Monday, August 1, 2011

Horror's Finest Vintage

1939 is generally regarded by film buffs as the greatest year in Hollywood history. More classic films were produced in that single year than any other. I've always had a soft spot for cinematic terror so that got me thinking to what the best year was for that particular genre? It was a question that I never pondered before, but judging from several of my most recent reviews, the answer appeared quite obvious. 1932 was the most adventurous and creative year in screen horror, serving as it's official inauguration as horror became a legitimate film genre. Terror had always been a staple of the cinema going back to the trick films of George Melies and the villainy found in the films of D.W. Griffith. Many consider Thomas Edison's 1910 Frankenstein, the first monster movie, but little impact was brought on by it's release. The United States largely shied away from screen horror and supernatural themes, even though mystery and old dark house films proliferated throughout the span of the 1920s. Invariably, the conclusion of these American melodramas would use criminals and madmen as the perpetrators of the film's crimes and mystery, but never was it the work of a monster or something supernatural. Germany was the country that really dominated creatively throught the silent era, embracing the dark side of cinema with a new art form called, "expressionism" which emphasized intense light and shadow, instilling far more emotion than the American counterparts. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1919) was a groundbreaker in cinema and in the advancement of screen horror. It's strange sets and macabre story setting the standard for so many to follow. 

Germany had the most international impact in the genre of fantastic films in the 1920s, producing such indelible classics like The Golem(1920), Nosferatu(1922), Waxworks(1923), Faust(1926) and Metropolis(1927), the last playing probably the biggest impact on science fiction cinema. America's contribution rested on the shoulders of one man, destined to be hailed as the greatest dramatic actor of the silent era. He was known as the "man of a thousand faces" and his name was Lon Chaney. His creepy melodramas like The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1923) and The Phantom of the Opera(1925) helped make him one of the most popular actors of the cinema. Devising his own makeup, Chaney often relied on grotesque and macabre makeups for his creations. He was the spark that ignited the major studios to take a chance and produce a version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Unfortunately, the great actor died before contractual agreements were met in August of 1930. Universal Studios had won the rights to the book and play and chose the actor who portrayed the Count on broadway, Bela Lugosi, to portray the undead Count.

This was a major gamble for a Hollywood film. Count Dracula was exactly what he appeared to be, which was a blood sucking demon from hell(thanks, David Skal) and the producers had cold feet. However, Dracula proved to be a smash hit upon release on Valentine's Day of 1931 and broke several records nationally. The film contained a very creepy first half, rich with atmosphere and dread, but unfortunately became stage bound by the second, trapped in the confines of it's stageplay origins. The producers wasted no time in making a follow-up and decided to up the ante in horror. Essentially, Frankenstein was the first movie ever made with the sole purpose of being a horror movie and as such can be considered the most influential. Frankenstein was an even bigger hit than Dracula and Boris Karloff would be the one to take the mantle of the late Lon Chaney. The magic of 1932 really begins with Frankenstein, which was still playing packed houses since it's release in November of 1931. It was a huge success with critics and audiences, but was also known for it's controversy, as the film was censored and banned in several places. Hollywood studios sensed a challenge and sought to outdo the terror of Frankenstein throughout the year, 1932.

The monsters were loose in 1932. Frankenstein was playing across the country and all the studios were preparing and completing their own horror opuses. After Dracula and Frankenstein, the next obvious adaption of a classic story was to adapt Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which had been filmed no less than six times in the silent era. Paramount had been producing this during the same time that Universal was filming Frankenstein and like that film and it's predecessor, Dracula, it would become the most indelible image of the classic story ever made. Director Rouben Mamoulian shot the film as a parable on victorian repression, focusing on Jekyll's sexual awakening, which he unleashes through Hyde. He took a chance by hiring comic actor, Frederic March in the title role, a gamble that paid off as March gave one of the most memorable horror film performances, buried under the brilliant simian-like makeup of Perc Westmore. His transformation scene was so complex that it remained the most sophisticated for decades and was not fully revealed until after the director's death in the 1970s. The film was a huge critcial and commercial success as well, and even had the distinction of a true eye-watering rarity: an Oscar for Frederic March for his portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde.

