February 22, 2008

The Sealed Room (1909)

After not having much luck at selling his screenplays to the new movie industry during the first decade of the 20th Century, in 1908 playwright D.W. Griffith got the job that would make him a legend: he was hired by the Biograph Company as a director of movies. It wasn't really what Griffith had expected when he decided to enter the movie business, but he accepted the job, and in less than a year he became Biograph's most successful director thanks to his original approach to film-making and the wild inventive of his narrative. Many years later, he would direct "The Birth of a Nation" in 1915, the movie that would revolutionize film-making and make him one of cinema's first recognized authors; however, a lot of what would make him a great filmmaker can be found in the many short films he made for Biograph Company in the early years of his career. 1909's "The Sealed Room" is one of those, and also one of the few horror movies of that very first decade of the 20th Century.

"The Sealed Room" is a story set in the 16th Century in which a Count (Arhtur V. Johnson) has built a windowless room in his castle. It is a small yet nice and very cozy room, as it is meant to be used to enjoy the love and company of his wife, the Countess (Marion Leonard) in a more private way. However, the Count doesn't know that his wife is not exactly faithful, as she is infatuated with the Minstrel (Henry B. Walthall) at Court, with whom she is having an affair. As soon as the Count gets busy with his own business, the Countess calls the Minstrel and both lovers go to enjoy the Count's new room. When the Count returns, he discovers she is missing and begins to suspect, finally discovering the two lovers in his room; but instead of making a scene, he prefers to remain hidden as he decides that there is a better punishment for his unfaithful wife: to seal the windowless room with the couple inside.

Written by Griffiths' regular collaborator Frank E. Woods, "The Sealed Room" takes elements from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" and mainly Honoré De Balzac's "La Grande Breteche" to create a haunting Gothic melodrama based on the themes of treachery and sadism. Despite having a runtime of 11 minutes, Woods' screenplay develops the story in a very good way, and plays remarkably well with the horror elements of the story. While a melodrama at heart, Woods focus on the character of the Count and his sadism creates one of the best horror characters of these early era. "The Sealed Room" is definitely a very simple and basic story, but Woods handling of the dark and morbid thematic of its plot makes the story a very entertaining film that was very different than most Griffith's melodramas.

In "The Sealed Room", Griffith uses his talents to experiment with tension and suspense in a different way than his usual. While he often played with editing to create thrillers that excited his audience, in this movie his focus was to create desperation and horror, playing with the inherent feeling of claustrophobia that the source stories had. It is interesting how the story starts as another of his melodramas and slowly the pacing becomes faster as the horror themes begin to dominate the plot, culminating in his great use of editing for the final scenes. Not being a movie where camera tricks are essential, what shines the most in "The Sealed Room" is Griffith's talent to direct his actors, as the legendary filmmaker manages to bring the best out of his cast with his usual natural style far removed from the staginess that was the norm in his day.

As usual, the cast was comprised of usual collaborators of Griffith, starting with Arthur V. Johnson as the Count. Johnson gives a great performance and truly conveys the character's transition from loving husband to sadistic monster. His performance is not without a touch of overacting, but actually that adds realism to the character's exaggerated personality. As the Countess, Marion Leonard looks very good and is also very effective in her acting, conveying a natural charm that makes hard not to sympathize with her in her treachery. Finally, the legendary Henry B. Walthall appears as the handsome Minstrel, and while far from being one of his best performances, he manages to give a proficient acting that also adds a nice touch of comedy to the film. While not of real importance to the plot, it's nice to see other members of Griffith's stock company in the background, like his wife Linda Arvidson and a young Mary Pickford as nobles at Court.

While not exactly a masterpiece, "The Sealed Room" is a notable exercise of editing to create suspense and tension like Griffith used to do in those days. The movie has very good set design and while of a very low budget, Griffith's care for details makes it look very convincing and works perfectly along with his directing style. The change of focus to horror makes it to stand out among other of his films from that era, and Johnson's performance as the sadistic Count makes it worth a watch. While Griffith will always be remembered for his highly influential (and controversial) "The Birth of a Nation", the early short films he made before it really give a good idea of the development of the techniques and the style that would make him a legend. Simple yet elegant, "The Sealed Room" is a fun movie to watch and one of the few horrors of the first decade of the 20th Century.


Buy "The Sealed Room" (1909) and more of Griffith's Biograph Shorts

1 comment:

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