Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Svengali (1931)

Svengali, made in 1931, is not quite a horror movie although it obviously has quite a bit in common with horror movies. It was clearly very much influenced by the movies of the German Expressionist school such as Der Golem and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with its wonderfully bizarre and disturbing set designs and off-kilter camera angles. This is a movie that doesn’t even pretend to realism. John Barrymore as Svengali gives a very stylised and totally over-the-top performance, but it’s also an extremely effective performance. Marian Marsh is good as Trilby, the young woman held by Svengali’s hypnotic powers. Svengali uses these powers to give her the ability to become a celebrated and successful singer, but also to gain her love. In fact he really only gains an acquiescent mistress.

The scene where Svengali first exercises his power to draw Trilby to him is superb, as the camera takes as over a surreal roofscape from Trilby’s room to his. It’s a movie that has little in common with modern movies (although it has perhaps some affinities to some of Tim Burton’s films, especially Sleepy Hollow), but I found it enthralling. It’s a pre-code movie and it has its racy moments.

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