Podcast #164: The Great Dictator (1940) & Charlie Chaplin

Welcome to Episode #164 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss four classic comedies directed by Charlie Chaplin, starting with the anti-fascist satire The Great Dictator (1940).

00:00 Welcome

00:57 Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
05:25 Last Night in Soho (2021)
09:45 Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
13:05 Studio 666 (2022)

18:50 The Great Dictator (1940)
38:30 City Lights (1931)
47:00 Modern Times (1936)
1:01:45 Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Mad God (2022)

By the time Phil Tippett’s stop-motion freak show Mad God closed this year’s Overlook Film Festival, it was up against a towering wall of anticipation – not just from over the weekend but from decades of production delay.  The finished product was very divisive in the room.   It was my favorite movie I saw all festival, while the lovely chap I was chatting with in line on the way in said it was his absolute worst.  Teasing out his reasons for despising it, it sounded like he experienced Mad God purely as a for-its-own sake immersion in scatological mayhem, with no meaning or emotion behind its non-stop, nonsensical gore gags.  He also had no idea what the movie was about or how it was made before the screening started, other than it was one of the more hyped titles on the program.  Knowing Mad God’s backstory as an abandoned project from the early 90s that was recently completed through horror nerd crowdfunding on Kickstarter, I found it to be an oddly touching reflection on the creative process, the indifference of time, and the cruelty of everything.  We’re probably both at least a little bit right.

There’s no spoken dialogue in Mad God, nor is there a discernible narrative.  It’s a movie built entirely on nightmare logic, where one bizarre event mutates into another with no strict reasoning behind the progression. It’s mostly an animated experiment in scale.  A faceless soldier with no discernible personality or inner life follows his mysterious master’s marching orders to explore a post-apocalyptic hellscape populated by specimen-jar freaks of all shapes & sizes.  It’s like the unexplained, awesomely scaled Space Jockey reveal in 1979’s Alien repeated over & over again as our faceless, soulless protagonist explores dank hellpits populated by grotesque monstrosities big & small.  The scale of these hideous creatures’ violence also varies wildly, from petty squabbles over who has to shovel the shit of the bigger monsters that tower above them to real-life footage of nuclear blasts.  Phil Tippett did not work on the special effects for Alien, but he did work on other beloved genre classics like Star Wars, Robocop, and Starship Troopers.  If Mad God is “about” anything in particular, it’s about displaying the full dark magic of what his stop-motion wizardry can do on-screen.  The clay soldier is more of a starting point than a proper protagonist, as the movie has more to say about Tippett’s adventures in the industry than it does that disposable, replaceable explorer.

The story goes that Tippett began working on Mad God while doing the animated effects for Robocop 2 in the early 90s.  When he was subsequently hired for special effects work on Jurassic Park, he was convinced that the stop-motion medium was an inevitable dead end, soon to be replaced by animatronic sculpture & CGI.  The project was then shelved for three decades until younger collaborators in love with his traditionalist techniques convinced Tippett to complete the abandoned project.  Smartly, he appears to have left the original, shot-on-film footage from the project’s early days mostly untouched.  The first half is like a lost artifact from an era when artists like Dave McKean, the Quay Brothers, and Jan Švankmajer ruled over a steampunk hellworld that’s since been paved over by brightly lit computer graphics.  The original footage ends with the clay explorer being decommissioned & dismantled, and we cut to modern digital footage of fellow genre filmmaker Alex Cox (as a wizardly Tippett surrogate) plucking an identical, soulless soldier from his vast, unanimated supply to send on another mission in new dank hellpits with new grotesque monsters haunting them – now in crisp HD.  Tippett marks the passage of time between these bifurcated segments with repeated images of clocks, candles, death, and rebirth.  In the tension between its two parts, it becomes a self-reflective story about the resilience of personal creativity.  As an artist he has no choice but to keep sending his little soldiers out into the cruel world, hoping one of them one day completes their mission.

