Bats Versus Bolts: The Silent Era

Okay, paws in the air, I kinda goofed with this one.

My whole concept (nay, vision!) for Bats versus Bolts is taking a Frankenstein movie and a Dracula movie that are contemporaneous and comparing them side to side to see whatever random insights on movie-making or film history or social trends or whatever crap shakes loose basically. The point is, they’re supposed to be films from the same era. Frankenstein and Dracula  were both released in 1931. Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula were a year apart. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein followed two years after Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Conversely, while the better known of today’s movies, Nosferatu, came out in 1922, our representative for Team Bolts was released a full dozen years previously. Frankenstein was released in 1910, and the more I’ve come to work on this post the more I’ve realised that comparing these two movies is kind of farcical. Firstly, while both movies do belong to “the silent era”, that’s a definition so broad as to be almost useless. The silent era lasted over forty years, and went through multiple evolutions and revolutions in style, technology and presentation. Secondly, while all of the other matchups in this series were made in the same country (America, the UK and America again), here we’re comparing a very primitive silent American short from 1910 and one of the greatest examples of German expressionism in all of film from over a decade later. Is that in any way a fair or meaningful comparison to make?

Is it bollocks. But here we are.

Anyway, let’s talk about the amoral scientist and the bloodsucking monster. Let’s talk about Thomas Edison.

Top 11 Things You Didn't Know About Nikola Tesla | Department of Energy

“Ha! Good one!”

“Nikola Tesla? I thought you were dead!”

“Oh you are adorable.”

I have way too many immortal, dark haired, mustachioed men in my life. Far too many.

Anyway, age before beauty, so let’s talk about Frankenstein first. The movie was the product of Edison Studios, who produced and screened the first commercial motion pictures in the United States using the kinetoscope, drooling neanderthal ancestor of the modern movie projector which Edison may even have invented because fuck it, anything’s possible in this crazy world of ours. Now, although Edison’s name is all over this movie he actually had next to nothing to do with its creation (I know, shocking). Being on the ground floor of the new medium, the Edison company could claim many firsts such as the first romance, the first boxing film and the first Western filmed in America The Great Train Robbery (hilariously, the very first Western, Kidnapped by Indians, was filmed in Lancashire four years previously). While they may have done it first, Edison rarely did it best and the studio’s output is not very highly regarded amongst silent era fans, although more recent re-discoveries have helped rehabilitate their reputation somewhat.

Rather charmingly, Frankenstein was a movie that was thought dead and then brought back to life. The film was thought irretrievably lost like around 75% of all silent films made in America, due to being filmed on nitrate which had the durability and flammability of a rummy’s fart. Thankfully, a copy of the film was discovered in the seventies, somewhat the worse for wear but still viewable. And by viewable, I mean “you can watch it right now” as it’s only 12 minutes long and the copyright on it has expired and it’s not like Thomas Edison is going to rise from the grave demanding it be taken down from YouTube.

“…right?”

“Oh no. He’s definitely dead. Heh heh heh.”

“Not gonna ask.”

Anyway, enough talking about the production of Frankenstein because we need to talk about the production of Nosferatu like right now. One of the greatest horror films of all time. Terrifying even to this day. What kind of production company could create such a thing?

If told you that it was a production company created by a mysterious German occultist to produce supernatural themed films which then folded suddenly after creating this one, terrifying masterpiece would you, as I did, punch the air and say “Oh fuck yes“? Because that’s what we’ve got here, people. That’s what happened. Fuck yes.

Now, granted, the reason why occultist Albin Grau’s Prana Films folded does not include mysterious drained corpses showing up every which way, and more’s the pity. It actually had to do with Bram Stoker’s widow suing his Teutonic testes for filming an unauthorised version of her husband’s novel.

Do not come between an Irishwoman and her royalties. She will cut you down.

Anyway, despite the film-makers hunnish perfidy, what they created still stands almost a century later as the greatest vampire film of all time. And yes, it’s also public domain so you can watch that too.

The adaptations

Frankenstein really is a film from a time before anyone knew what the fuck they were doing in terms of pacing and staging.

Scene 1: Frankenstein goes to college and says goodbye to his fiancée and father.

Scene 2: Frankenstein discovers the secret to LIFE ITSELF.

And, from a modern understanding of cinematic language, both of these scenes are treated with equal importance. The story is extremely faithful to Shelley’s novel with a few minor changes like the monster no longer being created from body parts, the monster no longer pursuing Frankenstein across Europe, the monster now being a manifestation of Frankenstein’s dirty thoughts who vanishes once Frankenstein’s love for his bride reaches “full strength and freedom from impurity” like some kind of isotope, the monster apparently being jealously in love (?) with Frankenstein and the story ending with the monster vanishing and Frankenstein happily married. But other than that, y’know. Pretty much a page for page retelling.

