Summary: A deep, brilliant classic and a potent humanistic antidote to exploitative horror films.
Review: I have a bit of a beef with horror as a cinematic genre. It’s typically immature at best and outright revolting at worst, with some blessed exceptions. Like run-of-the-mill, thoughtless action films, there’s a noticeable separation between the filmmakers and the ethical subtleties of the material; it’s not so much about telling a story as it is about extravagance and extremes, which demands a pushed envelope with every new film. The filmmakers shrug off concerns about content in favor of impact and, of course, money. It’s why the standard Hollywood horror film of today continues to devolve into aptly named “torture porn“, the final expression of exploitative ethics.
Now what does this rant have to do with Orson Welles’ under-appreciated masterpiece ‘The Trial’? In short, this adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s novel is the antithesis of torture porn. What that degraded form of horror says about the human condition, ‘The Trial’ says the opposite. And yes, ‘The Trial’ is fundamentally a horror picture, at least in my opinion. It is surrealistic, nightmarish and psychologically potent. I had a similar gut reaction when I saw ‘Night Of The Living Dead’. It is unique, which is more than I can say for most films. Even today, after over forty years of film history have gone by, it’s only aged like a fine wine, becoming a richer and more profound experience that’s quite difficult to replicate. Orson Welles’ direction is superb, as per his rep, and it’s packed with fine performances, particularly that of Anthony Perkins in the lead role.
And now, to explore the film’s story, I’ll continue my initial critique. So what is torture porn’s — and by extension most postmodern horror’s — philosophy? It’s the withering of human dignity in the face of unspeakable evil, usually embodied in one or a few figures. It’s utterly vampiric, destroying souls and bodies in the quest for pleasure by the monster at a given film’s center, vicariously experienced — and here’s the real horror — by the audience. We’re taught to identify with the vicars of decay. Now, in the other corner is the ‘The Trial’, combining Kafka’s and Welles’ ideas, and its philosophy is the exact opposite. The lone figure with whom we identify in this universally human nightmare is Josef K., the man accused of an unknown crime, a man who may not be innocent but is sure he is not guilty. He is an avatar of our consciousness in a lucid dream, running from monsters masked by the faces of lawyers and little girls. ‘The Trial’ is our subconscious rebellion against the weight of an impersonal cosmic law that offers no explanations and no access to its logic. Pointedly, the antagonist is the very Advocate assigned to defend Josef.
So in what direct way is ‘The Trial’ opposed to torture porn? The roles reverse. The unsympathetic Court, the many, torments Josef K., the one, but he resists them to the last with unapologetic, humanistic ferocity. ‘The Trial’ is bleak, but instructive, giving meaning to our nightmares upon waking. We know what the monsters are — original sin manifested — and it equips us with self-knowledge to destroy them. Torture porn, however, seeks to empower us at the cost of our empathy. There’s no instruction, no moment of waking from that nightmare. The films dehumanize the many victims and moralize the one monster’s actions, making it possible for warped minds to sympathize with it. Vicariously, we become the monster.
But of course, ‘The Trial’ is much more than horror, and deserving of review beyond this contrast. ‘The Trial’ has much to say about religion, law, politics, sexuality, and cinema itself. It begs for in-depth analysis. I plan to give it just that in due time.
Reportedly, Orson Welles considered this the best of his whole celebrated filmography. It’s a shame that it’s been so often ignored by cinephiles and the critical community. It’s wonderful stuff.