Discussion of the beginnings of horror film history, starting with Hammer Film Productions in the 1950s. This post specifically looks at the significance and meaning of adapting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster to film in the 50s.
David J. Skal’s The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror traces the history of monster films back to Diane Arbus, Tod Browning, and the American sideshow. While Skal does establish a well-argued thesis regarding the side show as being both personally and intellectually influential for emerging horror filmmakers and artists in the early 20th century, he does not necessarily account for the symbolic and psychoanalytic significance of the monster in horror cinema. Horror cinema, to my mind, is primarily concerned with expressing anxieties/fears that are already present in the collective cultural zeitgeist at the time of the film’s making. This is significant in considering the genre because it means that horror is primarily a set of aesthetic and narrative patterns of displacement. What I mean here is that if the audience for a horror film is concerned with domestic violence writ large, a horror film produced under these conditions isn’t necessarily going to be directly about domestic violence, but it will feature a threat to the protagonist that functions allegorically as domestic violence. Displacement is important from a psychoanalytic perspective (a perspective near and dear to horror scholars) because it means that the genre allows its audience to distance themselves from their anxieties while still engaging with them. It’s as if the films allow us to look at our real-life fear diagonally, from the corner of our eye, because looking at them straight-on is sometimes more than we can do. This concept is present throughout the horror genre; however, it is perhaps most transparent in the monster/creature sub-genre, where antagonists are not simply removed from real-world contexts, but, in fact, no longer resemble real-life menaces. This blog series will attempt to trance the development of the sub-genre from the early 1950s through to the mid-2000s (with this post looking at the 1950s), analyzing different types of monster films with displaced anxieties and allegorical concerns in mind.
Before jumping into the psychoanalytic realm of 1950s horror film analysis, it’s important to lay the industrial groundwork. The film industry, in the U.S. and abroad, was in shambles. (I’ll note here that while Hammer Film Productions is a British production company, this series is primarily concerned with audiences in the U.S., especially considering how influential Hammer Horror has been to the development of the horror genre outside of Britain). This is in part due to the advent of television, the shift in studio management from creative to market-based, and a host of other sociocultural and creative conflicts. The visual media marketplace was fragmented for a number of reasons. The result of this was a desperate need to create content that demanded new audience interest. Further, new films needed to stimulate theatrical spectatorship. One such address to this call was that of the Hammer Film Productions. The studio’s name has changed slightly since the 1950s (it is now Hammer Studios), but horror film scholars continue to recognize “Hammer Horror” as distinct in the genre. From the studio’s inception in 1934 through the decades to present-day genre films, when discussing Hammer Horror, we mean a very specific thing: monster movies. Moreover, we mean the big, classic, iconic monster movies, the Draculas and Frankensteins. So this is where my account of the cinematic monster begins: perhaps not at its very inception (surely we could trace the monster back further), but, rather, in the moment it was most iconic.
Another industrial aspect of the iconic monster protagonist has to do with considerations of adaptations. For an industry concerned with securing audiences and paying writers, directors, producers (and everyone else) less, adapting already-popular 19th-century literature to the silver screen must have seemed like a safe bet. They came with built-in audiences, were ideas that had been tried and tested, and presented a unique opportunity to capitalize on a market that had proved itself to be solid—readers. So, when we consider why Hammer decided to adapt classic pieces like Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula to film, it’s not difficult to understand this decision from a purely industrial, economic perspective. What’s interesting, however, is the resonance of this decision, and, more specifically, its implications and illuminations in a larger context.
Take, for example, Frankenstein’s monster. In Mary Shelley’s original text, the monster acts allegorically as a symbol of the reader’s fear regarding industrialism and new, steam-powered technology. In the 1950s, this technology, and issuant concerns, became commonplace. Also in the 1950s, however, nuclear technology became omnipresent and terrifying. Shelley’s initial questions, “What can we do? Should we do it? What are the consequences?” take on a different valence in light of burgeoning nuclear destruction. Can we destroy a population? Yes. But should we do it, and what are the consequences? Society wasn’t sure then, nor is it now. If the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and the subsequent popular reaction demonstrated nothing else, it was that the U.S. wasn’t sure about the answers to these questions. Enter Hammer’s Frankenstein franchise with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Shelley’s original text is fairly unresolvedly against destructive new technology. That is, she seems solidly against the advent of new tech that destroys what we, in a given context, consider to be human. Her issue is not necessarily with the monster, with the technological product, but, rather, with the people who create that product in the absence of moral considerations. This concept holds true in cinematic adaptations of her work, however loose those adaptations may be. Further, this ideological tendency remains foundational to the monster sub-genre moving forward through the 1970s. The next post will look at how these trends and anxieties become compounded with sex, sexuality, and gender norms in Hammer’s 1960s Dracula films.
Image Credit: Hammer Film Productions © 1957
Author: Geneveive Newman