Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources. Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier). Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.
10/13/2016 – Silent: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Directed by John S. Robertson
Let’s start things off with a confession so you can feel free to ignore the rest of this, there are very few silent films I care for. I can count on my two hands the number of silent films I’ve liked (maybe slightly more than that) and on one hand the ones I’ve really enjoyed. As I discussed earlier with Kuroneko which I praised for its largely silent segments or with films such as WALL-E which were actually better when there were no humans around to speak, it has nothing to do with that. Okay maybe a little and dialogue is an incredibly important part of film, but it owes largely to the style of acting that with few exceptions (The Passion of Joan of Arc) falls apart immediately when it comes to drama. Horror is one of the better genres at handling the silent film though as so much is conveyed through atmosphere. There’s a reason German Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosfearatu (and The Golem which I admittedly haven’t seen) have aged better than most. The design, lighting, and acting of these are the basis for much of Alfred Hitchcock and Tim Burton’s careers as well as thanks to Blade Runner like half of all modern sci-fi among other things. I mentioned before how important Universal’s films were (explicitly naming The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Man Who Laughs among silent films) and even if there sound films have been more widely copied from and influential, these first films set a clear precedent with much of the style of those sound films already readily apparent.
Even beyond those two movements (which account for most of best ones) there are other notable titles such as The Haunted Castle (see below), the Danish-Swedish Häxan, the Swedish The Phantom Carriage, the Austrian The Hands of Orlac, the early works of Tod Browning (The Unholy Three, The Unknown, London After Midnight) the first filmed version of Frankenstein in 1910, and The Monster(which I will be viewing later this month). As hinted by all those country names, the silent era was also the last time many nations had anything resembling a horror cinema for decades. Once the sound era came, studios were forced to either film multiple versions of the story in different languages (such as Dracula), dub them (always the worst solution), or subtitle them. The first solution proved prohibitively expensive and the other two limit the international appeal making it that much harder to make and gain popularity worldwide (especially the biggest market, the USA). At the very least this era is worth a look academically owing to its influence even if the enjoyment factor just isn’t there for myself, known heathen.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stars John Barrymore in the title roles in an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, already in 1920 the sixth adaptation . I loved the book growing up but frankly I’ve never seen one that lives up to the potential such an adaptation (though the 1931 and 1941 versions are alright). A large part of that boils down to depictions of Mr. Hyde. No one has ever gotten a really good hand on how to portray him (that I’ve seen, one day I’ll get around to the modernized Jekyll) especially in the makeup department where he often looks like a werewolf who took a bit of time to shave that morning. If it wasn’t for the weird elongated hands, I would say this is my favorite visual depiction of Mr. Hyde (yes, including the Oscar winning performance by Fredric March). Okay, I’m not sure why they made him into a conehead, albeit one merely in the process of balding, but as long as he keeps the hat on or uses certain angles it looks fine. Barrymore’s acting though is able to wordlessly portray him a creep and while it’s been a while since I read the book or seen those two adaptations in particular, this felt like the most faithful portrayal to date (feel free to prove me wrong).
The film is appropriately dripping with atmosphere even with all the strange colored filters they used. As with most films I hated the discordant score and I’ll be honest, if I wasn’t reviewing this here, at some point I probably would have muted it and rescored it with my own music. It shouldn’t, but honestly the music may be my biggest problem with silent films aside from the melodramatic acting they felt they needed to use. Score, or absence of, is such an important part of film and especially horror. You can’t just throw in a bunch of random noises and expect the atmosphere not to be ruined or draw me in. And while Barrymore’s performance and the cinematography that drew me to the screen, it was everything else that kept this from being any more than a pleasantly solid silent film. It just lacks that special something to click with me.
Bonus Episode #S-2 – Silent: The Haunted Castle (1896)
Directed by Georges Méliès
Bonus Episode #S-3 – Silent: The Haunted Castle (1897)
Directed by Georges Méliès
As a figure of early cinema, Georges Méliès’ (A Trip to the Moon, The Vanishing) impact casts a huge shadow. He’s responsible for so many of the basic special effects and editing techniques (also the person who invented storyboarding) we take for granted now. Most every film fan (or person who sat through Hugo where they stopped the movie to basically recite his Wikipedia page) already know Méliès full well about him and likely every one of you have probably already seen at least part of A Trip to the Moon by now (or surely at least the awesome video for “Tonight, Tonight” which is based on it), but you can also add the first horror film to his accomplishments. The second short is also the first horror sequel in a way with the second title today in that the both contain Satan and with the similar titles (their original titles are not identical). At the very least, it is also likely the first color horror film.
The Haunted Castle’s effects are pretty obvious now, stop the camera, remove something, replace it with something else, or place something there and you have instant magic. Still it’s creative and his first short is pretty well timed comedically (making it the first horror comedy in a way as well). The second take on this is certainly hurt by not even being a minute long as opposed to the first film’s impressive for the era 3+ minute runtime. It also just feels like a less successful retread of the same gimmick, interesting merely for its of course now dated use of color.
Bonus Episode #S-4 – Silent: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912)
Directed by Lucius Henderson
Speaking of silent adaptations of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, here is the second adaptation of the material to film (the original 1908 version lost to time) with the 1920 version being the fourth. This time James Cruze is in the lead role and his performance is far more curiosity than anything else full of overdramatic pantomime. Mr. Hyde is depicted as being different with a wig, some hilariously oversized teeth and a hunch and transforming by the same techniques developed by Méliès and others. The film itself is long enough (12 minutes) to tell an actual story, but it still feels like a lot is missing and as a result I can only recommend it as an interesting historical artifact.