The ability of the camera to present hallucinatory or supernatural phenomena was one of the first discoveries made by the earliest creators of cinema; indeed, the most outstanding of the early innovators, Méliès, presented a great variety of supernatural visions in his “magically arranged scenes”. His films abounded in fairies and ghosts and powerful magicians.
But because of the camera’s more obvious talent for objective recording, the cinema, as it subsequently grew and as it still is made use of today, has largely served to reconstruct a very earthbound reality. In the United States the financial failure of a ‘fantasy’ is considered almost certain, and so they are rarely attempted.
The few successes (the Topper series, Here Comes Mr. Jordan) have mostly been whimsical, using the tricks made possible by the varied mechanical resources of the camera for laughter rather than mystery or awe; while films that started out seriously, like The Uninvited, usually lost their supernatural convictions halfway through and dwindled away into obvious comedy.
In Europe, ghosts have been the subject of more genuine wit, as in René Clair’s The Ghost Goes West and, more notably, Max Ophuls’s La Tendre Ennemie, in which three ghosts – of a woman’s husband and her two lovers – sit on a chandelier during a dinner party given to celebrate the engagement of the woman’s daughter to an old man she does not love. They finally alter the course of her life by persuading her to elope with someone else.
The fact of the matter is that camera ‘magic’, despite its slickness and theoretically real and solid appearance, is a fairly obvious thing; a man double-exposed so that he can be seen through looks not so much as we imagine a ghost might, but rather as a man double-exposed. The latter effect used today is really only a formal device; we say, “there is a figure double-exposed, which means he is supposed to be a ghost”. But we are not convinced; there is not truly a ‘suspension of disbelief’, so we can hardly be captured even momentarily by the illusion, as we may so often be by the dramatic pull of a situation, or the dramatic reality of a character. The mechanical fact stares us in the face, and that is all.
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During the ‘teens and 20s the supernatural was treated in many ways, perhaps most often by the Germans, whose love of mysticism is reflected strongly in their cinema. There were supernatural elements in all of the early German legend films, such as Galeen’s The Golem, von Gerlach’s Chronicle of the Grieshuus, and Lang’s Siegfried.
The first contained a remarkably well handled sequence of the summoning of a demon according to the kabbala; the second – about the ghosts of two tormented lovers who rescue a child from scheming relatives in a Gothic castle – had Lil Dagover appearing in double exposure rather often as a warning spirit; and the third showed Siegfried’s borrowed cloak of invisibility in all its practicality.
The Germans also produced the first film version of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire story, Dracula, although it was considerably rewritten by its scenarist, Henrik Galeen, made into a kind of old German legend and retitled Nosferatu. In this the director, F.W. Murnau, used with, to contemporary eyes, rather crude but charming effect, the device of speeded action to show the supernatural strength of the master of the castle.
A genuine sense of the macabre was conveyed by this, in combination with a general air of mystery and the frightening make-up of Max Schreck as the bloodthirsty count. Here double exposure, that obvious and so dangerous device for showing the supernatural, was used toward the end of the film to convey the death of the latter; and as a commentary rather than sustained image (the figure dissolves into the air, disappearing altogether) its use was, even, effective.
About this same time in Hollywood the French director Maurice Tourneur, who had established a reputation for his pictorial style (not, one suspects, without considerable help from his art directors) during the late ‘teens, produced Maeterlink’s The Blue Bird (1921) and a fantasy called Prunella (1922), about a strange little girl brought up in a strange house by three grim aunts and two prim maids, who kept her from the outside world, but could not prevent her falling in love with a pierrot. In these the fantastic effects were achieved as they are on the stage (both were originally plays), mechanically rather than by trickery of the camera.
After The Four Horsemen and its misty apocalyptic visions, Rex Ingram included a fantastic and terrifying dream sequence in The Conquering Power (1921), and the morality tale within his Trifling Women (1923) was an elaborate and macabre vampiric love story in the tradition of Huysman’s A Rebours. There were fantastic episodes also in Ingram’s Mare Nostrum (1926), and in his version of Maugham’s novel The Magician (1927), with its central figure drawn from the late Aleister Crowley, which contained an orgiastic dream sequence concerning Pan.
Other American directors during the ‘twenties dealt with the fantastic from time to time as their story material demanded, but Tourneur and Ingram were perhaps the two most consistently interested in using films to present fantasy rather than reality.
It is difficult to place where the fantastic ‘horror’ film, as a genre, became established; but in America certainly the actor Lon Chaney, in a series of alarming make-ups, helped to establish the tradition. However, it was not until the coming of sound, and, incidentally, the stock market crash, that the fantastic horror film became a staple Hollywood commodity.
