A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema
Introduction to the Review Series
Any devotee of horror movies will eventually crawl their way to the classics. A small number will tread through the Universal era of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, finding endearment in their depictions of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. Fewer still will explore further back to the silent era, and those that do generally only watch a meager selection of films, notably The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1920) and Nosferatu (1922). Most conversations about silent horror cinema begin with these films, yet there are over twenty years of macabre movies that precede them, including feature length offerings beginning in 1913.
For eighteen years these silent feature films laid the foundation of horror before audiences would actually be able to hear Lugosi in his signature voice utter the lines, “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.” It took filmmakers of the 1930s several years to adjust to the advent of talkies, and in many ways some of the films which preceded them were more ambitious and better crafted. This is mainly because silent filmmakers didn’t need to worry about lugging around heavy sound recording equipment or concern themselves with the noises of the sets. They were artists who could focus purely on their visual aesthetic and tell rich tales of nightmares projected upon screen canvases, their only paints being light and shadow.
In this series of reviews I will dedicate myself to watching every feature length silent horror film I can access from 1913’s The Student of Prague to the dawn of the talkies. Where I am able to I will examine the people who made these films and the part they played in horror movie history, the techniques and focuses of the films and their impact, what these stories meant to contemporary audiences, and what, if anything, these films have to offer a modern audience. On this last point a note should be made about my grading system, which is of course subjective: I am someone who enjoys silent films and I assume the audience for my reviews does so as well. Silent films require more attention from viewers. Often scenes are left to interpretation and the person watching must fill in elements of the narrative with their own logic and imagination. Anyone new to watching movies of this era should be aware that it is hardly a passive experience, though it is, in my opinion, a rewarding one.
I hope that readers will find these reviews helpful, whether in pointing them to unknown selections, finding renewed passion for the movies they already love, or in offering reasons to respect and appreciate the movies of this era, all of which we are extremely fortunate to still be able to enjoy after a century.
On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that determined the course of history. In it, he urged the president to begin continuous dialogue with American scientists who were surmising
that it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed.
Einstein was prompted to write this letter after Nazi Germany, which had recently taken over Czechoslovakia, had stopped the sale of uranium from that country, indicating that they, too, were working towards the creation of a nuclear bomb.
Roosevelt heeded Einstein’s warning and ordered the creation of the top secret Manhattan Project, which was tasked with producing these nuclear weapons. He appointed J. Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, with the task of putting the weapons together. On July 16, 1945, the first atom bomb test, codenamed Trinity, successfully detonated at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico. Upon witnessing the terrifying explosion, Oppenheimer would later explain that he had a foreboding Hindu verse going through his mind: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” By this time the Nazis had surrendered, but Imperial Japan, driven by the samurai code, held steadfast in its refusal to admit defeat. President Truman gave the orders to use the deadly new technology on the cities of Hiroshima, on August 6, and Nagasaki, on August 9. Conservative estimates of the number of killed and wounded in the two attacks are placed at around 225,000, nearly half of these from the after-effects of the bomb, including radiation sickness caused by cellular degradation.
These terrifying bombs would be at the forefront of the minds of Americans thereafter, moreso beginning in 1946 with the increasing tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. A 1946 article in Life about the Bikini Island test detonations declared that the “atom bomb test will determine the future of man, animals, birds, fish, plants and microorganisms” (1 July, pp. 41). In other words, mankind now had the capability to destroy all life on Earth. In 1949 the Soviet Union successfully detonated its first atomic bomb, officially entering the growing club of potential planet-killers.
In 1952 the United States would up the stakes by detonating its first hydrogen bomb, and in 1954 would detonate its highest yield bomb ever, the 15 megaton Castle Bravo, the equivalent of 15 million tons of TNT (Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was only around 17 kilotons). I had the pleasure of knowing a man who was present at this moment in history. He was a sailor in the U.S. navy when he witnessed the explosion, and he recalled how the winds had unexpectedly shifted, sending radioactive fallout over the American ships. He spent several days below decks while the surface was scrubbed. Even so, many sailors later contracted cancer. A Japanese fishing boat, Daigo Fukuryū Maru, also came in contact with the fallout, causing the crew to experience acute signs of radiation sickness, reigniting sensitive memories of the use of American nuclear power against the people of Japan.
Certainly, the atomic bomb attacks were a trauma with which the Japanese were still coming to terms. In 1954, the same year as Castle Bravo, the Japanese released Gojra upon theater-going audiences. Awoken by American hydrogen bomb testing, Godzilla wreaks havoc upon Tokyo, the destroyed buildings and melted steel left in its wake immediately reminiscent of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and even the very thorough American firebombings of Tokyo.
There is no defense against such powerful, indiscriminate weapons, and considering the potential destruction these weapons could unleash it’s no wonder that they were at the vanguard of people’s fears. One way to cope with such anxiety is to give it shape – to make it into a monster which can be defeated by conventional means. Cultural historian David J. Skal writes of monsters in the nuclear age:
Audiences after the war were still interested in monsters, but the suave Mephisto in the black cape was no longer a compelling image for the modern moviegoer. Dracula’s threat of a quaint venous invasion was tired indeed when compared to the overwhelming border violations the world had so recently witnessed. An enveloping cloak was no longer an image of dread. But a mushroom cloud was. The threat of mass destruction was bigger than ever in America’s mind, and so were its monsters… Fifties monsters personified the Bomb as well as the Cold War itself. (Skal 247-248)
Once again in 1954 Americans were looking to cinema to give their fears shape. One of the earliest examples of the “nuclear monster” films, and the first “big bug” picture, was Them! (1954), directed by Gordon Douglas from a story by George Worthing Yates. Produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, it was originally conceived as a 3D color film but the budget was cut and the film was photographed in the traditional black and white. With crisp cinematography and dynamic camera movements, Them! tells a tale of mutated ants grown to gigantic proportions in New Mexico – an unintended consequence of the 1945 Trinity test. The ants spread around the country while a team of professionals, including State Police Sergeant Ben Peterson, FBI Agent Robert Graham, and a father-daughter team of myrmecologists, Dr. Harold Medford and Dr. Patricia Medford, try to hunt them down before it’s too late.
Them! is perhaps one of the clearest examples of American cinema coping with nuclear anxieties in the thick of tensions with the Soviet Union. As one reporter asks, “Has the Cold War gotten hot?” Or take, for example, this ominous exchange, the final lines of the film:
Robert Graham: Pat, if these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then? Dr. Patricia Medford: I don’t know. Dr. Harold Medford: Nobody knows, Robert. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.
In the Fifties, it was no longer the figure in the dark that struck terror in people’s hearts, but the blinding flash and what would follow. The nuclear bomb was a Pandora’s box of deadly possibilities, and what it meant for humanity’s survival no one could say with certainty.
