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Fantasy Noir III

Here’s fun: a Boris Karloff-focused addition to my ongoing corpus of Fantasy Noir! (Previous entries can be found here and here.) To keep things interesting, I’ve written on five atypical Karloff films. So there’s a Universal horror that doesn’t feature Frankenstein’s Monster or the Mummy; two Val Lewton pictures that aren’t called The Body Snatcher (great masterpiece that it is). There’s also a performance of the sixties that’s seldom discussed (it’s usually Targets that gets the attention); and a pre-stardom performance of the twenties that’s often forgotten entirely.

Something that strikes me about these films is that they all have exalted sources: some theatrical (Shakespeare’s Histories, Sir Henry Irving’s legendary star vehicle), some artistic (an etching by Hogarth, a painting by Bocklin), some literary (Edgar Allan Poe). I’ll be thinking about how Karloff’s relation to these sources illuminates his contribution to each film.

THE BELLS (dir. James Young, 1926)

The Bells (1926)

Sir Henry Irving was the horror star of the Victorian theatre. In his residency at the Lyceum, he gave new life to such immortal nasties as Louis XI, Richard III, Iago, Macbeth and Mephistopheles. Yet Irving’s most celebrated villain was his first: Mathias in The Bells. Lionel Barrymore takes Mathias here, and gives a blissfully unaffected performance, worlds removed from his stooping and grimacing schtick in Mark of the Vampire (1935). Meanwhile, Karloff’s destiny is hinted at, dimly, in his role as the Mesmerist. The character offers glimmers of later Karloff performances. The Mesmerist’s grin resembles that of Cabman Gray in The Body Snatcher (1945): an intrusive, skin-crawling leer, injecting Karloff’s dour visage with perverse energy. Having Karloff practice hypnosis also points the way to such films as The Mummy (1932), Black Friday (1940) and The Climax (1944). On the whole, though, the Mesmerist illustrates what Karloff feared his role in Frankenstein (1931) would become: a human prop. There are few actors better suited to this reduction than Karloff – such was his organic appeal – but it can hardly have been satisfying for the actor. The Bells ultimately makes for flat cinema. Paradoxically, the special effects scenes with the ghost make The Bells seem more old-fashioned, bringing to mind George Melies trick films and early versions of A Christmas Carol. There’s also a courtroom-bound dream sequence, reminiscent of Stranger on the 3rd Floor (1940) but with none of the later film’s visual flair. The interest of The Bells is as a historical crossroads. It reflects the shadow that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) cast on the American cinema: Werner Krauss’s image is dusted off for Karloff’s dark hat and cloak, round spectacles and straggly sideburns. But the film also looks to the horror boom of the early thirties, and particularly its Karloff-centric progress at Universal. The Bells anticipates the pastoral idyll of Universal’s European village, with its gingerbread houses, frolicking peasant girls and stony-faced gendarmes. One wonders if James Whale drew on his theatre background, and studied The Bells before directing Frankenstein.

TOWER OF LONDON (dir. Rowland V. Lee, 1939)

Tower of London (1939)

