Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre

Robert Spadoni,
Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
ISBN: 978 0 520 25122 9
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)

In the Introduction to Uncanny Bodies, Robert Spadoni (Assistant Professor, English, Case Western University) claims to have published what amounts to the first critical analysis that studies both horror film and sound motion picture. If for no other reason than this, Spadoni’s text is invaluable. While a few articles have cropped up in various journals, usually those associated with musicology, there have been no book-length examinations of the importance of sound in horror film (the only book that comes close is Off the Planet: Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema, edited by Philip Hayward [John Libbey Publishing, 2004]). The weakness of Spadoni’s contribution, however, is that it might be more aptly described as a book-length chronicling of early sound cinema – which has as its emphasis two very early horror classics. Briefly stated, the purpose of Uncanny Bodies is to analyze the role sound played in what the author refers to as the classic horror cycle, which begins with Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), and ends with Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936).

Spadoni defends his choice of these texts through his explanation that Browning’s Dracula marks a liminal point between two phenomena: the transition from silent film to sound film, and the beginnings of the horror genre (as a genre) on film. His critical interpretation is based on audience response, or more specifically on reviewer response as indicative of audience response. Therefore, the primary mechanism for his investigations is his comparison of the reception given the first two films in the classic horror cycle (Dracula and Frankenstein) to “a pattern of response that characterized general film reception during the immediately preceding sound transition years” (2), with some credence given to the influence that reception (the audience itself) had on the filmmaking of Browning and James Whale. Spadoni grounds his critical technique on the theories of audience-film relationships spawned in two works: Tom Gunning’s 1995 article “‘Those Drawn with a Very Fine Camel’s Hair Brush’: The Origins of Film Genres” and Yuri Tsivian’s 1994 book Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception. He refers back to Gunning for his emphasis on the genre specificity of films. What this means is that genre films must be characterized as such, which results in the need for these works to be studied in total, and not just as a work of literature (a script). From Tsivian, Spadoni borrows and updates the theory of looping audience reception and criticism into the overall filmmaking process. He also applies the theory of ‘medium sensitivity’ in which Tsivian argues that viewers of early sound film paid undue attention to technical filmic aspects – editing cuts, camera angles, sound quality, synchronization – of any given film, rather than simply taking these techniques for granted and seeing them as being a part of the final product (and thereby not allowing them to become distractions).

In order to ground his argument, Spadoni gives a good bit of information on the transition from silent film to sound film, particularly in how audiences received the obvious changes. Chapter 1 of Uncanny Bodies looks at how the advent of sound, which Hollywood reasoned should make film seem more realistic to viewers, in some cases actually had the opposite effect. While films such as The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) and Strange Interlude (Robert Z. Leonard, 1932) are lauded by reviewers for their lifelike qualities, many sound films of the late 1920s and early 1930s were cited as being “unreal” because reviewers found the sound to be distracting, as it gave actors a sense of simultaneously “being there” and “not being there.” Spadoni here characterizes early horror movies that used sound as being “the uncanny body modality of early sound films.” In essence, he argues that films like Dracula owe their eeriness to their recalling (intentionally or unintentionally) in the minds of viewers the early synchronization problems seen in films until approximately 1927, when the arrival of the Vitaphone made sound film more viable. Because of this, viewers of early sound films responded to the ‘strangeness’ and ‘materiality’ of the new medium, even more than they might respond to actual dialogue. In other words, viewers of Dracula experienced the uncanny in two ways: They were attuned to the unsynchronized quality of Bela Lugosi’s voice, due to the fact that he had to enunciate each syllable of the English language carefully, making his speeches seem out of synch with those of other characters in the film. And they sensed what critics like Alexander Bakshy, Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler had earlier realized about sound film – that it would be defined by its lack of sound, owing to its lack of nondiegetic music, making it seem as though dialogue is spoken in a vacuum, or that there are utter and eerie silences when there is no dialogue. What this amounted to was often called the artificiality of ‘talkies’ or the ‘shrinking of personality’, which produced ‘talking shadows’. In fact, as Spadoni notes, major critics often used the metaphor of the ghost to describe actors in early sound films.

