Archive for The Master Mystery

Tentacular Spectacular

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 17, 2013 by dcairns

Words cannot express the sheer clammy grip of 1919 serial entertainment TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS!

But I’ll try.

We begin in the desert — not perhaps the most fitting location for an octopus, but the serial has 300 minutes to run so we can afford to take it gently. Not that we do! Immediately, two scientists stumble upon “the Ancient Egyptian Temple of Death” — they seem curiously pleased at this. “It was not a myth!” declares the more fervid of the two.

While the archaeologists are pottering within, their native bearers — who are all black — are set upon by rapacious Arabs — cue close-up of one poor chap being lightly tapped on the brow with a rifle butt. The racial politics are made clear — black people make good servants, but Arabs are untrustworthy and will tap you on the cranium with their rifles if given a free hand.

Meanwhile, the shifty archaeologist tries to kill the fervid one after reading the inscription pertaining to the Idol of Death — a figurine depicting a bashful elephant — and we get what may be the most remarkable intertitle of 1919 —


Not only is it spelled out in hieroglyphs, but it’s accompanied by a garter snake. Of course Egyptian temples are constantly a-slither with snakes, as we know from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. What the poor things feed on is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the lack of vittles explains why they always looks so thin.

The movie provides its own translation of this sacred text, but I think we should get Kristin Thompson to work on it, then we can compare both versions and see who is the best Egyptologist, Thompson or J. Grubb Alexander.

Anyhow, something or other happens and it turns out this is all a story being told by the fervid chap, now well stricken in years, to his anxious daughter. There’s some kind of nonsense about eight ceremonial daggers which open a stone vault, but the charming domestic scene keeps getting interrupted by STARING EYES ~


Well, you can see how that might cause you to lose the thread of the conversation. What with being under an Egyptian curse and all, the Professor is concerned, and his daughter fortunately remembers that Carter Holmes, world-renowned criminologist, lives next door (with his Scottish lieutenant, Sandy McNab) and ventures forth to get him.

Now things get really interesting — while she’s gone, disturbing Mr Holmes amid his test tubes, pops is knifed to death by a masked assailant, but the bit of film this occurred in is now missing. I suspect a conspiracy. The “reconstruction” of the missing footage consists of random, Jesus Franco type zoom-ins on freeze frames, explanatory titles, and constant cutaways to the staring eyes. Oh, and a bit of CGI lens flare is added to one shot. It’s a magnificent job, arguably improving on the original sequence, although naturally that’s hard to be definite about since it’s missing.

Anyhow, the girl fetches Holmes, and there’s an odd bit involving a mysterious voice which whispers A-B-E-F-A-C-E at him. In such a situation, you or I might blunder badly by trying to locate the source of the voice, but our Carter, who may well be schizophrenic, accepts it as a given and merely tries to interpret its gnomic utterance. This leads him to a portrait of Lincoln on the wall which he cheerfully mutilates, obtaining a valuable clew for his troubles.

Then he has a punch-up with the masked fellow, later identified as Monsieur X. No pushover, Carter knocks X out a window — but the bounder vanishes from the sidewalk like Michael Myers at the end of HALLOWEEN. Then the girl is kidnapped. Then Carter gets a note telling him to report to 33 Folsom Street by midnight or else she’ll be killed. Then he goes there and sees the staring eyes floating out of the wallpaper. Then sinister hands reach through the wall behind him clutching irons gyves. Then we see the girl, facing sacrifice at the hands of a mysterious sect  ~


Clearly, TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS is some kind of demented masterpiece and I have to watch all five hours of it or else I’ll never sleep again. Clearly I’m going to dole it out on a weekly basis as I did with THE MASTER MYSTERY, thus duplicating the authentic movie serial experience.

Director Duke Worne, a former B-list actor, was making his debut here, and he does a fine job, eliciting the required hambone performances and keeping the pace frantic and the action lurid. A shame the cinematographer isn’t credited, as there’s fine atmospheric work going on, and the design, though still relying on hand-painted flats some of the time, is exotic and atmospheric (there’s even a close-up of a dagger which is a painting, for some reason).

Screenwriter J. Grubb Alexander, apparently making the stuff up as he goes along, seems like a real Pat Hobby character, churning out silent thrillers and then foundering somewhat in the talkie era — his most famous credit there is the universally deplored (yet strangely loved) John Barrymore MOBY DICK, the one which adds romantic interest and pre-code dirty jokes. He also wrote for Barrymore on SVENGALI and THE MAD GENIUS, evincing a fine gift for inappropriate comic relief. His tone seems more surefooted in THE TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS.

I hope you’ll join me next week for the next exciting episode. See You Next Wednesday!


The Sunday Intertitle: Out of the Past

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 7, 2012 by dcairns

Episode Fifteen — the final installment!

