The Phantom of the Opera; or How to Make an Impression on a First Date

Hello and Hallo-welcome to our last Silent Saturday! After Lilly tackled 1922’s Nosferatu a couple of weeks ago, Andy decided to strike out on his own, and tackle 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera. You join him, as he rises nobly over medieval torture chambers, hidden dungeons, long forgotten.

Today’s Film Offering: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I imagine many filmmakers, cinematographers, editors and makeup artists have moments where they want to create something truly iconic, really make an impact in film history. Imagine, then, making a reveal so shocking, so well-done, that it’s still effective 92 YEARS LATER.

Lon Chaney as the grotesque Erik is, for my money, one of the best makeup jobs, well, ever. And he did it himself!

Phantom_of_the_Opera_lobby_card.jpgAnyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. For those of you who don’t know the plot of this 1925 silent classic, or the 1911 French novel it’s based on (written by Gaston Leroux), the plot follows the young, innocent Christine at the Paris Opera house, her career and her engagement to the handsome young Raoul. But there is another interested party, her “angel of music” who speaks to her through the walls, encouraging her and ultimately knocking off her competition.

Of course, this is the titular Phantom: not a phantom at all, but a deformed musical genius obsessed with Christine – a terrifying legend among the stage crew and backup dancers, and an amusing anecdote to the new owners, at least until things start to go wrong.

Erik is a surprisingly relevant character in the modern world. His promotion of Christine gives him power over her, at least in his own head, and even horrifying moments, like when he drops an enormous chandelier into the crowded theatre are temper tantrums of a childlike mind, not the works of the genius mastermind he clearly thinks he is. Every single woman will have come across some idiot like this. I know I have, and I always think “there but for the grace of God…”

Of course, Christine rejects Erik, seeing as he’s, you know, hideous and kind of a douchecanoe, and plans to run away with Raoul. Erik, overhearing their plans, kidnaps Christine, and it’s up to Raoul and a man who’s been investigating Erik in the cellars (and been mistaken for the Phantom for that reason) to try to rescue her.

I’ve got to say, I was surprised by this one. 116 minutes is a long haul for a silent movie, but a cracking pace and plenty of humor kept me engaged. The humor also lulled me into a false sense of security – when the movie amped up, it caught me with my guard down, and I was genuinely creeped out at a few moments. And it did it without feeling tonally dissonant, which is incredibly difficult to pull off.

Case in point: the Phantom has been strangling people with something called a “Punjab Knot”; essentially a quick tightening noose. You forget about this, until Raoul’s companion in the cellar tells Raoul to keep his arm up by his head at all times, because a noose could drop at any moment and having an arm inside it could save his life. Sinister stuff, and not something modern horror movies do very well – it never comes close to happening to them, but this one observation had me yelling “Arm UP Raoul” every single time he dropped his guard.

So, in short, it’s really good. Certainly my favourite adaptation I’ve seen of the story (I read the novel as a teenager). Yes, including the musical, Lilly.

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The Call of Cthulhu; or Revenge of the Calamari

Hello and Hallo-welcome to another Silent Saturday, where we take in a film that is part watching, part reading, and all quiet! You join your bloggers, Andy and Lilly, as they delve into multiple manuscripts of interviews and confusing, scrawled drawings of ancient beings, labelled with illegible words of a language unknown.

Today’s Film Offering: The Call of Cthulhu

Andy: It’s rare that you come across a movie that’s as obvious a labour of love as this one. Produced by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, this not only aimed to bring his most infamous story and creation to the big screen, but to do it in the style of the time the story was written – all the way back in 1926!

Lilly: So what we have here is actually a cheat day for our silent films–more a homage than a history lesson, if you will!

Andy: For those unfamiliar with HPL’s stories, or the mythos that was created by other writers after his death, here’s a quick primer. Between about 1917 and 1938 (when he died), Lovecraft wrote a number of extremely influential horror stories, creating a genre known as “cosmic horror”. The horror, in most of these stories, comes from revelations that not only are we not alone in the universe, we are utterly insignificant, and there are huge, terrifying things out there that could wipe us out if they so much as looked in our direction. His most famous creation, Cthulhu, embodies this as a huge, ancient sea monster, able to invade our thoughts and drive us mad, and who will inherit the earth whenever it decides to wake up. Gulp.

