The House of Mystery

| March 31, 2015

When I, and I venture to guess most of you, think about film serials, what springs immediately to mind are images of action/adventure stories featuring heroes like Buck Rogers or even Batman and Captain Marvel. And of course there are also plenty of science fiction/horror serials like The Phantom Creeps (1933), prominently featured across a number of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes. I think of the Poverty Row studios like Republic churning out incredibly fun, if terribly cheap, B-grade cinematic efforts. They’re fun diversions and definitely worth our time and consideration, but admittedly not the sorts of things we’d readily align with serious cinema.

The 1921, silent French serial The House of Mystery (La Maison du Mystère) is something altogether different however. It may be a 6 1/2-hour melodrama of the classic, mustache-twirling villain variety (though House of Mystery’s villain is sadly lacking in facial hair), but its precise pacing and often inspired cinematography make for an experience far removed from the cliffhanger-driven serials that the term “film serial” tends to immediately evoke. Of course, House of Mystery’s by no means the only melodramatic serial, but it’s a mode somewhat obscured in history by the adventure serial. This isn’t to say that The House of Mystery is lacking a sense of adventure. That’s not the case at all. The stakes in the adventure here are just far more palpably personal than usual.

The serial opens with a young romance blossoming into a full-blown engagement. Thereafter we’re introduced to the jealous spurned suitor (our villain) who will spend the next decade or more feverishly trying to win over the wife of our hero by any means necessary. And while the narrative at times incorporates chase scenes, gun fights, and other such action set pieces, the narrative predominantly centers on the personal travails of an affluent family as well as the employees that aid them in the operation of their business and palatial estate. In that way, the serial bears a passing resemblance at times to Downton Abbey, especially when the characters go off to fight in WWI mid-serial just because it happened during that period historically.

The serial most notably stars and was co-written by Ivan Mosjoukine. His portrayal of the serial’s hero, Julien Villandrit, finds Mosjoukine adopting a number of disguises throughout the course of the ten-part story. That he does so is no surprise though because Mosjoukine also prominently starred in (as well as wrote and directed) the wonderfully fanciful romance, The Burning Crucible (Le Brasier Ardent, 1923), in which he played a master-of-disguise master detective. Mosjoukine’s involvement in this serial above all else is in fact what drew me to The House of Mystery, for The Burning Crucible is a film that’s constantly coming to mind when mulling over silent cinema. It made a huge impact on me as a film student, even viewing it on a horribly worn-out, probably fourth generation dupe of some shoddy archival print somewhere. Fortunately, no one has to view The Burning Crucible on such horrible dupes any longer, because it, along with a number of other Mosjoukine pieces, was included in Flicker Alley’s 2013 release: French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923-1928.

Like that set, The House of Mystery is unsurprisingly also now available from Flicker Alley, who have partnered with Blackhawk Films to make this wonderful release possible. Now, The House of Mystery is only available on DVD, which I would usually complain about (what can I say, I’m a Blu-ray junkie) but the DVD looks terrific here, so you’ll actually hear no such complaints from me about The House of Mystery on DVD. The serial’s ten episodes are spread out across three discs, which also include a slideshow of rare production stills and behind-the-scenes photos. The set also includes a 12-page booklet featuring extensive notes about the serial’s cast and crew compiled by Lenny Borger and David Robinson. This is truly a must-own for fans of silent film, French film, and film serials alike.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
Filed in: Video and DVD
×

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.