The Last Warning [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (8th January 2021).
The Film

On the premiere night of the Broadway play "The Snare", lead actor John Woodford (A Christmas Carol's D'Arcy Corrigan) inexplicably dies on stage with no indication of how he died but the odor of chloroform wafting about the stage. No sooner has stage director Richard Quayle (Frankenstein's John Boles) fallen under suspicion due to his relationship with the leading lady Doris Terry (Show Boat's Laura La Plante) who was also being courted by Woodrow than the actor's body vanishes. As the case goes cold and Woodrow's theater falls into ruin, the cast is absolved by the police but the case haunts everyone involved, including Doris who has moved to Europe. Years later, producer Arthur McHugh (The Adventures of Robin Hood's Montagu Love) summons all of the original cast and crew back to the theater with his plan to honor his dead friend by restaging the play, with secondary lead Harvey Carelton (Orient Express' Roy D'Arcy) taking the lead. Richard and Doris balk at the idea, but are suspicious of each other and protective enough of each other to reluctantly agree when McHugh not-so-subtly blackmails them, believing one or the other to be responsible for the letters threatening tragedy if they carry on with the play. Elderly co-star Barbara Morgan (Carrie Daumery) feels ghostly presences abounding in the theater and stage electrician Tommy (All Quiet on the Western Front's Slim Summerville) and his assistant Sammy (Bud Phelps) provide comic relief hysterics while co-owner Robert Bunce (The Gold Rush's Mack Swain) is distracted by flapper girl actress Evalynda (Sunrise's Margaret Livingston). When Harvey is nearly killed at the same moment in the play that Woodford died and his still-living body vanishes, suspicion once again falls on Doris when her chloroform-soaked powderpuff is found on the stage. Richard does not help matters when he discovers Doris' new handkerchief in Woodford's boarded up, cobweb-strewn dressing room and conceals it before McHugh discovers a secret passage leading directly to Doris' dressing room. Richard vows to prove his and Doris' innocence by taking Harvey's place in the lead himself on opening night. Meanwhile, no one notices a cloaked and masked apparition who leaves "the last warning" scrawled in the script itself.

The final film of German expatriate director Paul Leni, The Last Warning – based on the novel "The House of Fear" by Wadsworth Camp (father of "A Wrinkle in Time" author Madeleine L'Engle) as adapted for the stage by Thomas Fallon – is a return to the Expressionist aesthetics he had refined in his final German production Waxworks and brought to American deubt The Cat and the Canary in the aftermath of Universal's huge success with The Man Who Laughs and the box office failure of the now-lost Charlie Chan film The Chinese Parrot (Leni would die the following year due to blood poisoning caused by an infected tooth abscess) but lightning does not strike twice. Leni and the mobile camera of Hal Mohr (Creation of the Humanoids) make more use of the the still-standing Paris Opera House sets of Universal's earlier Lon Chaney vehicle The Phantom of the Opera and the set extensions of Charles D. Hall (Bride of Frankenstein) than Rupert Julien (The Cat Creeps) on the Chaney film, Woodford's death is effectively rendered as a flashback moments later rather than a linear arrangement for the opening, and the intertitles of Tom Reed (Pittsburgh) use animation to render voices and sounds in distance and loudness along with some visual collages recalling the "Jack the Ripper" episode of Waxworks. On the other hand, La Plante is given little to do but look anguished and Quayle makes for a rather dull romantic interest (what with the comic relief elements of The Cat and the Canary's equivalent character farmed out to a pair of likely vaudevillian comedian) while McHugh's real identity is less surprising than that of another character. The climax manages to anticipate that of Dario Argento's Opera in one respect and every episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You! in another.
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Video

Issued simultaneously in silent and two sound versions – spoken dialogue and music/effects only – The Last Warning has long been available in archives in the latter version. Working from materials from the Cinémathèque française, and the Packard Humanities Institute Collection in the UCLA Film & Television Archive restored in 4K by NBCUniversal StudioPost, the silent version of The Last Warning was released on Blu-ray in 2019 in the United States by Flicker Alley. Unlike Eureka's Waxworks which loaded up the Flicker Alley menus on Region A-locked players and Eureka on Region B-locked players, Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray utilizes the same master which has a litany of minor damage visible on the surface (presumably reduced digitally to the point just before the loss of available detail) but the restoration is such that it does not look like a composite of a handful of sources. Magnification reveals finer scratches any presentation of some of Universal's silent films is expected to have rough edges since the studio melted down a lot of their nitrate elements to extract the silver during the sound era.
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Audio

Like the Flicker Alley version, Eureka includes the recent Arthur Barrow musical accompaniment in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo while the intertitles appear to be the originals (fortunately since several of them are opticals). Although the dialogue sound version is lost, it is unfortunate that the music/effects version could not be included either as an alternate audio track (for which their might be sync issues) or on an unrestored transfer of whatever materials are available.
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Extras

Exclusive to the Eureka edition is an audio commentary by horror and fantasy authors Stephen Jones and Kim Newman in which they discuss the direction Universal took in the genre when Carl Laemmle promoted his 21-year old son to studio head, the film as a transitional point from the earlier gothic melodramas like Phantom of the Opera and "old dark house" The Cat and the Canary to the likes of Universal's thirties and forties horror films, ruminate on how different the cinematic horror genre would have been had Leni and Chaney lived, the novel source differences (including the improvements of the adaptation), the 1939 remake under as The House of Fear (as well as the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film produced by Universal under the same name in 1945). Ported over from the Flicker Alley disc is "Paul Leni and The Last Warning" (9:58), a 2019 visual essay by film historian and author John Soister in which he discusses the play and novel source, the challenges of sound film in the aftermath of the release of The Jazz Singer (noting that Universal had to release their films both sound and silent versions because they did not have their own theater chain and it was cost-prohibitive of smaller theaters to install sound equipment), as well as the reception of the sound version. Soister also discusses Leni's career, his death, and how he was considered to direct Dracula with Conrad Veidt slated for the lead before he decided to return to Germany (leading to a lengthy search for a new lead even though Bela Lugosi had been well-received in the Broadway 1927-1928 run). The disc also ports over Flicker's quartet of image galleries.

Also exclusive to the Eureka edition is a collector's booklet featuring the essay "The Last Warning: A Beginning – and an Ending" by Philip Kemp who discusses the different studios' approaches to sound, the sound and silent versions of the Leni film, how Leni might have adapted to sound had he lived, the "hokum" that is the film's plot and its acting in contrast to Leni's visuals, and the question of whether The Last Warning was ever meant to be scary or a sendup of conventions. Also included is an essay by Barrow on the score.
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Packaging

The first pressing of 2,000 copies comes with a limited edition O-card slipcase.

Overall

The availability of a restored version of The Last Warning reveals a less-than-impressive thriller but also laments the unrealized potential director Paul Leni might have lended to the development of Universal's influence on the cinematic horror genre.

 


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