Universal Monsters in review: Werewolf of London (1935)
Diving deeper into the chambers of Universal Classic Monsters, today we bring to you a strange and unusual tale of a botanist who, while researching a mysterious flower in Tibet, is bitten by a cursed and lowly creature. Coming from last weeks dreadful The Mummy’s Hand, I’m pleased to once again find myself pulled into a movie with directors, producers, and actors that’ve taken a story so fantastic as the Werewolf of London and created something phenomenal. Much as many of the Universal classics, and unlike the famed 1941 The Wolfman, we are torn into a battle between the supernatural and the discoveries of modern science. A reoccurring theme, I think, especially among these earlier films. Fears of the things man dabbles in, and the repercussions of progress and so-called modernity. I found Werewolf of London a wonderful film and wish I’d seen it sooner. I’m a fan of werewolf tales, as much as our guest writer I think. With Werewolf of London, its interesting to see a take on the lore set within the confines of science. Very interesting. But enough of that. Let us see what our esteemed guest has to say!
Werewolf Of London
A look back at a Universal Classic
By: JR Park
Werewolves have always held a fascination for me. At the tender age of six I watched Michael Jackson scream “Go Away” to Ola Ray in the Thriller video as he transformed with excruciating detail into a monster. It terrified and excited me. Thirty years later and I have still not recovered.
Vampires, ghosts, zombies and undead serial killers have all provided me with horrific delights since I was bitten by the horror bug all those years ago, but no monster has held the same intrigue to me as the werewolf. The development of cinematic lycanthropes have certainly been a rapid one in the hundred years since they’ve appeared on film, and as we look back to their origins we find a creature oh so similar, and yet very different from the beast that stalks the moonlit world of the modern era.
Werewolf of London was Universal’s first werewolf film, released in 1935, six years before the much more successful and remembered Wolf Man. The critical reaction was unfavourable at the time, calling it out dated, and given unflattering comparatives to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a film that had been released only a few years before and became a hit.
The plot to Werewolf of London involves a British botanist venturing to Tibet in search of a flower that grows and blooms only under moonlight, known as the mariphasa. Keeping to the horror film standard for which we all know well today, the good botanist, Wilfred Glendon and his companion are warned against his quest. ‘Somethings are best not to bother with,’ is the vague caution they are offered, as they causally ignore the rumours of demons in the valley. It’s not long into their descent down said valley before they encounter the strange bloom. And it’s not long again after that that a snarling wolf-like beast attacks the doctor, leaving him wounded and scarred.
Back in London and Wilfred has managed to bring home a specimen of the plant, but is irritated that the fake moonlight he projects onto the bloom causes it no reaction. Then it’s a cut to a party scene with laboriously long dialogue that doesn’t seem to go anywhere until we meet fellow botanist Dr Yogami who seems to know an awful lot about werewolves.
From the knowledge of Dr Yogami, and Wilfred’s diligence research in text books, we encounter the mythos for this film’s lycanthrope sufferers, and the driving plot of the film: 1) a person bitten by a werewolf will turn into a werewolf themselves during the full moon, 2) the plant, mariphasa, is not a complete cure, but is an antidote to stop each transformation, 3) the werewolf must kill at least one person per night of the full moon or become permanently afflicted.
We got that so far? To make matters worse we are left with the lingering words from Dr Yogami, ‘The werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves the best.’ Bummer.
Eventually the first transformation scene comes around, and let’s be honest, that’s the bit everyone’s waiting for in any werewolf movie. The scene is handled well with Wilfred stumbling through his laboratory passing pillars as he goes. Each pillar he passes, he comes out the other side more horrific. It’s nicely handled and a good piece of drama that doesn’t disappoint.
But what of the monster itself?
This is a very different design to the snarling, furry faced Lon Chaney Jr of the Wolf Man. Although both sets of makeup were created by the same man, Jack Pierce, his original design was toned down, the studio asking him to make it more human in appearance.