In the next few chapters, Spadoni clarifies how these effects, either coincidentally or purposefully, inform Browning’s Dracula. He begins by presenting the dichotomous responses by critics, as the film was either praised or panned, despite the fact that it was the highest grossing film for Universal Studios in 1931. Part of the problem was that Universal released and marketed the film as a ‘mystery’, if it gave it any genre designation at all, so both marketers and reviewers found themselves dealing with the film under this guise. This was compounded by the fact that all hints of romance or desire (other than for blood) were taken out of the screenplay, to the point that even the relationship between Mina and Jonathan was rather staid. Therefore, reviewers found themselves faced with a film that had elements of both mystery and romance, but which was neither a mystery nor a romance, per se.

Regardless, viewers had visceral reactions to the use of sound in Dracula. Because Universal chose the version of the tale associated with the John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane play rather than the Bram Stoker novel (for copyright and financial reasons), the idea of sudden and loud noises was replaced by an emphasis on “sudden, off-screen, and ambient noises” (56), such as Renfield’s laugh, Dracula’s voice over, the howling of wolves, creaking, and banging. Of these sounds, Spadoni hinges on those of two particular scenes to make his point about the uncanny quality of the film: Van Helsing’s repelling Dracula with the crucifix and Renfield’s laughing in the hold of a ship. In both cases, he points out that the sound which made the final edit of the film was not listed in the cutting continuity descriptions. In the case of the former scene, this resulted in Dracula’s infamous unsynchronized hiss where the script called for a snarl, and in the latter scene, it results in laughter that is not synchronized with Renfield’s mouth. Spadoni argues that these instances produce a sense of what Ernst Jentsch and Sigmund Freud called the uncanny, for these types of technical issues were familiar to viewers who had seen the first ‘talkies’. Finally, Spadoni notes that Count Dracula becomes more silent as the film goes on, theorizing that this is a directorial decision to make his speech become desynchronized from action/persona. To a lesser extent, Spadoni also discusses techniques other than sound. For example, he points out that in the opening shot of the film, the camera moves towards the Count, which he contrasts to Van Helsing’s opening shot, when the camera pans back. Because Lugosi is shrouded in black, the camera lens draws attention to his face, making it seem as though it floats towards the audience. He likens this to way camera movements were originally sensed by ‘medium sensitive’ viewers, again pondering whether or not this was done intentionally to create a sense of the uncanny, in this case by cameraman Karl Freund. The discussion of Dracula ends with a brief note about the simplicity of plot and camera work, thus giving the movie a ‘flat’ look.

Chapter 5 leaves the realm of the vampire in order to analyze Frankenstein, which was released in November of 1931. Spadoni compares the critical reception and historicity of the two movies, pointing out that Whale’s version of Mary Shelley’s novel outpaced Dracula in the long run, as Karloff’s monster has surpassed all but Chaplin’s Little Tramp as the most recognizable of all black and white Hollywood images. In addition, as the author notes, most critics see Frankenstein as the superior film. This chapter, however, brings to light many of the overall weaknesses of Spadoni’s text. Here, the author claims that viewers, by the November release of Frankenstein, were no longer medium sensitive:

Frankenstein is a ‘film for the ages’ because it does not presuppose a viewer who has just spent three and a half years watching early sound films” (97). The subtext of this line of argument is that somehow viewers became sophisticated enough to get over medium sensitivity in a little more than six months. The Frankenstein chapter is also exemplary of the types of overreaching statements that can be found at various points in the text. For instance, Spadoni makes an excellent observation when he points out that electricity, one of the major motifs in the film, was for the first time made audible.

