“Beware the ides of March.”
-William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (2.3:103)
What exactly makes a tragedy tragic? Is it that is was inevitable or that it was avoidable? Is it the result of divine will or the result of human error?
Many see tragedy as a dead art form, one which belongs to the Ancient Greeks and to the Elizabethans: theatre-goers whose bones are now dust. Such a notion is false; tragedy has simply donned a cloak and fled onto the silver screen.
Both tragedy and horror portray human suffering to evoke fear and then catharsis in the audience.
Until very recently, most would scoff at the possibility that a film from such a “depraved” genre as horror could actually be a rendition of Sophocles or Shakespeare. Those people however would never have actually read ‘Oedipus Rex’ or ‘Titus Andronicus’.
A great filmmaker, like a great dramatist, is not afraid to show repeated acts of violence and suffering, provided that they evoke something beyond mere revulsion; that they may evoke and then cleanse feelings of horror and sorrow.
One shouldn’t be confused however; not all horror movies are tragedies and nor is any movie with a sad ending. By Aristotle’s definition it requires a “complex” structure, “a change from ignorance to awareness”, and be “performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.”
While he saw tragedy attributed to a fatal flaw in a protagonist, the genre itself was underpinned by questions of free will and fate, and morphed over the centuries.
When looking at two congruent genres, it’s impossible to recognise all the great horror films resembling great tragedies. But it’s essential that at least some comparisons be made as it teaches us something about ourselves.
We like to think that we’ve changed over the last two thousand years; that we’re somehow more enlightened, more human. But look back and you’ll see that we’re the same brutal, pitiful and fragile men and women we always were and always shall be.
1. Frankenstein (1931)
James Whale’s film stands with its sequel as being arguably the best adaption of Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’. Whale’s take of the monster, inspired by the sympathetic ‘others’ of German Expressionism, is a tale of hubris, innocence and inescapable destruction.
The mad scientist Victor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) steals dead bodies and later stitches them together to create a living man (Boris Karloff).
Despite taking this basic premise from the original novel, the film deviates for its source material significantly. The greatest change probably lies in the portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster, who, in Whales appropriation, doesn’t reach a state of mature consciousness. He’s a child living in a body and a society which he’s incapable of comprehending.
There’s both beauty to his innocence, as he reaches up mystically at the sunrays beaming into his dungeon, and horror also, as he unwittingly drowns a child. Although the monster’s hamartia – his fatal flaw – is apparently that he’s virginal; he’s being punished for forces well beyond his control.
While some critics stress that the monster must be homosexual or an allegory of Christ, the beauty of the figure is that he anonymously stands for all those who contradict – unwitting or not – our uniform beliefs, and suffer for it.
While ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ and ‘Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror’ both shared sympathetic monsters, ‘Frankenstein’ was perhaps the first true tragedy of horror cinema. No matter how old the film has grown, there’s catharsis still to be found in those final flames.
2. Freaks (1932)
Even after it was extensively recut, Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ flopped critically and commercially, destroyed his career and was labelled one of the most disgusting films ever made. From today’s perspective however that all seems quaint; it’s much easier to see the film for what it’s worth: a heartbreaking story of good people pressured – socially and emotionally – into becoming monsters.
A trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) marries a sideshow performer (Harry Earles) so that she may murder him and claim his substantial inheritance.
Browning, who worked with Lon Chaney on several silent film productions, was well-adjusted to using makeup to achieve visual monstrosity. As such, one of the original criticisms of the film by audiences and MGM executives alike was that he contradicted his talent and used actors with real deformities for ‘Freaks’.
It was important that Browning – who worked in a circus and who lost all his front teeth in a car crash – used actors who were not simply pretending to be maltreated performers. It presents them simply as human beings, both beautiful and cruel.
The horror is that we could be one of them; the conspirator shrieks away with disgust when the ignorant band welcomes her as one of them, chanting canonically “We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us. Gooba-gobble, gooba-gobble”.
The disturbing ending completes the piece as a kind of revenge tragedy. The conspirator becomes a “freak” herself while the once-innocent performers resort to a heinous act; crawling through the mud they become the monsters that society believes them to be.
‘Freaks’, a cult masterpiece as it is, waters down the tragedy which was seen in the original, lost cut. The camera didn’t split away from the mutilation, the strongman was castrated and there was no happy ending of a rich, reunited couple.
3. Ugetsu (1953)
Kenji Mizoguchi’s ‘Ugetsu’ is considered the first Japanese horror film. Despite this claim and its undeniably haunting atmosphere, at heart it’s a poignant ghost story of love, family, pleasure, greed, war and loss which better resembles a Senecan tragedy than any typical horror flick.
The film details the lives of two couples torn each apart by the chaos of civil war, personal ambition and supernatural temptation.
Although nothing otherworldly is actually revealed until the end of the film, the audience is well aware that nothing is quite as it seems. The success of the movie lies in the atmosphere, particularly in Kazuo Miyagawa’s eerie monochrome cinematography, which drifts dreamily frame to frame, and in the chilling soundtrack of flutes, horns and wailed lamentations.
There are ghosts whose presence goes unseen, hidden in a fog rolling across a lake or heard as a moaning song over an empty samurai helmet. Like ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth’, the supernatural is a cause for tragedy; individual greed and the chaos of on overturning world inevitably leads to a misunderstanding of the signs.
Unlike other tragedies however, none of the male heroes die; instead the death and the abuse is reserved to the female characters. In this case it is not the women left as widowers by the war, but the men.
‘Ugestu’ is several films at once: romance, family drama, war, horror, tragedy and jidaigeki period piece. It helped launch a golden age of Japanese cinema which obsessed on the phantoms of war and Shakespearean loss, and remains one of the best films ever made.
