A story of the London fog

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Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t an immediate success as a director. His bad luck turned around with The Lodger, released 14 February 1927 in the U.K. and 10 June 1928 in the U.S. It was a huge box office hit in the U.K., and received wonderful reviews.

Some name this as the first truly Hitchcockian film, setting the stage for styles and themes which permeated much of the rest of his work.

The Lodger also has the first recognisable Hitchock cameo, 5:33 in. He’s at a newsroom desk, his back to the camera. The actor set to play the phone operator didn’t show up, so Hitchcock took over. He also shows up in a mob scene towards the end.

The film is based upon Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 novel of the same name, about the 1888 hunt for Jack the Ripper. It was remade in 1932, 1944, 1953 (as Man in the Attic), and 2009. A 1960 opera was also based on the novel.

Another adaptation of the novel, the comic play Who Is He? (1915), written by Horace Annesley Vachell, was additional inspiration.

The mood and filming techniques were inspired by German Expressionism. While working on the German–British film The Blackguard in 1924, Hitchcock studied several films being produced nearby, particularly F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh. He’d also been inspired by Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (1921).

Producer Michael Balcon was furious when he saw the finished product, and almost shelved both the film and Hitchcock’s career. After a lot of fighting, they found a compromise, and film critic Ivor Montagu was hired to edit it.

At first, Hitchcock resented this, but Montagu only made minute suggestions, such as reshooting a few minor scenes and changing some intertitles. Montagu respected his talent and creativity too much to radically edit everything.

When beautiful matinée idol Ivor Novello was cast as the star, the studio demanded changes to the script. They didn’t want any suggestion of ambiguity about his guilt vs. innocence, since ambiguity might suggest he were a villain, and the public couldn’t have that.

You’ll have to watch the film to see which side won.

The film opens with the murder of a young blonde woman. When her body is discovered, there’s a triangle on her, bearing the name of The Avenger. This murderer strikes blondes on Tuesday nights and leaves that triangle as his calling-card.

That night by a fashion show, blonde model Daisy Bunting (June Tripp) laughs at her co-workers’ hysterical fears, and how the other blondes are hiding their hair with wigs and hats. When she comes home, she finds her old parents and her rather unwanted boyfriend, policeman Joe (Malcolm Keen), discussing the crime.

A beautiful young man (Ivor Novello) arrives by the Bunting house, inquiring after the room for rent. Mrs. Bunting is very nervous to see the lower half of his face covered by a scarf, just like The Avenger, but lets him inside and shows him the upstairs room.

Mrs. Bunting is further weirded out when she discovers the lodger has turned around all the paintings of young blonde women. He says he doesn’t like them, and asks if they can be put somewhere else.

I got a good laugh out of Joe’s intertitle, “Anyway, I’m glad he’s not keen on the girls.” In a later intertitle, Mrs. Bunting also describes the lodger as “a bit queer.” Ivor was gay in real life, and in a relationship with Robert “Bobbie” Andrews from 1916 until his death in 1951.

Daisy and the lodger start becoming closer, which Joe deeply resents. Meanwhile, the lodger’s strange behaviour begins to arouse the suspicions of Joe (now assigned to The Avenger case) and Mrs. Bunting. It doesn’t help matters that The Avenger’s murders are moving towards the Buntings’ home.

In addition to the jealous, controlling Joe, Daisy’s parents also disapprove of her budding romance with the lodger. Daisy, however, stands her ground, and continues meeting him for stolen moments. When Joe catches them on a date, Daisy tells him what’s what, and dumps him.

Joe is newly-determined to prove the lodger is The Avenger, and intensifies his investigation. Will the lodger be found guilty or innocent?

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Old dark house meets German Expressionism

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Together with The Bat and The MonsterThe Cat and the Canary is one of the Big Three old dark house plays which were made into films during the silent era. Old dark house stories feature people stuck overnight in a strange, creepy, old house. Frequently, the reason for the gathering is the reading of an old eccentric’s will, and there’s at least one murder or mysterious disappearance.

The play was written by John Willard in 1921, and premièred 7 February 1922 on Broadway. It ran for 349 performances, till 2 December, and returned for 40 performances from 23 April–26 May 1923.

The first film adaptation premièred 9 September 1927 by New York’s Colony Theatre. In addition to films by the same name in 1939 (starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard) and 1979, 0ther filmed versions include The Cat Creeps (1930, lost); La Voluntad del Muerto (1930); and Katten och Kanariefågeln (1961 Swedish TV movie).

