Saturday, May 8, 2010

Horror Explorer (Sneak Peek): 1913-1915

Less than a year after the Henderson version, writer/director Herbert Brenon released his own adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with King Baggot in the lead on March 6, 1913 (watch clip here).  This version is also notable, as a complete print is said to survive in the UCLA Film & Television archive, and for being designated as the first horror film from the then-fledgling Universal Studios who would, over the course of a single great decade, give us the definitive Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Phantom of the Opera (1925), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Mummy (1932), and Invisible Man (1933).

December 26, 1913 saw the release of Le Systeme du Docteur Goudron et du Professeur Plume from famed French director Maurice Tourneur .  Released in America as The Lunatics, it was adapted from a one-act Grand Guignol play that was in turn based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether". 

The book Maurice Tourneur: The Life and Films by Harry Waldman says that the film:
"deals with a young reporter, accompanied by his attractive wife, who goes on assignment to investigate a new and apparently effective approach to treating asylum patients...Inside [the asylum] they quickly realize that the tables have been turned--that the inmates, led by 'Dr. Tarr'...have taken over."
Dr. Tarr and his partner in medical crime Professor Fether tells the visitors that they can 'cure' insanity by gouging out the eyes of a patient and slitting his throat--a job that takes two people to do effectively--and they fully intend to perform the miracle cure on the journalist.

On an interesting side note, this wasn't the first time that Poe's "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether" had been crafted for the screen. It seems that the Edison Company released their own version of the film entitled Lunatics in Power. The filmmakers went for a drastically different approach to the subject matter, however, and replaced all of the horror elements with slapstick comedy. Most sources state that this film was released in 1909 (which it very well may have been), but I located a review of the film in the May 15, 1908 issue of Moving Picture World (view here). It was surmised as follows:
"An Edison picture illustrating what might happen if lunatics in an asylum were accorded the power of running the place themselves.  They are about serving up a visitor as a chicken when the keepers, who have been locked up by the lunatics, are released and the crazy persons are hurried back to their cells.  The advisability of using any affliction as serious as lunacy as a basis for sport is questionable, though aside from that the film is lively and not unattractive.  To make irresponsible persons the target for fun will not appeal to a majority of a manager's audience, unless he is located in a peculiar portion of the country.  Certainly the theme is novel, but is not handled to the best advantage."
On December 29, 1913 yet another version of the Jekyll/Hyde story was released. Entitled A Modern Jekyll and Hyde, it featured Robert Broderick as Jethro Smith, the "modern" version of the schizophrenic title characters. So little is known about this take on the familiar tale that not even a director can be pinpointed.

August 24th, 1914 saw the release of D.W. Griffith's The Avenging Conscience, in which he freely melded two works by Edgar Allan Poe--the short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" and the poem "Annabel Lee".  In the movie, a young Poe fan (who calls his love interest 'Annabell')  murders his uncle and hides his corpse in the bricks that compose his fireplace.  To avoid capture, he hangs himself, following which Annabel throws herself from a cliff.  In a cop-out ending that was used too often in these days of melodrama, the young man awakens in the safety of his own home to discover that the whole ordeal was only a nightmare.  This film is still in existence, and has been made available on DVD by Kino International (purchase here).  Although certainly not the first horror film, in many people's eyes, this is the first masterpiece of the genre.

With the beginning of 1915 came the German film Der Golem (The Golem or The Monster of Fate) from Henrik Galeen and Paul Wegener.  This adaptation of the Jewish legend is still widely debated today regarding whether or not a complete print of the film still exists.  It has long been thought of as a Lost Film, but many times over the years someone has declared it to be "Found".  However, each time such a claim is made, it turns out that the "found" print is actually of a different film.  Such confusion stems from the fact that Wegener also directed another film called Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancing Girl) in 1917 (also thought lost), and Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into The World) in 1920.  The 1920 film still survives, and is in fact readily available on DVD, and it is this version that most people are watching when they believe to be viewing the 1915 film.  To add to the confusion, a 1916 film directed by Urban Gad, also entitled Der Golem was announced, but whether or not it was ever produced, much less released, is yet another topic that is up for debate.

The Haunting Fear from director Robert G. Vignola was released on June 11, 1915.  All of the usual sources came up blank for this title, and practically no information could be ascertained.  Only a synopsis, by
Janiss Garza of All Movie Guide, could be located--and where she located her information, I do not know.
"Katherine, your standard naive country girl (Alice Hollister), is lured to the city by the worldly Diana (Anna Q. Nilsson). She falls for the even worldlier Mace (Harry Millarde), and thinks he returns her feelings until she's finally informed of his true character. Disillusioned and angry at this turn of events, she stabs him. Since she believes she has committed murder, she seeks refuge in a convent. While he recovers, Mace resolves to hunt Katherine down and kill her. He traces her to the convent where he finds her in prayer. He is moved by the sight and doesn't shoot her. When she realizes she isn't a murderess after all, Katherine believes that her prayers have been answered. The film apparently had two ends -- in one version she becomes a nun and remains at the convent. In the other, Mace repents, gives up his wicked ways, and marries Katherine."

November 1915 brought the premiere of the now-possibly-lost Life Without Soul.  It was only the second known adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (following Edison's version), and predated the Universal version by more than fifteen years.  In it, a Manhattan man falls asleep while reading Shelley's novel and dreams that he is the Victor Frankenstein character.  The creation of the monster this time around is less a matter of science than of mythology, as it is crafted out of clay much like the Jewish tale of the Golem.  'Victor' witnesses his loved ones murdered by the creature, and pursues him across the Atlantic Ocean before finally being able to entomb him for eternity beneath the rubble of a cave-in. (For further information, please read my Cryptopopology post on this film.)



  1. I like these horror movie histories! And honestly, I'm surprised nobody's made a movie or written a novel about the Grand Guignol. I guess that's just too much fancy French talk.

  2. I love horror history...just in general, but this is very good.


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