With Dracula (1930) directed by Tod Browning (he had earlier directed Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three), and James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), the genre was definitely launched. These were followed by, to name a few of the most outstanding: The Werewolf of London (1933); White Zombie (1933); The Mark of the Vampire (Browning, 1933), with Professor Zalen, an expert on vampire lore, solving the mystery of vampiric attacks on a young girl in a derelict castle; The Mummy (1934); The Black Cat (1934), based on the Edgar Allan Poe story; The Devil Doll (Browning, 1934), about a French scientist who could reduce living creatures to a sixth of their normal size; and The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935), with its splendid climax of a bride being created for the monster during a raging thunderstorm at night, the bride (Elsa Lanchester) being brought to life inside a bottle but horrified, upon emerging, at her intended mate.
James Whale, a British stage director imported to America, brought to his films a fine sense of Gothic terror in the English tradition, as well as an irascible though perhaps less evident sense of humour. Tod Browning’s work was less distinguished, though The Mark of the Vampire has its following. Its illusion, however, is quite destroyed when the ending of the film reveals the whole story to have been a carefully staged hoax.
Edmund Wilson has remarked how the popularity of the ghost and horror story in literature rises during times of outward stress in society, and certainly the vogue for this genre of film follows the same pattern. By 1939 the horror film had almost ceased to be produced, and it was only during the subsequent war that it was revived by the late Val Lewton, a producer then at RKO studios.
During the time the popularity of the horror film had declined in inverse proportion to the gradual revival of economic strength and prosperity, it had not only been produced less often but became exclusively ‘B’, or low budget, second feature work. Thus, when Val Lewton produced his first film of this type, The Cat People (1943), it was at the customary low cost. To everyone’s surprise, it had an amazing success as a first class feature, and took in a great deal of money. It was, however, something slightly new.
The story of The Cat People is of Irena (Simone Simon), descendant of a race who, at times of emotional crisis, could turn into cats. Her psychiatrist is sceptical, but a few days later his body, bloody and clawed, is found in her apartment. Lewton had observed that the power of the camera as an instrument to generate suspense in an audience lies not in its power to reveal, but its power to suggest; that what takes place just off-screen in the audience’s imagination – the terror of waiting for the final revelation, not the seeing of it – is the most powerful dramatic stimulus toward tension and fright.
Moreover, where a fantastic subject is concerned, in order to obtain the modern audience’s ‘suspension of disbelief’, they must be kept in suspense as to the exact nature of whatever phenomenon they are to be frightened by – and this centre of suggested terror must be surrounded by human, understandable people in realistic though possibly exotic surroundings. Thus the predicament of the girl in The Cat People, her growing realisation of her impulses, was made direct and real.
Upon this formula Lewton produced a number of horror fantasies, made by directors now well known: Jacques Tourneur (The Cat People), the son of Maurice Tourneur, Mark Robson and Robert Wise. The films dealt with zombies in Haiti (I Walked with a Zombie) devil worship (The Seventh Victim), a child’s imagination (The Curse of the Cat People), the living dead (Isle of the Dead), and an especially macabre murderer (The Leopard Man). Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatchers was also imaginatively filmed with Lewton as producer and Wise as director, as was a story based on Hogarth’s drawings of Bedlam (Mark Robson).
Though made independently on a very low budget, a film that deserves mention along with the Lewton product is Frank Wysbar’s The Strangler of the Swamp. Wysbar, who directed Anna und Elizabeth and Fahrmann Maria during the early ‘thirties in Germany, came to Hollywood as a refugee during the war, and made several rather curious low-budget films.
The Strangler of the Swamp, the only fantasy among them, dealt with the malign ghost of a man unjustly hanged in a southern swampland. Although the treatment was on the whole realistic, it contained suggestions of German expressionism, and succeeded in evoking with considerable effect the mist-laden, spirit-haunted country in which the strange story takes place.
These have been the most interesting horror fantasies produced in Hollywood; one must record, for other reasons, the films made by Universal Studios during the war years. Whereas Val Lewton attempted within commercial restrictions to do something new and imaginative, all the films produced at Universal (a studio famous as the home of ‘horror’ film, though in the early ‘thirties both Paramount and M.G.M. probably produced an equal share) were lifeless repetitions of ancient penny-dreadful formulas.
A whole series of crudely ridiculous films were made, exploiting some famous originals – House of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Spider Woman, The Mummy’s Ghost – and the final death agony of James Whale’s originally marvellous creation, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Columbia Studios product of this type was only very occasionally better; Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands (1942) built to a genuinely frightening climax, but it was weighted by a dully concocted story – a grief-stricken husband tries to contact the spirit of his dead wife through a brain machine, with the aid of a weird medium.
With the end of the war the popularity of horror films quickly diminished, so that since 1947 there have been few, if any, produced. Even Universal gave them up. Recently a new type of fantasy has come to the screen in the form of ‘science-fiction’ films, which ‘explain’ the supernatural in terms of science, and in which mysterious happenings are generated by machines rather than human beings.
