Analysis and Interpretation
Sevastakis, Michael. Songs
of Love and Death: The Classical American Horror Film of the 1930s.
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (800-225-5800), 1993. xvii+209. $49.95.
Schelde, Per. Androids,
Humanoids, and Other Science Fiction Monsters: Science and Soul in Science Fiction Films.
NY: New York UP (212-998-2575), 1993, ix+279. $35.00.
Too Much Analysis, Not Enough Interpretation. As Michael Sevastakis
reminds us, the early classics of the American horror film were made during a brief
five-year period at the dawn of the sound era--Dracula (1931), Frankenstein
(1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1932), The Mummy (1932), The White
Zombie (1932), The Island of Lost Souls (1933), The Invisible Man
(1933), The Bride of Frankenstein(1935), Mad Love (1935), The Devil
Doll (1936), and Dracula's Daughter (1936). His examination begins with a
review of the literary sources which provided the plot materials for these films. He then
turns to the individual films, "by asking specific questions ...concerning the
characters...their blocking within the frame, dialogue, camera placement, and the mise-en-scene in order to illustrate how the conventions are employed by the filmmaker"
Through his careful analysis of key sequences to show how such techniques as cutting
and camera movement are used to create the desired effect, the author provides us with an
interesting (if at times rather dry) close reading of some important films. The purpose of
these readings is to produce a certain number of basic "conventions," grouped according
to Plot, Characterization, Film Technique, and Mise-en-Scene. This gives a catalogue of
105 conventions which are simply listed in the very short Conclusion. They range from
vague generalizations--"Sometimes the area of morality (at least in the beginning of the
film) is neither black nor white but gray"--to more crucial features: they "follow
literary gothic conventions by dealing with characterization over action," or they
on distortions of religious myths, for example, the vampire is a symbol of eternal life
and incarnate evil." These conventions cover the full range of filmic techniques,
including dialogue, plot, music, setting, characterization, mise-en-scene--an inventory
which cries out for some explanation and (semiotic) elaboration, especially when the
apparent difference between this study and a book like Michael Brunas, John Brunas and Tom
Weaver's Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946(1990), which
covers much of the same ground in far more detail, lies in the fact that Sevastakis is
making an argument about the evolution of the conventions of the genre, rather than simply
describing the film in all its details (sources, production, themes, etc).
This paucity of explanation is even more striking in the 4-page introduction. There is
no explanation of the choice of films, although admittedly these eleven films are
important. I would at least like to know why other horror films by the same directors in
this period were omitted, e.g., Whale's Old Dark House, Browning's Mark of
the Vampire, or Hillyer's Invisible Ray. In the case of the first two, at
least, a partial explanation might lie in their more comedic approach to the material, but
this is not explained. But Browning's Mark of the Vampire (1935) was a remake of
his silent (and now lost) London after Midnight with Lon Chaney--the actor
Browning was planning to use for Dracula but who died in 1930. Because this is a
vampire movie, it does raises the question of why Sevastakis chose to focus on the
literary origins of these films while excluding the filmic antecedents which often seem
more relevant than the original literary sources. (And how would Sevastakis explain Freaks,
arguably Browning's masterpiece?)
Here is Sevastakis's description of his approach:
Each chapter examines literature ranging from Ann Radcliffe and Matthew
Gregory Lewis in the eighteenth-century to Maurice Renard and Abraham Merritt in the
twentieth, depending on applicable stylistic elements, themes and the source of the film's
plot, and then closely investigates the individual films.... (xiii-xiv)
I have no quarrel with this method per se, and the book provides a useful description
of many of the literary sources for various themes. My objections stem from his
conclusion, in which the list of conventions are presented as the distillate of his
analyses of the films and their sources.
We can trace the pleasure derived from horror back to gothic conventions.
Noel Carroll's keen insight into the horror film [in his 1990
Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart] locates the focus of pleasure in the genre
on the narrative itself, saying that horror films revolve around the existence of the
abnormal and the importance of the narrative is the confirmation of the monster's
existence. I would like to add that what makes the confirmation of the monster's existence
and the narrative around which this confirmation takes place appealing are the conventions
within the genre which have evolved through the decades. (181-182, my italics; this is the
only reference in the book to Carroll or to the pleasure of horror).
