10/1/2018 – 1920s: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
Directed by Wallace Worsley
Welcome everyone to Day 1 of the Month of Horror. For this section of our journey through the month, we will be heading back in time to the 1920s. You may be wondering why I picked the 1920s and not any time earlier. The earliest horror films after all date back to the late 1800s with the experimental shorts of Georges Méliès such as The House of the Devil and The Devil’s Castle both of which I discussed when I took a look at silent horror films two years ago. The 1910s even started to bring in narrative films like Frankenstein, multiple versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Student of Prague, and The Avenging Conscience.
That era however is hampered by a number of factors. For one, quite a few of the films, including Life Without a Soul (the first feature length adaptation of Frankenstein) and the first adaptation of The Golem (though fragments still exist) are lost films. Lost to neglect, lost to fire, lost to war. It’s an era where information about the films is minimal and while all the footage is all public domain (all films released prior to 1923 are) it is also of poor quality when it exists. Secondly, it was a transitional period from when the typical film was only a single reel, maybe two to the feature length that we know today. Finally, starting in the ’20s will happen to take us right up to the modern day by the end of the month which just feels perfect to me.
That’s not to say the 1920s saw a rush of horror titles. By IMDB’s rather broad definition of horror, there were 109 released in the period (including shorts), and only a few dozen are still widely available. That being said, it is the era where we started to see the release of the first horror classic films. How well they hold up is obviously going to be a matter of opinion. I made mine known in the article above and while horror holds up better than most for silent films, it’s still an era which is held back by the (intentionally) melodramatic acting and the various benefits of sound.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari wasn’t the first German Expressionist film, that would be the aforementioned The Student of Prague, but it is the film that codified many of the visual signifiers of the genre. The fantastical sets that used sharp angles and bizarre architecture (it will be very familiar to those who have seen the videos for “Otherside” or “Living Dead Girl“), the stylized acting, and the more frequently cerebral plots. Others in the genre such as The Golem, Nosferatu, Warning Shadows, The Hands of Orlac, and Faust (as well as the non-genre Destiny, Phantom, Dr. Mabuse films, Metropolis, and M) were all massively influential. Its influence can be felt all over Alfred Hitchcock’s visual technique and much of Tim Burton’s shtick is rooted in the era with his Batman universe and Edward Scissorhands especially.
Despite its outsized reputation, the era wasn’t all expressionist horror. 1920 also saw the release of The Penalty. While Lon Chaney had been a jobbing actor since 1912, snagging a number of parts thanks to his ability in makeup, it wasn’t until 1919 that he had his breakout role in (the non-horror) The Miracle Man. He would go on to be one of the preeminent horror actors of the 1920s, serving largely however as a character actor, able to disappear under his marvelous and frequently grotesque makeup and prosthetic work. After The Penalty, he would turn in roles in A Blind Bargain, While Paris Sleeps, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Monster, The Phantom of the Opera, The Unknown, and London After Midnight (the last two made with Tod Browning), his performance consistently the highlight of each film.
One advantage of the silent era, at least for foreign distributors, was that there was no worry about the language barrier. Every film instantly crossed borders with a few translated title cards. Besides the German films above, that also led to such notable titles as the Swedish The Phantom Carriage, the Swedish-Danish exploitation pseudo-doc Häxan, the Japanese A Page of Madness (easily my pick for the best feature length film of the era), and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s French groundbreaking and at the time shocking and controversial surrealist work Un Chien Andalou.
We also got the start of the famed Universal Horror movement. It may have really hit its stride and style in the 1930s, but the roots were planted here. Besides the Lon Chaney starring The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the studio also released the horror-comedy The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs (a decent film best known now for inspiring The Joker), The Last Warning, and The Last Performance. Wrapping things up, the decade also had yet another adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the one I looked at in 2016), a fantastic short version and an acclaimed feature length version of The Fall of the House of Usher which both came out in 1928 curiously enough.
Based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was Universal’s most successful silent film and turned Lon Chaney into a star. It was the fifth adaptation of the novel after 1905’s Esmeralda, 1911’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1917’s The Darling of Paris (a very loose adaptation), and 1922’s Esmeralda. It was the first proper feature length version however and along with the 1939 version starring Charles Laughton, is generally considered the definitive adaptation of the work. There are no camera negative remaining as most were destroyed by the studio with the rest lost to time, but direct copies of the negative still exist which is what Flicker Allery used on their recent restoration. I however stuck to the Internet Archive version since the movie has fallen into the public domain (due to a lack of renewal of copyright) so I can only comment on that print of the film.