At least one of these, however, proves to be simply a modern version of Mary Shelley’s old morality thriller, Frankenstein; or A Modern Prometheus. In The Thing, horror and suspense are produced during the first part by only suggesting verbally the nature of ‘The Thing’, a monstrous vegetable-man from another planet, but as soon as he is seen, fully clothed and looking altogether like Karloff’s creation of ‘The Monster’ in Frankenstein, the illusion of horror that has been built up is quickly dispelled. By now we have seen this creature too often; we produced him on this earth, and we expect another planet to be able to think up something different.
This brief outline of, primarily, the supernatural horror film may serve to indicate what has, in the main, been done with the genre; now this varied, sometimes remarkable, but relatively unimaginative output must be contrasted with one truly serious and brilliant creation, Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr. Dreyer’s work, besides, is particularly interesting in this respect, since he is the only outstanding film director to have used the supernatural more than once to express a personal outlook on life.
Produced in France during 1930 and 1931, about the same time as Dracula and Frankenstein, Dreyer’s Vampyr was released in 1932 at the time the vogue for horror films, at least in America, was mounting quickly. The film was premiered in Berlin, and although it was dubbed (easily and effectively, for there was very little dialogue) in both French and English, it had little success outside of Germany, where its mystic quality seems to have been appreciated.
Inspiration for the story of Vampyr is credited to Sheridan le Fanu’s ‘In a Glass Darkly’. A reading of this collection shows that only one story bears any relationship to the film, and that only vaguely, the tale of a vampire, ‘Carmilla’. Rather than from any particular literary basis, the film seems more to have developed from its settings (it was shot entirely on location in various deserted buildings), in which were placed a certain number of rather extraordinary characters living out their destiny in the shadow of a human vampire.
Briefly, the continuity reveals the arrival of a young man at an inn beside a lake, where, during the night, a man enters his room and leaves with him a sealed package, with instructions that it is to be opened upon his death. The next morning the young man investigates a strange building where shadows dance eternally, and visits an odd little doctor at his office where he meets also an old lady (who is the vampire).
Presently he arrives at a chateau whose master is the man who had come to his room at the inn. The man has two daughters, Gisele and Leone, and two servants. Leone is ill, having been attacked by the vampire. Suddenly and mysteriously the girls’ father is shot, and the young man opens the package he had been given earlier. In it is ‘The Book of Vampires’, which relates the vampire legend, and tells how the vampire can be destroyed.
Leone leaves her bed and is discovered in the woods surrounding the chateau, attacked once again by the vampire. The doctor is called to administer a transfusion, and the young man gives his blood. Later the young man’s doppelgänger, in a dream, experiences his enclosure in a coffin by the doctor and the vampire, and he is carried toward the cemetery. Then, awakening, he goes to the cemetery, where the old servant opens the tomb of the vampire and drives a stake through her heart; she turns to a skeleton, and Leone sits up in bed, released.
With the power of the vampire no longer sustaining him the doctor runs away in panic, and is trapped by the old servant in a mill where the machines bury him slowly in a shower of white flour. The young man and Gisele, meanwhile, ride in a boat through the misty lake and at last, arriving on the other side, walk into a forest illumined by the sun.
As with any film of style and value, a bare recounting of the plot (I prefer in this case the word “continuity”, since it sounds more sequential, in a filmic sense, than constructed in a literary sense) does not give one any idea of what the film is actually like; the structure of Vampyr is based more upon imagery than idea.
Ebbe Neergaard, in his ‘Carl Dreyer’, one of the British Film Institute Index Series, tells how the script called for the doctor to die by sinking into a bog of mud. Yet when Dreyer came by chance upon a plaster-works where everything was covered with a fine white dust, he realised the image-requirement for the film was that the doctor die in whiteness, and so an old flour mill, where the doctor could be trapped in the cage where the bags are filled, was chosen for the film.
The earlier sequences, then, were carefully photographed by Mate to match, in style, the final image material. The first arrival of the young man at the inn is suffused in a late afternoon greyness. The sequence of his discovery of the building filled with mysterious shadows is in tones of white and grey. The succeeding exteriors – the young man’s arrival at the chateau, his walk to the cemetery, and Leone’s encounter with the vampire – are all extremely diffused so as to give a kind of preternatural mist-effect. There is no sun in the film until the final moment.
What is especially striking about Vampyr is that light and shadow become more than just contributors to a consistent style; they serve as dynamic participants in the story unfolded. Dreyer recognised immediately the principle that Val Lewton applied to his series of films dealing with the supernatural 12 years later: that you must only suggest horror; you cannot show it, or at least, if you do, it must only be momentarily, for you cannot sustain it. It is the audience’s own imagination, skilfully probed, that provides, out of its well of unconscious fear, all the horror necessary.
