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Thwarted by his despotic uncle from continuing his love affair, a young man turns to thoughts of murder. Experiencing a series of visions, he sees murder as a normal course of events in life and kills his uncle. Tortured by his conscience, his future sanity is uncertain as he is assailed by nightmarish visions of what he has done. Written by
Doug Sederberg <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"For the moon never beams without giving me dreams"
If DW Griffith is fondly remembered at all these days, it is usually for his exhilarating rides-to-the-rescue or the breathtaking pageantry of his epics. Those who have studied his work in any depth will of course know of his fine and subtle handling of drama and romance. However far fewer have commented on his masterful evocation of atmosphere. This, his only entry into the horror genre, a genre that is nine-tenths atmosphere, is appropriately steeped in it.
Griffith was of course a visual storyteller, but he learnt techniques of narrative and exposition from the world of literature. In the Avenging Conscience, he not only bases his story on the work of Edgar Allen Poe, but he juxtaposes the horrific with the beautiful and tender, as did Poe, Bram Stoker and many other Victorian horror writers. This uncomfortable contrast is established from the very first scene. As the opening shot fades in, we are clearly looking at a funeral scene, but then cut immediately to a baby in his cot innocent life in the midst death. Throughout the picture Griffith shows an unusually high number of inserts which do not directly tell part of the story, but which add layers of terror or revulsion such as a howling wolf or an owl hooting in the trees. A dreamlike tone is maintained throughout, with few title cards, but some snippets of Poe's poetry that relate to the story only in an abstract manner.
The Avenging Conscience also contains some wonderful examples of Griffith's handling of dramatic depth. He keeps his camera at a respectful distance during the romantic scenes, refraining from facial close-ups until the latter moments, and then only using them sparingly to give them maximum impact. Some might pick at the fact that the camera is always static, and there is little editing within the scene, but in fact this just goes to demonstrate just how much a director can do with movement within the frame. To take one example from this picture in the earlier scenes at the uncle's house, there is a birdcage with a few canaries hopping around inside it. In later scenes it is covered up, twisting forlornly on its hook. It's a great touch to establish mood, but Griffith doesn't draw our attention to it with a clumsy close-up or lumbering pan; our eyes will be drawn to it because it is moving while other things in the frame are still. Audience members will notice it without feeling like they have been forced to notice it.
Sadly, the few limitations of Griffith's technique do stick out in this one. In particular, his tendency to keep all characters involved in a scene on screen at the same time makes shots (such as the uncle hiding in a bush to spy on the courting couple) look ridiculous. Also, without point-of-view shots, some moments can be a bit confusing, as it is impossible to tell who is looking at what. But these are small worries, and the Avenging Conscience is far more coherent and realistic than the many other pictures of its day.
If Judith of Bethulia was a dress-rehearsal for the massive action spectacles of Griffith's longer features, the Avenging Conscience was perhaps a dry-run for the subtle romantic drama which brought balance to those pictures. But it's also one of the most unique and remarkable shots in his canon, creeping us out with horror imagery five years before Caligari, creating tension out of guilt thirty years before Double Indemnity, with a climax that will startle those who think they know Griffith's cinema.
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