1924 in Horror – ‘Hand’ it to Conrad Veidt
As someone always looking to find new classic horror films to watch, I like to take time early in the year to look back at what our favorite genre was like in the early days of cinema. Going back 100 years is always a good place to look.
Overall, the 1920s gave us timeless horror films from Germany like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920) and Nosferatu (1922); along with John Barrymore and his amazing facial contortions as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920).
The year 1924, however, was a bit lacking. Films labeled horror often came in tandem with the word “comedy” like The Speed Spook, an 85-minute film with a corrupt election, a mystery to solve and a driverless ghost car.
Lon Chaney’s He Who Gets Slapped is also labeled a horror film, but I disagree. I find the story of a heartbroken man who buries his emotions as a circus clown is a tragedy not a horror film. (The Victor Seastrom silent also stars Norma Shearer and John Gilbert and is well worth watching.)
But all is not lost, horror fans. What 1924 cinema lacked in monsters and creatures, it made up for in two excellent films starring German actor Conrad Veidt, Waxworks and The Hands of Orlac.
Hands of Orlac is an exceptional film that reunites Veidt with his Cabinet of Dr. Caligari director Robert Wiene. While the title lets the imagination run wild on what horrific things those “hands” can do, this is a complicated horror movie with romance, anguish, tragedy, murder and terror.
It begins sweetly as a wife reads a love letter sent from her husband, world-renowned concert pianist Paul Orlac (Veidt) who is counting the hours until they are together again. “Dearest! I will embrace you … my hands will glide over your hair,,” his note partly reads with multiple references to his touch and hands a bad harbinger of what’s to come.
A deadly train accident nearly takes his life and disfigures his hands, something his loving wife focuses on with great melodrama. “Holy God! Save his hands. His hands are his life!” the intertitles exclaim. “His hands are more important than his life!”
In desperation, the doctor grafts the hands of the executed murderer Vasseur on Orlac who then begins to have strange visions and nightmares. Orlac can feel something is off and when he learns the truth about his hands, it’s more than he can bear. He once brought joy to people with music through his hands; now they are those of a killer.
“Take away my hands – I don’t want these terrible hands,” he
begs the doctor.
In the most painful sequences, he pulls back his outstretched hands from touching his wife and can’t put his wedding ring on his finger.
Orlac’s agony manifests itself on Veidt’s expressive face and through his entire body. The lanky actor uses his long arms and hands to his advantage, holding them tautly away from his body as if he is fighting them off. (The movements will remind you of Veidt’s portrayal of Cesare in Caligari.)
He looks at his hands with equal parts horror and hate, fearful of what they will do. As viewers, we don’t know what evil they carry because we’re not sure what’s real or imagined.
Adding to the story is the unease caused by mysterious man in black whose face, when we finally see it, is terrifyingly familiar and begs more questions.
The story makes a sudden shift from focusing on Orlac and his hands to a broader scope. The maid is mighty jumpy and is clearly caught up in something bad. Creditors are calling. There is talk of Orlac’s father who hates him with passion. (How much he hates him is the first logical question.) When a knife Vasseur used in a murder – it has a distinct X carved in the handle – is found stuck to a door in Orlac’s house, it sends him spiraling even more. There is murder, blackmail, confessions and the police.
All the while, my mind was searching for explanations from the human or spirit worlds, and I wavered between the two as the film was becoming increasingly tense and horrifying. I was literally on the edge of my couch for the last 20 minutes and felt spent by the time we learned everything. I was surprised by my strong reaction to the film, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been since Hands of Orlac is deeply emotional and heartfelt even at its darkest. Much of that is owed to Veidt who can say more with his face and body than many actors can with their voice.
Waxworks is a title that conjures all types of great
horror ideas. But again, horror meant something different in this era, so we
get comedy, tension and horror (via sadism) in this anthology about a young
writer creating stories about characters in a carnival’s wax museum.
It was directed by Paul Leni (his last film made in Germany), with some accounts giving co-directing credits to Leo Birinsky. The original German print is considered lost, but there have been restorations that are accessible online and on home video by Kino Lorber and Masters of Cinema/Eureka Entertainment. I was able to stream a 2019 restoration from L’Immagine Ritrovata that is missing about 25 minutes from the original version, but it did not feel lacking, and it looked great.
Veidt, playing the brutal Ivan the Terrible, is joined in the film by two other top German actors: Emil Jennings as Haroun-Al-Rashid and Werner Krauss as the murderous Spring-Heeled Jack (who is meant to be Jack the Ripper). Our romantic poet (actor Wilhelm/William Dieterle, who would later become a well-known director) who write stories about the three characters, puts himself and the lovely daughter of the museum owner in each story as – of course – young lovers.
The first story about Harun-Al-Rashid (from A Thousand and One Nights) is the longest segment and a humorous tale about the “most romantic and mischievous king,” as our poet writes. He is extra-large and jovial, until the black smoke from a baker’s oven causes him to lose a chess game and he orders the baker beheaded (because that punishment certainly fits the crime). But the baker has a beautiful and flirtatious wife who is hard to ignore. While Al-Rashid is ogling the wife, the baker is at the palace where he hopes to steal Al-Rashid’s wishing ring to prove his manhood. The story has a clever ending.
Now we’re on to Ivan the Terrible described as a
“blood-crazed monster” who likes to torture people as he turns “cities into
cemeteries.” He poisons people indiscriminately, taunting them with an
hourglass counting down to their death. But Ivan is paranoid and switches
places with a nobleman who then takes a deadly arrow meant for the czar. The
tone of this section is much more somber with Veidt and those expressive eyes revealing
the madness of Ivan the Terrible.
In the much too short final segment, the poet falls asleep
just as he’s writing about Spring-heeled Jack. A nightmarish, expressionist and
quite effective dream sequence finds the writer and his girl being stalked
through the amusement park by the cold-blooded killer.
Also from 1924
Here are short looks at three not-so-scary horror films from 1924.
Alice’s Spooky Adventure, a short film notable for being directed by Walt Disney (the Disney touch is easily identifiable), is about a girl (“Little” Virginia Davis) who is the only one brave enough to go into a “haunted” house to retrieve a baseball. Falling plaster knocks her out and she dreams of Spookville where she helps a black cat and fights musical ghosts before she wakes up. I’m sure this both delighted and scared children in 1924.
Au Secours! (Help! ) is an early entry in the “bet you can’t stay overnight in a haunted house” genre, except here, the bet is to stay for just one hour (11 p.m. to midnight). This French comedy/horror short is from director Abel Gance who would spend much of the next three years on his epic Napoleon.
A room of tuxedo-clad gentlemen, talking about the “strange and unnatural things” at fellow club member Count Maulette’s castle, recall the night they visited and six of them fainted within 10 minutes from the horror(!). The count offers money to the man who can stay in the castle for an hour, but the cowards want no part of it. Arriving late is singer Max (international star Max Linder) who for some reason leaves his honeymoon bed to join the guys at the club. In need of money, he’s willing to do it.
At the castle, things happen very fast. Pillars move. Lions,
tigers and snakes attack. Skeletons and ghostly figures of all sizes (one is
even on stilts) emerge. This haunted castle looks more like a fun house by the
minute. While it’s humorous and silly at times, it does build tension
especially once Max’s wife calls the castle begging him to hurry home because
there is a man threatening her in her room.
Unseen Hands is a thriller starring Wallace Beery as a drifter who commits murder and fraud, among other transgressions, leading him to have supernatural visions of the man he killed.
Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at
The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a writer
and board member of the Classic
Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo
chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie
Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in
the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You
can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.