Horror movies of the 1930s: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Dracula, Frankenstein, Freaks, The Mummy, King Kong, Bride of Frankenstein

Horror Begins To Talk... And Scream

Horror movies were reborn in the 1930s. The advent of sound, as well as changing the whole nature of cinema forever, had a huge impact on the horror genre. The dreamlike imagery of the 1920s, the films peopled by ghostly wraiths floating silently through the terror of mortals, their grotesque death masks a visual representation of 'horror', were replaced by monsters that grunted and groaned and howled. Sound adds an extra dimension to terror, whether it be music used to build suspense or signal the presence of a threat, or magnified footsteps echoing down a corridor. Horror, with its strong elements of the fantastic and the supernatural, provided an effective escape to audiences tiring of their Great Depression reality, and, despite the money spent on painstaking special effects, often provided a good return for their studio. This was also despite the struggle that many of the major players - such as director Tod Browning - had to adapt to the new medium. Making talking pictures was a very different process to producing silent movies and, watching today, some of the early efforts seem very awkward indeed.

The horror films of the 1930s are exotic fairy tales, invariably set in some far-off land peopled by characters in period costume speaking in strange accents. Horror was still essentially looking backwards, drawing upon the literary classics of the 19th century for their source material. Check out the history of Universal, the studio which made its name with horror pictures during this time.  This is the decade when two character actors got lucky:  Bela Lugosi (left),  and  Boris Karloff (right), who brought Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster respectively to the screen. Their images are still synonymous with 1930s horror, they both played a selection of roles although Karloff proved to be the more versatile actor; they are enduring paradigms of the genre, evoking "horror" even in a still photograph.

Audiences seemed even more enthusiastic about the horror genre than in the 1920s, and flocked into cinemas to be scared by largely supernatural monsters wreaking havoc on largely fantastical worlds, events far removed from the everyday realities of Depression and approaching war. Horror, then as now, represented the best escapism available for that precious few cents it took to buy a ticket. And cinema was a national obsession — 80 million people attended the cinema on a weekly basis in 1930, some 65% of the total US population.



Dracula (1931)

In the days before Dracula was such a well-worn story, it could be dealt with with originality and panache, as Tod Browning does here. The concept of Dracula is taken from the stageplay as opposed to the novel, and the results are highly theatrical. Lugosi laughs evilly throughout; no wonder, his depiction of the Count-as-seducer is aeons removed from the feral creature represented in Nosferatu and is definitive - not until Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1994 were there any real variations on the theme. Although Lugosi is never less than watchable, his opera cloak billowing behind him as he stalks the innocent, the rest of the movie creaks to the modern viewer. The supporting cast use their stage training to ham it up (this was the very first talking horror film and no one, least of all the director, was sure how to pitch it) and come across as grimacing and grotesque. The mise-en-scene are fine however - the movie practically invented the concept of "Mittel-Europe", land of swirling mists, howling wolves, frightened peasants and crumbling castles owned by heavily accented individuals with strange eyes and an interesting taste in evening dress. It was very very successful for Universal and paved the way for a series of high profile horror classics.


Frankenstein (1931)

After Lugosi turned the part down, screen legend has it that Boris Karloff was plucked from obscurity in the studio canteen to play the Monster. Studio execs thought his character was so peripheral to the movie that they did not even invite him to the premiere, yet it is his lumbering, pathetic creation that is now synonymous with Frankenstein. James Whale, still numbered amongst the best horror directors of all time, directs with great attention to both spectacle and detail.

The Mummy (1932)

The Tutankhamen Exhibition toured the world in the 1920s and 1930s, and the concept of Egyptologists suffering the effects of an ancient curse was part of contemporary urban legend. Audiences were fascinated by the concept of 3000 year old remains, and the Ancient Egyptians' rituals that ensured immortality. The film, which may seem overly slow-moving to modern viewers, introduced the concept of the desertscape and terrible, ancient evil to movie audiences. The main action takes place in Cairo (or the Universal backlot's version of that city) and revolves around a mummy who is brought to life by the accidental reading of a spell. He then hunts down the reincarnation of his lost love, only to be thwarted, and reduced to the dust from whence he came. The storytelling is slow and atmospheric, and, as with all Karloff characters, the monster is imbued with a sense of pathos. Its influence can be seen in assorted films like The English Patient (The Mummy revolves around a similarly tragic love story) and... um... Stargate.

The reboot of the franchise in the 2000s focuses more on blockbuster action sequences, but it's interesting to note that both Clive Barker and George A. Romero were attached to the project as directors at some stage. It would have been interesting to see this property regenerated as low-budget horror rather than a multi-million dollar special effects festival.


Freaks (1932)

Freaks is a rarity, a horror film that horrifies rather than frightens.    It was slated on its release in 1932, has been blamed for the downhill career trajectories thereafter of the key players, and was banned in many countries for more than thirty years.  Yet in 1994 it was selected for the National Film Registry’s archives, and now enjoys both cult and canon status.  It is a film both of its time (starring a strata of freakshow performers who no longer exist on a public stage) and ahead of its time, extending the definition of 'sympathetic characters’ way beyond a 1932 audience’s limits

Its influence has been immeasurable on a diverse range of texts; HBO's Carnivale and U2's All I Want Is You music video flew the Freaks flag while James Herbert's novel Others and X-Files episode Humbug (Season 2) reflect pre-millennial fascination with the sideshow themes. There are several purported remakes out there, from the bizarre Freakmaker (1974) starring Donald Pleasance and Tom Baker to straight-to-DVD shlockmeisters Asylum Studio's Freakshow (2007) which also stars "real" freaks. The strength of its influence comes not from its art (the moviemaking itself pushes no boundaries) but its subject matter; the fascination we as human beings have with those who are different.

