Rex Ingram’s The Magician

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The Magician (1926), Rex Ingram’s curious occult horror film, receives a rare screening with live music accompaniment at the Brighton Fringe Festival on Tuesday, 22nd May. The film is notable for being based on the 1908 Somerset Maugham novel of the same name whose modern-day magus character, Oliver Haddo, was modelled on Aleister Crowley. The screening will feature an introduction by Gary Lachman, and a live soundtrack by the fabulous Ragged Ragtime Band, featuring members of Blondie, Indigo Octagon, Raagnagrok and Time. Booking details and other information here.

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Maugham’s book has always been easier to find than Ingram’s film, more’s the pity when the film—despite some flaws—is the superior article. Read today, the novel comes across as a template for the standard Dennis Wheatley tale of middle-class innocents imperilled by grandiloquent villainy. A young couple, Arthur Burdon and his fiancée, Margaret, are pitted against Haddo’s extravagant diabolisms; for assistance they have a friend, Dr Porhoët, a Van Helsing type, older than the couple and with a convenient (but purely intellectual) interest in the occult. Haddo kidnaps Margaret and forces her with hypnosis into an unconsummated marriage. Haddo’s goal is to create artificial life—homunculi—and for that he requires a virgin’s blood. Maugham later described his novel as “lush and turgid”, an honest and accurate appraisal. Aleister Crowley was amused at being portrayed as a “Brother of the Shadows” but pretended to be scandalised by Maugham’s alleged plagiarism which he condemned in a Vanity Fair review that he signed “Oliver Haddo”. The best parts of the novel certainly owe something to other authors, usually the scenes concerning the sinister magus and his occult activities; the rest of the characters are lifeless by comparison. Some of the better passages read like HP Lovecraft writing Dorian Gray, and Maugham not only quotes from Walter Pater but also (uncredited) from Wilde’s Salomé.

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Paul Wegener as Oliver Haddo.

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Symbolist cinema

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Symbolist? Arguably. Decadent? Certainly. Watching Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) again this weekend I thought it worth making note of some of these resonances. The real age of Symbolist cinema was the Silent Era from around 1910 onwards, something I discussed in more detail here. That being so, several films made since can be taken as Symbolist (more usually Decadent) productions even if this was never their original intention. Kenneth Anger‘s Magic Lantern Cycle comes immediately to mind, so too Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates.

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Bram Stoker’s novel was published in 1897 at the ebbing of the fin de siècle but vampires and vampirism were already recurrent Symbolist themes. Aesthetic magus Walter Pater wrote of the Mona Lisa in 1893, “She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave…” Dracula almost demands a Symbolist interpretation, and for now Coppola’s production is the closest we get. I’ve found this makes the film more satisfying in a way: you can ignore the shoddy performances by secondary characters and concentrate on the decor and details (and the tremendous score by Wojciech Kilar). Some of the following screen grabs argue my point.

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Oh look, peacock feathers. I loved the artificiality of this film, the excessive palette, the obvious models and miniatures, the layering of images. The dissolve from a peacock feather to Jonathan Harker’s infernal train journey is a great moment.

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