The giant ants also bring to the surface another consistent source of anxiety, one certainly suggested in H.G. Wells’s more intimate The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) but shown here more vividly and with further reaching consequences. It is the “fear that other creatures may usurp the place of man or threaten to destroy what we think of as human civilization… creatures of the animal world which we tread underfoot or exploit for our benefit may be able to rise against us,” in this case, “as a result of some unexpected mutations” (Prawer 52). Them! is perhaps one of the first prime examples of this fear being presented in a horror film, and it would certainly be followed by classics of both the horror and science-fiction genres, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Planet of the Apes (1968).
I had first seen Them! as a teenager, and at the time I didn’t know what to expect from a Fifties monster film. My exposure to the era and to its cinema was limited, as of course was, as would be expected of my age, my knowledge and perspective. I was underwhelmed and afterward lumped it in with the other giant creature and monster movies I saw over the years from the late Fifties and early Sixties. However, upon revisiting it twenty years later, it is clearly a cut above those imitators. Them! is solidly paced – the first twenty minutes unravel like a procedural crime mystery – with scenes which are beautifully photographed. The ants are obviously large puppets, but though they are not entirely convincing, they’re never poor enough to distract from the story, and their memorable high-pitched sounds were created by recording bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler and red-bellied woodpecker.
The script is clever, moving the story along quickly while moving its characters across the country in search of the ants, and it allows us moments of levity. Though the film takes the ant threat seriously, it doesn’t forget to give the characters some humorous moments to shine, such as when Police Sgt. Peterson is trying to teach a frustrated Dr. Medford how to properly use the military radio.
The cast does wonders to help the material and bring their well-drawn characters to life, particularly James Whitmore as Sgt. Peterson, who is instantly warm and likable, and Edmund Gwenn as Dr. Medford, who most would recognize as Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Gwenn’s voice holds the audience, and manages to make even the most rudimentary of exposition captivating. James Arness, who had played the “walking carrot” in The Thing From Another World (1951), is also fitting as the square-jawed FBI agent. Joan Weldon is Dr. Pat Medford, and fortunately we get an intelligent, headstrong female who stands up to the men when they underestimate her resolve or abilities – refreshing for an era in which women were pressured to remain at home and find fulfillment in domestic duties. And while I mention the cast, it would be a violation of my Trekker prime directive to not mention the small cameo by Leonard Nimoy.
There isn’t a great deal to criticize about this film, though a few aspects left me scratching my head or rubbed my sensibilities the wrong way. It’s never explained why a State Police Sergeant is able to join up with Federal investigators, order around a general, or carry a fully loaded machine gun in his squad car. Also, there’s a comfort with, and practically an endorsement of, casual government overreach, such as keeping an innocent man in a mental ward just to keep him quiet or declaring martial law in the name of public safety where it likely isn’t warranted. The script displays little trust in the abilities or intelligence of average citizens, and it appears to embrace an excessive control over the people by a Big Brother-like state when difficulties arise. (Though it’s perhaps interesting to note that the characters must continually enter mental wards to gather legitimate intelligence to help them in their search.) By the end of Fifties and into the Sixties such confidence in authority would have largely disappeared, for instance in The Blob (1958) where teenagers try in vain to convince a distrustful adult authority that danger exists, and average citizens are required to gather and assist the police and military to overcome the threat rather than stay in doors under curfew.
Them! surprised me, as it surprised audiences at the time. It’s a B-movie concept with an A-movie treatment, and it still holds up. The thought of a film about giant ants was as laughable in 1954 as it is today, but it won audiences over. A New York Times review entitled “Warner Brothers Chiller at Paramount” by A. W., published June 17, 1954, reflects the film’s effectiveness and the shadow of the Cold War that loomed over contemporary viewers’ heads. It reads:
EDMUND GWENN’S final, slightly doleful but strictly scientific observation in “Them!” indicates that when man entered the atomic age he opened new worlds and that “nobody can predict” what he will find in them. The Warner Brothers, fearlessly flouting this augury, have come up with one ominous view of a terrifyingly new world in the thriller that was exposed at the Paramount yesterday, and it is definitely a chiller. The awesome fact is that the Warner Brothers have planted ants on our planet—giant nine to twelve-footers, with mandibles like the tusks on a mammoth, and keening like all the banshees in a fevered imagination. There’s no point in making for the hills, though. It’s fascinating to watch. Since it is difficult to assign specific credit, suffice it to say that the combination of three writers, director Gordon Douglas, producer David Weisbart and a cooperative cast have helped make the proceedings tense, absorbing and, surprisingly enough, somewhat convincing. Perhaps it is the film’s unadorned and seemingly factual approach which is its top attribute. At any rate, from the moment James Whitmore, playing a New Mexico State trooper, discovers a six-year old moppet wandering around the desert in a state of shock, to the time when the cause of that mental trauma is traced and destroyed, “Them!” is taut science-fiction. There are, of course, several unexplained killings before Dr. Gwenn, that eminent entomologist, and his daughter, also a top researcher, whom the Warners specifically term myrmecologists, discover that the destroyers are the formidable formicidae, monstrous mutations resulting from the New Mexico atomic explosions in 1945. The problem, of course, is to destroy the outsized ant colony before the queen ants escape and start propagating their sport species. Well, it appears that a couple of these do get out for a mad mating flight and it is nip and tuck before our scientists, the trooper, James Arness, an F. B. I. man and Army and Air Force contingents wipe out the nest in one of the storm drains beneath Los Angeles. Edmund Gwenn looks the scientist he is supposed to portray, despite his bumbling, absent-minded manner. His daughter, played by Joan Weldon, is pretty but hardly the academic type, and James Arness, James Whitmore, Onslow Stevens, Fess Parker and Olin Howland (who add a few necessary comic touches) are natural in other leading roles. The stars, of course, are the horrible hymenoptera. They are enough to make a man welcome the picnic-spoiling variety and give the atomic age back to the Warner Brothers.
Early on in the film, when Dr. Harold Medford has concluded that giant ants are indeed attacking people in the New Mexico desert, he says ominously, looking out into a sandstorm, “We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true – ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the beasts shall reign over the earth.’” In reality, there’s no such prophecy to be found in the Bible, but Them! is a good enough film to make you entertain the idea that such a prediction could actually come to pass.
Prawer, S.S. Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror. Da Capo Press, 1980.
Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Faber and Faber, Inc., 1993.
As a preteen in the early ‘90s, I was very aware of the phenomena of video board games, which sought to blend the traditional family board game with popular visual media, namely the VHS. Though I didn’t get the chance to play many of the them, their commercials were a constant fixture on my television screen, particularly the game Nightmare (or Atmosfear in Europe), which was released in 1991, wherein hooded Belarusian actor Wenanty Nosul screamed arbitrary rule changes at players.
