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.
By the time James Young took the helm to direct his version of The Bells in 1926, the popular Victorian melodrama, originally translated by Leopold Davis Lewis, had already been adapted to the screen several times before. In the nineteenth century it was one of the greatest successes of British stage legend Henry Irving, and here it is the turn of Lionel Barrymore, himself a noted actor, to bring the lead role to the American screen. The elder brother of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s John Barrymore, Lionel was the first of the acting family to enter film in 1909. Barrymore is convincing as Mathias, an innkeeper drowning in debt who hopes to be elected the town’s burgomaster. On one snowy Christmas day a Polish Jew arrives at his inn with a belt pouch filled with gold. Mathias tracks the Jew in the snow and kills him with an axe, using the gold to relieve his debts and his standing in the community. However, a Mesmerist at the village fair claims to be able to make criminals confess their crimes, and his seemingly knowing smiles to Mathias begin to drive the new burgomaster insane with guilt. He hears phantom bells, like those of the Jew’s sleigh, ringing a “discordant, jangling accusation.” Much of the film’s direction is fairly rudimentary, though there are some notable scenes, gory for the time, and uses of symbolism, such as the images of nooses appearing in ordinary objects or Mathias believing his hands are covered in blood as he counts the gold pieces. The ghost of the Jew haunts the innkeeper, and at one point an unhinged Mathias plays cards with him to win the money he stole fair and square. Likewise, an impressive dream sequence draws upon German Expressionist influence to show the extent of Mathias’s guilt.
However, despite this being Barrymore’s vehicle, viewers today will watch the film for the role of the Mesmerist, played effectively by the great Boris Karloff five years before being transformed into the monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). Karloff, born William Henry Pratt in 1887 London, had already been in films for a decade before appearing in The Bells, and would not reach his true breakthrough until his celebrated portrayal of Mary Shelley’s creature. He would embody the hulking monster twice more, stopping when he feared that the character would be relegated to farce, which it eventually did. Despite being able to branch out from horror and have a long, successful career (children in Western culture know his voice from 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!), Karloff was never resentful for being so inseparably attached to the genre. His success after struggling as an actor for so long made him appreciate all the praise and attention that the movie-macabre could offer him. He would play in numerous horror classics over the following decades, sometimes with Bela Lugosi, including The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Body Snatcher (1945), The Raven (1963), and the eerily timely and still effective Targets (1968), where Karloff plays a character modeled after himself, as an aging horror film icon. He died the following year. Though he was famous on screen for playing sinister characters, Karloff was famous in real life for his gentle nature and generosity. He has since been rightly celebrated by the horror community, including being the only person to be featured on two U.S. postal stamps, as Frankenstein’s monster and as the Mummy in their tribute to the Universal Monsters. The Bells is a competent film with some memorable performances, though it doesn’t particularly stand out amid many of the other offerings of the decade. Barrymore helped to sketch the look of Karloff’s Mesmerist, and appears to have taken obvious inspiration from Werner Krauss’s Dr. Caligari. Despite some fine acting and notable sequences, the abruptly moralizing ending is ultimately unsatisfying to a modern viewer, however, Steve Haberman notes that “like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the story’s insistence on a moral reckoning for its transgressing protagonist insured in popularity in the Puritanical early American cinema.” Grade: C+
Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves [Pengabdi Setan] (2017) is a loose remake/prequel to the classic Indonesian horror film, Satan’s Slave, released in 1980. The new film presents a family struggling with personal loss and financial strains. The mysteriously ill mother, who was once a popular singer, dies and soon after the family is beset by malevolent supernatural forces. The more the family searches and uncovers about the mother’s past, the more the plot twists and turns in compelling and frightening ways. However, before discussing the inner workings of the film further, it is worth taking a detour into Indonesian cinema and culture. For Satan’s Slaves is a fine horror film, but deeper historical and cultural context will reveal why this film stands apart from others in the country, and why it deserves both attention and respect from foreign audiences.
Asian horror cinema, at least when it reaches the United States, is generally dominated by the products of Japan and South Korea. These nations produce some masterful works, but they also present a skewed version of Asia to American audiences. Both nations are among the most monoethnic on the planet, with Japan being 98.5% and South Korea 96% the same ethnicity. There is a diversity lacking within these countries that, when one begins to look at the horror films of other Asian countries, may be falsely projected onto these other nations’ films.
Which brings us to Indonesia, a country very unlike either Japan or South Korea. It is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, with over 87% of its population identifying as Muslim. The Indonesian constitution grants religious freedom, and is officially secular, but it recognizes only a small handful of religions. Nevertheless, Indonesia is incredibly diverse – it has more than 300 distinct ethnic and linguistic groups, and its people speak over 700 languages. It has a population of more than 250 million, nearly twice that of Japan.
