The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920)

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threehalfstar

We tend to think of the modern era as a creatively defunct cesspool of franchise obsession where original properties are a rare gamble in a never-ending ocean of sequels, prequels, reboots and reimaginings. The idea of the film franchise has been around for a long while, though. Consider The Golem: How He Came Into the World. It’s one of the most infamous horror films of the silent era, yet it’s a prequel in a three part series (in which the other two films are considered lost works). Think about that the next time you refuse to give Prometheus II or Leprechaun 4: In Space a fighting chance based on principle. There’s a long history of precedent in the never-ending horror franchise.

An ancient German Expressionism creature feature about Jewish mysticism, The Golem: How He Came Into the World bounces back & forth from being an incredible work that nearly rivals Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon in sheer beauty & ambition and the most standard issue silent horror you can conjure in your mind. After consulting the stars a wizardly group of rabbis foresee disaster for their community, which prompts them to start constructing a monstrous creature for their own protection, The Golem. It’s more or less the same story as the North Korean kaiju classic Pulgasari and is inspired by real life Jewish folklore. When the Jewish people are forced to evacuate by emperor’s decree, The Golem is constructed out of clay & brought to life through prayer to be the muscle that protects them from persecution. As with Pulgasari, he eventually becomes dangerously erratic, however, and poses a threat to the very people he was designed to keep safe.

Part of the reason I fail to connect with this film as much as its legacy propped up my expectations for was the design of The Golem himself. Portrayed onscreen by the film’s director, Paul Wegener, there just isn’t much to the lumbering bastard. His slow, awkward, Frankenstein-esque movements are amusing enough, especially on his first errand: buying a rabbi’s groceries; it makes total sense that the character would later appeal in the comedic sequel The Golem and the Dancing Girl. He’s not very convincing as a terror, however. His entire design more or less amounts to what it’d look like if pro wrestler Dave Bautista wore an Asian-cut wig. The Golem’s design is tied to a long history of tradition & folklore, but considering the terror of films like Nosferatu, The Phantom Carriage, and The Man who Laughs pulled off visually in the same era, he just doesn’t cut it as a silent movie monster.

That’s not to say that The Golem: How He Came Into the World is lacking in terms of striking imagery in a more general sense. The film’s beautiful, hand-built sets are a feat of expressionism in sculpture & architecture. Its tinted film cells have a Masque of the Red Death vibe in how they differentiate between separate interior spaces: reds, blues, greens, pinks, etc. The Star of David is employed as some kind of powerful source of magic, appearing in the starry sky & bringing The Golem to life during some kind of mystic ritual. Judaism is portrayed here as a kind of ancient cult complete with spells, fires, robes, and circles of smoke. In its best moments the film recalls the ancient mysticism of historically-minded works like Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages & The Witch. Like The Witch, it even claims to be “based on events in an old chronicle”, despite being based on a then-recent novel.

There’s, of course, a few points of historical context to the film that also makes it of interest. A German production before the rise of Nazism, The Golem can be very interesting in the way it portrays Judaism as a religion and as a culture. On the one hand the film has a way of othering the Jewish people as some kind of mystic band of magical weirdos. At the same time, though, they act as a sympathetic underdog culture always suffering under the tyrannical whims of uncaring royalty. In one particularly poignant scene the rabbi who created The Golem tries to change the emperor’s heart by employing a vision of his people’s plight to “amuse” the court. This sorcery is essentially what Roger Ebert refers to as “the empathy machine.” Showing oppressors what is fundamentally a moving picture wins the rabbi no sympathy for his people & the heartless dandies instead laugh in his face, causing a life-threatening scene with The Golem at its center.

