In his seminal “Danse Macabre,” Stephen King defined the difference between Terror and Horror, two terms long mistaken for simple synonyms. “Terror,” he explains, “comes from suspense, the creeping feeling of knowing a monster is there but not being able to see or understand it. Horror, meanwhile, is the moment when the monster appears and the audience feels “a shock value.” Though King explains he believes terror to be the more sublime of the two, both are potent tools in any storyteller’s toolbox.
Consider Undercrank Productions’ new release of Emile Chautard’s Whispering Shadows (1921) and Harry A. Pollard’s The Devil’s Assistant (1917). Both are ultra-rare features, the former taken from a home-use 28mm film print and the latter from the USC Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive. And through them, we see a perfect delineation between terror and horror in early American cinema.
Whispering Shadows is a slow-burn, brooding story of guilt, murder, and revenge set against the resurgence of post-World War One Spiritualism. It follows Helen (Lucy Cotton), the wealthy daughter of Richard Bransby (Charles A. Stevenson), head of a successful international firm. She participates in lavish seances attended upon by her fiancé, ex-soldier and compulsive gambler Hugh Brook (Robert Barrat), and his co-worker, the devious, insanely jealous Stephen Pryde (Philip Merivale). After Helen receives an otherworldly warning that somebody is trying to get Hugh, Stephen promptly frames him for embezzling $110,000 from Richard’s company, forcing him to flee overseas while vowing to clear his name. But in a tragic twist, Richard catches on to Stephen’s duplicity and forces him to sign a confession before unexpectedly dying before he can deliver it to the authorities. A year later, Stephen has successfully convinced the heartbroken Helen to marry him. But first, he needs to get inside the library where Richard died, for it contains the confession that could ruin him. Chillingly, nobody has entered that library since immediately after his death. Why? Because Helen ordered it permanently locked before her father’s body had finished cooling, feeling commanded to do so by a force she couldn’t explain. The same force that seems to have recently awoken. The same force that’s begun to tug once more on Helen’s subconscious.
There’s more than a little of the Gothic in Whispering Shadows: a young woman threatened by a cruel suitor, abandoned rooms in old mansions hiding forbidden secrets, a creepy dream-like atmosphere. But the film uses the trappings of the Gothic genre to explicitly explore the supernatural as a fully realized and legitimate force, asking if deceased loved ones can truly communicate with the living, whether through seances, automatic writing, or mental transmission. There’s a fantastic subplot about Richard’s obsession with the book “David Copperfield,” particularly with a blind old man from the story he fears of one day becoming. His mental fixation on the man is so great it lingers on after his death, infecting Helen with mental shock waves that lure her nearer and nearer to the old library harboring the confession. Crucially, the film concludes without any cathartic jump scare of Richard materializing and striking back against the wicked Stephen. This isn’t that kind of film. It’s interested instead with suggestion, mood, and with what we can’t—and perhaps shouldn’t—see.
The Devil’s Assistant¸ however, shares no such scruples. The film is practically proto-exploitation in its preposterous, over-the-top sequences involving rapists, monsters, and a literal voyage to Hell. The film focuses on a beautiful young woman named Marta (Margarita Fischer) who attracts the fiendish affections of the wicked Dr. Lorenz (Monroe Salisbury). Enraged by her marrying another man, he uses his position as a prominent doctor to drug her with medicine that puts her under his control. He whisks her away to a remote cabin in the middle of a thunderstorm and attempts to ravish her. But when a bolt of lightning hits the roof, the rafters collapse, killing Lorenz and severely injuring Marta. So begins a hallucinogenic vision that filters Dante-esque imagery through the lens of German Expressionism. A skeletal Grim Reaper on horseback appears and spirits Marta away to the Underworld, forcing her across the River Styx in a rickety old boat rocked about by the frenzied “Damned,” sizzling in the boiling water. She’s escorted to the Devil’s Crucible where winged monsters cavort about broiling vents of hellfire as their infernal master commands the endless dance. But right before being submerged, Marta is rescued in real life by her husband, ending the film on a tidy if anticlimactic note.
Remarkably, the most chilling parts of The Devil’s Assistant have little to do with the dream sequence to Hell. By today’s standards the effects and costumes look downright silly, especially an unfortunate attempt to create Cerberus by attaching two fake heads on either side of a very confused looking Golden Retriever. What scares here is the attempted rape scene. From the opening exterior shots framing Marta and Lorenz within individual window panes to the maniac clawing of desperate bodies flashing in and out of the darkness by the flickering of lightning, it’s a mini-masterpiece of horror filmmaking, perfectly blocked, perfectly lit, perfectly shot, perfectly edited. Everything is additionally accentuated by the deteriorated film print, giving the scene a queasy surrealism as if reality itself were on the brink of falling apart. But perhaps even more disturbing is the idea that within this film’s universe, the innocent Marta would be consigned to Hell despite being a victim. What hope is there if the battered innocent must be damned for their assailant’s crimes? Best not to think of it. There are greater evils in this world, and these are but films. But even works such as these can inspire the most primitive emotions of fear and panic in a man. Or, more accurately, terror and horror.