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.
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.
The following was written for episode 26 of The HorrorCast Podcast, where Marknado, Walshy, and I delved into Universal’s first three Dracula films, 1931’s Dracula, 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, and 1943’s Son of Dracula. The full episode can be listened to through iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud through the Phantom Podcast Network.
Legends of vampires and their countless variations can be found worldwide and they essentially share the same basic formula: a corpse rises from the grave to drain the blood of the living. Certain beliefs surrounding the vampire are likely the result of a misunderstanding of the decaying process: blood trickling from mouths of a corpse is actually decaying fluid leaving the orifices, drawn back lips emphasize the canines, gases can create a hazy, ghostly-looking fog over recently buried graves. If someone had a dream that the recently deceased returned, should they open the grave they would find ample evidence that the dearly departed has been up to some iron-infused shenanigans. The remedy was generally to stake the body – not to kill it but to nail it to the coffin, and to cut off the head and place it by the feet so the reanimated corpse couldn’t sit up to retrieve it. Sometimes the ribs would be broken to fetch the heart to burn it or a brick was placed in the mouth to keep it from feeding. In movies, and in particular Dracula films, these practices are seen as long forgotten and archaic remnants found only in the remotest reaches of Eastern Europe. However, few realize that these practices happened in America too, including in my own home state of Connecticut (in Griswold and Jewett City) where many bodies have been excavated and found to have been desecrated in a manner consistent with vampire killing. These bodies date from the 1830s and 1850s – hardly ancient history.
And of course, blood has always been seen as life-giving, from the Aztecs painting their temples with it to appease the Sun-god so as to make him rise to the Countess Elizabeth Bathory bathing in young women’s blood to attain everlasting youth.
The vampire was conceived in literary form on the same stormy night as Frankenstein’s abomination. While Mary Shelley planted seeds of her masterwork her host Lord Byron conjured up a vampiric tale. His doctor, John Polidori, took the reins and published The Vampyre in 1819. The vampire seemed modeled on the libertine Byron himself and no doubt influenced Stoker in his creation of the Transylvanian aristocrat. Female sexuality of a particularly lesbian variety entered vampire literature in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, published in 1872.
Stoker took inspiration from these earlier works and created one of the single most iconic characters in all of fiction. No other novel has been adapted for the screen than Dracula, published in 1897, on the cusp of the 20th Century, and only Sherlock Holmes has appeared as a character more often. Rather than a backward looking work of fiction, as many adaptations have seemed to characterize it, Dracula was actually a novel that dealt very much with new technology entering contemporary life. Victorians were obsessed with the idea of progress and civilization in opposition to our base humanity and our beastial desires. Robert Louis Stevenson tapped into this in his 1886 The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Instead of one man’s struggle, Stoker pits modern civilization and its gadgets against an ancient evil, bred from the shadows of superstition, which has come to prey upon and corrupt good, sensible Englishmen and, of course, English women and their delicate, chaste sensibilities. Unfortunately too few films depict the best parts of Stoker’s novel, such as Lucy Westenra’s transformation into the “Bloofer Lady”, preying upon children.
Dracula, at least in name, first appeared on film in the now lost 1921 Death of Dracula, a Hungarian film which bore little to no resemblance to Stoker’s tale. The first true adaptation was F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, Nosferatu, with Max Schreck playing the iconic, rat-like Count Orlok. Murnau keeps the basic structure and makes Dracula even more animal-like than he is in the novel. Unfortunately for the brilliant filmmaker, the adaptation was unauthorized and he lost a legal battle with Stoker’s widow, and all copies were ordered destroyed. Of course, not all copies were and we can still enjoy this haunting masterpiece today.