With a better creature design The Golem: How He Came Into the World might’ve reached all-time classic territory. As is, I’m just not feeling that with the film as a whole. It’s a pretty decent silent horror with occasional flashes of over-the-top brilliance. I was entertained, but I wasn’t floored.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lost World (1925)

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fourstar

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King Kong is often thought of as the first major special effects spectacle of early cinema. More specifically, if you ask someone to picture stop motion animated dinosaurs battling in an ancient film it’s highly likely King Kong would be the first image to come to mind. However, the very first movie to employ stop motion models as its main form of special effects outdates Kong by eight years. The Lost World might be a little more artistically muted than the art deco heights reached in King Kong, but the two films are thematically similar & The Lost World beat Kong to the punch in bringing dinosaurs (and humanoid apes, for that matter) to the big screen in what was at the time a majestic display. The same way the blend of CGI & animatronics floored audiences with “realistic” dinos in Jurassic Park‘s 1994 release, the stop motion dinosaurs of 1925’s The Lost World were an unfathomable achievement at its time. When the source material’s author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle screened test footage for the press (at a magician’s conference of all places) The New York Times even excitedly reported “(Conan Doyle’s) monsters of the ancient world, or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily life like. If fakes, they were masterpieces.” Imagine writing that “if fakes” qualifier in earnest & how quickly that writer’s head would have exploded if they got a glimpse of Spielberg’s work 70 years later.

At this point in time it’s understandable to be more than a little jaded about the visual accomplishments of The Lost World. Show this film to a young child following a screening of something loud, shiny, and new like Captain America: Civil War & they’re going to struggle caring or paying much attention. It probably doesn’t help that the film takes its audience’s jaw-dropped awe for granted either. Its razor-thin narrative strands a hunter, a professor, a journalist, a beautiful woman, and other assorted crew (including, in true 1920s fashion, a deeply uncomfortable blackface character named Zambo) in a modern prehistoric world hidden away somewhere along the “fifty thousand miles of unexplored waterways”in South America. Among a wealth of living, breathing dinosaurs & missing-link type primates, the in-peril crew alternates from being mystified by the old world wonders laid before them & fighting for their lives due to immediate concerns presented by the terrain. It’s a story that’s been adapted & co-opted countless times since 1925 (even with the added bonus of removing the colonialism-minded racism). Even its way of starting with more “harmless” breeds of dinos like the brontosaurus & working its way up to tn he gigantic T. Rex’s & Allosauruses of the (lost) world is a structure that’s been mimicked to death.

I’ll admit that it takes a certain joy in silent era hokeyness to enjoy this movie’s charms at face value in a modern context. I delight in the fact that the stop motion teradons look exactly like Pterri on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Simple characterizations like Professor Challenger challenging the public to confirm his discovery amuse me (when they’re not tied to racial caricature, at least). Likes like “What are you thinking of, Paula- in this lost world of ours?” are a pure pleasure for me instead of groan-inducers. I’m also a huge sucker for stop motion animation in general, so the mix of handmade sets & real animal footage (sloths, jaguars, bear cubs, etc.) with claymation dinos is my idea of cinematic heaven. For some people this movie’s artificial dino safari will play as dull as the special effects “spectacle” of the exhaustively soulless Bwana Devil, but this is totally my happy place.

Where that for-fans-only attitude might shift is in the film’s final ten minute stretch, where it makes the same genre leap as King Kong & Spielberg’s unfairly maligned camp delight The Lost World (1997): bringing the dinos to the modern world. A brontosaurus is set loose on the streets of London, feeling like the stop motion beginnings of the kaiju genre & transcending what you might expect from a 1920s fantasy horror about a dino exploration mission. I feel like anyone with a deep affection for stop motion animation should watch this film either way; they’ll find so many handmade treasures big & small in its early special effects landmarks. If that kind of old world pleasure sounds quaint or too outdated for you, however, I urge you to at least watch the film’s concluding minutes of brontosaurus-run-wild mayhem. There’s something anachronistically bizarre & over-the-top in that segment that feels very much inline with the modern blockbuster landscape & I think a lot of people would get a kick out of its movie magic lunacy.