Tower of London sheds light on a distinctive quality of Universal’s horror films: the sympathetic monster. Karloff here plays Mord, formidable chief executioner. Yet Mord emerges as sympathetic – he has nothing on Basil Rathbone’s Richard III, a wholly heartless monster. This is clearest in the sequence in which Rathbone plots the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Rathbone’s coldness and premeditation is chilling, as he decides how best to destroy Queen Elizabeth: ‘But I can crush her spirit for all time; take the young princes to the Bloody Tower…’ The only previous child killing (then as now, a great taboo) in the Universal canon had been the Monster’s drowning of Little Maria in Frankenstein. Thanks to Karloff’s human touch, this emerged as the blithe mistake of an innocent. Tower of London is more brutal. There’s a memorably absurd touch when Karloff enters the bed-chamber, gingerly picking up his club foot to prevent a noise. But it’s Karloff’s troubled, uncertain facial expressions that linger in the memory. Even Mord knows this is beyond the pale. This contrast between characters is the hidden treasure in this confused and confusing film. Karloff’s Mord is a cartoon villain, a baddie out of a serial. His appeal to Richard is comically sincere: ‘Your Highness, let me go with you. I’ve never killed in hot blood. It’ll be different, more exciting!’ Mord’s introduction in the torture chamber is like something out of Mel Brooks; Mord would have been perfect for the Inquisition number in History of the World: Part I (1981). Best of all is the scene in which a prisoner flops out of an iron maiden, Mord stepping over the body without batting an eye. Karloff is an outrageous figure throughout Tower of London; Rathbone is the real monster. This effect is aided by the fact that Richard III was, of course, a real figure – despite his propagandistic mangling by Shakespeare, Richard’s murder of the Princes remains a very real possibility. Mord, however, is entirely fictional. In one crucial sense, Tower of London is less biased than Shakespeare’s Histories. Richard III’s patina of deformity has been transferred to Mord: Karloff is physically distinguished by an outsize club foot and bald, beetle-browed visage, while Rathbone coasts by with a barely perceptible hunch. Tower of London is the unprecedented juncture at which Universal horror met real-world history. Its unconvincing recreation of medieval England – all California sunlight, muddled accents and pervasive cleanliness – is more than redeemed by its illumination of the horror cycle.

ISLE OF THE DEAD (dir. Mark Robson, 1945)

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Isle of the Dead has a Conradian atmosphere. Karloff’s General Pherides recalls Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, particularly in his early scenes – a stoic man on the fields of battle, presiding over the dead and dying. Joseph Conrad was Karloff’s favourite author, so it’s likely the comparisons didn’t entirely escape him. Karloff’s performance sounds a note of deep, seemingly unending melancholy. It’s an effect comparable to his Ardath Bey in The Mummy, but with a more realistic grounding. Isle of the Dead as a whole has a shaded, textured quality – most impressive given its stagebound nature and limited budget. A viewer can imagine innumerable horrors lurking in the shrubbery, just as in surveying Bocklin’s painting (or in reading Heart of Darkness). Less ideal is the density of the dialogue scenes: they seem never to stop, and don’t entirely negotiate the distinction between compelling obfuscation and directionless tedium. The viewing experience is much like staring into a dark and murky pool: atmospheric, but often frustrating. This extends to Karloff’s character, who is forced to jump from cold rationalism to prone belief in the supernatural. The best lesson that can be drawn from this is that any extremist position is dangerous: ‘Laws can be wrong and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are also wrong and cruel.’ Perhaps this theme simply isn’t dramatic enough for a forties horror film: Pherides pales besides Karloff’s full-blooded creations in The Body Snatcher and Bedlam (1946), two screenplays which hinge on a more simplistic clash between characters. The character is under-fleshed, so Karloff compensates by projecting an outsize melancholy (wonderfully complemented, it must be said, by Leigh Harline’s criminally overlooked musical score). In addition to Conrad, Isle of the Dead borrows from Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial’ for its ending. The film’s shaded expansiveness thus dwindles into claustrophobia. It’s this climax, the most purely frightening sequence in forties horror, that rescues Isle of the Dead at the eleventh hour.

BEDLAM (dir. Mark Robson, 1946)

Bedlam (1946)