I can't help objecting that by moving from the novel and/or stage adaption directly to
the film, he has not only skipped a step in the film's formation (the earlier films), but
in some cases, he has given a misleading description of the film's sources and, more
central to his argument, a misleading account of the evolution of the conventions of the
horror film. Apart from occasional references to expressionism ("the German expressionism
of the 1920s found a home within the American fantasy film of the 1930s"), there is
little acknowledgement of the close ties between these two groups of horror films. In his
discussion of Frankenstein (the most famous of all of these films) for instance, Sevastakis discusses various literary sources, including Shelly's novel and the 1927 play
which was extensively revised to become the script; but there is no mention of the German
"golem" films, particularly the 1920 version which Whale screened before starting his
film. (Moreover, various critics, from Halliwell to Phil Hardy, routinely describe Frankenstein
as "mostly borrowed" from the Golem films, e.g., Halliwell 300).
Whatever impact the literary influences may have had, the omission of the influence of
these films in a discussion of the development of conventions seems indefensible.
Admittedly the silent versions of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
are inferior to the 1930s versions, but why are the plays more important to our
appreciation of the conventions? What about the impact of Murnau's Nosferatu, a
film which is usually considered superior to Browning's Dracula? Karl Freund's Mad
Love is even more significant in this regard, not only because there was an earlier
1925 German version of the Renard novel (by Robert Wiene, the director of The Cabinet
of Dr. Caligari, the most visually important of Expressionist films), but because
before Freund emigrated to the US in 1929, he worked as the director of photography on a
number of German movies which directly influenced the horror films of the 1930s,
particularly in their camera work, including The Golem (and he shares the
photography credits for Metropolis with Gunther Rittau). One of the first films
he worked on in Hollywood was Browning's Dracula, for which he was the director
of photography. As I said, I have no quarrel with a study of the literary sources of these
films; but if one is trying to explain the development of Hollywood conventions, as
Sevastakis states in his conclusion, then these filmic crossfertilizations are essential
to any adequate explanation.
This book reads as if the first and last chapters were tacked on to an earlier study of
how gothic literary conventions survive in these Hollywood films and are transmuted by the
nature of film. Instead the author claims to be doing far more and ends up doing far less.
Too Much Interpretation, Not Enough Analysis. After the careful
readings of Sevastakis, it was a shock to turn to Schelde's study of the SF film, which
opens with the assertion that "there still is not a book-length study of sf movies that
is not a picture book or a picture-book history. The only exceptions are Focus on the
Science Fiction Film (Johnson 1972) and Alien Zone, a recent (1990)
publication edited by Annette Kuhn" (1). In English, several books come to mind, first
among them, Vivian Sobchack's Screening Space (1986), Phil Hardy's Science
Fiction Film Encyclopedia (1984) and John Brosnan's Future Tense (1978).
Of course, unfamiliarity with critical writing in a particular area is not necessarily
detrimental; insights and new readings may be freed from the constraints of earlier
arguments. Seeing him as the boy who realizes that the emperor has no clothes, then, I was
momentarily tempted to think that Schelde's all-encompassing explication of SF film, in
its very simplicity, might contain insights which more sophisticated criticism was unable
to see. Tempting, yes, but not very helpful. He gives similarly simplistic explanations of
the role of folklore and folkways, shoring up his argument with the accounts of
established anthropologists (like Richard Lee's account of the !Kung or Robert Darnton's
account of the "Great Cat Massacre") which turn out, when one actually reads their
books, to be considerably more complex than his reductive overview. (His "simplifications" resemble rather the use of that term in Walter Miller's Canticle
for Leibowitz.) Thus I find his overview too reductive to be of much assistance in
our understanding of the genre, particularly since every film discussed is fitted into the
overall thesis with little attention to detail, to how these themes are developed in SF
literature, to their specificity as films, or even to the characteristics or history of
the genre--as his definition of the SF film suggests: "For the purposes of this book an sf movie is defined as a movie that spotlights some kind of
'fictional science'" (25).
In addition to simplifying beyond recognition the work of the various critics to whom
he refers (from Arthur Kroker to Michel Foucault), his study is based on a complete
disregard for the SF film as film; all that matters are its themes and characters. Yet he
is not interested in written SF:
First...[because it] has already received a fair amount of
scholarly and critical attention. Second, [because] despite appearances, sf movies and sf
literature have little in common and appeal to very different audiences. Science fiction
literature is, at its best, not afraid of experiments, of intellectual speculation....