Alright, it’s easy to scoff, but remember. This was a time when people couldn’t see a train coming towards them onscreen without running screaming from the theatre. A jig-sawed together shambling corpse man might have led to a fatal epidemic of the vapours.

In Germany in the 1920s, of course, they were made of sterner stuff. Young German lawyer Jonathan Harker Thomas Hutter travels to Transylvania at the behest of his employer Mister Renfield Herr Knock to sell a house to the mysterious Count Dracula Orlock. Upon suspecting that his host is a vampire and a threat to English virtue pure Aryan womanhood*, he escapes the castle and returns home to save his wife Mina Ellen from Draculock with the help of Abraham Van Helsing Professor Bulwer.

“See ALL you motherfuckers in court.”

WINNER: BATS

The Monsters

Edison Studios specifically set out to make a tamer, uncontroversial version of Mary Shelley’s story, which is why, instead of sewing his monster together out of cadavers, this Frankenstein makes his monster like he’s microwaving some popcorn or something. This scene, incidentally, was described by Edison’s own publicity as “the most weird, mystifying and fascinating scene ever shown on a film” which is probably true considering that the medium was so young that people would pay to watch a dude sneezing. But fair is fair, the creation scene where the monsters flesh slowly forms on a dancing skeleton is genuinely creepy. Actually, the silent era may have been a perfect time for horror films. The jerky unreality of the motion, the complete absence of any human voice, it all combines to give the queasy sense of watching a nightmare unfold.

As I mentioned, the monster (played by Charles Stanton Ogle) is not a reanimated assemblage of dead body parts, but a manifestation (I guess) of the evil in Frankenstein’s soul that he has to purge, adding in a bit of Jekyll and Hyde to the story. It’s not a great film, but it’s honestly a pretty great monster.

But. Y’know. Let’s not kid ourselves.

Count Orlok GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

He may not be the most layered Dracula. He may not be the most compelling Dracula. He may not be the most faithful Dracula. He may not, strictly speaking, be a Dracula.

He is by far the most terrifying Dracula.

Nearly a century later, no director, no actor, no special effects maestro has come close to creating the pure, skin-crawling wrongness of Max Schreck’s Orlock. If Lugosi’s Dracula is still the default for this character in the collective consciousness, it’s because Lugosi is safe. Cuddly, goofy, easily imitated. Schreck, I think, never had the permanent residence in all our minds that Lugosi does because we fundamentally do not want him there.

WINNER: BATS

The Scientists

Augustus Phillips’ performance as Victor Frankenstein is…well, it’s a silent movie performance from 1910. Big expressions, big gestures, not exactly bringing forth the subtle and nuanced layers of the character, you feel me? This is definitely the most innocent Frankenstein we’ve seen so far. For all that the film makes his inner evil the source of the monster, we see absolutely nothing of that in his interactions with the other characters. He seems driven a by a pure, childlike urge to discover. He doesn’t even engage in grave robbing! Frankly, I don’t see this Frankenstein fitting in very well with the rest of the gang.

“….”

“He hasn’t said anything in FIVE HOURS!”

“Possibly a mute. A vivisection of his throat might yield the answers we seek.”

“Oh! We could replace his tongue with an eel! And then use amniotic fluid…”

“And who, pray tell, let you out of your box?”

Our Van Helsing analogue, Bulwer, doesn’t really do much besides hanging outside Ellen’s bedroom looking worried so we’re going to give Team Bolts the win here just to prevent this from being a total blow-out.

WINNER: BOLTS

The Dashing Young Men

Okay. Straight face. So.

*giggle*

Sorry, sorry. Serious now. So. Thomas Hutter is played by GUSTAV VON WANGENHEIM.

That was his name and it is perfect.

“Why is this funny, please?”

“Oh nothing, nothing you gorgeous teutonic slab, you.”

Anyway, Nosferatu skillfully avoids the Too Many Dudes problem by just…not having the extra dudes. I mean c’mon. It’s 1922.

“You expect Quincey Morris? In this economy?!”

Hutter is basically German Johnathan Harker, and so is more efficient and hard working and is basically a more traditional hero than most Harkers in that he retains the main narrative focus for most of the film. Like most silent movie stars Wangenheim seems to have got the job for his ability to look VERY HAPPY or VERY SCARED as the scene requires but hey, that was what the medium needed.

Frankenstein doesn’t really have a male lead outside of Frankenstein himself, so Bats gets this by default.

