No one can escape the hands of Orlac!

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Released 6 May 1924 in Austria, The Hands of Orlac (Orlac’s Hände) was based on French writer Maurice Renard’s 1920 fantasy-horror novel Les Mains d’Orlac, part of a subgenre now termed body horror. As its name suggests, body horror involves violations of the body through mutilation, disease, extreme violence, mutation, unnatural movements, etc.

Germany approved the film for release on 24 September 1924, for adults only. In January 1925, Saxony’s Ministry of the Interior filed a censorship petition which was rightly rejected as ridiculous.

The Hands of Orlac didn’t reach the U.S. till 1928.

The film was directly remade in 1935 and 1960, in addition to inspiring many other films and TV shows.

The film opens with Paul Orlac’s wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina, née Aleksandra Tsvikevich) reading a letter where he promises he’ll be home soon. In an obvious bit of foreshadowing, Orlac proclaims how he can’t wait to run his hands through her hair and over her body again.

We then meet Orlac (Conrad Veidt), a successful concert pianist who’s concluding a tour. Disaster strikes when his train home gets into a very serious accident. Though Orlac is among the survivors pulled from the wreckage, he suffers a fractured skull and the loss of his precious hands.

Yvonne begs the surgeon, Dr. Serral (Hans Homma), to save her husband’s hands, which are more valuable to him than his life. Towards this end, Dr. Serral transplants the hands of a recently executed criminal.

Orlac suspects something funny is up even before the bulky bandages come off, and the funny feeling continues after he sees “his” hands again. When Orlac awakes from a horrific nightmare, he finds a note in his lap admitting the terrible truth.

He goes to confront Dr. Serral, who confirms this disturbing information.

Orlac vows to never let these criminal hands touch another person, a resolve which is put to the test when he returns home to his loving wife. He can barely even bring himself to touch his beloved piano.

Orlac is even more horrified when he learns more about Vasseur, the criminal whose hands he now bears, since Vasseur’s guilt was conclusively established by fingerprints all over everything.

It gets worse when Orlac finds a knife in his house identical to the one Vasseur used. He’s now convinced these hands have given him a propensity to violence, though that’s never been in his nature.

A phantom force compels Orlac towards the knife he hid in the piano, and Yvonne catches him stabbing at the air in the middle of the night. Orlac orders her to stay away from him, and she retreats in fear.

Orlac’s next move is to try cutting his hands off, but he regains his senses. He then gets into trouble with the maid, Regine (Carmen Cartellieri), who just feuded with her lover. Orlac puts his hands on her head, and she says they feel like the hands of a killer.

Orlac goes to confront Dr. Serral, begging him to remove the cursed hands, but Dr. Serral tries to tell him the body is ruled by one’s head and heart, not the hands.

Meanwhile, creditors are hassling Yvonne. Since Orlac refuses to play the piano with criminal hands, there’s no money coming in. Yvonne begs for a month, but they only give her till tomorrow. She wants to go to her rich father-in-law for help, but Regine says he’s an awful person who hates their family.

Just as Regine predicted, Orlac, Sr. refuses to help.

Regine says Orlac must go to his dad to beg. Though this greatly upsets Yvonne, she knows there’s no choice.

When Orlac arrives at his dad’s house, the greatest horrors of all begin unfolding.

Real-life horror: Fritz Strassny, né Straßni (Orlac’s dad), who was Jewish, was dismissed from Austria’s venerable Burgtheater in 1938. He was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and murdered two and a half weeks later.

Conrad Veidt, who was strongly anti-Nazi, escaped to England with his Jewish wife just ahead of a Gestapo death squad’s arrival at their house in 1933.

Celebrating lost horror of 1919

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Released November 1919, British film The Beetle was based on Richard Marsh’s 1897 novel of the same name. Upon its release, it outsold contemporary, similarly-themed competitor Dracula. The story is told by four narrators and concerns an Ancient Egyptian god seeking revenge upon a British Member of Parliament.

It initially was released as a serial under the title The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man in Answers, from 13 March–19 June 1897. It came out in volume form from September to October the same year, with the title it became famous for, The Beetle: A Mystery.

Many believe this book was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, which also features an Ancient Egyptian theme.

