Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Horror

The Haunted House (1921)

Buster Keaton rolls out another two-reel comedy short with lots of running around and gadgets. This time, he’s a bank clerk who winds up in a house full of bandits and ham actors who mistake each other for ghosts!

The movie begins by introducing Keaton, the “wizard of finance” as he arrives for work at the bank. For some reason, he’s in a chauffeured limousine, although it quickly becomes clear that he’s just a clerk. He pries a bottle cap off the lock of the door before opening it up, and when a pretty young girl (Dorothy Cassil) asks to make a withdrawal before banking hours, he tricks the time lock by moving up the hands of the clock. An extended comic sequence occurs when he gets some glue on his hands before starting to count out some cash, and soon there are clumps of glued money sticking everywhere, to people’s hands, bottoms, shoes, etc. We learn that one of Buster’s co-workers (Joe Roberts) is involved in a counterfeiting scheme, and he sets up Keaton to look guilty. He and his criminal partners are hiding in an old house which they have rigged up with booby traps and effects to make it appear to be haunted, and of course this is where Buster runs when he is chased by the police.

Meanwhile, a troupe of actors has been putting on a performance of “Faust” and they are booed off the stage and chased through the woods to the same house, leading Keaton and the gang of robbers to believe the house actually is haunted. There is a lot of running around as each side is frightened by the other, and a gag about a staircase that turns into a ramp whenever someone ascends to the top is used six times. Finally, Keaton figures out the scam and is able to get the police to arrest the real criminals. As Roberts is about to be taken away, he hits Keaton over the head and knocks him out before escaping. Keaton is now confronted by a seemingly endless stairway leading into the clouds, and he ascends to meet Saint Peter, who takes one look at him and pulls the lever that turns the stairs into a ramp and dumps Keaton in Hell, where a devil pokes his behind with a fiery pitchfork. Keaton awakes, still in the house, to discover that his pants are on fire.

Hope you guess my name.

Of all the Keaton shorts I’ve watched so far, I think this one got the most laughs from me. You see the laughs coming most of the time – it’s pretty obvious how things are going to go, especially once we’re actually in the house – but there’s a sense of surprise at how far Keaton will push it and the timing is perfect. It’s very much Keaton’s film, and he takes full advantage of his screen time. The romantic subplot, involving Virginia Fox as the president’s daughter, is pushed to the background so she winds up having little to do, and few of the other actors have any standout moments. The camerawork and editing are also very simplistic and functional, but the movie works because Keaton keeps it moving so you don’t have time to think about whether it makes sense or is “art” or whatever.

Directed by: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox, Dorothy Cassil, Edward F. Cline, Natalie Talmadge

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

October’s over, but wait! We still have one more centennial to add to our history of horror. This is my contribution to the “Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon,” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please check back there in the coming week for more of the entries.

This version of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale stars John Barrymore, whose reputation as an actor was already well-established, both on the stage and screen at this point, though some of his greatest triumphs in cinema were yet to come. This movie begins by introducing Dr. Henry Jekyll hard at work over his microscope, boasting to a skeptical colleague (Charles Lane as Dr. Lanyon) that science can conquer any mystery. The insert shots of micro-organisms may have been the first that many 1920s audiences had seen. Dr. Lanyon accuses him of meddling with the supernatural, and his butler Poole (George Stevens) comes in to remind him of his shift at the clinic and a later dinner date. We see the “human repair shop” which the charitable Jekyll runs to treat the poor of London. Interestingly, his home and the clinic appear to be on the same crowded London street, suggesting that a sumptuous home could be shouldered up against poverty in that time and place (the movie appears to be set, as the story is, in the late 19th Century).

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The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney established himself as the master of makeup and evil characters with this crime-horror feature after years in cinema, developing his range and honing his abilities. His character’s complexities lead to a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a man driven by revenge and evil.

The movie begins with a classic supervillain-origin-story: a child who has been in an accident is under the care of a young, freshly-minted doctor (Charles Clary), who amputates both his legs beneath the knees. When the doctor’s mentor arrives on the scene, he pronounces the amputations unnecessary, and the child learns of his disfigurement by overhearing them, then witnesses both doctors lying to his parents to cover up the mistake. Thus are the seeds of insanity sown. The boy grows up to become known as “Blizzard,” the chief of the criminal underworld in San Francisco. We first see him in his new role after a goon named Frisco Pete (Jim Mason) kills a streetwalker called Barbary Nell (Doris Pawn) in a dance hall. Pete runs back to Blizzard’s hideout and beat cops wisely choose to look the other way when they realize who is behind it. We learn that Nell has “wandered” from Blizzard’s gang, perhaps because for some strange reason he has put all of his girls to work in a sweatshop making hats. Read the rest of this entry »

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920)

At long last, here is my discussion of the feature that often begins the list of any “history of horror” films. It’s probably one of the most analyzed and written-about films of the Expressionist period, perhaps of German silent film in general, so I’ll be trying to see if I can add something new or at least interesting to consider.

