Sunday, October 31, 2010

Horror Explorer (Sneak Peek): 1921-1922


On New Year's Day 1921, the Swedish romantic horror film Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage) premiered, written and directed by Victor Sjöström who based it on a 1912 novel by Selma Lagerlöf.  It concerns the legend of the Phantom Chariot that picks up the souls of the recently deceased and carries them into the next world.  According to the legend, the last person to die each year is forced to work as a servant of Death, driving the chariot for the next twelve months.  Körkarlen is considered one of the great works of Swedish cinema, and was a great inspiration to director Ingmar Bergman.  In fact, Bergman directed the 2000 television film Bildmakarna (The Image Makers), which dramatized the production of this movie.  Körkarlen was remade under the same title in 1958 by director Arne Mattsson.

F.W. Murnau's Schloß Vogeloed (The Haunted Castle) debuted in Germany on April 7, 1921, written by Carl Mayer and based on a novel by Rudolf Stratz. This movie is listed as part of the horror genre in multiple sources, but despite the misleading title, it seems to be more of a mystery-thriller film in the "Old Dark House" vein that would soon become a hot Hollywood property (as in 1926's The Bat and 1927's The Cat and the Canary). The Old Dark House film is second cousin to the Haunted House film, only it operates without supernatural influence, instead focusing on shady human characters and their overwrought evil schemes that are usually motivated by greed.

March 4, 1922 saw the release of the classic Nosferatu.  Scripted by Henrik Galeen (director of 1915's The Golem and 1927's Alraune), and directed by F.W. Murnau, this classic film has earned a reputation that extends much deeper than its roots.  It was conceived as an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but being an unauthorized one, certain liberties were taken.  These changes fooled nobody, and Stoker's widow Florence sued the producers for copyright infringement.  The lawsuit bankrupted the production company, Prana Films, before it could ever produce another picture.

Häxan (Witchcraft Through The Ages) debuted in Sweden on September 18, 1922, the work of Danish director Benjamin Christensen. Although it presents a series of dramatizations, it was actually filmed as a documentary, which demonstrates the vast amount of research that Christensen did before beginning work on this film. It starts off as a discussion of demons in medieval cultural beliefs but soon develops into a series of vignettes that showcase the dark goings-on of dark magic across time. Interestingly, the director appears not only as himself during the film's introduction, but also as Satan, and, briefly, even as Jesus Christ. The original cut was 104 minutes long, but in 1968 it was re-released in a 77 minute version with musical jazz backing and narration by Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs. Both the full version and the truncated Burroughs version can be found on the Criterion DVD release.

Der müde Tod (Destiny) premiered in Germany on October 6, 1921. Directed by Fritz Lang, this film concerns a traveling couple who meet up with the personification of Death. This is actually an Expressionistic framing device for an anthology of shorts that owe more to fantasy and melodrama than horror--although the wraparound story and the embodiment of Death makes it worth a mention. The first tale is a Persian story about a forbidden romance; the second involves a love triangle that takes place in Venice; and the third takes place in China, a comical tale involving an army of miniature soldiers.

On November 5, 1922 director Edward D. Venturini released his film The Headless Horseman. Scripted by Carl Stearns Clancy and starring Western star Will Rogers in the lead, this was an adaptation of Washinton Irving's story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (supposedly last adapted as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1908, although little to no information about that film seems to be available). This version, which follows Ichabod Crane as he faces off against the mythical Headless Horsemen, is generally panned by audiences as "dull" and "lifeless".

Goldwyn Productions released A Blind Bargain on December 3, 1922, based on the 1897 novel The Octave of Claudius by author Barry Pain.  Directed by Wallace Worsely, it starred Lon Chaney in dual roles (the mad doctor Arthur Lamb and his hunchback assistant the Ape Man) and Raymond McKee as Robert Sandell, a struggling writer who has turned to minor crimes to make ends meet and provide care for his dying mother.  The robbery doesn't pan out, but Lamb agrees to perform a life-saving medical procedure on Sandell's mother, so long as he agrees to submit himself to the doctor's experiments at the end of eight days.  As the time for the experiments grows near, he discovers an underground chamber full of deformed people kept prisoner--the failed experiments of Dr. Lamb.

A Blind Bargain received favorable reviews from critics upon its release, singling out Chaney's dual performance as the standout.  Unfortunately, it is now considered lost as the original negative was destroyed by MGM in 1931 after the takeover of Goldwyn Studios, and the last known surviving print was lost in the 1965 fire of Vault #7 that also destroyed 1927's London After Midnight.  However, a "novelization" of sorts was published in 1988 by Philip Riley and Forrest Ackerman, reconstructing the film's storyline as closely as possible by using text and surviving still photographs.  Worsley had directed Chaney the year before in The Penalty, and was only a year away from directing him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.


  1. Shit, I didn't know when Haxan was released on Criterion it had an alternate soundtrack with William Burroughs. That's so cool. Now I have to go get the Criterion


What do you got to say about it!?


Related Posts with Thumbnails