Swooping down from the Carpathian Mountains comes…Senior Drácula…. HOLD UP! You may be wondering, “But Thomas, haven’t you already published a review on Dracula?” Oh yes. I certainly have. If you’re brave enough to search the catacombs of Machine Mean, you’d be likely to stumble across a few. From memory, I’m fairly certain I’ve written a review on the Roxy Theater initial release of Dracula. I’ve written a post on Dwight Frye who played Renfield. And I’m pretty sure I’ve written a post celebrating Bela Lugosi, who we all know and was in fact buried as Dracula. But now comes the time, my friends, when we finally get to review the Spanish version of Dracula. According to film historians and most of everyone else in the biz, it was not uncommon for Universal Studios and most of Hollywood to produce Spanish or French or even German adaptations of their films. The unique thing about Drácula is that the Spanish version was filmed during the night on the same set and during the same time as the one we’ve all come to love and adore. That’s right folks, Dracula and Drácula were filmed at the same time, the American Todd Browning directed version during the day, and the Spanish George Melford during the night. The only real difference being the director, the cast, and subtle differences in wardrobe. In fact, according to Lupita Tovar, the Mexican-American actress who played Eva (love interest of both Harkin and Drácula), in the new introduction offered in the Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection, said that because the Spanish film was done on the same set as the American version, the actors used the same markings on the floor that directed them where to stand while being filmed. In this way, Drácula is a near perfect shot-for-shot version of the original.
Now, given the near perfect similarities between the two films, there’s been a rumor among horror fanatics and run-of-the-mill fans alike. The rumor is that the Spanish directed Dracula is better than the American shot version. There is no secret of the troubles Todd Browning’s version faced. Watching the movie even now, one can see how it seems pieced together with more than a few mishaps on stage. The one saving grace was the powerful magnetism of the cast of actors, mostly Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye (if you ask me). In transparency, I must confess, last night as I inserted the DVD, my thoughts went back to those rumors, of how the Spanish version was superior to the original. And after watching the wonderful Lupita Tovar give the introduction, one would think certainly the rumors were true. Well…I’m sure you’re asking by now, “Was it? Was the Spanish version better than the American?” Before we get into that, let’s back things up for a moment and fill in some gaps for those readers who have not yet watched Dracula or even read the Bram Stroker novelisation (poor souls).
Here is a synopsis of the American film:
The dashing, mysterious Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), after hypnotizing clerk Renfield (Dwight Frye) into his mindless slave, travels to London and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon Dracula begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires. When he sets his sights on Mina (Helen Chandler), the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is enlisted to put a stop to the count’s never-ending bloodlust.
And here is the synopsis of the Spanish film:
Soon after beginning work for Conde Dracula (Carlos Villarias), the clerk Renfield (Pablo Alvarez Rubio) learns that his employer is, in fact, a vampire who lives on human blood. Now under Dracula’s spell, Renfield helps his master travel to London, where the vampire takes another victim (Carmen Guerrero). Dracula also has eyes on the lovely Eva (Lupita Tovar), but her fiancé, Juan Harker (Barry Norton), and a wise professor named Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) seek to stop him.
Some slight differences but otherwise pretty much the same. As it should be, given they’re both working with the same script. One of the biggest differences that I noticed right away was how much more easily it was to follow along with the plot of the Spanish version of Dracula. If that was more of my familiarity with the subject or not, I cannot say for certain, but I did find it easier this time around. And even though the Spanish crew was using the same sets as the American one, those sets seemed to have better lighting, maybe this has to do with them filming at night rather than during the day, but the mountains and rooms and villages looked brighter and I enjoyed getting another perspective of the uniqueness and craftsmanship of those designs. The costumes looked mirror image to those of the American version of the film, the one difference (that I noticed) was the design of dresses Eva and her friend wore, which is to say, a little more low cut in the breast region. Lupita Tovar comments on the same during her introduction of the film, quoting that the director had told her the dresses made them look sexy. Watching the film today, the design feels on point to what we normally see in more classy movies, however, I can imagine watching this back in 1931 during a more conservative film era.