Like Tower of London, Bedlam fits into the discreet subgenre of historical horror. It has some of the flaws of its forbear: Billy House, for example, plays Lord Mortimer with voluptuous zeal, but remains irrepressibly Yankee. Yet Bedlam has a heart and a soul that make it one of the most moving horrors of its time. Master George Sims, Apothecary General of Bedlam, ranks with Karloff’s most genuinely hateful characters. This is very appropriate; Sims adopts hatred as a personal creed, which breaks forth in some tremendous dialogue: ‘This was to show you that all those mawkish theories you learned from the Quaker are lies. Men are not brothers, men are not born good and kind. Even the mindless ones are savage and must be ruled with force … The others – yes, you can prove the little value of gentleness. But look at this man. Look at him and tell me that kind words and tender deeds can rule him. Look!’ The premature burial of Isle of the Dead is resurrected for Karloff’s fate, but twisted to include the brick wall of Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’. It’s a fitting send-off for one of his most vivid monsters. Not since his days at Universal had Karloff’s physical individuality been so lovingly (and grotesquely) underscored. His period wig gives a touch of foppish vanity, making Karloff’s close-cut grey hair seem scrubby and parched – less natural than the wig that covers it. Karloff’s bowed legs appear impossibly twisted in his black breeches and stockings and cane, causing his entire frame to crook forwards. Karloff also does much with his face, exploiting its natural doleful melancholy to great effect: there’s a sideways leer at Anna Lee, as he first guides her into Bedlam’s inner sanctum, which is unforgettably sinister. These picaresque details suit Sims’ role as performing monkey for the aristocracy. For fear is at the bottom of Sims’ cruelties, which gives rein to the old Karloff humanity: ‘I’ve had to fawn and toady and make a mock of myself till all I could hear was the world laughing at me!’ Bedlam is one of the best screenplays that Karloff ever worked with. His sparring matches with Anna Lee – his costar from the similarly intelligent The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936) – are a real joy. There’s every chance that they capture the spark that Karloff had with Julie Harris in The Lark on Broadway, for which he earned a Tony nomination.

THE RAVEN (dir. Roger Corman, 1963)

The Raven (1963)

The Raven is AIP’s version of The Sword in the Stone. Specifically, the Walt Disney version. Both pictures feature a surly comedy bird, but their key similarity is one of tone: a gleefully campy vision of wizardry, which seemed only to exist in California in 1963. Karloff’s role as Dr Scarabus at least proves he had a sense of humour – although, by all accounts, he was rather perturbed by the non-stop ad-libbing from Peter Lorre. This may account for Karloff’s oddly stilted delivery, a heightened version of the sing-song ‘acting voice’ identified by his daughter Sara Karloff. At first, this seems likes fuel for the old argument that Karloff walked through vehicles for which he had no respect. Early-career Karloff had no qualms about overplaying the patently absurd, as testified by The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and The Invisible Ray (1936). Karloff’s performance may have more to do with fashioning a legend in one’s own lifetime. For better or for worse, late-career Karloff had only to turn up on set to fulfil his professional obligations. He had nothing left to prove, and had proven so much. Only one truly great performance lay on the horizon, in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968). And that was probably his only noteworthy film performance since the 1958 companion pieces Grip of the Strangler and Corridors of Blood. Happily, Karloff’s light touch works rather well in The Raven: he’s fawning, doddering, sincerely sarcastic, and altogether hilarious. The Raven is a slip-shod, patchwork film; hard to dislike, but unworthy of respect. It’s a film that returns to the viewer as a series of surreal ‘moments’: Peter Lorre summoning his Promethean magic, only to be transformed into ‘raspberry jam!’; Vincent Price mugging beneath a frilly umbrella, to incredibly camp underscoring; Jack Nicholson looking altogether lost with his more modern acting style. The Raven transports the viewer back to a simpler age, when wizardry was no longer regarded as diabolic but was yet to be claimed by Harry Potter. The wizard’s duel defies all explanation; connoisseurs of the weird should seek The Raven out on this basis alone.

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Fantasy Noir II

I so enjoyed writing the last entry on the nascent subgenre of fantasy noir that I’ve compiled a sequel. So much of what drives my writing is the fanatical belief that most of my time is squandered, wasted, frittered away. Prizing up these decaying films consumes such a lot of my time that it’s refreshing to convert it into something of substance. Here, then, is the next kaleidoscope of uncanny cinema. Points of focus include theological uncertainty, coded colour, and, surprisingly often, new beginnings.

