I love pre-Code movies with the passion of a thousand heart emojis. There’s a good reason why the banner of this blog comes from a poster for Baby Face and why I chose the the famous “Thou Shalt Not” censorship picture for my Twitter avatar.
When I discovered pre-Code cinema through a college course in 2010 (and they say you don’t learn anything useful in schools these days), I fell hard. Movies made roughly between 1929 and 1934 regularly make me swoon with their witty irreverence, their flamboyant style, their exquisitely hardboiled female protagonists, and their slick, snappily-dressed bad boys. (Plus, the lingerie. Can’t forget the lingerie.) These movies were intended to deliver large doses of risqué pleasure during some pretty dark days in American history—and they still bring the joy, more than 80 years after they were made.
Disclaimer: These valentines (for the most part) reflect the spirit of the films and characters they’re alluding to, not necessarily my views or opinions. If any of these valentines offend your delicate sensibilities, feel free to call the Legion of Decency on me. What can I say? I’m a bad influence.
Clara Bow plays rough in Call Her Savage (1932).
Herbert Marshall may be a crook, but he’s the crook that Miriam Hopkins adores in Trouble in Paradise (1932).
Clark Gable would bankrupt the undershirt industry to impress Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934).
Mae West knows that Cary Grant is only playing hard to get in She Done Him Wrong (1933).
Just gals being pals in Queen Christina (1933).
Pre-Code poster children Joan Blondell and Warren William feel the (cheap and vulgar) love in Gold-Diggers of 1933.
Count Dracula’s love for Mina will never die. Because it’s already dead.
Cagney and Harlow get cozy in The Public Enemy (1931).
Garbo wants some “me time,” but she’ll settle for some “me and you time” in Grand Hotel (1932).
Miriam Hopkins can’t choose between Fredric March and Gary Cooper in Design for Living (1933). Who can blame her?
Barbara Stanwyck is feelin’ frisky in Night Nurse (1931).
Warren William is the Big Bad Wolf in Employees’ Entrance (1933).
Looks like Little Caesar just can’t quit his friend Joe Massara. (I can relate. I think about Douglas Fairbanks Jr. a lot too.)
Barbara Stanwyck knows what men are good for in Baby Face (1933).
Carole Lombard gives John Barrymore some tough love in 20th Century (1934).
Watch classic movies and get busy, like Bob Montgomery and Anita Page in Free and Easy (1931).
Yes, I even got a tad sentimental over Whitey Schafer’s famous “Thou Shalt Not” photograph, showing all the things you couldn’t do in post-Code films.
Nobody’s been able to kill Tod Browning’s Dracula, but that sure hasn’t stopped critics from beating a dead… um, vampire.
Sadly, it’s become rather fashionable to dismiss the original Dracula as an overrated relic, lauded mostly because of its status as the first sound horror film.
Why, last week even I noted that the camerawork in the Spanish-language Dracula makes Browning’s movie, shot simultaneously, seem anemic by comparison. And I do stand by that statement; Spanish Drácula is a more technically accomplished film.
However, today I come not to drive a stake through Dracula’s heart, but to praise it as a brilliant piece of cinema. It’s time for me to reveal my undying (though not undead) devotion to the Lugosi version.
Are other adaptations of Stoker’s classic more faithful? More dynamic? More emotionally involving? Certainly. But I don’t think Browning wanted to shock us or take us on a thrill ride, although he could have. (Watch The Unknown if you don’t believe me!)
Dracula may appear primitive, but therein lies its uncanny beauty. Sometimes sophistication isn’t half as convincing as simplicity. Eschewing ostentatious special effects and action sequences, the director chose to chill his audience with the silence and stillness of the grave.
As the documentary Universal Horror pointed out, audiences were accustomed to music during the silent era, so Browning wisely deployed the hissing nothingness of Dracula’s early talkie soundtrack to spook viewers. Similarly, the somnambulistic staging and acting reflect the emptiness of Dracula himself, a walking, talking corpse. Why do we wonder at film’s inertia? Its deadly title character freezes all that surrounds him, transforming every space into a tomb.
And there’s something elemental and profound about how those famously Gothic visuals unfold. We watch the coffins open, the rodents and insects crawling around them, the dead brides rising. And then, the camera tracks into the Master, slowly, as though our desire to see, our curiosity, were an irresistible gravitational pull.
This iconic scene doesn’t serve character or narrative—we’ve already been told who and what the Count is. The images urge us to feast our eyes on decaying, eerie splendor, the ultimate in decadence. Everything about Dracula’s introduction calls out to us, tempting us just to look and be caught in looking by a creature that controls humans through their eyes.
By regressing to an archaic, almost presentational style of filmmaking, this adaptation seeks to regress the audience back to the receptivity of childhood or perhaps to the superstitious dread of our ancestors. Dracula is no mere movie. It is a ritual, a summoning, almost a séance.
Lest we forget, in 1931, a movie character who turns out to be a vampire, not a criminal masquerading as one, was a revolutionary—and risky—proposition. The original Dracula trailer marketed the film not so much with promises of shudders, but rather with disturbing questions: “Do vampires really exist? Do they leave their prisons in the dark hours—reaching out for new victims?”
For over 80 years since, we spectators have been training our suspension of disbelief, but we must remember that Dracula was a key film in setting up our credulity in the face of the impossible. Without Browning and Lugosi’s success in presenting a bloodsucking demon as stark reality, horror as a talkie genre might not have developed to the extent it has… or not at all.
The need to establish credibility explains the film’s apparently unimaginative style. Innovative editing or florid tracking shots might’ve startled us out of the hypnotic spell that Lugosi casts with his penlight-enhanced eyes. We accept the vampire as a threat because he doesn’t seem like a trick of the camera—or a product of hours spent in the makeup chair. His dark glamour locks right into our schema for dangerous melodrama seducers, gaining audiences’ acceptance because he modifies a type of villain they recognize. Lugosi created a vampire that suited Hollywood perfectly, luring victims and viewers alike with his imposing charm.
But, in the end, what makes Lugosi’s performance immortal, frightening, yet charismatic? What pushes his performance over the edge from bad guy to pure, ageless evil?
In my opinion, the throw-away shots of Lugosi—the ones that almost get lost among the jack-o’-lantern close-ups and those erotic bite scenes—often reveal most about his definitive interpretation of the Count.
For instance, after Dracula leans in to bite Renfield at Castle Dracula, the scene shifts to the Vesta, a ship bound for England. Now the Count’s servant, the maddened, hysterical Renfield wakes the Master up while a tempest pummels the ship.
Once he’s risen from his coffin, Dracula glides above deck. As the camera gently rocks to suggest the shifting of the waves, the Count gazes offscreen with detachment and the sounds of the storm swirl on the soundtrack.
Browning cuts to shots of the ship’s deck, as men in rain slickers desperately struggle against the might of the gale, trying to control the violently thrashing ship. And then he cuts back to the Count, unaffected literally by the storm and figuratively by the misery and imminent doom of the sailors.
This juxtaposition, bordering on a lack of continuity, between the motion of the ship and the comparative stillness of the Count, endows the shots with an unearthly quality. He’s the eye of the storm and everything around him, everything he touches, turns dead calm.
As I revisited Dracula a few days ago, this overlooked moment reminded me of a passage from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. A bit of a leap, I know, but this is how Marlowe describes the Svengali-esque blackmailer Amthor:
“His eyes were deep… And they were also eyes without expression, without soul, eyes that could watch lions tear a man to pieces and never change, that could watch a man impaled and screaming in the hot sun with his eyelids cut off.”
The allusion to a certain very specific torture leads me to suspect that Chandler had the model for Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, specifically in mind when he wrote that. In any case, what Chandler evokes here, the utter lack of compassion for (or even reaction to) suffering, helped me pinpoint the unique attribute that Lugosi conjured as the Count.
The classically-trained 49-year-old actor—who’d ironically won acclaim as Hungary’s foremost Passion Play Jesus once upon a time—brought a diabolic, remorseless disdain to Dracula that remains unmatched. But he didn’t need to express it or emote it. He projects it even when totally motionless, exuding that disdain from every line of his arrogant, mask-like face, communicating it with his aristocratic, rigid posture. And film’s oddly static style parallels the unholy immutability and the frozen contempt of Dracula.
