Daughter of Horror (1955): In the Shadows

“It stirred my blood and cleansed my libido.” —Preston Sturges on Daughter of Horror

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As I sit down to write this, I want you to know that I’m rubbing my hands together gleefully and cackling like a mad scientist about to unleash some freakish terror upon the world. Because today I’m going to introduce you to one of the weirdest, most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. And I watch Dwain Esper movies for kicks.

Reader, meet Daughter of Horror. She’s the bastard child of Salvador Dali and Ed Wood. Or maybe H. P. Lovecraft and Mickey Spillane. This 1955 avant-garde independent film drags us through the nightmares and misadventures of an androgynous delinquent chick, “the Gamin,” as she ventures from her hotel bedroom to prowl down mazelike streets. Over the course of one night, she’s nearly assaulted by a drunken bum, gets pimped out to a fat man, commits a crime, and slips in and out of many hallucinations. But where can we draw the line between madness and the squalid horrors of reality?

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Directed by the obscure John Parker and written by Z-grade producer/director Bruno Ve Sota (although there’s some debate as to who really deserves artistic credit), this oily, shoestring-cheap horror-noir contains not one line of dialogue. Yep, we’re dealing with a strangely contradictory silent film with a soundtrack. Apart from a few diegetic sounds—essentials like sobs, screams, laughter, and gunshots—you mostly hear a ghoulish atonal score by modernist composer George Antheil, filled with foreboding jazz and the occasional soprano wail.

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And—here’s the real boon—there’s the occasional passage of voice-over narration by none other than Ed McMahon, who intones a menacing, ironic commentary over the violence of the action and the Gamin’s psychotic breaks. From what I understand, the original cut of the film, called Dementia, didn’t have that voice-over, but I like it. Most critics have argued that the narration detracts from the integrity of the film.

I would differ—it’s like a parody of Hollywood’s typically ethereal depiction of schizophrenia or characters who start “hearing voices.” Instead of the ghostly whispers of poetic insanity, the Gamin is haunted by an out-of-control melodramatic TV narration. The voice peppers the film with choice remarks like, “Yes, I am here. The demon that possesses your soul. Wait a bit. I have so much to show you. So much that you are afraid to see.” If I ever start hearing an unseen game show host announcer chiming in to narrate my unconscious, I will know that I’ve finally descended into madness. (I’m expecting that voice any day now.)

The muffled, doom-impregnated ambiance of Daughter of Horror truly escapes words. It digs up a seedy universe that’s at once utterly unreal and much more gritty and recognizable than the sanitized sordidness of most films noirs. Grotesques populate its dark corridors, mutant people who scuttle around in the night, like bedbugs on a cheap mattress.

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The usual mechanisms of character identification grind to a halt. We struggle to form an attachment to the Gamin, since she’s all we have, but she’s inscrutable at best and monstrous at worse. We’re estranged from the Gamin just as she’s estranged from herself. This sense of alienation and neediness, of not being able to relate to the movie in a usual manner, plunges the viewer into a state of ambivalent confusion and unease.

Indeed, whereas film noir tends to lure us in with its smoke-ring glamour, Daughter of Horror keeps us perpetually at an arms length, disgusted but transfixed. It compels us to keep watching out of a balance of sheer unease and shock—from the very beginning, we know, as we do in nightmares, that something bad is going to happen. We’re only partially right. Lots of bad things are going to happen.

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To classify this film as one of Caligari’s children would be to state the obvious; what’s fascinating is how the Gamin fuses the somnambulistic monster, the vile murderer, and the heroine in distress all into one disturbed personality. Freudian overtones also crowd into this dark night of the soul. For instance, the Gamin’s flashback to her ugly childhood with a brutish father and a trampy, self-absorbed mother takes place in a graveyard, no less, which the characters inhabit as though it were their living room.

Although the Gamin’s father died a long time ago, he returns from the grave as a sort of guilt complex incarnate—he appears as a leering patron at a sleazy restaurant and later takes the form of the policeman hunting the Gamin down. Heavy-handed? No doubt, but still powerful and frightening.

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Whereas standard Hollywood flicks incorporated psychoanalysis as a means of explaining away complexes, as a kind of tool to decipher the world and make it safer, Daughter of Horror plunges us into a forest of smirking symbols. In this twisted cosmos, a cigar is never just a cigar.

Though drawn in broad, blown-up strokes, this movie still surprises you with subtle allusions and amusing touches. The generally transfixing cinematography shows what veteran director of photography William C. Thompson (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glen or Glenda) could do when not saddled with Ed Wood’s trashy, inept vision. The film begins with a shot of a city at night with a flashing sign that reminds me very much of the flashing sign skyline opening of Hitchcock’s The Lodger. After that, we cut to a track-in camera movement that creeps past a flashing HOTEL sign into the cheap rented room of our sleeping heroine, where she clutches the bedclothes in the throes of a bad dream. The movie ends with a parallel camera movement, drifting away from the room, before cutting back to that chasm of starry sky. What fearful symmetry!

