Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Second Golden Age of Horror Movies

Tommorow is Hallowe'en, so naturally my mind is on horror movies today. Of course, the thought of horror movies brings to mind the classic monster movies released by Universal in the Thirties and Forties. Most film historians and films buffs agree that Universal's release of Dracula in 1931 marked the beginning of a Golden Age for horror films; however, there is no such agreement as to when this Golden Age ended. Some believe that the Golden Age ended in 1948 with the release of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Others believe that it ended in 1936 with the release of Dracula's Daughter. By this time horror movies had been banned in Britain and as a result the possible box office that the American studios could see from any horror movie was drastically reduced. For this reason, Universal ceased production of horror movies for three years. I have always fallen into the latter category as to when the Golden Age of horror movies ended, feeling that the release of Dracula's Daughter marked its end. For me the horror movies of the 1940s constitute a second Golden Age of horror films.

As I said earlier, in 1936 Universal stopped making horror movies due to the ban on such films in Britain. Most other American studios followed suit, so that virtually no horror movies came out for three years. In 1937 the studio re-released both Dracula and Frankenstein. Both films did an incredible amount of box office, enough for Universal to rethink their position on horror movies. It was then that they decided to produce a second sequel to Frankenstein. Son of Frankenstein was released in 1939 and was a smash hit at the box office. Its success started a new cycle of horror movies that would last into the late Forties. Son of Frankenstein marked the final time that Boris Karloff would play the Monster, who, oddly enough, was speechless after his speaking role in Bride of Frankenstein. Son of Frankenstein concerned Wolf Frankenstein, the son of Henry, who returns home to claim his inheritance. He soon finds himself persuaded by corrupt former blacksmith Ygor (played by Bela Lugosi) to revive the Monster, who wants to use him for his own purposes. Although not as good as Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein was still a top notch production and a very fine film.

With the success of Son of Frankenstein, Universal was back in the business of making horror movies. With 1940, they returned to the subject of mummies. Contrary to popular belief, The Mummy's Hand was not a sequel to 1932's The Mummy. In fact, the mummy of The Mummy's Hand, Kharis, was not even related to the mummy of The Mummy, Imhotep. Of course, the plots of the two movies are similar. In both an Egyptian tomb is disturbed and in both the mummy who resided in that tomb wreaks his vengeance. The Mummy's Hand was so successful that Kharis appeared in three sequels: The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Ghost (1944) and The Mummy's Curse (1944). Oddly enough, despite the success of the Kharis movies, he never encountered the other Universal monsters in the crossovers Universal did in the mid to late Forties.

Nineteen forty one saw the release of a movie that would establish the third of Universal's iconic movie monsters. The Wolf Man starred Lon Chaney Jr. as Lawerence Talbot, the son of a Welsh lord who has the misfortune of being bitten by a werewolf and thus becoming one himself. Like Son of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man was a top notch production, with a creative script by writing legend Curt Siodmak. It also involved far more special effects than any previous Universal horror movie, the transformation scenes marking a turning point in the history of FX. The Wolf Man was incredibly successful, cementing Universal's status as a maker of monster movies and establishing Lon Chaney Jr. as a horror movie star. Indeed, the Wolf Man is the only Universal monster played by only one actor--Lon Chaney Jr.

Bela Lugosi returned as Ygor in the fourth sequal to Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, released in 1942. This time around it was Lon Chaney Jr. who played the Monster. The plot concerned yet another Frankenstein, Wolf's brother, Ludwig Frankestein, whose field of expertise was brain transplants. Needless to say, Ludwig has a unique solution to the Monster's supposed murderous streak. Ghost of Frankenstein is generally considered the weakest of the Frankenstein sequels, although it was still a top notch production and still displayed some of the originality of the earlier Universal horror films.

Nineteen forty three perhaps marked the height of the Universal horror film in the Second Golden Age of horror. It was that year that the studio released no less than three of their most classic horror movies. The first of these was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man marks a turning point in the history of Universal horror films, as it is the first time that two of Universal's classic monsters would meet. In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Lawrence Talbot seeks out Dr. Frankenstein to find a cure for his lycanthropy. As it turns out, he fails to find a Dr. Frankenstein, although he meets his daughter, not to mention the Monster. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was a well written and well directed, upscale production that matches Son of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man for quality. It is remembered as a classic to this day.

