Quatermass

Here’s the lecture I gave on The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957) during the British Horror Film course, for which I also dealt with Tod Slaughter and Scream and Scream Again (1970).

quatermass-xperiment

First an axiom: movies themselves interpret other movies fully as much as their respective audience members do. That is to say, films themselves participate in the process of determining what other films might mean, if they meant something. This becomes more or less clear depending on the degree to which a given film forces upon you the recognition that what you’re watching is in fact a movie that has itself seen other movies, some of which you, the present-day viewer, may or may not be familiar with. Now obviously such a forcing and such a recognition can be achieved in any number of ways, and it’s part of the function of our lectures to model for you a variety of approaches that you yourselves can make use of in putting this recognition of intertextuality or of allusiveness to work both in your own essays for this course and in your own thinking about the encounters you have outside the classroom and off campus with other visual texts, of which no doubt your daily lives are filled to overflowing.

There’s a particular urgency in confronting this issue of genre interpretation head-on because as of last week we are now in that part of the course in which issues of seriality are starting to exert pressures and demands on our attentions. That is to say, with the two Quatermass films last week and the first two Hammer Frankenstein films tonight and the first of the Hammer Dracula films next Tuesday night, we ought to be increasingly sensitized to the ways in which seriality constitutes as much an exercise in interpretation as it does in repetition. Another way of putting this would be to say that if you’ve been harboring doubts as to the utility of your undertaking something like genre analysis, then the various and supernumerary sequels to The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and Dracula (1958) unavoidably confront you with the necessity of accepting and working through the fact that movies have seen, see, and will have always seen other movies. At the very least, you have to concede that Quatermass 2 (1957) has gotten around to seeing The Quatermass Xperiment; you have to admit that The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) must have watched The Curse of Frankenstein at some point; and you cannot help but cop to the fact that Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) has spent some time viewing Dracula just as Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) has in its turn certainly watched Dracula: Prince of Darkness, otherwise the titular significance of Dracula’s having risen from the grave becomes opaque (How did Dracula get in the grave, after all, if Dracula: Prince of Darkness didn’t end by putting him there? we might otherwise be forced to ask).

For next Tuesday you’re being asked to read Sven Lütticken’s essay, “The Planet of the Remakes,” which very cogently (if nevertheless contentiously) lays out both the impasses and possibilities that get opened up by this Hollywood-enthralled cultural logic of repetition and difference, so I don’t want to anticipate too much of what you’re going to read there. What I am about to say about these two Quatermass films is in the interest of laying the groundwork for issues and concerns that we’re all going to start talking about together in earnest these next few weeks. Therefore, rather than try to have your wrap your heads around a bold speculative claim or two regarding these films, I want instead to do something a bit simpler but no less important, which is to say I want to slow things down and do something like a comparative analysis of the first two Quatermass movies. That is to say, I want us to close read what The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2 mean in light of their differences from and similarities to each other, and I want to try to do this by just examining the respective ways they begin, for it is in their openings that these two films perhaps most affectedly overlap in ways that perhaps prove more generative than you might otherwise have expected.

Let’s start with The Quatermass Xperiment and, in particular, with a scene that you’re all probably sick to death of by now, but you’re going to have to tough it out at least one more time. Here goes:

[PAUSE AT KISS] You’ll have noticed (either now or previously) that the diegetic noise of Quatermass’ falling rocket doesn’t kick in until this roll in the hay starts to become a real roll in the hay. The idiotic and mutual laughing fits of these two game rustic mates in the film’s first three shots start to take on all the quasi-ethnographic force of a bucolic mating ritual, in which the game or the task at hand is to see how much each partner can get away with and for how long (note that the laughing young woman lets the laughing young man stop her at the fence and then lets him start to move in for an embrace before she leads him on a hysterically abbreviated chase into the haystack, putting that embrace into brief parenthesis until she lets the young man push her into the hay).

This has the effect of making sex (or simply just its prospect) subject to a negotiatable set of scripted behaviors or comportments. That is to say, getting someone to be willing to roll around in the hay with you isn’t something you need verbal language to accomplish, or at least that’s what the opening shots of the film suggest; instead, all you need is someone who’s up for laughing when you laugh, for running when you run, and for falling in a haystack when you fall in a haystack.

So until the sound of the rocket intrudes upon their lives and on the film itself, the young rustic couple looks an awful lot like Victor Carroon, insofar as the pair up to this point share (even revel) in the sort of pantomime-performance that goes a long way into the making up of Carroon’s harried existence in this film. Reduced to a set of groans and grunts, shambling lurches and slime-trailing crawls, Carroon fitfully subsists throughout The Quatermass Xperiment by ostentatiously expressing himself through his non-verbal behavior, even though that behavior doesn’t seem to be conveying much to anyone else—it is as if Carroon never quite manages to escape the silent movie that Quatermass develops and then watches of the events that unfolded on the rocket in space after it lost touch with the ground crew on Earth.

Unlike the courting couple, therefore, Carroon’s pantomime performance doesn’t appear to be subject to the norms of communicative action or behavior that seem to be at work in the opening scene up to this point, and in fact the absence of such norms makes him the victim of the explanations and projects of all sorts of people who mean him no good and who all ultimately leave unexplained just what it is Carroon wants and just what it is he is becoming exactly. Into this silent world of seduction, however, Quatermass’ rocket (with the suffering Carroon in it) descends, abruptly cutting off the pantomime and brusquely inserting our courting couple back into a world where verbal language and speedy communication prove exigent, especially when something unknown threatens to impale you and your partner in the haystack in which you happen to be rolling around. [RESUME CLIP]

[PAUSE AT TRACKING SHOT] Here we have a pretty interesting instance of repetition, insofar as the amorous courtship chase into the haystack gets repeated here as a frightened flight away from the haystack and toward the distant farmhouse. The camera even repeats an earlier set of movements that it used in the haystack chase. In the third shot of the film, you’ll remember that the camera followed the young lovers in a pan shot that focused on the young man first before the camera started to track in pursuit of both the man and the woman as they landed into the haystack in the midst of one of their giggling fits. In the fearful chase, the camera again reproduces a pan shot, but this time the pan starts by following Maggie before the young man begins to catch up with her, at which point the camera again starts to track in pursuit of both the fleeing lovers.

There’s probably a lot to be said about this doubling of pans and tracking shots, but all I want to point out here is that heteronormative courtship and mortal fright are made to look an awful lot like each other here, at least in terms of how the film is representing those two things for you. Another way to put this would be to say that The Quatermass Xperiment is already interpreting itself for its viewers, insofar as these two strikingly similar shots show that the film is itself interested in something like recursive or self-referential development. Alternatively, if you don’t buy this recursive reading because it treats these scenes in too-abstract a fashion, then you could productively note instead that there is something very Victor Carroon-like in the film’s repetitious deployment of pans and tracking shots in these opening scenes. The film here seems to be reproducing out of itself that which it happens to come across. Extrapolating from this observation a bit more, we could note further that a reading like this would probably see in the film’s use of cinematic devices the formal expression of particular bits of its monstrous content. These early doppelgänger shots appear to preemptively translate Carroon’s cactus hand and his octopoidally undulating mess of a body at the end of the film into the structure of the film itself from the very beginning. [RESUME CLIP]

[PAUSE AT FATHER] Quick question:  how long do you suppose that man has been watching Maggie and her suitor out there in the field? [RESUME CLIP]

[PAUSE AT COLLAPSED ROOF] As was pointed out Thursday, Quatermass’ rocket not only interrupts a romantic encounter in a field but also lays waste to hearth and home as well, which would have had all sorts of obvious (if nevertheless still potent for all that) resonances for British post-war audiences who had either experienced the Blitz or (in the ten years since the end of the war) become accustomed to seeing all sorts of representations of it in British cinema and on the telly. The strange thing here is that German planes and V-2 rockets tended to target more militaristic locations (like RAF airfields, airplane factories, and sites essential to ground infrastructure) as well as more urban settings (like London), a point that the 1953 BBC series version of The Quatermass Experiment more obviously picked up on because in that series the rocket is shown to have crash-landed into a tenement flat in Wimbledon, London, and not a field somewhere in rural England. In this view, then, Quatermass’ supposedly failed rocket experiment looks more like a successful extension into the British countryside of the Nazis’ terror rocket attacks. The symbolic resonance of Quatermass’ failed rocket experiment, therefore, makes him look a lot like Wernher Von Braun, chief rocket engineer to the Nazis and (after the war) to NASA in the United States (so this linkage is far from spurious). To repeat another of Marsh’s observations on Thursday, sixty seconds into The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass already looks an awful lot like one of those science fiction film allies who also happens to be an aggressive dominator. [RESUME CLIP]

[PAUSE AT DOOR] It’s worth noting that this is probably the first and last time in the movie that a Brit is going to feel capable enough to try and face-off alone against the threat that Quatermass either poses or makes possible. That is to say, the fantasy that all you need in order to successfully master the danger presented by whatever it is that landed in your field is a shotgun and a working phone gets blown up pretty quickly. Take a look: [RESUME AND CONCLUDE CLIP]

We finally get the reverse shot here that we perhaps rightfully expected a good deal earlier in the haystack scene when the two rustic mates began pointing fearfully at the thing coming out of the sky. Instead, of getting the expected reverse shot then, however, we’ve had to wait until the rocket has firmly rooted itself in the earth before the film gives us what we’ve waited to see all along, though what we get here is perhaps a good deal more obscene, phallic, and pronged than anything we might have foreseen or envisioned.

The punctual explosions accompanying this big reveal mark the climax of the film’s opening and should cause us to pause for a moment and consider the degrees to which much of what happens from here on out simply repeats the narrative of this opening. That is to say, in these opening scenes, Quatermass quite literally interrupts the prospects of the sort of activity that can lead to human reproduction. As we well know from how the rest of the movie plays out, Quatermass never quite gives up this role of interrupter either. Instead, he seems hell-bent on convincing everyone throughout the movie that the real danger posed by Victor Carroon is that of Carroon’s dangerous self-reproductive efficiency and abilities (abilities that I have linked to the formal structure of the film’s opening scene above, you’ll remember). In this view, then, the climax of The Quatermass Xperiment would appear to repeat the climax of its opening scenes, insofar as what Quatermass thinks he is doing at Westminster Abbey is violently interrupting a scene of reproduction (or, more exactly put, of its prospect), which is something we have already seen him doing (albeit inadvertently and from a much greater distance) in the opening part of the movie. At the very least, the tacit linkages I rehearsed earlier regarding the pantomiming lovers and the pantomiming Carroon seem to be borne out by these overlaps between beginning and ending. Moreover, Quatermass’ dictatorial refusal to allow Judith to visit Carroon in the hospital also starts to resonate with all this, we might be tempted to notice as well.