Mad God is meticulously designed to either delight or irritate.  It’s especially grating in its soundtrack’s relentless use of crying babies & ticking clocks, making a large contingent of the audience wish the term “Silent Cinema” was literal.  You can count me among the awed freaks in the room who never wanted the nightmare to end, though, especially since I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to see it projected on the big screen again.  Catching Mad God at Overlook was vital, even though it will soon be streaming on Shudder in a more accessible, affordable presentation.  I don’t know that I’d have the mental willpower to watch the entire runtime without glancing at my phone when it’s available to stream at home, but in that theater I was outright mesmerized.  It’s a spell that doesn’t work on everyone, but it’s a powerful source of creative dark magic if you can open yourself up to it.  Knowing the backstory of how it was made might be an essential part of that receptiveness, but it’s a stunning work of visual art no matter the context.

-Brandon Ledet

A Woman of the World (1925)

I had a lot of fun revisiting Elvira: Mistress of the Dark this past Halloween, in which everyone’s favorite buxom horror host invades small-town America and freaks out the locals with her cinched waist & sex puns.  It felt like a distinctly 1980s story template, recalling other freaks vs. Reaganites narratives of the era like Polyester & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently found a prototype for that exact 80s-comedy template in a pre-Code comedy from the 1920s – just with less boob jokes & cleavage.  Way less. 

A Woman of the World is a silent romcom about a European woman of “loose morals” who shocks close-minded American hicks when she moves to an anonymous small-town (Maple Valley, “any little town in the Mid-West”) and falls in love with the uptight DA who’s supposed to scare her away.  Pola Negri stars as the titular femme fatale, who describes herself as “a woman of the world, yes, but not the world’s woman.”  She arrives in Maple Valley cigarette-first, defiantly indulging in every scandalous vice she finds amusing, much to the outrage of the rocking-chair biddies who act as the town’s morality police.  Everyone’s immediately fascinated by her worldliness as a European countess (visiting her American cousin by marriage, in one of the flimsiest comedy premises around), but they’re scandalized by her libertine behavior and visible tattoo.  The DA feigns to join the mob-justice crowd who wants to send her right back to Europe, but he’s obviously mesmerized by her taboo behavior, and by the end he’s offering her a cigarette from his own case in their wedding carriage.

A Woman of the World is entertaining fluff, as long as you’re easily amused by misbehaved women causing a stir.  It’s got the same femme-fatale allure of other silent genre pictures like A Fool There Was, except it celebrates her flagrant misbehavior instead of condemning it.  The most the film is willing to wag its finger at her transgressions is when she scars her new boyfriend’s face with a leather whip in a fit of revenge, like an ill-tempered dominatrix.  Even then, the dude deserves it for being a cowardly worm, and she looks sexy committing the crime.  Even her scandalous tattoo is endeared to the audience when her mild-mannered, small-town cousin reveals his even bigger tattoo of a train across his chest & arms, which he makes undulate for the camera in a classic vaudeville routine.  She may be inked up, drunk on champagne, and smoking like a chimney, but she’s good company and the movie knows it.

I loved Mistress of the Dark as a prankish nose-thumbing at the puritanical attitudes towards sex in Reagan’s America. A Woman of the World feels like it was hitting the exact same satirical targets in a rambunctious era of Hollywood filmmaking that would soon be defanged by the Hays Code.  Given how morally sanitized most mainstream filmmaking is becoming in our current Disney-sponsored hellscape, I’d say we can use another revitalization of this century-old comedy template.  We should send more loose-moraled weirdo women into the uptight, small-town American public to shake them out of their sex-phobic moral panics.  It’s always funny.

-Brandon Ledet

A Fool There Was (1915)

How can it be that “the first-ever vampire movie” was not a proper horror film and didn’t even feature a vampire? Misogyny, that’s how. Silent Era sex symbol Theda Bara stars in 1915’s A Fool There Was as a villainous character billed simply as “The Vampire.” The film itself is an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem titled “The Vampire,” which is quoted on title cards throughout (and was performed in-full by in-the-flesh actors hired for the film’s initial screenings). The poem is meant as a cautionary screed about the dangers of sexually promiscuous women who drain good men of their money & energy, as if they were real-world vampires. Of course, the literary moralizing of the source material did not chastely translate to cinema, which is a visually titillating medium by default. Theda Bara’s portrayal of a scandalous woman who drains wealthy family men of their life & resources for her own pleasure & amusement was not met as a villainous offense. If anything, it established Bara as one of cinema’s earliest femme fatales, directly inspiring the term “vamp” to describe a dangerously sexy woman. A Fool There Was is an age-old cinematic cliché in that way; it’s ostensibly intended to wave a righteous finger the in face of moral transgressions, but only as an excuse to indulge in depicting those transgressions in the first place. The Rudyard Kipling poem it’s adapted from uses the term “vampire” to play into a misogynist trope, only for audiences to fall in love with Bara as the ultimate sexy vamp. You gotta love the movies.