Winner: Bats

The Perpetually Imperilled Ladies

I wish there was more I could say about Mary Fuller’s Elizabeth Frankenstein but…it’s kind hard to judge this performance because a) she’s hardly in it b) the picture quality is terrible and c) every scene she’s in is just terribly, terribly framed.

“What a perfectly staged shot” said someone in 1910.

I went down a bit of a wiki wormhole with Mary Fuller, honestly, and this film really doesn’t do her justice.

Maryfuller-1914-sideview-silentfilmactress.jpg

She was one of the biggest movie stars in the world for a few years in the late teens as well as being a successful screenwriter. But after a few flops she suddenly became persona non grata in Hollywood. She tried to re-start her career in the twenties to no avail and suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of her mother and spent the last 26 years of her life in a mental institution. It’s heartbreaking.

In Nosferatu, Greta Schroder plays Ellen, our Mina who is quite a fascinating character, honestly. On the one hand she is portrayed as a demure, wilting virgin who doesn’t even like to see flowers killed. But by the end, she’s actually one of the more pro-active and heroic Minas. Entirely on her own bat (heh) she researches vampires and then sacrifices her own life to lure Orlock so that he can be destroyed by the dawn’s sunlight (an invention of Murnau, vampires had never been depicted as being harmed by daylight prior to this). Couple that with quite a lot of screentime, and you could argue she’s actually the movie’s principal hero.

No vampire ladies unfortunately because it was the twenties and feeding on the blood of the living was considered unladylike.

Winner: BATS

Are either of these movies actually, y’know, scary?

Frankenstein is a little creepy which is far more than I expected from a 110 year old film.

But Nosferatu…shit. Did you hear that? Sounds like someone’s coming up the stairs…

Winner: BATS

Best Dialogue:

Real close contest here. I do love the line “……………” from Frankenstein but Nosferatu has the absolutely iconic “……………..” (even though it’s been ruined by being quoted so often).

WINNER: TIE

FINAL SCORE: Bats 5,Bolts 1

NEXT UPDATE: September 24th 2020

NEXT TIME: Bats versus Bolts month continues and it’s time for us to jump to the other end of movie history. It’s the 2010s. Which means it’s time for sexy superhero monsters who FUCK.

* Okay, because nothing originating in Weimar Germany can be discussed without bringing the fucking Nazis into it let’s get this out of the way. The movie has been accused of perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes with Orlock and Herr Knock. It’s not entirely invalid reading but honestly I think it’s people reading things into the movie with the benefit of hindsight rather than anything consciously placed there by the film-makers. Murnau emigrated to the States long before the Nazis came to power and as a gay man who worked with many Jewish collaborators, I doubt he was a fan.

24 comments

  1. I know very little about old horror movies, but I knew about Edison’s Frankenstein. When you announced this I assumed it was old Frankenstein vs a Dracula movie from around 1915 made by a guy trying to test out his new invention on the first thing he saw, a few bats. Instead it was a clear blow out that might as well have been professional vs guy playing with his camera.

  2. Yeah, had a feeling this one wasn’t even going to be close. Still, you gave Frankenstein a fair shot.

    Nosferatu is hands down the film I’d recommend anyone who’s interested in the Silent Era. There’s other great ones of course, like Metropolis, The General, City Lights. But none of those films really need be from that era, they could have been made ten years later and still been just as amazing (and in Chaplin’s case, sound was readily available at the time, he was just stubborn).

    But Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari really had to be made when they were. Higher definition cameras, more nuanced performances, more realistic sets, and of course audible dialog would have ruined the fever dream-like quality of those. And while Caligari came first, it’s a little more camp these days. Nosferatu is still downright scary.

    To give Frankenstein its due, I actually really like the shaggy monster design, and the bit where it rises out of the vat as a half-formed skeletal thing and waves its arm is pretty unsettling. But nothing will top Orlock for sheer “No thanks, I’m out”.

  3. Yes Mouse, Edison is dead.
    Long story short, there was plan that would’ve killed all of New York City in his bid for immortality, Tesla and his atomic-powered robot intervened and the whole thing sounds crazy but this is a crazy world we live in.

    Anyway, looking forward to your next competition and which monster you determine is the most bangable.

  4. I know you complain about the shot composition in Frankenstein but I actually liked what they did with the mirror.

    On the more serious topic of Nosferatu and antisemitism, whether or not it was conscious on the part of the filmmakers, doesn’t really matter. Lots of cultural ideas end up in art without the intention of the artist, which then go one to influence culture.

