Welcome to a new world of Gods and Monsters… James Whale had a knack for making horror literary staples like the creeping creaking house, demented scientist and classic monsters appear even darker on the cinema screen. Although the first Frankenstein film was produced by Edison Studios in 1910, it’s Whale’s 1930 interpretation of Mary Shelley’s novel and Boris Karloff’s iconic portrayal that has become synonymous with our idea of Frankenstein’s monster. With its contrasts of shadows and light and humanization of the monster, Whale’s beautiful version endures as the quintessential moment Frankenstein’s creature was born in our popular culture. Five years after the release of Universal’s hit Frankenstein, Whale did the near impossible by making one of the best movie sequels in film history. The Bride of Frankenstein is a complex weaving of Shelley’s subtext of the moral implications scientific discovery produces along with Whale’s personal narrative of sexual preference by introducing one of film’s first homosexual character, Dr. Pretorious. It takes the small portion of Shelley’s original novel of the monster demanding Dr. Frankenstein produce a female friend for him (which the doctor declines to disastrous consequences) and re-imagines it by having a certifiably mad scientist, Pretorious, blackmail Frankenstein into furthering his living dead creations. Whale boldly kicks things off by visualizing Shelley’s prologue in which she recounts the dark and stormy night she shares her monstrous story with husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. This melding of literary history as a launching pad for another re-imagining of the written source is risky move (for starters, she confides that the monster survived) but it works simply because it’s damn well crafted. From this scene, Whale’s celluloid tale of a ‘new world of gods and monsters’ opens up and we’re left with more imagery that solidifies the ever-evolving Frankenstein cultural legacy. Karloff again wholeheartedly embraces his role and makes the monster ever more human and in desperate need for companionship while the bride herself, who is only in the film for mere moments, has become iconic with her electric shocked white-striped hair (played by Elsa Lanchester who is also Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in the film). If sequels have become synonymous with commercial capitalization, cheesy storylines, and subpar acting then consider The Bride of Frankenstein as one of the rare exceptions along with The Godfather: Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back and Dawn of the Dead. As Frankenstein’s monster continues to be emblematic of the ultimate outsider and commentary on the dangers of scientific meddling, Whale’s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein endures not only as classic films but as poignant films and, best of all, still very disturbing. This essay was originally published on Nitehawk Cinema’s blog (October 2014).
[Essay written for the Deathdream screening at Nitehawk Cinema on February 12, 2013 that included an introduction by Adam Lowenstein, Film Professor and author of Shocking Representation: historical trauma, national cinema, and the modern horror film).
Bob Clark’s 1972 cult classic Deathdream (original title: Dead of Night) is part of a select group of films from the era that dealt with the trauma of the Vietnam War. These films positioned this trauma back onto the United States by expressing the horror of war returning back to a place in which it originated but wasn’t fought. Deathdream visualizes this return in the ghostly form of a young deceased soldier, finding his way back to his family and to establish his final resting ground on familial soil. However, unlike the visceral explosions played out in Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Deathdream is a representation of hope in the faith of certain death; his family wants so much to believe he is alive, almost as much as he wants to come to terms with his death.
The family structure lays at the center of these post-Vietnam horror films, no matter how messed up in its depiction (re: the Virgin Spring-inspired parental revenge and/or the in-bred role-shifting dynamic). In Deathdream there is a powerful, near transcendent, relationship between mother and son. The mother (Christine Brooks played by Faces actress Lynn Carlin) refuses to believe that her son Andy could possibly be dead, even when military officers deliver its confirmation. So when Andy returns, she delights in this truth even though his father (Charles played by Faces and Godfather star John Marley) suspects something is wrong. And wrong it is. Andy has indeed died, as the audience sees in the opening sequence, and has somehow managed to find his way home. He’s not a zombie or a vampire as many descriptions surmise (although he does drink blood to retain “life”) but, rather, a restless ghost whose soul is adrift, conflicted about how and where he was killed, and who needs to find solace in his hometown, with the love of his mother.
