I may have finally hit a wall with these silent horror quickies I’ve been devouring lately. It was foolish to think that all of these early, spooky titles were going to be anywhere near as great as the glorious heights of The Phantom Carriage or A Page of Madness and Midnight Faces was a solid reminder that bad movies have existed as long as movies have existed. Weirder yet, it seemed to suggest that the Asylum-style knockoff has been around for nearly a century, not just the last ten years. I’m not sure if Midnight Faces qualifies as the world’s first mockbuster, but it does heavily crib from the early horror masterpiece The Bat, siphoning off some of that film’s box office dollars mere weeks after its initial debut, a guaranteed success due to the immense popularity of its stage play source material. Like all mockbusters, Midnight Faces is a mostly lifeless imitation of the real deal, but you’ll be hard pressed to find an example of the format this oppressively dull or blatantly, needlessly racist.
When people speak favorable of Midnight Faces, it’s listed alongside The Bat & the silent era The Cat & The Canary as a pioneer of the “old dark horse” genre. The “old dark horse” plot is exactly what its moniker suggests: a horror or mystery plot about a spooky old house in which some kind of creepy phantom terrorizes the newest inhabitants. For newer examples of the genre think of Housebound or The Boy. Midnight Faces shakes up the superficial details of its setting just enough to distinguish itself, placing its creepy house in a Florida swamp & setting a lot of its action in the daylight (something I’m certainly not used to in a lot of these shadow-saturated old horrors). Although you’re not going to see someone canoeing in a sunlit swamp in The Bat, however, the rest of the details are mostly the same here, just less interesting. Instead of dressing up like a giant bat, the “phantom figure” of Midnight Faces sports a fairly pedestrian hat & cape combo. Instead of scaling art deco architecture & defying gravity, he hides using a series of trap doors & secret rooms. His identity is a mystery, but there’s no fun in unpacking it, since the film is instead convinced that it is, in fact, a comedy, not a sincere mystery.
Here’s where things get racist. Midnight Faces softens its supposedly harrowing mystery plot (which is racist in its own way, given its penchant for yellow face and its othering version of “Orientalism”) with the comedy stylings of a butler named Trohelius Snapp. A black servant & a direct precursor to the Birmingham Brown character of the 1930s Charlie Chan mysteries, Trohelius is is portrayed as an eternal scaredy cat (a role filled by a cowardly maid in The Bat). Terrified of cats, parrots, his own shadow, and the absence of light, Trohelius is a continuous wide-eyed punchline to a joke that is cruelly unfunny in a modern context. Most of his dialogue is variation on explaining that he is terrified: “Boss, my nerves departed an hour ago.” “Boss, I can feel lilies sprouting in my hand.” “Oh, Lawdy Lawdy — I wish I was back in the basement wid mah mop & broom.” Each gag gets more & more painful to sit through, especially once you realize embarrassing the poor character is a much higher priority than constructing a decent mystery. I guess it’s a little commendable that they actually cast a black actor in the role instead of a painted-up white guy (which is more than I can say for the 1925 The Lost World), but there’s little consolation in that distinction.
I don’t mean to imply that there’s zero artistic merit to Midnight Faces. I can see enough at play in its visual language that I’d get how someone could defend it. The film’s use of shadows is especially striking, especially in the way it implies that mysterious “phantom figure’s” shadow can touch or harm the physical world. I also enjoyed moment where a strange house guest is spying on the heir to the spooky mansion while a suspicious maid spies on her from a staircase and the phantom spies on them all from a secret chamber. These respectable flourishes are few & far between, though, and the film relies way too heavily on “comedic” racism & shot-for-shot repetition of its better imagery to carry even a 53 minute runtime. So much of what transpires here is old hat (a damsel in distress!) & lazily spelled-out (“What a mysterious place — It gives me the shivers,” “This place has a graveyard smell,”) for it to stand out on its own in any significant way. Midnight Faces may have stood side-by-side with The Bat as a starting point for where the “old dark house” genre would eventually go, but without much detail to distinguish it from that far-superior work, it’s mostly memorable for its lazy repetition & for its embarrassing reliance on racist comedy routines. That’s far from a prestigious position to be in, even for a 9o year old feature film horror that clocks in at under an hour in length.