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Monday, April 1, 2013

The Old Dark House Motif

In horror and thriller movies the motif of the old dark house is a road well traveled and often abused.  It is a
motif requiring a deft hand to keep it from descending into camp or cliche and in the right hands it rises to more lofty realms of art.

A silent film from 1925, The Monster, directed by Roland West,  marks what is considered the first movie to utilize this motif. It also introduced the 'mad scientist' riff, and it is a surprising and delightful piece of cinematic work.    Although just as melodramtic as one might expect, it also pioneers a light touch in character and situation that presages more firm characterizations in  later films.  A version can be found on cable with music added the addition is distracting and seems disconnected from the mood of the scenes or the genre itself.  The silent version is better and allows the imagination to provide the necessary gothic tones.

There is a witty nature to the bumbling and easily frightened would be detective, a true understanding of mood and building tension in the more frightening scenes, and a firm romantic touch in its conclusion.  This is a model that influenced many later films but it is enjoyable to revisit the original and see its fresh energy, the awakward stumbling toward establishing a genre, and the ability of actors, director and writers to craft a story first to guide the entire film.  It is clear the actors had a firm idea of who they were in the film and built more authentic reactions as a result.  In the silent films large and grand stage movement period, this provides some interesting nuances to the film and no doubt influenced later film makers crafting early horror films.

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