May 23, 2008

Three I Might Have Saved

Arbogast, whose blog is essential reading, holds forth on horror films like someone shaking the cage to wake the beast within. He’s looking for movement, purpose. He wants to see the little bugger bite back, show some character. His reviews and opinions are wildly entertaining and uncommonly insightful.

In a recent post, Arbogast reflected on our affection for certain doomed movie characters, how their cinematic deaths affect us, and who among them would be The one you might have saved. The idea has circulated like a slow-motion blogathon, and Arbo keeps a list of participating blogs on his sidebar. Check it out for some very interesting and sometimes surprising posts on the subject.

Victims, of course, are necessary in horror films. It is not sufficient for monsters to threaten, lives must be taken for the shock to operate. The doomed must die. The mechanism of horror fiction demands that none survive. That’s how we get on with the story. The purpose of the fable is to rattle us for a couple of hours and then release us back to safety. Sometimes, we’re just rattled a little harder than usual, and we find ourselves mourning a movie victim.

Reflecting on the topic from my Frankencentric point of view, I came up with three deaths I find deplorable. The first is that of the child, little Maria, in the 1931 film.

Maria (Marilyn Harris) doesn’t fear The Monster, she takes his hand and invites him to play with her, and she elicits his first and only smile. Boris Karloff remarked how children were always attracted to the Monster. For the fictional Maria, the attraction was deadly, and all the more appalling that it was a horrible accident. The Monster throws the child into the lake to see her float like the flowers did.

The death of the child was meant to shock, and it did sufficiently for censors to order the sequence clipped short, but still we see Maria’s limp body paraded in town, and the meaning is clear. It is the manifest price of Frankenstein’s folly and it seals his Monster’s fate.

Another disturbing death comes as Bride of Frankenstein (1935) races to its climax. Colin Clive’s neurotic Frankenstein needs a heart, a strong, fresh one, for the experiment to succeed. “A female victim of sudden death,” he specifies, sending out Dr. Pretorius’ lugubrious henchman, Karl (Dwight Frye), with the promise of a thousand Crown reward.

After Karl runs off, mumbling something about his knife, Frankenstein adds, “There are always accidental deaths occuring…”, an afterthought that sounds like delusional justification.

In a very short night scene, fade in and out, a girl walks briskly on street. Karl leaps out of the shadows and throws a scarf over her head. On the soundtrack, we hear a bass drum heartbeat.

Cut straight to the lab, where Frankenstein exults, “It’s beating perfectly! Just as in life!

As the elaborate creation scene unfolds and the bandaged creature is lightning-struck to life, music cresting, the pounding, unmistakable heartbeat is heard again. It is the song of the dead girl’s heart, carved out and repurposed to power The Bride.

The unfortunate victim who’s demise affected me most was Justine, Frankenstein’s maid and mistress in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).

As Baron Frankenstein, Peter Cushing is singularly cruel. Colin Clive’s Frankenstein was a nervous wreck, obtuse and blind to the abominable crimes he set off like a row of falling dominos. Cushing’s merit, so to speak, was to be deliberately and consciously cold-blooded. He knows what he’s doing. We see him shove an old man through a railing to the floor below, call it an accident, and then blithely scoop the brain out for his experiments. “He has no further use for it,” he says.

As for Justine, she is not killed purposefully. She is not harvested for parts, like some anonymous villager sacrificed to mad science. Justine is simply eliminated because she has become troublesome, and she doesn’t get the benefit of a quick, painless death, either. The Baron has her step through a door into the horror of the dark room where his disjointed, brain-damaged Creature waits.

In the very next scene, Cushing’s prim and proper Baron is calmly having breakfast with his high-class fiancée, Hazel Court. “Pass the marmalade”, he says.

I hated to see Justine dispatched, and I’m sure it was all the more affecting because of the actress who played the part.

Valerie Gaunt was a vivid presence in Hammer’s two keystone pictures, The Curse of Frankenstein and (Horror of) Dracula. In Dracula, she played the vampire bride fixated on John Van Eyssen’s neck, whereupon Christopher Lee makes his spectacular, gore-face entrance, exploding into the room and throwing the hissing Gaunt around like a rag doll.

I suspect there’s a generation — the first wave, if you will — of Hammer fans who, on the basis of her supporting parts in these two films alone, were quite ready to be Valerie Gaunt followers for life but, incredibly, those two films were the only ones she ever made. Valerie Gaunt disappeared as suddenly and completely as Justine when she crossed that threshold.

Holger Hass, of HammerGlam, reports that Ms. Gaunt lives happily in anonymity, which is nice to know. There were other Hammer heroines to come and conquer our hearts, but I wish I had seen more of Valerie Gaunt.

See Valerie Gaunt in the original trailer for The Curse of Frankenstein, and as the Vampire Bride in (Horror of) Dracula.


Anonymous said...

Nice list,and i like what you said about Valerie Gaunt,like Richard Wordsworth and Colin Clive,an actor we should have seen more of in horror films.just 2 things;first,not that i wouldn't save her,but i always thought the death of Maria was an accident,tragic yes,but not done with evil intent by the monster.second,what about Anna in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED?...raped,abused and incriminated with no support but a stupid boyfriend,she and the Richter/Brandt monster were the only likeable characters in that movie,yet she gets stabbed without ever getting to punish Victor...and remember;Justine was probably just putting up with Victor to get rich anyway,like a golddgigger,so Anna's my pick.

rob! said...

good post, pierre.

Anonymous said...

There is a new Frankenstein......a graphic novel version drawn by Eagle Award winner Declan Shalvey

Pierre Fournier said...

Thanks, Stan. I am aware of the Shalvey book and I plan to cover it soon. Its simply a case of so much Frankenstein, so little time!