Unfortunately, he then proceeds to compare this to the electrifying effect that sound cinema had on viewers, based on one critic’s comment that mentioned talkies as being a product of “the electrifying spirit of the twenties” (98). The problem with such overstatement is it detracts from what is otherwise an energizing discussion of Whale’s eccentricity when it came to sound. Readers would be far more interested in knowing that in the opening scene, the sound of a thud can be heard as dirt hits a coffin (Whale had placed a microphone inside the coffin), or that the monster’s appearance on camera is preceded by the sound of his footsteps as he/it approaches Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman from behind a closed door. Personally I find it fascinating that Universal very carefully hid the appearance of the creature from audiences until its first appearance on screen, so that audience members had to tune in closely to ordinary sounds like footsteps – which might herald the monster’s entrance. And I think readers would be delighted to find out that the creature’s make-up was specially created and applied by makeup artist Jack Pierce to make the monster look ‘dead alive’, which was a phrase reviewers often used to describe images in silent film. But again such observations are interrupted by overreaching logic, such as the argument that Karloff’s monster ‘speech’ (in other words, grunts, snarls, etc.) are decontextualized because viewers would have grown used to the sensationalism of the unsynchronized speech of Lugosi in Dracula.

Despite the obvious usefulness of Spadoni’s text, he introduces far too many logical lapses and limitations to make Uncanny Bodies a classic of scholarship. To begin with, there is an inherent weakness in the assumption that the reactions of a dozen or so reviewers can be seen as truly representative of audience reaction (reception). This, without a question, raises the issue of sophistication. Certainly reviewers would have been more likely to suffer from ‘medium sensitivity’ than would the average viewer, since the reviewer’s disposition would lend itself to getting caught up in the minutia of technicality. In addition, it is much more likely that a professional reviewer looking at a new product, such as sound film, would bring to the experience a sense of guarded optimism, which would manifest itself in a microscopic concentration on the failings of a new technique. To his credit, Spadoni does at points introduce reports of actual audience reactions to certain aspects of a film (he does this very well in the fifth chapter, which is concerned with James Whale’s Frankenstein), but such instances are too few and far between. The other glaring weakness of Uncanny Bodies is the assumption by Spadoni that each and every element of the final product which is the film was intentionally introduced by the director. Here the intentional fallacy is particularly problematic because, as the author himself points out in his discussion of the two films, both were made with serious budgetary concerns in mind. Could not these financial concerns have as much to do with poor production values, such as unsynchronized sounds? This is a question that never is addressed. There are also other instances of the author’s undercutting his own theories, such as the opening of the second chapter, where he makes the statement that “virtually from the moment the sound transition began, the uncanniness of sound film began to fade. This was in part because, virtually from the beginning, the novelty of sound film began to fade” (31). If this were the case, audiences watching Dracula in the Spring of 1931 would not have brought to the viewing the kind of medium sensitivity which the rest of Uncanny Bodies presupposes they had. By far the weakest chapter in the text, Chapter 2 comes across as fairly disorganized, and for that reason, the scholarship seems weak. For example, in this section of the book Spadoni describes one of the hypnotism scenes of Svengali (Archie Mayo, 1931), which was also released in the Spring of 1931. He writes, “I find this sequence powerfully evoking the uncanniness of early sound films” (42). While he does elaborate a little on this assertion, looking at the expressionist set and the monochromatic color, the argument is unconvincing because it seems piecemeal and rationalistic, rather than logical. In addition, it makes no mention of sound.

Despite my obvious caveats, I would still recommend this book for researchers who are journeying into the unknown area of horror film sound and music. Spadoni, like Browning and Whale, opens doors that have hitherto remained closed, and for this reason alone scholars who study this area will find themselves going back to Uncanny Bodies for guidance and ideas. I would warn them, however, to use their best judgment when assimilating, updating, or applying the theories to their own arguments. While I agree with Spadoni’s overall premise that audiences may have realized some sense of the uncanny while watching Dracula and Frankenstein, particularly in how the silences in both films create an eerie atmosphere while hearkening back to the silent film era, I find myself wanting a good bit more solid logic, and more to the point examples of audience reaction. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Uncanny Bodies is that Spadoni leaves the door open for the next scholar to enter, for his Conclusion contextualizes the two Universal films by pointing out the directions taken by later films, namely White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931), and The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932).

Tony Fonseca,
Nicholls State University.

Created on: Monday, 3 December 2007