Saturday, October 31, 2015

Phantom of the Moulin Rouge (1925)

More of a comedy-fantasy than a horror flick, despite the tempting title. This film has a little too much Moulin Rouge and not enough phantoms about it for a true horror fans taste, but it's still a fun diversion from Rene Claire, who went on to make the talkies I Married a Witch and It Happened Tomorrow. Full review to follow.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Fall of the House of Usher / La Chute de la Maison Usher (1928)

Not to be confused with the Watson and Webber short of the same year, this Poe adaptation is directed by Jean Epstein with a script co-written by surrealist Luis Bunuel (of Un Chien Andalou fame). Full review to follow.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Hands of Orlac (1924)

A re-watch of one of my favorite films with one of my favorite silent film actors: The Hands of Orlac with Conrad Veidt. A concert pianist has his hands crushed in a train accident, but has new ones grafted on. The hands, which belonged to a murdered, take on a life of their own, and begin to do terrible things that are beyond Orlac's control. Full review to follow.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

While The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn't truly a horror story, Quasimodo is often thought of as a monster, for better or worse. The grotesque appearance of the hunchback has forever linked the story with horror history, and a performance by the great Lon Chaney sealed the deal. Full review to follow.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Au Secours! (1924)

Well, this was a treat. A Max Linder comedy-horror short about a man who takes a bet that he can't spend the night in a haunted house. Typical stuff, right? Well, it is, sort of,  until it takes a quite bizarre turn. Full review to follow.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Der Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920)

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam is often mistaken for the first Golem film, despite the fact that it came third in Paul Wegener's trilogy. That's due in part to the fact that it tells the story of the Golem's origin (probably the first horror movie prequel), and also the fact that the first two Golem films are long lost. Full review to follow.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Warning Shadows (1923)

This psychological horror story directed by Arthur Robison is a masterpiece of German silent cinema. A mysterious shadow puppeteer gives a group of dinner guests more than they bargained for, and we get some of the greatest visuals ever created from cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner (who worked on M and Nosferatu). Full review to follow.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Friday, October 23, 2015

Menilmontant (1926)

Menilmontant may be more often billed as a thriller, but the double axe murder that opens the film is as intense as the shower stabbing in Psycho—and uses the same camera techniques decades ahead of Hitchcock. Full review on the way.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Destiny (1921)

Six years prior to Metropolis, Fritz Lang directed another story penned by Thea von Harbou: Destiny or Der Müde Tod is about a woman who makes a deal with Death in order to reunite with her lover. Full review to follow.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Buster Keaton in The Haunted House (1921)

Keaton's chair is unwilling to let him go in The Haunted House.   
Okay, maybe it's not horror, and maybe it's not even comedy-horror, but it is Buster Keaton in a short film with plenty of haunted house elements. Full review to follow.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928 Short Film)

There were two film versions of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1928, one of them being a short artistic film by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, with a script written in part by poet E. E. Cummings. Full review to follow.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Still watching a silent horror film a night, and will fill in the reviews as soon as I can. (Sitting with a friend who is recovering from a stroke.)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Edison’s Frankenstein (1910)

Edison didn't have anything to do personally with Frankenstein's first film adaptation, which was thought lost for years, but his name seems to still be inextricably linked to it.

Full review to follow soon, and I  think you're going to really like this one.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Bat (1926)

The movie that inspired the movie that inspired Bob Kane to create Batman. Full review to follow.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Genuine (1920)

Robert Wiene's  follow-up to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was not well-received in its time, but gosh, is it visually stunning. Full review to follow.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Penalty (1920)

Wow! Another great Lon Chaney flick, this time as an amputee crime lord in The Penalty. Full review to follow.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Danse Macabre (1922)

A mix of animation and live-action scenes tell the story of love during a time of Plague, when death is ever-present. Full review to follow.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Short, Spooky Films of Segundo de Chomón, “The Spanish Méliès”

Today’s silent horror film for 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is actually more than one film. To coincide with today’s Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, I’m focusing on the short films of Spanish film pioneer Segundo de Chomón, who also happens to be a pioneer of silent horror.

I always find it odd that horror films as a genre are seen as a niche interest, or at least considered to be outside of the mainstream. It’s a little puzzling considering that many of the very first films ever made featured supernatural themes and horror characters. Georges Méliès’  Le Manoir du Diable (The Devil’s Castle) from 1896 depicts a skeleton that turns into a bat, then into the Devil, who conjures up a host of spooky spectres. It’s one of the earliest films in existence, and it’s decidedly horror. Even Edison took a stab at horror with his famous 1910 version of Frankenstein.

