Paranoiac (1963): Gothic Grisaille

poster63“The strong light which shows the mountains of a landscape in all their greatness, and with all their rugged sharpness, gives them nothing of the interest with which a more gloomy tint would invest their grandeur; dignifying, though it softens, and magnifying, while it obscures.”

—Ann Radcliffe, “On the Supernatural in Poetry”

You’ll rarely find the words “Hammer horror” and “good taste” in the same sentence. On the whole, the studio’s landmark chillers bequeathed such a lurid legacy of eye-popping color and eroticized violence to the film industry that there’s hardly a post-1960s horror film which doesn’t owe a debt to Hammer’s unabashed excess.

However, Paranoiac, directed by master cameraman Freddie Francis, is something of a black sheep in the Hammer family of spooks. The studio did go in for a touch of class every now and then, as with Taste of Fear, and Paranoiac holds up as one of its best psychological horrors. This sleek Hitchcokian thriller eschews Hammer’s signature bombast in favor of disquieting innuendo and the cool splendor of black-and-white widescreen cinematography. Though rather sedate in terms of what it shows, the film mostly leaves the horrors offscreen, preferring to let a number of unpleasant suggestions fester and multiply in our minds, where they can do the most damage.

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Eleven years ago, John and Mary Ashby died in a plane crash leaving three children: Eleanor, Simon, and Tony, the last of whom apparently committed suicide in despair shortly afterward. As siblings go, it’s hard to imagine two more different than Eleanor and Simon. Gentle, romantic Eleanor quietly teeters on the brink of sanity, still pining for her lost brother, whereas rakish reprobate Simon boozes it up, trying to figure out new ways to get at Eleanor’s inheritance. Because this is a Hammer film, there’s also a luscious French nurse living at the Ashby estate, supposedly caring for Eleanor. Sinister battleaxe Auntie Harriet serves as the watchdog of the dysfunctional clan’s reputation.

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Shortly before the Ashby heirs are about to come into their money, a mysterious man claiming to be Tony Ashby shows up and begins to suspect that someone’s driving Eleanor mad. Faced with a powerful rival, Simon has to act fast to obtain what he wants… and keep his skeletons in the closet.

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Loosely adapted from a novel by Josephine Tey and scripted by Jimmy Sangster, Paranoiac revives the tropes of Gothic literature for a new generation. Starting off with a rather conventional family melodrama scenario, the film progressively focuses on the ever-present undertones of incest, morbid mental states, and sadistic acts of cruelty that lurked between the lines in the novels of Walpole and Lewis.

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This film capitalizes on its lugubrious settings—craggy cliffs, a maze-like manor house, ancestral gardens—to place the audience in a receptive state of mind. As I watched, I kept thinking that Ann Radcliffe, the 18th to 19th century queen of the florid British Gothic style, would’ve approved of Paranoiac. In her dialogue essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” she praised the type of literature that “seem[s] to perceive a soul in every thing; and thus, in the secret workings of its own characters, and in the combination of its incidents, [keeps] the elements and the local scenery always in unison with them, heightening their effect.”

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Though it abandons the supernatural, Paranoiac does a fantastic job of extracting “the soul in every thing,” of wringing its mise-en-scene for every ounce of dread. Even trappings of the modern era, like Simon’s swank E-type Jag, bend to the Gothic agenda. The Jag becomes a harbinger of disaster after Simon crashes it in a flowerbed upon seeing his ostensibly dead brother for the first time in 11 years.

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Freddie Francis recycles a trick that he used as cinematographer for The Innocents, cultivating anxiety through the inclusion of frames within frames. The constricted or divided screen spaces contrast with the occasional sweeping outdoor landscape shots, reminding us of the unhealthy, benighted ambiance of the Ashby manor. Tony’s apparition loiters in a doorway or is seen by Eleanor as she looks through the bars of her window, a virtual prisoner to her family’s sordid connivances. As Tony and Eleanor peer into the manor’s spooky music room, we see their faces through a tiny clear spot in a window opaque with dust.

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As a literary style, the Gothic is particularly tethered to a sense of place. The architectural features that so often crowd the frame in Paranoiac translate that sensibility, adding tension to important “incidents… heightening their effect” to borrow Radcliffe’s words.

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On the other hand, Francis also exploits the full potential of widescreen to arrange engrossing compositions and dignified tableaux. Even in the most static scenes, he amps up the drama and tension by balancing the frame with several figures. The eye wants to travel, to take in all of the faces. For instance, I love how many possible points of interest there are in this shot from the scene where the Ashby family lawyer interrogates Tony, who’s apparently risen from the grave.

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Tony stands out as the centerpiece of the shot, but we also have the battered profiles of the lawyer and Aunt Harriet, plus angelic, hopeful Eleanor and diabolic, gargoyle-ish Simon in the background. This otherwise bland scene acquires the gravity of a medieval grisaille, as we watch a conflicted man facing an ordeal, allegorically surrounded by forces of good and evil.

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The film’s true standout, Oliver Reed slyly capers through the role of Simon, exuding a heady mixture of charm and menace. Before he destroyed his matinee idol face with years of bad behavior, Reed looked and sounded like a cross between young Orson Welles and young Laurence Olivier.

I can’t top Janine Sakol’s description of this glorious throwback in his prime: “Reed in the living, lusting flesh, actually makes the fiction Gothics seem pale by comparison. He smoulders, a mobile furnace with a low, fierce heat that threatens to explode at any moment.” He carries the movie on his loutish shoulders, transforming what could have been a campy, cardboard loony into a biting portrait of malevolence, a glimpse into the abyss of psychosis.

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During an appearance on Parkinson in 1973—back when Reed still did his interviews in a reasonable state of sobriety—he spoke fondly of his Hammer days, claiming that shortly before the making of Paranoiac, Peter Cushing gave him some key advice: “always the understatement.” During his Hammer tutelage, Reed also learned that he didn’t need to overdo it for the camera, since the lenses could accentuate even the smallest gesture. He would later say, instructing another actor how to do villainous parts, “the dangerous man has a great silence about him… Don’t blink… You never see a cobra blink, do you?”

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We witness some of that subtle, frozen intensity from our very first glimpse of Simon. The film opens with a church service, where Reverend Exposition recounts the tragedies lowered upon the house of Ashby. As he mentions Eleanor and Aunt Harriet, the camera lights on the solemn pair. However, when the name Simon comes up, we get a cut to sheet music in an organ booth in the church; a plume of smoke billows into the frame from somewhere offscreen. A graceful, sinewy hand reaches into the frame to turn the page of music, and the camera pans to reveal an unmoved Simon, taking a drag on his cigarette and smirking slightly.

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Irreverent, secretive, emotionally blunted, and clever: all of these character traits emerge in that single shot, thanks to Francis’s command of camera movement and Reed’s surprisingly inert performance.