The real nitty-gritty for me boils down, not to stages or costumes or scripts or lighting, but the actors themselves. Did the Spanish-American actors outdo the originals? Perhaps I’m bias, seeing how I’m a huge fan of the original…that being said, I had some qualms with some of the performances in the Spanish version. The biggest star of Dracula will inevitably be Dracula. In the original, we were introduced to Bela Lugosi, a very exotic actor (at the time). With Drácula we were introduced to Carlos Villarias. Both actors were largely unknown, and both were recent immigrants to California, Lugosi hailing from Belguim and Carlos from Spain. Despite Carlos’s advantage of being able to act while speaking his native tongue, Bela to me was the better of the two Draculas. It is even more amazing when we consider how Bela was not yet proficient with the English language during the time when Dracula was being filmed and recited the script phonetically from memory. Now, I’m not saying Carlos was a bad actor. He was good, it just…his portrayal as Dracula felt very comedic to me. His facial expressions were, to be frank, hilarious, and thus it was hard to take him seriously.
Secondly, both versions of the lawyer/clerk Renfield were played marvelously by both Dwight Frye and Pablo Alvaerez Rubio. They both felt very empathetic and loathsome…however, again perhaps due to my bias as a fan of the original, Dwight Frye gave the role the extra added creepiness that brought the movie to a whole other level. I was completely fine with Pablo as Renfield until the boat scene with the dock crews searching for survivors and discover the poor clerk below deck. That image of Fyre looking up from the staircase and his maniacal giggle still gives me chills. All Pablo offered was laugh like some loon. And there were a few other scenes, like when Renfield crawled on the ground toward the fainted nurse, Dwight seemed to me like a spider, Pablo…well, I don’t know what he was doing.
Third, the only other really important character to get right would be Professor Van Helsing. In the American version, we are treated to the likes of Edward Van Sloan. In the Spanish version, we get Eduardo Arozamena. Both performances were pretty much the same, in fact, both actors even looked a lot alike. The only difference being the subtle charismatic acting of Van Sloan versus a more pragmatic acting by Arozamena. For me, personally, again perhaps due to my bias, I prefer the American version of Van Helsing. As for the damsel, a truism for most Universal Monster movies during this era, again both Mina (Helen Chandler) and Eva (Lupita Tovar) were very well done. But, looking closer, a think I prefer Lupita Tovar’s performance over Helen Chandler’s. She was not only more exotic, but she was also more sympathetic, in my opinion.
So…who was better? Dracula or Drácula. Were the rumors true? No, and yes. There were many aspects of the Spanish version that I enjoyed. The sets. The more developed story structure. Even some of the acting. But, I think, there is more to love with the original Dracula. Bela and Frye, for starters. And despite the issues with filming, Todd Browning brought a sort of stylization and his own strange vision to the quality of direction in Dracula that George Melford did not have. That’s not saying Drácula is not good. It certainly is and ought to be screened by any fan of horror or fan of the Universal monsters. I’m actually really happy the creators of the 30-movie boxset included this version. Otherwise, I may have never given the movie a chance. But when compared to the Dracula filmed during the day, there just are no substitutes.
My review: 3.5/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new Subdue Series, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.