But it’s not just its physical form that makes the creature in this film more human that its savage successor. This monster has the decency to pick up its hat and coat before it begins prowling the dark streets of the city; and even manages to speak in the final act of its death throes.
The influence of Jekyll and Hyde is apparent in these scenes, and it’s interesting to think that this monster would only become popular when it shook free of the chains of another creation and fully relished in its own monstrous mythos.
But back to the plot: Wilfred, now as a werewolf runs to the plant, knowing it will cure him, but as he stands over the strange flower a memory of his wife pops into his head. The monster takes over, filling him with the desire to kill the thing he loves the most (remember the words from Dr Yogami?). This attack fails and so he satisfies his bloodlust with a random woman wondering the streets.
Ashamed of his actions, Wilfred rents a room in an Inn to hide away. This is the first time we get to see the wolf man as a tragic figure, something we’ll see a lot more of in the films that follow. But the four walls provide no prison and he’s back out again, killing, this time in a zoo. There’s a fun little twist in the movie that I won’t spoil, but ultimately the monster sets himself upon his wife before being shot. Mortally wounded, Wilfred rolls to face the policeman holding the gun and thanks him for the bullet, before apologising to his wife (how very British of him).
So is the film any good? The werewolf make up is okay, and the transformations are pretty effective; the first one handled well and the rest being made of dissolving stills, which is something us modern viewers would expect from a Universal werewolf movie. Its major problem is the long periods of dialogue, which in themselves would be okay if they were handled well, but sadly the acting is poor. To begin with I blamed the time period, but a shining light in the film not only gave me some much needed entertainment, but it also highlighted as a comparative, how starch-like stiff the other actors were.
During the scene where Wilfred looks to rent a room he enters a pub and meets two ladies with whom to rent from. These two characters had fast, snappy dialogue, were forever drunk or drinking, and played with a comic melodrama that stole the show. In fact the performance of these two were so strong that I’d recommend watching the movie just for these two, despite how fleeting their appearances are. Good acting is good acting, no matter which period the film is made; just as funny is always funny.
So Werewolf of London helped birth the cinematic werewolf we know of today. It had the changing by moonlight, the tragedy of the affliction and the fascination of the transformation. And although it in itself is not a great movie, it helped pave the way for something far, far better. To quote a line from the opening scenes of the film, ‘Without fools there would be no wisdom.’
And I got through the whole thing without mentioning Warren Zevon. Almost.
JR Park draws from the crazy worlds of exploitation cinema and pulp literature for his literary inspiration. His family are both equally proud and disturbed by his literary output, dragged from a mind they helped to cultivate. He resides on the outskirts of Bristol in the UK and hopes one day they’ll let him in. Mr. Park is the author of several twisted tales of morbid doom, includingUpon Waking and Terror Byte and Punch. He was also featured with a horrifyingly wonderful short in the horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. Besides giving his readers terrifying nightmares, Mr. Park is also one of the founding members of the up and coming UK Publishing team, The Sinister Horror Company, active in promoting other writers and attending numerous conventions.
Universal Monsters in review: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Lock your gates. Shut the doors. The monster has returned!!! And I’ll keep my little intro here brief as our esteemed guest writer today has given us a magnificent opus on what many consider to be James Whale’s masterpiece, The Bride of Frankenstein. The Bride certainly has it all, social satire, horror, wit, comedy, and perhaps even a nuance of sexuality (homosexuality, to be bold). While Whale’s private may have private, not surprising considering how homosexuality was believed to be a mental disorder by the majority of Americans up until the 1970s, in Bride we get a little glimpse of satire to his hidden persona. Many symbolism’s I’m surprised survived the sharp blade of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship goons, now known as the MPAA, especially the scene in which the Monster is hoisted up in a near crucifixion pose. However, I do not wish go too deeply into this topic, as there have been tons of scholarly paper written in its regard. If you are curious to dig deeper into what I’ve mentioned above, feel free to check out the following site I found, the research I found to be quite interesting, here. So, without further delay, let us see what our guest has in store for us today!
