Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Cult Club: 'The Man from Beyond' (1922)

In this feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll.

Harry Houdini the escape artist is legendary. Houdini the movie star is less celebrated. This may be due to the poor state of the four features he made: the first two, 1919’s The Grim Game and 1920’s Terror Island, are apparently missing reels. Perhaps it is also due to the quality of the surviving films. I cannot speak of Houdini’s final film, 1923’s Haldane of the Secret Service, which I have not seen. The Man from Beyond, the film he wrote and starred in the previous year, I have.

What initially drew me to this movie, in which Houdini plays a man unfrozen after 100 years in a block of ice, was the simple curiosity of seeing the guy in action. The thing is, there isn’t a ton of action in The Man from Beyond. The set up, in which a pair of explorers chip Howard Hillary (all of Houdini’s feature-film characters share his initials) out of his chilly tomb, goes on for an eternity. When he’s out, he only performs a single escape. Those who paid their four cents, or whatever a movie ticket cost in 1922, to see a film starring Harry Houdini must have been disappointed by this dearth of the man doing what he was famous for doing. They were probably further disappointed that he slips from his straight jacket in an extremely long shot that gives no indication of the artistry behind the escape. It’s the kind of thing any old actor could have accomplished with no greater special effects than a few poorly fastened buckles. His subsequent shimmy up a rope and out the window of a prison-like asylum is more impressive, but nothing any reasonably athletic stuntman couldn’t have done. In short, there isn’t much of what made Houdini HOUDINI in The Man from Beyond.

Houdini's tiny, blurry escape.

What there is is a surprisingly effective supernatural love story. Before becoming trapped in ice, Hillary was in love with a woman named Felice Norcross. After his revival, he finds the spitting image of her just as she’s preparing to wed the nefarious Dr. Trent. By far-fetched coincidence, this woman’s name is Felice too, but her surname is the more appropriate Strange. Not yet knowing that he’d spent a century in hibernation, Hillary insists that Felice is his girlfriend, and she gets some serious déjà vu pangs. This is when Hillary ends up getting carted off to the asylum. With his escape comes the most exciting portion of the film as he and Felice hustle to spring her dad from Trent’s clutches. There’s a decent bit of fisticuffs and a nice climax in which Hillary and Felice almost pop over Niagara Falls. In the end, there is talk of how Felice Strange is the reincarnation of Felice Norcross, whom makes a ghostly appearance in the film’s most overt special effects shot.

Even with Houdini’s climb from the asylum and the Niagara Falls incident, it is the love story that most resounds in The Man from Beyond. Houdini and Jane Connelly give effective performances as the multi-generation-spanning couple (Connelly is particularly impressive, so I was surprised to see that her only other credit on imdb is an uncredited role in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.), and the appearance of Norcross’s apparition makes for a quietly transcendent epilogue. This ending is all the more poignant because within four years, both Harry Houdini and Jane Connelly would suffer early deaths. 
 Harry Houdini and Jane Connelly

I may have heightened that poignancy a bit with my choice of soundtrack, and Kate Bush’s The Hounds of Love—with its sweeping romance, eeriness, and side-long concept about a man who freezes to death after falling overboard only to be reincarnated at the last minute—was an appropriate choice (Bush had her own fascination with Houdini, to whom she paid tribute on her previous album The Dreaming).

Despite its flaws—its slowness, its paucity of great escapes—The Man from Beyond was still worthwhile viewing for its romance and for the very reason I checked it out in the first place: the opportunity to see Harry Houdini move and breathe, the chance to see history come to life.
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