Spanish silent film pioneer Segundo de Chomon.

But, while pioneers like Méliès and Edison are known outside of silent film geekdom, not many people are familiar with the name Segundo de Chomón. De Chomón, who not only was a master of early film techniques, but also an innovator of horror special effects, is often referred to as “the Spanish Méliès,” but in many ways surpassed the achievements of the more famous filmmaker. Whether or not you agree with his superiority to Méliès, de Chomón is inarguably the most important Spanish director of silent films.

Aragon-born de Chomón was lured into the film world by his wife, French actress Julienne Mathieu. One of the earliest French film actresses, Mathieu appeared in a slew of early early Pathé Frères productions. De Chomón became an agent for Pathé Frères films in Spain, and by 1901 was producing his own actuality films of Spanish locales. He soon learned to hand-tint films and ultimately helped develop the Pathéchrome process. Inspired by Méliès, he began working on trick films, and Pathé was happy to support his efforts, hoping to compete with the French filmmaker’s popular projects. 

Claymation head from de Chomon's Haunted House.

De Chomón quickly moved past mere mimicry of Méliès work with stop-motion and double exposure effects and developed his own camera tricks. His films display his innovations in hand-drawn animation and silhouette animation, the latter of which he was among the first to use. De Chomón developed his own methods of single-frame techniques, optical dissolves, and traveling shots, taking it all farther than Méliès ever did. In fact, when Méliès company was beginning to fail, de Chomón was gaining even more steam. He accepted an invitation to work on films in Italy and directed the special effects on notable full-length films like Cabiria  and Maciste in Hell  (Film #10 in the 31 Days of Silent Horror Films event). Filmed using a tracking camera of de Chomón’s own invention, Cabiria is said to feature the first ever “dolly” shot in film.

Special effects aside, one of the other ways de Chomón pushed the envelope further than Méliès is with his stories, and that’s where his importance as a horror filmmaker comes in. De Chomón played more with fantastic narratives and surreal elements, weaving them into a story, rather than just presenting them for the sake of a special effect. Sometimes those elements are downright gruesome, such as the worms that appear inside a cake in Panicky Picnic. Even by today’s standards, his horror elements are often eery and unsettling (the face that appears in the mirror in La Maison Ensorcelée is still nightmare-inducing today). 

Animated silhouettes of demons interspersed with live action shots.

La Maison Ensorcelée (1908) or The Haunted House is a prime example of what made de Chomón so special in his time. It’s loaded with special effects, and some of them are effects that continued to be used in horror film for decades to come. Enchanted clothing would still seem like a pretty neat trick when Bedknobs and Broomsticks came out 63 years later. Also notable are the multiple kinds of animation techniques used in the short (plus the fact that it’s blended in with live actors): hand-drawn animation, silhouette animation, miniatures, and claymation all make an appearance in the film. While stop-motion animation was around before  de Chomón came along, the enchanted breakfast in La Maison Ensorcelée is still one of the best examples of it in early film, with self-slicing sausages and tea that pours itself. Lest it all seem more quaint than horrifying, that spooky character from the mirror shows up again for a frightening finale.

One of the other de Chomón films of particular interest to silent horror film fans is Satan S’amuse (1907) or Satan at Play. On the surface, it’s a magic act, similar to the many shorts of Méliès or other magicians-turned-filmmakers like Walter Booth. De Chomón has added some horror touches that go beyond the skeleton costume of the titular demon. Particularly grim is a levitation act performed with two (for the time) attractive women. Each woman is wrapped in a swath of dark paper, rather like a giant cigar, before she is levitated, then set aflame. We see the bundles begin to disintegrate before our eyes just as they vanish, taking the presumably charred bodies of the women with them. By the end of the macabre magic show, the Devil sets the entire set on fire. (While not a horror element, I was particularly pleased to see the Pathé rooster appear briefly on one of the illusions. The rooster served as a way of copyrighting the films, and it’s always fun to spot it when it turns up. This is one of the most clever uses of it I’ve seen.)

