By Francis X. Friel, The Projectionist
Part One: The Silent Era
I’ve loved silent movies and Universal monsters since I was little. Growing up in Philly in the early and mid-80s, every Saturday morning I’d get up at around 5am and run downstairs to watch TV. There would always been some weird old movies on, or, even better, reruns of Fractured Flickers. I’d see the clips and iconic images from so many classic silent films before I’d ever see the whole movies, and those became burned into my brain and are still with me today. They feel like part of my childhood in ways that all the ridiculous cartoons and kids shows never could. Even things like Muppet Babies would occasionally incorporate scenes from these old movies. It was like the early 80s were some kind of last gasp where creators were using all their silent influences to entertain children. Children! That shit would just never fly today.
A lot of that has to do with the advent of VHS. For the first time, everyone was able to finally watch all these movies in their own homes, and licensing prints probably became a much different business for TV stations that it had been in the past. Things were now easier to come by, so throwing all this stuff out there was worth a try. Past generations had also grown up on silent horror films but they were, for the most part, relegated to late night features on local stations. But for a kid in the 80s, silent movies seemed to be everywhere. And the old Universal Horror stuff were always the ones I looked forward to the most, even before I knew the difference.
This fall, Moviejawn will be bringing you our 95-year look back at Universal Horror. This is a project that’s been on the Moviejawn back-burner for years now, and I’m finally just throwing down and seeing where this goes. It’s exciting and daunting, digging through all these movies and trying to find the connective threads, tracing the history of a studio through its most famous - and sometimes most tortured - productions. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman and all the rest of the “famous monsters of filmland” will be featured heavily, but we’ll also be looking at all the other entries in the Universal Horror Canon, from the Inner Sanctum Mysteries to the Monster Rally films to the 50s weirdo sci-fi features to the modern remakes and toppled so-called Dark Universe. This week we’ll be covering the Silent Era, starting with what’s still one of most iconic cinematic experiences of all time, Wallace Worsley’s 1923 The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
So, first things first, here. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not about a poor, put-upon hunchback who people treat like a monster but is really a good-hearted, misunderstood guy. He’s a total dick! But he’s smart and looks out for his own people. But he’s also tricked into doing some fucked-up shit because of his loyalty to those people. He’s a complicated dude!
Opening on the steps of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in the fifteenth century, we see the people celebrating in the streets. It’s obvious from the opening shots that Universal is pulling out all the stops for this thing, with huge, elaborate sets and a cast of thousands. It’s also their first film to establish the studio’s obsession with gothic settings and themes to set the tone for their horror productions. Quasimodo, Esmeralda and the rest fit right into this world and the focus on revolution and the power of the state are clear from the start. While the characters are working to fight the reigning power of the king, they are also quick to reorganize themselves into similar organizations of top-down supremacy. This extends also to the film’s treatment of women, as Esmeralda is very much a character in her own right while still being seen by everyone else in the film as a prize to be won, with the “gypsies,” as they’re called by the film, frantically trying to “save” her from what they believe is her corruption by the other side. It’s here that Quasimodo himself is drawn into his most unsympathetic act and takes part in her kidnapping before joining forces with her in their joint attempt to topple their oppressors.
Even while all that is going on, though, the film itself is known today more for its incredible sense of time and place. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a true epic, creating its world in no time at all and using that power to influence the entire future history of horror.
One thing I want to talk about here is the notion of “how” to watch a silent movie. Films like this one, which has been screened to death and cut and chopped up for TV and public domain video and DVD releases can be iffy when it comes to how each print will actually look. My first exposure to this - and a lot of silent films - would’ve been on TV, where they used whatever shitty prints they had available and were never really all that interested in how silent films looked, since they were old and for many years it was simply accepted that films from the past just looked like garbage. You grow up getting used to the way these movies are projected or run at the wrong speed, usually looking sped up to the point where you can’t even trust the running times from print to print. Now that most of these classics are available on blu ray or have had brand new prints struck on film (or DCP), modern audiences can see them the way they were meant to look. But just like the way a lot of us watched so many movies for the first time on video and remember them having that grainy, pan and scan look, seeing them again for the first time either on blu or on the big screen can be revelatory. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is available on a few different blu ray releases, and both Kino and Criterion have put out a number of silent horror releases. But that doesn’t mean the “bad” way is the “wrong” way. That’s how they look in my mind. You can clean them up, you can correct the speed, you can restore the color-tinting when applicable, but these are still the movie we grew up with. It’s indeed amazing to see them looking clear and clean and unedited for the first time, but I still appreciate the video releases.
More than anything, though, I just love sitting and watching these movies. It feels so good! Right away I’m right back in my living room at five in the morning, or on my grandparents’ floor in front of the TV after school watching their VHS copies. These movies feel like home to me. When I’m talking about “movies,” I’m talking about these movies.
