The Comedy of Torture

In preparing for In the Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre, I’ve been examining torture through the reliable prism of the classic horror film. This entry focuses on the Holy Grail of Golden Age torture-horror, Universal’s The Raven (1935); the next entry will take in snapshots of more successful tortures in the wider horror cinema.

Torture has often uprooted a good horror film. For example, there are the Hammer films that don’t feel like Hammer films – The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and The Terror of the Tongs (1961) – in light of their focus on tortures plucked from recent history. None of Jesus Franco’s torture-horrors have ever worked, except, perhaps, as legitimate torture: his 1970 version of de Sade’s Eugenie is excrement marvellous rare. Franco’s The Bloody Judge (1970), starring Christopher Lee as Judge Jeffries, might be the dubious exception. Yet it’s a film that Lee refuses to see:

In the film, instead of somebody just being hanged – it’s worth noting that Lee was a witness to the last public execution in France – I gather that [they filmed] the most hideous scenes, about which I knew absolutely nothing at all, because they were done long after I’d finished my part: hideous and appalling scenes of torture and brutality and mutilation – hanging and drawing and quartering and worse … That’s why I’ve never seen it. I can’t bring myself to look at things like that.

Like Lee, I won’t pretend I’ve endured the torture porn rigours of Saw and Hostel and The Human Centipede – although I do hold a candle for the fiendishly inventive Cube (1997).

But what of torture in the Golden Age of horror? The founding Gothic in the Hollywood canon is The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which constantly hints at torture as the reason for the Phantom’s deformity. The Phantom’s back story, outlined in a curt police clipping, brims with tantalising inference: ‘Born during the Boulevard Massacre. Self educated musician and master of Black Art. Exiled to Devil’s Island for criminal insane.’ Here are three potential reasons that the Phantom bears a death’s head: torture through revolution or devilry or incarceration. Matters are complicated by the Phantom’s appearance at the Bal Masque, where he imperiously states: ‘Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men – thus does the Red Death rebuke your merriment!’ The reference to Edgar Allan Poe – author of torture paradigm ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ – is suggestive, though not so much as the eleventh-hour revelation of the Phantom’s underground torture chamber. Later versions explained the Phantom’s deformity by subjecting him to a face full of acid. Horrific, yes, but never again as interesting.

Whipping became commonplace in the early horror film. Frankenstein (1931) contains a memorable torture scene: Boris Karloff’s Monster howling in chains, enduring the whippings and tauntings of the hunchbacked Fritz. The chains may be painful enough (the Chinese once had the torture of ‘kneeling on chains’); the whip reminds of flogging’s prime place in torture across all ages and all cultures (because a painful but ‘clean’ means of punishment). In the same year’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whipping rears its head more sadistically. Ivy the streetwalker exposes her naked back to Jekyll – revealing the marks that he, as Hyde, has inflicted on her: ‘Pretty, ain’t it? It’s a whip, that’s what it is – a whip!’ The sadism went up a notch in the 1941 remake, where Spencer Tracy’s Jekyll whips the women in his life in a Freudian dream sequence.

Most potent is the reliance on suggestion. There’s Cleopatra’s transformation into a legless, shrieking ‘bird woman’ in Freaks (1932), where the audience sees only the aftermath; the waking vivisection of Dr Moreau (another chap fond of the whip) in Island of Lost Souls (also 1932), the camera discreetly pulling away as Moreau’s creations pull him apart; and Karloff’s Expressionist ‘crucifixion’ in The Black Cat (1934), conveyed almost entirely in shadow. Perhaps surprisingly, suggestion was usually the result of censorship as much as artistic vision. Freaks originally laid out Cleo’s destruction in gory detail, a tree felling her in a storm before her torturers swarmed in on her (surviving prints substitute a very abrupt fade); The Black Cat had some ghastly script business where a skinless Karloff hobbles across the floor to frighten Lugosi. Island of Lost Souls never required more than the half-laughing screams of Charles Laughton – at once darkly comic, kinky and blood-curdling. Sound can be graphic.

