Method, Madness and the Films of Bret Wood
Bret Wood plumbs the history of horror film and the annals of psychiatry for shock, awe, and edification with ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’ and ‘Kingdom of Shadows.’
Psychiatry, the defining practice of our increasingly first-person modern age, legitimized and institutionalized a fascination with the workings of the mind. Though psychiatry has probably shed more light than any other practice on the mysteries of human thought and behavior, it’s also bred a fascination with the conspicuously “disordered” personality. Would entertainment forms like true-crime books and reality TV exist if we weren’t drawn like moths to flame by the spectacle of people behaving very badly or bizarrely, trying to guess what makes them so?
The winter, 2011 theatrical release of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method shed light on the early days of psychoanalysis, as well as the mentorship of Jung by Freud that turned into a serious rift between the men themselves and the theories they developed. The popular image of mental health treatment pre-Freud is one of bedlam—a term derived from the name of a notorious London asylum—in which the mentally ill were figures of fun, “treated” with physical torments, simply abandoned or vulnerable to superstitious fears. (Who knows how many unfortunates would have avoided persecution as “witches” if they’d simply had access to today’s pharmaceuticals?)
But even before Freud, some earnest souls were trying to address mental illness by less punitive means. Their methods were highly progressive at the time—though now they may well strike us as antiquated or misguided. One such crusader was Richard von Krafft-Ebing, an Austro-German psychiatrist whose major work catalogued and analyzed over 200 individual cases of individual sexual behaviors, with heavy emphasis on the criminal and aberrant.
First published in 1886, then revised numerous times up until Krafft-Ebing’s 1902 demise, Psychopathia Sexualis: A Clinical-Forensic Study, was never intended for popular consumption. (Indeed its author deliberately used technical and Latin terms to discourage lay readers.) Yet it continues to cast a long shadow over many aspects of our grasp on human sexuality, even if much of the book now seems far from enlightened.
If you find PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS too disturbing, take it as a fable as primitive, resonant and remote as any by the Brothers Grimm.
Atlanta-based historian, author and filmmaker Bret Wood‘s Psychopathia Sexualis provides an apt tribute to and exploration of Krafft-Ebing’s signature achievement. Its lurid fantasia is not so far removed from straight documentary overview. But here the dramatic recreations that might just fleetingly surface in regular nonfiction treatment instead dominate, echoing the disapproving yet curiously prurient insistence with which Krafft-Ebing probed the breadth of man’s sexual “neuroses.” (Use of the male noun here is intentional—like most in his epoch, the good doctor seldom considered women of real interest beyond their provoking impact on men.)
This ambitious 2006 indie weaves together passages recited from the titular book (as well as K-E’s Text-Book of Insanity) with brief vignettes and several longer, linked narrative sections illustrating particular case studies. The first of those is about a well-born young man (Daniel May) whose repressed desires manifest themselves in a fetishistic yearning to drink women’s blood. Others chronicle the attempted “cure” of another youth (Daniel Pettrow) afflicted by onanism and same-sex yearnings; a spinster (Lisa Paulsen) tormented by Sapphic feelings toward the society debutante she tutors; and a masochist (Brad Brooks) who lives out his secret needs via elaborate rituals enacted by paid ladies of the night.
Further spicing the fraught psychological landscape here are instances of necrophilia (depicted via shadow-puppetry), sadism, hypnotherapy, alarming (and fortunately extinct) “medical” practices of yesteryear, dubious diagnoses (“menopausal insanity?”), and more. The physical settings may be that overstuffed, highly tactile yet stifling world of Victorian décor, but Wood and his collaborators also pay considerable visual homage to the German Expressionism of key early 20th-century silent film classics. (It’s no coincidence that one unhappy hero closely resembles Conrad Veidt in Robert Wiene’s 1919 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.)
It would be easy for all this to descend into softcore titillation, intentional camp, or even reactionary anti-sexual propaganda. With his sturdy belief that any sex practice not focused on procreation was “perverse” (so much for self-pleasuring, let alone homosexuality), Krafft-Ebing should be a hero to today’s radical religious and political conservatives. But Wood maintains a tricky tone of questioning ambivalence, leaving us to evaluate the pioneering psychiatrist’s ideas on our own.
If you find Psychopathia Sexualis too disturbing, take it as a fable as primitive, resonant and remote as any by the Brothers Grimm. Indeed, after telling just such a tale to two bewildered children, one character here assures them, “There’s no moral, dear. It’s just a story.”
The queasy confrontation of deepest fears in escapist form is itself the subject of another of Bret Wood’s features. His 1998 documentary Kingdom of Shadows examines horror in cinema’s first decades, when themes of religion and morality could be explored more directly than cynicism (or censorship) would later allow.
Narrated in florid tones by Rod Steiger (the way he says “daaaahhhkness” suggests extensive study of Karloff and Lugosi), Kingdom’s clips feature work by many artistic giants— Méliès, D.W. Griffith, DeMille, Murnau, Carl Dreyer—as well as forgotten directors.
The images spied here remain stirring in their fantasticality and suggestiveness, especially when portraying earlier eras’ most terrifying superstititions, like the succubi preying on innocents in Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 Witchcraft Through the Ages or clerics’ frenzied self-flagellations in Dreyer’s prior-year Leaves from Satan’s Books. On a more prosaic level, sometimes the new art form’s audiences just wanted the vicarious thrill of seeing grotesque events (even if staged) they might never witness in person, as spelled out in the names of such early shorts as Searching Ruins for Dead Bodies, Execution of a Spy and Burlesque Suicide.
The primitive dread of the unknown plumbed in KINGDOM OF SHADOWS’ collection was largely (if not permanently) lost with the transition to sound, horror films ‘growing stale’ as too many insisted on ‘explaining away’ supernatural phenomena as conmen’s tricks.
As Steiger notes, the primitive dread of the unknown plumbed in these films was largely (if not permanently) lost with the transition to sound, horror films “growing stale” as too many insisted on “explaining away” supernatural phenomena as conmen’s tricks. (For years it was a typical plot device to spring a last-minute “reveal” wherein all prior wonders were exposed as fakery designed to separate a wealthy heir from their inheritance.)
But such concessions were fairly rare in silent cinema’s most frightening visions. Several of them are available complete here, including such prime German Expressionist masterpieces as Warning Shadows, Nosferatu and The Hands of Orlac. There’s also Paul Leni’s 1927 Hollywood The Cat and the Canary, in which the expat German director basically originated the whole conmen/inheritance formula—while simultaneously delivering one last blowout of crazy Expressionist style.
Dennis Harvey is a featured contributor to Variety.