Producer and Universal studio head Carl Laemmle knew what he had in Lon Chaney, making him their biggest and most advertised star before Karloff came around. He was a master at his craft, particularly in his own inventive style of makeup effects, which he brought back for Rupert Julian in 1925 for The Phantom of the Opera. It’s almost impossible today to overstate the influence of this production on cinema as a whole, with the story itself getting many more remakes (even one less than twenty years later by Universal). Phantom was the perfect showcase for what Universal was capable of at the time, utilizing even more intricate sets based on the real Paris Opera House and even incorporating some pretty stunning German Expressionist techniques in the catacombs sequences.
How bonkers is it that this is a movie that’s held up for nearly the last century? More than Hunchback, Phantom is straight-up scary at times, embodying the concept of a “horror movie” better than probably anything else of the era, at least for an American studio picture. It’s also a major testament to what a great adaptation can do, condensing and reorganizing the narrative of Gaston Leroux’s novel into something almost otherworldly. The images of the Phantom skulking through the sewers and his eventual announcing of himself at the Bal Masque - not to mention the famous unmasking scene - are all-timers, on par with anything in cinema history. It’s the yellow brick road, Kane on stage, and more powerful than any of those for how striking and unreal the film really is. And as much as the production design, costumes, and cinematography all create the atmosphere that makes the film, this is the Lon Chaney show all the way. As Laemmle said in pre-production, “It’s Lon Chaney or it can’t be done.” Even before his face is shown onscreen, the Phantom’s energy and presence drive the film. As Erik, aka The Phantom, Chaney is inhabiting one of a long line of angry, bitter old fucks that became his specialty. Banished to the catacombs and cast off by society, Erik lives to screw around with people, haunting the Opera house and turning himself into a legend to be feared and whispered about. But then he hears the voice of Christine, and gets some ideas about Faust in his head, and… hooooo boy. The Phantom is a dark twisted creature, a romantic at heart but with the ideology of serial killer. Like I said, Classic Chaney. Obviously, he decides he has to start killing people.
I can’t even imagine what audiences thought when they saw Phantom for the first time. I know that my first time, around age five or six, I just about lost my mind. I was beside myself with terror. I remember having nightmares, I would close my eyes and I’d see the Phantom in his Red Death mask, spinning around to stare at me. This went on for years, by the way. Why was I allowed to watch that shit? Why was it on TV at five in the morning when little kids were trying to watch cartoons?!?! What is wrong with adults?? Eh, ya know what? Fuck it. I’m glad I saw it. I’m glad I had nightmares. I’m glad I ended up learning to draw skulls from watching that scene. I’m happy for everything this movie is and was and will be to people in the future. They’re gonna be projecting this fucker onto those Minority Report full-room holo-screens one day. The Red Death will walk right out of the shot and spin around and stare you down. Just wait. When does Minority Report take place? The 2050s I think? It’s 2018 now. Not far off. Wait for it.
Yes! Here we GO. The Cat and the Canary is one of the most cinematically innovative and playful of the early Universal jawns. It uses tinted frames, long lenses, animated inter-titles, double-exposures and more, to tell the simplest story of the bunch in this round. Basically it’s a chamber drama revolving around a will. Opening with a sort of weird fever-dream-type sequence that would be re-used years later in Bride of Frankenstein (and was already borrowed here, but used to its best effect in my opinion), we see the death of Uncle Cyrus and his will about to be read twenty years later. All his nieces and nephews have gathered to see what the old man left for them, but they’re in for some bullshit because get a load of this: there’s an escaped lunatic in the house! And people are being stalked! And maybe it’s one of them!! So they all spend the night in the big dark scary house where all this horsin’ off is going down just to get a little cash from their goofy old dead uncle.
This was the first of Paul Leni’s Universal horror films and probably still the most-seen. He’d made Waxworks back in Germany (a perfect film, by the way) and Laemmle flew him straight over and plopped him down in the director’s chair to start work right away, leading to a great relationship that led to a few more films for Universal before he dropped dead of “blood poisoning” at the age of forty-four. That’s fucked!
The Cat and the Canary was, strangely, marketed as a comedy in some places (it’s really funny, but definitely closer to straight horror than comedy) and even later remade as an absolutely unwatchable piece of shit starring Bob Hope, who starred in his fair share of unwatchable poo piles. But this here original is the real deal. Just like all these movies, and despite what I might’ve put forth earlier, I’d suggest seeing this one on as big a screen as possible, from the best available print. It’s on YouTube and all but, honestly, the shots and cinematography and overall trickery of this thing deserve the best experience you can give yourself. At least rent the blu ray if you have the means. You’ll love it. Or watch it on an old beat-up VHS. This one is kinda one or the other, since a lot of the DVD and online prints I’ve seen are real blocky with hard-to-read titles. Find the KINO release if you can. It’s the best one I’ve seen.
