Prosthetic demise, or the “dummy death” as film historians Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr refer to it, is a practical cinematic technique wherein an actor portraying a character is replaced by an articulated replica special-effects mannequin at a moment of extreme violence and/or death within a given film’s narrative. This device has been employed by filmmakers all over the world, at every level of production and in every genre since the dawn of the cinematic medium. When viewed in isolation, the dummy death effect can be characterized as the cinematic illusion in microcosm. Artificial celluloid images convey the illusion of life and reality – an illusion that is reflected in the (either subtle or abrupt) transition from actor/character to its corresponding prosthetic replica. It is also cinema at it’s most vulnerable – understanding that a viewer is to temporarily accept this illusion as reality, as such, the nature of this illusion invites this moment where, without explanation, a character physically transforms (however briefly) into something inanimate or inhumanly animate during his or her death. Berger and Marr call this the “Destructible Man effect” and its very existence creates ripples upon ripples of visual and thematic repercussions. Berger and Marr utilize a two-prong approach when examining films that contain a moment of prosthetic demise: one is thematic and one involves strictly visual elements of cinematic storytelling. The key thematic elements relatable to the dummy death effect include (but are not limited to): transformation, substitution, deception, duality and abstraction.
Transformation refers to the abrupt shift in method of presentation from actor/character to prosthetic facsimile (also reflected in narrative aspects such as personality or physical changes in characters); substitution refers to the replacement of actor/character with a prosthetic facsimile (and any story arcs that depict substitution of one or more characters for others); deception refers to the intended, illusory effect on the audience (and any experienced by characters within the plot); duality is reflected in the pairing of the actor/character with their dummy twin (and often reflected by twinning characters either with another character or psychologically, as in schizophrenia); abstraction defines the dummy as an inanimate image/replica of its living, human counterpart (again, which may also have metaphoric impact on the story’s characters). In addition, ever-present are themes of dehumanization, re-humanization and familial dislocation. Elements of visual storytelling in cinema that are relatable to cinematic dummies include (but are not limited to): shadows, silhouettes, mirror reflections, paintings, statues, photographs, dolls, mannequins, costumes and masks.
An examination of films that contain a dummy death, using these two methodologies in tandem, allows the viewer to bypass potential analytical roadblocks like personal taste, subjective notions of high and low art and more traditional approaches to film criticism in favor of a more objective, fixed set of thematic and physical elements that can be used like tools to uncover hidden, recurring patterns of meaning, symbolism and sub-textual counter-narratives in all (including non-dummy-death) cinema.
This overall approach also levels the cinematic playing field, allowing for an examination of films by directors as disparate as Alfred Hitchcock and William Castle, Francois Truffaut and Al Adamson, Quentin Tarantino and Edwin S. Porter, Steven Spielberg and Shohei Imamura, within the same cinematic, storytelling continuum.
The class will be illustrated by clips from such dummy-death emboldened films like STRAIT-JACKET, SCANNERS, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, THE BIRDS, 2001 and THE FURY in addition to two crucial silent films: Alfred Clark’s Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), known to be the first edit in cinema as well as the first dummy-death and The Great Train Robbery (1903), the first complex narrative film and also the first dummy-death within a complex narrative film.