Which brings me to the part of Dracula that I find most frightening. I’ve probably seen this film a hundred times since childhood, but the flower girl scene never fails to creep me out. To refresh your memory, on a London street corner, a waif is selling violets for gentlemen’s buttonholes. A new prospective client, seen as the a silhouette of a top hat and a sweeping cloak, towering over the tiny girl, steps out of the mist.
If foreboding were an image, it would look like this.
Still shown in long shot, the flower girl opens her mouth in amazement. In close-up, Dracula bears down on her, his eyes glowing. The girl stares back in stupefied terror. And then he leans in, as though to kiss her, pushing her back behind a column. Her pathetic shriek pierces the air.
Immediately afterwards, the Count strides along the street in his top hat and cape, satiated and puffed up by his latest meal. A whistle shrieks. Bystanders gather around the column and huddle over the flower girl’s dead body.
Meanwhile, Browning shifts to an establishing shot of the theater where the next important scene will take place. That’s the only real narrative purpose for the image, although Karl Freund embellished it with a subtle crane movement. In a slightly closer shot, Dracula arrives, turning around to survey the people coming and going. If you’re watching closely, you’ll see his lips curl into something like a scornful smile. There it is again—that glimmer of arrogance, that immovable conceit.
The notion that this monster can look at a human being, a vulnerable girl trying to eke out a living, and think of her as a snack, scares the daylights out of me. It scares me more than all the spilled viscera and jump shocks in horror movies since. That brief episode defines Dracula’s depravity, leaving the viewer surprised and mildly disgusted.
The random ruthlessness of the flower girl scene haunts me most, though, because it punctures the romantic aura of the vampire myth. Dracula resembles a hot-blooded lover in the Valentino mold, but the Count’s sangfroid and his icy contempt put him in a freakish category all his own. And yet, we’re still attracted to him, aren’t we? (Speaking for myself, I’ll come out and say it: yes.)
Lugosi incarnated what I consider the most seductive portrayal of evil captured on film. As he creeps towards the camera, advancing on the audience as well as Mina, his face contorted into a hungry grimace, we’re repulsed, yet spellbound. I suppose that’s partially what I mean when I say that Dracula is a summoning. It calls up some primal region in the human psyche where predatory impulses, which we rationally reject, become desirable—in spite of ourselves.
Whatever its detractors say, Dracula resonates in its unnerving stillness, compelling us to sit uncomfortably with all of the conflicting human feelings that this inhuman creature stirs up.
In 1950, when asked about his most famous role and its impact, Lugosi replied, “Dracula never ends.” And, you know, he was right.
I love Poverty Row horror movies the same way I love cracked teacups and moldy vintage paperbacks. The bleak visuals, the improbable scripts, the down-on-their-luck casts give these crackly terrors the half-pathetic charm of unwanted things.
Films like Dead Men Walk and Voodoo Man are crowned by a halo of unintentional tragedy, since we often sense the pious devotion of martyrs to their art: talented actors and directors coping with bottom-of-the-barrel production values and perhaps mercifully brief shoots.
For those not as dorky as I, Poverty Row is a label for the cluster of small film studios, like Republic, Monogram, and PRC, that churned out B-movies for movie theater double bills. Their product would be rented to exhibitors at a flat rate—which meant that no matter how good or popular a Poverty Row flick might be, it was unlikely to rake in any more dough than stipulated.
However, far from the micromanagement that talent had to put up with at big A studios, those working in Poverty Row benefited from an astonishing amount of creative freedom. (Read: virtual indifference.) If you could turn in a salable film with something resembling a beginning, middle, and end—in two weeks—then the producers didn’t care what you did.
While plenty of hacks earned their bread by marching actors around recycled sets, the occasional genius mined precious jewels out of the rough. And Joseph H. Lewis was one of them. Forever immortalized by Gun Crazy, his pulpy noir ballad to l’amour fou, Lewis cut his teeth on grimy B-movies, often imbuing the most routine assignments with an off-kilter grandeur.
Which brings us to The Invisible Ghost, directed by a rising Lewis and starring a fallen Lugosi in one of 9 movies he made for Monogram. Fans of silents and early talkies will also get right into the gloomy mood at the first sight of a totally unrecognizable, catatonic Betty Compson. After starting her own business, Compson would pull herself out of low-budget actor purgatory, but she’d never forget the “hurt I got down there on Poverty Row.”
Okay, so the movie itself is a little creaky and preposterous (“We’ve killed off the love interest? Better give him a twin brother…”) and I’ve seen pieces of broccoli who can emote more than the romantic lead. But I still urge you to watch it. There’s something borderline Lynchian about this stodgy American household… with a killer for a father and a crazy mother secretly living in the garage.
Savor Bela’s soulful performance. Enjoy the refreshingly wise, likable, and dignified role of an African American butler, not forced to sully himself for offensive laughs. Keep an eye out for clever directorial touches—like swish pans, racked focus, and stark changes of lighting to signify the unleashing of Bela’s latent urge to kill. Drink in the duality of this surprisingly dark, despairing cheapie about an outwardly decent man split between tenderness and rage, a man who becomes a stranger to himself.
And just try to tell me that those fugue-state scenes—in which Bela prowls the house for nubile young women to kill in the place of his long-lost cheating wife, as he creeps towards the camera with a wicked grin—don’t raise a few goosebumps…
The Invisible Ghost has slipped into the public domain, so you can watch it for free on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.
Let me start out by saying that I’m happy we seem to be living in the Age of the Zombie. It’s nice to see zombies get their due share of attention.
I mean, once upon a time they couldn’t sit at the cool monsters’ table with Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and Imhotep the Mummy. I’m glad for them. Really.
But… I guess I have some issues with what passes for a zombie lately.
Today’s representations of zombies tend to focus on the relatively new premise of a zombie apocalypse, on zombie-ism as a modern plague. Such a concept totally spaces out on the occult origins of this most exotic of horror creatures. Lately, the emphasis on zombies as horrific, contagious beings has led us to neglect the notion of the walking dead as victims of external control—a kind of interpersonal imperialism or supernatural bondage, if you will. I long for the days where one didn’t merely become a zombie, but was turned into one.
I miss that key figure, the bokor, the wicked Voodoo necromancer capable of raising an army of cadavers from their graves and forcing them to do his wicked bidding. The concept of a sorcerer willing to enslave his fellow humans scares me much more than all the gross-out zombies in the world. Perhaps the bokor has gone out of fashion along with the idea of the soul.
In place of the alienation or contamination metaphors that we get in post-Romero zombie films, the original celluloid zombies played out morbid variations on the theme of domination. Reaping the heritage of the Gothic, White Zombie traces a twisted story of sexual obsession, like most films of the original talkie horror cycle. The poster definitely plays up the kink angle with taglines like, “She was neither alive nor dead… Just a white zombie, performing his every desire!”
The story centers on a perky, sweet couple—exquisite Madeleine and her affable fiancé Neil come to Haiti to celebrate their wedding at a friend’s plantation. Unfortunately, that friend, wealthy Monsieur Beaumont, carries a torch for Madeleine, so he asks the diabolical sorcerer ‘Murder’ Legendre to help him win the damsel to his will. Of course, that doesn’t work out so well for Neil—or indeed for Beaumont, because Legendre changes Madeleine into a white zombie (…and we have a title!) that he plans to keep for his own pleasure.
Apart from its important status as the first zombie movie, White Zombie also deserves recognition as a landmark indie horror film. Brothers Victor and Edward Halperin, the film’s director and producer, were pioneers who borrowed sets from Universal horror flicks to shoot their movie in 11 days. Even without the infrastructure of the studio system, the Halperins delivered a classic that stands up to—and in some ways surpasses—the more high-profile horror monuments of the time.
In particular, the soundtrack paints a rich, full sense of place, in contrast to an era of relative silence in cinema, ironically brought on by the talkies. The use of Caribbean-sounding music provides appropriate emotional cues. Better yet, a range of authentic diegetic sounds, from shrill cricket chirps to Voodoo drums to the wince-inducing creak of a sugar mill, make us squirm.
White Zombie also excels at exploring psychological states through unusual trick effects, especially skillful double exposures. For instance, after Madeleine’s burial, Neil tries to drink away his sorrows in a dive bar, but sees his beloved’s face in every fleeing shadow. The contrast between the white veil of her apparition and the dark silhouettes on the wall imbue the scene with a phantasmagoric ambiance worthy of high German Expressionism.