Would You Like To Hear What Happened After That?
By: Kit Power
So basically, this’ll be the ‘ignoramus’ portion of this blog series.
You see, I know nothing about the Universal monster series. Absolutely bugger all. Never one to let ignorance stop me writing (as those familiar with my work will no doubt attest), when Thomas S. Flowers approached me to take part, I lept at the chance – it felt like an opportunity to make a long-overdue correction, and fill one of the many many embarrassing gaps in my cultural knowledge.
Having been advised that the ‘marquee’ debut pictures were all already spoken for (The Mummy, The Wolf Man, Dracula etc) I was given a choice of over fifty titles. Scanning that list, Bride Of Frankenstein lept out at me immediately.
Because of the pinball table.
See, of the many, many displacement activities I have to distract me when I really should be writing, pinball is one of the most consistent. The Pinball Arcade, a company dedicated to digitizing real world pinball tables to produce painstakingly realistic simulations pretty much owns a portion of my soul. Fortunately, all this play happens on the PS3 – if I was a Steam gamer and could readily see how many hours of my life have been sunk into the quintessentially pointless activity of using (digital) flippers to propel a (digital) steel ball around a (digital) table to make (digital) lights flash and bells ring, I suspect there’d be very little reason not to just end it all.
Anyhow, one of my favorite tables is ‘Monster Bash’, a 1997 table from Williams that features the Universal monster menagerie – specifically, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, The Creature From the Black Lagoon… and The Bride. If I tell you that ‘The Bride’ mini game consists of hitting a series of ramps, causing her digital counterpart to whack Frankenstein’s monster over the head with a frying pan while ‘Here comes the bride’ plays on a heavy metal guitar, you’ll perhaps get a flavour of how seriously the source material is being treated. That said, it’s a genuinely fun and well designed pinball table. My high score is in the 800 million range (more on this story later in the series).
So ‘Bride…’ felt like an obvious choice. A quick Amazon search to confirm that it was available in the UK (it was, as part of a BluRay set of 8 Universal monster movies for under £20 – sold!) and I was in.
I watched Frankenstein first, just to try and get some context, before settling down to Bride. I noted that Boris Karloff didn’t get a named credit in the original movie, but is absolutely star billing in the sequel. And I mean, fair enough, because he was fairly awe inspiring in the first movie, but it’s still interesting the degree to which this has become the Boris Karloff show.
The opening five minutes didn’t inspire me with a huge amount of confidence, I have to say. The actor playing Byron is operating like we’re on the back row of a 1,000 seater auditorium, and at least to a modern eye, he’s camp as ninepence. It’s not a serious problem, but I did find myself trying to frantically readjust my sensibilities to 1935 settings.
And then the movie proper started, and none of that mattered.
I found this film to be so thunderingly good I watched it twice, and I’m still not sure I’m going to be able to do full justice to it. After all, there’s a ton of elements that go into making a good movie. When a film is actually great – as I think this one is – each of those elements could fill an essay in their own right. I’m going to try and talk about most of the elements in the order they occur in the film, but that won’t always be possible. I will also talk spoilers, for both this movie and it’s predecessor, Frankenstein, so please, please, if you haven’t seen these movies yet, go away and come back when you have, okay? On the other hand, if you’re an aficionado, apologies in advance for my no doubt shocking stupidity and ignorance.
The first thing to note is that it’s an immediate sequel, in the style of Halloween 2 or Hellraiser 2, beginning where the drama of the first movie ended, with the burning mill. And it looks brilliant. I mean, there’s a gorgeous effects shot of the outside of the mansion that the prologue is held in – crashing thunder, torrential rain – which logic dictates has to be a model shot, but… well, I guess back then they knew how to sell a model shot. The burning mill is similarly spectacular, the black smoke against a grey sky, the roaring timber frame collapsing.
