My weekend viewing included two films based on The Hands of Orlac (1920), a novel by Maurice Renard. This is one of those books that remains little read and seldom discussed even though its central idea—a concert pianist injured in a train wreck is given the hands of an executed murderer in a transplant operation—has prompted many film adaptations, almost enough to make the novel the origin of a sub-genre of hand-transplant horror. Robert Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac was the first screen adaptation made in 1924, and is another in the long list of silent films I’ve known about for decades but had to wait until now to see. The film is notable for reuniting the director of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with Conrad Veidt, the actor who portrayed Caligari’s murderous somnambulist, Cesare, in a mute role that mostly required stalking around acutely-angled sets in a black body stocking.
The Hands of Orlac: Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) is besieged by nightmares in his colossal hospital room.
Veidt has much more to do as the lead in The Hands of Orlac, giving a suitably tormented performance as the pianist convinced that his new hands retain the violent impulses of their former owner. The acting from Veidt and Alexandra Sorina as Orlac’s wife, Yvonne, is often wildly emotive, surprisingly so for a film made near the end of the silent era when the mannerisms of early silent pictures were being replaced by greater naturalism. Lotte Eisner in The Haunted Screen explains this in terms of the Expressionist influence which was still prevalent in German cinema, and which extends beyond lighting and set design. A scene in which Orlac is overwhelmed by his predicament is described by Eisner as “an Expressionist ballet”; when Orlac holds a dagger aloft this becomes an unmistakable mirroring of a climactic moment in Caligari.
Continue reading “Hands with a mind of their own”
The Invisible World of Beautify Junkyards will be the next release on the Ghost Box label in March 2018. Design by Julian House.
• Tantalising discovery of the week was Alphons Sinniger’s Eno (1974), a 24-minute film about post-Roxy Music Brian Eno which shows (among other things) the recording of Here Come The Warm Jets. The film is a scarce item that appeared briefly on YouTube before being yanked. Copies have been reposted (see here) although they may not stay around for long.
• Nosferatu the Shapeshifter: An inventory of intertitles, prints and premiéres. A page that includes some detail about Die zwölfte Stunde. Eine Nacht des Grauens (The Twelfth Hour: A Night of Horror), a seldom-seen reworking of Murnau’s film from 1930 which added sound, additional scenes (none of them by Murnau) and a happy ending.
• At Dennis Cooper‘s: Entry Level: Luchino Visconti’s “German Trilogy”: The Damned, Death in Venice, Ludwig (1969–1973).
• “3,500 occult manuscripts will be digitized and made freely available online, thanks to Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown.”
• From 2015: Watch Alejandro Jodorowsky give a tarot reading (for Nicolas Winding Refn).
• Portals of London: “Towards a catalogue of London’s inter-dimensional gateways”.
• At Spoon & Tamago: Gigantic sculptures by Kenji Yanobe of cats wearing helmets.
• At the BFI: Adam Scovell on 10 great “urban wyrd” films.
• At Swan River Press: Our Haunted Year: 2017.
• Portals (2001) by Bill Laswell | Portals And Parallels (2010) by Belbury Poly & Moon Wiring Club | Abysmal Cathedrals Arise!—Beyond The Quivering Portal—Minds On Fire (2012) by The Wyrding Module
For many directors a film like Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) would have been a career peak, but Friedrich Murnau went on to make The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926) and Sunrise (1927). All those films improve cinematically on Nosferatu but the vampire film continues to cast the longest shadow: quoted, remade, and with even its production fictionalised in Shadow of the Vampire (2000). The lasting success of Nosferatu wasn’t all Murnau’s doing, however.
It’s arguable that without the preliminary work of production designer Albin Grau (1884–1971) the film might have been little more than a curious precursor of the Universal Dracula (1931). Grau was responsible for the set design and the extraordinary appearance of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok; Grau also created the film’s memorable poster and advertising imagery in which the vampire’s appearance hints at something even more terrible than the figure that stalks before the camera.
