Saturday, September 27, 2008

Son of Silent Scream Series: Laugh, and the world laughs with you.

What counts as a horror flick?

The extremity of the genre's typical content and the genre's assumed goal – to induce horror in the viewer – seem to make the question a bit silly, but the assumption of self-evidence is, I think, a bit deceptive. Content-wise, there's no distinct element you can point to that marks horror, and only horror, as a genre. Supernatural elements are a staple of fantasy films. The depiction of human suffering and death, or simply the threat thereof, is common in countless genres. The goal of inspiring horror, fear, or revulsion is hardly limited to the horror genre – it's a staple of crime flicks and the driving idea behind much of John Waters's early works. More importantly, even if we couldn't find this motivation in other genres, we'd be a loss to explain why so many movies identified as "horror" films don't seem all the concerned with producing actual scares. You could make a small library of schlock grindhouse fair that is more concerned with camp kicks and titillation than it is with inducing fear, but few horror fans would deny these flicks the label "horror." And this doesn't even get into the admittedly fun but ultimately pointless arguments about what particular brand of horror is the One True Horror.

I bring this up, my sweet lil' Screamers and Screamettes, not because I have any proposals that will untangle this particular Gordian knot. Instead, I mention it because the issue seems to haunt today's entry in the Son of Silent Scream Series: Paul Leni's 1928 Victor Hugo adaptation, The Man Who Laughs. Read the comments on Netflix and there's a repeated refrain running through the majority of them: This isn't really a horror film. There's the grudging acceptance approach: "This is a classic, but it isn't really a horror movie . . ." You've got the bait-and-switch accusation: "Though this movie occasionally looks and sounds like a horror film (and certainly influenced the way future horror films were shot at Universal), this movie is straight-up melodrama in German Expressionist clothing." There's the analytical take: "For starters, this really isn't a horror movie. Yes, the main character is grotesque, in a similar vein as Frankenstein. But he is not feared as a monster, nor does he have any malicious intent. I would categorize this as a romance/drama" and "A classic from Universal is often lumped in with their other horror classic but its really not. It's a period piece / melodrama with horror overtones." And this impulse to de-horror the film isn't restricted to self-appointed amateur critics. No less a critic than Roger Ebert sounded of on the real genre of the film: "The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film." I could go on, but you get the idea.

So, is The Man Who Laughs a silent horror film or not?

First, let's a take a look at the flick in question. The Man Who Laughs is a relatively faithful adaptation (right until, of course, the upbeat Hollywood ending) of the 1869 Victor Hugo novel of the same name. Set in England during the 17th century, the film tells the story of Gwynplaine. Gwyn's pops was the rebellious noble who revolted against James II. The irate king executed the rebel and sold the young Gwyn over to Comprachios, a breed of gypsies known mainly for using proto-surgical techniques to turn purchased children into freakish sideshow attractions. In Gwyn's case, the Comprachios alter his mouth so that he always wears a painfully full grin.

The young Gwynplaine is eventually abandoned by the Comprachios and, over the course of a brutal winter's night, ends up in league with Ursus, a traveling showman and philosopher waging a lopsided rivalry against his showbiz contemporary Shakespeare, and Dea, a blind woman who loves Gwyn and attempts to break through his truly epic self-loathing. (The traveling troop also includes a dog named, somewhat unfortunately, Homo – a name that leads to several unintentionally comedic title cards throughout the flick.) Mutilated as he is, an lacking any knowledge of his titled lineage, Gwyn becomes part of Ursus's show and, despite the pain he feels at being a freakish display, becomes something of a celebrity.

Performing in a carnival outside of London, Gwynplaine becomes the erotic fixation of the Duchess Josiana, and jaded libertine who finds court life dull and is turned on by the potential taboo the malformed Gwynplaine represents. However, unbeknownst to either Gwyn or Josiana, the Duchess's attraction becomes a tool for court intriguers who wish to destroy Josiana to curry the favor of the Queen. As various conspiracies close in around Gwynplaine, his titled background is revealed, his lower class show biz friends are endangered, and he becomes a pawn in political game he doesn't fully understand.

The plot is truly a go-for-broke, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink affair. There's plenty of violence and darkly fetishistic sensuality, but there's also some genuinely touching melodrama, an elaborate costume drama of court politics, several overtly comedic scenes, at least one major action sequence, and an old-fashioned love story that ties everything together. It is this mutt-like plot, a storyline that snags every successful element it can from any genre that will sit still long enough to be plundered, that leads to all the confusion as to whether or not The Man Who Laughs is properly a horror movie.

And is it?

Personally, I'm inclined to say that the film is usefully considered a "horror film." Though the elements may strike us as a little quaint now, Gwynplaine's mutilation, the Duchess's perverse sexuality, and the sinister intrigues of the of the court were specifically meant to fill viewers with a sense of dread.
[For the contrary opinion, check out the comments - user "my daroga" gives a thoughtful explanation of why it isn't useful to think of The Man Who Laughs as a horror film.]

More importantly, I'm not sure whether or not The Man Who Laughs is an according to Hoyle horror flick or not matters. It is an essential film for the history of the horror genre because it is part of the stylistic bedrock on which Universal built its legendary horror franchises. Leni's film is recognizably part of the same universe as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Freaks and all the other first gen talkie horror films. Leni's film alternates between a vaguely anachronistic storybook "old Europe" and night scenes filled with inky black proto-noir shadows he evolved for his Expressionistic work back in Germany (on the ball readers will remember that Leni helmed the flicker Waxworks, one of last year's Silent Scream Series selections).

