Sunday, May 9, 2010

Horror Explorer (Sneak Peek): 1917-1920

On the first day of 1917, director Rex Ingram released his film Black Orchids in which a devil-may-care woman is scared onto the path of the straight-and-narrow by her father, who relates to her a story in which another careless woman is entombed alive.  This was the first credited appearance of actor John George, who would later go on to appear opposite such luminaries of the genre as Lon Chaney (The Road to Mandalay, 1926; The Unknown, 1927), Bela Lugosi (Island of Lost Souls, 1933; The Black Cat, 1934), and Boris Karloff (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935). Ingram went on to remake this film in 1922, although the title was changed to Trifling Women against his wishes. 

July 9, 1917 saw the release of The Brand of Satan, directed by George Archainbaud, who would make the transition into television with 1952's "Hopalong Cassidy" and continuing with mostly-Western themed shows until 1959.  This movie must have been a bit controversial during its time, as it tells the story of a woman who is impregnated after being raped by an escaped convict.  Her son grows up to be a respected prosecutor, but learns that he has a split-personality and his other-self is a murderous strangler.  This melodramatic medical take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written by some poor soul known as J.F. Looney.

At some point in 1918 (no one seems sure of the exact date), a Hungarian film called Alraune was released, written by Richárd Falk and directed by Michael Curtiz and Edmund Fritz. It was based on a 1911 novel of the same name by Hanns Heinz Ewers, which in turn was based on a folk tale that dates back at least to the middle ages.

The tale revolves around the superstition that the alraune (German for mandrake) which grew beneath gallows were created by the semen of hanged men, as their seed and the earth combined to create this strange, man-shaped root. Women who had sex with the alraune root were said to later give birth to emotionless, soulless children, a concept that appealed mostly to those who claimed to be witches.

The novel Alraune changes the folk tale a bit, as a scientist impregnates a woman with the actual semen of a hanged man through artificial insemination rather than having her copulate with the plant. The child this produced had no concept of love and grew to become a sexually-obsessed being, finally learning of her origins and seeking vengeance against the doctor who created her. Whether this adaption went with the notion of the root or the semen, it's impossible to say as this film has long been considered lost.

Michael Curtis went on to direct such non-genre classics as Casablanca (1942), The Jazz Singer (1952), and White Christmas (1954), while novelist Ewers had previously written the script for 1913's The Student of Prague. Alraune was remade in 1928, 1930, and 1952.

Notably, there was another film released sometime in 1918 (again, the exact date is unknown) entitled Alraune, die Henkerstochter, genannt die rote Hanne, which hailed from Germany. Many people have claimed that this film is also based on the 1911 novel, while those who have seen it (a print of this movie exists at the George Eastman House's International Museum of Photography and Film) say that any connection is superficial at best. Until a print of this film is released to the general public, we'll just have to take their word for it.

On November 5, 1919, director Richard Oswald released Unheimliche Geschichten (AKA Weird Tales; Eerie Tales; Tales of Horror; Tales of the Uncanny; Five Sinister Stories, etc.). This German film is a curiosity in that it is quite possibly the first horror anthology film to be made, laying the groundwork that would make such latter day movies as Tales of Terror (1962), Creepshow (1982), and Trick 'r Treat (2009) possible. The framing story here features the figures of Death, the Devil and the Harlot stepping out of oil paintings on display in a bookstore, and reading aloud to each other stories in which they take part. (View the 'trailer' here.)

The first tale features Conrad Veidt, and it seems to be an original story, revolving around a pair of young lovers, one of who disappears in the middle of the night, the locals having covered up her death. The second is called "The Hand", in which a strangler is haunted by the ghostly hand of his victim. The third tale is based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat", the fourth on Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Suicide Club", and the final story, "The Spook", was written by Oswald himself, and depicts a husband who fakes a haunting to frighten the baron whom his wife has been flirting with.

Strangely, this film was sort-of remade by the director in 1932, also known as Unheimliche Geschichten.  This time around, he revisited Poe's "The Black Cat" and Stevenson's "The Suicide Club", while melding them both together with another Poe story, "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether."  All of these tales were compressed together into a single story, abandoning the anthology format.  It starred Paul Wegener, formerly of The Student of Prague and The Golem.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) was released in Germany on February 26, 1920, although it wouldn't make its way to American shores for 13 more months. It follows Caligari, a magician, who hypnotizes an associate of his into committing murder. Often viewed as the most important film in early horror, it is also a prime example of German Expressionism.  While there is plenty to say regarding a film of this caliber, that also means that there are plenty of other sources where all has already been said, so I'll leave further expounding to the professionals.