It’s surprising how long it’s taken for a horror movie to be made about these games, a full quarter-century after their peak. Directed and co-written by Jackson Stewart, 2016’s Beyond the Gates tells of two brothers who come across a mysterious version of one of these games, and supernatural occurrences soon plague them after they begin playing (like a horror version of 1995’s Jumanji). Barbara Crampton plays the game’s insidious video host, and there is plenty of self-aware fun to be had within the script.
Beyond the Gates is well-acted and really tries to create characters that the audience can attach itself to. Overall it’s an enjoyable film, and the retro-inspired synth score and video store setting help invoke an undeniable nostalgia for the Eighties and Nineties.
Nevertheless, there are moments when the viewer can feel the constraints of the budget. The film feels too small for its premise, and one gets the impression that many of the scenes were originally conceived of in a grander scale than the finances would allow. Though there are some good scenes peppered throughout, the film leads the viewer to what is ultimately an underwhelming final act, especially when “beyond the gates” leads to a world of smoke machines and pink and purple lighting… and little else. Also, the film doesn’t feel like it correctly captures its central narrative centerpiece – the board game – especially when on several occasions not all the players are present when the game is being played, or the characters stop and restart their game-play with frustrating frequency. Despite a strong first half, Beyond the Gates plays like so many family nights of Monopoly – it sounds like a great idea, and at first it’s an enjoyable time, but in the end it’s simply not as fun as you imagined it would be.
Horror’s “Worst” Films – Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008)
James Nguyen, despite having no formal film training and a budget of less than $10,000, was inspired to make Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008) after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006). Filmed on weekends in Half Moon Bay, California, the story depicts two lovers, Rod (Alan Bagh) and Nathalie (Whitney Moore), as they try to survive while their town is being attacked by terribly rendered, unrealistic CGI birds – which explode. In 2009 Nguyen drove to the Sundance Film Festival to promote the film and hand out flyers, driving a van which was decorated with stuffed birds and which had written upon it, misspelled, “BIDEMIC.COM” and “WHY DID THE EAGLES AND VULTURES ATTACKED?”. It paid off, garnering the film attention for its special brand of awfulness, and soon Birdemic was getting a legitimate release and became a cult phenomena among discerning connoisseurs of bad films.
Birdemic is certainly of a feather with its foul-film predecessors, which becomes immediately apparent with the seemingly endless driving scenes which serve no narrative purpose (we even get to see gas being pumped and traffic – with Dutch angles). The film even stops so we can watch a live musical performance, like in 1988’s Hobgoblins. The acting is nearly as wooden as the trees in which the characters sometimes hide, not helped by Nguyen’s heavy-handed environmentalist dialogue and his habit of having characters enter scenes with the sole purpose of expounding monologues about the destruction of nature. Similarly, his depiction of business is almost endearing in its child-like presentation, as Rod makes a million-dollar deal in his undefined career and Nathalie, who models at the local One-Hour Photo, is chosen by Victoria’s Secret, all within the film’s first fifteen minutes. Really, for the first 45 minutes nothing much happens, but viewers will be left glued to the screen in awe of the ineptitude, especially as montages and scenes with no narrative purpose seem to go on forever. Viewers beware, however, to not watch it too loudly, as the wildly varying pitch of the background noises will likely drive you mad.
Watching Birdemic, you get the impression that Nguyen knew some of the words of cinema but none of its language. The cast has been pretty open about their difficulty in working with him, but one has to allow some admiration for the clear determination he had in completing something for which he obviously had no talent. If only we were all so passionate. All things considered, viewers will be dumbfounded while watching the film, but they will not be bored, making Birdemic a textbook example of tasteless entertainment.
So much has already been said about Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 (1990) that I won’t go too in depth in talking about this film. When I first saw Troll 2 I was too young to recognize that it was a bad movie, but old enough to discern that it had no trolls in it (there’s goblins) and that it bore no connection whatsoever to 1986’s Troll, which I had seen on television quite often. At age nine I was able to focus on the main character’s perspective without irony, especially as he spoke to his dead grandfather, and I even recall thinking that “Nilbog,” being “goblin” spelled backward, was a clever word puzzle. Please believe me, I’ve come a long way. I say this because, like 1953’s Robot Monster, Troll 2 does work on some level “when viewed as a child’s eye monster fantasy.” Though even then I knew that the goblin masks were shit. When seen through the perspective of a mature, rational human being, however, it’s a hilarious piece of accidental surrealism.
Fragasso is an Italian filmmaker, and language barriers and cultural misunderstandings only partly explain some of the bizarre choices found upon the screen. The amateur cast is able to do little with Fragasso’s poor approximation of American dialogue, and the confused story-line, cheap special effects, and questionable choices only serve to heighten the fever-dream nature of the film. There is only overacting or no acting at all, no in-between, and one of the “actors” was actually a real life mental patient… and it shows. The characters never act like natural people and instead come off like alien impersonators, such as when the mother, who is the unintentionally creepiest element of the film, tells her son, “Joshua, start singing. Come on, sing that song I like so much,” and they proceed to awkwardly sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” What? Or when the daughter, Holly, tells her boyfriend, “If my father discovers you here, he’d cut off your little nuts and eat them.” WHAT!? Truthfully, this is one of the more technically competent films on the list, but the writing and artistic choices are so fucking bananas that not a minute goes by without some oddity leaving the viewer scratching their head or laughing aloud at the absurdity.
Troll 2’s infamy has developed a dedicated cult following and has even become the subject of an endearing documentary, Best Worst Movie (2009), directed by Micheal Stephenson, the actor who as a child played Joshua. The film helps to give a lot of perspective on what ended up being on screen, and helps to answer or at least reaffirm various aspects that devotees of Troll 2’s awfulness only suspected. With this pedigree, Troll 2 is the epitome of tasteless entertainment.
The following was written for episode 30 of The HorrorCast Podcast, where we explored some of Universal’s wolfman films: 1941’s The Wolf Man, 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The full episode can be listened to through iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud through the Phantom Podcast Network.