In what are perhaps the most uncanny and terrifying moments of Vampyr, only a wild inexplicable play of light and shadow is seen; but the terror of the malevolent supernatural force is brilliantly conveyed. One of the most effective of these moments is when the doctor, after having given the blood transfusion, leaves Leone’s room and the young man runs after him, only to reach the head of the stairs and find them quite empty. Then we hear an abrupt crash and see the shadows cast by the staircase railings jerking crazily around on the walls of the stairwell.
Throughout the film all such moments, actions communicated by purely filmic means, are left an unexplained part of the general uncanny atmosphere. We are transported to the heart of a battle between ancient evil and the young, the pure in heart, taking place in a land convincingly haunted, where anything may at any moment happen and does.
One cannot properly divorce Vampyr from Dreyer’s other work, as it must be considered partly, along with these, as an expression of his personality. Certainly Dreyer is one of the very few directors of whom this may be fairly and safely said; no major studio chose the script of Vampyr, and there was no ‘front office’ to interfere in any way with the execution.
This seems to be fairly true also of Jeanne d’Arc and Day of Wrath – the former made immediately before Vampyr, the other 12 years after it. Seen in perspective the three films make up a kind of trilogy; they all bear definite affinities of theme, style and content. Each presents a struggle between good and evil, age and youth, and in each there is an intense concern, almost amounting to obsession, with the act of death; in Jeanne d’Arc the progress toward death by fire; in Vampyr the death of the head of the manor, then the true death of the living dead and of the doctor and his assistant, and, during the whole of the film, the delicate suspension near death of Leone; and finally, in Day of Wrath, the death, again by fire, of the old lady declared a witch, the death of the parson, and Anne’s acceptance, at the end of the film, of her identity as a witch, indicating surely the death to follow.
In all three of the films the conquering of this miasma of death and old age is shown as only a temporary thing – a gesture of St. Joan’s; the young lovers’ idyll in Day of Wrath; and although in Vampyr the young man and Gisele escape at the end, they never really seem to emerge from the land of phantoms.
Another recurrent figure that one notices in many of Dreyer’s films is the powerful, often malevolent old lady. She was not, of course, seen in Jeanne d’Arc (where certain of the older priests might be said to have taken her place), but she was portrayed with humour very early in Dreyer’s career as The Parson’s Widow (1920) and she mastered the tyrant in Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife (1925). In Vampyr she becomes the ancient, powerful living dead creature of the title, and in Day of Wrath she is two forces – the narrow, suspicious old mother of the parson, and Marte, the old lady accused as a witch who goes to her death uttering dire curses against those who have condemned her.
As remarkable as the photographic treatment of Vampyr is the sound. Wolfgang Zeller composed a score that for suggestivity has seldom been equalled, perhaps because there have been no other films since then requiring quite such imaginative work. It is not, of course, music that could be divorced from the film. The dialogue is very sparse and effectively pointed, as when, after giving the blood transfusion to Leone, the young man complains (he is resting in an adjoining room) to the doctor who peeks out at him from behind the door of Leone’s room, that he is losing blood. “Don’t be silly”, the doctor replies very slowly, “your blood is in here”.
Sound effects are also used with the utmost suggestivity. One remembers the inexplicable noises heard in the doctor’s office, distant barkings and cryings, which make the young man ask the doctor if there are children or dogs on the premises. “There are no children or dogs here”, the doctor replies. When, from a subjective viewpoint, we experience with the young man our enclosure in a coffin, there is unique horror as we hear the close grinding of the screws into the coffin-lid, and experience the splutter of a match struck to light a candle placed on the coffin-lid by the vampire who, in doing so, peers at us intently.
The last sequence of the film is very formally constructed and gives us, I believe, insight into Dreyer’s creative method, one which always tends toward formal control, especially when he is dealing with incident and outward movement rather than people. Here we have the escape of the young couple counterpointed with the death of the doctor in the flour mill. The sequence is cross-cut, so that at one moment we see and hear the machinery rhythmically grinding out its white death, and the next we see the young couple gliding slowly on the mist-covered lake, the image being accompanied by a slow sustained note of music.
This combination of shots is repeated in alternation until the couple get out of the boat and go into the sunlit forest. The very final shot is a close-up of the white turning gears of the flour-mill machinery; their movement slows, and at last stops. Fade out; we have reached the end of the adventure.
The construction and the image-material here employed is perfectly cinematographic; the meaning communicated is melodramatic incident abstracted into a pattern of time, space and sound. The sum of this design toward a conclusion becomes greater than the actions of its parts; it brings to an end not only the adventure we have had (for it has been our adventure as much as the protagonist’s), but encloses the film perfectly in its own uniqueness as the sole cinematic work that shakes us with its revelations of the terrors that still haunt us in the deep and unknown places of the human psyche.