The movie begins with a shot of two men sitting on a bench in front of a high stone wall. A tree with no leaves nearby establishes the time of year, and that they are in a park or similar outdoor space. The camera quickly cuts to a close-up on the older of the two men, and he speaks about spirits being “all around us” (“überall sind sie um uns her”), which seems to establish the supernatural or otherworldly nature of the tale, and he claims that they have separated him from his family. An ethereal-looking woman in white approaches the pair from the distance, and the younger man watches her in fascination. He identifies her as his fiancée, although she gives no sign of recognizing him, and tells the first man that their experiences are even stranger (“still seltsamer”) than what he has lived through. He offers to tell his tale, and then with a gesture evokes “The little town where I was born,” and from this point the movie takes place within his narrative (although see below about this).

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The Golem (1920)

This German feature film directed by Paul Wegener enters our History of Horror among the first movies modern fans easily recognize as “really” a horror movie. But its place in history remains disputed, with many possible interpretations available, so let’s take a closer look.

The movie begins with a shot of a starry sky above gnarled rooftops, with seven stars in a strange over-lapping configuration. We cut to an old man atop one of those rooftops, peering through a telescope and learn in an intetitle that he is Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), and that he sees bad days ahead for the Jews of Prague in the stars. Close-ups then introduce us to his household – an assistant named Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) and a daughter named Miriam (Lyda Salmonova, in reality the wife of Wegener). These two are both young adults, and they gently flirt as they assist on some alchemical experiment or other. Rabbi Loew interrupts to tell them of his prophecy, then he puts on a tall peaked hat and goes out to inform the other elders of the Ghetto. He advises them to begin a 24-hour vigil of prayer to avert coming disaster. Since he’s a  respected rabbi, the community elders follow is advice.

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Haunted Spooks (1920)

This horror spoof kicks off my annual “history of horror” for the month of October. It is a very funny – but also deeply problematic – comedy short featuring Harold Lloyd in his now-established “glass” character.

The movie begins with a series of funny intertitles that establish the cast and situation. Mildred Davis plays “The Girl,” who we are told is “Sweet Sixteen and never – – – well, only once or twice.” It is established that she is due to inherit a plantation and its associated fortune from her grandfather, so long as she is married and willing to live on the grounds with her husband for one year. The titles also tell us about Lloyd’s character (“The Boy: He wants to get married – – – Has no other faults,”) although we won’t meet him for a little while yet. Before that, we watch as her uncle (Wallace Howe, who plays “A man of sorts – – we are not saying what sort) reads the will and realizes that if he can drive her out of the house, he and his wife will be sole inheritors of the old Colonel’s property. Then we watch  clear parody of one of D.W. Griffith’s classic “bird-smooching heroine” introductions, in which Mildred is simply covered in cute critters, and even feeding a piglet from a milk bottle as well. Now William Gillespie, playing the family lawyer, arrives into her idyll and informs her of her new wealth, discovering to his embarrassment that she isn’t married. He promises to find her a cure for that and dashes off in his car.

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The Master Mystery (1919)

To wrap up this year’s October review of chilling movies, I’m going to look at this serial starring no less a person than Harry Houdini. Once again, it’s not exactly a horror movie – it’s more of a crime serial ala Louis Feuillade – but it has madness, a robot, and lots of creative death-dealing situations for the hero to get out of, so I’m including it.

Our story begins in the home of Peter Brent (Jack Burns), the President of International Patents, Inc, a company whose nefarious scheme is to buy up the patents for new inventions from lone geniuses and keep them off the market – benefiting those who own existing patents by preventing free competition. Unbeknownst to Brent, one of his employees, Quentin Locke (Houdini) is actually an agent of the Dept. of Justice, investigating on the grounds of the Anti-trust Act, and he has wired Brent’s home for sound (most of the first shots we see of Houdini are his reactions to conversations other characters are having in other rooms, which can be a bit confusing). Locke is of course secretly in love with Brent’s daughter Eva (Marguerite Marsh), and Brent is actually having second thoughts about the whole scheme for her sake. Enter the real villains of the movie, Herbert and Paul Balcom (William Pike and Charles E Graham), a father-and-son team who hope to take over the company (the father) and marry Eva (the son). They also have collaborators in the form of a secretary named Zita Dane (Ruth Stonehouse) who is secretly in love with Locke and a lady-of-leisure with the unlikely moniker of De Luxe Dora (Edna Britton) who “dominates” Paul. Read the rest of this entry »

The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903)

Released just one year after “A Trip to the Moon,” this extended adventure story from Georges Méliès was at least equally as ambitious and well-executed, although it’s not so well remembered today. Essentially a fairy tale-quest story, the use of a witch and her demons as antagonists fits it more or less into my October history of horror.