The Raven (1935) - Poster

It was The Raven (1935) that handled torture most brazenly. To the point where it got horror banned in England for a few years, thus shutting down Hollywood production of horror. And yet it’s utterly ridiculous. The Raven has a sister film in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) – almost equally gaudy in its approach to torture, filtering its devices through comic-book exaggeration, MGM production gloss and regrettable Chinese stereotypes. There’s a later comparison in Tower of London (1939), in which prisoners flop from iron maidens like boneless fish. But neither film approached torture with the concentration – and therefore absurdity – of The Raven.

Ware, Hinds, Lugosi

The plot deals with Dr Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi), an eminent neurosurgeon and Poe obsessive, who falls in love with Jean Thatcher after saving her on the operating table. But when her father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), intervenes to prevent the budding psychotic infatuation, Vollin snaps. After imprisoning and mutilating on-the-run gangster Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff), Vollin exploits him as his pawn in subjecting Judge, Jean, fiancé and friends to the Poe-inspired torture devices in his cellar.

The Pendulum

There’s always something gently amusing about Samuel Hinds moaning under Lugosi’s great big pendulum – politely accepting his fate, now and then mouthing such serene platitudes as ‘Oh, try to be sane, Vollin!’ Given that torture is the blackest of all human practices, it becomes staggeringly funny in The Raven.

Revamped Jail

The hilarity might stem from the strangeness of time in The Raven: medievalism rooted in a modern context. In our first trip to the cellars, Vollin declares his collection ‘a most unique museum of torture’. But it’s only really unique for clearing out the ‘torture’ section of Universal’s prop warehouse. We see balls-and-chains, a mysterious leaden coffin, the rack, a tiny cage (‘Little Ease’ perhaps?) and what looks to be the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg; there’s even one of the gibbets that turned up in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948; it goes without saying that every onscreen prop would be recycled for 1939’s Tower of London). The mood of ancient Gothic is enhanced by the wrap-around dungeon background. It’s another direct steal, this time from Universal’s Frankenstein series: the sets are taken from Charles D. Hall’s jail and watch-tower scenes in Bride of Frankenstein (also 1935). In the context of The Raven, the schlocky medievalism becomes fairly distancing. It’s an illustration of Henry Fielding’s famous remark: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ The moment Vollin enters his museum, The Raven may as well take place in Oz or Narnia.

Revamped Laboratory

Vollin’s fixation on Edgar Allan Poe is complicit in the distancing effect. The long-dead author extends the anachronism in yet another direction, adding his own weird patina of New England gaslight to the generic swirl of ‘The Past’. Although even the apparent present of The Raven is desperately strange: it’s a deranged, never-neverland 1930s, teeming with yuppies who play at horse-racing in the drawing-room. What else can you expect with supporting players named ‘Spencer Charters’ and ‘Maidel Turner’? It was probably just as distancing in 1935.

Aside from his air of anachronism, Poe has been so ritually demonised in western culture that it’s become ridiculous. A fine example is the film Torture Garden (1967); a Bloch-derived portmanteau rather than an adaptation of Mirbeau. The best segment by far is ‘The Man Who Collected Poe’. It’s a satire on fanatical (and Vollin-like) collectors: in this case, a fellow who’s so mad on Poe that he has, quite literally, collected the long-dead author – by resurrecting him via a pact with the Devil. As in the villain song tradition, Poe becomes, for all intents and purposes, the Devil himself; cackling, deranged, at the centre of a blazing inferno, as he damns the soul of a human victim.

Such demonisation of Poe is vital to The Raven. Bela Lugosi’s big speech is a minor masterpiece of melodramatic dialogue:

Melodramatic Speech

Poe was a great genius. Like all great geniuses, there was in him the insistent will to do something big, great, constructive in the world. He had the brain to do it. But – he fell in love. Her name was Lenore… ‘Longing for the lost Lenore’… Something happened. Someone took her away from him. When a man of genius is denied of his great love, he goes mad. His brain, instead of being clear to do his work, is tortured. So he begins to think of torture. Torture for those who have tortured him.

On balance, though, David Boehm’s screenplay for The Raven is badly written – or at least badly conceived, which amounts to much the same. Now, the fruitiness of the dialogue can be one of the highlights of classic horror. And there is a delight in hearing Bela Lugosi give shape to such lines as the following:

Death Will Be Sweet

I am the sanest man who ever lived. But I will not be tortured. I tear torture out of myself by torturing you! Fifteen minutes… There’s the clock – you can see it… Torture! Waiting! Waiting! Death will be sweet, Judge Thatcher!

