/user/torch2.gifOrigins of the Gothic in Cinema/user/torch2.gif

by Baron Wolfgang von Schreck

Okay, Ghouls and Ghoulitas, ask yourself a little question: When did you get your first bitter taste of the melancholy exhaltation of the Gothic? The Baron will stake his cold, gray, empty, puterfying, worm-eaten, unbeating dead-ass heart that the momentous occasion occured when you were bathed in the cathode ray glow of the family boob tube watching a scary movie. Perhaps you were nibbling on a Nutty Buddy, picking your nose, or playing with yourself, when suddenly the sun and fun paradise of the Brady Bunch was replaced with a black and white shadow world. A world populated with voracious vampires, shaggy werewolves, shambling zombies, masked phantoms, mad scientists, lonely patchwork men in search of a friend, and the hapless victims of their ghastly crimes and unholy appetites. For the place where the spirit of the Gothic has been the strongest and most conspicuous in the 20th Century has been in the much maligned and openly despised demimonde art form that is reffered to in the vernacular as the "horror movie".


What can truly be called the world's first horror movie was an adaptation of Frankenstein shot in the year 1910 and produced by none other than the inventor of the motion picture camera himself, Thomas Alva Edison. With a running time just under fifteen minutes, the film is (along with Todd Browining's London After Midnight) one of the most famous of all lost films, with only a few paltry stills to speak of its existence for several decades. However, a precious little sliver recently surfaced in a film vault: the Monster's creation sequence, consisting of an endearingly crude but effective special effects display in which Frankenstein's hideous creation integrates amidst smoke and flames in an overn-like contraption. (The effect was achieved by simply torching a monster dummy and running the film backwards, a trick later used with marvellous results by Jean Cocteau.)

Gothic cinema found its first true hero in Paul Weggener, a German who directed and played the title role in
Der Golem twice, once before the war in 1914 and again after it in 1920. The story is based on the old Jewish myth about a soulless automaton fashioned out of clay and brought to life by a Rabbi desperate to defend his ghetto against a pogrom in medieval Prague. The Rabbi eventually loses control of the creature though, and it goes on a violent rampage. The 1920 version ends with the Golem breaking out of the ghetto and coming across a beautiful little Aryan girl, whom he gathers up in his massive arms. The child offers the monster an apple and deftly plucks the Star of David from his chest, turning him back into a lifeless hunk of clay for herself and other children to dance around and play on like some macabre playground fixture. The scenes of the Golem's rampage and particularly the one with the little girl were to be a major inspiration on English director James Whale when he made his own version of the Frankenstein myth in 1931.


The Gothic has always been, by its very nature, a deeply subversive genre. At the heart of every Gothic tale, be it on the page or on the screen, is an eruption of supernatural chaos and disorder into the world. The medium of cinema has been, from its inception, a dream-like medium, and it wasn't long before the more morbidly inclined pioneers if this new art form turned their talents towards the manufacturing of nightmares. It's only fitting that the gloomy spirit of the Gothic would make its first major emergence into this new medium, one of light and shadows, in its ancestral homeland of dear old Deutschland (let's not forget that the word "Gothic" comes from the name of the Germanic tribes known as the Goths, 'kay?). The War to End All Wars has spread its black wings across Europe and consumed the lives of millions with its unslakable thirst for human blood and insatiable appetite for human flesh. Throngs of young German men had marched off like sleepwalkers to kill and be killed at the behest of one petty, manipulative, megalomaniacal man.

The year 1919 saw the release of Robert Weine's
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the tale of a fairground hypnotist who tours the countryside with a coffin-like cabinet containing his main attraction: the 23 year old somnambulist Cesare (played with panache by the great Conrad Veidt) who has spent his entire life in slumber. Pale as pasturized milk and cadaverous in appearance, Cesare is completely enslaved to the will of the furry, troll-like Caligari, entertaining crowds with a fortune telling act by day and carrying out a series of grisly murders for his master by night. A somnambulist, it would seem, "can be compelled to perform acts which, in a waking state, would be abhorrent to him..."

Willowy and clad in sleek black tights, Cesare creeps and slithers across the bizarre expressionist sets, a surreal jumble of painted shadows and sharp angles, with the eerie movements of some humanoid arachnid in search of its next meal. Cesare is one of those monstrous characters, like the Frankenstein Monster and the Golem, who simultaneously inspire sympathy and revulsion. Things build to a fever pitch when Cesare finds himself astounded by the beauty of the gorgeous
Fraulein (Lil Dagover) he has been sent to stab to death and capriciously opts to kidnap her instead. Pursued by what would would eventually become a Gothic film staple, an angry mob of "normal" people, Cesare drops his feminine burden and dies a few torturous paces later from sheer exhaustion.


