Early signs of madness: A critical review of “The Avenging Conscience” (1914)

If you ask someone what their favorite old horror movie is, they might say something like “The Exorcist” or “Night of the Living Dead.” While those aren’t exactly new, they’re hardly the oldest horror films out there. Universal and RKO both produced scads of famous and infamous horror films in the 1930s and 40s, far before Friedkin or Romero were rolling out their own brands of thriller.

But there are also plenty of Gothic horror films in the silent movie category, courtesy of melodramas like “The Phantom of the Opera” and grotesque experiments like the Thomas Edison produced “Frankenstein,” which predates Universal’s film by 21 years–and maybe a few of your friends, feeling suddenly embarrassed by how recent their favorite “old” horror movie was, went straight for the “Nosferatu.”

So what about psychological horror? One might think that a style of cinema so theatrical and visually oriented would not lend itself to the nuance and intimacy of psychological horror. But, surprisingly enough, the film that is apparently the first feature length American horror film is also arguably the first genuinely psychological thriller.

“The Avenging Conscience” tells the morbid tale of a young man called only the Nephew (Henry Walthall) who lives and works under the watchful eye of his eye patch-wearing uncle, Uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken). He is content with his lot, until he meets and falls in love with a young woman, his Sweetheart (the coincidentally named Blanche Sweet), who his uncle absolutely forbids him from marrying.

Still, love will find a way, even if it involves firearms. Caught in an emotional whirl, the Nephew plots to kill his Uncle, ensuring his inheritance falls promptly in his hands and his path is clear to his Sweetheart. But once the deed is done, he realizes that his peace of mind has become harder to hold onto.

“Conscience” is a good film to discuss on the 210th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe because it plays like fan fiction of that author’s works. Writer/director/producer D. W. Griffith was clearly a fanboy. He had already shot a couple of Poe related shorts, and his script shows obvious influence from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” as well as echoes of “Annabelle Lee,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat.” Poe’s face even pops up for a second on the back of a book the Nephew is reading.

Of course, it’s not enough to simply slap the name and handsome visage of the master on the picture and call it psychological horror. There has to be something more, and there is. Walthall does a fine performance as the Nephew losing his grip on sanity. He goes a little overboard at the end, but he builds to it at least, something that most silent performers didn’t grasp.

The special effects sequences also build, starting with some images of a ghostly Uncle and then heading in some interesting territory involving the risen Christ and animal-headed demons. Even some of the more obvious flaws therein–the clumsiness of some of the editing and the primitive nature of the some of the matte shots–seem to add to the surreal flair of the film’s second half.

Although the special effects and pacing are typically praised, the ending is a bit more divisive. It’s a twist ending that’s either innovative and intriguing or an annoying cop-out, depending on your mood. But the twist is followed by a conclusion that is a total left-field non sequitur. It’s bizarre, antique and, whether you like it or not, pure Griffith.

Most people prefer to focus on the animal imagery in the film’s first half. It’s most obvious when the decision to kill crosses the Nephew’s mind–it’s punctuated with images of the savagery of the insect world–but also take a look at the caged bird in the background of the murder scene. The Nephew may think he’s free with his Uncle dead, but he’s just as trapped as ever.

Perhaps the most interesting visual display occurs before any of that happens. When the Nephew and the Sweetheart are talking in a garden, they are framed by a gazebo in the background and cradled by a fountain with an Asian dragon spouting water in the foreground. It’s a beautiful shot and an intelligent shot, for sure, but there have been other beautiful and intelligent shots in the history of cinema.

What makes the image particularly fascinating is that it fades to black, cuts to a b-plot of two other lovers, and then cuts back to the darkened image of the Nephew and Sweetheart, then back again. That the b-plot is kind of goofy and unnecessary is unimportant. What is important is that no one made movies like this, with an understanding that film can be structured with an abstract, nonlinear rhythm that plays with time, space and narrative. Few people make movies like that right now. To paraphrase Orson Welles, some of Griffith’s work was old even then, and some of it we’re still figuring out today.