Sunday, 8 January 2012

Great Depression body horror

As the world struggles with the consequences of economic downturn, the book has not been written yet,  that would make the connection between social forces beyond our control, and our continual evolution as a species. Conservatives conveniently ignore the psychological scars left behind by economic uncertainty and a sense of impending apocalypse. They seem to consider themselves  the cultural overlords of the general populace, whilst mollifying them that things are not really as bad as they seem. Conservatives consider it their duty in life to explain to us that we are still better off than most others in the world. That our way of life is superior to everyone else’s, as we resign ourselves to a loss of rights, a downturn in our standard of living, and a general sense of malaise as to how it all started in the first place.

People silently observe as the march of scientific progress  carries on.  They struggle with the spectre of unemployment and the loss of their homes and I would argue that any situation portrayed in a horror film that was meant to be ‘horrifying’ couldn’t possibly scare them. The prospect of economic ruin is horrifying enough, and has struck so close to home, it would seem that the horror movie has become redundant, a joke, and scarcely the kind of ‘art’ thought to be worthwhile. To counter this, I would argue that in fact, the horror genre is the repository for most things our culture refuses to discuss, that is, in a normal, or rational way and is therefore worthy of close attention -- as well as enjoyment.

A rare still of March and Hopkins rehearsing with director Rouben Mamoulian

 The discourse of horror contains those things which are brushed aside as being unworthy, simply because they become impossible to think about  within the limitations of a more public, or political, mindset. The public and private spheres of our culture very rarely overlap --  our private desires, our fascination with evil, the obsessions we hide from the prying eyes of others , are  exactly why horror films exist as a reflection of our more basic instincts. The horror genre was once the  doppelganger or uneasy traveller with the sunnier side of acceptable, financially driven,  Hollywood-marketed entertainment, and I wish this was still the case. But now, torture is big business, and Hollywood goes where the money is. 

Once upon a time, an aesthetic case could be made for the artistic relevance of a good horror movie, and even make a point of its social relevance. Since this is likely to become more problematic, (at least for me, because I refuse to watch the torture porn being made at the moment), I would like to draw the reader’s attention to a number of films released in the 1930’s. They record  a humane and understandable reaction to the disaster of the Great Depression as it tossed the world into a cataclysm of uncertainty and economic disaster from 1929 onwards as another world war loomed and the destruction of civilisation seemed more than just  a remote possibility.  [1]

[1] David J Skal, ‘The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror’, London, Plexus, 1994. See Chapters 5 & 6.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Paramount, (1931), starring Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath,  directed by Rouben Mamoulian

 The re-creation of Stevenson’s epistolary narrative, in order to arrive at the point in time when this film was made, (1931) would make a story in itself. With Miriam Hopkins as Hyde’s unfortunate  lady friend, (a character not actually in the book -- as the bad girl) -- and a buttoned –up ( but also quite sexy) Rose Hobart as Jekyll’s fiancée, or the ‘good girl’, a progressive young doctor is fascinated by the notions of good and evil. He concocts an elixir that he imbibes at regular intervals, which turns him into a monster.

Stevenson’s original narrative was inspired by the true-life story of criminal William Deacon Brodie, the son of a prosperous Edinburgh cabinet-maker. Brodie was a notorious criminal, leading a double life until his capture and execution in 1788. [1]   Stevenson was inexorably drawn to the darker side of life, a reflection of his Scottish religious tuition. ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is a moral tale about the risk of expressing the pure evil that exists under the surface of even the best of men. [2] Published to great success in 1885, the late Victorians seemed to twist Stevenson’s narrative around in such a way as  to exemplify their facile interpretation of  family values. Whilst demonising sex outside of marriage, the hypocrisy was such that the promiscuity of the married Victorian ‘gentleman’ became an open secret.  Where he was getting his ‘bit’ on the side –- was at any one of literally thousands of brothels scattered around London.  By damning extra-maritial sex  as  the perpetrator of all that was evil, the Victorians unintentionally brought the  social problems  they had with prostitution and venereal disease out into the open, which was surely not intentional.[3] 
Fredric March becomes progressively more hideous to look at, and his transformations are more alarming to the viewer, coming upon him no longer with any warning, or the need to imbibe an elixir. As an example of early, and perhaps undeveloped ideas about body horror, Rouben Mamoulian’s version of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is pertinent. Evil is what tortures Jekyll’s body in the impressive  transformation scenes  which serve to reveal to the viewer  the dual animus of Hyde. He turns into a simian creature with baggy eyes, protruding teeth and unkempt hair, unrecognisable to his friends and associates as the benign and  helpful Dr Jekyll. As Hyde, Jekyll leads a secret life in which he emotionally abuses a vulnerable young barmaid (Miriam Hopkins), and commits all kinds of mayhem, to get back at the respectable pillars of London society who have condemned Jekyll’s ideas about the benefits of having the dual nature of humans exposed so they are able to exist side-by-side. Jekyll’s physical torture seems just as chronic as his mental torture, as his evil side is brought out into the open.  Not in a religious sense, but in the sense that Mr Hyde is a sociopath with no conscience, nor any moral connection to his fellow man and thus retains his status as an object of physical ugliness.

