Terror in the Aisles

Above: the news ad reproduced by Denis Gifford in his Pictorial History of Horror Movies.

The first talking horror movie, THE TERROR, directed by Roy Del Ruth from Edgar Wallace’s play, is now a lost film. This is bad news for obvious historic reasons, but artistic ones too: here’s Denis Gifford on the movie, which he apparently either saw, or read a detailed press release about —

“The sound of horror had begun in 1928, in the second full-length talkie ever made: THE TERROR. For the first time movie audiences heard the howl of the wind, the beat of the rain, the creak of the door, and the scream upon scream of a girl in fear. There was also the pounding of the Terror at his underground organ, and the creepy croak of Squeegee the trained toad. It was the first and only Total Talkie: even credit titles were taboo as the shadow of an unbilled Conrad Nagel intoned them from the screen.

“Roy Del Ruth used Vitaphone to add a new dimension to pictorial fright. He took Edgar Wallace’s melodrama of a hooded madman, hidden loot, clutching hand and stormbound tavern, and salted in with cinematic shocks. With his cloaked killer whisking victims up flues, down trapdoors and through catacombs, Del Ruth pointed his camera straight down at a table-top seance, slung it from a basket for an overhead travelling shot, and ran it on rollers into a screaming female face. More than enough movement to prove that sound need not kill the visual art of cinema.”

Via the late lamented blog Vitaphone Varieties, I bring you this press release, which slightly contradicts Gifford re the shadow of Nagel — this suggests to me that Gifford is going from his (occasionally faulty) memory, and did actually see the movie on release (and why wouldn’t he?).

“In ‘The Terror,’ mystery thriller at the __________ this week, the opening titles are announced by a masked man in formal dress with the admonition that no one is to leave the theater until the picture is finished. This warning was totally unnecessary because after ‘The Terror’ began, the fans could do little but grip their seats.”

(Nagel also appeared in the movie’s specially-shot trailer, talking to the audience and introducing the cast, each of whom said a few words. This seems to be lost too, along with most of the Vitaphone discs and even the silent version shot alongside THE TERROR for use in theatres not yet wired for talkies.)

“Black shrouded death hovers throughout the picture while the audience shudders and shivers. Flickering lights, ghostly shadows, strange murders, knives flashing in dark places, shrieks and screams, guns blazing out of darkness, dead bodies falling, appalling situations, a treasure hunt sheeted with deadly angers — and, throughout, spine chilling touches of human comedy!”

“There are no subtitles. The characters introduce themselves, and the plot is carried along through voice and action throughout the play — and successfully too, for in ‘The Terror’ the realization is brought home as to the possibilities of the Vitaphone. There is none of that delay or slowing up of the action, for which there was criticism of the talking pictures when first introduced.”

“In this picture, thrills run rampant. Peculiar happenings like screwing men’s heads to their bodies and holding spiritualistic seances in the dark, are but a few of the highlights of horror.”

“The story is set in an old house called Monkhall, which is being used for ‘rest cures’ for the insane, and which is infested with toads, the harbingers of death — and tells the story of a maniacal murderer, a Mr. O’Shea, who has eluded police and whose crimes are always marked by devilish ingenuity and characterized by mutilation and horrible violence. An old doctor, played by Alec B. Francis, is the proprietor of the place, and by some mysterious influence he is compelled to stay there with his daughter, played by May McEvoy. Then, one character after another is introduced into the scene, while leaving the impression that each is more weird in ‘get up’ than the one immediately preceding.”

“As with all mystery stories, the tale is made up of a succession of queer happenings. Edward Everett Horton in the hero’s role is fine in such situations and through the constant use of the Vitaphone, his portrayal is colored more effectively than it would be in the silent drama.”


