“I am afraid he has taken his secret where the living will never trace it.”
“Then, if the living fail us—we must call upon the dead!”
Director: Lionel Barrymore
Starring: Roland Young, Claude Fleming, Ernest Torrence, Dorothy Sebastian, Natalie Moorhead, John Miljan, Richard Tucker, John Loder, Clarence Geldart, Boris Karloff, Kamiyama Sōjin
Screenplay: Edwin Justus Mayer and Dorothy Farnum, based upon a story by Ben Hecht
Synopsis: Under the cover of one of the worst fogs in its history, London experiences a wave of violence. While walking to his club, Lord Montague (Roland Young) is suddenly caught about the throat by a garrotte. The fog parts momentarily, a woman screams…and Montague escapes with his life. At Scotland Yard, a shaken Montague tells his story to Sir James Rumsey (Claude Fleming). Rumsey informs him that the attack upon him was the fifth of the same kind that day—and that the other four victims are dead. Upon seeing the victims’ names, Montague cries out in horror that he knew them all; that they were all officers in his regiment. Rumsey decides that the rest of the officers must be gathered together for their own protection, and agrees to have them assembled at Montague’s London house. Arriving there, Rumsey and his subordinate, Inspector Lewis (Clarence Geldart), are startled by a scream. They find that a séance is under way, arranged by Lord Montague’s sister, Lady Violet (Natalie Moorhead), and conducted by the Chinese medium Lee Han (Kamiyama Sōjin), who Lewis knows has a criminal past. Sir James also recognises Dr Richard Ballou (Ernest Torrence), Violet’s fiancé. After the séance has broken up, Sir James explains the situation to Ballou and Violet, telling the doctor that his experience in mental illness may prove a valuable asset. Eight of the nine remaining officers of Montague’s regiment arrive; the latecomer is Major Mallory (John Miljan), who was horribly disfigured by shrapnel during the war and has been suffering the effects of shell-shock since. Unaware of the danger that threatens them, the officers greet Montague warmly. Finding that he has not the heart to tell them the grim truth, Montague encourages them to join him in the kitchen, where together they prepare a bowl of punch. Meanwhile, Mallory arrives: he declines to join the others. The officers carry their punch upstairs, where they hear of Mallory’s presence. Montague rushes ahead to greet his friend with a slap on the shoulder—only to have him slump to the floor… Dr Ballou pronounces Mallory dead, and adds that there are marks upon his throat. Rumsey then tells the others that the officers of their regiment are being systematically murdered. He also points out that since the house was guarded by his men, Mallory’s murderer must already be amongst them. Even as the others react to this in outrage, an hysterical woman forces her way into the room. She demands to know which officer is Lord Montague and, when Montague identifies himself, promptly faints in his arms. Recovering, the woman reveals that she is the Lady Efra Cavendar (Dorothy Sebastian), daughter to the late Marquis of Cavendar, who years earlier was drummed out of the regiment in disgrace. Moments later, another stranger arrives: Abdul Mohammed Bey (Boris Karloff), a lawyer, who brings with him a copy of the Marquis’s will. The officers learn that under this will, half of Cavendar’s enormous fortune is to be divided amongst them…and consequently, that each of them has motive for murder…
Comments: Although European audiences had from the beginning embraced films dealing with the supernatural – and although those films, when shown in the United States, had upon the whole been successful – it would be the sound era before the horror film, as such, established itself in Hollywood.
Throughout the silent years, film fans looking for chills were forced to choose between the physical horror of Lon Chaney’s macabre but real-world-based thrillers, such as The Unknown; historical horrors, such as The Man Who Laughs or – Chaney again – The Hunchback Of Notre Dame; or the pseudo-horrors, in which terrifying events either turned out to be “all a dream”, or were dismissed at last with that bane of all horror fans, a rational explanation. Even this implied licence to thrill went too far for some, with the result that a dispiriting number of horror films of this time are actually horror-comedies…and if you think the Odious Comic Reliefs of today are unbearable, you should meet the ancestors!