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While Dracula (1931) may have been the first, the granddaddy of the Universal Monster pictures, it was Frankenstein who set the monstrous industry into a golden era of bringing frightful stage plays into the silver screen. And likewise became the highlight of eccentric director James Whales’ career. I’m sure you’re probably thinking, “But Tommy, wasn’t one of Whales best pictures Journey’s End (1930), a full year before Frank made the big screen.” And yes. I would agree. Journey’s End was a fantastic war drama depicting the lives of British soldiers as they fought in trench warfare during the Great War and equally important as one of the first talkies. Be-that-as-it-may, it was Frankenstein to which the director really shined. And perhaps one could argue, it was his 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein to which we could pin as his masterpiece. But that review will have to wait for another day. Today, the lovely Dawn Cano will be taking us on a little journey into the macabre heart of Frankenstein, to whomever said heart may belong, we’ll have to discover on our own. Perhaps we’ll find pain. Perhaps we’ll find fear. Perhaps we’ll find something about ourselves in those melodramatic haunting eyes of Boris Karloff. Let us discover together.
Frankenstein: A Real Tug on the Heartstrings
By: Dawn Cano
Released in 1931 and based on the 1818 novel by the same name, Frankenstein was directed by James Whale, and stars Boris Karloff, Collin Clive, Mae Clarke, and Dwight Frye. It tells the story of Dr. Henry Frankenstein who, along with his assistant Fritz, sets out to create human life by piecing together body parts from the recently deceased.
Of course, all bodies need a brain, and after unsuccessfully trying to acquire one from the graveyard, Dr. Frankenstein sends Fritz into a medical laboratory to steal a brain. Fritz grabs a healthy, normal brain and drops it, leaving the only alternative to be the unhealthy, or abnormal brain that once belonged to a violent criminal.
After acquiring the brain, the doctor gets to work on his experiment. Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth, worries for his sanity because he’s locked himself in an abandoned watchtower and refuses to leave until he completes his work. She and her friends, Victor Moritz and Dr. Waldman, head to the watchtower to rescue the doctor before his experiment drives him mad.
Frankenstein is fairly annoyed that his fiancee arrived to interrupt his work, but soon ushers the trio into his laboratory to prove once and for all that he can create life, and that he’s not crazy. When they enter the room, they see a dead man lying on a hospital table and during a thunderstorm, Frankenstein and Fritz raise the bed up to the roof of the watchtower, where it is struck by lightning. The two lower the bed and soon, the dead man’s hand begins moving. It is then we hear one of the most iconic lines in movie history, “It’s alive!”
Frankenstein’s “monster” (I hate that term but use it in this article for the sake of argument) initially comes across as a docile creature until we see his violent reaction to fire. Frankenstein uses fire to control the beast and Fritz antagonizes the monster until finally, he can’t take anymore and strangles the assistant. Knowing then that Frankenstein’s monster is dangerous and must be destroyed, Henry and Dr. Waldman decide to humanely end his life. Waldman puts the monster to sleep and prepares to dissect him, and Henry goes off to get married.
Waldman is ready to dissect Frankenstein’s creation, but the monster awakens, strangles the doctor and escapes. He comes across a little girl named Maria, who invites him to play. The pair throw flowers into the lake, watching them float, and when the monster runs out of flowers, he tosses the girl into the water to see if she floats too. She doesn’t, and drowns. Later, we see the girl’s father walking through the center of town carrying his dead child. Everyone knows the monster is to blame and several hundred residents form groups to find and either kill him, or bring him back alive. As Dr. Frankenstein leads one of the search parties, he comes across his creation. The monster knocks him out and carries him to the top of an old mill. Out of fear and anger, the monster throws his creator off the top of the mill and luckily, Frankenstein’s fall is broken by the windmill’s vanes, which is the only thing that saves his life. The villagers set fire to the windmill, seemingly killing Frankenstein’s monster.
In 1931, Frankenstein was released on the cusp of Dracula‘s success, at a time when Universal struggled to pay its bills, so the studio needed this film to be as successful as Dracula. When filming began for Frankenstein, French director Robert Florey was set to direct, with Bela Lugosi cast as Frankenstein’s monster. Through some unknown twist of fate, (many rumors have circulated as to why these two left the project, but nothing solid was ever confirmed) James Whale, known for his sense of humor and often blasphemous take on things, took the helm and cast the relatively unknown Boris Karloff in the role of the monster. Lugosi eventually got his chance to play Frankenstein’s monster in the 1943 film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. That film was a feeble attempt to revitalize his failing career, but he was no Karloff, and the film was a flop.
