Welcome back, Screamers and Screamettes. This the third in ANTSS's special anniversary series looking at the primordial beginnings of fright flicks.
Today's soundless screamer is 1926's The Bells. Produced by the long defunct Chadwick Pictures Corporation (the company that produced the first adaptation of Wizard of Oz back in 1925) and helmed by silent film actor turned director James Young, this melodramatic suspense flick stars Lionel Barrymore – great uncle of Drew and member of the famed and infamous Barrymore clan – and features, in a small but noteworthy part, Boris Karloff. It was Karloff's 31st film in a career of more than 200 film roles – almost 40 films before Frankenstein – people cranked 'em out back then.
This whole thing starts a little soap opera-like, so those who have trouble keeping up might want to bust out a not pad or something.
Barrymore plays Mathais, a tavern and mill owner in a small European mountain near the base of what the title cards inform us is Mount Snowtop. I think that's near Running Water River just a-ways down Supports Traffic Road. Mathias is a nice enough guy. He likes to be liked by the townsfolk and he's hoping to be appointed Burgomaster. That's Austrian for "Master of the Burgo," or "mayor." To ensure he's got the popular support, he quick to extend credit and always ready to float tavern regulars a few free drinks. This drives his penny pinching wife and his father-in-law, the manager of Mathias's mill operation, crazy. It has also driven Mathias's family in debt. The man who holds Mathias's markers is Frantz, the village a-hole played to thuggish perfection by the unlikely named Gustav von Seyffertitz (a silent era character actor who you might recognize from Son of Frankenstein and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). Frantz, being the village a-hole, let's Mathais know that he'll forget the debt if Mathais will arrange a marriage betwixt Frantz and Mathais's lovely daughter, the cutie-patootie Annette. But Annette's already got her heart set Christian, the new sheriff (or gendarme, as the Europeans like to call their new sheriffs) in town.
The domestic story takes shape over the first half hour or flick or so, then we come to our first set piece: the Carnival. The town throws a big party and Mathais, eager to take his mind off his worries, joins the partying crowd. There, among the various tent shows, is Boris Karloff as "The Mesmerist" – in costume and performance a clear lift from Caligari, the mad doctor of Cabinet of fame. After performing a few tricks, the Mesmerist offers to hypnotize Mathias, telling the audience that, once hypnotized, good men tell of their good deeds and bad men confess their crimes. Mathias is not down with that, so he breezes on to the fortune-teller's tent. Though that goes all pear shaped on Mathais when, on viewing his palm, the fortune-teller recoils in horror, refuses to tell him what's in his future, and refunds his money. Mathias should have known the moment a carny gave him his money back, that something was very amiss.
Jump to Christmas: Mathias, increasingly in debt, throws a party for the tavern regulars. At this party, Christian the cop proposes to Annette and there is much marry-making. Into this boisterous Christmas party wanders a traveling Jewish merchant who is looking to spend a few minutes out of the brutal storm raging outside. Mathais welcomes him in and, eventually, they end up the last men standing of the party. Several sheets to the wind, Mathias learns that the merchant is wearing a money belt full of gold. Shortly after the merchant leaves, the drunk and debt-ridden Mathias bundles up, grabs an axe, takes a shortcut to incept the merchant, and kills him for his gold.
Mathias ends up passing his sudden windfall of an inheritance from a rich uncle and pays of Frantz. But his problems are far from over. He is soon haunted, literally, by what he's done. As he was giving the merchant the business end of his axe, the merchant shook the bell-bearing reins of his horse. That sound haunts Mathias, like the heartbeat in Poe's Tell-Tale Heart. He's also haunted by visions of his victim, sulking around like a Hebraic Banquo whenever company shows up. To add to these worrisome events, the merchants brother shows up looking for the murderer – and he's brought the Mesmerist with him!
As much a domestic melodrama as it is a ghost tale, The Bells is effective entertainment if not always creepy. The exception to this being Karloff, who actually makes a better Caligari as a rip-off than the original did. This is a very minor role but Karloff fans will want to check it out. The style of filmmaking is interesting. The film makes numerous nods to German Expressionism, all while assimilating it into the effective and non-intrusive film narrative film vocabulary that is identified as American and is so universal that we tend not to think of it as an expression of artistic talent and intent. This is a solid flick on its own and a special treat for those who want to see early Karloff at work.
As an aside, the Image disc twins this flick with the French short film The Crazy Ray, an early sci-fi film about a group of air-travelers who arrive in Paris only to find everybody is frozen except them. This short has some amazing shots – especially of the group wandering through a deserted 1920s Paris. Some of the plot devices are contrived, but several scenes pack an uncanny punch. If you end up checking out The Bells, do yourself the favor and take a peek at the The Crazy Ray too.
NB: The disc cover makes the claim that the flick was inspired by a Poe poem. As far as I can tell, this is untrue. The film is an adaptation of a stage play, which was actually made into a movie several times during the silent era. Several Poe works did get turned into silent films – "The Fall off the House of Usher," "The Cask of Amontillado," "William Wilson" – but this is not one of them.