In the year 1589 in Germany, Peter Stumpp, after being stretched on the rack, confessed to a series of heinous crimes. He admitted to incest with his daughter and, over the course of more than two decades, to eating men, women, and children raw, including his own son, whose brains he devoured, and two pregnant women whose fetuses he tore out and described as “dainty morsels.” He claimed to have been given a magical metal belt by Satan himself which, when worn, transformed him into a vicious, insatiable wolf. Accounts of his capture describe hunters chasing down a wolf, only to find Stumpp instead. Dubbed the “Werewolf of Bedburg,” Stumpp and his daughter were summarily executed, with Stumpp tied spread-eagle on the wheel, flesh then ripped from his bones with red-hot pincers, his arms and legs broken with the blunt side of an axe, and finally his head removed. At the time, violent tensions frequently erupted between Catholics and Protestants, both of which were fighting for dominance. Stumpp was a Protestant convert in an area where Catholicism had recently regained control. It’s safe to assume that, at least in part, the charges against him were politically motivated, yet their extreme nature also suggests that Stumpp indeed committed some acts beyond what would be the expected capabilities of a human being.
While the accusations against Stumpp are extraordinary in their severity, the precedent of the belief that a man could turn into a wolf goes back to the dawn of our species. Human-beast hybrids can be found throughout human mythology as well as within ancient rumors, such as when Herodotus, the “Father of History,” wrote of a Scythian tribe who transformed into wolves. Wolf-men featured prominently among the Norse with the Úlfhednar, or “wolf-coated” men, who, like the berserkers who wore bearskins, were said to transform from a battle-frenzy in which they became fearless and bloodthirsty and bit their shields in terrible anticipation of the coming slaughter. In Stumpp’s day, werewolf accusations and persecutions were often in tandem with witch hunts, and later they were often connected to cases of vampirism.
While wolf attacks are rare today, as the animals have largely learned to fear and stay far from humans, for much of human history, at least in certain geographic locations, wolves were predators to be feared. For instance, in France, where records go back quite far, 7,600 fatal wolf attacks were documented from the year 1200 to 1920. Given the wolf’s predatory predominance through so much of Europe’s history, it’s not surprising that wolves became symbolic of mankind’s vulnerability to the natural world, and sometimes, even to fate. For instance, Norse mythology told of Ragnarok, the event which would lead to the death of the gods and to the end of our world as we know it, when the monstrous wolf Fenrir, who had been bound after biting off the hand of the god Tyr, would kill Odin, the allfather. And of course, there is the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, the origins of which go back to the tenth century though perhaps the best known version is from Charles Perrault, who gave the cape its color in his 1697 story, and who used the folkloric wolf tale to caution young women against the predatory sexual advances of seemingly kind gentlemen. In the tale, the girl gets undressed before getting into the bed with the wolf. It gave birth to the French expression elle avoit vu le loup, meaning, “she saw a wolf,” used to describe a girl who has lost her virginity. Here we see wolves representative of not just man’s susceptibility to dangerous outside forces, but to our more base, sinful inner nature.
This last idea would become compounded after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, which put forth the persuasive theory that the diversity of life could be explained through the process of natural selection, that species today evolved from earlier common ancestors, thereby laying the foundation for modern evolutionary biology. In 1871 he published The Descent of Man where he set out evidence that humans too are animals and are therefore also subject to that same process of sexual selection and, therefore, evolution. It is arguably a major turning point in human history as it shook up long held accepted norms – moral, sexual, and of course, religious. However, this idea that man has something bestial within, whether by the fall from Eden or by nature’s indifferent course, never went away and, indeed, only become stronger. Certainly, the dual nature of man – his rational, evolved mind fighting against his primitive, more reptilian instincts, became a fascination to Victorian society, where strict codes of conduct and rigid sexual mores were the societal standard.
A prime example is Robert Louis Stevenson’s milestone novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published in 1886, in which a proper English doctor, feeling restrained by his life-long repression of evil urges, creates a potion which inadvertently turns him into the small, wicked Mr. Hyde, who has no such qualms about fulfilling the most base desires. Given Darwin’s influence upon culture, it’s no accident that Hyde is often depicted with simian characteristics. Stevenson was inspired by the arrest and hanging of his friend, the French teacher (and failed doctor) Eugene Chantrelle, who had poisoned his young wife in order to collect her life insurance. More victims were suspected. Stevenson attended the trial and was aghast and fascinated at the incongruous personalities, that of friend and doctor and that of murderer, under which Chantrelle operated. Werewolf films throughout the twentieth century would take far more direction from Stevenson in the formation of their stories than from old werewolf folklore.
The first werewolf film was titled, appropriately, The Werewolf, and was released in 1913. Considered the earliest film of the Universal Monsters series, it borrows more from ancient mummy stories, which were popular at the time, than from werewolf myth. It told of a Navajo witch who transformed into a wolf to terrorize white settlers in the early nineteenth century and now, a century later, has returned to kill again. Unfortunately the film is now considered lost, all prints having been destroyed in a 1924 fire at Universal Studios.
In 1925 George Chesebro, known for Westerns, directed and starred in WolfBlood: A Tale of the Forest. Chesebro plays Dick, a logging manager who is attacked by members of a rival logging company and left for dead. Desperately in need of a transfusion, a wolf’s blood is pumped into his body. Dick begins to feel that he can no longer fight his violent instincts, and as rival loggers turn up dead from wolf attacks, the men around him suspect him of being a werewolf. Towards the end of the film Dick is seen running through the forest with a pack of phantom wolves, and his desperation is so severe that he attempts to jump from a cliff. The film is not lost, though it is largely forgettable. However, it deserves attention for being the first film to use wolves as symbols of uncontrollable violence within a man.
In 1935 Universal released Werewolf of London, the first Hollywood mainstream werewolf movie, directed by Stuart Walker and starring Henry Hull. Though critically it did fairly well, it was considered too close to 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Fredric March, and therefore did not do well at the box office. Jack Pierce did the makeup for the werewolf and would go on to create the iconic makeup for 1941’s The Wolf Man.
However, that film’s origins lie not with impressive makeup or werewolf folklore, but with the experiences of a Jewish immigrant named Curt Siodmak. After hearing the anti-semitic propaganda spewed forth by the Nazis under minister Joseph Goebbels, Siodmak fled Germany and eventually landed in the United States. Siodmak had said that his screenplay for The Wolf Man reflects the experience of a man whose life the fates have upended, which is reflected in his own experiences. However, there’s much more to be found if one digs deeper. The Wolf Man tells of the Americanized Larry Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr., who returns to his ancestral Welsh home and finds himself succumbing to the dark forces which are native there. In 1941, when the film was released, America was largely against entering the war erupting in Europe. It had already been burned in the Great War, and the public was tired of being drawn into European squabbles. Staying quiet and safe in the good ole’ “U.S. of A.” was perfectly fine for most Americans. The fear of an America entering into Europe, politically and, to a large degree, culturally its ancestral home, and being overtaken by the raging violence to be found there, could certainly be seen reflected in Siodmak’s tale. Of course, on December 7 of that year, when the Japanese Empire rained death upon Pearl Harbor, enter into the fray of world war America did.