The second classic Universal horror film released in 1943 was a remake of the silent classic Phantom of the Opera. In this version Claude Rains (of Invisible Man fame) plays the Phantom, Erik, who becomes obsessed with opera star Christine. Phantom of the Opera had top notch production values, although it does fall short in quality when compared to the original Phantom of the Opera and other Universal horror classics. The largest complaint with the film has always been that it focused too much on opera and not enough on horror. Still, the 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera is enjoyable in its own right and holds up well today.

The third and final major horror movie Universal released in 1943 was the second sequel to Dracula. Son of Dracula is a strange film in which the legendary count (this time played by Lon Chaney Jr.) journeys to the American South under an assumed name (Alucard). The movie benefits from a good script (the screenplay by Eric Taylor, based on a story by Curt Siodmak) and good direction (it was directed by Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak's brother). Son of Dracula also benefits from great use of atmosphere; indeed, it is one of the creepier films Universal released in the Forties. Unfortunately, Son of Dracula would be the last upscale horror film that Universal would release in the Second Golden Age of horror. Following Son of Dracula, it almost seemed as if Universal was content to rest on their previous laurels.

Of course, just as Universal was not the only studio making horror movies in the First Golden Age of horror, so too was this the case in the Second Golden Age of horror. Perhaps the most notable of horror movies made by studios other than Universal in this era was a series of films which Val Lewton produced for RKO's B movie unit. Although made on shoestring budgets, Lewton's films are generally considered among the very best horror movies ever made. The Val Lewton horror movies were made with subtlety in mind. Partially because his budgets would permit little else, Lewton depended largely on atmosphere in his films. Rather than outright showing monsters or whatever other things might go bump in the night, Lewton's films depended on the mere suggestion of horror. Much of Lewton's success was due to his ability to spot new talent. Among the young directors he worked with were Mark Robson and former film editor Robert Wise.

Lewton's films stand apart from many other horror films of the time in being very literate, not to mention very original. One need look no further than Lewton's first horror movie for RKO, Cat People, for the innovation that marked most of his films. Released in 1942, Cat People deals with the time honoured idea of people transforming into dangerous animals, but does so in a way that is starkly original. A Serbian born fashion artist believes that she is descended from the Cat People and that any emotional arousal will result in her transformation into a panther. Lewton's originality can also be seen in I Walked with a Zombie released in 1943. It was one of the earliest films to deal in voodoo and zombies ever released. And like all of Lewton's horror movies, it dealt more in suggestion than images of the walking dead. Also released in 1943 was The Seventh Victim, one of the earliest films to deal with Satanists (called Palladists in the film to avoid offending religious sensibilities) as a source of horror.

Most notable among Lewton's films are those he made with Boris Karloff. At first Lewton was not looking forward to working with Karloff, associating the actor with the Univesal monster movies which he detested. After meeting the actor, however, he learned he had found a kindred spirit. The two made three horror movies together, the first of which was an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher, released in 1945. Not only did Karloff play John Gray, the cabman who obtains bodies (through exhumation and more sinister means), but Bela Lugosi played Joseph, the evil servant who turns to blackmail. The second Lewton/Karloff outing was Isle of the Dead, in which several people are stranded on a Greek island quarantined by the plague, and which may be stalked by a vampire-like demon called a vorvolaka. Lewton and Karloff's third collaboration was also the last horror movie Lewton ever produced. Bedlam, released in 1946, featured Karloff as the sinister figure who runs the notorious British asylum. With the success of his horror films, Lewton graduated from B movies to more upscale films.