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Simon’s presence often coincides with a disturbance or some sort of visual eruption. He callously crosses in front of the camera with a snifter of brandy and sardonic quip. Or lounges in the foreground of the frame, intently pulling apart a rose. Or forces the camera to whirl around, as he jabs pub darts towards the audience, threatening to blind a stranger. A poetic underwater shot best conveys his unbalanced psychological state, as he runs his fingers through the current and ripples warp his beautiful face into a grotesquely warped grin.

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I really don’t want to include any major spoilers in this post, because I found the film’s circuitous plot tremendously entertaining. Believe me, though, this elegant, aristocratic cousin from the house of Hammer has a few good scares up its tailored sleeves.

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This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café. Go to www.classicfilmtvcafe.com to view the complete blogathon schedule.

Hammer Halloween Blogathon

Hamlet (1948): Spacing Out

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It’s not hard to understand why Laurence Olivier selected this abbreviated passage of Hamlet as the opening statement, the thesis, if you will, of his adaptation. After all, these few lines contain the most eloquent description of the tragic flaw that anyone ever wrote; well, duh, it’s practically Shakespeare analyzing Shakespeare.

If anything, the quotation slaps us across the face with its significance. We might even feel inclined to groan at its 9th-grade-English-class heavy-handedness, spliced right into the exposition of the film. But we would be wrong to do so, because it contains the central image of Olivier’s brazenly stripped-down vision of the literary masterpiece.

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The last time I watched this movie, a line from the epigraph tickled my brain: “Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason.” Because, what is “reason” if not a buffer, a barrier? Something that restricts our mind like a corset of scruples and holds it prisoner like a castle keep? Reason consists of a series of bulwarks that we erect between ourselves and madness in all of its forms, whether excessive melancholy, anger, desire… or insight.

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The nature of reason can aptly express itself in architectural terms, particularly medieval ones. We live inside our heads, besieged by armies of competing facts and moral codes. We probably lift the portcullis of our perceptions and prejudices to admit new ideas much less frequently than we think we do.

Okay, so I’ve over-extended my metaphor, but it’s all in the service of Olivier’s direction. His Hamlet seizes on that guiding conceit, the fortress of reason, and spins it into a space where Desmond Dickinson’s camera seems to ruminate like Hamlet’s troubled mind, forever roving and wandering.

The opening of Olivier’s Hamlet freezes time. No one moves, like they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Four men stand on the ramparts of a castle, bearing the Prince’s corpse. We begin at the end of the story. This isn’t exactly a spoiler, since we all know Hamlet ain’t getting out of this alive, but the funereal shot infuses the film with a distinct and surreal sense of dread from the start.

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But what fascinates me about this opening shot is how time seems to have stopped as the camera glides through air, arcing out of the fog towards the prince’s body. The camera shows us that while time might have stopped for the people of this tale, the dimension of space remains open—and the camera dances in it.

The contrast between still, inert humans and a living, moving perspective divorced from them, well, it spooks me. It’s the visual equivalent of the alarming question that begins Shakespeare’s play, “Who’s there?”

Who—or what—is swooping down to look at the funerary procession while mortals can’t budge?

The next shot flips me out even more. On that forbidding castle fort, those figures in mourning just dissolve into thin air, leaving the battlements empty of people. This transition reminds us of how easily we all eventually dematerialize: “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”

The dissolve also reveals that the film conceives space as a psychological entity. This simplified, archetypal Elsinore, which initially appeared to have been lifted from a book of Charles Lamb’s tales or a Horace Walpole novel, actually exists in a place between Hamlet’s imagination and reality. The castle, though real, occasionally bleeds into the fortress of Hamlet’s askew reason.

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Nowhere is this link more clear than in Olivier’s staging of the play’s most famous monologue. Immediately after Hamlet rejects Ophelia for betraying him, the camera wooshes out of the room, up a staircase, and goes on one of its fugues, travelling up flight after flight of stairs—or actually, the same flight of stairs, cut together again and again.

Finally, the camera flies up to the sea, seen from the top of the castle, and then a track-back brings Hamlet’s head into sight from the bottom the frame. For my money, those M.C. Escher-ish repeated staircases convey the structure of rumination, of those repetitive thoughts that we can’t quite break away from. Hamlet’s mind is a lively, circular one, forever walking up and down the gloomy staircases of the Big Questions: why do we live? What is the good in staying alive? Is it worth it? Why? Why? Why?

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That sudden emergence of Hamlet’s head in the frame always surprises me a little. After a dissociative fit where we lose almost all sense of proportion on those abstracted staircases, we’ve returned to a man as the point of reference. The staggering switches in scope make the audience more aware of what I see as Hamlet’s flaw.

And Hamlet’s “problem,” in my humble opinion, is that the universe as a whole speaks to him.

He realizes his insignificance in the grand scheme of things; he cannot act because he questions the usefulness of any action at all. Hamlet combines self-absorption with self-effacement. He swims in the frightening space of the cosmos and wriggles in the prison of his own duties and life.

That crane shot, careening through the void, then returning to the melancholy prince suggests this push-pull, this paradoxical feeling that Hamlet is at once too much inside himself and too far away from himself.

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I love how Elsinore’s spaces reflect emotional nuances that a stage never could. For instance, the first crane shot down to focus on Hamlet cements our identification with him, with the thinker, the man left alone in the debris of pompous court ceremonies.

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Or consider how the long corridors of arches create a pathetic reciprocal gaze between Ophelia and Hamlet. The hallway inscribes and entombs their confused desire in stone.

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Likewise, I treasure Olivier’s pirouette in the performance hall of Elsinore, shown in a long shot, as he exults, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King!”

In On Acting, Olivier described Hamlet as the sort of person who needs to enter into someone else’s skin to get anything done: “it’s a sporadic collection of self-dramatizations in which he always tries to play the hero and, in truth, feels ill-cast in the part.”

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Here, Hamlet’s ecstasy in a performance space exposes how much he yearns to escape his limitations—and in the cavernous great room, the euphoria of that small gesticulating figure rings false. The desperate spurt of joy that Hamlet feels on an empty stage space, play-acting only for himself, paints a sad portrait of this man who considers himself unfit for everything others expect from him.

Unlike Laertes and Fortinbras who never seriously doubt their capabilities, Hamlet mercilessly beats up on his character flaws. If anything, his flaw is that he’s too aware of his flaws.

In 1988, two psychologists, Taylor and Brown, found out something that Shakespeare’s Hamlet had been telling us for a long time. Namely, that people suffering from mild depression are far more in touch with the realities of life, death, and risk. By contrast, normal, healthy individuals tend think that they’re better, smarter, and safer than the “average person.”

