One antique horror short and a trifecta of lost features

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La Folie du Docteur Tube, released 1915 in France, was directed by cinematic pioneer Abel Gance. It seems to fall within the parameters of sci-fi horror, and features a mad scientist who creates a white powder causing hallucinations. He gives the powder to a dog first, then his assistant, a boy in the lab, himself, two young ladies, and their fiancés. The two couples are so upset by these distorted images, a fight breaks out, and it’s up to Dr. Tube to restore order and peace.

These crazed sights, which appear like images from a funhouse mirror, were created with distorting lenses.

Albert Dieudonné, who started acting in 1908 and went on to play the title role of Gance’s 1927 epic Napoléon, appears as one of the young men.

Mortmain, which premièred 29 August 1915 and went into general release 6 September 1915, is one of the all too many lost films of the silent era. It was based on Arthur C. Train’s 1907 novel of the same name, which was originally released in serial form on The Saturday Evening Post on 2 June and 9 June 1906.

This was one of the very first entries in the alien hand subgenre of body horror, in which one’s hands act of their own volition, as if they’re possessed or transplanted from another body.

Dr. Pennison Crisp (what an unfortunate forename!) proves limb-grafting is possible by showing friends and students a cat with a grafted paw. His buddy Mortmain, a rare art collector and talented musician, is very impressed.

Meanwhile, Mortmain is deep in debt to banker Gordon Russell, the ward of his fiancée Bella Forsythe. Predictably, Gordon is also in love with Bella. (This might be a lost film, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he’s old enough to be her dad, seeing as he’s her ward. That trope creeps me out so much!)

Gordon makes Bella’s brother Tom disgrace himself and forces Mortmain into bankruptcy. Flaggs, who works for Gordon’s lawyer, overhears Mortmain saying he’d like to kill Gordon. Mortmain then learns Gordon was murdered. This news so shocks him, he faints and hurts his hand.

Dr. Crisp has to amputate, and grafts on Tom’s hand. Tom agrees to this macabre operation because he’s suspected of the murder and offered $10,000 for his hand. He dies during the surgery, but Mortmain survives, and gradually goes insane as Flaggs bankrupts him and Bella is afraid to be touched by him. The transplanted hand also goes nuts.

Then Mortmain wakes up from the fog of anesthesia, and sees Tom’s hand choking Flaggs. It was only a dream!

The Head of Janus (Der Janus-Kopf), also lost, premièred 26 August 1920 and went into general release 17 September 1920. It starred the incredible Conrad Veidt and was directed by the legendary F.W. Murnau. This was an unauthorized adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Just as with Murnau’s unauthorized screen adaptation of Dracula two years later, names were changed.

Dr. Warren (Veidt) buys a bust of Janus, the two-headed Roman god of doorways, for his girlfriend Jane Lanyon (Margarete Schlegel, who escaped to England with her Jewish husband and son in 1935). When Jane refuses the gift, Dr. Warren is compelled to keep it in his own home.

This bust proceeds to transforms Dr. Warren into Mr. O’Connor, and whips him up into a rage. While acting as Mr. O’Connor, he storms over to Jane’s house, kidnaps her, and drags her back to his lab.

Dr. Warren is really ashamed and horrified when he comes back to himself and realises what he did. To prevent this from happening again, he attempts to sell the bust at auction, but it’s already too late. The bust has him under such hypnotic power, he buys it back himself.

During his second transformation as Mr. O’Connor, he runs amok, committing wanton acts of violence in the streets. Just like in all other versions of this famous story, there isn’t a very happy ending.

Béla Lugosi appears as Dr. Warren’s butler.

The House of Whispers, our final lost film this year, released October 1920. It tells the story of Spaulding Nelson, who moves into an apartment his uncle vacated due to phantom screams and whispers. While investigating, Spaulding meets neighbour Barbara Bradford. Her sister Clara is going crazy from the constant sound of her dead husband Roldo’s voice.

It turns out Roldo’s still alive and in league with Henry Kent, architect of this House of Whispers. This house is full of secret passageways enabling him to access all the apartments. When Spaulding finds the secret doors, he’s arrested for murdering actress Daisy Luton.

Spaulding flees via one of the passageways, where he finds and captures Roldo (the real murderer), Roldo’s first wife Nettie Kelly, and Henry Kent. Nettie confesses what really happened, and Clara is granted a divorce so she can marry her fiancé. Spaulding also marries Barbara.

A horror story of illusion and magic tricks

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Premièring November 1929 at NYC’s Little Carnegie Theatre, The Last Performancce was Conrad Veidt’s final Hollywood film until WWII. Due to his heavy accent and lack of fluency in English, he had to return to his native Germany. Soon after the Nazis rose to power, he escaped to England with his Jewish wife.

Like many other films of the late silent era, this one too had a hybrid version with sound effects, talking sequences, and a soundtrack.  Today, only the silent version (with Danish intertitles) survives. Very embarrassingly, one of the English translations renders “you’re” as “your.” Nails on a chalkboard! Where was the proofreader!

Magician Erik the Great (Veidt) falls in love with his assistant Julie Fergeron (Mary Philbin), who’s on the cusp of her eighteenth birthday. Julie is stunned to find a love letter backstage, which includes a marriage proposal. (In real life, Conrad was 36 and Mary was 27, though Conrad is made up to look MUCH older.)

