Saturday, May 30, 2009


I feel I should take a moment and defend the integrity of the 100 Rare and Obscure Horror Films You Should See Before You Die, as, in the world of silent movies, F.W. Murnau is admittedly not all that obscure. That being said, however, there really isn’t a great surplus of people my age (or in general) that have seen any silent films at all, except perhaps in a film class. Even then, any silent film is likely to be Nosferatu, the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or a non-horror movie. I feel confident, therefore, that few if any of you have seen this silent classic, about a renowned doctor who makes a deal with the devil to help his people, and surprisingly finds that it doesn’t turn out quite how he imagined it would.

The film, based on Goethe’s play that I’ve yet to read (I have read Marlowe’s version, if that makes up for it at all), opens humbly with the four horsemen of the apocalypse flying through the land. This turns out to be an opening gambit by the Devil, who, when confronted by God, argues that the human race is thoroughly corrupted and belongs to him now. God obviously disagrees, and so they make a wager: if the Devil can completely corrupt and ruin a pure soul – the aforementioned doctor – then the world is his.

The film, presumably like the play, is structured rather oddly. It’s bookended with some startling imagery that partially floats away from a conventional narrative, as when they show the Devil infecting Faust’s city with plague via him spreading his wings out to surround the land. However, during a good chunk of the middle portion, the film seems to turn away from the dark and fantastical, and towards romantic comedy territory, as Faust is given his youth, and spends his time chasing after a girl. I can only assume this section is meant to show us that even someone renowned for his wisdom and intelligence can turn into a damned fool when youth and beauty come along. It tends to go on a bit overlong (as the comedy sequences in Marlowe’s play did, come to think of it), but at least it wraps up appropriately miserably, as a story of a man making a deal with the devil should.

While the pacing is off (as was often the case with silent films), the movie is filled with such great imagery and tells such a classic, dark story, that you owe it to yourself to check it out. Also, if you find you just can’t bring yourself to watch a silent film, or if you’d just prefer a film that goes completely surrealist and weird, you can also check out Jan Svankmajer’s Faust from the mid-90s, which is also totally awesome. Sadly, though, it’s not available in full on Youtube, as Murnau’s is.

Also, keep in mind you can never go wrong with 1920s tits.

Rating: *** ½

*Further proof: on Amazon, Faust’s new 2 disc special edition DVD is currently ranked at 15,786 in DVD sales, while Basket Case, a cult horror movie about a man whose murderous mutant twin brother is kept hidden in a basket, is ranked at 8,934. This is scientific proof that Faust is only half as popular as semi-obscure cult movies from 1982.

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