The Unholy Night/The Green Ghost (1929) -**½
Considering how drastically divergent their fortunes were overall, it’s amazing how many parallels exist between the careers of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Both emmigrated to the United States in the 1920’s, changed their names to something more marketable than their original handles, and found work initially playing mostly unrewarding small parts in movies nobody remembers today. Both achieved major stardom relatively late in life by playing monsters for Universal at the beginning of the first Hollywood horror boom, both found it hard to find work once that boom ended in 1936, and both used a contract with a B-studio as career insurance after the market for horror movies revived in the early 40’s. And in the end, both worked nearly up until their deaths, finishing out their careers with a string of cheap, shoddy films, the last of which made extensive use of uncredited doubles and would not see release until after their stars’ demise. But the most incredible parallel of all might be the one concerning what Karloff and Lugosi were up to approximately two years before their big breakthroughs. In 1929, both men prefigured their later horror stardom by turning up in creaky and top-heavy murder mysteries in which somebody seeks to trap a killer by means of a bogus séance. What’s more, the two movies were even produced by the same studio! Lugosi’s version, as we’ve seen, was Tod Browning’s The Thirteenth Chair; you’ve surely guessed by now that The Unholy Night was Karloff’s take on the subject.
The opening is a real zinger for 1929. First we get the ever-popular title card swearing that the story we’re about to see is true (once again, we see just how far back the commonplaces of the modern horror film really go), then the main title and credits play out over the image of a skeleton dressed in a tattered robe— it looks unbelievably cool, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the movie. Next comes something almost as striking, and which bears at least a tangential connection to the plot. London is evidently afflicted with the densest and most persistent fog in even its famously foggy recorded history, and every human predator in the city is using the concealing mist as cover for a crime spree. In rapid succession, we see a mugging, a shooting, and what can only be the prelude to a rape, followed by the attempted garroting of World War I veteran and notorious upper-class wastrel Lord Montague (Roland Young, from And Then There Were None and the 1922 version of Sherlock Holmes) by an unseen assailant. Montague is just lucky there’s an eddy in the fog; a passing woman glimpses the crime in progress, the strangler quits while there’s still air left in his victim’s lungs, and Montague lives to tell the tale— in a maddeningly distracted and indirect fashion— to Scotland Yard chief Sir James Rumsey (Claude Fleming) and his subordinate, Inspector Lewis (Clarence Geldart, who also had a significant role in The Thirteenth Chair). Evidently Lord Montague wasn’t the only man attacked by a strangler this evening, and it eventually comes to light that he knew all four of the previous victims. In fact, they all served as officers in the same regiment during the war. Only nine others remain, for the unit was decimated during the suicidally stupid invasion of Galipoli, and it is Rumsey’s fear that the killer will target the other surviving officers next. With that in mind, he and Montague arrange to assemble the lot of them over at the lord’s mansion, so that Scotland Yard can apprise the veterans of their danger and put them all under the appropriate protection.
Rumsey and Lewis arrive well in advance of the survivors of “the Doomed Regiment,” giving them time to sample the creepy attractions of Montague Manor. The house is rumored to be haunted by the spirit of its builder, who is reputed to be unique among ghosts for his green coloration. (Montague avers that this is because the deceased patriarch’s end somehow involved spinach. Don’t ask me.) Also, Montague has a sister named Violet (Natalie Moorhead, from The Phantom of Paris), who is a great lover of séances and a devoted patron of a medium named Lee Han (Kamiyama Sojin, of The Bat and Seven Footprints to Satan). Indeed, Vi and her friends are holding a séance even now, and the two policemen inadvertently barge in on it just in time to witness the eerie spectacle of Lee Han’s head seeming to float about disembodied in the darkened room. Like the shrouded skeleton beneath the opening credits, none of this will have much bearing on the plot proper. The cops’ intrusion breaks up the party, leaving Montague to introduce both his sister and her fiance, Dr. Richard Ballou (Ernest Torrence, from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who is easily old enough to be Natalie Moorhead’s father). Then, at long last, the other officers begin showing up: Colonel Davidson (Richard Tucker, of The Bat Whispers and Flash Gordon), Major Endicott (Lionel Belmore, from The Vampire Bat and Tower of London), Major MacDougal (Richard Travers), Captain Dorchester (John Loder, also seen in Alraune and The Mysterious Doctor), Captain Bradley (Gerald Barry), Lieutenant Savor (John Roche), and Lieutenant Williams (Philip Strange). There’s also a former sergeant named Frye (George Cooper), who has served Lord Montague as a sort of general sidekick since both of them were demobbed after the war. The last of the bunch to arrive is Major Mallory (John Miljan, from The Terror and Sinbad the Sailor), a reclusive, rather menacing man with a gimp leg and a shrapnel-ravaged face. When the trouble starts, you just know he’s going to be right in the thick of it.