Indonesia is also a country with an interesting film history, an understanding of which will allow us more context into Satan’s Slaves. In order to make sense of their film history, one must recognize Indonesia’s political climate as it existed for several decades. From 1967 to 1998 the country was ruled by President Suharto, a man who many outside the country regarded as a dictator. During his tenure the nation’s film industry was strictly controlled, especially regarding the restriction of free political speech, but interestingly enough the government largely ignored genre films, which included horror and martial arts. The 1970s and 80s saw an enormous creative boom in exploitation films for this reason, and they proved to be immensely popular among the lower middle class. Today many of them are sought out for their unintentional camp and the creative ways in which the filmmakers approached special effects.
The horror genre of this era was generally supernatural, and it largely followed a predictable pattern of good versus evil, like a simplistic morality tale, where good was religion and the evil could be vanquished by reading a verse from the Quran. While most of the horror films were filled with over-the-top blood and gore, a notable exception was 1980’s Satan’s Slave, which relied more heavily on generating an unsettling atmosphere. The film has been compared to Phantasm (1979), and it certainly borrows from other Western films. Because it was so different, it stood out from the pack when it was released, and it served as the chief inspiration for director Joko Anwar to become a filmmaker.
The Indonesian film industry largely collapsed during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, in which several Southeast Asian countries, beginning with Thailand but spreading to several other countries, saw their economies go into freefall and their currencies lose considerable value. It was this crisis that also led President Suharto to resign from office.
Beginning in 2001 the Indonesian film industry began to resurge, and horror films played a substantial role in this resurgence. The genre, mostly dominated by evil ghosts, is hugely popular. My own experience with these films is limited, but from what I’ve gathered from articles and blog posts, a lot of these films are of fairly low quality, packed with poor CGI, and made to turn a quick buck. Here is an excerpt from an article from the Jakarta Post about 2017’s Satan’s Slaves, which it reviews favorably when compared to the rest of today’s Indonesian horror, which it describes in less than glowing terms:
Local horror films tend to attract condescension and skepticism from the Indonesian public (rightfully so) due to the fact that horror films on the market in recent years usually reek from the stench of amateurism or poor craftsmanship. With commercial success being the goal of many Indonesian filmmakers and large film studios, the horror genre is often toyed around with and disrespected in the quest to obtain high audience turnouts, thus embarrassing everyone that is involved in the process.
Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, on the other hand, represents a true artistic achievement. This should come as little surprise as Anwar had already proved himself to be an accomplished filmmaker who created several highly regarded, award-winning films, and received substantial recognition outside of Indonesia. He has been rightly regarded as one of the country’s top talents for well over a decade.
It is worth taking a look at another excerpt from the same above article, as it brings up some interesting ways in which Indonesians may view the film which an American audience would likely not consider:
The horror in this film is authentically true to the 1980s, relying mainly on the story events and incidents to scare the audience, instead of relying on CGI effects. Because the film deals with the classic battle between God and Satan, there is no doubt that the events in this film will lead viewers to either question their faith in God or try to self-righteously scold others for not having faith as strong as their own.
I predict that in conversations all over the country after the film, there will inevitably be some of those unbearable self-righteous people who will reference Pengabdi Setan [Satan’s Slaves] as a way to criticize fellow Muslims who do not follow the five-time daily Islamic prayer schedule. Or maybe there will be parents who accompany their kids to the cinema and then use the old “if you don’t behave, the devil will get you” line to make them behave.
The film is presented in such a way that one can either feel incredibly good about their faith or really bad about it.
It is this battle between good and evil that makes the film so entertaining to watch. It’s presented in a way that you might want the devil’s side to win. But maybe that’s how Joko likes to mess with our moral identities.
This religious and moral ambiguity with which Anwar toys should not be regarded lightly. One way in which Indonesia has changed since the heyday of 1980s exploitation films is the growth of conservative Islam within the country, and this has led things that would have once gotten a pass to no longer being tolerated (i.e. movie posters featuring nudity).
Anwar appears more comfortable walking a grey area when it comes to religion and morality, and this too seems to set him apart from the other genre offerings being released in the country today. In an interview with Vice, he said: “In the original movie, people thought they were terrorized by the demons due to their godlessness. In my movie, people were terrorized not because of their lack of faith, but because of their ignorance, their general ignorance of life’s essence.” Anwar’s explanation is not entirely clear, but it’s worth noting that the family we see beset by satanic forces are viewed as skeptics who struggle with faith, saying lines such as, “We don’t pray,” and, “Our family isn’t superstitious.” When we see Rini (Tara Basro), the eldest sister, attempt a prayer ritual, she is clearly unpracticed and does not appear altogether comfortable with the act. Whereas an act of prayer may have served as a repellent to evil in earlier Indonesian films, it proves useless in this situation.
Just as a lack of religion is not seen as a hindrance, the presence of religion is not presented as an advantage. For instance, we see the ustaz neighbor, who is an expert in Islam, also vulnerable to being attacked, and his faith makes no guarantee that when it counts his morality will not fail him.
