By Kristin Battestella
Silent or talkie, the stars not only came out during the Great Depression to make some dang fine horror films and suspense thrillers but churned out a smorgasbord of scary classics!
The Bat – The 1959 Vincent Price remake of this 1926 once lost silent is a fine little caper, but this moody little mystery is a treat all its own. The perfectly atmospheric music accents the interesting stage like perspectives and design. These painted backgrounds will certainly look old and cheap to modern effects laden eyes, but there’s also something fun and distinctive about the look. Great bat costumes, shadows, and silhouettes also work wonderfully with the spooky mansion interiors. The opening establishing shots and long transitional action scenes do seem slow at times, however. When sequences are too long without intercard breaks, it is tough to tell who is who, where they are, or what’s going on. It’s almost tempting to watch at 1.5 speed, and for those unaccustomed to silent films, 80 minutes will seem overlong. Unfortunately, there’s also some early Asian racism and a stereotypically hysterical maid, but the touches of humor and bemusing title card beats do wonders. I’m not sure why infamous director Roland West felt the need to remake his own work here again in 1930, either. The cast interplay is solid, and the mystery intensifies perfectly. Besides, who doesn’t love a lost film found?
Condemned to Live – Sympathetic vampires take an early forefront in this 1935 hour. Familial angles create emotion and relationships in contrast to the would-be sinister and village paranoia, and the lovelorn twists and internal conflicts make for a likeable dilemma. The gothic music, old school vampire bats, tolling bells, and period dialogue may seem simple at times, and the vampire mechanics come a little too easy, sure. Thankfully, the ambiance of it all adds to the love triangle, and there is some thematic smartness, “Fear of the monster?” “No, fear for the monster.” The tone feels more like a drama or a tragedy that happens to have horrific elements rather than a shock and scare in your face pace. Plot reveals and exposition are presented with honesty, feeling, and concern, and the sincerity forgives any early hunchbacks and angry mob clichés. But who doesn’t love a good angry mob anyway?
The Devil Doll –Tod Browing (Dracula) directs Lionel Barrymore (It’s a Wonderful Life) and Maureen O’Sullivan (Tarzan and His Mate) in this demented 1936 tale based upon the book Burn Witch Burn. It’s all somewhat preposterous, of course- shrunken people being passed off as dolls in order to exact their master’s revenge! Fortunately, the fun if primitive effects and tiny treats don’t look too bad and actually add to the neat laboratory and science abominations. Yes, all these Parisian folks have American accents, some of the miniature scenes are comical before scary vengeance, and there is a brief scene that won’t be for dog lovers. Thankfully, quality mistaken crimes, good old-fashioned payback, and an entertaining chase montage keep up the pace. More intriguing, however, is the unique cross dressing disguise toeing the Hayes Code here. Barrymore works it wonderfully; we never get the feeling the fashion or tone is hammy. By contrast, there is an element of sophistication and superior thought. It may seem odd to have such wacky science alongside these early taboos, mature suspense, and crime thriller designs, but the stars keep the humanity fun, relatable, endearing, and certainly worth a look.
Fall of the House of Usher – This very early 1928 silent adaptation of Poe’s macabre tale is only 13 minutes. There are no inter cards to read, nor what we would call dialogue. The fashions are decidedly Roaring instead of Victorian, too. The visuals are so out there-even nonsensical-that it’s almost tough to see Edgar in any of it. Nonetheless, this moody piece is perfectly disturbed with great, haunting organ music and eerie, distorted photography. It’s trippy, unexpected, and a little scary. This is another one of those old films that makes for a great demented projection during a spooky party or ghoulish gallery presentation. Though not for everyone, anyone who is a fan of early film experimentation or audiences who just like weird shows should definitely check this out.
Maniac –Shades of Poe strike again in this quick 1934 study of fear and unnatural science from director Dwain Esper (Marihuana). How does the brain work? Are the mania stages mental disease or intelligent design? Taboo topics such as suicide and some hidden kinky are unfortunately hampered by the over the top identity crisis acting and confusing plot holes- not to mention a very poor video print. Perhaps the weird medical jargon filled intertitles are meant to explain or bemuse, but they interrupt the twisted action and building insanity. Creepy cat violence, code side-stepping lingerie, nudity, and catfights of a different kind add to the nonsensical presentation here. The realization and premise here certainly could be better- this one is really pretty bad overall. Yet, I must say, there’s an audience for this kind of avante garde tongue in cheek raunchy and hair brained macabre.
The Vampire Bat – Fay Wray (King Kong), Dwight Frye (Dracula), Melyvn Douglas (Hud), and Lionel Atwill (Captain Blood) get right to the bloodsucking crimes, superstitions, and disbelievin’ for this 1933 scary. Though the picture quality is poor for the hour and there are several versions available, fun dialogue, intelligent debates, and modern science versus medieval fears drama make up for any innate production flaws. Classic sets, bemusing laboratories, and an on-form stellar cast accent the spooky mystery mood. There are a few jump moments, twists, chases, and good old-fashioned screams, too. It’s actually somewhat pleasing to not see any of the would-be supernatural, but follow the early paranormal investigation and village paranoia instead. Are these murders fantastic or criminal medicine? The audience is slowly let in on the secrets, and the pace builds perfectly for a perilously fun and entertaining finish.