Town Hall Theatre to screen spooky silent thriller on April 25

WILTON – It’s a murder committed in full view of a Broadway audience, and the culprit can only be identified by literally re-enacting the crime – on the same stage it happened.

It’s “The Last Warning” (1928), a late silent film thriller to be screened on Sunday, April 25 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton.

The screening is free to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre’s silent film series.

The Town Hall Theatre continues to observe procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines. Capacity is limited to 50%; patrons are required to maintain social distance and wear masks until seated.

Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

“The Last Warning” stars Laura La Plante, Montagu Love and Margaret Livingston. The plot follows a New York producer’s attempt to re-stage a play five years after one of the original cast members was murdered.

“The Last Warning” was the final film directed by Paul Leni, a German expressionist director who came to Hollywood in the late 1920s to work for Universal Pictures.

At Universal, Leni directed several innovative films, including “The Cat and the Canary” (1927) and “The Man Who Laughs” (1928), both of which created the creepy visual style that would prevail in Universal horror classics such as “Frankenstein” (1931) and “Dracula” (1931).

In “The Last Warning,” Leni employs unusual camera angles and extreme lighting to create a sinister and unnerving atmosphere. The film was made using the massive theater set left over from Universal’s megahit “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925).

Before he could continue his promising career; however, Leni died of sepsis brought on by an untreated tooth infection only eight months after “The Last Warning” was released. He was 44.

“The Last Warning” was successful enough at the box office to inspire a remake, “The House of Fear” (1939).

Produced during Hollywood’s transition from silent to talking pictures, “The Last Warning” was released in two versions: one completely silent, and another with recorded music and sound effects for theaters that could play them.

Only the silent version of “The Last Warning” survives intact. Long unavailable, the film was restored and reissued in 2016 by Universal.

Critics today find much to admire in Leni’s films, which pushed the boundaries of what was possible in commercial cinema.

About “The Last Warning,” film historian Graham Petrie wrote in 2002 that Leni and cinematographer Hal Mohr “handle the camera with the utmost possible freedom, culminating in a scene in which the camera swings on a rope with the villain from one part of the theater to another.

“Along the way, Leni revels in the shadows, cobwebs, tilted angles, subtly distorted perspectives, ominously confined spaces, and clutching hands that had by now become his trademark,” Petrie wrote.

In 2021, critic Ralph McLean wrote in the Irish Times that “La Plante may be the star name on the posters but it’s Leni’s skill that draws you in here. … Leni’s camera never stops moving, offering cutaways and inventive trick shots at every opportunity. We see endless furtive close-ups of possible suspects and witness cast members fade into the surroundings of the darkened theatre setting with remorseless regularity.”

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will create a musical score for “The Last Warning” live during the screening, in the manner of theater organists during the heyday of silent cinema.

“For most silent films, including ‘The Last Warning,’ there was never any sheet music and no official score,” Rapsis said. “So, creating original music on the spot to help the film’s impact is all part of the experience of silent cinema.”

“That’s one of the special qualities of silent cinema,” Rapsis said. “Although the film itself may be nearly a century old, each screening is a unique experience – a combination of the movie, the music, and the audience reaction.”

For more information, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call 603-654-3456. For more about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.