Anwar’s screenplay presents a family that is likable and relatable. The family is also big enough where he is able to craft scares that are, in ways, tailored to different age groups, from a young boy trying to relieve himself a night to a teen listening to a radio in bed. The horror set pieces are on par with what we’ve seen in The Conjuring films, but they exist within a more coherent framework than what we’ve seen in those big-budget American films, which too often forgo internal consistency and logic for their set pieces. For this reason, I consider this film a superior offering. In Satan’s Slaves we see effective scares wrapped in an intriguing plot that morphs as a film progresses, taking unexpected turns that nevertheless follow a clear internal logic. All the while we get a sense of the different pressures and responsibilities facing each of the characters, and we empathize with them as they endure their travails. It helps that the film is so well-cast, with each actor delivering convincing performances, and that it’s filmed with exquisite cinematography.
For veterans of supernatural horror films, Satan’s Slaves doesn’t present anything groundbreaking, but for fans of the haunted house sub-genre, it is one of the best offerings in recent years. It holds its own even in a sub-genre bloated with spectacles like The Conjuring films, which pair superior directing with, unfortunately, a general lack of sophisticated writing. Satan’s Slaves excels in both.
Joko Anwar deserves credit for creating a film of atmosphere, tension, and nuanced morality in an environment where audiences are accustomed to expecting far less from the genre, both in terms of artistry and storytelling. He eschews temptations to preach to the converted, and instead asks his countrymen to question their deeply held certainties, and to look to and to recognize a common humanity as a way to triumph hardships. Anwar’s fictional family isn’t compelled by faith or blood to save each other, but through devotion and love. That, to me, is worth writing an overly long review for.
The Great War (1914-1918) left countless scars, both apparent and hidden, among the Lost Generation. The conflict slaughtered men on an unprecedented scale. Yet as the weapons technology which dismembered young men had advanced, so too did the medicines used to treat the injured. Whereas gangrene would often finish the work that a bullet or bomb had begun, soldiers now stood a chance of surviving their injuries at the cost of their limbs, their teeth, or even their face. The U.S., which only entered the war after years of fighting had already claimed countless lives in Europe, could count more than 4,000 amputations. At first these returning amputees were viewed as heroes, yet as the costs of long term pensions and welfare assistance began to worry government officials, efforts were put forth to re-enter these so-called “war cripples” into the workforce as quickly as possible. The American Red Cross founded organizations such as the Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men in New York, which worked to get prosthetic limbs for these young men and to get them the necessary job training. For various reasons these efforts were largely unsuccessful, but nevertheless the public could not deny the presence of these disfigured men, and the horrific reminders of that tragic, senselessly violent conflict.
Whereas German Expressionism focused more upon the psychological costs of the war, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, American post-war cinema, which largely shunned the supernatural and leaned more towards Romantic realism, dealt more directly with the obvious physical costs of the conflict. There is no argument that the actor who most embodied these examinations of physical horror, both figuratively and literally, in the 1920s was Lon Chaney.
1920’s The Penalty is considered Chaney’s breakout role, and it is his first starring one. The plot, based on the 1913 novel of the same name by pulp writer Gouverneur Morris, revolves around a gangster named Blizzard, played by Chaney, who had his legs mistakenly amputated as a young boy and who now seeks revenge on the doctor, Ferris, who performed the surgery and lied to cover the error. This plan of retribution includes corrupting Ferris’s daughter, Barbara, and forcing the doctor to cut off the legs of Barbara’s fiancé, Wilmot, and graft them onto Blizzard. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that silent film plots are boring.
It’s easy to see how Chaney became a star after this role. His dedication and screen presence are incomparable. In order to create the illusion of being a double-amputee, Chaney devised a harness made of buckets and leather, where his knees sat in the buckets and the leather straps pulled his lower legs back. The actor was wiry, and to compensate for the thick legs he padded his chest and arms, making him look like a hulking bruiser. The effect is shockingly realistic and Chaney sells it completely. It was also extremely painful and he could only wear the harness for up to twenty minutes at a time before the pain became unbearable. The studio doctors cautioned him against it but the man was dedicated entirely to his craft, and he would suffer problems with his knee muscles afterward. It would not be the last time he was physically damaged in pursuit of his art, though it can be difficult at times to distinguish fact from Hollywood promotional fiction when it comes to the tortures it is said Chaney endured. The effect, however, is entirely convincing, and Chaney is even able to closely imitate the illustrations by Howard Chandler Christy of Blizzard which were found in the 1913 novel.
In addition to his impressive illusion, Chaney’s acting is filled with primal aggression. Even as an amputee he is intimidating, a dominant force of nature in every scene. Blizzard’s criminal hideout is filled with pegs, ropes, and various contraptions that allow him to move about independently, and Chaney uses them with the graceful ease of a man who has had to rely on such things for a lifetime. The other actors do a capable job but always pale in comparison when he is in the frame. This is wholly Chaney’s picture.
The direction here by a talented Wallace Worsley, who had been wounded in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and who would go on to direct Chaney in A Blind Bargain (1922) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), is also quite good and the editing moves the pace along nicely. The film breaks away from the trappings of the stage and uses cut scenes to allow the viewer to be at two places at once. The cinematography and lighting are also beautiful, particularly in a sequence of scenes where a female undercover agent named Rose is searching Blizzard’s secret underground tunnels. The film also pushed the boundaries of acceptability at the time, featuring drug addicts knifing women and a nude model, things which would have not been allowed in the later years of the Hays Code.