However, a few film-makers did grasp the idea that as long as you were prepared to explain away the apparently mystical goings-on in your story – and never mind how unbelievable your explanation might prove to be – you could frighten the audience as much as you liked, and get away with it. Then, too, the belief that “real” violence was somehow less reprehensible or disturbing than supernatural violence was widespread (as indeed it still is), meaning that you could chalk up whatever body count you fancied, as long as a good old-fashioned psycho-killer – or better yet, a greedy relative set to inherit a fortune – proved to be responsible for it, and not a ghost or a phantom or a vampire.
As to whether a such a film is classified as “horror” or merely as a “thriller”, that generally depends upon how far it goes in its its pre-reveal terrorisation, and/or its attitude to its supernatural, or supposedly supernatural, elements. The presence of Bela Lugosi and direction by Tod Browning notwithstanding, I have recently bumped the 1929 version of The Thirteenth Chair over to Et Al., for the crime of not making anything much of its potential horror elements. Conversely, the same year’s Seven Footprints To Satan and The Last Warning offer enough to fall on the right side of the fence: neither allowing the prevailing passion for noise to overbalance their narrative or their scares.
Which brings us to The Unholy Night, a film whose significance today – aside from the appearance in an unbilled supporting role of a future star – lies chiefly in the fact that it seems to be sound cinema’s earliest surviving attempt at a true horror movie.
The film is an uneasy blending of the styles discussed above. The prevailing nervousness about unadulterated horror is evident, but although the film features a smattering of fairly painful “comedy”, it is kept to a relative minimum; and the scares, when they come, are played straight.
Typically for the time, however, although the film is sincere enough in its attempts to disturb the viewer, much of its horror content proves to have little to do with the actual story. This includes the skeletal figure that lurks behind the opening credits, the apparently disembodied head that floats above those gathered for a séance organised by Lord Montague’s sister, Lady Violet, and the Montague family ghost, who never does put in an appearance.
Also typical is the film’s plot, which is convoluted beyond any possibility of grasping it upon a first viewing (a second will confirm the suspicion that it makes precious little sense); and the way it suddenly throws about a dozen characters at the viewer with a minimum of introduction…and then starts killing them off before we’ve even begun to put names to faces!
The Unholy Night’s vintage is also evident in the, shall we say, equal vintage of its cast. In 1929, the cult of youth was yet to get its death-grip on Hollywood’s consciousness. Not only was there no perceived need to give younger viewers a character they could supposedly identify with (something I always found rather insulting), but there was no hesitation in casting actors who were in every way adults in roles that today would come with an upper age limit.
In The Unholy Night, this attitude gives us fifty-one year old Ernest Torrence as Dr Richard Ballou, who as Lady Violet’s fiancé is the closest thing this film has to a romantic lead—although of course he may also be the murderer… It also makes it harder to swallow the subplot of the Lady Efra Cavendar, who according to the terms of her father’s will becomes the ward of the remaining officers of the regiment. Now, Dorothy Sebastian certainly wasn’t old when she made this film; but on the other hand, she was self-evidently beyond the age of requiring a legal guardian (let alone nine of them!), and no number of references to Lady Efra by the other characters as “this young woman” and “young lady” is going to convince us otherwise.
The Unholy Night was originally offered to director Rupert Julian, despite his premature departure from The Phantom Of The Opera, but he bowed out late after deciding that he wasn’t ready to direct a sound film; even though, as was often the case during this transitional phase, sound and silent versions were to be shot simultaneously. The project was then handed to Lionel Barrymore, who had recently cut his teeth by directing the first sound version of the seminal soap opera, Madame X, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Barrymore not only completed the twinned American versions of the film, he went on to co-direct a French-language version with Jacques Feyder, which was released under the title, Le Spectre Vert.
The Green Ghost was also the working title of the American version, after the short story by Ben Hecht upon which it was based; but for unknown reasons its title was changed before the film was released. That it was a late decision is evident in the fact that it is possible to find advertising art for the film under the first choice.
The opening sequence of The Unholy Night demonstrates that, whatever the film’s shortcomings, its heart is in the right place: it is genuinely startling.
Our story is set in London, which is experiencing one of the worst and longest lasting fogs in its history; and under this cover, an epidemic of violence has broken out: murder, robbery, rape…and the attempted garrotting of the Earl of Montague; an attempt thwarted when the fog parts just long enough for a woman nearby to catch a glimpse of the attack, and – quite literally – to scream bloody murder.