A great deal of German silent cinema is labelled “Expressionist” even if the films themselves show little in the way of overt Expressionism. Nosferatu isn’t very Expressionist at all but Albin Grau’s sketches and posters certainly tend in that direction, so much so that they make me wonder how different the film might have been if it had been as stylised as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). In addition to his artistic pursuits, Grau was an occultist which explains the attention to detail in the bizarre contract drawn up between Knock and Count Orlok, a document that looks more like a page from a grimoire than anything used by an estate agent. There’s a quote from Grau in his occult capacity in John Symonds’ Aleister Crowley biography, The Great Beast, complaining in 1925 about Crowley’s ascension to the heights of the Ordo Templi Orientis.
Nosferatu: The Knock-Orlok contract.
Nosferatu comes out of the occult preoccupations, having been Grau’s project from the beginning when he formed a film company, Prana-Film, with Enrico Dieckmann. The pair announced plans for three films: Dreams of Hell, The Devil of the Swamp, and a drama about a vampire. Only Nosferatu materialised then sank the company almost as soon as it was finished: Prana-Film had spent more on publicity than on the film itself, and went deep into debt. The success of the film might have helped their finances but the death blow was struck by Florence Stoker and the British Society of Authors who won a court case against the company for filming Dracula without permission. The efforts of the Stoker estate to destroy Nosferatu are recounted in detail in David J. Skal’s fascinating Hollywood Gothic (1990). Many of Murnau’s minor films were lost through various misfortunes, and it’s a fluke that a handful of prints of Nosferatu survived. Happily for us, it’s not only vampires that manage to remain undead.
Continue reading “Albin Grau’s Nosferatu”
The pulp fiction of the early 20th century favoured remote or uncharted islands as locations for the bizarre and the fantastic; in isolated jungles all manner of savage and grotesque behaviour could take place out of sight of the civilised world. Islands are secure from interference; they can be visited by accident or intention, and later fled from when everything goes wrong. The Island of Doctor Moreau is an early example of the type although Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874) pre-dates it by twenty-two years. The Island of Lost Souls (1932), the first film adaptation of the Wells novel, is one of a crop of mysterious islands that appeared in the 1930s following the success of the Universal adaptations of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). The recent Eureka DVD/Blu-ray edition of the film is the first UK release to present the film in its original, uncensored form. I watched it this weekend.
Moreau (Charles Laughton) and Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) at work.
HG Wells famously hated the film, and his vociferous complaints helped to ensure it was banned in Britain until 1958. Even without Wells’ complaints there was enough there to bait the censors who declared it to be “against nature”: writers Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young push the erotic implications of Wells’ story to a degree that would have been impossible in 1896, and would be equally impossible two years later when the Hays Code clamped down on cinematic salaciousness. Charles Laughton’s Moreau is eager to discover whether Lota, the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), will show any sexual interest in the marooned Edward Parker (Richard Arlen). The bestiality theme continues when Parker’s fiancée arrives on the island and finds one of Moreau’s Beast People at her bedroom window. Add to this Moreau’s declaration that he feels like God (a similar line was cut from James Whale’s Frankenstein), a traditional British squeamishness towards maltreating animals (unless they’re foxes), and the Panther Woman’s skimpy outfit, and it’s no surprise that the authorities collapsed with the vapours.
Sensationalism aside, this is one of the greatest horror films of the early 1930s, and one which follows its source material with much more fidelity than Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein. The production had been commissioned by Paramount to capitalise on the success of the Universal films, hence the presence of a very hirsute Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. Cinematographer Karl Struss had worked the year before on Rouben Mamoulian’s excellent Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; prior to this he photographed Sunrise (1927) for Friedrich Murnau. The combination of Struss’s chiaroscuro compositions, some adept direction from Erle C. Kenton (including crane shots), and a tremendous performance by Charles Laughton puts The Island of Lost Souls in a different league entirely to Tod Browning’s stagey and over-rated Dracula. Laughton’s cherub-faced Mephistopheles is a performance that runs counter to the cod theatricals of the period: he’s sly, confident and completely authoritative even if he looks nothing like Wells’ white-haired doctor.
Continue reading “Uncharted islands and lost souls”