A New Kind of Magic

Part II: The Modern Prometheus

by Marco Lanzagorta

21 February 2006

In the second of a three-part look at the symbiotic relationship between the horror film and special effects, our Dread specialist shows how Mary Shelley's mythical monster, and a unique approach to art design, forever changed the horror film.

See Part I of this series, “The Power of Prestidigitation.”

Though his title as ‘founding father’ of fright film F/X is fairly secure, George Melies was not really a filmmaker in the traditional sense. As cinematic tricks, with no real dramatic context, his shorts quickly lost their luster once the initial “wow” factor for audiences was gone. As such, it is difficult to refer to his efforts as ‘films’ in the standard way we understand the craft today. It is only when the length of movies grew longer and audiences became acquainted with the sophistication of cinema and special effects, that horror developed into a true cinematic genre.

In this regard, Edison’s Frankenstein (1910) should be rightfully considered as the first real horror film. Writer-director James Searle Dawley, working for the Edison Kinetoscope Company, directed this very first version of Mary Shelly’s gothic novel for the big screen. Interestingly, this film was presumed to be lost until a copy from a private collection was found and recently released on DVD. Loosely based on the seminal work, Dawley’s movie presents Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) as a young medical student who attempts to create a perfect human being by chemical means. The result of his experiments, however, is a deformed monster (Charles Ogle). After a few confrontations with the creature, Frankenstein and his bride (Mary Fuller), use the power of their love to destroy the creature, which slowly fades away.

In spite of its short running time (16 minutes), Frankenstein manages to incorporate in its subtext the gender anxieties that characterize Shelley’s novel. To avoid public outcries, Dawley decided to eliminate the “repulsive situations” found in the book. Gone were all mentions of grave robbing, dead body parts, and the murders committed by the monster. In it’s place were scenes of thematic resonance and optical wonder.

The first time Frankenstein sees his horrible creation is through the reflection in a mirror, and later on, the monster retreats from its own image. Using symbolism such as this, the film appears to suggest that the monster is the evil side of Frankenstein. And even with the rather mystic finale, where white heterosexual love destroys the creation, the film succeeds in bringing to life the tale of a man so horrified by female sexuality that he opts to procreate asexually.

Edison’s Frankenstein consists of 25 separate shots in tinted black and white film: scenes during the day were tinted amber, blue was used for night, and red for the fire in the smoking cauldron where the monster was fashioned. The special effects required to showcase the creation sequence were simple, but amazingly effective. For this sequence, Dawley shot the burning of a papier-mache model of the monster. Then, this film was printed and run in reverse, giving the illusion of the creature materializing out of nowhere.

The public reaction to the movie was not that different from those of modern day audiences watching a recent fright flick, and the critics of the day celebrated both the narrative and the special effects. The Film Index of March 12, 1910 declared: “the dramatic strength of this gruesome story clings to its dramatization”. And also, talking about the creation scene: “probably the most remarkable ever committed to film”. Within the context of spectatorship, even at this early stage in cinema history, it appears to be very difficult to differentiate and isolate the power of the narrative from the mesmerizing visuals. In this regard, Frankenstein highlights the ingredients of what would become the staple of successful movie macabre in the years to come: a dramatic story augmented by even more dramatic visuals.

In spite of its success, the years that immediately followed the release of Frankenstein did not see many horror films. Between 1910 and 1918, only three genre offerings deserve to be mentioned. Directed by Paul Wegener, The Student of Prague (1913) and The Golem (1914) showed how films offered the possibility of blending the real with the imaginary in ways that would truly terrorize the audience. Also, in 1914, American film legend D.W. Griffith directed The Avenging Conscience, which was based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. Here, the famed director showcased some of the sophistication that would become a staple of his later films. By using editing and diverse camera angles, he infused maximum emotional impact into the story. However, even though these three films explored the potential of using film to convey fear, claustrophobia and horror, none of them presented radically new special effects techniques.

Things would dramatically change during the following decade. The 1920s saw truly groundbreaking visuals being developed in several German studios, most notably at the gargantuan UFA company. A few of the German innovations created during this period include the use of glass paintings, animation, in-camera and traveling mattes, hanging miniatures, front projection, and time-lapse photography. Many of these creative conceits were used in films with horror overtones, most notably in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919), The Golem (Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, 1920), Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922), Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924), and Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926).

In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a murderous hypnotist (Werner Krauss) is in charge of Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a sleepwalker who can be ordered to carry out macabre deeds. The film has often been interpreted as a metaphor to the insane authority institutions that dominated 1920s pre-Nazi Germany. However, part of the success of the film was due to the expressionistic sets designed by Rudolf Meinert and Herman Warm, which embraced distorted depictions of the uncanny and the insane. Not exactly a new type of special effect, the film showed how unnatural environments could be cheaply accomplished without the construction of elaborate sets. All you needed was painting canvas and clever lighting.

In the 1920 version of The Golem, a Rabbi (Albert Steinbruck) conjures up the disembodied head of a demon, which speaks the magic words needed to bring a giant clay statue to life (played by Paul Wegener) to protect the Jewish community from oppressive forces. These words are spelled in fire, and were shot using a rather complex combination of optical elements. While Wegener’s name is virtually unknown outside horror circles, it is worth mentioning that he was a firm advocate for the use of special effects in support of the narrative. Quite impressively, in a 1916 speech, he envisioned the development of “synthetic cinema” in which totally artificial scenes could be created by a sophisticated camera. This was, perhaps, the first time in where the possibilities of computer generated imagery was ever discussed.

The biggest landmark in silent horror cinema — and German expressionism for that matter — was Nosferatu, an unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With a stylish use of shadows and lighting, as well as the added attraction of creepy locations, Murnau created one of the most terrifying films of the period. Murnau also used interesting special effects to enhance the drama and eeriness of this story of vampirism. Perhaps the most famous scene is the ending, where the vampire simply dissolves in thin air when sunlight falls onto him.

However, the most outstanding use of visual effects in Nosferatu occurs towards the beginning of the film, when Count Orlok (Max Schreck), the vampire, drives Jonathan Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) to his castle. Murnau slightly changed the speed of the camera for these scenes, and the quick, jerky movement of the horses and the carriage looks sinister and unnatural. Also, one of the shots of the coach ride was printed on negative stock, making the branches of the trees look sharply ashen against a deep black sky. As an example of his cinematographical genius, Murnau changed Orlok’s costume and the drapery around the coach from their original black to white. With this alteration, the costume and the coach appear black in both the positive and negative shots. The result was an eerie image that appears surreal and subtly out of this world.

Yet as accomplished as Murnau’s vampire fable would be, a fellow filmmaker would deliver what many consider to be the ultimate expression of silent era special effects moviemaking. Through his work with a legendary Teutonic hero, and a sci-fi allegory with Biblical overtones, Fritz Lang pushed the limits of the medium, marrying F/X and narrative better than almost all of his contemporaries. It would be his work on these films, and the advent of a “practical application” of effect technology that would signal the final stage of the genre-defining phase of horror’s development.

* * *

Part III of this series will be: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and the Birth of Horror Movie Make-up.

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