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Squeals for Fright Fans From the Silent Film Era

October 08, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just in time for Halloween season is Kino on Video's new series "The Silent Scream," which features three digitally remastered silent horror films from the 1920s ($25 each), plus a new documentary that examines 50 early silent films--both popular and obscure.

Though it's a bit slow moving, the 1920 chiller "The Penalty" offers one of the remarkable Lon Chaney's most terrifying performances. Wallace Worsley, who directed Chaney three years later in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," directed this grotesque, often violent thriller about a criminal mastermind bent on revenge.

The tale begins when a incompetent doctor unnecessarily amputates the legs of a young boy. That boy grows up to become the immoral and vile Blizzard (Chaney), a criminal kingpin who operates a sweatshop where he brutalizes all his female workers.

Blizzard orchestrates a heinous revenge on the doctor who mutilated him by befriending the surgeon's daughter, a sculptress who is looking for the perfect person to be her model for her rendition of Satan. Of course, Blizzard makes sure he's the only one who answers her ad.

The film was a shocker when it was released in 1920, and it even contains brief nudity.

Chaney, who was known as the man of a thousand faces, would go to great and painful depths to create a character. In this case, he tightly harnessed his legs within a pair of leather stumps. Chaney biographer Michael Blake says of his performance: "One had to wonder if the intensity Lon brought to this role might have been due in part to the pain produced by his harness."

Lionel Barrymore and a pre-"Frankenstein" Boris Karloff headline the fun 1926 ghost story "The Bells." Barrymore plays an ambitious innkeeper who goes insane after he murders a wealthy traveler in order to pay off his debts. Though Barrymore is not considered a suspect in the murder by the townspeople, a strange hypnotist in a traveling circus (Karloff, who looks like he stepped out of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari") believes he is the killer, and soon Barrymore is being haunted by the hypnotist and the bloody apparition of his victim.

Kino's print of "The Bells" is digitally mastered from an original tinted-and-toned nitrate 35-millimeter print and features a musical score compiled by Eric Beheim. Also included is Rene Clair's delightfully surreal short "The Crazy Ray," in which a scientist freezes the population of Paris with a mechanical ray.

The late great Paul Leni directed the classic 1927 "The Cat and the Canary," the granddaddy of all the haunted mansion, dark-stormy-night thrillers. In this deftly directed chiller, a group of greedy relatives gathers for the reading of a 20-year-old will in the late owner's supposedly haunted mansion. But before the fortune can be passed down, the group of money grubbers must spend the night in the old dark house in which an escaped lunatic is lurking. Laura LaPlante, Tully Marshall and Flora Finch also star.

This edition is digitally transferred at the correct projection speed, color-tinted and accompanied by the original 1927 music and effects score. Also included on the tape is the 1920 Harold Lloyd short "Haunted Spooks," directed by Hal Roach. Rounding out the collection is the new documentary "Kingdom of Shadows," which was unavailable for preview. Written and directed by Bret Wood, the documentary chronicles the evolution of horror films from the turn of the century through the silent era. Narrated by Rod Steiger, the film features clips from 45 early thrillers, including three versions of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Nosferatu" and such obscure titles as "Automobile Accident" and "Electrocuting an Elephant."

To order any of the Kino videos, call (800) 562-3330.

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