Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Twisted and Evil: The Influence of Classic Horror on ‘Star Wars’

“The scene where Anakin actually becomes Vader… it’s in the vocabulary of a time—of the 1930s and 1940s.”

-George Lucas, Starlog 2002

It’s always tempting to place pop fiction in a particular bag, and with its aliens, space ships, and interplanetary jaunts, Star Wars is usually dropped into the science fiction satchel. That’s fine for lazy critics, but the series has always been too much of a dabbler for its sci-fi status to ring totally true. Yes, George Lucas was clearly influenced by such items as Metropolis, Flash Gordon, and Dune. He was also profoundly affected by westerns (The Searchers), Samurai pictures (The Hidden Fortress), historical epics (Lawrence of Arabia), and fantasy (The Wizard of Oz). As the above quote indicates, classic horror also creeped into that yarn set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The Star Wars saga made its most explicit reference to horror movies in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, when the Emperor plays Dr. Frankenstein by strapping the freshly mangled Anakin Skywalker to a lab table and transforming his protégé into a mechanized monster who lumbers forth like Boris Karloff. The movies “of the 1930s and 1940s” of which Lucas spoke are, of course, Universal’s Frankenstein franchise. Return of the Jedi even attempts to give the series’ nastiest villain a level of Karloff-style pathos by presenting Darth Vader as a conflicted creature. Inverting Karloff’s mute performance, the expressionless Vader conveys this new facet of his once wholly evil character via James Earl Jones’s voice.

 Monsters on the slab.

David Prowse, the actor who embodies the dark lord, was limited by his bulky costume fitted out with a long, black Dracula cape. However, he did have a strong link to classic horror. Well, at least he had a link to a classic horror production company considering that 1970’s The Horror of Frankenstein and 1974’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell are not two of Hammer Studio’s best products. In the latter film, the hulking Prowse co-starred with Peter Cushing, the actor who has played Dr. Frankenstein more than any other and whose gaunt, angular face is as iconically linked to Hammer as the studio’s logo. That face was always too unique to waste buried beneath mounds of creature make-up. As he did when playing the doctor, Cushing was still able to convey absolute monstrousness without the aid of so much as fake teeth when he played Grand Moff Tarkin, the unrepentant destroyer of worlds who keeps Vader under his thumb. In contrast to his portrayals of Dr. Frankenstein, there is not a wisp of humanity or conflict in Cushing’s work as Tarkin, making this his most evil role-- far more rotten than any he ever played in a pure horror picture.

Perhaps in an effort to link the prequel trilogy to the classic Star Wars trilogy’s links to Hammer, that studio’s other iconic face, Christopher Lee, was cast as the black-caped Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The character’s unfortunate baby-talk name is slightly ameliorated by his title, which reminds us of Lee’s most famous role, Count Dracula. The title also takes advantage of how Stoker’s vampire has forever transformed the very word “count” into a calling card of evil and monstrousness.

The stars of Hammer in the Star Wars saga.

Star Wars dips deeper into the horror handbag and comes up with a menagerie of monsters distinct from the more typical egg-headed, big-eyed aliens common to outer-space fiction. H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, a classic of both science fiction and monsterrific horror, seems to have run a number of Star Wars’ creatures through its house of pain. The series is lousy with Wellsian man-beasts with names like Hammerhead, Walrus Man, Yak Face, Amana Man, and Squid Head. For the most part these overly on-the-nose names were coined by the folks at Kenner who had to come up with titles for their line of toys, and they have since been given less descriptive ones in the plethora of Star Wars novels and character guides. But a Walrus Man by any other name still looks like something that should be sunning itself on a glacier, just as Ugnauts and Gamorean Guards don’t look any less like hogs that recently hopped off mad Dr. Moreau’s vivisection table. Lucas’s dog Indiana directly inspired the beloved Chewbacca, a ringer for Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man. 

Classic horror characters also influenced the looks of Knife and Vader's Secretary in Marvel's Star Wars comic series.

An actual wolf man of sorts also makes an appearance in the cantina scene of Star Wars, though this weird crossover was the result of too little time and not enough budget to create the exotic array of space creatures Lucas really wanted. In other words, the Wolf Man mask was simply handy. When Lucas fiddled with his film to make the controversial “special edition” of 1997, the one cantina patron he digitally replaced was the Wolf Man, perhaps because he felt that this creature was a step too far in paying homage to overly familiar horror icons. It may be worth noting that these animal aliens are almost never articulate like the creatures in the firmly sci-fi Planet of the Apes (the one exception is the fish-headed Admiral Ackbar, whose race being called “Mon Calamari” is probably the best joke in the entire Star Wars series), making their ties to the groaning, grunting, growling monsters of classic horror stronger.

Wolfmen from Earth and beyond.

The Star Wars series is speckled with other horror references, from the bounty hunters Zuckuss and 4-Lom, who apparently borrowed The Fly’s face to the Jedis Dracula-like ability to bend weak minds to the Emperor’s Grim Reaper cloak to the Blob-like Jabba the Hutt to the AT-AT attack, which plays like an onslaught pulled from some monster movie from 1950s U.S. or Japan (another horrory scene from an early draft of The Empire Strikes Back had Darth Vader feeding a flock of pet gargoyles at his Hellish compound). The series even features one legitimately creepy scene in which Luke Skywalker slips into a gloomy cave to confront a Darth Vader phantom, whose decapitated head explodes to reveal the nightmarish face of Luke, himself . It’s all part of Star Wars’ genre-smorgasbord, which may serve science fiction as the main course, but offers too many delectable side dishes to pass up.

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