The Halperins also cannily showcase Bela Lugosi by featuring his hypnotic eyes even more prominently than Dracula did. His eyes mesmerize as they appear floating through the landscape, sparkling in a glass of champagne, or headed straight towards the camera, as he walks into a harrowing extreme close-up.
His gleaming peepers, ever-present, seem to survey everything, omniscient and menacing. In fact, those disembodied eyes are the first we see of ‘Murder’ Legendre, superimposed over the Haitian landscape, until they shrink to little pinpoints on either side of his silhouette. We understand that this dark stranger can see you, whether he’s looking at you or not. Having viewed a nice print of White Zombie only on the small screen of my laptop, I can barely begin to imagine how looming and oppressive those glowing eyes must be when they flash on a movie theater screen. It must feel like the film is not being watched, but rather is watching you.
On a thematic level, a number of ceremonies—and inversions of ceremonies—structure this chilling fairy tale. The film begins with a funeral, transitions to a wedding, then modulates back to a funeral, after Madeleine, the maiden bride, is poisoned and laid to rest in her crypt. However, the implicit fear of these ceremonies being undone adds a layer of complexity and dread to each ritual. The native burial that opens the film takes place in the middle of a road, in order to assure that the grave won’t be robbed and that its occupant won’t be compelled to live eternally as an undead slave.
As the traditional wedding takes place at Beaumont’s plantation, Legendre performs another ritual in the garden below, carving a wax candle into a Voodoo doll of the bride. Whereas the Christian ceremony of marriage emphasizes purity, Legendre makes a mockery of this, whittling an anatomically correct nude figure. Even seen in a long shot, the gleeful obscenity of the sculpture reminds us that we’re dealing with pre-Code horror.
Lugosi’s dancing hands and surreptitious smile leave no doubt that this kind of remote-control violation both echoes and undermines the simultaneous wedding vows. Even Madeleine’s solemn burial is shortly reversed when Legendre and his zombie henchmen break into her tomb and make off with her cadaver.
Yet, for all this subversion of Christian ritual, White Zombie suggests that love goes a whole lot further than ’til death do us part. As Neil sleeps outside the castle where Madeleine lingers as a catatonic prisoner, a lyrical series of split screens and unusual wipes telepathically connects the pair.
At one point, an image lifts like a curtain, recalling how a groom lifts the veil to kiss his bride. In contrast to the static wedding scene, this distinctly filmic visual poem, accompanied by angelic, soulful native choirs, represents a mystical wedding of souls. Love, the thing that justifies all of our rituals, has is own secrets, stronger than death or black magic.
You can watch White Zombie for free, either on YouTube or at the Internet Archive. I strongly recommend the HD YouTube version, because it’s the best quality I’ve seen online.
Ever wish you could take a tour of a Hollywood studio—in the 1930s? I sure do.
Think about how fascinating it would be to stare at those huge early talkie cameras, to observe the complicated sound recording apparatus, to gape at the actors getting ready for their close-ups, or to sit in and get a sneak preview of the rushes. Hell, I don’t know about you, but I’d even be willing to take my chances sitting next to Darryl Zanuck in a dark studio screening room if I could turn back time and go there.
Unless you’ve got a time machine, perhaps the next best thing to a backstage tour through that bygone era is watching The Death Kiss, a standard whodunit set at a movie studio. Despite a workmanlike overall style, this standard genre flick deserves watching for its sheer documentary value alone. Debut director Edwin L. Marin shot on location at Tiffany Studios, the once-prestigious production company behind Journey’s End and Mamba which went defunct, rather appropriately, soon after the release of The Death Kiss.
Not only are the soundstages real soundstages, but the maze of delivery doors, gates, pathways, and buildings that we see in the film give us a rare travelling “street view” of the old Hollywood experience.
Of course, architectural maps and photographs of studio lots exist. Yet, there’s something truly magical about a camera scanning through and capturing the dimensionality those long-lost spaces, those sprawling miniature kingdoms, or “duchies” as Joseph Mankiewicz called the studios.
Back to the mystery: the plot follows Franklyn Drew, a wisecracking screenwriter at Toneart Studio who’s trying to save the woman he loves, Marcia Lane, a leading actress, from a murder charge. (And in case you never noticed, when screenwriters write about screenwriters, those parts almost invariably turn out to be smartasses.)
In this case, I enjoyed the opportunity to watch David Manners—a pretty juvenile lead whom you probably know best from his startlingly dull performance in Dracula—play a character who doesn’t seem like he’s been cut out from a book of paper dolls.
Speaking of Dracula, this film reunites three male stars from that film: Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan, and Manners. Classic movie buffs like me will certainly relish the chance to watch this trio appear in the same scene without trying to drive a stake through anybody’s heart. Lugosi’s mesmerizing potential as an actor languishes untapped in The Death Kiss—he’s fobbed off on a dull role as the studio manager. The solution to the murder, however, did keep me guessing until the last reel. Quite impressive, since these early talkie whodunnits often pack as few surprises as Hardy Boys novels.
I also strongly encourage you to watch at least the opening sequence of The Death Kiss. It goes like this: a gangland moll is sitting in a car, telling her two goons that she’s going to kiss a guy as the signal to shoot him. Swaying in a glittering gown of sequins and ruff of ostrich feather, she alights from the vehicle and duly smooches the poor sap. Rat-a-tat-tat! He writhes and falls to the ground in a hail of machine gun bullets. A shocked crowd gathers around… as the camera pans 180-degrees to reveal the director and movie crew filming the scene.
All this elapses in one long take, binding together the illusion of film and the revelation of the mechanism that makes cinema possible.
Of course, the studio within the film is itself an illusion, it’s Hollywood as we’d like to imagine it. Nevertheless, that first shot impressed me with the litheness of its camerawork and how it challenges the audience, from the beginning, to see movies as movies, as carefully choreographed ballets of light and movement, as products, as creations.
More interesting still, the man who dies in the movie (within a movie) is actually the murder victim—he died in that opening shot. He wasn’t playing dead. He was dead. So, later on, the characters project the rushes of this scene in studio screening room to scour the print for evidence. Here’s the weird part: when they project it, we get a different perspective of the action from what we saw in the opening shot. There’s no fluid camera movement. Just a boring straight-on take. And it’s really boring—there’s none of the sophisticated jazz in the background and the business around the kiss plays out stilted and stagey. It’s almost as though The Death Kiss were trying to give us a little lesson on film: good talkies versus bad talkies, an interesting use of space versus a boring one. It’s a movie that makes you a little bit more aware of the nuts and bolts of cinema.
Then suddenly a blotch of red, like blood, consumes the screen within the screen! Somebody infiltrated the projection room and burned up the negative, to destroy the murder clue caught on celluloid. The flare of red in a black-and-white film startles you, and it was clearly meant to—somebody went through the trouble of tinting those few frames for a trippy effect. I won’t list the films that have copied this burning nitrate shock effect. I’m not sure about this, but do I believe that The Death Kiss is the first movie to use the plot point of footage being destroyed—and to show it with a theatrically melting strip of film. Film, destruction, the fragility of human life just seem to go together.
For a standard 1930s mystery programmer, The Death Kiss uniquely pulls us into the world of movies and movie making.
So, give it a watch over the weekend. And please leave a comment to tell me what you think of this Public Domain film!
The Raven, directed by Lew Landers, isn’t the vehicle that any of us would hope for in a Lugosi-Karloff movie. Most of the script plays like a bad stage stock-company mystery-thriller and mentions of Poe within the framework of the story, which could perhaps have been effective, feel forced and trite. I mean, really—when a main character’s hobby happens to be reconstructing torture chambers from Poe stories, the artifice makes me want to stage a protest or at least yell at the screen. Even Roger Corman had the decency to refrain from such obvious tactics and at least let us know that Torquemada (or whoever) just happened to have left some age-old implements of pain around the castle.
I can’t help but watch this film and think, “What a colossal waste of two very fine, intense performances from Lugosi in his sharp-as-a-dagger prime and Karloff in all of his ambiguously sympathetic splendor!”
Always this “and yet” haunts me, returns to me like the half-remembered refrain of a song. I find it very difficult to discredit a movie entirely. This “and yet” is a critic’s conscience, rapping away at my skull, like that damn black bird tapping on Poe’s (or rather the poem speaker’s) door.