(One does wonder in passing what all these people are doing out in this fog.)
The shaken and breathless Montague finds himself at Scotland Yard, and here The Unholy Night’s problems begin in earnest.
It is well documented that during the early days of sound, film audiences were addicted to the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry. Ignoring silent films of great artistry, they would queue instead to watch movies entirely bereft of skill, drama and imagination—just so long as they made a noise. Taking this lesson to heart, the makers of The Unholy Night put a great deal of effort into creating a constant cacophony on their soundtrack.
(There is one exception to this rule, one sequence accompanied, and rightly, by absolute silence. Ironically, it is the most memorable aspect of the film.)
Some of this is effective, with the London fog being pierced by traffic noise and car horns; by foghorns from the Thames; by screams, and gunshots; and even by the strange tapping sound that precedes the attack upon Lord Montague: a noise that later proves to bear a curious resemblance to that made by the wooden leg of Montague’s manservant and former sergeant, Frye…
Less welcome is the film’s tendency to fill potential dead air by dragging out its dialogue scenes to unendurable length, as with the first scene at Scotland Yard, during which his lordship is permitted to give a tediously circumlocutory description of what went on in the fog. I have a lot of affection for Roland Young as an actor, and given the right kind of material, he could be wonderfully funny. This sequence, however, as well as later ones in the film, is predicated upon the mistaken assumption that anything that comes out of his mouth is automatically funny, and the more of it, the better.
So it is that Sir James Rumsey and Inspector Lewis of Scotland Yard are forced to sit and listen (showing rather more patience than this viewer could muster, frankly) as, rather than describe his attempted murder, Lord Montague pleads for, dissertates upon, and consumes large quantities of, brandy and soda.
(Giving writers Ben Hecht, Dorothy Farnum and Edwin Justus Mayer the benefit of the doubt, this may have been intended as a piece of Prohibition-era audience torment.)
It is not the rambling dialogue, however, that a viewer of The Unholy Night is likely to end up with embedded on their memory, but something far more painful. Lord Montague, although something of an aristocratic ne’er-do-well, has a distinguished war record; and the exigencies of our plot see the remaining officers of his regiment gathered at his house. No sooner have these gentlemen exchanged greetings than they burst into song – as they will do again and again – and again and again and again – throughout the rest of the film.
You may or may not remember much of the story of The Unholy Night, once it is done, but I can guarantee that you will come away from this film with a deep and abiding horror of “Auld Lang Syne”, the officers’ anthem of choice.
The only possible comparison with this torturous over-use of a song that I can think of comes in On The Beach, which suggests that, faced with their impending doom, Australians will find nothing better to do than gather in groups to sing “Waltzing Matilda” – and there, at least, the solemnity of both the film itself and the version of the song chosen works to keep audience reaction in check. Here, the effect is hilarious and excruciating in about equal measure. There will even come the suggestion, late in the film, that not even death can put a stop to this unconscionable carolling!
In between brandy and sodas, Lord Montague does manage to provide the police with a description of the attack upon his person, and has the grace to apologise for his previous assery (is that a word?) when the patient Sir James finally informs him that his attack was the fifth of the kind—the other four victims not having had Montague’s luck. Montague’s general distress at this news then escalates into near-hysteria, when he learns that he knew all the other victims; that they had all been officers in the same regiment during World War I.
When Sir James urgently presses for more information, the stunned Montague reveals that there are now only ten of them left, as that morning there had been only fourteen, their scanty numbers being the result of their regiment having served at…Gallipoli.
At which point, as you might imagine, this viewer of The Unholy Night sat bolt upright and really began to pay attention. And to giggle uncontrollably. And then, when we were finally introduced to the other officers of the regiment and given the opportunity to observe them under pressure, to surrender to the darksome pleasures of Schadenfreude; the gentlemen in question revealing themselves, singly and collectively, as a bunch of sneaks, klutzes, screw-ups, hysterics, prima donnas, and literal criminals; in short, as exactly the kind of people you would expect to find in charge at Gallipoli.
