Monday, April 4, 2011

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 1: The 1920s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920- dir. Robert Wiene)

Horror’s start was atypically demure, dipping its talons in the cinematic waters with a few notable shorts during the 1910s. Adaptations of future warhorses like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde established the genre’s essential conventions: experimental special effects, gruesome makeup, shadowy atmosphere, bizarrely mannered acting. The next decade had barely begun when former theater actor Robert Wiene united these elements with shocking audacity in horror’s first major feature. As is so often the case with horror, the plot is a wispy hanger for the draping of the filmmakers' startling visuals. Told as a framed flashback, as early features films so often were,  Caligari presents one of our first mad doctors (Werner Krauss), a top-hatted creep who splits his time between running an asylum and working carnivals as a hypnotist.  His prize subject is Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a lanky giant who does the doctor’s dirty work while under a somnambulistic trance. Like a cartoon populated by living actors, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari eschews reality completely to embrace the director’s every whim. Few films—horror or otherwise—that followed are this encompassing in their weirdness. The sets, the acting, the iris transitions, even the intertitles, are distorted, bizarre. Caligari established German Expressionism as the stylistic essence of imaginative horror, and it would never be this undiluted again. The doctor’s diabolical thrall over his murderous somnambulist set the pieces in place for many mad scientist/monster pairings to follow, and it may be no great coincidence that the stiff-walking, flat-topped, black-eyed Cesare has much in common with a certain doctor-made monster Boris Karloff would play the following decade.

2. The Golem: How It Came Into the World (1920- dir. Paul Wegener and Carl Boese)

This adaptation of Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 novel melds mysticism and a most memorable monster to pioneer dark-fantasy cinema. The Golem: How It Came Into the World would be notable for no other reason than its clay creature conjured by a rabbi sorcerer to combat anti-Semitic persecutors in a medieval Jewish ghetto. As has often been written, this may be another film that held sway over James Whale, Jack Pierce, and Karloff when they collectively brought the Frankenstein Monster to life. The Golem’s encounter with a little girl is nearly impossible to watch without stringing it to the Monster'’s similar scene in Whale's Frankenstein. No doubt the equally brutish and sensitive Golem is among the first great movie monsters, but it is the intoxicating imagery conjured by directing duo Paul Wegener (who also plays the title role) and Carl Boese and cinematographer Karl Freund that makes this film magical. The creation sequence is stunning, Rabbi Loew encircling himself in fire and choreographing little flames dancing through the air. Then all turns ominous with images of a smoke-breathing demon, foreshadowing the chaos to follow. Freund would take a somewhat less celestial but more chilling tack a dozen years later when animating another major monster: The Mummy.

3. The Phantom Carriage (1921- dir. Victor Sjöström)

Germany did not have a monopoly on great horror in the genre’s earliest days. In stark contrast to its expressionistic peers, Sweden’s The Phantom Carriage introduces a more naturalistic horror film. Divorced from the grotesque surrealism of Caligari and the fantasy environments of The Golem, The Phantom Carriage packs its chills more subtlety. Aside from double exposure shots to achieve the ghosts’ semi-transparent appearances, special effects are in short order. Nightmarish imagery is not. A spectral grim reaper stalks the desolate Swedish countryside in search of a new soul to replace him as driver of the titular conveyance on New Year’s Eve. In one unforgettable shot, he retrieves a body from the bottom of the sea as eerie underwater vegetation sways in the foreground. More electrifying is a TB-infected drunkard axing through a door to get at his terrified wife and kids in a scene that must have made an impression on Stanley Kubrick. Ingmar Bergman certainly acknowledged the film’s effect on his Seventh Seal, and even cast director Victor Sjöström in the lead role of Wild Strawberries. Though Bergman would make a more philosophically profound film with The Seventh Seal (the main thrust of The Phantom Carriage is "alcohol bad; Jesus good"), Sjöström made a far spookier one.

