Sunday, October 31, 2010

Horror Explorer (Sneak Peek): 1928-1929


Alraune, the second adaptation of the Hanns Heinz Ewers novel of the same name, was released to German theaters on January 25, 1928, and in the United States some four months later. It follows the same basic storyline as the now-lost original presumably did: a crazed scientist artificially inseminates a prostitute with the semen of a man who was hung at the gallows, creating Alraune, a beautiful young offspring who was completely devoid of soul. It was written and directed by Henrik Galeen (1915's The Golem; 1926's The Student of Prague), starred Brigite Helm (from Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis) in the title role, and Paul Wegener (from the 1913 version of The Student of Prague and the Golem series of films) as Professor Jakob ten Brinken. The next version of this film was released in 1930.

The Ape, directed by Beverly C. Rule, was released to theaters on March 28, 1928. Very little information is available on this film aside from the plot synopsis given at the Internet Movie Database ("A supposedly tame ape suddenly goes on a rampage in a small town. Based on a true story"), and a slightly longer one from Hal Erickson at All Movie Guide:
"According to studio publicity, The Ape was based on actual police records. The title character is a brutish killer at large in Manhattan and along the Hudson River. Much of film was shot in the dark, partly to sustain its melodramatic mood and partly to disguise its cheap sets. Ruth Stonehouse, the biggest "name" in picture, was given surprisingly little to do. The critical assessment of The Ape boiled down to "five reels of much scurrying about for no particular reason." The film was produced at the old Triangle Studios in Riverdale, New York, which in happier days had housed the likes of Mack Sennett and Douglas Fairbanks Sr"
 The only other bit of information that I have been able to muster up is that, if the filmographies at the IMDB are to be believed, this movie just about killed the careers of everyone involved: Beverly C. Rule never directed again; Gladys Walton didn't appear in another film for 20 years, until 1948's The Red Shoes, and even then she was uncredited; Ruth Stonehouse acted in only one more film, The Devil's Cage from the same year; Basil Wilson's first and last credited role was in The Ape, although he appeared as an uncredited gangster in 1935's Behind the Evidence; and Bradley Barker acted only one more time, in 1928's Inspiration.

This movie is not to be confused with the 1940 Boris Karloff vehicle The Ape, the 1976 King Kong ripoff A*P*E*, or the unlikely 2005 comedy The Ape which paired James Franco with a man in a gorilla suit.

On October 25, 1928, La chute de la maison Usher (Fall of the House of Usher) was released to French theaters.  This version of the 1839 Edgar Allan Poe short story was adapted by Jean Epstein and Luis Buñuel, and starred Jean Debucourt and Marguerite Gance as Sir Roderick Usher and Madeleine Usher respectively. 

This wasn't the only adaptation of the story released in 1928.  At some unspecified point, the 13-minute short The Fall of the House of Usher was released, this time directed by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber.  It's a surreal and bizarre take on the tale that utilizes dozens of camera tricks within its short running time, and can be viewed as a love letter to German Expressionism.

November 4, 1928 saw the premiere of  Benjamin Christensen's The Haunted House, based on the stage play by Owen Davis.  It revolved around a group of people who were heirs to a fortune, forced to spend the night in a haunted house in order to get their hands on the inheritance (a plot used many times over in these Old Dark House thrillers).  The cast of creepy characters included a mad doctor, a sleepwalker, and a gorgeous nurse.  The entirety of the haunting was a hoax, of course, in an effort to decide who the rightful heir was.  The original print ad stated, "YOU'LL SHIVER WITH SUSPENSE AND SHAKE WITH LAUGHTER AT THIS MASTER MYSTERY!"  Whether that claim was true or not, the world may never know.  This film is presumed lost.

On November 24, 1928, Tod Browning's West of Zanzibar was released.  Lon Chaney stars as Flint, otherwise known as Dead-Legs, a wheelchair bound sociopath and former stage magician who sets up his own kingdom deep in the jungle, utilizing his skills of prestidigitation to control the natives.  Kidnapping the offspring of his former lover and his most-hated enemy (an ivory trader played by Lionel Barrymore), Flint places her in a brothel to be raised by the ladies, turns her into an alcoholic, and then reintroduces this thoroughly used up woman to her father--a truly patient method of revenge.