FAUST (dir. F. W. Murnau, 1926)

Faust (1926)

Images are central to my relationship with acting – and cinema, at its best, is a treasure-house of images. Murnau’s Faust is a film in which unforgettable acting and images converge. This is largely due to Emil Jannings’ matchless performance as Mephisto. Jannings, later a star of Nazi propaganda films, is a difficult man to love; the Wagner of silent cinema. Yet there’s no denying his visual majesty as an actor. His Satan goes through three distinct incarnations, beating out Pazuzu in The Exorcist (1973) by half a century. There’s the bewinged, blackened demon of the opening – very similar to Chernabog in Fantasia (1940), as it looms over the plague-stricken village. There’s the filthy peasant – a mud-spattered, pedlar-like figure – and finally the more natty Mephisto in black silks. All are exquisite: nightmare beings who stand with Max Schreck’s Count Orlok and Lon Chaney’s Phantom as the silent cinema’s finest grotesques. In its live-action visualisation of demonic forces, Faust‘s only serious rival is Häxan (1922), Benjamin Christensen’s wild and woolly ‘Witchcraft through the Ages’. Christensen, however, fashions a Boschian nightmare of oppressive, unrelenting darkness, in which the Devil’s only serious rival is Freudian pseudo-psychology. Murnau’s demons gain by their relationship with the forces of light. The opening clash of Angel and Devil, sweeping away the skeletal spectres of the Four Horsemen, is Miltonic in the best sense. There’s no doubt a salient point here about silent cinema being nothing other than the clash of light and dark. But Murnau’s visual instincts are also thoroughly medieval, creating a sense of primary sources; one can imagine Milton taking in Faust before composing Paradise Lost. The out-of-the-kit trickery of the magic carpet ride is a perfect example: you know you’re looking at miniatures, but they’re exquisite for their unreality. Like a cathedral reaching for the heavens, Murnau’s film is a non-reality (or unprovable reality) breathtakingly visualised.

DOCTOR X (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1932)

Doctor X (1932)

A bafflingly weird film, this – on several counts. There’s one of the most disturbing scenes of the thirties: an achingly long sequence in which the killer applies lumps of repulsive ‘synthetic flesh’ to his head – which resolve, bit by bit, into a horribly scarred new face. There’s also the two-strip Technicolor, which accentuates the film’s sickly atmosphere by granting it the caste of toxic waste. Even elements that were hackneyed in 1932 seem otherworldly today: Gothic mansions, lightning storms, hooded maniacs, mad scientists with fitting laboratories and skeletons in cupboards (furthermore, the climax seems to be drawn from Paris’s Grand Guignol). These stock horror components prove strangely refreshing, confirming the power of these archetypal films. The screenplay is drawn from one of the long line of ‘old dark house’ thrillers that stormed Broadway in the twenties. Other mythic titles from this period include The Bat, The GorillaThe Cat and the Canary, and, of course, Dracula. Although Doctor X (1932) has never had a remake, its immortality was confirmed by Richard O’Brien’s lyric in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): ‘Science fiction double feature / Doctor X will build a creature…’ But despite Doctor X‘s peerless weirdness, the careers of its principal creatives became steadily more conventional. Doctor X crowned Lionel Atwill as the most perverse of Hollywood’s horror actors, paving the way for such kinkily suggestive classics as The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax MuseumMurders in the Zoo (all 1933), and, best of all, Son of Frankenstein (1939). It’s a far cry from Atwill’s sad final roles – inevitably consigned to dishwater-dull red herrings and interchangeable police inspectors in such Universals as Night Monster (1942) and House of Dracula (1945). Director Michael Curtiz did rather better, eventually graduating to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942). He never returned to the spook-house seediness of this melting-pot movie; its sister film, Mystery of the Wax Museum, is comparatively streamlined. Doctor X shines as a beacon of weirdness for Atwill and Curtiz alike: an artefact that could only have existed for a couple of months in the early thirties.

