Guide to the Horror Movie Genre

Horror Begins To Talk... And Scream


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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.

  • - thorough review

  • The Flick Filosopher - bloodsucking as a euphemism for sex

  • - assessment of the film's influence

  • Screenplay

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.

  • FilmSite.Org - another exhaustive review 

  • Overview

  • Frankenstein's Castle - the definitive Frankenstein site gives a comprehensive overview of the whole Universal series of Frankenstein pics (includes info on The Bride of Frankenstein).

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.

  • The Flick Philosopher - more musings on the influence of the dead

  • Eccentric Cinema review - picks up on the similarities between this film and Dracula

  • - useful background & commentary

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