Another less discussed aspect of Siodmak’s script no doubt also was a profound psychological contribution. Wolves were a potent element of Nazi symbology. The Wolfsangel, a wolf trap, was an initial symbol of the Nazi Party. Hitler called young members of the Hitler Youth “wolf cubs” and the SS “my pack of wolves”. He had his sister operate under the assumed name Paula Wolff, a nickname he gave her in childhood. Nazi headquarters were often named for wolves, including Wolfsschanze, or Wolf’s Lair, on the Eastern Front. Werwolf was a Nazi plan to create a resistance force which would operate behind enemy lines as the Allies advanced through Germany. Hitler’s often photographed dog was a German Shephard named Blondi; dogs like Blondi were longed for as being close to the wolf and became very fashionable during the Third Reich. Hitler named one Blondi’s puppies “Wulf”, his favorite nickname. When Eva Braun first met Hitler, he was introduced to her as Herr Wolf, a name he used early in his political career. Adolf means, unjustly in Hitler’s case, “noble wolf” in Old German.
Additionally, seeing a pentagram on a person destined to be murdered sounds awfully reminiscent of seeing the Star of David sewn onto the clothes of people fated to be victims of the Final Solution. Though the full extent of the horrors of the Holocaust were not known to Americans in 1941, it would be difficult to believe that the Nazis didn’t inspire Siodmak in the telling of his tale of inhuman violence, where SS officers such as Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, could raise his offspring as an apparently loving father while putting to death 1.2 million innocents just beyond the garden wall, including countless children. Like Chantrelle and Jekyll, the duality required to commit such acts can only be described as monstrous.
Rudolf Hoess with family.
Child Survivors at the Liberation of Auschwitz.
Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, there was no real literary precedent for the werewolf when it came time to make its way onto the screen. Siodmak succeeds in creating a werewolf mythology which pulls from many varied sources, including vampire lore, and which many today have come to mistakenly accept as ancient lore, including being marked by an aforementioned pentagram, immortality apart from being slayed by silver, and of course wedding the Moon inextricably with werewolfism. The Moon had long been associated with madness – lunacy’s root word being lunar, after all – as well as the pursuit of wild game, such as with the Greek goddess Artemis who was the goddess of the Moon, the wilderness, and the hunt. The match was inevitable.
The Wolf Man was the jewel in the crown of Universal’s second monster cycle, and the last time they’d put their best foot forward in terms of production and casting. Larry Talbot was played exclusively by Lon Chaney Jr., who reprised the role four more times.
Werewolf films occur less frequently than one would expect, and most have taken their cues from Universal’s wolfman, and therefore also from Stevenson’s basic Jekyll and Hyde motif, where a person afflicted with the curse must come to terms with and ultimately destroy the dangerous monster he becomes. This is certainly true of the most famous werewolf movie besides The Wolf Man, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, where again we once again see an American succumbing to a unique violence native to Europe. Others have notably taken inspiration from older sources, such as Charles Perrault, once again associating the werewolf with sexual desire and the lunar cycle with menstruation (a word which owes its lineage to the Greek word for “moon” – mene). A prime example of this is 1985’s fantasy-horror, The Company of Wolves.
Today, clinical lycanthropy is a psychological diagnosis, considered a rare delusional disorder in which a person believes they can, have, or will transform into an animal, literally. Figuratively, we can sympathize. The werewolf is most often used to symbolize man’s dual nature – his human intellect always working to subdue his bestial instincts. Everyone at times feels that animal within when we feel the pull of ancestral impulses which we like to believe, in our naivete, we’ve moved beyond: the grumble of a hungry stomach, the warm throb of aroused loins, the unbridled wrath which threatens to overtake us in our moments of rage. Yet we succeed in waiting to eat until lunchtime even as we watch the minutes tick by at work, in waiting for an appropriate time to release sexual tensions, and we breathe deep and walk away from the person whose head we fantasize about bashing in. Always, however, we fear those impulses enslaving our mind, rather than the other way around. Religions, dietitians, the self help industry, therapists, and countless other professions and services have made it their main prerogative to be an ally in this battle. And we succeed… for now.
But for most of us, I think, there’s that morbid curiosity that says: “Maybe we won’t put on the chains tonight. Maybe we’ll run through the woods, howl at the moon, and give no mercy to the passerby.” Like Dr. Henry Jekyll, we wonder what it would be like to have our own Edward Hyde. And the damage left behind, after all, wouldn’t be our fault. Those tracks leading to our doorstep are clearly not those left by a human. We would shrug our shoulders and nod sympathetically to those who have suffered. “But don’t blame us,” we would say, “blame the Big Bad Wolf.”
Movie Review – The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2016)
I’ve lived my whole life in New England. The stony soil – the result of glaciers which sliced their way through the landscape and deposited their craggy remnants – and the fiery reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn, are a source of solace to me. The rock walls that stripe the earth like grey, moss-draped spines, built by colonists and slaves, serpentine their way through dense forests that were once farmland. These things provide the comfort of familiarity and remind me that I’m home. We New Englanders like our village greens, Colonial and Federal architecture, covered bridges, lighthouses, maple offerings… and of course our witches.
As a child, the little utility shack constructed to look like a house at the local park was, at least to me, a witch’s house, its roof access padlocked not to keep kids from reaching electrical wires, but to keep that ancient wickedness in. The ring of pines trees in our three-century-old town cemetery hadn’t been planted there as part of a landscaper’s whimsy, but of course had grown in its unnatural symmetry as the result of the secret midnight covens held within. Unsurprisingly, this last feature was known to us kids as The Witches’ Circle. Witches permeate New England culture in ways most residents don’t realize, but they’re there. Arthur Miller, playwright of The Crucible, which dramatized the Salem Witch Trials so as to criticize McCarthyism, lived and is buried just a few miles from where I sit typing this piece.
Of course Salem, Massachusetts, is most famous for its witches, but my own home state of Connecticut was colonized by men and women of equal zealotry and superstition. The first execution of a suspected witch in the American colonies was Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut. She was hanged from the gallows in Hartford’s Meeting House Square, now the site of Connecticut’s Old State House, on May 26, 1647. Five others were also killed. Mary Johnson of Wethersfield became the first woman in New England to confess, under duress, to “familiarity with the Devil” in 1648, and wallowed in a Hartford jail until she gave birth to her son and was subsequently executed in 1650. In Hartford 1662 seven trials resulted in four executions. While Salem was killing its twenty victims another witch hysteria broke out in Fairfield in 1692 when a servant girl accused five women. Fortunately, thanks to more stringent criteria set forth by Governor John Winthrop, Jr., cooler heads prevailed in that incident. Connecticut held its final witch trial in 1697.
