The Arrival From The Darkness (Prichozi Z Temnot) 1921

Director: Jan S. Kolar
"At the Black Tower, see the shadow that surrounds the walls. If you are brave, you will see what lies behind the shadow!"
This rarity from Czechoslovakia concerns the mystery of an ancestral tower with an occupant who won't stay dead... a sobering lesson for landowners everywhere and an early starring role for Hitchcock's 'first blonde', Anny Ondra.

Richard Bor brings his neighbour, the landowner Bohdan Drazicky, the gift of an ancient book, intending to distract him with it while he makes a pass at Drazicky's wife Dagmar. Drazicky comes to Dagmar's aid and insists that Bor leaves, yet the book fascinates him. Later he falls asleep while reading of the secrets allegedly hidden within the Black Tower that stands on his ancestral land.

A cryptic passage from Bor's ancient book
Drazicky explores the Black Tower and discovers an alchemist's laboratory containing a man's body... and instructions for bringing him back to life. The man is Drazicky's ancestor Jesek, who was the apprentice of Balthasar Borro, an alchemist who had discovered the Elixir of Life. Jesek's beloved Alena had died of the plague: rather than be without her, Jesek drank the elixir and entered a state of suspended animation.

Now, Jesek believes that his true love Alena has been reincarnated as Dagmar, and decides that he wants her for himself. Drazicky becomes aware of Jesek's intentions to steal his wife and blows up the Black Tower, destroying the remnants of the elixir that Jesek must ingest every three days in order to stay alive. Knowing that his time is short, Jesek abducts Dagmar, while Drazicky and Richard Bor give chase...

Though Czechoslovakia has a cinematic history going back as far as the Lumiere brothers' tour of Europe in 1896, its film industry struggled to find an identity of its own until well into the sound era. Czech films never made much noise abroad until Hedy Lamarr accidentally lost all her clothes in Ekstase (1933), and only in the sixties with the arrival of Milos Forman and the Czech 'new wave' did the rest of the world sit up and take notice.

Richard Bor (Vladimir Majek)
in diabolical mood
With this in mind, we can recognise a strong flavour of German Gothic in Arrival From The Darkness. The plot bears a superficial resemblance to H.P Lovecraft's story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (filmed with Vincent Price as The Haunted Palace in 1963), but we've seen the like of its alchemists, haunted towers and reincarnated lovers in the works of a Wegener, a Lang or an Oswald, and we might imagine the Czechs were paying as much attention to the black magic being conjured up at UFA or Decla-Film as the rest of the movie world was in 1921.

How successful director Jan Kolar and his friend and colleague Karel Lamac were in putting their own spin on these familiar images is hard to tell through the murk of ninety years. The film reviewed here is missing about a quarter of its original running time, with bleak-looking landscapes and 'expressionist' shadows that are probably as much the work of nitrate decay and shoddy print transfers as they are the director's intention. The vital scene of Jesek's resurrection is missing and some of the darker interiors are hard to make out through the scratches but if this can be overlooked, the film has its rewards.

Anny Ondra
The story rolls along at a lively pace, moving between the present day and the 16th-century Prague of Rudolf II. There are enough twists and turns to stop it all from getting stale and even the device of framing the supernatural story as the dream (yet again!) of the over-imaginative Drazicky is redeemed by a final plot twist. Vladimir Majer as Bor is the sneerily efficient villain who comes good for the finale, where he joins the chase to rescue the delirious Dagmar from Jesek's nefarious clutches.

Dagmar, in the person of Anny Ondrakova, is the object of everyone's affections and Ondrakova was the nearest thing to a genuine movie star that Czechoslovakia had during the twenties. Under the truncated trade name of Anny Ondra, she achieved international fame by working extensively in Germany and Austria, mostly in romantic comedies. She formed a production company with her AFTD co-star Karel Lamac, who she was married to for a while, and in 1929 appeared in Hitchcock's Blackmail, the first of many ice-cool blondes that he was to employ during his career. It was also Hitchcock's first sound film, and Anny's accent was considered impenetrable enough for the producers to enlist English actress Joan Barry to dub all her lines.

End Credits:
Theodor Pistek (Statkar Bohdan Drazicky), Anny Ondrakov (Dagmar Drazicky / Alena), Vladimir Majer (Richard Bor / Balthasar Borro), Karel Lamac (Jesek Drazicky), Jos. Svab-Malostransky (Jan)
Writer: Jan S. Kolar, Story: Karel Hlouchka.
Rex-Film, Prague
Running Time 43 mins.

Not available commercially, but can be viewed online.

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