American Movie: The Avenging Conscience (1914)

Throughout the first decade of the 20th century, American film production continued to grow, from dozens of short films released each year, to hundreds. By the ‘teens, annual releases numbered in the thousands, and films were also growing in length, from a mere reel or two, to half a dozen or more. The motion picture as novelty and fad had given way to a full-blown film industry, and business was booming. But with greater success came increased audience expectations.

Films had to be about something, and with audiences standing by to consume the latest movies as fast as the studios could crank them out, there was no time for a lot of originality.  Filmmakers turned to two established sources, drawn by the warm glow of familiarity, for inspiration: adaptation and genre. Film as a growing art form was quick to capitalize on the successes of the other narrative arts (literature and drama), and to revisit, over and over again, the kinds of stories audiences responded to, like romantic melodramas, slapstick comedies, westerns, and even the odd flirtation with horror.

However, as Carlos Clarens observes in his seminal Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films, “unlike the Western and slapstick comedy, horror movies were not indigenous to the American screen. Horror is nourished by myth, tradition, and legend—all of which require centuries of rich elaboration.” Still over a decade away from its sesquicentennial, the United States seemingly lacked the ingredients for horror that its European counterparts enjoyed, but for a canny director with a vision, there has always been plenty of material to work with.

In 1914, that director was none other than D. W. Griffith, in the midst of a highly successful transitional period in his career. The previous year, as an employee of Biograph, he had secretly made his first feature-length film, Judith of Bethulia. Biograph, peeved at Griffith’s defiance and convinced that audiences would not sit still for the full hour, refused to release it. In response, Griffith took his entire crew and defected to the Mutual Film Corporation, where he was given autonomy to produce his own films as joint head of the new Reliance-Majestic Studios. The Avenging Conscience (subtitled “Thou Shalt Not Kill”) was the last of four feature films that Griffith produced that year before beginning work on The Birth of a Nation. It is America’s first feature-length horror film.

For inspiration, Griffith turned to the man whose name is synonymous with the American tradition of Gothic terror and suspense, Edgar Allan Poe, freely adapting elements from several of Poe’s best-known stories and poems into an unmistakably Griffith-ian tale of morality and melodrama. Griffith had used Poe as a cinematic subject at least once before, in a brief biographical short made five years earlier to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the author’s birth. (How strange to realize that this film is further removed from us than that event was from Griffith.)

The plot of The Avenging Conscience draws most heavily on “The Tell-Tale Heart,” depicting the travails of a young man (played by none other than Henry B. Walthall, the star of Birth of a Nation) whose uncle (and guardian) forbids him to marry his true love, a girl whose appearances are accompanied by quotations from Poe’s “Annabel Lee” (Blanche Sweet, whose credits include the title role in Judith of Bethulia). Thwarted and despairing, the young man observes a spider killing a fly that has been caught in its web, and then watches a swarm of ants kill a spider. In his troubled state of mind, he concludes that nature is “one long system of murder,” and hatches a plot to kill his uncle (whose eye-patch suggests the single, dead “vulture eye” of Poe’s story) and conceal the body behind the brick facade of the fireplace. Unfortunately, there is a witness to his crime, and he is blackmailed for a portion of his inheritance.

To make matters worse, his new independence is tainted by the intrusion of his uncle’s accusing spirit, and he is plagued with remorseful visions of a melancholy Christ and of Moses angrily wielding the 6th Commandment. Suffering a nervous breakdown, he has himself committed to a sanitarium, which both fails to cure him and arouses the suspicions of an investigating detective. The young man’s fragile psyche quickly disintegrates in the face of intense interrogation, and he confesses to his crime before fleeing. A brief manhunt ends with the young man hanging himself and his sweetheart throwing herself off of a cliff. However, in a surprise twist, the young man awakes to find that it has all been a dream and his uncle is still alive and has reconsidered the situation, and everyone ends happily and at peace.

All of Griffith’s talent as a cutting-edge filmmaker and shortcomings as a hopelessly old-fashioned storyteller are on full display here. The cast includes several Griffith regulars like Spottiswoode Aitken, George Siegmann, and Mae Marsh (all of whom would go straight on to major roles in Birth of a Nation), but Marsh’s character is a particular oddity here. She plays a lovestruck maid opposite Robert Harron’s oblivious grocery boy in a comic subplot that feels jarringly out-of-place, and then vanishes 20 minutes in.