The movie begins on a proscenium-style set dressed as a medieval court. Lords and ladies arrange themselves around the throne. Méliès himself appears as “Prince Bel-Azor,” who is betrothed to Princess Azurine (Marguerite Thévenard). Various fairies give the princess wedding gifts, led by the fairy godmother, Aurora (Bluette Bernon). Suddenly a witch runs in, offended at not having been invited. When she is admonished by the prince, she turns into flame and disappears. The next sequence shows the princess in her bedchamber, assisted in undressing for bed by several ladies-in-waiting. Once they leave, the witch, assisted by several green demons, seizes the princess from her bed and puts her into a “chariot of fire.” She is unable to resist, although the prince rushes in at the last moment to be confronted by a fire-wielding demon. He and the court rush out to a high tower and watch the chariot of fire and its retinue rushing across the sky. The prince vows to pursue. Read the rest of this entry »

The Shadow Girl (1902)

I’m sneaking this one into my October “history of horror” because of the “dark” title and because I haven’t gotten to it yet – we have some big ones coming up next year and I may not have the time to get back to these minor trick films. It’s a simple short by Georges Méliès that shows mysterious appearances and disappearances in the context of stage magic.

The scene is set through a standard proscenium-style set showing a stage cluttered with theatrical equipment. A magician (Méliès) and a clown share the stage, and they pull a large white sheet from a basket. They shake it out, and suddenly there is a girl wrapped inside. They unwrap her to reveal her fetching tights and the clown tries to get fresh, causing the girl to run to the other side of the stage and Méliès to kick him in the behind. The clown now brings over a barrel and the magician and the clown hold it upright for the girl to climb through. She goes in, but a (male) clown comes out the other side. He and the magician dance for a moment as the clown brings up a hoop. The new clown jumps through the hoop and transforms again into the girl. The magician gestures her toward a plank at the back of the stage and the film ends.

The Star Films catalog suggests that the movie is cut short with this ending – apparently there is a further trick in which the girl lies on the plank and is made to levitate, then another in which a man and the girl are seen to change places at the wave of a wand. This version is all I could find, however. Another interesting point is that the catalog describes the clown assistant as an “imp,” tying the movie a bit more into the Halloween theme. It’s interesting that the magic tricks we do see focus on gender-swapping, though perhaps this is partly because it was easy to identify the difference between a man in clown makeup and a girl in tights in long shot. This remains an amusing example of the magic shows Méliès used his camera to bring to life, even after more ambitious projects had been successful.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Infernal Cauldron (1903)

Alternate Titles: The Infernal Caldron and the Phantasmal Vapors, Le Chaudron infernal

This short trick film from Georges Méliès continues my “history of horror” for October, 2018. Now 115 years old, it shows that some of the effects of cinema have aged well.

Méliès, dressed as a demon (the Star Films catalog informs us he is “Belphegor, executioner of Hell”), dances in front of a large boiling cauldron, on a set dressed like a Renaissance castle, with leering devil masks on the walls. Three women (two apparently dressed as men, wearing swords) are led into the chamber, and one at a time thrown into the pot. Another demon comes forth to stir the pot and Belphegor makes some magical gestures, producing more smoke. Suddenly, the smoke resolves itself into three ghostly figures, which fly about the room over Belphegor’s head, evidently frightening him. The ghosts turn into fireballs which whip around the room. Méliès leaps into the cauldron after they have disappeared, and the cauldron and demon disappear in a puff of smoke.

Although it looked to me as if the victims were having their revenge (in a plot reminiscent of “The Golden Beetle” by Segundo de Chomón), the Star Films catalog suggests a different narrative, more in line with Catholic theology. The condemned souls have been separated from their bodies by the cauldron, and at the end Belphegor turns them into Will-O-The-Wisps, “who must forever remain with the vast concourse of Satan’s victims.” The disappearance of Belphegor at the end is apparently voluntary, since his work is now complete. The catalog also makes quite a big deal about the transparent flying ghosts, calling it, “A very fascinating and absolutely new trick.” There have been some ghosts in Méliès before this, including the semi-transparent one in “A Fantastical Meal,” but these spirits do seem somewhat more nebulous and sophisticated to me. I would imagine that producing an effect for the audience was ultimately more Méliès’s interest than making a coherent or spiritually consistent storyline.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.