Even the casting choices act like a sort of bridge from one era to the other. Gwynplaine is played by the legendary Conrad Veidt, who appeared as Cesare the murderous sleepwalker/zombie in silent horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Veidt would go on to play a slew of villains in the talkie era, most notably Major Strasser in Casablanca. Olga Vladimirovna Baclanova, who plays the Duchess (and looks remarkably like an "Express Yourself" era Madonna), is another bridge between the silent and talkie eras of horror: she would later appear as Cleopatra, the murderously cruel beauty in Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks. Admittedly, the over-stuffed plot is atypical of the now iconic Universal horror flicks of the 1930s. But the rich, genre-bending storyline does foreshadow the mature, classy horror flicks produced by Lewton for RKO in the 1940s.
For fans of classic Universal horror films or silent filmmaking at its most lush and accomplished, The Man Who Laughs won't disappoint.

SCREAMIN' FUN FACT: It is widely held that the grimace of Conrad Veidt's Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs was the visual inspiration for Batman's arch-villian, the Joker. True? I don't know, but I can certainly see why people might believe it. See below.


Anonymous said...

Heh heh heh... that photo at the end is really great..!

CRwM said...

Ain't it though? And he keeps that smile up through the whole freakin' film.

my daroga said...

Interestingly, I just saw this film for the first time as well. My personal take (though I am not a student of the horror genre--I watched it as a "student" of "Phantom of the Opera" and film in general) is that the "horror" tag is not only not useful but almost inexplicable. Is every film about deformity a horror film? When the character is portrayed with the utmost amount of sympathy, with a lesson in accepting difference, doesn't the horror label work against that lesson? I would say that it is a stylistic influence on horror, but not all Expressionist films are horror.

The strange apologetic need to start reviews (as the ones you quoted) with a caveat about it not being a horror film seems more, to me, a response to the absurd poster/DVD cover which I feel has very little bearing on the film itself. It's certainly promising something you don't get, and I don't mean a green Gwynplaine. It's like calling "Hunchback" a horror story. I just don't understand the usefulness of that designation. Or perhaps I should say, it would seem to necessitate a broad enough definition of the genre that it becomes, for me, useless in choosing films for that purpose. Though I suppose such a designation could serve to broaden horizons.

CRwM said...


All good points - I'm going to slide a tag into the story suggesting readers check your response out for a second opinion.

I would say, however, that I think, at the time TMWL was made, deformation was considered a tag of the horror genre. In this case, it isn't just Gwynplaine, so many of the side characters and stock figures are grotesque. The intimations of sex, the dog ripping out the jester/court climber's throat, the murders, torture, peeping toms - the emotionally excessive content was, I think, meant to freak audiences out.

For what it is worth, apparently the studio referred to flick as a "Gothic drama."

my daroga said...

An excellent point, and I see it well. But was there really a "horror genre" at that time? I think we're talking about a period where some of these things hadn't been fully codified yet--though I could be entirely wrong, there. Hugo wrote during a time that gothic fiction did exist, but the idea of a "horror" novel may not have occurred to him. Though that of course raises a question of intent vs. effect, not to mention adaptation...

Thank you for your consideration of my responses--I realize I dropped in here rather suddenly!

Anonymous said...

For some reason this discussion of the genre label reminds me of when I first saw the term "melodrama".
It was in TV Guide describing one of the Universal FRANKENSTEIN films on a late night showing. I knew what Frankenstein was all about (I knew it was a scary movie, and in fact, it was going to be shown on our local version of a fright night theater) but I didn't understand what "melodrama" meant (I was like 9 or 10).

Uh, that's it.

CRwM said...


I think we might be headed in the same direction on this.

There was definitely already a horror genre in literature by the time this flick was made. We'd already had Poe, Stoker, and things like Blackwood's Magazine. Contemporaries like Lovecraft were not only filling the pages of pulp magazines with horror stories (1928 is the also the year of Call of Chtulhu's publication) and serialized novels but also, and perhaps more importantly for the purposes of our thinking, they would argue in letters and magazine columns about the genre (what is "cosmic horror?" is so-and-so a real horror writer, who is the best horror writer, and so on).

That said, though Hugo's TMWL is one of his darker books (it has a much darker ending than the film), I don't think that anybody could argue that it was ever intended to be a "horror" novel. Like Toilers of the Sea, which was also produced during his exile and contains a "haunted house" and an giant octopus that's basically a sea-monster, it has too much other stuff in it to be considered just a horror novel.

In film, we'd already had more straight-out horror flicks like Nosferatu and Caligari, so I think you'd have to say that a fledgling genre was developing, if not already in place.

Here's my proposal: With the rules still pretty loose, perhaps filmmakers - especially those on relatively big money projects like TMWL - took a "big tent" approach to films, trying to pack in a little something from every genre to draw in as many viewers as possible. There's comedy, melodrama, romance, a little action, a dash of horror, some costume drama - stir well and serve.

That would explain the sort of genre-less feel so many silent era flicks have. It would help explain why so many of these old movies feel jammed packed with crazy stuff. Finally, it would also explain why these things remind me of Lewton's films, which were supposedly horror flicks but were made to appeal to broad, adult audiences that might have little interest in the genre.

Anyway, it's a theory.

my daroga said...

I like this theory very much. I was thinking more along the lines that Hugo was writing at a time when the genres were new or not yet solid, and that the silent film era was a time when film genres were similarly fluid, so this makes sense.

I believe I am sensitive to the idea of deformity=horror--in film/literature, it frequently does, but it shouldn't always. "The Elephant Man" has similar visual qualities that might prompt someone towards that opinion, but I would find the implication that it's a horror film insulting, unless one intended it to be a film about the "horror" of Joseph Merrick's life.

But yes, the cross-pollination of genre in silent films is one of the delights of the era, and something I wish we'd retained more as Hollywood became far more streamlined. Good discussion!