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The Unholy Night: An "All Talking Thrilling Mystery Marvel" (Mystery is Right!)

September 10, 2014

Choosing to watch The Unholy Night (1929) had 100% to do with the title and nothing else. (What was so unholy about this night? I had to know!)

Those hands are pretty freaky. Also, it looks like lightning bolts are shooting out from them?!

I did not notice that Lionel Barrymore directed it. I did not know it was an early horror/suspense talkie with sci-fi and comedy twists, the latter in the form of fabulous character actor Roland Young. Nor did I know Boris Karloff would crash the party.  Of course, given these facts, I would've totally watched the movie regardless, because it sounded like a rollicking good time. 


Also, it starts with this:

Would love to know what murder case(s) inspired The Unholy Night.

The Unholy Night opens with an attempted strangling in the London fog, the perfect setting for such a murder, as evidenced by movies like The Lodger (1927). Luckily, the intended target, Lord Montague (the aforementioned Roland Young), survives, but when he is taken to Scotland Yard, he finds out that four other men have been killed, all of them members of Montague's regiment in Gallipoli. Obviously, the murderer is targeting the group, so to pin down the culprit, Scotland Yard naturally gathers the remaining members in Montague's home to lure the killer there.  However, when one man is murdered while all are inside the house, it's now very clear that the responsible party must be among them...


Sounds semi-normal enough for a whodunit, right? Kind of. I love a good mystery story, but for me, the stranger it gets, the better. Even if everything doesn't quite line up in the end, that's alright; I just get a kick out of watching the chaos unfold, or in this case jump all over the place.


There's plenty of crazy moments that I couldn't help but marvel at, but instead of trying to eloquently explain them, I'm just going to list them off, since these occurrences in the movie subscribe to the same unsystematic method. Really anything goes, as you'll see below.


1. After Sir James Rumsey (Claude Fleming) and Inspector Lewis (Clarence Gledart) of Scotland Yard arrive at Montague's estate to get the ball rolling on this catch-the-murderer plan,  they conveniently bust in on a séance held by Montague's sister, Lady Violet (Natalie Moorhead) with the help of terrified maid (Polly Moran). It wouldn't be so weird if the head of the incredibly creepy looking Sojin (as The Mystic) wasn't floating above the table.

Imagine walking in on this scene with The Mystic (Sojin)'s floating head - and this is just the beginning!

2. Lady Violet's fiancée, Dr. Richard Ballou (Ernest Torrence), is among the séance attendees, and he just looks (and later acts) plain suspicious - a dead body is involved in his later dubious dealings.

I have a feeling there's something fishy in that bag, Dr. Richard Ballou (Ernest Torrence).

3. The members of the regiment show up merrily, but little do they know! Montague cannot bring himself to reveal the truth behind the situation, so they drink and sing instead ("Here's a bowl of wine, drink it down, drink it down" is sung. Repeatedly). Also, some bad memories are brought up, revealing some fissures in the group. Oh, and one member doesn't want to join the rest - Major Mallory (John Miljan), who suffers from shell shock (the screaming meemees in 1929 technical terms) and who also happens to have been severely disfigured by shrapnel.

Nice makeup work on Major Mallory (John Miljan)'s shrapnel disfigured face.

4. In Clue fashion - the movie, not the board game - you've now got a group of people in a scary mansion, and the way in which the body of the first victim, the unfortunate Mallory, is discovered is very reminiscent of the way Mr. Boddy's body is found: he looks alive, and then...tap, tap, slump. Dead. Well, I guess now's as good a time as ever to have a conversation about the whole regiment-targeting-murder-thing.

That can't be good...

5. The mysterious Lady Efra (Dorothy Sebastian) waltzes in to interrupt the sea of men, alleging that her father was a fellow comrade. But he deflected. And now he's dead. Why is she here? And how did she know about this shindig? 

Dr. Richard is right in scratching his head. Things are about to get even weirder now that Lady Efra (Dorothy Sebastian) has joined the party.

