The Hands of Orlac; Halloween at the Winspear Centre

The Hands of Orlac; Halloween at the Winspear Centre | Switching Styles | Music | Online Publication |
Shout out to the Winspear for providing tickets to myself to enjoy the event, as well as providing tickets for Switching Styles very first ticket contest!

Walking into the Winspear’s Halloween event proved against the notion that live music is boring. With skulls and black lace covering the tables and dim lighting providing the perfect ambiance, the front lobby was decorated for a spooky Halloween.

The pre-party before the main event was a Halloween party with a costume contest, music by DJ Kwake, a selfie wall, and stilt walkers, facilitated by the Winspear’s partners Strathcona Spirits, Rig Hand Distillery, DJ Kwake, and National Stiltwalkers of CanadaStiltwalkers greeted guests at the door, mingled amongst the crowd and guided people to the doors once the film started. Looming over you, their stature and costumes were mesmerizing. It brought a sense of terrifying whimsy.

Adding to the terrifying whimsy was the array of costumes. Most of the staff were dressed up in costumes ranging from clever to terrifying. My ticket was checked by a very tall and very rare steak. Popcorn was being made by a horror movie clown. Drinks were mixed by a nurse. Desserts were served by a witchy bo-peep. As it was a costume party, the staff weren’t the only ones dressed up for the festivities. Ned Flanders from the Simpsons stood with a drink in his hand next to the traditional vampire complete with blood-red lipstick and a long velvet cloak.

The Halloween festivities of the pre-party were not the main attraction. However, they set the eerie mood for that night’s performance. Hosted by CTV’s very own Bianca Millions dressed up as hostess barbie, the main event began at 8pm. The introduction was complete with creepy fog and eerie red lighting.

The Hands of Orlac is a black and white silent film from the 1920s. 

Dennis James describes this thriller film as a “deliciously twisted thriller that blends Grand Guignol ecstasies with the German Expressionism”.

The premise of the film (for those that haven’t seen it) is a story following the aftermath of a tragic accident where Paul Orlac, a pianist, lost his hands. They were quickly replaced with the recently executed murder, vassuear.  The rest of the film is Orlac’s struggle with his own demons and the demons of his new hands in a kind of Freudian discussion. At the time the film was produced, psychoanalysis and Freud’s research was a popular topic for discussion.

“Made in Vienna, the hotbed of psychoanalysis, this 1924 Austrian bubbles over with sexual innuendo and Freudian imagery,” describes Dennis James,”If you’re scared of Sigmund Freud, you’re going to be in a panic”.

Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist, and founder of psychoanalysis. Photo from britannica.com

The director, Robert Wiene encouraged a lot of debate for the audience directly taking from Freudian psychoanalysis.

When you consider a Winspear event, many think of a form of performance that’s passed its era. Although that may be the case, it’s not a genre that’s being ignored. Dennis James is not just an organist, he’s a historical music preservationist bringing the cultural and artists’ experience from a hundred years ago to the modern-day.

“Movies were never silent,” Dennis James explains. Silent films were never completely silent. They were always accompanied by musical scores to emphasize the story and emotions.

Dennis James and Michael Tsalka provide live accompaniment of the organ and the piano respectively. Dennis James is an organist and historical music preservationist. Michael Tsalka is an award-winning pianist and early keyboard performer. Together, they are the film scoring duo: “Duo Filmharmonia”. 

This duo has toured worldwide to perform together including events such as the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria another silent film project Janice Meredith (with all Colonial American music scoring), our Silent Hamlet film project (with all Sons of J.S,Bach music scoring), and the 2300 seat Elbphilharmonie new concert hall in Hamburg, Germany.

Working together earlier this summer, the two musicians created the score in the summer. The event was the second time they had played this arrangement together. The very first was the morning before the event.

Duo Filmharmonia bridges the worlds of film appreciation, musicology and historical preservation to revive works of art: timeless experiential recreations that transcend transitory fashionable alternatives emerging in silent film exhibitions today. Duo Filmharmonia’s loyalty to the original silent-period filmmakers’ visions may at first seem as anachronistic as has become the emergent typical 21st-century experience of historical film: a presentation visual art form begun in 1895 accompanied by musicians in live performance. Rather than overpower the delicate preserved images with the now-prevailing flamboyant, grossly popularized performer display- foisted scoring impositions and mocking conversions for trendy ‘hip’ presentations, Duo Filmharmonia carefully provides authentic period-revival soundtracks that truly support exquisitely restored silent films being presented in the manner the filmmakers themselves originally intended and the original audiences actually experienced.

Describes Dennis James

As a concert pianist, Michael Tsalka has an interesting personal correlation with the main character, Paul Orlac, who is also a concert pianist. His skills and experiences allow him a sense of authenticity to the character. The organ itself is a deep and resonating instrument, which complements a horror film perfectly. 

Throughout the film, the organ and piano resonated throughout the concert hall adding live and colour to the silent film. The music combined with the story and visuals to take it to a whole new level. There were moments of absolute pure silence within the film when there’s a scene of high tension. The piano and organ fell silent leaving the audience on the edge waiting to see what happens. This heightens the drama as each member of the audience can hear their own heartbeat.

This was a powerful performance unlike anything in modern cinema today. Dennis James and Michael Tsalka brought silent film to the present day, preserving it as it was a hundred years ago. 


Let me introduce myself. I'm Dylanna fisher, a writer, creator, and visionary. Currently, I'm a journalism student at Grant MacEwan University based in Edmonton, Alberta. I've recently graduated with a journalism major while growing a freelancing writing company on the side, Dylanna Fisher Communications. Ever since I can remember, I've always been fascinated with sharing ideas with people. And that's exactly what I want to do. Check out my work on Switchingstyles.ca and on dylannafisher.com.

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