The whole first act, which ought to move swiftly into darker territory once the characters have been established, lags on and on as though Griffith is reluctant to reach his destination. The final scene in the movie is reminiscent of the grand conclusions of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, depicting the two lovers enjoying a natural scene overlaid by a beatific vision of Pan charming forest animals and children in cheap costumes, but the slight subject matter renders the device even sillier here.

Still, despite obvious flaws, The Avenging Conscience excels throughout what is presumably the “dream sequence” portion of the film. Griffith’s seamless editing in the scene where the young man observes the brutality of nature serves as an apt and visually-arresting device for introducing the idea of murder. Griffith then ratchets up the tension as the young man works himself up to the deed. Having him forgo the relatively clean kill with his revolver to physically strangle the old man is a particularly visceral touch, and the audience is immediately implicated in the terror of the young man’s guilt through the suspense of whether he will be caught. Trick camera effects are also well-employed at several points to summon the ghostly uncle.

The film’s greatest success, though, is the confession scene. Lacking both sound and descriptive text to suggest the beating of the victim’s “hideous heart” that drives the protagonist of Poe’s story over the edge, Griffith relies on a tour-de-force of impressionistic editing to evoke a rhythmic tapping that is almost audible.  Cutting rapidly between the ticking clock, the detective’s foot tapping the floor, his pencil tapping the table, and the nephew’s darting eyes, Griffith works both protagonist and audience into a near-frenzy until the nephew rushes to the door, half-mad. Throwing it open, he witnesses a ghoulish procession of images suggesting hell, death, and encroaching doom. The combination of anxiety and the grotesque make this scene the horrific climax of a film that offers little in the way of true horror.

The many elements of romantic melodrama in the movie, coupled with the overtly didactic tone indicated by the subtitle “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and the general lack of legitimate scariness (particularly to a modern audience) may render this film’s horror pedigree somewhat questionable. Nevertheless, it does fit Robin Wood’s definitive description of the genre in “The American Nightmare”:

the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its reemergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror, and the happy ending […] signifying the restoration of repression.

In early cinema, in fantasy films as well as horror and other genres, the involvement of the supernatural was almost universally revealed at the end to have been “only a dream” (a device that remained common after the advent of sound films, as evident in such famous examples as 1939’s The Wizard of Oz). As Wood explains, “the conditions under which a dream becomes a nightmare are that the repressed wish is, from the point of view of consciousness, so terrible that it must be repudiated as loathsome, and that it is so strong and powerful as to constitute a serious threat.” The overuse of this device in early films may well indicate the heightened repression of a pre-Jazz Age audience and their need for reassurance before exiting the “dream world” of the movie theater.

In this case, the emergence of the repressed occurs within a literal nightmare, which (by Wood’s definition) is somewhat redundant. Still, there is an element of catharsis when the young nephew of The Avenging Conscience awakes from his dream and is relieved to discover that he has not committed a murder. He proceeds to reveal the dream to his uncle, and the two share a hearty laugh about it. It does not seem to occur to either of them that the dream has revealed the nephew’s true (though repressed) desire to enact his uncle’s death. The audience, as well, is comforted to learn that young people in love are not capable of patricide, after all, even if they are frustrated with the restrictions placed on them by their elders.

The film’s central conflict also fits Wood’s description of the basic formula of horror: “normality is threatened by the Monster,” and either is or is not defeated. Here, as in many of Poe’s presciently pre-Freudian tales of psychological terror, “normality and the Monster are two aspects of the same person.” The young man is a dutiful nephew and devoted lover, but also a coldly-calculating killer. That this murderous monster exists “only” in a Poe-fueled dream should hardly be comforting to anyone who recognizes the truth it reveals: that everyone has a dark side waiting to be unleashed. But for movie-going audiences in 1914, such truths were best confined to a dream within a dream, as only the feverish nightmare of a character inhabiting the collective reverie of the motion picture screen.

~ by Jared on July 20, 2011.

One Response to “American Movie: The Avenging Conscience (1914)”

  1. Can you say if your Walker percy “the search” quote and epigraph comes from his “The Moviegoer” novel?

    Can you discuss the book and its deeper relationship to movies…




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