Leni’s next film for Laemmle was The Man Who Laughs starring Conrad Veidt, definitely the weirdest of the silent bunch. It’s about an early eighteenth century travelling circus that features a freak show headlined by Gwynplaine, a man with an horrifying grin carved into his face. HIs father had been sentenced to death by torture chamber for refusing to kiss the king’s ring, and Gwynplaine’s grin was thrown in as part of the torture bargain, so that the boy would spend his life “laughing at his fool of a father.” Wow, right? So ol’ Gwyn falls in love with the Blind Girl in the circus, Dea. I’ve watched this movie a bunch of times and I still don’t quite get what she’s even doing there. I get that she’s the baby he found in the blizzard as a young boy, but… huh ? Is “Blind Girl” a significant enough descriptor to get her a starring role in the sideshow? Were they raised as siblings but are now in love? I have so many questions. None of it really matters, though, since the overall look and feel of the entire production is bizarre in the extreme. It’s expressionism, after all. You feel it or you don’t.
Maybe the weirdest part of all is that I wouldn’t even call this strictly a horror film. It’s more of a romantic tragedy, maybe even an adventure story, but the depths of that tragedy definitely fit into the style of horror that Universal was going for at that time, that just brooding, deep dread stuff. The hopelessness of it all creates an airless, trapped feeling for almost the entire run-time of the movie. You’re almost relieved when it’s over, it gets so emotionally intense. The finale sort of lets you off the hook, becoming more action-y at the last minute, but it’s still all in service of that dark, dreary melodrama.
And one thing I didn’t mention above in the Hunchback section but that also applies here is Universal’s innovative sound design on these silent productions. On Hunchback as well as The Man Who Laughs, the soundtrack often erupts into full-on sound, with crowds cheering, laughing, music playing, animals squawking and squealing, and even characters yelling out, “Gwynplaine!” when they want him to come out on stage. It’s an amazing effect, and must’ve been pretty mind-blowing back in their day.
By the way, if you haven’t seen this movie, look at this shit:
That’s ridiculous! Obviously, this movie inspired / created The Joker. What it didn’t inspire, though, was a lifetime of nightmares inside my head, since I was lucky enough to not have seen this one until I was in my early twenties. This is exactly the kind of shit I would not have been able to handle as a little kid. I can barely handle it now. By the way, someone needs to put out a blu ray edition of this movie as soon as possible because the original KINO DVD is out of print and is like three hundred goddam dollars online. That’s stupid. Give me the blu ray, please.
Recently I’ve been going through really intense mouth pain. I have a series of chronic illnesses, both physical and psychiatric, and they all kind of come together and gang up on me when I get bad bouts of either a) depression, or b) gum disease flare-ups. My gums are fucked. It’s not my fault. My family (one side anyway) has a history of weird dental issues. I’m told by high-paid devil-worshiping dentists that I need to have all my teeth removed and get dentures installed in my goddam mouth asap. But I have no money, so about once or twice a year I’m just laid up with brain-melting, suicidal pain. Since North Carolina is an area with a high rate of opiate addiction and also since I have no insurance, it’s really hard to get prescriptions for painkillers so I have to make due with antibiotics (which I got a significantly reduced price thanks to a pharmacist who took mercy on me) and a mixture of over the counter pain meds. But on top of that, this time I also tried out some relatively harmless but also borderline-illegal stuff which I won’t mention here but that absolutely fucking worked. But something about the combo of all this stuff plus not eating made me wake up one afternoon just tripping my fucking face off. It actually took me a little while to realize what was happening. I had a conversation (more like an understanding) with a balloon and made out with a floating geometrical shape that kept freezing and moving depending on whether I had my eyes opened or closed. I also caught myself moving and freezing. I think. It was very weird, and didn’t last long, but rest assured it was awful once I realized I was high, cause then I just started feeling nauseated again and my stomach turned into a rock.
The Last Performance, the 1929 Paul Fejos film where Conrad Veidt is an evil stage magician who might be trying to murder fucking everybody, is very much what it’s like to be living with unbearable pain while accidentally getting high as shit and not even know how it happened. It starts out as a typically gorgeous Fejos joint, taking us into the world of Erik the Great and the love of his life, played by Mary Philbin (again!) - and it’s a strange one. This is almost one of those movies that has to be seen to be believed, and I don’t want to spoil too much because I feel like not everyone has seen this one yet. It’s experimental, hallucinatory, and radical all while being as simple as can be, narratively. It’s also super short, running about 70 minutes, and wastes no time setting everything up before cracking itself open and getting about as dark as any studio film of the 1920s.
At the end of the decade, Universal, like most other studios, were heading into the sound era. The Movietone prints of their silent films weren’t cutting it any more and their productions became fully loaded with sync sound and a much different feel to their next decade. The 1930s would see the release of their most famous films and would introduce audiences to the Universal Monsters.
In Part Two, we’ll get into the first wave of Monster Movies, starting with the full runs of Dracula and Frankenstein titles. Until then, Watch More Movies. I’ll be at home thinking about that scene from Cast Away where Tom Hanks uses a rusty ice skate and a rock to knock his own teeth out.