I’ve been binging ‘speculative fiction’ films from the 1920s, selecting favorites just as I did the 1970s–more or less according to the rules for nominations for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. The 20s may be the earliest decade where there’s enough SF/F or Horror for me to report a year-by-year favorites list. In fact, it’s hard to do for the 20s too, because–on top of many films being lost–many “classics” are either not my cup of tea (sorry Metropolis) or else too problematic to be fun. I don’t mind mentioning that films like The Golem: How He Came Into the World, L’Atlantide, Nosferatu, Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, Peter Pan, The Thief of Baghdad, The Lost World, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and Red Heroine have good scenes and historical significance, but they have issues that make it hard for me to imagine spending further time on them. Anyway, here are the movies I enjoyed most.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a.k.a. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Letterboxd) – When Dr. Caligari rolls into town to put on a show at the local carnival, watch out, because his weird oracle companion guy Cesare might reveal your unhappy destiny and/or make it happen. Are fortune-telling and mesmerism and whatnot really SF/F and/or supernatural horror motifs? Sure, why not–doesn’t even matter if they’re ‘real’ in the film’s world either, because of course the reason I’ve picked Dr. Caligari as my favorite from 1920 is actually the set design. The wild angles and non-Euclidean geometries in all the backdrops present an awesome fantasy view of urban life all by themselves. But the movie also tells a good story with a decent twist to it.
Along the Moonbeam Trail (Letterboxd) – There’s only ~10 minutes of material in this film–all of it silly. Mab, queen of the fairies, appears to some folks out camping and grants their wish for a magical biplane to travel to the moon and beyond. Eventually, they land on another planet populated by dinosaurs that fight each other. And, like, they had me at “magical biplane,” but I’ll watch anything that combines fairies, dinosaurs, and interplanetary travel.
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Pet (Letterboxd) – If you don’t know from the start that this short animated film tells a monster story, you might feel tricked by its charming beginning in which a couple takes in a cute little puppy-like creature as a pet. I’m sure the deception was intentional, but it turns so dark I feel like viewers ought to know its actual genre. Anyway, it’s great? I’m completely in favor of the pet monster sub-type of monster stories, and this one ramps up in ways I just never would have predicted for a film from 1921. Really solid way to spend 12 minutes.
The Haunted House (Letterboxd) – A bank teller gets mistaken for a criminal and winds up at a house where actual criminals are hiding out, all very ready to scare people away. It’s a delightful showcase of physical comedy from Buster Keaton, and it’s mostly a parody of the “explained supernatural” kind of story–the ghosts are just people in sheets, etc.–except when it isn’t, because there’s at least one bit that has no explanation and that’s more than enough for my purposes. Anyway, I liked it a lot and wished that it had lasted longer than ~20 minutes. Incidentally, the French film Au Secours! (1924) is similar in theme and inventiveness, but I couldn’t help reading some of the concluding imagery in Au Secours! as a problem.
Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, a.k.a. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Letterboxd) – Pulp crime genius Dr. Mabuse is a master of disguise, hypnotism, and maybe telepathy? At least, he seems able to hypnotize people from behind, which is unusual. Anyway, he uses his special skills to manipulate the stock market, cheat at cards, run a counterfeiting ring, confuse the police, kidnap, murder, and generally perform dastardly deeds throughout this 4.5 hour epic of German Expressionism. It’s a lot to take in, but it does save a number of action scenes for the climax, so there’s that to look forward to.
Der Unheimliche, a.k.a. Le Revenant au baiser mortel (Letterboxd) – A man hiding his own secret marriage from his father visits at his father’s request a possible bride at a town haunted by the legend of a ghost whose kiss kills women who are engaged to be married. This light comedy with a ghost story at its center has survived in an untranslated French version, identified just recently in 2016 as being the same film as Der Unheimliche. It offers more smiles than laughs, but honestly something vaguely resembling subtlety is good to see in a film from this era. Also, weddings are nice, and there’s a metric ton of them here.
Black Oxen (Letterboxd) – In this incompletely preserved film about a wealthy woman who has secretly undergone a rejuvenation treatment, Clara Bow is great as her nemesis: the genuinely youthful flapper who says what she likes and does what she likes. The science fiction element is mild, and the story is basically a generation-gapped love triangle–you can see where it’s headed even if it’s not all there–but it’s an easy watch and has fun moments.
Sherlock Jr. (Letterboxd) – Buster Keaton’s masterpiece is mostly a dream sequence in which a man envisions himself solving a petty theft that he’s also been accused of in real life, and it’s brilliant. He’s a movie projectionist who falls asleep at work, so his dream begins with a jokey interaction with the cinema itself–one of the key elements I’m using to call this a sort of fantasy film–and moves on to a number of comedy action scenes that are still terrific today. Compared to other Buster Keaton movies, it tells a coherent story, like The General, but it also keeps up a frenetic pace, like The Haunted House.
Paris qui dort, a.k.a. The Crazy Ray (Letterboxd) – A man (watchman?) with a residential job at the top of the Eiffel Tower awakens to find all of Paris still and silent below him. Upon climbing down from the tower, he finds people standing perfectly motionless–just stopped in the middle of whatever they’d been doing. It’s an eerie beginning to a neat sci-fi movie and an ironic commentary on the “terrible pace of modern life” mentioned in the film. A number of sources list it with a 1924 date, I suppose because it might have been completed then, but the best source I can find says it sat on the shelf with no financing for distribution and premiered in London in Jan. 1925, several days before its official release in France in February.