By far, the best casting choice for this film, excluding Karloff of course, is that of Collin Clive in the role of Dr. Henry Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein clearly teeters on the edge of creativity and madness in this film, and Clive absolutely nails his performance. Not only does the audience feel the madness slowly creeping up on the good doctor, they also feel his need to do something dangerous and to take chances, which is something many of us wish we had the guts to do.
Cast in the role of Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth, Mae Clarke gives a stellar performance as a strong woman who can stand on her own (a rarity at the time), but one who is also afraid for the man she loves. I think this role would have been wasted on anyone else.
Whale felt that because of the strong horror elements in Frankenstein, the movie needed a little comic relief, so he cast Dwight Frye as Fritz and Frederick Kerr as Henry’s father, Baron Frankenstein. The director incorporated subtle comedy in this film to break up the horror and give audiences a break from the most terrifying scenes ever shown at the time.
To 1931 audiences, Dracula was frightening. However, when Universal released Frankenstein later that year, it was considered so scary, it actually started with a warning, one that told people what they were about to witness. The message was delivered by Dr. Waldman himself, Edward van Sloan:
“How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle (the producer) feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to – uh, well, we warned you.”
And there it is, the moral lesson Frankenstein left in the mind of its audience. Man shouldn’t “play God.” The 1930s saw a strong resurgence of religion not only in America, but all across the world. Church attendance was way up as the world pulled itself up by its boot straps and tried to recover from the Great Depression. Frankenstein not only made people question if playing with life and death was the morally right thing to do, it also subtly questioned the existence of God. (“Now I know what it’s like to BE God!”) Today, with things like cloning becoming more commonplace and atheism on the rise, playing God doesn’t seem quite so shocking or terrible as it must have 85 years ago. At that time, imagine how horrifying it must have been to see the doctor robbing the graveyard of fresh corpses, or watching a dead body come back to life. Frankenstein was well ahead of its time in the subjects it tackled.
What I really want to talk about here, which is by far the best part of Frankenstein, at least for me, is its emotion. First we have the doctor, who wanted so badly to be remembered for something, he would do whatever it took to gain notoriety. History would always remember him as the man who brought the dead back to life. First and foremost, he was a dreamer, and his dream almost tore him apart. Clive does an outstanding job making the audience feel scared for the doctor when it seems his sanity was on the line, and happy for him when he finally succeeds, even when what he was doing was so wrong.
As outstanding as Clive’s performance is, the real emotion in this film doesn’t come from the doctor. It comes from the “monster” himself. One particular scene comes to mind, and those of you who have watched the film will (hopefully) agree with me. When Dr. Frankenstein learns the monster is afraid of fire, he opens up the roof of the watchtower, allowing the sunlight to come streaming through so he can gauge the monster’s reaction. Frankenstein’s creation smiles, lifting his head and hands toward the light. It is a beautiful scene and although Karloff has no speaking lines, so much comes through in that one moment. People have often speculated about this particular moment, and I’ve seen folks guess that maybe the monster’s behavior was supposed to represent autism. Another fan theory is that maybe the man whose brain the monster inherited came from someone destined to go to Hell, and the sun represented Heaven, a place the deceased never thought he’d get to see. Either way, it’s a gorgeous, highly-emotional scene.
After the monster escapes, he finds his way to the lake and meets Maria, the little girl he later drowns. The two of them are sitting on the bank of the lake throwing flowers into the water, watching them float. The monster’s face during this moment is a mask of pure joyful innocence, and the only reason he throws the girl into the water is because he runs out of flowers and wants to keep playing. There is no malice in his action and he obviously realizes he did something wrong because as soon as Maria hits the water, he runs away. Again, Karloff expresses an abundance of emotion in this short scene without ever saying a word. The end of Frankenstein shows the monster carrying his creator to the top of the windmill. The fear and confusion the monster feels is palpable and despite everything he’s done, you can’t help but feel very sad for him that his short life ends so violently.