In the 1920s Stoker’s novel was adapted for the stage and became a smash hit. Carl Laemmle Jr., who had recently been given control over productions at Universal, had a love for horror that his father didn’t share. Jr.’s first big project was to put Dracula on the big screen, and soon investors were excited when director Tod Browning and the celebrated Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney, both signed on. Unfortunately, Chaney died of a throat hemorrhage before filming could begin, and the studio settled for the very cheap Bela Lugosi to play the Count, a role which he had played to great acclaim on the stage. The film would take its cues from the Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston stage version, stripping the story down to its barest elements. Though certainly not the strongest of Universal’s horror films of the era, 1931’s Dracula is the first talky horror film and gave us so many of the Gothic tropes we’ve come to associate with the genre – elements like spooky castles, cobwebs, and bats which would have been familiar to 19th Century Gothic literature but had yet to make their proper debut in American film. It also marks the first American horror film which plays the supernatural straight – Dracula is not an imposter, and this is not a dream. American films had had a habit of explaining away the supernatural through worldly means, unlike their European counterparts.
Dracula was an enormous financial success and Bela Lugosi became the defining image – in looks, sound, and manner – of the Count, despite being more suave and debonaire than the literary version. The theme of an aristocrat exploiting and preying upon working class victims struck Depression era audiences, however subliminally. Lugosi’s vampire was a mix of Stoker’s creation and the sexual connotations that the word “vampire” had in film up until that point. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s “vamps” were predatory, seductive women – Lugosi created the predatory, seductive man. It appeared to work, as women fawned over Lugosi, and even the actress Clara Bow initiated a sexual affair with him.
The film would spawn multiple sequels: Dracula’s Daughter (1936), starring Gloria Holden; Son of Dracula (1943), with Lon Chaney, Jr.; House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), both with John Carradine; Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), with Lugosi once again donning the iconic cape.
For a decade after, the character Dracula lay mostly dormant before being resurrected in vivid colors by Hammer films, this time being depicted by Christopher Lee. Adding more blood, fangs, and, thank the dark lords, cleavage, increased the coupling of sexuality and violence – is there really any wonder as to why Dracula has remained so popular?
The Hammer cycle would last nearly two decades before Universal again returned to the Count for 1979’s Dracula, starring Frank Langella in the Count’s most romantic, reputably sexiest outing – and the farthest cry yet from Stoker’s ugly, almost beastial creation. The same year saw Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu. In between, Dracula would battle everyone from Billy the Kid to Batman, and even receive a blacksploitation counterpart in the form of William Marshall as Blacula (1972). Dracula or his likeness (or at least Bela Lugosi’s likeness) have appeared in every other form of media, from television to comic books. In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola produced and directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula starring Gary Oldman, with stunning visuals and an operatic sensibility, it remains one of my personal favorites.
Dracula is a character that is redefined for every generation – sometimes he’s sympathetic, even attractive, and sometimes he’s a repulsive monster. Vampires reflect different fears at different times, from Victorian fears of damnation through the sinful temptations of the flesh to more modern fears of sexually transmitted diseases or commentaries on class conflict, where a parasitic oligarchy drains the life and resources of the lower classes.
In the 1920s Sigmund Freud introduced two opposing concepts that would come to be called Eros and Thanatos, Eros being the drive for survival, sex, and other creative pursuits and Thanatos being the death drive, which goes against our instinct of self-preservation and leads us to acts that would bring about our demise. Like many of Freud’s ideas, controversy surrounds this concept today, but it nevertheless has a poetic element which at least in part seems to ring true, and perhaps no monster offers a corporeal form to these contrary but nevertheless powerful drives more than the damned, cold-wrapped corpse of the vampire.
Vampires can both repel and attract us. Despite knowing it’s wrong, that hurting people just to perpetuate our own existence or to satisfy our urges is morally reprehensible, there’s that part of us that considers giving into the curiosity, even at the peril of our life, soul, should it exist, or ethical self-worth. Perhaps an undeath outside of God’s salvation is worth the promise of immortality, power, and profound appetites with the abundant resources to satiate them. Light, after all, can be oppressive, exposing, judgmental, whereas the dark can offer freedom, obscurity, and solace. If Milton can make a hero of Satan in Paradise Lost, can we not make a hero of the vampire? What other monster do we regard with as much fear as we do jealousy? Who better embodies these contradictions more than the Count himself, Dracula?
