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Classic Hollywood: Old-time monsters return

With Halloween approaching, scary movies fill up the screens, including Universal's 1928 silent film 'The Man Who Laughs.'

October 07, 2012|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Cesare Gravina, left, Mary Philbin and Conrad Veidt star in "The Man Who Laughs."
Cesare Gravina, left, Mary Philbin and Conrad Veidt star in "The Man… (Courtesy of AMPAS )

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' "Universal's Legacy of Horror" film series this month features the studio's all-star monster classics, including 1931's "Dracula" and "Frankenstein," 1935's "Bride of Frankenstein" and 1941's "The Wolf Man."

But probably only hard-core horror film buffs are familiar with the 1928 Universal silent "The Man Who Laughs," which screens Monday evening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Directed by German Expressionist Paul Leni, the atmospheric horror film based on the Victor Hugo story stars Conrad Veidt ("The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari") as Gwynplaine, a tortured young man whose face as been disfigured to have a permanent grin.

"I think this film of the ones we are running is probably the least seen," said Randy Haberkamp, the academy's managing director for programming, education and preservation. "It is perhaps a stretch to call it a horror film, but in actuality there is nothing more horrifying than the idea of being someone who is disfigured and to be thought of as always happy. It's truly being trapped in a clown's persona."

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"The Man Who Laughs" isn't the only rare or quirky horror film screening.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art begins its "Masterworks of German Expression" series Friday at the Leo S. Bing Theater, which coincides with the LACMA exhibition of the same name. LACMA's screening four highly stylized German horror films — Robert Wiene's nightmarish 1920 "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," Leni's 1924 "Waxworks," set at a carnival wax museum; "Faust," F.W. Murnau's 1926 horror film filled with shadows, bizarre camera angles and exaggerated sets; and the compete version of "Metropolis," Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece that presents a terrifying future.

"To a certain extent these are the first major horror movies," said Bernardo Rondeau, LACMA's assistant curator for film programs.

"Epic films existed before these films," Rondeau said. "They took the scale of [the 1914 Italian masterwork] 'Cabiria' and kind of hewing to the expressionistic sensibility created these fantastic inner emotional and mental landscapes made three-dimension. There is an attention to detail and a sublime grandness to these sets."

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Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre is serving up three silent horror films — Roland West's rarely screened "The Monster," a 1925 American chiller starring Lon Chaney; 1932's "Vampyr," Carl Dreyer's French-German vampire thriller; and "The Hands of Orlac," 1924 Austrian scare fest about a pianist who loses his hands in a train accident.

But silence isn't the only thing that's golden at the Silent Movie Theatre. Cinefamily is also screening "Universal Horror B-Sides," including the 1931 Spanish-language version of "Dracula." Some might question the inclusion of Karl Freund's timeless 1932 chiller "The Mummy," with Boris Karloff in the title role, as a B-side movie.

"We decided to do 'The Mummy' as a B side because the academy didn't do it," explained programmer Bret Berg. One of the series' highlights, he said, is 1944's "House of Frankenstein," which he describes as "widely entertaining because it has Karloff as a murderous mad scientist, a murderous henchman, John Carradine [as Dracula] and Lon Chaney Jr. [as the Wolf Man.] It has this dizzy craziness."

That same sensibility permeates the 1940s Universal "Mummy" movies, which the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre is presenting as a "Mummython."

"These are never really screened," said programmer Grant Moniger of the low-budget series that includes 1940's "The Mummy's Hand." "They are a lot of fun, especially when they are seen together."

The Cinematheque's Egyptian and Aero theaters have also lined up a crazy quilt of horror films for October, including the 1984 comedy "Ghostbusters," the granddaddy of vampire films, Murnau's 1922 "Nosferatu"; producer Val Lewton's subtle 1942 film "Cat People" and 1943's "I Walked With a Zombie."

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