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Lois Weber's Suspense and how it impacted horror history

Contributed by
Oct 5, 2018

Home invasion movies are a staple of horror films. The subgenre has expanded and reimagined itself on several occasions — in 1997's Funny Games, we see what equates to a parody of a home invasion film that somehow becomes even more frightening due to the flippant attempts at humor from its killers. In 2006's Them, we experience a true story that grounds us in brutal realism and offers no conclusions. In 2016's Hush, a deaf woman is terrorized in her home by a masked murderer who uses her disability against her. The case has been made that the cultural obsession with the home invader is based in a fear of the merging of public and private spaces, but it’s also based in the fact that home invasion stories happen, and they’re terrifying.

Lois Weber and Philip Smalley’s Suspense might only clock in at barely over ten minutes, but for the earliest run of home invasion films, it is by far the most memorable, utilizing many cutting-edge camera tricks and establishing a seriously unique visual style along the way.

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Home Invasion in Silent Films

So few silent films survive, and thus it’s difficult to say what the first home invasion movie was because the likelihood of us even having any surviving record of it becomes increasingly smaller when we discuss silent films. It is estimated that between 80-90% of silent films are lost, which makes a truly comprehensive history of film impossible. We do know that Suspense is not the first home invasion movie, as it is predated by 1908’s The Physician of the Castle, which was in turn based on the play Au Telephone, which has a much more troubling ending than most of the silent films under discussion here.

Although it’s difficult to say what the first horror film directed by a woman actually was, we do know that Alice Guy-Blache’s rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum was released July 1913, the same month as Suspense, so they ran fairly neck and neck with one another. It is reasonable for us to make the assumption that Suspense was the first home invasion film directed by a woman, co-directed with her husband Phillips Smalley, who unfortunately stopped working in film after his relationship with Weber dissipated. Weber, however, went on to make countless other films, clocking in at anywhere from two hundred to four hundred movies by the end of her career. As with her mentor Guy-Blache, who it is believed directed upwards of one thousand films, Weber’s contributions have often been quite willfully neglected in silent film overviews, though both are getting more recognition now with the increase in female film critics and scholars to advocate for them.

A Wife Alone With Her Newborn

The story revolves around a young wife, played by Weber, who lives on the outskirts of town. One day, her husband goes off to work. Unbeknownst to Weber’s character, the housekeeper chooses exactly that day to resign due to the remote location of the home. Due to this stroke of bad luck, the wife is left alone in the house, which is bad news because it’s the exact day a very random grifter shows up to terrorize her. After locking eyes with the villain, she calls her husband for help, and he frantically rushes home while the bad guy advances on the young wife and her child.

When discussing this film, one of the most important details is that the camera work on display here is incredible. The memorable moments are almost too many to count. When the wife very first senses something suspicious is happening, she leans slowly out the window, only to see the vagabond look suddenly up at her in a moment that still carries chills to this very day. Her phone call to her husband splits the screen into 3 triangles, one of her, one of her husband, and one of the villain methodically breaking into the house. When the husband steals a car to rush to her side, the police follow him and he peeks back at them through his passenger side mirror. While many of the camera tricks had previously been utilized in other films, the hurried pace at which they cut together in Suspense is something new entirely.

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Suspense is often compared to short films about the same subject matter by D.W. Griffith, but when looking at these films objectively, it’s hard to deny the clear superiority of Suspense. Griffith’s films A Lonely Villa and An Unseen Enemy might feature stars like Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters, but the human and believable elements found in Suspense are nowhere to be found. Besides that, Weber and Smalley were really working to outdo themselves at every turn with their shots, which give the film an air of art house years before it would become a recognized subgenre. Almost more importantly than anything, Weber and Smalley approached Suspense with a giddy excitement, and their sheer enthusiasm for how far and how fast they could go is really on display here.

One thing Suspense gave us that many home invasion films continue to struggle with even today was a story that places our feet firmly in the shoes of the woman being harassed. Suspense doesn’t depict the story with far away angles or wide shots, but rather shows us what it is exactly that our hero sees. It is chilling to watch the villain advance on her, slowly stepping up the stairs towards her bedroom as she tries in vain to hide with her child, knowing he’s already seen her.

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Lois Weber

Weber was born in 1879 and lived to the age of 60 and somehow along the way she became one of the most prolific and important directors the silent film era ever knew. First, however, she was a child music prodigy, who worked as a musician throughout her teens and early 20s, retiring when she accidentally broke a key while performing live and losing her desire to perform in public. She took it as a sign and moved to theater. After marrying the theater manager, Phillips Smalley, she spent a brief time as a homemaker before meeting up and working for Alice Guy-Blache and her husband Herbert. Lois began encouraging Smalley to leave his job so that the pair could make movies together, and eventually succeeded, which led to years of collaborations.

Not only was she the primary director of the films she worked on, but she also wrote and acted in them often. Reportedly, when censors first began to focus their energy on Hollywood, Weber was one of the very first they called into question. She made many social films, discussing things as controversial as birth control and the hypocrisy of some members of the Church. Her drive to provide social commentary with her films made her stand out significantly in the campy days of early Hollywood, and she was the first woman director known to own her own film studio. She mentored and worked with many women that would go on to have prominent careers in film, including Billie Dove and screenwriter Frances Marion.

Pretty much, Lois Weber was a badass, and Phillips Smalley was the badass that loved her, and the two of them made great movies together until it was time for them to grow apart from one another. She married again, then divorced shortly before her death. Weber’s last years were working mostly as a script doctor and she eventually died destitute, but in the company of friends, including Frances Marion who had helped her later career and fairly idolized Weber. Suspense remains her best-known work, but not her only work of genre; the short Hypocrites utilizes fantasy elements by introducing us to a fully nude character known as Truth, who shocks others and stirs up controversy throughout time as mankind is unable to deal with her as she is, then vanishes and reappears again later to repeat the scenario so long as humanity refuses to face her. It’s not exactly subtle, but it is a great short film.

Lois Weber wasn’t working alone when it came to elevating cinema from a supposedly degenerate form of entertainment to an art form, but with Suspense, she was helping to define the creepy stylish quality of early horror films and lending credibility to the genre long before it was common for studios to view it as a viable money maker. Many of Weber’s contributions may be lost to time, but her place in cinema is cemented by the few selections that remain, and Suspense remains one of the standout films of any genre for the era in which it was made and the best early example of a home invasion movie.

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