As regulars will know, here at the Bioscope we like to champion the modern silent film, of which there are growing numbers. The explosion in film production brought about cheap cameras, broadband and online video platforms has led to many experiment with a variety of film forms, silent among them. There are many such home-made or semi-home-made efforts which are of short duration, but the organisation required for a feature length silent means that these are inevitably fewer in number. Nevertheless we’ve been able to champion such titles as How I Filmed the War, Silent, Hannah House, The Gold Bug and Prometheus Triumphant.
Now we can add to their number The Tenement Ghost. This 51-minute film was directed and produced by Thomas Cochrane for his Twisty-Headed Man Company in 2009. Set in Scotland just after the First World War (though costumes seen to veer between 1919 and 2009), the film documents the disintegration of a marriage following the husband’s descent in alcoholism. Physical and emotional violence follow, then spectral occurences are experienced by the bride, as the film’s press handout describes:
Her rapid transition from starry-eyed bride to battered wife is marked by the appearance of a ghostly apparition and, though we are never sure whether this spectre is real or simply a fantasy borne of her brutal situation, its appearances become more frequent as her personality disintegrates. The death of their unborn child pushes her ever closer to the edge of sanity until the ghostly visitor’s promptings finally impel her into a last desperate attempt to free herself from torment, bringing the Tenement Ghost to its ghastly and appalling climax.
The film boasts a busy electronic score by Skirlin Burster and stars Frances Rowan as the wife, Barry Ward as the husband heading a cast and crew of twenty. Apparently it was made in just a week on the thinnest of shoestring budgets. The director writes of his enthusiasm for silent films:
It’s not a unique situation – it’s something you see in the newspapers on a far too regular basis – but it is a situation that, if you look at it through the very charming medium of silent film, becomes, I think, more powerful, more shocking … I love silent films. I love the look of them, the feel, the atmosphere. And in producing one I thought the effect would be… the first effect that came to mind was charming – it would be something pleasant to look at. You’d get a warmth from it.
Trailer for The Tenement Ghost
So what is it like? Up to a point the director knows his silents, with plenty of familiar camera angles, visual motifs, intertitles and appropriately attuned performances. It is also in monochrome with faux scratches (such as they wouldn’t have seen in 1919, of course). However he has gone for an odd stop-motion-style look to people’s movements which doesn’t really add to the film’s attractions. Also alcoholism is seldom a good subject for film drama (just ask D.W. Griffith, whose film career came to an end with the unfortunate The Struggle) and there isn’t much story here. But there are some striking visuals, a good performance from Frances Rowan, and an overall a sense that it was right to shoot the film silent – it’s not simply a sound film shorn of its words. It’s just that over 50 minutes you need a bit more of a story, or just a little more complexity.
The film can be seen in its entirely on Vimeo or on the film’s website, where you are also offered the choice buy it on DVD (£10.00 plus p&p) or download it as a free torrent.
There an interview with Thomas Cochrane on his experience making the film on Eye for Film.