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Audrey Kupferberg: Death Fantasies In The Movies

Throughout the history of the movies, there have been realistic portrayals of death.  But there also have been many instances where death is handled as eerie fantasy.  As we move towards Halloween, stories featuring death and its supernatural elements are dominating home screens.

As early as 1910, the Edison film company released a film version of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN.  In this film, Frankenstein is a student who sets about creating a perfect man with a blend of chemicals.  The result, however, due to Frankenstein’s weaknesses, is a disgusting evil monster which scared audiences then, and can still deliver quite a discomforting punch.  See for yourself!  You can locate this 13-minute silent movie online at the Internet Archive website (archive.org).  

Scary movies that deal with death in unwholesome ways excited audiences throughout the 20th century and certainly continue to do so.  Feeding an apparently ever-growing hunger for the gruesome, horror films become more and more graphic, and sometimes more realistic, as the years pass.  From NOSFERATU in 1922 to the Twilight Saga, from WHITE ZOMBIE of 1932 to George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, these films present astonishing portrayals of vampires, mummies, zombies and other undead.  Even Harry Potter deals with bringing back the dead at times.

Occasionally, death is personified in less horrific surroundings.  DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY in 1934, based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, features death personified posing as a prince on holiday, and in the very moving melodrama, ON BORROWED TIME, from 1939, death personified is kept captive up in the branches of an apple tree in order to save the life of a small boy.

This month a recent theatrical release, SWISS ARMY MAN, from the extraordinarily creative team of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, was made available on DVD and Blu-ray.  In SWISS ARMY MAN, Paul Dano ably plays Hank, a sensitive and possibly mentally unbalanced man who seems to be lost in a remote area.  Just as he has lost all hope of surviving, he spies a body on the beach.  The body, Manny, played with great skill by Daniel Radcliffe, maintains a strange ability to pass gas, and Hank soon learns that he can take advantage of his new companion’s physical power.  That’s where the title originates.  Hank uses Manny as a Swiss Army knife, taking up many life-sustaining functions that Dano’s character desperately needs.  It isn’t long before Hank and Manny are having long, meaningful conversations.  They discuss their feelings with heartbreaking depth and clarity – including the loneliness, insecurities, and disappointments of life. 

SWISS ARMY MAN is a brilliant new way of introducing death personified into a film plot.  The situation is surreal, a fantastic voyage. It also is disturbing.  If you read viewer comments on various websites, it becomes clear that SWISS ARMY MAN is attaining a cult status.  This film is one of a kind.  If you believe that a story about an unholy situation is outside your comfort zone, then take heart in the fact that SWISS ARMY MAN is much more than a weird story of the undead.  It is a painful, important story about human frailty and survival.  

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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