Just as I grew up with witches in my woods, so too did filmmaker Robert Eggers in his home state of New Hampshire. He dedicated years of research to create what he hoped would be an “archetypal New England horror story”. What we consider fairytales today colonists in the seventeenth-century would have seen as legitimate daily hazards, and Eggers wanted to take at face value Puritans’ beliefs about witches and present them in their authentic, terrifying nakedness. The result is his impressive directorial debut, 2016’s The Witch, appropriately subtitled, A New-England Folktale.
Set in 1630, William (Ralph Ineson), a father, moves his family from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which he believes has strayed from God’s path, to deeper into the frontier, carving out a farm in the wilderness. Soon their infant son is stolen, their crops fail, and they begin to suspect a witch is at the root of their sorrows. Furthermore, they suspect the witch is among them, and begin to dissolve the familial bonds upon which their survival has depended. Truly, none of the family members are villains, but their flaws become exploited through the supernatural situation in which they find themselves.
Eggers’s attention to historical detail, in set design, in costumes, in story, and in spirit, is nothing short of phenomenal. During a panel discussion in Salem with Emerson “Tad” Baker, a historical archaeologist and professor of history at Salem State College who is known for his extensive work on witchcraft in Colonial America and who was the moderator, he said that he watched the film with a historically critical audience and they couldn’t find any glaring inaccuracies. The stellar cast handles the challenges of period language, dialect, and accent with impressive ease.
Furthermore, Eggers uses insight into the Puritan mindset to give, not a cartoonish version akin to Victorian attitudes about the quaintness of hats with buckles, but authentic drama stemming from a sophisticated understanding of Calvinist theology. As a prime example, Christian theology has had to reconcile the dilemma of predestination, which occurs when one believes that God is omniscient and therefore already knowing of who is destined for salvation and damnation. The quandary then becomes determining whether or not humans have free will, and whether their actions and destiny are pre-fated or the result of individual agency. Calvinists believed that God alone, before the creation of the world, decided upon who was to have salvation, using His unique knowledge and will, which is ultimately unknowable to humanity. No amount of faith or good deeds could earn one a place into heaven. This is known in theological terms as unconditional election. However, Puritans believed they could garner clues to their fates by how godly and pious they were. Through their reasoning, God predestining salvation opened minds to the gospel. While piety was not a guarantee of salvation, it was an optimistic indicator. Logic dictated, though, that for the Puritans, sinfulness, which was natural to the corrupt body of mankind, suggested damnation. So it is with Eggers’s fictional family, who obsesses and stresses over whether or not God has chosen them. Their every flaw is cause for doubt, and the flames of Hell feel ever hotter. Whether it is William’s pride, his son Caleb’s (Harvey Scrimshaw) lust, or his wife’s (Kate Dickie) doubt, there is never a dearth of causes for self-loathing and worry. They wrestle with spiritual uncertainties, such as whether or not a baby goes to heaven, or if it does, if they are destined to be reunited with them. The more William begins to doubt his own salvation, the more he cries out desperately to God that his children be spared. Eggers is able to show how naturally history can be compellingly, and accurately, weaved into a tale of terror.
Likewise, the forest was a powerful symbol for early English colonists, and the film properly depicts it as a foreboding, hostile world. For Puritans in New England, the wicked woods were the realm of The Devil, where law and order, and most importantly, the church, had yet to be established. It was home to pagan natives who, to their eyes, were under Satan’s sway. In 1630 the large-scale violent confrontations between English and natives had yet to occur – seven years later the Pequots would be wiped out in a genocidal massacre at Fort Mystic, Connecticut, and King Philip’s War was still forty-five years away – yet those on the frontier lived ever in fear of attack. William has carved out an island of farmland for himself, surrounded by dark, dense forestry, and he and his family look, ironically, unnatural within the setting. They look like intruders, whereas the witch, in her brief moments on screen, looks as if she is a part of the natural world which she embraces, and against which they struggle. Contrast, too, can be found in the portrayal of Calvinist culture with that of the witch’s, and the viewer can decide for themselves which side the narrative appears to favor.
As stated above, the characters and cast are terrific, but special attention should be paid to William’s teen daughter, Tomasin, played by a captivating Anya Taylor-Joy. She physically looks apart from the family, and from Puritanism for that matter, and her blossoming sexuality becomes cause for the family’s discomfort. Eggers based Tomasin, at least in part, on a real girl named Elizabeth Knapp. Knapp was a sixteen-year-old servant girl in Groton, Massachusetts, who was believed to have been possessed by a demon from October 30, 1671 until January 12, 1672. Her possession was documented in the journal of Samuel Willard, a prominent preacher in whose house Knapp lived. Willard’s approach to her possession was unique because he at first tried to find natural causes, and even when it was all over, though he believed her possession to be genuine, her claims to having made a pact with the Devil he concluded to be false due to the inconsistencies of her stories. Historian Elizabeth Reis, in her cultural analysis of the New England witch accusations and confessions, Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, saw an intersection of gender and theology in Puritans’ perceptions and approaches to witchcraft. (For those interested in Reis’s thesis, I offer a bonus book review below.) For Reis, Knapp claimed the Devil tempted her in ways which revealed dissatisfaction with her life and station, that indeed,
“the devil appeared to Elizabeth Knapp precisely because she was dissatisfied with her life. According to Willard, Knapp confessed that Satan appeared to her and ‘that the occasion of it was her discontent, that she her condition displeased her, her labor was burdensome to her, shee was neither content to bee at home nor abroad.’ Earlier Knapp had admitted that the devil offered her things that ‘suted her youthfull fancey, money, silkes, fine cloaths, ease from labor to show her the whole world.’ Quite frequently Satan tried to lure people into his service by tempting them with riches, an easy life, and ultimately, salvation” (Reis 59).
The Devil, therefore, often played on their dissatisfactions within Puritan society. Tomasin, too, embodied by Taylor-Joy, looks ill-suited and alien within her Calvinist surroundings, causing her own ever more palpable discontent.
Eggers maintains historical fidelity to Puritans’ beliefs about witchcraft as well, providing for a bevy of haunting, unsettling images, though those are best experienced first-hand by the viewer and will therefore not be recounted here. Though the film takes these beliefs at face value, Eggers offers ergot fungus on the family’s corn as an alternative, non-supernatural explanation, should viewers wish to take it. The fungi effects neural functions and a few historians had once linked it to the Salem Witch Trials (arguing that the girls were affected), but this has since been disproved.
