Work in Progress

The Black Box, Illuminated

In 1909, D. W. Griffith made two short films inspired by Poe and his works. The first, Edgar Allen Poe [sic], is a biopic. Poe’s wife, Virginia, is ill; a raven appears; Poe writes his great poem and rushes out to sell the work so he can buy food and medicine; after several tries, he does sell it, buys the supplies, and returns triumphantly to Virginia, only to discover that she has died while he was gone. The film is an early example of the durable tradition of merging Poe’s life and his works. Later that year, Griffith produces The Sealed Room, drawing on both Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” (1846) and Balzac’s “La Grande Bréteche” (1831). Having constructed a kind of love niche for his wife, a nobleman discovers her in it, canoodling with the court musician. Even as they play their love games, the nobleman walls them up.

What makes Poe attractive to a filmmaker like Griffith? We know that much early cinema turned to literary sources not just for stories but also to raise its own cultural status. Observing that 1909 was the centenary of Poe’s birth, Griffith saw an opportunity to bask in the glory of his subject, described by the publicists as “the most original poetic genius ever produced by America” and “the literary lion of the universe.” It has been suggested that the same motives lie behind the production of The Sealed Room later in the year, perhaps that is true. But this second film avails itself of the themes of Poe’s work and not just the tragedy of his life. And it explores technical challenges in a way that Edgar Allen Poe did not.

The Sealed Room provides early instances of cross-cutting, for example, as the narrative moves rapidly between the lovers and the avenger supervising their live burial. But there is a deeper message about the medium at work here, namely that for the camera eye there is no such thing as “a sealed room.” In Poe’s “Cask” the subterranean setting and especially the rising wall created by Montresor leads to a climactic moment in which the avenger can no longer see into the niche. He thrusts in a torch to no avail. He knows Fortunato is in there, alive, because he can hear him. But he cannot see him. In Griffith’s version, however, there is nothing that cannot be seen: the camera moves frictionlessly between inside and outside the room.

The niche in which Fortunato is walled up is a classic example of what I called in the first part of this essay a “black box.” Much of the terror of the narrative lies in our imagining being inside it, able to see, perhaps, but able to see nothing. And Griffith’s film is reasonably successful in harnessing the terror and the sadism we find in Poe and Balzac. “The sealed room” itself, however, must remain visible to us—as indeed it does to the film’s victims, who gesticulate wildly in an illuminated space, despite there being now no natural source of light.

Consider now a film made by the prolific Alice Guy-Blaché just a few years after Griffith’s two films of 1909. Only the first reel of The Pit and the Pendulum has survived, but we know from reviews as well as lobby cards and stills that Guy-Blaché rendered the torture scene in considerable detail. Live rats were brought in to scamper over the strapped down victim. (After the shooting, the rats proved difficult to dispose of: a cat and a bulldog having declined to attack them, the rats had to be bludgeoned). As with Griffith’s “sealed room,” the torture chamber, which in Poe’s tale is pitch black, is here well lighted, so much so that we can watch the victim watching the swinging blade.

That Guy-Blaché was testing boundaries is clear enough in the reviews. Stephen Bush reviewed the film in Moving Picture World, saying he was “astonished at the effectiveness with which the fearful tortures of the story’s hero have been illustrated by the Solax producer.” Bush is rapt before “all the mechanisms of torture, including the cell with the pit in its floor down which we see skulls and crawling serpents.” On the other hand, “R.R.,” writing for the Exhibitors’s Times, recoils from just this frank depiction: “The one great drawback of this film portrayal was the entirely unnecessary torture scene. There was absolutely no legitimate reason for showing us the agony of a woman on the rack, to say nothing of a man, to all outward intent, actually being racked. […] The great dramatists and stage directors carefully avoid the presentation of such scenes not only because they are too revolting, but because a more powerful effect may be gained by suggestion.”

The “pre-code” era of moviemaking was notoriously eager to sell sex and violence—or both at once, as in the scenes of a barechested Valentino being tortured in Son of the Sheik (1926). In 1934, the Production Code Administration was instituted and Joseph Breen, publicist and prominent catholic layman, was put in charge.

One of the first movies Breen had to consider was The Black Cat (1934), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the third of the famous series of horror movies released by Universal Studios (the first two were Dracula and Frankenstein—both from 1931). Initially Breen was put off by a number of things in the shooting script—the Aleister Crowley-inspired black mass, for example, or the climactic scene in which Dr. Vitus Werdergast (Bela Lugosi) takes his revenge on Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) by flaying him alive. Breen wanted to make sure this scene was depicted only in silhouette, if at all, and in fact we see Lugosi begin the grisly process in silhouette. But despite the fact that many other things Breen had flagged remained unchanged, Breen’s office breezily approved The Black Cat on April 2, 1934, concluding that the film “contains little, if anything, that is reasonably censorable.” As one modern film historian writes: “how did Ulmer get this far with so perverse a script?”

