Obscure Films: “The Avenging Conscience” (1914)

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.

Interviews with Prominent Directors - D.W. Griffith (by Roberta Courtlandt  1915) Motion Picture Magazine - Lillian Gish

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.

Picture of The Avenging Conscience

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:

Movie Review – The Avenging Conscience (1914) – The Revenant Review

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.”

7 thoughts on “Obscure Films: “The Avenging Conscience” (1914)

  1. Nice article! It’s been years since I watched this one, but I still remember it vividly. What always stands out in my mind is the interview scene. That could stand alone as a little masterpiece of surrealism. 🙂 I love Griffith’s directing in that and Henry B. Walthall’s over-the-topness (is that a term?). Henry B. is one of my favorites—always enjoy seeing him in anything he’s in. This is indeed a flawed film in a lot of ways, but still a fun one to watch. 🙂

    • Heck yes! When it comes to studying films, I’d put it up there with early works like THE CHEAT and SUSPENSE, That interview scene really is a wonder, the detail of the detective tapping on the desk, and Walthall trying to stop him, was inspired.

      “Over-the-topness” could totally be a new term, inspired by Wally. He’d be really grateful I’m sure. 😉

  2. In 1923, it was discovered that the original camera negative of this film had already decomposed so badly that it wouldn’t go through a printer anymore. Small wonder that THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES and THE ESCAPE are lost; they might have decayed just as rapidly as CONSCIENCE did. (Same lab? Same storage conditions?)

    • They most likely did, unfortunately. I’d really like to see THE ESCAPE, especially since sweet Bobby Harron plays the youth who goes mad. Talk about one heck of a role.

  3. Thanks to your excellent article, I watched this on Youtube yesterday. Agree with you and Donnie that the interview scene is a standout. It’s a knuckle biting cat and mouse confrontation between the detective (who has no reason, really,to be suspicious) and Walthall – trying desperately to retain his sanity during yet another appearance by the ghost of his murdered uncle. According to the Tribute page on Walthall, it was THIS film – after 5 years with Griffith’s company – that made Walthall a STAR!

    I’m rereading Wagenknecht’s “Movies in the Age of Innocence.” This book is essential reading because the author, born in 1900, was a frequent (often daily) movie goer and saw all the movies he writes about in this book published in 1962. Growing up in Chicago, within 6 blocks on the west side of Douglas Park, there were SIX movie theaters, and he saw films in all of them! In one of these theaters in 1914 he saw ‘The Avenging Conscience’ and was impressed enough to remember it. 45 years later he saw it again and found it to be “full of visions not very well presented”, although “there is about it a brooding sense of fate which builds up as the film proceeds to give it an intensity.” And, he says “a great deal of footage is wasted” in the garden party scene. Well, I beg to differ. Mae Marsh is ADORABLE. The comedy courtship of Marsh and Harron is complete in this one scene and is a welcome contrast to that of Walthall and Blanche Sweet. There are flaws, but they all occur after Walthall goes mad and tries to escape from the detective and his men. And the ending – the god Pan and the frolicking kiddos – surely are not Poe!
    P.S. The Youtube picture quality is very good.

    • I’m always happy to see Mae and Bobby myself–perhaps you’re right, and the contrast of a sweet healthy relationship with the main, twisted one was what Griffith was going for.

      Yes, the picture quality is fabulous! Karl Brown would be relieved, after all the trouble he went through to get some shots. 😀

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