These are the reasons why I dislike calling Dr. Frankenstein’s creation a “monster.” He was never a monster at all. He was something created out of body parts, brought to life and left to his own devices, and all of these things took place against his will. Fritz did nothing but torment him with fire until he eventually snapped, because he didn’t know any other way to make him stop. The doctor provided no guidance, no teachings of the difference between right and wrong, and mistakenly thought that this new person would automatically know how to think and behave, even after he found out the brain he used was abnormal. Without guidance, how could anyone expect him to automatically know what to do?
Another thing Frankenstein got right was the sets. Remember, the year is 1931, so cinematography and set design were still fairly new. Some scenes, like the scene where the monster is running away from the mobs are obviously fake. (take a look at the clouds) but some, like the one where Maria’s father walks through the center of town carrying his dead daughter are absolutely breathtaking for their time.
Riding on the success of the first film, more than 70 movies featuring Frankenstein’s monster eventually followed, and each had varying degrees of success. Some of the more popular Frankenstein films include Bride of Frankenstein, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein. No matter how successful these films are, none will match the vision, creativity, or raw emotion presented in the first Frankenstein.*
Frankenstein gets a very solid 5/5 from me.
A horror fan from an early age, Dawn Cano loves everything about the genre and has just begun her journey into the world of horror writing. When not pounding away at the keyboard, she can be found reviewing books and movies for The Ginger Nuts of Horror and wasting time on Facebook. Dawn has also started what will no doubt be a fantastic career as a storyteller. You can find her books, including Sleep Deprived and Bucket List, *Warning: Some Scenes May Disturb for both of these wonderfully gruesome tales.
Behold! Dracula, the movie that launched a twenty-three year progression of monster movies we call Universal Classics today. Who could have predicted the success despite a rather tremendous stage career of not only the film but also the glowing eyed antagonist, Bela Lugosi? Dracula, the dashing, mysterious godfather of modern horror cinema, released at the Roxy Theater in New York City, on February 12, 1931. Even the cleverly crafted “fainting” rumors and “on-call” medical staff in the lobby orchestrated by nervous executives, hoping to induce some natural sense of morbid curiosity, was unnecessary. According to film historian Michael Fitzgerald, within the first 48 hours of Dracula’s release, the Roxy Theater had sold over 50,000 tickets. Horror had just become mainstream. Dracula’s acclaim paved the way for the other classics we’ve grown to love, our other Universal Studios Monsters, such as: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolfman, each owing their existence to the success of one film, even if said film wasn’t entirely all that great. But I think, in large part, the success, as it began at first, was due to the period in which the film released. Lets take a look back in time (key Twilight Zone theme).
The golden era of Universal Studios monster movies is one of most interesting bits of Americana cinematic history. Why? I’m glad you asked! As the roar of the 20’s was coming to an end, the decade that had ushered in high booms and some of the best silent pictures would eventually end in the same dramatic fashion. The Stock Market Crash, also known as “Black Tuesday,” on October 29th, 1929, while still under much debate among certain historical circles, we can say that following the panic, America went into the greatest depression she, thus far, had ever known. By March 1930, 3.2 million people would be unemployed. And while Americans were growing uncertain regarding the future in the face of food riots, strikes, and lamentable upheaval, even more uncertainty was developing on the horizon.
Beginning in 1928, against the backdrop of Germany’s almost two decade long depression following the end of the Great War, and the peoples utter discontent with what they considered a failure of Wiemar Democracy, the Nazi Party (The National Socialist Party) slowly began taking over the Reichstag (Reichstagsgebäude). Fascism was a darkening cloud over the Atlantic. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. By 1935, the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were established, and by 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland, World War II began.
