The Cat and The Canary (1927)

The film genre ‘Comedy/Horror’ has produced a number of well known classics and many that are definitely not classics. Some that might come to mind may include ‘Scream‘, ‘Shaun of The Dead‘ and ‘The Cabin in The Woods‘. Or, examples slightly further back, could include ‘An American Warewolf in Paris‘, ‘Re-Animator‘ and ‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes‘. As we’re on the subject it would be a shame not to mention earlier examples like ‘Abbott and Costello Meet the Frankenstein‘, ‘Little Shop of Horrors‘ and ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers‘ – I could go on, but it’s probably best not to!

What I didn’t realise until quite recently was that the genre goes even further back than that. In the early sound era there was ‘The Old Dark House‘ (1932), which was directed by James Whale (better known for the classics ‘Frankenstein‘ (1931), ‘The Bride of Frankenstein‘ (1935) and ‘The Invisible Man‘ (1933)). Even more surprisingly are the pre-synchronised sound examples (in other words the era of ‘silent films’ – I didn’t use that term on purpose and I’ll explain why later). I was also unaware that the classic Universal Studios horror films of the 30’s and 40’s (which included those just mentioned) actually began in the ‘silent era’ and ‘The Cat and The Canary’ was one of them – a plane flew around the globe at the beginning with a smoke trail of the word ‘universal’ behind it.

In 1927, the year of ‘The Jazz Singer‘ and the breakthrough that was synchronised sound, there was a ‘silent’ comedy/horror directed by Paul Leni called ‘The Cat and The Canary‘. I am not going to do a plot summary in this article, there are numerous ones on the internet. Essentially it is an example of the old dark house sub-genre of the horror film. Although it is now a well established cliché of cinema, it was essential a new thing in the 1920’s; but it had already become such a well known trope by 1932 that the previously mentioned James Whale film was named after it!

The 1927 film has had numerous remakes since (including one starring Bob Hope in 1939, which unsurprisingly played it more for laughs), but it was the original version that was screened during the Chichester Film Festival 2019 on Friday the 23rd August.

Every era of film has good examples, not so good examples, bad examples, and occasionally, outstanding ones. ‘The Cat and The Canary‘ is well worth seeing, which for me categorises it as a good one (it’s not outstanding, but very, very few films are!).

The term ‘silent movie’ is misleading, there was always music to accompany the images – that may be an orchestra on big budget premiers, or small ensembles, or simply an organ or a piano, particularly in small town cinemas and village halls. What made this screening so appealing was the addition of live music – a rare experience in the age of blu-rays and downloads. Also, it was a comedy/horror screened in an old chapel (St. John’s Chapel, Chichester, England) – it couldn’t get anymore atmospheric.

Silent films can be fantastic to watch at home with a pre-recorded soundtrack (and it is always worth supporting the restoration of old movies by actually buying them), but the opportunity to see one with live music should not be missed. It makes the film become an event, a performance, and as close to the way the films would have been seen when originally released. It is something which everyone interested in silent films should experience whenever possible. The music on this occasion was provided by Stephen Horne and he made fantastic use of a keyboard (largely with the piano sound), an Accordion, a Flute and a few other ‘instruments’ – it suited and enhanced the film perfectly!

On entering the Chapel were were given a photocopied A5 piece of paper which had the cast list one one side and a 1927 New York Times review of the film on the other. The review is by the fantastically named Mordaunt Hall, who was apparently The New York Times first regularly assigned film critic. I did not know the film and didn’t want to spoil it, so I actually read it the following day. I thought it would be a good idea to include it here if anyone’s interested (by the way, if you right click on the image and ‘open image in new tab’ the click on it again it should become easily readable!)

Die Nibelungen, pt.2 – Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild’s Revenge)

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” – this famous line written by the great Billy Wilder and spoken by Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard could have been written about Die Nibelungen, but probably not quite in the way it was meant.  This film is full of striking faces, beautiful and horrible – Norma had a point.

AtillaSo, I have finally seen the second part of Fritz Lang’s epic Die Nibelungen, almost a year after seeing and being completely floored the first part (read my review here).  Yes, it’s taken me that long to get over it (although being in the right mood is a major factor when deciding to watch a two-hour and more silent movie).  Another factor was that I did not believe that it could possibly live up to the power of the first installment – and in many ways it didn’t, yet it is still a majestic and truly great film.

Where the first part was saturated with an air of mysticism and littered with stunning visual effects, the second part was far more earthy, metaphorically and literally (it even featured a handful of earth that was soaked in the blood of Siegfried).  This film also hinges on honour and the loss of honour if you do not keep your word – be careful of the oaths you take and what you swear to do.

The thrust of this film is evident in the title – it is about Kriemhild’s obsession with avenging the death of Siegfried and her single-minded pursuit of revenge with complete disregard for the consequences to both her subjects and all those close to her.  In one scene, the fact that she was so blind to anything but Siegfried is emphasised by Kriemhild going to the handful of blood soaked earth, rather than her own crying child.