As a bonus, I’d like to mention La Grenouille or The Frog (1908). It’s a fun bit of surrealism that proves just how influential De Chomón still is today. Those who follow pop music will recognize that Lady Gaga borrowed several elements from the film for her video to the song “Applause,” right down to the tinted smoke and the clamshells (and of course the obvious spinning head).


It’s hard to know for sure why de Chomón’s name is not as well-known as that of Méliès, but some speculate that it’s because he was from Spain but did so much work in France, thus no country ever really claimed him as their own. There’s also the fact that he was largely forgotten after his death, while several people worked to champion Méliès after his death and preserve his work. And, of course, modern audiences know Méliès thanks to the movie Hugo. Regardless of why he was forgotten, Segundo de Chomón needs to be rediscovered and remembered for his contributions to horror films and to all films with special effects. He was indisputably a master. 


This post is a crossover post for both Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon ...

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Lon Chaney in The Monster (1925)

In between The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, Lon Chaney made this less-talked about film. The Monster may not be his most famous movie, but it's the source of some film tropes that are still around today.

Film #11 for 31 Days of Silent Horror Films.

Full review to follow.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Maciste in Hell (1926)

Film #10 for 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is Maciste in Hell, featuring one of the longest-running characters in cinema. The beefy Maciste gives what-for to the hordes of demons and she-devils he encounters. Full review on the way!

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Lodger (1927): Hitchcock's Take on Belloc Lowndes' Take on Jack the Ripper

Film #9 for 31 Days of Silent Horror Film: Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger. I'll be playing catch-up with the reviews in the next few days.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Hangman's House (1928)

This film may not be a horror film, as I found after I started watching it, and it may have been erroneously included on a list of silent horror films based on title alone. But, here's the thing: the silent Gothic melodrama has a dark sensibility, and some really strange touches that make me feel like I shouldn't swap it out for another more horrific pick. And get this: it's a John Ford film!

Film #8 in 31 Days of Silent Horror Films

Full review to follow soon.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920): John Barrymore Explores Man's Dual Nature

Film #7 in 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is perhaps the most famous of the Jekyll and Hyde adaptations—though far from the first.

Full review to come, so watch this space.

(I'm dealing with a personal emergency which has slowed down the full posts, but I'm still watching a film a day and should play catch-up soon. Thanks for your patience.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Un Chien Adalou (1929): The Surrealist Influence on the Horror Film

Film #6 in 31 Days of Silent Horror Film's is Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's surrealistic masterpiece Un Chien Andalou. Check back for a full review to come.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Waxworks (1924): Paul Leni's Anthology Film Brings Weird Tales to Life

Film #5 in Film Dirt's 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is Paul Leni's Waxworks. That's Conrad Veidt on the right as Ivan the Terrible. Watch this space for the full review.

Full review  HERE.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Unknown (1927): Lon Chaney, Tod Browning, and One Beautifully Bizarre Plot

Lon Chaney as an armless knife thrower in Tod Browning's The Unknown. Some of the stunts were performed by real-life armless foot double Paul Desmuke, who went on to perform for years billing himself as "Lon Chaney's Feet."

I was intrigued by The Unknown long before I ever saw it, all because of an anecdote related to how the film went missing for decades. Researching and writing a book about lost films means I’ve heard about a lot of different ways that films are lost—fire, earthquakes, destruction by Nazis, being left on the subway, or being dumped into a mining pool, to name a few—but this one is in a class of its own. The Cinémathèque Française ultimately found a 35mm print of The Unknown in their very own archives, where it had become lost among all of the hundreds of reels of unidentified film similarly marked “Unknown.” (Well, technically marked L’inconnu.) This is the only instance I know of in which a film’s title caused it to be lost.

Man, am I glad they found it. I’m about to fall victim of the problem I have where the more I like a film, the less capable I am of talking about it. I just want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them as I drool and say, “Watch this! Watch this weird and wonderful thing, right now!” Let me just begin by saying that this is a Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration in which Chaney plays an armless carnival knife-thrower. That should be enough right there, and as much as I’d love for you to read the rest of my post, if that is enough to intrigue you, then go … go and watch it now, because I’m going to lay down some spoilers. (Come back and read the rest later!)

And if that’s not enough for you? Well, this film is going to get a lot weirder. And then it’s going to get weird some more. And I’m not talking about weird for 1927—this is weird for the ages.