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (dir. Alexander Hall, 1941)

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) invites comparison with Portrait of Jennie (1948) as a thought-provoking supernatural fantasy – dwelling gently, even elegiacally, on the nature of mortality. Portrait of Jennie, however, is no comedy. Here Comes Mr. Jordan reminds me a little of Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man (1999) in its tonal confusion: part brain-free hilarity, part intense fatalistic brooding. Their plots are also similar: a man is forced through multiple changes of body, eventually gaining a deeper humanity, but reaching no easy answers about the place of the soul. It seems likely that contemporary audiences were hardened to such questions: it may have been the background presence of the Second World War that reduced Here Comes Mr. Jordan to a basically unthreatening screwball fairytale. Still, it’s hard not to be perplexed by a film that treats bathtub-based homicide and hiding a corpse in an icebox with such light-hearted ease – and then, in only a wink, have the protagonists stare into each other’s eyes and fall in love with each other’s souls. But maybe in that sense, the film has its priorities right: it’s the purity of the spirit that matters, not the ravages done to the body. Quite a few bodies contribute to this film’s appeal. Claude Rains is predictably splendid, and his unreadable, cat-like facial arrangements keep the story’s secrets locked tight. His role as God is an amusing balance to his part as the Devil in Angel on My Shoulder (1946) – another theologically knotted fantasy, in which Rains delivers the immortal line ‘What in my domain is that?’ It’s curious to find Edward Everett Horton playing a character other than a butler – although his function as Rains’ prissy underling ensures he remains butler in spirit. And fortunately, there’s also Halliwell Hobbes, that other eternal butler (and unrecognisable from 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), on hand for regular duties. There’s a great charm to this film, and a sweetness that seems sincere, but also an imbalance in its secular, no-nonsense, not-quite-Christian doctrine. Here Comes Mr. Jordan wasn’t built to be analysed so coldly – but such analysis does keep it fascinating.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (dir. Terence Fisher, 1957)

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The first of the Hammer Gothics; a cracking film. It’s some sort of heresy, but I’ve always preferred The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) to the (justly) vaunted Hammer Dracula (1958). The traditional argument is that Dracula was Hammer coming to full, bloody fruition; The Curse of Frankenstein, by contrast, shows Hammer holding back a bit, not quite certain what they’ve gotten hold of. It might be that modicum of restraint that leaves me preferring The Curse of Frankenstein. There’s a veneer of elegance to the film – a pokiness, a staginess, a gloss, a polish – that threatens at all times to give way. The film’s colour scheme rarely strays beyond light pastels. Yet there are intermittent flashes of red: from laboratory beakers and electrical pulses, from carefully painted leaves and lurid splashes of blood. The film enters Nicolas Roeg territory at times, anticipating Don’t Look Now (1973) by sixteen years. As with The Body Snatcher (1945), there’s the positive sense that ninety percent of The Curse of Frankenstein would work as a taut and tense stage play: the literate script (clever without drawing attention to itself) and marvellous supporting cast (even the dog is good!) make it so. Given that Hammer’s decline came when they went full-frontal – with sadism, gore and nubile peasant girls – there’s much to be said for The Curse of Frankenstein‘s frosty British reserve. This finds its truest expression in Peter Cushing’s peerless performance as Baron Victor Frankenstein. I’ve long thought that Peter Cushing was the single best thing about Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948). The Curse of Frankenstein cements Cushing’s reputation as the Olivier of horror. In my view, it’s Cushing’s best performance in the six-film series – narrowly edging out the heartless sadist found in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Taken as the sum of those six parts, Cushing’s Baron adds up to the most brilliantly conceived and realised character in all of horror cinema. It’s a sixteen-year mosaic of a genius’s decline from Byronic narcissism (The Curse of Frankenstein) to chillingly doddering insanity (in 1973’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell). And all this without mentioning Christopher Lee’s underrated, career-making turn as the Creature. The film demands to be seen.

