Who's Your Daddy?

What should we throw in next? Boris Karloff and Marilyn Harris in 'Frankenstein'
Universal Pictures

In the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a certain man about town forces John Barrymore's righteous physician-scientist to face his dark side: namely, his base desire for a music hall performer. "Wouldn't it be marvelous," the shaken Dr. Jekyll proposes, "if man's two natures could be separated into two bodies?" In this current season of terrorizing aliens (Spielberg's and Bush's), it's difficult to find a clearer description of that human impulse to split off and/or project outward what one finds most terrible in oneself. "Abominations," the Oak Street's horror series, which starts Friday with Barrymore's star turn, offers plenty of monsters in its early- to mid-20th-century classics: The worst resemble the good Dr. Jekyll.

Indeed, the series could just as well be called "Daddy Dearest": Whether doctor, scientist, or magistrate, the white guys in these movies are hellish papas. First they torture their misbegotten offspring (evil self, golem) into life, then they can't believe the kid is such a pain to be around. After Junior tries to drag off Mommy, they sic the dogs on the poor bastard. Doesn't he know what is Papa's property? Well, no. I love the vicious juxtaposition in James Whale's Frankenstein (July 17-19): The titular scientist rests at home with adoring dogs and fiancée at his feet while his "monster" tears up the countryside. Some viewers will naturally experience more pleasure than horror in the fated return of the id.

Of course, the ends of these influential films seldom flame out so simply. In the 1931 Frankenstein, after all, fire comes for the abused creature and the mad scientist survives--although he's now weakly abed with girlfriend looming. Mixed up with the deadly daddies--and the fears of progress they represent--are deeper and nastier expressions of psychological transference. When Barrymore puts on his ugly to be Mr. Hyde, that noble brow and prow become hooked and bumped in a parody of the anti-Semitic stereotype; Hyde charts his badness by degrading an Italian dancer named Gina and frequenting opium dens run by Chinese. Hyde's acts are curbed only when they threaten "high" society. (He does not know his "place.")

The Golem (July 16), a striking 1920 German work by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener, mines Jewish mysticism for thrills, chills, and comedy. The Jewish ghetto receives a "Decree Against the Jews" from the German emperor, and a rabbi mystic (Albert Steinrück) awakens an indestructible army of one. This golem eventually protects the ridiculous emperor (who does "pardon" the Jews) while playing havoc in the ghetto. Who but a faithless Miriam and a greedy assistant have taunted the golem into action? As much as the movie mocks Christian German hypocrisy, it also panders to such bias. And yet its visual grounding within the crooked streets of the gated ghetto makes an Other of the frivolous German court. One astounding scene, of a movie within the movie, goes so far as to send up The Golem's presumptive audience.

Equally wiggy is 1919's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (July 22), which will be screened to live accompaniment at Oak Street (ditto for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Golem). Reeling with the off-kilter angles of German Expressionism, Robert Wiene's mystery tour is a joy to watch: It's so overtly constructed compared with American horror movies that affect "realism." As in The Golem, faces are illuminated with paint and light while bodies fade into shadowed edges. But in this slippery vision, what hides in darkness may be reason. Indeed, this movie wonders whether reason or insanity is more reasonable. A bare plot about a doctor who makes the sleeping do his evil work reminds us that a horrific war had just been lost in Germany. Is the murderous sleeper Memory? Must a war-haunted people choose between narcolepsy and madness?

The footing is just a bit more certain in William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (July 20-21), released in 1939 on the eve of another hideous war. As in The Golem, a governor bars a people (Gypsies) from the city; the "golem" in this case spurns its maker, a Parisian high justice, to help a Gypsy woman. Amazingly plainspoken about the idiocy of projecting one's sexual anxieties onto others--especially women, more especially darker-skinned women--the movie remains queasily fascinated with its deformed Quasimodo (for all Charles Laughton's humanizing pathos). Who can forget the hero's rooftop dance as he pours molten metal on the hordes below? (Modern audiences may be still more discombobulated to witness a dominant church protecting the ethnically oppressed, fiscally disadvantaged, and sexually active.)

These movies are as ambivalent about mobs--the power of common people--as they are about mighty men: Mobs are just as likely as individuals to demonize an Other in order to whitewash themselves. Frankenstein talks class struggle--the sneering gentry terrorize the peasants with their monstrous industry--yet it sides with the monster against the crowd. The Invisible Man (July 25-26), also directed by Whale, makes fools of the country yokels who try to trap a transparent evil (an appalling if ethereal Claude Rains).

If The Golem anticipates the Holocaust, The Invisible Man looks ahead to the ungraspable hauntings of the Cold War and McCarthyism. These stories are thick enough with tensions--between progress and tradition, justice and bigotry--that they speak well beyond their century. However, the most recent film in "Abominations," made in 1949, provides a more specific critique pertaining to these movies themselves. Another tale of an ape gone wild, Mighty Joe Young (July 23-24) is a parable of cultural exploitation that begs harder for revisiting than King Kong. (Never mind Disney's less-than-mighty remake from 1998.) The mad scientist in this case is a publicist selling lies about "godless" Africa to Hollywood; he happens upon a great black gorilla and the young white woman who loves him. Oh, the showbiz spectacles that ensue.

The symbolism is offensive, of course, and the movie piles it on: The last scene is a film-within-a-film in which the gorilla goes "back where he belongs"--accompanied by a nicer white daddy. And so the film asks, What of the "monsters"? What do they do with these movies and their psychological baggage, their Western visions of horror? "You all think I'm insane," yelps an actor in Dr. Caligari. "It's the director who's insane!" The "director" nods sagely: "I know his mania.... At last I know how to cure him."

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