Hamlet lacks the survival prejudices that would have allowed him to filter out all the reasons not to act, not to stay alive. He sees the world with depressive clarity: “nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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So, indeed, reason consists of “pales and forts.” Reason usually provides a structure that protects us from ourselves. We live inside it, like happy guests in a castle, until something goes wrong, something that lets us understand that we are not immune to ugliness and pain.

Like Hamlet pulling back the arras to see that he has killed the wrong man, a person who finally sees the world as it is howls at the brutal disillusionment. And then all that reason turns from a bulwark to a prison. After a trauma, reason and logic start to encircle us with worries and perspectives that unhinge the unity of mind that one needs to do anything.

As Hamlet walks among the arches and pediments of Elsinore, he moves freely, but the walls close in upon him, pillars fragment the screen and crowd him. Unlike Ophelia, who in her craziness finds a state of mind akin to freedom and who drowns outside the castle walls, Hamlet struggles within them. The castle echoes back his angst—as does the Ghost, whose voice is actually a slowed-down recording of Olivier.

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Only imminent death, as Olivier notes, added the final ingredient to Hamlet’s character that enabled him to act. His own self-destruction fueled a newly personal need for retribution; he could kill the king only because he himself was dying.

After Hamlet dies, the camera pans to the region of darkness behind the chair where his head rests, as if in mourning for the blackout of his exquisite consciousness.

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In death, Hamlet still lies inside the ramparts of reason; the film ends where it began, but with a crucial shift. As the same four men seen at the beginning of the film carry the prince to the top of the castle, the camera snakes past the vestiges of the things that once preoccupied Hamlet: his place in court, the incestuous marriage bed, and a Christian altar. The men bear his body up the stairs to the top of the castle, where he meditated on his own mortality, and the camera swings back.

We experience a solemn elevation and a swelling fondness for the “sweet prince,” whose real kingdom was a state of mind. Not only did he accomplish his goal, he possessed that noblest and rarest of qualities: unflinching insight.

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The innovative spaces of Olivier’s Hamlet tap into the unique capacities of cinematic language. They transcend the glibness of symbolism, of “this equals that” imagery. Instead, the way the camera creeps around the architecture of Elsinore enables us to penetrate into what the intellectual Hamlet actually feels. The amorphous, psychological film-spaces blazed the trail for art films like Blow-Up (I’m thinking especially of that final enigmatic dissolve), Last Year at Marienbad, and The Shining, to name just a few.

But, most of all, the film’s benighted rooms and fortifications enable us to witness the birth of modern man, banging his head against the illusions implicit in normalcy and order.

The dread of mortality and failure may paralyze Hamlet. Yet, his greatness, his heroism, the reason why we weep for him resides in the very flaw that forestalls him: his sensitivity, his intensified sentience. The flexibility of the camera’s movements transmits the remarkable agility of his mind and the diversity of opinions that contend in his spirit. He would probably have been a terrible king, but he was a sublime human being.

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The Gothic Note: Graham Greene on The Black Room (1935)

Graham Greene—yes, one of the greatest and most enjoyable writers of the 20th century—spent a good bit of the 1930s writing about movies. 

And he was the kind of critic who makes me feel unworthy to be a self-appointed critic. His keen powers of observation and unflaggingly sharp ability to zero in on flaws, foibles, and mannerisms could reduce even the most egotistical of entertainment personalities into shuddering piles of fearfulness and remorse. Greene possessed an innate Geiger counter for pretense and commercial tripe. Nothing hindered him from laying into his cinematic victims with a withering British politeness and eloquence.

Which is all the more reason why, when Greene reviews a film favorably, we all ought to pull it off the shelves and give it a fresh look. And, wonder of wonders, when reflecting on the 1935 Karloff vehicle, The Black Room, our emerging novelist remarked in The Spectator:

“I liked this wildly artificial film, in which Karloff acts both a wicked central European count and his virtuous, cultured twin of the Byronic period.”

Phew! We can all heave a sigh of relief. Foremost among Greene’s reasons for liking the film, he points out that The Black Room affords Karloff a role not as an inarticulate monster, but as both a monstrous, yet pithy human being and a good guy. We get a richer sense of his range.

“Mr Boris Karloff has been allowed to act at last… [A]ny actor could have produced the short barks and guttural rumbles, the stiff, stuffed, sawdust gestures, which was all his parts required of him. A Karloff scenario must have made curious reading. Were those grunts phonetically expressed?”

As much as that last rhetorical question provokes the 1930s equivalent of an LOL, I’m going to have to take issue with you, Graham Greene. (Please don’t haunt me! Wait… actually, please do.) Karloff can communicate an extraordinary amount through grunts and jerky motions.

Karloff: double trouble…

Nevertheless, I agree that ‘tis a treat indeed to watch Karloff swing into full-on Richard III mode with his wily, sardonic delivery of Baron Gregor’s lines. I also appreciate the louche physicality which Karloff explores in the part of a libertine, always lounging in a chair kicked back against a wall, his leg swung over the arm of the chair.

Karloff’s Gregor: inventor of “chillin’ like a villain”

As for William Roy Neill’s handling of the script, Greene accorded the interpretation rather high praise… at the expense of another great horror director:

“The direction is good: it has caught, as Mr James Whale never did with Frankenstein, the genuine Gothic note. Mrs. Radcliffe would not have been ashamed of this absurd and exciting film, of the bones in the oubliette…

“…the scene at the altar when the dog leaps and the paralysed arm comes to life in self-defense,

“…of the Count’s wild drive back to the castle, the lashing whip, the rearing horses, the rocketing coach, the strange volley of rocks with its leading cross and neglected Christ, the graveyard with owls and ivy. There is much more historical sense in this film than in any of… the ‘scholarly’ works of Mr Korda. A whole literary period comes to life…”

I am now going to critique this critique. Those of you with faint hearts may leave.

Dead men don’t blog back, so I want to clarify that I am in no way deriding Graham Greene. Let’s face it, though, his review does place a major limitation on horror, a limitation which runs the risk of oversimplifying the genre. He’s implying that horror should necessarily be Gothic in tone. At least, it seems that he’s taking a shot at Whale for abandoning the Gothic aesthetic. By contrast, Greene praises Neill and his “good” direction for remaining faithful to the literary tradition of Radcliffe and Lewis. His whole standard of evaluation hinges on a film’s relationship to a specific heritage of terror. I don’t think it should be that simple.

Indeed, I advise you not to read Greene’s review of Bride of Frankenstein if you happen to be squeamish or if you, like me, simply love that movie—the write-up is about as dismissive as Greene gets. He didn’t appreciate any of the camp elements, Whale’s “devil’s advocate” brand of empathy, or the piquant, looming bizarreness which Whale infused into talkie horror. Instead, the budding novelist kept hammering on the fact that the Bride just wasn’t scary in the Gothic sense, when, frankly, I doubt that it was meant to be.

