Ninety years is a pretty big gap by today’s standards. While in the past it was entirely commonplace for whole millennia to just zoom by without much really changing in the way of, well anything, what with the rate that things progress these days, fifteen minutes ago might as well have been a bygone era. It’s always extremely interesting to embrace things from places and years for which we have absolutely zero context for whatsoever and rarely is the blatant, glaring gap between the decades of the twentieth century more blatant and glaring than in cinema. Which is why I am always up (or down, depending on my mood) for a good old fashioned old-school horror flick, though more often than not when I say “old-school horror flick,” I’m referring to some laugh-a-minute 1980s DIY corn-syrup-and-red-dye deliciously gratuitous schlockfest and not so much a silent-era outrageous-hand-gestures and dialogue-cards shocked-expressionfest, though it is worth noting that both varietals are fabulously over-the-top at all times.
It did, however, seem very a very promising venture that Luminato (in conjunction with NXNE) was screening a long lost silent German horror picture from 1919 at Yonge-Dundas square complete with live accompaniment from some hip musicians. Indeed, promising enough for me to drag some buddies with me to Toronto’s meager Times’ Square replica in the pouring rain just to see it. It was a dark and stormy night.
Now, I’m no stranger to getting completely soaked at concerts, though rarely has the sight of falling drops coupled with that squishy feeling of wet shoes and a mob of moist hipsters seemed so appropriate. The film, Tales of the Uncanny, which features Conrad Veidt (who would later go on to achieve some repute as Cesare the Somnambulist in the Expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and Bill Murray’s elder German doppelganger, Reinhold Schünzel, is a sometimes funny, sometimes cheesy and mostly unintelligible - though hardly frightening, even by the standards of the time - series of shorts based upon short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and others linked together by a nonsensical thread. The film revolves around a group of ghouls that ostensibly haunt a book shop are perusing the stores wares after terrorizing the proprietor; in between tales (which they think are hilarious) they can be seen, in a rather unsual move, keeling over with laughter and throwing books at each other. It’s pretty ridiculous.
Apparently this is an extremely obscure film, long thought to be totally lost - though Luminato is repeatedly referring to it as a bona fide classic - and this is something of a Canadian debut for director Richard Oswald’s little opus. The Austrian director would go on to remake it in 1932, which clearly shows how much he thought of this version. The show might have worked better with a more established film of the time like Caligari or Nosferatu, particularly as these exhibit a much more classically Expressionist aesthetic which would be more appropriate for the ominous music, but I suppose that having a mostly unknown flick on the bill makes it seem much more credible for Luminato.
The absolutely spot-on live score, however, was provided by local post-rockers Do Make Say Think, German electronic artist Robert Lippok and Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy. As the film is partitioned into five sections, thus the musicians took an opportunity to tackle one tale each before uniting to a much more potent effect for the final two stories. Evidently sort of a live-action take on the classic Dark Side of the Oz (and more recently, Kid A/Nosferatu) screenings at indie-cinemas, this was a fantastically well thought out show with a fairly ominous rainstorm to accompany the already ominous musical accompaniment. The live score was excellent and the film was amusing enough, though the Tales of the Uncanny experience had one crucial downfall: my being utterly torn between wanting to watch the film and wanting to see what the musicians were doing, thus rendering at least two of the five tales more or less incomprehensible to me. The first one, I don’t even remember what it was called, I only recall that there was a crazy man trying to strangle his wife and a scene in a hotel that seemed totally unrelated.
By the third section of the film, I became more adjusted to the format and was indeed treated to Robert Lippok, at the time unknown to me, providing a deliciously dark, pulsing electronic beat to the Poe’s “The Black Cat” which proved to be exceedingly creepy unto itself. The real highlight of the show, however, was the fourth tale, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Suicide Club”, which was not only the most coherent and entertaining of the stories, but also was home to the most powerful musical moments and was the only uncanny tale where Bill Murray’s doppelganger didn’t get absolutely hosed in the end – way to go Reinhold! By the time the final section rolled around, it was getting very wet and I could almost feel the black dye from my shoes turning my socks blue, however, the combination of Lippok’s deep, swelling beats, Pallett’s madcap violin acrobatics and Do Make Say Think’s riotous post-rock cacophony made Tales of the Uncanny end on a very high note, breathing fresh new life into what might otherwise have been a more or less unremarkable lost curiosity.