by Steve Habrat
When we look back upon the silent horror films that were emerging from both Germany and the United States in the 1920s, the visual differences between the two countries are absolutely amazing. Germany used exaggerated gothic landscapes that were Brechtian in their appearance yet brimming with an eerie atmosphere that emitted from the heavy shadows and sharp edges. When we look at the 1920 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s glaringly obvious that what we are watching is taking place on an elaborate stage with a spiked and warped backdrop. Even though there isn’t an ounce of realism to the sets, somehow the film manages to lure us in and chill us with the idea that these images are merely the distortions of a disturbed mind. Even in 1920, it is highly unlikely that audiences weren’t noticing this. Around the same time in America, director John S. Robertson released the spit-shined Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a conservative bore when compared to the German Expressionist offerings. Based upon the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is never able to muster the terrifying mood that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari does. It doesn’t even come close. However, despite its beige studio appearance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does benefit from a celebrated performance from John Barrymore, who hunches himself into a hideous monster born from man’s deepest, darkest desires. It’s through Barrymore’s performance alone that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is able to cover its other insipid features.
Dr. Henry Jekyll (played by John Barrymore) is an upstanding citizen. He is a workaholic who locks himself in his lab for hours on end, runs a free clinic in his spare time, and balks at the idea of ever having a good time, which irks his future father-in-law, Sir George Carew (played by Brandon Hurst). George believes that Henry isn’t nearly as good as he pretends to be, and he argues that Henry should indulge some of his darker impulses every now and then. After enduring an endless string of taunts from George and being forced to go to a seedy nightclub, Henry begins working on a potion that can separate man’s two natures into two separate bodies, one that is wholly good and one that embraces a darker lifestyle. Henry tests the potion on himself and he quickly transforms into Edward Hyde, a homely creature that haunts dingy nightclubs and has a fling with an Italian dancer named Gina (played by Nita Naldi). Meanwhile, Henry’s finance, Millicent (played by Martha Mansfield), begins to grow suspicious of her fiancés mysterious absence. She asks her father to help her track him down and get to the bottom of what he is up to. As Millicent and George race to find Henry, Hyde’s behavior grows more and more violent with each passing second.
The early parts of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde find the film struggling to find some form of momentum. Robertson expertly frames Barrymore and his performance as Henry Jekyll, presenting him as a bang-up guy driven by scientific progression and concerned with giving back to the community where he can. He’s likeable enough to point where he really spices up drab scenes of men sitting around a dinner table debating about man’s two natures while one-dimensional intertitles present us with their dialogue. The lack of a good set piece really doesn’t do much for the film either, making the opening twenty minutes a bit of a chore to sit through. Those with short attention spans will be contemplating hitting the stop button. However, after Henry ventures to that nightclub and lays eyes on Gina, things start to pick up. One of two highlight moments come when Henry transforms into Hyde, which was done without the use of special effects. It relies simply on Barrymore’s ability to morph into a horse-faced demon with curled lips revealing what appears to be hundreds of teeth. From here, the depraved behavior of Edward Hyde keeps the action interesting as he creeps into bars and sneaks up behind tipsy gals. Suspense is generated through Hyde’s increasingly erratic behavior, which slowly shifts from perverse to bloodthirsty.
Much of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s success rests on the shoulders of Barrymore, who outshines everyone else as he dances between good and evil. His transformation is tragic, and the poisoning of his squeaky-clean soul does make him all the more sympathetic. The most painful moment for his character comes when he is forced to watch Gina perform her dance routine, a lust slowly blossoming despite the fact that he is engaged to Millicent. With a role that demanded so much, it isn’t difficult to see why Barrymore is the stand out. He is doing more acting than anyone else in the picture. This film could have been a real disaster had the filmmakers not found someone able to glide so smoothly between a malicious parasite and an upstanding do-gooder. Naldi adds a bit of sex appeal to the film as Gina, the erotic Italian dancer who gets tangled up with the hunchbacked Hyde. Martha Mansfield may as well not even be in the picture as Millicent, the angelic love interest who strains to find something useful to do. Brandon Hurst fares a bit better as Sir George Carew, who taunts the mild-mannered Jekyll any chance he gets. He has a particularly unsettling run-in with Jekyll that seriously makes him regret dragging his future son-in-law to that nightclub.