I differ from Greene, because I can’t believe the aesthetics of horror are that clear-cut. Gothic—good. Departure from Gothic—bad. Now, I would argue that good horror may borrow elements from the Gothic, but it doesn’t need to.

And, yet. Always this “and yet…” haunts me, like the specter of a murdered brother!

I have to admit that Greene does make a strong case for the validity of the Gothic mentality as the core of pleasurable horror flicks. Just to be clear, for me, Gothic atmosphere and style revolves around contrivances, like curses, unspeakable secrets, and twin brothers. The esthetic also requires a certain benighted, costume-y feel which Greene beautifully conjures in the quoted description above. Finally, I would argue that this type of horror is joined to a psychological primitivism, a lack of obvious self-consciousness.

If a man starts hitting on you in a graveyard, you may be in a Gothic novel.

Gothic horror relies upon the ghastly for its thrills: churchyards, stabbings, murderous brigands, hidden deformities, and gruesome ironies. One of my favorite such moments in The Black Room (spoiler alert!) has Baron Gregor assume the bearing and manners of the brother he’s just killed while examining himself in the reflective onyx walls of the titular secret chamber.

There’s also something about the Gothic that reminds me of Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Much of the fun of this genre literature (and Jacobean revenge tragedies, for that matter) derives from some kind of prediction, equation, or vow that ends up getting fulfilled, rather creepily and often with a slight plot twist, in the end. As it does in The Black Room, the conclusion of which I won’t disclose, but which you’ll understand if you’ve seen it.

“I begin as I end.” The family coat-of-arms and curse.

Another strength of Gothic horror as a genre resides in what I would describe as a lack of psychologizing. In place of tiresomely nuanced self-doubt, we relish heavy generalizations like Lust, Sin, and Innocence that dwell in the realm of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Like Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of UdolphoThe Black Room eschews the cumbersome self-analysis that we do get in more “modern” horror flicks, including some good ones, like the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Cat People.

That’s not to say that The Black Room lacks elements that lend themselves to psychological analysis, or to interpretation in general. Take the film’s use of mirrors as a means of suggesting moral doubling and division. Then there’s the fact that Anton and Gregor came from the same womb and are destined to end up in the same oubliette. But still, you could plausibly watch this movie and get no sense of anything deeper than a fine little chiller.

It’s entertainment in a rather pure, uncomplicated form, which is something that Greene and I both like and applaud. As someone who’s spent a lot of time studying film, I am refreshed by a film that doesn’t really want you to study or over-intellectualize it. I suspect that Greene disliked Whale’s movies because he found them too up-front and pretentious in their attempts at exploring the ambitious themes of life, death, and man-as-God.

No doubt, The Black Room deserves a place in the pantheon of classic horror, with its smooth, sinister tracking shots and pitch-perfect screen adaptation of Gothic tropes. The film does revive a whole literary era of wedding feasts cut short and specters of guilt and evil returning—without the self-conscious fear of Freud poking at them with his cigar.

But, and here’s where I diverge, The Black Room, despite its stylish qualities, does not herald a new era for horror as a genre, like the 1931 Frankenstein did with its jump cuts, its jarring use of sound, and its masterfully askew cinematography—askew to the point of abstraction at times. It surprises me that Greene, as a man who devoted so much of his time to pondering the fate of man’s soul in the face of modernity, did not appreciate the cruel, nervous, decidedly un-Gothic edge that Whale’s work adds to horror as a genre.

The “genuine Gothic note”: a menaced maiden.

Brave new word: man menaced… by his own creation.

The Black Room is a brilliant relic, though. I cherish it as such, and I strongly recommend that you watch it. So, apparently, did Graham Greene.

Modern Myth: Frankenstein (1931)

I need to rein myself in when writing about Frankenstein. God knows, I could easily concoct a series of blog posts about Colin Clive’s hair alone. So, I’ll isolate one moment that has always fascinated me and try to bring it ALIVE!

Recognize the scene? This is a pristine publicity still, I believe, but you can still get the gist (and some extra angst!) from my slightly murky screenshots.

The monster has dragged his maker to the windmill. Henry Frankenstein wakes up and tries to run away, but the creature stops him and they take up positions on either side of a turning wheel in the mechanism of the mill. In shot-reverse-shot, we get Frankenstein looking at his creation and the thing looking back, as the gear continues to turn between them. There’s just so much in these two shots. They conjure up a multiplicity of meanings.

Following a pretty intense chase sequence, this pause in the action, almost like a fermata, really sticks in your memory—or at least mine. Karloff, for his part, communicates a rising rage against the only person whom he can hold responsible for putting him into this situation of pain and chaos.

For once, Clive’s character isn’t a ball of nerves. He really looks at what he’s made, as though he’s seeing it for the first time. I also think that I detect a certain amount of perverse pride in Henry Frankenstein’s eyes. Remember that scene where Waldeman and Frankenstein double-team the monster, trapping him while trying to administer a sedative? Well, now the tables are turned… Henry’s trying to get away from his monster and his creature clearly has the brain capacity to trap him. One can sense just a little undercurrent of ironic accomplishment. Not only has Clive’s Frankenstein made a man, but a man who can hold his own with his maker.

Frankenstein’s monster shows the capacity to learn and get the upper hand. He thus becomes his master’s greatest achievement and his greatest nightmare.

There’s also an odd “tag you’re it!” aspect of this scene. How many comedies give us this kind of scenario, with two characters faking each other out as they run around a desk or something? It’s a child’s game, really, and both Frankenstein and his creation are like children, causing harm and acting willfully without fully comprehending the ramifications of their actions.

To put a revolving series of bars between the camera and the character also adds a visual flamboyance to the stare-down and draws the viewer in with hypnotic movement. The cyclical motion is like a model or a concretization of the reciprocal gaze. With sound and image working in conjunction, the creaky, yet steady rhythm of the turning mill wheel both grounds the scene in a set pace and makes it uneasy, unsteady, in motion. Now, this turning wheel separating the creator and the creation suggests a perpetual tension and, at least to me, suggests the idea of the monster and maker inscribed in a dialectic relationship.

What an angle! Stunning visual means of conveying the collision-of-universes aspect of this death struggle.

The philosopher Hegel wrote about this concept of dialectic, of a pair of opposites (not just binaries, two things that are just at different ends of a spectrum) but opposites that are forever clashing—as epitomized by the master-servant relationship. The servant wants to rise and become the master and make the master his servant. The master wants things to stay just as they are. Even if you flip the positions, somebody’s going to be unhappy, because each wants “to supersede the other independent being in order thereby to become certain of itself as the essential being.”

It’s a perpetual cycle of conflict, upheaval… and conflict again. It goes ’round and ’round. After all, why else do we, in English, say revolution for both upheaval and turning?