You’ll have to forgive me if I allow myself to be distracted for a few moments here, to focus upon the tantalising question on how this subplot was actually meant to be taken. Frankly, if I thought the implications of all this were intentional, I would call The Unholy Night a satire to rank alongside the Michael Palin-Terry Jones penned Roger Of The Raj, which climaxes with the sequential mass suicide of its officers, all for committing heinous crimes against the honour of “the regiment”…such as passing the port from left to right instead of right to left.
There might, of course, have been a specific reason why the writers chose Gallipoli as the background to their story…but in the absence of any solid evidence, I am compelled, however reluctantly, to conclude that the use of that particular example of military madness, and the apparent satirical intentions of the exaggerated depiction of the regiment, was probably just a perverse kind of happy accident; an example of Americans trying to “do British”, and going completely over the top.
The rest of The Unholy Night unfolds at the palatial London home of Lord Montague. After more would-be comical jabbering from his lordship, this time about the haunting of the Montague family by a greenish spectre, which presumably had more bearing on things in the Hecht short story but really doesn’t come into it here, there is a diversion of a more serious and effective kind when, upon hearing moans and groans from the music room, the Scotland Yard men rush in to find a spectral face floating in the dark—and interrupting a séance organised by Lady Vi Montague, much to her indignation. As the attendees depart, Inspector Lewis casts a suspicious eye on the medium, Lee Han, whose history he knows.
The surviving officers in Montague’s regiment are gathered together in his house, so that they may be kept under police guard. The last to arrive is the disfigured and shell-shocked Major Mallory (John Miljan’s gruesome makeup is another sign of the film’s willingness to disturb the audience), who refrains from joining the others in the kitchen, where they are brewing a diabolical bowl of punch, and – what else? – singing. Mallory is the only one not wearing a uniform, underlining his severance from the rest of the group. He casts no friendly glance in the direction of the singing.
When Montague hears that Mallory has arrived, he rushes in to greet his old comrade, slapping him on the shoulder—only to have Mallory slump to the floor, dead; apparently strangled. Sir James breaks the grim news that since his men are on guard all around the house, the murderer must be inside…
The officers have barely had time to react with suitable indignation when they receive another shock: the arrival of the Lady Efra Cavendar, daughter of the late Marquis of Cavendar, who was once also a member of the regiment, but was drummed out in disgrace under an accusation of cheating at cards. The Marquis later encountered his old comrades again—at Gallipoli, while fighting for the Turks! (From a certain perspective, one can hardly blame him.) Captured and sentenced to be shot, the Marquis nevertheless managed to escape—and to plot against his double condemners an elaborate revenge.
The details of this plot are revealed by yet another unexpected arrival, the lawyer Abdul Mohammed Bey, who with a lot of evil smirking announces that the Marquis’s will bequeaths the half of his fortune that does not go to Efra, a full million pounds, to be divided amongst the surviving officers, and also appoints them Efra’s joint guardians; this on the grounds that, “Nothing so soon causes discord among friends, and destroys character, as the sudden inheritance of wealth”; and further, that, “When money fails, nothing so quickly causes discord among men as a beautiful woman.”
As it turns out, the Marquis knew his men: the words are barely out of the lawyer’s mouth when those officers who have not already mentally spent their sudden windfall – some of them needing money rather urgently, as we soon learn – are smoothing their moustaches, straightening their collars and licking their chops as they leer at Efra.
Sir James then points out the obvious – that everyone present had a motive for murder – and Efra suddenly exclaims that she knows one of the voices in the room, that she overheard one of the men present conspiring with Abdul…if only she could be certain which…
Instantly, the gentlemen of the regiment launch into an orgy of recrimination and accusation and tale-telling and finger-pointing, and generally coming apart at the seams.
Chalk one up for the Marquis of Cavendar.
With an effort, Lord Montague pulls his comrades back into line; and, ashamed of themselves (and rightly so), they try a little re-bonding by – sigh – singing “Auld Lang Syne”. The officers then retire to their rooms—but that’s hardly the end of the night’s drama.