-Brandon Ledet

A Page of Madness (1926)

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I’ve been on something of a silent horror tangent lately,which has lead me to watching some really striking works of early cinematic achievement, but nothing comes close to the (literal) insanity on display in the Japanese film A Page of Madness. The film plays like a cold splash of water or an  open-handed slap to the face. From the first frame on, its wild, chaotic mode of loose story telling and terrifying black & white cinematography feels entirely anachronistic for the time of its release. A whirlwind of rapid edits, bizarre imagery, and an oppressive absence of linear storytelling make A Page of Madness feel like a contemporary with, say, Eraserhead or Tetsuo: The Iron Man instead of a distant relic of horror cinema. It’s an early masterwork of disjointed, abstract filmmaking and it’s one that was nearly lost forever, considered unobtainable for nearly four decades before a salvageable (and significantly shortened) print was re-discovered.

A Page of Madness opens with a flood of, well, madness: storm water pours; train engines roar; a woman dances in a ceremonial gown on a set that is simultaneously ethereal & industrial. The film pulls back here to reveal its hand. The woman dances for no particular audience. She’s wearing a hospital gown, not a fine piece of luxurious fabric. She is a patient in a mental ward, not entirely sure of what place or time she occupies. The audience isn’t sure either. We’re introduced to her husband, who poses as a janitor at the hospital in hopes of setting her free. His attempts to make himself or their former life together recognizable to her are in vain. His attempts to stage a prison break ultimately end in ultraviolent futility. Everything else in between is up for interpretation as a tornado of screaming babies, wild dogs, creepy masks, and crosshatched jail cell bars tear across the screen. From beginning to end A Page of Madness is smeared, stretched, mirrored, sped-up, and doubled over. The result is downright maddening, like Häxan by way of Hausu.

This film is way more expressionistic & chaotic than what I’m used to from cinema’s silent era. It takes a very one-note, stubborn view of mental illness that lacks any semblance of modern nuance in the subject, but the play it gets out of interpreting its mental patients’ hallucinations in a visual language is awe-inspiring even by today’s standards. The overall aesthetic feels akin to turning on a flashlight in pitch black darkness only to be startled by the haunted house terrors lurking within. Very early on the film intentionally relates itself to jazz by throwing images of the then-young art’s instruments in with the rest of its kinetic collage, a very apt act of self-awareness. Its great feat is in the way it consistently disrupts your sense of location and temporal setting. Jail cells & external spaces bleed together, as do the past & present. It’s all delightfully, horrifyingly dizzying.

A lot of A Page of Madness‘s obfuscation is a likely result of its modernized form. When screened in Japan in the 1920s, the film was accompanied by live storytellers who would clarify characters’ inner dialogue & general intent in a way that’s missing when watching the film in your living room. Without that embellishment, the film’s total lack of intercut dialogue cards leaves the audience to drown without a lifeline. Its hypnotic soundtrack recalls a particularly noisy Xiu Xiu experiment stretched thin & hammered out of shape, which is not likely what original audiences experienced either. Also, the film’s missing footage might’ve softened its abstraction to a degree (although some historians suspect director Teinosuke Kinugasa himself might’ve shortened & sped up the film to enhance this effect once he re-discovered his lost print).

All of this speculation is ultimately meaningless, however. The version of A Page of Madness we do have today is immaculately abrasive & I wouldn’t change one confusing frame of it. I doubt any other silent horror I’ll watch will match its sheer memorability, but I’ll gladly welcome the challenge of any film that’s willing to try.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bat (1926)

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fourhalfstar

One scene into The Bat I felt an intense swell of confusion & disbelief as if I had just won the movie lottery. The film’s titular antagonist appeared in the black & white haze of degraded celluloid with the general look of the familiar, but in a completely foreign shape. It was like running into a dear friend’s close relative & mistaking them for your pal. Batman as we know him may not have made it to the cinema until his incarnation in 1940s serial shorts, but his misshapen ancestor The Bat appeared onscreen two decades earlier, predating even the first Batman comic. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I sat down to watch this silent era crime mystery, but it surely wasn’t the prototype of a movie franchise hero I grew up loving dearly.

