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Noah's Ark (1928)
Zanuck tries to out DeMille DeMille
This is a very disappointing effort by producer-writer Darryl F. Zanuck and Michael Curtiz in his American directorial debut. The film is obviously an attempt to replicate the DeMille formula of selling pre-code cheesecake in a biblical package. Which is OK if you have some original ideas. But this film has very little new to offer, and steals not only from DeMille, but from Rex Ingram's THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE and Frank Borzage's SEVENTH HEAVEN.
The WWI story is blatantly derived from FOUR HORSEMEN, and carries over some of that film's problems. The idea that war can have a moral impact and yet remain immoral in the abstract doesn't cohere; and the portrayal of Travis (played by George O'Brien) and his buddy Al (played by Guinn Williams) as untroubled by moral misgivings about taking part in an apocalyptic war undercuts the anti-war message Zanuck seemed to be striving for.
The maudlin sentiment - Al has a picture of "Mother" in his helmet - and facial mugging of the actors gives NOAH'S ARK the appearance of a film made ten years earlier. And the scene in the biblical section of a sightless Japheth divinely led to his lover Miriam (Dolores Costello) works no better than Charles Farrel's blind search for Janet Gaynor in SEVENTH HEAVEN.
However, criticism of the incompatibility between the the modern and biblical sections is not valid. Both stories have apocalyptic themes; the comparison of God's decision to destroy "all flesh" in the flood, and the endgame specter of ten million dead in WWI would not be lost on audiences of 1929. Also the melodramatic tale of lust that leads the villain Nickoloff to condemn Travis' German wife to execution as a spy does roughly parallel King Nephilim's determination to sacrifice a virgin to an idol in the biblical section.
More jarring than the parallel stories - or the ridiculous leopard skin costumes worn by Noah's sons - is the inclusion of spoken lines in the modern section. The actors' slow, careful, halting enunciation, and the drivel that come out whenever they open their mouths, kills the pace of the film and shows why Murnau believed the transition to sound was premature.
The saving grace of the film is the spectacle of the ancient city and the flood itself, but the sets in the biblical section bear more than a little resemblance to the Babylonian sets in Griffith's INTOLERANCE, and the flood could not help but be realistic since Curtiz saw fit to let loose tons of water on extras who didn't know it was coming.
The Magician (1926)
Pioneering supernatural silent
In the 1920s films dealing with supernatural evil were extremely rare. However, director Rex Ingram, obviously influenced by earlier German forays into the supernatural, cast German actor Paul Wegener of DER GOLEM in this adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel THE MAGICIAN. Wegener's menacing performance as an evil Yogi in LEBENDE BUDDHAS (1925) made him a good choice to play Oliver Haddo, obsessed with creating life from an ancient formula requiring the heart's blood of a maiden, played by Ingram's wife Alice Terry.
John F. Seitz' cinematography is superb, especially in the depiction of the heroine's hallucinatory descent into Hell where she is figuratively ravished by a lustful and athletic satyr. And although Haddo doesn't succeed in creating the grisly, half-complete humans as in the novel, the controversial subject matter was nevertheless strong enough to insure the film's failure at the box-office in 1926.
Interesting comparisons have been made between this film and James Wale's FRANKENSTEIN, but the subject of black magic also invites comparison with later films - THE BLACK CAT (1934), THE NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957), and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968) - featuring characters who like Oliver Haddo were modeled on real-life occultist Aleister Crowley.
The Raven (1935)
Universal horror past its prime
In THE RAVEN Lugosi hams shamelessly, and the plot, involving an obsessed Poe fanatic using torture methods from Poe stories on unsuspecting guests in his weird mansion, is a poor attempt to cash in on the success of the earlier Karloff/Lugosi vehicle THE BLACK CAT, only this time with Lugosi taking Karloff's place as the arch fiend.
I am convinced Karloff's make-up is meant to recall his role as Morgan the butler in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, but it's extremely artificial-looking. THE RAVEN, together with THE INVISIBLE RAY - a Sci Fi film with a few pointless Gothic touches - are parodies of the Universal style, and show that in 1935 Universal had begun to run out of ideas and was starting to cannibalize its original releases.
White Zombie (1932)
Lugosi and budget doom "White Zombie"
A pair of intense eyes floats through the throbbing Hatian night. A horse-drawn coach halts at a ritual burial in the road, and the young couple inside is accosted by Zombie-master Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi). The coachman flogs his horses into a gallop to avoid the arrival of Legendre's gang of walking dead.