The script is, for the most part, quite good, and improves upon the melodrama of the book. A motif of Satan’s fall from grace runs throughout and there are some choice lines uttered by the characters, such as when Blizzard states, as he plays the piano while a girl he wants to kill pushes the instrument’s pedals expertly, “I can murder anything but music.” Chaney’s acting is spotlighted in this scene as he goes from murderous rage to musical euphoria to contemplation and regret. And then there is this great line: “Don’t grieve for me, dear – death interests me.” The plot is often dark and makes one who loves the macabre excited to see where the story is heading.
And that’s when it falls apart. The tension and menacing story that builds for the first 80 minutes is suddenly, well, amputated in favor of a deus ex machina that leads to a sappy redemption story. The last ten minutes are unrealistic, hokey, and sour a lot of what had come before.
There are other elements that do not age well. Modern women will not appreciate Wilmot when he says to Barbara, as he tempts her away from her art, “True women need love, a home, children” – and they will certainly not appreciate the female character who then immediately concedes to marrying such a man. Barbara is a talented artist and both Wilmot and Dr. Ferris treat her as a miscreant for not giving it up to make babies. The more Wilmot was on screen the more I looked forward to seeing his legs sawed off. Blizzard is a villain, but he’s more sympathetic to a modern audience than these chauvinists. And before such criticism is dismissed due to the era in which it was made, it should be remembered that women were highly active in film throughout the 1910s (Mary Pickford co-founded United Artists in 1919) and many female characters were written as being strong and counter to the preceding Victorian mold, being independent and sometimes even saving the men. The Gibson Girls and the New Women were popular models for womanhood, emphasizing independence and education among females. This was also an era when film was more influenced by the sexually egalitarian world of the stage. After WWI, however, this began to change as movie budgets increased and the world of finance – a decidedly male world at that time – became more assertive. I can’t help but see a parallel between Barbara’s artistic impulse being suppressed and the time when women were beginning to be pushed out of the artistic realm of film. There was promise in the role of the undercover female agent, Rose, who at first is fearless and strong-willed before the character inexplicably becomes emotionally driven, swooning as a lovesick mess and bowing to the machismo of Chaney’s Blizzard.
And this is admittedly nitpicky to mention, but we also get an odd “sissy” archetype cameo that has no bearing on the plot. Such an archetype was already well known to audiences of 1920 even though it would not see its heyday until the 1930s. There isn’t much to say here other than that its inclusion solely provides an opportunity for Wilmot to bully one of Barbara’s artistic friends and solidify his alpha-male status. I’m not sure if we’re meant to dislike Wilmot for this or cheer him.
Attention should also be paid to the depiction of the handicapped in this film. Chaney’s Blizzard is clearly capable and self-reliant, but people react with distaste when they first see him as a cripple. In the pre-war novel, such sentiments are magnified and can say a lot about people’s sensibilities at the time, with lines such as, “Some pitied him because he was a cripple; others, upon suddenly discovering that he had no legs, were shocked with a sudden indecent hatred of him,” or “She forgot that he was a cripple, a thing soured and wicked.” Wilmot says of Blizzard that he “isn’t a man. He’s a gutter-dog, a gargoyle, half a man,” and after railing about his criminality goes on to add, “And at that – good God, you might stand it, if he was a whole man! But he isn’t. It’s horrible! He has no legs – and you want to stamp on him till he’s dead.” Such reactions to Blizzard are tempered in the film, though not entirely absent. To Chaney’s credit, though Blizzard is a killer, the actor manages to convey sympathy and understanding to the crime boss’s personal plight and his feelings of inadequacy. One can only imagine how Chaney’s depictions would have affected those veterans just returned from Europe only two years before, and would have “spoke suggestively of the impotent rage of maimed war veterans who were being assimilated back into society in unprecedented numbers” (Skal 65). It would not be the first amputee Chaney would effectively portray, and “although he never appeared in a movie in which his disfigurement was blamed on battle, his physical and mental victimization in story after story clearly struck a chord in this post-war audience” (Haberman 118). His later famous characters would also serve as ghostly reminders of the war, with Quasimodo and The Phantom both resembling the thousands of facially scarred veterans seen by bystanders in the Armistice Parades.
Finally, a few words must be said about Lon Chaney. He is without a doubt one of the greatest actors of all time and any fan of horror should be proud to count him among our disrespected pantheon. He was born to deaf and mute parents and learned from the start the importance of pantomime while cultivating an intense empathy for those who were different, which would no doubt affect the roles he chose and the way he chose to play them. He was considered a premier actor of his day and a pioneer in the field of make-up effects, even writing the 1929 entry for the subject in the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was very private, seldom giving interviews, and stayed out of Hollywood drama, preferring to entertain close friends at his home and spend time with his family. Unfortunately, he would pass away from cancer in 1930, perhaps from a flake of fake snow that lodged into his lungs while filming. Of course, most horror fans will know his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., who would play the title role in The Wolf Man in 1941 and in several sequels after.