Keeping all of this in mind, let’s turn to the first shots of Quatermass 2, which eschew opening credits in order to dive right into the action, which ought to come down to you now in a haze of familiarity.

[PAUSE AT “The burn—we’ll get it fixed”] When you first watched this scene last Tuesday night, you might have wondered what Judith and Victor Carroon were doing in the sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment. At the very least, these shots of a woman driving her silent, brooding, and (as we find out later) alien-possessed lover (Chris) away from a threat somewhere behind them carry a resonance we can’t really ignore. In other words, Quatermass 2 shows from the very beginning that it is going to pick up on the sex and relationship stuff that was so recursively developed in the first Quatermass film.

Moreover, this continuation of concerns from the earlier film does not seem to consist of the cynical recycling of content but rather of the reworking of that content. Stuff that was a problem in the first film remains a problem in this film but (and this is the key point) without remaining a problem in the same way necessarily. The second Quatermass is not caught up in a Walter Craig-like nightmare of eternal return because (unlike Dead of Night [1945]) the same stuff returns but in a different set of relationships, associations, and combinations. That is to say, something like history or change is intervening here, and the opening of Quatermass 2 represents this for us in a particularly nifty way because instead of having our game rustic mates and/or Judith and Victor Carroon running way from that which Quatermass has wrought, Quatermass 2 gives them the chance to do to Quatermass what Quatermass seemed hell-bent on doing to them in the first film. [RESUME CLIP]

[PAUSE AFTER NEAR MISS] Instead of nearly getting impaled by Quatermass’ rocket, our fleeing lovers nearly t-bone Quatermass’ car. [RESUME CLIP]

[PAUSE AT “They burned him, mister”] In many respects, a lot of what’s happening here is by its very nature simply just an efficiently paced example of up-front exposition, of an info-dump meant to bring you, the audience, up to speed without too much fuss or time wasted. Interestingly, however, this is an info-dump that immediately puts Quatermass in a position to which he is not accustomed, at least not based on our viewing of his actions in The Quatermass Xperiment, for in that film it is in fact he who imperiously hurls speculative exposition like bricks at other characters, not the other way round. Not only do the young picnicking lovers get a chance to (almost) run over Quatermass, but also they get to put him in a position to which he is not much used to, which is quite simply that of us, the audience members, who badly need to be brought up to speed and quickly.

Alternatively, we could note that if Quatermass got to ride roughshod over the local authorities in the field at the beginning of The Quatermass Xperiment because he was the authority figure most responsible for that rocket being firmly rooted there, then here he has to play the role of just another civilian interrogatively gawking at the fall-out from someone (or, rather, something) else’s rocket launch. Leaping ahead from here to later sections of the film, we realize that technocratic authority and the implacable impersonality of those holding such positions of authority remains very much a problem in Quatermass 2, but it’s no longer a problem that Quatermass symbolizes or is symptomatic of all on his lonesome. The problems that come with the expression of such technocratic control over civilian populations have become vertically integrated and thoroughly bureaucratized to such a degree that all this cult of personality stuff surrounding Quatermass’ bad behavior starts to look so downright quaint that we might start to nostalgically long for its return in light of the impasses thrown up by the structural nature of the enemy authority in Quatermass 2.

That is to say, how do you successfully overcome a life-threatening encounter with alien life-forms when those very same alien-forms have infiltrated and are in fact in command of the institutions of your recently socialized country? (To be sure, the solution thrown up by the film’s narrative seems to be simply that of nuking the aliens’ Quatermass, who is presumably up there in the alien spaceship on the dark side of the earth, but the problem—which again is a structural one—doesn’t go away for all that because removing the head of a bureaucracy doesn’t make that bureaucracy go away.) I would also note in passing here that if the crux of the matter in The Quatermass Xperiment seemed to be sexual reproduction, here in Quatermass 2 the problems seem to be circumscribed more fully by the problems of mass production—that is to say, with a change in the figure of technocratic authority, we get a correlative change in the object whose significance characters will spend most of the movie struggling to specify the meaning of.

Obviously, there is more to be said on this point, but I will leave it for the Q&A for us to get back round to saying what that more is or what it might be said to consist of. For now, let it suffice for us to notice that immediately (and without Quatermass having to tell us about the talking down he got in London following a recent rocket launch that turned into a nuclear explosion) Quatermass 2 gives us a Quatermass who is no longer occupying the position of authority. As always, he’s put out by the behavior of those around him (and as always, he reveals himself to be something of an unreconstructed misogynist—“Go organize me some coffee”), but as this opening encounter demonstrates those around him can no longer be said to be under him or entirely under his control, which is something that the woman here very tacitly (if nevertheless categorically) demonstrates in her refusal to accept Quatermass’ offer of a ride, as if she always already knew that he means bad news to young courting couples and (in particular) to young women ever and always. [RESUME AND CONCLUDE CLIP]

I want to wrap things up by comparing this final pan up to the seemingly empty night sky to the reverse shot of the downed rocket in The Quatermass Xperiment because ostensibly both shots give us the apparent cause of all the fuss that happens at the beginning of each film. If in The Quatermass Xperiment, this cause is flamboyantly visible (and few things in this series are as flamboyant as that there steaming rocket), then in Quatermass 2 the cause with which we are presented in this final pan upward is a good deal more subtle for it is presented to us between the lines as it were. In fact, we could be forgiven for not thinking to look for a cause in this final pan because what it shows us doesn’t seem to be very much at all. In other words, the hypervisibility of Quatermass’ rocket gets responded to in this sequel with the invisible shot of the aliens’ spacecraft, which is presumably somewhere up there above the dark side of the earth, making it a perhaps not unfitting emblem or symbol for the film’s “real” threat, which seems to be that of the faceless violence perpetrated against putatively helpless civilian populations by the bureaucratic institutions of a recently socialized state.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the staggered, wavy overlay of the film’s title-card (Quatermass 2) onto this image of the unseen malevolent alien force somewhere up there in the night sky ought perhaps to have us laughing like the lovers at the beginning of The Quatermass Xperiment because the filling of that alien absence with Quatermass’ name and with that sequential numeral is perhaps meant to console us (if only momentarily) with the proposition that this film is just going to give British audiences another dose of ugly Americanism.

If only it were that simple.

Scream and Scream Again, or, Mabuse Ain’t What He Used to Be

Here’s another lengthy set of remarks culled from lectures I gave for the British Horror Film course from a few years ago. This time the subject isn’t Tod Slaughter but Scream and Scream Again (1970), a peculiar film that brings together a disparate set of genres, tones, and narratives, few of which cohere with each other, though the result is nonetheless a pretty compelling and (at times) remarkably boring horror movie, which is no mean feat.

Scream

As those of you who stuck around last Tuesday night already well know, the film we’re going to be talking about this week, Scream and Scream Again, poses a number of challenges to interpretation that speak to some of the things I allusively tried to prepare the grounds for during my position statement last week right before the Thanksgiving holidays. For starters, there’s the fact that the film is a generic mess, a shambling assemblage of discordant moves and archetypes, a distractingly clumsy mash-up of conspiracy thriller paranoia, by-the-book police procedural forms, Swinging London iconography (“I love you, man!”), parodically outsized (and presumably Cold War-instigated) totalitarian fantasy projections supposedly giving us a peek behind the Iron Curtain (though that reading gets quickly enough troubled and undone once you start to apply a little pressure to it), and (finally) horror-ish signifiers (a vampire serial killer, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee, oh my!). The obvious (but no less essential) thing to note about Scream and Scream Again’s unseemly clutter and general untidiness is the degree to which the film’s unruliness seems to be related to the threat the movie does not so much contain as it open-endedly represents and (dare I say it) embodies. That is to say, Scream and Scream Again is as much a composite as are the living dead superhumans being designed by Dr. Browning with his applicator and his fabricator. The film, in short, is a beefed-up, amped-up, sped-up assortment of distinctive parts that all seem to be governed by a design that is not itself reducible to the functions and expectations normally attached to those parts, at least not when they show up in a British horror film from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In this respect, therefore, it’s perhaps helpful to keep in mind that Dr. Browning’s revelations at the end of the film don’t really tell us anything that would help us to make sense of what it is we just saw. For instance, to take the most obvious (but no less important) example: nothing Browning says satisfactorily explains why Keith is a vampiric serial killer instead of just another normal run-of-the-mill serial killer, like the real-life (if not quite contemporaneous) Yorkshire Ripper who terrorized England and killed thirteen women between 1975 and 1980. In fact, Keith’s activities and the police effort to catch him are evidently such a consequential sub-plot or composite element in the film that Keith’s protracted chase and death scene gets fifteen minutes of screen-time in a ninety-five minute film, meaning that Keith’s failed escape and his successful suicide take up almost twenty percent of the film itself. Yet despite this conspicuous focus on Keith’s clumsy escape attempts and his acid-bath death, all Browning has to say about him is that Keith was his first composite with “autonomously functioning brain patterns,” but that does little to help you understand or account for in a tidy sort of way why Keith’s “autonomously functioning brain patterns” lead him to rape, brutalize, and drain the blood of young women out on the town for a shag. In short, much like Keith, the film itself is much in need of our interpretive efforts because the explanations and motivations with which Dr. Browning very elaborately regales Dr. Sorel at the end of the film very noticeably leave a lot of stuff explained, not only with respect to the narrative itself but also to the world that that film attempts to build up in its ample (and disorienting) use of match-cuts as it moves from story-to-story, from genre-to-genre, and from zone-to-zone.

