Sunday, October 31, 2010

Look.... Look... Look

I have said before, I rather dread October in the blog world - a solid month of horror film posts - blah... It's not that I don't like horror films, I think it might be a certain generic resentment - you don't see whole months devoted to melodramas do you? westerns, screwball comedies, the color blue? I suspect if you did, if ever February were given over the romantic comedies, say, I would soon get tired of that, too... I start here with ritual condemnation because this complaint is particularly disingenuous this year. I am positively steeped in horror related art just now. There is that vampire class - so it's a book and a movie a week about vampires. (Though we seem to have left the horror section behind - doesn't seem to be a lot of horror left by the time you get to Anita Blake or Dead Witch Walking - they seem a lot more Stan Lee than Bram Stoker.) And that aside, I keep watching horror films, and thinking about horror films when I'm watching other kinds. Did I mention that Mark Zuckerberg sometimes seems like a vampire? Who wouldn't think about vampires watching Inside Job? Or Carlos?

Though more directly - I'm certainly attentive to the overlap between vampire stories and other kinds of horror films. Questions of sympathy - watching vampire films and books pick up on the idea of the tragic monster. It's interesting that of the wave of horror classics in the early 30s, at Universal mainly, but elsewhere too, Dracula is probably the least sympathetic to its monster - Dracula is a monster, with some charm, perhaps, but not much in the way of pathos. Compare him to Frankenstein's monster - to the Mummy, or the Invisible Man - or to other studio's horror characters, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They all have their reasons - they are all, in some sense, driven to their evil, and we are made to feel the loss when they go wrong. (And in a couple of them, we are brought very close to seeing them as not evil in the least.) In Dracula, we get that with Renfield - though he's a secondary character - not so much the Count himself. But from the first sequel, it's there, even more overtly than in some of the others - Dracula's Daughter is a sympathetic, self-reflective, guilt ridden vampire who fights her legacy, her nature, her evil nature, her needs. It is a very sad film, full of ironies that you can't quite ignore - the way she keeps begging people for help and no one understands her, no one is willing to help her, and when, inevitably, she acts - they carry on like she has been a demon from hell. This is, in fact, something of a trademark for at least one strand of horror films - it obviously goes back to literary sources, Dr. Faustus or Dr. Jekyll, good men who found that evil was present with them, any number of doppelganger stories and temptation stories and stories of overreaching or too late repentance...

It's interesting in those 30s films. First - those early films seem to have been made for two sets of eyes - like there are two films in one. I mean - most of them are, on the surface, straightforward horror films, with ugly, horrible monsters, doing terrible things to pretty innocents (or not so innocents, but still pretty.) And since films, in those days, played, and then went away, never to be seen again (at least until Henri Langlois came along), this is how they were remembered. But when you see them over and over - you notices how much sympathy most of them show their monsters. Now - after decades of availability on video, DVD, etc. - this probably doesn't come as much of a surprise. But they were always made that way, weren't they? For two audiences - the one that saw them once and twice for the thrills - and the devotees, who would see them over and over and absorb as much of them as they could... And there's another element to this - the more you see these films, the more you notice the complexity of their morality. A film like Bride of Frankenstein (probably the best of the bunch) functions almost as a straightforward bildungsroman - but because the hero is a monster, the film has a surprising amount of leeway in his morality. The monsters have the ability to act out desires that the Hays code forbade - since they are monsters, they will get what's coming to them in the end - but along the way, they can act far more naturally than regular characters could, and the filmmakers usually gave us a chance to sympathize with them. At least, for those who came back, who watched them carefully, for something more than shocks and thrills.

Anyway - these days, films are a lot more free to spell things out. And back in the day, there were films that laid out what they were doing pretty clearly. For example, the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I am ashamed to admit it, but I had not seen it until this week - needless to say, it was a revelation. The theme - the good man who does evil - is explicit of course; so is the sense of a more complex view of morality and humanity than the Hays code could handle. It's rather shocking what the film does get away with - not just the strip teases and brutality, but a pretty direct statement of Victorian hypocrisy - poor Dr. Jekyll, saintly and brilliant as he is, is going half mad from lust - he begs to be able to marry his sweetheart NOW, but her father refuses - and he, like many a good Victorian gentleman before him, turns to drugs and whores. (More or less at the urging of his respectable pal, too.) The results are all too predictable. It's interesting that this is, in a way, a reversal of the central moral issue of Dracula - there, it's the horrors of female sexuality - here, it's the horrors of male sexuality. Both the horrors that come from acting on it, and those that come from its repression. It's an exaggerated enactment of the classic Victorian hypocrisy.

Though what really gets me about this film is what a a magnificent piece of filmmaking it is. Gorgeous, and endlessly clever - look at that shot of Jekyll (post-Hyde) and his pal, under the picture of the old Queen... paintings, statues, decor are used throughout to similar effect. Rouben Mamoulian was, I won't deny it, as flashy and thrilling a director as any of his peers - and he had some very impressive peers ca. 1931 (Capra, Lang, Sternberg, Lubitsch, Renoir, etc.) He is as skillful as any of them - and probably flashier than most. This film is really a dazzling display - relentless moving camera, sophisticated sound, brilliant and showy editing, state of the art special effects, superb sense of composition, staging, set design, you name it. There's not much like it in Hollywood at the time - with its 180 degree cuts and innovative wipes and dissolves (he loves holding a transition in the middle - wipes (as below), dissolves (Ivy's swinging leg chasing Jekyll and Lanyon through London)).... It's as showy and strange as a Japanese film of the period....

Though I'll end with another general comment on horror films, especially in the 30s - this is one of their other hallmarks. They held onto a lot of the aesthetics of art films, especially German art films, longer than most of Hollywood, and further down the food chain, if you will. A fairly uninspiring production like the Murders of the Rue Morgue still looks great (see below). And at the high end, Dr. Jekyll, or the Whale horror films, they were as good as anything of the time, and worthy successors to the work of Murnau and Lang and company in the 20s.

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