First, if you can contain your excitement, a limerick about how best to arrange your fangs for a life of vampirism, and one on the Frankenstein monster’s tailoring, two subjects of pressing interest to all serious cinephiles.

Last we saw, practically our entire surviving dramatis personae was being menaced by the rampaging Automaton, presumed dormant since the death of his master, corporate scum-basin Herbert Balcom. But NO! The Automaton LIVES! And is coming to get you right now.

The Mechanical Man makes straight for poor Deluxe Dora, instantly identifiable as the most disposable cast member, and fries her mind with an electrical discharge — in fact an animated ZAP drawn directly on the film.

It must still hurt though.

Houdini takes this chance to hoist his girlfriend Marguerite out the window, and follows her at once, as Q the bearded loon and his new-found daughter Zita escape by a side door. The Automaton marches to the centre of the now abandoned office and makes that abrupt two-fisted gesture which is universally translated as “Curses!” And — scene.

Harry shows Marguerite his new “gas bullet” which he hopes can fell the ironclad nemesis, while hinting that Q spoke the truth about Balcom’s being within it. She’s puzzled, but a cutaway to PAUL Balcom, the businessman’s feckless playboy son, alone with his inheritance of halberds, allows us to guess that perhaps it is HE who, in Mick Jagger’s wise words, “squats behind the man who works the soft machine.” (All expository stuff, but enlivened by the real affection, or its convincing simulacrum, displayed between HH and MM throughout the show.)

The Long-Awaited Cure — Mr Brent, having been deranged by the Madagascar Madness (or Laughing Mania) since way back in episode one, is fed an antidote by Q, who is only recently restored to sanity himself. Big Closeups as Brent retrieves his consciousness from the cackling dustbin he’d dropped it in, metaphorically speaking. Recognizing Q, he apologizes for their troubled backstory which I frankly can’t go into at this point but everybody seems friendly.

A Flashback! We see how Balcom and Brent hoodwinked a younger, bright-eyed and beardless Q into signing over his Automaton, before he was shipped off to Madagascar and presumed lost. It’s touching to see Q sans whiskers — he has a lovable big wide Jim Backus mouth — uncredited in the film’s titles, the actor’s identity is as mysterious as the one-initialed character he plays.

Back to the present. Q concludes his narrative, in which is family perish in a shipwreck, with the happy erratum revealing the survival, unrecognized until Episode 14, of his daughter Zita. But there’s more — Mr Brent, with his newly recollected marbles, informs Harry that he is Q’s lost son! Harry’s character name, Quentin Locke, suddenly connects with that dangling initial in a surprising manner. This makes him Zita’s brother, explaining, in a somewhat queasy way, her attraction to him all through the serial.

It’s a combination of one of those Roman farces where everybody turns out to be everybody else’s lost son or daughter (which always makes me think of Beryl Reid’s reaction to such revelations in JOSEPH ANDREWS: “What Fucking Next?”) and the Reconciliation Scene from KING LEAR. In fact, with twice as many restored lunatic fathers and estranged daughters, it’s obviously twice as good as Shakespeare. And it has Houdini and a criminal robot to boot.

“Only one thing remains to make my happiness complete,” declares Harry. He definitely wasn’t referring to the homicidal Automaton, but a homicidal Automaton is what he gets — it smashes through the French windows at more or less that exact moment, crassly interrupting the family gathering, knocking the gas bullet gun from Houdini’s terrified vague fingers, and engaging him in a vigorous bout of Greco-Robo-Wrestling. As in a nightmare, Houdini’s loved ones clutch one another in horror and do nothing to help him.

But — not for nothing known more for his extramural escapology than his career (in this movie) as a chemist, Houdini slips from the steel beast’s arms, retrieves his sidearm, and plugs the advancing mechanoid squarely in the abdomen. There’s nothing Automata hate like gas bullets, and this one certainly turns the trick. Q deftly unscrews the head from his fallen creation, to reveal — Paul Balcom! We are duly stunned. He died as he lived: rampaging criminally in a sheet metal costume.

We iris in to blackness as Houdini stares straight out at the audience, as if to ask, “Did YOU see that coming?”

Coda — this is so beautiful and perfect you should just watch it without commentary from me. Don’t be afraid of spoilers — the serial is 92 years old, you’ve probably already seen it in a previous life. Watch for Houdini’s eye-brow-raising joke at the end — we don’t get an intertitle to explain what they’re laughing at as the film ends, but perhaps some lip-reader out there can enlighten me?

Houdini Happy Ending from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Footnote: with its humanoid robot, wise beard guy, estranged father, surprise offspring and laser beams, THE MASTER MYSTERY clearly anticipates STAR WARS and George Lucas should promptly donate everything he owns to the Houdini estate.

Toenote: even if I’m wrong, it would be a nice gesture.