HOUSE OF USHER (dir. Roger Corman, 1960)

House of Usher (1960)

Now that I’ve introduced the first of the Hammer Gothics, it would be remiss to ignore their American cousin: the Roger Corman Poe film. House of Usher (1960) was the first, and, in my opinion, the very best of a distinguished bunch. Each entry in the series had its highlights – the frenzied torture devices in Pit and the Pendulum (1961), the lavish photography in The Masque of the Red Death, the picturesque abbey ruins in The Tomb of Ligeia (both 1964) – but none improved on the cohesion achieved here. Corman’s style borders on the camp at times (early Hammer never did), but this gives the necessary lift to a story that would otherwise be unbelievably depressing (all but one character dies). Visually, the film is immersive, enveloping: all dark curtains, red candlesticks, bronze sculptures, and the occasional Daliesque portrait of an Usher ancestor. Even Mark Damon, an undeniably weak actor, is visually the part to perfection. Supreme among House of Usher‘s visual highlights is the dream sequence, which unfolds in incandescently colourful fogs, as the ghosts of the Usher ancestors make themselves known. As in The Curse of Frankenstein, the onslaught of colour signifies the belly of the beast; an evil undercurrent granted glorious eruption. The impact of the dream is heightened by Les Baxter’s use of a ghostly choir – in broad Halloween style, they even make little ‘woo!’ noises – a musical detail that would resurface in Tales of Terror (1962). Baxter’s lush symphonic score – littered with heraldic motifs, echoing dissonance, and heart-piercing romantic strings – is another of the film’s strengths. As Roderick Usher, Vincent Price gives the best horror performance of his career. Like the film in which it resides, its impact is profoundly sensual, perhaps taking its cue from the character’s hypersensitivity. It might best be described as syphilis personified. Price offers up a desiccated voluptuary wrapped in garish red velvet; his bleached hair and clean-shaven visage create a Price unrecognisable from the mustachioed rogue of House on Haunted Hill and The Bat (both 1959). There’s such unwavering belief in what Price does with Usher that it overshadows the tongue-in-cheek, Phibes-like villains he would play as his career progressed. As he lights his candles and plucks at the strings of a lute, one wonders at the great Shakespearean career Price might have had. (1973’s Theatre of Blood is sadly no indication.) Luckily for us, the fates sorted things differently. House of Usher is perhaps the most unheralded American horror film of the sixties.

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Fantasy Noir

In addition to passing myself off as an actor-writer – a trajectory more dependent on waiting around than bustling about – I’ve become an amateur professor of horror cinema. ‘Horror’ cinema, mind. This is instantly problematic. Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, two of horror cinema’s greatest exponents, have decried the use of the word ‘horror’ at all. Instead, they prefer the non-repulsive, non-repellant word ‘terror’. Thus does the genre move from the base physical signifier – crypts, castles, the odd limb being hacked off – and into a more purely emotional sphere. Any film that arouses uncanny feeling can enter the fray. Which is exciting, but also unhelpful; perhaps dangerously inclusive. Thus does horror fuse with science-fiction and fantasy. Everything from Alice in Wonderland (1933) to The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) becomes ripe for inclusion. Even Citizen Kane (1942) can be horror, with its decaying house on the hill.

Recently, I’ve started to regard my field as ‘dark fantasy’ – five examples of which I’ve gathered below. Coining a term – fantasy noir? – again creates confusion. After all, two of these films (The Penalty and They Drive by Night) contain no fantasy elements whatever. Yet they warrant consideration by virtue of their central performers, their art direction – their atmosphere, above all. An atmosphere that takes the viewer to the very heart of what darkness might be; that which is normally sheltered, cloistered – closed off from prying eyes and innocent sensibilities.

The dark fantasy ushers the viewer into a world of childhood terrors. I’ve found it to be a fertile imaginative stomping-ground – so I’ll be including references to other films that fit the category, even though they didn’t make the cut (this time).