Lon Chaney is a circus performer known as Alonzo the Armless, and the film’s first scene shows us Alonzo in action, throwing knives, with his feet, at Joan Crawford. Now, silent film fans know better, but there are a lot of people in the world who only know Crawford from her later work—in other words, as the scary hag of Mommie Dearest fame—but in the 1920s, she was an ingenue. Here, she is eighteen years-old and luminous as Nanon, the circus manager’s daughter. Alonzo’s talented toes alternately hurl knives and shoot bullets around the outline of her perfect figure, and as each weapon penetrates the board, she loses a piece of her clothing, revealing a skimpy costume underneath.  As if this psycho-sexual act doesn’t have enough psycho in it, the whole thing takes place on a huge, rotating platform, Alonzo flinging and grinning and shooting, and Nanon getting nakeder and nakeder as she spins by. 

Alonzo the Armless prepares to entertain.

After the show, we learn that Alonzo is desperately in love with Nanon, who feels safe around the only man she knows who doesn’t try to grope her. In fact, she has a near-pathological aversion to masculine meathooks: “Men, the beasts! God should take all their hands.” Also in love with Nanon is Malabar (Norman Kerry), the circus strong man with a wispy mustache, who seems a bit of a scuzz. He skulks around her caravan after the show and seems intent on doing some of the groping she so despises, and tells her he loves her, and that he’ll tell her so every day (in other words, expect him to drop by for some harassment on the regular). Alonzo enjoys watching Malabar rebuffed, and even gives him the advice to take Nanon in his arms, knowing that she’ll recoil from him even more.Malabar is the anti-Alonzo, all strong and handsy. Good, safe, armless Alonzo is clearly the one who will win her hand-hating heart.

Malabar the Strong Man can't figure out that Nanon doesn't like to be touched.
I'm rooting for these two, whether it makes sense or not.

Alonzo heads back to his caravan, where his dwarf assistant Cojo (John George) then unstraps him from a torturous-looking corset contraption, revealing … Alonzo’s arms. He’s a faker! Alonzo the Armless is really Alonzo With the Conventional Number of Arms. (As you’re taking in this plot twist, it’s impossible not to think about the fact that Lon Chaney is spending so much of the movie with his arms confined in this thing, which doesn’t look fun at all—a sign of his dedication as an actor. He also looks lean and muscular and pretty damn good, and I’m thinking that while he’s certainly an unconventional romantic lead, it’s working for me.) Alonzo mutters something about the police and what they’d give to know who he really is. Oh no, I think. The good guy is sinister. Am I still supposed to root for him? I love flawed lead characters, so I figure that it’s safe to still consider Alonzo the good guy. Surely the “what he’s done” has some good explanation or is something noble, like stealing from the rich.

Oh, and it is also revealed in this scene that he has two thumbs on one hand. 

Alonzo the Non-Armless, with sidekick Cojo. Note the double thumbs.

Soon after, Alonzo’s status as Good Guy goes from cloudy to non-existent when he murders the circus manager. I can’t help but recall something a theatre professor once told me as we were reading Corneille’s Le Cid: “If you want to win a girl’s heart, don’t murder her father.” Alas for Alonzo, a flash of lightning illuminates his double-thumb as Nanon witnesses the murder. While she then knows that someone with two thumbs is the killer, no one suspects Mr. The Armless. In fact, as the cops arrive to question and fingerprint the gypsies, Alonzo is nonchalantly strumming a guitar with his feet.

Alonzo convinces Nanon to stay behind with him as the circus moves on, and Cojo witnesses a bit of intimacy between the two. The dwarf is not amused, and warns him that he can never let her touch him that way again lest she notice he has arms. He also reminds him that she saw the weird thumbs of the man who murdered her father. In other words, there’s no sane way the two can ever really be together. Alonzo, who has unstrapped his arms, is now so flustered that he’s lighting up and puffing away at a cigarette held between his toes. “You are forgetting you have arms,” Cojo laughs, but there may be more to it than that. Alonzo has reasoned out that while there may be no sane way the two can be together, there may be an insane way. 

Chaney's intensity shows in every single frame.

A word here about Lon Chaney’s acting: it’s among the best I’ve ever seen. He manages to convey both anger and anguish in these scenes. Everything about this whole story is absurd, yet I’m buying it, because Chaney is convincing me that every bit of his emotions are real. And that’s why I continue to buy it, to believe it, even though the next turn of events is shocking.