A Fool There Was opens with a heavenly ideal of wealth-class domesticity. A wealthy baker enjoys a day out in the garden with his loving wife & daughter, taking in the full tranquil pleasures offered by Nature & familial love (yuck!). This squeaky-clean reverie is thankfully broken up by Theda Bara’s homewrecking vamp, who’s just getting bored with her latest victim and is looking for her next plaything. At first, her reputation as a dangerous sex symbol is only subtly detectable. She arrives dressed like an old-timey goth on their way to the beach, complete with black lipstick & a Beetlejuice-striped skirt. She shows a little ankle as she lifts her skirt to get into her former lover’s car, but she’s far from a sexual bombshell in this initial introduction. Soon, however, she’s shown in her private bedroom, bending over at exaggerated angles to rummage through her lover’s things and, more importantly, to give the audience a peak down her scandalously loose nightgown. When she reads in the newspaper that the wealthy family-man banker will soon be going on a business trip overseas (unaccompanied by his wife, who is tending to an ill sister), she sets her sights on this new victim and the audience gets to see how the vampire works in action. The seduction part is easy, as the banker gives into her charms before their ship even reaches Europe. His moral & physical decline under her spell is a much more gruesome, gradual process; the banker seems to age 100 years after just a few months with his new life-sucking mistress, while his idyllic family looks on in horror, helpless.

As A Fool There Was is over a century old, most if its tawdry sexuality & filmmaking craft has lost its initial potency. Its early-cinema unsureness of how to fully exploit the medium can be charming – like in early shots where characters appear to be in a black box theater void or in endless title card character introductions that recall the sitcom-parody Too Many Cooks. It can also be off-putting, such as in the depictions of broad racial stereotypes among the film’s vast army of domestic servants. The value of its once-shocking sexuality has also faded in some ways, like the scandalous reveal of a bare ankle in public and the effect of the once-risqué title card “Kiss me, my fool!” Still, Bara makes the film perversely fun to watch. She’s essentially playing a dominatrix who is too good at her job, so that men are eager to implode their lives to serve her. The Vampire laughs openly as she leaves a trail of broken men behind her, unphased by their suicide attempts & the desperate pleas of their families. It’s a misogynist archetype that Bara turns into a femdom fantasy, merely because the camera loves her. Most of Theda Bara’s early pictures were lost in a Fox Studio vault fire in 1937, but her legend as the ultimate vamp persisted anyways, long after the Kipling source material was forgotten. A Fool There Was is a grotesquely regressive literary trope transformed into a perversely fun sexual fantasy through the power of cinema. Instead of waiting to drive a stake through the vampire’s heart, audiences fell hopelessly under her spell, dominated by the allure of the femme fatale.

-Brandon Ledet

Parisian Love (1925)

If you ignore the Hollywood Babylon-type tabloid coverage of her life, the most outstanding thing about Old Hollywood starlet Clara Bow is the sheer volume of work she managed to produce in the 20s & 30s. Starring in nearly 60 pictures total, as one of the few performers who successfully transitioned from the Silent Era to talkies, Bow was often locked in a Roger Corman-type schedule of filming several projects at once. As such, it’s a little difficult to determine which titles are worth your time. In 1925 alone, Clara Bow starred in 14 feature films, making nondescript titles like Parisian Love seem like they’re worth slightly less than a dime-a-dozen. Her career-making performance in 1927’s It inspired the term “it girl;” her early-career fashion choices in films like Poisoned Paradise & Daughters of Pleasure helped inspire the character design for Betty Boop (along with singer Helen Kane). By comparison, Parisian Love is just another face in the crowd; it wasn’t even the most significant film of that year for Bow, not in when compared to commercial hits like The Plastic Age. Still, as an hour-long taste of the boundary-testing, plucky sexuality that made Bow such a magnet for public fascination, it feels like a significantly risqué, defiant work.