And there’s a weird thing about the acting. Because on one level, for many of the performers (cf. Byron, above) there’s a clear sense that these are stage actors who simply don’t get how film acting is different. So there’s a lot of what we might charitably call broad performances, especially from some of the bit players, like the burgermaster, and the maid. And you can absolutely chalk that up to the fact that it’s 1935, and ‘talkies’ have only been a thing for 8 years, especially with the older performers.
Except then, there’s Karloff.
And I mean, sure, the makeup does at least some of the heavy lifting. It’s absolutely iconic. It’s so good that I’ve seen it a million times, from Halloween masks to coasters to T-Shirts to pinball tables to, shit, everywhere, same as you. And still, the moment that he stands out of the water and that face fills the frame is genuinely chilling. And that’s not all the makeup.
There’s something in his eyes.
There’s this terrifying blankness, with just a hint of… something. Some spark.
The movie wastes no time in reestablishing the monstrosity of the creature, with him committing a swift double murder of the parents of the child he killed in the last movie. There, of course, it was out of a tragically misguided sense of play. Here… well, he’s a wounded, terrified animal, cornered and burned, and righteously pissed off. And it’s not like he knows who he’s fighting with, or why.
Still, it’s uncomfortable – a genuinely grizzly fate for a blameless couple that have already suffered more than anyone should. It was an interesting decision to link the beginning of the movie so explicitly to the most horrific sequence of the original. It’s a clear statement of intent, but also reminds us how dangerous the monster really is.
From there we are acquainted with Dr. Henry Frankenstein, and his suspiciously young bride – and I can’t tell if it’s comforting or depressing to know that even 80 years ago, actresses would get swapped out from one movie to another, but there it is. It’s also interesting to me to note that the technique of having the characters explicitly talk about the themes of the story via argument/dialogue, which has really been in vogue in a lot of TV writing of the last few years (I’m thinking particularly of Moffat era Doctor Who, here, but I’m sure you will have your own examples) was, again, clearly standard practice in 1935. In once sense, of course, that’s really a happy accident – likely if I’d seen this movie ten or fifteen years ago, there’s every chance this scene would have felt far more clunky and old fashioned that it does now. On the other hand, I found it surprising to find that modes of storytelling like this can apparently be both fashionable and cyclical, such that a film from 80 years ago can feel almost anachronistically modern.
And I guess this is a good time to talk about Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein. I mean, the headline is, he’s brilliant, but it’s worth unpacking why, I think.
For starters, there’s a real range to his character. In this scene alone, he goes from romantic lead, to remorseful, to wistful dreamer, to a hint of the manic driven scientist from the first movie, then back again. In a single short monologue. The way Clive plays it is really clever, fluid, transitioning from one to the other smoothly, generating real unease in the process. Given the title of the film, and the tagline on the poster (‘The Monster demands a bride!’), there’s no real suspense about where the story is actually going. Nonetheless, the conflict evident in the character serves well to re-establish him as sympathetic, as well as laying the groundwork for the inevitable tragedy of his temptation and fall.
And then of course, there is the agent of temptation himself – Dr Pretorious himself, played by Ernest Thesiger.
Again, you really could do a whole essay just on this guy. Possibly even a book. He really is that good, the performance that deep. There’s elements of Peter Cushing, for me, albeit camper and less restrained. It’s a fascinating performance – I mean, morally speaking, he’s unambiguously the villain of the piece, the snake in the garden tempting Henry back to the forbidden fruit of even more forbidden knowledge. He compares himself to the devil at one point, so you couldn’t fairly call it subtle. At the same time though, it’s not quite the flamboyant villain of, say Rickman in Robin Hood, (or, for that matter, the cold calculated villainy of Die Hard). He occupies a strange space, suave, but not too suave, persuasive yet sinister. It’s a fine line to walk, and for my money he walks it to perfection. It also reinforces my point earlier about stage vs. screen actors, because this guy has absolutely gotten the memo – so much of his performance is in his face, his eyes.