    For example, Did the creators of CSI set out to convince people that law enforcement, and especially forensic scientists, is perfect and always delivers miraculous results? Of course they didn’t. They just used existing formats of police procedurals and threw in a highly fictionalized dose of forensic science to stand out in a saturated medium. However, it has had the result of society ascribing almost omniscience to the authorities, despite lots of the forensic science involved being on a very shaky foundation. Prosecutors like to turn around and say that it makes it harder to get juries to convict in cases without forensic evidence, but the data does not support this.

    All of this to say that Nosferatu may have reinforced antisemitic stereotypes, it may not have, but whether the filmmakers were intending to do that is not dispositive. Fritz Lang was plenty anti-Nazi, the Nazis still thought his movies were pro-Nazi.

      1. I remain extremely disappointed by SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE’s shameless distortions of History – surely we all know that ‘Graf Orlock’ was hunted down through like a sheep-bothering wolf by Mrs Mina Harker while her Mister was kept busy supporting Mrs Stoker’s crusade against those vampire fancying copyright-breaching Teutons and their shameless willingness to pander to the Vampire lobby? (We all know that DRACULA is the world’s greatest ‘How to’ guide for Vampire Hunters, showing how even a posse of Victorian train nerds and posh boys can hunt down the Prince of Darkness if they follow a few simple guidelines, not a grim tragedy of Germans completely failing to do anything useful against a two-legged plague rat!).

    1. I was just about to mention that movie!

      There’s also an episode of “Are You Afraid of the Dark” that does an homage to Nosferatu and their recreation of Count Orlock was pretty creepy for a children’s TV show. (Just looked it up: “The Tale of Midnight Madness.”)

      Funny how Orlock is probably the most unnerving depiction of Dracula ever put to film and he’s not even an official version.

      1. I have to say that calling Graf Orlock a ‘Dracula’ always bugs me – it’s like referring to The Mighty Thor as a Superman clone, in that while there’s a clear debt of inspiration the two characters are so different that the comparison becomes odious.

        Quite bluntly Orlock is enduringly terrifying but that’s ALL he is (completely lacking in The Count’s insinuating wickedness, rather nasty sense of humour and overpowering hints of a mid-afterlife crisis): he is, it must be said, a rather impressive but slightly flat character.

        Also, he is very clearly lacking The Count’s Dark Ages mullet and pimping moustache, hence inferior! (-;

      1. I guess other people have more serious issues, just didn’t get one job I really wanted and my best friend since childhood had a child which makes me depressed since my life isn’t going anywhere and I broke up with my bf a couple of months ago. And I really miss my best friend terribly but it seems like we have been drifting apart for half a decade since she moved to other city so I found out her child was born from a Facebook post which is so sad to me. I wish I had been there .

      2. I can relate to all of that, trust me. Not getting a job I wanted sent me into a major spiral a few years back, it’s the worst. But never think that your life is going nowhere. You’re living right now, and right now it’s crappy, but the thing about human lives is that they always change. Things never stay the same. You’ll come through this. There will be new opportunities, new friendships and chances to repair old ones. And be sure to send your friend a message congratulating her and telling her that you miss having her in your life. Often the best friendships go through lulls and come back stronger than ever. Hope your corner comes soon.

    1. I think it’s right that he’s not very scary here. Good way to introduce him to kids (and it’s one of my favorite Spongebob jokes.)

    2. Ahh, good times, gooood times…

      (Fun fact: this joke was thrown in at the last minute because the episode’s airdate happened to fall on Max Shreck’s birthday; the original joke was booted because there wasn’t enough room to fit its setup in the episode.)

  5. It’s kind of unfair to send anything into a race against Nosferatu. It’s so well remembered despite being a silent movie for a reason, plus, it was produced when German film was still trend-setting (another thing Hitler ruined, sadly).

    Though naturally the history of Nosferatu is especially convoluted and fraught with right issues.

  6. Funnily enough, looking at that Frankenstein vat scene I’m *pretty sure* they did it by building some sort of animatronic, setting it on fire, filming it as it collapsed into the vat and then playing it back in reverse.

    Which considering the time period would be a pretty impressive feat!

  7. It never ceases to amuse me when I recall Mrs Florence Stoker’s crusade against NOSFERATU – when it comes to hunting down a Nosferatu you can’t beat the iron sense of purpose and steely mercilessness of a Victorian wifey, on the page or on the screen (or, in this case, off the screen!).

    Out of curiosity, may one please ask how you feel about NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE? (The 1970s remake of the original – it strikes me that a duel between the Silent and the Talky version of this particular picture might have been a more even contest – though personally I dislike the latter for using the original names from DRACULA, despite making absolutely no other effort to be more faithful to the novel; I’d much prefer that the Graf et al be distinguished from their inspiration in the same way that Captain Marvel has been distinguished from Superman).

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