Six Weeks of Halloween 2012: Week 1 - Silent Horror

The leaves are turning, the wind is gusting, little plastic corpses and bite sized candy are showing up in grocery stores, along with graveyard themed decorations and mutilated pumpkins. It's my favorite time of the year, and as usual, it's time to celebrate the season by watching lots of horror movies. As usual, Kernunrex has gotten the festivities started off in style, and gives as good an introduction to the concept as one could hope for:
Halloween, the high holiday for horror geeks, has no equal. When is the science fiction fest? Which day do comedy kooks celebrate? Would there ever be a spaghetti western wingding? No, horror is special; it's primal and emotional, tapping into the deepest parts of our psychology and yanking at those uncomfortable pieces we normally pretend do not exist. Something this unique deserves more than a mere day of honor at the end of October. I say: let Halloweentime last for six weeks!
Hell yes! Six weeks of horror movies and pumpkin beer, let's get this party started. Stock the Netflix queues, batten down the hatches, it's gonna be a bumpy ride. Every year, I start off the season thinking to myself: self, you should probably become more familiar with silent-era filmmaking, why not spend a week doing so? Then I promptly forget as I tear through a bunch of trashy slasher movies or Giallos or what have you. Well not this year!

My experience with silent horror films is pretty much limited to a viewing of Nosferatu not that long ago. I guess you could also consider Hitchcock's silent film The Lodger as horror too. The silent era of film is a bit of a blind spot in general, so it's definitely something I should be making myself more familiar with, and this provided a good excuse. So it was a quiet weekend, if you take my meaning. Let's see how much choices were:
  • Grindhouse: Don't (fake trailer)
  • The Haunting (trailer)
  • The Others (trailer)
  • The Cat and the Canary - The original tale of relatives brought together in a haunted house for the reading of a will, this thing seemingly presages, well, every horror movie ever made. Haunted house, check. Escaped lunatic, check. Prowling POV shots from the killer's perspective, check. Scooby-like plot to manipulate the will, check. Goofy, incompetent cop, check. Creepy housemaid, check. Indeed, the cat-and-canary analogy itself could describe the way killers stalk their victims in countless horror films (though I guess it's more frequently referred to as cat-and-mouse).
    Not a monster
    The atmosphere of this film is quite effective, but the creaky old manor, filled with cobwebs and secret passages, is yet another horror staple that we've all seen dozens of times. As with most of my experience with silent films, this one moves a tad slow and the acting style of the era was one of overemphasized motions and theatrical gyrations. As visual storytelling goes, though, this one is actually one of the better examples that I've seen. A must watch for students of horror, but perhaps not something that would thrill general viewers. ***
  • Shining (fake trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: The Shinning
  • The Shining (trailer)
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - This is another movie that sorta foreshadows a lot of the genre that would come later. In particular, a case could be made that this is the first slasher, though the film also seems to have been a major influence on Noir films as well. In terms of it's visual style, it's a most striking example of the German Expressionism style, with a set design that is very angular and thus somewhat unsettling. Expressionistic films are not usually this overt or bold, but this film really does get in your face with that sort of distortion of reality. The story itself is somewhat pedestrian. Dr. Caligari sets up shop in a local carnival to exhibit a Somnambulist, a man he claims has been asleep for decades, but who walks and talks in his sleep. The Somnambulist is kept in a coffin (aka the titular cabinet), and Caligari breaks him out and has the crowd ask questions. One unfortunate soul asks "When will I die?" and the Somnambulist's reply is "At first dawn!" Sure enough, the next morning at dawn, the man is found dead.
    Stabby stabby
    More hijinks ensue, and there's a few reversals and twists towards the end, but the thing that really sets this movie apart are its visuals. Really, it's just the set design, with it's discordant, angular lines, that is most memorable here. There is basically no camera movement at all, apparently the result of a low budget. This makes the overtness of the film's expressionism a little more explainable, as that's how they sought to make the movie visually interesting. Alas, the film has a preponderance of intertitles, making this rather textually heavy despite its silent origin. Again we get slow pacing and melodramatic acting histrionics. It's another influential and important movie, but I liked The Cat and the Canary much better... **1/2
  • Monster Realty (Robot Chicken)
  • House Of Wax (1953, trailer)
  • House Of Wax (2005, trailer)
  • Waxworks - Perhaps the least horror-like movie of the bunch, this nonetheless has some unsettling, weird elements that at least go in the right direction. The story concerns a writer hired by a wax museum to create backstories for the various wax figures. This makes the film into a sorta anthology as the writer concocts tales for three figurines. Harun al Raschid is a Caliph who gets caught up in a squabble between a baker and his wife. Ivan the Terrible thwarts attempts at his life, only to go mad when he thinks that one has succeeded. And Spring-Heeled Jack seemingly threatens the writer in the wax museum! Each story is shorter than the last, though, making this a somewhat lopsided affair, with the grand majority of screen time focused on Harun al Raschid and Ivan the Terrible. Fortunately, all three tales are worthy and interesting, even sometimes incorporating surprise twists. There's a cleverness here not really present in the other two films I watched this weekend, and despite not being horrific, it's still pretty entertaining. That being said, it's got the same pacing and acting ticks that I notice in most silent films. It's a fun film, well worth checking out for film buffs... ***
Well there you have it. I still can't say as though I'm in love with the silent era, but I do find some of these movies fascinating, if only because of their influence and historical value. Next week, I shall return with some proto-slashers, including a German Krimi film and whatever else I can scare up.

Update: Rex posted some thoughts on The Cat and the Canary.

Again Update: Bonehead XL is also writing about The Cat and the Canary. It's all Cat and Canary, all the time on the internet! You should watch it too! Ok fine, he's got a bunch of other reviews too and his site promises to be another 6 weeks of Halloweeny fun.