This is, of course, just a brief look at the world during the era of Universal Horror. Only with the luxurious logic of hindsight can we contemplate why executives were nervous over Dracula’s success in the first place. Some things we can guess. This was a film, based on a stage play, based on a novel that was, at the time, rather dark and perhaps too sexualized for tastes during the 1930s. And across the pond, the world was in turmoil. And not just that, but Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, the producers first pick as Dracula, had recently passed away. Who would they cast now? In the end, it boiled down to Lugosi, and mostly only because he was literally the last option and would work for cheap, about $500 a week. Certainly, the film was a risk for Universal, but as history proved, Dracula became one of the greatest escapes for worrisome audiences listening in on radio broadcasts about invasions, famine, poverty, and war. And of course this was no simple drive to the movies! Not at all. For the silent and talkie black & white era “going to the movies” was no humbug experience. Especially for theaters such as Roxy, in New York City. The Roxy was a Grand Theater, a “Cathedral of the Motion Picture.” Going to the movies to see Dracula was not the same experience as going to the movies today, to say the least. Going to the movies during the 20’s and 30’s was like going to the Opera in today’s standards. Folks got dressed up for cheap tickets and excellent performances. Live orchestras opened the night before the large velvet curtain pulled away revealing the white projection screen underneath. Going to the movies, was indeed The Greatest Show on Earth.
But that was then. Now, we’re sitting at 85 years since Dracula’s original release. What does Dracula say for today’s audiences. Well, to be honest I’d say most people probably feel Dracula is rather dated. Tod Browning’s directorial control seems very lacking in many regards. Consider the piece of cutout cardboard left on a lamp for one of Lugosi’s closeups. In fact, we should probably give more directorial credit to Karl Freund, famed cinematographer of 1927’s German Expressionist masterpiece, Metropolis. And the lack of a musical score gives one the impression of empty space, like watching a High School stage production than a big budget Hollywood movie. Its choppy. There’s a sense of discontinuity. Yet, despite all that, Dracula is, in my most humble opinion, incredibly dark and at times scary. The fact that the movie is, in its own way, still disturbing stresses something important about the kind of story being told. A horror story playing on fears realized in the hearts of humanity told since the first campfire. Dracula tells us about (though, i’d argue for socially different reasons between 1931 and today) our fears of the so-called foreign invader, fears of madness, fears of hierarchical purity (Nazis called this, Volksgemeinschaft; the United States called it, Eugenics), fears of the unknown, fears of losing free will (especially the freedom of choice), and fears of death.
One of the greatest (of many) appeals with Dracula is its quality of acting. While Dracula was Bela Lugosi’s signature role, a role he played beautifully and held audiences with his mesmerizing Hungarian accent, my favorite all in all is Dwight Frye’s portrayal as Renfield. Watching the movie, even now 85 years later, Renfield gives me the chills. His sensibility as Dracula’s minion, his raving lunacy, devouring spiders and flies alike, was delivered with pure genius and incredible character acting. Especially during the scene aboard the Vesta, when the London longshoremen discover Renfield hiding below deck, the look on his face looking up at them from the staircase is, to say the least, disturbing. And this pretty much goes for the rest of the supporting cast. Edward Van Sloan as Abraham Van Helsing was marvelous. And who could deny the captivating charm of Helen Chandler as Mina Harker, the subject of Dracula’s desire? Yes, Dracula has some production issues that could sway you away into settling with a few YouTube clips to satisfy your curiosity. If I could somehow convince you otherwise, I hope this review helped. There’s certainly an historic importance with Dracula, but not just that. Dracula was, regardless of the all its mistakes, a hauntingly human, and, as it was billed back in 1931, a strange [otherworldly] romance.