After this promising opening the only good scenes are of the Zombies toiling in Legendre's mill. But it's unfortunate there is even one good moment because the rest of the film is terrible. Actors stumble through lines and pause for long periods to remember them. Apparently there was little time for rehearsal and no opportunity for re-takes. The actors' movements are stiff, which is fine if you're a Zombie, but unforgivable if you have a speaking part. The story is as simple as can be, which isn't necessarily bad, unless you have to stretch it into a feature-length hour.
Lugosi struggles with his English, tries to burn holes in the camera with his eyes (Why do people like that stuff?), and serves us a generous portion of ham. Madge Bellamy acts like a Zombie even before she becomes one, and her fiancée/husband (John Harron) is completely ineffectual. In fairness, producer Edward Halperin and director Victor Halperin never had a chance to make a good movie, considering the budget and the caliber of performers. They later proved they could do fine work when Paramount gave them an adequate budget and Carole Lombard for the underrated film "Supernatural." So I would urge anyone not already in Lugosi's legion of walking dead to watch "Supernatural" and avoid "White Zombie" before it's too late!
Little known Russian horror gem
I bought "Viy" on DVD with some trepidation, worried by comments that it wasn't scary, that the special effects were crude, and it was slow. Don't believe it, unless you are one of those who rate movie horror by the numbers of mutilations and amounts of blood.
Based on a little known and lesser story by Nikolai Gogol, the film actually improves the original with effectively creepy music (where appropriate), and with special effects that were very good for a movie made nearly forty years ago. The carefully faithful adaptation concerns a seminary student on holiday who is propositioned by a hag who turns out to be a witch. She rides him through the air like a broomstick, and when they land he beats her off with a club only to discover that, near death, she has transformed into a beautiful young woman, the daughter of a Cossack chieftain. Her father sends to the seminary for the student because his daughter requested that only he be summoned to read the prayer for the dead three consecutive nights over her corpse. What happens in the locked chapel until dawn during those nights is what the story is about.
It is as scary as most of the Hammer films of the same era, only with Gogol's trademark sense-of-humor. Hammer would have made the witch more grotesque, and the young dead woman sexier. The only let-down is that Viy's appearance at the end of the movie is not very scary and even somewhat comical. But he's only on screen a few seconds. The creatures that crawl out of the walls ahead of Viy are as grotesque as anything to be found in films of that time, and make the lead-up to Viy's arrival very suspenseful
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
Chaney saves poor production
I saw the Hunchback the other day, and when Lon Chaney is on screen, which isn't nearly enough, you can see why he is considered by some to be the greatest actor of silent film. As the grotesque bell-ringer Quasimodo, Chaney's pantomime shows the complexity of a man with a beautiful soul imprisoned within a contorted form, fated to hate the world that sees him as a freak. Chaney's make-up is as usual superb. The rest of the cast doesn't fare as well.
Second best is Patsy Ruth Miller. Pretty and petite, her performance is natural and understated, but she's the girl-next-door, and doesn't possess the sex appeal required of the role of the dancing-girl Esmaralda. Ernest Torrence as Clopin, and Raymond Hatton as Graingoire are adequate. The other featured players are awful. Norman Kerry as Phoebus, and Brandon Hurst as the villain Jehan are stock characters out of melodrama, types that give silent film an undeserved reputation for always being florid and stagy. Blame director Wallace Worsley and the writers for not demanding the same complexity of other characters as Chaney brings to the Hunchback. The results are often unintentionally humorous, as when Hurst strides into a scene with his cloak thrown over his face, and when Kerry rakishly bares Esmaralda's shoulder, but repents and, with a pained look of remorse, covers it up again.
Set design is impressive and realno CGI. Notre Dame Cathedral is an actual prop with gargoyles and statues that Chaney climbs on. But the sets are unimaginatively used by Worsley. There are no perceptible lighting effects. Exterior daylight scenes weren't shot in the studio, but always outside in bright sunlight and were sepia-tinted. Blue-tinted exterior night scenes were actually shot at night (unusual for the time) as the vapor on the actors' breath shows.
Anyone acquainted with the novel will also realize that this adaptation is sub-par. For instance, how does Esmaralda's mother know gypsies stole her child? There were no witnesses. In the novel gypsies leave the hunchback in her place. Why is the Hunchback the slave of Jehan? We have no background information to explain their relationship. And what's Gringoire's purpose other than as a messenger from Esmeralda to Phoebus? In the film Phoebus is a conventional romantic hero, not the selfish, lascivious rogue as in the book. Chaney achieves pathos with his character, but audiences in 1923 could never stomach the novel's grand tragic ending in which Esmaralda dies. Also, fear of offending the church caused Universal to make the villain not a priest but the saintly priest's brother, who in the novel is an amiable chap.
