“What a labor of love The Hope Diamond Mystery has been and what a treasure it is to have. Thank you so very, very much”
– Sara Karloff
When you get an endorsement like that from the daughter of Boris Karloff, you know you’ve done something right. Serial Squadron has done what nobody else ever attempted to do before. They have restored and released The Hope Diamond Mystery on DVD. This is an incredibly rare 1921 15-chapter serial with Boris Karloff in his first starring role. The story is full of mystery and suspense, well worth the more than four-hour time commitment it will take you to work through this adventure.
The story was written by May Yohe, formerly Lady Francis Hope, the widow of the last person named Hope to own the legendary Hope Diamond. She even stars as herself in the film as narrator for the tale, which is partially based on fact. Being a chapter serial, one can immediately expect a long adventure full of cliffhangers and intrigue, as well as a little padding from time to time. The story is set both in the then present day 1920s as well as the 16th century, with actors playing dual roles. As the saga of the Hope Diamond is revealed through theft and chase scenes, Boris Karloff initially plays East Indian servant Dakar, keeping an ever watchful eye on the diamond. He is also the High Priest of Sita once the story flashes back, ultimately showing the curse upon anyone who possesses the diamond. The film is a little convoluted at times, as most chapter serials can be, but that doesn’t necessarily take anything away from the overall story. Karloff is part of an amazing cast that also includes Grace Darmond (The Shielding Shadow) as Mary Hilton/Bibi and George Chesebro (The Lost City) as John Gregg/Jean-Baptiste Tavanier. The sets are absolutely amazing, as well they should be considering the reported $100,000 cost to construct them. The film is definitely a lot of fun to watch and well worth having in your personal collection.
I do want to commend Serial Squadron for the work put forth in the overall restoration of The Hope Diamond Mystery. According to the Serial Squadron website, they used multiple sources, both 35mm and 16mm, and the end result is impressive. Sure, there are some title cards where the deterioration is clearly visible and there are a lot of scratches seen throughout. However, a lot of work was put into digitally eliminating splices and defects. A lot of time also went into color tinting in an effort to match the original presentation, including a blue appearance for the diamond itself. Considering they do not have the resources many larger companies do, and the fact that this film has been unavailable for some 94 years, the film really does look amazing. Eric Stedman should be commended for his hard work.
Unfortunately, I wish the same amount of time would have gone into making a more authentic soundtrack. Silent film soundtrack purists will most likely not be pleased with the music presented here. First, the music is not the traditional silent film fare of piano or organ. A variety of styles are used, some of which are very anachronistic and can pull you out of the moment. Personally, I think the choice of an opening theme is horrendous. It sounds like a Nintendo video game from 1990. I like that musician Kevin McLeod tried to go for an East Indian theme but the end result comes off sounding very cheap. At times, other music is more orchestral and fits the scene while we are infuriatingly dealt what sounds like a modern rave mix in other scenes. They are so far from what should be used that it could be laughable were it not so annoying. Ultimately, I was disappointed with the uneven score and recommend viewing it with the sound off. Go with music of your owning choosing and you will probably enjoy it more.
The overall DVD packaging left me with mixed reactions. While I loved the cover, especially the use of blue colors and a great visage of Boris Karloff, the rear cover was really lacking. Honestly, it looked no more professional than something I could have done using outdated software. The fifteen chapters are separated over two DVDs, which works well but, upon opening the case, I was so incredibly disappointed to find that neither disc had a label. No screen printed image, no simple title labeling, nothing. Having seen a recent discussion on Facebook where the owner of Serial Squadron got very defensive about the pricing of their product, I expected more. What I got was a hand written “HDM1” and “HDM2” on the inside of the DVDs. The hand writing with an ink pen was shockingly cheap. I’ve paid far less for bootleg DVDs on eBay that had at least something printed on the DVD. This may seem trivial to some but for me, it makes the finished product seem far less professional and more like a bootleg operation. What I paid was anything but bootleg pricing. The menus were static but easily navigable and acceptable, so I can’t complain about that. There were also no extras of any kind but, considering the age of the product, I was okay with that too. It’s true that they are very open about their product being essentially a “burn on demand” service. However, the packaging was lacking and needs improvement if Serial Squadron products want to have a more professional appearance to match the higher prices.
Overall, I am very pleased with having this rare Karloff classic in my collection. My complaints on the DVD are annoying but are partially overshadowed by the fun story and shear collectability of this once impossible to find adventure. I would consider buying from Serial Squadron again as long as the price is not too high. Their prices do seem to vary from title to title, which is a little frustrating but there does seem to be an effort in place to correct this. It also appears that their VIP membership is a better option and seems worth looking into. My previous complaints aside, I really do want them to succeed because they are giving us film collectors some wonderful viewing options.
For now, check out the promo as well as chapters 8 and 9 to see if this is something you want to add to your collection. I recommend The Hope Diamond Mystery on its rarity alone but the story is also very engaging and well worth the extra time it will take you to watch it. You’re just going to have to be forgiving when it comes to the packaging and very poor musical choices. Concentrate on the film restoration and you’ll be amazed.