There are some major differences between The Bat & The Batman that I should probably get out of the way early. The Batman flirts with criminality in his vigilantism, but The Bat is an outright criminal. In fact, his background as a jewel thief & a bank robber makes him much more akin to a masculine version of Catwoman in Batman’s clothing. Speaking of the clothing, the two characters’ costumes also deffer in a few significant ways. While The Batman is a smoothed out, leather-clad ideal of what a humanoid bat might look like, The Bat is much more realistic to his animal kingdom inspiration. He has goofy, gigantic ears like a horror show version of Mickey Mouse. He’s also much furrier, with a terrifyingly accurate mask the film smartly waits to reveal until the third act. He also carries around his weapons/tools in an old doctor’s bag instead of the utility belt rocked by the Caped Crusader.

Whatever. This is still a masked man in bat costume, complete with black cape & gloves, who runs around the rooftops of an Art Deco metropolis. He climbs the sides of buildings by rope like a far less campy Adam West. He casts a goddamn bat signal across an interior wall using a car’s headlamp. He spends mot of his runtime skulking around an old, city-side mansion that looks like gothic castle & contains secret rooms that house illegal acts. Why take my word for it, though? Comic book artist Bob Kane cites the film’s 1930s talkie remake The Bat Whispers (which shares a director with this version’s Roland West) as  a direct inspiration for the creation & design of Batman as a character. So, there you go. The Bat is in itself an adaptation of a Broadway stage play, so maybe Batman’s roots go back just a little further, but his existence in cinema undeniably starts here, an impressive forever ago.

As for The Bat‘s achievements outside its eventual massive influence on modern pop culture, the film works just fine as a tiny murder mystery & heist thriller. For the stretches where The Bat doesn’t appear onscreen, the film’s plot isn’t particularly flashy or experimental in any recognizable way. The only thing that stands out as a sore spot is the comic relief of a ditzy maid who continuously misguesses the identity of The Bat. “Maybe he’s The Bat!” “Maybe he’s The Bat!” “That Jap butler gives me the willies […] Maybe he’s The Bat!” I’m not sure I’m allowed to go any further into the details here, since ht film opens with the stern talking-to, “Can you keep a secret? Don’t reveal the identity of ‘The Bat’. Future audiences will fully enjoy this mystery play if left to find out for themselves.” Yes, I can keep a secret, especially since the film’s stage play mystery structure isn’t the most significant thing at work anyway.

The Bat is a must-see work of seminal art. It’s not some antiquated bore with an antagonist that was plucked from lowly ranks for a higher purpose. The film directly influenced the creation of Batman, but it also achieves its own, exquisite Art Deco horror aesthetic that recalls the immense wonders of the Hollywood classic The Black Cat, except with more of a creature feature lean. Its stunts are impressively dangerous-looking. Its actors are dwarfed by its beautifully immense sets. Shadows creeping up city walls & perfectly lit gunsmoke shooting down a stairwell make for some unforgettable imagery/cinematic history. It’s no wonder, really, that the film has been remade twice (the second was in 1959 with horror legend Vincent Price) or that its influence reached into comic books & beyond. It’s a gorgeous & violent work of early horror/crime cinema that caught me off-guard with its power & improtance as soon as the first scene.

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

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fourhalfstar

Have you ever completely forgotten that you’ve seen a film before until you’re in the middle of watching it? I ran across a couple posts recently that compared Stanely Kubrick’s masterful horror landmark The Shining to a 1920s Swedish film named The Phantom Carriage. There was one .gif in particular that mirrored the two works’ infamous axe scenes that really caught my attention while scrolling through Tumblr posts. I made a point to bump the Criterion-restored version of The Phantom Carriage to the top of my Hulu queue only to discover about five minutes into the film that I had seen it once before, years & years ago, and already really enjoyed it.

