The L.A Times has posted an article by Kenneth Turan, praising the virtues of silent horror films. The article is apropos of a series of silent horror films being put on by the University of California in Los Angeles, so there is some news vallue to the piece; unfortunately, as a piece of criticism, it proves once again why it is best to ignore L.A. Times film critics at all cost.
Basically, Turan waxes rhapsodic about the elegant sophistication of silent horror films, which he contrasts with the crass commercialism of current work in the genre. He claims that during the silent era,”the horror film and the art film were as close as twins,” and he yearns for the glory days when horror relied not on bloody screams but on “a delicious frisson of fright.”
There are several problems with this thesis, the fist being that (outside of the German Expressionist movement that gave us CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI), horror films as we know them barely existed in the silent era. The modern American horror film was born early in the sound era with DRACULA in 1931; previously, Hollywood was churning out mysteries and thrillers, films like Roland West’s THE BAT (1926) and Tod Browning’s LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) — creepy yes, but seldom horrific.
Typical of this trend in the ’20s is one of the films on the UCLA series, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). It’s set in an appropriate atmospheric location, the Paris Opera House, with its catacombs and tunnels underneath. But the “phantom” haunting the place is not ghost at all but a man of flesh-and-blood — a fact we’re aware of almost from the beginning. As a result, the uncanny “frisson” that Turan praises is almost entirely absent. (Which is not to say the film is not entertaining; it’s just a different kind of entertainment than Turan describes.)
Turan’s other big mistake is to equate silent horror films with the art house. Movies like THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and the 1920 version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE with John Barrymore (which is also screening as part of the UCLA series) were designed and created as popular entertainments with every bit as much commercial calculation that goes into today’s horror films. Again, we can perhaps credit The German silent films with more ambitious aspirations, but Turan makes no such distinctions, simply singing praise to silents in general.
Finally, one other point is worth noting: One expects stuffy old film critics to wax nostalgic for old movies, but it is a bit surprising to see a critic stuck in a nostalgic mode about something he obviously hates. When Turan rails against modern horror films for bludgeoning audiences with grotesque special effects, he is really talking about a trend that had its heyday ten or twenty years ago. Sure, some foolish filmmakers haven’t got the message (hence, junk like HOUSE OF WAX still gets made), but the trend in contemporary horror is toward PG-13 films that rely on exactly the kind of frisson that Turan says he loves.
Think of films like THE OTHERS and THE GRUDGE; even THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE avoids gratuitous gore. THE GRUDGE, especially, traffics in the kind of uncanny juxtaposition of the every day world with the supernatural that generates cold clammy shudders down the spine that have little if anything to do with bludgeoning shocks. But do you find the L.A. Times praising a film like THE GRUDGE? No, the film was roundly trashed in the paper (not by Turan, who apparently didn’t think it worth his time to review it).
The hypocrisy of the double standard is fairly astounding. It seems that horror has to be old and dated to generate positive response from the Times.
In case you’re interested, here is the UCLA schedule:
- The Cat and the Canary/Waxworks – Saturday, October 8 @ 7:30pm
- The Fall of the House of Usher/Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – October 14 @ 7:30pm
- Vampyr – October 16 @ 7pm
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari/The Golem – October 19 @ 7:30pm
- The Phantom of the Opera – October 20 @ 8:00pm
All of the films screen in the James Bridges Theatre in Melnitz Hall on the UCLA campus in Westwood, except for Phantom, which screens at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – 8949 Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills.
Call 310-206-FILM for more information.