Carl Laemmle, the German-born head of Universal Pictures, invited German Expressionist director Paul Leni to do the honors for The Cat and the Canary after seeing his impressive mixing of comedy and playfulness with the grotesque in Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) (1924). Laemmle also wanted to capitalize upon the Gothic horror film trend.

Leni provided a masterful mixing of German Expressionism and comedy, tailoring that style to American audiences. A hand wiping away cobwebs to reveal the opening credits is just the beginning. Leni also created the trademark Expressionist mood through shadows, lighting, and camera angles.

The film was very financially successful, and has received mostly positive reviews both then and now.

Millionaire Cyrus West, who lives in a decaying old mansion over the Hudson, has been driven crazy by his greedy relatives. He feels like a canary surrounded by cats. To keep them away from his money for as long as possible, he locks his last will and testament in a safe, with instructions to be read on his 20th Jahrzeit (death anniversary).

If and only if the conditions of the will can’t be fulfilled, a second note is to be opened.

Cyrus’s lawyer, Roger Crosby (veteran character actor Tully Marshall), discovers a live moth and the second will when he opens the safe. He asks caretaker Mammy Pleasant who else has been in the house, but she insists she’s been alone for twenty years. Crosby is also the only one who knows the safe’s combination.

As midnight approaches, the relatives start arriving—his nephews Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Harry Blythe, and Charles Wilder; his sister Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch); and his nieces Cecily Young (Gertrude Astor) and Annabelle West (Laura La Plante). Susan is convinced Annabelle is crazy, but Paul has a big crush on her.

Because Cyrus hated his family so much, he’s given his fortune to Annabelle, his most distant relative. However, before she can inherit anything, she has to be judged sane by a doctor named in the will, who’s due to pay a visit that night. If she doesn’t pass muster, the money goes to the person named in the second will.

Cyrus’s painting falls off the wall, which is interpreted as a very bad omen. Now everyone is even more eager to get out of there, as much as they all want a piece of the fortune. However, they’re prevented from leaving when a guard enters and announces he’s looking for an escaped lunatic, “who thinks he’s a cat, and tears his victims like they were canaries!”

No one wants to sleep alone after this.

Crosby pulls Annabelle aside to read the alternate will, so she’ll know who might be trying to get between her and the inheritance. Before he can read the name, a claw-like hand emerges from a secret panel and absconds with him. When Annabelle tells the others, they all think she’s crazy, except the smitten Paul.

In Cyrus’s room, Annabelle reads a third note, which has instructions for finding the West diamonds. She’s delighted to discover a beautiful diamond necklace, but while she’s sleeping, the clawed hand snatches it. Once again, no one believes her but Paul.

The mysterious, creepy events don’t stop there.

Of the Big Three old dark house films of the Twenties, I like this one best. I’d highly recommend it if you’re a fan of classic horror.

A circus of horrors in Madrid

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Released 4 June 1927, The Unknown is one of ten films Lon Chaney, Sr., made with director Tod Browning. It’s so deliciously macabre, and features Lon’s specialty, a character who’s outside the norm in some way. Lon usually played social outsiders, people with great emotional pain and/or traumatic pasts, people who were physically disfigured, anything that made them different from the others.

In The Unknown, he plays armless knife-thrower Alonzo. Or is he really armless?

Alonzo keeps his arms tightly-bound to his torso, something only his friend Cojo knows. Because Alonzo has a double thumb on his left hand, displaying his arms would mean giving away his true identity as a criminal.

There’s also another reason he keeps his arms hidden—he’s in love with his partner Nanon (Joan Crawford), who’s terrified of being touched by men. She only loves and trusts Alonzo because he doesn’t have any arms and hands to hold and paw her. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to read between the lines and guess the reason for this fear.

Also in the circus is Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), a rival for Nanon’s affections. He’s extremely determined to win her affections, but Nanon’s fear of men and Alonzo’s equal determination to win Nanon are working against him.

Alonzo turns Nanon against Malabar by telling him he has the strength and arms Nanon loves. Alonzo urges him to take Nanon in his arms and confess his love, which produces anything but the desired reaction.

Alonzo gets into a fight with Nanon’s father Zanzi, the head of the circus, and kills him. Nanon sees this from her window, but only sees the murderer from behind.

The authorities realize Zanzi’s strangler was the same man who committed other crimes, but since Alonzo has no demonstrable hands to take fingerprints from, he escapes suspicion.

The rest of the circus leaves town after Zanzi’s demise, but Alonzo stays in town with Nanon, Malabar, and Cojo. Alonzo says he wants to take her away from everything she hates.

