Tonight and Tomorrow on TCM: More Classic Horror

As always, TCM is bringing much classic horror to the table all throughout October this month in celebration of Halloween. This is what’s on the menu tonight and into tomorrow:


8:00pm (EST): Nosferatu (1922)

F.W. Murnau’s pirated version of Dracula is a work of formal perfection—not a hair out of place. Tod Browning’s 1931 Hollywood version follows it pretty closely. The setting is switched here to Bremen rather than England. The monster looks better here—more like in the book, very strange and bat-like, almost like an alien, conducive to expressionistic silhouettes and shadows (see above). The plot is very streamlined; structurally it zips right by until the conclusion when the monster is dispatched by tricking him so that he stays out past sunrise. Later memorably remade by Werner Herzog in 1979, whose star Klaus Kinski practically IS Nosferatu.


9:45pm (EST): The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

This famous and influential film was far from the first German horror film, nor was it even the first one Conrad Veidt (Cesare, the Somnambulist) had starred in. His previous credits included Fear (1917), Madness (1919), Uncanny Stories (1920), and The Count of Cagliostro (1920). But it was the first to become an international hit, and thus the first to perhaps be emulated beyond German shores. Recall that World War One had ended only in late 1918. The War, like so much art of the Weimar Era, was the inspiration for this allegorical tale of mind control and murder written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer and directed by Robert Wiene. Its most memorable aspect is its avant-garde scenography, consisting mostly of non-realistically painted backdrops and structures, nightmarishly distorted and jagged, suggesting the aftermath of explosion. There isn’t a right angle to be found in the entire movie.

It begins with a framing device on the grounds of an insane asylum—a guy tells his story to a visitor. It all started when the fair came to town. We see Dr. Caligari’s (Werner Krauss) arrival. The character’s costume (top hat, cape, walking stick.) would set the template for many horror characters to come. The hero attends a performance with his friend. Dr. Caligari presents to the audience his charge, Cesare, the Somnambulist (Veidt), a 23 year old who has been asleep for 23 years. It is claimed that he “knows your past and your future”. The hero’s friend asks when he will die. The answer is “before dawn”. Of course, that’s an easy one to accomplish, psychic or not —Cesare kills him later that night. (There had been another mysterious murder the night before —of the town clerk, who had previously irritated Caligari). The police arrest the wrong suspect.  It looks like the fiancé of the hero will be the third murder victim, but Cesare cannot do it, so he carries her away. A mob follows, he is forced to drop her. The hero begins to investigate at the insane asylum, and finds reference to Caligari and Cesare in the records. In flashback we see that the director of the insane asylum was Caligari. But has the entire story been the hallucination of a mad man?


11:15pm: (EST): The Unholy Three (1925)

The movie that cemented the partnership of Todd Browning and Lon Chaney. Based on a novel by Tod Robbins (the same guy who wrote the story which Freaks is based onThe Unholy Three casts Chaney as a criminal ventriloquist whose best job is making pet-shop parrots seem to talk. He also goes around dressed in drag, and is in cahoots with a midget (Harry Earles) who pretends to be a baby, a strong man (Victor McLaglen) and a sexy vamp (Mae Busch). Eventually, remorse, romance and the law combine to stop their criminal careers.


1:00am (EST): The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Lon Chaney devised his most famous make-up for his portrayal of the Phantom in this adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1909 novel.  The scene is the Paris Opera House. We hear of rumors of occasional sightings of a mysterious Phantom who lives beneath the theatre. At the same time, there is a mysterious man who frequents the opera; he always hides his face and rents the same box. He terrorizes the company in order to promote the career of a girl he loves (Mary Philbin) – forcing the producers to let her sing lead parts, and threatening her main rival, the company’s prima donna (Virginia Pearson). When the rival sings, a HUGE chandelier falls on the audience. The mysterious man means business. Finally, he meets the girl. She is thrilled at first, but gradually becomes uneasy as she sees the weird mask he wears and he leads her deeper and deeper into a remote sub-basement of the theatre, five levels down and then across a “black lake” which evokes the River Styx… into his sumptuous subterranean apartment (a trope borrowed for everything from the Batcave to V for Vendetta). He sleeps in a coffin. And he plays a pipe organ, a device which has been copied by a million movie villains since. Then she pulls his mask off, revealing one of the most iconic, horrific make-ups ever.

The Phantom’s emotion is not really love, of course. It is just obsession and resentment—the Phantom is the original stalker. He agrees to release her to sing again but she must never again see her former lover (Norman Kerry). Of course she does, and the Phantom catches her in the act. There follows wonderful scene in color, conjuring Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”—a costume ball. The Phantom kidnaps her again, this time pursued by her lover and a policeman. They encounter booby traps along the way. Torture chambers from the revolution. They become trapped in one room filled with unbearable heat. They escape but they find themselves in another room, filled with water, nearly drowning them. Meanwhile a mob approaches, a climax conjuring the one in the previously successful Hunchback. In the end they catch the Phantom, kill him and throw him in the river.

