St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

“A Page of Madness” (1926)

'A Page of Madness' title card.

I write to you today from the delirium that follows the second COVID vaccination. I can hardly move and my socks stubbornly refuse to stop being the wrong shade of red, but can I still be snarky about movies? Hell damn yes, although that might wind up being hard with this one. Last week Parker and I watched a movie called Planet Terror (2007), which I thought was so awful I refused to rate it. It was one of those boring, unfunny testosterone-fests where everyone has twelve testicles and too many guns. I’m not joking, there’s literally a character with a jar full of testicles. I subtly pulled out a copy of Roadside Picnic and read for a couple of hours while the movie was playing. This week I was determined to watch something half decent no matter what kind of wild ride I might be subjecting Parker to. I landed on A Page of Madness, a 1926 Japanese silent horror film.

To be absolutely fair to this movie I still have no idea what it was about. It was beautifully shot, its imagery was very haunting, and it had an atmospheric soundtrack, but it made the unusual decision not to use any intertitles. Turns out there was a good reason for this — the original film was meant to be accompanied by a narrator in the cinema. This is pretty common in Noh theatre and, it turns out, was a big part of silent film culture in Japan. Cool! I haven’t seen one of these before so it should be fun. Did the copy on YouTube have the narration? Did it buggery. So it’s not entirely our fault for talking all the way through the movie; we were missing a fair chunk of the original experience.

Instead of reviewing this movie, then, I’m going to present it to you in a way that it hasn’t been seen for nearly a hundred years. I’m going to do my own narration.

An old car drives through the rain.

I knew I shouldn’t have taken the first ever Model T Ford for a joyride in such filthy weather, but I wasn’t going to lure any babes with my sweet ride by staying home, was I? Silently another car pulled up beside me at a light, rain pouring down its windows, and I gently bared my buttocks and pressed them against the glass, whispering tenderly, “The moon shines for everyone tonight. We are all the creations of a callous and capricious god. Be at peace and dance with me. Dance with me into madness.”

A glamorous woman wearing a 1920s-style dress.

Miriam was late to her friend’s Gatsby party. She wandered the dark alleys, wondering whether she was getting closer and whether she’d make it in time for the ritual slaughter and blood offering. Without warning a bowling ball the size of a house was bearing down upon her and she screamed, watching helplessly as the thing rolled towards her with terrifying speed. She caught sight of herself reflected in its shiny surface and her appearance surprised her. She touched her face and realised that she had been the real Gatsby all along.

Cartoon lightning effects.

Little Timmy sat hunched over his art project, scribbling intently with his crayons and magic markers while his aunt sat in her rocking chair. She had a bottle of forty cent gin in one hand and a Pyramid cigarette in the other and she cast a careful eye over Timmy’s progress.

“That’s not how you draw lightning,” she croaked.

“SHUT UP,” screeched Timmy. “It’s my art, I’ll do it how I want!”

“This is the scribblings of a retarded child.”

“I’m forty-seven, stop treating me like an infant!”

“You accidentally did a Swastika there.”

“IT’S MY ART. IF I WANNA DRAW A SWASTIKA I’LL DRAW A SWASTIKA.”

She puffed rapaciously on her cigarette before flicking some ash at her nephew. “Y’ever wanna see a real tiddy, you lemme know.”

A crazy lady laughing.

“Oh my darling, has anyone ever told you how beautiful you are? Your hair is like a sandy tornado that strips the flesh from my bones. Your skin is as dry as my grandmother’s funeral cookies. Your teeth chatter like the seizures of an insane skeleton in the night. Your smile is as radiant and warming as an accident at a nuclear power plant.”

She blushed hard and bowed her head coyly, giving him her very best “come to bed” eyes. He’d always been such a smooth-talker.

A spiral formed with light bulbs.

From the director’s commentary: “You know not many people know this, but we were the first to use a spiral to represent madness. I’ll never forget I was sitting in the bar with Gimpy Collins, my director of photography, and he said, ‘You know this film is the cat’s meow but it’s missing a little something. How about this?’ And he sketched a quick something on a cocktail napkin and slid it over to me, and I pointed to his doodle of a spiral and said, ‘By George, Gimpy, I think you’ve got it.’ Now of course everyone’s doing spirals, but they don’t realise where it came from. Of course we didn’t have the fancy computer-generated spirals they have these days, but you know I think this holds up rather well.”

A woman's face distorted in a mirror.

“Damn it, woman, you can’t take a passport photo in a carnival mirror!”

He looked up at her face for the first time.

She hadn’t taken the photo in a carnival mirror.

Mental patients wearing Kabuki-style masks.

The doctor looked at all his schizophrenic patients wearing their masks. Smiles and playful tongues danced around their mouths. Their eyes creased in joy and happy moans until they were almost lost entirely in their faces. This had been a fantastic idea to get his patients to overlook their crippling mental illnesses for a few minutes and socialise just like they had always wanted. Just like they had always deserved. He was a good doctor. A very good doctor. He toyed with the idea of rewarding himself with a biscuit. He reached down to don his own mask and found that the box of masks was still unopened. He tore at it, and a full complement of masks spilled onto the floor. The patients hadn’t put on the masks yet. Then who were…? Oh no. Oh no.

'The End' in Japanese spelled out in light bulbs.
The End.

From the director’s commentary: “Then I said to Gimpy, I said, ‘What if it’s not the spiral that symbolises madness, but the light bulbs?’ It’s twists like that that keep the audience on their toes.”