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).