Clara Bow stars as a street-tough “Apache” – an early 20th Century hooligan running wild in the streets of Belle Époque France. Working small-level con jobs, dressing in male drag, staging bar fights, and openly mocking police & social elites, she’s a Turn of the Century punk – one who only cares about her fellow Apache lover. Most of Parisian Love concerns a revenge mission to win this lover back when a member of the wealthy Parisian elite effectively “steals her man” by making him into a proper gentleman. After a botched burglary of the house of an upstanding science professor, their intended mark takes a liking to her injured lover and takes him under his wing, much to Bow’s jealousy. The queer implications of this love triangle are not subtle. The professor is obviously in love with his Apache ward – using the sexual surrogate of wealthy women worthier of his class to make-out with the injured thief while he looks on intently. Bow’s lovesick scamp also witnesses these commissioned kisses and enacts her revenge by seducing & marrying the professor to effectively rob him blind while rousing the jealousy of their shared rags-to-riches lover. It’s a story that would traditionally end in tragedy, but instead plays out here in straightforward romantic melodrama.

The queer implications of its love triangle feel slightly risqué for its time and the story is refreshingly reluctant to punish its criminal Parisian street punks for their transgressions the way it would have under the soon-to-come Hays Code, but that’s not what makes the movie a joy to watch. Parisian Love is mostly enjoyable for allowing Bow to play a lying, stealing, punch-throwing, crossdressing badass on a mission. She kicks wealthy old men who sexually corner “the help” at parties. Her tendency to dress in drag on her heist jobs gives the appearance of two “men” kissing onscreen. Her confidence in rallying other Apache toughies to aid in her revenge mission (with promises to share the professor’s stolen wealth, of course) is refreshingly non-“ladylike” for an Old Hollywood sex symbol. I watched Parisian Love the same day that the racetrack near my house opened for its first race of the season. It’s a Thanksgiving tradition, where young New Orleans punks & weirdos dress up like the social elite in a kind of wealth-drag for early afternoon cocktails before dispersing for family meals. I got the same sense from Clara Bow in Parisian Love – a snotty punk gone undercover among socialites, dressed in their garb but not in their values. I can’t pretend to have seen enough Clara Bow pictures to know how that image fits into her massive catalog, but it did feel incredibly, defiantly punk in a 1920s context – making it clear to me why people fell in love with her so thoroughly in her heyday.

-Brandon Ledet

Wonderstruck (2017)

I seem to be at odds with most audiences on how we as a culture enjoy our Todd Haynes. Most people seem to prefer Haynes when he’s well-behaved, heaping ecstatic praise on his most straight-forward works like Far from Heaven & Carol. I’m much more into Haynes when he gets messy & experimental, like in the multimedia freakouts Poison & Velvet Goldmine. Considering that dissonance, I should have known better than to let the muted critical response to Haynes’s latest release deter me from seeing it big & loud when I had the chance, instead of sheepishly catching up with it months later upon its quiet streaming-platform release. Adapted from a children’s book by Brian Selznick (who also penned the source material for Scorsese’s Hugo, speaking of undervalued experiments from established auteurs), Wonderstruck is a deceptively well-mannered film that appeals to a younger audience in its tone, but formally sprawls into countless, ambitious directions. This film is just as fractured & mischievous as any of Haynes’s most out-there works, yet is thematically eager-to-please enough that its total lack of Academy Awards nominations feels like a deliberate injustice more than a harmless oversight (at the very least, it’s tied with mother! for being most over-looked in the Best Sound Editing category). I’d even argue it’s Haynes’s most impressive, satisfying work since Velvet Goldmine, which would make it his second-best film to date. If there’s one title I’m embarrassed to have not seen before filing my Best of 2017 list, it’s Wonderstruck, which only makes it all the more baffling why it was met with a series of yawns & shrugs instead of the rapturous adoration that was showered on the much more subdued Carol.

