THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE OR THOU SHALT NOT KILL
The Avenging Conscience was also one of the first screen adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe. There had been about a dozen adaptations of Poe works since 1908 but all of these were short works and this was the first full-length adaptation. D.W. Griffith has concocted a plot that has wound together three different Poe works the short stories The Black Cat (1843) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) and the poem Annabel Lee (1849). Griffith also has the narrator read some of The Tell-Tale Heart and includes a picture of Poe himself at one point. This results in a somewhat ungainly work. Certainly, it never much resembles a traditional Poe film, especially when you compare it to the Roger Corman films of the 1960s see The House of Usher (1960) which identified Poe with a brooding Gothicism.
Griffith gives us a modern story at least modern by 1910s standards and there is little to it that we would recognise as a horror film (not that the horror film existed as a genre back in 1914). Indeed, you get the impression that Griffith has conceived The Avenging Conscience more as a Christian morality play the film, for instance, is not too subtly subtitled after one of the Ten Commandments thou shalt not kill. Griffith himself was a Methodist and themes of Christian morality feature in many of his films. Poes stories dealt with guilt and torment but you could never say they came from a Christian perspective and there is not, as far as I am aware, any Christian iconography or elements that play throughout any of them. However, what we get here is Poe served up as a rather dull drama about one man wracked by pangs of conscience. We see Henry B. Walthall having visions of Christ hanging on The Cross, God holding up stone tablets emblazoned thou shalt not kill, demonic figures with human bodies, animal hooves and heads dancing, the nephew tied to a chair and tormented by a skeleton, all of which seem a long stretch from Poe. Griffith was making his film before the era of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), which introduced subjective depiction and surrealism to cinema and you suspect if The Avenging Conscience had been made a few years later it might have been a very different film. The film also climaxes on the it was all a dream ending that was popular in the era, well before such became a cliche.
Certainly, D.W. Griffith demonstrates a great deal of assurance and craftsmanship as a filmmaker. If you consider that only a decade earlier, cinema was dominated by Georges Melies and his simple trick effects and single-camera placement set-ups, Griffith has matured considerably beyond this in the space of a decade, discovering things such as editing and the use of actors. In other words, Griffith took cinema more towards what we know in the modern sense brought out storytelling, used the cinematic palette to evoke emotion and show actors performing. Characters, for instance, had little relevance in the films of Melies and his imitators indeed, before 1910, actors featured so little that the players in a film were not even credited on screen.
For all that, The Avenging Conscience plays out as rather slow and long-winded today. There are some mild horror elements the ghost of the murdered uncle appearing out of the fireplace to haunt Henry B. Walthall, the aforementioned dream sequences. The romance never much comes to life certainly, Blanche Sweet seems far too frumpy and giggly to be Poes melancholy apotheosis of impossible love.
Full film available online here:-