March 18, 1920 saw the release of another Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this time directed by John S. Robertson and starring John Barrymore in the Dr./Mr. role and Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Martha Mansfield as his love interest. Even today, Barrymore's performance is considered by many to be the definitive version of the character split by his own nature.

Only one month after Barrymore's version, yet another take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appeared, directed by J. Charles Haydon and starring Sheldon Lewis. This version, overshadowed by Barrymore's, is practically forgotten today. The ending is the all-too-common fake out in which Jekyll awakes in his chair, having dreamed the whole ordeal.

August saw the release of a delightfully twisted Lon Chaney vehicle entitled The Penalty. Written by Charles Kenyon, directed by Wallace Worsley, and based on a novel by Gouverneur Morris, The Penalty follows a gangster named Blizzard (Chaney), whose legs were mistakenly amputated as a child. Driven mad, Blizzard plots a sick revenge against the doctor who performed the amputation: kidnap the doctor's daughter, amputate the man's legs and graft them onto Blizzard's stumps. Although perhaps not strictly a horror film, there are enough macabre elements to justify its inclusion here. In 2009, Empire Magazine named it as #17 on their list of "The 20 Greatest Gangster Movies You've (Probably) Never Seen".

On August 26 (or September 17, according to some sources), there was once again another variation on the Jekyll and Hyde story. This one, called Der Januskopf (The Head of Janus), was scripted by Hans Janowitz and directed by F.W. Murnau, who would later go on to infamy with his production Nosferatu. This movie, perhaps an "illegitimate" version of the Stephenson novel as Nosferatu was of Bram Stoker's Dracula, changes the names of the main characters to Dr. Warren and Mr. O'Connor, both of which were played by Conrad Veidt. The transformation here is not brought about by means of a scientific formula, but rather through a cursed bust of the mythological Roman god Janus. No footage of this film is known to have survived, but the script and related production notes have, from which the majority of information is gleaned. Some theorize that The Head of Janus was the first film in history to feature moving camerawork (as opposed to a static point of view throughout the length of the shot) as a note on the script dictates that camera "follows him up the stairs". Of course, unless a copy of this film ever emerges, we will never know for sure.

Genuine: The Tale of A Vampire was released in Germany on September 2, 1920. Written by Carl Mayer and directed by Robert Wiene, follows the character of Genuine (played by Fern Andra) who winds up being sold as a slave and "sheltered" from the dangers of the outside world by her conservative keepers. Little do they realize that Genuine is just as dangerous to their way of life than anything outside their doors. Once again, the 'Vampire' in question is of the femme fatale variety, not a supernatural bloodsucker. Another German Expressionist film from Wiene, this one is obviously outdone by his previous effort The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, although many of the set pieces are beautifully done by Expressionist painter César Klein. A condensed 43 minute version of the film can be seen as an extra feature on the Kino DVD of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but in order to see the uncut version, one must visit the Munich City Film Museum archive in Germany.

October 29, 1920 marked the German release of Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into The World), by director Paul Wegener who had already released two Golem films previously--The Golem in 1915 and The Golem and the Dancing Girls in 1917. This is actually a prequel to the 1915 film, and is the one readily available today.


Well, hipsters...that's it for your special "Sneak Peek" at the project I'm currently working on.  Now it's up to you to let me know what you thought.


  1. These horror history chapters are FANTASTIC, Jonny! I've always been intrigued by this period of horror... so little seems to be known of it. You've provided some fascinating and insightful tidbits that I had never come across. You should be commended for your excellent work. Keep it up, man!

  2. Kick-ass entry, J2! Awesome stuff.

  3. Joe Monster: Thanks for the kind words. This project has really kept me busy, and will continue to do so. Keep an eye out here at Midnite Media, and I'll announce when the *actual* Horror Explorer project is ready to go live.

    J.Astro: Holy shit! My long-lost-brother Other J! Where the hell have you been? The Internet has been a much less strange place since you turned off, dropped out, and got one of those Real Lives that I keep hearing about. How's that working out for you, anyway?


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