To those with a passing familiarity, but who haven’t delved into Lovecraft’s sometimes impenetrable and often kinda racist prose (lots of ‘degeneracy through miscegenation’ bullshit), Cthulhu will be familiar. However, it may surprise you to learn that this is the only story in which he appears in, uh, person.

Lilly: It surprised me. And by surprised, I mean angered, because I’ve been hearing about this guy for literal decades of my life and then he only shows up in one story? A SHORT story, at that! Come on. It would be like instead of Sherlock Holmes being prolific, it was Henry Baker from The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle you saw everywhere. Or Moriarity, maybe. If I’m being a bit more forgiving.

CoCDVDfront_grandeAndy: The movie, like the short story, follows a three act structure, with the arc story being a young man reading through his Great Uncle’s notes. A first-hand account with a sensitive and disturbed artist kicks off the story, as he gradually loses and regains his mind over the course of March 1925, and dreams of a nightmare city with a deadly inhabitant – producing awful, fascinating artwork of almost inhuman origin. The second is an account from a detective from New Orleans, who comes across a similar sculpture while breaking up a dangerous cult in 1908.

The third is the account of a Norwegian sailor, who’s crew comes across an island after a deadly storm in March 1925, and begin to explore the city at the summit. A city that a certain artist would find very familiar, and with an ancient and terrible tomb that slowly opens…

Lilly: Tension! Mystery! Shock! Horror! Eye blood!

While Andy clearly comes to this film from the angle of a Lovecraft fan, I come from the angle of a movie fan, and I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed. It was excellently paced, artfully shot, and one of the most important things with silent films, I’m finding, was it was able to tell the story in short bursts of text, not wasting all the time to title everything said, depending on the actors and the atmosphere to give us context. They clearly get that silent films aren’t just subtitled talkies. Not everything needs to be told to us as an audience, and that actually really suits Lovecraft’s style of writing. He was all about the massive build up with little given away.

This was one of those films you can tell was a labour of love, and I approve of that, especially when it comes out as good as The Call of Cthulhu. We both enjoyed it, and you know that is a sign of a good adaptation, when a devoted fan of the text and a relative novice to the Lovecraftian world can sit down together and find some enjoyment. It’s a thumbs up and recommendation from us! Go, watch, enjoy!

Nosferatu; or Count Who?

Hello and Hallo-welcome to another edition of Silent Saturday, where we look at films that were pre-talkie but that doesn’t make them pre-spooky! You join your reviewer, Lilly, as she turns to face the sun in a dramatic manner before bursting into flames–mind the smoke!

Today’s Film Offering: Nosferatu

Well hi there, readers! I’m back and better than–no, actually, I’m still sick, but I’ve taken on the challenge today of a solo review of a film I’ve seen far more times than I ever, ever meant to. It’s Nosferatu!

51V5A2lta3L._SY450_.jpgFollowing a story that is suspiciously like Dracula but totally isn’t Dracula thanks to a lack of rights to the novel and its characters, Nosferatu tells the story of a young man, Harding, who goes to a strange count’s home to sell him some land, finding out once there that his host is hardly human. He’s a vamp–wait, no, he’s a nosferatu, or ‘bird of death’! And Harding just up and sold the house beside his own to the fiend! Gasp! Cue a romp with such delightful scenes as the Count comically tip toeing along an alley with a coffin in his arms to a brilliant disappearing act on the part of the Count when the rooster crows.

Jokes aside, this 1922 romp is a film which is hinted at in just about any vampire film you’ll see that followed it. From a shadow that lurks on its own to posing dramatically while you burn to death, Nosferatu is a best hits of vampire (it’s so vampires, sorry) horrors, and rightfully so. Orlok is so other-wordly, that even if you somehow don’t count him as a head vampire in the history of blood suckers, he at least gets a place at the table with the others movie monsters of history.

Let’s talk about Orlok, actually. The Count is nothing like the charming Dracula we have come to accept, with Bela Lugosi and Gary Oldman making him a gentleman fiend. No, the Count is horrific because of his otherness that isn’t masked at all. He looks terrifying at all times–there is no mistaking him for a human, yet he still manages to be in a city center. There is almost a blind comfort in the fact that you can’t see Bela and Gary coming, another face in the crowd that surprises you at the last moment before your doom, while Count Orlok can be seen a mile off yet he still can get you. You see him coming, but there’s nothing you can do about it. He is like the Black Death that the villagers assume is what is killing them off, one by one. It was a real threat that you could see everywhere in those dying around you, yet had no idea when it was going to take you–or if it even would at all.

