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Saturday, January 7, 2012


Paul Leni’s comic-thriller, the granddaddy of all those chillers where a group of nervous Nells & Nellies are forced to spend a night in an Old Dark House, looks fabulous in the PhotoPlay 2004 restoration out on KINO-DVD. Sourced from original nitrate elements and strongly supported by a new Neil Brand score, the film now plays better than it has in decades. The story’s an old wheeze about a dying man in a spooky old mansion, his eccentric will, and the night all the relatives show up to hear it read. Ghosts, secret wall panels, hidden doors, a couple of dead bodies . . . the works. It was dumb corny fun when it was new, but this new edition really helps the gags & chills pop. It’s why the restored visual quality is so crucial, it really shows off the superb atmospheric effects Leni got, with a big assist from lenser Gilbert Warrenton. (What a team. They’d top themselves next year with a true masterpiece, Victor Hugo’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.) There’s even a good cast from Universal’s contract players with a surprisingly modern perf from leading lady Laura La Plante and creepy stylized comic stuff from the rest of the grasping fortune hunters. Martha Mattox is a particular standout as a hatchet-faced housekeeper straight out of a Georges de la Tour painting. Now, if we could only get a similar upgrade on THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, especially on the dim 1928 synch-track score which robs the film of half its magic, romance & fatalistic power. What might Leni have given us if he hadn’t died suddenly in 1929 at the age of 44?

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