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Monday, October 28, 2013


... Continued from Part 1

THE BRIDE: The Feminist

The success of Frankenstein made a sequel pretty much a foregone conclusion. What was unexpected was the intelligence with which the follow-up film would be executed. Some argue that Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is superior to its predecessor, but such is an impossible conclusion to draw. They are two very different films about two very different subjects. Where the Monster had horror, his Bride has camp; where Frankenstein had existential confusion, Bride has satirical humor. Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) as God, created the Monster (Boris Karloff) as his Adam for his own egotistical entertainment. It was a narcissistic show of power if nothing else. But only consequently was he forced to create the Bride (Elsa Lanchester) out of the Monster's need for an Eve. The impulse was not his own. This ideology, long preached by the Bible, makes woman little more than unnecessary window-dressing in the creative landscape of both life and art. She is immediately deemed an object of pleasure without her own specific purpose. James Whale cleverly plays with the resultant mating dance of this cosmic crime, restoring some of womanhood's dignity in the process, by delightfully capturing the set-up/pay-off of the male-female sexual tango. It is a story as old as time itself: the battle for power, identity, and independence between lovers.

While Karloff returned with success and further emotional depth in the role of the Monster, he had to compromise some of his artistic integrity to do so. The Monster, against his wishes, was forced to speak, which is one of the reasons that Bride is much less chilling than the initial Frankenstein installment. However, this was tactical move. The Monster had to speak to proclaim his desire for a partner: his woman. His character had to mature past its former baby stage to leave the nursery room available for the child he hoped to play father/lover to. He needed a possession just as he belonged to the Doctor. Evolving to make way for more life, his entrance into manhood will be solidified-- as is generally expected-- by claiming a wife. The Monster, touchingly, reveals therein man's need for companionship-- a partner to anchor his existence and equally act as the nurturing mother he never had. As such, the movie is a sensual build up to those moments when we see the Bride (all dressed in white) at last. 

Unfortunately, the Bride is not submissive. She does not appreciate being immediately shackled to the dominant male. She hisses at him, rejects his advances, and after refusing the man she was made to serve, she clings tightly to the man who gave her life (liberty)-- the Doctor. Whale has fun showcasing the absurdity of the exaggerated but accurately ridiculous mating ritual. The Monster, as man, was born awkward, confused, and obedient in his infancy. As he tries to embrace his manhood, he grasps clumsily for the release of his most natural impulse: sex. He's a puppet for it; he follows the Bride like a slobbering dog for it. He has absolutely no finesse and is palpably perplexed by the Bride's rejection of him and his masculinity. What do undead women want anyway? For her part, Lanchester's striking interpretation of the Bride is instantly contemptuous of her sudden conception and the inescapable fate of enslavement that lies before her as a result. She is an erratic ball of nervous energy, twitching like a predatory bird determined to use her wiles to escape the larger, much stronger male beast. The Doctor is left to stand back in bafflement at his most horrid creation: the perpetual state of miscommunication between man and woman. There is no solution for it. Even after years of evolution, Adam and Eve as the Monster and his Bride, are condemned together to eternal Hell: "We belong dead." Love is pain. 

For her part, with the briefest screen time of any horror villain, the Bride still left an indelible impression-- someone that women could relate to as the bare reflection of their own conflicted but less explored natures. As the Bride's life was abruptly restored and just as quickly robbed back from her, she surely found her quick demise a welcome release from what must have felt like the worst of bad dreams. To restore some feminine respect, the film also reveals from the beginning that the Bride is not a mere creation of man's fantasy, but of her own-- the story is one within a story as told by author Mary Shelley. The female Shelley (Lanchester in a dual role) is thus the creator of the most infamous of Gothic heroines who wears none other than her own face-- her secret self. As such, she has her own identity and is not just a tool for man's trade after all.

THE WOLF MAN: The Accursed

The Wolf Man (1941) appeared as war ensued in Europe and the threat of America's involvement hovered in the air as the moon-- one which would soon transform average men into soldiers of fortune, sent to ruthlessly kill or brutally die. The paranoia of WWII was the perfect instigator for the genesis of Universal's next horror hero: a regular man, hoping to find and establish himself in society, prove himself to his father, and maybe even settle down with a warm-hearted woman. Unfortunately, his very sense of reality is blown asunder by a cataclysmic twist of fate. A bite from a werewolf-- an evil force too impossible to be believed-- condemns him to a killer's destiny. To add more dimension, the disease of his new monsterdom was passed to him by a foreigner (Bela Lugosi)-- an intruder on English soil who brought the curse of his people with him. There is no real rhyme nor reason for the lives that Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) takes when under the influence of the governing night sky. He kills because he must; it is an order, not his specific instinct. He simply wanders and stalks, an American in the menacing territory that is not his own but the land of his father (or forefathers).