Billy Wilder was a much loved American filmmaker, writing and directing numerous classics, including Sunset Blvd. (1950), Some Like It Hot (1959), and one of my personal favorites of the romance genre, The Apartment (1960). His brother, W. Lee Wilder… not so much. Which brings us to 1954’s Killers from Space, produced by Lee Wilder’s independent film company, Planet Filmplays, for distribution by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Peter “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” Graves, Killers from Space is a sci-fi/horror most memorable for its goofy looking aliens, whose sole make-up effect consisted of buggy eyes which looked to be made from Ping-Pong balls. In many ways this is a prototypical 1950s drive-in film replete with atomic fears, giant insects and reptiles, naïve scientific notions, and obvious miniature models. Unfortunately, no doubt due to its minuscule budget, the aliens have a penchant for talking… and talking… and talking some more to fill up the run time. Still, it’s got a decent ending.
Killers from Space is a bad movie that’s still a good time if you’re in the right mood and of the right persuasion. Had it been better produced, I suspect it would have gone down on those essential lists of indispensable 1950s sci-fi classics.
Horror’s “Worst” Films – Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
Poor Stirling Silliphant, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter. We thought we had left him behind after his vicarious relationship to 1964’s The Creeping Terror, but the trickster Deities of Terrible Movies were not done with him. While in a Texas coffee shop he happened to bump into local fertilizer salesman and amateur thespian Harold P. Warren, with whom he was friendly. Warren declared to Silliphant that anyone could make a horror movie and went so far as to bet him that in fact he could do so, and he immediately began sketching his ideas on the coffee shop’s napkins. His story, taking some obvious cues from Dracula, involves a family who becomes lost while on vacation and end up at a remote home which houses a nefarious cult. The film was tentatively titled The Lodge of Sins, however, during post-production Warren changed it. The first clue for viewers that what they are about to see is incompetent is the movie’s final title, Manos: The Hands of Fate, which translates with ludicrous redundancy to Hands: The Hands of Fate.
Warren set about gathering his cast from the local theater, including John Reynolds as Torgo and Tom Neyman as The Master, and young women from a local modeling agency to play The Master’s wives. Also prominent is the beautiful Diane Mahree as Margaret. Warren, not surprisingly, cast himself as the film’s hero, Hal. Not having enough money to pay his cast, he instead promised them a share in the profits. Warren’s hand-wound camera could only record 32 seconds at a time and sounds were added, incompetently, during post-production, by only a very few people.
The resulting film is one of the most tedious cinematic experiences of my life. Never have 70 minutes felt so long. Manos abounds with slothful driving sequences (which Warren had intended to use for credits, but never did), frustratingly poor editing (with the clapper visible at one point), and the camera lingering uncomfortably long on actors, who sometimes appear just as frustrated. The plot is largely incoherent, especially as Hal bullies his way into a clearly dangerous situation, and as I write this shortly after seeing the film I’ve already forgotten most of it. The pacing is dull and the experience soporific. I felt that had I been dying while watching it the result would be similar to the effect which mesmerism had on the title character of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), with me also in a permanent hypnotic state upon the edge of oblivion, unable to leave consciousness, but instead of talking with surrounding physicians I would be forever watching Torgo’s maddeningly twitching face.
I’d take the fate of the Lament Configuration over this any day. The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) was a disjointed snooze, but at least it was brightly lit enough to see what was (or wasn’t) happening. Add to this a superfluous scene of two teens making out (one of the models broke her leg so Warren reused her here) and being hassled by the cops, and other shots that are confounding in their unnecessity, and the experience becomes ever more trying. At the least the mind-boggling cat fight between the wives is sort of entertaining.
However, I’ve yet to fully explain the worst aspect of Manos. John Reynolds’s Torgo is one of the most infuriating performances I have ever watched, with his erratic mannerisms and his awkward waddling with cartoonish swollen thighs (he’s supposed to be a satyr, but that never comes across in the film). Reynolds is like a man on drugs – in fact, he is a man on drugs. He was high on LSD while filming, and it shows. The aggravating, stuttering voice-over work doesn’t help matters. As I watched Torgo I couldn’t help but be reminded of a porn VHS tape from the early 80s I somehow once got a hold of when I was young. There was a scene in which the performers were clearly out of their minds with drugs, saying their lines over each other with no rhyme or reason. One of the women forgot all about the set up dialogue and began immediately fellating the delivery guy while he was still trying to remember and deliver his lines in pathetically slurred speech, swaying drunkenly in the doorway. It took him five minutes to realize the sex had already begun. At that pubescent age my libido was on a hair trigger, but even then I could only look on uncomfortably until I finally shook myself from my stupor and hit the fast-forward button. Watching Reynolds struggle through his lines produced a very similar effect.