This effective historical drama is filmed with beautiful cinematography by Jarin Blaschke for mise en scène which wonderfully utilizes natural lighting. Composer Mark Korven’s evocative score, employing period instruments and voices to create haunting, almost organic music, completes the effect. Whatever shortcomings that are to be found in the movie are subjective. For instance, as I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder who, just ten years after the settlement at Plymouth, these European witches deep within the wood were. Yet issues such as these are minor quibbles and are ultimately the equivalent of criticizing a single brushstroke on an otherwise masterfully painted canvas. Eggers has succeeded wonderfully in conjuring an archetypal New England nightmare. The Witch is captivating, disturbing, and absolutely spellbinding.
Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Cornell University, 1997.
Book Review – Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England
In Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, a gender study of the Salem witch trials, Elizabeth Reis seeks to answer some important questions. Why were women accused of witchcraft more often than men? Why did more women confess to witchcraft than men? And finally, why were women so ready to accuse one another of witchcraft? To answer these questions Reis forms a multifaceted thesis that follows the intersection of three lines of evidence: Puritan theology, women’s gender roles in New England culture, and the belief in a corporeal Satan. Within this trifecta Reis finds the fertile ground from which the Salem gallows sprung and a people who were caught in the violent trap of their own theology.
In Reis’s view, the Salem witch trials were inextricably linked to Puritan theology, and the prominence of female victims to the social mores which it accompanied. This is not to discount other more secular explanations put forth by other historians, but to ignore these essential elements is to only partly understand the episode. Indeed, Reis’s work is meant to be read within, and as a compliment to, other scholarship about the era. Puritan theology was Calvinist in its essentials, yet though only a pre-chosen elect could enter heaven, they nevertheless believed that one’s sins could guarantee a place in hell. The souls of both men and women were viewed by New Englanders as feminine. This carried with it the social understandings and expectations of that culture of what it meant to be feminine, which included presumptions of weakness and insatiability. The Puritans believed that the strength of one’s physical body could act as a shield for the soul, and so women, who were naturally physically weaker than men, were seen as more susceptible to the sin’s (and therefore the devil’s) temptations. Their very nature’s made them more prone to corruption. As Reis contends, “New England culture as whole regarded women as more likely to be damned than men” (1). Women internalized this view and here Reis recognizes a distinction drawn along gender lines, for whereas men saw sin as corrupting their souls, women saw their very souls as corrupt, or as Reis says: “Lay women and men feared hell equally, but lay women… tended to believe it was their vile natures that would take them there rather than the particular sins they may have committed” (37). For men, sin was rust on the iron soul that could be cleansed with vigorous attention; for women, the soul was but tin. Add to this an idea of the devil, largely drawn from folk traditions, of a physical tempter and one to whose service a person may commit themselves – which was the Puritan definition of a witch – and a potent potion for witchcraft accusations, trials and condemnations for which women were the focus results. It also created a situation in which a woman’s “unwomanly behavior,” at least in the minds of Puritans, was evidence of their sinfulness and guilt, thus emphasizing social norms within the society.
Reis’s line of reasoning is certainly sound, though it is difficult for one unfamiliar with the resources of the era to ascertain whether or not the evidence she gives is sufficient to prove her contention, or whether or not contrary evidence exists. Indeed, her work assumes a prior knowledge of the details of the witch trials, including the outcomes and its victims, with which most lay readers may not be equipped. Her audience is not a general one, but rather one of scholarly peers. All this becomes especially evident in the first chapter when she seeks to make her case for women’s “sinful natures,” yet most of the conversion narratives and all of the sermons from which she quotes are from men. That these male accounts are given to what feels the point of redundancy does not help, and at times when one thinks Reis has moved on to a different part of her argument she then returns to an earlier part for reasons which are difficult to fathom. Women, which are the thesis’ focus, are drowned out.
Fortunately, however, she strengthens her case in the court testimonies later in the book, though the book as a whole would be improved by a more carefully plotted opening chapter. Other elements of the book are curious, such as when Reis oddly inserts herself into the analysis of the fourth chapter, feeling the need to declare: “Let me state frankly I do not believe the devil actually visited the people of Salem and urged them to sign his book in blood” (131). Was this a necessary confession? This late in the book, her position should be obvious. I would assume her academic peers, for whom she is clearly writing, would not expect otherwise. Are such clarifications necessary when discussing theology in the scholarly manner? Could this point to a sign of caution an author may face in being misunderstood when writing in an interdisciplinary format for multiple audiences, in this case secular historians and religious theologians, whose preconceived notions may interfere with their understanding of her thesis? Though it is a single line, it offers many intriguing questions about the state of the field of study.
Yet there are many highlights to this work. Her chapter on the changing perceptions of the devil in New England that preceded and followed the trials, from that of a physical aggressor who captured souls to a symbolic tempter of sins (which are punished by God alone), is clearly presented and fascinating. Overall, the book improves as it goes on, the structure tightening and the evidence becoming more directly relevant, culminating in a pleasurable analysis of Hawthorn’s “Young Goodman Brown”, which she employs to demonstrate her arguments about the New England Puritan mindset. Reis also presents an eye-opening insight into the heterogeneous nature of Puritan society, including the many skeptics that commented on the trials both during and after their commencements, such the forward-looking Thomas Brattle, who wrote that our own modern world “will laugh at the demonstration, and conclude that the… [Salem gentlemen, being the courts] are actually possessed, at least, with ignorance and folly” (86). He cannot be proved more correct.
Reis’s work includes many helpful illustrations, though further additions to the text would enhance the lay reader’s understanding and pleasure. As mentioned earlier, Reis assumes a foreknowledge of events in her audience, and therefore a quick summary of the Salem witch trials at the beginning of the book would shed more light upon the court testimonies, as would a timeline of events or, at the very least, an appendix which lists the victims of the 1692 hysteria that a reader might turn to for reference. In the end, Damned Women offers an interesting thesis that takes into account the Puritan’s own declared convictions, a theological lens which was inextricable from how they operated and interacted with each other and the world around them. Other motivations may have been at work in the witchcraft trials, but Reis convincingly shows that the trials would never have been possible were it not for Puritan ideas about women, the devil, and the soul. Like later popular images of the witch, warts and all, the thesis is difficult to disregard.
Rick Sloane, after seeing the popularity of pint-sized creature features like Gremlins (1984), Ghoulies (1984), and Critters (1986), decided to capitalize on the trend by creating 1988’s Hobgoblins. The film gained its certified awfulness after being relentlessly riffed upon on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and show writer Paul Chaplin later reflected,
“Oh, man. You have no idea the torture it was to watch this movie several times in the space of a week. It shoots right to the top of the list of the worst movies we’ve ever done. Speaking personally, the only one I hated as much was probably Overdrawn At The Memory Bank, and even that experience bred a less intense sort of hate, leaving an aftertaste not quite so malignant and foul. On the bright side, there’s potential for a real peace in Northern Ireland for the first time in living memory. At least this movie did nothing to prevent that.”