The film had the feeling of a Greek tragedy, as though Kriemhild was driven by the gods – yet the god’s played no part in this story.  She was driven by her own desire for revenge alone.  Throughout the film Kriemhild was imperious and aloof, even when marrying the mighty but squalid Attila the Hun (pictued above) – she married him purely to use his love to further her own warped scheme.KriemhildThe story descends into battles and destruction on all sides and highlights the pointlessness of hate and the self-destructiveness in which ‘an eye for and eye’ approach inevitably results.

As with the previous movie Kriemhild’s Revenge was also bathed in an orange glow and had similarly striking sets.  The decoration of the scenery and the clothes were both medieval and geometrically modern for 1924, which gives the film a timelessness and succeeds, as Fritz lang intended, in distancing itself from the Wagnerian model.

It is understandable why the first film was such a wide-reaching success at the time of release and also why it was re-editied and revised throughout the 20’s and 30’s (for both regional distribution reasons and as an example of Germanic heroism for the Nazis to venerate).  It is also understandable why the second film did not do so well (in comparison to the first film it does not shine quite so brightly).  But if we were only left with the second film it would still be classed as a great piece of work – thankfully we have both and the condition of the film, after extensive research and restoration, is utterly stunning.

Watch this film – but watch part 1 first!

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) a film by Kenji Mizoguchi

I rarely know if I’ve seen a great film, one that speaks to me personally, either during or soon after watching it.  Often it takes time for a good film to sink in, gradually the desire to watch it again will indicate that it is something special.

Often the films that blow me away while I’m watching them are fantastic in that moment but I don’t tend to go out of my way to watch them again – a perfect example being American Beauty.  I saw American Beauty at the cinema when it was originally released and thought it was one of the greatest films I’d ever seen, and yes it was a great film, but for some reason I have not been desperate to see it again.

Of course there are some films which survive the initial wow factor – The Virgin Suicides, Donnie Darko, Rushmore to name a few – but they are the exception.  Into The Wild was the first film where I realised that my appreciation can sometimes take a while to filter through.  I went out of my way to see Into The Wild at a cinema (it had a very limited release) – I wanted to see it at the cinema because I’d read the book when it was first published and loved it, but also because it did well at Sundance and I thought the epic scope of both the story and the scenery needed a larger screen.  I really enjoyed the film, I thought it a little long but I was glad I saw it at the cinema.  I didn’t think I’d particularly want to see it again – I was wrong.  The film kept resurfacing in my mind, weeks and months later, until I had to see it again to decide if it was as good as I came to think it was.  I bought the DVD (and now I’ve got the Blu-ray).  It is a stunning film, a great interpretation of the book and the spirit of Chris McCandless, and a perfect example of how a film can affect you deeply without you initially realising it.

Ugetsu Monogarari

That is how I came to Ugetsu Monogatari the second time.  I was given the disc for Christmas, I saw it and thought it was pretty good (which is high praise coming from me!), then over the next couple of months scenes kept popping back into my mind.  I saw it again yesterday and I again thought it pretty good.  I noticed more and and my appreciation of the the film went up but it did not go through the roof as a similar second screening of Murnau’s Sunrise had done a few years ago.  I think that maybe I should have left it a little longer before seeing it again, or maybe I am still getting used to the cultural differences inherent in a film set in 17th century Japan, which of course were not present in the 20th century America of Sunrise.

The film is about how some men desire what they do not have until it becomes an obsession that they cannot escape.  This ultimately blinds them to the non-monetary wealth they already possess and eventually, through the pursuit of of their obsessions, lose.

It is based around two peasant farming couples who live simple lives – the women are level headed but the men are dreamers.  One wants money by selling his pottery, the other wants fame and power by becoming a Samurai.  They both get what they want yet lose their sense of reality on the way.  Their wives are swept aside in the rush for fame and fortune and it is only when the men are confronted with the fate of their wives that they realise how vain and worthless their obsessions were.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)The way the film progresses is extremely naturalistic – it starts off with both couples working together, then gradually each individual diverges into their own story.  For instance, we follow one of the wives as she searches for her husband through the market, he loses her and buys the armour he needs to become a Samurai, but we then follow her out into the grasses and her fateful story begins.  The editing is miraculous, the four stories are given unequal amounts of time throughout the film, but they come and go without ever feeling forced.

As an antidote to the popular miss-conception that Japanese films are all about Godzilla and extreme horror, this film has an eloquence and artistry to match any other classic movie.

Although I didn’t get the overwhelming feeling of greatness that I have experienced with a number of other films, it is quite evidently a truly great film.  The flowing camera and long takes, the heart rending moments and visual elegance certainly make it worth repeated viewings and was for me a great introduction to Japanese cinema.