Saturday, October 2, 2004

The Golden Age of Horror Movies

Most people would agree that in 1931 a Golden Age of the horror film began with the releases of Dracula and Frankenstein that year. Individuals can debate when that Golden Age ended. Some would end it in 1936 with the release of Dracula's Daughter. Others would end it in 1946, with the release of Abbot and Costello Meet Frakenstein. Regardless, there is almost no debate as to when it began.

For that matter there is almost no debate as to where it began either. Universal Studios was founded in 1912 by German immigrant Carl Laemmle. As early as 1913 the studio was making horror movies--The Werewolf and a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 1920s Universal made a number of horror movies and near horror movies with Lon Chaney, the most famous being the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera. Carl Laemmle himself was not that fond of the genre, although his son, Carl Laemmle Jr., loved horror movies. When Carl Laemmle Jr. took over the company in 1929, he then naturally turned to the horror genre. It was Universal that made the first horror talkie, Dracula, released on Valentine's Day in 1931.

With Dracula, Universal had a huge hit. Its star, Bela Lugosi, became a household name. In the process he was typecast forever. It also arguably set the tone for Universal horror movies to come. The opening, set in Transylvania and eventually winding up at Castle Dracula, would have a lasting influence on Gothic horror films to come. I personally don't think the film has stood the test of time too well. The plot seems to bog down once the action moves to England and the film seems terribly talky, even for a film of its time. And while Lugosi handles the role of Dracula quite well in many parts of the movie, there are a few scenes where he just seems to overact (particularly the scene where Dracula tries to mesmerise Van Helsing). Regardless, it is still considered a classic by many. In fact, it is one of the oldest talkies that is still shown commercially.

The success of Dracula led Carl Laemmle Jr. to seek out other classic horror movies which could be adapted to the screen. He eventually settled on Frankenstein, the classic novel by Mary Shelley. Universal acquired the screen rights to the 1927 British play Frankenstein: An Experiment in the Macabre. Initially, Robert Florey was set to direct the movie and Bela Lugosi would play the Monster. Eventually, Florey was replaced by James Whale. As to Lugosi, not particuarly being thrilled with working in make up (he feared he would not be recognised), he was not cast as the Monster. Instead, James Whale cast veteran actor Boris Karloff in the role. Karloff had been acting in movies for literally years, usually playing heavies, when he got the role that would make him famous.

Frankenstein, released in late 1931, proved to be an even larger hit than Dracula. It was literally the Titanic or Star Wars of its day. And it is undeniably a classic. From James Whale's direction to Karloff's performance as the Monster to the art direction of the film, it is nearly perfect. Perhaps no other horror film would ever have the impact or the influence of Frankenstein. It success insured that Universal would make even more horror films in the years to come.

One of these horror films would be The Bride of Frankenstein, the first sequel to the 1931 Frankenstein, released in 1935. It would be one of the few sequels in the history of film to actually surpass the original movie in quality. The Bride of Frankenstein successfully combined frights, humour, philosophical content, and strong characterisation in one film. It is arguably the greatest horror film of all time, its influence perhaps surpassed only by the original Frankenstein.

Of course, Universal made more movies than those featuring Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula. Throughout the early Thirties they made a variety of horror movies, often with Karloff, Lugosi, or both in lead roles. The Old Dark House, released in 1932, was directed by Frankenstein director James Whale himself. It is a combination haunted house movie, comedy of manners, and horror movie spoof, with Karloff playing the forebear of all creepy butlers to come. It was during this era that Universal also did its first werewolf movie, The Werewolf of London, released in 1935. While not nearly as successful as the Frankenstein and Dracula movies, Werewolf of London is a very interesting movie. Eschewing the raveous beast portrayal of a werewolf, the movie plays out like a cross between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Universal's The Wolf Man.