Hobgoblins attempts, and fails, to be a sex-comedy horror film. There isn’t a funny joke to be found, and it’s the only sex-comedy I’ve come across that makes intercourse look unappealing. The acting is awful, but even if it were good one is unlikely to want to see any of these characters live more than a few seconds after they’re introduced. One dumbfounding scene involves a rake fight in which two guys endlessly strike the handles together. Perhaps even more unnecessary is the musical live performance we get at Club Scum, where the movie stops so we can see an entire song being played.
Most hilarious of all, however, are the creatures themselves. Sloane has stated that he didn’t see the hobgoblins until just before scheduling was set to begin, and they’re a far cry from the world of Jim Henson. What we get are hand-puppets and plush toys that barely move – if they move at all – and watching the actors fight with them, rolling around on the ground, is a sight to behold. Honestly, it’s the only genuine laugh you’re likely to get out of the film. It’s not high entertainment, but it is a tasteless form of one.
“I haven’t held one of these in twenty years,” says Gunnar Hansen, the original Leatherface, playing the role of Earl as he picks up a chainsaw. “Feels good.” It’s just one of many nods to remind you of all the better horror movies that you could be watching instead of 1995’s Mosquito, directed by Gary Jones.
The story, which involves mosquitoes mutating to the size of large dogs after feeding upon the alien carcasses from a crashed spaceship, has enough camp to get connoisseurs of such poorly made films through the run time. It’s the kind of film best viewed with some good-humored friends and drinks. The film has some passable effects and even a few decent moments of horror. Also, we get a shot of a proboscis in an ass cheek. In addition to Hansen’s cutting tool nostalgia the movie has some other callbacks, such as the aliens looking like those from War of the Worlds (1953), or when Parks (Steve Dixon) and Hendricks (Ron Asheton) trade stories about Vietnam while Ray (Tim Lovelace) talks about boy scouts before the mosquitoes attack, which appears intentionally reminiscent of the famous scene in Jaws (1975) between Quint and Hooper and Brody where they trade scar stories.
Unfortunately, the bad acting can’t salvage the poorly written dialogue. While it’s fun to see Hansen, who made some great performance choices in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), he’s not much of an actor, and it’s absurd that though he manages to get his hands on a chainsaw it takes several minutes of wielding it to kill just a single mosquito. In the end, his mullet steals the show. However, no actor infuriated more than Ron Asheton, whose performance is incapable of delivering a line naturally. He plays Ranger Hendricks, which I assume is a nod to Jimi Hendrix given his previous career. Asheton, an incredibly influential guitarist, had formed The Stooges along with Iggy Pop and his brother, drummer Scott Asheton, and bassist Dave Alexander. When his musical career stalled he turned to acting, though he had far less natural talent for it. Sadly, Asheton was found dead in his bed at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan on January 6, 2009, apparently having died of a heart attack a couple of days earlier. Sonic Youth’s album The Eternal is dedicated to him.
Despite it being a film I cannot recommend, I would honestly love to see a docudrama about the making of this film because of the bizarre episodes that occurred during its production, such as the original special effects artist saying “I’ll be right back, I’m going to get a pack of smokes,” and never coming back, or actress Margaret Gomoll having a camera accidentally dropped on her head while she filmed her nude scene in the tent, or when actor Mike Hard developed a concussion from mosquito puppets repeatedly hitting him in the head. That’s the movie I’d like to see.
Movie Review – The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
The Lodger: A Story of London Fog (1927) is not Alfred Hitchcock’s first film, though it is arguably the first film that could properly be called “Hitchcockian.” Here begins many of the themes that would come to be closely associated with the brilliant director for the rest of his career, particularly the connection between sex and death, lust and homicidal intent, while allowing his penitent for German-style filmmaking to truly shine. It also marks his first film cameo appearance, though his back is turned to the camera, as a newspaper editor talking on the phone (the actor had not shown up that day and Hitchcock improvised).
The story is an amalgam of two sources: a 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes based upon the Jack the Ripper serial killings, and a comical stage adaptation of the same novel called “Who Is He?” It tells of a killer known as The Avenger who targets blonde women each Tuesday night. A lovable older couple, the Buntings, with a fair-haired daughter named Daisy, played by June Tripp, takes in a new lodger (Ivor Novello), a young man who they gradually suspect may be the killer and who is growing ever closer to Daisy.
Hitchcock allows the actors, who are all terrific, and the editing, which is also wonderful, do most of the storytelling, leaving little reliance on intertitles. He presents information in interesting ways, such as a news ticker or a telegraph machine. He allows ambiguity to build tension, making even the simplest of the lodger’s actions seem potentially sinister.
Influence from the German Expressionists is evident in the odd angles, lighting, and shadows. Novello even evokes Count Orlock at times, with his slow movements and long, slender fingers. Novello was a huge star at the time, renowned for his beauty. His immense popularity even necessitated a script change – the original script had the character’s guilt left ambiguous, however, according to Hitchcock, “They wouldn’t let Novello even be considered as a villain.” Indeed, Hitchcock even goes so far as to evoke Christ imagery around Novello during the film’s climax. The actor was also openly and flamboyantly gay, even counting the talented World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon as among his lovers, and a few lines of dialogue in the film suggest that the other characters suspect the same of his. Whether this was accidental or not is difficult to guess, but I am apt to believe that it was Hitchcock’s cinematic equivalent of a wink and a nod.
Hitchcock makes London come alive with point-of-view shots in speeding cars, people walking outside windows in backgrounds, and car headlights sliding across the walls through closed curtains. It all feels lived in and one forgets that the action is taking place on sets. He uses, too, other innovative techniques, such as a transparent ceiling in order to see the lodger pacing in the room above. When he completed the film, the studio was unhappy with the product and hired a young Ivor Montagu to make some changes, which included little more than reducing the number of title cards, adding symbolic triangles to them, and a few minor reshoots. Hitchcock was furious at first but Montagu’s intrusion was slight and Hitchcock ultimately approved of the changes, and what remains is unquestionably Hitchcock’s work.
The Lodger helped to create the modern thriller and is, in Steve Haberman’s assessment, “the only British horror film of note” (96). The September 16, 1926 issue of the trade journal Bioscope went further, declaring that “it is possible that this film is the finest British production ever made.” Of course, Hitchcock, known as the “Master of Suspense,” would time and again set the standards for filmmaking in the coming decades, most notably in the horror genre with 1960’s masterpiece Psycho and 1963’s The Birds. Born in 1899, Hitchcock struggled his whole life with obesity, yet his signature silhouette, coupled with his gallows humor, made him perhaps one of the most recognizable filmmakers in history.
Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 2003.