Beginning at The Festival of Fools, Quasimodo, a deaf, half-blind (complete with eye sticking out), hunchbacked grotesque, hairy bellringer watches over from his perch on Notre Dame Cathedral. He’s hated by the town who treats him with disgust and even crown him King of Fools. Watching him scale down Notre Dame as he mocks the town people is a delight and there’s a wonderful physicality to his performance Laughton lacked. The makeup compare to Laughton’s is far more stage-y, the later version looking closer to something that might actually exist while Chaney portraying a Quasimodo who looks more monstrous than human.
The sets (which took six months to complete) are lavish and pitch perfect and besides Chaney’s appearance and the Frankenstein-esque climax, are where the biggest horror elements are felt. The Gothic elements here would form the cornerstone of Universal’s horror oeuvre and they look amazing. Aided by the organ score used for this print (how delightful it was to have a silent movie with appropriate score) the film draws you into the atmosphere to go along with the somber story. The towering cathedral with its deep shadows, the alleyways, and the grungy houses of the poor townspeople especially making for exactly the kind of film they’d perfect in a decade.
The focus of the film, however, is a romantic drama to the shock of no one who is familiar with the story. Esmeralda, a beautiful gypsy woman and adopted daughter of Clopin, “King of the Beggars” is the object of desire. Quasimodo is sent by Jehan (who treats him as a slave) to kidnap Esmeralda and is stopped by Captain Phoebus. The two start a romance which brings the ire of others while Quasimodo is brutally whipped in front of the public, left chained up and begging for water before a passing by and pitying Esmeralda brings him water. It all heads towards a tragic and yet inevitable feeling conclusion.
I was drawn into the plot far more than I thought, but that’s not why we are all here and its dominance in the plot is hardly what I asked for. Still, I can’t say it was ill-handled and the acting was somewhat restrained for silent era standards. In fact, the most exaggerated acting was reserved for Chaney who let it feel like an essential part of the character. Along with the production design, he makes the film essential, but the easy to follow romantic tragedy imbues the lengthy (for the time) with a satisfying enough story.
Bonus Episode #1 – A – 1980s: House of the Long Shadows (1983)
Directed by Pete Walker
The honor of official first film watched of the season was actually given to this title from Cannon Film Group. A cheesy flick from schlock masters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus wouldn’t be a bad way to ease into the month, but the real reason here is in the stars. Getting horror legends Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine together for one film is a heck of a coup as the four of them are always such a dependable force onscreen. Throw them all into a gothic setting and you have a recipe for a very happy writer even if it means we have to focus on Desi Arnaz Jr. (yes, he is the son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and clearly hired for the name).
The movie is an adaptation of the novel Seven Keys to Baldpate which although it had been filmed six times before, I had seen exactly zero of those. A prick of a young writer makes a $20K bet with his publisher that he can write a book like Wuthering Heights in 24 hours. Even coked up Stephen King couldn’t write that fast buddy and this guy types slower than I would on a typewriter. He sets off for a house in Wales owned by his betting partner that has been abandoned for over forty years and doesn’t even have electricity. It’s a cursed place as many are quick to tell him and can be assumed from the genre.
When he arrives, he meets an elderly man and woman (Carradine and Sheila Keith) who work as caretaker and a young woman who claims to work as his publisher’s assistant (shouldn’t he recognize her if that was the case?). More and more people arrive, all with different stories as to why they are there, a stranded motorist (Cushing), a man claiming to be returning to his ancestral home from America (Price), and a man about to purchase the property (Lee). The film seems unsure whether it wants to poke fun at the trappings of the gothic horror genre or just be a serious atmospheric horror film. It is the latter where most of the attention is focused, but Arnaz seems so out of place with his half-hearted attempts at quips and he consistently undercuts any tension.
Not that the plot is all that great as the reveals are limply handled as it hits every cliché in the book. The clichés would be perfect in a parody, but in a more serious horror film they just make it come off as bland. SPOILERS1 The clichés and predictability I can deal with though. My ire is instead reserved for the ending which SPOILERS2.
The big four aren’t used nearly enough, but when they are, it’s clear they still got it. Lee and Price especially seem like they are just begging to be thrown into a movie where they face off against each other and chew the scenery until there’s nothing left standing. Pete Walker, whose horror (and sexploitation) films have never really crossed my radar, does an effective job visually evoking ’60s era of British gothic horror. Armed with a fast forward button to cut down on Arnaz and the novelty of the four stars along with the classic feel that’s out of time in the early ’80s and it’s not a bad watch, but it’s unlikely to satisfy in the end.
Bonus Episode #2 – A – 1920s: The Golem: How He Came into the World (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam) (1920)
Directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese
The Golem: How He Came into the World (also just known as The Golem) was actually the third film in a series of films by Paul Wegener starring the golem of Jewish folklore. The first, as I explained above, has been mostly lost aside from a few fragments and was set in the modern day as an antiques dealer came upon a centuries old Golem, while the second was a short parody version The Golem and the Dancing Girl which is now completely lost. The third is actually a prequel set those centuries in the past making it perhaps the first prequel film ever made.
