The title of this week’s excursion into Halloween Horrors comes from Jean Paul Sartre’s infamous 1944 play, “No Exit,” and its oft-quoted line, “Hell is other people.”
Needless to say, this quote applies, in one way or the other, to a great many horror tales and movies, but there is not enough space here to cover more than three or four titles. First up is a movie released this year that some would not place in the horror genre, but I find it quite chilling and very disquieting–despite an overly-optimistic ending that suggests (to me at least) we join hands and begin singing “Kum-Ba-Ya.”
I first saw James Ponsoldt’s “The Circle,” starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, a day or two before I watched this year’s Apple keynote from the company’s new “spaceship” campus, Apple Park. This movie is a very thinly-veiled story about a place a lot like Apple Park and the people who work and/or are enslaved there. The plot is very simple. Mae Holland (Thompson) is very excited to be interviewing for a job at Eamon Bailey’s business, affectionately referred to as The Circle, a place that bears a carbon-copy resemblance to Apple Park; Hank’s character is, not surprisingly, a not-so-subtle reference to the late Steve Jobs. Mae, who is helping take care of her ill father while working in a dead-end job, is overjoyed when she is given a position at The Circle, a social media company with dreams of world conquest. Her elation soon turns to suspicion and fear when she learns that this high-tech paradise is intent on developing products that puts its willing subscribers–and its employees–under round-the-clock surveillance by means of a Facebook-like platform that promotes a vision of global interconnectedness and world peace. The Circle, as you might guess, demands nothing less than blind obedience from its followe rs (under the guise of freedom, of course), and we quickly learn that its goal is to promote a new definition of what it means to be human.
This “horror of other people” theme was given very chilling expression in Erle C. Kenton’s 1932 adaption of H.G. Wells’ novel THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU–now available in a special-feature-laden Criterion Collection blu-ray edition. While there have been later cinematic adaptations, this 1932 version, which is titled “The Island Of Lost Souls,” is the best. What we have here is a story very similar the one told by “The Circle.” In fact, you might think of this as the template, a pre-computer /social media retelling of a story that received its most famous expression in Mary Shelley’s early 19th century publications of FRANKENSTEIN: A MODERN PROMETHEUS, in its original and revised versions. The concept of the-creation-destroys-its-creator motif is at the heart of both “The Circle” and “The Island of Lost Souls,” and both are set in an alternate world where the creator figure holds sway over this creatures.
“The Island of Lost Souls” stars Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau, who conducts Darwin-inspired experiments that transform animals into semi-humans in his “House Of Pain.” A werewolf-like Bela Lugosi, fresh from his career-defining role as Count Dracula, emerges as the leader of his band of man-beasts, who revolt against their creator in the film’s anarchic conclusion. In a similar way, Mae Holland leads a revolt against her “creator” in “The Circle,” although in a much more hopeful way than in the 1932 lost souls film. The defiant question, “Are we not men?”, screamed by Lugosi as he leads his followers in their revolt against Moreau, is echoed in the final moments of “The Circle,” albeit in a very different manner and context. And this question later inspired the formation of the influential band Devo in the 1973; the Criterion blu-ray version of “The Island Of Lost Souls” features a very enlightening and thought provoking interview with Devo founders Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh (the latter went on to gain fame as musical director of Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” show), who explain how the film and its concept of devolution inspired the band in their revolt against Nixon-era foreign and domestic policy; both band members, interestingly enough, were students at Kent State University on that fateful day in May 1970 when four students were killed by the National Guard during a protest against Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia).
These movies should perhaps be seen in a triple-feature with Fritz Lang’s early sci-f movie “Metropolis,” which premiered in 1927, and has generated a love-hate relationship with its audiences ever since. This movie, which clocks in at a long-for-its-time two hours and thirty-three minutes and stars Brigitte Helm as the “Machine Man,” prefigures both “The Island of Lost Souls” and “The Circle,” and deals with a futuristic society that is controlled by elite city planners who exploit their workers, who toil under miserable conditions. And, yes, there is a revolt of the masses near the end of the movie. Today the film is seen as a harbinger of the Hitler era, and Lang was horrified that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were avid fans of the movie. If “Island of Lost Souls” is a very Darwinian and Freudian, “Metropolis” operates under the banner of Karl Marx (not to be confused with Groucho).
I urge you to see these movies and to seek out other examples of your own.
See you next week with the final installment of this year’s “Halloween Horrors” series–”The Horror of Sensuality.”