Wednesday, August 26, 2009

“I like to torture!” Sadism in the pre-Code Universal horror film

"You monster! You like to torture!"
"Yes! I like to torture!"

The above exchange - and you don't need me to identify the actor who speaks the reply - is from The Raven (1935), the film that served in many ways as a test-case for what the horror film now could and could not get away with in the Code era. By the time it appeared, Lugosi had long been established as the screen’s foremost sadist. (Lionel Atwill was perhaps not far behind.) Yet this kind of wallowing in cruelty is most definitely not a feature of Dracula or Frankenstein or The Mummy, the instigators of the first great American horror cycle. It emerged in their wake, and with its suppression after 1935, it became perhaps the most significant identifying feature of pre-Code horror. In that sense, Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven are true anomalies: the three Universal horrors that rely for their effect not on atmsophere and the supernatural but on terror and cruelty and pain. That they are also the three great post-Dracula Lugosi movies is an interesting coincidence.
If there is one dominant ingredient in a typical pre-Code horror film that did not survive the Code crackdown it would have to be sadism; a morbid inventiveness in tortures and ways of dying, and a central character taking lip-smacking relish in their implementation. This was the essence of many of the horror films made by Paramount (Island of Lost Souls, Murders in the Zoo) and Warners (Dr X, Mystery of the Wax Museum); it is also, of course, central to MGM's Freaks. But it had not been a feature of the first batch of Universals. This all changed with Murders in the Rue Morgue, the consolation prize for Lugosi and director Robert Florey for not getting Frankenstein.
.Most horror writers can’t bring themselves to refrain from calling the film Lugosi’s first starring horror vehicle after Dracula. But the sobering truth is that it is not. Already by this time, he is unambiguously co-starring; in both opening title card and subsequent list of players he is second-billed to Sidney Fox, a gorgeous but not especially luminary actress of the period, best-known for playing Bette Davis's Bad Sister in 1931. (Actually, there are rumours about how she ended up top-billed but I never tell tales about ladies.)
The truth is that the film is Lugosi’s show all through, of course, with little distraction from Fox or indeed Leon Ames as Dupin, the dashing hero. (How strongly you identify Ames with Doris Day’s loveable curmudgeonly father in On Moonlight Bay and By the Light of the Silvery Moon will have a lot to do with how easily you accept him here.)
Given his shot at the big job, Florey goes jogging with it, washing the film in high Germanic style and staging the narrative as a series of vignettes and tableaux; often the plot will be advanced by our overhearing it being discussed, by elegantly staged pairs and trios of supporting actors we do not see again.
How tempting it is to attribute the tone of the finished film to the simmering resentment of Florey, at last given the chance to show what he can do but in a far less prestigious production, and instantly running foul of budget cuts and front office interference. The bosses in particular wanted to cut the period setting (no surprises there: this remains the only Universal pre-Code horror to go with a pre-twentieth century setting) and slashed the budget when Florey held out. Whatever, it is certain that the film is at once the least typical of all the Universal horrors and at the same time, the most typically pre-Code in its attitudes and effects. (It begins in carny mode, with a Parisian fair at which the entertainment is authentic pre-Code vintage: torso dancers, over whom the camera crawls and loiters. Two old roués, one like Adolphe Menjou gone to seed, the other like a slightly more refined Charles Winninger, are at the front of the crowd: “Do they bite?” asks one. “Oh yes, but you have to pay extra for that” replies the other.)
It has only the name Dupin, a body up a chimney and an ape in a lady’s boudoir in common with the Poe story to which it owes its name and swears its allegiance, preferring instead to utilise a period setting and deliberately theatrical style as mist to cloak the most blatant exploitation of sadism yet in Universal horror.

Yet it also has as daft a plot as any horror film you ever saw. This Dr Mirakle is a carnival performer with the hokiest act on the circuit. He’s done up like the Devil, with curly hair and a tall hat, but basically his act is to stalk the stage, giving a long-winded exegesis of the theory of evolution, on the level of scientific sophistication one would associate with, say, a hack Hollywood screenwriter or two. Every so often, he stops, and pretends to translate the noises made by a chained gorilla, called Erik, into banal human speech. It’s the corniest act you ever saw, he must have been touring it for years, but he does it with such an air of contemptuous menace that your heart never fully goes out to him.
. He ends with a flourish, presenting Erik to the audience with the words “Behold: the first man!”
At this point, the mood turns ugly. “Heresy!” says one man, out of his seat with indignation.
Suddenly, mortally offended, Mirakle goes bananas, stares straight at the camera and intones:
“My life is consecrated to a great experiment! I tell you I will prove your kinship with the ape! Erik’s blood shall be mixed with the blood of man!”
It’s a closer call by now, but you still have to conclude this guy is hoking it; he even ends by offering the girls in the audience a chance to come up and see the ape. (“You liked her, didn’t you, Erik?” leers Lugosi after Sidney has been introduced.)
But it is at this point that the film suddenly lurches into the nastiest sequences in all of pre-Code horror. And Lugosi, lit from below and with massive eyebrows, is terrifying.