Because The Raven contains at least a few sequences that I consider very fine and thought-provoking. So, Bela Lugosi is a brilliant surgeon (um, is this anyone else’s fantasy, too?) whom a prominent judge calls in to save the life of his daughter who’s been severely injured in a car crash.
Dr. Vollin (Lugosi) agrees only out of pride—because he gets a kick out of showing his colleagues that he can succeed where they’ve failed. Here I’d like to take a moment of pause to say how much I appreciate that kind of intellectual macho that Lugosi could bring to his roles. He hardly ever uses physical force in his parts and yet he conveys strength and commands respect. His laser-like, focused virility makes him the equal, in my mind, of such machismo icons as John Wayne and Clark Gable.
But back to the scene. So, Lugosi gets into his surgery scrubs and then glances over and sees this unconscious girl, looking for all the world like a corpse—and a nun’s corpse, at that, with a surgical towel around her head. And he falls instantly in love with her.
We know this because the double shot-reverse-shot exchanges and the extreme close-ups tell us so. (Ah, editing—the language of love!) Every smart director who’s ever directed Lugosi knows to feature his peepers and these almost abstracted images of his eyes work even more powerfully when isolated from the rest of his face by a mask. He’s totally infatuated. The cold composure of his introduction melts away into these wild eyes that almost peer into the camera, as if asking, “What am I supposed to do?”
He masters himself and tells the anesthesiologist to put the girl under. And, instead of letting the audience watch this, the point-of-view lets us feel as though we’re being sedated. Blackness consumes the screen.
Then music plays and we see the inside of a house, a roaring fire, and the formerly comatose girl now sits attentively listening as Vollin plays the organ for her. Every time I watch this, I remark on the dreamlike atmosphere of this scene, coming, as it does, right after the administration of ether.
But whose dream is it? His or hers? Turns out that we’re meant to accept this scene as reality… but it’s the one time when the over-baked dialogue intertwines beautifully with the atmosphere of the piece. The transition from an operating room to a semi-love scene announces a surreal tonal switch and one which jolts the viewer into an enhanced awareness of the fact that we’re watching a movie.
As Jean (Irene Ware) sits there in a slinky 30s gown listening to Vollin play, she’s sort of an ideal woman—not just an adoring blank slate, but also a creature that Vollin can congratulate himself on bringing to life. She’s practically the bride of Frankenstein without the electroshock treatment hairdo. And he’s her Dr. Frankenstein. As she tells him, “You’re almost not a man…” For his part, Vollin does permeate the air with an Olympian confidence. Trim, angular, and so sure of himself that one could hardly imagine doubting him, he’s the perfect man to end up deluding himself and falling in love with a person that doesn’t really exist.
Like Dr. Gogol in Mad Love, who cherishes the idea of making his dream woman responsive to his desires, Vollin nurtures a love which is really a twisted version of the courtly love tradition. To offer a cynical interpretation: I love you… because I don’t know you. And frankly, I don’t want to. “Sois charmante et tais-toi!” if I permit myself to quote that great admirer of Poe, Charles Baudelaire.
Another facet of Vollin’s love for Jean derives from the fact that her life is a testament to his power as a surgeon. She’s forever in his debt, so the equation even becomes, “I love you… because you have to love me.”
I also appreciate the unhealthy tactile quality of Vollin’s infatuation with Jean—and vice-versa. The moment when he feels the scar on the back of her neck suggests the strange physical connection that they shared before she knew his name.
Her feelings for him border on hero worship. She accepts him as a god. He completes her, he saved her from death. Which is why it’s so appropriate that she pretty much dresses up as his fantasy and performs her dance-interpretation of his favorite poem: “The Raven.” This mutual and rather noirish obsession could plunge two people right over the edge of madness.
Visually, the film associates Vollin’s profile and his sinister, predatory look with the shadow of the stuffed raven he keeps in his study.
So, I think it’s interesting that Jean tries to thank him by assuming the same dark avian aspect. It’s as though she is trying to become part of him as she ecstatically flits across the stage for the eyes of all… but really for the gaze of one. For Vollin, not for her dull, dependable fiancée.
Right, because my father would go ballistic if I brought home Dr. Bela Lugosi… Not.
The first fifteen minutes of The Raven rejoice in a real maze of psychological twists, surreal changes, and a dance, literal and metaphorical, of subtly subversive attraction. Which is a shame, because, in attempting to be a stagey revenge thriller rather than a sinister, gothic romance worthy of Poe (one thinks of Cat People or Son of Dracula)… the script throws it all away and turns Vollin into an embarrassingly obvious loony and Jean into every other bland, squealing horror heroine. What a waste.
In all my years of watching old movies, only one film frightened me so much that I had to turn off the TV set.
And I was one little tough ginger snap when I faced off with Murders in the Rue Morgue. I was 8-years-old, but going on about 100 after a medical crisis that left me way more likely to identify with scarred-up bad guys than with menaced little girls.
I could crack up at some seriously raunchy R-rated comedies and was used to watching Psycho with my parents—frequently over a breakfast of pancakes with chocolate sauce.
But even I, jaded little eight-year-old I was, couldn’t make it through Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. I couldn’t even make it through the first third. I think I was, like, 18 before I actually stoked up enough courage to watch the film to its end.
And I’m glad I did because it practically seethes with innovation. Karl Freund’s camerawork paints a dense world of fog, crazy angles, shadows, and carnivalesque attractions. The heritage of Caligari rears its head, to be sure, but there’s an added realness to it all. I’ve lived in Paris, I’ve walked through the perpetual party that the city is in the daytime… and through deserted streets at night. Frenchman Florey and expressionist genius Freund instilled a grainy, ever-moving texture to the film that aptly translates the darkly festive vibe of Paris.
Which brings me back to that scene that scared the Hell out me.
A woman being tortured on a big wooden frame, like a meat rack, as a man punctures her again and again with a syringe. Her shrieks. Her utter subjugation to a raving lunatic. These are not quaint relics of what the Pre-Code era thought spooky. They survive as every normal person’s worst nightmare and certain abnormal people’s most lurid fantasy. The torture scene in Murders in the Rue Morgue, for better or for worse, sketched the blueprint for every filmic depiction of a sadistic killer to follow.
I am referring, of course, to the scene in which Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle abducts a prostitute, injects her with gorilla blood to see if she’s compatible for mating with Erik the Ape—and thus kills her.
This scene toys with you in that, beginning with the abduction scene, Florey orchestrates a perpetual crescendo of violence. We, the viewer, constantly think, “Well, it can’t get worse than this, right?” And then it does.
Let’s take a close look at this scene—so horrifying that it was cut by many regional censors.
Dr. Mirakle looks out of his carriage window.
A street lamp smashes. The camera tilts down to show a woman screaming then pans over to two men fighting. Not fist-fighting in the burly, entertaining fashion of the movies. Their choreography feels naturalistic, gritty, ugly.
A knife flashes into, then out of, the frame. We know that its blade buries deep into another man’s flesh because he moans.
The woman is still screaming. The wounded man, in one lightening motion, sends something flying. We hear a throwing dagger slice through the air and bury itself into his opponent. They both fall.
This fight scene adds nothing to the plot. It’s pure gratuitous violence, although I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, inserted into the structure of the film to wring our spirits of every last drop of comfort. This is not a horror movie that graces only four people or so with its interest. Oh no, this is a horror show that goes out of its way to suggest the gruesome things that cling to the skin of the city like leeches.
Even though the fuzzy, mist-filled look of this scene belongs to the silent era, sound facilitates an even higher degree of fear.
The streetwalker’s mixture of horror and hysterical laughter fills the soundtrack with perversity. Her cries and cackles are jarring because they don’t let us totally sympathize with her. Her shrill yelps and giggles provoke displeasure—they’re not only hard on the ears, they make us feel, well, kind of dirty for even watching this. Unlike the lyrical, gracefully stylized monster attacks in Frankenstein and Dracula, this sequence of human violence slaps us in the face with the luridness of horror, of the thrills and chills that sell the tickets.
Perceiving his window of opportunity, Mirakle steps from his carriage and walks right into the camera, as though it’s the viewer he were creeping up on. His silhouette floods the screen with darkness.
Suddenly, we’re on the other side of him, looking at the prostitute as he advances towards her through the whirling mists.
