Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Silent Scream Series: House of Wax, Version 1.0.

Greetings, Screamers and Screamettes! Welcome to the very first post of ANTSS very first series: the Silent Scream Series. Let's get started, shall we?

If you were going to try to identify the place of birth of the modern horror flick, you could do a lot worse then proposing Weimar Era Germany. In little more than a single decade, between the German defeat in the first World War to the rise of the Nazis, German filmmakers produced a slate of horror flicks that remain the bedrock of cinematic scariness: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem, Nosferatu, M, and dozens of others.

German filmmaking got off to slow start. Despite the efforts of native-born film pioneers, the German film market was dominated by foreign products: mostly from America and France. Native film efforts were also hampered by prevailing notions of what was and was not "proper" for Germans. Film's that did not mimic stage conventions or adapt "tasteful" literature were looked down upon.

World War I drastically changed this picture. Wartime conditions dried up the flow of foreign films to the market. Without the competition of foreign films, German filmmakers had a massive and completely captive audience. A national industry that had played third fiddle for a couple of decades was suddenly faced with supplying the demand of the entire nation. Unfortunately, this sudden rush of production did not seem to spur anybody to great creative heights. The movies of this era are often dismissed as shoddy works, full of wartime jingoism and lacking in any real sense of how film could differ from the stage. What the years of wartime isolation did do was create a truly impressive filmmaking infrastructure. When the war ended, Germany possessed several first-rate studios, a new class of filmmaking professionals, and a stable of nationally recognized performers (including several notable performers who, atypical of the time, were strictly film stars instead of slumming faces from the theater).

It was these conditions – the psychological impact of the war, the presence of the necessary production facilities, and the cultural freedom that marked the short lived attempt to establish a liberal democracy in German – that allowed for this creative explosion. The first film in ANTSS silent horror flick series is a product of this post-war boom in German film.

Waxworks, the 1924 film by Paul Leni and Leo Birinski, is a sort of sampler platter of German silent cinema. The film is an anthology piece. The framing narrative involves a young writer who is hired by the owner of an amusement park wax museum (which the English titles available on the Kino DVD set in Luna Park on Coney Island) to create background stories for his star attractions. With the museum owner's daughter looking flirtatiously over his shoulder, the writer sets down to work. What follows are three short films, each centered around one of the wax figures on display.

The first segment is a sort of fantastic comedy set around Harun al Raschid, Caliph of Bagdad during the 1,001 Nights era. This, the longest of the three films, uses Expressionist set pieces to create a Westerner's fantasy of the exotic Middle East. The plot involves a poor baker (same actor who plays the writer of the frame story) who, after his wife (the actress who plays the museum owner's daughter) catches the eye of the royal minister, concocts a plot to steal the Caliph's "wishing ring." While the baker contrives to steal the Caliph's ring, the Caliph – played by German film legend Emil Jannings – contrives to steal the baker's wife. Through a series of misunderstandings, the baker comes to think he murdered the Caliph. In the end, the quick thinking of his wife saves the day.

This first story is light fare. The fairy tale plot moves well enough, but never gets to deep or moving. Here the real star is the set design, which later informed Douglas Fairbanks's classic The Thief of Bagdad (itself the primary source of Disney's Aladdin). The city of Bagdad becomes a warren of tunnels and bridges, domes and surreally fake palm trees. The sets have a dream-like quality and, when the baker leads the royal guards on a chase through the town, they really come to life.

The movie takes a considerably darker tone with the second segment. Focusing on Ivan the Terrible, the movie looses all sense of humor. Where al Raschid is an absurd comedic figure, Ivan – played by Conrad Veidt, who was the sleepwalker in Caligari and, in a role better known to modern film fans, Major Strasser in Casablanca - is a sadist, vile character. The plot for this segment rambles about. We start with Ivan visiting his dungeons, where poisoned prisoners have hourglasses, timed to match the effects of their poisons, placed before them. They get to watch their remaining moments slowly slip away. Based on the suspicions of a royal advisor, Ivan decides that the royal poison-maker intends to do him in. As he leaves the dungeon, he leaves orders that the poison-maker is to be killed.

