• Film

    The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

    Lon Chaney’s phantom is a creature that Shakespeare’s Richard III, would have been comfortable with. Someone who, because he cannot prove a lover, is determined to prove a villain. But his villainy is not in pursuit of power, but rather in pursuit of truth, an artistic truth so blindingly real that the woman he loves would have to bow down and admire him. The film is appropriately operatic, both in Lon Chaney’s performance, and in the little touches of scene and scenery. The ballet dancers twirl in fear, the underground chambers are dramatic labyrinths, and one gesture from the monster is enough to make his enemies cringe. The peak of the…

  • Film

    Frankenstein (1931)

    Frankenstein (1931) is a film about a young black man who is lynched, risen from the dead, and then lynched again. That Frankenstein’s monster was black – if not literally so, at least metaphorically so* – is widely overlooked, but it is quite clearly in the film. There are references to the American tradition of lynching in the very first scene, where Frankenstein (the scientist) recovers a body that has been hung up and abandoned in the graveyard. The brain is one that a phrenologist has determined is abnormal. Then, of course, the climax is a straight forward lynching, which would be more or less recognizable to anyone in America…

  • Film

    The Raven (1935)

    Bela Lugosi plays a doctor obsessed with death, who has a large collection of torture devices modelled off the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. He saves the life, and then falls in love with, a girl engaged to be married. When he tells her that he loves her, she spurns him, leaving him brooding in an anger descending to insanity. Torture shows up in a lot of Bela Lugosi works, and he’s quite good at it. He gets a gleam in his eye when he is performing the inflicting of pain. The house is more reminiscent of H.H. Holmes than Poe. The best part of the film is the relationship…

  • Film

    The Black Cat (1934)

    This is up there on the list of the weirdest films I’ve ever seen. Inspired, but in no way based on the Edgar Allen Poe story, the Black Cat begins with a newly married couple meeting Bela Lugosi on a train to Hungary. The trio then get on a bus to their final destinations: for the married couple, a romantic valley honeymoon destination, and for Bela Lugosi, a modernist mansion owned by Boris Karloff and built on the ruins of a World War I battlefield. (there’s a complicated backstory here). Long story short, the bus gets in an accident, and they’re trapped at Boris Karloff’s house, who is a devil…

  • Film

    The Old Dark House (1932)

    The Old Dark House, is a 1932 Universal comedy-horror film. The film centers on two groups of travelers who are caught in a storm, and have to stay over night in a country manor filled with characters who range from eccentric to lunatic. Boris Karloff plays a deformed sexually frustrated alcoholic who protects the family from the crazy guy in the attic. There’s also a girl in a slip. The film is a riff on the 19th century syphilis drama, best known from Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, and the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Third Generation“. The genre is based in the incorrect belief that congenital syphilis is passed on from father to…

  • Film

    Dracula

    If it wasn’t for the quiet, the silence, the fear wouldn’t be so great. But he approaches in the dark, without sound. It’s like going to sleep, there’s only some rustling in the dark, then an embrace, like death. Dracula (1931) is one of the few horror films from this period that is authentically creepy. While many of the old Universal horror films are fun and intellectually playful (anything with Boris Karloff is great), Dracula is creepy. The main reason is the sound design. Very little is said in the movie, few noises are made, there are few screams and those are usually short and unresolved. There’s only the sound…

  • Film

    Hotel Du Nord

    Two lovers lie in their rooms quietly and happily discussing the logic of suicide. Outside is full of life, as a prostitutes and blood donors discuss local scandals and the joy of wine. A shot rings out, the boy runs from the room, only seen by one man, who has his own reasons for hiding what he saw. Cafe Du Nord is about people who make self-destructive choices in the pursuit of some sort of truth. While that truth often takes the form of a young woman or a handsome man, the relationships rarely approximate love. The characters instead have a peculiar sort of responsibility to one another, often, the…

  • Film

    Hometown, Kenji Mizoguchi

    Her heart is slightly broken, with tears on her disheveled face as her man walks out the door. The camera pulls out, only to cut back in, unable to leave her crying. Hometown, Kenji Mizoguchi’s first sound film (it was actually about half silent), involved a lot of fancy camerawork in search of a plot. The story was about a man who gave up his art and his wife in search of fame and fortune. It was unclear how being a famous singer was getting in the way of his singing, but it was quite clear how his rich patroness was getting in the way of his home life. He eventually…

  • Film

    Flesh and the Devil

    Flesh and the Devil is an exercise in framing Garbo. An effort to make you feel the closeness of her body, in a way that could make a man tremble. The movie is about a woman, created so beautifully and with such passion, that you would give up friendship, happiness, you life, your soul, just to be with her. She is the personification of sin. Or maybe just a sort of desperateness you get when you know that God is not real, and every moment not spent with her is lost forever. A celebration of paganism, and of women with curly hair and smoldering eyes. Louise Brooks said this about…

  • Film

    Underworld (1927)

    The beast is sleeping. Passed out from too much booze and too good a time. The gangster’s ball is over, and all that is left is him passed out on a table, and his woman about to be assaulted by the man’s enemy. He is warned of the danger. Shook. He is still sleeping, or in a stupor. He slowly raises his eyes, aware of the danger, aware of the alcohol poisoning his system, aware that his body cannot move like it should. He is awakened, he screams. He grabs at himself, trying to force himself out of the chair. Staggering through a hallway filled with confetti up to his…