Alonzo has new hope after Nanon hugs and kisses him, but Cojo warns him to not let that happen again. The next time, Nanon might feel the arms under his shirt.

Alonzo insists Nanon would forgive him, even if she saw his arms on their wedding night, but Cojo reminds him she’d still see that double thumb.

Cojo laughs at Alonzo for smoking with his feet when he has arms, and a macabre revelation hits him. His body language gives his thoughts away, and Cojo warns him not to do it, but Alonzo is determined to have Nanon.

The horror only increases from there.

Lon often put himself through grueling physical pain to convincingly play his characters, in an era before CGI. This film was no exception. However, while his arms really were bound to his torso, real-life armless sideshow performer Paul Desmuke was the one really doing things with his feet.

In some shots, Desmuke doubled for Lon; in others, he perfectly synchronized his legs with Lon’s body.

While The Unknown is widely praised today, and considered one of Lon and Tod’s best collaborations, contemporary reviewers were much less impressed. We often can’t predict which films will stand the test of time, quickly become dated, or be rediscovered and re-evaluated decades later.

For many years, the film was lost, until its miraculous 1968 rediscovery in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris. Its rediscovery may be an important clue in finding other lost films. Then as now, most films’ titles were translated for foreign markets, and this film’s French title is L’Inconnu. Hundreds of other films in the archive were labelled as such too, because their contents were unknown.

Might there be other films hiding in plain sight with unexpected titles?

A tragic, misunderstood monster

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As it turns out, I could’ve done Frankenstein as my final vintage horror film of October, since what I thought were two 1921 horror films turned out to be horribly mistitled. But since I never immediately take down the Monster template and love Halloween so much, why not save the final film for early November?

Released 21 November 1931, this was the fourth film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famous novel. (It was like nails on a chalkboard to see her seriously credited as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” in the opening credits! She published under her own name, not her husband’s name with the title Mrs. in front!) However, the film was more based on a 1927 play by Peggy Webling.

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James Whale directed, and Carl Laemmle, Jr. produced. The film stars Colin Clive as Henry (not Victor) Frankenstein; Mae Clarke (who took the grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy) as his fiancée Elizabeth Lavenza; Dwight Frye as hunchbacked assistant Fritz; Edward van Sloan as Dr. Waldman; John Boles as friend Victor Moritz; and, last but not least, Boris Karloff (né William Henry Pratt) as the Monster. I like how there’s a question mark for the Monster’s actor in the opening cast list.

Universal Pictures had lost $2.2 million in revenues in 1930, but was rescued by the runaway hit Dracula in February 1931. Hence, Carl Laemmle, Jr., announced plans for more horror films. He knew a cash cow when he saw one.

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There were five sequels:

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) (with Lon Chaney, Jr., as the Monster)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) (with Béla Lugosi as the Monster)
House of Frankenstein (1944) (with Glenn Strange as the Monster and Karloff as a mad scientist)

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Henry Frankenstein, a young scientist obsessed with the idea of creating life, has holed himself away in his lab in an abandoned watchtower with his assistant Fritz. Towards this most lofty goal, they dig up dead bodies and abscond with various body parts. One of these body parts is a brain Fritz grabs from the lecture hall of Henry’s old medical professor, Dr. Waldman.

Alas, he drops the healthy brain, and unrealizingly takes a criminal’s so-called “abnormal” brain in its place. As a modern viewer, and given the attitudes of the era, I have to wonder just why a criminal’s brain was automatically portrayed as “abnormal.” Was the deceased mentally ill, gay, left-handed, an anarchist? And what exactly was his crime?

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Henry’s fiancée Elizabeth is extremely concerned about what’s going on, and goes to his friend Victor for help. They in turn get Dr. Waldman to come with them to confront Henry about his bizarre behavior and hermitism. The three of them set off, and arrive during a terrible storm. Henry refuses to admit them at first, but finally relents.

Henry tells them to watch as he brings his creation to life. The moment is creeping ever closer, as soon as the strongest lightning strikes. Henry’s creation is moved from an operating table towards an opening near the roof, and when the booming thunder rings out, his ambition is finally realized.

The Monster is a simple, obedient, easy-going creature, until Fritz scares him with a lit torch. Henry and Dr. Waldman mistake his innocent fright for a dangerous attempted attack, and have him chained up. They abandon the Monster to his chains and Fritz’s sadistic torture with the torch.