Universal and RKO were not the only studios making horror films in the Forties. The Poverty Row studios, such as Monogram and PRC, made many throughout the era. And the major studios followed Universal's lead in jumping on the horror bandwaggon. In 1939 Paramount released one of the all time classic horror movies, Dr. Cyclops. Dr. Cyclops featured Albert Dekker as Dr. Thorkel (the doctor of the title), who has learned how to shrink both humans and animals. Dr. Cyclops was an upscale production and, in fact, it was the first horror movie released in Technicolor. Nineteeen forty saw the release of Before I Hang from Columbia (a studio that always bordered on Poverty Row and the majors). The film featured Karloff as Dr. John Garth, a man who conquered death. It was the first of a four film contract Karloff had with Columbia, which was never completed. In 1941 MGM released another version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this time starring Spencer Tracy as the doctor and his alter ego. Unlike previous versions of the tale, the 1941 version did not depend heavily upon makeup to denote the difference between Jekyll and Hyde, but rather upon Spencer Tracy's acting talent. Also in 1941, Warner Brothers released The Hidden Hand, another film dealing with a spooky old house. In 1942 Twentieth Century Fox released Dr. Renault's Secret, featuring George Zucco in the title role (Zucco virtually made a career of playing mad doctors). In this film Renault has broken the evolutionary barrier and figured out how to turn apes into men. There were many other horror movies released than these, many of the B variety, from 1939 to about 1948.

Indeed, by 1944 it became apparent that Universal had mined the genre much too deeply. The days of upscale horror movies with quality production were over at Universal. Instead, the studio sought to repeat the success of Frakenstein Meets the Wolf Man by featuring its iconic monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolf Man) all in one film. The first of these was House of Frankenstein, released in 1944. House of Frankenstein featured Boris Karloff as scientist Gustav Niemann, who has been trying to revive the dead just as Frankenstein had, and Lon Chaney Jr. once more as the Wolf Man. While both Lawrence Talbot and his furry alter ego get a good deal of screen time in this film, it seems the other monsters did not fare so well. Dracula, played by John Carradine, appears only in the first half of the film, while the Frankenstein Mosnter (played by Glenn Strange) spends most of his time strapped to a table. Despite this, House of Frankenstein is an enjoyable film, particularly for Karloff's peformance as the mad Dr. Niemann and Chaney's performance as the tormented Talbot.

The success of House of Frankenstein led to a second "monster mash" movie, House of Dracula, released in 1945. The film features both Lawrence Talbot and Count Dracula seeking out the kindly Dr. Edelmann for a cure to their conditions (althogh Dracula does seem to have another agenda entirely on his mind...). Like House of Frankenstein, Dracula is gone midway through the movie. Unlike House of Frankenstein, the Monster has even less of a role in House of Dracula. Like House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula is an enjoyable film, although both pale when compared to Universal's earlier work--particularly the classics of the Thirties.

With House of Dracula, Universal appears to have exhausted the monster movie formula. There would be no House of the Wolf Man. In fact, the only thing left was for Universal to feature their classic monsters in a comedy. Throughout the Forties, the two biggest money makers at the studio had been their classic movie monsters and the comedy team of Abbot and Costello. It was perhaps inevitable that all of them should meet. And, indeed, they did, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein released in 1948. The movie features the hapless duo as freight handlers who have the rotten luck of delivering the remains of Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster to a house of horrors. Not surprisingly, Dracula is revived and soon plotting to revive the Monster, too. Only Lawrence Talbot, Bud, and Lou stand in Dracula's way. The genius of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein is that the monsters themselves are never played for laughs. The comedy comes not from the monsters, but from Bud and Lou's reaction to them. Lon Chaney still plays Talbot as a tormented soul and Bela Lugosi once more plays the role that made him famous. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a unique combination of frights and laughs, and quite possibly one of the greatest comedy films of all time.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein marked the last time that Universal's monsters would appear in a major motion picture. It therefore marks the end of the Second Golden Age of horror movies in my mind. The Fifties would see new monsters, from the intellectual "carrot" of RKO's The Thing to Universal's Creature from the Black Lagoon. Universal would re-release the classic horror films Dracula and Frankenstein in 1954. Following the successful TV debut of the RKO classic King Kong on March 5, 1956, Universal decided to release their pre-1948 horror movies to television in 1957. For the first time such classics as Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man could be seen on local stations across the United States. This inspired an absolute craze for the classic movie monsters, resulting in tons of merchandise, from posters to Aurora model kits. Since that time the classic Universal films and other movies from the First and Second Golden Ages of horror have been inspiring new fans. It is safe to say they will do so well into the future.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

No house of the wolf man...until now!