Is Robocop (2014) a political movie? This is my question that I want you to consider as we discuss certain reoccurring themes throughout the film. For starters, yes I know I’m way behind the curve here for a movie review. What can I say? I missed Robocop in theaters and was only able to finally sit down and watch it over this past weekend. And to my surprise, this was not the 1987 version of Robocop. Sometimes remakes go to far to re-imagine or recreate the nostalgic feel of the original, and while this Robocop has certain 80’s-esk qualities, it is in itself, its own movie. The 1987 Robocop was…well..to put it bluntly a 1970’s grindhouse picture filmed in the 1980’s. Grindhouse (or savage cinema) is all about random acts of violence, but not any ole violence; grindhouse overexposes the audience to violence in order to send a cultural/political message about the time in which the movie was made. In the 1970’s, it was about Vietnam and Watergate and all that mess and disillusionment. The 1987 Robocop was giving a magnificent nod toward the over-consumption, over-consumerism, over-cooperated culture America had entwined herself during the 1980’s with over the top, albeit grotesque, hyper-violence. As film historian William Latham has noted, “seeing a corporation as the ultimate savior and the villain at the same time, where a man becomes a product, gave [Robocop] a special meaning in the 1980’s.” If we boil it down, the message of a grindhouse picture during the 70’s is the same as it is during the 1980’s, which is to say: Does the end justify the means? My question before you today is if Robocop (2014) is still a political movie? We’ve left behind the 20th century, some fourteen years now. Does the same message of justifiable means linger on in the 21st century? Do our ends justify our means? Instead of going through the entire film (which would take a while to digest), we’ll discuss two of the most powerful themes dominate in this new Robo-endeavor.
Robocop starts off with Samuel L. Jackson, not a bad way to start a film, playing the part of Pat Novak, a television talk show host (something similar to what you can find on Fox’s Bill O’Reilly Factor) giving a discussion over the use of a unmanned police robots in the United States. His stance is very clear, stating: “Omnicorp law enforcement robots are being used in every country of the world, except our own….why are we [Americans] so robophobic?” To prove his point, Jackson’s character, Novak, cuts from his monologue to a film crew broadcasting from a Iran-esk country where Omnicorp “peacekeepers” are demonstrating a live-action sweep of a recently pacified neighborhood. Novak’s positive position is juxtaposed with close ups of the neighborhood population whose faces are a combination of fear, resentment, confusion, violation, and anger. As the film crew continues their broadcast, we discover that not everyone has accepted pacification. There is a small group of suicide bombers that are planning to strike back. Their attempt fails, obviously, but just when we’re thinking the end justifies the means, the young son of one of the suicide bombers runs out into the street to join his father carrying a kitchen knife. One of the larger bipedal tank-like drones warns the boy “to drop his weapon.” Out of fear, no doubt, the boy refuses and as the camera pans away, we hear gun fire in the background. Pat Novak will tell you, very bluntly that the ends justify the means, because “those droids just saved my coworker,” but did they? His comment about the safety of the film crew is another juxtaposition, this time against the death of the young boy with the kitchen knife. This scene may have a different ambience for you; for me the message is about our current use of unmanned drones in foreign operations and the current debate on drone use over U.S. soil. The beginning scene here begs the question: does the use of drones to keep soldiers safe a justifiable end to the means of using drones in foreign and domestic operations were the loss of innocence could have been avoided?
We cut away from Pat Novak’s lingering lament for our robophobic culture and arrive in a near-future Detroit. Corruption abounds and sets the main catalysts in motion setting up the creation of Robocop. Raymond Sellars’ argument before a legislative committee, that drones do not feel anger or resentment or prejudice, but act according to the limits of the law. And on the other end of the pendulum is Senator Hubert Dreyfuss whose sole purpose throughout the film is to defend the legislation in place that prevents the use of unmanned drones in police duties because, according to Sen. Dreyfuss, machines cannot experience what it is like to kill. They have no feeling toward killing and as such cannot conduct themselves in a manner in which life has value. This back and forth is somewhat of a dual allegorical picture of our current political situation and the “means justifying the ends” question throughout the film.
