Uncanny Bodies (Film Book Review)
I found this book at the 2014 Motor City Nightmares convention. I am familiar with and have read professor Robert Spadoni’s essay on Universal’s Werewolf of London (1935), which I like, so after a brief thumb-through and spot check on Amazon (5 star reviews), I picked up Uncanny Bodies, The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre (University of California Press, 2007). This is a not a book about Frankenstein (1931) or Dracula (1931), although these influential films figure prominently in Spadoni’s thesis.
Uncanny Bodies is a serious treatment on the evolution of horror film from silent expressionist and Universal Chaney films to the early sound horror features from 1931 (Dracula) to 1936 (Dracula’s Daughter). This is a literate and meticulously researched book which students of film studies should enjoy. Uncanny Bodies is not for the layman, and casual film buffs might get bored with the opening chapters.
Three of the chapters dive into the development, evolution and influences of the Universal films Dracula and Frankenstein. Lugosi/Browning and Karloff/Whale fans will enjoy these chapters. Spadoni is not a critic although he seems to agree with most critics and film historians that Frankenstein is the better film. I too agree, but I won’t go as far as Michael Brunas, John Brunas and Tom Weaver who note (Universal Horrors, 2007):
The flaws inherent to Dracula are so self-evident that they are outlined in nearly every critique; only Lugosi freaks and the nostalgically inclined still go through the motions of praising and defending the film.
Spadoni’s basic thesis is the concept of the uncanny body modality of early sound films. I’m going to go out on a limb a bit and describe this as horror film umami —the uncanny body is an audience perception for film-goers who witnessed this new sensation. It is a modality that exemplifies the physical attributes in the fantasy (unrealistic) genre. Spadoni refers to an ethereal quality (like a ventiloquist projecting his voice) that film-goers witnessed when first viewing these unfamiliar talkies.
Spadoni uses Dracula and Frankenstein as examples of the uncanny body. MGM’s visceral adaptation of H.G.Wells’ Island of Lost Souls (1932) and Karl Fruend’s The Mummy (1932) also certainly fall under this veil. Spadoni presents a simple graphic illustrating four quadrants with the uncanny body occupying the lower left. For contrast I have added additional films that might occupy this illustration: The Most Dangerous Game, a graphic and believable tale of a man who hunts humans; Hitchcock’s Psycho, a realistic mind-fuck; and Altered States, a cerebral mind-trip. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) might be an example of a modern horror film on the opposite spectrum of the uncanny body, while The Blair Witch Project (1999) might be a neo-uncanny body for ushering in found-footage hand held camera indie horror. At least that is my take.