The mill wheel, interposing between the camera and the faces of the Frankenstein and his monster, drive home this tension of seeing oneself in the other and of trying to extricate oneself from that other. Creator and creation can’t really be separated though—they are mutually defined. The wheel connects them to each other on this visual level and allows us to feel this ineffable link, this potent, mythic moment of the pair tragically recognizing themselves in each other and recognizing that they recognize it.

On another, perhaps more obvious, level, the decision to set the conclusion of the film in a windmill also recalls Don Quixote. After all, the mad Don tilts at the most famous windmill in Western Civilization, because he believes it to be a monster. Robert Florey, who wrote the script for Frankenstein, added the windmill. It doesn’t appear in Mary Shelley’s novel, and, although the initially scripted scenes were heavily reedited, Whale clearly made the decision to make the gears of the building quite prominent. Now, I would certainly apply the adjective “quixotic” to Dr. Frankenstein and to his quest. In his character, the romantic and scientific traditions intersect to form an impractical genius who makes things he can’t cope with.

Highs and lows: extreme angles emphasize the fragility and volatility of Frankenstein’s genius. 

This turning windmill also makes us as viewers aware of a churning, orderly edifice in which Frankenstein and his beast suddenly find themselves. Now, I’m dancing on the jagged edge of symbolism here, but the mill creates the feeling that the movie is now inside a working, mechanical system.

Indeed, as the bars of the mill wheel pass between the camera and their faces, this interposing object recalls the zoetrope—one of the first pre-cinema moving image devices which gave the appearance of life by parading a series of images through a tiny peep-hole slot.

(Evidently, I’m not the first person to make this observation. After I pressed publish on this one, a rabid horror fan friend of mine directed me to a similar point in the work of Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr, The Flying Maciste Brothers. Well, Newton and Liebniz developed calculus independently…)

Now, what does Dr. Frankenstein want most of all? He craves to know how things work, what mechanisms of nature rule the world. The windmill reminds me of the suite of laws that hold together the universe—and continue to do so, in spite of whatever strange dreams man might dream.

“If I could discover any one of these things… I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.”

Frankenstein and his monster, however, both become heroic because they have the guts to stare into that mechanism: Frankenstein by choice, his creation by way of the calamitous existence that was thrust upon him. Their exceptional destinies are intertwined and the movement of the wheel seems to knit them together—as doubles, as a dialectical pair, as two individuals who madness and bad luck has rendered aware, whether rationally or intuitively, of the forces that govern the world and which, when tampered with, grind a human being to despair.

For me, the beauty of Frankenstein resides in the morbid, yet poetic way the film doesn’t just portray modernity, but also practices it. For instance, in true Gothic novels, one prototype being Ann Radcliffe’s celebrated Mysteries of Udolpho, any time a skull or skeleton pops up, we’re dealing with a key plot point or shock-value moment… and you have to wait for about 200 or so more pages for another one.

James Whale, on the other hand, constantly throws this kind of memento mori imagery at us. Even Dr. Waldeman, who presents himself as the healthy scientist, in contrast to Clive’s obsessive one, keeps a line of skulls on the back shelf of his study.

Or, consider the classroom scene preceding the brain theft, which opens with this droll, direct shot of a dead man’s feet.

There’s a very similar shot in Murnau’s Faust, with the feet of plague victim appearing disproportionally large in the foreground, but the effect achieves a grimmer tone there. The cadaver in Frankenstein possesses a good deal less dignity. He’s just served as a visual aid to a bunch of med students, and his feet poke humorously right into the camera, into the spectator’s face as it were. These med students even start to chuckle when, nudged by the gurney, an anatomical skeleton, suspended from the ceiling, bobs up and down. Whale depicts a world at least partially desensitized to the horror of death.

In place of the dreadful, foreboding atmosphere of Browning’s Dracula, Whale gives us a bizarre mixture of irreverence and fear. Frankenstein shows us a world in which death is not the master, but the servant. Death is the thing that we’ve learned to chuckle at and demean—even as we cower before it.

I think that a lot of this cynical attitude towards death comes from the director’s time in the trenches of WWI. A lot of gears were in constant motion on the front…

Like all great works of art, Whale’s Frankenstein doesn’t allow a viewer to pin it down with a single meaning. The monster and his maker both win over our sympathy—and even the torch-wielding villagers do, too! But, for me, the crux of the drama occurs at that moment when the creature and his maker face off with a searing reciprocal gaze, separated by that marvelously evocative wheel that seems to both separate them and unite them. This visually stunning, revolving flourish elevates what could be a stagey, old-fashioned finale into a truly modern metaphor for the gears of the universe, for the mechanical man… and perhaps for that ultimate in life-creating edifices—the cinema?

Insanely Real: Renfield, Dracula, and World War I

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.

3

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 CaligariDracula 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.

Heart of Darkness: The Vampire’s Ghost and Colonial Horror

Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible—it was not good for one either—trying to imagine. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land—I mean literally. 

                   — Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

The Vampire’s Ghost reeks of jungle rot, regrets, and that creeping evil that lives far beyond the gratification of its desires. Instead of the dark peacock virility of Lugosi’s Dracula, that lusty Deco reincarnation of European romanticism, this 1945 B-film offers up a bulbous-eyed, gaunt expat, Webb Fallon, as its parasitic antihero. Fallon is a vampire who is both moribund and mighty, weary yet insatiable. Ugly as gull, courtly as a prince, and efficient as a bureaucrat, he embodies the musty charm and banal wickedness of a decaying colonial empire.

In fact, running his shabby little casino and dive bar to keep afloat as he feeds on blood, Fallon (John Abbott) reminds me of what Conrad’s Mister Kurtz would have become if he had been doomed to eternal life. I suspect that Kurtz’ bravura would have mellowed into Fallon’s disillusionment if he had been forced to watch the downfall of his works and to observe for centuries “the horror, the horror” that he had only begun to conceive of on the brink of death.

Let’s take a look at how the movie, directed by Lesley Selander, begins. Rather like Casablanca, it begins with a map, the sound of drums, and an authoritative, cultured, newsreel-ish voice-over intoning, “Africa, the dark land where Voodoo drums beat in the night…”

In the context of 1940s cinema, we read this narrator not only as a nondiegetic element, but also as an element divorced from the story. In a way, the audience members think in the back of their minds, the movie hasn’t even started. This voice-over is here to situate the film with a few choice clichés, we assume. The camera focuses in on a specific town on the map as the voice continues to spout some vague scene-setting lines about “the mystic moon” and such. Now, dissolve to the village, the real thing, not a drawing, at night. The cluster of grass huts and a Christian mission squat bathed in moonlight as the camera pans ever so slowly around.

