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Monday, April 20, 2015


My most recent review on NATURALISTIC (ETC), was for the 1944 film THE CLIMAX. In the course of the review, I noted that it was structurally the opposite of the film that inspired it: the 1943 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. The earlier film followed the dominant pattern of the American horror film, focusing on "the twisted nature of the monster, mad scientist, etc," as he menaced various victims, who are usually demiheroes as I defined the category here.

Demiheroes, even on the occasions where they triumph against their opponents, don't really choose to stand or fall, because they are governed, just like their monstrous counterparts, by a different form of will than one sees in the heroes and their villainous counterparts.

I later refined the name for this "form of will" as the "existential will." It is that force that urges demiheroes to exert themselves in the name of pure survival, in a manner parallel to their negative counterparts-in-existential-will, "the monsters." This is in contrast to the ways in which "heroes" and "villains" work, given that their function is to exert themselves in the name of the "idealizing will," be it for good or evil.

In horror-films that are centered-- as most are-- upon the figure of the monster, the monster's victims-- almost always demiheroes-- are usually not given much depth. But THE CLIMAX is interesting for inverting the pattern, though there isn't much of an increase in character-depth. That is, the real star is not top-billed Boris Karloff as the malefic Doctor Hohner, but singer Susanna Foster's character Angela, of whom I wrote:

the "climax" of the movie is that [Angela] triumphs over [Hohner's] attempted repression even without ever knowing what he did to her.
Now, as I said in the review, THE CLIMAX could do this easily because it wasn't really a horror film like PHANTOM, but an "uncanny murder-mystery."  And yet, this may have been a little glib. Certainly there are other mystery-films in which demiheroes become the stars of the show, as one can also see in Hithcock's THE LODGER, But though there are probably more demihero-centered mystery films than there are demihero-centered horror films, the majority of mysteries at any given time are more likely to center upon either serial heroes (Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan) or upon the source of the mystery, who like the star of the horror-film is often a monster (not sufficient to stand) or a villain (choosing to fall, as it were). As it happens, in this review of two unrelated films, I touched upon two such films, with 1993's SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER supplying an adequate example of "the murderer as a monster" and MURDER BY DEATH forming an excellent illustration of "the murderer as villain"-- a villain so formidable, by the way, that he confounds several hero-detectives, all of whom are spoofs of famous figures like Holmes and Chan.

It would be more accurate to say, not that works in the mystery-genre are characteristically dominated by demihero-personas, but that they're simply much more open to all four persona-types. The purpose of the horror genre is to fill the audience with what I have called "antipathetic affects," and for that purpose, the "monster" is better than any other persona, though I've noted in various essays that the dominantly positive personas of the hero and the demihero have their negative manifestations. Though Angela of THE CLIMAX reaches heroic heights in overcoming Hohner's influence-- though not in the service of a greater ideal, as would be the case with a genuine hero-- some demiheroes exist to be defeated. In the 1964 suspense-film DEAD RINGER Bette Davis' character registers as a demihero because she propounds the existential will in a negative fashion but lacks the more profound traits of "monstrosity" found even in the crappier monsters, like the featured "axe murderer" of the Mike Myers film mentioned above.

One of the few subtypes of horror film that allows for greater latitude in the use of personas is the comedy-horror film. Though in PUMPING THE PRIMACY I was addressing a different subject-- that of the NUM theory rather than the subject of personas-- I mentioned that it was possible for the demihero star of a comedy-horror film to be the main focus of the narrative, rather than whatever spooky phenomena he encountered. I cited Bob Hope's 1939 CAT AND THE CANARY. However, this pattern was not meant to be determinative either, for in the same essay I also mentioned another comedy-horror film-- 1941's THE SMILING GHOST-- in which the plot followed the same pattern as the "serious" horror flick, making the titular monster the narrative focus.

Of parallel interest is the way in which the narrative focus changes in Universal's "monster-mash" films of the 1940s. There's not much question in my mind that in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN,  HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and HOUSE OF DRACULA, the monsters are the stars of each film. Yet, when Universal chose to put paid to the continuing sagas of their "starring monsters," the story chosen put the emphasis upon the comedians. Arguably this was because Abbott and Costello carried more clout for the audiences. Similarly, Bob Hope is arguably the star of the 1939 CAT AND THE CANARY, even if the monster known as "the Cat" may be the main focus of the original 1927 silent film, of which the 1939 flick is a remake.

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