Allied to the composite-style of which Scream and Scream Again is cussedly comprised, a remarkable lack of piety toward this thing called “The British Horror Film” also seems to get strikingly demonstrated again and again throughout the movie. Another way of saying this would be to note that what the film presents us with is decidedly not the “English gothic tradition” so stridently singled out and generously described by David Pirie in his book-length study of British Horror. To be sure, we do indeed find a vampire amidst all the stitched-together pop culture detritus of the film, but this isn’t a Hammer (or even a Universal) vampire. Far from being the stuff of Byronic anti-hero legend that Pirie reliably sees instantiated with varying degrees of approximating success in Hammer’s long run of Dracula flicks, Keith, the vampire serial killer in Scream and Scream Again, does not seem to embody familiar British gothic archetypes so much as he does a set of evacuated preconceptions that neither he nor the film makes much effort to thereafter fill in or flesh out for us. That is to say, sure, Keith’s a vampire, but the film doesn’t really give us the sorts of vampire business (like close-ups of the bite marks) to which we’ve grown accustomed by the Hammer house style, nor do we ever get to see Keith baring his canines as he moves in for a gulp from the jugular. Similarly, the rationale for Keith’s bloodlust is so non-existent that evidently it doesn’t even rate a quasi-logical cover story. Nothing Dr. Browning says suggests that Keith’s vampirism is a necessary supplement to his living dead superhuman-ness. We have no reason to suspect that Keith needs blood to stay alive, meaning that we’re thrown back on trying to interpret this wildly inconsistent movie in terms of the elusive motivations of its wildly inconsistent characters, who seem to have overdeveloped fantasy lives, of which the film does not make always let us partake or catch more than a glimpse.  Unlike a lot of the other films we’ve been watching this quarter, it would perhaps be fair to say that Scream and Scream Again doesn’t much care about putting together a coherent cover story for us, nor does it seem to think that this is a problem. Instead, its incoherent cover story simply is the case, like it or lump it.

While I do not want us to ever lose sight of this incoherence or of this doubled inconsistency at the level of the film itself and of the motivations of the film’s characters themselves, I do nevertheless want to make a start here today of addressing these confusing and maybe even nonsensical features of the text by way of a long detour into figures and national film traditions that have not yet come into our view this quarter in the British horror films we’ve watched up to this point. The reasons for this detour are easily enough justified because you all ought to know up-front that I understand Scream and Scream Again’s symbolic investments and pieties as being not at all reducible to the British film-making milieu, industrial arrangements, and reservoir of citational material with which you’ve all grown quite adept at recognizing, analyzing, and making use of in novel ways these past eight or so weeks. Instead, the argument I’m making today would have you all believe that Scream and Scream Again evocatively scrambles the tools you all have been working with because its main intertextual points of reference exist across a range of times and national spaces that seem to have little to do with Pirie’s much-vaunted “English gothic tradition.” At the risk of speaking schematically, I think we can reduce these points of references to at least two orders, which I will list for you now and then spend a good chunk of today’s lecture detailing at greater length.

Our first point of reference (and the one I am going to spend almost all of today’s lecture talking about) comes from German popular cinema from the 1920s to the 1960s (in other words, from Weimar Germany through Nazi Germany and out the other side in a Cold War-set Western German milieu), and this point of reference goes by the name of Dr. Mabuse, the great criminal mastermind, anti-hero, and supposedly allegorical embodiment of all that went wrong with German history following World War I. Our second point of reference is more concisely expressed and comes from a near future that was just becoming discernible at the time Scream and Scream Again was in production, and this point of reference goes by the name of the conspiracy film, perhaps the American film genre par excellence in the 1970s.

Let me go back to my first point because it needs a bit more unpacking. If I had time today, I would build up another German point of reference, one that comes from West German popular cinema, but from a later period that roughly overlaps with the years of Hammer’s rise and fall (roughly speaking, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s), and this point of reference goes by the name of Kriminalfilms (Krimis for short), which more generally means crime films but in this period tended to refer principally to German-language adaptations of the pulpy crime novels of an early twentieth-century British writer (Edgar Wallace) by a Danish and German film studio called Rialto Pictures. Because I don’t have the time to develop linkages between Scream and Scream Again and these comic-book-like and downright goofy Krimis (parenthetically, I would note for you all that the best imaginative approximation of these films for those of you who haven’t seen them is to think about a Sean Connery James Bond film shot like an hour-and-a-half-long Scooby-Doo cartoon episode, complete with endings in which the killer gets unmasked by the snoopy Scotland Yard investigators, and you’ll be damn awful close to any given Krimi), I’ll very briefly describe them to you and why they might be worth your time.

These films are fascinating intertexts for a course like this because Rialto’s Edgar Wallace Krimis are pretty much West Germany’s answer to Hammer Horror. That is to say, if there’s a popular cultural property of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s instantly recognizable as “West German,” it’s these Krimis, and they’re pretty neat intertexts with Hammer horror when you start to think about them together. For starters, if most of the canonical Hammer films are set in a Hammerland that’s supposed to be the Europe or Eastern Europe of the nineteenth century or earlier, then these Edgar Wallace Krimis are also all set in a place we can take to calling Krimiland, which is supposed to be a mid-twentieth-century West German’s pop imaginary representation of mid-twentieth-century London, where evil secret organizations (often led by men and women who wear strange masks and colorful disguises) face off against the good secret organization called Scotland Yard. A lot of jokes at the expense of the Brit’s stiff upper lip are made, huge quantities of poisoned tea get consumed, remnants of a decaying aristocratic class get unmasked for the decadent wastrels that they are, and the bourgeois-fied members of this remaindered landed gentry end up winning the vast inheritance and marrying the dashing Scotland Yard investigator. I would also note for you all that though these films always show Scotland Yard coming out on top, along the way the Yard’s detectives let a lot of people die, either through incompetence or boneheaded negligence.

There’s a lot more to be said here, but the thing to hold onto here is the sort of supranational work that is being done in Hammer films and in these Krimis in order to make more imaginable or thinkable something like an integrated and integral Europe. Think of both as pop culture anticipations of the European Union from the Cold War period. Although I’m not going to be able to talk about these West German Edgar Wallace adaptations in any sort of detail, I would like to give you a taste so you have a sense of what it is we’re dealing with here. Here’s a clip from The Monk with the Whip (1967), in which a boarding school headmistress, done up in a lurid blood-red monk outfit, terrorizes the teaching staff and student body of her all-girl school somewhere in the countryside just outside of London. Here are the opening four minutes of the film:

I don’t have the time to go into any sort of detailed analysis here, but let it suffice for me to point out to you that if we start in a British horror film—that is to say, if we start in a lurid Eastmancolorized mad scientist film—then by the end of the credit sequence we’re pretty securely situated in Krimiland, replete with a Scooby-Doo villain whose dramatic entrance is scored with an organ music cue that segues quite jarringly into the poppier jangle of late 1960s Euro-jazz that’s such an integral part of this film and of Scream and Scream Again. Compare this opening credit sequence, with the red monk figure approaching the camera as the credit rolls, with the opening of Scream and Scream Again, where our unfortunately disoriented man approaches the camera as the credits splay out over him and as the Euro-jazz pap plays:

If I had more time today, I would stress the importance of Scream and Scream Again’s credit sequences as the place where the film starts cueing viewers for a perceptual experience in which Krimis—and not Hammer or its British knock-offs—are the film-watching and -making models to be followed. As I don’t have time to do this, however, I’ll let that claim loom over us for a bit as I move on.

In a nutshell, what we have here is a complex weave of styles, figures, tropes, narratives, filmmaking traditions, national cultural properties, and temporalities informing the intertextual network that Scream and Scream Again establishes, which is a roundabout way of saying that all the problems presented by Dr. Browning’s composites remain with us still. Saying that these film traditions or figures or genres or modes are the principal ones being evoked by Scream and Scream Again does not make the untidy hash of things described by the ill-fitting assemblages in that film’s narrative, style, or characters go away. What starts as a mess, in other words, is going to stay a mess, but at least now we have a bigger mess to work with and select from in interpreting the film. I ought also to fess up at this point and tell you all that the mess is going to stay a mess throughout this lecture, which is to say that I am not leading you all down a path at the end of which stands a perfectly coherent and singularly reconstituted Scream and Scream Again. Instead, at 3:45 we’re still going to be stuck with a countless number of composites (composite narratives, composite styles, composite intertexts, composite histories, composite national cultures, etc.), and if there’s any goal I have in view for my commentary today, then that goal is that we all will have a better sense of how to coherently talk about the incoherence of Scream and Scream Again’s compositeness. Another way of putting this would be to say that while I am trying to do justice to the film’s compositeness, I am not at all going to be faithful to its incoherence.

The other preliminary thing that I ought to signpost for you all a bit more forthrightly has to do with this issue of the Britishness of the British horror film. For starters, for those of you thinking about writing about Scream and Scream Again for your final paper, I would strongly encourage you to re-read the material written by Andrew Higson in the course reader on the idea of national cinema. I really don’t have the time to belabor this point (though it is a point well worth belaboring), but I do want to gesture toward the Higson chapters in order to pose the following question, and I want all of you to mull over this question as you continue thinking about Scream and Scream Again this week: if we start from Higson’s cultural valence of the concept of national cinema—that is to say, if we assume that the concept of national cinema in the case of Scream and Scream Again is preeminently a cultural notion as opposed to an economic one—then what sort of mass identity is being affirmed in a “British” film where the primary cultural traditions being negotiated are non-indigenous so long as we approach the “British Horror Film” in terms of its “Britishness”? In a nutshell, what’s so British about Scream and Scream Again? Alternatively, just how German is it?

The tentative answer I am offering today would have you all believe that Scream and Scream Again ruptures the sorts of national frameworks that this course has provisionally put around the films it has shown you up until now because the indigenous and shared cultural traditions that this film imagines (and would have you imagine along with it) derive from a continent-wide reservoir of cultural properties that traverse a supranational unit, like that of the European Coal and Steel Community or the European Economic Community or (finally) the European Union. In short, I want you all to start thinking about the necessity of approaching this film in terms of a broader European film culture and horror film tradition because my readings today and my hunches today all express in one way or another a principled dissatisfaction with the capacity of certain jealously guarded and nationally demarcated film concepts and tools to adequately open up Scream and Scream Again to adequate interpretation.