Ivan, having had enough poisoning for one day, then leaves to attend a wedding where he's the guest of honor. Fearful of his life, Ivan makes his host, the father of the bride, change outfits with him. Along the way, assassins mistaking the host for the Czar kill the host with an arrow to the heart. The death of the host would normal put the kibosh on a wedding party, but not when Ivan is present. He commands the wedding guests to continue with the party, making them dance and go through the motions of merrymaking, all while they sob over the dead host, whose body is left laying on the front steps with a big old arrow in it.

Deciding that he hasn't yet completely effed up the party, Ivan then decides to take the bride as his own mistress and orders the groom locked in the royal dungeon. Meanwhile, the poison-maker, knowing his own death has been ordered, writes Ivan's name on one of the hourglasses. While torturing the groom, Ivan's minions discover the glass and assume this means he's poisoned. Facing his own mortality, Ivan's brain snaps and he's reduced to a cackling idiot, endless turning the hourglass over and over in an effort to stay what he believes is his imminent doom.

The second segment is fairly nasty work, especially coming, as it does, after what is a very lighthearted story. Less visually thrilling then the first segment, the second segment emphasizes its brutal, relentlessly grim plot and relies on the acting of Veidt, who is brilliant as the mad dictator, to carry the tale. Ivan's bleak story is haunting and effective.

The final segment of the film brings us back to the framing narrative. The writer, who has now scribbled his way into the small hours of night, falls asleep at his writing desk. He dreams that the last of the wax figures – Jack the Ripper (identified as Spring–Heels Jack in the English title cards) – comes to life and pursues him and the museum owner's daughter through the now deserted amusement park.

This is the shortest of all the segments, but the film really pulls out all the stops for it. Expressionist set elements and trick photography are used to create one of the most distinctive chase scenes ever. In his classic critical work, From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer said that the final segment "must be counted among the greatest achievements of film art." How them apples grab you, Bob? You can argue all you want with me. I'm just some blogger. But Kracauer's famous, so there you go.

Waxworks is a curious flick. The first segment is not really horrific, but the rest of the film is. The tone starts off light-hearted to the point of near goofiness, only to turn inky black in the second segment and stay that way. This would be less of an issue for horror fans if the first segment wasn't also the longest. I recommend Waxworks for those who dig the visual style of Expressionist works like Caligari or who want to get a sense of the range German fantasy films had at the time. Those interested more strictly in horror's roots might want to pass this house of wax by.


Anonymous said...

First, congratulations on your (impending?) first year anniversary with the blog.
This silent film series is a terrific idea, especially since I rarely think of silent film as a "genre" to explore (I usually just think of some specific films and note that they happen to be silent, you know?). So, this is cool, rarely explored territory in horror film and I appreciate being introduced to these titles.

My friend Emil who directed me in his current film BANSHEE (plug!plug!)is a freak for German expressionist film and I wonder if he's aware of this title.

One of the things that stuck with me from the documentary VISIONS OF LIGHT (concerning the photography of cinema) is that I used to dismiss silent film in terms of technical sophistication because the films are so old.
But, actually, that's not true.
Since they didn't have to worry about sound, some films became very innovative with moving the camera.
The advent of sound actually limited photography for a while there as the studios dealt with clunky microphones and trying to always be close to the sound source.
So, some of these silent films are really quite impressive if you've never seen them before.
Looking forward to the rest of this series, stud.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Cattle,

Thanks, man.

I saw the trailer for the Banshee flick and it looks great.

Just like in the contemporary film biz, there was a lot of garbage produced in the silent era. But the best of it, I think, still holds up today.

We'll be doing a couple more Expressionist flicks before the series is over - but I also want to get some American, French, and Dutch flicks in. A little something for everybody - that's the goal of ANTSS.