 As with many other 30s horror films, the crazy onward march of science is to blame, with Jekyll debasing his Christian upbringing and believing himself to be some kind of God.  Jekyll  is punished by being turned into a shambling, ugly, and venal monstrosity, unfit for society and incapable of having a relationship with a ‘decent’ woman. By the end of the film, the status quo of outward good, and internal evil has been restored. Jekyll is redeemed by death, his experiment exposed as a vile offence against God, but his face returning to a calm and self-contained death mask in the last of the sequence of transformations and thus the end of the film. A possible interpretation of Mamoulian’s visualisation of the story could be this, taking into account its year of release  in the darkest days of the Great Depression.  A form of painful physical transformation is  a plausible response to  the observances of a corrupt society that permits war and economic inequality to run rampant at the expense of the wider body politic.  The sickness of evil should be impossible to externalise as it is a religious problem rather than a scientific one, but once this has occurred the bacteria runs rampant and infects, -- metaphorically at least, -- the entire society.

 As a brief footnote, the 1941 remake starring Spencer Tracy is not  as highly thought of as this version, primarily because Spencer Tracy in the title role was considered to not look grotesque enough to have the audience believe that he was a  monster.

[1] Raymond T. McNally & Radu Florescu, ‘In Search of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ Los Angeles, Renaissance Books. 2000, p. 43; [2] ibid. p. 21; [3] Peter Gay, ‘The Cultivation of Hatred; the bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud’ London, Fontana Press, 1993.

 The Raven, Universal, (1935), starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Samuel S. Hinds, Irene Ware, screenplay by David Boehm, (suggested by the poem by Edgar Allan Poe), directed by Louis Friedlander

‘The Raven’ has the dubious honour of being the last genre film to be seen in England when the censor indefinitely banned horror films from being exhibited in that country. ‘The Raven’ was described by one English critic as ‘quite the most unpleasant picture I have ever seen, exploiting cruelty for cruelty’s sake.’[1]  ‘The Raven’ is in fact, a watered-down version of ‘The Black Cat’, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, released by Universal a few years previously. Lacking the artistic panache of Ulmer’s original, ‘The Raven’ is a passable melodrama involving the doings of a mad plastic surgeon with an obsession for a young girl he can never have.

Convict Bateman (Karloff) approaches Dr Vollin (Lugosi) to have his face changed, but does not bargain on his visage actually looking  worse than it was before the surgery.  Dr Vollin is obsessed with the work of Edgar Allan Poe and plots revenge against Judge Thatcher (Samuel Hinds) for blocking Vollin’s access to his daughter Jean (Irene Ware). Vollin possesses a torture chamber underneath his house where he imprisons Judge Thatcher in homage to the story ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, which has a protagonist strapped to a table with an enormous swinging pendulum edging closer and closer to his body.

The most effective section of ‘The Raven’ involves the relationship between Bateman and Dr Vollin, as Karloff and Lugosi spar with one another for audience sympathy. As played by Karloff, in a cleverly written role, Bateman is a criminal with a violent history who is no match for the more sophisticated corruption inherent in Dr Vollin’s mindset. Physically unattractive for all of his life, Bateman comes to the conclusion that ‘because I’m ugly, people expect me to do ugly things.’ Vollin finds this philosophically pleasing and performs surgery on Bateman that makes him look even more unattractive for the purposes of blackmail. Lugosi loses out in audience sympathy as more of a cardboard cut-out villain. Vollin’s  motivations are obscure, considering the damage he causes, whilst Karloff,because of the mutilation he has been subjected to, is  a misunderstood unfortunate, who is no match for the conniving doctor.
Snoozies on the set

Aside from the somewhat prosaic plot mechanics, ‘The Raven’ has some good moments, especially when Lugosi is reciting ‘The Raven’ to a group of onlookers when they are invited to stay at Vollin’s residence for a weekend sleepover that they probably won’t forget in a hurry. In this concluding section of the film, we are reminded of ‘The Old Dark House’ and ‘The Cat and the Canary’, drawing-room melodramas filled with billowing curtains and moving bookcases which hide behind them all manner of grotesqueries and bizarre instruments of torture which exist only in the mind of the viewer, but nonetheless seem very real.

[1] Skal, op. cit., p. 195

Freaks, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, (1932), starring Leila Hyams, Wallace Ford, Henry Victor, Olga Baclanova, Harry and Daisy Earles, Johnny Eck, screenplay by Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Edgar Allan Woolf, Al Boasberg (based upon the short story ‘Spurs’ by Tod Robbins), directed by Tod Browning

  The debate still rages: Is ‘Freaks’ sympathetic to its characters, or is it an exploitation piece only trying to cash-in on their disabilities? ‘Freaks’ portrays the social life of a collection of circus freaks as they tour Europe with a travelling circus. Nothing much happens really, but the viewer becomes a pupil of director Tod Browning, with the film  acting as  a living testament to their unique world. Hans and his wife (played by Harry and Daisy Earles) are small people performing in the circus. Hans falls in love with acrobat Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a large woman who attempts to poison him and steal his fortune, along with her boyfriend circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). When the other freaks find out what’s going on, they decide to wreak revenge on behalf of their friends. Notorious for its use of real life circus oddities like Johnny Eck, the Bearded Lady and the Pinheads, ‘Freaks’ tries to wear its heart on its sleeve, but never quite succeeds. Browning wants it both ways for the sake of a good silent melodrama, and the moral tone of the film is left strangely ambivalent.