This has been a long, roundabout way of saying that there is more than one way to study British horror movies, and the purpose of my comments in this our final week is simply to shake things up a bit and get you all to start thinking about British horror films not so much in terms of “indigenous” film traditions but rather in terms of pan-European cultural interchanges, exchanges, and product differentiation. For instance, a useful sort of question to ask in this vein would be the following: what do the Hammer Dracula movies look like after we take into account Italian vampire films from the 1950s, Spanish vampire films from the late 1960s, and French vampire films from the 1970s? Alternatively (and more interestingly perhaps), I can’t help but notice that it would be very instructive to juxtapose Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein movies with the principal contemporary horror icons from other European countries, like the figure of the witch in Italy or the wolfman in Spain or lesbian vampires in France or Dr. Mabuse in West Germany. In short, what happens when we replace Great Britain with the figmentary (but no less powerful) idea of a unified Europe as our referent for these “British” horror films? With those questions asked and those observations expressed, we can begin to talk about the Scream and Scream Again by way of that shadowy criminal mastermind, expert hypnotist, and counterfeit artist, Dr. Mabuse, arguably the most popular anti-hero of German popular cinema and the subject of twelve official Mabuse films made over the course of seventy years.

For most contemporary non-German film-viewers, however, the name “Dr. Mabuse” conjures up visions of an auteur because the film-maker most commonly associated with Dr. Mabuse is Fritz Lang, who directed and co-wrote the first three Dr. Mabuse flicks:  Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), and The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). Following The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Artur Brauner, the producer who owned the rights to Dr. Mabuse in the post-war period, began cranking out campy remakes and sequels to the original Mabuse trilogy, and these serially-produced sequels and remakes borrowed a good deal both from 1960s spy films and from the Krimis being churned out by Rialto films in West Germany at the same time as well, but I’ll bracket that connection for the now and focus instead on the three Lang Mabuse films.

All you need to know about the first three Mabuse movies is that they all involve an “evil” mastermind who threatens the existing social order with his well-coordinated criminal organization, whose unparalleled efficacy at carrying out its anti-social misdeeds often seems to make existing society its uncanny double. That is to say, these films reliably tend to suggest that the institutions and fidelities of a Mabuse-led or a Mabuse-inspired criminal underworld would make the world run more smoothly because they actually accomplish what they set out to do, unlike existing police forces, market economies, and national governments, which all stumble, falter, and outright fail with far too much regularity to be of much service or help to the billions of people they manage, govern, and police worldwide. Alternatively, Mabuse’s criminal underworld, particularly in the first Mabuse film, tends to get read allegorically quite literally as an “image of the times” such that Mabuse’s criminal activities are meant to be interpreted as thinly-veiled representations of supposedly more socially acceptable crimes, like speculative finance in the time of currency inflation in early 1920s Weimar Germany or increasingly invasive surveillance technologies in the Cold War-era. In short, the boilerplate or commonplace critical assumption regarding the Lang Mabuse trilogy is that they present us with three “images of the times” that are all certainly different but that all nevertheless share a conspiratorial world-outlook that becomes increasingly harder and harder to localize in the figure of Dr. Mabuse himself as the twentieth century unfolds. Mabuse, after all, goes mad at the end of Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, and then dies halfway through The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The criminal organization that carries out its terroristic campaign in early 1930s Germany does so using the notes written by Dr. Mabuse in his insane asylum, and in The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, “Mabuse” is simply a name adopted by a new criminal mastermind who follows Mabuse’s Weimar- and Nazi-era example. In other words, Mabuse is not really Mabuse by the early 1960s. What we have here, then, is the evacuation of Mabuse as a person and its re-inscription (by way of Mabuse’s notes, his last will and testament) into a subject-position that anyone else (or, alternatively, that any number of people) can fill should they aspire to become criminal masterminds who are also images or symptoms or allegories of their times. In short, what we find in the Lang Mabuse films is an overarching narrative in which the name, “Dr. Mabuse,” becomes more and more abstract and less and less personalized such that anyone could be a Dr. Mabuse in potential.

I would further add that we know that Scream and Scream Again ought to be preliminarily approached as an unofficial Mabuse film because the West German distributors somewhat cynically re-titled the movie The Living Corpses of Dr. Mabuse and re-dubbed the movie so that Vincent Price’s Dr. Browning underwent a name change to Dr. Mabuse. In other words, film distributors in Germany saw a way of cashing in on the renewal of the 1960s Dr. Mabuse craze by introducing minimal differences into a British and American-financed film whose paranoid and totalizing outlook onto a Cold War world system seemed to already make that film legible as a Mabuse movie to West German nationals in the first place. In other words, Scream and Scream Again’s updated conspiracy narrative with self-destructive and singular anti-heroes behind it all seemed to jive with the sorts of cultural preconceptions and expectations raised by the Dr. Mabuse figure himself in the mid-to-late 1960s. Compare, in this respect, the rationale behind the Mabuse-conspiracy given by Dr. Baum in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse with the account given of the Mabuse-like conspiracy by Dr. Browning in Scream and Scream Again. In this first clip from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, we have Dr. Baum describing the genius of his patient, Dr. Mabuse, to police inspector Lohmann as they stand over the body of Dr. Mabuse himself. Take a look:

Now compare this to a similar scene at the end of Scream and Scream Again:

There’s obviously a lot to be said about these two scenes and their relationship to each other, but for our purposes today I want to focus on two things. For starters, the scene from Scream and Scream Again seems to pointedly revalue Dr. Baum’s description of Dr. Mabuse, such that the sorts of things Dr. Baum celebrates Dr. Browning disparages, and the sorts of things Dr. Baum disparages Dr. Browning celebrates. For instance, the godlessness of the Weimer Republic in the early 1930s seems to be an occasion for welcoming the terror and horror that Dr. Mabuse’s singularly “phenomenal, superhuman mind” instigates in his last will and testament’s call for an anarcho-fascist campaign of terrorism targeting all levels of society: finance, energy production, heavy industries, transportation, etc. are all ripe for destruction so that humankind can be purified of and by its own propensity for violence, self-destruction, and mass extermination. There’s a sort of homeopathic quality to Mabuse’s testament in this film, such that the acts of terrorism that his written words impeccably put into action after his death are simply amplifications of the daily acts of terrorism (like mass unemployment) that already confront Germans in the interwar period but that are more or less countenanced because they are accepted as being part and parcel of modernity. In other words, terror and horror already exist as a baseline of social experience in Weimar Germany, but their presence has been obscured precisely because they are such a commonplace feature of modern human life, and what Mabuse calls for (according to Dr. Baum) is a series of criminal undertakings meant to apocalyptically unveil these baseline social experiences for the acts of quotidian terrorism they in fact are once and for all. All of Dr. Baum’s talk of a regrettable lack of justice or compassion is just a feint or a ruse, therefore, to cover up the real problem with Weimar Germany in the early 1930s, which is that it wasn’t frightening enough because its citizens were just too damned jaded to be scared by much anymore. Obviously, this is the point where the Mabuse-as-Hitler or Mabuse-as-proto-fascist readings have a field-day, and it certainly has a scary sort of force as a culture critique that does seem plausible on its face: by the early 1930s, this Mabuse-as-Hitler argument would have you believe, Germans were so jaded that even the rise of German National Socialism wasn’t enough to scare them back into their senses. I don’t know that that approach gets you much farther than these sorts of pithily aphoristic glosses, but you can’t deny them a certain force all the same.

Curiously, Dr. Browning’s big speech in Scream and Scream Again invokes such From Caligari to Hitler readings by its use of something like reverse discourse. That is to say, Dr. Browning tries to reclaim Dr. Baum’s speech by repurposing or revaluing the negative connotations attached to its terminology, both within Lang’s film itself and in the history of German National Socialism. Instead of presenting us with the “superhuman” in terms of wholesale destruction, terror, and horror, Dr. Browning makes the important qualification that while what he is describing to Dr. Sorel certainly looks an awful lot like a super-race, it really ought not to be understood as an evil super-race. This sort of revaluation can be seen throughout Dr. Browning’s speech (think for example of his celebration of the condition of our godlessness, which inverts Dr. Baum’s assertions in Lang’s film).

However, if Dr. Browning really is our Dr. Mabuse, then he’s a less obviously malevolent Mabuse-figure, for rather than taking humankind’s proclivity toward mass extinction as a mandate for speedily exterminating all human life, Dr. Browning interprets it instead as a call for greater and greater control of men and women by a super-race of scientists who (in twenty years time we’re told) will be ready “to act for the good of humanity,” though (as with much else in this movie) of what such acts will likely consist is left pointedly undisclosed. What gets stressed in its place (and what Dr. Sorel’s questions reliably point out) is the technocratically totalitarian nature of Dr. Browning’s post-sixties Mabuse-like plan, which is to say that it presupposes a caste of superhuman rulers and a caste of human subjects ruled by those superhuman rulers. Our latter-day version of Dr. Mabuse may be kinder, gentler, and look a whole hell of a lot more like Vincent Price than Fritz Lang’s Mabuse did, but the keynote here still remains one of the conspiratorial subjugation of the masses, by means of terror and horror in the earlier film and by means of a presumably genetically-modified biological dispensation in this one that is meant to look more like benevolent and competent caretaking than it does terroristic purification.

The other thing that ought to interest us about the connections between this scene and the one from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse has to do with Dr. Sorel’s initial reaction to Dr. Browning’s revelations: “So, you’ve created life. It’s the old mad scientist’s dream. Let’s play God.” What leaps out at me here is the explicit way in which this part of the exchange between Browning and Sorel negotiates the shifting cultural fields of reference at play throughout the scene. In other words, what interests me here is the way in which Dr. Sorel starts to interpret Dr. Browning’s speech in terms of a British horror film only to have Dr. Browning himself laugh off that interpretation in favor of the more plausible one: Browning sees Sorel’s Frankenstein and raises him . . . a Mabuse. Unlike Mabuse, Frankenstein, it will be remembered, was never much of a team player, and in the Hammer films he tends to sit uneasily either within, at the head of, or at the edges of institutional frameworks. Mabuse, on the other hand, as you all are discovering, is all about institutions, he’s all about massive vertically integrated criminal organizations at the top of which sits him and him alone. In short, Dr. Sorel’s failure to interpret the sort of horror movie that Dr. Browning and he are in corresponds with his failure to grasp more fully the newly totalizing dimension of the problem he now faces. If only things were as simple as they often are in a Frankenstein film, if only the problem were that of one head too many or one head too few, then maybe Dr. Sorel could throw together some sort of hasty solution that would satisfactorily patch things up until the sequel. After all, Frankenstein himself really is the individual most responsible for the problem with the surplus heads and bodies, it is he who is singularly responsible for all this cinematic over-generativity or surplus-productivity, so all you need to do is lop off his head, or maybe just wait until he and the film he is in gets bored with the mere fact of production, right? As I said earlier, however, Dr. Mabuse is a lot more slippery a figure, not least of all because he progressively evaporates as Lang’s three films proceed, and his subject-position increasingly becomes occupiable by any and all comers clever enough and bureaucratically-minded enough to put into play globe-encompassing conspiracies involving petty theft, blackmail, terrorism, speculative finance, explosive feats of engineering, and closed circuit television surveillance systems. Moreover, Scream and Scream Again presents us the frightening prospect in which humans as such do next to nothing. You’ll remember that the climactic fight involves three superhuman Mabuses facing off against each other while our two humans make their escape.