As befitting the Devil, he also gets all the best lines – ‘A new world of Gods and monsters’, of course, but even more striking to me, perhaps because I hadn’t heard it before, ‘Science, like love, has her little surprises’. The scenes with the two doctors talking, one by turns pleading and manipulating, the other drawn in against his will reminded me strongly of the classic ‘Doctor vs Davros’ conversations from Doctor Who (if you don’t know what I’m talking about get out. No, really. Get. Out). While the power dynamic is of course quite different, there’s still that tension of intellects being attracted even as the divergent morality creates repulsion. it’s potent stuff.
I’m conscious that I haven’t talked much about one of the absolute crown jewels of the movie yet; namely, the direction. In this regard, it’s instructive to watch this movie back to back with the 1931 original, because one of the things you realise is just how much technique improved in just four years. Not that the direction for Frankenstein is bad – quite the reverse. But here, less than half a decade later, director James Whale has improved his already considerable skills dramatically.
I mean, you can take your pick, really. As in, put the movie in and scene select at random, I guarantee you’ll see something within five minutes that, if you know anything about film making and what it must have been like in the ‘30’s, will just blow your mind. There’s an effects shot involving little people in jars at one point, during one of Dr. Pretorius’ seduction attempts, and I just flat out do not know how it was done. I mean, I know how you’d do it now, in 2016 – piece of piss. But 1935?!? It’s insane.
But in some ways, it’s the things you don’t notice that are the most powerful. Like just how amazingly well lit Dr. Pretorious face is, especially in a few pivotal dialogue free scenes. Or how – and this I only spotted second time through – almost all the shots it the lab have the camera at a slight angle, creating a subtle sense of disorientation, dislocation – an unease that you can’t even quite put your finger on. It’s powerful enough that they’re still using techniques like this today.
But I’m getting a bit self conscious, to be honest, because I have no doubt that a real film buff will see a hell of a lot more than I did, so I guess I’ll attempt to quit while I’m ahead on the direction, and just say that if you want to know more, I’m sure there will, again, have been many books written.
Getting back to the story, there’s an interesting runaround where the monster is found, captured, then escapes again into the woods. In a modern film, you’d cut between these scenes and those of Dr. F and his old friend having their ‘will they/won’t they’ chats, but it doesn’t detract from the storytelling that they don’t do that – indeed, it’s a pleasure to spend such an unbroken amount of time in the presence of Karloff’s monster, because it’s an amazing performance.
Especially in this sequence. Because, after a bit of good old fashioned growly rampage, we get to one of my favorite sequences in this exceptional film – the blind hermit. It’s lifted straight from Shelley’s novel – the blind old man in the woods who befriends the monster because he cannot see his monstrosity. And again, as ideas go, not exactly subtle, right? But what sells it is the performances from both players. The old man is superb – ernest, yes, but with a drive to kindness born of desperate loneliness and desire for companionship. And of course, the monster responds to that kindness (after some initial understandable suspicion) with a joy that’s just heartbreaking.
One of the reasons it’s so powerful is because it highlights again one of the core traits of the monster, which is that he is innocent. Not good – he kills from rage, and indeed killed a child, albeit from a misguided spirit of play – but innocent nonetheless. And innocence is a term we normally associate with either goodness (as in children) or blamelessness (as in victim). To have an innocent murderer, an innocent monster… I mean, never mind 1935, that’s a sophisticated and difficult idea in 2016 to put out there. There’s echos of it in other movies – King Kong, most obviously (I can’t be the only one who cries at the end of that picture), and even The Incredible Hulk, to a lesser degree, but I can’t think of a purer expression of it than the ten minutes or so of screen time where the blind man teaches the monster to talk, to smoke (!). When the monster grins and yells ‘Friend!’ while grabbing the woodsman’s hand and shaking it, your heart creaks a little. When the woodsman tucks him in, and the camera fills the frame with Karloff’s scared, discoloured face, and the tears start to flow from the monster, overwhelmed by simple kindness… I mean, that’s pathos.