THE PENALTY (dir. Wallace Worsley, 1920)

The Penalty (1920)

I’ve only seen one other Wallace Worsley film: the silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), which also starred Lon Chaney. It’s intermittently compelling, but defined by a kind of massy immobility – its largely static camera in the thrall of enormous historical landmarks. This flat, near-documentary style is much better attuned to The Penalty, a gritty trip through America’s criminal underworld. The urban settings, daringly contemporary in 1920, are now as fascinatingly alien as Medieval Paris; the beautifully textured sets have some of the grit of Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse epics. But despite these passes at verisimilitude, The Penalty is pure melodrama. The scenes with the surgeon’s daughter are as melodramatic as they come, with romantic tropes fighting for supremacy: the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ encounter of heroine and villain; a statue of Satan, plucked from Milton’s Paradise Lost; even the background of the sculptor’s workshop, betokening a gender-switch Pygmalion. Yet bringing these elements into such concentration produces a redemptive intensity. Melodrama is also what we have in Lon Chaney’s virtuoso performance as Blizzard, the criminal mastermind. Blizzard is Chaney’s inaugural displaced human being – and perhaps his most powerful. (I’m discounting Chaney’s lost turn as a contortionist in 1919’s The Miracle Man.) Chaney’s athletic stamina – folding his legs back on themselves to simulate amputation – is impressive in its own right. It’s a credit to Chaney’s genius that such pyrotechnics rarely upstage his demonstrations of Blizzard’s fractured soul. Displacement was always key to a great Chaney performance. In the depths of Blizzard’s hideout, there’s a room piled high with hats – a detail never fully explained. However: it begins to makes sense when one notes that there are no heads to fill them. And like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Chaney’s most famous character, Blizzard finds solace in music – another tantalising displacement, given that this is a silent film.

VAMPYR: DER TRAUM DES ALLAN GREY (dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr is a film I’ve grown to love on subsequent viewings – a film that’s altered the way that I think about films. My first viewing was in a terribly scratched and battered print. This can have its advantages. In the case of films such as Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie (1932), poor sound and picture quality is at one with the film’s atmospheric impact. Even restored, Vampyr unfolds like a ghastly fever dream. Scene after scene revolves around confined spaces, many apparently restful: bedrooms, beds, sickbeds – most potently of all, entrapment in a tomb or a coffin. But it’s from these confined spaces that a new view of the world is made possible. Dreyer’s subjective camera, as Allan Grey stares up out of his coffin – improbably embellished with a glass aperture – suggests that death can be seen as an ascension to a new point-of-view (an advance on Edgar Allan Poe’s one-note terror over premature burial). There is nothing linear about Vampyr, neither logically nor visually. It’s a film that exists in three dimensions. The way in which depth is instilled in an ostensibly flat screen is testament to Dreyer’s visual prowess: fog, cobwebs, flour, gauze, and, astonishingly often, windows. It’s entirely different to The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which plays like a succession of moving woodcuts, indelibly writ against spotless white backgrounds. Perhaps most importantly, Vampyr is the film that restored ghostliness to prime position in the vampire myth. I can’t wait to see it again.

THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (dir. Arthur B. Woods, 1938)

They Drive by Night (1938)

Emlyn Williams is an actor for whom I’ve often felt an affinity: an Oxbridge player of Dull (in Shakey’s Love’s Labour’s Lost), a creator of the shows in which he appeared (most famously Night Must Fall in 1937), and a tourer of one-man Dickens plays. This film came as a surprise. Williams is an unconventional romantic lead. But he is extraordinarily charismatic, and it’s refreshing to see this stocky, shortish bisexual playing a sort of Anglicised James Cagney. Another of the film’s assets is its sheltered, shadowy cinematography – oppressively dark without drawing attention to itself. This claustrophobic look is characteristic of British cinema of this period; I think particularly of the Karloff vehicle The Ghoul (1933). That film featured Ernest Thesiger as an improbably Scottish butler. And Thesiger is the key reason to seek out They Drive by Night – for his performance as Walter Hoover, the ‘Silk Stocking Murderer’. It’s very rare that an actor will successfully make my skin crawl. Thesiger, however, has managed it. Thesiger’s most famous characters are those he created for James Whale: Horace Femm in The Old Dark House (1932) and Dr Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Rightly or wrongly, his effectiveness in these roles tends to be pinned on his homosexuality. With Hoover, it’s much less distinct. If anything, the character is founded on a perverse sexlessness, compounded of a powdery age (which doesn’t seem like age at all), an excruciating intellectualism (his dubious God complex, in knowing Williams can’t be the murderer…) and Thesiger’s naturally goblin-like appearance. The last scenes are surprisingly nerve-shredding, as the viewer comes face-to-face with what gets Hoover’s blood pumping. Much more comforting is the film’s near-parodic Englishness: characters drink from what can only be described as flagons of tea in every other scene.

