A Comparison of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and Dorian Gray (2009)The Essence of Horror in Dorian Gray
In a thread at Rottentomatoes forums there was a discussion that I vaguely recall, about what horror is, and how it applies to films. I've thought about that question every once in a while, since the day those posts appeared, and it seems to be a fleeting thing that changes from viewer to viewer. I more or less equate horror with dread; if you anticipate something icky or evil, then it makes dread rise within you, and that, to me, is the essence of horror. The measure of horror is whether a film makes my skin crawl or not. That means it becomes very difficult to assess the degree of dread that a movie pumps up in you if you already know the ending.
To some viewers, physical ugliness induces horror.
Some people equate horror to having sound or images cause them to jump. To me, that is nothing but reflex. It is the same as tapping a person's patellar ligament with a physician's rubber mallet. But some might disagree with my definition of dread-induction as horror, just as I don't see the jump thing as truly scary.
But, I think there is another kind of horror, and it has a different essence: that of not knowing what is going on. And perhaps, the imagination of something that might
be going on.The Dread of Not Knowing
For a number of years that we cannot determine, Dorian Gray has something happening to him that he doesn't understand. At the same time, those around him see him never aging, a thing that they don't understand. In the 1945 film, the Eqyptian cat sculpture
becomes the embodiment of this essence. After all, it is the proximity of the cat to Gray when he offers his soul for the ability to never age, that swaps his soul into the picture, and the sculpted cat serves as a visual motif during the rest of the film to signal that all is not right. Apparently, neither Dorian nor his companions ever solve this puzzle, but Dorian finally realizes that his soul is in the painting, while his living body is soulless, ageless, and without morals. How it came to pass is not what he wants to understand.
The 2009 Dorian merely expresses a wish while standing next to his portrait, and the transfer of his soul takes place. It's all story hocus-pocus, but apparently in the mid-1940s it seemed necessary to have a conduit for the supernatural (the cat figurine) whereas by 2009 audiences could buy that a man's ultimately harmful wish might simply come true.The Horror of Watching Someone Go Astray
There is also a kind of horror that arises as we watch this youthful boy debauch himself in many ways. Oh, it's fun enough to fantasize that we could live a life filled with whatever hell we desired to raise, or whatever heaven we desired to shower upon our friends...but in reality there is often a feeling of guilt after we do the hell things, that is difficult to shake. The intensity and exact triggers of guilt vary from individual to individual, but most of us experience guilt because most of us step beyond the edges of our personal comfort zones at least once. We don't have to go so far as to murder another in order to feel that we've done something bad. So, watching Dorian do the things that he does causes us to feel uncomfortable.
I think that this discomfort is the essence of horror in Dorian Gray
. I think it's largely absent in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray
. There is a jump scene with the painting, but that's about it. The film holds itself too distant, and makes itself too much of an intellectual exercise to have any such effect. Hurd Hatfield overdoes the expressionlessness of a young man whose soul has been transported into a painting (the DVD commentary by Angela Lansbury explains that it was Albert Lewin's insistence that he do that, as if all his life had fled into the painting, leaving him empty and emotionless). But in the 2009 film we actually see a bit more than we might want to of Dorian's depraved behavior. It helps us to imagine the discomfort with himself that drives Dorian to try to change, and that attempt is his undoing. There is a little sense of that part in the 1945 film, but it's something that you don't feel...you have to intellectually analyze Dorian Gray's actions and realize what he must have been experiencing. If you don't bother, or simply can't do it, the '45 movie is liable to leave you feeling empty for a different reason than the 2009 version might leave you feeling empty.
But, to Me, Dread is the Essence of Terror
Here is my benchmark for terror. When I was 19 years old (in 1971) my mother asked me to carry out the trash. It was at night. There was a weak incandescent bulb on the back porch. It was only 15 meters from the back door to the place where we kept our trash cans. They sat next to a large fir tree in the corner of the property. But there would have been room for a Grizzly bear to secret itself behind that fir tree. For no particular reason, as I approached the trash cans, and lifted the lid of the one I expected to have room for the sacks I was carrying, the idea came to mind that any kind of monster could be hiding in the corner of the fences behind that fir tree. Instantly, I imagined some hideous thing with claws, fangs, bad breath and deadly intentions swirling around the cusp of the tree to grab and kill me.
I knew it was only my imagination, but I suddenly had a surge of adrenaline jolt my body. I dropped the two sacks of trash into the can, slammed the lid down, turned as if to run, and then got hold of myself (sort of). I can still recall the struggle I had to not run
to the back door. I was trembling, partly from the adrenaline and partly from sheer terror. I was aware that I was afraid of nothing but the dark, and that as a 19-year old man I shouldn't be. But my visceral self was terrified in a way that I had experienced only once before in my life. I managed to comport myself well, I guess. I didn't run, but with every step I took I could feel the effort I was having to exert to keep myself from tearing across the lawn, up the steps to the back porch, and through the doorway into the safety of our den! Once inside I walked back to my bedroom, closed the door, sat on my bed and laughed at myself.
But if a film can induce just a small percentage of that feeling in me (remember, it was nothing but my imagination that scared me that night) then I consider it a success as a horror film. The 2009 Dorian Gray
does that, so I say that it has the essence of horror; whereas the 1945 version was totally castrated by the Hayes Code, and has nothing to it in that vein. As a horror film, and I'm not sure the earlier movie was intended
to be a horror film, the 2009 version is a good head taller than its predecessor.
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