Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 26, 2023)
Though best known for films he made in the 1930s, Tod Browning first started as a director in 1915. For an effort he made in this silent era, we head to 1925’s The Mystic.
New York con man Michael Nash (Conway Tearle) goes to Hungary to recruit phony carnival psychic Zara (Aileen Pringle) and her crew. He takes them to the US, where they wow rich society folks – and allow Nash to swindle them.
Eventually Nash turns his attention to the fortune of heiress Doris Merrick (Gladys Hulett). Various complications arise – especially when Doris claims to actually see the ghost of her father.
Given that Browning’s two most famous films – 1931’s Dracula and 1932’s Freaks - tend to fall under the horror banner, Mystic sounds like a departure from that trend. Indeed, it shares the circus/carnival connection with Freaks, but it lacks that notorious classic’s sense of creepiness and weirdness.
Well, to a large degree. Much of the movie seeks to expose the fraud behind Zara’s act, so the film goes out of its way to demystify the mystic.
However, we do lurch into more supernatural – and spooky – territory when Doris claims to see the spirit of her dead dad. Don’t expect this to become a prominent plot point, however.
Oddly, Mystic teases us with the possibility that ghosts really manifest, but it loses this beat without much exploration. That turns into a disappointment, as the movie could’ve made better use of this concept.
Nonetheless, Mystic provides a surprisingly engaging thriller/drama. I say “surprisingly” mainly because – like so many folks – I can find it tough to adapt to the nature of silent films.
Oh, I’ve enjoyed some of these efforts, but the filmmaking styles can make them difficult for a modern audience to access. Comedies fare better in general since they often rely on physical beats, but a tale like Mystic seems like something that might become tough to prosper in this format.
Happily, Browning brings it together for a tense and well-paced affair. Mostly well-paced, I should say, as we probably get too many segments related to the ways Zara and company con the New Yorkers.
A little of this goes a long way. With repeated scenes, the exploration of the scams gets a bit tedious.
Still, Mystic otherwise moves at a good rhythm and it explores its characters well. While it doesn’t quite make them three-dimensional, they nonetheless manage to evolve into evocative personalities.
The cast helps, as they provide less hammy performances than I expect from silent films. Perhaps it seems unfair to use the term “hammy”, as I understand why actors needed to deliver broad work to compensate for the lack of speech.
Whatever the case, this group proves more subtle and nuanced than usual for the format. In particular, Tearle delivers a rich turn as the conflicted scammer.
All of this adds up to a largely compelling mix of thriller and drama. Even without the exploration of the supernatural one might expect, it turns into an engaging affair.