Of course, other studios followed Universal's lead in producing horror movies during this period. Paramount produced two of the best horror movies of the time. One was a new version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Rouben Mamoulian and released very late in 1931. This version of the story featured Frederic March in the lead role, a role for which March would later receive the Oscar for Best Actor. Many consider this film to be the quinessential version of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Another Paramount horror film of the period is perhaps one of the greatest horror films of all time, although it is largely forgotten now. Island of Lost Souls was based on H. G. Wells' novel The Island of Dr. Moreau and featured Charles Laughton as the mad Dr. Moreau. Released in 1933, the movie caused considerable controversy in its day with its tale of Dr. Moreau crossing animals and men--particularly controversial was Moreau's none too subtle hints to the hero (Edward Parker played by Richard Arlen) that he breed with half panther/half woman Lota (played by Leila Hyams). Viewing the movie today it is no surprise that it would cause controversy--it is an intense film even today.

Surprisingly, another controversial horror film was produced by MGM, better known for musicals and costume dramas. Released in 1932, Freaks was directed by veteran horror director Todd Browning (who, among other things, had direced Universal's Dracula). The movie centred around the scheme of a trapeze artist (Cleopatra) and her strong man lover (Hercules) to rob a midget (Hans) of his fortune and the consequences which stem from their actions. Browning chose to cast actual freaks and carnival performers in many of the roles, which led to part of the controversy regarding this film when it was first released. The other part of the controversy stemmed from the violence in the movie. Indeed, even today Freaks is a disquieting film to watch.

None of these movies had the lasting impact that Universal's horror movies did, with the exception of a movie produced by RKO. King Kong would be the smash hit of 1933. Its star, the giant ape called Kong, would become as well known as any of the Universal's monsters. Its lead actress, Fay Wray, would forever be remembered as the beauty who "killed the beast." For its day, King Kong was absolutely revolutionary. For one thing, its effects were state of the art. With King Kong, stop motion animation took a giant leap forward. For another, it was one of the first horror movies (along with the Frankenstein films) to evoke sympathy for the antagonist (in this case, Kong). Many viewers truly felt saddened with the great ape fell from the Empire State Building. Even today, in the age of CGI, King Kong still holds up.

Of course, not every horror film of the era was produced by a major studio. Released in 1932, White Zombie was produced by the Halperin brothers, Edward and Victor (Victor also directed). The movie featured Bela Lugosi in one of his bigger roles, as Legendre, a man who turns people into zombies. Although made on a shoestring budget, the movie definitely has atmosphere and is still somewhat effective today. Indeed, it paved the way for all voodoo/zombie movies to come.

By 1936, two events happened that would prove pivotal in the Golden Age of the horror film. First, the Laemmele family lost control of Universal Studios. The stockholders, unhappy with Carl Laemmele Jr., voted them out. Universal continued making horror movies even after the removal of the Laemmele, although not for long. That same year the United Kingdom banned all horror movies. This caused a considerable dip in Universal's overseas revenue, as well as that of any other studio which made a horror movie. On top of this, horror movies had been declining in revenue Stateside as well. Quite simply, horror movies weren't economical to make any more.

It is for that reason that Dracula's Daughter, released in 1936, would be the last horror film Universal would make for three years. Although hardly remembered now, the first sequel to Dracula is an effective film and, in my opinion, superior to the original. It possesses a strong hint of eroticism rarely found in films of that era, as well as a strong sense of atmosphere. And in Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Krueger) and his secretary, Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill), it had two of the best developed protagonists in horror movies of the era.

Because it would be three years before Universal would make another horror movie and no other studies were making horror films either, many consider the release of Dracula's Daughter to be the end of the Golden Age of the Horror Film. Or, at the very least, the end of the First Golden Age of the Horror Film. Universal would not make another horror movie until Son of Frankenstein in 1939. While Universal had stopped making horror movies in 1936, it re-released both Frankenstein and Dracula in 1937 to big box office. That success led the studio to reconsider making horror films and led to Son of Frankenstein. The success of Son of Frankenstein would lead to a new round of Universal horror movies, as well as RKO's classic Val Lewton chillers, and horror movies from other studios. Whether this was a continuation of the Golden Age of Horror or a Second Golden Age or even a Silver Age, I suppose, is a matter for debate...

1 comment:

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