Immediately after Andy’s arrival back to his home we (and everyone except his mother) get the sense that there is something terribly wrong. Despondent and angrily violent, his behavior mimics the dissociation experienced by Vietnam soldiers trying to acclimate when back on U.S. soil. However, it’s much more than that – Andy is deadly. He kills truck drivers, the family dog and family doctor (uttering the brilliant line – I died for you, the least you can do is die for me) along with his former girlfriend and nearly his sister. The family dynamic breaks down in these realizations over the truth about Andy, resulting in a despondent father fighting with the in-denial mother. It isn’t until the very end, when his mother’s love rescues his soul that we see what Andy needed all along; to come home to die.
Made before Bob Clark’s nearly unwatchable debut Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1973) and his brilliant horror opus Black Christmas (1974), Deathdream is a pitch-perfect revelation of the horror of Vietnam in cinema. Perhaps it’s not so different from our current political climate as we can sympathize with the painful unknowing of why one is fighting and dying overseas and how families continue to cope with loss. Watching Deathdream now, it’s important to recognize the importance horror film has to mirror the unseen and discarded painful aspects of human existence. While we may be seeing a reference to Vietnam unfold on screen, we are really looking at a reflection of humanity: war, death, life, loss, and love. Equally full of pain and affection (with a bit of Bob Clark humor thrown in), Deathdream reveals the universal potency of horror cinema in its most beautifully basic form.
The journal I co-edit is having a release party in New York for our latest issue, Living On: Zombies…
INCOGNITUM HACTENUS INVITES YOU TO…
LIVING ON: ZOMBIES RELEASE PARTY
Tuesday, October 2 from 7 – 9pm
Nitehawk Cinema (cafe)
Pre-party for the 9:30pm NY premiere of V/H/S (new horror anthology film released by Magnolia Pictures)
Screening: Jim Shaw’s The Hole (2007)
Spinning: “Undead Soul” by Dave Tompkins
Special horror cocktail: the Corpse Reviver
Stuff: Free digital copies of Living On: Zombies | check out books by contributors
To say that I was incredibly honored to show works by artists I admire so much would be an understatement. So thank you to all the artists who have been a part of this conversation-starter on horror and contemporary art: Takeshi Murata, Darren Banks, Jamie Shovlin, My Barbarian, Aida Ruilova, and Marnie Weber. Also to Nitehawk Cinema, who supports experimentation and all things horror as well as all those who spread the word and assisted putting all the files together (when they should have been working on other stuff). You did my first New York project proud.
The second part of The Art of Fear artist film exhibition is this Wednesday (October 19) in the upstairs lobby at Nitehawk Cinema! The event is free and starts at 7pm with films beginning shortly after – the program will be shown twice. See you all there!
Ghost Stories, the second program of The Art of Fear, features surreal tales of love, life, and death that are brought back from the afterlife in the bizarre and haunting works of My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon and Alexandro Segade, Los Angeles), Aïda Ruilova (New York), and Marnie Weber (Los Angeles). Horror affect and narrative style are huge influencers in these films with inspiration deriving from Rod Serling’s Night Gallery television series, cult figures like Jean Rollin and Karen Black, and the theatrical monstrous characters from early Hollywood. Importantly, The Art of Fear is showing the New York debut of Marnie Weber’s most recent film, The Eternal Heart (2010).
My Barbarian – Night Epi$ode: Curatorial Purgatorial (Pilot)
2009, Single channel video, 12 minutes, Color, Sound
Aïda Ruilova – Life Like
2006, Single channel video, 5 minutes, Color, Sound
Aïda Ruilova – Lulu
2007, Single channel video, 5 minutes, Color, Sound
My Barbarian – Night Epi$ode: Yoga Matt and Veronika Phoenix
2009, Single channel video, 13 minutes, Color, Sound
Aïda Ruilova – Meet the Eye
2009, Single channel video, 7 minutes, Color, Sound
Marnie Weber – The Eternal Heart (see trailer below)
2010, Shot on Super 8 and 16mm, digital projection, 28 minutes, Color, Sound
I’m so excited to announce The Art of Fear, a two-part artist film program I am curating at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn. Featuring moving image works influenced by horror cinema, it is the first manifestation of my research on horror film and contemporary art presented in New York (look out for a major upcoming exhibition in Los Angeles) and I’mthrilled to be working with such truly incredible artists. Please come support artist film, cinema, and horror this October!
The two-part screening features works by Takeshi Murata, Darren Banks, Jaime Shovlin (October 5) and My Barbarian, Aida Ruilova, Marnie Weber (October 19).