Because, of course, it can’t possibly end well, and when a couple of hunters inevitably turn up and attack the monster, he’s left in a burning house as his blind friend is dragged away.
There’s an incredible effects shot here as a ball of fire rolls out the window of the burning cottage, and I’m no expert, but it looks bloody dangerous to me.
The circumstance that brings Dr. Pretorious and the monster into contact does seem suspiciously convenient in retrospect, but I have to say it’s not something that jumped out on either of my viewings. I think the performances are a big part of why – Thesiger is on fire in this scene, moving from imperious and overbearing with his hapless graverobber flunkies, to drunken revelry when he thinks he’s alone, to the look on his face when he realises he isn’t. From there, his interaction with the monster is just superb – you can almost hear the gears in his mind turning as he reacts to the creatures’ newfound ability to talk (which he later casually takes credit for as he confronts Henry Frankenstein, in a deliciously subtle character moment).
And of course, on the other end of that equation is Karloff. It feels dumb, if not outright surreal, to be talking about the emotional arc of a creature in a 30’s monster movie, but what the hell, we’ve come this far, right?
Because this is where the tragedy of the monsters innocence plays out, in the process again highlighting the difference between innocence and goodness, and the inherent exploitability and danger of innocence wedded to strength. The monster here is traumatised, desolate even – having unexpectedly been given, all too briefly, something that had been outside of his realm of experience – kindness, friendship – only to have it inevitably snatched away again. His desire to rekindle that is as palpable as it is desperate, and the way both Karloff and Thesiger play it establishes the true depth of Pretorius’s callousness in a far more profound way than his causal pronouncements about the nature of good, evil, and science ever could. His manipulation of this innocent creature reveals him to be by far the darker and more evil monster. Similarly, the desperation of Karloff’s repetition of the word wife, the awful hunger in his voice, manages to elicit sympathy and fear in equal measure.
From there, the inevitable dragging of Henry Frankenstein back to his ‘extreme stitching’ antics (aided and abetted by the monster kidnapping his wife, of course) is handled with commendable pace – though the scene where Henry is confronted by the monster, and the Doctor’s reaction to his creation having rudimentary language skills, is wonderfully played by all concerned. Similarly, Clive’s performance as he returns to his laboratory is superb – the manic, driven scientist of the first movie is there, but more haunted, desperate… and, when he remembers, guilty and remorseful. A more pitiful and accurate portrayal of a regretful addict, succumbing to their demons despite the voices of his better nature crying out, you will not find. I’ve generally avoided metatextual knowledge here, but I can’t help but note that this was a struggle Clive was all too familiar with, as by the time of making this picture, he was already deep in the throes of the alcoholism that would kill him just five years later. I didn’t know that when I watched his performance, of course, but it surely makes sense of just how well he nails that desperate energy.
Then we hit a sequence where it just all comes together – the direction, the acting, the lighting, the sound, the set design, the effects – In a set piece that, 80 years on, is still thrilling and mesmerizing – the awakening of The Bride. I mentioned earlier the slightly off-kilter camera angles, but it’s something I only noticed second time around, because there’s so much else going on, and none of it remotely that subtle. There’s the enormous crashing and booming of the storm, for starters, and maybe it’s just my BluRay remaster, but it’s a glorious cacophony, especially mixed with the static bursts from the machinery in the lab. The lab set itself is enormous, and tall – the gurney that lifts the Bride up into the storm must be 70 or 80 feet, maybe more, and it’s amazing watching it go up, with all the thunder and lightning crashing around, under the fixed stares of the two Doctors, their faces underlit to perfection.
And so, at last, we reach the portion of my notes labelled simply The Bride.
There’s a genius cut, first of all, where they start with the bandages, and reveal the feminine eyes, before jumping to her fully unwrapped and robed. It means we as the audience have no time at all to get introduced to her gently, instead being given the full-on impact of a full length shot of her awesome weirdness with basically no chance to prepare.
