Paul Leni, 1929
Starring: Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Margaret Livingston, John Boles
Paul Leni’s follow up to The Cat and the Canary, The Last Warning, is a riff on the “old dark house” subgenre. During the production of a play, an actor is murdered. Five years later, a producer decides he is going to solve the mystery once and for all by re-staging the play with the surviving cast members. There are an absolutely litany of suspects and a lead actress who several men are fighting over. Unfortunately, after a number of ominous accidents, someone else dies and everyone hastens to find the killer before they too are murdered, though some believe they are being haunted by a ghost.
Though this is not strictly a horror film - it’s really more of a murder mystery - its connection to Universal horror may make it of interest to genre fans. Star Laura La Plante also starred in The Cat and the Canary and was one of the most popular silent film actresses of the period. German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni brings some lovely, imaginative scenes to what otherwise would likely have been dull proceedings. Leni was on loan from Germany, along with a number of other actors and directors who moved to Britain or the U.S. during the late ‘20s through WWII. The deep shadows, stark angles of the old theater, hidden passageways, expressionist like shots, and sets recycled from The Phantom of the Opera certainly make this a horror-tinged murder mystery. During one wonderful shot in particular, Leni makes the front of the theater seem like a leering, evil face, which would be reused countless times in the later horror films. And as with Leni’s The Cat and the Canary, there is also a certain sense of dark humor at work and part of what makes this film entertaining is its refusal to take itself seriously.
The film is not perfect and suffers from a clunky script. Many horror films from this period were based on stage plays (this is based on a play by Thomas F. Fallon, who adapted it from Henry S. Wadsworth Camp's novel Backstage Phantom) and, as a result, have a different structure. Dracula, for example, is light years from its source novel and feels more like a parlor room talkie with brief moments of supernatural terror. The Last Warning suffers from similar issues, with simply too much exposition and talking to fill the running time, though Leni makes the absolute best of it. He is saddled with tropes and stock characters like much of this genre, but lightens things up with clever headlines and inter-titles that mark much of Leni’s work. This is also one of the few silent horror/mysteries films that give us a glimpse of the jazz age, which gives the plot a little added dimension. The conclusion is lackluster, particularly after Leni has spent so much time effectively building us up to consider that the culprit may be supernatural.
Though The Last Warning is by no means a must-see, it has many enjoyable moments. If you love The Cat and the Canary, The Bat, The Old Dark House, or spooky mysteries, then this is definitely for you. The film moves at a brisk pace and has some enjoyable action, mild scares, and plenty of twists and red herrings. It has not yet been restored and released on DVD, but it is available on Youtube because it has become part of the public domain. Be forewarned: though this is a silent film, like other films from the transitional period in the late ‘20s, certain sound elements are included, like crowd noises early in the film. Apparently Universal released three versions of the film, all with different soundtracks, including a partial talkie that is now lost.
Unfortunately this was Leni’s final film before he died of blood poisoning later the same year. It was remade a decade later by Joe May as The House of Fear. Like Leni, May was a German expatriate and a pioneer of the German/Austrian film industry. May also went on to direct a Universal horror film, The Invisible Man Returns.