The studio was very unhappy with the result, and tried three alternate endings on preview audiences. When it was finally premiered, in San Diego in January 1932, audiences were horrified, rather than frightened. The backlash agains the movie came from the public and critics alike, and it was quietly withdrawn from theatrical release. Browning made a couple more movies (including the excellent The Devil-Doll in 1935), but between Freaks' reputation and his alcoholism, he was finished. Several of the freaks, in particular Olga the Bearded Lady, regretted their involvement in the movie, which they saw as exploitative.

It was banned outright in Britain and other countries, and languished in vaults for more than thirty years until it was premiered anew at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim. A new generation had claimed the word "freak" as their own, and the film found new life on the counter-culture arthouse circuit, where it has remained a staple for years. The film has been read in varying ways — as a commentary on the studio system that treated all its talent like sideshow performers, as trashy exploitation, as a poignant fairy tale, as a grim morality play — but it is truly one of those few films that once seen, is never forgotten.


King Kong (1933)

"I am about to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a King and a God in the world he knew. But now he comes to civilisation, merely a captive, a show to satisfy your curiosity."

Merian C Cooper, the visionary behind the chest-thumping giant gorilla atop the Empire State, was a remarkable man. An old school adventurer, he could list World War I flying ace, POW, journalist, explorer, airline owner and Oscar-nominated documentary-maker on his resume before he came to make King Kong, and he continued his adventuresome ways until his death in 1973. He was part of the first generation of US film-makers, those who saw creating a movie as the latest in a line of thrilling technological challenges. These pioneers of the Machine Age seized movie cameras in the 1920s with the same enthusiasm as they had grabbed the controls of airplanes a decade earlier. King Kong shares the dashing spirit of its producer, and eptiomises his fascination with technology. After all, Cooper plays the pilot of the plane that kills Kong, the very embodiment of twentieth century machinery's triumph over Nature.

King Kong, the quintessential monster movie, was hugely successful upon its release, saving RKO from financial ruin, and has remained a favourite with film-makers and audiences ever since. On one level it is a simple fairy tale - Beauty and the Beast - yet it is also a powerful horror film, keying into primal fears about what lurks beyond the borders of civilisation. It shaped genre paradigms for the monster movie - the outsized animal with massive strength (back to Freud's Unheimlich, the familiar thing presented in an unfamiliar way, the city trashed by a force of nature, the demented scientist/technologist with his eye on a dangerous prize, the gawping crowds punished for their curiosity.

King Kong's influence is apparent in everything from Jurassic Park, Jason & The Argonauts, to Star Wars, as well as hundreds of 'creature features' of the 1950s. Kong himself is a symbol of a vanishing world - his survival, alongside the dinosaurs on Skull Island, is an accident of Nature, and once extracted from his natural habitat, he cannot survive. His story is a parable, he represents the sacrifices that are made in the stampede to knowledge. As scientific expeditions probe every corner of the globe, there is no room for mysterious creatures like giant apes, especially when they are discovered by those with no respect for their ancient need for privacy. King Kong is both nostalgic for an age when fabulous monsters could lurk in misty swamps, and pragmatic about their inevitable elimination in the name of scientific progress.

King Kong has been remade twice, but neither version has managed to inspire the same kind of affection as the original. The 1976 version (starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange) mixes corporate oil concerns with the monsters on Skull Island, and winds up rather thin on action. The Peter Jackson effort, at a whopping 187 minutes, cannot be accused of being thin, but relies too heavily on the beautifully realised CGI Kong emoting, and Naomi Watts responding in kind. The original is a simple story, told with panache, and has not been topped.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

James Whale returned to the Shelley novel and used as his source material all the sections he'd missed out in Frankenstein. This is a stylish and witty film, with many moments of camp humour, and has been described as one of the greatest horror films of all time. The images are dramatically framed throughout, from the burning mill surrounded by pitchfork-brandishing peasants at the start, to the collapsing castle at the finish. Karloff brings his usual wounded dignity to the part of the Monster, which speaks for the first time, in wondrous, mangled syllables. Our villain is Dr Pretorius; Ernest Thesiger relishes his role as the amoral, corpse-stealing former mentor of Henry Frankenstein, who creates miniature people and keeps them in specimen jars. Dr Pretorius is the evil genius behind the new experiments with the creation of life, Henry Frankenstein is reduced to the reluctant helper, who cannot face up to his mistakes of the previous film. Where once he had pretentions to create life, he is here represented as weak, indecisive and bumbling beside the razor-sharp cunning of Pretorius. Elsa Lanchester, in full frightwig and make-up, is touchingly confused and vulnerable as the Bride who simply does not want to exist. The story is treated with delicacy and finess, a far cry from the full-on gore-and-gash prosthetic close-ups that Branagh uses in his 1994 version.

For a touching, thoughtful twist on the James Whale story, seeGods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen & Brendan Frasier. What makes a man make such a set of monsters? It's a lovely film in its own right, and gives an insight to the man who wrote many of the rules of the genre.



Mad Scientists

It is worth noting that mad scientists were also represented in this decade's horror films. The next generation of Caligaris included Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton in The Island of Lost Souls - 1933), Dr Griffin (Claude Rains in The Invisible Man -1933), Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore in The Devil Doll - 1936), Dr Mirakle (Bela Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue - 1932), the wheelchair-bound Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwell in The Mystery of the Wax Museum- 1933), and not forgetting Peter Lorre's crazed turn as a lovesick surgeon in Mad Love (1935). 1933, the year Hitler came to power, saw something of a peak in mad scientist movies; it seems the genre was horribly preminiscent of the scientific horrors to come in the Nazi-run concentration camps over the subsequent decade.

Further Reading



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