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One to scream about

The chills in silent horror films can seep deep into the soul. A UCLA festival queues up shock after shock.

October 06, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

SILENT horror? How can that be? How can you have a horror film without people screaming on cue? How do we know we're being frightened if waves of hysteria don't fill the screen?

But as "Silent Horror," the completely unexpected and unexpectedly compelling series opening Saturday at the UCLA Film and Television Archive demonstrates, horror in the silent era had a meaning apart from the genre we know today. It still scared people silly, but it was an entirely separate animal, using other means for wildly different ends.

If modern horror often depends on grotesque special effects to bludgeon audiences out of their wits, silent horror used a more elegant and sophisticated approach to elicit not necessarily a bloody scream but more of a delicious frisson of fright.

And if horror today is a completely commercial taste aimed squarely at the 25 and under audience, things were quite different before sound. Because of the perceived link between horror and the unconscious, between fright and forces existing outside the rational sphere, the horror film and the art film were as close as twins. Cathartic, disturbing, deeply and fundamentally chilling, these films -- expertly accompanied by Robert Israel -- are a revelation.

The pictures shown in the series are so celebrated it would be a treat to see them in any condition, but UCLA has gone to some trouble to track down the best available prints for its James Bridges Theater screenings. It's a tribute to how significant these films are that numerous archives worldwide have collaborated to produce the most complete versions possible.

The print of the seminal 1919 "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," for instance, is a result of collaboration among archives in Brussels, Munich, Bologna, Berlin, Milan, Moscow and Montevideo, Uruguay. Smartly double-billed with 1920's Jewish Frankenstein movie "The Golem," "Caligari" still entertains with its legendary visual inventiveness, its Werner Krauss-Conrad Veidt acting, and its air of sinister spookiness.

"Silent Horror's" centerpiece event is its closing one, an Oct. 20 screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of the most celebrated pre-sound horror film of all, "The Phantom of the Opera," starring Lon Chaney with music by the Alloy Orchestra, the gold standard of silent-film music groups.

Though it took a surprising amount of test screenings and rewriting to get right, this 1925 film is, as UCLA claims, "the definitive version of all phantoms before or since." Complete with its legendary full-color masked ball sequences, this is a film touched by the very particular genius Chaney brought to everything he did. An actor with the gift for playing heartbreak and horror, pathos and menace, Chaney's horribly disfigured Svengali is an icon of the silent era and still one of the most terrifying figures ever put on screen.

THE other great performance in the UCLA series is John Barrymore's in the 1920 version of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," a film that marked the celebrated stage actor's crossover into top-drawer film acting.

This is an initially genteel film, showing us the saintly Dr. Jekyll, looking as handsome as only Barrymore could in 19th century clothes, gently ministering to the poor. But unnerved by a sense of his baser nature after lusting after Nita Naldi's Italian dancer Gina, he decides he'd be better off separating his noble and ignoble selves through chemical means.

Barrymore's bravura version of Jekyll's transformation is a remarkable performance by an actor who had no lack of personal experience with the dark side. Initially using minimal makeup, he literally becomes an evil version of himself. By the film's finale, he's a convincingly feral fiend whose joy at the taste of human blood, writes biographer Margot Peters, "remains one of the most horrific moments on film."

Playing on the same bill with the good doctor is perhaps the most purely artistic of horror films, 1928's "The Fall of the House of Usher." Based on a pair of Edgar Allan Poe short stories, it was directed by French film theoretician Jean Epstein, whose assistant director, the soon-to-be-celebrated Luis Bunuel, apparently quit during production to make "Un Chien Andalou."

"Usher" is impeccably atmospheric, using unsettling imagery and unusual set design to create the intense, claustrophobic world of an artist who psychologically drains the life out of his wife in order to infuse it into his painting of her. It is, as one of the intertitles says of the film's setting, a work "steeped in overpowering melancholy."

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