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Leer Cam! The camera slips inside of the room where the Gamin is dreaming… then right into her consciousness.

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If the lecherous fat man who picks up the Gamin resembles Orson Welles, as some have noted, the film also references Welles’ style with shots of striking depth, presenting multiple points of interest. In one of my favorite, the fat man gnaws away at a chicken leg while, in the background, the Gamin displays her own shapely legs as a temptation, then sneers when the corpulent creature keeps on chowing down.

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This bizarro gem of a movie not only borrowed bits and pieces from great filmmakers, but also foreshadowed future masterpieces. Those track-ins on the hotel recall the probing high angle shots that you see at the start of Psycho. And you’ll definitely recognize the whole smoky, grungy atmosphere of Daughter of Horror in Touch of Evil—they were both films at Venice Beach, California.

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So, today I’d like to invite you into this forbidding terrain of vast, cavernous spaces and hole-in-the-wall bars, of predatory men and even more predatory women. I offer you a superb, if sometimes clunky, wide-awake nightmare.

This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie! 

Avant Glam: Hollywood Portraits and Surrealism

      

Which of these does not belong? From left to right: Joan Crawford by George Hurrell, Katie Holmes (apparently with a migrane) by Solve Sundsbo from the 2008 Holiday Issue of T Magazine, Hedy Lamarr also by Hurrell.

Today, whenever a magazine wants to channel the “classic Hollywood” vibe, the editorial staff thinks best to conjure up the era with an imitation of the Hurrell chiaroscuro paired up with a current celebrity, be it Angelina Jolie or Britney Spears, and act like they’ve captured the essence of the archetypal glam shot.

But something’s always missing. What exactly? Well, it does relate to the fact that they’re just not photographing stars with one iota of the charisma and untouchability they had in the olden days. “They had faces then,” declares Norma Desmond and she was right. Nevertheless, in my mind, it’s not just the they-don’t-make-stars-like-they-used-to attitude that accounts for why the homage so often falls short of the original.

No: there’s a subtle quality that makes many real old Hollywood glam shots so much more engaging, hypnotic and…for lack of a better word, trippythan their modern counterparts.

A subtly surreal texture infuses these images, beyond even the fetishist focus on the face or body that seems to exist in some kind glamorous limbo. Strange details, odd, angles, and inexplicable, looming shadows that call forth an uneasy tension between the star and something grim, dead, dizzily abstract, or just plain weird.

Now, please do note that I am not trying to say that surrealism influenced the photographers who sustained the Dream Machine with pictures like you’ll see below. That would be 1) obvious; 2) beyond the scope of this blog; and 3) pretty boring. Instead, I hope that the series of images I’ve put together will encourage you to reflect on the way of seeing and looking that classic Hollywood produced, which even I can sometimes take for granted but which I consider every bit as provocative, modern, and unsettling as avant-garde art. I used a lot of Hurrell shots because he was one of the most instrumental photographers in “branding” and perfecting the unique feel of the Hollywood glam shot, but I also threw in a few less-than-famous shots just to show how pervasive the aesthetic was.

These pictures seduce us, but don’t always ask us to realize how and why we’ve been seduced. They efface their own charm and wit. I think they deserve credit not just for their beauty but also for these visionary traits.

I went about coming up with this blog post by following a method that I’d describe as somewhat surrealist: I saw a few images of old time movie stars that slapped me across the face with their exoticism and eccentricity so I started searching for more and collecting files of the portraits that exuded that same surreal aura. I warn you: it’s an idiosyncratic collection more than anything else. A collage.

So, rather than write too much (too late!), I’ll let the pictures give you their thousand-words-worth.

Masklike

Clara Bow

(c. 1920s ? I chanced across this photo—such is the surreal nature of the Internet—and cannot find anything about it in any language I speak. The strangest thing, though, is that the star’s face serves as all the provenance I need. I believe that the mask is a commedia dell’arte copy, but am no expert.)

“Noire et Blanche”

(Man Ray, 1926; the woman is Kiki de Montparnasse who “starred” in Ballet Méchanique)

Handled

Carole Lombard

(I’d say very early 1930s, just by the Crawford-ish look that Carole had in that period, but I have no clue what the hands have to do with anything.)

Dora Maar

(By Man Ray. N.B. Dora Maar also did at least one surreal hand photo herself that’s worth looking at.)

