Classic Cult: Silent

With The Artist already receiving huge critical acclaim despite the awards season having only just begun, it seems appropriate to look back at some of the most influential silent films that have recently received a surge of interest.

The early shorts that emerged during cinemas infancy are extraordinarily insightful, and, despite technical limitations, illustrate incredible ingenuity and artistic skill. Georges Méliès’ La Voyage dans la Lune which features the iconic image of a spaceship landing in the eye of the moon, was recently alluded to in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and remains a must see for anyone with an interest in cinematic history. Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou is another short that has received cult status. Presenting a series of tenuous scenes that attempt to depict dream logic in narrative flow, its haunting representation of a woman’s eye being sliced in half has become famous.

Horror was a popular genre during the silent era and was dominated by German expressionist directors. Films such as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, which remains a chilling cult classic, while Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is stunning with its elaborate sets and dreamlike sequences. It has also been cited as the first film to introduce the ‘twist ending’.

Silent comedy is best known through the work of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. While The General is often cited as Keaton’s best film, it is exceeded by Sherlock Jr. in terms of impressive special effects and unconventionally humorous situations. Chaplin, known predominately for his endearing character ‘The Tramp’, created heart-rending comedy that is perhaps best realised in his film City Lights.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is the first true science-fiction masterpiece in film. Its exploration of the social crisis between workers and owners, through a dystopic vision that mirrors the capitalism of Marx and Engels, is both powerful and unforgettable. The precursor to all modern sci-fi, it returned to the public eye in 1984, when Giorgio Moroder released a restored version featuring a soundtrack from artists including Freddie Mercury, Jon Anderson and Adam Ant.

The best love story of the silent era has to be Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. A poignant depiction of a married couple that looks at the fragile nature of human relationships, it offers a bit of everything, making it an outstanding piece of cinema.

Perhaps one of the most enduring scenes in silent film can be found in the dramatisation of the mutiny that took place on board the Russian battleship Potemkin in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The massacre of civilians on the Odessa steps is as iconic as it is horrendous and is paid homage to in many modern classics.

However, the finest silent film of all time has to be Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. A depiction of the trial, imprisonment, torture and execution of Joan of Arc, its extreme close-ups featuring actors without make-up and incredible performance from Renée Jeanne Falconetti make it one of the most harrowing films of all time.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Jan 24th 2012.

The Birth of Horror…

In recent years horror has become the subject of taboo; a genre that has increasingly tested the limits of acceptability and enjoyment. As films become ever more violent and grotesque, it is arguable that something fundamental has been lost in a much loved and artistic form of cinema. The pioneers of this lucrative art form are regularly cited in top film lists, creating box office hits that have shaped the history of cinema. So, what has changed to make this a genre that is no longer taken seriously?

The first horror films focused predominately on the ideas and characters established in the Gothic literature of the nineteenth century. Initially depicted in shorts, such as Georges Méliès’ 1896  Le Manoir du Diable, that sought to amuse through pantomime, feature length horror films weren’t produced until the 1920s. A field dominated by German expressionism, films such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari went on to influence directors such as Orson Welles and Tim Burton, whilst F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu marked the first vampire-themed feature.

Hollywood didn’t make an impact until the second half of the 1920s when the first horror star Lon Chaney gained precedence. Known as the man of 1000 faces, he famously did his own makeup- creating grotesque and deeply disturbing characters. Films such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925), with its classic shocking reveal, were as much a case of evil spectacle as a claustrophobic horror picture.

The 1930s brought the arrival of sound with Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) being the first horror to be a box office hit. Actors such as the Hungarian Béla Lugosi and British Boris Karloff  became overnight stars after years of minimal success in Hollywood. Frankenstein (1931),  which starred Karloff as the monster, illustrated a being that was initially childlike and gentle, only later being guided into violence.

Creating empathy for a horrible creation allowed horror to become a fantastically interesting genre. Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde showcased a dazzling single-shot transformation sequence. Heightened by a subjective camera that enabled the viewer to experience the change through Jekyll’s eyes, it was achieved through rotating a filter on the camera which revealed layers of different coloured makeup. It was this sequence that helped its star Frederic March receive the best actor Oscar in 1932.

It was Warner Brothers who broke away from the Gothic tradition, bringing horror into a contemporary setting. James Whales’ Old Dark House (1932) illustrated the first use of an isolated residence visited by strangers seeking shelter, opening up a Pandora’s box of nightmarish events. At the same time, Browning’s 1932 tale of sexual manipulation and revenge, Freaks, blurred the line between reality and fiction. Starring actual carnival performers, many of whom had physical deformities, it bombed at the box office due to its shocking and controversial content (which resulted in a 30 year ban in the UK). Since then, however, it has made a huge comeback and become something of a cult phenomenon.

The 1940s brought producers such as RKO’s Val Lewton into the limelight. Although restricted by a low budget, his 1942 film Cat People terrified audiences by proving that less can be more. For the first time in horror history, monsters didn’t have to be seen, just suggested. This slow build up to a sudden non-threatening jolt became known as a ‘Lewton Bus’ and is an integral feature of modern horror.

However, by the end of the 1940s, horror had become virtually extinct, and was to remain so until the mid-1950s and the birth of Hammer Films in the UK. This period also saw the rise of British horror star Christopher Lee, who at 6ft 5in retains a very demanding presence. Evidently, horror had taken a new direction, but proved that it was anything but dead.

In subsequent years it was to see the arrival of visionary greats such as George Romero, Alfred Hitchcock’s exciting turn to horror, and the birth of slasher cinema. It is undoubted that in their own right they are brilliant films, but are arguably indebted to techniques pioneered decades earlier. In a somewhat unfortunate turn of events, most people now associate horror with either the current cult phenomenon of budget B-list films, or with later greats such as The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978). However, it was films in the first half of the twentieth century that set the standard. Unappreciated and, to many, unknown, it’s the perfect place to start if you are looking for something fun to do on Halloween.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Oct 25th 2011.