Two children, separated by 50 years and hundreds of miles, appear to be mysteriously linked in a shared destiny. They are both deaf, but do not speak sign language. Their parents are absent, but for wildly different reasons. They run away from home and are both drawn to the NYC Museum of Natural History for refuge. Their lives are temporally & geographically disparate, but supernaturally in sync, a mystery that untangles itself in intricate, multi-faceted ways as their stories converge in an unexpected (for them) shared space & time. In the stretch leading up to that convergence, the film busies itself contrasting the two adult worlds these out-on-their-own children perilously navigate. 1920s New York is framed with a traditionalist, black & white silent film palette, poisoning touchstones of Old Hollywood glamour with a distinct sense of NYC meanness. 1970s New York is a warm, sprawling mix of vibrant sounds & colors, even directly challenging the white hegemony of the earlier timeline by flooding the screen with PoC. Perhaps the reason I’m personally drawn to Wonderstruck is because the types of spaces that remain constant in both timelines & unite the two stories are the exact building blocks I’d use to construct an ideal universe: theaters, museums, libraries, bookstores, miniatures, etc. By the time the two deaf children’s parallel narratives converge in a whimsical, minutes-long stop motion sequence staged inside a meticulous miniature model of New York City, I was just completely broken down into pieces by the gorgeous, used book store universe Haynes (and Selznick) had constructed. It was only a kindness on his part to build me back up with the awe-inspiring tenderness of the film’s impossibly satisfying climax, a sweeping, meticulously calculated convergence of worlds that tied so many ethereal narrative threads together so concisely that it left me . . . well, you know the title.

Wonderstruck is far from the first film to attempt to revise & modernize “silent” filmmaking on an epic scale. Where it departs from past works like The Artist & Singin’ in the Rain, however, is in Haynes’s deliberately messy style as a collage artist. The sound design in this film is incredible, weaving effortlessly from immersion in the deaf children’s aural POV’s to the glam rock tapestries of Velvet Goldmine to the piano-accompanied silent era when the deaf & people with functional hearing had much more in common in their shared experiences at the movies. Haynes gleefully indulges in the most obviously attractive aspects of constructing a silent-era throwback, especially in scenes where he films & photographs his long-favorite collaborator Julianne Moore as a classic Old Hollywood starlet. The “silence” in the film’s choices of medium is much more than a question of aesthetic, however, as it’s distinctly, inextricably a part of its narrative DNA. For obvious reasons, Wonderstruck details at length the array of communication breakdowns that can cause havoc in a variety of interpersonal relationships once sound is removed from the communicators’ toolbox. The modes of communication the children and their friends & family must employ to get around their sound/language barrier are almost as varied as the visual media Haynes employs to communicate with his own audience: stop-motion, 3D models, silence, monologue, intensely colored lighting, black & white filmmaking, rapid fire montage, calm children’s film hangouts, etc. He even cast a deaf actress for the film’s lead to aid in the accuracy & immersion in the fractured narrative (Millicent Simmonds, who is also scheduled to appear in the upcoming horror film A Quiet Place). The movie’s silent era throwback vibe is far from empty nostalgia feel-goodery, even if it’s just as openly celebratory of the medium as simpler, more joyful works.

My favorite review of Wonderstruck I’ve seen so far was a blurb from John Waters’s Best of 2017 list, where he recommends parents show it to their kids as a kind of intelligence test, explaining “If your small-fry like the film, they’re smart. If they don’t, they’re stupid.” It’s a glib review that flippantly disregards questions of preference & taste, but it’s one I can’t help but agree with. In fact, I’d expand that uncalled-for insult to the adults who are bored or unmoved by the film as well. Complains that Wonderstruck is emotionless or “gets lost” in the Museum of Natural History baffle me. I can’t imagine a scenario where this many people don’t fall under the spell of Hayne’s kaleidoscopic mix of New York City models made entirely out of 1920s glamour magazines, Guy Maddin-style nightmare imagery of layered wolves, glam rock daydreams about stargazing, and so on. It’s unfair to fault anyone for not emotionally connecting with Wonderstruck’s children’s film tone or its narrative about deaf, fearless children who refuse to be treated like inconveniences by their reluctant adult guardians. That kind of subjective response is obviously personal, but people understanding the film as anything less than a technical marvel in fractured, multi-media storytelling makes me question what planet I’m living on.