Rapunzel meets Ophelia: Floating Hair

Veronica Lake

(George Hurrell, 1941)

“Woman with Long Hair”

(Man Ray, 1929)

Fur-Bearing Curiosities

Joan Crawford

(Also by Hurrell, 1932)

“Le Déjeuner en Fourrure”

(Object by Meret Oppenheim, 1936)

Stop the Clocks

Adele Mara as a human sundial

(c. early 1940s. Again, details are not forthcoming. Mara, though, is quite an interesting dame—sort of a poor man’s Rita Hayworth—about whom you might like to read.)

“The Persistence of Memory”

(Salvador Dalí, 1931)

Space-Age Glampots

Clara Bow

(George P. Hommel, 1929)

Lee Miller

(Man Ray , c. 1930)

Subtle Distortions

For this final comparison, I will need to wade again into the muddy waters of analysis so I will revert to my old wordy ways. No, please, please don’t close the tab! Don’t touch the keypad! Okay, take a long look at these images:

Betty Grable

(Frank Powolny, 1943)

La Fourchette

(André Ketesz, 1928)

Unlike the other pairs, the link between these two images doesn’t slap you across the face. So why did I put them together?

The essence of surrealism, for me, is looking at an ordinary thing and seeing how extraordinarily strange it is, how perverse and ironic its very existence. That fork that you may unthinkingly use to shovel food into your mouth acquires a melancholy poignancy, an alien mutilated grace, that you may have never suspected when you really focus on its ponderous shape, purpose, invention—its personality, its soul. Kertesz can’t be pigeonholed as a surrealist, but this photo certainly is surreal in my mind and in my eye.

Like the fork, Betty Grable is, in many ways, an ordinary object. When asked, in 1958, about the perks and travails of making movies, she replied, “It pays better than slinging hash, but it’s a lot harder.” Perhaps the word most frequently used to describe her was and is “wholesome.” She is not Rita Hayworth, whose beauty was almost supernatural to begin with. Apart from her shapely gams, she’s so unremarkable that putting her before the lens automatically de-contextualizes her small-town charm to a certain degree. She is the unexamined small-town girl suddenly stripped of her veil of blandness to become something wildly sensual and weird. Any attention paid to her strikes me as paradoxical.

Then there’s the fact that we must consider this picture as more than a two-dimensional abstraction, and rather as a common physical object. Its meaning is bound up with its conception as a cherished, but quotidian possession: probably the number one pin-up photo of World War II, it must have peered out from the walls of heaven knows how many bunkers, submarines, and shanties. Pretty trippy, huh? A fork is something that we all experience individually, but consider to be basically nondescript. (A few tines and a handle, c’mon people, you don’t sit around giving much reflection to the anatomy of a fork. I hope not, at least.) Similarly, the same ordinary image of Betty Grable took on thousands of fantasy existences in men’s… minds.

And, the crazy part is, the subtle distortions of these images hint at the many askew, divergent lives of what they portray. Both Betty and the fork cast shadows that differ from the forms that we know and love. The pointy tines on the dish and the long stem underneath, on the table, are split from each other in the Kertesz photo, creating a sense of divided or bent space. Betty’s shadow (the darker one, to the right), though, reminds me of something from the movie Freaks. Her famous gams meld into one grotesque limb. There’s even another lighter shadow to the left so that she, like the fork, has been fragmented.

The oddly distorted shadows, in both cases, stand out against mostly white remainder of the images: white plate, white tablecloth, white bathing suit… The sum effect, on me at least, renders the form of the photographed object distorted. Betty’s legs appear too long and her torso is made to seem disproportionate by the famous over-the-shoulder glance, like the fork stands out as too long and lean. A woman’s body. A fork. Both awaken when scrutinized with a gaze that provokes as much, if not more, as it is provoked. When slanted slightly, tilted, pushed askew, the commodified star, the universal fetish serves as a vehicle not for looking, but for seeing.

That is what Hollywood glam shots managed to do with almost uncanny frequency: open our eyes to a beauty that wriggles out of definition but manages to be instantly recognizable. How do we pin down this specific glamour, this religion of visual textures that mutates, shocks, and frightens with its ability to transform perpetually and refresh our vision and concept of attractiveness?

Not to push the “open eyes” metaphor to far, but that notable surrealist Buñuel cut open an eye onscreen in Un Chien Andalou to prove to us how easily images could take hold of us with brutal, warped fantasies. Often considered prosaic or repetitive, old Hollywood glamour shots, and instances of classic glamour in general, do more or less the same thing. Only, if I may say so, they’re way easier on the eyes.

Simone Mareuil with Buñuel’s hand

(From Un Chien Andalou, 1929)

Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson

(In a still for Rain, 1932)