It’s October again, my favorite month. I am going to try again for a post a day this year as we work our way to Halloween. It’s in an effort to get in the autumn mood and the Halloween spirit. In many ways the summer was a bust. There were patches of rain lasting for weeks, culminating in September with the deluge from Hurricane Florence. In between we had scorching heating and high humidity producing 100F plus degree days. It ruined the hay and apple crops, caused the farmer’s market to close early for lack of produce and caused yards to overgrow like jungles.
So to counteract all these negative happenings, we are doing our own little Oktberfest of food, moves, books and things autumn and Halloween. In the words of the classic introduction to The Lone Ranger, return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, to the dawn of spooky movies. Put on some spooky organ music while we go for silents, please!
First on the program is The Hands of Orlac (In German: Orlacs Hände) is a 1924 Austrian silent horror film directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina and Fritz Kortner. Wiene had made his name as a director of Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and in The Hands of Orlac combined expressionist motifs with more naturalistic visuals. It is now in the public domain and can be viewed here, along with full information about it.
The film’s plot is based on the story Les Mains d’Orlac by French horror and science fiction writer Maurice Renard. A concert pianist loses his hands and gets new ones transplanted from an executed killer, whereupon he himself feels the urge to kill. If the plot seems familiar, there were two direct remakes; Mad Love (USA 1935) with Colin Clive & Peter Lorre, directed by Karl Freund. This version is repeatedly evoked in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947), under its Spanish title : “Las Manos de Orlac. Con Peter Lorre” and the English and French version The Hands of Orlac / Les mains d’Orlac with Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee, directed by Edmond T. Gréville. In addition, it has inspired a number of other films, Hands of a Stranger (1962) most directly, and also The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), The Hand (1981) directed by Oliver Stone, and Les Mains de Roxana (2012), directed by Philippe Setbon and starring Sylvie Testud as Roxana Orlac, a violinist who receives the hands of a criminal who committed suicide. It also inspired a segment of the 1965 horror film anthology “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” and an episode of Rod Serling’s early 1970’s TV series “Night Gallery.” Whatever version you might be familiar with, a look at the original is worth it.
Silent films also addressed the horror of total transformation in two versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which are well worth a look.. The first is the 1913 directed by Herbert Brenon and Carl Laemmle. It was also written by Brenon and produced by Laemmle, who also produced such classics as The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It stars King Baggot, who in the silent film era was a star of international standing, in the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde. The film was re-released in the US in August 1927.
Like so many other performers of this period, it was standard practice for the actors to apply their own make-up. While assuming the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde, King Baggot employed a variety of different grease paints and a tangled mass of crepe hair. Through the use of camera dissolves, Baggot was able to achieve the transformation. This is the only version in which Jekyll almost discovers an antidote. . The second is from 1920, starring the great John Barrymore whose transformation was accomplished without prosthetic makeup, merely the contortion of his own face.
Lastly something a little more obscure, The Man Who Laughs (1928). Taken from a story by Victor Hugo A noble refuses to kiss the hand of the king and is then executed,orphaning his son. Gwnplaine winds up in the hands of outlaws who use a knife to carve his face into a hideous grin. Disfigured, alone, he rescues a baby girl, and together they are raised by a fatherly vaudeville producer. As adults, they star in the producer’s sideshow and fall in love. Because she is blind, she does not know about his grin. Roger Ebert thought highly of this film. You can find his review here. If you are interested he gives a great deal of information on the film, far more than I have room for here. Besides which, why reinvent the wheel?
It was this face on the actor Conrad Veidt that was the inspiration for comic artist Bob Kane to create the original nemesis of Batman. Take a look at the still below and compare it to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. It makes you wonder if perhaps Ledger or Christopher Nolan saw this film.