Yet do a Google search for the best silent film actors and you’ll be unlikely to find him on a Top Ten” list. When people think of the silent era, they often think of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp or Buster Keaton’s stone-faced stoicism, men who finely crafted their personas and characters over many years, or a charismatic romantic like Rudolph Valentino. They were geniuses, absolutely, and what they achieved deserves reverence and remembrance. But Chaney took the opposite road, morphing himself into different characters continuously, becoming known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” unrecognizable behind makeup that still has the power to shock and awe. Perhaps because of this and his untimely passing at the dawn of “the talky” the general public has largely forgotten him. Of course, being an icon of horror means an artist will rarely receive the recognition they deserve from those outside the genre.
When I saw The Phantom of the Opera for the first time as a young man I was stunned by him, and in The Penalty Chaney gives all indication of the magic he would put to film in the decade to come. The final ten minutes of the film disappoint me, but Chaney never could.
A More Horrid Contrast: Mary Shelley and Her Monster
Let us begin where Mary Shelley began, with an excerpt from the novel:
IT WAS on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! — Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bed chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep. At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured; and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain: I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed: when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited; where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.
So begins Chapter 5 of Mary Shelley’s seminal debut novel, Frankenstein, begun when Shelley was 18-years-old and first published anonymously when she was twenty in 1818. What is striking about the passage is not only the description of the monster, but the ambiguity of its actions. One can easily take Victor Frankenstein’s interpretation at his word, that the creature was acting in a threatening manner and wished to accost him, but one may also easily read desperate, confused pleading in the monster’s open mouth and outstretched hand. More on that later. The road to the novel is nearly as legendary as its subject, and its examination, I feel, helps to shed light on the story’s creation.
Mary Shelley was born August 30, 1797, the daughter of two highly influential thinkers – the radical political philosopher William Godwin, whose writing, among other things, criticized aristocratic privilege, and Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote extensively of the French Revolution and most famously penned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), where she argued for the equality of intellect between the sexes and that women should be treated as rational beings and given the same educational opportunities as men. Sadly, the placenta broke and became infected during delivery, and Wollstonecraft died less than a month after Mary came into the world. Left to raise Mary on his own, Godwin encouraged her to take part in the lively and provocative political, philosophical, and scientific discussions that occurred within the house amongst a host of radical thinkers and she was given access to a bursting library, granting young Mary an advanced, if informal, educational foundation.
In 1814 she met the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a devotee of her father and a regular visitor, who was then estranged from his wife. They began to meet secretly at Wollstonecraft’s grave and quickly fell deeply in love. Despite Percy being the ideal embodiment of Godwin’s expressed ideals, her father disapproved of the relationship and essentially turned his back on his daughter, to her great surprise and disappointment (Godwin was in terrible debt and knew that Percy would not be able to help him if they married). Mary and Percy left England for mainland Europe and soon found themselves penniless and she, pregnant.
When they returned to England Percy was tending to the birth of his son from his first wife while Mary was left to care for their two-month premature newborn, with frequent visits by Percy’s friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg. On 6 March, Mary wrote to Hogg:
My dearest Hogg my baby is dead—will you come to see me as soon as you can. I wish to see you—It was perfectly well when I went to bed—I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did not find that out till morning—from its appearance it evidently died of convulsions—Will you come—you are so calm a creature & Shelley is afraid of a fever from the milk—for I am no longer a mother now.
Mary suffered bouts of acute depression after and had haunting visions of her baby. Nevertheless, she conceived again and gave birth to a son, William, named after her father, in January of 1816.
That summer, often referred to as the “Haunted Summer”, Mary, Percy, their child, and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, stayed with the libertine Romantic poet Lord Byron, whose flamboyant lifestyle, aristocratic excesses, and sexual fluidity made him notorious, on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. As evidence to his reputation, Clairmont was at the time pregnant with Byron’s child. Byron’s young physician, John Polidori, was also present. The penultimate evening is depicted with mixed success by the 1987 film Gothic.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
In the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Shelley wrote about that summer and of the circumstances of her novel’s germination:
In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighbours of Lord Byron. At first we spent our pleasant hours on the lake, or wandering on its shores… But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands…
‘We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us… Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole — what to see I forget — something very shocking and wrong of course… he did not know what to do with her, and was obliged to despatch her to the tomb of the Capulets, the only place for which she was fitted. The illustrious poets also, annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished the uncongenial task.
I busied myself to think of a story, — a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered — vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative…
Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and [Percy] Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin… who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.
Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handy-work, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.
I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story, — my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!
Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. ‘I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.’ On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story.