Let us now ask our persistent question: why does Ulmer turn to Poe? What does it allow him to do as a filmmaker? The answer to the first question is, Ulmer doesn’t turn to Poe, Universal Studios does. Junior Laemmle is trying to continue the successes of Dracula and Frankenstein, and he does it in the way studios always do: devising a formula and iterating a series.  The association of Poe’s name with multiple horror titles is ideal for this strategy, and indeed Universal had already produced The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and followed The Black Cat with The Raven (1935). None of these films pays close attention to the details of its putative source text—The Black Cat least of all. As Ulmer later said, his film has “nothing” to do with Poe’s story.

To be fair, the film is advertised as “based on” Poe’s story, but aside from there being a black cat, there is no other connection. All this makes Ulmer’s film a good test of our theory that Poe is a brand more than an author. If, as one film historian suggests, Poe’s name signified at this moment themes of “depravity, melancholy, psychological trauma, and sadism,” then Ulmer’s movie was entirely true to the brand. Depravity? Poelzig holds satanic rituals and embalms his sacrificial victims, one of whom is Werdegast’s former wife. Melancholy and psychological trauma? Werdegast has spent fifteen years in prison and is consumed by the loss of his wife and daughter. Sadism? Werdegast straps Poelzig to his own embalming apparatus and begins to skin him alive.

Ulmer’s triumph in this movie is to have taken some core features of the Poe brand—necrophilia, transmigration of souls, subterranean torture—and made them graphic according to the means of the cinematic medium. Poelzig is a sophisticate, an engineer in a designer house that is all open plan rooms, sweeping stairs, and tasteful sculptures. The house is rational, a fact advertised visually by the prevalence of the grid. Poelzig’s grand stairway is backlit by a wall of faintly glowing glass brick. Even his subterranean chambers retain this feature. The chilling scene in which Poelzig reveals Werdegast’s former wife in her embalmed state takes place against a wall resembling graph paper and which, as if commenting on the fragility of the works of reason, is revealed to be glass when Werdegast falls against it.

The single most effective horror Ulmer draws from the Poe brand is the complete transformation of the black box. Poelzig preserves his white-robed women—the implication is that they have been human sacrifices at the black masses he presides over—suspended within coffin-shaped vitrines. What had been the very navel of the nightmare—the utter blackness inside the coffin—is now illuminated, and what had been an existential terror of embodiment is now a queasy horror in the face of the abstraction of the body, its special preparation for display. For the camera eye, there is no such thing as a sealed room. What is graphic in the age of cinema is what can been exposed to view. “Why is she like this?” asks Werdergast of his former wife’s presentation. “Isn’t she beautiful?” replies Poelzig, irrelevantly but tellingly. The graphic in the age of cinema is the vampirism of the image on the body, the knowledge that all that is real, material, embodied can be made to give way to its presentation as spectacle.

Richard Dyer famously argued that early cinema was dedicated above all to the presentation of whiteness. Ulmer’s luminous, suspended corpses present that program with a special purity. Initially, Breen had suggested this effect was inappropriate and should be reconsidered; Ulmer did reconsider it, and in fact hired several more actresses to hover in white-robed morbidity in their own glass coffins. That Breen’s office did not cry foul at Ulmer’s doubling down reveals how deeply compelling, how normal, was the vision of mortified white womanhood, and its worship—normally extreme. Poe’s own necrophiliac fantasies, iterated across a series of tales and poems, find a congenial home in early cinema. This is why Ulmer’s film, while almost completely ignoring the tale from which it borrows its title, remains remarkably faithful to the Poe brand: “It may be considered one of the most successful attempts to transfer Poe to the screen, even though it transfers only a mood and not a plot.”

Despite its grisliness and the depravity of Karloff’s character, there is a tonal levity in The Black Cat that becomes characteristic of much horror cinema, and that looks back to Poe’s recipe for excess: “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque, the fearful coloured into the horrible.” Sometimes this curdling effect manifests as a decision to pile it on: having Werdegast flay Poelzig strapped to his embalming rack. At other times, there is winking to the audience: at one point, Poelzig shares a joke with Werdegast: “You see, Titus, even the telephone here is dead!” In the scene of the black mass much nonsensical Latin is intoned, but the chanting begins with “cum grano salis,” a phrase repeated later in case we missed it the first time. “Absurdity—campy absurdity—was probably the only way Hollywood could deal with horror.” The idea was that if the “more frightening scenes were tempered by lighthearted, even corny, moments” it was less likely that audiences would recoil in disgust or that censors would mobilize in opposition.

Breen had accepted the film with minimal fuss, but reaction elsewhere—in the United Kingdom, Australia, Europe—was swift: The Black Cat was banned or cut in all those places. Tracking the inconsistent, even contradictory, behavior of various censoring agencies adds weight to the argument that censorship—and the concept of the unwatchable that lies at its heart—is less about the suppression of any title and more about legitimating the push-and-pull itself, the discourse about what can be shown and what should be seen. I turn now to another fraught moment in this discourse, mid-century America, era of the Hollywood blacklist and a sudden crackdown on the flood of excessive images in the pulps and comic books.