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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Reign of Terror
by Donald Levit

In a lesser evil among options, a digital restoration from a two-decades-old videotape in the Moscow Film Archives, a new The House of Hate had its world première at the Astoria, New York, Museum of the Moving Image, or MoMI. Originally twenty U.S. serial installments in 1918, released as an even dozen in Paris as La maison de la Haine, no copies had survived in either country but only in that 1922 Russian version with subtitles also in Ukrainian and lauded by Eisenstein, and re-released there four years later shorn of “jingoistic support of the imperialist war.”

To live piano accompaniment by Makia Matsumura, this seminal cliffhanger -- the term not coined until nineteen years later-- screened in two roughly hour-and-a-half parts each, visually acceptable but not perfect, particularly in the second half, where continuity also goes by the board. (Some calculations have the George B. Seitz film, shot in Jersey City and Fort Lee, running to seven hours.)

Although some of its performances are superior to the stagey overacting of the period, the drawing card is incontestably Pathé Frères’ “Peerless Fearless” Pearl White, serial action queen of that and any era, for The Perils of Pauline and the director’s “Elaine” franchise. Through innovative international distribution and massive Hearst news publicity at home, in adventures in more than two hundred titles, the actress became the epitome of female film fame. To this day, she (and these movies), remains the most celebrated of unseens: “flying machine accidents, thrilling rescues, fires at sea, train wrecks, automobile accidents, in fact, everything that can be introduced as a thrill.”

In a bland series of Part One predicaments often closed by iris - or circle-outs to be solved by next-episode –ins, the title house, like Poe’s Usher, refers to both baronial castle Waldonclyffe and the wealthy munitions, or war profiteering, Waldon family. The Warworks is run by third-generation Winthrop W. (J.H. Gilmour), who is about to reveal the skeleton in the clan closet to only child Pearl (White) as well as name her sole heiress.

From a secret passage leading into the mansion from a garden statue of the factory’s founder, emerges the burly Hooded Terror. Ubiquitous though ineffective, and in a complete shift later captaining a band of crooks in the second half, this masked villain commits his first of a couple murders, knifing Winthrop but failing to steal essential documents.

Pearl is comforted by presumed fiancé, trusted chief engineer Harry Gresham (Vitagraph Latin lover star Antonio Moreno, well known into the ‘20s but limited for talkies by his Madrid accent). Strong emotion indicated by pained smiles, arched eyebrows or theatrically clenched fists, the three other surviving family each vie for her confidence (and money) but are in private moments false and suspect. Cousin Naomi (Peggy Shanor) only appears the least dangerous when compared with cousin Haynes (John Webb Dillon) and Uncle Ezra (Paul Dillon), whose possible cooperation with, or in the men’s cases incarnation of, The Terror is hinted at throughout.

The first part of HH is inaction-filled, mild if harmless. Following a fifteen-minute intermission, the last hour-and-a-half serves up non-stop adventure that forgets what has gone before even if all is hurriedly, theoretically tied together through the revelation of the Waldon secret-curse. Cribbed from Dumas and other nineteenth-century melodrama and Conan Doyle, and familiar from later comic strips and Republic, Columbia, Universal and Mascot Saturday matinee serials, there are car chases, immanent death on a conveyor belt, a faked death and a real one from blow-gun darts as well as a near one in the electric chair; many pistol shots, a moll, dynamite, a Pearl lookalike named Jenny Ackton (also White, affecting a twisted lip); a drugging, a fall over a cliff (the Hudson River Palisades) and a perilous descent by rope, and even adventures in Java (a starting-out but recognizable Louis Wolheim as Patch-Eye Pete).

Episode the last, twenty, “Following Old Glory” brings the breathless audience of that post-war but still innocent world back to the calm light of day.

(Released by Pathé; not rated by MPAA.)

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