Classic silent horror flicks still a scream
By G. Michael Dobbs
Some classic films are featured in this week's DVD review column.
American Silent Horror Collection
In the coming weeks, you'll be reading more about some of the recent releases from Kino International, a company that specializes in silent and foreign film. This week the company's collection of silent horror films is in the spotlight.
The collection includes four films "The Penalty," "The Cat and the Canary," the John Barrymore version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and "The Man Who Laughs" as well as the documentary "Kingdom of Shadows."
The horror film, as most audiences know it today, didn't really establish itself as a genre until the successes of "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" in 1931. Before that time there were films that had supernatural themes or were thrillers, but the phrase "horror" wasn't used to describe them.
The star most closely associated with silent horror films was Lon Chaney, the star character actor who was well known for his creative make-ups. The Chaney film in this collection, "The Penalty," is one of his most extreme. He portrays a man who had his legs unnecessarily amputated while he was boy. He becomes a criminal as a man and swears revenge on the doctor and his family.
To achieve the look of having no legs below the knees, Chaney used a harness apparatus that bound his legs against his back. He could only wear it for relatively short lengths of time due to the pain it would cause.
The film itself is a pretty wild ride into the mind of someone obsessed with revenge.
Pain and revenge figure prominently, although in very different ways, in "The Man Who Laughs," a big budget adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel of the same name. Encouraged by the huge box office returns of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," Universal Studio head Carl Laemmle produced this film at the coming of sound in 1928. The story revolves around Gwynplaine, the son of an English noble who has fallen out of grace with the king. The boy is given over to a "surgeon" who creates freaks for sideshows and has his mouth deformed into a permanent smile.
The great German actor Conrad Veidt has the unenviable role of acting only with his eyes as the appliance used to keep his mouth in a grimace prohibited any movement. Gwynplaine is no a monster or villain, but a victim who must reconcile what has happened to him with how he views the world.
The film is presented with its original music and sound effects track.
"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is thought by many to be the book that has been filmed the most often and this version was definitely the best of the silent editions with the prince of Broadway John Barrymore clearly enjoying the chance to cover his handsome features with a very effective make-up.
"The Cat and the Canary" was a favorite on the stage by the time director Paul Leni brought it to the screen in 1927. It's the classic "dark old house" thriller in which a group of people gathered together in a spooky old mansion for the reading of a will get more than they bargained for from "The Cat."
It may be corny, but the film is still a great deal of fun.
The documentary is the weakest part of the package as it tries to be artistic rather than informative. Considering each DVD has a number of cool extras, the unsatisfying documentary further pales in comparison.
This is a great collection for anyone serious enough about film to venture into the silent era.
The Three Stooges Collection, Volume Two 1937-1939
The world can be divided in many ways and one is undoubtedly people who find the Three Stooges funny and those who don't.
I fall into the former camp and find that the wits of my childhood still can make me laugh.
If you've never heard of the Three Stooges before, I'll attempt to describe them: three odd-looking little guys who seemingly communicate all of their major emotions through insults, hits, kicks and slaps. Their professions, marital status and relationships between each other seem to shift from film to film. One could either see them as either low humor or high art.
This collection essentially shows the Stooges in their best light the trio features Curly Howard, undoubtedly the best loved stooge, who came into the act when brother Shemp left it to pursue a solo career. Curly is a comic full of idiosyncratic sounds and gestures that make little sense, but are a scream.
The prints of these short comedies are among the best I've seen and although there are no extras, the collection features 24 films, which is plenty of great viewing.