 The most famous sequence in ‘Freaks’ is the banquet scene, in which Hans and Cleopatra are married. When a communal cup is passed around the table for everyone to drink from, Cleopatra refuses to drink; her disgust with the freaks is obvious, and they know they have an enemy in their midst The audience is meant to feel pity for these handicapped characters, but  the film takes a nasty tack. Intent on making us believe that the ‘freaks’ are perhaps  too  vindictive for their own good,  an operation is performed  on Cleopatra, which  turns her into a bird-like creature and she ends up as an exhibit herself.

‘Freaks’ also suffers from a strange case of aesthetic schizophrenia -- it doesn’t know whether it should be a sound, or a silent film. Browning was an acclaimed but controversial director of the silent era, best known for his work with Lon Chaney, who was a master of make-up and physical transformation. [1] He never adapted to the new medium of sound and  may have been forcibly retired by his employers at MGM, as a result of his recalcitrance with the new technology. [2] Browning had a problem with sound directorily, as if making people talk in front of the camera  made them less mysterious and interesting.  Without the silent cards to indicate to the audience what the characters were saying to each other, the mystery dissipates, indicating Hitchcock’s thesis that most sound films are nothing but photographs of people talking to each other.

 Because of Browning’s preference for action over dialogue in the tradional language of silent film, the best sequences in ‘Freaks’ (such as the banquet sequence)  whilst having dialogue, seem to be shot as if they should be silent.  The sequences more dependent on dialogue, for example where Phroso (Wallace Ford) shows Venus (Leila Hyams) his newly thought-out circus trick,  are not as graceful and seem to have been heavily edited.

Phroso the clown and Venus are the couple of  decent regular-sized people with a  sub-plot of their own, but what happens to them seems straight out of the silent film that Browning actually wishes he was making. Sadly it seems to be the shock value of ‘Freaks’ that most people come away with, as opposed to  a warm and fuzzy feeling that they are empathising with a group of misunderstood outsiders.

[1] David Thomson, ‘The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Great Britain, Little Brown, 2000, p. 148; [2] Skal, op.cit. p. 145-59.

 Island of Lost Souls, Paramount, (1933), starring Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, screenplay by Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young, (based on the novel The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells), directed by Erle C. Kenton

‘Island of Lost Souls’ was banned in England for 25 years when it was first release in 1933. I mention this in order to emphasise the degree to which horror movies were marginalised, in this case the story of ‘Island of Lost Souls’  being interpreted as a challenge to the concept of natural law. [1] ‘Island of Lost Souls’ works brilliantly as  a classic mad scientist story, a genre involving a subtext which subverts Enlightenment reason with the populist fear of technology run rampant and out of  control of the general population.

The story  concerns  a couple who are shipwrecked (Leila Hyams and Richard Arlen) and arrive on an island where they discover a doctor who  is using animals for  bizarre reproductive experiments. Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton) is an autocrat, an English overlord who runs his island as if it was his personal  outpost of the British Empire. Moreau  keeps his live animal experiments disciplined with a whip, and will not tolerate any transgressions. The animals have been given the promise of social elevation, but this is an illusion. The Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) leads a revolt of the malcontents as they realise that Moreau has been exploiting them all along. [2]. These unfortunate malcontents could be interpreted as the working class of the Great Depression, who had been promised a better life by the American Dream, but were instead thrown out of work by a capitalist system that was collapsing into the abyss, by a combination of corporate greed and a lack of concern for its fellow man.
As his penultimate blasphemy, the doctor attempts to change a female animal into a human woman for breeding purposes and he will perpetuate a new race.

 In the late 19th and earlier 20th century, eugenics was considered a plausible and respectable science in which the domineering race could choose who would live and who would die within the context of a superior civilisation. But where does this ‘brave new world’ lead to, when no other social contexts were available as a guide, except the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini?  Doctor Moreau attempts to play God, like other mad scientists of ‘30s horror films, who overstep their mark and come to believe science is no longer the lapdog of religion, but its superior. Laughton gives the impression that not only is he one of his half animals/half humans, but that his very body, clothed in its white suit, can barely contain his overwhelming impulses and desires. [3] Laughton suggests that the Doctor possesses a perverted life-force in which the act of birth becomes an abomination in the hands of science.

[1] Skal, op.cit., p. 171; [2] ibid. p 169; [3] Simon Callow, Charles Laughton A Difficult Actor, London, Vintage 1987 pp. 54-55.

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