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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After the success of his avant-garde shorts THE LIFE AND DEATH OF
9413A Hollywood EXTRA and THE LOVE OF ZERO in 1927, the use of another
Hollywood genre that inherently permitted experimentation governed
Florey's choice of a more straightforward narrative for his third such
film. Initiated at the request of the Film Art Guild of New York,
Florey worked without a major collaborator, although, as with THE LOVE
OF ZERO, some sets were designed by William Cameron Menzies, and Edward
Fitzgerald again the cameraman. The result was JOHANN THE COFFIN MAKER,
costing $200 (nearly double the budget of EXTRA and ZERO), lasting two
and a half reels, and featuring a cast of over twenty--recruited from
the set of THE WOMAN DISPUTED, on which Florey and Menzies were working
during the day. Filming took place without any written script, lasting
from six o'clock on Saturday night through Sunday morning, with
re-takes on Monday night.
There were only three sets: a coffin maker's workshop, a lonely room of mourning, and a graveyard. Unlike A Hollywood EXTRA and THE LOVE OF ZERO, JOHANN THE COFFIN MAKER avoided the "Caligari" look, with naturalistic sets. Having received an order for a child's coffin on Christmas Eve, old Johann (Agostino Borgato) induces a few of the dead to return from their graves. He offers a bottle of wine to a murderous Parisian Apache, a soldier, and a prostitute, asking them to relate how they met their deaths.
When they return to their homes beneath the sod, the coffin maker hears a knocking at the door. It is his own bride--Death--come to wed him. Together they climb into a casket he built for himself. And he closes down the lid. It was "a Poe-like scenario" with "a dash of Baudelaire and Heine at their bitterest," according to Herman G. Weinberg, who was to become a close friend of Florey and a fellow member of the avant-garde. JOHANN THE COFFIN MAKER was warmly received by the press; today, despite occasional rumors, it appears to be lost.
While impossible to study except through reviews and Florey's stills and frame enlargements, JOHANN THE COFFIN MAKER enlarges on the supernatural deaths in A Hollywood EXTRA and THE LOVE OF ZERO to concentrate on the realm beyond. The themes and technique of JOHANN THE COFFIN MAKER have unmistakable echoes throughout Florey's subsequent work, adumbrating his relation to the horror genre. By the end of the very same year, he had directed his first such feature, THE HOLE IN THE WALL. Here he experimented with the use of sound to create a supernatural mood for scenes of spiritualism, embellished by strange decor, including looming ghosts and twisted windows. During 1931, Florey was adapting the techniques of the avant-garde to the burgeoning Universal horror cycle. Originating the treatment for FRANKENSTEIN and co-authoring its script, Florey was also originally set to direct. His surviving continuity script reveals detailed plans for far more expressionist compositions, camera movements, set-ups, lens, lighting, and special effects than were used in the final film. Florey was switched to the adaptation and direction of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and he transformed Poe's story into a remake of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE was popularized around the mad scientist theme, and seldom has a Hollywood film been so Germanic in treatment, amplifying the plot with artistic, dark, and expressionistic design and photography. Later Florey horror films were no less distinctive, such as THE FLORENTINE DAGGER (Warner Bros., 1935), THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (Columbia, 1941), and especially THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (Warner Bros., 1946), with its exploration of subjective states. The themes of JOHANN THE COFFIN MAKER are also to be found in Florey's television, such as FOUR STAR PLAYHOUSE: THE MAN ON A TRAIN (1953) and THRILLER: THE INCREDIBLE DOKTOR MARKESAN (1962).
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