While its cautionary deliberations and square performances weigh it down, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does manage to cough up one of the most horrific moments in horror movie history. Near the end of the film, Henry lies in bed and suffers a hallucination/nightmare that finds Hyde crawling out from under the bed and latching onto the terrified Henry. The effect is masterfully accomplished through layering, but it’s the look of Hyde that really shakes you up. He’s almost resembles a spider-like parasite, with tentacles hanging off of his bump back as he inches up onto the bed to latch to his host. It’s probably the best moment of the entire film and you’re left wishing for more inspired visuals scares like it. As far as the climax goes, there are a few scenes that get the pulse pumping, but it’s nothing compared to the hallucination/dream sequence. Overall, while it’s an artistic bore and it suffers from some sluggish stretches, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde manages to overcome some of its weaknesses through a must-see performance from the gifted Barrymore and a handful of ghoulish scenes that make it a solid watch for cinema buffs, monster aficionados, and horror fans. Just don’t expect a few sleepless nights after your viewing.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Contrary to popular belief, James Whale’s legendary 1931 Boris Karloff vehicle Frankenstein was not the first interpretation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel. In 1910, Edison Studios released J. Searle Dawley’s eerie short Frankenstein, a primitive little horror film that is surprisingly morbid considering the time it was made. At a brief twelve minutes, Dawley’s Frankenstein bursts with gothic images and morbid effects that would have certainly made magician-filmmaker George Méliès proud and had naïve audience members cowering in a ball under their chairs. This impressive little short does suffer from some disrupting over-acting, a typical staple for early silent films such as these, but this early version of Frankenstein does feature a grotesquely memorable monster that commands each and every scene that he lumbers into.
We’re all familiar with the story of Frankenstein, so I won’t bore you to death with a plot synopsis. Dawley’s film condenses much of Shelley’s original story, but the film is surprisingly complete given the brief runtime and small cast. The morality tale is firmly in place, but it doesn’t play as prominent a role as it did in Whale’s symbolic classic or the heavy-handed follow-up The Bride of Frankenstein. We’re still warned not to play God, and any attempt to do so could destroy our lives and drive us to the brink of madness.
The highlight of Dawley’s Frankenstein is easily the creation sequence, a scene that finds the Frankenstein monster growing from a bubbling cauldron of various liquids mixed together. After a sudden plume of smoke that certainly made audiences gasp with wonder, a charred skeleton begins to emerge, slowly covering itself with rotten organs, muscle, and flesh. As all of this occurs, the creature waves its arms wildly around the screen, a simple act that terrifies the young Frankenstein enough to lock his creation behind big heavy doors. Naturally, this doesn’t keep the monster out, but it doesn’t take long for an undead arm to burst through the barrier and reach out at the skittish young doctor. There is no doubt in my mind that this sequence drove many audience members from the theater, screaming in horror at this abomination of science. And they had barely caught a glimpse of the monster in all its finished glory.
While the performances from Augustus Phillips and Mary Fuller are largely just exaggerated demonstrations of affection or heart-stopping terror, the standout is Charles Ogle as the monster. Hidden behind grainy camerawork and gobs of misshapen make-up, this shaggy beast tiptoes into each frame, stretching out his arms and reaching for his maker like a deformed infant. He resembles a goblin that has been hiding out in the wilderness for a year, a far throw from Karloff’s bolted and stitched appearance, but he is still effective in his own way. Especially devastating is the scene in which he glimpses himself in the mirror, gaping in horror as he realizes that he is indeed a hideous creation born of chemical mixtures. Even more interesting is the psychological twist that is put on Ogle’s monster, molding him into a physical manifestation of the evil that lurks in the deepest depths of Frankenstein himself.
While Dawley’s Frankenstein may not enjoy the lavish budget that Whale’s Universal Studios effort did, there is still a haunting gothic mood that oozes out of each and every frame. Rather than resorting to crumbling castles, overgrown graveyards, lightning storms, and dead forests to set the mood, Dawley simply places a few skulls around the set, enough to give the sets a macabre punch. Plus, just the fact that the film is as old as it adds another unsettling layer to the proceedings. Overall, thought lost for many, many years, Dawley’s Frankenstein is a must-see fragment of cinema history. It’s astonishing to see what was being accomplished in the early days of the medium and there is an eeriness to it if watched in the dead of night with the slightly distracting score turned all the way down. Dawley’s Frankenstein is a must-see for any student of film or horror fan.
Frankenstein is available on DVD.
Watch J. Searle Dawyley’s Frankenstein below:
Anti-Film School does not claim ownership of this video.
by Steve Habrat
I wonder what the film snobs who snarled at J.J. Abrams and Steve Spielberg’s wide-eyed tribute to the escapist cinema Super 8 are now thinking about Martin Scorsese’s turn at bat. Truth be told, Scorsese’s Hugo is quite possibly the best movie I have seen all year. With 3D that rivals Avatar’s, some of the finest acting from child stars I have seen since Super 8, an extraordinary performance from Sacha Baron Cohen, and a reserved respect for classic cinema, Hugo is a sumptuous revelation that will live on for years to come. In fact, I’d be so bold to say that if Scorsese retired and never made another picture, there is no finer way for him to go out than with this film. Hugo places Scorsese’s heart on his sleeve, which is quite rare when we go back over his resume (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island). It’s rare you find a film of this caliber, one that manages to capture the director’s spirit and boy if Scorsese’s spirit isn’t incandescent with childlike wonder. And from a guy who has made so many films about tough guys, who’d have thought he was a gigantic softie?