Some may be interested in this as an early horror film. But although there are elements of horror in the original story, Worsley's uninspired direction leave those avenues unexplored. The dark, Gothic atmosphere of the story would have to wait for German émigré director William Deiterle and cinematographer Joe August, who created a shadowy nightscape for the 1939 film. Nevertheless, it is nice to see a new print of this film which, although still scratchy, reveals much more detail, and moves at the correct projection speed, giving us a better idea of how the film originally looked.
Orlacs Hände (1924)
Excellent performances, ponderous pacing needs better musical score
I've been looking for a DVD of THE HANDS OF ORLAC ever since I knew the film existed. Now it's finally here, and like most silent films it's a mixed bag. I find the image on the new KINO disc to be acceptable considering the problematic nature of the source material. There's a loss of definition in some scenes, but there are also moments of sharpness in the restored Murnau Foundation print. It's a shame we can never experience non-talking films the way 1920s audiences did, without washed-out contrasts, image-flickers, frame-jitters, dirt, and print damage. Even the best restorations don't look new.
The plot concerns a concert pianist whose hands are smashed in a train wreck. A surgeon replaces them with the hands an executed criminal. Soon the pianist is obsessed with thoughts he might be a killer. The performances are generally excellent in the Expressionistic style. Conrad Veidt's exaggerated grimacing as his character Paul Orlac approaches madness is tempered by moments that are extremely moving.
The score of mostly string music on the KINO disc is creepy and works well for a while, but is so monotonous over the entire length of an already ponderously paced film that I grew tired of it. This film cries out for music that varies its mood to fit what is happening on screen. Contrasts in the mood of the music would make the creepy parts seem even creepier. An optional score in a traditional style would have been nice. Nevertheless, the Gothic set design and shadow-infested cinematography by Gunther Krampf - particularly the scenes at Orlac's father's house - create the atmosphere we know and love in early horror films. These chiaroscuro light-and-shadow effects just cannot be achieved with color.
However, to evoke fear without the modern cheats of gore and violence - to create what the Germans call "stimmung" (mood) - requires not only imaginative lighting and set design, but time. Unfortunately director Robert Weine spends too much time on the actors' very deliberate expressionistic movements at the expense of pacing.
The ending is likewise unsatisfactory, although it does follow Maurice Renard's novel. I won't give too much away other than to say the ending undercuts an apparently fantastic element, yet makes the "logical" explanation seem almost as implausible. Nevertheless, the build-up to the resolution as well as Veidt's engrossing performance makes this a worthwhile, if uninspired, film.
La maschera del demonio (1960)
Succeeds because of Bava's B&W artistry
A ruined abbey; Gothic interiors of a medieval crypt and castle; a matte painting of the moon illuminating the castle's exterior; a deep pit, the stonework glistening with moisture; claw-like branches against the white mist, all beautifully photographed for shadowy effect by master cinematographer Mario Bava, make this film worth watching. The thin plot involves two incestuous siblings, Asa and Javutich Vajda, executed for witchcraft in the Balkan kingdom of Moldavia, who return from the grave on Walpurgis night two centuries later to reek supernatural vengeance on their descendants.
Unfortunately the B&W beauty of this movie is compromised somewhat by Bava's awkward direction of actors whose performances range from adequate (Andrea Checci as Dr. Kruvaijan, and Ivo Garrani as Prince Vajda) to inept (Barbara Steele as both Princess Katia Vajda and Asa Vajda), to awful (John Richardson as Dr. Gorobec). The writing is likewise sub-par, and seems to borrow elements from the vintage American films "Mark of the Vampire" and "The Black Room," which Bava may have seen.
Plot holes are numerous and obvious. For instance, after draining the life from Katia's father, how does the vampire form of Dr. Kruvaijan find a ready-made coffin, and how does he bury himself? How does Katia's brother Constantine survive a fall down a deep pit to come back and destroy Javutich? The schmaltzy piano love theme is distracting, beginning immediately after Katia's first meeting with Gorobec. Nevertheless, camera poetry abounds. The slow-motion vision of the phantom coach driven by Javutich is a stunner. All of the genuinely unsettling moments are the result of Bava's uncanny use of lighting, shadow, and perspective; not the poor use of artificial-looking wax figures and lens filters to create the effects of aging on Katia's and Asa's face.