And, I mean, bloody hell, it’s an amazing piece of costume/makeup/effect work. The Bride in on screen, all told, surely no more than ten minutes (I suspect less) but that initial shot alone is enough to understand why this creature is so utterly iconic. To the extent that there’s an excellent chance, bordering on near certainty, that you already know exactly what I am talking about – can picture her clearly in your mind’s eye right now. And in the unlikely event that you can’t – firstly, I’m envious, but secondly, go watch the damn movie, okay?
It’s possible what you may not be as familiar with is how she moves – and here, Elsa Lanchester earns her stripes with a truly remarkable performance. There’s a fragility, utterly at odds with the solidity of Karloff’s monster, but at the same time, underneath is that same blank innocence, that same animal fear. She is uneasy on her feet. Her head snaps about, eyes flitting, like a bird about to take flight. The score swells with wedding bells as Praetoris declares ‘The Bride of Frankenstein!”, but they are discordant, cacophonous, eerie.
A fade cut, and the monster is introduced to his bride. Karloff’s desperate hunger here is palpable, his instant infatuation heartbreaking. And I mean look, there’s something about this scene and how it plays out that I think connects to a fundamental element (of at least the majority of) the hetrosexual male pyche, so I’m just going to lay it out here: I think most straight men, when we are around a woman we desire, kind of feel like the monster. We feel clumsy, inarticulate, ugly, undesirable. Inadequate. This is irrespective of how the lady in question feels about us, incidentally – this is about especially the moments before first contact, when we’re torn between our desire to reach out and our abject terror at being rejected. We are all, in that moment, the monster. And Karloff just nails it. Agian. His dopey grin as he lurches towards her is – there’s that word again – heartbreaking.
As is her reaction.
Because she’s an innocent too. Everything that applies to the monster applies to her. Moreso for her, in fact, since at this stage it the story she’s effectively maybe an hour old. And it’s fascinating, because there’s a moment in the story, right here, where the whole structure, the type of story being told, is hanging by a thread. If this is ultimately a comedy, in the classical sense (and the film is not devoid of humor, making this genuinely plausible) it will end in a wedding, after all.
“Friend?” The monster asks, hopefully. Her reply is a sharp short noise, a maybe-laugh, and a maybe-grin. The monsters’ smile wavers, grows. he staggers towards her, as she lurches on the spot, uncertain, her actions unclear. He reaches for her arm.
Then she screams.
It’s a powerful moment. Heartbreaking, of course, for the monster, but perhaps even more chilling for what it tells you about the Bride. All at once, it is clear that, despite all the callous assumptions of the arrogant men around her, she is a creature of independent thought and mind. And she does not like what she sees. In some ways, it’s an inversion of the blind man sequence; there, a man with no sight could, with mindfulness, find the innocent inside the monster, and speak to him. Here, an innocent has only her eyes to guide her, and her response is as predictable as it is chilling.
Chilling, because it brings home the horror of what the doctors have done, in their arrogance and the kind of stupidity that only very intelligent men can manage.
The rest of the courtship is brief, and excruciating. When the monster reaches out to embrace the Bride, and she screams again, Karloff’s face moves from fragile hope, to despair, and then to blank resignation.
From there, the end is swift.
And really, I kind of know how he feels. I’m sure, without checking Amazon, that books will have been written about this movie – at a guess, a lot of them. To come in as a green observer in 2016 and try and find anything original to say about it was always going to be an act of folly, doomed to failure. Nonetheless, it’s been a privilege to take the journey. I hope this inspires people to rewatch this movie, because it’s a film the deserves to continue be seen and talked about.
Thanks for the opportunity, Thomas. Hope I didn’t stink the place up too bad.
Kit Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as front man (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo. He is the published author of such works as, GodBomb!, Lifeline, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts, Widowmakers, and upcoming Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers.
Is Robocop (2014) a political movie?
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.