Hugo breathes new life into this cookie cutter Oscar season, loaded with the usual fare (The Descendents, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, Shame), and it is utterly refreshing. Set in Paris during the 1930s, orphaned Hugo Cabret (Played by the breathtaking Asa Butterfield) tends to the clocks behind the walls of a bustling train station. He steals food from the cafés that line the station, people watches from behind the towering clock faces, dodges the ever-watchful Station Inspector (Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has never been better) and flits about the winding steam rooms and hidden grinding gears. In his spare time, Hugo sneaks around the station stealing trinkets that will help him fix a mysterious automaton, which he was building with his father (Played by Jude Law) before his father was killed in a fire. He steals parts from a toyshop owned by the bitter George Méliès (Played by Ben Kingsley). One day he gets caught by Méliès and as punishment has his notebook containing the instructions on how to fix the automaton taken away. Méliès tells Hugo that he must work for him and earn the notebook back. While working for Méliès, Hugo meets Isabelle (Played by the always great Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who hangs around the toyshop. They strike up a friendship and she begins to help Hugo on his quest to finish the automaton and Hugo aids her in her quest for adventure.
While there isn’t a kink to be found in the storytelling, the performances are all wonderful, and the film hits every emotional mark it needs to, the film soars because of it’s jaw-dropping 3D. It’s on the level of Avatar and even surpassing it in some respects. What I believe good 3D should accomplish is making me feel like I inhabit the world that the characters do. This is what saved Avatar and coaxed back audiences to see it again. You felt like you were on Pandora with the characters, not like you were just peering through a large opening. We are invited in to the world that Hugo Cabret explores on a daily basis. The opening moments of the film pulled the rug out from under me and I felt like I was dashing along that twisting labyrinth of metal and steam. While watching Hugo, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and sped off into history.
Speaking of history, Hugo gives a concise overview of the history of cinema, even if it is succinct. These are told in minor flashbacks that tickle the viewers eyes by flashing clips of old silent classics, stock footage of WWI, and techniques applied by Scorsese himself. The film contains numerous scenes in which the actors have little to no dialogue and let their performances evoke the spirits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and more. At times I almost found myself wishing that Scorsese had filmed Hugo in black and white, just to give the audience the full effect. I guess the producers may have feared it would overshadow the recent release The Artist, which is also a testament to early cinematic works. As someone who has studied the history of the medium, I was enthralled with Scorsese animated trip through history all while constantly nudging my friends and gasping over the nods to old films. Scorsese appears to never feel obliged to tip his hat and it felt like this was coming from the deepest depths of his magic loving heart.
Magic is the core of Hugo, as Scorsese professes his undying love for it every step of the way. He couples magic with imagination and our willingness to dream. He firmly declares that film is our way of capturing our dreams and showing them to the world. This goes against what is taught at stuffy film schools where they say film should not be a form of escapism but rather make political, moral, and social proclamations. For those of us who grew up marveling at the medium, this shatters what we have built film up to be and I ask why they must defile what is sacred to us fans? It must be quite a blow to their egos, as film schools like the one I attended gushed over Scorsese and his gritty works. It turns out they were wrong about that little guy. He dares to dream with the rest of us.
Hugo boats some truly exquisite performances from its young child stars. Kingsley conveys anger, resentment, and redemption with grace. Sacha Baron Cohen is Oscar worthy as the strict Station Inspector who has confidence issues and a hopeless crush on a pretty and fair Lisette (Played by Emily Mortimer). Asa Butterfield’s Hugo shines the brightest of all and he nabs our empathy just as nonchalantly as he takes a pastry from a café. Chloe Grace Moretz is flawless as always, but then again she has been a talent to keep an eye on since she broke out with last years stellar Kick-Ass. Christopher Lee pops up as an observant and baritoned bookshop owner who finds himself puzzled over the independent Hugo. All of these performances compliment each other and the true marvel is the performances achieved without copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like they are from a different era.
Hugo gathers it’s momentum in the first few seconds of flashing across the screen and it never slows down. Everything just clicks in this picture. You’ll find yourself grinning over it if you’re a film fan and enamored with it even if you are just a casual viewer. Scorsese pleads with us not to contain our imagination and our passion for the things that we love. They should guide us through this twisting and complicated world and allow us to discover what our purpose is in this life. Thanks for reminding me to dream, Marty, and assuring me that it’s more than okay to do so. Oh, and thanks for Hugo, the best film of 2011.