Stars reveal to a rabbi (the historical Rabbi Loew is used here) that a great misfortune will befall the Jewish community. Judaism here is portrayed as basically magic, with the rabbi a wizard complete with spellbook even if it is rooted more in mysticism. Of course, the stars turn out to be right as The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (part of what would later be called the First Reich) signs a decree forcing the Jewish people out of the ghetto for the crime of crucifying their lord and savior *shifts uncomfortably*.
As a result, the rabbi sets about assembling the titular Golem out of clay to save his people. With the Golem powered by an amulet on his chest bearing the symbol of “Shem”, the Rabbi is forced to conjure Astaroth to demand the word that will bring the Golem to life in a wonderfully dark and mystical scene since God won’t do him a solid. Unsurprisingly, making a deal with the Great Duke of Hell has some fine print attached and there are elements of Faust and the film version of Frankenstein here. The latter comes in to play especially with the Fritz/Igor type assistant, the creating a monster who will turn against you, the summoning a hulking creature from lifelessness, and of course in its most famous shot (a beautifully framed one), befriends a small child.
Wegener himself plays the Golem and is probably the only actor who doesn’t overact in the characteristically expressionist style. Granted, that’s due to the limitations of the actual character who moves about stiffly, but it’s effective. The Golem becomes a servant, doing manual labor and controlled by the Rabbi who removes the amulet at will and like Frankenstein’s monster, he’s a sympathetic creature.
Dealing with discrimination against the Jewish people in a pre-Nazi Germany is a tricky subject here. The lead characters are Jewish and trying to protect their own against the bigoted Holy Roman Emperor by creating a Jewish superhero which is awesome, but the portrayal of one of the most important historical rabbis as a wizard who communes with dark forces to create a servant is much less so. It’s the kind of film the feels well meaning, ending on a shot of the Star of David SPOILERS3, but there’s plenty of questionable elements to get to that contrived end.
Like the rest of its expressionist brethren, it’s shot fantastically. For the most part, it takes a realistic look, only enhancing it with shadows and plenty of narrow streets, but the conjuring of Astaroth which sees him as a floating head, speaking the word as if it was a physical manifestation in the world, and the crude effects going on around them create such an eerie effect. The makeup too on the Golem may be simple, but it works surprisingly well at creating a suspension of disbelief that this is a walking, functioning being made from clay. The film doesn’t quite pay of the potential of its premise and effects with its too pat ending and lackluster supporting characters, but it’s an essential look for fans of the era.
Bonus Episode #3 – A – 1980s: Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
It’s taken until the fourth movie of the year, but it’s time for our first slasher film. In case I haven’t made it clear enough over the years here, I kind of have a thing for these types of films. I mean, I even made a Werewolves game centered around them. They are one of my comfort food subgenres and I this time of a year I never turn down an opportunity to watch a classic era title. While Happy Birthday to Me has acquired a bit of a cult reputation over the years that made me seek it out to start off the month, my primary reason is without a doubt the poster.
How can you not love it? John’s hilarious expression, the goofy kebab kill, and a tagline that promises not terror or gore, but other kills that are bizarre. Entering the esteemed ranks of classic Canadian slasher films alongside Black Christmas, Prom Night, Terror Train, My Bloody Valentine, and Visiting Hours… well Black Christmas and My Bloody Valentine are good at least. It was also one of the films seized as a video nasty by the British. As a director, Thompson is probably best known for his twin classics of The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear as well as the great North West Frontier, the very good horror film Eye of the Devil, and the last two original Planet of the Apes films.
Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie) stars as a high schooler, a member of the Top Ten, a group of the most popular students at private school Crawford Academy. After a near accident caused by one of her asshole friends, she starts to remember details of the past year as it starts to get closer to her birthday. Of Glenn Ford as the doctor who performed brain experiments and operation which is shown in graphic detail to save her life and how she got there. As she does this, members of the Top Ten start dropping dead around head or from the perspective of the populace, go missing.
Despite the promise of the poster I can’t say the kills aren’t that unusual. SPOILERS4 add an amusing twist to standard kill, but the shish kebab scene is nowhere near as wonderful as the poster promises and just feels crowbarred into the scene. I still laughed, but it was a quick, hollow laugh. There’s lots of fake jump scares thanks to the a number of characters seeming to be fond of practical jokes and at times there are hints that the movie aspires to be a proto-April Fool’s Day only not as not as clever or fun.
That is until the end which SPOILERS5 There’s even a reference to The Hunchback of Notre Dame to tie the whole thing into our theme today (granted it seems to be to the 1939 version)
Next up: Our first female directed horror film with Stephanie Rothman The Velvet Vampire from 1971.