“As an example of the added effectiveness obtainable through the Vitaphone, director Roy Del Ruth cites the weird effect secured through a hidden pipe organ whose uncanny interruptions of scenes is one of the many factors injecting a creepy feeling into the play. In the silent drama, the weird effect of the organ’s playing would be put over only by the registration of the physical reaction of the player’s fingers upon the keys and by written titles. In this Vitaphone production the weird melodies of the organ break into the tense dialogue of the actors, thus setting them on the quest of the cause of the mysterious music and make everybody in the audience eager to tiptoe after.”

“Other scenes, such as the sound of a falling body in the darkness indicating that violence has been done, the sudden slamming of a door with no one near to slam it, mysterious rapping, shots, and shrieks, all become dynamic through the Vitaphone.”

“The fine recording of the Vitaphone cannot escape mention, and it must be said that ‘The Terror’ gains much through continuous use of it. However, the audience is altogether much too absorbed in the idiotic laughter of John Miljan and other blood-curdling events to notice such details as that. The thrills persist even to the finish. As the final scene fades, one can still hear John Miljan’s voice ringing out that the man in the seat next to you may be ‘The Terror!'”

With THE TERROR apparently lost forever, the best way for me to tick it off my list would be to hear the surviving soundtrack discs. Hoping somebody can oblige! The strongest possibility seems to be UCLA, which holds a set.

A different problem is presented by the movie’s sequel, RETURN OF THE TERROR, featuring Mary Astor and directed by Howard Bretherton. I find no evidence that the film is lost, and indeed, thankfully few 1934 Hollywood movies have been destroyed. But nevertheless, the movie never seems to show up. Can anyone help?

Here’s a fine image from Mark A. Verieira’s Hollywood Horror: from Gothic to Cosmic ~

Further homework — I’ve just seen the 1938 Brit version, seemingly quite faithful to Edgar Wallace’s hokey original, and presumably also close to the Del Ruth. The Horton role is taken, bizarrely enough, by a nubile Bernard Lee (“M” in the early Bonds), and he’s a comedy drunk who’s really a detective in disguise, something I realised about five minutes after he showed up. An almost-equally young Wilfrid Lawson is a baddie, also very obviously, and he appears to be playing his role sober, the first time I’ve seen the actor in this lamentable condition. Linden Travers, bony-faced lead in NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, has the ingenue role. Acting honours go to Alastair Sim, as they always must, playing a vengeful crook. The movie strongly suggests that Del Ruth didn’t have much to work with in terms of story and character values in his original version, hence the stylistic brio, perhaps…

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18 Responses to “Terror in the Aisles”

  1. And RIP Roy Ward Baker.

  2. Wow. We were just talking about him in here the other day! In the immortal words of Noel Coward “If your friends only last through lunch. . .’

  3. That’s deeply sad news!!

    RWB made a number of trash near-masterpieces (THE SINGER NOT THE SONG, DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE) plus quite a few that films that really were pretty dodgy (LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, THE MONSTER CLUB) but he never – as far as I know – made anything bland or dull.

    Among his underrated films, I especially like AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS – a wildly over-the-top Gothic melodrama starring Stephanie Beacham, a decade or so before she made it big on DYNASTY and THE COLBYS.

  4. Well we may not have The Terror but we’ll always have The Terror

  5. Christopher Says:

    If it weren’t for Frankenstein and Dracula..We’d a probably had nothing but old dark house mystery thrillers as horror,which are pretty good..but thank heaven for the fellas!

  6. What I like about Whale’s Old Dark House is that it’s all about character, with no real mystery plot whatsoever. I find the spookhouse thrillers, with their disguises and missing loot somehow sterile. The supernatural and science fictional elements introduced by Universal really made the difference. But I’m very intrigued about hearing The Terror on disc someday.

    I just saw Murder by the Clock, also featured in The Book, and that one may be the closest thing to The Terror.

