If someone asked me this week about my thoughts on the existence of a Higher Power, I would ponder upon different answers, upon arguments I would hope to elucidate with all the finesse of an old-school British professor sitting in a leather wingback chair next to a crackling fireplace (as they do). I say “might ponder.” Because what I instinctively wanna blurt out is “Heck yes a Higher Power’s gotta exist, because He made sure I never saw The Mascot when I was a kid!!”
“Mommy, peees, turn it doff!”
In the past, I’ve mentioned that there’s certain, shall we say, unique silents that would’ve terrified me back when I was a kid–especially ones with papier-mache goblins or weird stop-motion sequences. The Panicky Picnic (1909)? Ew. Ah! La Barbe (1906)? No thank you. Don’t even bring up Le cochon danseur (1907)–it just stopped making cameos in my nightmares. So now I must announce that Ladislas Starevich’s The Mascot (Fétiche Mascotte, 1933), which I saw for the first time recently, is currently #1 on my “Do Not Show To Sensitive Children” list. Did I mention its alternate title is The Devil’s Ball?
While exploring Starevich’s work for Silent Stop Motion Month I became fascinated by this peculiar short, a distinctively European work showcasing some of the era’s most brilliant stop motion animation and some of its creepiest imagery. Apparently it’s already freaked out a generation of ’80s children, thanks to being shown with other cheaply-acquired shorts on late-night British TV. Now it dwells on YouTube, to unsettle all unsuspecting animation fans who doth click on it (and oodles of indie rock bands who use clips for their music videos–like flies to honey, my friends). Since The Mascot is practically a silent film and was made by a silent era master, I say we take a look at it.
If you were going to pick just one silent era stop motion short to watch–just one!–I’d happily recommend an early work by Ladislas Starevich: The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912). Yes, you’re reading that right–from 1912! Because despite being over a century old, it showcases a timeless skill, serves as an excellent introduction to silent era stop motion, and is pretty funny, if you ask me. Plus, depending on how well you know your classic comedies, the story just might be familiar…!
The Cameraman’s Revenge was part of a series of Ladislas Starevich shorts starring insects–and, by the way, he made the puppets using actual dead insects. He’d gotten the idea while trying to film a stag beetle fight (he was an avid insect collector and reportedly worked for a natural history museum). After some failed tests with live beetles–hot studio lights didn’t put them in fightin’ moods–he decided to recreate the fight with stop motion. The method was macabre, but ingenious: he took dead stag beetles apart and preserved their shells, then pieced them back together with wire and bits of sealing wax. The finished product was, err, a flexible, all-natural, upcycled organic puppet (rebranded for any trendy types who happen to be reading).
In any artistic field–Impressionist painting, modern architecture, ballet, indie folk rock, you name it–there are always a few names more memorable than the rest, and the field of silent filmmaking is no exception. We all recognize the big names like Gance, von Stroheim, Chaplin, Griffith, and so on. But the list of who we personally find most memorable is probably pretty eclectic–my own includes folks like Roscoe Arbuckle, Charley Bowers, and Karlheinz Martin (long story). To that list I’m happy to add the name of Ladislas Starevich–or Władysław Starewicz, Ladislav Starevich, Ladislaw Starewitch, or any of his other varied spellings (pick your favorite).
In photos, the somber-looking Starevich seems like he’d be home in a lab coat working on mysterious chemical experiments. You wouldn’t suspect that in reality, he created an imaginative body of work showcasing some of the most whimsical–even slightly macabre–visions in early film. An artist ahead of his time, once you’ve seen his work you won’t soon forget it.
Imagine you have a small film studio, and you’ve set up a table-sized platform with an artfully-arranged miniature landscape on top. A couple figurines–maybe dinosaurs–are posed among snippets of shrubs and tree branches serving as a jungle. There’s a painted backdrop of mountains and sky, and everything is lit brightly with hot lights; your hand-cranked camera is in the exact spot you need it, ready to go. You carefully adjust the figurines, then crank the camera–only turning the handle once. You adjust the figurines again, and again crank the camera handle once. You adjust them again–but not because they don’t look right to you.
Indeed, the amount of savagery is just right.
Nope, this is your peculiar, unique art form, requiring complete dedication, patience, and foresight–stop motion animation. Full work days go by as you patiently adjust the figures under the hot lights again and again, now and then stopping to repair them as their latex skins start showing signs of wear and tear. After a few weeks, you’ll have a sequence a few minutes long–and on film, the miniature scene will be full of life.
There’s something about old portraits that inspires the gothic side of our imaginations, especially if the portraits are sufficiently somber or darkened with age. Looking into the steady eyes of a subject long dead has inspired many a horror writer–and more than one filmmaker, too.
One example of that inspiration is the little-watched drama The Portrait (1915), which I stumbled across recently. While it’s sadly only a fragment of a lost film, it contains some pretty neat imagery and is capable of leading us down some of those delightful research rabbit holes.
Do you collect vintage Christmas decorations? Love singing vintage Christmas songs? Maybe even enjoy trying out vintage holiday recipes? Then how about taking the next step and trying out some very vintage Christmas films?
Exposure to forbidding vintage Santas is well worth the price.
I’m not talking about the familiar holiday staples like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life or the hallowed classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians–I’m talking about the very earliest Christmas films ever made, pre-dating our more commercialized era. Heck, they pre-date the widespread use of electricity. The discovery of penicillin. Even the Coca-Cola Santa Claus. These are holiday movies over a century old, from the literal horse and buggy era, and they are charming peeks into a long-gone world. Let’s start with: Continue reading →
Out of all the silent film genres, one of the most popular is probably horror. Even people who don’t watch anything made before 1930…or, well, 1960…or, let’s face it, 1997…don’t mind tuning into Nosferatu or The Phantom of the Opera. What was freaky then is usually still freaky now, and at any rate it’s always fun to see what used to scare the knickerbockers off our great-grandparents.
But I’ve been thinking. It’s occurred to me that the mere banner of “silent horror” simply isn’t enough. No, I’m going to vote that we add a new genre–or subgenre, if you will. And it shall be called: “Silents That Would’ve Terrified Me as a Child.” Continue reading →