Don't forget, he was basically sexy and suave all the time in Dracula, bar a few distorted close-ups as he bent down for the kill. That was Lugosi the matinee-idol vampire. This is altogether different, and if he truly wanted to avoid identification with sinister roles, he only had himself to blame for the relish with which he goes at it here.
First, after some especially fluffy romantic banter from the film’s two young pups, we see Lugosi’s coach pull up at the scene of a savage knife fight, that leaves both participants fatally gored and which Lugosi watches with pleasure from his carriage window. He then walks slowly and menacingly through the fog to the camera – it’s the best of all Lugosi’s scary walks into the camera – and past us to close in on the terrified woman who had also been present at the scene. His offer to take her to his carriage for safety is tinged with overt menace, and she protests clearly, but is too scared to resist him manhandling her into his coach.
Next we see, she is screaming, tied to a wooden cross in tattered clothes while Lugosi is crudely jabbing her with a hypodermic syringe.

Now, let us be clear what he is doing here. The mystic business with the mixing of her blood with the gorilla’s is just a preliminary task: it is not the essence of the experiment that Lugosi had been alluding to earlier. I fear he meant blood as in ‘bloodline’.
This is a kind of pre-nuptial blood test; the real experiment is to follow. That’s what he means when he says, “one more minute and we… shall know if you are to be the bride of science!”
What his magnifying glass discloses that so angers him is not incompatibility of blood but the presence of venereal disease, indicating that she, as we knew from the opening credits, is a “woman of the streets” and thus not fit to be Erik’s bride, and so yes, that was what he meant by “You liked her, didn’t you, Erik?” He wants to prove human kinship with other apes by mating a gorilla with a young woman.

There’s something of an end-of-century serial killer movie in Lugosi’s petty obliviousness to the physical torment he is inflicting, as if the victim is being unreasonable in protesting. “You’re stubborn! Hush!” he says to her at one point. We continue to see her whimpering and writhing behind Lugosi as he calmly compares blood types in the foreground. “Hush!” he says again.
Eventually she dies, of the effects of the transfusion and sheer exhaustion from torture. Lugosi dumps her through a trap door into the river. Then it’s back to another of Florey’s tableaux, this time of picturesque tramps who provide a running commentary in a kind of poetic, Samuel Beckett trampspeak, as gendarmes discover the girl’s body, washed up beneath a beautifully lit backcloth of a bridge and a quiet stretch of river.
This is chilling stuff, aiming to horrify the audience with its tortures and threats of sexual outrage. But the most contentious sequence to anybody coming to this movie from a pre-Code angle is the scene in which Erik the ape enters the bedroom of Sidney Fox and her mother.

Presumably, what actually happens there is to some degree left to our imaginations. But you have to concede that it does play very much the way Thomas Doherty would have it in his book ‘Pre-Code Hollywood’:
What transpires during the cross-cut commotion – between the attack in the bedroom and the frenzied activity in the hallway as neighbors prepare to break down the door and rescue the women from the gorilla’s clutches – can be interpreted in only one way: the gorilla is raping one of the women. Two brief shots repeat the same image: the gorilla’s head and upper torso thrusting downward as grunts and shrieks fill the soundtrack.
Well, it is certainly not true to say the scene can only be interpreted this way: it has been widely interpreted to mean that the gorilla is thrusting as he stuffs a corpse up the chimney, and this I think is probably correct – but on the other hand, Doherty’s reading is the one that most irresistibly suggests itself to an audience (particularly as it is a while before we find out anything about the body in the chimney). What is additionally certain is that this reading of the scene must have been obvious to Florey and to the studio before they put it out. By not offering any clarification, they are at least responsible for actively promoting the misunderstanding. This was, after all, the film that was to out-Frankenstein Frankenstein.
.The Black Cat of 1934 was a late revival of the sadism theme unleashed just as the Hays axe was falling. It is a haunting, visually audacious film, with many striking and distinctive sequences, but an incoherent and often ill-motivated drama.
Set in a futuristic house built on the sight of a military massacre and adjoining a mass graveyard, the style is definitely modern throughout. Everything is white walls and metal and sharp angles, no crumbling castles of a bygone age here.
And no eerie silences either: this film is fully, sometimes obtrusively, scored, though the music itself is an excellent pot-pourri of well-chosen classical themes. (If you are one of those people who wish Dracula had a music score: surely this, over Philip Glass?)