4. Nosferatu (1922- dir. F.W. Murnau)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula had been in print for 25 years when the first feature-length adaptation of the key vampire novel materialized. Bram had been in his grave for ten years, but his wife Florence maintained tight control over the work that was her only significant source of ongoing income. So, it is hardly unreasonable that she took issue with F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation of Dracula. Despite efforts to mask its source material by fiddling with title, setting, and character names, Nosferatu was not only unmistakable as Stoker’s vampiric tale, but in the sprawling pantheon of adaptations that would follow, it is one of the more faithful. Still, Florence Stoker’s methods of dealing with the infringement against her husband’s book were extreme, to say the least. Without having even seen Murnau’s film, she commanded all prints be destroyed. Thankfully, her largely successful campaign was not completely successful (and unwarranted. As it turns out, Dracula had actually been in the public domain all along because of a paperwork error). Before the 1920s came to a close, prints of Nosferatu resurfaced with the uncanny resolve of its undead title creature. Murnau presented his supernatural material with an unprecedented seriousness, tempering Robert Wiene and Wegener/Boese’s outré tendencies to create a more mildly expressionist film, though one that solidified horror’s conventions. Experimentation is still fully present in the vampire’s unsettling perfect-posture rise from his coffin and the independently animated shadows (a device Francis Ford Coppola would overuse in his own Dracula adaptation 70 years later). Like The Phantom Carriage, Nosferatu is less concerned with rewriting the cinematic rulebook and more intent on creeping under the skin. This is the first horror film that could really be called scary, or at least the first one that remains so. Much of its fright-power resides with the ratty appearance and disquieting, marionette-like movements of Max Schreck’s Dracula. But the barren, Gothic sets and impenetrable darkness in which Murnau surrounds him are equally potent. When it comes to eliciting true terror—as opposed to repulsion or shock—subtlety always triumphs. Murnau knew this well. He also recognized the importance of good source material, and no other work of horror literature would ever be adapted more often than Dracula. That none of the multitudinous adaptations that followed over the subsequent nine decades improved on Nosferatu significantly is a testament to that version’s greatness.

5. Häxan (1922- dir. Benjamin Christensen)

In its own way, Häxan is as wildly experimental as Caligari, yet in a more sophisticated and somewhat more conservative manner. Instead of expecting his audience to accept the film’s phantasmagoria at face value, Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen packages it in a documentary on all things witchy. The film works just fine as a history of supernatural witch lore and the actual persecution of women accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Unlike so many of the fictional witch tales that followed, Häxan recognizes the horrific, tragic injustices of the witch persecutions of the middle-ages, perhaps patronizing the victims at times, but recognizing that they were, indeed, victims, and not the evil, blasphemous monsters we'd see in later films like Horror Hotel and Witchcraft. Of course, if  Häxan was nothing more than a straight-forward study of witchcraft through the ages, it would hardly deserve a place on this list. No, the film’s real draw are the illustrations of the superstitions the sober narration describes. Far less conservative than the documentary conceit are the shocking depictions of torture, demons cavorting in the buff, and baby sacrifices. Hell is portrayed as a Hieronymus Bosch orgy. Witches line up to kiss Satan’s bare ass. A coven of broomstick riders soars through the night sky. Christensen employs elaborate composite shots, reverse shots, spectacular make up, and sets to bring his nightmare vision to life, and even steals the show himself as the towering, tongue-wagging Satan. In the ‘60s, Häxan was re-edited, narrated by junkie laureate William S. Burroughs, dubbed with a grating avant-jazz score, and marketed to the head set as Witchcraft Through the Ages, but the original cut is the definitive one.

6. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923- dir. Wallace Worsley)

In the coming years, horror would cease to be such an international commodity as we’ve seen so far. In the 1930s, the United States, and one studio in particular, would hold a near monopoly on the genre. However, the film usually cited as the inaugural Universal Horror appears here with some reservations. Though this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris has long been categorized as a monster movie because of Lon Chaney’s pain-defying transformation into Quasimodo, the idea of classifying a disfigured human as a monster has hardly aged well. But is he our monster? As is the case in the similarly dicey Freaks, the public may say “yes,” but the film answers with an emphatic “no.” In fact, no member of Universal’s iconic monster canon commits an act of cruelty comparable to the monarchy-approved torture of both “the hunchback” and our heroine, Esmeralda. Nor is any character responsible for such acts of compassion as Quasimodo’s rescue of Esmeralda and her tending of his wounds after he is tortured. No, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not a monster movie in the mode of Dracula or The Wolf Man, but a Horror movie of humankind’s cruelty like Freaks and Witchfinder General. And though Chaney’s make-up, which involved twenty pounds of debilitating plaster strapped to his torso, invites us to stare, so does every aspect of Wallace Worsley’s spectacle, from the 15-acre recreation of 15th century Paris to the cast of thousands to stuntman Joe Bonomo’s astounding acrobatics along the cathedral’s face. All testify to the film’s place as a “super jewel” production. What lingers longest in the imagination is not the voyeuristic pleasures of The Hunchback of Notre Dame but the depth of its title character. While the other characters generally fulfill heroic and villainous archetypes, Quasimodo embodies the range of humanity: its pitifulness and its pity, its scorn and love, its violence and tenderness. He is one of the few humans in a sea of monsters. 

7. The Phantom of the Opera (1925- dir. Rupert Julian)

Hunchback of Notre Dame can only be regarded as a Universal Horror appetizer. The studio's first feast of fear was unquestionably The Phantom of the Opera. Based on the Gaston Leroux potboiler, Phantom is intent on doing what horror movies are supposed to do: scare the hell out of us, and as familiar as stills of Lon Chaney's face as Erik the Phantom are, the uninitiated may be rather surprised by how truly scary that puss is when moving on the screen. Frightening as Max Schreck was in Nosferatu, his appearance owed a lot to his naturally strange features. As he did in Hunchback, Lon Chaney transformed himself completely and brutally for his adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. Wiring up his nose so tightly that it spurted blood, Chaney suffered almost as much as audiences did when confronted with his skull-like face. The scene in which that ghastly face stares down the camera, stalking toward the viewer, pointing an accusatory finger, is still punishing. Such moments are so powerful that they overshadow a sometimes indifferently realized film that presents too much of its action in wide shots. Though they show off the scenery well, they do not maximize suspense or action. Such lack of consistency is unsurprising considering that directing duties were secretly split between the workmanlike Rupert Julian and star Chaney, who handled his own scenes with such attention to detail that he actually altered his makeup shot by shot to best emphasize his ghastly features. Phantom was not the first horror feature made in the U.S.—John S. Robertson made his memorable version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore five years earlier—but it’s the first true American horror film that looks like a full-blown, Hollywood production, trumpeting a cast of thousands and exquisite costumes and sets, particularly the Phantom’s underground labyrinth. Here the Universal era and the golden age of horror begins.

8. Faust (1926- dir. F.W. Murnau)

Murnau used the hoary parable of Dr. Faust selling his soul to Old Scratch as a leaping-off point for some of his most striking images. Forget the proselytizing and focus on puppet demons galloping through the cosmos on horseback, a demonic contract flaming into existence without pen ever touching parchment, and a Godzilla-sized Satan looming over the village he is about to plague with the plague. Even some of the religious imagery, such as a radiant archangel with giant wings, is mighty enough to impress secular viewers. But it is the visions of evil and horror that ignite this film, and considering how completely Murnau jettisoned Stoker’s Christian symbolism from Nosferatu, one can reasonably suspect that the filmmaker mounted Faust with phantasmagoria higher on his agenda than piety. At the same time, this version of Faust is more explicitly religious than the German folk myth and Goethe’s play on which it was based. The director’s intentions may be debatable, but his results are not. Faust has not had the cultural impact of Nosferatu or The Last Laugh or Sunrise, but it may be Murnau’s masterpiece. And don’t be fooled by the numerous critics who’ve taken issue with Emil Janning’s broad performance as evil Mephisto; the actor’s non-stop leering and scenery munching are nearly as fun to watch as Murnau’s ever inventive imagery.

