Ominous October: The Magician (1926)
It's that time of year when people seek out their favorite scary movies to give themselves a chill. We will be reviewing spine-tinglers from the classic movie era. Today Adam and Samantha disagree over The Magician.
ADAM WILLIAMS: Perhaps Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry) conjured the devil herself. While her fellow artists were painting canvases of their bucolic surroundings in the French Quarter, she labored on a twenty-foot sculpture of the Greek god Pan. Whether through fate or dreadful intervention, the massive sculpture topples over, paralyzing Margaret. In this inert state, she is delivered into the lives of two men. Dr. Arthur Burdon (Iván Petrovich) restores her body, while Oliver Haddo (Paul Wegener) glares from the operating theater. They both want to possess her; Burdon has the conventional desire to marry Margaret while Haddo—a domineering figure equal parts Aleister Crowley and Svengali—intends on using her as an ingredient in an ancient alchemical recipe to create life.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: I hoped this would an an atmospheric creepy proto-horror film. Instead I was greeted with an unbelievable story which dragged for an hour and detracted from the influential grand finale. The story is completely ridiculous. Under what circumstances would a beautiful young woman become enamored or intrigued by a creepy madman and allow him to enslave her against her will? Are we really to believe that magic, which we haven’t really seen put into practice, is to blame? If the storytellers tried to turn the relationship between the magician and the woman into a controlling abusive one, maybe it would have been more believable. But I can’t fit these pieces into that puzzle.
AW: I suspect there is some footage missing from the available print but maybe not enough to establish Haddo’s ability to induce a trance. His guided tour through hell impressed me. I did wonder why this is not a part of the horror movie canon. The answer lies somewhere between its director, its accessibility, and the quality of the production. Rex Ingram was never fully embraced by the auteurists. In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris placed the Dublin-born director in the uncertain “Subjects for Further Research” section of his pantheon. Furthermore, the film was thought lost as late as 1967 when Carlos Clarens wrote his seminal An Illustrated History of the Horror Film. What ultimately emerged, and what is preserved on DVD, is a transfer from a worn 16mm print. So, obviously, the quality is far from perfect. Although I was thoroughly engaged in the movie, maybe it’s Paul Wegener’s performance that doesn’t click with most audiences. Perhaps if he had concentrated more on Crowley’s seductive “sex magick” writings and less on making crazy eyes, he may have cast a stronger spell.
SG: The only thing that redeems this movie is the beautiful imagery. John F. Seitz composes shots like works of art. In the tower of the lab, the stairs wind up, drawing the eye to the action like a painting by a master. He often worked with Ingram and went on to receive Oscar nominations for his work on Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard.
This science lab is the epitome of the Hollywood version, where glass beakers filled with colored liquid are mixed together to make smoking concoctions. There are thick spiderwebs and skulls adorning the walls. I read that Frankenstein's lab was modeled after this one.
AW: Ingram’s background in the fine arts certainly influenced this film’s style. The filmmaker’s 1922 essay “Directing the Picture” is worth tracking down to understand his ambitious (and probably naïve) views on the future of movies. In relation to The Magician, it’s noteworthy that in this essay he compares the sculptor’s careful consideration of structural integrity to the screenwriter’s construction of a scenario.
The opening shot of gargoyles atop Notre Dame peering over the crowded Paris skyline perfectly summarizes the beastly and beautiful film to follow. Ingram’s lavish production is highlighted by the dissonance between Seitz’s picturesque photography and the story’s crazy mish mash of ancient grotesqueries and modern machinations. For every moment of loveliness, such as the perfectly timed swan gliding behind the two lovers in the park, there is a more prolonged moment of coarse horror. In that same park, the gargantuan Haddo sits on a bench reading an absurdly tiny book. Defying a sign that forbids touching the flowers, he plucks a rose and presents it to the unamused Margaret, who is at once pricked by a thorn. Haddo smirks, whips his cape around him, and strides out. As if reading the audience’s mind, Burdon glibly comments, “He looks as if he had stepped out of a melodrama.” With those stone-like features that served him so well in The Golem, Wegener is a living gargoyle stalking the streets of Paris.
SG: Wegener’s acting is over the top to the point of being laughable whereas Terry and Petrovich show so little personality that Wegener is a welcome alternative. Terry’s character is completely helpless. There is nothing to latch onto to sympathize. For me she's an idiotic woman who got what she deserved for hanging around with Creepy Creeperson.
I did, however, find Terry’s wardrobe to be beautiful. When she is lured to the Magician’s home, she wears a gorgeous fur-lined coat that reminds me of the monkey fur ensemble from the “Beautiful Girl” sequence in Singin’ in the Rain.
AW: You might agree with some of the sentiments expressed in The Exhibitors Herald. “What a sophisticated piece of cheese. Harrowing, gruesome, and feminine patrons will hate you for asking them to see it,” reads one theater proprietor’s review. “A big picture, star and cast fine, but the story a regular chamber of horrors,” was the report out of Greenville, Michigan. However, the owner of the Prescott Theatre in Kansas confidently declared, “An audience that could not like this picture must be fed up on some kind of junk.” The professional reviews were likewise mixed. Edwin Schallert’s review in the Los Angeles Times criticized Wegener’s performance as “…totally lacking in genuine menace.” He wrote, “It is particularly difficult to believe that Paul Wegener is the same player who gave such a remarkable portrayal in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” I agree, it’s incredibly hard to believe.
It’s always useful to comment on the accompaniment, so I will praise Robert Israel who does a remarkable job pacing the music and, crucially, allowing for small moments of silence to help generate suspense. His score incorporates some famous classical pieces including, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and, most endearingly, Tchaicovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.
SG: It was a chore getting through this one. If I wasn't watching it to review with you, I probably would have turned it off and missed the ending, which is admittedly exciting, but it took much too much effort to get there. Two stars.
AW: This movie cast a spell over me from Notre Dame to the gambling halls of Monte Carlo, all the way down to Hades and back up to Haddo’s towering mad doctor laboratory in Latourette. It’s a sinister gem accentuated by a truly outré villain. I loved it and am now inspired to delve further into the career of Rex Ingram. Four stars.