Parenthetically, I want to interrupt myself here in order to point out that the interesting thing about this confusing-Frankenstein-with-Mabuse business is that it also gets at an interesting feature of the formal composition of Scream and Scream Again, which has to do with its witty use of match cuts. You all will remember from Evan’s lecture on the Hammer Frankenstein films that match cuts in those films provide a model for assembly. Conversely, the Fritz Lang Mabuse movies tend to operate by the disorienting use of cross-cutting, whereby you are plopped down in one narrative only to be jerked abruptly from it and thrown into another narrative already in progress, meaning you’re constantly hard-at-work bringing yourself up to speed, trying to figure who’s who and what this story has to do with the other story you were just in. The neat thing about Scream and Scream Again is that it does both of these things: half the fun is trying to figure out where you are in a given plot and what that has to do with the other plots already presented, much like in a Mabuse film; the rest of the fun comes from the smart and silly editing tying these various plots together from scene-to-scene. Consider, in this respect, this strange (but typical) bit of cross- and match-cutting in Scream and Scream Again:

I don’t have the time to do justice to this feature of the film, though maybe Marsh or Evan will follow through on it come Thursday. For our purposes today, let it suffice to say that compositionally or formally, the film takes the composite-ness of a Hammer Frankenstein film stitched together with a Dr. Mabuse film very, very seriously and in ways that reach down much deeper than its surface loopiness might otherwise suggest. But I digress.

Before I build a bit more on this in terms of Mabuse and bureaucracies, I ought to briefly point out here a final thing, which is that it should be of interest to all of us that Mabuse gets confused with just another mad scientist in the first place. That is to say, it is not a mistake that Germany’s biggest horror icon gets mis-identified as one of Great Britain’s biggest horror icons in a film that actively seeks to negotiate the film traditions and cultural properties of these two nation-states. I would further note that the presence of Vincent Price here muddies things even more because what we effectively have here is a figure who’s part-Frankenstein, part-Mabuse, and part-Edgar-Allan-Poe-villain (if we take Price’s wildly successful run as the villains in AIP’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations of the early 1960s as the horror roles with which Price likely would have been most popularly associated at this time). In short, Price’s Dr. Browning certainly is a composite himself, not just in terms of the film’s plot but also in terms of the film’s use of horror iconography, which mashes together a giddy concoction of times, places, and figures that are not at all reducible to each other. There’s obviously a lot more to be said on this point, but I just don’t have the time to say it.

The next thing that we would want to note concerning Dr. Mabuse and Scream and Scream Again is that the sort of utopian fantasy that Dr. Mabuse names is that there is such a thing as a smoothly functioning bureaucracy. To put it more pithily, to believe in the threat that Dr. Mabuse poses is to believe that somewhere in the world there’s a bureaucracy that’s working—maybe not flawlessly, but more efficiently than any other bureaucratic structure ever yet realized in the history of mankind. It’s an entirely illegal and shadow bureaucracy meant to overthrow existing social structures and their attendant bureaucratic arrangements, to be sure, but that shadowy and shady bureaucracy of Mabuse’s is a bureaucracy all the same, which is to say that Dr. Mabuse (or rather the person occupying the Mabuse subject-position) spends a damn awful lot of time coordinating the efforts of his criminal underlings and lackeys, who for the most part follow through quite well in carrying out the Mabuse figure’s demands. Consider, in this respect, all the work that goes into carrying out a campaign of terrorism in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse:

Now compare this to another Mabuse-figure from Scream and Scream Again, Fremont, who seems to be a higher-up in the British government:

Two things are worth nothing here. For starters, I would argue that these two scenes (when coupled with the ending of the film) call into question the West German distributors decision to make Vincent Price’s Dr. Browning their Dr. Mabuse because a good deal of the pleasure in watching this film is the guessing game one has to play in order to figure out who is the “real” Mabuse, and a rather significant part of the wit of the film derives from its smart extrapolation from the Fritz Lang films, meaning that Scream and Scream Again takes seriously the possibility that there likely isn’t a Mabuse anymore but increasingly a planet (or at the very least a whole slew of governments) overrun with all sorts of men who would be Dr. Mabuse. Sven Lütticken’s “Planet of the Remakes” has already been remade into a planet of the Mabuses, as it were. That’s my first point.

My second point would be to note that Scream and Scream Again seems committed to removing the differences between the West and the East that Fremont discusses here in a shared bureaucratic solvent. That is to say, both of our Mabuses here, Fremont and Konrad, are quite adept at working their way up the organizational ladder given their seemingly very different social environments, with the result that all this Cold War business involving spy planes and captured pilots gets belied by the fact that at the end of the day what really unites East and West into a unified world system is the fact that there is a super-race of Mabuses likely at the head of both. Hence Fremont’s succinct reply to Dr. Sorel’s question at the end of the movie:

“Is it all over, sir?”

“It’s only just beginning.”

In short, the film seems to be saying there really is no Cold War because there is no systemic difference between East and West; both are recuperable under a totalizing and shared vision of a modernity-to-come marked by impeccably and technocratically managed societies belonging to the new race of suped-up Mabuses.

Another way of coming at this would be to say that being an anarcho-fascist committed to a campaign of mass terror and horror in Nazi Germany and being a group of genetically-modified technocrats committed to taking the reins of world power firmly in their collective hands takes a lot more organization effort to pull off than it does if you’re the Joker in the Gotham City of The Dark Knight (2008), where there’s obviously a pretty big organization behind the Joker’s terrorist acts, but we’re never shown the difficulties of keeping that organization in line. Instead, everything operates seamlessly, as if all the Joker has to do is will it and it is so. Against this vision of the seeming effortlessness of an anarchic overturning of Gotham City, we have in the Mabuse films and in Scream and Scream Again a counter-utopian vision of institutions that finally work. Fremont, it will be remembered, can’t even get the British government to make planes that self-destruct when they’re supposed to, which is precisely the sort of thing that Dr. Browning waxes misty-eyed over the passing of in his final speech to Dr. Sorel as he prospectively describes how the non-evil super-race will run things on ever more smoothly functioning institutional grounds: when the Mabuses of the world set a plane to self-destruct, presumably it will self-destruct and kill the pilot while it’s at it too. Similarly, it ought to be noted that despite the investigative efforts of Inspector Lohmann in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the explosion of a chemical plant and the spread of deadly gas from this explosion do in fact take place in that film. In other words, a terrible and very deadly terrorist attack is successfully carried out, and nothing Lohmann or a traitor from within Mabuse’s organization do ends up preventing this from taking place, which begs the question: Well, if Mabuse is such a criminal mastermind, then how does he end up getting his comeuppance?

The short answer is that Mabuse always does himself in, which is to say that there is an arbitrary self-destructive streak in Mabuse, which is a pretty unsettling prospect when you think about it. That is to say, the message of the first three Lang Mabuse films tends to be that you can’t do much to stop Mabuse—all you can do is wait and see how long it takes before he drives himself insane or he “accidentally” drives himself off a bridge. Here’s how Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler ends. While holed up in a secret hide-out where his counterfeit money operation is based, Mabuse gets visited by the ghosts of all the people he’s killed in the film and starts to go mad just as the police descend upon his hide-out:

And here’s how The Testament of Dr. Mabuse ends, with Dr. Baum, our surrogate Dr. Mabuse, going mad and checking himself into his own mental institution, where he sedulously begins tearing up not counterfeit money but rather the last will and testament of Dr. Mabuse himself:

And here’s how The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse ends: in a five-minute-long car chase that (much like the one in Scream and Scream Again) stands out both for its arbitrary length and for its arbitrary ending. That is to say, the very belated hailstorm of bullets that greet Mabuse on the bridge seem hardly to justify the over-zealous curlicues and over-corrective steering that leads to his car plummeting into the river. Take a look (it’s a longer clip, but that’s because it’s worth reflecting upon its relationship to the fifteen-minute chase scene involving Keith in Scream and Scream Again):

Now compare Mabuse’s death here to Keith’s in Scream and Scream Again:

If we take seriously this self-destructive streak in the Mabuse films and its continuation into Scream and Scream Again, then we’re now left with the problem posed by the ending, in which we have three Mabuses face off against each other, but not all three Mabuses die. If Mabuse is supposed to kill himself (like Keith faithfully did), then why do we end up with one more Mabuse than we need at the end of the film? The answer to my mind is simple provided we approach the matter of Mabuse’s self-destructive streak in the following terms: it takes a Mabuse to kill a Mabuse, and if you live in a world where there’s more than one Mabuse, then your film need not end with all the Mabuses dispatched to an early grave or an early trip to the insane asylum. That is to say, Scream and Scream Again very cleverly follows out the logic of Lang’s Mabuse trilogy into an ending that that trilogy cannot quite seem to imagine as a possibility, even though it is a conclusion that is entirely thinkable in the terms set up and described in those three films. If Mabuse’s self-destructive tendencies simply mean it takes a Mabuse to kill a Mabuse, then Scream and Scream Again’s Mabuses are easily as self-destructive as any to be found in Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, or The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.