This is all ultra-stylish, but the censors’ ears were pricked: the combination of modernity and monstrosity was noted with disapproval, as was the streak of sexual perversity. Karloff’s character is an architect, aesthete, Satanist and sexual decadent, who first tricked Lugosi’s wife into marrying him, then, when she died, had her preserved in fluid in a glass case and married her daughter (whom he will eventually kill). There is devil-worship, much talk of torture, and a crazy, delirious climax as Lugosi (in his most sympathetic horror performance) ties Karloff (in one of his least) to an embalming rack and skins him alive. (“Slowly! Bit by bit!”)
Some of the incoherence of the end-product is in fact attributable to a number of re-shoots and a deal of post-production re-editing, designed to lessen the oppressive atmosphere and make a more conventional good guy out of the Lugosi character, who had originally been far more ambiguous and is now just plain weird.

David Manners and Jacqueline Wells (an elegant thing who had come to Karloff and Lugosi a year after working with Laurel and Hardy) barely make it out alive as the house blows up. (Karloff, as I said, is an architect, and his home is full of such handy labour-saving devices). The film ends with Manners and Wells on a train, reading a review of his latest mystery novel, which complains that the plot is too far-fetched to be believable. They look at each other cutely, and we fade.
There’s mischief here somewhere; it wasn't to last.

The Raven was the last straw. A Poe-obsessed surgeon and eroticist of torture is driven to sexual mania by the young dancer whose life he saves, and with the unwilling aid of a violent criminal on the run ("You put the burning torch into his face... into his eyes!"), whom he deliberately deforms, he plans to torture the girl and her obstinate father and fiancé to death during a weekend party...
The British said no. The ban extended beyond one film and took in the whole genre. The decision crippled horror production in the US. An era ended.
Odd, now that the horror film is, once again, first and foremost a means of aestheticising sadism. Perhaps it always was, deep down. The trouble with The Raven was simply that it wasn't deep down enough.


MissMatilda said...

I watched all of these when I was about 14, loved them to bits!

panavia999 said...

The movies are the reason why I could not choose a favourite between Lugosi and Karloff on your recent quiz. How to choose!?

Juliette. said...

Great post! I now have a lot of these movies (thanks Mykal!) and look forward to rereading this when I've seen them all.

Murders in the Rue Morgue looks especially fascinating.

Mykal said...

Great Post, Matthew. This stuff is the cream of the crop. I love Karloff, but this is Bella at his best, particularily The Black Cat. what can one say? All three are among the finest horror films ever done. I love that you grouped all three together. I even think of them as one long film sometimes. Great, great stuff. German Expressionism, Karl Freund, Edgar Ulmer, pre code - damn, it just doen't get any better than these black, horrid, wet nightmares. Puts horror films today to shame. When are you doing my favorite pre-code The Mask of Fu Manchu? Maybe a pre-code part II? -- Mykal

Matthew Coniam said...

Miss Matilda,
On Channel 4, yes?

I think Karloff is the better and more versatile actor, but Lugosi is just one of those people who came out of the womb with unique screen presence. Even at his drug-addled worst, in the crummiest possible film, he is magnetic. That's why he just takes the top spot for me.

Thanks - and prepare to be corrupted!

Thanks! Yes, these are the three if you're a Lugosiphile; he's great as Dracula, obviously, and I love his Poverty Row films, but here, where he is sleek and beautiful and given great material to work with... simply one of the great screen actors of all time.
Mask of Fu Manchu is a good idea; I'll give it some thought.

Mykal said...

Matthew: In your response to Panavia and my own reply, you have expressed perfectly why it is Lugosi on the top rung for me as well. His dark symmetry and beauty is often overlooked. ". . .came out of the womb with . ." Man, I love that. -- Mykal

James said...

Great post Matthew. It is so good to see films such as these receive such careful and thoughtful critique. The sadistic elements that run through them were as you said, so ahead of their time and truly disturbing. The Black Cat is one of my favourite horror films - and I completely agree with you and Mykal about Lugosi. When he was good, he was very, very good. And even when he wasn't so good - he still kinda was.

Matthew Coniam said...

James -
Thanks for the comments. Yes, these films are strikingly ahead of - or perhaps just 'out of' - their time. And Lugosi is simply one of those actors who transcends ANYTHING you put him in. As Kim Newman said, no other actor can turn a totally unwatchable film into a film you'll watch once a year for the rest of your life.
Bummer about the Argento book delay, but I look forward to enjoying when it finally emerges.
Best, Matthew