Talking Shadows: A Review of Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origin of the Horror Genre

Andrew Sydlik

Two of horror’s most iconic films—Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)—also prove easy targets of parody today for their campiness and stagy melodrama. Twenty-first century viewers puzzle over how they ever scared anyone. Robert Spadoni’s book, Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origin of the Horror Genre, puts these films (and their audiences) into their proper historical contexts by looking at how they engage with the anxieties around the transition from silent to sound film. The legacy of silent film ended with the 1930-31 film season. Dracula and Frankenstein both came out in 1931, and, according to Spadoni, only after their releases did critics and Hollywood marketers began to refer to “horror film” as a proper genre. Surprisingly, no one before Spadoni has made the connection between the end of the silent film era with the birth of the horror film.

I gained rewarding insight into the genesis of horror film from this book, but at first I was put off by the dense exploration in the first two chapters of the development of early sound film. But the slow beginning paid off, as the analyses of Dracula and Frankenstein made much more sense with the historical background. One of Spadoni’s main points is that the transition from silent to sound was not smooth—some resisted it. Another, perhaps counterintuitive, idea is that the sound transition’s impact had more to do with the look of films rather than their sound. He describes these films as “uncanny” because, just as the creatures typify the uncanny in being both living and dead, familiar and unfamiliar, so too do these sound films echo with the ghosts of silent film.

The next three chapters analyze Dracula and Frankenstein. Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster both serve as good examples of the cinematic uncanny, since they are “the living dead,” corpses given life. This is borne out by the makeup, lighting, costumes, dialogue, and mannerisms used to portray these monsters. Bela Lugosi as Dracula is of course known for his thick Hungarian accent, which he played up for dramatic effect. But in fact, Spadoni points out that his relative silence throughout much of the film helps to reinforce his otherworldliness. Dracula’s face is also lit in such a way so as to make it whiter than those of other actors. His movements are very slow and deliberate, in contrast to the other actors, who move with quick, theatrical movements common to films of that time.

Frankenstein’s monster is set apart as “uncanny” by Jack Pierce’s intricate makeup work. There were a number of ways that Pierce and director James Whale collaborated to give the creature a corpselike, hideous appearance. The interesting point that Spadoni makes is the difference in marketing the actors playing the monsters. While Lugosi was closely identified with Dracula in marketing for the film, emphasizing his Hungarian background and his unfamiliarity with American culture, Boris Karloff was portrayed as a graceful, kindly man who was all the more praiseworthy for his ability to play a character so opposite to his true characteristics. The monster, like Dracula, evokes silent film by his lack of dialogue. In this case, he does not speak at all, but only grunts, moans, and growls.

The single chapter devoted to Frankenstein is less extensive than the examination of Dracula and its reception, despite the fact that Spadoni claims Frankenstein as the superior and more timeless film. Still, he makes some important points. One is that the film’s jagged, pasted-together look results not from Whale’s sloppiness (as some critics assume), since his earlier films employed smoother editing, but from intentional attention to the artificiality of film, and its sewn-together nature, just like the monster is sewn together from dead body parts. Another point regards the influence of silent German cinema, particularly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), for its look: the unrealistic scenery, and the stiff movements and corpselike features of the monster from Frankenstein which bear similarity to Cesare from Caligari. (Interestingly, although Spadoni does not explicitly make this claim, Nosferatu, another silent German film, seems to have had less stylistic influence on Dracula.)

Each film embodies the ultimate uncanny in a particular moment: Spadoni pays close attention to scenes when the monster directly faces the camera close-up, apparently a taboo move at the time. For Dracula, the moment comes when Van Helsing wards Dracula off with a crucifix, and Lugosi hurtles toward the camera, letting out an eerie hiss as he disappears off screen. In Frankenstein, the uncanny strikes most forcefully with the monster’s initial full appearance, when he enters backwards through a doorway, slowly turning until we see a succession of increasing close-ups, culminating in the monster’s ghoulish face and the abnormally flat head staring straight ahead. As with many of the closely-read scenes in the book, frames from the film accompany his discussions.

In the concluding chapter, Spadoni talks about the horror movies that followed soon after Dracula and Frankenstein: These movies distort the sense of the uncanny used in Dracula and Frankenstein. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, released on December 31, 1931, especially departs from the pattern. Unlike the sparse, foreign speech of the vampire, or the inarticulate sounds of the monster, Mr. Hyde’s acerbic wit and vibrant, primal hedonism suggest a different kind of monster. If Mr. Hyde also embodies the uncanny, then, as Spadoni says, “clearly the template is shifting.” Some of the comments in the conclusion are provocative—particularly about the turns the horror genre took away from the uncanny—and beg for deeper analysis. The comment about Mr. Hyde may be taken up in a later volume, as Spadoni indicates in an interview an interest in taking up the werewolf figure in movies. I look forward to reading his analysis of the uncanny shapeshifter.

Spadoni, Robert, Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origin of the Horror Genre. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Print