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A silent film that combines horror & dramatic tragedy, The Phantom Carriage tells a similar story as works like It’s a Wonderful Life & A Christmas Carol with an intense focus on the supernatural aspect of that framework. In the movie’s mythology whoever dies last on the last day of the year must drive Death’s carriage for a full year. Each day feels like 100 years as the titular phantom carriage’s driver makes their rounds like a mail room clerk, collecting souls from the recently deceased on Death’s behalf. The horse & carriage are always the same, but the driver is different each year, almost like a morbid version of the Tim Allen comedy The Santa Clause.

On this particular New Year’s Eve the newest phantom carriage driver-elect is one David Holm, a boozy sinner who’s spent most of his life abusing anyone who dares to love him. Before David’s (literally) given the reins, however, he’s forced to take a remorseful journey through his own past, bearing witness to each horrifically shitty thing he’s done to his fellow man. David is forced by Death’s previous servant to watch as his past self abandons his family in favor of booze, shames the charitable for caring about his well-being, and intentionally tries to spread consumption among the innocent out of pure malice. He can barely stand to watch himself act like such a destructive ass & that discomfort is a large portion of his punishment as Death’s new servant.

Outside the obvious homage in the axe scene pictured above, there isn’t much to The Phantom Carriage‘s connection to The Shining except on a very basic thematic level. The Phantom Carriage is a ghost story about alcoholism & familial abuse in which the temporary caretaker of a supernatural, cursed establishment is driven to cruelty, so yeah, it does telegraph a lot of the basic structure of where Kubrick would take his Steven King adaptation over 50 years later. However, Kubrick is far from the first director who comes to mind while watching The Phantom Carriage, which is likely why I didn’t remember seeing the film before when prompted by those social media posts.

It’s Ingmar Bergman who pulled the most readily recognizable influence from the silent classic. As soon as Death’s servant arrives in the iconic hooded robe & sickle get-up, Bergman’s version of Death in The Seventh Seal immediately comes to mind. Before I even read this film’s Wikipedia page I could’ve told you Bergman watched The Phantom Carriage religiously and, indeed, the director claimed to have viewed it at least once a year. It’s possible to argue that The Shining would’ve been a very different work without The Phantom Carriage‘s influence, but what’s an even more immense question is just how different Bergman’s entire aesthetic would be without the seminal work. It’s crazy to think of the massive influence Bergman’s image of Death has had across pop culture, from The Last Action Hero to The Independent to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (naming a few personal favorites), and that its seed was actually planted in the silent era.

The Phantom Carriage is well worth a watch even outside its massive influence on the likes of Kubrick & Bergman. The film was noteworthy in its time for innovations in its ghostly camera trickery and its flashback-within-a-flashback narrative structure. Those aspects still feel strikingly anachronistic & forward-thinking today, especially the gnarly phantom imagery, but you don’t have to be a film historian to appreciate what’s essentially a timeless story of brutally cold selfishness & heartbreaking remorse. I also like the movie’s gimmick of trying to make a non-Halloween holiday spooky (the film was set, plotted around, and released on New Year’s Eve), something schlock horror would do with Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and whatever else for decades to come. It’s a shame that at one point I forgot I watched The Phantom Carriage in the first place. It’s a great slice of horrific silent cinema & innovative filmmaking history.

-Brandon Ledet

Forgotten Silver (1995): Peter Jackson’s Silent Film Precursor to The Independent (2000)

Five years before our December Movie of the Month, 2000’s Jerry Stiller comedy The Independent, went straight to DVD a very similar mockumentary aired on New Zealand television: 1995’s Forgotten Silver. Although Forgotten Silver covers cinema’s early, silent era while The Independent covers its B-movie & drive-in time frame, the two mockumentaries are very similarly minded both in their reverence for the medium they’re spoofing and in their depictions of madmen auteur directors possessed by their passion for filmmaking & troubled by their failure to secure proper funding for their art. While The Independent is a brilliant, must-see comedy for schlock junkies & Roger Corman fanboys, Forgotten Silver covers the same territory for cinephiles & Criterion fetishists.