To be fair, though no response to Wonderstruck could possibly be as idiotic as the one it’s getting from its own distributors. Amazon Studios is making no plans to release Wonderstruck on physical media, which is tragically ironic, considering the film’s obsession with the archival & preservation of physical objects. Todd Haynes’s latest work of ambitiously sprawling genius may be obsessed with libraries & museums, but Amazon’s going out of its way to make sure it never arrives in any such collections. Given the muted critical response to the film over the last few months, I’m afraid it might be lost in time to digital rot, which makes me want to cry over its delicate, misunderstood beauty all over again.

-Brandon Ledet

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

It’s not exactly a fresh, revolutionary impulse to point out that women’s accomplishments have been historically swept under the rug to make room for the acknowledgment of men’s, but I can think of few better examples of that injustice in cinema than the case of Lotte Reiniger. Even as someone who regularly seeks out traditional animation, I’m just hearing of Reiniger for the first time in my 30s, when she should be just as much of a household name as Walt Disney or Hayao Miyazaki. Only preceded by a couple lost Romanian films, Reniger’s magnum opus The Adventures of Prince Achmed is considered to be the oldest surviving animated feature film. Produced over three physically taxing years on the floor of a German garage with a full crew, it’s a work not only impressive for it value as a historical landmark, but for its passionately intricate artistry. Inspired by live action shadow puppetry, Reniger invented her own style of animation involving cardboard cutout silhouettes, thin sheets of lead for shading, and a rudimentary multiplane camera. It was a method that was reasonably suited for her many experiments in short films, but proved painstakingly complex for a feature. It wouldn’t be until Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves over a decade later that another animated feature would even attempt to follow in its footsteps, as the early processes for traditional animation required phenomenal feats of labor at that length. It’s amazing that Reiniger took on that process as a D.I.Y. art project instead of a commercial enterprise, an accomplishment that isn’t as loudly or as frequently lauded as it obviously should be.

Truth be told, the narrative explored in The Adventures of Prince Achmed is not nearly as interesting as its visual form. As the title suggests, the film works as a kind of anthology of tangential adventure short stories, an attractive structure for a filmmaker looking to graduate from shorts to features. Mining Middle Eastern folktales pulled from Arabian Nights, these strung-together adventures follow the handsome, titular Prince Achmed as he confronts witches, demons, magicians, and sorcerers in an effort to rescue two damsels in distress: his sister & his beloved. There’s a fair amount of outdated politics to be expected in this silent era German film that extend far beyond sidelined women waiting to be rescued. Middle Eastern culture-gazing & offensive Jewish stereotypes also sour some of the film’s magic at the border of the frame. The anthologized approached to feature-length storytelling also becomes disruptive at a critical point in the film when a side plot involving Aladdin (yes, that Aladdin) overpowers Achmed’s foreground narrative. Still, even for all its outdated politics & structural faults as an exercise in feature-length storytelling, the film is downright intoxicating as a visual piece. Tinted color frames, intricate lacework-style cutouts, and mythical creatures like a flying horse & a gaggle of gorgeous peacock women conjure a magic far more powerful than any modern, nitpicky concerns about the story they serve. In more ways than one, this film is a testament to the transformative powers of animation. Backlit slivers of cardboard & a thin, anthologized story shouldn’t amount to anything nearly this substantial.

I’d just as much recommend reading up on Lotte Reiniger as a historical figure as I’d urge you to watch her landmark magnum opus. My public domain DVD of The Adventures of Prince Achmed included a biographical feature titled Lotte Reiniger: Homage to the Inventor of the Silhouette Film that was an especially good primer for discovering a life well-lived, if not well-enough known. Even if you’re just browsing her Wikipedia page, though, you’ll be taken aback by how such a significant artist is so blatantly absent from The Most Accomplished Auteurs of All Time conversations. Much like with stop-motion animation, her silhouette technique has a handmade quality to it where you can see the humanity behind the artistry onscreen. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a must-see for film nerds & history buffs, but what’s even more pressing is that we start including Reiniger among the names of directors who pioneered cinema as a medium. The shadow puppetry element of her work suggests a kind of old-fashioned artistry, but her advancement of traditional animation & early adoption of a multiplane camera setup position as her as a trailblazer, one whose name should be on everyone’s tongue.

