A Symphony of Horrors

One of director F.W. Murnau’s most famous films, and one of the few silents most people outside the fan community know exists, almost became yet another lost film. Bram Stoker’s heirs sued over this unauthorized Dracula adaptation, and a court ruled all prints be destroyed.

Murnau changed all the characters’ names, moved the setting from 1890s England to 1838 Germany, axed many secondary characters, and significantly changed the ending. Nosferatu also kills his victims instead of creating new Vampyres.

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors) released 4 March 1922 by the Berlin Zoological Garden’s Marmorsaal (Marble Hall). This was part of Das Fest des Nosferatua party where guests were asked to come in Biedermeier (1815–48) costumes.

It was extensively advertised in Bühne und Film magazine, with stills, essays, production reports, a summary, and a piece on Vampyres by Albin Grau. Hr. Grau was an occultist, artist, and architect who served as production designer and producer.

Grau was responsible for the mystical and occult overtones, and Orlok’s creepy appearance. He got the idea for a Vampyre film during WWI, when a Serbian farmer told him his father was a Vampyre and one of the undead.

The general première was 15 March, by Berlin’s Primus–Palast. The U.S. première was 3 June 1929.

In 1838 Wisborg (a fictional city), Thomas Hutter is sent to Transylvania by his employer, real estate agent Knock, to visit Count Orlok. Rumours about Knock circulate, but one thing known for sure is that he pays his employees well.

Orlok wants to buy a house in Wisborg, and Knock tempts Hutter with extra money. He says Hutter may have to go to a bit of trouble, with some sweat and blood.

Knock suggests Hutter offer Orlok the empty house across from his, and bids him a good trip to the land of the phantoms.

Hutter’s wife Ellen (whose opening scenes call to mind a D.W. Griffith ingénue) is very worried about him, but he assures her he’ll be fine.

Hutter stops by an inn in the Carpathians, and everyone responds with horror when he announces he’s on his way to Count Orlok. The owner warns him not to go any further tonight, saying the werewolf is roaming the forests.

That night, Hutter begins reading a book about Vampyres.

Hutter sets out on his last leg in the morning, and urges his riders to hurry so they get there before dark. They stop before the destination, claiming a bad feeling.

As soon as Hutter crosses the bridge, he’s seized by eerie visions. The creepiness increases when an eerie-looking coachman gives him a lightning-speed ride the rest of the way.

Orlok (Max Schreck, whose surname means “terror”) is displeased to have been kept waiting so long, till nearly midnight, when the servants are asleep.

Orlok’s house gives Hutter the creeps, and he’s further creeped out by Orlok’s weird reaction to his bloody finger. Hutter tries to leave, but Orlok begs him to stay until day, when he sleeps, completely dead to the world.

In the morning, Hutter writes a letter to Ellen to reassure her he’s alright. By evening, Hutter shows Orlok Ellen’s picture, and Orlok remarks on her lovely neck. Orlok also says he’s buying the deserted house across from Hutter’s.

Hutter reads more of his Vampyre book, which makes him even more eager to get out of there. His terror goes through the roof when Orlok stalks towards him.

Meanwhile, Ellen is sleepwalking on the balcony. Her friend Harding catches her before she can fall off, and calls for a doctor. Ellen has a terrifying vision of her husband in danger.

The doctor says it’s just a case of mild blood congestion.

At dawn, Hutter finds Orlok asleep in a coffin. Shortly afterwards, he sees Orlok moving coffins into the courtyard, piling them on a carriage, getting into the one on top, and driving away.

Hutter collapses and is brought to hospital.

Orlok boards the schooner Empusa with coffins full of dirt. Meanwhile, Knock goes crazy under his spell.

While Hutter hurries home, Empusa also draws ever closer to Wisborg, bringing with it the Plague.

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A story of the London fog

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?

Old dark house meets German Expressionism

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.

Lon’s Legendary Lost London

Released 3 December 1927 and directed by Tod Browning, London After Midnight is among the Holy Grail of lost films. It was last known to have been screened sometime in the 1950s. Like hundreds of other silents (and some early sound films), its last known surviving print was destroyed in the horrific fire in MGM’s Vault #7 on 13 May 1967.

LAM was filmed in a record 24 days, with a budget of $151,666.14, making it the cheapest and quickest of Lon’s MGM films. While the U.S. gross was $721,000, its international earnings were below par. Overall, it turned a profit of $540,000, and ranked as MGM’s #4 film of the 1927–28 season. It was also the tenth-highest earner  of 1927 overall. This was one of Lon’s highest-earning films ever.

But was it really that good?

Contemporary audiences, critics and laypeople alike, weren’t particularly impressed. Even those who were among the very last to see it in the 1950s were underwhelmed. Lon’s incredible acting talents were highly praised, as usual, but the actual story was widely panned.

A frequent point of criticism was that the story was nonsensical and incoherent. Other reviewers called it boring, trying too hard, lacking characters the audience could connect with, lacking the weird atmosphere of The Cat and the Canary, and a wasted effort.

A rare, consistently positive review came from The Film Daily, which found the film marvellously creepy and unsettling.

Roger Balfour (Claude King) is found dead from a suspected shooting suicide. Though his friend and neighbor Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall) insists Roger couldn’t possibly have killed himself, Inspector Edward C. Burke of London Yard (Lon) officially rules the death a suicide.

Five years later, a creepy man with pointed teeth and black clothes (Lon in a dual role) arrives at the Balfour home, accompanied by a woman who looks like a corpse and also dresses all in black (Edna Tichenor). These two strangers’ arrival inspires Hamlin to call Scotland Yard.

Inspector Burke discovers three of the people in the house were the only three present when Roger died. These are Roger’s daughter Lucille (Marceline Day), his butler Williams (Percy Williams), and Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel). Hibbs is the nephew of the man who made the call to Scotland Yard.

At first, Burke doesn’t believe any of them were involved, but then Roger’s body disappears from his tomb. Even weirder, his dead ringer appears in the house. Other creepy happenings include gunshots heard in Roger’s old bedroom when Burke is there, bats flying around, and the creepy visitor terrifying everyone.

Burke finds the killer by recreating the crime scene and hypnotizing the guilty party into re-enacting the murder.

In 1928, Marie Coolidge-Rask published a novelization of the film. In 1935, Tod Browning remade LAM as The Mark of the Vampire, with Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi.

A man who murdered a woman in London’s Hyde Park in 1928 claimed LAM made him do it, by driving him temporarily insane. He supposedly didn’t remember taking out the razor or using it on his victim. His plea was rejected, and he was convicted.

LAM has been referenced in popular culture a number of times over the years. These references include the name of a card game with the theme of classic horror movies, the name of an industrial-goth-rock band, and the lyrics of the song “Bodom After Midnight.”

In 2002, film preservationist and scholar Rick Schmidlin produced a 45-minute stills recreation. I’ve counted this on my list of silents seen, making note of the fact that it’s a recreation and not the actual film. I always note if something is a home movie, stills recreation, trailer, advertisement, newsreel, or surviving reel of a lost film.

In spite of LAM’s lackluster reviews, I’d still love to see it as an actual moving picture. Given Lon’s incredible acting talents, I can’t imagine it’s worse than some of the awful doozies on my list. I keep hoping all these famous lost films are found someday.

A circus of horrors in Madrid

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?