Alonzo tells us of his plan, though the title cards don’t let us in on it. They only show us Cojo’s horrified response: “No! Never do that!” But Alonzo does do that, which turns out to be blackmailing a surgeon to actually remove his arms. It’s the most over-the-top solution to a problem that could probably be conceived, but here, it sort of has a twisted logic. The only thing that Alonzo doesn’t consider is his recovery time, and during that time, Malabar, who it turns out isn’t such a bad guy after all, has continued to spend every day telling Nanon he loves her. When Alonzo returns from his surgery, with nothing new to report, because no one knew he had arms to begin with, Nanon and Malabar have news of their own. They’re engaged! Not only has Nanon gotten over her fear of hands, but she loves Malabar’s big, strong hands.

In one fell swoop, Alonzo has lost the woman he loves to a man with arms, when he has just had his own removed in order to be with her. It’s like a perverted Gift of the Magi. Chaney’s response is one of the best moments in all of silent cinema. He smiles the biggest, fakest, most twisted smile you’ve ever seen, then breaks down into laughter. They laugh along at first, but the laughter becomes more and more maniacal until Chaney completely implodes. It’s the greatest visual meltdown I’ve ever seen.

No longer afraid of his arms.

While I’ve revealed most of the plot, I’ll hold back a little of the ending which is deliciously twisted, and involves a circus act and horses on treadmills.

It’s hard to know what to make of all of this, but I do know The Unknown is one of the most amazing silent films I’ve ever seen. As ridiculous as the set-up is, there’s something very modern and universal about it. The themes of obsession, sacrifice, loss: they’re things we all know, and Chaney’s performance makes us feel every bit of it along with him. Joan Crawford’s Nanon may at first seem silly with her fear of being touched, but it’s similar behavior to anyone who has suffered abuse.

Chaney and Browning would ultimately collaborate on ten films, and while it’s often remarked upon that each of their greatest works were outside of that collaboration, this is undoubtedly the best film they made together. The Unknown most certainly deserves to be known. 

The Unknown is available on DVD via Amazon, and streams in various spots around the internet (it’s in the public domain, though soundtrack quality varies). 

One of 31 silent horror films I'm watching this month. See the link below for the complete list (some with full reviews).

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Haxan (1922): The History of Witchcraft From a Silent Film-Era Perspective

Benjamin Christensen's Häxan or Witchcraft Through the Ages is sort of a documentary, and it’s the “sort of” that makes it still unlike any other film. The Swedish film blends fact and fiction in a purported attempt to explore the history of ideas about witchcraft from ancient times to 1922, when the film was made. Without meaning to, Christensen extended his film’s examination of changing attitudes almost one hundred years into the future. In other words, it’s almost impossible to reach the end of the film without reflecting on our own culture and how different it is from the world of 1922, when women were detained against their will and treated for “hysteria.” The fact that Häxan is still watched in 2015 also says a lot about what hasn’t changed: our interest in atrocities and perversions.

Demonic rites in Haxan.

Let’s face it. The main reason Häxan is still famous when other silent films have been forgotten, the reason it’s screened in the background at rock shows and underground dance clubs, and the reason it appeals to a broad range of people, young and old, is because of those atrocities and perversions. And I think Christensen knew full well what he was doing. While Häxan covers some parts of the history of witchcraft in detail (the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in particular), it never alludes to the Salem Witch Trials. Also absent is any mention of the witch in stories or fables. Christensen’s film style may be documentary-like, but it’s suspiciously subjective. He’s culled the material down to its most provocative and titillating. If woodcuts existed of naked young lasses being accused of witchcraft in Salem, I have a feeling it might have made the cut.

For all the facts—however accurate—Christensen presents us with, his main purpose seems to be to entertain, and to entertain by shocking the audience. And it works. Many people (and I’ll admit to being one of them) like their smut smart. We like nudity and violence and all manner of depravity best when it’s dressed up a little with facts, or history, or something artistic—something to make us feel as if our own urges and compulsions and interests are somehow superior to those of the unthinking masses. It’s worth noting that Christensen himself plays the Devil in the live-action scenes. The young women in the film who line up and kiss the Devil’s ass are kissing Christensen’s ass. The naked maiden who is lured by the Devil to the cemetery at night, where she falls to her knees at his feet, is lured by Christensen. The director himself wasn’t just intrigued by the perversions of witchcraft, but wanted to directly participate in them.

