More Early Horror!
By Kristin Battestella
Not everyone may like the dated production values and low video qualities of film’s earliest efforts. Nevertheless, here’s a quartet of fun, moody, scary, and atmospheric old tales for fans of classic movie macabre.
Frankenstein – Wow! It’s easy to find time for this rediscovered 13 minutes from Thomas Edison Studios just for the 1910 novelty alone. Of course, the print looks poorly, but numerous editions are available now and it’s fascinating this holds up so well. Though the credit admits to being a very loose Shelley adaptation, the new inter titles help clarify the tale and the expected, overdone acting. There are both black and white and sepia or other colored plates, too, and the wonderful period to us design and styles simply cannot be done today. Great music accompanies the touch of scares and the fantastical, fiery monster creation, too. The effects and monster design may seem primitive today, but they are actually pretty well done, even frightful despite the short run time. This one’s perfect for a creepy viewing party or macabre book discussion night.
The Rogues Tavern – The introductory music is somewhat whimsical to start this 1936 hour plus, and the dated, simplistic dialogue, lame humor, and weak investigation will be too old fashioned for some. The video quality is a little poor, too, but interesting panning and dolly camera work and lots of silence add to what is perhaps an obvious or Scooby Doo-ish, old hat premise. The cast of characters trapped in this isolated hotel seem stereotypically familiar- the fool, the detective couple, the creepy old couple, the creepy psychic lady, a man in a wheelchair, a loudmouth with a gun, and an implicated wolf dog. There is some good spin, however, and the early thirties dressings, cool looking staircase, and gothic touches accentuate the murderous screams. Charming ala Clue, the good deaths, tension, and mystery are well paced and entertaining for the duration.
Svengali – John Barrymore (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) gives a wonderfully disturbing performance as the eponymous hypnotist in this 1931 gothic drama based upon the book Trilby by George du Maurier. The look foul Rasputin-esque makeup is very effective, and the creepy eye effects are damn near diabolical. The look matches his greedy intentions and the seductively so wrong, suggestive dialogue as sympathy builds for the cute Marian Marsh (The Black Room). No way would anybody today send his or her daughter to this piano teacher! Perhaps it’s too long at 80 minutes and slightly slow when Barrymore is off screen for the standard young love plot, but great zooms, camera work, angles, and shadows keep the pace ghoulish. Fine costumes, décor, a black cat, and French elegance tie it all together as we are tricked into thinking we see more of this pre-code scandal than we actually do. Although some of the singing may be shrill and the acting or humor dated, the music is delightful and this adaptation remains spine chilling.
Torture Ship – This 1939 hour suggested from Jack London and directed by Victor Halpern (White Zombie) has a lot of tough to understand colloquialisms and dialogue. It’s slow to start and a little confusing for such a short piece. The subject matter is also simplistic and not very psychologically deep, and one can’t expect much gore or debauchery from the crooks and titular experiments, either. Fortunately, the mood and creepy are definitely here, with boating sets and nautical touches to keep things interesting. The dark print is tough, granted, but the lighting and shadows are excellent accents to the sinister medical equipment and overboard deaths. Perhaps this one isn’t totally scary, but the atmosphere is twisted, the science is awry, and the fun is quite bizarre.
Conveniently, these particular titles are also all in the public domain and available at varying sources online or streaming. So, there’s no excuse in getting your frightful early film feet wet!