A stellar compendium of clips from early horror films, KINGDOM OF SHADOWS is weighted down by narration so overwrought it verges on self-parody.
Using a broad definition of horror, the chronology of the genre begins with several sensationalistic turn-of-the-century depictions of faked executions and violent accidents. A discussion of cinema's perennial fascination with religious persecution and torture segues into a segment on the
portrayal of the medical profession and its practitioners in early fear films: as reckless experimenters, body snatchers, mad scientists. With new, popular acceptance of the precepts of psychiatry, terrors of the mind begin to show up onscreen, spreading to include sleepwalkers, hypnotists and the
ultimate somnambulists, zombies. Other topics addressed include carnivals and related traveling entertainments as settings for dark tales, the preponderance of sexually charged images and innuendo in early horror cinema, and the profound twin influences of German Expressionism and Edgar Allan Poe.
The documentary argues that after Carl Dreyer's masterful VAMPYR in 1932 and the accession of sound film, horror largely lost its imagination and symbolic power, prefering simply to recycle old staples from the silent era.
It's a well thought-out presentation with cogent points to make. Unfortunately writer Bret Wood, clearly an acolyte of Poe, adopts a hysterically melodramatic style that never allows a simple phrase to suffice when he can concoct a baroque one, engorged with gothic menace and dripping with Stygian
grotesquerie. Narrator Rod Steiger compounds the problem with a menacing voice-over recalling nothing so much as the "Count Floyd" character from the television comedy series "SCTV."
This drawback notwithstanding, there's still one excellent reason to watch the documentary: the clips themselves. Including scenes from numerous classics (PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI, THE GOLEM) and equally impressive forgotten titles (WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES, LEAVES
FROM SATAN'S BOOK), the film gives a superbly organized tour through the astonishing diversity of early horror. The roots of cinematic expressionism are aptly displayed, along with the breathtaking experimentalism of the silent filmmakers. Wood has a valid argument when he states that later
filmmakers, given more sophisticated equipment and greater technical expertise, often became less creative and audacious with their imagery. Similarly, he points out that film noir borrowed heavily from the conventions established by these aggressively talented pioneers. Directors from Murnau to
DeMille, Griffith to Leni to Lang, are well represented in the marvelous collection of clips. Too bad writer Wood's words didn't get as skillful an edit as his images. (Violence, nudity.)
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- Released: 1998
- Rating: NR
- Review: A stellar compendium of clips from early horror films, KINGDOM OF SHADOWS is weighted down by narration so overwrought it verges on self-parody. Using a broad definition of horror, the chronology of the genre begins with several sensationalistic turn-of-t… (more)