From Script to Scream

Richard Mayne

  • Caligari’s Children by S.S. Prawer
    Oxford, 307 pp, £8.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 19 217584 X
  • The Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Altman by Robert Phillip Kolker
    Oxford, 395 pp, £8.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 19 502588 1

S. S. Prawer is Taylor Professor of German Language and Literature at Oxford. Robert Phillip Kolker is Associate Professor of Film Studies (in the Department of Communication Arts and Theatre) at the University of Maryland, College Park. But don’t let the insignia fool you. Both gentlemen, I suspect, are movie fans at heart. Their books are certainly most alive and energetic when analysing specific pictures, virtually frame by frame.

Professor Prawer quotes, and might have taken as his epigraph, D. H. Lawrence’s remark on ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: ‘It is lurid and melodramatic, but it is true.’ ‘The terror-fantasies of one generation,’ he reminds us later, ‘may – like some of the writings of Kafka – eerily anticipate the realities of the next.’ This, of course, was the starting-point of Siegfried Kracauer’s 1947 treatise From Caligari to Hitler: but Professor Prawer finds broader and deeper justification for studying films which might otherwise be dismissed as kitsch. He shows in systematic detail how the themes and properties of horror and terror movies correspond to inner uncertainties: he traces their literary lineage: he ponders, rather briefly, on their social effects. He writes with jaunty stamina about such works as Blood and Black Lace, Lust for a Vampire or Scream and scream again. But he reserves his serious attention for three especial landmarks: Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

The version of Dr Jekyll most familiar to British viewers now is probably Victor Fleming’s, made in 1941. Professor Prawer commends its music – ‘more and more sinister metamorphoses of “You should see me dance the polka’” – oddly missing its ‘respectable’ theme tune, ‘There’s a lovely lake in London’. He’s quite right, however, to see Mamoulian’s 1932 film as the pioneering work. As he shows in some detail, Mamoulian and his scriptwriters both cut and expanded Stevenson’s original tale. They stressed the chill, vapid nature of Dr Jekyll’s social milieu; they pointed up Hyde’s aggressive sensuality; they invented visible features for the terrifying face which Stevenson had only guardedly described. Professor Prawer’s account of the adaptation is not only evocative but illuminating. It even reinstates a key scene – a cat successfully stalking a bird – which some well-meaning vandal has removed from all the surviving prints.

Similar busybodies have apparently been snipping away at Dreyer’s Vampyr in what Professor Prawer calls ‘doomed attempts’ to make it ‘more commercially viable’. In reality, as he says, the film’s stealthy pace and grey haziness are the secret of its power. He quotes Dreyer:

Imagine that we are sitting in a ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant, the room we are sitting in is completely altered; everything in it has taken on another look; the light, the atmosphere have changed, and the objects are as we conceive them. That is the effect I want to get in my film.

The literary source for Vampyr was Sheridan Le Fanu’s collection of stories, Through a Glass Darkly; and Professor Prawer traces how eclectically Dreyer used not one but several of the tales – including the account of a man in a cataleptic trance: ‘I could hear and see anything as distinctly as ever I did in my life. It was simply that my will had, as it were, lost its hold of my body.’ A good description of someone watching a horror movie – involved but powerless, transfixed by uncontrollable events. As Simone de Beauvoir once quaintly put it, ‘when I go into a cinema, my praxis is paralysed.’ Many films resemble dreams or nightmares: many directors are Luna-park sorcerers, turning the spectator into a spellbound voyeur.

Caligari, Professor Prawer’s third main exhibit, openly acknowledged its links with the fairground peepshow. As several critics have pointed out, it was one of the first films to exploit the resemblance between watching films and dreaming – a reflection on which Professor Prawer thoughtfully expands. The ‘framework’ story, revealing at the end that the whole plot is a madman’s fantasy, may not have been the director’s own idea, and some commentators have dismissed it as a cop-out. For Professor Prawer, it’s essential to the film’s disturbing ambiguity. It could imply another, unseen ‘framework’, in which the ‘madman’ is sane and the asylum’s director demented. Readers of R. D. Laing or Doris Lessing may well respond to these resonances, as I do myself; and I find equally telling Professor Prawer’s defence of Caligari against purist attacks on its ‘theatricality’ and its stylised painted sets. As he stresses, it was not at all a backwater, but a source for the iconography of countless later films, including key works by G. W. Pabst, Fritz Lang and Ingmar Bergman.

And, of course, for an immense quantity of bloodcurdling trash. So blasé have we now become that gaping graves, clawing skeletal fingers, jagged lightning, and creaking iron-studded doors have an air of apple-pie folksiness: come on in, kids, the gang’s all here. ‘Camp’ was once the highbrow’s word for it: but lowbrows too have long relished the mock-terrors of the old dark house. Movies in that genre rarely scared anyone past adolescence. The same applied to the films noirs of the 1940s. Bogart was never really a bogey-man.