Erik is looking forward to an upcoming tour of America, Julie’s birthday, and his wedding, but the happy mood crashes when he discovers a thief, Mark Royce (Fred MacKaye), in his hotel suite. Erik gives him the choice of going with the cops or joining the magic act. Since Mark was “only” helping himself to Erik’s food instead of purloining material possessions, Erik is somewhat sympathetic to him.

At Julie’s insistence, Erik invites Mark to join the act as Buffo’s assistant. Buffo Black (Leslie Fenton) is Erik’s apprentice. Very predictably, Julie and Erik fall in instalove.

Also rather predictably, Buffo has feelings for Julie. He can’t believe Julie and Erik are soon to marry, and thinks Erik is a fool for believing Julie actually loves him. (Since the first two-thirds of the film speed by without much of any character development, it is hard to see why Julie agreed to marry Erik, even reluctantly.)

At Julie’s eighteenth birthday party, Buffo discovers Julie and Mark in an amorous situation and arranges for Erik to catch them in the act. Erik is understandably heartbroken, but puts on a false front of cordiality by announcing Julie and Mark’s engagement in front of all their guests at the banquet.

But if Julie and Mark believe Erik’s graceful reaction to being cuckolded, they’ve soon got another think coming. Erik has macabre revenge in mind, and he’s bound and determined to pin the blame on someone else.

The Last Performance received mixed reviews. Some felt it were over-directed and overacted, with lacklustre camera work, while others praised Veidt’s wonderful acting, the great imagination of director Paul Fejos (né Pál Fejös), Mary Philbin’s charm, great photographic effects, and the narrative development.

The last third of the film has incredible pacing and dramatic tension, which I wish were the case for the preceding two-thirds. I would’ve liked more development of the characters and their respective relationships instead of rushing through them till that pivotal moment when Erik discovers the betrayal. An extra half-hour or so would’ve strengthened the story.

But as always, Conrad’s acting is incredible. He had such an expressive face and eyes, able to say so much without saying a word.

Horrifying history in wax comes to life

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Premièring 6 October 1924 in Vienna and 13 November 1924 in Berlin, anthology film Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) was director Paul Leni’s final feature film in his native Germany (though he continued working as an art director there till 1926). His directing career began anew in Hollywood with The Cat and the Canary.

A nameless poet (William Dieterle) responds to an ad seeking an imaginative publicity writer for a waxworks exhibit. The proprietor (John Gottowt), who works with his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), asks the poet if he can write startling stories about three figures—Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid, Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan Grozniy, whose Russian epithet does NOT mean “Terrible”), and Spring-Heeled Jack (a terrifying figure in Victorian folklore).

The poet writes himself into al-Rashid’s story as pie-baker Assad, and Eva becomes his wife Maimune. Trouble starts when a blanket of smoke from the pie oven causes al-Rashid (Emil Jannings) to lose a game of chess.

The Grand Vizier is dispatched to find the guilty party and kill him, but loses sight of his mission when he sees the beautiful Maimune. Upon his return to the palace, the Grand Vizier suggests al-Rashid take her for himself.

That night, al-Rashid mingles among his subjects incognito, in search of this great beauty. Outside the house, al-Rashid overhears an argument between the couple, culminating in Assad’s promise to prove his manhood by stealing al-Rashid’s wishing ring before dawn.

While Assad is away on this foolish, dangerous mission, al-Rashid enters the house and makes sure the door locks behind him. Maimune is terrified to see this intruder, even after he tells her he’s the Caliph.

Al-Rashid returns to the palace after putting the moves on Maimune, and is in a deep sleep when Assad slips into his bedroom and cuts off his arm. As we learnt in the opening segment, al-Rashid’s wax figure is missing an arm, and the poet wants to write a story explaining how that came to be.

But, as so often happens in horror and fantasy, not everything is always as it seems to be.

The poet then begins writing a story about Tsar Ivan IV (Conrad Veidt) stealing into the Kreml with his astrologer to gloat over his poisoned victims’ deaths. He particularly enjoys watching the last sand in the hourglass run out for each new victim.

Ivan’s astrologer warns him the poison-maker might write his name on the next hourglass. Given how increasingly paranoid Ivan was during the latter portion of his reign, one can predict his reaction!

The poison-maker has pity on one of the victims, and instead does exactly as the astrologer predicted.

Next day, a nobleman visits to remind Ivan he promised to attend his (the nobleman’s) daughter’s wedding. Ever-paranoid, Ivan changes places with the nobleman and arrives at the wedding as the driver.

Far from being a happy, joyful occasion, this wedding turns into a nonstop parade of horrors, esp. for the couple (Dieterle and Belajeff). One of the accurate translations of Ivan’s epithet, Grozniy, is Dreadsome, and he indeed lives up to it here.

The poet falls asleep while writing the final story (by far the shortest) about Spring-Heeled Jack (Werner Krauss), and dreams his wax figure comes to life to stalk him and Eva through the fairgrounds. Just as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, our sense of reality is put to the test.

A fourth story was in the original script, about Rinaldo Rinaldini (to be played by Dieterle). Though this story was cut for budgetary reasons, Rinaldi still appears with the other wax figures. Rinaldini is an elegant robber captain in Christian August Vulpius’s 1797 novel of the same name.

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.

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.