’s contract was amended to release him from this obligation, and let him name its replacement (1925’s The Phantom of the Opera).

By the time studio boss Carl Laemmle returned to The Man Who Laughs, Lon was under contract to MGM.

Lord Clancharlie is sentenced to death in an iron maiden by King James II in January 1690, and his son Gwynplaine has a permanent grin carved into his face by a Comprachico surgeon. Shortly afterwards, all Comprachicos are banished from England for trading in stolen children and performing unlawful surgeries transforming children into monsters.

Gwynplaine, who’s been with them since his capture, is ordered left behind. Dr. Hardquanonne, who performed the macabre surgery, demands he come with them, but another Comprachico says they want no victims to convict them of their trade. Dr. Hardquanonne says Gwynplaine is theirs by the King’s orders, and means money to them, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.

While Gwynplaine, his grin covered by a scarf, is wandering in the snow afterwards, he finds a woman frozen to death and saves her baby. Gwynplaine stumbles across Ursus, a philosopher, and his trained wolf with the unfortunate name Homo (dog Zimbo). Ursus is annoyed to be disturbed, but ultimately invites Gwynplaine into his little green van.

Ursus is stunned anew to discover there are two of them, and quickly determines the baby is blind. He thinks Gwynplaine is laughing about this, but soon realises this was done by Comprachicos.

Many years pass, and Gwynplaine is now a successful travelling performer, The Laughing Man. Who should Ursus meet during one of these stops but Dr. Hardquanonne!

Also rather predictably, Gwynplaine and the blind Dea (Mary Philbin) have fallen in love.

Dr. Hardquanonne has a message delivered to Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova, who played the two-faced Cleopatra in Freaks). It first gets to Barkilphedro, the jester who kidnapped Gwynplaine and had him mutilated all those years ago. He shows it to Queen Anne.

After Josiana attends Gwynplaine’s show, she has a message delivered to him, saying she was the one who wasn’t laughing, and that her page will come for him at midnight. Gwynplaine is thrilled, and tells Ursus if a sighted woman might love him, he may now have the right to marry Dea. He’s always felt unworthy of her love.

Josiana puts the moves on Gwynplaine, which thrills him. During their meeting, Josiana reads a letter from the Queen, saying Lord Clancharlie’s heir, whose estates she now enjoys, has been found and identified as Gwynplaine. Her betrothal is thus annulled, and she must marry Gwynplaine, who’ll be restored to his heritage. Josiana breaks out laughing.

Gwynplaine returns home to find Dea asleep outside the wagon, where she was waiting up for him. The letter from Josiana is in her hands, which Gwynplaine rips up. He now realises Dea truly loves him, since she’s never laughed at him and accepts him just as he is.

Gwynplaine is arrested in the morning, and Ursus follows him. Ursus is told not to wait, since those who enter Chatham Prison never return, but he’s undeterred.

The Queen tells Barkilphedro Dr. Hardquanonne died in Chatham Prison, and his confession proved beyond a shadow of a doubt Gwynplaine is indeed Lord Clancharlie’s son. It grieves her to know Josiana must marry a clown, but after Gwynplaine is released, he’ll be made a Peer in the House of Lords.

Ursus tells all the other performers Dea must not know, and that the show must go on. More trouble comes when Barkilphedro interrupts the show to inform Ursus he’s banished from England, and lies Gwynplaine is dead.

Will Gwynplaine escape marrying Josiana and find Dea and Ursus in time?

This film had a budget of over $1,000,000, and was a huge success. Opening night proceeds went to American Friends of Blérancourt. Many critics, however, panned it, finding the subject matter too dark and depressing, and feeling the German Expressionistic style didn’t evoke 17th and 18th century England. As recently as the Seventies, many critics still hated it, but today it’s rightly recognised as a beautiful masterpiece.

Like many films of the late silent era, TMWL is a hybrid, with a synchronised sountrack, sound effects (including crowd noises and the calling of Gwynplaine’s name), and a song, “When Love Comes Stealing.”

The themes, style, and set designs were major influences on Universal’s classic horror movies of the Thirties.

And, of course, Gwynplaine’s exaggerated grin was The Joker’s genesis.

A paralytic’s quest for revenge

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Released 24 November 1928, West of Zanzibar was the penultimate of the ten films Lon Chaney, Sr., made with director Tod Browning. It’s based on a 1926 Broadway play, Kongo, which starred Walter Huston. (Huston later starred in a 1932 remake under the original name.)

Unfortunately, due to censorship, the known surviving print runs only 65 minutes. Among the scenes Browning was forced to edit out include Phroso as a duckman in a sideshow, and Phroso and his troupe arriving in Zanzibar.

Circus performer Phroso (Lon) suffers the ultimate heartache when his wife Anna leaves him for his partner Crane (Lionel Barrymore). Crane says they’re going to Africa, and pushes Phroso over a railing. This fall paralyses Phroso.

A year later, word reaches Phroso that Anna has returned with a baby. He crawls into the church where she was reported, and finds her dead. Phroso tells her he never followed her because Crane told him she loved him (Crane). He was man enough to let the woman he loved go to his rival.

He then vows, “For all the suffering he brought her…he’s going to pay! I’ll find him! I’ll make him pay! He and his brat will pay!”

Eighteen years later, Phroso has established himself west of Zanzibar, and is using the native Africans (who, typically for the era, are portrayed as cannibals and superstitious) to steal Crane’s ivory. It’s part of a plot to lure Crane and his daughter into Phroso’s clutches.

Crane’s daughter Maizie (Mary Nolan), who works at a very sleazy bar, is reluctant to leave her job and surrogate mother, but is persuaded when told she’s going to meet her father. All these years, Phroso has been paying for her upkeep there.

Maizie is horrified to encounter Phroso and his troupe, but relieved when Phroso reassures her he’s not her father. She wants to know what the game is, since the gentleman who brought her there claimed he was taking her to meet her father. Phroso says he’ll tell her when he’s good and ready.

Phroso puts on a mask for a big funeral, in which the deceased’s wife or daughter is burnt on his funeral pyre. One of Phroso’s troupe tells her it’s the law of the Congo, and nothing can ever change it.

Phroso’s alcoholic buddy Doc (Warner Baxter) offers Maizie a drink, but Phroso won’t hear of anyone treating her nicely. He makes her break the glass and eat on the floor. Doc announces he’ll eat with her. Maizie then discovers Phroso gave her clothes to the natives.

When Phroso’s ivory theft is discovered, he tells a native to report to the trader that his daughter is there. Crane comes immediately, and Phroso tells him he intends to pay for everything. When Phroso opens a coffin with a skeleton inside, Crane instantly recognises his old partner, and has a good laugh.

Phroso opens the revolving door coffin again, and reveals Maizie. Crane doesn’t make the connection, and thinks she’s Phroso’s lover or assistant.

Maizie has turned into an alcoholic, which greatly upsets Doc. To absolutely no one’s surprise, he’s fallen in instalove with her. After Doc carries her out of the bar, Phroso tells Crane Maizie is his daughter.

Crane reacts with laughter, and Phroso orders his assistant Bumbu to take care of his orders. He tells Crane he had Maizie raised in the lowest dive in Zanzibar so he could be proud of her. Now both father and daughter will pay for Crane’s betrayal.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but I will say there are some very emotional, intense, horrific twists and turns. As always, Lon stirs so much emotion for someone most people would never feel sympathy for. He truly excelled at playing outcasts.

Since his parents were Deaf-mutes, his first language was Sign. Lon knew how to talk with his hands and face before he could speak.