Science fiction literature has a distinct and fairly limited audience--mostly consisting
of intellectuals and science buffs.... (2)
there is an additional difference: sf movies contain,
contrary to the case with sf literature, the seed of a rebellion against science and the
powers that control science.... Sf literature is most often so blatantly uncritical of
science and technology that it comes across as either inherently reactionary of as science
worship. (21, n6)
SF film's relationship to folklore lies in their mutual resistance to the status quo:
Basic to folktales is the fact that they are protesting a
reality which the people who created them have, in effect, no power to influence....Folktales are both maps to a cruel reality and statements of protests against a rigid
social order "hidden" in the guise of fantastical events and feats....
The science fiction film is the same kind of muted
"dream"-protest. The truth of the matter is that ordinary people...are as powerless vis-a-vis the ongoing
"progression" of science and technology as were the users and
producers of fairy tales in the past....That the implicit protest is vague and
irrational--which makes scientists and literary sf enthusiasts tend to dismiss it--does
not, however, mean that it is unfounded. Sf, like folklore, is first and foremost designed
to be entertainment...but it is also a mirror of the lives and reality of those for whom
it is made. (8-9)
In his conclusion, however, he is much more restrained about the potential for
resistance in SF film:
Sf shows a world where the artificial neon lights are
about to outshine the sun, where we will be forced to live in perpetual "spiritual"
darkness, while our soulless body-machines are bathed in the searchlights of the corporate
police and move about like decapitated chickens, devoid of inner life.
In that sense sf is a protest, a cry of despair from those
who have no other avenues for venting their discontent with the status quo. But sf shares
with folklore also its main weakness, the dream-like escapism....
Sf's main function is to allow people to let off steam, to
vicariously fight off their oppressors for a couple of hours before going back to the
grind.... In the end sf becomes point man for the Brave New World: the movies get us
accustomed to the dystopia. When the police state is in place, we will recognize it and be
almost relieved because we were expecting it. (242-244)
Schelde's study, as the sub-title suggests, is very much shaped by a particular thesis.
The main argument is that science, as depicted in the
movies, threatens not only to destroy the physical world as horror movies such as Godzilla
suggest, but, more to the point, science and technology are slowly invading our minds and
bodies, making us more mechanical, more like machines. Science is robbing us or our
humanity, metaphorically expressed as our soul; it threatens to replace the individual,
God-given soul with a mechanical, machine-made one. (9)
In total, the author discusses 65 films spread over as many years, from Metropolis
(1926) to Total Recall (1990). Although this is meant to provide a global view of
the genre, his selections reflect to some extent his search for films which fit his
argument; while he includes many of the classics (and some not-so-classic films like Blood
of Heroes, Maximum Overdrive, Parts: The Clonus Horror, The Terror Within, and Twins),
he does omit a number of important films, particularly at the more intellectual or
artistic end of the spectrum (Alphaville, Dr. Strangelove, Solaris, Stalker, Things to
Come, and La Jetée) as well as some more popular films like the Star
Trek movies, the Planet of the Apes series, Barbarella, Them, The Man
who Fell to Earth, the Quartermass films, and even King Kong.
These omissions are indicative of his reductive, ahistorical approach: "The sf genre
is static; the themes introduced in the earliest movies, such as Frankenstein, Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Metropolis, are repeated over and over with only
minimal variations" (12).
His argument would have been modified or enhanced by an at least passing knowledge of
the literature of SF, particularly since he often digresses to discuss contemporary issues
from racism and sexism to new reproductive technologies. But this disregard for the basic
tools of criticism, this blurring of the differences between folktale and film, the lack
of interest in the question of whether the SF film has changed or evolved, or whether SF
films are in any way determined by the different historical or national situations in
which they are produced--all this is beyond the author's generalizing concerns. While
there are certainly many statements about specific films with which we could all agree,
and indeed while there is certainly an argument to be made about our collective fears and
hopes when confronted with new technologies (although he only seems to consider the
fears), there is surely more to criticism than such generalizations. Since at one point he
mentions that "the supermarket tabloids...are repositories of modern folklore" (89), I
think that he might have done better to turn his efforts there.
Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell's Film Guide, 4th edition. NY: Scribner, 1983.
Hardy, Phil. Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia. NY: William Morrow, 1984
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