Sunday, September 11, 2011

Oh, The Bells, Bells, Bells! What A Tale Their Terror Tells!

The Bells(1926)
Director: James Young
Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Boris Karloff, Gustav Von Seyffertitz

Inspired by an Edgar Allen Poe poem, this is a genuine curiosity piece from the American silent horror genre. The plot, involving a poor man resorting to violence in order to gain wealth and being later haunted by specters of guilt, create a combination that is one part Poe's The Tell Tale Heart and Crime and Punishment, as well as a dash of D.W. Griffith's The Avenging Conscience(1914). It's a stylish film and offers Barrymore a decent role that is both sympathetic and brooding, being particularly fun in the latter sections where he begins to lose his mind. Of course, the picture is primarily remembered for an early appearance by Boris Karloff, as a Caligari-like mesmerist, in his best silent film role. This part, judging from the actor's career, brings his impact on the genre full circle, illustrating the path from the pioneering German expressionist works through the beginning of the blood and violence era of the late 60s.

The film follows a poor man named Mathias(Lionel Barrymore) who is in debt and wishes to be burgermaster of his small village. One Christmas evening, out of desperation, he murders a merchant with an axe(particularly brutal for 1926) and disposes of the body. The police search the area, but none suspect the kindly Mathias. He steals the merchant's gold, pays off his debt and is a rich man. However, when the merchant's brother arrives, offering a reward, Mathias begins to see the ghost of the murdered merchant, and hears the constant jingling of bells. A Mesmerist(Boris Karloff) who had met Mathias earlier at a local carnival, angers the distraught man when he claims to be able to make people confess their crimes and their good deeds. His conscience overburdened, he dreams of being in a court room where the Mesmerist makes him confess and he is damned. Mathias awakes and confesses his sin to God, and promptly dies from a heart attack, in a particularly disappointing conclusion.

The Bells is at times, a visually stunning film. The dream sequence is well realized, as is the murder sequence, which is one of the most violent cinematic moments up until that point in time. Barrymore performs well in the role, though overacts a tad towards the end, though it's not neccesarily a debit. His character's mania upon seeing the ghost is genuinely effective and credit must be given to W.Alyn Warren for playing such an eerie spirit. The audience is largely on Barrymore's side throughout and the sudden spurt of violence is truly a shocking moment from such a benevolent character, so much that I kept expecting it was all a ruse, only to realize it wasn't! Karloff shines in the small role as Mesmerist, bringing real menace to the role, as he smiles devilishly at Barrymore, providing an inkling of future terrors to follow. Frequent filmic heavy, Von Seyffretitz, makes for a memorably craggy enemy, but is underutilized. The film's major issue is with it's hopelessly unresolved conclusion. None of the dramatic moments that should have followed occur, including his family and friends discovering his crime and his subsequent shame. For some reason, what could have been the most powerful moment in the picture, is all but passed over! It leaves the film feeling incomplete and strange, and sadly, places the film squarely in the position of curio-piece, rather than bona-fide genre classic.

The Bells is relatively obscure, when compared to other prototypical horrors of the period, but is not entirely unworthy of analysis. It's well acted and fairly imaginative, complete with an early genre appearance by the man who would be Karloff the Uncanny. Creepy and a tad bizarre, this is a pretty good silent melodrama that should interest both fans of the era and students of the fright genre.

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