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The Monster snaps under Fritz’s torture, and lashes out. After he attacks Fritz, he goes after Henry and Dr. Waldman, but they escape, and make plans to have him put down. First, Henry mixes a drug to be injected into the monster as soon as he’s released and tries to attack again. Once the Monster is unconscious, Henry departs for his wedding and leaves Dr. Waldman in charge of the euthanasia.

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The Monster awakes as Dr. Waldman is preparing to dissect him, and isn’t exactly happy. After attacking Dr. Waldman, he goes in search of his creator. Along the way, he has an encounter with a little girl named Maria, a farmer’s daughter. He’s so innocent and gentle, taking a childlike delight in throwing flowers into the water. In fact, he’s a bit too innocent, and doesn’t realize not all things float.

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His next stop is Henry’s house, where he goes after Elizabeth. Victor also brings the news that the Monster has attacked Dr. Waldman and escaped. By the time Elizabeth is found, the Monster has escaped again, and a mob of vigilantes set out on a search party, split three ways.

Henry becomes separated from the others during the search, leading to one final confrontation with the Monster.

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I really enjoyed this film, though at only 71 minutes, it felt a bit rushed and underdeveloped in spots. I wanted to see the Monster wreaking more havoc, and to get more of a window into his psychological and emotional state (i.e., truer to the book than the play). But judged for what it is and not what it’s not, I’d rate it 4.5 stars.

Dracula disappointed me

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Bela Lugosi, DRACULA, 1931.

I was really looking forward to watching the 1931 version of Dracula, always having had the impression it’s one of the all-time greats and classics of horror cinema. Instead, I found myself yet again disappointed by something surrounded by years of massive hype.

For all the issues I have with Nosferatu (to be discussed more in-depth next October), at least that film succeeds brilliantly at creating a creepy, spooky, foreboding mood, with tension in the air. It’s all thrown away with a whimper instead of a bang, but at least it’s there.

Béla Lugosi cuts an awesome figure as Count Dracula, though he seems to do about as much active vamping as Max Schreck, which is to say, not nearly enough. It does start out promisingly, but once it moves to London, the stiltedness begins.

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Stripped of all the hype and classic status, this is just another creaky, stilted early talkie. So many early talkies feel like filmed stage plays, since the first sound cameras couldn’t move very far and still pick up noise well. Dracula was indeed based on a stage play, but I really don’t feel like that best-suits any kind of horror story.

The horror is more talked about after the fact, instead of shown as it’s actually happening. How is that supposed to create a frightening mood? Silent horror films work so well because they’re not bogged down in a bunch of dialogue. We see horrific events, and experience the building of a creepy mood. Even in a sound horror film, do you really need a lot of dialogue to understand what’s happening?

Forget horror; ANY film, of any genre, becomes boring and stilted when there’s more dialogue than action. Books also suffer when they’re little more than talking heads.

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We never once see Dracula biting anyone, rising up out of his coffin, transmogrifying from bat to human, or even just showing his fangs. Beyond that, we don’t even see bite marks on anyone’s neck! Come on, those are basic elements of any Dracula story, no matter which version it’s based on!

Horror movies don’t necessarily have to be a nonstop parade of horrific images and frightening events. Sometimes the horror is more about a foreboding mood, a creepy mystery, or dark human emotions, not paranormal creatures, psychotic murderers, or blood and guts. However, I didn’t get a palpable sense of any type of horror here.

A slow pace also doesn’t work with most horror films.

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The film was directed by the legendary Tod Browning, though he was a last-minute choice. This wasn’t his project from the jump, which seems to suggest, sadly, that it’s just an urban legend that Lon Chaney, Sr., would’ve played Dracula had he still been alive. Still, I can’t help but imagine how awesome Lon would’ve been as Dracula, even with the same script and stilted feeling.

There’s also an old rumor that Carl Laemmle, Sr., of Universal Studios, wanted the awesome Conrad Veidt to play Dracula. Though he had to go back to Germany with the advent of sound, due to his thick accent and poor English, Lugosi also had a heavy accent, and his troubles with learning English are well-known. It could’ve worked with Veidt.

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Just because I most love old films doesn’t mean I automatically love all of them. It’s such a myth that lovers of classic cinema think it’s immune from criticism, only watch it because it’s old, refuse to watch anything modern, or heap praises on films just because they’re old. There were just as many bad apples then as now, even if I’d much rather watch a bad or mediocre old film than something current.

I’d give this a 2 out of 5. It wasn’t terrible, but there was nothing special or innovative about it. Even Lugosi’s character didn’t do much to elevate the overall experience.