In 1914, horror wasn’t a recognized movie genre. Yes, there were films with macabre elements (like those strange, ancient special effects excursions by de Chomon and Melies), and you had your usual dark mysteries and thrillers (often in serial form). But the idea of being an enthusiast of “horror films” wouldn’t enter the public lexicon for quite a few years.
So in order to find the ancestors of Frankenstein, (1931) and The Haunting (1963), we have to weigh our options. The 1910 Frankenstein certainly counts, yes? And something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) does, obviously. What about the serial Les Vampires (1915), with that one famous still? Or something off the beaten track, like Charley Bowers’s surreal short There It is (1926) or Max Linder’s Au Secours! (1924)?
One film that’s an obvious candidate is The Avenging Conscience, or Thou Shalt Not Kill (1914), D.W. Griffith’s Poe-infused drama containing visions of leaping demons and fake skeletons. I know I prefer watching it around Halloween.
The Avenging Conscience was Griffith’s fifth feature-length film. He had finished up his spectacular run at Biograph with the all-star feature Judith of Bethulia (1914) (not considered his best–maybe stretching stories out to four or more reels took some practice), and then shifted over to Reliance-Majestic, taking his stars with him. Already occupied with sketching out his ideas for a mighty Civil War epic (you may have heard of it), he kept up his release schedule by quickly directing four features: the lost The Battle of the Sexes, the tantalizingly lost The Escape (about a young man who goes mad from venereal disease–quite the lurid story back then)), the sentimental Home Sweet Home, and The Avenging Conscience.
Griffith, a lover of poetry and prose who was a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe, crafted a story of a young man equally enthralled by Poe–he even prefers to call his lover Annabel Lee. Forbidden by his highly controlling uncle from marrying Annabel, the young man decides to do away with him. Reminiscent of The Tell-Tale Heart, he manages to go through with the murder and ghoulishly walls up the body in a brick fireplace, “each brick so cunningly placed that no human eye can detect the fraud.” It’s not long before he finds himself haunted by the old man’s ghost and begins experiencing strange visions. An interrogation by a suspicious detective does not, shall we say, go smoothly.
Henry B. Walthall, one of Griffith’s main go-tos (the others at the time were Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish, Bobby Harron, and Mae Marsh), was chosen to portray the young man. A sensitive actor with a knack for portraying weak-willed or cowardly types (hey, not everyone can fit that niche), he was the obvious choice to carry such a film. Excellent at sly glances, nervous fidgets, and descents into madness, he got to whip out these talents for tense dramatic moments and multiply them times 10. Really multiply them:
But some unintended hamminess aside, The Avenging Conscience does have its standout scenes, like Walthall’s nail-biting attempts to murder the uncle in his sleep, and the tense interrogation scene interpersed with the perfect closeups–I dare say a film professor could do a whole lecture just on that scene. Cameraman Karl Brown recalled the trouble he went through to get just the right shot of a spider capturing a fly, and just the right “billowy, dramatic clouds.” The in-camera effects of the uncle’s ghost are smoothly done, and the other symbolism-infused shots are also weirdly (a tad nightmarishly) effective. And everyone’s favorite scene, of course, is this vision of Death:
Yes, the skeleton is very fake, which is probably why the shots are so brief (they weren’t that unaware back then). But that’s also part of effect’s weird charm–many fancier, more ambitious shots have less staying power than Walthall leaning back in terror from that gesturing, grinning skeleton.
The film also benefits from the presence of golden-haired Blanche Sweet, always a refreshing and understated actress, the balance to Walthall’s drama. It’s less clear why Bobby Harron and Mae Marsh (two of my favorite silent actors by the way) were worked into part of the picture as a grocery boy and his sweetheart. They were popular, so maybe Griffith figured audiences would be happy to see them–and maybe they needed a project to work on since The Birth of a Nation was still in its planning stages.
The Avenging Conscience has quite a few strengths for a 1914 feature, but unfortunately the ending is a clunker. Without revealing too much, my theory is the tentative ending was simply too bleak, especially after a key scene where the young man showed remorse and experienced visions of Christ. Perhaps it would cast a pall of nihilism over the whole picture. Griffith wanted his audience to get a big helping of Edgar Allan Poe, but probably not have them leave the theater enveloped in gloom. (We might also wonder how local censorship boards and civic groups would react if it tipped too far into the dark side.)
We regard it The Avenging Conscience a lesser Griffith work today, overshadowed by classics like Intolerance and Broken Blossoms. At times it seems stilted, but perhaps it was ahead of its time in some ways, delving deeply into dark psychological themes years before German Expressionism was a twinkle in film directors’ eyes. In 1925 critic Gilbert Seldes said it was one of the top ten greatest films thus far, writing: “After ten years I recall dark masses and ghostly rays of light.”