Ask any horror film fan what their favorite monster movie or movie monster is and you’ll get dramatically different answers: Frankenstein, Dracula, Godzilla, the Xenomorph, the Thing; the list goes on and on. Our international creature canon has a vast array of absolutely fantastic entries, each deserving of its time-honored status. Also on that list are deeper cut creatures, the cult classic creations that may be less widely known but which each have dedicated fans in genre communities–the were-panther of Cat People or the giant ants in Them; the Toxic Avenger, Rawhead Rex, or the Judas Breed in the Mimic series.
At the same time, there are a number of often-forgotten monsters in movie history, from old, lesser-known entries to forgotten B-movies and international pictures that never quite made a splash overseas, that should be on any genre film fan’s radar. This column will be a tribute to and exploration of those uncommon creatures that may have been lost, but which should not be forgotten.
“at its most central level, [The Picture of Dorian Gray is] a film about a man who becomes a monster.“
The 1940’s is full of a number of to-this-day classics that have stood the test of time. Famously, Universal saw the release of The Wolf Man (1943) alongside a number of the ‘monster rally’ films released within the Universal Monster canon. Meanwhile, RKO kicked off its attempt to meet Universal’s success in the burgeoning U.S. horror market with the excellent Cat People (1942), and the decade saw a diverse array of creatures from ‘voodoo zombies’ (e.g. I Walked with a Zombie, 1943) to scientific monsters (e.g. The Lady and the Monster, 1944) to Quetzalcoatl (The Flying Serpent, 1946). One monster movie of the era, long-recognized as a classic horror film but regularly forgotten in discussions of ‘monster movies’, is the 1945 adaptation of the Oscar Wilde classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir: Albert Lewin)
On its face, as we will see, The Picture of Dorian Gray is about a handsome, well-to-do young man whose portrait ages (and wears the results of his sins) in his stead as time goes on. It’s common to think of the film as one of many ‘deal with the devil’ pictures, with the portrait absorbing his debauchery because of a wish he’d made (simple as that). The thing is, this is no ordinary deal-with-the-Devil gone wrong, no mere cursed object causing bad or good luck–his relationship to the painting is much deeper than we remember, causing us to forget that deep down, at its most central level, it’s a film about a man who becomes a monster.
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The Picture of Dorian Gray
The 1945 adaptation certainly takes liberties with the original novel’s plot, but it follows the original Oscar Wilde story in its most important details. In 1886 London, we’re introduced to Dorian Gray, a handsome and wealthy young man, an extremely desirable gent whose popularity in those circles is matched by his naivete. His friend, Basil Hallward, is currently painting Mr. Gray–the full-sized and detailed portrait of the title. Hallward is visited by his cynical, hedonistic friend Lord Henry Wotton. At this point, two important things happen.
On the one hand, Wotton is an unabashed hedonist, and gradually convinces the easily manipulable Dorian of the ‘virtues’ of a life devoted to pleasure alone. He convinces the young man that he can achieve the life he wants with youth and beauty. Meanwhile, Dorian speaks his desire to never age, wishing the portrait could age and take the effects of time and fate instead of him. He makes this wish in front of an Egyptian cat statue, commented on to be a mystical artifact, and so is the plot set in motion.
Rather than to spoil the totality of the plot (for those who haven’t seen it), he proceeds to stack error upon error, sin upon sin, all in a pursuit of a life of hedonistic abandon. As he betrays, covets, lies, and lusts, the painting changes to reflect his own increasing damnation–damnation that never affects his lovely youthful countenance, but which renters the portrait ever more hideous.
“It’s a little difficult to read exactly how the painting becomes ‘attached’ to Gray […] is it an Egyptian god’s magical doing, as per the film? A curse? His soul absorbed into the painting?“
Typically, we think of monsters as many things. Their existence often violates how we perceive the laws of nature to be. They often have some kind of hybridity, some sort of category-jumping nature that makes them ‘freaks’ of the natural order. They’re monstrosities, and when we say a ‘human’ becomes a ‘monster’ (in a literal sense) we often are saying they’ve changed from something human to something… else.
At face value, Dorian doesn’t change. The entire plot is that he no longer changes, the portrait does; but it’s for this exact reason that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a monster movie. As Dorian makes his wish he becomes intrinsically tied to this painting at a metaphysical level–it ‘absorbs’ the physical and spiritual effects of Dorian’s debauchery, superficially shielding his external body as it reflects the fall of his soul.
He’s no longer a mere man–he’s a man attached to a magical painted artifact that’s tied to him, body and soul (so much so, in fact, that to harm the painting is to harm the man).
He’s a monster.
Why The Picture of Dorian Gray Should Be A More Common Creature Feature
1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is both criminally under-seen and commonly misunderstood. In its own day, the film was profitable but not extremely so, making a reported $2.9 million on a $1.9 million budget. It’s one of many adaptations of the property, but the Lewin feature is one of the most famous adaptations (thanks in part to its stunning paintings, including the horrific final portrait created by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright). It does a great job in showing Gray’s general moral descent into narcissism and cruelty (marked by an admirable performance from Hurd Hatfield).
The Picture of Dorian Gray is often forgotten in the monster movie conversation, it seems, for a number of reasons. It doesn’t seem like a monster movie–there’s no costumed performers, no obvious physical transformation of the titular character, no classic creatures like your vampire, zombie, or Frankenstein. It’s a little difficult to read exactly how the painting becomes ‘attached’ to Gray as well–is it an Egyptian god’s magical doing, as per the film? A curse? His soul absorbed into the painting?
“[Dorian is] longer a mere man–he’s a man attached to a magical painted artifact that’s tied to him, body and soul […] He’s a monster.“
What matters most is the effect of the painting–Gray becomes a man so metaphysically attached to a painting that it takes on the effects of his sins and his ills; he becomes so attached that to injure the painting is to injure the man. As noted before, the Gray we see look like a man, but he becomes a sort of man-painting hybrid with metaphysical ties. He’s a right and proper monster, but the ambiguity and the fact we see a physically ‘normal’ Gray hides the monstrosity within… ironically, the film’s successes in demonstrating that aspect of the plot (that the painting hides Gray’s monstrosity) are exactly why the film gets lost in monster conversations.
It’s a rich, interesting classic story exhibited in a well executed, classic film, and it deserves to be acknowledged in the ‘canon’ of classic monster movies–Gray sits properly with The Wolf Man’s Larry Talbot and Cat People’s were-panthress Irena Dubrovna as exceptional film monsters of an earlier time. When you’re next scheduling a classic for your monster movie nights, throw on Lewin’s 1945 classic The Picture of Dorian Gray, and let’s start recognizing the film as the monster movie it is.
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