Buy Houdini’s entire surviving film legacy and support Shadowplay

Houdini: The Movie Star (Three-Disc Collection)

The Sunday Intertitle: Penultimate Warrior

Posted in FILM with tags , , on September 30, 2012 by dcairns

Episode 14 of Houdini’s THE MASTER MYSTERY — one to go!

Houdini’s escape from under a pile of rubble is one of his less spectacular — it basically consists of him standing up and dusting himself off. His opponent, Balcom, is less fortunate: not being a trained escapologist, he’s been squashed by boulders. Leave this stuff to the professionals.

Meanwhile, leading lady Marguerite Marsh and Zita the secretary/traitor/possible heiress are menaced by the Automaton and his henchmen, who have also snatched MM’s deranged dad. They’ve thoughtfully gagged him so his Laughing Madness won’t drive them to distraction. Marguerite escapes but Zita is taken.

Q, the Beard Guy, finds Balcom’s corpse and experiences a feeling of something or other ~

Paul Balcom, son of the late creep, visits dad’s house of halberds and ransacks his files, finding something which transforms his outlook and causes him to kick tagalong vamp Deluxe Dora out. What can it be? But meanwhile, Dora has also found revealing documentation and handbagged it away with her. The plot congeals.

We don’t have too long to wait on that one — she hastens to Q’s hissing laboratory and offers him the item for sale: Balcom’s diary. Q is now wholly sane, whatever that means in this context, and accepts the offer with what passes for alacrity with him. DD promises he will learn the truth of Zita’s parentage. Q reads, reacts, and then fetches a small device

Harry somehow knows the location of the Automaton’s new layer, and arrives with a pack of detectives. Since it’s a pleasant day, he brings his girlfriend along too. The lair is some kind of shed or warehouse, rather a come-down after the cavern, the Chinese temple, the hypnotist’s astrological palace, Balcom’s house of halberds, the Black Tom Diner and even the remote roadhouse. It’s jerry-built, too, since our men bash the door down with no trouble and have most of the gang under arrest in an instant. Poor deranged Mr Brent is rescued, but Zita is nowhere to be found. We wait anxiously to see if Harry somehow just knows where she is, the same way he somehow knew where this shed was.

Zita is stowed among halberds by the most obnoxious gang member, with whom Harry has been trading concussions throughout the serial. Somehow this guy has always avoided drowning, falling into the pit of fire or being zapped by the temple laser (what, your local temple doesn’t have a laser?).

HH and MM get Dad home. His Laughing Madness has taken a turn for the worse — his earlier hearty guffaw has faded to a wan grin.

Note to camera operators: always frame for the halberds.

Parentage begins to be sorted out! Paul Balcom tells Zita that she is not the illegitimate daughter of Brent, but the legitimate daughter of nutty scientist Q. Is that good news or bad? Meanwhile, I’ve just worked out who she reminds me of — Mrs Doyle from Father Ted. But that’s probably just a coincidence. She rushes off, apparently no longer a hostage, to share the news with Harry and Marguerite.

Alone with his halberds, Paul Balcom reaches a grim conclusion. But we’re not told what it is.

The last of the gang is arrested, in a bit of plot housekeeping.

And now Q spills the beans freely, as he attempts to win back his daughter’s love. Intertitles pile up like a house of cards. In brief: Balcom had manipulated the insane Q in order to attack Brent — he borrowed Q’s “invention” (some invention, a clunky metal costume) to this end. “Many years ago, Balcom told me that my wife and children were dead. It was one of the blows that wrecked my intellect.” I do like the strange psychology of this serial. Grief dements the scientist, and he is restored to sanity when Balcom, his manipulator, dies. You won’t find that in Freud. You won’t find the Madagascar Madness either, I bet. Anyhow, now Q is overjoyed to learn that Balcom lied about the fate of his daughter, now grown up to resemble Mrs Doyle. You can’t have everything.

Zita (who despite looking like an Irish housekeeper is actually very chic, and a strange, sly sort of actor) reacts to this emotional bombshell by grabbing Marguerite Marsh’s right breast. It’s nice that they’re getting along so well together.

Occasional cutaways of Deluxe Dora, who has nothing to play here, waiting impatiently for the scene to end.

“With a feeble brain, it was impossible for me to complete my invention — so Balcom entered the Mechanical Man to disguise his criminal operations,” explains Q. With Balcom bouldered to extinction, the Automaton must perforce lie inert and trouble the world no longer. But then, just as the light of reason begins to illumine the effluent of plot, the doors crash open and the Automaton marches in ~

Can Harry escape the unlocked room with gaping, broken doors?

Who is inside the Automaton? (Clue: the one major character not already present in the scene).

Are there any more astounding revelations to be made?

Find out in next week’s thrill-packed and CONCLUDING episode of THE MASTER MYSTERY!


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