4. The Innocents (1961)
Despite its age and its classification, Jack Clayton’s gothic horror, to this day, remains one of the scariest films ever made. It goads us into a labyrinth, down a dark, narrowing path between the psychological and the phantasmal, the sinister and the sane, and cruels us with a heartbreaking dead end.
Co-adopted by Truman Capote from Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’, it follows a governess (Deborah Kerr) employed to take care of two children. After a series of encounters she becomes convinced that there is an evil presence in the house and in its inhabitants.
Lacking conventional shocks, the terror and the dread comes from Freddie Francis’s mesmerising cinematography. Filmed in Cinemascope, it offered frames wider than most horror movies before it, giving the impression of a world drowning in darkness while the eye is forced, anxiously, to search for a ghost who might appear noiselessly in the far corner.
The ghostly cinematography, together with Clayton’s direction, the Southern Gothic script and sets, Kerr’s performance and the haunting lullaby-like scores, overlayed with ethereal laughter, gives the sense of inescapable tragedy.
The film though isn’t as tightly tied up as other tragedies. Whereas self-knowledge is generally learnt, rewarding some message for all the pain, the ending actually leaves on a question: Was it is the hysteria of a madwoman or the work of real ghosts that lead to this horrible conclusion?
‘The Innocents’ is a masterpiece of British horror which emerged when Hammer Productions – a very different form of horror – dominated the industry. One of the more haunting tragedies every committed to screen, it has earned a place amongst the greatest horror films of all time.
5. The Last Man On Earth (1964)
‘The Last Man on Earth’ is an underappreciated science fiction horror movie. Featuring a brilliant performance from a horror icon, a fractured storyline and a haunting soundscape of wailing winds and monsters, it serves both as the first zombie apocalypse movie and an existential musing on loneliness.
Anonymously appropriated by Richard Matheson from his novel ‘I Am Legend’, it follows the last human (Vincent Price), forced to hunt the remainder of humankind, who have been turned into vampiric undead.
The film endures particularly for its sets and sounds, which are at once endless and claustrophobic. Loneliness permeates the film; it’s projected onto the empty boulevards and the whistling breeze. More frightening still are the demands of the semi-conscious zombies, calling him by name, to let them into his refuge so that they may devour him.
Even the resolution that we as a species are not alone in being alone is withdrawn. Our tragic hero is the only one left; his friends and family are but memories, the dog he finds must be killed, and the person he meets is not human.
The most memorable thing in the movie is, of course, its ending. It actually justifies the mythical connotations of the original title ‘I Am Legend’, and remains one of the greatest and most thought-provoking twists in horror cinema. Does it matter if I am alive or dead? Why should an extinct race or belief be vindicated?
They say that your third and final death occurs when your name is uttered for the very last time. What then is more tragic than the death of the last man on earth; the final, extinguished syllable of humanity’s great song?
6. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A Romero’s debut changed the landscape of an entire genre. Its combination of claustrophobic horror, a new zombie, social commentary and heart-wrenching realism made it a modern tragedy, and one of the most important films ever made.
A group of strangers enclose themselves in a deserted farmhouse which comes under the assault of a growing hoard of corpses which have risen from their graves to devour the living.
Before the zombie was consumed by popular culture, Romero used the undead apocalypse as a setting to make social commentary on the Vietnam War, the red scare, counter-culture, the decline of the Kennedys, the end of traditionalism, the Arms Race, the patriarchy and the civil rights movement.
Despite its clear commitment to its Cold War period, the film’s tale of a group of doomed individuals wrapped in a futile power-struggle is timeless; it observes how the weakness of man claws to the surface when he is faced with inevitable destruction, ultimately losing all law, safety and hope.
The ending, of course, is the final blow: the most terrible tragedy. It leaves on an utterly pessimistic note, yet once again there’s a kind of catharsis to be felt in watching that final bellow of smoke. There are no miracles, there’s no divine sympathy; all must be punished so that the world may be purified and awaken to a new day.
‘Night of the Living Dead’ is one of the quintessential masterpieces of modern horror. Part of its cultural significance lies simply in the fact that it painfully contextualises the evil and the frailty of man in our modern time.
7. The Last House on the Left (1972)
‘The Last House on the Left’ launched the career of Wes Craven – one of horror’s finest auteurs – and instantly became one of the most controversial movies ever made. While many chose to condemn its apparently gratuitous presentation of rape, murder and torture, others praised the moral, devastating revenge tragedy at the heart of the film.
Essentially an unauthorised reimagining of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Virgin Spring’, the film tells of the kidnapping of two teenage girls and the subsequent aftermath.
One of Craven’s careers before making the film was as an English professor, and as such his work always had a keen understand of Shakespearean plots of revenge, fate, depravity and corruption.
‘The Last House on the Left’ was to modern audiences what ‘Titus Andronicus’ was to Elizabethan theatre-goers: a ridiculously violent spectacle indicting one society’s idealisation of vengeance and violence. Like Shakespeare’s tragedy, it describes a revenge cycle, started spinning by the heinous and unjustified murder of one’s children, and which will leave no soul intact.
The silence which suddenly emerges at the end of the film when the screams and the chainsaws fall silent leaves a pause to actually consider what has just occurred. The monsters have been replaced by two more and no justice has been given.
While he would go on to make far superior films, (‘The Hills have Eyes’ would share a similar though more American-style revenge cycle), Craven’s first film proved his talent for the horrific and the tragic. It remains an essential horror film, perhaps too intelligent for exploitation cinema.