  7. Randy Byers Says:

    I have a fondness for old dark house thrillers, and was happy to see a rumor over on Nitrateville that Warner Archive will be releasing THE MONSTER, which is an old dark house thriller starring Lon Chaney and directed by Roland West. West’s THE BAT — an inspiration for the Batman — is one of my favs. (And also features Louise Fazenda of THE TERROR.) Although it’s certainly true that there are plenty of crappy old dark house (old dead horse?) movies in the world.

  8. Christopher Says:

    ..be interesting to see how it would have been without “monsters”..Nobody seemed to latch on to the idea of sequels for Chaney’s Phantom or Hunchback,they would have been the first natural selection-heh….Wonder how many red herrings they could wring out of a haunted house..or Blue Room for a decade or more?

  9. The Phantom and Hunchback, being mortal, were perhaps harder to resurrect. The Terror DID yield a sequel, perhaps mainly because Edgar Wallace had written one. Had Laroux or Hugo done the same, Chaney might have found himself repeating those roles, I guess.

    The Monster is an odd film, mixing humour and unpleasantness in a way that doesn’t quite gel, but I’d love to see it again. I don’t recall if West achieves any of the visual highlights of Alibi or The Bat/Whispers.

  10. Way off topic; but a terror anecdote. I was recently in London, and was in Oxford Circus having a coffee in a small side street. My attention was abruptly snared when a woman rode by on a bicycle. I recognized her, but couldn’t place her. She had a very serious expression on her face, and for some reason I felt a kind of fear, which I think left my cognitive faculties slightly paralyzed. For a moment my mind was just sent adrift.
    Slowly it came to me… It was the actress (Olivia Williams) who played the PM’s wife in The Ghost Writer; a terrifying character. In some primal way, I think I conflated her with the image of Margaret Hamilton on a bike from the Wizard of Oz.
    And it was the week that the Blair autobiography was being released in the UK.

  11. Heh!

    OW seems like a nice woman, though, I’m sure you didn’t need to be afraid. But a striking confluence of events which might well chill the spine of the hardiest coffee-drinker.

  12. It’s the best documentary of the year.

  13. The secret message coded into the Blair memoirs is that Blair is barking mad. He has a passage where he describes waking up with a visionary feeling, and waking his wife, and saying “If John Smith dies — and I feel this will happen — I will be Labour leader.” Maybe it should read “If John Smith dies — and I feel this will happen after I make a phone call…”

    Olivia Williams’ ability to summon an assassin WITHIN SECONDS at the end of Polanski’s film is a good example of something making solid dramatic sense without making any narrative sense, in terms of actual plausibility. And it works!

  14. yes, best documentary, good one.

  15. […] surprisingly was at the forefront of the talker boom at Warners, where his old dark house spookshow THE TERROR was apparently quite innovative, and he churned a host of fast-talking comedies with the likes of […]

  16. B MOVES Says:

    In 1956 the company was refinanced and its name changed to Associated Artists Productions Corp. (a.a.p.) The new company then purchased the entire pre-1950 library (inclusing The Terror) owned by Warner Bros. Pictures for $21 million.

    But in October 2002, in IMDb user F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre says: I saw this movie in difficult circumstances. In the 1980s, I tracked down a copy of the Vitaphone disc (the sound without the images) in a film archive, and I was able to play back the disc with no expectation of ever seeing the> movie itself. About twenty years later, I located an incomplete nitrate print of the film (the images without the sound) in the possession of a private collector (this is A.A.P. or Maclntyre archive), who permitted me to screen it on a hand-cranked Movieola.

    The Terror is early sound films, is survival status is unknown (survived or lost).

    But, The Terror was partially re-made by First National (Warner Bros. division) as Return of The Terror (1934) survived in LOC. No Warner Archive release ”Return of The Terror” on MOD DVD.

  17. Search elsewhere on this blog for F Gwynplaine MacIntyre’s remarkable life story. Sadly, he was not a reliable witness — but a fascinating case study.

    I can’t figure out why Return of the Terror hasn’t been made available if it still exists. Either it’s terrible, or in terrible condition, or lost too.

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