The drums beating constantly in the background may now be interpreted as diegetic, since they’re coming from the village. That subtle change forces us to readjust our assumptions as the narrator’s baritone keeps talking: “Africa… where men have not forgotten the evil they learnt in the dawn of time.” Okay, the narrator in Casablanca would never say that. Who the hell is this?

At this moment, the voice betrays itself. “I always come back to Africa… but even here there is no rest for me. The path of time is curved here like a sickle.” This mercurial shift from a relatively detached, conventional narrator to the narrator as an “I” hits home like a stealth attack. I felt as though the subjectivity of this character had been lying in wait, biding its time. Now the camera begins to really move in earnest, tracking towards a doorway and we understand that we’re in a point-of-view shot. Once again, we’ve been lulled into a false sense of a security and, in a way, what we see has suddenly been possessed by the intent of another. It’s quite a clever opening play and it only gets better.

This voice and this perspective stalk up to the door as the voice grows more emphatic, culminating in “I cannot die!” at the moment when a hand appears on a door handle, before trailing away with the hypnotic repetitions of “I cannot rest. I cannot rest. I cannot rest…”

Continuing from this perspective, there’s a cut to a little barking dog on the other side of the door. Cut to the hand opening the door. The dog cowers as the camera creeps towards a sleeping woman. She wakes. She looks terrified. The shadow falls over her. She screams. Fade to black.

We’re all used to the monster attack as an opener, a classic “curtain-raiser” in films, but here the unusual complicity with the vampire—a complicity that’s imposed upon us through a careful use of cinematic language and audience expectations—attracts me to this sequence. Not only do we experience the attack through the eyes of the predator, we also hear his plea for “rest” as he prepares to drain a human being of life. The viewer finds himself simultaneously drawn in and repelled.

The grave, sonorous voice of John Abbott certainly catalyzes this blend of fear and sympathy: he was a noted English actor of Shakespeare in the 1930s. My fondness for this film may be running away with me, but I’d say this opening speech recalls Richard III, who’s always trying evoke the pity and admiration of his audience—so that they become willing accomplices and victims. (This might be a good place to point out that the script was written in part by Ms. Leigh Brackett, based on her original story. You might know her from movies she went on to write for, including The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.)

Fallon is not your ordinary vampire. Graf Orlock from Nosteratu definitely doesn’t tug at our heartstrings and Lugosi’s Dracula might make a single off-hand remark about “far worse things than death” but he never seeks to form a true of bond with the audience, to rest his head on the shoulder of our conscience and beg for a modicum of understanding. Not the Count.

In The Vampire’s Ghost, by contrast, we start with the vampire’s side of the story. And he doesn’t seem like such a soulless creature. Which is why he’s so very dangerous.

The Outsider

In case you’ve not seen this rare gem (so rare you can watch it on Netflix Instant, if you have 55 free minutes), here’s a quick synopsis: the wicked, undead nightclub-owner Fallon goes for Roy (Charles Gordon) the Good Guy’s innocent girl Julie (Peggy Stewart) and gets killed with help of silver spear-wielding natives and a Catholic priest.

That plot, minus a few specifics, could summarize almost all of the 1930s and early 1940s horror films, but this entry into the vampire cannon intrigues me because it takes Fallon quite a long time to do anything evil after that opening night sequence. In fact, he saves Roy’s life from a native jungle trap! Honestly, not many vampires come across as such consummate gentlemen. Even Julie tells him that he’s the nicest man she’s ever met.

In other words, chivalry is not dead. It’s undead.

We don’t learn very much about Fallon, but we do know that he’s actually over 400 years old and received the box in which he keeps his sacred earth from Queen Elizabeth, which hints that he was probably one of the early European explorers to colonize and enslave Africa.

So, in the midst of the thick, machete-impenetrable jungle, Fallon remains a throwback to the heart and heyday of Western civilization in all of its sin and glory. He’s part of the hegemony, a son of the British Empire. And yet, the white community doesn’t fully accept him. When Roy and Julie invite Fallon over for dinner with the other whites, the priest immediately gets judgmental, asking why “a man of your intelligence” spends his time running a saloon.

I just adore this shot, with the priest looking all… well, priestly, while Fallon lights his cigarette with a little lick of flame that reminds us of where he truly belongs in the Church’s eyes: Hell. However, the usual good-bad, white-black color iconography is reversed: the vampire wears white and the priest, the holy father, wears black. Morality seems clear-cut in The Vampire’s Ghost, but if you look harder, another layer of complexity arises.

To get back to Fallon’s saloon, it comes across as a subversive, transitional space, with the lithe, brown-skinned Leeza (Adele Mara) swirling around as a native temptress for drooling white workers and sailors.

I suppose that my point is, Fallon represents an unholy thing because he can be at once the familiar and the Other. Although he is rational and civilized, his existence defies rationality and his appetites are indeed savage.

The Return of the Repressed

By rising from his grave, Fallon disinterred that part of colonial history which many people would rather forget. His hunger and his need for conquest parallel a larger pattern of callous global vampirism: colonization. Which brings us back to Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness.

Mister Kurtz, the unconscionably evil ivory trader from Conrad’s novella, has also projected himself into the field of the Other. He embodies the pinnacle of European talents and European cruelty—and uses these traits to set himself up as a tyrant god to the natives. The narrator of the novella, Marlowe, recoils from Kurtz’ atrocities and yet he cannot deny the personal magnetism of this human monster who brought the logical extension of “civilization” to fruition in pure savagery.

In a famous scene from the book, Kurtz, dying of a jungle sickness, tries to crawl away from camp rather than leave the heart of the Congo where he rules supreme:

“He rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct, like a vapour exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me; while at my back the fires loomed between the trees, and the murmur of many voices issued from the forest…

‘I was on the threshold of great things,’ he pleaded, in a voice of longing, with a wistfulness of tone that made my blood run cold.

I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions.”

This passage has much of the visuality of horror about it and makes me think particularly of the scene in The Vampire’s Ghost where Fallon reveals his vampirism.

So, in Fallon’s tent, Roy realizes what his “friend” is and first stuns him with the image of the cross, then tries to kill him with a silver-tipped spear. However, Fallon fixes his staring eyes on Roy and the weak-willed juvenile leading man caves under their force.

The low-key chiaroscuro, the Christian iconography, and the dramatic poses, reminiscent of Renaissance paintings or of the tapestry in Fallon’s bedroom, enhance the feeling of a regression to an older time, as though Fallon has suddenly reached the point where his primal hunger and his refined European wickedness intersect.

For most of The Vampire’s Ghost, Fallon appears as a declining power, which makes his force seem all the more diabolical when he finally pushes aside all of his compunction and world-weariness. He unleashes the single-minded imperialist he once was, the conqueror who lives only by the law of might. He tells Roy point-blank that he’ll do as he pleases because he is beyond humanity. “You’re seeing a creature that doesn’t exist. You’re looking at a legend… You can’t fight me. I have walked the earth for 400 years. I’ve learned things that no human being can ever know.”

