Archive for The Terror

The Sunday Intertitle: Hot Air

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2015 by dcairns

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Roy Del Ruth was one of very few Keystone directors to graduate to anything resembling the big time — Capra was the exception, attaining far loftier status. While many small-time silent boys fell by the wayside when sound came in, RDR 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 James Cagney.

SKYLARKING (1923) is one of those early slapstick shorts, starring a fellow called Harry Gribbon who has a funny name and lots of technique but just isn’t very funny. The movi also features Billy Armstrong as a recklessly destructive blind man who anticipates W.C. Fields’ sightless nemesis Mr. Muckle, and cameos by Scotsman Andy Clyde and Teddy the Dog. None of these made me laugh, but my eyebrows levitated as if painted with Cavorite at the sight of the sightless proto-Muckle. Had Fields already used a version of this character on stage?

I like the special effects, as Gribbon takes to the air, which benefit from incorporating camera movement along with double exposure for a dynamic and halfway convincing effect. And I like this intertitle, which could easily have been converted into dialogue for one of the peppy pre-codes RDR made later. Sennett films frequently recycled catchphrases and gags heard in bars in just the way Warner scenarists would do in the thirties.

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Oddly, the visual gags of the Sennett era didn’t generally make it into those films, even the comedies, apart from that riotous sequence with monkeys and custard pies in LADY KILLER — for zany imagery, you really have to look to Del Ruth’s later HORROR MOVIES (here and here).

Terror in the Aisles

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2010 by dcairns

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…

Gifford’s Most Wanted

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2010 by dcairns

Inspired by the BFI’s Most Wanted campaign to unearth 100 lost movies, I’m turning to my readers to help locate the TEN MYSTERY FILMS from Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies which I still haven’t tracked down.

(There are still lots I haven’t seen, but these are the only ten I haven’t been able to find copies of.)

Your help is needed! Facebook and tweet this post to all your filmy friends, and anybody who runs/works for/is an archive. I must see those movies!!!

I offer unspecified rewards. And you know those unspecified rewards are going to be pretty cool when I eventually specify them, right? Damn straight.

I’m going to write a little piece on each over the coming weeks, but here’s the Top Ten Lost Monster Movies in capsule form –

1) THE FAIRY OF THE BLACK ROCKS:  a 1905 period yarn with a skeleton flasher.

2) CASTLE SINISTER: still don’t know anything about this, except it’s Britain, 1948, produced by “British Equity”, whoever they were.

3) THE COUGHING HORROR: a 1924 melodrama that gives me a tickle in the throat just thinking about it.

4) MARIA MARTEN, OR THE MURDER IN THE RED BARN: not with Todd Slaughter, but an earlier, silent version. Another version, directed by Maurice Elvey in between these two, is considered lost, according to the BFI.

5) FIGHT WITH SLEDGE HAMMERS: likewise, a silent melodrama described as “The most thrilling film ever taken.” Taken where?

6 & 7)THE GORILLA: the 1927 version with Walter Pigeon, and the 1930 remake, again with Pigeon. Never seem to show up ANYWHERE.

8 & 9) THE TERROR: Roy Del Ruth’s silent Edgar Wallace adaptation with Edward Everett Horton and THE RETURN OF THE TERROR: Howard Bretherton’s sequel with Mary Astor.

10) THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE: with Pearl White. I’m sure this is hard to see, but not impossible, I hope! It qualifies for Giffordom by virtue of featuring a cameo by Jekyll & Hyde.

There are also four lost films (assuming none of the above are lost). The rules of See Reptilicus And Die do not allow me to neglect movies on the mere basis of their non-existence. So I’m going to see these too!

A BLIND BARGAIN:  a lost film, this, so a more creative solution is required.

THE CAT CREEPS: 1930 version with Jean Hersholt, Lilyan Tashman, directed by Rupert “PHANTOM OF THE OPERA” Julian. I wondered about this for ages, why it never showed up. Turns out it’s lost, a fact confirmed by the fact that it’s reviewed on the IMDb by fantasy novelist and wingnut F. Gwynneplaine Macintyre, who has reviewed nearly every prominent lost fantasy film. As a situationist stunt, this wins some admiration from me, though I wonder at the ethics of writing slams of films one hasn’t seen (unless one is ninety years old).

LA PHRENOLOGIE BURLESQUE: lost Melies — I’m resolved to bring this back into existence by sheer willpower (and, if necessary, bribery).

BALAOO THE DEMON BABOON: apparently fragments of this exist in Canada. Is there any way to see them without crossing the pond? Don’t make me come over there!

How does one see lost films? In ones’ dreams, certainly, the way Fiona saw Hitchcock’s THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE on my behalf. Or by reconstructions, which allowed me to stretch a point and tick LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT off my list. Or else by seeing fragments and trailers which might be said to stand for the whole, the way an organism can be cloned from a single cell. There may be other techniques, and rest assured, I’m open to all of them!

NB: such is the speed of development in my INSANE QUEST, I already have news about several of the top ten, which I shall report to you in following posts. But for now, I’m open to all info.

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