Director Christensen as the Devil himself.

Häxan’s seven parts begin with a study of the historical origins of witchcraft, from Ancient Babylon through Medieval times. Gruesome woodcuts are displayed: men boiled alive in cauldrons, devils pouring sulfur down men’s throats. To punctuate that this is serious business, perhaps, crucial details are highlighted by a hand with an academic pointer, as if we are attending an actual lecture. A steam-powered mechanical representation of Hell features animated demons torturing live victims, like a macabre vignette on a Disneyland ride. Eventually we learn a little about witchcraft, and the things witches were said to do, such as setting villages on fire, bewitching cows, and dancing naked with the Devil. I’ll leave you to guess which of these three we’ll hear more about as the film progresses.

Part two of Häxan features live-action sequences, presented as sort of pseudo-historical re-enactments of things witches were purported to do. The film becomes a bit more gruesome, but also darkly humorous. An old witch rips fingers from the hand of a dead thief to make one of her concoctions, which is decidedly gruesome (the scene was cut by Swedish censors), but later tells a woman who wants a love potion to drop some cat feces into his drink (try not to giggle at that one). Things take a turn for the dark (and depraved) when the Devil shows up, and boy, is he repulsive. I have no idea how Christensen’s real face might have looked without his satanic makeup, but his body is hairy and barrel-chested, and his waggling tongue just looks downright dirty. And he is dirty, as we soon see, seducing a woman as she lies in bed with her husband sleeping right beside her, or furiously working a butter churn in a not-very-well-disguised pantomime of masturbation.

The film’s worst atrocities come into play with the introduction of the Inquisition, as we see innocent women betrayed by other women who want to save their own skin. The scenes of a beggar woman being tortured are harsh by any decade’s standards, and the extreme close-ups of her face, and the agony it betrays, are forerunners of Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. (Those close-ups were also cut by early censors, which is a sign of how great the acting is—that mere faces were deemed too brutal, as they betrayed the severity of the torture so explicitly). There’s plenty more torture to come. A young monk is flogged as punishment for sinful thoughts, and again, we see his face in close-up. It’s not a way of shying from the violence (we are later shown his stripes), but of driving home the agony.

A witch's body being marked by a demon.

And there’s a stew of salacious stuff left to depict. Witches transforming into cats to sneak out at night to defecate in altars. Women stomping on crosses and giving birth to demons. Nuns given over to mass insanity. Christenson doesn’t miss a thing if it seems shocking, which is why it seems so strange (especially by modern standards) that he ends the film as he does. The director points out that women accused of witchcraft in older times were often just old ladies with unappealing features that made them targets: humpbacks, or tremors, for example. Often they were suffering from mental illnesses. Today, though, they are taken in by nursing homes and charity organizations.

Young women fare less well, though, in this enlightened year of 1922, though Christensen presents their difficulties and the “modern” treatment as sort of a “Gee whiz, look how lucky we are today” coda. He talks about “hysterical” women—a term we know encompassed anything from an array of mental issues to simply being vocal or opinionated—and how today they are detained and treated in a clinic. Today we know a bit about what those treatments may have been, which makes this ending to the film one of accidental horror. “It would be a pity if your daughter were to have an unpleasant exchange with the police,” says a doctor, before committing a woman’s daughter to confinement and treatment. 

Haxan may be full of atrocities, but relax: it's art.

Häxan was cut down and re-released in 1968 with a bizarre narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz soundtrack, and it’s this version that made the rounds of college film festivals and underground film nights. I highly recommend watching the full, uncut version, though, with its original title cards and classical soundtrack with Wagner and Chopin. No need to feel guilty: this is smart smut.

You can watch Häxan for free on Hulu, or buy it on DVD or instant streaming at Amazon.

This is post #3 for Film Dirt’s 31 Days of Silent Horror Films. See the link for the full list of films so far.

Friday, October 2, 2015

A Page of Madness: 1926 Japanese Silent Film Depicts Asylum Terrors

Somehow, a film that ought to be impenetrable manages to be compelling. 

Silent scream in A Page of Madness.