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (dir. William Dieterle, 1948)

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

William Dieterle is a sadly overlooked director. This may have something to do with his gift for facilitating showy acting. Dieterle’s previous dark fantasies were made by their lead performers. This is borne out in their titles: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) belongs to Charles Laughton’s peerless Quasimodo; The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) owes its heart to the superlative work of Walter Huston’s Mr Scratch and Edward Arnold’s Daniel Webster. A notable anomaly in Portrait of Jennie is that it has no title card; true to form, the film is memorable for its ensemble feel rather than one individual’s bravado. Yet a few actors linger in the memory. Ethel Barrymore is truly fantastic, and very touching as the spinster; it says volumes about the film’s universe that a character untouched by romantic love is the one who knows most about it. There’s also Lilian Gish’s cameo as the Mother Superior, in a tell-all scene reminiscent of The Uninvited (1944). It’s a nice bridge between her silent heroines and her glorious, late-career reinvention in The Night of the Hunter (1955). The memorable dashes of colour from the supporting cast suggests a world of drifting human beings who are nonetheless united by their loneliness. Dieterle gives forties New York the same awe-inspiring atmosphere as Notre Dame cathedral, which is a very welcome complement. Portrait of Jennie is a film laden with glorious surprises. The use of Debussy is tremendous, if at times a bit paint-by-numbers: ‘Nuages’ appears over oppressive shots of storm clouds; ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ is rolled out in the many discussions of Jennie (a brunette, by the way). The occasional colour is also great. The tinting in the final scenes transports the picture back to the silent Expressionist cinema in which Dieterle once acted (he was among the players in Murnau’s 1926 Faust). And the revelatory last shot of Jennie’s portrait take its cue from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), creating an unforgettable Technicolor tableau in a black-and-white universe.

INVADERS FROM MARS (dir. William Cameron Menzies, 1953)

Invaders from Mars (1953)

Following on from Portrait of Jennie, colour is used to very unsettling effect in Invaders from Mars. The film has the look of a tinted lobby card sprung to life. This is encapsulated in the recurring image of the picket fence, arched on a hill studded with pylon-like trees. Beneath is the hideout of the Martians, but it’s the fence that endures as an emblem of childhood terror. Menzies is an odd figure, but even his films of dubious quality – the preachy Things to Come (1936), the shaky Lovecraftian pastiche The Maze (1953) – are redeemed by their highly attuned visual sense. In this sense, Menzies might be regarded as the Tim Burton of early cinema: substance won mostly through style. Unsettling colour trickles down to the final scenes in the Martian stronghold. The green phosphorescence of the cavern smacks of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Meanwhile, that iconic bulging cranium, ensconced in a transparent glass bubble, resembles a flesh-and-blood version of the Wizard’s incarnation as ‘OZ… THE GREAT AND POWERFUL’. Menzies’ fence bears comparison with the truncated skylines of Cedric Gibbons’ Kansas: each designer creates an unashamedly artificial world, in which horizons seem to be limited by human constructions. Menzies’ fence also brings to mind the fence in The Night of the Hunter, which appears in silhouette as part of a child’s nightmare-torn vision. And purists (sorry: snobs) may balk at such a comparison, but Jimmy Hunt’s little David is markedly better than the children who monopolise The Night of the Hunter. David does have some characteristics of the Dickensian dwarf (John Carey’s derisive term for children who are self-sacrificing adults in disguise), but sufficient terror is created within the viewer to redeem this. There’s a bit too much talkiness, particularly towards the end – but Invaders from Mars deserves its reputation as a fantasy milestone.

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