History of Horror: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1927
One of the earliest films to be based on the Jack the Ripper murders, and one of Alfred Hitchcock’s first pictures, The Lodger is not, strictly speaking, a horror film. Nor is it even a ‘Hitchcockian thriller’, except in the most tentative sense.
Opening promisingly, with a screaming girl and the discovery of a corpse – the Avenger’s seventh victim, we soon discover, the first part of the picture is effective and gripping. The horrific backdrop – a killer is stalking blonde women each Tuesday night – could be the premise for half a dozen gialli. Hitchcock establishes the media furore around the murders with a montage of newspapers going to press; and then more intimately the terror this reportage is provoking backstage at the ‘Golden Curls’ fashion show. While some of the girls make a joke of it, others are genuinely frightened. Our heroine, Daisy, seems made of sterner stuff.
Returning home, Daisy and her parents, Mr and Mrs Bunting entertain Daisy’s boyfriend, a detective called Joe. This is the first of numerous fairly slow and uneventful domestic scenes that form the focus of the movie, and which firmly place it outside the sphere of the truly horrific. Viewers expecting sequences where the Avenger stalks his victims to their deaths through the swirling smog will be left disappointed. This is not about the mystery of the Avenger, but rather the suspicion and fear that’s provoked when the eponymous lodger, played by a dashing Ivor Novello, arrives on the Buntings’ doorstep to enquire about their room for rent.
The lodger is an odd fellow who paces about upstairs and goes wandering the streets at night, to the consternation of his landlords, and the increasing suspicion of Joe. Matters aren’t helped when a romance starts to blossom between Daisy and the lodger. Eventually (apparently at the insistence of the studio), the lodger is revealed to be innocent – but not before further suspicion has been cast on him, and Joe’s arrested him for murder. The final few minutes feature the lodger’s desperate escape – to a pub – where he explains to Daisy that the Avenger’s first victim was his sister who was killed, rather horribly, during a dance, in a real-life case of murder in the dark. Finally, the real Avenger is caught red handed – and offscreen, and all ends well.
The Hitchcock hallmarks of an innocent man on the run; the blonde heroine and the horror premise are therefore all in the mix, but in the wrong proportions. This is no The 39 Steps or Frenzy. The lodger is wrongfully accused too late in the day; the horror is pushed almost entirely offscreen (although it effectively bursts back in during a flashback to the sister’s murder), and the blonde is a bit too homely. It’s notable for bringing ‘murder back into the home, where it rightly belongs’, away from the gothic landscapes of German and American horror, and instigating a trend for British horror films to take a more intimate and domestic approach. But too much of the film consists of long scenes in the Bunting house, or at the fashion show, and while there are some neat directorial touches, the reality is this is the work of a talented amateur and in no way up to the quality of Hitchcock’s mature work.