-Brandon Ledet

Midnight Faces (1926)



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.

-Brandon Ledet

The Hands of Orlac (1924)


three star

The 1920s sci-fi horror The Hands of Orclac holds quite an impressive pedigree. Directed by Austrian filmmaker Robert Wierne, who also helmed the infamous silent era classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and starring Conrad Veidt, whose visage in The Man Who Laughs partly inspired the DC Comics villain The Joker, this modest silent horror has spawned two separate remakes & nearly a century of admiration. You can see The Hands of Orclac‘s imprint on schlocky titles like Idle Hands & Manos: The Hands of Fate as well as more prestigious horror milestones like the way Bela Lugosi manually hypnotizes women in the 1930s Dracula. The movie has a challenging runtime in terms of ancient feature lengths (a lot of the silent horrors I’ve watched recently have been barely over an hour; this one doubles it) and a lot of what makes its special is unfortunately undone in its closing minutes, but I still found it fascinating as an old world relic & there were some really strong, dreamlike images that made the experience memorable even if it couldn’t quite stick the landing.

Much like with the 1940s cheapie The Monster Maker, The Hands of Orlac centers on a concert pianist who suddenly, horrifically finds himself unable to use his hands. Instead of being maliciously inflicted with a glandular disorder by a mad scientist, however, our man Orlac loses his money-makers in a near-fatal train wreck. Because of the special effects limitations of the time the train wreck occurs off-screen, a necessary choice that pays off nicely as the audience watches Orlac’s wife stumble into the chaos of the wreckage in search of her beloved. While Orlac is recovering she begs for the surgeons to save his precious ivory-ticklers and they reluctantly oblige . . . sort of. Orlac’s hands are replaced with those of a convicted killer who is to be hung that same day. He can feel the murderous hatred shooting up his arms & into his very soul as he winds up walking around with his arms stretched out like a zombie, doing his hands’ evil bidding. Casting must’ve been essential in selling the horror of this scenario onscreen, as Verdt’s huge, veiny hands really do look like they’re controlling his body & bending his will for malicious purpose.

Like I said, a lot of what makes The Hands of Orlac special is retroactively undone by a lackluster finish involving a police procedural and a criminal caricature that plays about as broad & goofy as a Bobby Moynihan sketch. The film finds a lot to work with before it allows itself to unravel, though. It has a The Red Shoes quality in its fantastical ideas on how an object or a body part can possess you to act or hallucinate. There’s also impressive attention paid to the romantic falling out of such a bizarre situation. Because Orlac cannot play piano, the married couple suffers newfound debt & subsequent crisis. Also, Orlac refuses to touch his wife with his new murder hands, but the hands themselves have no qualms with seducing/being seduced by other women, which leads to one strikingly odd, fetishistic exchange with a maid. There’s a lot of great, weird imagery & ideas that top even that moment of bizarre seduction, including a giant, God-like hand descending from the ceiling over a hospital bed, a reference to head transplant experiment, and an army of wicked bankers mechanically shaking their heads no while Orlac’s wife begs for an extension on their debts. The Hands of Orlac also makes great use out of what’s becoming one of my favorite silent era tropes: impossibly enormous, bare interior spaces that feel like something out of a dream. I don’t think the film is anywhere near wholly successful, especially in light of its total cop out ending, but The Hands of Orlac is still fascinating in it smaller moments & details.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #9 of The Swampflix Podcast: A Mid-Year Return to the Best of 2015 & A Page of Madness (1926)


Welcome to Episode #9 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our ninth episode, James & Brandon discuss the best movies from 2015 they saw after they made their Best of the Year lists with friend & photographer Hanna Räsänen. Also, Brandon makes James watch the avant-garde silent horror masterpiece A Page of Madness (1926) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were also provided by James.

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn