Sunday, October 31, 2010

Horror Explorer (Sneak Peek): 1925-1926


The Monster hit the theater screens on March 16, 1925. Written and directed by Roland West (later of The Bat and The Bat Whispers), and based on the stage play by Crane Wilbur, this movie stars Lon Chaney as Dr. Ziska, a renegade (and, yes, quite mad) scientist who has taken over an abandoned mental asylum and kidnaps innocents for use in his bizarre experiments--including one which utilized a 'death chair' to transfer a woman's soul into a man's body.  This comedy horror hybrid received mixed reviews upon its initial release.

Tod Browning's The Unholy Three appeared in theaters on August 16, 1925.  Lon Chaney stars as Echo the ventriloquist, Harry Earles as little man Tweedledee, and Victor McLaglen as Hercules the strong-man, three sideshow performers who cook up a strange little scheme:  Echo, disguised in drag as the elderly Mrs. O'Grady, opens up a pet shop full of birds with impressive vocabularies--all actually the work of Echo's vocal talents.  When a customer takes the bird home, only to discover that it has fallen mysteriously silent, they file a complaint.  Mrs. O'Grady and her young grandson (Tweedledee) visit the customer's house and coax the bird into "speaking" again while casing the place.  If they find it suitable, the three of them return later to rob them.  All goes well until a murder is committed while on the job, and an innocent man is blamed for the crime.

This is another example of a macabre melodrama, the likes of which Browning was famous for, that has found fondness in the hearts of horror fans everywhere, even if it doesn't strictly belong to the genre.  The darker elements alone merit its inclusion here.  The Unholy Three was based on a novel by C.A. 'Tod' Robbins, who was also the source author of Browning's Freaks.  It was remade in 1930, as Chaney's first and last, talkie. 

Director Rupert Julian's Phantom of the Opera, released on September 6, 1925, certainly wasn't the first screen adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel, but it is arguably the most famous.  This version stars Lon Chaney in one of his most famous roles, Erik, the tortured Phantom.  It was re-released as a talkie in 1929, with as much as 40% of the material re-shot with synchronous sound. 

Maciste all'inferno (Maciste in Hell) premiered in Sweden on October 19, 1925, but it did not hit the United States until the late date of June 26, 1931. Based somewhat on Dante Alighieri's portrayal of hell in his epic poem The Divine Comedy, it follows the scrupulous and moral character of Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano) as he is dragged into hell by the devil in an effort to corrupt him. The original cut ran a full 97 minutes, but the only version currently available on DVD is an extremely truncated 66 minute version.

Fresh off of directing The Monster, Roland West took another stab at bringing a Broadway play to the big screen, this time one written by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood. The Bat was released on March 14, 1926, and featured a villainous character known as The Bat killing off treasure hunters in an old mansion one by one. West remade this movie as a talkie in 1930 as The Bat Whispers, and it was remade again in 1959 under the original title, starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead. Comic book creator Bob Kane stated in his autobiography that the villain here was a direct inspiration for his most famous creation, Batman, and even the Bat Signal was lifted from the movie.

Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage (or, in English, simply Faust) was released in Germany on October 14, 1926, making its way to the United States on December 5th of the same year. F.W. Murnau directed this adaptation of the Goethe play, in which Faust (Gösta Ekman) sells his soul to Mephisto (Emil Jannings) in exchange for his youth. This was Murnau's last German film before moving to the United States under contract to Fox Film Corporation. Portions of this film have gone missing over the years, but the scenes that remain still run close to two hours long and have been released on DVD by Kino Video.

October 24, 1926 saw the release of Rex Ingram's The Magician, based on a book of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham. It details an evil magician as he hypnotizes and controls a young sculptress in order to acquire her virginal blood, which he requires to complete a spell used to create life.  The lab scenes toward the end of the film would have looked cribbed from Universal's Frankenstein, if Frankenstein wasn't still years away from being filmed.  There's also a red-tinted vision of hell and plenty of creepy gothic imagery. Paul Wegener filled the role of Oliver Haddo, the magician, Henry Wilson plays his diminutive assistant and the virginal Margaret Dauncey was played by Alice Terry. According to the original ad:
"She had given her heart to the man who had saved her. Then, into her life, stalked the evil, half-mad seeker of mysteries. Powerless under his spell, she forgot the man who loved her."
The model for Maugham's magician character was occultist Aleister Crowley, who read the book and was none too pleased with the depiction.  In rebuttal, he opted not to cast a spell or curse the author, but rather submitted a pointed open response to Vanity Fair for publication.  No word on his response to the film adaptation.

Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague, sometimes known as The Man Who Cheated Death), a remake of a 1913 film by the same name, was released in Germany on October 25, 1926 and in the United States in February 1929.  This time around Conrad Veidt plays the student who sells his soul in order to get the woman of his dreams, as directed by Henrik Galeen. Galeen was also the man behind 1915's The Golem and wrote the script for 1922's immortal Nosferatu. This same story would be remade next in director Arthur Robison's 1935 version.

1 comment:

  1. As you probably know, I'm psyched for the return of this feature! More people need to be aware of the origins of terror cinema. I commend you for your work, sir.


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