Close to a century later, Caligari still has the power to grip, astonish and just plain knock you flat on your ass. Even though it's close to a century old, somehow it still seems modern and cutting edge. The cast, with their delibertely over-the-top acting, seem as if they're trapped in some kind of grotesque live action cartoon. It was a dark fantasy that, unlike its predecessors, didn't pretend for a single moment to be taking place in the "real world". The producers and director of the film, fearing the worst response from audiences, added a prologue and epilogue to explain away its phantasmagoric world as the product of the deranged imagination of an insane asylum inmate, with the evil Caligari as the seemingly benevolent director. From the point of view of screenwriters Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz (along with an uncredited Fritz Lang), who consciously wrote Caligari as a Leftist political parable - with Caligari representing the manipulative authoritarian state and Cesare standing in for the sleepwalking masses - the political content of the movie had been deftly hamstrung. And yet, that shifty look on Dr. Caligari's face in the final frame resonates with the fearful intimation that the characters are somehow trapped inside of the not-so-good doctor's private nightmare.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
premiered in New York in April of 1921 to spectacular critical acclaim. To the intelligentsia, Caligari was seen as more than simply a quantum leap in the evolution of German Expressionism and the horror film, it was seen as a benchmark achievement in the growth of Cinema itself. Caligari's reception on the West Coast was somewhat less enthusiastic and cordial - it opened in Los Angeles a month later to be greeted by a protesting mob of 2,000 men every bit as ornery as the one that chased Cesare, the core of which was formed by the Hollywood chapter of the American Legion. Veterans, many of whom were crippled and disfigured, carried placards emblazoned with inflammatory slogans like "WHY PAY WAR TAX TO SEE GERMAN MADE PICTURES?" (Military engagement between the nations had ceased, but a formal peace was yet to be established.) By nightfall the demonstration degenerated into an all out riot replete with a bombardment of rotten eggs. Newspapers owned by the infamous tyrant prick William Randolph Hearst (who would later attempt to ban another little movie called Citizen Kane in 1941) called for an all out boycott on German films. But unlike Kaiser Wilhelm's war machine, there'd be no stopping the Gothic Blitzkrieg of German Expressionism and the fearsome wraiths that served as its devastating shock troops.


When the year 1921 rolled around it brought with it Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens. An unauthorized adaptation of the novel Dracula, the film brought down the fire and thunder of the author's notoriously greedy and belligerent widow, Florence Stoker, who was so pissed off that she spent close to a decade in her efforts to not only suppress the film, but to have it consigned to flames. Fortunately for every lover of the graveyard dance of the Gothic, the bitch didn't succeed. Murnau changed the name of the main character to Count Graf Orlock and modified the plot and settings a little to adroitly side-step problems with copyright infringement. Played with spooky panache by the inimitable Max Schreck (no relation to your not-so-humble author), Orlock wasn't the beguilingly handsome and suave nobleman of Stoker's novel, but a rat-faced, bat-eared, bushy-browed, hump backed, piss-in-your-pants scary demonic spectre from the blackest regions of Hell itself, armed with a fearsome arsenal of pointy rodent teeth and razor-keen claws shaped like scythes. This was a vampire who couldn't possibly pass as human, not even on a good night. He makes the Baron look like Brad Pitt.

Perhaps most significantly,
Nosferatu was the first movie to have true FEAR in it (both literally and figuratively, as the name "Schreck" means "fear" in German). It was the first film whose primary objective was to rattle the brains and fray the nerves of its audience, and the first that truly succeeded in doing so. Even today the rather comical special effects, such as the crude stop motion and sped up footage (particularly that of Orlock scurrying about with his coffin tucked under his arm), only serve to increase the nightmarish intensity of the film. With its vivid images of pestilence, despair and violence it didn't take long for critics and audiences alike to interpret Nosferatu, much as they had done with Caligari, as a bitter commentary on the catastrophe of the World War and its painful aftermath. It may have been a bad time for Germany, but it turned out to be a most propitious one for the Gothic.


Lotte Eisner nicely summed up the golden era of Gothic Cinema and German Expressionism in her remarkable book The Haunted Screen: "Mysticism and magic, the dark forces which Germans have always been more than willing to commit themselves, had flourished in the face of death on the battlefields. The hecatombs of young men fallen in the flower of their youth seemed to nourish the grim nostalgia of the survivors. And the ghosts which had haunted the German Romantics revived, like the shades of Hades after draughts of blood." But pickings eventually became slim for das kinder auf der nacht in Germany in the decade following the excessively punitive and economically crippling Treaty of Versailles (it literally took a wheelbarrel full of marks to buy a loaf of bread) and so they drifted across the Atlantic in search of fresh victims in a new hunting ground called Hollywood.


Click on the Count to view the Baron's list of the Top 20 Most Important Gothic horror movies... if you DARE!