Both silent films and foreign films sometimes require a bit of decoding. A Page of Madness requires even more codebreaking than most. It’s got just about everything possible working against a viewer’s understanding. For starters, it’s missing about a third of its footage. After its release in 1926, the film went missing, and was believed lost for good in the 1950 Shimogamo studio fire that destroyed all of its films. Director Teinosuke Kinugasa stumbled on a print hiding in his own storehouse in 1971. He re-released it in 1973, but not before cutting it for reasons no one seems to be quite sure of. Some have suggested that he cut out narrative sequences in order to make the film even more avant-garde by 1970s standards.

And then there’s the fact that the film has no intertitles. We’re left on our own to figure out what’s going on in silent conversations. The lack of titles, though, isn’t part of some artistic experiment. Their absence is a relic of history. In Japan, silent film screenings were accompanied by benshi—live narrators who explained the film to the audience in a theatrical style. The lack of a benshi makes us have to solve some of the plot elements that may have been crystal clear to the original viewers. It’s rather like watching a talking film with the sound turned down (as far as deciphering the plot, I mean—the film has a strikingly gorgeous musical soundtrack).

The asylum.

But here’s the thing: A Page of Madness is so visually stunning, and so simultaneously beautiful and disturbing, that you’ll want to solve its mysteries. Even if you don’t understand every moment of it, you’ll likely keep watching.

The opening moments of the film are  a cacophony of sound and moving image fragments that feel disturbing, even if we’re not yet sure how they fit together: a drum, a screaming baby, a torn photograph, a car arriving in a downpour. We see a beautiful dancer in an elaborate headpiece dancing on a stylized stage. As the camera backs away from her, suddenly we are seeing her through bars, like those of a prison. When the scene cuts to a girl in a ragged dress, dancing frenziedly  in her cell as if compelled by an unseen force, it becomes clear that she is an asylum inmate, and the beautiful woman we first saw is her delusion. 

Some patients are as catatonic as others are frenetic.

Though you might be fuzzy on the details (or they might come to mean something to you that is different from the interpretation of others), a plot ultimately emerges. An old man works as a janitor at the asylum, and his wife is a patient there. When one day their daughter arrives to inform her mother of her engagement, the family’s story begins to piece together in the form of flashbacks. The janitor attempts to free his wife from the asylum, but she seems unwilling to go—perhaps she knows it is where she belongs, although there are signs that she may be afraid of her husband, who may well be going mad himself.

A Page of Madness is often compared to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but that’s a naive comparison, I think, and mostly borne out of the fact that it’s a horror film set in an asylum. Unlike many films with scary asylums, though, it’s not the asylum itself that’s scary (though the angles and shadows certainly make it seem foreboding). There are no depraved orderlies or torturous punishments. And while there are terrifying scenes of the patients leering and pawing at the dancer, and later rioting, they’re not the most frightening aspect of the film. The true horror comes from the madness itself. It’s what’s inside the patient’s own heads, from current delusions to flashbacks of horrific life events. And what makes this film unusual is that we see these horrible things from the patient’s point of view. Just as we saw the dancer’s delusion in the opening sequence, we sometimes see people in the asylum as the janitor’s wife sees them, with their eyes swollen and their heads misshapen. 
Through the eyes of madness.

There are elements of the film that I never divined. What is the significance of the torn photograph? Did the janitor’s wife drown a baby, or is she clutching at a baby that she found drowned? Did the janitor abuse his wife? These are things I might never know, or I may change my mind in subsequent viewings (and this is a film I will see again). And then there are images that I know will never leave me: the rioting inmates calming down when they put on their eerie Noh masks and sit in silence, for one. The wife’s horrifying, though silent, scream.

The music, added by Kinugasa for the ‘70s re-release is notably unsettling. At times, though it is obviously played on Japanese instruments, it resembles shrieks of fright or pain. At other times, it is repetitive and percussive, reminiscent of the mechanical sounds so favored by David Lynch. Its dissonance mimics the disconnect between the asylum patients and the real world. 

Just when you thought the film couldn't be any more disturbing, the masks arrive.

A Page of Madness might be difficult for some, if not just because of its obfuscation, then for its disturbing images of mental illness. I think there’s no denying that it’s a masterpiece of film making, and not merely by silent film standards. In fact, you may be startled by how modern it actually looks.

You can watch the film free at I highly recommend watching the incredible opening sequence. You’ll know right away if it’s for you.

This post is part two of my 31 Days of Silent Horror Films event, which kicked off with Wolf Blood, the earliest existing werewolf film. Subscribe to Film Dirt or like on Facebook to see all 31 silent horror reviews as they appear.