 9. The Cat and the Canary (1927- dir. Paul Leni)

The canary is Cyrus West, the rich old guardian of the “famous West diamonds” who died twenty years ago today. The cats are West’s greedy relatives who stand to inherit the loot. But wait! There’s another cat on the loose: an escaped lunatic haunting West’s castle where everyone has gathered for a very belated will reading. Who’s the canary now? Who cares! Director Paul Leni is a lot more concerned with wild film techniques than plot in his adaptation of John Willard’s hit play The Cat and the Canary. Surreal superimpositions of clawing cats and chattering skulls, faces that elongate as if reflected in a fun house mirror, shots from the perspective of West’s tumbling portrait, ones that prowl down corridors or zoom-in with cheetah speed. Even the intertitles are zany: quivering, dropping in reverse, exploding with animated comic-strip expletives. Universal’s first old dark house flick is also a treasury of hokey clichés: furry claws reach out of sliding panels and swiveling bookcases, eyes are eerily lit with pin lights, a spooked goofball stammers “G-g-g-ghosts?”, a monster-impersonating huckster who would have gotten away with his evil scheme if not for some meddling kids. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine there’d be a “Scooby Doo” if not for The Cat and the Canary. All of this adds up to great, cheesy, spooky fun executed with no shortage of artistry. Leni’s imagery and camerawork spring directly from his background in German Expressionism. By employing that style for such a crowd-pleasing blend of horror and comedy, Leni helped American audiences acclimate to the more idiosyncratic side of cinema, and as writer Harry Long suggests in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy, that blend must have had a profound influence on James Whale too. Laura La Plante’s utterly charming turn as our heroine, Annabelle West, certainly helped win over moviegoers as well. 

10. The Fall of the House of Usher (1928- dir. Jean Epstein)

Though short on plot, “The Fall of the House of Usher” has always been one of the most regularly adapted Edgar Allan Poe stories. Two versions were filmed in 1928 alone, one a short piece by American avant gardists James Watson and Melville Webber, and one a feature by Jean Epstein of France. Perhaps it is that very lack of plot-mechanics that has made “Usher” so popular among filmmakers. Poe’s story is like a spicy bouillon cube from which a complexly flavorful soup may be brewed. Epstein and his co-writer Luis Buñuel, who was just in the midst of making “Un Chien Andalou” with Salvador Dali, take greater liberties with that cube than some subsequent chefs would. Roderick and Madeline Usher are now married rather than siblings, which neutralizes the incestuous themes of Poe’s tale. No matter. There is still much to disturb in this version. Epstein and Buñuel’s film may not be as faithful as many subsequent adaptations (and that includes Roger Corman’s 1960 version), but perhaps no film channels the dreadful dreaminess of Poe’s prose better. The grotesqueness and queasy beauty. The dank elegance, the hallucinatory madness, the sheer morbidity. Gothic well beyond anything even Murnau imagined, The Fall of the House of Usher casts a bewitching spell via disorienting visuals. The camerawork is shockingly modern, eschewing the staginess of so many early films for manic first and second person perspective shots. Epstein superimposes candles and billowing shrouds over Madeline’s funeral procession to ratchet up the dread. He magnifies the beauty of Roderick’s music by intercutting his guitar-strumming hands with scenes of nature. He underlines Roderick’s madness with weird imagery both obviously metaphorical (guitar strings spontaneously snap) and purely surreal (frogs copulate). Madeline’s crypt is a phantasmagoric haunted garden worthy of Lewis Carroll. Her return from the grave is as insidiously chilling as Chaney’s unmasking in Phantom of the Opera is shocking. The Fall of the House of Usher brought European silent horror to a crazed peak. As the decade neared its climax, Hollywood would greedily claim a new era of sound monster movies for its own. Filmmakers of the fantastic such as Benjamin Christensen and F.W. Murnau had already been lured to the booming U.S. industry by the mid ‘20s. As Hitler rose to power in the next decade, others would either do the same (Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene), or sadly, assimilate to the new regime (Paul Wegener). Though horror would not remain quite so international during the 1930s, its impact would still be… well… universal.

Creep on to the '30s…
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