Saturday, 28 March 2015

Richard Oswald's house of horror... Uncanny Stories (1919)

From the enduringly-disturbing Dead of Night (1945) through to the Hammer comic-thrillers Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973) I’ve always liked horror compilations: short-sharp shocks featuring tales of the mildly unexpected with enough time to develop an idea without over-staying its welcome. Most horror films lose their impact after the scene setting or maybe I just don’t like long drawn out un-pleasantries which have increasingly relied upon prescribed physical shocks for visceral impact.

The same is true of the genre in fiction and from the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson onwards, horror has been a dish best served in controlled portions. That way, even if the entrée fails to excite the pallet there is always the main course left… and maybe just desserts…

Reinhold Schünzel, Richard Oswald and Conrad Veidt
Richard Oswald had already directed a number of literary adaptations (his second name taken in tribute to a character from Ibsen's Ghosts) as well as horror films and the episodic opera Tales of Hoffman before he came to Uncanny Stories or Eerie Tales (Unheimliche Geschichten) in 1919. He made the film directly after Different from the Others and, whilst he may have wanted a simpler project, he took two of that film’s main performers for this project, rubber-faced Reinhold Schünzel and the angular Conrad Veidt. They were joined by c who was just 19 at the time and already no stranger herself to the outer limits of Weimar self-expression… (she was posthumously described as the "Devil's spawn" by Adolf Hitler: well, he’d know…)

Anita Berber
A small but perfectly formed cast for these five tales of mystery and the imagination…

The stories are framed by a sequence in an antiquarian bookshop in which The Devil (Schünzel), Death (Veidt), minus his horse Binky… and a Strumpet (Berber), animated after closing time from oil paintings on the wall, relax by leafing through the stock for the most sinister stories.

 The Apparition by Anselma Heine

Reinhold Schünzel
Here Veidt plays a man who rescues a woman (Berger) from the violent attentions of her former husband (Schünzel). No matter where they go the deranged man follows and the two soon fall under each other’s spell: hero and rescued damsel.

They take rooms in a hotel and the woman, feeling unwell retires early… the man goes downstairs to enjoy some after dinner drinks and, returning with un-chivalrous intent in the early hours, he finds her room not just empty but cleared of all furniture and with the walls scorched bare… What madness can this be? The answer is still shocking.

Schünzel clearly relishes the chance to extend his flexible features as the spurned husband – his face contorted by the madness of rejection.

The Hand by Robert Liebmann

Conrad Veidt
It’s Veidt’s turn to show his uncanny expressiveness in the second segment. He and Schünzel are in competition over Anita again and, like gentlemen, they agree to throw dice for her.

Schünzel throws a ten but Veidt responds with an improbably eleven – to the winner the spoils! But things don’t quite work that way as the sore loser throttles the victor who falls dead, his hand twisted by the desperate final struggle.

The cheat takes advantage of the girl’s grief but if he thinks he’s in the clear he has another thing coming…

The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe

Three's a crowd...
Next up is a classic from the man who may well have invented both the detective and horror genres: The Godfather of Ghoul anyone? (With apologies to James Brown….)

Once again our three are caught in a love triangle and as the debonair Conrad sweeps in to win the maid, Schünzel snuffs out the object of attraction whilst at the same time throwing her precious pet cat against the wall.

Veidt smells a rat but the police are baffled: yet how many lives does a cat actually have. As usual with Poe it’s the very matter-of-factness of his narrative that evokes the greatest chill…

The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson

Oswald brings a consistent creepiness to all of these stories not just through his use of the same actors but through his expressive visuals and economy.

This tale of a most unusual gentleman’s club is given considerable spin by Veidt’s unnerving turn as the titular club president but the director’s eye for detail has him use repeated motifs of playing cards and an expressionist ticking clock to ramp up an unnatural tension before Stevenson’s more conventionally heroic tale twists its way through.

The Haunting by Richard Oswald

The last tale is written by the director and is the lightest: perhaps he wanted to send his audience away with a spring in their step after the preceding death and disturbance.

The intertitles are in verse and the cast dressed in fairy tale garb for the story of an injured knight who takes advantage of his host’s generosity by making merry with his wife. Schünzel plays the bawdy Baron and Anita Berber gets her chance to shine as the girl who can hardly say no.

Her husband (Veidt) decides to teach both a lesson and mild amusement ensues…

I watched a copy of the 2002 restoration which was aired on ARTE which is a little better than the version on YouTube… The film is now available on DVD from but with German intertitles only… a staging post on the route to Caligari and proof of Oswald’s diversity.

Berber back to the day job in The Hand
Of the players, Veidt’s versatility needs little exposition and here he is matched by Schünzel. Anita Berber has arguably the least to do (she dies twice which is unfortunate) but the trained dancer carries herself well and brings a cabaret cutting edge to proceedings: she knows where the next whiskey bar is alright.

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