Wednesday, May 22, 2002

THE BELLS (1926)

I'm not a big fan of silent movies, but every so often, I'll give one a tumble and I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It's a film version of a play that was very loosely inspired by Poe's poem. It winds up feeling like a cross between Poe, "A Christmas Carol," and DR. CALIGARI. Lionel Barrymore plays an innkeeper and millowner in an Alsatian village who is basically a nice guy but is in financial trouble, partly because he extends too much credit to locals in order to curry their favor in hopes of getting appointed burgomaster; he winds up heavily in debt to another man (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and is danger of losing his businesses and not being able to provide for his wife and daughter. At Christmas, a rich Jew (E. Allyn Warren) stops at the inn during a snowstorm and when he leaves that night, Barrymore murders him with an ax to the head (explicit but not gory). As the dying man falls from his sleigh, he grabs a set of sleigh bells and shakes them at Barrymore in his death throes.

Come spring, Barrymore is burgomaster and the Jew's brother (played by the same actor) comes looking to find out why his brother has disappeard (Barrymore burned the body up at his mill). He is aided in his search by a local mesmerist (Boris Karloff, looking like a character out of CALIGARI). Barrymore, stricken by his conscience, keeps having visions of the dead man shaking the sleigh bells at him accusingly. In one especially effective scene, he sits at a table and plays cards with the ghostly figure (a scene reminiscent of the appearance of Marley's ghost in Dickens). The finale is a creepy dream where Barrymore imagines himself engaged a trial in a demonic courtroom. The effects are quite good, as is Barrymore, although Karloff's character seems to serve no particularly compelling purpose except to add an extra touch of creepiness. Quite good as an example of an early horror film. The musical score on the DVD was nice, with the "tintinabulation" of the bells sounding at the appropriate times.

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