Walls Come Together

Yet there’s something stubbornly uncinematic about such dialogue in The Raven. It seems to be trying to do the work of the images – and, regrettably, umpteen configurations of the word ‘torture’ do not make up for an absence of well-presented torture. Witness, once again, Samuel Hinds under that great big pendulum. Or the lovers in the room where the walls come together (they seem as politely unaffected as Hinds). Properly contained, the dialogue of classic horror can galvanise a film, its theatrical bravado animating that which is already living (see The Old Dark House, 1932, where great dialogue melds with an appropriately great production). Given that Vollin’s endless epistles to torture never take the shape of a believable reason for the character’s machinations – that is, beyond stultifying sadism – its foregrounding in the script becomes a nagging irritation. The dialogue in The Raven seems to be searching for a container. Devoid of one, it’s just unbridled excess.

Lugosi

The strangeness of The Raven is felt keenest in the imbalance of the lead performances, the now-legendary Lugosi and Karloff. As Vollin, Lugosi takes the film almost too seriously. In doing so, Lugosi does a great service to his audiences, following the formula for melodrama laid out in Gordon Craig’s Henry Irving: ‘Melodrama was not and is not afraid of the spectacular or the heroic, of bravura, or the impossible. It shuns one thing purposely – the matter-of-fact.’ Certainly, the sight and sound of Lugosi throughout The Raven is alarming: an unending cavalcade of bat-like grimaces, staccato cackles and throat-rending eruptions of Hungarian passion, all delivered with Shakespearean aplomb. Even today, it’s unnerving how much Lugosi seems to believe in the script’s cardboard character. And that really is the problem: Lugosi can never do more than dress the cardboard. Which he does effectively enough – just as the art department dresses its ill-conceived setting with a stock ball-and-chain, or the screenplay dresses its dearth of character motivation with a repetition of the word ‘torture’. Of course, to really work, melodrama requires an equal force of belief from everyone involved in the enterprise. And had director Lew Landers believed in the project to the extent of Lugosi, it’s probable that The Raven couldn’t have been released at all. The Marquis de Sade would have made it to Hollywood.

Karloff

Karloff, always the more astute judge of scripts, takes and plays his character as simple pulp. Karloff’s Edmond Bateman is perversely memorable, and certainly no weaker than Lugosi’s characterisation: a breathy, petulant, fish-eyed grotesque. This studied detachment probably relieved Karloff of a lot of unnecessary pressure: his infamous onset remark that ‘this whole place is a toilet’ is a measure of his disenchantment with rinky-dink Universal. Nonetheless, Karloff is responsible for the film’s only potent emotional stab at torture, on awaking to discover his disfigurement at the hands of Lugosi. Even here, the scene is effective against the odds: the Jack Pierce makeup, not bad in principle, is so inadequately lit and photographed that it appears flat, grey and (paradoxically detrimental) lifeless.

Still, The Raven survives as a valuable insight into how differently the premier gentlemen of horror attacked their craft. Lugosi was almost naively diabolic, erupting from within his pedantic cage of calculated baroque stylings; Karloff, more dangerous (and following the example of Lon Chaney), went to the heart to horrify. But seemingly everyone entangled in The Raven appears to be acting in a different film. The imbalance is at least interesting, even if it makes the film that much harder to take seriously.

Despite so much pecking, my affection for The Raven isn’t greatly diminished. On its own borderline psychotic terms (and perhaps there’s no other way to take it), it’s delirious, breathless fun – in spite of (possibly because of) its tasteless subject matter. It does, however, beg a question: when does the representation of torture become hideous, monstrous, unacceptable? I have three strong thoughts on this, all of which bolster The Raven as an unintended burlesque. I’ll save them till next time; we’ve suffered enough for now.

In closing, it’s worth observing that The Raven was remade in 1963. This time as an intentional horror-comedy. One torture-focused sequence featured Boris Karloff (back again, now a wizard) threatening to singe Vincent Price’s daughter with a magically floating red-hot poker. ‘I offer you a choice!’ he fawns. ‘The secret of your hand manipulations, or this – against this!’

A fair effort. But I still think of Samuel Hinds under that great big pendulum.

Revenge of the Pendulum

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Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Film

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