So Professor Prawer’s book is in part a nostalgic tribute to minor pleasures outgrown. He glances at some recent works in the canon: Robin Hardy’s rather unconvincing The Wicker Man, Nicholas Roeg’s dazzling Don’t look now, even William Friedkin’s grotesque gallimaufry The Exorcist – whose best section was surely its prologue, jangling the nerves with a loud, jumpy soundtrack broken by the sudden clatter of rocks. Stepping warily through this suspect territory, Professor Prawer keeps his academic guard up, even quoting Wittgenstein to explain the expression ‘family resemblances’ – although his scholarship falters when he twice calls Mrs Enid Wistrich, the critic of censorship, ‘Elaine’. But the strength of his book is its sanity: Professor Prawer is a man of decency and taste. He deplores gory excesses; he worries about the effect of terror films on children and the sick; he condemns as an abomination ‘the growing number of films in which animals are deliberately set on fire, maimed, and killed’. Among them, I’m sorry to say, are Ermanno Olmi’s L’Albero degli zoccoli and Francesco Rosi’s Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, both otherwise deeply humane films.

More and more present-day movies, in fact, contain scenes that are sickening to watch. We pay at the box-office knowing we’re in for an ordeal. It’s not the frisson of horror films, or the squalid but contained mayhem of Warner Brothers gangster epics: it’s violent cruelty, real or so well simulated that it wounds us just the same. Can anyone who saw it forget the ending of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde – bullets slamming the bodies to and fro like flapping sails, the camera gloating while two people are destroyed? As Robert Phillip Kolker says in The Cinema of Loneliness, ‘Bonnie and Clyde opened the bloodgates, and our cinema has barely stopped bleeding since.’ Investors in bloodsquib factories must have made a killing, no less. Why the obsession? In Professor Kolker’s view, ‘bloodletting in American film, whether caused by repressive authority or by an individual seeking revenge, speaks to some immediate needs and fantasies which grow out of fear or a desire to see our enemies easily disposed of. They may grow as well from a desire for action in an otherwise passive existence, a desire, finally, to see in film the otherwise unseeable, to partake from a distance in acts that would be inconceivable in actuality.’ That leaves a lot of options open, but fear, enforced passivity and eagerness to ice one’s enemies all seem likely enough in post-Vietnam, post-Opec, post-Afhanistan, post-Ayatollah America.

The new anxieties are also economic. Many films now stress loneliness, Professor Kolker fancies, because the studio system has collapsed. ‘The “old Hollywood” studio was a guild of craftsmen, individuals who worked together on film after film, sharing, influencing each other. The much-overpraised freedom of the new film-makers often turns out a freedom to be alone.’ Alone – and doubly insecure, as uncertain of their audience as they are of their finance. Since Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, especially, backers have been greedy for blockbusters, spurning more modest projects precisely because they cost – and promise – less. ‘Too much film-making is now based on an enormous gamble supported by enormous hype.’

This barbed relationship with the banks may explain why so many writers and directors take occult revenge on their creditors, openly or covertly attacking ‘the system’, ‘the politics of repression’, or ‘capitalism’ itself. Professor Kolker trendily agrees with them. Discussing the two Godfather films, he seems to equate businessmen with gangsters, and calls the Cuban episode in Godfather II ‘one of the most hopeful moments of political insight in American film’. By the same token, he vastly exaggerates the filmic appeal of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in ‘their need to be free of their society’s restrictions’. Banjo music notwithstanding, I found them totally unwinsome, and could never share the ‘sympathy’ and ‘admiration’ Professor Kolker thinks they evoke. Equally debatable is his judgment of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove – ‘the complete text of politics as a deadly joke, a text that has become more and more accurate in the years since its first appearance’.

The Cinema of Loneliness has other weaknesses which may put readers off. Its tone is sometimes arrogant: ‘the humdrum mind of an astronaut’, ‘conventional romantic couplings and domestic unions’, ‘people who do not and never will experience overwhelming insights and emotions’. Many of its own insights, some of them humdrum, are carefully credited to Professor Kolker’s students, one of whom was ‘anxious to love’ M.A.S.H., but presumably got bullied out of it, poor chap. The book also broods unhelpfully on what it calls ‘noir’ – the essence of films noirs – and it contains such solecisms as ‘due to’ (for ‘owing to’), ‘disinterested’ (for ‘uninterested’), and ‘as open and malleable as its structure of meaning might be’. Over to you, Department of Communication Arts.

And yet, despite all this, Professor Kolker has produced an original and provocative work. He might have gone deeper, admittedly: Professor Prawer, for example, would surely have noticed how closely the narration in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon actually followed Thackeray, and how far the ‘distancing’ camera-work reflected the book’s equivocal irony. But Professor Kolker is a cinephil rather than a littérateur; and his real qualities emerge in his analyses of individual films. It’s extraordinarily hard to pull back from the spell of novelty and evaluate recent movies more than impressionistically. Professor Kolker can, and his judgments are often telling. Robert Altman’s A Wedding is ‘a stony gaze at a pack of unattractive people’. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver ‘is not a documentary of the squalor of New York City but the documentation of a squalid mind driven mad by what it perceives’. ‘By 1976 the simulation of violence had reached a level of mindlessness and predictability that left only three alternatives: exaggerate it to more insane proportions ...; show an actual death; or forget the whole thing, retire the various forms of brutality and consider some other manifestations of human behavior.’