Like a phantom, Mirakle (right) advances…
The disorienting feeling of “passing through” Mirakle (or of him passing through us) not only amps up the surrealist quality of the scene, but also infuses the sequence with the unstoppable dread of a nightmare. We know that something awful is going to happen, but we’re powerless to stop it.
The iconography of the black cloak, prostitute, and streetlamp all spark associations with the popular image of the serial killer, best represented by Jack the Ripper. Florey and Freund press all the right buttons to taunt us with the imminent destruction of the helpless woman.
“A lady… in distress?” The tight, extreme close-ups that follow increase our unease with their intensity. Lugosi’s ghoulish facial contortions contrast with the wide eyes of the young streetwalker (Arlene Francis, if you can believe it!).
She gets in the carriage. Fade to black.
Okay, so this is where a NORMAL Hollywood film would cut to the woman lying in the morgue and we could infer that Mirakle performed some failed experiment. Years of watching movies prepares you for a nice, refreshing ellipsis here.
No such luck.
Immediately the high-pitched screams of the prostitute startle us as we see the shadow of a woman squirm on a rack. Dr. Mirakle performs his tests on her and adds his yells to hers in a cacophony of cruelty as he tells her to calm down so that she can be “the Bride of Science!”
I’d also note Florey’s subversive use of synchronous sound in this scene. The streetwalker’s sobs and moans, however, infuse the scene with a weird… sexual vibe. After all, this victim didn’t need to be a prostitute. The screenwriter could’ve chosen to invent some innocent girl on her way home, but no, the credits tell us from the first to expect a “Woman of the Streets,” as she’s billed.
This suggestion of a sex crime disguised as an experiment returns when Mirakle capers over to his desk to check the blood sample. As he peers into the microscope, his cry of anticipation—and ultimately of disappointment—mingles with her sighs. There’s definitely a weird crossover here between this woman’s, ahem, profession and the warped excitement that Mirakle derives from her.
Mirakle rises and starts to scold his victim for her “rotten blood!” because she failed to give him what he wanted, until he realizes she’s dead. Then he flips into utter religious despair—something that reveals the deeply mixed-up, addled nature of Mirakle, the fanatical man of science. (Note that his stage, or perhaps real, name, Dr. Mirakle: Doctor plus “miracle” with a “k” already hints at this perverse irrationalism-medicine link.)
The exaggerated shadows and Lugosi’s own melodramatic posture of prayer remind me of mannerist paintings and their bizarre mixture of fervor and distortion.
Now, I don’t like it when directors fall into the ugly trap of naïvely equating a character’s suffering with Christ’s martyrdom. It feels cheap—unless the director can bring an added nuance to the allusion. Which Florey does admirably, with the crucified prostitute here.
A moment ago Dr. Mirakle viewed this woman as human garbage. As soon as she dies, however, she becomes a fragile, holy thing for one fleeting instant. Then he chucks her into the Seine.
Mirakle kicks open a trap door and jettisons the prostitute into the Seine.
I’m not a forensic psychologist, but this behavior, these quicksilver changes from contempt to reverence (or vice-versa) characterize the warped minds of serial killers. Humans turn into throwaway objects without the slightest warning. Lugosi’s performance runs the gamut from passion to anger to remorse to self-pity to anticipation of the next attack … an emotional arc that, from what I’ve read, fuels the violence of many serial offenders.
(And, let’s face it, a prostitute, a fallen woman, would also have been a morally acceptable victim for censors of the 1930s. Because, according to the hidden logic there, they deserve to die more than ordinary good girls like the heroine of the film. So, in a way, the sociopathic reasoning that we witness is also shared by a larger social system of morality which deems some people worthless.)
In other words, I was right to recognize this as a very, very sick scene, one that force-feeds us a glimpse into an aesthetic simulation of real madness and torment, not a glamorized supernatural ballet.
Of all talkie genres, horror stands out, perhaps second only to the musical, as the most likely to call attention to its own construction. Consider the assortment of carnival barkers and mountebanks who populate the Universal Horror cycle. Consider how often some character recites or alludes to some legend or dismisses these legends as fictions. Or, indeed, consider how often the movies used prologues to refer to their own shock value as potentially lethal spectacles. I don’t like calling something so meta! because I think that cutsie, overused term has come to describe any questionable art form that winks at its patrons over how bad it is. I love certain bad movies, but I will still call them bad.
However, horror films of the 1930s cultivated a much darker strain of “meta,” forever hinting to the viewer that their status as attractions reflects back on the sordid tastes of the viewers.
How far do you want to go? For me, that’s the meta-question at the heart of the genre. How horrified do you really want to be? And… how much do you enjoy what you see?
The moment when we’re truly scared, we have to look at ourselves and realize that, gulp, we’ve been enjoying all the awful things up until that point. We’re accomplices in the grisly murders, silently abetting the progress of the monsters in a double bind of pleasure and revulsion.
Well, at 8-years-old, I’d reached my limit with Murders in the Rue Morgue. At 21, I can finally realize why I was so scared. I’m glad I was.
Here’s to the things that make us look away, to the things that make us turn off the television! May we never fully enjoy them. And may we turn to thought and self-reflection to process the trauma that is cinema.
Leave it to Paramount. As if all the great Lubitsch comedies and Von Sternberg dramas they cranked out weren’t enough immortal genius for them in the 1930s, the sparkling, sophisticated studio managed to match Universal at their horror game with Island of Lost Souls. And how!
Directed by Erle C. Kenton, this classic stands out as probably the most violent in the pantheon of 1930s nightmare pictures. With cinematography by Karl Struss—the director of photography partially responsible for the ethereal wonder that is Murnau’s Sunrise and the magician behind Fredric March’s no-cut transformation to Hyde—Island of Lost Souls is also one of the most fiercely beautiful horror films of all time, replete with reflections, complex shadow effects, and rich low-key lighting set-ups.
Most of all, the film presents perhaps the most frightening monster of the early talkie horror cycle: Dr. Moreau, whose smug superiority and utter lack of human traits, even as he tries to instill “humanity” in others, make him a chilling parallel to every 20th century dictator.
The People Have Spoken
Hey, boys and girls, here’s a fun fact for you! In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Photoplay magazine polled studio contract stars about their opinions on key political and social issues. Here’s a snippet from the final write-up, “What Hollywood Is Thinking”:
“PHOTOPLAY’S second question was, ‘Do you advocate the sterilization of mentally unfit persons?’
“To this, eighty-seven percent and one-half percent of the women and ninety-four percent of the men said yes.”
I just want those numbers to frame my take on Island of Lost Souls.
Now, I find that the fantastic qualities of many horror films and the suspension of disbelief that they (supposedly) require too often strips these classics of their due position in the history of cinema. But with such a resoundingly high population in Hollywood favoring eugenics in the 1930s… well, you tell me how outlandish Dr. Moreau’s visions are.
(Incidentally, I’m not the only person to link eugenics with Island of Lost Souls—there’s a bit about it in Angela Smith’s Hideous Progeny, although, as always, the observations in this post are my own mad creations.)
The Reasoning Animal
I have to applaud the bravery of horror as a genre.
Shocker flicks, of the kind that flourished in the 1930s, persistently suggest the fallacy of certain overly optimistic ideals, the heritage of the Enlightenment. Ignorance is so totally not the only evil.
Man is capable of very good things, but he’s also capable of the blackest, most vile deeds—whether he happens to be a respected scientist or just some dumb bully. As man gets smarter, guess what? He doesn’t necessarily get nicer.
Charles Laughton’s performance as Dr. Moreau highlights the uncanny contradiction of the evil genius, the concept that the best of mankind might be the inextricable flip side of the worst. His hilariously ironic manners, his custom of drinking tea out of delicate china and silver, and his genteel colonial wardrobe all emphasize the fact that he is the shining example of certain cultural virtues and ideals.
Why, he’s even created his own warped little version of a social contract, as we discover in the famous recitation of The Law scene. However, the feverish back-and-forth cutting reveals how much this Law is merely a tool for keeping the rabble separated from the Creator of that Law.
“Are we not men?” The monsters wail below, even though they seem crushed by the shame of the knowledge that they cannot ever be men in the eyes of their maker. It’s always somebody else who makes the laws, isn’t it? Moreau’s litany reminds us of the kind of lofty over-expectations that a dictator-controlled society resorts to in an attempt to mold its citizens right out of their personhood.