Reynolds was ultimately a tragic figure who didn’t live to see the film’s premiere. As Bob Guidry, the Director of Cinematography, once explained: “He killed himself about six months after the movie was finished. John was a troubled kid; he didn’t really get along with his dad, who was an Air Force colonel, and he got into experimenting with LSD. It’s a shame, because he was really a talented young actor.”
Because at rare moments the universe is a just place, the local premiere of Manos: The Hands of Fate was not met with glowing reviews and the film fell largely into obscurity until Mystery Science Theater 3000 resurrected it for their show in 1993. If one is as morbidly curious as I was to see this film, I strongly suggest you do so with the help of the MST3K team, because even if with their remarks this film is still an absolute endurance test.
As I watched 2013’s Cheap Thrills, from E. L. Katz in his directorial debut, I kept hearing the voice of Walter Sobchak: “You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me. There are ways, Dude. You don’t wanna know about it, believe me… Hell, I can get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon… with nail polish.” Both The Big Lebowski (1998) and Katz’s film can lead one to ask the same question: How much is a toe worth? Or, for that matter, any appendage? Or one’s health, self-respect, and reputation? What’s the price tag on your body and dignity?
Cheap Thrills tells the story of two financially strapped old friends who meet a wealthy couple ready to dole out cash to whoever is willing to subject themselves to increasingly dangerous, morally questionable behavior. I was skeptical at first as to how well Katz would be able to keep the premise/gimmick going, but he succeeds in creating a darkly humorous, tension-filled experience based on a smart script by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo. The cast, which includes Pat Healy, Sara Paxton, Ethan Embry, and David Koechner, are all superb in their roles, embodying well-rounded characters who act as realistic as can be expected throughout the film, as greed for money or power pushes their ethical limits to their frontiers.
Each dare grows organically and each monetary amount, while not paltry, is hardly enough to solve the men’s financial problems, at least in the long term. The rich couple is bored – their wealth has given them all their desires, and now they’re desensitized. Their enjoyment comes from exploiting the underclass and turning it against itself. Certainly, a metaphor could be read into this regarding American capitalism and the insurmountable chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots, and the way the former side manipulates and misuses the latter. The blue-collar men compete to demean themselves, and they find victory in their meager spoils. The question becomes, ultimately, can one be said to have truly succeeded when one’s integrity and moral character has been compromised?
In the end, Cheap Thrills is oddly poignant. That every character acts of their own volition makes the proceedings more striking and, sadly, somehow more believable.
1926’s Midnight Faces is another entry into the “old dark house” subgenre, and is heavily influenced by The Bat, which had a tremendously successful run on Broadway beginning in 1920 and a film version which came out also in 1926. By comparison, Midnight Faces is a rather cheap imitation. Though the film is classified as a horror-thriller, comedy could easily be added to its descriptors.
The plot involves a young man, played by Francis X. Bushman, Jr., who inherits a mansion from his uncle which is nestled in a dismal Florida swamp. Though the house is supposed to be empty we see an intruder enter, and soon after the servants arrive it becomes apparent that threats are hiding within the dark recesses and behind secret passageways.
The movie has not aged well. The writing is rudimentary and mostly implausible nonsense and is overly reliant on stereotypes and genre tropes. As comic relief the film provides the character of Trohelius Snapp, played by Martin Turner, the loyal manservant to the protagonist. Turner was a talented physical comic who is nonetheless trapped in the racist stereotype of the black buffoon, spooked by every creak and bump and unable to exert self-control over his fear. He is not alone in the paper-thin tropes, as we have a Fu Manchu-looking Asian and a black cape-wearing prowler to add to the warmed-over stew. The director, Bennett Cohen, borrows heavily if not entirely successfully from Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu with its use of disembodied shadows grasping and reaching along walls and fixtures.
In the end, Midnight Faces is sometimes fun, most times flawed, and ultimately forgettable.