The interesting thing about the Wolf Man is his very title. He is a wolf man-- a man who happens to be a wolf. The real guy, Larry, is still in there and just as present as the new supernatural force that controls and contorts his heretofore socially nurtured nature. Even when he changes into his beast self, he still wears his human uniform. While his face is fearful, his movements and manner are more clumsy and uncomfortable than truly intimidating. He is as uncertain of himself and the actions he must do as he is assured that he must commit them. Of course, Larry was capable of killing without this sudden, oppressive influence. In the film's early scenes, he beat to death the very wolf that passed the curse to him. Upon seeing this-- actually the most brutal killing in the film-- the audience knows that this level of darkness existed in him always. When pushed to the brink, man is capable of all kinds of evils. Now, as his stifled predilections are called forth by a higher power, his inner darkness becomes overwhelming, making him both an unconscionable villain and a disconsolate victim. As he battles over the terrain of his very soul, he also kills pieces of himself, chipping away at his conflicted and slowly demoralized psyche with every murder-- the same stress that haunts the soldier who must banish moral code to fulfill another pledge.

Aside from the socio-political implications of the wartime film, there too is the personal element that audiences continue to find relatable. A man's inheritance of adulthood comes with its existential woes. Lon Chaney, Jr. as the eternal, suffering soul steeped in depression is reflective of any man constrained by the demands of civilian survival. There are rules that are laid down before him that he can't control and is afraid to break. As such, he almost always becomes victim to them. He must abide by laws, both natural and societal, to function in the community. Those things that feed and continue the grind of communal/consumer society (as represented by his father- Claude Rains) too often take precedent over his more passionately driven dreams and aspirations (as represented by his girlfriend- Evelyn Ankers). His only solace is wisdom, in the film represented by Maria Ouspenskaya as the protective gypsy, mother-figure, and perhaps General. She is the wise one who has been there and knows the way. Still, the inability to quell the beast within, that which rages against the very machine that created it-- makes Mr. Talbot a tragic victim of the trappings of this so-called experience of life and duty.


Comparing the silent (1925) and sound (1943) versions of The Phantom of the Opera is a task that would require an article of its own, so focus will be given only to the latter interpretation. (My beloved Chaney's genius will be left in its sacred catacombs for another day). Just as Claude Rains' other monster character the Invisible Man, the Phantom is more compelling and effective a villain because he is no more than a man-- a psychologically decomposing madman, but a man nonetheless. Again, he is a character suffering under extreme circumstances, living in social banishment, and not handling it well at all. Also on par with The Invisible Man, he is the bad guy who "isn't there," intimidating his foes through the subtle suggestion of his presence, which he plants like little seeds of fear. These kernels slowly grow into his own personal mythology, his whispers, mysterious notes, and shadows becoming the breadcrumbs that lead the slowly manipulated masses into the acceptance of his existence and the hysterical fear of his ever-lurking legacy. The Phantom's great power, therefore, lies in his abilities as a magician. He is an illusionist, making himself appear larger than life by not appearing at all.

In contrast, whereas the Invisible Man was a mad scientist, the Phantom of the Paris Opera House is a mad poet. He is the ambitious lover of life that all inner artist respond to. A violinist driven mad by his passion for both music and the woman he loves, he commits murder of his own angered freewill and loses his face in the process (to an unexpected splash of acid). Now, with nothing to lose and his manic, creative spirit maliciously set free, he makes himself the lone guardian of honest art. For those at the Opera house, he decides the beauty and style with which all music is to be performed. The players and the audience are to be made humble before it, as they would have been before the majesty of his own genius-- had he been allowed to exhibit it. He places the finger of blame for the Opera's lack of creative integrity on the unworthy managers, the hack performers, and all other charlatans who offer chicken feed when the true romantics should all be feeding on ambrosia like Gods. His devious voice of criticism is that which the true aesthete loves to hear. He demands that a show be performed that is worthy of its audience, just as many of us throw metaphorical popcorn at the screen when unimaginative, regurgitated, formulaic garbage insults us at the movies, on Television, or on the radio. The Phantom is, therefore, the Superbadman of entertainment-- sniffing out the filth who threaten the integrity of our souls' purest expression.

The problem is, unlike Chaney's creature, who was born deformed, Rains' face was made-- irreparably scarred. It is his insulted vanity and not his broken heart that truly compels him to seek, at the very least, artistic vengeance. He plunges himself into sadistic darkness, wreaking havoc on the theatre that made a fool of him, thereby compensating for his equally damaged face and professional reputation by over-indulging in his creative conceit. He is the puppet master, the demonic God figure, making people dance for him, his way, to his tune-- the only alternative being death by his hand. His obsession for protege Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster), is not about love but possession. He yearns to be the orchestrator of the ultimate, orgasmic, theatrical experience-- his personal pornography-- and Christine is but one of the tools to be used to achieve this victory. In the end, he is destroyed by becoming what he hates most-- the faceless man in a suit determining the artistic menu and force-feeding the public. Still, despite his actions, his initial passion sticks. It is inspiring. He is one of the brave souls who dared cry out for more in this cesspool of a life. It was his misfortune that the Heaven he tried to create as the Angel of Music consigned him straight to Hell.