The shadowy low-angle shots of Moreau in the The Law sequence also tie into the depiction of another character in the film—the brutish ship captain, often shown from below, a hulking drunk who only feels like a big man when he picks on the helpless.
When we first meet Moreau, we’re somewhat relieved by his snappy politeness, but we soon learn that he’s no different than the thuggish captain, who delights in a smaller-scale version of the submission that Moreau expects and commands from his “natives.”
However, my favorite moment in the whole movie occurs when Moreau introduces the vulnerable Lota, the Panther Woman, to Parker. Of course, he’s hoping to breed them for his sick, morally irresponsible experiments. Any other mad scientist would say something sinister and chuckle to himself.
Moreau, like a matchmaking mother, claps his hands and cheerfully says, “Well, I’ll leave you two young people alone together!”
Seized by voyeurism masquerading as scientific interest, Dr. Moreau keenly watches the results of his breeding experiment.
Unlike so many overtly intense or frantic mad scientists, Laughton opts for a kinky coyness. For instance, he lounges on his own operating table while gleefully explaining his life’s work.
Laughton conveys that Moreau isn’t just fueled by a single-minded passion for progress and discovery, like the modern Prometheus Dr. Frankenstein who seems to value the results of his experiments more than the ghoulish process.
No, Moreau deeply enjoys his work as a form of sublimation. I mean, come on now, we’re dealing with a man who dedicated his life to cultivating prodigious flowers and asparagus. You don’t have to be Georgia O’Keefe to figure the symbolism of these indecently gigantic plants!
Breeding giant orchids. A totally normal ambition.
Giant asparagus. Which, by the way, is my new favorite insult…
The stunning cinematography augments Laughton’s already spot-on performance—while also betraying him as the petty, frustrated tyrant he is. When Moreau first explicitly mentions to Parker how he feels like God, his obscured face, barely lit from below, imparts a ghoulish aspect so that we understand just how far he is from anything that could be considered godlike. He doesn’t want to make beings in his own image. He doesn’t want to create. He wants to mutilate.
Delusions of grandeur: “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”
If the Island of Lost Souls offers a moral equal and opposite to Moreau, befuddled Parker doesn’t measure up to that role—Lota, the Panther Woman, does. She epitomizes all the warmth, courage, and self-consciousness her creator never had.
For instance, once Parker notices Lota’s claws and recognized her animal origins, she hides in her room, staring at herself in the mirror. Kathleen Burke was chosen for this role out of 60,000 girls and, man, did they ever pick the right woman for the job. She communicates the genuine pathos of the body hate and self-loathing that every woman I’ve met experiences at least once in her life. Suddenly, Moreau barges in, jerks Lota around, collapses, and proceeds to sulk about his failure.
For a fleeting instant, the viewer almost expects the doctor and his creation to commiserate. Then she starts to cry. And he starts to laugh—for her tears mean that he’s managed to make a creature with the emotions of a woman. The joy that he derives from her sorrow succeeded in shocking me more than all the pre-Code exploitation value in the rest of the movie. The fact that Moreau cannot regard Lota as a being deserving of dignity and consideration proves that, in a fine twist of irony, she possesses more humanity than he.
Do Look Back: The Legacy of Island of Lost Souls
At the end of the film, Montgomery rows the non-animal hero and heroine of the film away from the island as it goes up in flames and tells them, “Don’t look back.” However, I think that’s exact what we should do—look back at this movie, the time it came out of, and its influence.
I have no way of proving this, but I suspect that Orson Welles saw this and stowed away a few ideas for his searing, brutal low-budget Macbeth. If you’ve seen it, I think you’ll agree that this shot of Dr. Moreau’s “natives” peering out at the new arrivals strongly foreshadows similar shots of the witches in Welles’ adaptation.
The frequent tracking movements, slowly creeping around Moreau’s lair set a new standard for unbalancing motion in a film. The potential for the tracking shot as a disconcerting horror tool was later elevated to high art in other stories of dehumanization or darkness triumphant, like Olivier’s Hamlet and Last Year at Marienbad.
Indeed, whenever a movie tries to conjure up a shadowy, impenetrable place of evil, you can see visual echoes of Island of Lost Souls. Seriously, try to imagine Kurtz’ compound in Apocalypse Now without the lush shadows, balletic camerawork, and the twisted cult of personality that Kenton’s film fused into an enduring, coherent esthetic. The mixture of exoticism, expressionism, and amorality works so well as a kind of archetypal unit that we’ve been coming up against it ever since.
Father of Kurtz?
I also doubt that very many movies released after 1932 have depicted torture in a way not influenced by Island of Lost Souls. Good directors know that, even if you do want to eventually go all-out in showing torture violence, you should introduce it off-screen first to build anticipatory terror. It’s just a smart suspense technique. And this movie does it the best I’ve ever seen.
Parker is eating dinner with Montgomery and Moreau. All of a sudden, we hear a cry. Ling, who, the movie has intimated, is probably not totally human, looks up in its direction, wild with elemental fear.
Then we get this magnificent shot of Moreau’s face emerging from behind Parker’s profile as he reassures him. Laughton’s moon of a face seems to “wax” and come alive with wickedness and we, the audience members, conclude that something horrible is going on.
And remember, 1932 was still early days for synchronous sound. So, this masterful use of the soundtrack not only to stretch the world of the story beyond the frame, but also to interject more tension and fear into the situation earns major respect from me.
This motif of off-screen violence returns at the very end, when the man-animals attack their creator in his own laboratory. The unseen torture scenes serve as book-ends to the film and reinforce a chilling symmetry. The animal revolution does not bring a regression to a state of barbarism and cruelty, since Dr. Moreau incarnated both of those things perfectly well. The refined doctor and the bloodthirsty animal-men share the desire to inflict pain—except that we can understand vengeance more easily than sadism in the name of science.
If you don’t like disturbing images and ideas, I advise you not to read this blog post. Seriously.
I realize that, in writing this, I am echoing about a century of horror movie taglines that warned away the “faint of heart” and promised near-fatal excitement. In this case, I am writing about real horrors along with fictional ones. And they are unforgettable, irredeemably awful. Some of you may have read my post on Ulmer’s The Black Cat and how that film processes some of the trauma of World War I. Now, I’d like to write about a movie that takes on the WWI legacy in a much more subtle and, I would argue, poignant, way: Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula.
“Wait a minute, there, sister,” I hear you saying. “Dracula is a Victorian novel so how can it be about a modern total war? The answer revolves around the characterization of the “madman” Renfield. I admit that so-called “lunatics” have permeated popular conceptions of macabre from even before the era of the Gothic novel, but World War I triggered an unprecedented incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, known at the time as neurasthenia or war neurosis (van der Hart et al. 37). “Madness,” once a relatively rare thing, became the subject of mass experience as thousands of young, otherwise healthy men returned from battle acting in ways very removed from acceptable social norms.
And Renfield, as Browning visually portrays him, and as Frye performs him, resembles the shell-shocked veterans of the Great War much more than he does Stoker’s version of the blood-obsessed asylum inmate.
Renfield seems to disappear as he steps into the web at Castle Dracula.
Moments after his arrival at Castle Dracula, Renfield gets caught in a spider’s web and flails his way out. Dracula gently scolds him with a conspiratorial smile, “The blood is the life, Mister Renfield…” This ironic foreshadowing really works, instead of being corny, because it’s quite sad, in retrospect. Renfield goes on to eat spiders and rue his own thirst for blood. Even as a vampire, a predator, he’s still caught in the web, at the bottom of the food chain.
In fact, as he trips into the web, the spider-silk covers him like a shroud and gives him an indistinct, ghostly aspect. It’s as though he dematerialized into the web, as though he’d already been consumed and digested. Browning found a clever way to visually suggest that Renfield’s a pawn in the game and he will suffer horribly. And he does so in a manner very reminiscent of some of the men who returned from WWI trenches.
First, in terms of casting and physical description, the movie makes some major departures from the 19th century source text. The most visually impacting one centers on Renfield’s age. Bram Stoker describes Dracula’s unwilling lackey as a white-haired man of 59, elderly by Victorian standards, yet prone to grotesquely childlike outbursts. Dr. Seward paints this portrait of his patient:
Something seemed to affect his imagination, for he put his fingers to his ears and shut his eyes, screwing them up tightly just as a small boy does when his face is being soaped. There was something pathetic in it that touched me. It also gave me a lesson, for it seemed that before me was a child, only a child, though the features were worn, and the stubble on the jaws was white.