Surprisingly, though, that is because Mallory is the first to die, strangled in the drawing room while the rest of the regiment was dispersed throughout the house gathering ingredients for some lethal-sounding punch. Thus not only do they not see who did the deed, but they’re also powerless to provide an alibi for even one of their number when Rumsey ascertains that the men he stationed to guard the house have seen nobody either leaving or entering since Mallory’s arrival. That’s when Efra Cavender (Dorothy Sebastian) makes her appearance. She’s the daughter of another nobleman officer who was booted out of the Royal Army (supposedly for cheating at cards— have you ever heard of such a thing?) and wound up as a mercenary for the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, Cavender had fought his former colleagues at Galipoli. But the important thing is that he’s just died a stupendously wealthy man, and his lawyer, Abdoul Mohammed Bey (an uncredited and nearly unrecognizable Karloff), has come to England bearing his will. Under the terms of this document, half of Cavender’s fortune— fully £1 million— is to be distributed equally among the remaining officers of his old regiment, with the other million going to Efra. Furthermore, the former officers are to be given collective guardianship of Efra (who looks just a little bit old to be needing a legal guardian). Why would Cavender bestow such honors upon men for whom he expresses undying hatred even in the preamble to his will? Because “nothing so soon causes discord among friends and destroys character as the sudden inheritance of wealth,” and because “where money fails, nothing so soon causes discord among men as a beautiful woman.” The late marquis knew what he was doing, too, for no sooner has the will been read than Rumsey concludes that somebody in the house already knew about its terms and the nine officers still living begin lobbing recriminations back and forth amongst themselves.
Our heroes don’t know the half of it yet, though. After everyone has gone to bed mistrusting everybody else, Dr. Ballou sneaks down to the room where Mallory’s body is being stored, meddles suspiciously with the corpse, and then goes to the window to signal even more suspiciously to somebody outside. Even worse, no sooner has the doctor returned to his room than the ostensibly dead Mallory gets up and enters Colonel Davidson’s room carrying a length of rope! The following morning finds not just Davidson dead, but every member of the regiment except for Frye and Lord Montague. Even Mallory is no more, for he has left a suicide note tacked to one of the chairs in the parlor, in which he confesses to all of the crimes, and Lewis reports that he was found in the garden with a dagger in his heart. While that would seem on its face to be the end of the mystery (especially since Mallory’s note specifically mentions catalepsy as one of his psychological war-wounds), Rumsey is not satisfied. He’s convinced that somebody was pulling Mallory’s strings, and he’s determined to find out who it was. Montague, having survived both last night’s rampage and the earlier attack on the street, would seem to be the ideal suspect. On the other hand, as rich as he is, he has no particular need for yet more money, even to the tune of a million pounds. But if something were to happen to him, his wealth (now including half of the Marquis of Cavender’s fortune) would devolve upon his sister, who is scheduled to be married to Dr. Ballou— say, is that motive I smell? Obviously there is but one way to find out. Taking a rather literal reading of Rumsey’s outburst that only the dead know the real truth now, Vi summons Lee Han back to the mansion to conduct a séance, which will be attended by everyone still alive among last night’s guests. This being a movie from 1929, the séance and the army of ghosts it raises are as phony as a politician’s apology, and the real rationale behind the ceremony is to panic the killer into revealing himself— or herself, as the case may be.
It took me quite a while to make up my mind as to whether or not The Unholy Night really deserved the minus-sign I ultimately gave it. This is one of those rare cases in which the entertainment value derived from success and the entertainment value derived from failure are in almost perfect balance. In the “plus” column, the movie benefits from an unexpected eagerness to go for real scares. That skeleton standing, half-hidden, behind the credits is creepier than almost anything else I’ve seen in an American horror film of this vintage, and there are a bunch of aggressive moments (by the standard of the day) in the main body of the film, too. The image of Kamiyama Sojin’s skeletal, snaggle-toothed visage hovering above the table during the first séance is as effective a corny, old-fashioned chill as you’re likely to find, John Miljan’s scar makeup is almost as gruesome as Lionel Atwill’s in The Mystery of the Wax Museum, and there are some great double-exposure shots rendering the “ghosts” in the second séance scene. The Unholy Night also has superb atmosphere, presenting one of the few cinematic spooky houses to succeed in being actually spooky.
But then there are the “buts”— and my God, what a lot of “buts” there are, too! Most of the creepy little touches really have little or nothing to do with the story, the most notable example being the supposed hauntedness of the Montague house. For all the talk about the Green Ghost early on— and despite the prominent depiction of a pair of ghostly green hands on the movie posters— Lord Montague’s spectral ancestor never once puts in an appearance, nor are any of the supernatural trappings of the murder plot ever tied into the legend. The scheme by which the villain hopes to gain access to the contested million pounds is as elaborately silly as you could ask for, and the movie ends without ever addressing what might actually become of the money once the plot has been foiled— this despite a conclusion that devotes nearly ten solid minutes to one character after another explaining what was really going on! (Lee Han’s explication of the technique behind his fraudulent ghosts is particularly delightful for all the wrong reasons. Between Sojin’s heavy Japanese accent and the piss-poor fidelity of late-20’s recording gear, it is impossible to understand even a single word he says, and the viewer is left alone to ponder the riddle of what on Earth Lee Han’s partner with the clarinet could have had to do with anything.) The 92-minute running time is too long by at least a quarter of an hour, and there are far too many long stretches in which nothing much is happening. The officers’ propensity to break into a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” on the slightest pretext is grating and hilarious by roughly equal degrees, especially during the séance, when it initially appears that not even death can still their infernal warbling. But most importantly, The Unholy Night was directed by none other than Lionel Barrymore, one of the most ham-tastic actors of the talkies’ first flowering, and it seems to have been his aim to coax out of everyone a performance that would rival one of his own. Incredibly, Barrymore even manages to drag Boris Karloff down to his level— his fake accent is as appalling as it is unidentifiable, his delivery is a thudding monotone (you will believe a man can thud and lisp at the same time!), and his physical acting is enough to make you marvel that his dignity ever recovered from the affront. Half efficiently eerie old-school chiller and half hypnotically spastic mess, The Unholy Night averages out to a moderately good time for horror movie antiquarians with a taste for lovingly crafted mishaps.