Vampyr (1932)

I think it is a fair statement that the modern horror genre was born out of a marriage between the German Expressionism's easthetics and Hollywood’s big-budget, mainstream storytelling tradition. For good or bad, that combination has dominated horror film world-wide ever since.

But there were certainly other directions it could have taken. And did, in some cases. Carl Theodor Dreyer showed us a glimpse of one possible influence of avant-garde thinking in the horror genre in his first sound film, Vampyr.

Nicolas de Gunzburg (Julian West) in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932)

In spite of the German language of this particular print, the film was produced in France. Like most French films from around this period, it has problems with the soundtrack, which is somewhat inexpertly dubbed afterwards. Look, for example, at Zéro de conduite (1933), which is even worse, and then compare with the Hollywood film White Zombie (1932). Even though the American film suffers from inferior recording equipment (compared with what would be the norm just a few years later), it sports sound recorded on location, perfectly synchronized with the images.

But that “perfect” sound comes at a prize. Another interesting comparison is how much more elegantly Dreyer was able to work with the light silent-era cameras that I assume he was still using. White Zombie, in comparison, is much more static and conventional in its imagery, and that is partly because they had to use heavier, sound-proofed cameras.

Dreyer sometimes inserts surrealistic elements, and even though the basic plot is fairly simple, he makes jumps that stretches the story’s credibility. The plot can therefore at times be difficult to follow, but that is a problem only if you expect a traditional story structure. This kind of avant-garde film is not one where comprehending is always the most important thing. Here, everything is designed to make you feel, rather than analyze. So let go your conscious mind, and allow your subconscious to guide the experience.

This film is best enjoyed for two reasons, both contributing to the tense atmosphere that is felt throughout. The first reason is Dreyer’s excellent use of camera, lighting and angles. The second is Wolfgang Zeller’s amazing score, in itself reason enough to watch the film.

Rena Mandel and Jane Mora in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr
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Year: 1932
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Stars: Nicolas de Gunzburg (Julian West)
Image quality: Acceptable (poor in some scenes)
Resolution: Medium (574×434; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1,018 M)

The Phantom Fiend (1932)

Last week, I wrote about Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous silent film, The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog. Hitchcock was to return many times to the themes he started to explore in that film, but never again to that particular story. Others were to do so in his place, and it was remade in sound several times, the first as early as 1932, titled simply The Lodger. In America, it was released with the title The Phantom Fiend, and that version is available at the Internet Archive, as well as many other online movie sites.

Ivor Novello and Elizabeth Allan in The Phantom Fiend / The Lodger (1932)

Ivor Novello reprised his role as the lodger who may or may not be a serial killer in a foggy and shadowy London. The overall story is exactly the same as in Hitchcock’s version, but some details differ. One of them is that Novello invested some of himself into his character. This time, the lodger, just like Novello in real life, is a musician and a composer.

Director Maurice Elvey was no Hitchcock. Even though he does retain or copy some of the expressionistic elements of the original, his film is not at all as sinister or visually dramatic. But this version has other qualities. The added dialogue together with a very good script, co-written by Ivor Novello himself, gives this film much more depth in its character portraits, and the overall plot feels more rounded and developed than in Hitchcock’s version. Which version you prefer is a matter of taste. Personally, I like both, but of course Hitchcock is always Hitchcock.

Curiously, the endings are quite different in the two versions. One might argue that neither ending is entirely satisfactory, or that they complement each other. Either way, it is interesting to compare the two.

This film is best enjoyed in its original (and considerably rarer) British release. The American cut available at the Internet Archive is unfortunately compressed by almost a half hour, something which is painfully obvious on occasion. But if you do not have access to the original, then you can still enjoy this short version and Ivor Novello’s magnetic screen personality.

Ivor Novello playing the violin in The Phantom Fiend / The Lodger (1932)

The Phantom Fiend
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Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 2 min
Director: Maurice Elvey
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: MPEG4 (600 M)

Speak Easily (1932)

In the late 1920s, Buster Keaton had made a series of silents that are still considered by many to be among the greatest comedies ever made. It culminated with The General in 1926, which was a marvellous artistic success, but a terrible commercial failure. The result was that Keaton lost the total artistic control he had previously enjoyed, and coinciding with the advent of sound film, he got a contract with MGM that he felt stifled his creativity completely.

By the time that he made Speak Easily in 1932, he was no longer directing, only acting, and to boot his marriage was going downhill along with his career. As a result, Keaton fell to heavy drinking, which cost him his job, his wife and most of his money. Eventually, he found new love and recovered from his bad habits, but by then it was too late to rescue his damaged career. Near the end of his life, however, he did make some fairly popular TV shows, and he had minor roles in a number of big movies.