Frankenstein proved to be one of literature’s most influential works. Shelley combined Gothic horror with Romantic sensibilities, and in the process crafted one of the earliest examples of science fiction. It should be noted that Shelley was far more conventional in 1831, when she wrote the above introduction, than the young spitfire she had been in 1816 when she began the novel. Audiences have overwhelmingly read the tale as a cautionary one about the consequences of man playing God. In a 1978 introductory essay to the novel, Stephen King even writes:
The evil in Frankenstein is suggested by its subtitle, ‘The Modern Prometheus.’ Prometheus, bringer of fire, ended chained to a stone, his eyes pecked out by ravens – punishment for stealing what belonged to the gods. Frankenstein comes to a similar end – not in fire but in ice – for his temerity in usurping the power which belongs to God alone: the power to create life. (Signet Classic Edition, viii)
With all due respect to Mr. King, I can’t entirely agree with this assessment. Even despite Shelley’s mentions of the moral horrors of mocking the “Creator of the world” and even also of her fictional portrayal in the introduction of 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein where it is claimed that her wishes were “to write a moral lesson of the punishment that befell a moral man who dared to emulate God,” evidence suggests such concerns were likely far from Mary’s mind at the time. British literary critic Marilyn Butler writes of such moralizing that it “is not an impression easily left by the novel in its 1818 form” (303). In addition to the introduction quoted above, Mary Shelley also made major revisions to her tale for the 1831 publication, making the novel’s message quite different from its first iteration by adding long passages of Victor religiously moralizing. Thus, “our current understanding of Frankenstein is disproportionately impressed by passages introduced in what might be called a composite Frankenstein, the product of a decade and a half of religious-scientific controversy.” The artistic result is that the “urgent, unusual, brilliantly-imagined earlier book has been neutered or at best over-freighted with inessential additions” (304). Historian Mary Poovey also recognizes the contrast between young and older Mary, writing that “taken together, the two editions of Frankenstein provide a case study of the tensions inherent in the confrontation between Shelley associated, on the one hand, with her mother and Romantic originality and, on the other, with a textbook Proper Lady” (252). To help rid ourselves of this notion that Mary, in writing her novel, intended to show the folly of man trying to be God, we should consider that both of Mary’s parents, whom she strove to emulate, were nonbelievers and that Percy Shelley had been expelled from Oxford for writing the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism, and he even lost custody of his children from his first wife in the court’s because of his atheist views.
Bringing it back to Prometheus, he is a mythological figure whom the Romantics admired. Film scholar Lester D. Friedman and historian Allison B. Kavey write in their study, Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives, that both Byron and Percy Shelley “saw the Titan’s story as encapsulating the spirit of their turbulent age and his saga as a model for insurrection against entrenched and oppressive institutions, such as the church and monarchy” (73). In 1820 Percy Shelley would publish what many consider his masterpiece, the lyrical play Prometheus Unbound, which depicts the Titan as a hero, not a cautionary figure, and we should consider that much of Frankenstein was written via conversations between Mary and Percy. Additionally, Prometheus was not punished for creating man (which he did according to Ovid), but for stealing fire to try to care for him. Victor Frankenstein creates a new species of life, but unlike the Titan he has not the sense of responsibility to nurture and guide him. Therefore, “Victor’s reckless ambition and then refusal to take personal responsibility for his ‘offspring’ seal his fate and that of those he most loves” (Friedman and Kavey 74).
Instead of a muddled moral lesson against man striving to become God, Mary was actually more concerned with the changing structure of the contemporary scientific community, which was growing more organized and responsible, in contrast to the more haphazard and undisciplined legacy of the Renaissance natural philosophers. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is influenced by these Renaissance thinkers, who mixed natural philosophy with solitary pursuits and occultism, and shows little patience for modern science. Like earlier natural philosophers, Victor works alone and for personal glory, away from the restraining judgments of other scientists and society at large. Herein lies his folly. During the 1810s Mary was well aware of the changes going through the scientific community, where peer review was being stressed as well as the responsible use of science to benefit society. For “if Frankenstein deserves punishment for his actions… it is not desiring to ‘know what it feels like to be God’” as quoted by Colin Clive in the 1931 film version or “to ‘penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places’… , but rather for ignoring his fundamental obligations to the social order, for abandoning the restorative powers of friendship and love, and refusing to engage in a relationship that puts the needs of others – even his Creature – before his own” (Friedman and Kavy 76). Victor’s sin is not that he wishes to take power from God – for within traditional natural philosophy, if such knowledge were naturally attainable by man it would only serve to understand God better, for nothing can be taken from God – it is instead that he works divorced from peer judgement and is motivated by the desire for fame.
Other influences in the story include The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and especially Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), a verse from which Mary opens her novel’s title page:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee From darkness to promote me? (X. 743–5)
In Milton’s tale, Satan is depicted as a classical hero, and Frankenstein’s creation reads the epic poem and identifies with the character. It should be noted that Percy Shelley, in his introduction to Prometheus Unbound, writes, “The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan.” Both embody the spirit of rebellion, and so such a view can serve to further blur the line as to which character the novel’s subtitle refers, is it the creator, or his creation?
