Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Monsterology: The Assistant

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.
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The mark of a truly imposing villain is the ability to bend the wills of others to do his or her bidding. Like some malevolent dictator or string-pulling cult leader, the arch-villain hovers in the shadows while some hunched minion carries out the grunt work. By nature, the assistant is never the most important stock horror character. He or she is often eliminated early in the story, sacrificed as symbol of a monster so evil that it is willing to decimate its own team. The assistant provides black-comic relief when any such bumbling might cast the main monster in a less than threatening light. Essential? Perhaps not. Quirky? When the assistant is at his, her, or its best, absolutely, resulting in some of the most memorable second-stringers in horror cinema.

Unlike so many horror movie archetypes, the assistant does not have a strong predecessor on the page. In Mary Shelley’s novel, Dr. Frankenstein worked solo. In both literary and film incarnations, Dr. Jekyll never hung a “For Hire” sign outside his lab. Our closest literary forerunner of the assistant is R.M. Renfield. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the zoophagous maniac is much more limited than he would be on screen. In a novel sprawling with characters, Renfield is a relatively minor one, only mentioned on twelve dates of its epistolary pages. As an inmate in Dr. Seward’s asylum, Renfield’s main plot function is to invite Count Dracula into the building so he can get his fangs on Mina (as film adaptations sometimes forget, Dracula can’t just go anywhere he pleases). Thematically, he mostly serves as a comic reflection of the dead-somber Count, eating the small lives of bugs and spiders while his master sups on more substantial fare. His naked escapes into the night parody Dracula’s less absurd nocturnal, erotically tinged escapades. Mina’s visit in Renfield’s cell inverts Dracula’s intrusions into her bedroom. Dracula enters Mina’s room to impose his evil on her, to possess her. When Mina enters Renfield’s, she has the opposite effect, seemingly making him saner, more coherent, a better person more concerned with her safety than worshipping his master. By imploring her to free herself from Dracula’s thrall, Renfield earns himself a fatal thrashing from the vampire.

Renfield underwent significant alterations in the first feature adaptation of Dracula. In F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, he has been renamed Knock in keeping with other such attempts to wriggle around Florence Stoker’s copyright claims. Instead of beginning the story as an asylum inmate, he is Thomas Hutter’s (our Jonathan Harker stand-in) boss, who deploys him to Count Orlok’s (Dracula’s) castle.
Garrett Fort put his own spin on this revised Renfield in his screenplay for Universal’s 1931 film, changing the character forever. Harker’s visit to Castle Dracula is handed over to Renfield completely, leaving our protagonist with a drastically reduced role and our secondary antagonist with a vastly expanded one. Played by David Manners, Harker is a bland, background figure in Tod Browning’s film. Dwight Frye’s Renfield commands the screen every time he appears. He exudes personality even before Dracula impels him toward madness (Stoker’s Renfield was already mad and institutionalized when the Count took him into his employ). Frye plays the sane Renfield with a magnetic blend of terror (how his eyes widen when he sees that rubber bat flapping over the carriage!) and amiability (his joyful declaration that the “very old wine” is “delicious!” is delightfully sincere when set against the Count’s weirdness). Considering how vacant most of the cast is, Renfield is the character we’d most like to know in Dracula. That also means he is the most tragic figure. Dracula’s treatment of Renfield is painful to watch, from his mesmerized madness to his murder.

