The Last Warning

US (1928) Dir. Paul Leni

You don’t want to upset the dead, It’s a lesson we all learn when we‘re young but some people just never learn. Should you get a message from the other side, ignore it at your peril, and be prepared to suffer the consequences if you do.

During the performance of the Broadway production The Snare, actor John Woodford (D’Arcy Corrigan) mysteriously collapses and dies during the opening act. The police investigation yields no leads, other than a supposed love triangle between Woodford, actress Doris Terry (Laura La Plante) and actor Richard Quayle (John Boles). When the coroner arrives, the body has vanished, causing a scandal.

Five years after the theatre was shut down, producer Arthur McHugh (Montagu Love) decides to reopen it and run a production of The Snare with the original cast, replacing Woodford with Harvey Carleton (Roy D’Arcy). But the rehearsals are cursed – strange occurrences happen around the theatre, stage sets collapse, people disappear, death threats and messages are found, all purported to be the work of Woodford’s ghost.

There is an unsettling irony about The Last Warning being the last film from German director Paul Leni, whose death from sepsis was caused by an untreated tooth infection, probably the worst case of life imitating art. The only teeth in danger of being damaged here belongs to the actors guilty of scenery chewing as they ham it up in this spooky crime mystery.

Intended to be a companion piece to Leni’s first US film 1927’s The Cat And The Canary, the horror tag applied to this near carbon copy, right down to sharing the same leading lady, is perhaps misplaced. It’s more of a dark, brooding mystery with spooky elements, told through Leni’s imaginative visual style which employs many of the genre’s staples to heighten the tense and creepy atmosphere.

An early example of Leni’s fondness for startling imagery is in the opening in which we take a journey through a busy night on Broadway, the neon signs of every major venue battling for space on the screen, with dancing girls and other activities superimposed over them to create a dizzying snapshot of what New York had to offer its patrons by way of entertainment in 1928.

When we first step into the theatre, Woodford is already dead and the police are on the case, questioning the cast and crew and searching the rooms for evidence. A flashback shows us how Woodford died, collapsing after grabbing a candlestick, hardly a lethal movement. Reported smells of chloroform on stage offer an early clue but with the body vanishing, nothing can be confirmed.

McHugh’s resurrection of the play should have been met with cynicism and refusal, but for the sake of the story, everyone agrees anyway, albeit reluctantly. It is not just the cast, stage manager Mike Brody (Bert Roach) and the obligatory comic relief double act of hapless stage hands Tommy (Slim Summerville) and Sammy (Bud Phelps) return too, as do the theatre owners the Bunce Brothers (Burr McIntosh and Mack Swain).

Before they can even start rehearsals the tormenting begins, via a telegram sent to the Bunce brothers signed by Woodford, but McHugh is undeterred. More notes appear in the script drawer, strange noises are heard in the office, and smoke starts to fill the room with a masked figure hiding behind the thick plumes, but these are just coincidences that only serve to make McHugh angrier.

Collapsing scenery just missing his actors, timely power outages, and an attempt on Carelton’s life during the candlestick scene – complete with his body vanishing too – and even a sighting of Woodford’s ghost in the balcony fails to deter McHugh. Meanwhile, a creepy masked man stalks the theatre, stealing from Doris’s dressing room and spooking older actress Barbara Morgan (Carrie Daumery).

Not content with riffing on The Cat And The Canary, the script also borrows from The Phantom Of The Opera, but there are further connections worth noting here – Phantom and this film were produced by Carl Laemmle and the theatre used was the same one in both films! In fact, Leni was a prolific filmmaker in his native Germany before accepting an invitation to work in Hollywood by Laemmle who produced all of his US work.

Leni’s artistic vision carries the film, covering the Scooby-Doo-esque folly of the story in drawing the audience into this scenario. The thick blankets of cobwebs in the empty theatre might be a cliché but not for Leni. One superb scene, in which a cobweb-covered Barbara joins the others on the upper floor, Leni shoots the staircase completely dark save for Barbara, so she looks like a spectral figure levitating up the stairs.

Elsewhere, Leni keeps the camera wide for the near miss falling scenery, eschewing the usual close up to forewarn us of this disaster, so when it does happen, it catches us out too. Another highlight is the climax as the “ghost” is trying to evade capture by swinging across the balconies, as shown from his POV. The rush of urgency and panic as the sight of the grabbing policemen swings in and out of view is dizzying yet intense.

Shadows are also a favoured tool for Leni, as seen in Canary and The Man Who Laughs, which he again make great use of here. From gloved hands poking through holes in the wall, to figures creeping about in the background, this film can be held up alongside many others from this and German Expressionist era as a masterclass in how to create a palpably chilling atmosphere with the minimum of light.

Just because The Last Warning doesn’t have the strongest story for a mystery thriller, doesn’t mean it isn’t doesn’t entertain us for its swift 78-minute run time, and dies in fact pass the time quite satisfactorily. However, for cineastes and film students, it is Leni’s masterly visionary direction and presentation that make this an overlooked gem from the silent era that demands our attention.