Though many associate director D.W. Griffith with extremely long, preachy, over the top epics, he has quite a multifaceted body of work, particularly before he began making the features he’s best remembered for today. During his five years at Biograph Studios, he directed hundreds of shorts with very diverse subjects.
The Sealed Room, released 2 September 1909, was based on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 story “The Cask of Amontillado” and Honoré de Balzac’s 1831 story “La Grande Bretèche.” The latter story takes its name from a manor. A bretèche, or brattice, is a little balcony with machicolations (openings where stones and hot liquids could be poured on invaders).
The King (Arthur V. Johnson) throws a party, and afterwards brings his mistress (Marion Leonard) into a dovecote through a secret entrance. Later he becomes suspicious of her fidelity, suspicions which prove correct.
She’s chutzpahdik enough to bring her lover (Henry B. Walthall) into the dovecote. It’s only a matter of time till the King opens the curtains and spies the unthinkable.
The lovers don’t realise they were seen, and continue merrily cavorting as the King’s men seal the entrance. When his mistress goes to let her lover out, they discover they’re trapped. Panic and terror erupt as the King taunts them on the other side.
Released 24 March 1914, The Avenging Conscience was based on Edgar Allan Poe’s famous 1843 story “The Tell-Tale Heart” and his final complete poem, “Annabel Lee” (1849). The latter concerns a love so strong it creepily continues beyond Annabel Lee’s death. Every night, the narrator sleeps beside her seaside tomb.
Throughout the film, there are quotes from the two literary inspirations.
An unnamed young man (Henry B. Walthall) is raised by his indulgent uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) after losing his mother in infancy. When he grows up, he throws himself into establishing a successful career. However, his single-minded focus is derailed when he falls in love with Annabel (Blanche Sweet), much to his uncle’s outrage.
As Griffith was so wont to do with establishing his ingénues as sweet and sympathetic, Annabel too is shown cooing over a baby animal, a puppy she rescues from behind a wire barrier.
The young man initially stands firm in his commitment to Annabel, no matter how opposed his uncle is to the match, but later gives in. He and Annabel agree to never see one another again.
There’s a subplot of a romance between a maid (Mae Marsh) and grocery boy (Bobby Harron). Their carefree, unopposed romance stands in stark contrast to the thwarted one of Annabel and the protagonist. Unlike the latter couple, they come from the same social class, and neither has high expectations of conducting oneself a certain way.
The maid and grocer go on to marry, have a baby girl, and create a happy home, while Annabel’s life is very lonely and melancholic, and our protagonist has financial success but not personal happiness.
Annabel continues suffering without her love, while the protagonist becomes consumed by images of death and creepy-crawlies stalking their prey. He decides his uncle, the source of all his personal anguish, must die.
Though he had the perfect chance to take out his uncle during a nap in the office, he chickens out. When his uncle awakes, he asks for money. If his uncle gives it to him, he’ll go away.
His uncle refuses, and a fight breaks out. The protagonist ends up strangling his uncle, little realising he was secretly seen through the window.
Full of terror when the witness (George Seigmann) begins knocking at the door and shouting, the protagonist covers his uncle with a coat. He steps outside and tries to play it cool, but it’s no use. To buy the witness’s silence, he promises to pay him well when his inheritance comes due.
The protagonist hides his uncle’s body in the fireplace wall, replacing each brick very carefully so no human eye can detect anything.
Questions arise about what happened to his uncle, but no one suspects the protagonist, who receives his full inheritance. Annabel soon comes to visit to pay her sympathies, and it seems like the beginning of a rekindled romance until the ghostly visions start.
Annabel is afraid he’s more than just mentally deranged, and leaves.
Sleep provides no respite, as the haunting visions continue. He hies it to a sanitarium in hope of gaining relief from these hallucinations, and returns home believing he’s cured. But his greatest horrors are only just beginning.