He’s an older gentleman and the disturbing factor is that he does not behave appropriately for his age. Similarly, the first film adaptation of the Dracula story, Murnau’s Nosferatu, depicts Knock, the Renfield character, as middle-aged and paunchy, with wild white locks.
Browning’s Renfield couldn’t contrast more with these grizzled Renfields! Dwight Frye’s screen incarnation strikes the audience with a façade of outward normalcy and borderline matinee idol good looks.
At a youthful 31, Frye, a Broadway star, cut a dapper figure in the film’s early scenes as he travels through the rustic village with his smart suit, hat, and a walking stick in hand. It’s actually a pretty brave choice, adaptation-wise, to make the first character we identify with and come to like descend into utter insanity!
Renfield’s handsome, affable characterization in the first scenes renders his degradation even more stark and disquieting later on. This change, the choice to depict Renfield as young, doesn’t really offer any new advantages in terms of plot. There’s little logical justification, especially given that Renfield has no love interest in the book or in the film. However, emotionally, the sight of a man in his prime succumbing to insanity offers a much more unsettling worldview—and one more congruent with the impact of the Great War.
We might expect senility from a white-haired inmate, but there’s something particularly sad and morbid about a fine specimen of a young man who’s almost totally lost touch with reality. (However, I mean no offense to all of my senior citizen friends who are sharper and stronger than I am at 21!)
Another significant discrepancy between the gothic novel and Tod Browning’s film makes Renfield the protagonist of the first scenes set in the Carpathian Mountains. Stoker casts Johnathan Harker, Mina’s fiancé, as the hapless character who first discovers Dracula’s undead wickedness. We, the readers, are aligned with Harker from the first.
However, in the motion picture, the spectator’s emotional investment in Renfield drives the tension of the meeting between the estate agent and the vampire. I think it’s also interesting that the movie does not spare its likable young man from a fate worse than death. (This sacrifice of the key character who leads us into the story actually foreshadows, in my mind, Hitchcock’s brave, shocking decision to kill off Marion Crane so early in Psycho.)
Whereas the Johnathan Harker of the book eventually escapes from Dracula’s castle, the cinematic Renfield almost immediately falls prey to the forces of evil and is damned simply for carrying out his duty. Just doing his job, he’s doomed to forever lose a part of his humanity and transform into a cackling monster in the eyes of others. Doesn’t this smack of the injustice and tragedy of war here?
There’s something of the between-the-wars cynicism about this plot choice. Bram Stoker suggested that good people will always end up okay—or at the very least, their souls will be saved. No such luck for Renfield. Therefore, as a somewhat average young man who travels to a foreign country and loses his mind and his dignity as a result of his experiences, Renfield closely resembles the thousands of “shell shock” victims of World War I.
The cinematography of Dracula intensifies the sense of disorientation and trauma with respect to Renfield. The first time we see him in the asylum, Browning orchestrates a striking long take, which trails from the clinic gates up to Renfield’s cell. In the Seward Santarium, the zoophagous (animal-eating) madman announces himself by his offstage shouts, amidst a chorus of the wild shrieks and giggles of the other inmates.
The camera, like the eye of a curious visitor, pans and rises in a crane shot towards Renfield’s window, coldly prying to the inside of a world without privacy.
A cut takes us to an unconventionally blurry long shot in the cell, with only the heads and shoulders of Renfield and of his keeper Martin, struggling over Renfield’s fly.
This shot radically departs from the regular, crisp proscenium space frequently defined by Browning; instead, the images convey a sense of unbalanced naturalism, much like the raw documentary quality of the footage taken of WWI shell shock victims—and there was significant documentation.
Private Eaglefield, one of many WWI veterans who suffered from a form of “war neurosis.” He was treated at the Seale Hayne War Hospital.
Like this clip below. Yes, it’s totally and completely authentic. Even though this editing of footage taken from the Seale Hayne War Hospital does try to put a positive spin on shell shock recovery, it’s not light viewing. The staring, wide eyes of one patient, Private Eaglefield, also above, stand out for me as particularly haunting. My heart goes out to these men. Watch it AT YOUR OWN RISK.
In Frye’s performance, the insanity also physically presents itself through jerky gestures, a sallow complexion, exaggerated facial expressions, and braying laughter. All of these “symptoms” recall somatoform disorders and various psychological conditions recorded among WWI veterans in shock, as well as among modern sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Yet, even beyond Frye’s heart-rending portrayal, Browning manipulates light and shadow in the sterile sanatorium room to conjure up the kind of unthinkable angst that we see at work in these documents of real veteran anguish.
For instance, as Renfield sits on his bed at night, weeping at his torment, the window bars cast strangely angled shadows over the walls and partially obscure his face.
Here, the jagged shadows not only stress Renfield’s physical entrapment, but also act as a visual representation of the mental, moral maze that troubles him.
The lurid, crooked look of this scene harkens back to The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, another aesthetic product of WWI. However, unlike the extreme abstraction of Caligari, Dracula takes place in plausible settings. By casting disquieting shadows from a pretty believable sanatorium room, Browning disturbingly melds reality and the harrowing textures of madness.
I’d also point out that of the first times we see Renfield in his “lunatic” state, he’s in a trench-like space: the hold of the wrecked ship, from which he is the sole survivor.
Likewise, I consider it important that Renfield emerges as a deranged, yet lucid and sympathetic figure.
He’s not just a standard movie maniac: his “fits” arise from his profound spiritual and moral fears. Indeed, the bitter contradictions of Renfield’s existence parallel the psychological conditions that drove many WWI soldiers to crippling despair. Both find themselves forced to kill or to become complicit in killing in order to live, according to the will of an unassailable authority.
Renfield, like any soldier, must make a kind of doomed bargain. Consequently, he’s forced to abandon his ethics (his intrinsic goodness and his desire to do no harm) in order to maintain a half-life of slavery and regret. We sense the constant pressure he’s under: if he plays an accomplice to Dracula, he must contend with crippling guilt. If he lets his humanity win, Dracula will kill him. Damned if he does, dead if he doesn’t.
Browning’s camera carefully suggests this awful double-bind. When he enters a scene, Reinfield’s movements often provide a motive for destabilizing camera activity. For instance, when Renfield attempts to warn Van Helsing of Dracula’s plans, the Master, in bat form, flies towards the inmate. The camera implacably tracks in, emphasizing Renfield’s trapped situation. Renfield frantically declares his allegiance to Dracula to avoid punishment and we sense his dark, rankling pain and terror.
Therefore, as a young man tragically struck down by madness, physically trapped, and mentally torn between obligation and conscience, the Renfield of the 1931 version Dracula constitutes a modern creation quite separate from Stoker’s novel. Frye’s Renfield is, I’d argue, a legacy of World War I.
Although one might assume that by the onset of the Great Depression, the prevalence of the “shell shock” phenomenon would have subsided, both in their effects on veterans and in the minds of the public, war neuroses continued to linger on the edges of the society. Stunningly, even in 1942, over a decade after the release of Dracula and over two decades after the Treaty of Versailles, the majority of men living in American veterans’ homes had been afflicted with some kind of “neuropsychiatric” trauma as a result of their service in WWI.
Renfield (bottom center), dwarfed by Dracula’s enormous castle.
These statistics not only demonstrate the widespread mental cost of the conflict on direct witnesses, but also suggest the extent to which questions of insanity, psychological disorders, and institutionalization intruded into the consciousness of American civilians. I suspect that a fair number of viewers would have thought of a shell shock victim they knew, while watching Dracula.
Whether knowingly or unintentionally, Dracula, acted as an outlet for exploring the incidence of shellshock that continued to threaten and challenge the public.
The pathos that Frye and Browning brought to Renfield deserves to be recognized, for the character’s suffering mirrors the real agony of those many soldiers who attended the ultimate horror show of all time. Like Renfield, they witnessed something so unprecedented that it broke many minds to pieces—and left them all scarred in some form. It’s not a spectacle any of us wants to see, but it is one that we all ought to remember.
Sources and Resources:
Mank, Gregory, James Coughlin, and Dwight D. Frye. Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh. Fredericksburg: Sheridan Books, 1997.
