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Lois Weber’s Suspense (1913)

Suspense is part of my recent kick into Silent Era horror and suspense. After getting to borrow a copy of Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology, I finally got to see Suspense in its complete form. Since college, I’ve only seen 30 second snippets here and there. There was a beat-up VCD level copy on early era YouTube, but it got taken down ages ago. Now, there are many half-assed recordings and awkwardly framed reproductions on Google’s pet video site.

What makes Suspense so special is how Lois Weber killed it in terms of film grammar. Don’t know what film grammar is?

Suspense Lois Weber

Suspense uses the Five Tenets of Film Grammar.

  • A frame is a single image. It equals a letter.

  • A shot is a continuous recording. It equals a word.

  • A scene is a series of shots. It equals a sentence

  • Transitions between scenes equal punctuation.

  • A sequence is a series of scenes that equal a paragraph.

The threat of Suspense is a vagrant tramp that stalks a young wife. While playing rather short for modern features, the film understands what goes down in terms of terror play. A young mother is left home alone with a baby, while the husband leaves for work. A random drifter figures he can rob the remote house, but the lady wants to stop him. When he spots her, the fight for survival is on.

Naturally, the gorehound in me hates the ending. While America hadn’t entered the depression, transient men were still a scary issue. After all, the highway system was nearly 40 years away from being deployment. If you were fiscally flush, you were more likely to have a telephone. Even then, the wires were exposed to the elements and could be easily cut by a random interloper. It’s the threat of the frontier that you never see in American horror anymore.

What also irks me is the situation with the servant leaving at the start of the film. I get that Weber had to show that our heroine was on her own. However, it leaves the idea that the family could’ve been targeted. I know that they weren’t, but it still muddies the narrative for easy telegraphing. It’s a sad blemish for a film that debuted the earliest use of split-screen and a choreographed car chase.

This Halloween, I ask that our readers check out this short film and see where American horror & suspense began. Notice how attention is directed and where focus is emphasized. Also, wonder why Lois Weber doesn’t get the recognition she deserves in the modern era. Hell, look at how she became the first mayor of Universal City and was helping to push Universal’s quest for more female directors. Crazy interesting.


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