The film’s atmosphere is something else to laude. With one camera, the shots were precise and carefully timed–it is said a metronome was used to make sure the actors kept time with the pace the director wanted. While Nosferatu doesn’t necessarily scare you, it certainly builds an atmosphere of dread with brilliant use of the Northern German countryside for its sets on top of the otherworldly looking lead, Shreck. You aren’t shocked by the film, no shots designed to make you scream, but the imagery sticks, haunting you past the viewing and popping up like a nightmare with glimpses of it in pop culture that you can’t escape.

Got an hour and a half of time? I suggest you check out this 1922 classic, and see just how many of your modern favourites take from Orlok!

The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari; or Somnambulist’s Day Out

Hello and Hallo-welcome to the first of our Silent Saturdays, where the films might be silent but our screams aren’t! You join your bloggers, Andy and Lilly, as they get ready to attend a fair featuring a certain somnambulist they’ve heard is to die for.

Today’s film offering: The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1920)

Lilly: Not only silent, but German! German Expressionist, to be exact!

the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari-movie-poster-1919-1010491578The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari is a story within a story, where our narrator, Francis, opens the story up while sitting on a bench, apparently deciding to regale the man beside him with the tales of his woes. The old man (and the audience) then hear the story of murder, misery, and a sleepwalking monster.

A fair comes to Holstenwall, a town made up of harsh and jagged hand-painted scenery, and with it, Dr.Caligari. He has an act featuring one Cesare, a somnambulist (or sleepwalker) that can tell the future. He predicts the imminent death of Francis’ close friend, Alan, which naturally shakes up the poor guy. Wouldn’t you know it, that night, Alan is murdered by a shadowy figure and the mystery and tragedy of it drive Francis to figure out what exactly happened to his pal. Cue detective work, kidnapping of a damsel who is distressed, and all the peculiar angles and artistic interpretations of reality!

Andy: Yes indeedy. None of this movie is filmed outside of a studio, despite the fact a lot of it takes place outside, and the set design is a nightmarish landscape of spiky edges, disproportion and off-color. Silent movies can be hard to get into, and the style of this one is also really unnerving, but if you let it pull you in it actually gets under your skin.

Lilly: There is a lot to unpack with Caligari, from its style choices to the messages it contains about authority, post-war Germany, and conformity, and for once–brace yourself, dear readers–I might want to do all of that without spoiling it.

GASP! I know. A strange thing to do with a film that has been around for nearly 100 years, but as the film is considered a major influence on narrative techniques that flourish only without spoilers, you gotta respect that.

Andy: Yeah, we’re not going to spoil it, as it does have a genuinely surprising ending.

Lilly: So first off, let’s talk about the gorgeous set design. Nothing takes you more into the world of a man’s mind than a hand-drawn set, I figure. It makes you wonder if this is how our narrator sees the world, really–he must constantly feel out of sorts with all those slanty doors and weird corridors. Also, is the over the top acting also just in his head? Aaah I love it.

Andy: Hmm.

Lilly: What? It’s great! I mean, on top of the sets, the messages were sound, too! Like the whole adverse reactions to bureaucracy, and not to mention men in positions of power not being trustworthy, PLUS–

Andy: HMMM.

Lilly: OK, fine. What is it?

Andy: Well I’m not 100% sure I’d recommend it. It’s good, really good, and the set design is fantastic, buuut there are nearly 100 years between us and its release. There’s a whole unconscious language to film that was only just being discovered and codified in the 1920s, and it can feel very jarring to go back to a time where things like narrative and pacing were very, very different. You can watch it, sure, but it’s probably not going to be like you expect and you may find yourself like me.

Lilly: How did you find yourself?

Andy: I dunno. Unanchored, maybe? Having said that, the set design alone is engaging enough and for anyone into that on stage or screen, this is a must-watch.

Lilly: So, if you have some patience to decipher the wild flailing that means dismay and strange close ups of faces that aren’t actually doing anything on top of some light reading, go, watch, and see where all these scary movies we watch now come from! Back to the creepy roots, if you will!