If you mention Behind the Door to a silent film fan, they’ll react in one of two ways: the blank, racking-their-brains-have-they-heard-of-it-maybe-actually-nope-never-heard-of-it look, or a sudden widening of the eyes and a little gasp: “You’ve seen it?!”
Because it’s that kind of film, my friend. Its notoriety precedes it, and once you watch it you’ll know why. The screen doesn’t show anything graphic, but the implications are crystal clear…and stomach-churning.
This 1919 Thomas Ince production was in bad shape for a long time–choppy, fuzzy, and missing some sizable chunks. Fortunately (so to speak) it was recently restored by independent film restorer Rob Byrne, a member of the board of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. A print from a Moscow archive contained everything a Library of Congress print was missing, and an original continuity had survived, ensuring it would be pieced together as accurately as possible. The uninitiated can now be creeped out and disgusted until the end of time! (Lord willing.)
I got to see Behind the Door at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, where it was introduced as making a statement about “xenophobia.” If that’s so then the film sure backfired on itself at the end, but never mind. It’s main character is Captain Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth), a taxidermist and proud American of German heritage, whose family has lived in the USA for “generations.” Despite what you’d think to be a thorough assimilation, he comes under scrutiny by his fellow villagers during anti-Hun frenzy of WWI. This leads to a surprisingly intense fight between Krug and one of the villagers–the director didn’t hold back.
Krug marries the lovely Alice Morse (Jane Novak) and they leave the village. When Krug becomes the captain of a ship Alice stows away to be near him–unfortunately. The ship is sunk by a U-boat lead by the fiendish Lieutenant Brandt (Wallace Beery), who’s the embodiment of everything you’d imagine about a boorish, depraved Hun stereotype of late 1910s vintage. Alice is captured by Brandt, who deliberately leaves Krug behind to drift in the sea. Horrified and enraged, Krug vows to track him down and skin him alive–apropos of nothing, do you remember that Krug was a taxidermist?
Before long Krug returns to the area with his ship and sinks Brandt’s U-boat, taking the lieutenant aboard as his prisoner. Then he learns what happened to his beloved Alice–Brandt had made advances to her, and when she refused him, he threw her to his wolf-like crew: “When the crew was finished with her, we shot her out the torpedo tube.” Then the distraught Krug enacts his revenge–nothing’s shown save a ghastly shadow on the wall, but it’s easy to put the queasy puzzle pieces together. You probably already have.
There are horror films today that are a thousand times more gruesome than Behind the Door, but it can still pack a sickening punch. For a 1910s film to take it to this level is startling, especially for silent fans accustomed to the era. It all seems like familiar ground at first–one of the countless dramas with similar lighting, compositions, makeup and quaint title cards. And then, a burst of realistic violence, an ominous closeup of taxidermy tools, realizing why Klug’s hand is shaking as he tries to pour his coffee. For me, the sickest punch is in the sight of Alice pushed into the wild mob of crew members, and their sudden animalistic frenzy. The nightmare of that brief shot gets to me. (And judging by the shocked murmurs, it got to the crowd at the SFSFF too.)
Good luck trying to see this little-known horror film–prints are very rare, and only play at special screenings. But if it does run in a theater near you, and you feel like having unsettling dreams that night, consider witnessing it for yourself. Then you, too, will be able to respond to any mentions of Behind the Door with a sudden widening of the eyes and a little gasp: “You’ve seen it?!”
Hope you’re enjoying Return of Silent Horror Month so far! To see reviews of horror movies and spooky topics from previous Octobers, check out the list here.