6. Boris Karloff shows up, because, let's face it, what early thriller wouldn't benefit from his appearance? This time he passes for a slightly frightening, wholly outrageous looking-and-sounding Hindu lawyer, Abdul Mohammed Bey, there to deliver the contents of a will. From Lady Efra's dead father. Something about the surviving members of the regiment getting half his fortune (motive, what?!) and his daughter getting the other half (motive, what?!). Also, how did he know about this get together? Were random invitations sent out or something?

Dramatic much, Abdul Mohammed Bey (Boris Karloff)?

7. This would be a good time for bed, but not for everyone. In the dead of night, Dr. Ballou takes the opportunity to re-inspect Mallory's dead body, and after he leaves...Mallory gets up! That's a bit ominous, and of course the morning after is eerily quiet, which can't be good...and it's not. When Montague and the staff go to investigate, the audience is treated to an incredibly disturbing and somewhat morbid tracking shot that moves from room to room, where each remaining member of the regiment is found sprawled out in their respective rooms. Dead. In various positions. With their eyes open. HOW SPINE-CHILLING IS THAT? I was thoroughly impressed and also a little taken aback that a sequence such as this would make the leap from script to screen, but, alas it was 1929, before the Production Code was enforced, so all bets of decency were off. 

Shield your eyes, Lord Montague (Roland Young)!

The tracking shot just gets creepier...

...and creepier.

8. There's a suicide note from Mallory, whose body is found in the yard. So it looks like he's really done for this time, and we're finished with this whole mess, right?


9. Wrong. Rumsey (yeah, Scotland Yard is still involved in this circus) thinks it can't be that simple - seriously, that would be the only obvious, straightforward part of this whole film - so they point to...Montague! He's the only one standing and would get a lot of money from the Marquis, so that does make sense. However, the Doctor is sketchy too - how is he certified to practice medicine and can't tell a dead body from a live one? (He's also engaged to Montague's sister, who could get money if Montague wasn't there to collect payment...)

No, it can't be Montague! 

10. To sort this out once and for all, those still standing stage a séance, because why not? No one can figure out the killer, so perhaps spirits and The Mystic's floating head will help. Things can't get any weirder, right? WRONG AGAIN. 


11. 'Dead' spirits help terrify those involved in the scheme enough to uncover the murderer. FINALLY (but I won't divulge who!). After that reveal,  I was half expecting the music from Clue to pop on (and/or a chandelier to drop behind Lord Montague), because character after character takes over to rewind and explain the previous 80 or so minutes. Thanks for the justification guys, but it didn't serve much purpose, other than to confuse me on about five other details that I didn't quite catch on to before. 

I wouldn't turn my back on them, Lady Efra.

Nice 1929 effects! 

Oh well, it was headache-inducing frantic fun while it lasted. Though Lionel Barrymore, who directed a handful of features from 1929-1931, clearly tried his best to keep the pace of the film flowing, I find myself agreeing with other reviews I've read in thinking that the movie could have been easily tightened up in several areas either in the script, during production, or in the editing room (any time the men break into song, for starters, should have been cut it in half. Boom. 30 minutes saved). 

So much singing and drinking!

I also wasn't blown away by the quality - acting, technical, or story-wise - of this 1929 thriller. In particular, that signature early talkie static 'noiseless' recording still needed fine tuning, but it really didn't matter that I couldn't hear all the dialogue; it probably wouldn't have helped much anyway.


Despite the film's flaws, I admired the humorous/partly terrifying attempts at special effects, some not bad for 1929, and earnest acting efforts, especially on behalf of Roland Young (Lord Montague), Dorothy Sebastian (Lady Efra), Ernest Torrence (Dr. Richard Ballou), and of course Boris Karloff (Abdul Mohammed Bey). To make an absurd supernatural/comedy/thriller as crazy as The Unholy Night takes some outrageous characters and performances, and though over the top, this cast (mostly) delivered.


Sadly, The Unholy Night is not available on DVD, VHS, Laser Disc, or any other home viewing device, as far as I'm aware. If it ever plays on TCM or elsewhere and you have about 90 minutes to spare, tune in, even if only to catch Karloff and those creepy effects. Just don't expect to understand everything. (I still don't). 

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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