This first film adaptation stars Maudie Dunham, Fred Morgan, and Hebden Foster. It was produced by Jack W. Smith and directed by Alexander Butler. Sadly, the film appears to be lost, though many films presumed lost for decades have turned up in the unlikeliest of places.

Contemporary reviews described it as an Ancient Egyptian High Priestess of Isis (Leal Douglas) turning herself into a beetle to get revenge on MP Paul Lessingham (Foster). This is no ordinary transformation, since she can appear as a woman or man in addition to a beetle. Lessingham turns to his romantic rival for help in defeating this creature.

One reviewer described it as mediocre and more unintentionally hilarious than spine-chilling or dramatic, though the special effects were highly praised. The production was also called to task for its supposed carelessness.

The Haunted Bedroom, released 25 May 1919, is also lost. Its alternate title was The Ghost of Whispering Oaks.

According to contemporary reviewers, New York reporter Betsy Thorne (Enid Bennett, wife of director Fred Niblo) travels to a Southern U.S. depot to investigate a mysterious disappearance. At the depot, she overhears a detective and sheriff saying all reporters are barred from the house and grounds at the centre of the mystery.

Betsy runs across a Richmond maid sent to the house and scares her into agreeing to an identity switch. At the house, Betsy discovers some incredible goings-on, and is terrified by a ghostly figure rising from an organ in the chapel her first night.

Everyone comes running at her screams as she runs away, and the missing man’s sister forbids her from returning to the chapel. The next night, she’s locked in her room during a thunderstorm, and sees the ghostly figure again while escaping through a window. This time, the figure’s in the family graveyard.

Betsy finds an old African-American gentleman who agrees to help her. (Given the era, I wouldn’t be shocked if he were an overly spooked caricature instead of a fully-rounded person who just happens to be a little frightened.) The duo begins investigating the house, starting with the organ.

They discover keys which enable a secret door in the organ to open, revealing a secret passageway to the family tomb. Hiding in there are two crooks whom Betsy discovers were trying to extort a young man accused of the crime.

A collection of eerie tales

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Released 5 November 1919, Unheimliche Geschichten (Eerie Tales) is an anthology film consisting of five creepy stories—The Apparition, The Hand, The Black Cat, The Suicide Club, and Der Spuk (The Spectre).

The Black Cat is based on an 1843 Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name, with parallels to “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Both are about murderers who cover up their crimes and eventually are driven mad by guilt.

The Suicide Club is based on an 1878 three-story collection by Robert Louis Stevenson, also of the same name. They’re about a macabre club which is investigated by Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his buddy Colonel Geraldine. The club’s president is criminally-inclined.

The horror starts in a rare bookshop when three people (Conrad Veidt, Reinhold Schünzel, and Anita Berber) step out of paintings to read horror stories. They periodically appear in wraparound segments and play the leads in all five stories.

Their first story, The Apparition, begins with a woman who confides to a friend (Veidt) that her husband (Schünzel) has lost his mind. She rightly divorced him after he tried to strangle her, but now he follows her everywhere. She begs for protection against this madman.

They begin an affair and check into separate rooms of a hotel, where her ex comes looking for her but is turned away due to no vacancies.  That night, her lover totally freaks out when he finds her room empty.

He tries to set his mind at ease with the thought that it was the wrong room, and in the morning asks to be announced in Room 117. Once again he fills with horror when no one is there. Even worse, her name isn’t in the hotel register, and the receptionist claims he arrived alone.

The horror only increases from there.

In The Hand, things start innocently enough at a party, but soon it’s revealed there are two suitors (Veidt and Schünzel) competing for the same lady.

As so often happens with suitors who can’t gracefully accept no for an answer, the rejected one kills his rival. Before long, he’s tortured by ghostly visions of his victim’s hand.

Things go from bad to worse during a séance.

In The Black Cat, a drunk (Schünzel) becomes more and more out of control, culminating in the murder of his wife. Not realising the screams were heard outside, he drags her body into the cellar and walls her up.

Next day, the man who overheard the murder (Veidt) visits, and the drunk claims his wife is out of town. Soon everyone in town is saying the drunk murdered her.

The witness takes his suspicions to the authorities, who come to search the house. Nothing seems outwardly suspicious till cracks start appearing in the cellar wall.

The witness axes an opening, and out jumps the wife’s loyal black cat. The writing’s on the wall regarding his guilt!

