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  Last Warning, The Theatrical Enragement
Year: 1928
Director: Paul Leni
Stars: Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Roy D'Arcy, Margaret Livingston, John Boles, Burr McIntosh, Mack Swain, Bert Roach, Carrie Daumery, Slim Summerville, Torben Meyer, D'Arcy Corrigan, Bud Phelps, Charles K. French, Francisco Maran, Fred Kelsey, Harry Northrup
Genre: Horror, Comedy, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Five years ago, there was an alarming incident at this very theatre, where a play called The Snare was being staged. The audience was seated, the actors in full flow, but as one of them, John Woodford, reached for a candlestick prop on the set, he suddenly convulsed and collapsed to the floor. That wasn't in the script, and the curtain was swiftly brought down on the scene as the police, and, when Woodford was found to be dead, the coroner were called. Questions were asked by the lieutenant of those who had been on the stage, but little progress was being made - and when the corpse disappeared, the investigation stalled completely.

The Last Warning was a last in itself, the final film of director Paul Leni, a German emigre who made his way to Hollywood and was racking up some accomplished hits in his career when tragedy struck. As he was preparing his first sound picture, he fell ill with a dental complaint that bizarrely, killed him; he was in his mid-forties and the movie he was about to make would have been Dracula, to star his previous colleague from Germany, Conrad Veidt. While nobody complains that Bela Lugosi became a leading man in the movies as a result of this unfortunate turn of events, film buffs have wondered ever since what a Leni-Veidt version of the Bram Stoker book would have looked like.

On the strength of this, their Dracula would have been a lot more energetic and possibly even action-packed, as the director was an experimenter who liked to throw in tricks and acrobatics with his camera (and, indeed, his actors) to enliven the material he was given, which as it had often been theatrical, would have appeared pretty stagey had he shot it "straight". As Tod Browning did, when he made Dracula, which would have starred Lon Chaney had Chaney not passed away himself just as sound was entering into the arsenal of films. This is the way it goes, sometimes: promising talents are snuffed out just as they are about to really go to town on pictures that could have changed a lot.

As it was, The Last Warning did not change much. A Universal production, it was regarded as basically The Cat and the Canary Part 2, for Leni had helmed that one and while it had been a huge success, it had also spawned countless imitators that arguably continue to this day, though the genre was known as old dark house movies, not named after Leni's endeavours but after another great innovator, James Whale's version of his themes that arrived in, obviously, The Old Dark House which had been made to cash in on the runaway hit Frankenstein, which had been made to cash in on Dracula, which had been made to cash in on Leni's macabre efforts like The Man Who Laughs (starring Veidt). So you can see how there's a domino effect at work here.

Back at The Last Warning, it was something of a trifle, but there was a vitality to its shenanigans that proved highly amusing. Not quite a horror, not quite a comedy, but with elements of both those genres that once again illuminated the path many would take forever afterwards as horror established itself, it was really a romp that took the form of a whodunnit, as these "mystery plays" came to be called. Someone killed the actor, or appeared to, and that same someone stole the body - unless Woodford is still alive, because someone is sending notes from him with those terrible warnings not to continue with restaging the play. Montagu Love, the physically impressive character star, is the man forcing the old cast to get back together and recreate their thwarted stylings in the cobwebby theatre, and Laura La Plante was our leading lady and suspect, though naturally, everyone was a suspect. There were interesting names among the players, most of them long forgotten, but all with distinctive "looks" that made them stand out in a silent movie. Not the greatest work to leave us on, but Leni was not to know that, this was largely a placeholder on the way to bigger things that would sadly never arrive.

[Eureka release this on Blu-ray in their Masters of Cinema range, with these features:

Limited Edition O-card Slipcase (First Print Run of 2000 Copies Only) | 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from Universal's 4K restoration, available for the first time ever on home video in the UK | Score by composer Arthur Barrow | Brand new audio commentary with horror and fantasy authors Stephen Jones and Kim Newman | Paul Leni and The Last Warning - video essay by film historian and author John Soister on Leni's final film | Rare stills gallery | PLUS: A Collector's Booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp and a short essay by composer Arthur Barrow on his score for the film]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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