“Oh… wow. That was a bit unexpected. Damn, what a bummer.” – My reaction to Svengali after the film reached its conclusion.
For those of us who are acquainted with the early gothic movies of Universal Studios, the premise of Svengali (a Warner Brothers film) will quickly ring a bell as almost being a quasi-retelling of Dracula released earlier in 1931 – the same year as this film. In this story, adapted from the George Du Maurier novel Trilby, we have a strange foreign man in the titular character who has an eerie power over women through the use of hypnosis and his powerful gaze. He soon turns his attentions to a young woman who is betrothed to another before he exercises his otherworldly powers to bring her under his spell.
But of course there are many things that set this work apart from the legendary Bela Lugosi vampire film. One will doubtlessly see that there is a slight comedic touch apparent as the story unfolds with John Barrymore’s portrayal of the eccentric Svengali – an enigmatic Eastern European musician – often being cast as a misfit and at the receiving end of a lot of jokes and derision at the start of the movie.
Furthermore, whereas the sexual and romantic subtext was merely hinted at in Dracula, things are much more upfront in this tale as Svengali comes to take Trilby as his wife midway through the tale.
But the main thing that makes Svengali a unique picture is the depth it gives its villain – that is, if he can really even be called a villain. More than just being a scheming madman, Svengali is a character that the audience can’t help but feel a bit of sympathy for as he is really carrying out his dastardly plot to find someone who loves him (a trait that would be further echoed in the Universal picture The Mummy the year following this film), and it’s in this dichotomy where Barrymore’s performance shines.
Add to that a finale which takes the conventional ending to a horror / B-film and turns it on its head for a more artist and poetic effect, and you’ve got quite an intriguing piece of gothic cinema.
But is it as seamless as the other horror films of its age? Well, while the story in here is entirely enthralling once things get rolling, one can’t help but feel a lag in its momentum towards the beginning, and it does take some determination to get through those initial lulls.
That being said however, once you get through this section of the picture, Svengali is quite a powerful adaptation of an effectively moody gothic story that fans of classic horror movies owe it to themselves to seek out and experience firsthand.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5