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The Silent Scream

video review by
Gary Johnson

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Just in time for Halloween '98, Kino On Video has released a trio of horror classics from the silent era. These movies are part of a new video series from Kino called "The Silent Scream." Lon Chaney stars in The Penalty (1920) as an embittered gangster who longs for revenge upon the doctor who needlessly amputated his legs; German director Paul Leni lends expressionistic touches to the haunted house horror/comedy The Cat and the Canary (1927); and Lionel Barrymore stars in The Bells (1926) as a money-strapped innkeeper who murders a wealthy customer and then becomes haunted by visions of the victim. As usual for Kino, these videos have been digitally remastered. Plus, the videos feature new musical scores compiled from the original materials. In addition and rounding out "The Silent Scream" series is a fourth video: Kingdom of Shadows, which traces the development of horror cinema from the turn of the century to the end of the silent era and includes film clips from Nosferatu, The Golem, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Faust, and many others.

The Penalty
The Penalty is famous as the movie where Lon Chaney tightly harnessed his legs within a pair of leather stumps in order to play the role of a criminal mastermind named Blizzard whose legs were amputated by an unskilled surgeon. Seeing the vicious contortions of his face and his genuinely despicable demeanor you can't help but wonder if his terrifying performance was, in part, generated by the very real pain he put himself through. In order to enact revenge upon the doctor, Blizzard plots to first ensnare the surgeon's daughter. He befriends her by serving as an artist's model for her sculptural rendition of Satan. He takes great glee in the formation of the sculpture as he waits for the perfect moment to unleash the fury of his desire. Directed by Wallace Worsley (Chaney's working relationship with Tod Browning was still five years away), The Penalty carries many of the hallmark touches of Chaney's best and most sadistic movies. (Unfortunately, this video is somewhat marred by the new musical score, which underlines the movie's menace with bombastic intensity.)

The Cat and the Canary
In the '20s and the '30s, Hollywood liked to tell horror tales where the supernatural occurrences were explained away in the final reel. The Cat and the Canary is one of the best examples of this horror sub-genre. It's not as maddening as most and its final revelations are quite plausible. Most notably, German director Paul Leni provides some astonishing visuals. In particular, he gives us several eerie camera shots of a long hallway where drapes flutter like ghostly apparitions. Based upon a stage play that was already a theatrical chestnut by 1927, The Cat and the Canary strikes a precarious balance between horror and comedy. Leni's visuals suggest he intended to provide a genuinely chilly atmosphere, but the atmosphere is frequently undercut by the goofy characters. The plot gives us a gloriously decadent mansion, where greedy relatives gather on a stormy night to hear the reading of a will. However, with an escaped lunatic on the lam and someone--or something--lurking within the mansion's paneled walls, no one is safe. The Cat and the Canary is the great grandaddy of all haunted house comedies. (This video also features a Harold Lloyd short, "Haunted Spooks.")

The Bells
Don't believe the hyperbole on the video cover: The Bells has little to do with Edgar Allen Poe's famous poem. Based on the play by Alexandre Chatrain and Emile Erckmann, The Bells owes more to Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." It tells the story of an ambitious innkeeper (Lionel Barrymore) who is so generous that he has little money of his own. If he brings in any money (many of his customers rarely seem to pay), he quickly spends it on presents for his family. When a vengeful creditor threatens to take possession of the inn, the innkeeper must find cash fast. When a wealthy traveler stops at the inn, the innkeeper turns to murder. It's difficult to believe a man as benevolent as the innkeeper would so quickly become a murderer. But putting that issue aside, what makes this movie so fascinating is the presence of Boris Karloff as the hypnotist of a traveling carnival. The carnival is in town when the murder takes place and the victim's brother enlists the aid of the hypnotist to find the murderer. Dressed in an outfit that is a dead-ringer for the one worn by the magician "Caligari" in the classic of German expressionism The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Karloff stalks the sets with an intimidating gaze. Meanwhile, Barrymore suffers from visions of the murdered traveler, who continuously shakes the sleigh bells he was holding when the innkeeper's axe descended upon his head. Particularly impressive is a nightmarish episode where the innkeeper envisions he is on trial for murder and Karloff's hypnotist testifies against him. (Also included on this video is an excellent science-fiction short called "The Crazy Ray" (1922) by director Rene Clair. In this short film, a small group of people find that they are alone on earth after a crazy scientist has turned on a diabolical ray that freezes everything in motion. "The Crazy Ray" is a real gem.)

Kingdom of Shadows
This documentary rounds out "The Silent Scream" series. It contains some incredible sequences from several choice silent horror movies: you'll see the somnambulist Cesare stalking the expressionistic sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; you'll see the vampire Count Orlak rise from his coffin in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu; you'll see the devil manifest in Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages; you'll see a rabbi bring a clay statue to life in The Golem; and you'll see many other choice bits of silent horror cinema. This documentary is narrated by Rod Steiger, who practically whispers the commentary--to the point of distraction. I found myself struggling to comprehend what he was saying. In addition, the narration frequently talks on top of some of the most stunning visual sequences, and in the process, robs them of their power and horror. I kept hoping the narration would eventually taper off somewhat and allow more room for the images to speak for themselves, but it doesn't. And that's a shame because this video contains a remarkable collection of film clips. Yet, there are many moments, particularly in the video's first 20 minutes when I sat frozen in my chair, totally in awe of the stunning images.


"The Silent Scream" is a four-cassette series from KINO ON VIDEO. Suggested retail price: $24.95 each. For more information, we suggest you check out the Kino Web site:


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