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Saturday, 12 December 2015

THE EARLY SILENT HORROR FILM

As cinema entered the teenage years of the twentieth century, like any adolescent it began to experiment with boundaries. Edwin S Porter was once again to have an influence when he hired a struggling young actor for his 1908 short RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE’S NEST. This was David Wark (D.W) Griffith. Porter had given him a chance to act based on his looks, finding the fledgling writer’s movie scenario submissions to be over-elaborate. Little did he know that this would start D.W. on a four-decade career as a Hollywood giant, directing such epics as the controversial BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) and INTOLERANCE (1916), in the process crafting revolutionary new shooting and editing techniques. Gone was the dull, static camera long-shot simply recording the unfolding action without movement. Griffith allowed the audience to be taken from a master shot encompassing the whole landscape to a ‘cut-in’ enabling us to see characters’ all-important faces and emotions in close-up.  He also added new grammar and style, editing scenes to compress time and information, using multiple cameras to show us different angles on a played scene, thereby inventing what we know as ‘continuity editing’  - and intercutting between parallel scenes existing at the same time. Cinema was developing a new maturity, going beyond the novelty of a basic flat recording of images into how to tell a story with increasing flair and sophistication. Film was gradually becoming an art…

While Hollywood was writing the textbook for a new language of cinema as a whole, around the world film-makers were building on the Méliès model of supplying audiences with fantasy and horror escapism. FRANKENSTEIN wasn’t the only gothic horror novel to be raided by hungry studios for its thrill and shock potential. A year after Edison’s studio adapted Mary Shelley’s famous work,
NOTRE DAME DE PARIS (1911) was directed in France by Albert Capellani based on Victor Hugo’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. It bore the same name as the novel’s original French title and is believed to be the fourth filmed version. Sadly, as with the previous ones, it is lost barring a few interesting photo stills. These depict Henri Krauss’s Quasimodo tortured on the pillory, Stacia Naperkowsa as Esmerelda stretched on the rack presided over by Claude Garry’s cruel Frollo, then the damsel saving Frollo from the hunchback’s attempted revenge murder and finally her ushering out of this religious tormentor after saving him. In each, the costumes and sets authentically suggest the Middle Ages period, the actors’ gestures are caught in bold expression and Krauss conveys what we see of Quasimodo’s deformity via an inwardly buckled-knees stance, an elevated left shoulder and a shaggy wig with pain-wracked heavy make-up.


Other countries began to see the opportunities in horror cinema during these years.
In 1915 Russia gave us simple but effective chills with THE PORTRAIT (1915), V. Starevich’s simplified one-reel (nine-minute) dramatization of Gogol’s short story about a penniless artist (A. Gromov) who buys a painting from a dealer and upon taking it home to his cramped little garret finds that the portrait comes to life. Its subject (I. Lazarev) leaves the frame, stalks the room and then suddenly vanishes, haunting the feverish young man no more. This adaptation sheds any real characterisation of the artist, who in the novella is persuaded into a Faustian bargain of easy fame by the portrait, Gogol’s pointed cynicism about human weakness in the face of temptation. Here he is merely a reactive quasi-victim. Levarev though is eerily commanding as the portrait, facially resembling a demonic Milo O’ Shea. We cut in for a striking close-up as the painted face turns slowly to face his owner. The otherwise traditionally static camera placement actually becomes a plus when he creeps hypnotically out of the picture frame.


Russia itself would contribute to cinema language a decade later with the innovative ‘montage editing’, famously popularised by Sergei Eisenstein in STRIKE and BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (both in 1925) whereby a series of different images are cut together to show events and reactions from multiple sources in quick succession, condensing time and moving the plot along.

The late 1910s would see a war-ravaged western world that meant precious resources for the arts in the technolocially-advancing film countries such as England, France and Germany were diverted to mobilisation and then the epic task of reconstruction. This allowed America an opportunity to reign supreme as supplier of entertainment and innovator of the form until the beginning of the 1920s...

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