Given Mary’s history of loss and grief, it is perhaps not surprising that Frankenstein deals so powerfully with such themes as birth, death, and immortality. The creature is motherless, just as was Mary. The creature seeks the approval of his creator just as Mary sought the approval of her father. Further tragedies would no doubt influence the novel as it was written. William Godwin had given his children happy childhoods, but as debts continued to grow he grew increasingly angrier. Mary and Claire had escaped the household, but they left behind their half-sister, Fanny, who was left to deal with the brunt of his bitterness. She committed suicide later that year, in October of 1816. On December 30 the pregnant corpse of Percy’s first wife was found floating in a lake in London. She had drowned herself. After the novel was published the cruel fates were not done with Mary. As she and Percy toured Italy both of their two children died and Mary’s severe depression alienated her from Percy, who wrote in his notebook:
My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone, And left me in this dreary world alone? Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one— But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode. For thine own sake I cannot follow thee Do thou return for mine.
They did succeed in having one more child 1819 who lived to old age, but Percy Shelley would not live to see his son grow. He drowned at sea three years later in 1822, at the age of 29.
Mary would continue to write novels, but Frankenstein remains the most powerful and lasting of her creations, written at a time of emotional turmoil and intellectual daring. The earliest critical receptions were largely negative, likely from the novel’s unconventional contents but also stemming in part from speculation as to the anonymous author’s identity. When Mary’s name was printed on the 1822 edition, many dismissed the novel on the pretense that it was authored by a woman. One writer in the British Critic writes: “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.” Still others discussed her only in terms of her not reaching the heights of her esteemed father. Nevertheless, over time the novel’s recognition as a major literary achievement, and of Mary Shelley as an artist of stature, rapidly increased, and despite what the critic’s spewed the novel was immediately popular.
In 1823 Richard Brinsley Peake’s adapted the work for the stage, entitling it Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, and it was seen by Mary Shelley and her father at the English Opera House. Another play followed in 1826. Mary Shelley’s final years were characterized by bouts of illness and paralysis. A brain tumor was suspected. She died in 1851 at the age of 53.
Nearly six decades later, the first film adaptation was produced by Edison Studios in 1910, and it stars Charles Ogle in a fright wig and padded outfit as the creature. Describing itself as “a liberal adaptation of Mrs. Shelley’s famous story”, the plot takes more inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). The Edison Kinetogram explains: “In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Whenever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of elimination what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.” In this version the creature is created with fiery chemicals and is ultimately a counterpart of his creator, finally disappearing into the nether when beholding its own reflection. Two more now lost films were made in 1915 and 1920.
Following the immense success of Dracula in 1931, Universal Studios quickly went about adapting Frankenstein for the screen, this time helmed by James Whale. Combining the aesthetics of German Expressionism with American Romanticism, and taking obvious influence from 1920’s The Golem and 1926’s The Magician, both which starred Paul Wegener, it is considered one of the era’s greatest horror films. Nevertheless, Whale changes much from Shelley’s creation. Instead of a highly intelligent and loquacious creature, Frankenstein’s monster is childlike, mute, and lumbering. Still, however, Whale retains an understanding sympathy for it and lays at least part of the blame for its more violent behavior at the feet of its neglectful creator. The make up by Jack Pierce and performance by Boris Karloff made the character undeniably iconic, even overshadowing Shelley’s creation in the popular imagination.
Whale followed with a sequel in 1935, The Bride of Frankenstein, giving audiences an even more artistically accomplished achievement, allowing moments of levity but also of horror, and bestowing another icon onto the world even though Elsa Lanchester, who plays the Bride, is only on screen for the final minutes. Nevertheless, her striped, towering hair, wrapped clothing, and bird-like stares are instantly recognizable. The creature would go on to appear in six more Universal horror films:
Son of Frankenstein (1939), also with Karloff.
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), with Lon Chaney, Jr.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), with Béla Lugosi.
House of Frankenstein (1944) with Glenn Strange.
House of Dracula (1945), again with Strange.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), with Strange.
Hammer Films revived the doctor and monster in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein, with Christopher Lee playing the creature and Peter Cushing playing the malevolent creator. Six more films would follow. The story has appeared in countless other forms, some serious and some comical, some successful and others not, including I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Frankenhooker (1990), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), the Tim Burton films Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Frankenweenie (2012), and Victor Frankenstein and the simply named Frankenstein, both from 2015. This list, which is only a fraction of the adaptations or parodies which have spawn from Shelley’s nightmare at the Villa Diodati, speaks to the longevity and power of the source material.
To return once again to Stephen King, in his book Danse Macabre he identifies the Frankenstein story, along with Dracula and Wolfman, as archetypal tales which have had the greatest influence on twentieth century – and we can add twenty-first century – horror. He refers to it as “The Thing Without A Name” – horrific creations which run amok against the status quo and our innate, and no doubt highly prejudiced, sense of decency. The name Frankenstein has itself become an adjective to describe conspicuously assembled parts or a Frankenstein’s Monster as being a creation which has dangerously been loosed from the control of its creator.