Maciste in Hell, a.k.a. Maciste all’inferno (Letterboxd) – Maciste is known as one of the oldest recurring characters in film history–a sort of Hercules-like figure in Italian cinema. In this outing, a version of which was first shown at the Milan Fair of 1925, Maciste is alive more or less in modern times, and he’s lured to a Dante-inspired version of Hell and tricked into becoming a demon–to the regret of many other demons whom he takes on in battle. There are some fun scenes, like a ride on the back of a dragon that looks exactly like a taxi ride in World of Warcraft, and a whole lot of demons and demon lords and whatnot.
A Page of Madness, a.k.a. 狂った一頁 (Letterboxd) – This incompletely preserved film about a man working in an asylum where his wife is an inmate was for me the greatest surprise out of all the movies I watched for this project. If you’re into weird experimental films with horror elements like Cuadecuc, Vampir or Tscherkassky’s Cinemascope trilogy, this fits right in. The damaged film gives it a cool aesthetic, but combined with the strange imagery–the delusions, shadows, people in creepy masks, and so on–it’s amazing. The modern soundtrack adds something too. Like other Japanese films from the same era, it lacks intertitles and probably made more sense with benshi narration, but it was also obviously supposed to be a pretty dreamlike experience–and it totally succeeds at that. Incidentally, the plot outline for it was evidently co-written by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata.
Now You Tell One (Letterboxd) – At the local Liars Club, a man is brought in off the street to tell a story he claims is true: he developed a formula for growing things instantly, like a Christmas tree from a plow handle or a cat from a catstail, and using it got him into a mess at the house of a local woman. It’s a pleasantly absurd story in the same ballpark as a Buster Keaton movie, but with quirky stop motion special effects rather than complicated stunts.
The Cave of the Silken Web, a.k.a. 盘丝洞 (Letterboxd) – Rediscovered in a Norwegian archive in 2013, this story of the Monkey King defeating a cave full of spider women is a pretty free adaptation of chapters 72 and 73 of Journey to the West. Evidently the first ~25% of the film is missing, but it’s fine. It picks up right at a point where the monk Tripitaka is explaining the goal of his journey to the seven women of Gossamer Cave, and his companions Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy are outside and need to rescue him–that’s all you need to know. Some character details, like Pigsy using a rake to fight, are treats for people who know the original material, but I think most of what you see is either self-explanatory and/or made up for the film version. Anyway, there’s plenty of magic, a fancy wedding scene, and a small-scale fantasy battle, including some fighting reminiscent of wushu staff performances or whatnot. The special effects are good for the time and amusing from a current point of view, definitely saving the best for last. Incidentally, Red Heroine (1929) is an actual wuxia film available from around the same time–but it has a very long and dull beginning, not to mention one villain who seems like an awful stereotype.
The Magic Clock, a.k.a. L’Horloge magique ou la petite fille qui voulait être princesse (Letterboxd) – A young girl becomes a little too fascinated by the tiny knight in the moving diorama built into her grandfather’s clock, and she’s pulled into a fantasy world full of great stop motion, featuring a dragon, fairies (stars of the movie who interact with insects, frogs, etc.), ents(!), a giant, and even ambulatory pansies. The story unfolds a little episodically without much overarching plot, but it’s delightfully strange, and the animation is solid.
Momotarō, Japan’s No. 1, a.k.a. お伽噺 日本一 桃太郎 (Letterboxd) – A classic character from Japanese folklore, Momotarō (“Peach Boy”) is found inside a peach by the couple who become his parents, and he turns out to be a fighter strong enough to fend off a band of ogres who terrorize the area. One of several animated stories from the 1920s available online from Japan’s National Film Archive, this was easily my favorite. It’s only about 14 minutes long, but there’s plenty of weird fantasy stuff going on in it, like Momotarō’s ‘birth,’ his friendships with anthropomorphic animals, the ogres’ magical furnishings, and their semi-magical abilities.
Woman in the Moon, a.k.a. Frau im Mond (Letterboxd) – Six people travel by rocket to the moon, where major conflicts among them are resolved. For one thing, there’s a love triangle going on between two men and a woman, and meanwhile, there’s also a ‘Weyland Corporation’ sort of plot to undermine the mission in favor of a gang of evil businesses back on Earth. While most notable for its prescient depiction of a launch countdown and rocket launch, including a mobile service structure for the rocket and a water deluge system to dissipate heat, the inclusion of a woman crewmember with a role that is at least perceptive and decisive stands out too.
The Mysterious Island (Letterboxd) – A slow start, a contrived plot, and an awkward mix of spoken dialogue and silent intertitles get in the way here at first, but this is really a pretty neat undersea SF adventure: essentially a submarine thriller unfolding in the middle of a weird landscape populated by throngs of Lovecraftian deep ones and multiple giant monsters crawling around the abyssal plain. Theoretically, this is based on the Jules Verne novel of the same name, but only very loosely. What’s remarkable is that it appeared two years prior to Lovecraft’s own deep ones in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and although I’m aware of earlier stories like “Dagon” and several more definite sources, I still wonder if it might have been an inspiration (according to S.T. Joshi, he did see other films like The Golem and The Lost World, so maybe).
Un Chien Andalou (Letterboxd) – I rewatched Un Chien Andalou for this project and also watched for the first time several Surrealist films by Man Ray, Germaine Dulac, and Henri d’Ursel. It’s a stretch to classify Surrealism as speculative fiction: the point of Surrealism typically isn’t to depict an alternate world, but rather–taking direct inspiration from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams–to depict our dream life and the work of the unconscious. Nevertheless, the outcomes are pretty similar to weird fantasy, and Hugo voters did allow an avant-gardist film like Last Year at Marienbad to be nominated, so I will too. Anyway, among early films trying to depict dream logic, Un Chien Andalou is definitely the most successful, shifting rapidly from one viscerally affecting and/or symbolically liminal kind of scene to another. However, there’s also a gendered aspect to the imagery that makes me want to recommend Penelope Rosemont’s anthology Surrealist Women as an accompaniment.