I spent a week watching films that have had a rather haunting effect on me, though none are outright horror. In the process, I deepened my appreciation for Conrad Veidt and Laika Studios.
The Man Who Laughs (1928): The more I silent films I watch directed by Germans, the more I realize film’s power to haunt long after the credits roll. Films by Lang, Murnau, and now Paul Leni move me with their Expressionistic cinematography and art direction. The acting in The Man Who Laughs is what we now would call “over the top,” but I cannot get the pitiful image of the boy and the man, played with wild emotional intensity, whose face was butchered. (Yes, I know the image inspired the Joker, but it’s Veidt who haunts me.) I’m grateful, however, that the film “butchered” the ending of Hugo’s novel. I needed the relatively happy ending to not end up in a puddle of tears. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935): A smooth-voiced Veidt stars in this British film about a boarding house full of desperately unhappy people. He is a mysterious unnamed stranger who moves in and works to bring peace and happiness. Rene Ray is Stasia, a young maid who suffers the most and “summons” the stranger, who acts as a sort of angelic father figure. Perhaps most interesting in this film adaptation of a successful play is that it’s 1935 and our angel has a distinct German accent. (And this is soon after Veidt fled Germany after declaring himself Jewish in sympathy with the Jewish wife he would not abandon.) RECOMMENDED.
Major Barbara (1941): I adore Wendy Hiller, and it did not surprise me to know she chose to play Major Barbara after her turn as Eliza in Pygmalion (1938) when offered another opportunity to film a Shaw play. Hiller is full of charismatic fire as a social reformer with the Salvation Army who must eventually face the fact that industrialism — even the war machine — will save more “souls” than than a bankrupt charity organization with good intentions. Young Rex Harrison is a wide-eyed delight, less bombastic than his turns in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) or My Fair Lady (1964). But it is Robert Morley as Barbara’s armament-making father, Andrew Undershaft (made up to look like playwright Shaw), who steals the picture with his hauntingly overwide gaze and the dryest of dry wit. Is he elf or devil? We don’t know until the end. This said, I can understand why the film was less successful than Pygmalion, especially in its strange pacing, emerging as a series of distinct scenes rather than a coherent narrative. Still, RECOMMENDED.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016): I loved this film, full of haunting tragedy. It’s the story of the determination of a little boy with magical abilities and his powerful mother, who will go to any lengths to protect him. The stop-animation is stunning and beautiful — from the characters to the origami — and the tale is the textbook definition of bittersweet. It doesn’t surprise me that the company (Laika) that made this film also made Coraline (2009), which I also loved. My primary complaint here is the casting of white voice actors for ALL the primary (Japanese) roles, making the film another aggravating example of racebending. Only the “other” characters in the cast are voiced by Japanese-American actors, including George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. That white folks wrote the story bothers me less for there seems love and respect for the material; the worst I would call the production team is Otaku. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.