THE CREATURE: Nature's Vengeance

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was the last addition to the Universal monster franchise. "Gill Man" himself-- played by Ricou Browning in water scenes and Ben Chapman (left) on land-- is also the less instantly remembered out of that exclusive and very intimate horror family, cropping up in discussion almost as an afterthought. The reasons for this are at least twofold. On the one hand, he is in no way human. He is from another branch on the evolutionary chain. Though there is certainly some shared link in the genetic code, he is a member of the reptilian or ocean dwelling class, whereas we and the other monsters are land-dwelling mammals. Gill Man is therefore not immediately relatable, which makes him a distinctive and fascinating presence in the generally man/monster hybrid cast. In conjunction with this discrepancy, there is the second distinguisher of his isolation: he is no more a monster than we are. He is a natural being, existing peacefully within his habitat and fighting for it only when necessary. He is not the film's villain. The invading scientists are. Nature has selected him as her son, just as much as she has selected humankind. He has survived, though the numbers of his brethren have clearly dwindled. Now he is outnumbered: explorers and cerebral adventure-seekers have arrived from nowhere, upon a boat no less, threatening to take and defile his sacred ground-- his home. Who wouldn't fight back? Well, we know how it worked out for the Native Americans...

In addition to the invasion of his environment, there is the complete disregard the intruders have for it. Cigarettes are thrown into the waters of his lake bed, the researchers soil the lagoon with their instruments or otherwise treat it like a playground. While there is little actual destruction of his wild fortress, the implication of the damage soon to come due to humanity's sloppy interference with the purity of nature is very apparent. (The film was very far ahead of its time in this regard). The innocence of non-human animals is also explored. Gill Man operates from a place of instinct, not agenda, whereas the motives that bring the scientists to the Amazonian jungle have nothing to do with their animalistic instincts but with their heightened, homo sapien curiosity. They take over his territory not because they need it to survive, but because they want it in an intellectually greedy while  unconsciously selfish sense. The Creature's curiosity is more like that of a child. When Julie Adams takes her iconic swim in the lagoon, Gill Man observes her swimming like a curious cat(fish) and mimics her movements, reacting to her as one of his own. Her submergence into his environment makes her unthreatening and welcome. 

The sexual nature of this event, however, causes some discomfort on the part of the audience, mostly on a xenophobic level. There is the resultant friction of the two separate species trying to co-exist and the knowledge that both cannot thrive within the same space. The Creature is therefore defined only as a fearful foe after he determines that his own livelihood is being undermined. Feeling himself being stalked by predators, he reacts in kind. To him, the men are the villains. To the men, the Creature is the villain. Their battle for survival is not one that could be described as shocking or terrifying to the viewer. It is natural. It is what is destined and almost predetermined to happen when opposing forces try to save themselves from extinction. The image people remember most is the Creature carrying Julie to his den (right). Though this could be read as a tactical move, using her as bait to reel in his enemies, this "monster" is not the calculating type. His instinct told him to grab the girl and save her-- she whom he has identified as one of his own. In the end, man must triumph. This last link on the evolutionary chain must be destroyed so that the stronger race can rise up, whether or not he be more deserving of that victory. While the creature is indeed terrifying to look at-- an impressive concoction on the part of the costume designers-- he is not horrific. Startling, yes. Scary, no. His blatant identification of man's evil against nature is perhaps why we choose to forget his sad fate. His death is convenient for us, and we can tidily cast his ashes into the water as if he never was. This makes him the most tragic of all the horror tragediennes.  

~     ~     ~

There can be no denying that the respect we have for the monsters of our dreams is due to the martyrdom they suffered on our behalf. We are both the villagers chasing them out of town and the monster being chased. We are the ones compelled with the heroic desire to destroy the bloodsuckers, yet we too are the ones sucking thirstily on the throat. The aspect most relatable within the genre is that of torment, whether we be the tormented or the tormentor or the tormented tormentor. Inside all of us is a caged animal, and outside is the human being merely trying to conceal it. We are inarguably complex beings housing both our private Jekyll and Hyde-- both equally potent and influential parts of our nature. Somehow, the strange beauty and almost musical articulation with which our dark sides were personified and presented to us, even decades after their initial appearances on the silver screen, continue to lend us comfort. 

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
- Oscar Wilde

Our monsters, as ourselves, have dignity. They showcased the worst or otherwise the best hidden aspects of our character while exposing the vulnerability that is also ever-present. We worship our monsters, we root for them, just as we pray that we will someday experience some release from the pressure, judgment, and mortal shackles that can make life a living Hell. What one personally seeks in the experience of these odd undead gentlemen (and lady) is different for every individual, but the connecting through-line is the same. We relate to their freakdom, and while we relish watching the freaky, unheard of parts of ourselves being destroyed on the screen, we also weep for them. This is why we must exhume the bodies from the grave and re-watch them again, and again, and again, just so our secret selves may live.

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