What also interests me about this ending to Scream and Scream Again is the way in which it strangely overlays British horror iconography onto German horror iconography, particularly in Dr. Browning’s death scene, which I very much believe is an uncanny composite of moves cribbed from Dracula films (both British and American) and Mabuse films. Take a look to refresh your memories:

This is a pretty weird moment and an inscrutable death scene if you don’t have Mabuse and Dracula movies to give you some orienting cues to follow out in interpreting it. If I had the time, I would start by showing you some shots of glowing hypnotic eyes from 1930s American horror films, like Dracula (1931) or The Most Dangerous Game (1932), but I think I can get my point across by sticking with Christopher Lee’s Dracula, who (as you all well know) likes to make people do his bidding seemingly through the hypnotizing power of his gaze. There are countless examples of this, but here’s one of the snazzier ones in which the eyes of Lee’s Dracula mesmerizingly draw a young woman to him on the rooftops of a small Middle European town in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968):

Now compare this spellbinding gaze with that deployed by Dr. Mabuse in Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. In this scene, Mabuse is disguised as Sandor Weltmann, a world-famous hypnotist, who uses his powers of mesmerism to bring Police Inspector von Wenck under his control:

After having von Wenck do his bidding in front of the gathered crowd to prove his control over him, Mabuse almost successfully has von Wenck kill himself in a horrific automobile crash (the only thing that saves the police inspector are his fellow cops who forcibly pull him from his speeding car just before it goes over a cliff).

Now the gist and pith of all this laborious building up of a mesmeric citational network established by what looks to be a clumsily-put-together throwaway anticlimax is to say that these remaindered bits of Mabuse movies and Dracula flicks aren’t just leftovers, they’re obstinate willful parts that refuse to be incorporated into an integral whole. That it is to say, just because Mabuse and Dracula make heavy use of the power of the gaze to bend people to their will, we’re still left with the seeming irreducibility of those powers (or, more particularly, of the meaning of those powers) to each other. Dracula isn’t Mabuse after all, right?

Well, actually, Dracula is a Mabuse figure, depending on what Dracula film you’re talking about and when that film is set. So long as the Hammer Dracula films takes place in some indistinct nineteenth-century neverneverland, Dracula very much runs a one-man operation of sorts entirely dependent on his face-to-face encounters with his victims, minions, and enemies. Whatever organizational structure might be found here is only nascent—it’s early modern as it were. Interestingly, however, of the 1970s Hammer attempts to bring Dracula into the late twentieth century, the only film to somewhat successfully pull that off was the final one, The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), which got rid of all the gothic minion nonsense of Dracula A.D. 1972 and realized that the really scary prospect of a Dracula in the late twentieth century is the possibility that he would integrate far too well into existing society such that he could be both a multi-millionaire property developer (operating under the alias of D.D. Denham) and the head of a multi-billion dollar foundation without anyone being any the wiser. That is to say, what Scream and Scream Again anticipates is that Dracula really is a sort of Mabuse-figure in potential, and all that held him back from becoming one and the only thing that held us, the viewers, back from recognizing as much is the story of capitalist development itself. In other words, with the onset of something like modernity throughout all the zones of Europe (East, Middle, and West), Dracula has to get his act together, put together an alias, stop relying on time-consuming face-to-face encounters, and start putting his plans into motion through massive corporate structures that allow him to get at millions of people and at a distance instead of a handful of people and far-too-up-close.

In short, the argument I’m trying to map out here is that Scream and Scream Again suggests that Dr. Mabuse may have been in drag as Dracula all along. Who’s to say otherwise, especially when you get taken to the police station and the bobbies start asking you to help them to put together a composite sketch of villain? Don’t all men start to look alike? Doesn’t Scream and Scream Again’s composite nature make the composite image of the threat it presents start to look ever and always like Mabuse?

I want to end this lecture by pointing out the problem with this reading and by pointing to what the next move an interpretation of this film would have to make. In a nutshell, the manifest shortcoming with a Mabuse-explains-it-all reading is that it buys a bit too much into a progressive philosophy of history. That is to say, if we stay stuck reading Scream and Scream Again in terms of Dr. Mabuse tropes and moves that ever and always trump pre-existing British horror movie ones, then we’re basically reading this movie far too teleologically, as if Mabuse were at the end of every horror road in Europe. As much I see the film doing something like this, I don’t entirely buy a reading of Scream and Scream Again in which all Frankensteins and Draculas are Mabuses-in-potential that only need to be brought into the twentieth century for that relationship to be unveiled for once and for all. The obvious limitation with this interpretation is that it is still too personal. If Mabuse really is supposed to be some sort of “image of the times” for much of the twentieth century, then it’s an image that eventually starts to get things more wrong than right about those times by insisting far too much on the figure of Mabuse itself, which is hardly consonant with the world we all live in and have all lived in since at least the 1970s, for in this world there is no magic name we can incantatorily invoke to describe (much less solve) all our problems.

Saying Mabuse or, for instance, J. Edgar Hoover is the person listening in on your phone calls or filming you in your hotel room is almost a non sequitur because the category of privacy itself had already started to evaporate by the time of Scream and Scream Again such that the question of the subject-position at the head of the organization carrying out these unseemly surveillance operations was altogether moot. In short, the problem was no longer who was surveilling us but rather that there was surveillance of everyone everywhere all the time in potential. That is to say, the epistemological problems sketched in by Fritz Lang’s first three Dr. Mabuse movies (which can be re-phrased as the question, Who is the real Dr. Mabuse?) become ontological ones by the early 1970s (in other words, the subjugation of masses of people in the West to invasive organizational forms that maybe mean them no good simply became a condition of being or of existence for those masses by the 1970s such that the revelation of who was behind it all became a silly thing to undertake because no one really believes any one person is behind anything anymore really because the problem has become global and it has become deeply structural in nature).

What I am trying to sketch in here is not the Mabuse-like progress narrative described by Scream and Scream Again’s ending but rather a mutation in narrative itself. Instead of creating a new villainous figure to take over the reins of Mabuse, Frankenstein, and Dracula, films of the 1970s (particularly American films— Parallax View [1974], The Conversation [1974], Three Days of the Condor [1975], All the President’s Men [1976], Marathon Man [1976], Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1978], Winter Kills [1979], Blow Out [1981]) start to focus instead on the ontological obstinacy of the conspiracy form itself. Instead of becoming invested in unveiling the puppetmaster pulling the strings behind the scenes, these films become increasingly committed to exploring the texture of social experience and sociability itself in a world where everything (even the most intimate moment) is a public matter and can be made to stand in for something else in way not of your own choosing.

I want to close with that point by suggesting that Scream and Scream Again isn’t quite as Mabuse-crazy as I might have led you to believe because there are moments throughout the film that manage to think outside the Mabuse-box and envision something like these American conspiracy films that were just around the corner in 1969 and 1970. Compare, for instance, this scene from Scream and Scream Again with the opening of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. First, the meeting of Fremont and Konrad in Trafalgar Square:

The sorts of things I want you all to notice here are the long-range, high angle-shots of Konrad crossing the square to the fountain and the long-range shots of Fremont coming down the stairs because they open up an eerie space in which high-level transactions between Cold War enemies unfold in plain view of an unsuspecting public that nevertheless may be listening in (for instance, the question here that almost gets raised by the film is, Who’s operating that rooftop camera that zooms in on Konrad? Is it the film itself or is it someone/something from within the diegesis of the film?). To be sure, this disquieting framing of the meeting of Fremont with Konrad quickly enough breaks down into the more familiar two-shots that re-instigate something like a private space in the middle of Trafalgar Square, but the looming openness and permeability of the space around them which gets set up in the establishing shots doesn’t entirely go away.

For one thing, Coppola’s The Conversation picks up on it and decides to shoot its credit sequence and much of the sequence that follows using similar high-angle long shots showing us a variety of people (but mostly one man and one woman) walking around Union Square in San Francisco while a group of men with surveillance equipment try to record their conversation from rooftops and open windows around this very public space:

The rest of the movie ramifies outward from one garbled sentence that the couple later exchange (“He’d kill us if he got the chance”), which Gene Hackman’s character interprets and re-interprets and misinterprets in a variety of self-destructive ways. That is to say, this movie (like most American conspiracy movies of the 1970s) does not care all that much with who’s responsible for mass surveillance. We already know who’s doing it here: Gene Hackman’s company. To be sure, there’s the question of who hired them to do it, but The Conversation doesn’t much care about that either. Instead, it’s invested in the problems raised by hermeneutics itself, which is to say, if everything we say and do is a public matter, then there’s still the problem of interpretation, of someone sifting through all we do and say and making heads or tails of it somehow.

Which is a long roundabout way of saying we’re back where we started with Scream and Scream Again, faced with the problem of making heads or tails of a film at least as ambiguous as a barely-heard sentence uttered in an undertone next to a blaring street musician in Union Square in 1974. Mabuse won’t help you find a way into The Conversation, and he won’t help you after a certain point with Scream and Scream Again. What will, however, is the simple fact of the conspiracy itself and its globe-encompassing ramifications, which elusively promise to tell you something about the world you live in, even if that world is a pop cultural composite made up of indistinctly placed totalitarian regimes, of vampire serial killers, of bad pop bands who only know how to write one kind of bland pop song, and of superhuman technocrats secretly embedded in positions of power. What else does this composite name if not the problem of trying to give it a name in the first place, like that of Mabuse, who by the late 1960s is no longer able to tie all the detritus of social and cultural life together into a cohesive and life-threatening whole. You don’t need to go to movies to experience that anymore. All you need to do is go for a walk in a park or stroll around Union Square on your lunch break.

Tod Slaughter, or, Marriage Is a Business Proposition

Here’s the opening lecture for the British Horror Film course that I taught a few years ago and would very much like to revisit soon.

I want to use this opening statement as an opportunity to both frame this week’s readings and obliquely introduce tonight’s film, Dead of Night (1945; dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, et al.).  For those of you who know a little bit of the history of horror films, 1945 will likely have struck you as being really rather late in the game for a national cinema to begin making its first discursively effective forays into horror.  After all, Universal Pictures in the U.S. had begun cranking out sound horror films fourteen years prior to Dead of Night, and it’s not like these Universal horror shows went unnoticed by film-makers and –viewers of the world.  Tod Browning’s Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi) appeared in New York in February 1931, while James Whales’s Frankenstein (starring Boris Karloff as the monster) showed up in U.S. theatres in November and December of the same year.  Both films promptly got UK releases (Dracula in 1931 and Frankenstein in 1932), and both had extremely successful exhibition runs throughout Britain as well.  In fact, if you believe many of the popular and scholarly histories of the British film industry in the 1930s, then you could say that these Universal attractions perhaps proved too successful, insofar as the incredible popularity of these films in the U.K. made a target of the horror film genre for many outraged members of the community, from clergy members, local councils, and members of Parliament to child protection societies, morality councils, and (eventually) the British Board of Film Censors itself, which instituted an advisory classification for horror films (“H”) in January 1933 (less than two years after Dracula premiered in Britain).  While not yet an official form of certification (like the “U” and “A” certificates), an “H” classification was nevertheless grounds enough for some cinema chains and local councils in the U.K. to refuse to exhibit any movie with that classification.  By June 1937, this advisory classification became an official certificate—that is to say, if your film got an “H” certificate after that date, then only adults could watch it in cinemas (meaning that it functioned much like the NC-17 rating does in this country today).  In 1942 “H” films were banned outright by the British Board of Film Censors, and only with the end of hostilities in Europe were horror films allowed to be imported, made, certified, and exhibited.