This speech rings frighteningly close to Kurtz’ delusions  of grandeur. Both of them, no doubt, recognize the pain they cause—as the priest points out, in his own sanctimonious way, they’re intelligent enough to be self-aware. Even so, both Kurtz and Fallon would rather kill to feed their appetites than die: a choice that makes them perfect imperialists and perfect animals, predators who belong in the jungle.

It’s fitting, then, that Fallon rejuvenates in the forest, where he makes Roy carry him, just as Kurtz knows that, once separated from the jungle, he’ll die. Fallon bathes in the moonlight, where he can truly dismiss all his pretenses, and thus provides the focus for one of the most lyrical moments of the film.

The Fallen Idol

Fallon’s uncanniness resides in the fact that we identify him with the Other while he also strikes us as human in so many ways. However, like Kurtz, he becomes truly godlike at the conclusion when he resolves to bestow eternal life (or eternal death—ah! I’m having a Mummy flashback from my last blog post here!) upon Julie.

Fallon leads the compliant maiden into the heart of the jungle to an old pagan temple. The scene begins with a shot of the “savage” large-breasted goddess statue, an image that melds the erotic with the exotic, then the camera pans pans to reveal Fallon locked in a reciprocal gaze with this statue.

Again, the lanky, pale Fallon visually comes across as the polar opposite of this sensual indigenous idol (and yes, it is a very ersatz Hindu-African hybrid idol, but let’s take it at face value). Yet, like Kurtz, who joins the pantheon of capricious, wrathful native deities, Fallon has much more in common with a morbid god than with the stiff cast of Europeans that dominate the plot. And, like a decaying culture or a dismembered empire (Were you ever bitten by a dead bee?), Fallon draws us in with his tragic need to expire—which will always be trumped by the consumption necessary to survive.

Ruthlessness, as Nietzsche (surely Kurtz’ favorite author!) tells us, requires a lot of strength and a surprising amount of self-control.  Fallon the tempter is himself tempted by death, but keeps killing to stay alive. Throughout the film we wonder why, and it boils down to an addiction. A behavior pattern of exploitation that perpetuates itself. Every “memory of gratification and monstrous passions” lures Fallon back to that same desire for power. He’s too strong to let himself die.

He’s not without a conscience, like Dracula seemingly is, but, having largely mastered his conscience, Fallon can stomach destroying a few lives to preserve his own intoxicating authority over others. We catch a glimpse of that side of Fallon when he sadistically gloats by Roy’s bedside, giving Julie his shoulder to cry on and then, when alone with the poor boy, gloating over his imminent victory.

The complexity of Fallon’s character as a sort of fallen idol imbues the film with added depth. He doesn’t put everyone in his thrall but once he does, as with Roy, he goes all-out, gleefully making them his slaves. He doesn’t like the fact that he hurts people, but he certainly enjoys doing it. We, as an audience, also enjoy it, I’d point out, since his most sinister scenes stand out as the best in the film.

But back to the grand finale. As he prepares to treat Julie to The Fate Worse Than Death, Fallon repeats his line from the opening monologue, “the path of time is curved like a sickle…” but this time he ends his speech by saying that a man need not walk that time alone and that he wants Julie to be his companion for all eternity. He seduced the audience with this line. Now he tries it on a new victim and it seems to be working. The repetition also reinforces the idea of vampirism as an addiction, as a compulsive behavior pattern which, like imperialism, once set into swing, cannot easily be halted.

That is, until Roy, the priest, and his native friend show up with crucifixes, silver-tipped spears, and torches, as we knew they would.

I can’t help but find it amusing that that the hardcore Catholic priest teams up with the much-maligned “superstitious” native leader, to roast the vampire. But, then again, the indigenous people understandably hate Fallon for exploiting them (literally sucking their blood) and hypocritical whites hate Fallon for giving away their much more subtle vampirism (Who’s tapping the rubber out of those trees?) as well as for “luring” away their pure young girl (You can’t make the whites into your slaves!). It’s only right that they should band together to forever destroy this blasphemous creature who’s neither us nor them.

Nevertheless, just as it’s difficult to forget our twisted admiration for Kurtz, who was, to his credit, honest about his barbaric methods, Fallon similarly invites the viewer to sympathize with him while he never hides what he does. He may be homely, corrupted, and poisonous, but his superhuman insight and his ability to cling onto life—even when part of him tragically craves death—these qualities hold us spellbound.

As Marlowe laments the loss of Kurtz’ originality in Heart of Darkness, “Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares.”

Fallon acknowledged his own status as something better off dead, but we respect his fierce implacability in getting what he wants. Isn’t that the same ineffable motive that drives all of us to keep on living, even as other things—perhaps better things—die? Vampirism. Imperialism. Both warped versions of the same survival instinct. And both really human to the core.

Heaven knows what devils we might all aspire to be if plunged into the heart of darkness.

Fifty Shades of (Dorian) Gray: In Honor of Albert Lewin

Today, September 23, marks the birthday of Albert Lewin. Old Allie wrote the screenplay for and directed a film that I love, the 1945 M-G-M adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which does not get nearly the respect it deserves. He was an extraordinary guy and I’d like to take a few moments to remember him and this remarkable film.

You see, Lewin was an intellectual. In studio Hollywood. In the 1940s. Quite the rara avis.

Lewin, right, with George Sanders and Lowell Gilmore on the set of Dorian. 

Born in Brooklyn in 1894, he served in World War I infantry, got his undergraduate degree at New York University, and earned his M.A. in English from Harvard. He was going to become a professor.

Then he saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

That screening was an epiphany for the young scholar, heralding cinema as the next great expressive medium. As a recovering academic myself, I consider Lewin’s decision to commit himself to cinema, thus totally changing the course of his life, pretty damn brave.

Remember, it wasn’t until much, much later in the 20th century when academic circles began to accept cinema widely as an art!

So, Lewin travelled to California, worked as a reader and script clerk. Irving Thalberg, also a pretty erudite fellow, saw a kindred spirit in Lewin and took him on as his personal assistant. After Thalberg died, Lewin moved around a bit, then returned to M-G-M, this time to direct.

However, rather than making the pretentious, stilted teacup dramas or “idea movies” you might expect from a would-be-professor-turned-Hollywood-man, Lewin served up some of the most delightfully decadent, bizarro, lurid literary adaptations of all time. And his operatic/mythological mash-up drama Pandora and the Flying Dutchman foreshadowed the appropriation of classical characters that we notice so often in blockbusters these days (except that Lewin’s mash-up was actually good.)

So, I’d just like to take a moment to lay out why I believe that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a great—and, no, I don’t throw that word around lightly—film, as well as a great adaptation, worthy of more scrutiny and love than it gets.

