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Reviewed by:
  • Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre
  • Reynold Humphries (bio)
Robert Spadoni , Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre (University of California Press, 2007)

At one point in his Introduction, Robert Spadoni refers to Tom Gunning's exhortation not to concentrate on 'narratives' when analysing genre movies. Instead, we should 'pay closer attention to such formal characteristics of the films as editing, mise en scène, framing, and, most basically, the very textures of cinema as they are experienced by viewers and explored by genre film makers' (4; second emphasis added). To many readers this may seem like stating the obvious, but Spadoni earlier makes a remark about sound, to the effect that recognising the use of sound as crucial to the horror genre 'is not the same thing as identifying the major influence of the coming of sound on the genre's initial formulation. This influence has been missed perhaps because it reveals more in the way the first sound horror films look than in the way they sound' (2; emphasis added). That apparently casual remark should already have made us sit up and take notice, for it takes us to the heart of the matter.

In his particularly dense Introduction (three of the book's five chapters concentrate on Dracula [Tod Browning, 1931] and Frankenstein [James Whale, 1931], the first two films in Universal Pictures' cycle of 1930s horror), Spadoni is at pains to draw meaningful parallels between two quite different and seemingly discrete moments in film making and, especially, film going: an awareness on the part of early film audiences (up to 1910) of just how artificial films were; and the return of this artificiality in the status of the human figure in early sound films (5, 6). In this latter context he uses such deliberately loaded terms as 'ghostly' and 'uncanny', pointing out that figures in early sound films 'could seem both alive and dead at the same time' (7). An example he gives here, Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), is most pertinent, for in this key early horror film statues indeed seem to be alive, while humans pretend to be statues or else are dead.

Also central to the author's argument in the opening pages, and an [End Page 207] aspect highlighted by the question of 'artificiality', is the tension/opposition between 'realism' and 'unrealism', with the 'uncanny body' belonging to that aspect of the spectator's apprehension of the filmic text 'in which the unreal and the bodied nature of sound film come across the most forcefully' (11). Referring to the technical problems posed by the introduction of sound in the late 1920s, Spadoni writes: 'Every synchronization mishap served to remind viewers that the bodies speaking on the screen constituted whole entities only tenuously, ones that had been pieced together in a movie studio and that could come apart quite easily once inside the movie theater' (14). His insistence on the Freudian concept of 'The Uncanny' is crucial in two ways. Firstly, the Uncanny occurs when something the subject believed that he or she had left behind at an early stage of existence suddenly and unexpectedly makes its presence felt anew. Secondly, it designates that most disturbing feeling that what the subject knows to be inanimate is seemingly endowed with life. In modern horror cinema, a dramatic instance of this is the sack in the background in Takashi Miike's Audition (1999). The first time we see it, the sack is simply there in a room, along with an equally motionless character. The second time, for no reason and without the spectator knowing what it contains, it suddenly moves. The co-presence of a motionless human being and an inanimate object that 'comes to life' is truly uncanny, but this feeling was also exploited in the surreal comedies of Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis (see the motionless suits of armour that move in the latter's The Errand Boy [1961]).

What use, then, does Spadoni make of these insights and observations? A formula that occurs more than once in Uncanny Bodies is that of 'speaking effigies...


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pp. 207-211
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