When it was first introduced to New Zealand audiences, Forgotten Silver was framed as a true-life documentary of “forgotten” (read: fictional) filmmaker Colin McKenzie, who supposedly operated during cinema’s birth at the turn of the century through the tail end of the silent era in the late 20s. Much like how The Independent‘s Morty Fineman accidentally pioneered cinema in his quest to make movies about “tits, ass, and bombs” Colin McKenzie was credited here for accidentally inventing the world’s first tracking shot, color film, feature length film, talkie, close-up, and candid camera comedy, among other firsts. Although this list of feats is beyond preposterous for an unknown filmmaker (and they all end in blunderous fates like smut charges & miscarriages) its deadpan delivery & adherence to a traditional documentary format make it somewhat understandable that some television audiences were initially duped by Forgotten Silver‘s validity as a document of a real-life auteur. It’s got a much more wry, Woody Allen’s Take the Money & Run style of mockumentary humor in contrast to The Independent‘s more over-the-top, Christopher Guest-esque approach to comedy.

It’s difficult to say for sure if Forgotten Silver provided any direct inspiration for The Independent, but there are some undeniable similarities in their DNA. While Forgotten Silver is concerned with restoration of McKenzie’s entire catalog, The Independent follows the discovery & restoration of Fineman’s “lost” anti-herpes PSA The Simplex Complex. Also like The Independent, Forgotten Silver is mostly concerned with the completion of a single feature film, this time profiling the production of Salome, a multi-year production of a Biblical epic featuring 15,000 extras, a city-sized hand-built set, and endless funding issues that similarly plagued Fineman’s Ms. Kevorkian. The film also establishes its legitimacy as a documentary by enlisting several big names in art cinema – producer Harvey Weinstein, critic Leonard Maltin, and actor Sam Neill among them – to provide interview fodder. Peter Jackson, the film’s co-director/creator alongside documentarian Costa Botes, get the most screentime of all, framing the story of how McKenzie’s films were found & restored and what significance they have to the history of cinema at large in his talking head interviews.

The differences between Forgotten Silver & The Independent are just as apparent. Because Colin McKenzie was (fictionally-speaking) long dead before Peter Jackson brought his work to light, Jackson serves as the central voice in Forgotten Silver. Morty Fineman, on the other hand, is Jerry Stiller alive & at his loudest & most demanding, dominating The Independent‘s runtime. The films’ tones are also drastically different. The only time Forgotten Silver approaches The Independent‘s over-the-top ridiculousness is in its depictions of sub-Charlie Chaplin vaudeville routines involving cream pies that McKenzie filmed in order to financially support Salome. For the most part, though, the two films are remarkably simpatico. At heart, they both aim to resurrect long-dead cinema genres in loving spoof form. Forgotten Silver‘s approach is just more subdued & deadpan due to the nature of its turn-of-the-century subject matter. The Independent is a much flashier, more over-the-top comedy, which makes sense given its exploitation cinema homage. Both are great, must-see comedic gems for cinephiles in either camp.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, 2000’s The Independent, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this transcription of Morty Fineman’s fictional filmography, and last week’s recommendation that you also watch the documentary Corman’s World to get the full picture..

-Brandon Ledet

 

 

The Red Kimona (1925)

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“I believe it takes a woman to believe in a woman’s motives, and every story intended for the screen should have a woman working on it at some stage to convince the audience of women.” – Dorothy Davenport

Dorothy Davenport was somewhat of an early trailblazer in the arena of women filmmakers. Her third picture, 1925’s The Red Kimona, is credited as being one of the first independent film productions ever handled predominately by women. Davenport was credited as a producer & a writer for the film, among other female voices, and acted in an uncredited role as the film’s head director, often nixing ideas from first time director Walter Lang she didn’t approve. Much like Davenport’s first film, the drug addiction drama Human Wreckage, The Red Kimona garnered a great deal of controversy in its time, to the point where it was even banned in the UK. Released years before the alarmist “road to ruin” movies of the 30s & 40s, the film was way ahead of its time in terms of racy content in the silent era, remarkable for its pedigree as a woman’s tragic story told by a woman filmmaker in a time where they were a rare breed.

