Sprechen Sie Scary?
By Desmond Reddick
09 October 2006 — After last week's introductory column I wracked my brain wondering where to start with my first article of content. Would I do a movie review? That would, in my mind, automatically pigeonhole this as a review column. It's not. Would I do a retrospective of a particular director or genre? No, but that will all come later.
Instead, I will start at the very roots of horror, and filmmaking for that matter. It's no great surprise that, like all art, horror seems to prosper in times of upheaval and instability. Look at the current sociopolitical issues in the world and the horror renaissance we are having lately. Comparing it to the sterile nineties only strengthens this outlook.
After the first World War, Germany was in a state of repair and recovery. Times were hard, but there was a burst of creative filmmaking. Funding epic (or even regular) films wasn't feasible, but there was an artistic angle many German filmmakers hit that will never be matched or duplicated. These films dealt with serious issues of murder, revenge and betrayal, while Hollywood was more concerned with romance, comedy and other passive, "feel good" stories. Expressionist films set the standard for all genre films to follow.
Bear with me as I guide you through some of the pinnacles of this movement. 1915's Der Golem is a film based on the mythical Jewish story of the Golem: a clay statue brought to life in order to protect the Jewish people. In this film version, a merchant discovers the statue of the Golem and brings it back to life to serve him. When things go sour, the Golem turns to a series of murders. It is nigh impossible to find a watchable print of this on DVD, but doing so is worth it for the monster and some early special effects. Der Golem is not the best of this genre, but it is characteristic in style and theme.
F. W. Murnau's 1922 film is perhaps the most recognizable of the genre. Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror is essentially the story of Bram Stoker's Dracula with names changed to protect those who stole the plot. Never have vampires been scarier than in this early vampire film. Forsaking the sexual power of the Count in Stoker's novel for Count Orlok's rodent-like look made for the most intimidating vampire put to celluloid. It contains one of the most memorable scenes ever filmed: from the creepy and angular shadow climbing the staircase to the monster dying in front of the open window in the morning sun. Despite the changes, Stoker's widow — a woman very protective of her husband's estate — sued for copyright infringement and all prints of the film were ordered destroyed. It was already an international hit with prints throughout the world, so the film, thankfully, survives today.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is the greatest film to come out of this movement. I also happen to think it is one of the greatest films ever made. It did have its problems; think modern Hollywood is the only meddling factor in filmmaking history? Wrong. The clear-cut, macabre ending was softened and made more ambiguous, but it did little to lessen the impact of a great silent movie. The film is the story of a traveling doctor and his companion Cesare, a man who has been sleeping since early childhood. Wherever the two go, death seems to follow in their wake. Granted, it's not the most brilliant plot, but it's the execution that makes this film so amazing. It was shot entirely on a studio stage. This was not uncommon for the day. The director, wanting to control the light like never before, lit the entire set from all angles and had the shadows painted in. Even during the brightest of scenes, the shadows jut out, menacing the characters from the corners of the screen. Adding to the atmosphere is the fact that there isn't a right angle to be found in the set construction; doorways are off-kilter, steps are mismatched in size and the peaks of buildings lean towards each other. It all makes for an odd sense of insanity. If you have not seen this film and can't understand how I'm describing it, think of Rob Zombie's "Living Dead Girl" video, a direct homage, and you'll have an idea.
Two other notable entries into the genre are later films by director Fritz Lang: futuristic Metropolis and inventive serial killer drama M. Metropolis is a very stylized sci-fi drama featuring what may be sci-fi's most iconic character: the robot Maria. Like most good sci-fi, it comments on current political climates and allegorizes social problems. More about this kind of sci-fi in a future article. M has the most amazing Peter Lorre in the starring role as a serial child killer who finds himself between the police and the criminal underworld.
These films, although I only discovered them after I was a diehard horror fan, had a huge influence on the way I watch films as a whole. I also happen to think they influenced my writing. Watching silent movies makes for better comic book writers, because you have to be aware of gestures, facial expressions and the like. For this I am eternally grateful.
More importantly, these films influenced every horror film which followed. The Universal Monster pictures were heavily influenced by the stark contrasts of dark and light as well as cinematic world-building. (More on that next week!) Anyone calling themselves horror fans should really hunt these titles down and devour them. You will be able to find these at a discount store, dollar store or online for one cent! If you're paying $5, you're paying too much.
So put on your lederhosen, crack open a weizen or a pilsener, put some schnitzel down your gullet and scare the Fritz out of yourself.