Buster Keaton, Thelma Todd and Jimmy Durante in Speak Easily (1932)

It is easy to dismiss all of Keaton’s sound films as being of inferior quality. And while that is true compared with his best silents, they are not universally bad throughout. In fact, Speak Easily is a pretty neat little comedy. Keaton plays a professor who is badly in need of some friends and a change in life. When he learns that he has inherited a large sum of money, he leaves everything behind and jumps on a train in order to discover new things about himself and the world. It later turns out that there was no inheritance, but by that time he has already promised to pay for a mediocre travelling vaudeville company’s big break with a new show on Broadway.

For this film, and several others made around the same time, Keaton was paired with Jimmy Durante, another well-known Hollywood comedian. It was competently directed by Edward Sedgwick, and the plot is well held together with nice dialogue and some good stunts, many of them created by Keaton himself. Fans of the Marx brothers will be able to recognize several stunts that were reused when Keaton was hired to create gags for A Night at the Opera (1935).

This film is best enjoyed if you are curious about Keaton’s development after his silent period. Speak Easily may be nowhere near Keaton’s masterworks, but it is by no means bad. Keaton shows that he is a splendid actor, and the cooperation with co-star Durante works very well, even though they are basically two very different kinds of actors. Speak Easily is an endearing and enjoyable, albeit harmless, little comedy. Much better than the other Keaton soundies I have seen, such as Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) and Li’l Abner (1940) (both available for download).

Buster Keaton in Speak Easily (1932)

Speak Easily
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Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick
Stars: Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.1 G)

Freaks (1932)

Horror is a peculiar genre of film. Like crime and thrillers, its basic motivation is human fear, but unlike any other genre, it derives that fear from our loathing of the abnormal and unknown.

With Freaks, director Tod Browning has created a film that is like no other, nor will there ever be one like it. Browning assembled for his production a number of real freaks. Coneheads, dwarfs, a man without arms or legs, the human skeleton, the person who is half man and half woman, and several others. But instead of making this abnormality fearsome, Browning turns everything around and shows the freaks in a sympathetic light. Not making us feel sorry for them or making them ridiculous, but making them actually come through as real people.

Wallace Ford in Freaks (1932)

Freaks is commonly categorized as a horror movie. In this film, however, the monsters are the ones with human emotions, while the normal humans are the monsters inside. Herein lies the real strength of Freaks – it does not exploit the freaks as such. It depicts them with love and affection. Ironically, it shows the freaks as being part of a circus, a travelling freak show, so the horror element is still there but from a reverse angle and cast in a revealing light.

The movie begins as the midget Hans falls in love with a normal woman, the trapeze artist Cleopatra, and abandons his fiancée Frieda. But does Cleopatra really love him, or is she just after the money he inherited? Browning plays out his drama upon this conflict, but the important thing here is not really the plot. Rather it is about emotions, reactions and attitudes.

For an early sound film, Freaks is uncommonly advanced in visual terms. The camera often comes down to the level of the smaller freaks, and there are several effective dolly track shots, a technique which became less common with the heavier cameras necessary for making sound film.

Freaks was controversial when it was made. It was banned in several countries, and it caused Browning’s career to go downhill. It was also cut with almost a half hour. The original version was publicly screened, but is now considered lost.

This film is best enjoyed when your world needs to be turned upside down for a while.

Tod Browning's Freaks (1932)

Freaks
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Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Director: Tod Browning
Stars: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (544×416)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (697 M)

White Zombie (1932)

I just had a look at the trailer for the latest zombie movie, World War Z. And you know what? It did not awaken even the slightest wish to actually see the film.

For decades, all zombie movies have been basically the same: Help! They are taking over the world! They are coming! Cut off their heads! Ow, it bit my leg! Help! The end.

The main development in the genre is that the old movie zombies, like those in The Last Man on Earth (1964), are very slow and not terribly scary, whereas the modern variety, in accordance with the movie audience’s demand for ever higher adrenaline kicks, are fast, furious and very dangerous. But the stories remain basically the same.

The very first zombie film, White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi, is something entirely different. Here we find zombies that are rooted in the Caribbean voodoo tradition, zombies that are not necessarily dead; only completely without wills and minds of their own.

Victor Halperin's White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie was made at a time when sound film was still a new medium. Sound quality was not very good, and neither actors nor directors had yet become used to the new dimension offered them. As a result, actors performed as though they were still in a silent, with overly theatrical gestures and poses. Some find this disturbing. I think it is charming.

Bela Lugosi is the only one in the film who manages to be theatrical and still seem at ease. He gives a magnificent performance, and in my opinion, he is even better here than in his iconic portrayal in Dracula (1931).

Compared with the modern zombie movie, White Zombie is very slowly paced, but its pacing is also very deliberate, and together with effective lighting and scenography creates a tension that is maintaned almost through to the end. In many ways, in fact, White Zombie is very much less clichéd than modern zombie movies. Being the first of its kind, it was not yet stuck in the conventions of the genre.

This film is best enjoyed just before a thunder storm, while the air is moist, warm and heavy.

Bela Lugosi in White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie
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Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Victor Halperin
Stars: Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.6 G)