by Jaime Grijalba.
File #7 – Paul Leni
Hey, look! Another director that is familiar in the ranks of Wonders in the Dark, at least, I think he is. I wanted to start right on topic just to sway a little bit into my usual wandering of ideas in this opening paragraph, because I know that this is much more a niche project than anything and I wish that those who enjoy it continue to do so, but at the same time I have to cover some ground regarding the times and the prospect of this project, and the thing is that it will become huge any moment now, and I need more time to write these retrospectives and watch the films (that is one of the main reasons as to why this particular post is coming up so late), so I’m having some ideas on how to solve that, they aren’t entirely constructed so I’ll keep it shush, but for now I’m just going to say that maybe we’ll only have two Masters of Horror every month and the other two thursdays will be used for something different, what is and how/when it will appear, I’m not sure, but you’ll find out eventually. So, back to the topic at hand, here we have another german director who directed silent cinema in Germany and went on to direct silent cinema in the US, gaining some fame and following as well as being tremendously influential to the studios and filmmakers of the time, he practically invented the (at that time) modern haunted house genre with hidden passageways, murders and mystery, all influenced by the mystery novels that were popular at that time, but adding the layer of supernatural entities and presences that may or may not be real, but the fear and the horror is there, and that’s what counts. He was also one of the most interesting people in terms of visual craft, as he worked as an art director and custome designer in many german films before having directed his first feature (and even after that he continued working on some german films), and he is, for all we can say, a worthy disciple of the visual school of german expressionism, mainly because he managed to bring it to the films of the US and we can say that his movies there influenced the likes of Tod Browning and James Whale when they started to make their own horror films with visual lavish and grandiose scope, he brought the over-complex image to the american screen, filling it with labyrinths and people, moving and always interacting with each other, people marching towards the camera or the camera itself moving to develope a visual wonder, it’s all there and he is most assuredly related to Richard Oswald (previously discussed in an earlier installment of Masters of Horror) than to the likes of romanticists like F.W. Murnau, in a sense I can say that those who fell into the expressionism and never truly left it (like Leni) failed to deliver more profound works of art if they evolved into a more romanticist point of view towards the visual language (like Murnau did). Besides all this, I can honestly say that I can’t wait for the first non-german Master of Horror (no offense here).Succesful Traslation
This is the full horror filmography of Paul Leni, with notes if needed:
· Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924) Co-directed with Leo Birinsky
· The Cat and the Canary (1927)
· The Man Who Laughs (1928)
· The Last Warning (1929)
Best/Scariest Film: The Man Who Laughs (1928)
It’s easy to see how this film is based on a work of Victor Hugo, one of the most famous,as well as talented, french writers in history, but at the same time someone with a great amount of common places and themes that repeat from work to work along his career, as are stories on certain historical events, as well as the fixation on narrating through ‘miserable characters (to the point where he wrote a novel called ‘Les Miserables’), that are in the worst moments of their lives due to elements strange to them, being ultimately abused by more powerful folk, falling deeper and more profoundly in misery that envelopes them. A similar road is followeed by the protagonist of this scary and at the same time complex narrative piece, where a clow has decided that profession for himself due to the sadness of his life, being left alone in the cold when he was a small kid, his tears froze his facial expression, leaving him with a permanent smile, that for some is funny and amusing, but you just have to see the way in which the suffering is translated through the actor’s smile to think just the contrary: the pain, the horror and the sadness that are behind that smile is simply bone-chilling. This character’s misery is followed up by a complex knot regarding bloodlines in the midst of the government of english kings, the town clow is loved and acclaimed by everyone, giving him some confort, the same that he manages to give to his beloved blind girl (that can’t possibly see the wretched malformation). Yet, at the same time he is a complex character, in the sense that he suffers even though he has more than he could wish for, he knows that everyone laughs and loves him because of his deformity, and at the same time he doesn’t deem himself worthy of the love of his girl, because he knows she’s with him because she can’t see how ugly and deformed he really is, he treats it as a curse and he damns it every day.
The movie is really interesting and has many interesting shots and influences from the german expressionism, nevertheless it faults by having its plot advance really slowly, and the conflict appears very late into the movie (it all starts when a young woman of nobile origins doesn’t laugh at the act of our protagonist), by giving too much of a context and not enough confrontation, that in the end becomes fully realized with many twists and turns, with great hability by the camera of Paul Leni, and with great knowledge in terms of presenting the reasons and the characters involved, creating difficult realtions and power conflicts that lead us to the throne itself. Conrad Veidt is the true star right here, his makeup and acting are top notch to anyone who starts seeing it, there’s an intense pain that becomes obvious and trasmmited through his eyes, becoming truly powerful in certain scenes, specially when he is supported by the performances of the rest of the characters, besides being maniacal at times and truly scary due to its figure and presence. The figure of the clown results moving and almost christian in its ‘cheered by the people and then betrayed’ kinda way. At the end, it’s all just a story of true love, whatever happens around it, and that isn’t something most movies can say about themselves. (****)
And the rest…
Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924)
Two large stories and a dream sequence are told in this horror effort from Germany that tries to tell grandiose historical stories with elements of crime and horror. The only really disturbing and horror like sequences can be found in the final 5 minutes when the protagonist (a writer hired by the owner of a wax museum to write stories on the statues there) falls asleep and dreams of Jack the Ripper (or his german equivalent) that are after him and his girlfriend. It has a really crazy dreamlike quality and it has some weird imagery, beyond that is a competent piece of multiple storytelling, obviously with some interesting parts and others that are… not so much. (***1/2)
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
One of the first haunted house films that came out under the Universal brand, the most influential of those directed by Paul Leni during his stay in the United States, spawning a genre on its own and at the same time introducing most of the elements that fill the screen and give visual luxury in terms of cinematography (beyond to what ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925) could do at the time, even if that film is much better than this one) and how the characters move inside the frame. There’s also a play on the captions used for dialogue, transforming them and giving them an identity of its own, with varying sizes and distortions. The film itself beyond its hokey-pokey premise, it doesn’t have much meat in it besides two classic and greatly filmed moments: when the lawyer is killed through the library, and the hand on the face of our protagonist while she sleeps. It didn’t do much for me beyond those classic elements. (***1/2)
The Last Warning (1929)
A film that is more interesting because of the locale in which it takes place: an old closed down theater. After the death of one of the actors in what seemed to be an accident but clearly was a murder, the theater was abandoned until an entrepeneur plans on opening it to have the same play in which the actor died to be acted by some of the cast that played it then. This still not widely available picture has some interesting camera positions as well as movements when it tries to capture its first 15 minutes, the characters always walk up to the camera, and the focus is sharp as hell when it comes to the attention we must put to the details of the mystery. Obviously a ghost will appear here and there to scare the actors and technicians, and at the same time we see a repetition of the use of wacky texts in context of what the characters are saying or doing. It’s like a better version of ‘The Cat and the Canary’ (1927). (****)
Ranking the Horror
1. The Man Who Laughs (1928, Paul Leni)
2. The Last Warning (1929, Paul Leni)
3. The Cat and the Canary (1927, Paul Leni)
4. Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924, Paul Leni, Leo Birinsky)
Next week, maybe not a Masters of Horror, maybe yes, who knows?