Firstly, Dorian Gray does a brilliant job of seizing on M-G-M’s dominant aesthetic—the “house style,” as some would say—and recasting it, twisting it for darkness, horror, and expressionism. Let’s face it, we remember the heyday of the 1930s and 1940s at M-G-M for escapist mega-productions, many of which arguably haven’t aged too well.

They’re so glossy, frilly, and extravagant that they often pale in comparison to the gritty realism of Warner Brothers or the Continental sparkle of Paramount, for instance.

Lewin seems to have been acutely aware of this disadvantage. Dorian Gray, after all, was publicized as a horror film, and it would have been hard to dispute Universal as tops in the horror game. So, rather than trying for the full-on Gothic frisson, Lewin manipulates and reinvents the trappings of M-G-M glamour, slowly inching towards depravity.

Through Lewin’s careful low-key shadings and his faithfulness to the perversity of Wilde’s characters, it’s almost as though the M-G-M look becomes Dorian Gray: cold, soulless, a world of shiny, gleaming surfaces—harboring evil and corruption beneath.

Lewin slowly immerses Dorian’s swanky, polished Edwardian townhouse in shadows and contorts it with oblique angles and striking framings that call attention to their own flamboyance.

Lewin’s brand of horror is a hedonistic, alluring one, a far cry from the sparse, trench-like textures of Whale or the carnavalesque or Gothic tones set by Browning.

 An exotic dancer performing at one of Dorian’s opulent parties.

For instance, take this glorious shot above. So, for some context, Dorian (played by the eerily beautiful Hurd Hatfield) wants to test the virtue of the common girl, Sybil (Angela Lansbury), whom he’s been courting. He tells her that he wants her to spend the night with him. She refuses and he says that if she won’t he doesn’t want to see her again. She walks to the door but then returns when she hears Dorian playing Chopin the piano.

Here, we see her reenter Dorian’s parlor, at the top left corner of the frame, vulnerable, tiny, incomplete, pathetic. The first of Dorian’s victims. Yet, the multiple patterns mingling with shadows give the image a heady glamour, a beauty that’s positively anxiety-inducing.

In the best scene in the film, Basil Hallward, who painted Dorian’s portrait, goes to Dorian’s former childhood playroom where the canvas has been hidden—and sees how the picture has transformed to represent Dorian’s soiled soul.

Dorian panics and (SPOILER) stabs Basil to death. As Dorian makes up his mind to slaughter his friend, the camera tracks in, creeping towards him like a sense of dread. Then there’s a marvelous jump cut to a close-up of Hurd Hatfield’s masklike visage at the exact moment when he decides to grab a penknife at hand and do the deed.

As he does so, he knocks against a hanging lamp which swings back and forth during the struggle, rapidly oscillating between dark and light, dark and light. It’s pure cinema. The changes in lighting are anchored to the mise-en-scene and thus avoid a kind of stuffy symbolism, but still suggest the forces of good and evil warring within Dorian.

On a purely visual level, the manic switching between brightness and shadow attacks the viewer’s eye and produces a simple but undeniable sensation of terror. (Think Touch of Evil‘s flashing neon murder scene or Psycho‘s swinging lightbulb, only more than a decade before!)

Then there’s the fact that the violence is set in a former nursery, which drives home the corrupted innocence of Dorian. Little details imbue the scene with an acid commentary on the loss of the Dorian’s boyish likability, lost since he exchanged his conscience for eternal youth.

As Basil expires, we see his bloody hand fall limply onto a set of ABC building blocks. Dorian even wipes the blood off his hands with an old piece of embroidery, bearing the cheery, childish line, “Oh Little Boy Blue Come Blow Your Horn!” We can hardly believe that our antihero was ever a child, was ever a human being. He is utterly divorced from his self.

All in all, I cannot say enough to recommend this chilling, very influential scene, what with making the lighting part of the violence.

And, in 1945, with the Production Code in full force, Albert Lewin still managed to insert a scene where Dorian visits a dilapidated bar/opium-den/whorehouse. Even though none of these vices are mentioned, every crack in the wall exhales degradation.

Ratty prostitutes sit around talking up drunkards and an old man sits playing Chopin on a tinny piano. It is where all goodness and decency comes to die. Meanwhile, Dorian floats through in his spotless tuxedo and cape, a gentleman slummer in the Ninth Circle of Hell.

Dorian runs into Adrian Singleton (Morton Lowry, who didn’t act in much, but when he did, you noticed), a former friend whom he’d ruined by association. Adrian is onscreen for about 5 minutes, but the setting, the camera angles, and the performance all flawlessly communicate the feeling of being among the damned, of looking into the eyes of a lost soul.

Adrian could sing, write, and draw—but now he languishes in a stupor in some chancrous drug den. This might be a stretch, but he reminds me of the kinds of broken dreamers you’ll find all around Tinseltown, the victims of our collective fantasies.

Meanwhile, Dorian retains his M-G-M sheen, but in the midst of filth and regrets, the audience realizes that, despite the antihero’s veneer of youth and perfection, this is where he belongs. He has unconsciously sought out the place that exteriorizes his soul. The smooth grace and elegance of his London house don’t suit him anymore. Like him, those appearances are a sham.

The Picture of Dorian Gray also displays several other genius touches, like the fact that the movie is black-and-white, but the portrait appears in phantasmagoric Technicolor: at first Adonis-like, then nightmarish.

Then there’s the dialogue, in which Lewin preserved much of Wilde’s sinful satire, with lines like, “I like persons better than principles and persons with no principles best of all.” I must say, the occasional voice-over narration may not appeal to everyone, but I would argue that it’s necessary to suggest some of the complexity (and depravity) of the source material.

I applaud how well Lewin managed to preserve the sophisticated wickedness of Wilde’s novel. There’s no cackling. No abductions of maidens. Just temptation and the idea that, once a man is separated from the consequences of his choices, he loses his self. Life becomes an inferno of pleasure, a looping itinerary of degradation.

And then, there’s the cultural richness of the allusions in the film. How many 1940s Hollywood films can you list that reference, among other things, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the Buddha, the aria “La Ci Darem La Mano” from Don Giovanni, Chopin’s Les Preludes, and Omar Kayyám’s Rubáiyát?

To interject an added element of the supernatural into the film, Lewin adds an Egyptian cat statue to explain the mystical transference of Dorian’s soul to the painting. I know that sounds arbitrary… but then, later in the movie, Dorian recites a poem about cats by Wilde that’s not part of the original novel, but which fits in perfectly with the feverishly poetic ambiance of the movie.

You can tell that the man at the helm would have been a fantastic literature professor if he hadn’t discovered film. But thank heaven he did.

The dapper Lewin, right, with Jack Cardiff.