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Ominous October: The Dark Eyes of London (1939)

It’s October, which means that as the leaves change colors and there is a chill in the air, we here at the Picture Show conjure a chill up our spines. Join us as we take fresh looks at a series of spooky films from the past. This week, Samantha and Adam turn the focus on The Dark Eyes of London.

ADAM WILLIAMS: Reading like the diary of a madman, The National Motion Picture League’s list of morally objectionable elements of The Human Monster does a better job of hyping this movie than I could ever dream:

Dead man’s body floating in water, five murders, trickery, espionage, drowning blind people in tank to get insurance, instruction in criminal methods, drinking, blind man’s home a camouflage for gangster’s evil deeds, horrible screams, crime made exciting and alluring, many views of drowned bodies lying in slimy water, drunkenness, drowning man in big tank, joking about tragedy, coarse language, tattooed arm, horrible face, harrowing details of strapping blind mute in bed and making him blind, horrible screams as eyes are operated upon to make him blind, forgeries, bogus insurance policies, horrible screams as girl is chased, maniacal sounds, choking girl in preparation for drowning her, faking blindness, drowned bodies thrown out window into river, many views of drowned bodies, murder by shooting, throwing vials of gas at people, shooting, taking law into one’s own hands, publicity states ‘If you are weak don’t come. For the strong only.’

All I can add are some fundamentals: it’s based on a novel by Edgar Wallace, it was titled The Dark Eyes of London in the UK and The Human Monster in the US, and it stars the great Bela Lugosi.


The 1924 novel The Dark Eyes of London by Edgar Wallace is a clunky, convoluted mess but nonetheless a fun read. The screenwriters took some of the bare elements of the book—namely, our hero Inspector Larry Holt, drowned bodies, and a creepy home for the blind—and spun an entirely different yarn. The element of Wallace’s book that I found the most amusing is that the main villain is a completely inept playwright. The Inspector’s emotionless valet, ironically named Sunny, also provided several chuckles. Neither of these comic reliefs are in the movie. Instead, the film has Chicago PD’s Lt. Patrick O’Reilly (Edmon Ryan) visiting on some sort of collaborative effort with Scotland Yard.

As the overly familiar, quick on the draw, boneheaded American, Ryan chews the scenery like so much Wrigley’s gum. This was no put-on American accent, Edmon Ryan Mossbarger was born near Louisville, Kentucky. According to a 1946 profile piece in The Courier Journal, he gave up his first career coaching basketball and football and went into acting because there was more money in it and, as he said, “I thought I’d have more fun.” This devil-may-care attitude certainly comes through in his performance in The Dark Eyes of London.


SAMANTHA GLASSER: The acting in this movie is very broad. The reveal of Wilfrid Walter as Jake, the disfigured man is startling. His heavy brow and oversized teeth give him an ape-like appearance, playing on a common horror trope of the day. (The Exhibitor's reviewer earnestly suggested he must have learned to do makeup from the late great Lon Chaney. I would suggest that is a slight on the memory of a legend, but to each his own.) Lugosi delivers his lines with particular intensity and the camera lingers on him for a few extra seconds to emphasize his words. This tactic works well in both horror and comedy and it gives a humorous edge to his sinister plot. The exception to the showy acting is Greta Gynt as Diana, the innocent daughter of a murdered man who is drawn into the tangled web of Dr. Orloff (Lugosi). Her reaction to learning of her father's death is beautifully executed, slow and complex.

AW: Of course, all the Scotland Yard inspecting is just filler between the good parts, i.e., that abominable agenda recorded by The National Motion Picture League. We know bad things are coming. We’ve been introduced to Lugosi’s clearly demented character, we’ve met his hideous assistant Jake (the simian beast featured prominently in the film’s advertising), and we’ve been led into the cobwebby pit known as Dearborn’s Home for the Destitute Blind. It’s still a surprise when the murders begin. The organ climbs in volume on the soundtrack…the camera freezes in a medium shot as if it’s afraid to go any further…Jake approaches his victim with a straight jacket…the door slams in our face…the scream! It’s such a wonderfully constructed set piece, a little peek at what will be shown in more graphic detail later. I’ll concede that the movie has some slow stretches, but they are completely obliterated by these thunderous moments of Grand Guignol horror.


SG: I was genuinely shocked by the late-in-the-movie identity reveal. At that point the story seemed to be wrapping up to its conclusion, so the extra twist was a pleasant surprise.

AW: The Catholic Legion of Decency gave the movie a mere ‘B’ rating meaning “Morally objectionable in part,” noting its “excessive brutality and gruesomeness.” Benjamin Crisler of The New York Times wrote that, “…nothing quite so consistently horrid […] has ever befallen this hapless city.” Donald Kirkley of The Sun also felt the movie reached a nasty apex: “Nothing quite like this display of undiluted horror and last-century melodrama has been seen here since Sweeney Todd…”


SG: A game I sometimes play in my head is, "What if we could bring X from the past into the present? What would shock them?" Can you imagine how these buttoned up morality police from 100 years ago would react to just the commercials for horror movies?

In Chester, Pennsylvania, Charley Crowley of the State Theatre had fun with the advertising of the film. He placed a barber's chair in the lobby and offered free haircuts to customers whose hair stood on end and free dye jobs to those whose hair turned white. J. E. Stocker of the Myrtle Theater in Detroit said teenagers flocked to see the movie, probably because of the controversy surrounding it and the dare that they might be too scared to endure it.


The Motion Picture Herald wrote, "The macabre element is competently sustained and should send thrills creeping down the spines of the unsophisticated." Snob.

AW: Network in the UK released The Dark Eyes of London on Blu-ray last year which I promptly purchased. It was a pleasure to finally revisit this film in a spectacular restoration—to these dark eyes at least. It’s such a rare thing, too—a Blu-ray that is also a beautiful object. The matte slipcover is embossed with the film’s title and a striking graphic of Lugosi’s diabolical eyes. On the backside, Jake’s head is in the center of a spiderweb with Diane recoiling in horror. Besides the title, there are no other words. (Aren’t back cover synopses unnecessary in this era? Aren’t barcodes hideous? Why don’t more companies follow this simple aesthetic?) Be forewarned, the stack of photo cards included do reveal the film’s major twist, although I don’t think it “spoils” the movie—gosh, I hate that term. Creaky and morbid, this movie sends me into a hypnotic state, a feeling I love particularly this time of year. Four stars.


SG: Good performances mixed with a more subdued British sensibility makes this film more believable than some low budget horror films of this era. It meanders at times, and my attention span isn't always what it should be, but when I was engaged, I enjoyed the show. Three stars.

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