While all of this kerfuffle has been going on, we have had leisure to observe that Dr Ballou is giving new dimension to the expression behaving suspiciously…and he continues to do so after the officers have gone to bed. For one thing, he starts messing about with Mallory’s dead body. For another, he secretly signals to someone out in the garden…
But Ballou is not the only one to start behaving suspiciously: Mallory does too, inasmuch as, as soon as the clock has struck midnight, he gets up and starts walking around; not behaviour one generally sees in a dead man. Soon, a length of cord in his hand, Mallory is creeping silently into the bedroom of one of the officers, Colonel Davidson. A single horrified cry splits the night…
The next morning sees Sir James Rumsey pacing the library, watch in hand, as he waits for the officers to join him. He will wait in vain. Shortly comes the revelation that not just Davidson, but every single officer has been murdered…with the exception of Lord Montague.
Here we have the unquestionable highlight of The Unholy Night, a magnificent – and silent – panning shot down the length of a corridor, past the bedrooms where the murders have taken place, which reveals corpse after corpse after corpse, until the final door is mercifully swung shut…
A suicide note is soon found: Mallory’s, confessing to the mass slaughter. His body is also found, out in the garden; really dead this time, a dagger in its heart.
In one sense this would seem to be the end of the matter, but Rumsey is convinced that the mentally shaky Mallory was someone else’s puppet. Montague is the obvious suspect, since as last man standing he has just inherited the Marquis’s million pounds (and, by implication at least, Efra and her fortune as well). Rumsey’s suspicions, however, light upon Dr Ballou. After all, Ballou was apparently unable to tell that Mallory was not dead in the first instance, but catatonic: another legacy of his service days. (The marks found on Mallory’s throat are never explained, mind you.) Moreover, Ballou is engaged to Lady Violet, who is her brother’s heir; so that if anything should subsequently happen to him…
Ballou and Rumsey clash violently, the unlikely outcome being Lady Violet’s re-summoning of the mystic Lee Han and the staging of a second séance, one intended to call upon the spirits of the murdered officers, in the hope that they can reveal the identity of the real killer…
The Unholy Night being a horror movie of 1929, there is both more and less going on here than meets the eye; and whether the viewer is amused or disappointed with the denouement of the story might depend upon how familiar he or she is with the conventions of the genre at that time.
At any rate, a full ten minutes is spent at the conclusion of the film explaining the convoluted events that we have just witnessed. (Humorously enough, in spite of this, a great many things are never explained at all!) One is likely to come away from all this with the feeling that with respect to the question of producing real horror movies, the studio executives were worrying unnecessarily: if audiences of 1929 were able to swallow the “explanation” served up at the end of The Unholy Night, then dealing with the truly supernatural should have been a breeze.
However—in spite of all its missteps, The Unholy Night has a few virtues too. Its script and its acting may be dismal, but it doesn’t compromise with its horrors; and while Lionel Barrymore’s handling of his cast is poor, he creates a genuinely spooky atmosphere in the dialogue-less, night-set scenes—in addition, of course, to the magnificent reveal of that night’s dark doings. This stretch at about the two-thirds point of the film almost redeems the rest.
I cannot close this rumination on The Unholy Night without commenting upon one aspect of the film that, while it would have meant little or nothing to its original viewers, delivers to modern audiences the film’s one genuine shock. Unmentioned in the opening credits is the actor playing the lawyer Abdul Mohammed Bey: Boris Karloff.
That in itself is not shocking, of course: before his belated stardom, Karloff racked up more than seventy-five appearances in small supporting roles, most of them unbilled. What is likely to catch modern viewers by surprise, however, is that Karloff’s performance in this film is…absolutely dreadful. The bizarre garbled accent that he assumes, which is part French, part “Arabian”, part pidgin-English and, I swear, part Lugosi, is bad enough (although that wouldn’t stop him using it again two years later, in the serial King Of The Wild); but his acting is nothing short of embarrassing.
The gap between the Karloff we see in The Unholy Night and the Karloff we are used to is simply staggering. There is not the slightest indication here that only two years later, the man would rocket to instant superstardom with a performance celebrated to this day for its delicacy and nuance; still less that he would go on to a lengthy reign as one of the horror genre’s best and most beloved actors. In the course of The Unholy Night, we are more than once witness to the rising of the dead; Boris Karloff’s career is proof that the film industry is sometimes capable of even greater miracles.
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