While all this is contemporary and interesting, it does not compare to the second most powerful scene in Robocop (2014). Ignore Alex Murphy’s flat superhero-esk character for a moment and focus on his resurrection as Robocop. There is really a lot to chew on here, lots of ethical questions and metaphysical ones to be sure, such as the meaning of free will and the illusion of it and all that jazz, but what I want to look at is the imagery of amputees, especially wartime amputees, that becomes a bigger more meaningful part of the movie. When we get to the “lets put a man in a machine” part we’ve all seen in the trailers and Keaton’s spectacular acting, we open up in one of the research and development/rehabilitation areas within Omnicorp. We know its Omnicorp because of the technicians and doctors and the fancy sign on the door, right? But take all that away and limit this to single image and we get the feeling we’re in an army rehabilitation hospital. This could be a familiar scene at Walter Reed Medical Center or Brooke Army Medical who provide rehabilitation for OIF/OEF casualties who have sustained amputation or burns. The “man becoming a product” message William Latham commented on for the 1987 movie is still there, but for me it is not the most dominant message. This also is a major disconnect from the original film. In the 1987 version Alex dies from his wounds and is brought back to life via Omnicorp salvaging his brain and transplanting, along with his face, into a machine. No one knows about the operation until everyone knows about the operation. In the 2014 version, the transformation between man and machine is liken to extreme prosthetics. Alex Murphy did not die, he was saved with the operation. Now, the “saved” part comes under question when his wife (who must sign permission for Omnicorp to do this operation on Alex) asks “what kind of life will he have? You say you can save him, [but] what does that mean?” This, in my opinion, is a very power question, especially when it becomes juxtaposed with the image of the dissembled Murphy. In order for Murphy to face the reality of his situation, Dr. Dennett Norton, with the use of a mirror, begins to take away the robotic parts of Murphy, leaving only his organic self, which is basically only his face, brain, one hand (no arm, just the hand and nerves), and his heart and lungs that are contained in a sac like substance. And at the end, in a very horrific moment, Murphy cries out, “Jesus…there’s nothing left…there’s nothing left of me….”
The extreme amputation and prosthetic becomes a major issue throughout the remainder of the film. Even the vengeance quest is extremely short compared to the longevity of how Murphy deals with, or badly deals with, his new life as a man with prosthetics. Instead of a vengeance as justifiable means to an end, Murphy is put through the ringer of a post-Iraq/Afghanistan world. In many ways, Robocop (2014) becomes one of the first movies to actually question and illuminate PTSD, amputation, post-war family dynamic, legislation, political talk-show mongrels, and corruption. The piecing together of man and machine is a classic horror motif that draws all the way back to Frankenstein (1931) a movie that dealt with similar issues for a different post-war generation. As film historian David Skal has commented on the form of Frankenstein, the symbolization of the monster that represents “displaced, suppressed, and reshaped humans to conform with the machine world. Whale’s film depicted a monster squarely in the grip of this confusion, a pathetic figure caught, as it were, on the barbed wire between humanism and mechanism.” The “pathetic” tug we feel in the new Robocop is Alex’s self image or how he sees himself. After being shown what remains of his organic form, he demands never to be shown himself again, especially not to his wife. This self-loathing in a post-war image is another throwback to an earlier horror monster from another time, consider The Phantom of the Opera (1911), when Gaston Leroux writes, “Look! You want to see! See! Feast your eyes, glut your soul on my cursed ugliness!”
Assume the credits roll here. What did you think of the movie? Was it political? And most importantly, did the ends justify the means? Answers are never clear-cut. However, movies like Robocop help us deal with the mental processes we continue to struggle with, even though we may never arrive at same agreed upon destination. Its worth pondering and coming to our own conclusions.
With a face only a mother could love, Thomas S. Flowers hides away to create character-driven stories of dark fiction. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was soon published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can hide from Thomas by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.