But beyond this, Mary Shelley’s story, and certainly James Whale’s films, allow us the opportunity to look into ourselves at the risk of seeing a monstrous reflection. Our own hubris, irresponsibility, and indeed apathy, create and allow to persist horrors the world over, from genocides to H-Bombs to the extinction of species to the ability to all too easily change the channel when confronted with these uncomfortable truths. When we look upon Karloff’s face in the monster makeup, what do we see? The mistake of one man who dared to challenge God’s authority? I hope not. After all, people create life all the time – my wife and I have done it twice, though admittedly she did all the hard work.
I see a challenge. Can we treat that which we don’t understand, which to us fails to fit within the fragile molds of beauty to which we’ve been conditioned, with kindness? Can we resist crushing the spider which unknowingly surprises us on the bathroom tiles? Can we look upon the “other” with compassion, and recognize its outstretched hand not as a threat but as an opportunity to be more than our instinctual programming to fight or to flee? Frankenstein failed this test and the result was the hateful destruction of everything he loved. Hopefully we and our children will fare better. I hope that we grow beyond the angry mobs who swarm the structures in the Frankenstein films, and see a kindred intelligence and emotion in the eyes of those who we don’t immediately recognize as being a part of our tribe, whether political, cultural, or special. But my hope is only very loosely tethered to my knowledge of history and the monsters that mankind can become, and it threatens to unravel each day.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
In The Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius toasts, “To a new world of gods and monsters!”
From my view, gods and monsters we already are.
Selected Works Cited
Butler, Marilyn. “Frankenstein and Radical Science.” Frankenstein, edited by J. Paul Hunter, Norton Critical, 1996.
Do you enjoy playing board games with friends? Do you frequent Ren Faires wearing garb? Was or is Dungeons & Dragons a source of fond memories for you? If you can’t answer “yes” to at least two of these questions, 2016’s 13 Demons is not the film for you.
The low-budget film revolves around three geeky slackers who come into possession of an old board game which had been banned years ago, as it was believed to have contributed to a string of odd murders. The film cuts between the trio getting high and playing the game, to losing themselves within the game’s narrative, while also showing two of them later on being interrogated by police, covered in blood and believing themselves to be Golden Paladins on a mission to slay demons.
The plot of a board game connected to strange deaths conjures the memory of the hysteria surrounding D&D in early 1980s, exemplified in the strange made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters (1982), starring Tom Hanks in one of his earliest film roles. That film depicts a college student who loses touch with reality while playing an RPG, and generally suggests that people are compelled to play such games due to an unfulfillment of deep psychological needs. It was based on a fictionalized adaptation of the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, a college student who disappeared and subsequently committed suicide, but whose motivations were inaccurately reported in the media as being linked to playing D&D. The 1988 murder of Lieth Peter Von Stein by his step-son also had true crime adaptations written and filmed about it which tried to link D&D to the crime. Let us not forget as well the many Christian groups who have linked the RPG to devil worship and witchcraft, especially during the years of the Satanic Panic.
13 Demons was no doubt inspired at least in part by D&D’s reputation during that time, though in a far more superficial sense than what I detailed above. It’s a film with an intriguing premise, however, as a piece of entertainment it barely misses being a critical failure. The fantasy scenes are distractingly unconvincing, with poor demon makeup, bad choreography, and an epilepsy-inducing amount of flashing lights. The film builds to a third act and botches the roll, ending the film abruptly after an unintentionally comical exchange of two characters repeatedly yelling back and forth at each other, “It’s a game!” “It’s not a game!”
13 Demons is not a good film, but I’m not writing a review of it to shit on it. The thing is, I can answer “yes” to all of the questions I posed before, and the film is written for and about a very particular geek demographic of which I am a part. These are characters I recognize as I drink beers and play board games into the night with friends (I even host a charity gaming marathon at my home in the summer), or take my kids to the Ren Faire, or look back fondly at those high school and college nights playing tabletop RPGs and, even now, crave an opportunity to try out D&D 5th Edition. My friends and I are more well-adjusted adults than the film’s central characters, but I feel I understand what the filmmaker was going for even if it doesn’t reach a modicum of the premise’s potential.
That being said, there were aspects I rather enjoyed. The gradual transformation of the characters is fairly well done, and I liked the scenes where their voices change and the game pieces move of their own accord. The game’s text, read aloud by the characters, is actually decently written and engaging. The score, of both contemporary and medieval-style music, was excellent. In terms of gaming as a central premise, I think it understands the early 1980’s fantasy games better than 2016’s Beyond the Gates understood the VHS board games it sought to emulate. Had certain aspects been better handled, the film would have been something which I would be more compelled to recommend. For instance, I feel it would have been better if more mystery was left as to what was going on, if it played more with perceptions and ambiguity while upping the violence to effectively portray these characters’ acts. In short, there’s potential that’s been discovered here but that’s gone unmined.
Would I recommend 13 Demons to another fantasy-gaming geek? Not really. It’s not a successful film but I can’t bring myself to fully dislike it. If you recognize yourself in anything I’ve described, you may want to check it out. But if you’ve never even heard the name Gary Gygax, you are not the audience for this film.
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.
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.