Austensibly based upon Nikolai Gogol's short story "Viy," there is only one scene in the film that is recognizable from the source material. The scene in the crypt when Krubaian is alone with, and trying to escape from the reanimated Asa, parallels the attempts of Gogol's protagonist to escape from a witch who has arisen from her coffin. Barbara Steele's makeup, the spike holes left in Asa's face by the mask of Satan, is very effective here.
Mark of the Vampire (1935)
Atmosphere without ideas
During the early part of the movie we get the best depiction of vampires in American cinema to that time. We get great foggy sets beautifully photographed by James Wong Howe, the first apparent morphing of a bat into a vampire, a scene of a female vampire flying, the first female-on-female vampire action, the first vampire hiss, the use of real bats hanging from coffin lids and on walls (slow-flying artificial bats look bad). We also get the ridiculous appearance of an opossum (they were apparently necessary to stand in for rats because rats were too disgusting).
Through most of the movie we are encouraged to believe vampires are attacking people. It is a real let-down, therefore, to discover the vampires are impersonators being used by the police to catch a murderer. The impersonators act exactly as you would expect vampires to act, even when there is no reason for them to remain in character. We naturally assume they are vampires. Our expectations are dashed, however, when a self-professed vampire hunter, well played by Lionel Barrymore, sees the vampire ruse is not working and hypnotizes the real killer to get him to re-enact the crime. Just why the police think fake vampires will get the killer to confess is baffling; and the abrupt change from a supernatural to a conventional mode undercuts everything that works best in the movie.
I don't know who to blame more: Tod Browning and the writers for the clumsy mix of mystery and horror, or MGM for axing 20 minutes from the final cut. Whoever is to blame, the result is a muddled remake of Browning's silent "London After Midnight."
The incongruous combination of supernatural and conventional elements makes one wonder if Browning and writer Guy Endore started out to make a true vampire movie (hence the original title "Vampires of Prague") but were forced to mute potentially salacious content by restraining it within the fictional devise of Browning's earlier film. Even before strict enforcement of the production code the studios knew they were playing with fire. Before MGM released this movie suggestions of incest between Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carol Borland), and a murder/suicide that led to their becoming vampires, were cut from the final print. What's left is pretty tame (notwithstanding the cool imagery) and shows why horror projects dried up in the second half of the decade. "Dracula's Daughter" from Universal in 1936 may have been the greatest vampire movie of all if James Whale had been allowed to proceed with the script he collaborated on. But a prologue set in the 14th century explaining the origin of Dracula's vampirism was excised along with references to his daughter's present day sadism and hints of how she tortured her victims. The project was given to Lambert Hillyer when Whale backed off.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Under-rated Universal horror
I saw "Murders in the Rue Morgue" when I was just a child in the sixties and wasn't impressed. But now that I've seen the uncut original on Universal's Lugosi collection, I believe "Murders" is one of the most under-rated films from the golden age of horror.
Direction by Robert Florey, cinematography by Karl Freund, and art direction by Charles Hall will satisfy the cravings of atmospheric horror fans. And the sources that Florey usesthe Poe story and the silent classic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"dovetail nicely. What seems rather silly in the Poe story (an ape escapes from a sailor to commit senseless murder) is more plausible and horrific when the ape's owner becomes Dr. Mirakle, a mad scientist intent on proving humans and apes are evolutionary cousins. Why else inject ape's blood into nubile young women if not to find a suitable mate for his side show attraction Erik? I was also impressed by the way director/writer Florey zeroed in on one of Poe's themes. The confusion of tongues scene from Poe's story in which people of different nationalities (ear-witnesses to a murder) mistake the ape's language for unintelligible human speech, demonstrates that humans are no different from Erik, another species of savage primate inhabiting the planet. Seeing Dr. Mirakle talk with Erik and translate for the carnival audience doesn't seem as far-fetched today considering the recent research into primate communication.
These thematic elements, together with Lugosi's sinister but surprisingly low-key (for him) performance, and the scene in which Dr. Mirakle injects the street walker with ape blood (Arlene Francis made a good screamer), and in which fiendish assistant Noble Johnson (who made an art of playing such roles) cuts the ropes that bind her Christ-like between crossbeams, releasing her body through a trap door into the river, make this one of the most daring of pre-code horror films.
The print Universal included in its Lugosi collection looks fine, much better that the one I saw in the sixties. And neither the bland performances of the romantic leads, nor the man in the ape costume detracts from the over all effect. The inter-cutting between the actual animal and the costumed double is really not that jarring when you consider what was being done elsewhere in this era.