Now what this admittedly hasty and slapdash account of the pre-history of horror films in the U.K. would have you believe is that the British Board of Film Censors first muted, then restricted, and finally altogether smothered the potential for the discursive founding of a native horror tradition in British cinema before 1945.  Therefore, in response to the question, Why does it take horror so long to get started in Britain?, the answer would seem to be something along the lines of, Because the censors made it so damn awful hard to do so before 1945.  Now I certainly do not want to dispute the proscriptive efficacy of the British Board of Film Censors as a historical datum—that is, I do not at all want to be understood as denying that Britain has tended to have one of the more fussily active institutional bodies independently overseeing and censoring film and video production and exhibition in the West.  Yet even though I grant all that, I do not want you to take away from this weekend’s reading or from this course the notion that this is a story of artist-heroes and hypocritical villains, with the dastardly British Board of Film Censors taking their shears to defenseless works of art that have now come down to us brutalized and maimed.  Texts and their producers are not as helpless as all that—they are not more done to than doing, as it were.  More axiomatically expressed, I want to advance the claim here that censorship could not have (nor did it) prevent the expression of horror images and effects in 1930s British cinema.  At most, the British Board of Film Censors forced filmmakers to develop and hone techniques of representing and embodying horror between the lines.

Consider, in this respect, the following scene from the first sequel to Universal’s Frankenstein, James Whales’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  The scene we’re about to watch ought to have a haze a familiarity around it for you, even if you’ve never seen a Frankenstein film, because it’s one of those bits of horror-film discourse that got around a lot in the 1930s and then stuck around for a few decades more.  In a word, this is one of those iconic laboratory scenes from the Frankenstein series, in which we get to see all sorts of flashing lights, high voltage traveling arcs, hasty switch- and lever-pulling, and (as it turns out) a bit of Ben Franklinesque kite-flying during a dramatic thunderstorm.  Take a look:

At the level of first impressions, what we have here is a pretty impressive montage of evocative mise-en-scene, dutch camera angles, and hyperbolically lit close-ups, all in the service of representing for us the labor (and the division of labor, I would add) that goes into re-animating a composite corpse in the sequel to Frankenstein.  Whereas in that earlier film, Dr. Henry Frankenstein managed to create his first monster with only one assistant (Fritz) and without any kites whatsoever, in Bride of Frankenstein Henry gets press-ganged into imparting life into the monster’s prospective mate by Dr. Pretorius (he’s the white-haired chap wildly tossing switches and iconically posing before travelling arcs and mini-explosions throughout the lab set), who evidently requires the assistance of two cronies as well, Karl and Ludwig, who can be found manning the kites on the edges of the frame in the rooftop shots.  There’s a lot to be said about this doubling (doubling of laborers and their scientist overseers, doubling of monsters, etc.), but for our purposes here let it suffice to say that this scene seems invested in showing us that an awful lot of collective male laboring goes into making a spectacle out of the making of a woman outside of the womb.

Now let’s compare this lab work scene to a strikingly similar one that pops up four years later in George King’s The Face at the Window, a British melodrama set in Paris that was released in cinemas five months before war was declared on Germany.  All you need to know by way of exposition before we dive into the scene is that this is the film’s climax, in which the unjustly maligned protagonist, Lucien Cortier, reveals that the aristocratically untouchable Chevalier Lucio del Gardo (played by the wonderfully campy Tod Slaughter, but more on him later) is in fact responsible for the various crimes and murders that have been wrongfully blamed on Lucien.  Lucien uses the laboratory of one of his scientist friends to re-vivify a recently murdered man (Lucien’s scientist friend himself) so that this dead man can live again long enough to write out the name of his murderer.  Here’s what it looks and sounds like:

The citationality of this scene ought to be self-evident, but it’s worth rehearsing some of these bits of shared discourse and working through what similarities and differences there are and what those relationships might mean if they meant anything.

For starters, what we seem to be presented with here is Frankenstein on the cheap:  instead of huge sets whose axis of orientation tends toward the neck-achingly vertical, with electric current spraying downward onto the scuttling figures of our two laboring scientists (anti-hero and anti-anti-hero, as it were) from a long phallic device extending from an ostentatiously thunderstruck rooftop exterior, we have here instead a flattened, fairly non-descript and self-contained room, free of the high voltage travelling arc sprays so prominently and repetitively displayed in Bride of Frankenstein, though this downscale set is not entirely without its own assortment of the laboratory essentials every mad scientist needs, from flashing lights, spinning wheels, bubbling beakers, curly-cued wiring, and (as it happens) a peal of thunder.  As if to underscore this rinky-dinkness of the lab’s equipment, you’ll note that nobody in the scene pays all that much attention to it.  Unlike Bride of Frankenstein’s Henry and Pretorius, who can’t stop looking at all the cool and dangerous-looking stuff going on around them and who never really get around to looking at the creature they’re in the midst of studiously reanimating, everyone in The Face at the Window is wrapped up with staring down the object of all this scientific labor, the supposedly revivifying hand of Lucien’s dead scientist friend.  To be sure, as in Bride of Frankenstein, the action here gets punctuated with a variety of close-ups of the actors’ faces, although here the structural roles doled out to the figures seen up close are not those of scientific mastery so much as those of engrossed spectatorship—even Lucien, the putative scientist-figure here responsible for these effects, is (by scene’s end) shown to be just as much a passive witness to the proceedings as everyone else, with his and their close-up shots alternating in a faster and faster rhythm with close-ups of the hand of the “corpse” slowly coming back to life to write out Lucio del Gardo’s name.

In short, the lab in The Face at the Window gets represented to us as a theater calculated to achieve certain spectatorial effects (tensions get heightened, the possibility of fright at the prospect of a “real” reanimated corpse gets raised, and Lucio del Gardo gets forced into dropping the innocent aristocrat act)—that is to say, it is not a space in which scientific labor as such really (or diagetically) gets done.  Maybe Lucien’s dead friend’s experiments with corpses really do work, maybe they don’t—the film doesn’t really care because it is finally revealed that the corpse hand belongs to a very real and very much alive person and not to Lucien’s dead scientist friend.  If the start of this scene seems to place us in a Frankenstein film on the cheap, we end it in a Frankenstein film with its tongue swelling out its cheek.  That is to say, the unimpressiveness of Lucien’s lab equipment doesn’t look like a function of Spartan budgetary constraints by the end of the scene so much as it seems to be of a piece with the film’s mode of interpreting and re-presenting in a thoroughly debunking spirit that which Frankenstein and its Universal-derived brood have wrought.  If The Face in the Window really does offer us its lab-as-a-theatre-of-effects, then those effects are structured so that the narrative build-up to what the film thinks ought to scare you has a complementary (and perhaps even obligatory) let down into something like laughter.[i]

Now what I want to demonstrate in the remainder of this opening statement is the extent to which horror passage-work in 1930s British film tends on the whole to exhibit precisely this have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too quality, which is to say that it often strives to reproduce the discourse of “American” horror even as it all the while seeks to debunk it.  To speak more particularly, we could note that there seems to be a pseudo-realist impulse subtending this scene from Face at the Window, in which the possibility of their really being something like scientific necromancy gets represented and then quickly dissolved in hilarity (hilarity that is itself further punctuated by a very real gunshot though not by really good marksmanship).  Somewhat reductively, this apparent preoccupation with debunking the possibility of their actually seeming to be re-animated corpses in a British (as opposed to an imported American) film can be made to look like a form of self-censorship.  Following such an approach out a bit further, one could even go so far as say that it is by means of just such a debunking spirit that Face at the Window can perhaps be seen to already be doing the British Board of Film Censors’ job for it.  The problem with debunking, however, is that there is no stop button for it.  In other words, we could just as easily ask ourselves whether or not Face at the Window’s parodic take on horror (which we can perhaps re-phrase by saying that what the film thinks ought to scare you ought not be so real as to fail to make you laugh all the same) doesn’t comment on and/or debunk the film as a whole, an operation I want to test out by hurriedly looking at clips from two other films.  The hunch or thesis here, therefore, goes something like this:  we should trouble any interpretation of debunking as a one-way street leading ineluctably to self-censorship in those 1930s British films that happen to have horror passages by noting instead that contemporary censorship forces in the U.K. seem to have elicited pressures within texts like The Face at the Window, which itself can be seen to be pushing back against these forces and these pressures in a way that makes ambiguous or ambivalent that text’s discursively-marked horror images and putatively strived-for horror-effects.  That’s a mouthful, and the simple way of saying it is this:  censorship does not produce distorted texts but instead makes more complicated ones not only possible but perhaps even necessary.[ii]

Another way to put this would be to say that what censorship does to British horror in the 1930s is make it exhibit a laterality it might otherwise not have had, and the scene we’ve just watched performs this intertextual agility for us in a neat way:  what starts to look like Frankenstein instead simply turns out to be a plain (and all-too-mundane and diagetically-motivated) gambit aimed at getting Tod Slaughter’s Lucio del Gardo to reveal his guilt.  Detection, not horror, is the narrative’s ostensible aim; a preoccupation with epistemology, not affect, would appear in turn to be the cover story it presents to its audiences.  It is important, however, to insist that this story is just a cover.  As in all these movies, we know from the beginning who the hidden bad guy is:  it’s Tod Slaughter.  He’s the mystery the heroes are trying to solve, and since we the audience are in on the game from the beginning, the main interest for us isn’t detection per se, but pleasure—specifically the pleasure of seeing just how much Tod Slaughter can get away with and how much fun he can have while getting away with it until the inevitable unmasking scene occurs.  Therefore, taking a step back from this text and looking over the field of British film production in this period in general, we can extrapolate from this scene and sum up the situation as follows:  if you want to make a British horror film between 1933 and 1945, then you do so by making use of the materials and forms of other genres to which the stink of the “H” classification or certificate does not yet stick.  In other words, in order to present British audiences with horror effects in British films, you start out by making a melodrama or a mystery or a comedy in which horror passages can be inserted, protracted, called forth, and/or ironically emplotted within these more socially acceptable narratives and materials.  If this is in fact sums up the situation of horror in the U.K. before 1945, however, it does not prescribe for us how these horror passages function in any given film from that period.  That is to say, we still have to attend closely to individual cases.  Interpretation does not go away; it just has a few more orienting cues to look for and go by.