West of Zanzibar was based on the stage play Kongo, which was quite popular at the time.  It was remade under its original title in 1932, with Walter Huston in the role of Dead-Legs.

At some unspecified point in 1929, the Old Dark House mystery-comedy Seven Footprints to Satan was released.  Based on the novel by Abraham Merritt and adapted by Benjamin Christensen, this movie follows a romantic couple in search of a missing gem, who find themselves trapped in the home of a strange man named Satan.  The house is populated by a number of bizarre characters, and the adventure pushes them to the brink of insanity--despite the fact that it all turned out to be a hoax.

This First-National release was filmed both as a silent (according to An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films by Carlos Clarens, the last silent horror film before talkies completely took over), and as a partial-talkie with sound effects and musical score.  Long believed to be lost, a lone print of the silent version turned up in Europe with Italian inter-titles.  Avid collectors have finally been able to set their eyes upon this movie, but it has yet to see a major re-release to the public.

On April 28, 1929, it would seem that Christensen struck again with The House of Horror.  From what I have been able to gather, the director took plot elements from both his previous works The Haunted House and Seven Footprints to Satan, and then combined them to form an all new film.  A brother and sister are summoned to New York by a mysterious stranger to visit their Uncle Abner, who lives in a spooky house with an assortment of odd characters--including two youngsters who are in search of a missing diamond.  Sound familiar?  It may be that Christensen was being derivative, or it may be that there is a jumble of confusion associated with these particular films.  To further confuse things, an alternate title for The House of Horror is listed as The Haunted House, and the tag-line ("You'll Shiver With Laughter! You'll Shake With Suspense!") is a variation of the one attached to that previous film.  I've seen it stated that these three titles comprise a trilogy, which could explain the similarities in theme, but none of the characters seem to carryover from one to the next.  As this film is also assumed lost (although a number of sound discs are said to have survived at the UCLA Film and Television Archives), much of this is probably just speculation and it may never truly be sorted out.

April 27, 1928 saw the release of The Man Who Laughs, an adaptation of the 1869 Victor Hugo novel directed by Paul Leni (who had previously directed 1927's The Cat and the Canary).  The story revolves around Gwynplaine, a boy who is sentenced to disfigurement after offending the king, and his face is surgically scarred to permanently resemble a manic grin.  Gwynplaine, now a homeless wanderer, discovers a blind baby girl that has been abandoned by her parents, and the two grow up together after being taken in by a swindler who uses Gwynplaine's disfigurement to earn a living.  Although this film may technically be seen as a romantic melodrama, there are enough dark and morbid plot points that it has been embraced by horror fans.

Conrad Veidt plays the fully-grown Gwynplaine.  It is said that he was originally chosen by the head of Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle, to play the title role in 1931's Dracula which was to be directed by Paul Leni, but the jobs ended up going to Bela Lugosi and Tod Browning respectively. His most famous role was probably that of Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942), but even those who have not seen that film know him in a roundabout way:  Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, copied Veidt's appearance in 1928's The Man Who Laughs as the basis for the homicidal villain The Joker. This was one of the few versions of the character that Heath Ledger studied when bringing the Joker to life on the big screen for 2008's The Dark Knight--one of the biggest movies of all time.

For more rictus grin genre fun, fans should seek out William Castle's great Mr. Sardonicus (1961).

Un Chien Adalou was released on June 6, 1929.  Although the title translates to "An Andalusian Dog", it is almost universally known by its original French title.  While not a horror film, but rather a surrealistic piece of short cinema by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, it does contain some truly horrific imagery--most notoriously, a woman's eyeball being sliced by a straight razor (the startling effect was actually created through some clever camera work and the eye of a dead donkey).  It has been stated that this was the birth of the film making style used in most modern music videos, and it could also been seen as a precursor to the mini-film-within-a-film contained on the cursed video tape from Ringu and its myriad remakes and sequels.

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