Houdini Restored: The Man from Beyond (DVD)

Somebody get me out of this straightjacket!

Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini is allegedly one of the most recognizable celebrity names in history. He escaped from handcuffs, straightjackets, water tanks, and all manner of traps, thrilling audiences as he did so. He performed illusions such as the famous “metamorphosis,” and he even made a career out of exposing con artists who posed as psychics and spiritualists, going so far as to make this a part of his regular act.

What is somewhat less well known about Houdini was that he was also a film producer and movie star. By working his escapes and other stunts into adventure movie plots, he enjoyed a run as an action hero during the silent era. Now on this DVD, Houdini Restored: The Man From Beyond, modern day audiences can thrill to one of Houdini’s most popular films, with a visual restoration that is simply amazing.

The two lone survivors of a failed arctic expedition come across an amazing discovery—a 100-year-old ship partially buried in the middle of glacier. Even more amazing, there is a man perfectly preserved in a block of ice. The explorers chip the ice away from him and warm him by the fire, and, amazingly, he awakes. The man is Howard Hillary (Houdini) who had fallen in love with a female passenger, a woman named Felice (Jane Connelly, Sherlock Jr.), and was then betrayed by his jealous captain.

The explorers return home to New York, reuniting Howard with society. Howard accidentally stumbles onto a wedding, where he believes his long-lost Felice is the bride. The plot thickens—this woman is also named Felice (played, again, by Jane Connelly), and her marriage was to the shifty Dr. Trent (Arthur Maude). Felice doesn’t truly love him, but agreed to marriage in exchange for Trent helping her find her long-lost father. After meeting Howard, however, Felice calls off the marriage.

Furious, Trent grows determined to keep Howard away from Felice, going so far as to lock Howard up in an asylum. Can our man-out-of-time hero escape from his straightjacket, solve the mysteries surrounding Felice and her father, and put an end to Trent’s scheming once and for all?

We’re looking at some serious movie history with The Man From Beyond, which was made in 1922. This movie is so old that IMDb lists “vaudeville” among some of the actors’ credits. Not many silent films have made the leap to home video, not to mention DVD, so having this one in its complete, restored state is a real treat.

“Restored” really is the key word here. I can’t begin to guess how many hours (years?) of work went into cleaning up this picture, but the results are stunning. To be fair, there is some flickering and shimmering in some spots, mostly in darkly-lit wide shots, and some jerky jump cuts can be seen—such as characters walking from one side of a room to another, with the middle part of their steps cut out—but these complaints are minor considering the movie’s age.

The movie’s age should also be taken into consideration when dealing with the plot and performances. It’s often been argued that the “language” of film wasn’t developed until the 1930s, and I’m inclined to agree after watching The Man From Beyond. In the movie’s opening, two explorers are shown looking over the horizon. The next shot shows the antique ship preserved in the ice. Then, we get a text card on screen telling us that the two explorers have looked over the horizon and spotted a ship preserved in ice. These text pieces are littered throughout the movie, describing what we just saw. I guess the filmmakers hadn’t trusted viewers to follow what’s happening on their own.

Similarly, the movie’s big finale takes place at Niagara Falls, but nothing of substance really happens. There are a lot of shots of the falls from various angles, but Houdini’s hero moment where he rescues the girl amounts to little more than some swimming around. Again, this is where we must look at the movie in the context of its age. You and I have seen Niagara Falls on film and TV dozens if not hundreds of times, but in 1922, most folks had only seen photos. This movie would have been one of the first times for viewers to see the falls in action, how the water rages over rocks before plummeting over the side, into a perpetual cloud of mist below. That alone made for a true spectacle on screen.

OK, so the movie’s old. Does that mean it isn’t fun? I’m happy to report that The Man From Beyond is, indeed, a lot of fun. Houdini, always the expert in showmanship, projects plenty of charisma. He has these wide, expressive eyes that really draw you in, and he’s believable as this stalwart character determined to pursue the truth no matter what. Although not as tall as some of his co-stars, Houdini is an undeniable physical presence as well. When he breaks up Felice’s wedding, it takes four other guys to hold him back, and it really looks like Houdini is out-muscling these guys.

Of course, the big draw for this movie is the opportunity to see Houdini perform some escapes and other stunts on screen. There isn’t as much of his act worked into the movie as you might think, but I didn’t mind, because that made The Man From Beyond more like a good old fashioned adventure flick, and not a gimmick movie. Still, Houdini’s escape from an asylum water torture setup is cool—he makes it look easy—as are the scenes of him climbing up and down the side of buildings. He also really sells the action, and a big fistfight near the end of the movie is really exciting stuff, where he and his opponent throw each other through walls and over railings, etc.

Houdini’s co-stars tend to be a little nondescript, such as his two explorer friends, who kind of fade into the background as the movie progresses. Arthur Maude, who also directed several films of the silent era, is appropriately slimy as the villain. Actress Nita Naldi (Blood and Sand) shows up for a few scenes as a seductress working with Trent, and she was apparently so famous at the time that she gets her credit on screen in the middle of the movie, when her character first appears. The only other time I’ve seen that happen was when Mark Hamill showed up in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. The real find among the cast, though, is the cherub-faced Jane Connelly. Playing two characters, she’s called upon to portray the gamut of emotions throughout the film, from flirty to afraid to determined, and she does it all nicely.

Houdini’s take on religion and spirituality has always struck me as contradictory. Here’s this guy attacked spiritualists at every chance he got, and yet he always sought the real thing, promising that if there is life after death, he’d find a way to send a message from the other side and let us all know. In The Man From Beyond, reincarnation plays a key role in the plot, and the movie’s resolution features the characters espousing about the reality of reincarnation and its importance. It’s preachy, and it’s awkwardly shoehorned into what is otherwise a lighthearted adventure movie.

As noted above, the picture quality is surprisingly excellent. Also note that this is the original, uncensored 80-minute version of the movie. Previous DVDs have only included a harshly edited-down 68-minute version. The audio is a musical score provided by SonicFire Pro. I liked this music, which sounded era-appropriate-to my ears at least-and enhanced the mood of the film without overdoing it. For bonus features, the highlight is newsreel footage of Houdini escaping from a straightjacket while hanging upside down over a crowd of hundreds of people in Dayton, Ohio. It’s some impressive stuff. Then, put the disc in your DVD-ROM drive to check out a reproduction of The Man From Beyond’s 30-page pressbook. Then, make yourself a cup of coffee, because the DVD-ROM also has 300 pages of material relating to another Houdini film, The Master Mystery. Finally, this is a TDK Armor disc, which means it is more scratch-resistant than the average DVD.

It’s a must-own for anyone with an interest in Houdini. This DVD delivers just what it promises—a chance to see the man in action. In addition, you get to see it in a gorgeously restored transfer, and tons of DVD-ROM features.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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