Telling the real-life story of Gabrielle Darley, a woman tricked into a life of prostitution in 1920s New Orleans, The Red Kimona depicts the ramifications of “years of bondage-sorrowful-sordid.” When, early in the film, Darely discovers that her boyfriend/pimp is using money earned through her sex work to purchase a wedding ring intended for another woman, she flips out & shoots him dead. In a California Supreme Court case that made national headlines, Darley was acquitted of the crime because of what the deceased put her through in New Orleans. The movie mostly tackles what followed Darley’s infamous fall from grace, depicting a world of closed doors & unwelcome faces as she tries to piece her life back together following the trial. She finds a brief respite as a wealthy socialite’s publicity generator (which in its own way is like being pimped), but she finds this prospect exhausting & frivolous: Darley longs to “seek redemption” in servitude as a nurse, but she discovers that not many employers are willing to give an opportunity to a woman with a public record of murder & prostitution.

The Red Kimona is a difficult film to pin down. I initially watched it to see a 1920s depiction of New Orleans’ famed Storyville district, which has a very Old World Europe look to it here, but most of the film is set in California. Despite the expectations set by later “road to ruin” films, which would’ve ended with a guilty verdict at Darley’s murder trial & a firm warning to young love-hungry girls not to follow in her path, the film avoids themes about the evils of sex work & instead focuses on charity, poverty, exploitation, and the lack of opportunity for a woman trying to make it on her own. The writing can be really sharp sometimes, like when the preying pimp creepily urges Darley to “be a good little girl”, but sometimes the prose gets mighty purple, like in the line “Three words – I love you – sometimes as beautiful and sacred as a prayer, sometimes a cowardly lie.” And even though the film isn’t quite as creative in its political moralizing as Häxan‘s tirade against the way we deal with mental illness, it does have its own interesting visual touches, especially in the way that the Storyville district’s (literal) red light, the distant glow of warfare, and the titular red kimona are all hand-colorized to glow red while the rest of the film is a contrasting black & white.

The movie also proved frustrating for Davenport herself. Even though everything depicted about Darley’s real life Supreme Court case was a matter of public record, she was still successfully sued for making the film without her subject’s permission. The financial blow was substantial, but Davenport still went on to produce more Big Issue films & started a drug rehab program designed to help relieve the “upward struggle of such unfortunates” depicted in her Human Wreckage film. The Red Kimona is far from a forgotten masterpiece, but it is an interesting early example of a female protagonist struggling with some difficult, salacious issues in a way that isn’t as dismissive or moralizing as what you’d typically expect from 20s cinema. If you’re a fan of subtly transgressive films from the silent era, Davenport’s The Red Kimona might be well worth your attention.

-Brandon Ledet

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

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threehalfstar

(Viewed 07/14/2015, available on YouTube.)

I have to admit that I had no idea what I was getting into with this film.  A black and white picture of Conrad Veidt with a painfully grotesque smile and desperate eyes was posted online next to an illustration of Batman’s Joker.  The Man Who Laughs – inspiration for the Joker!”

I’m a sucker for a dramatic photo.  And for Batman.

The Man Who Laughs turns out to be a gorgeous 17th century period piece filmed on the eve of the sound age and the Hays Code, based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel.  The Laughing Man himself, Conrad Veidt, is well known for his other roles in movies such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Casablanca, and I’m sure that you’ve all heard of this film already and that I’m behind the curve on this one.  The 1928 Universal Pictures movie is a melodrama, a romance, a comedy, a swashbuckler, and a thriller.  The story follows a man who, kidnapped and mutilated as a child to punish his father, lives as a performer until his lost identity catches up with him and drags him into a world of intrigue.  There is not a speck of realism to be found and it’s completely delightful.

Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of the mutilated clown Gwynplaine is a fantastically overwrought exploration of existential crisis.  Mary Philbin’s portrayal of the literally blindly innocent Dea is one of the most beautiful presentations of spotless femininity that I have ever seen on film (helped no doubt by constantly luminescent lighting).  Olga Molnar presents a contrasting and archetypically vampy performance of the Countess Josiana: beautiful, sexual, powerful, and cruelly self interested.

The Man Who Laughs is a fun watch, and as a (mostly) silent film it will require your actual attention and a modicum of active investment.  I found the pacing quick enough and the story engaging enough to keep me interested without much effort.  The visual lushness of the movie makes it a treat to watch.  I would consider this movie to be a fairly accessible silent film for anyone interested in dipping their toes into the world of pre-sound movies, and should go on your list if you’re interested in pre-Code movies, German Expressionism (even though it’s an American film), or visual inspirations for the Joker.

-Erin Kinchen

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

witch

fourstar

Although it was made a few years before the term “documentary” was coined, Häxan was far from the first non-fiction film ever made. It may, however, be the first documentary to ever be billed as a horror film. Based on the painstaking research of Danish writer/director Benjamin Christensen, Häxan is a hot-button doc that pretends to be about the “real” history of witchcraft, but is in truth a condemnation of how modern society deals with mental health. Although it begins & ends with lectures on antiquated notions of geography and health care, most of the film consists of live reenactments of medieval depictions of witchcraft that often blend the film’s documentary genre with classic silent horror. The reenactments are not only the sugar that helps the medicine go down. They’re also technical marvels that made Häxan the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made and a cinematic outlaw in countries that found its depictions of witches & devils to be blasphemous.

In its reenactments, Häxan looks like what you’d get if Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were set in Hell. Devils wag their tongues and suggestively churn butter while witches make potions out of thieves’ fingers, cat feces, and doves’ hearts. Women are lured out of their marriage beds by demons for late night naked dance parties and rub salves on each other’s backs that give them the ability to fly around on brooms. In these scenes, Häxan is the most metal 20s movie I’ve ever encountered. There’s so much wild imagery in the costuming and practical effects that I swear I’ve seen directly echoed before in VHS-era creature features like Nightbreed, Demons and C.H.U.D. The movie’s late night witches’ councils could also pretty much be considered source material for Kate Bush’s incredible “Sat in Your Lap” music video. Although Häxan boasts a serious message it deeply cares about, there’s no denying that it has a lot of fun in scaring the shit out of people with the medieval “The Devil takes many shapes” concept. Recreating live-action versions of witchcraft from art history is the film’s bread & butter, even if Ben Christensen had a loftier purpose in mind.

As devilishly fun & influential as the reenactment scenes are, Häxan (like a lot of hot button documentaries) is ultimately a huge downer. When the film returns to the real world to draw the thread between how women with mental illness have been treated in the past (as witches) and how they’re treated in the present (as lepers & pariahs) the naked dance parties are a far off memory and a flood of more sobering thoughts comes crashing through. The narration explicitly states “The Devil does not belong to the past” and asks “Isn’t superstition still rampant among us?” as depictions of the horrors of modern mental institutions and shady health care practices play out on the screen. Christensen then smartly returns to the opening depictions of the crystal spheres & bowl-shaped landscapes people once believed to be the science of the Universe’s structure, calling into question the validity of modern scientific consensus. Even nearly a hundred years since Häxan’s release, the sentiment is still potent. There are still huge flaws in our treatment of mental health & we still need flashy, sinful entertainment to draw our attention to them. Along with its hellish practical effects & creature design, the film’s central message has a surprisingly long shelf life.

Häxan is currently streaming on Hulu Plus.

-Brandon Ledet