Eureka Entertainment // 1921 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // July 29th, 2011
"I can also glean secrets."
Director F.W. Murnau will forever be synonymous with Nosferatu, his 1922 picture that changed the face of horror cinema forever. Though only actively working within the film industry between 1919 and 1931, Murnau was prolific, often turning out two to four pictures a year. Of these films, the oldest still in existence is Schloss Vogelod, a.k.a. The Haunted Castle. Long out of circulation on Region 2 DVD, the good people at Eureka! have seen fit to release The Haunted Castle (Region 2) as part of their Masters of Cinema line.
A hunting party at Castle Vogeloed takes a sinister turn when Count Oetsch (Paul Hartmann) arrives uninvited. It is widely believed that Oetsch murdered his brother three years earlier, and tension soon rise when the murdered Count's widow, Baroness Safferstatt (Olga Tschechowa), arrives with her new husband.
Also arriving on the scene is Father Faramaund, who has traveled from Rome to see the Baroness and discuss the circumstances surrounding her late husband's murder, but when Father Faramaund goes missing, suspicion once again falls upon Oetsch.
It would be easy for me to wax lyrical on F.W. Murnau's 1921 feature The Haunted Castle, perhaps even ingratiating myself with elitists who refuse to watch anything released after 1939 in the process as I risk running out of superlatives to describe its wonder. But truth be told, in terms of narrative, character, and plot, The Haunted Castle fails to impress. Spread across five acts, the film is based on too thin a premise to justify its 82-minute running time. Built around a mystery that holds little intrigue, The Haunted Castle just never gets going. All but the most naïve will fail to see how events will unfold, robbing the film of any surprise. Much of this is due to the lack of subtlety in the storytelling; character dialogue is so predisposed with discussing the circumstances surrounding the murder that we are constantly pushed toward the truth rather than allowing the mystery to build naturally.
Admittedly The Haunted Castle is an early motion picture, but the staging of the film, not to mention the acting, means the production has more of a theatrical feel to it. The acting in particular -- admittedly a by-product of the silent movie era -- sees everything overplayed to ensure the audience can grasp the intended emotion being portrayed, but in doing so only serves to undermine the supposed mystery. These characters lack depth, with each having barely a single distinctive trait to help distinguish them from the rest of the cast and none able to establish a connection with the viewer, something further exaggerated here due to the maudlin plot.
Before you get the impression The Haunted Castle is not worthy of consideration, allow me to present a rebuttal of sorts to my own arguments.
Despite the film being presented in a rather simple manner (each scene is presented from a single fixed camera angle, while a minimal number of sets are employed), Murnau ensures the production feels rather grand, and creates some impressive visuals that hint at some of the more iconic imagery he would soon be famous for. Though the title is grossly misleading (you'll find no spooks here), Murnau includes a dream sequence where a phantom lurks outside a guest's bedroom window. Despite only ever revealing the hand of the ghoul, Murnau conjures up a masterful sequence that, in truth, deserved to be in a far better movie. Murnau also plays with the film's structure, cutting between one conversation and another to reveal vital plot points almost simultaneously, albeit from different perspectives. The timeline of the film is also broken up, incorporating flashbacks that help fill us in on central characters, which perhaps confirm Murnau was aware of the shortcomings of the narrative and was looking for ways spice things up. At the very least, it makes The Haunted Castle a far more interesting proposition, as it offers an opportunity to see a now revered filmmaker really start to reveal his talent and get the most from a very poor screenplay.
These sparks of inspiration are what make The Haunted Castle almost indispensable to film historians, as it offers a chance to see a significant development in the career of the man who gave the world Nosferatu and Faust -- vitally important works -- amongst others. You may very well have no interest, and that's fine, but just remember: without pioneers like Murnau, where would cinema be today?
Eureka! has released The Haunted Castle in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The black-and-white transfer is impressive, considering the age of the film. Though inevitable damage is evident on the print, it is minimal, and the image is reasonably sharp. The mono soundtrack is reserved solely for a piano score courtesy of Neil Brandt. The viewer also has the option of viewing the film with subtitles (all title cards are in German). The sole extra on the DVD, "The Language of Shadows" (31 mins) gives the viewer an insight into the early works of Murnau, and is also in German with English subtitles. The final retail copy also promises an illustrated booklet featuring an essay on the film, and vintage writings on Murnau.
This is one of those rare occasions where the quality of the actual film is less important than the release itself. It bears repeating that this is the oldest Murnau available. If -- like many -- the iconic scene of Nosferatu climbing the stairs or the striking vistas of Faust have been seared into your memory, then don't you owe it to yourself to witness the first traces of this talent?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Silent)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1921
MPAA Rating: Not Rated