Now there are many examples I can give you in the interest of fleshing out this claim with textual support demonstrating possible models of how to make use of it in an interpretation, but rather than move ahead to British war-time comedies and melodramas, I want to stick with Tod Slaughter and make my case by taking a closer look at some of his cinematic output from the mid-to-late 1930s.  Born Norman Carter Slaughter in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1885, Tod Slaughter made his name in the 1920s managing and starring in Victorian melodramas staged at the Elephant and Castle Theatre.  After leaving the Elephant and Castle, he took his repertoire on tour into the suburbs and provinces, and then in 1935 (at the age of 50) Slaughter began starring in film adaptations of many of those wildly successful plays with which he had become increasingly identified in British popular culture over the past decade or so:  in his first two films, he reprised his roles as villain in Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn (1935) and then in The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) (where, as Sweeney Todd, he “polishes off” a number of unsuspecting wealthy men who were just looking for a shave).  He followed these two films up with five more Victorian melodramas:  The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936), It’s Never Too Late to Mend (1937), The Ticket of Leave Man (1937), The Face at the Window (1939), and Crimes at the Dark House (1940).  These films present us with a remarkably unified set of texts.  All seven were produced by George King, all appear to be pro forma Victorian morality tales with vice punished and virtue rewarded, all star Tod Slaughter as the villainous embodiment of eventually punished (but more often than not gloating) vice, all (with the exception of The Crimes of Stephen Hawke) are based on plays or novels written in the nineteenth century, and all pretty much serially repeat the same plot, which basically hinges on Tod Slaughter’s villain doing a lot of bad things under the protective covering offered by his vast wealth and/or upstanding public reputation before a boring young male protagonist finally manages to unveil to the community Slaughter’s responsibility for all the naughty things perpetrated in the film (robbery, fraud, rape, adultery, murder, etc.), thus sending Tod Slaughter off to prison (or, as the case may be, to his death) and thereby preventing the boring young heroine from either marrying or staying married to this old ham-actor cad who means her no good.

Now I want to spend what little time we have left giving you a sense of what this all looks like, of what the experience of watching a Tod Slaughter film unfold feels like, in order to show to you the degree to which horror passage-work in 1930s British melodramas, mysteries, and comedies was not necessarily made safe or neutralized thereby for the benefit of vulnerable British audiences.  The thesis I am advancing here, you will remember, is that horror debunks as much as it is debunked in these ‘30s films—that is to say, these films may exhibit many features that seem to act to undermine the potency of the images or situations they think ought to scare you (think of the “corpse” in The Face at the Window popping up to smile and say, “That’s where you’re wrong”), but this debunking process can work both ways, meaning that we have to ask ourselves why a comedy, mystery, or melodrama needs to so ostentatiously perform the neutralization of its horror passages in the first place.  That is, what are these texts really scared of.

With this thesis in mind, let’s cycle through some of the highlights of one of the best Tod Slaughter melodramas, Crimes at the Dark House, which is adapted (though that verb ought perhaps to be put in scare quotes) from Wilkie Collins’ famous mystery novel, The Woman in White, first serialized between 1859 and 1860.  In the interest of time, I’m going to keep my commentary here to a minimum, but I will punctuate some of the scenes with some cues for you to follow as we work our way to the grand finale.  The film starts in fine homicidal fashion:

With the real Sir Percival Glyde staked through the ear canal and with the signet ring and letter now in his possession, Tod Slaughter’s Aussie gold-digger assumes the identity of the baron and makes his way back to England, where he gets an interesting reception from the help:

Here we have a good example of a key recurring feature in these Tod Slaughter Victorian melodramas, which has to do with the issue of complicity.  As the scene unfolds it becomes increasingly unclear the degree to which Mrs. Bullen, the housekeeper, is all that unaware of the fact that Slaughter ain’t exactly who he purports himself to be.  That is, if Slaughter is the key figure of vice in these films, he is never the only such figure because around him there always happen to be a variety of people aiding and abetting him in (as well as benefitting from) his shameful deeds.  More on that in a minute.

You’ll have noticed that Slaughter’s faux Sir Percival Glyde takes an instant lip-licking and claw-clutching liking to the parlor (now chamber) maid, Jessica, and the ups-and-downs of this relationship provide a counterpoint of sorts to the main plot, which concerns Slaughter’s plans to marry a wealthy young woman because the estate he thought he was inheriting when he killed off the real Sir Percival Glyde has (as it turns out) little more than debts to bestow upon him.  The upstairs-downstairs erotic pursuits undertaken by the bogus Sir Percival Glyde and Jessica also link up pretty explicitly with the title figure from Wilkie Collins’ novel, the woman in white, who is the legitimate daughter of the murdered Sir Percival Glyde and who has escaped from a local asylum to harass Slaughter’s hammy impersonation of a debt-ridden aristocrat.  Consider the following:

Let’s hold on to the observation, “Marriage is a business proposition,” because that’s a claim that has a future in these films.  For now, though, we can take a look at how things turn out for Jessica:

Two things are worth noting here:  (1) Slaughter’s “bride of death” quip was a tag-line that would have been familiar to contemporary audiences, as it was used in Slaughter’s first film, 1935’s Maria Marten, or Murder in the Red Barn, thus making its appearance here function somewhat like an act of self-branding (it’s Slaughter’s “I’ll be back,” as it were); (2) the murder of Jessica in the old boathouse by the lake links back up with the woman in white subplot quite explicitly once the false Sir Percival Glyde takes to the notion of getting rid of the woman in white’s mother (and the secret wife of the dead Sir Percival Glyde), Mrs. Catherick, using a ploy that will now be familiar to us:

With these two emblems of illicit and/or hidden sexuality out of the way, the sham Sir Percival Glyde can pursue in earnest his plans to marry Laurie Fairlie and dispossess her of her fortune.  But marriage is not simply a business proposition, nor is it wholly without its spectators, from fantasizing servants to the obstructing woman in white herself:

What this second scene in particular makes clear is the degree to which married sex not only starts to look like rape but (more particularly) appears to be not altogether unlike the sort of horror film with which we are all more familiar, with the alternating shots of Tod Slaughter’s feet (slowly ascending the stairs, slowly crossing the floor), Laurie Glyde’s (née Fairlie’s) cowering face, and the bedroom door as it creakingly opens all suggesting to us now (more than seventy years after the fact) the composite elements of a proto-slasher film as it were.  Perhaps most importantly, however, this sequence suggests that the horror passage-work in these 1930s Tod Slaughter films functions as a critical commentary on marriage and sex, and (I would add) it would probably be overly hasty to see these films as safely restricting their horror-show critiques simply to Victorian marriage and sexuality.  In this view, the horror passage-work in these melodramas do not simply punctuate the elaborately moral narrative with reliably containable bits of pleasure; instead, the horror passages here debunk the contrivances of those narratives by implying that determinations of virtue and vice are beside the point to begin with.  That is to say, if we take seriously the “horrific” operativity of a figure like those of Tod Slaughter’s villains within the societies these films represent, then the implication seems to be that there is not much moral uplift in the narratively belabored downfall of vice and the heroic rise of virtue because both changes in station seem utterly inconsequential, insofar as these events leave untouched the social arrangements and institutions that go on taking the mere appearance of wealth and social respectability at their word.

In other words, if horror has a function in these Tod Slaughter melodramas, then it is that of ruffling surfaces—the surfaces people present to each other in these films, the surfaces these texts in turn present to their viewers, and the socially prescribed and accepted surfaces that normative sexuality would appear to present to the world in the seemingly more manageable form of marriage, which we can no longer take straight as it were.  In this sense, then, I would argue that the climactic unmasking scene in It’s Never Too Late to Mend offers us the truth of horror in these Tod Slaughter melodramas, for it offers us a doubled unveiling, with vice doing to virtue what virtue normally does to vice:

Two things deserve passing mention here:  first, the dramatic entrance of the reverend who successfully prevents the discharging of a bullet from Tod Slaughter’s gun with his demonstrative brandishing of a cross would seem to make Slaughter’s sadistic aristocrat in this film into a vampire, into Dracula as it were; second, despite the unveiling of Slaughter’s bad deeds here, marriage in the end nevertheless continues to prove to be a business proposition.  That is to say, the young lovers can marry now because the boring young man is filthy with money, which means he can materially benefit the sorry state of the boring young woman’s family’s finances, the principal impediment to their not having tied the knot earlier in the film.  So slight is the uplift in the punishment of vice represented here that one is tempted to take Tod Slaughter at his word and treat his maniacal refrain (“He’ll break your heart / He’ll break your heart”) as the debunking message of horror in this film and perhaps in the all the 1930s Slaughter melodramas as well:  not vice punished and virtue rewarded, but male vice showing male virtue up for the vice it really is or badly wants to be underneath its superficially respectable surface.  In a nutshell, what these Tod Slaughter melodramas really think ought to scare you is how much fun it is for men to do really awful things to women who cannot do anything but submit to those same awful things.  Like marriage, for instance, Victorian or otherwise.


[i] My attention to what a horror film thinks ought to scare you is entirely dependent on the work of H. Marshall Leicester, Jr., whose book on horror is forthcoming. Likewise, my understanding of the horror genre and my ways of interpreting it owe a great deal to years and years of watching movies with Marsh and Evan Calder Williams. I should also note here that Marsh and Evan were my co-instructors for the first iteration of this course.

[ii] An introductory lecture for a film course is no place to pursue this point much further, but it should be noted that this way of approaching the effects of censorship goes at least as far back as Leo Strauss, who develops this claim by looking at the works of notable heterodox Jewish philosophers. See Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1952).