In The Suicide Club, a detective (Schünzel) investigates a seemingly empty house and discovers people inside. When he confronts them, he’s told it’s “just” a suicide club.

The members don’t take very well to the stranger in their midst, esp. not after he refuses to join their club. They want to kill him, but the lone woman pleads for clemency.

Her brother (Veidt) tells him he’s part of a club where one can never leave, and takes him to a card game behind a wall inscribed with the famous words “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Whoever draws the spade dies that night.

Der Spuk is set in the 17th or 18th century, in the home of a well-to-do baron (Veidt). All the lines in this story are delivered via poems.

Trouble begins when an injured knight (Schünzel) is brought in to spend the night. The baroness, feeling neglected by her husband, immediately begins flirting with him.

Far from being angry to discover this cuckoldry in the making, the baron encourages her to have an affair. But since this is a horror story, their romance is disrupted by mysteriously moving objects and deathly figures.

When this final story concludes, the bookshop’s owner comes in with police and finds his store empty. The three readers have returned to their paintings.

A twofer of D.W. Griffith horror

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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.

A quintuple shot of antique horror

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Jehanne d’Alcy, star of lost film Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb

As always, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. Sadly, two of his 1899 films represented here are lost.

Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (known in its original French as simply Cléopâtre) stars Méliès as a tomb-robber and Jehanne d’Alcy as Cleopatra’s ghost. Our dastardly tomb-robber chops Cleopatra’s mummy into pieces, then “produces a woman from a smoking brazier.”

D’Alcy was the first film actor to portray Cleopatra VII (albeit as her ghost). She and Méliès later became one another’s second spouses.

On 22 September 2005, it was announced this film had been found, but alas, it turned out to be a different film with the robbing of an Egyptian tomb.

In The Devil in a Convent (Le Diable au Couvent (1899), Satan arises from what appears to be a baptismal font and disguises himself as a priest delivering a sermon to nuns. They flee in fear when he transmogrifies back. When he’s alone, Satan conjures up several demonic statues, a large mask, and many other devils.

Their fun in the convent ends when the nuns return. The other devils flee, and Satan is pursued by many priests. An angel statue comes to life and slays him with a sword, and Satan vanishes in a cloud of smoke.

In 2010, Cinémathèque Basque received a box of 32 films in 35mm, including hand-coloured copies of The Devil in a Convent and another 1899 Méliès film, The Mysterious Knight. These films were rescued from a rubbish bin in Bilbao, Spain in 1995.

The Pillar of Fire (Danse du Feu) (1899) was originally released in the U.S. and U.K. as Haggard’s “She”—The Pillar of Fire. The Devil, dressed in green, leaps out of a cauldron and begins creating smoke all over the room with a bellows. He then conjures a young lady who performs a serpentine dance before disappearing in a column of smoke.

This was the first film based on British writer H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure. Given the scant length of films in this era, Méliès chose to use title character Ayesha (not the protagonist) as inspiration for one of his famous trick films. There are at least ten other film adaptations of this book.

Occultist Count Alessandro Cagliostro, né Giuseppe Balsamo (1743–95)

Cagliostro’s Mirror (Le miroir de Cagliostro) (1899) is sadly lost. It depicted a basket of flowers appearing in large frame on a wall, followed by a beautiful young lady’s picture. Her picture becomes animated, and she begs to get out of the frame. A visitor starts to comply, only to see her turning into a skeleton and huge devil’s head.

Faust and Marguerite (known in French as Damnation du Docteur Faust) (1904) was Méliès’s fourth and final film adaptation of the German legend of Faust, a scholar who makes a deal with the Devil and finds himself in way over his head after the initial thrill wears off. Once more, Méliès played the part of Mephistopheles, the Devil.

Unfortunately, this film isn’t widely available to the general public in its 15-minute entirety. A print with some missing scenes is held at the Paper Prints collection in the Library of Congress, and a short fragment of the 15th and 16th scenes is in a private British collection.

Like many of Méliès’s other films, this one too is meant to be played alongside spoken narration. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on without this narration. Those who’ve seen F.W. Murnau’s classic 1926 Faust will be familiar with the storyline, though there are some divergences.

This particular Faust adaptation is based on Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera. Méliès’s 1903 version was based on Hector Berlioz’s 1846 opera.