Prawer, Siegbert. Caligari’s Children. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Skal, David. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. New York: Faber and Faber, 2004.
Universal Horror. Dir. Brownlow, Kevin. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Forest Ackerman, Turhan Bey, and Fay Wray. 1998. Universal, 2006.
Van der Hart, Onno, Annemieke van Dijke, et al. “Somatoform Dissociation in Traumatized World War I Combat Soldiers: A Neglected Clinical Heritage”. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. Vol. I (4), 2000.
Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) possesses undeniable cult cred in the form of pickled dead wives, sexy Bauhaus sets, and, of course, Lugosi flaying Karloff alive. I cherish it for all these reasons. However, more important, I believe that it’s the first mainstream horror movie to show the link between the “nightmare picture” genre cycle of the 1930s and its aesthetic and emotional origins in World War I.
Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, adaptations of gothic novels, The Black Cat completely abandoned the Poe short story which it misleadingly claims as its source. Instead, the plot of the film revolves around Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) and his quest for revenge against his former comrade-in-arms in the Imperial and Royal Army of Austria-Hungary, Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff, who else?). The film even takes place in an old WWI-rampart-turned-evil-lair, Fort Marmorus, complete with old battle charts and gun turrets!
As Lugosi’s character travels back to the site of such historical carnage, he also undergoes a psychological transformation from civilized doctor to a man ruined by war and hate. At the risk of sounding grandiloquent (too late, but this is Universal Horror!), Werdegast’s pilgrimage is really a voyage to the heart of repressed WWI memories.
Take, for instance, the scene in which Werdegast and the newlyweds (who’ve chosen inexplicably to vacation in rural Austria) are driven from the train station. A shot, taken from the inside of the car, reveals the hood of the old-fashioned vehicle as it proceeds down a long muddy road, sparkling with streams of rain. This image conveys a documentary quality and anticipates the filth and sogginess of the following descriptions of World War I battlefields and trenches.
The driver lugubriously informs his passengers: “This road was built by the Austrian army.” In the low-key lighting and indistinctness of the rainy night, the chauffer, wearing the gaudy, gold-accented livery of the Hotel Hungaria in Gömbös, appears to wear a soldier’s uniform.
Delivering a grim monologue, the driver paints lurid word-portraits of Marmorus during the War, including such disturbing morsels as “the ravine down there was piled twelve-deep with dead and wounded” and, “the little river below was swollen, a red, raging torrent of blood.”
Rather than cutting to the landscape or a flashback, Ulmer’s camera focuses on the reactions of the passengers. Like a couple at the cinema, slowly finding themselves drawn into the tale, the newlyweds at first hold back laughter then take on increasingly grave expressions. Werdegast, shown in a moodily lit close-up, closes his eyes as if in a trance.
Like a couple in the cinema: a parallel audience, the innocent newlyweds, the Alisons, listen to tales of WWI horrors.
The directorial decision to recount the story of Marmorus in this manner comments powerfully on the significance of such war narratives to modern life. Here, the tales and memories of no-man’s-land acquire the same kind of atmospheric cache as the prerequisite vampire lore or supernatural legends of more conventional horror films. For the Allisons, as for the moviegoers, the brutality of WWI already represents a myth, a treasury of shock-value yarns trotted out by tour guides, but still a collective inheritance of unconscious fears difficult to ignore.
The return to violence: the driver who recounts battle stories goes off the road with our characters in his cab. Note the practically vertical axis: the world of the newlyweds is about to be similarly turned upside-down by their involvement with two traumatized WWI veterans.
Towards the end of the film, the stylized, geometrical designs of the “Dark of the Moon” ceremony scene in The Black Cat echo the landscapes of a WWI no-man’s-land. Poelzig performs his black mass amidst a temple of jagged, irregular shapes, framed by two obelisks and a fan-like backdrop. His pulpit comprises a giant X-shaped complex made up of obliquely angled bars.
This altar closely resembles a “knife rest” or a cruciform barrier used by Great War soldiers in order to deter onslaughts of enemy men from attacking gaps in the trench lines. Many photographs of the WWI show such impromptu ramparts, constructed from a few planks and covered with barbed wire.
The jutting, irregular trappings of Poelzig’s secret cult room also recall images of the various fences, boards, and charred trees that contributed to the blasted and disorienting appearance of no-man’s-land.
Ulmer carefully supervised the set design, so I think it’s safe to assume the resemblance isn’t gratuitous, especially in light of explicit allusions to the war throughout the film. In the context of the wicked ceremony, Ulmer uses the set to stress the evil of war itself. Blending bizarre intimations of Satanism with WWI iconography, the director underscores the destructive urges of mankind to sacrifice others in the pursuit of illusory and often ridiculous belief systems.
In war as in horror films, the bad guys tend to demand human sacrifices.
However, one scene in particular drives home the relationship between horror and war in a stunningly stylized way, so stunningly that I can hardly believe that more film historians haven’t noticed the formal innovation.
After panicking at the sight of a black cat, Werdegast fails to kill Poelzig. The wife-killing traitor, however, doesn’t retaliate, but rather begins to calmly examine their situation, from off-screen. His tone turns eerily sentimental. Meanwhile, the somber strains of Beethoven’s No. 7 Symphony on the soundtrack reinforce the import of his words.
During this disembodied, voice-over monologue, the camera first tilts upward to take in Werdegast, tense and emotionally broken, before panning and tracking to a door handle which Poelzig opens. The shot roves, continuously save for a few ethereal dissolves, through the military, through the oppressive corridors of the former fort, capturing striking diagonal light-dark contrasts and disquietingly angled beams, and then up a spiral staircase. The series of dissolves really feels like a long take and it probably wanted to be, had the time, budget, and technology made it possible.
…and we return to the two “living dead” men as though we’d been walking with them.
Interestingly, the series of shots follow the path that the audience would expect Werdegast and Poelzig to walk as they return to the less disturbing upstairs of Poelzig’s house. But they’re not in the tracking shots. It’s almost as though they dissolved or disappeared into thin air.
The camera movement in fact substitutes for the movements of the main characters, who, at the end of the sequence, are revealed entering Poelzig’s study. The floating, slow camera movements strike the viewer as following shots, but with the initiators of motion surreally removed, in a strange instance of visual metonymy.
This unorthodox stylistic choice highlights a turning point in the self-awareness of the horror genre, as Poelzig assimilates the survivors and the corpses of World War I. The traitor asks Werdegast,
“Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?”
Here, he equates the real physical horrors of war and the trauma of veterans with the symbolism of the nightmare picture. In the context of the film, the speech makes the connection between the real broken and battered men who returned from the conflict and their screen alter-egos, the monsters and mutilated characters of the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, the pointed absence of Poelzig and Werdegast from the simultaneous tracking shots affirms the truth of these words. The characters disappear from the shots because their trauma has hollowed them out, reduced them to ghouls. Poelzig and Werdegast’s participation in the Battle of Marmorus has turned both into spiteful, inhuman phantoms, “the living dead.”
Battlefield wreckage? No, Fort Marmorus. It explodes at the end of The Black Cat, with the two veterans inside, like an exorcism of WWI demons.
Film historian David Skal asserts that a French work, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, released in 1919 and then remade by the director in 1938, was the first film to “face up” to the horror influence of the First World War. He has a point. However, Gance’s two versions were highly lauded anti-war dramas with noted horrific sequences, what would later be called “art films.”
But The Black Cat was a popular horror film, part of a genre not given enough credit then or maybe even now for its meaning-creating potential, that boldly unmasked World War I as the unconscious aesthetic and mythological focus of movie horror. Ulmer’s film alludes to the lineage of the genre, not just the evils of the war itself. Given the surprise popularity of The Black Cat, and of the horror genre during the Depression, perhaps such films allowed audiences to cope with the Great War in retrospect and to grieve subconsciously for those sacrificed to no-man’s-land, the victims of modernity, as well as for the walking wounded.
(This is adapted from a college paper which I wrote about Universal’s horror cycle. Although the thesis contained herein is my own, I did, of course, research the context and the making of the film and benefit from the analyses of others, including David J. Skal and to the documentary Universal Horror, which began to suggest the link between horror and WWI. I will provide my bibliography on request, so please leave a comment if you would like to know more about my resources. Likewise, please do not use my ideas or images without first asking me!)