Since Fort did away with the invitation aspect of vampire lore, Renfield serves no important plot function once Dracula arrives in London. But without him, this portion of the film would truly be the static drawing-room mystery critics often dismiss it as. Frye’s electrifying performance keeps the mass of Dracula in flight, even more so than Bela Lugosi’s iconic, often underappreciated, turn in the title role. Fort and Browning smartly make sure that Renfield keeps barging into the scene, boosting it with life at each appearance. His possessed monologue about Dracula’s promise of millions of red-blooded rats is the film’s most memorable dialogue longer than a Lugosi one-liner.
Dracula was a cinematic sensation, ground zero for sound horror and Universal Pictures’ dominance of the genre through the ’30s. Before the end of 1931, the studio already had its monstery successor in the can, and Frankenstein was an even bigger smash. Though a Universal horror formula wasn’t exactly in place yet, James Whale’s film did recycle a few aspects of Tod Browning’s, with Edward Van Sloan once again taking the part of the wise elder scientist and John Boles playing a ho-hum model of sanity in the David Manners mold (the studio’s initial plan to cast Lugosi as another monster, of course, fell through). Most significant to our purposes, Dwight Frye is back as the resident assistant. The sadistic Fritz is not the complex or sympathetic character Renfield was, but he may be even more important in the development of the assistant archetype. Although he is described as a “dwarf” in the film, he is really a “hunchback,” which is a physical disability that would become integral to many assistants to come. The obvious hunchback predecessor in horror cinema is Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who reluctantly performs the bidding of the villainous Jehan before revolting. Frankenstein’s underling may also share DNA with the perpetually stooped Knock. Fritz and his portrayer so solidified the role of the assistant that after getting offed in Frankenstein, Whale brought Dwight Frye back to play another sniveling henchman, Karl, in Bride of Frankenstein.

After Renfield and Fritz, an assistant was mandatory in nearly every Universal monster movie. As Frye struggled to avoid typecasting (a failed effort that would later find him resuming his Renfield role on stage), the horror film expanded its definition of the assistant. In The Mummy, the previously diminutive archetype grows to a towering “Nubian” played by Noble Johnson. Another imposing addition is Boris Karloff’s butler Morgan In The Old Dark House, who subverts the assistant’s usual subservience by getting drunk and raising hell. Irving Pichel’s manservant Sandor in Dracula’s Daughter stages an even more dramatic revolution when he kills his mistress and the film’s main monster after she refuses to make him a fellow immortal. More traditional are the kowtowing hunchbacks in Universal’s ’40s sequels House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, though the latter film puts a new spin on an old stereotype by casting a woman, Jane Adams, in the role.
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Ironically, the character most associated with the hunchback assistant is neither a hunchback nor an assistant. In Son of Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi’s Ygor is actually the master while Karloff’s Monster does his bidding. And his distorted frame is not caused by any curvature of the vertebrae but by a broken neck caused by an ineffectively executed hanging. Regardless, Ygor—or Igor, or in the case of Young Frankenstein, “Eye-gor”—would forever be the go-to name for obedient lab helpers.
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Beyond Universal’s golden age, the assistant would continue to haunt horror films in various guises. Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch commands entire armies of assistants in the forms of grotesque flying monkeys and Winkie guards in The Wizard of Oz. In Columbia Picture’s The Return of the Vampire, Lugosi is a vampire who traverses WWII-ravaged Europe with a werewolf underling played by Matt Willis. In France’s first great sound horror, Eyes without a Face, a face-transplanting mad doc procures new pusses with the help of Alida Valli’s Louise, who remolds the assistant as a more dignified, attractive figure. In The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Virginia North’s Vulnavia is a downright knock out. In the ‘80s, Pam Greer would further flesh out this subcategory of sexy assistants as the Dust Witch in Something Wicked This Way Comes.
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Yet, this archetype’s significance has diminished throughout the years. When Hammer Films remade Universal’s classics in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it ruthlessly eliminated the assistant, even ejecting Renfield from its Dracula pictures, perhaps because the assistant’s comic undertones were out of step with the studio’s relentlessly grim ethos. Ostensibly faithful adaptations of Dracula— from the 1977 miniseries starring Louis Jordan to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula— reduce Renfield back to the novel’s proportions. Meanwhile, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and the other loners who’d dominate more recent horror pictures have no need for sidekicks. In 2008, MGM attempted to shock the assistant back into relevance with the computer-animated kiddie flick Igor. Poor critical reception sent the character cowering back in the background where it belongs. Whether or not it deserves to remain in the background is another matter.
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