Director/Writer: Bret Wood
Narrated by: Rod Steiger
Review by Vincent Deamon
This is a fascinating documentary on the conception, birth, and subsequent growth of the Horror genre in cinema, a good portion of the film devoted to the great German Expressionists, as well as the appearances of religion, and the silent-horror era’s fixations on “good vs. evil,” sexuality, science, and just what is exactly what.
However, the documentary seems to very quickly and loosely run through most of these fascinating topics, barely gleaming over them in some cases altogether. Information on the directors, actors, writers, and even the folkloric genesis of much of the content that inspired these films is hazy and limited Add to that the fact that Rod Steiger, of all people, is the narrator to this collection of wonderful pre-Hayes Commission footage, and one ends up coming away with a vague, terribly ordered (it tends to hop around a lot), but still amazing to view, 70 minutes of great clips from some lost, unknown, and hard to find silent classics, as well as those most all are familiar with.
It starts with the horrors of religion, as memories of the Spanish Inquisition and other similar atrocities were still rather fresh in peoples minds from the period. For instance, when going into the THE GOLEM (1920, Dir. by Paul Wegner & Carl Bocse), it is claimed as being an early version of FRANKENSTEIN. Perhaps in a general sense, but Golems are in fact strange creatures of Kabbalistic lore, clay statues with an invocation (soul?) placed into its chest by its creator. “The tools of Satan are often those of the Inquisitor” the card reads as we then get segmented flashes from FAUST, LEAVES FROM SATAN'S BOOK (a Denmark film directed by Carl Th. Dreyer - - - also director of VAMPYR and THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC - - - the idea for LEAVES . . . being inspired by the epic magnitude of D.W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE; we get clips from all these films as well), and a host of others.
Most importantly, however, it goes into the 1922 classic HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES. Directed by Benjamin Christensen, it is indeed one of my favorite films. Filmed in 7 different parts, and a dizzying array of styles, with visions of darkness and hell being conjured into eerie celluloid life that had yet to be seen, it still packs more of a punch than most garbage released today. Even the effects work is phenomenal, considering the time period, still looking better than most CG crapola today. I wanted to learn more, but outside of that, and a heap-o-footage, nothing.
Now they bring in films like DR. JECKYLL & MR. HYDE (apparently filmed in 1908, 1909, 1911, twice in 1913, and twice in 1920), as Steiger uses a variety of odd and out of place voice affectations and fake accents, to let us know “The scientist of the new dawn in film faced a far more frightening prospect: That beneath the high society standards of the scientist lay the vile and depraved desires and lusts of the common beast.” No shit.
This now brings us to the ancient-as-we-are duality of the titillating and the horrific, bring us up to a straight-forward “the virginal female is always the victim” to the “lusts of the monster” - - - henceforth the damsel in distress has now been created, and a steady trope of the genre.
As was the “mad doctor,” as people outright feared doctors then (and with good reason), their archaic and bizarre medical devices resembling tools of torture from the inquisition, but used for “healing.” And the doctors of the period seemed to get an almost perverse zeal from the pain and terror of their healing methods. The Doctor had become the new commissary for the devil, so to speak. In fact, I'm not so sure they aren’t, heh. Two tropes in one: mad doctors AND “body horror.” Doctors Mirakle, X, and Gogol all get mention, as does (another one of my favorites), the inimitable Dr. Moreau. If that’s not a truly horrific and almost precognitive concept, I’m not sure what is.
Along with the growth and often horrific discoveries of the physical sciences, came fear of “Body Snatchers.” Usually degenerate, poverty-stricken neerdowells who would unearth the dead for shady doctors in the names of Science, God, and cheap whiskey. Another trope.
As the doctoral sciences progressed, the psychological sciences were in their infancy. HOUSE OF DARKNESS (Dir. D.W. Griffith, 1913) finally brings in that one last, great unknown of the human condition to light: the Mad Dr. and the human mind: psychology/psychiatry. This was the newest cornerstone trope for horror cinema. The ideas of Freud were growing in popularity, that delving into one of the last great unknowns, the unexplored mind. Unfortunately, many horrific moral indiscretions were all too real (as they still are, in my opinion) within the new and shady field of the psychologist. HOUSE OF DARKNESS, however, was the first film to bring a sense of sympathy to the mentally ill, yet at the same time exploits the fear of true madness and insanity run rampant.
From there? Hypnotherapy, something brand new and hideously misused in some real life scenarios, still so in today's climate, but with dangerous pharmaceuticals as opposed to old-school ECT, hot/cold therapies, etc. Either way, the victim of the hypnotist becomes then the parasomnia-ist. The sleepwalker. A state within which you have no control but for that of the Dr.’s heinous orders. The sleepwalker is trapped in the Shadow Kingdom.
Just as Jekyll cannot control Hyde in his own pharmaceutically enhanced states, the sleepwalker cannot control their mind while, well, essentially asleep, leaving it open to the potential abuse and will of the inducer of such ill intent, be it vampire, dr., or hypnotist. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (Dir. by Robert Weine, 1920) is by far the best (and most well known) example of the mad hypnotist run amok for his own gain.
The strange and silent shuffle of the sleepwalker eventually became that of one of our long-time overused tropes: the (non-Romero) zombie. Taking on the same listless gait and mind-numbed susceptibility of many of the stunning virginal vixens that fell victim to the various horrors of the silent era, most all victims of celluloid hypnotic somnambulism were female. In retrospect, especially within the framework of our own current cultural climate, were these particular films perhaps a revelation of mans latent fear of strong women, the Suffragette Movement, a patriarchally fueled society knowing ever more but understanding ever less about “how women work,” so to speak? For men, was it perhaps the seemingly eternal phallic fear (of many males, at least, something that unfortunately permeates our culture through and through to this very day) of a woman's free will? For women, was it the entirely human fear of forced impulse over reason?
The sexual repression of the era, as well, often translated in odd, perverse, metaphorically graphic ways to the screen. Arthur Robinson’s 1923 film WARNING SHADOWS is an horrific portrayal of, gaslighting, sexual assault, and severe psychological abuse, almost a precursor to I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE.
Overall, it’s a decent little doc (run time is only 70 minutes) that I’m glad I watched, but felt a little cheated as to the amount of genuine information presented. That said, for any true and dire film buff/historian, I would say this is a must see, if for no other reasons than the amazing footage, some actual decent information here and there, and Rod Steiger’s hilarious attempts at strange vocal affects of and accents.
Long review short: it’s about the development of classical and everlasting celluloid horror and its growth of tropes. Recommended.
Alternately, for one who just wants to veg with some sights and sounds that mix well together, you can just turn the sound down, find some decent goth to listen to, and just let the magick happen.