Directed by Rupert Julian, the original Phantom of the Opera is a lean, perfect bit of fairy tale storytelling, and remains the gold standard not just for versions of this particular story, and not just for horror, but for how to make a movie. One measure of this is the fact that people continue to watch THIS version, and for the most part don’t bother with the many subsequent versions, in spite of the addition of theoretical improvements like sound and color. There is no substitute for powerful pictures and good storytelling.

Haxan 1922 - Witches' Flight

2:45am (EST): Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

I think this is perhaps the most hauntingly effective witchcraft movie ever made. A Danish/Swedish co-production directed by Benjamin Christensen it purports to be a sort of anthropological documentary along the lines of Nanook of the North, but the bulk of it is taken up by fictional dramatization. In the tradition of the best romances, its fiction of “truth and realism” lends it added power. The movie tells of witches and devils, secret rites and ceremonies, orgies, communion with Satan, depictions of hell, late night flights on broomsticks, human sacrifice, literal ass-kissing (an unholy practice, which caused the film to be banned) etc. Plus the film shows (ironically) all the horrors and tortures of the Inquisition. The imagery in the film is gorgeous, powerful and scary. It is a compendium of visual source material to inspire artists of all sorts: film-makers, painters, theatre designers — all those who want to depict what goes on at Midnight. It puts us back in touch with the superstitious part of our brain and the fear inspired by old legends, something most modern stabs at the genre fail to do.


4:45am (EST): The Penalty (1920)

With its themes of crime and mutilation, this sure feels like a Tod Browning film, but it was directed by  Wallace Worsley. In a prologue scene, a child’s legs are amputated below the knee. Then the doctor learns from a more learned colleague that he had done the operation needlessly! The boy overhears. Many years later the boy (now a maimed monster, played by Lon Chaney) is at the head of the criminal underworld. And he is finally moving to get his revenge on the quack who took his legs. He becomes an artist’s model to the surgeon’s daughter, a sculptor. To fuel his ire, she uses his image to make a bust of “pure evil”. Meanwhile the lady secret agent who goes undercover to arrest him falls in love with him. We learn that he is actually very sensitive and knowledgeable about art and music. In the end the doctor operates on him, but doesn’t restore his legs…he restores his brain. (The accident that crippled him also damaged his brain, thus his violent tendencies). That’s fine doc, but now do the legs!


6:30am (EST): The Unknown (1927)

An unbearably painful and equally implausible melodrama, and another of Todd Browning’s dry runs for Freaks, originally entitled Alonzo the Armless. Lon Chaney is a side show performer who pretends to be without arms.  He does this because it’s an excellent qualification for working in a sideshow and because he is in love with a girl (Joan Crawford) who hates arms! In the ultimate act of sacrifice he actually has his arms taken off. Then she gets over her fear of arms and falls in love with another performer, leaving Chaney both armless…and without a girl to hold in his arms anyway! Ay! Caramba!


7:30am (EST): Mad Love (1935)

An exquisite remake of the silent classic The Hands of OrlacPeter Lorre is a mad doctor obsessed with the female star of a Grand Guignol theater in Paris (Frances Drake). This theater is to die for (no pun intended), with staff dressed in Halloween costumes, and a wax museum as part of the set-up. The mad scientist goes to the theater every day and stares at the wax figure of the star actress, then watches her in the show. It is a sick obsession to begin with, but amplified by the fact that in the play her character is cruelly, horribly tortured. The lady thanks him for all this attention, but informs him she is retiring to live with her husband, a concert pianist (Colin Clive). Lorre doesn’t care that she’s married; he’s happy to rape her all the same, until he is interrupted by a stagehand.

Later, Clive is in a train accident in which he loses his hands (in Hollywood films, if someone loses his hands, it is axiomatic that he will be a concert pianist. And how does someone lose just his hands in a train accident? Was he sticking his hands out the window? Mama warned me about that!) The mad doctor saves Clive, of course – but now gives him instead the hands of a murderous knife thrower. Here, the story gets a little muddled. It seems like the producers felt that our star hero couldn’t be a murderer even with someone else’s hands. So, despite the fact that the hands do have an uncanny will to pick up knives and considerable skill in throwing them…Clive doesn’t actually do the knife murders attributed to him. Lorre does them, and then gaslights Clive into thinking he did them. Meanwhile, Ted Healy (awesome!) plays the semi-comical fast talking detective who helps get to the bottom of all this.

A great climax—Lorre has taken the wax figure of the heroine back to his castle to talk to…the Galatea to his Pygmalion. The girl has snuck in and accidentally broken it. In order not to be caught, she stands and pretends to be the statue. When she screams, he thinks she has come to life. Then, ironically, the voices in his head tell him to kill her. When the heroes come to the rescue, they cant get through a locked grate. But Clive now has amazing knife throwing skills. I wonder what will happen?


9:00am (EST): Isle of the Dead (1945)

Like most Val Lewton films,  this one is simultaneously boring and interesting. A Poe-like scenario…a bunch of people quarantined on a Greek island during a plague epidemic in the 19th century. Boris Karloff as an officer. A bunch of Premature Burial stuff and people walking around a castle with candles…which would later become a mainstay of the Corman Poe Cycle. yeah, that’s my ultimate verdict on this movie: a bunch of people in nightgowns walking around with candles.

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