Universal started work after Frankenstein on a follow-up with Bela Lugosi and originallly slated Frankenstein director, Robert Florey. It was an adaption of Edgar Allen Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue and would be fated to be in the shadow of the former film forever. Visually, the film is easily the fascinating, the most direct homage to German expressionism made in Hollywood. The plot is very loosely based on the Poe story, but does seem to be a loose reworking of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari! Florey was a disciple of the expressionism movement and wanted to model his proposed Frankenstein in like fashion. Murders in the Rue Morgue is not a great classic, but is important in the history of the genre for it's link to a Hollywood classic and one of the great mad doctor performances, Bela Lugosi as Dr. Mirakle, who is experimenting to mate humans with apes! The film was a box-office dissapointment and unfortunately would lead to the fall of Lugosi's horror supremacy.

Lugosi's star would slowly fade throughout the 1930s, reaching a peak in the mid part of the decade with his first historic teaming of fellow frightmaker, Boris Karloff. He made two more horror efforts that year, including Fox's contribution to the horror movement with the fantasy film, Chandu the Magician, which was part of the vogue of the time, a radio hero, both mystical and romantic. Lugosi played Roxar, a villain out to take over the world with a death ray. He stole the film and led the way for several future supervillains to follow. He also starred that year in the historic independent horror classic, White Zombie, which was the first zombie film, based off of the superstitions of Haiti. The film borrowed sets from both Frankenstein and Dracula, as well as Universal's ace makeup artist, Jack Pierce. Lugosi gave an archetypal performance as the zombie master of the film, and while the film was a triumph for the actor and the genre, it would also be the first link on his journey to poverty row.

MGM saw the success that Universal was having with their horror movies and decided to make something more bloodthirsty than Frankenstein, not playing it as safe as Fox would with their fantasy picture, Chandu the Magician. Producer Irving Thalberg gave Tod Browning, who had directed several disturbing films with Lon Chaney in the 1920s and had just made Dracula, the chance to create a dream project, which would be fated to become one of the most controversial of the decade and would be unseen for over thirty years. Freaks would be Browning's most personal film and one that would make Hollywood gun shy of the new genre. Utilizing real life freaks and oddities for his central characters and a shocking ending that caused test audiences to faint and scream, Freaks was a one of a kind film experience, alternately being both an excercise in the grotesque and a surprisingly sensitive film.

Universal continued cranking out more shockers and set to work on moulding Karloff into their own man of a thousand faces. Two were produced and released by year's end, including James Whale's The Old Dark House, which included the famous disclaimer that informed audiences that this was the same Karloff that portrayed the Monster in Frankenstein, now playing the brutish butler. This film contained a fine ensemble and strong black humor that became the director's trademark and the film became the forebearer of the genre from which it's namesake derives. Karloff didn't speak a word in this film, but would in his next, which was another classic, The Mummy. While, perhaps not as recognizable in it's structure as the later genre films of the shambling, bandaged monster, this was a unique and often poetic film that relied on atmosphere and mood to convey it's depths. It was a huge success and now Boris Karloff was simply billed by his surname alone, becoming in essence, the brand name of horror. MGM even picked him up for the title role in the highly controversial, but delightful, The Mask of Fu Manchu, based off the Sax Rohmer novel. It's certainly a dated and often racist film, but it's also so naive and silly that it still serves as a wonderful piece of tongue in cheek escapism, with Karloff chewing the scenery, along with nympho daughter, Myrna Loy, who was never more predatory. This was also a film that would soon face problems, notably with it's somewhat jingoistic slant. It wasn't until 2006 that the film was finally fully restored.

Warners had a deal with Technicolor to release a few color features under a contract, which became horror films. While marketed more as mysteries, the first of these, Doctor X, was a startling and gruesome little film that, while dated, contains some of the most frightening scenes in the golden age of horror. It was not just the first color horror film, but also the first to be set in a modern day metropololis, in this case, New York City. Other studios contributed to the movement, both here and abroad. England would not produce a full blooded horror picture until the following year, and that was The Ghoul with Boris Karloff. The Lodger, a remake of the 1928 Alfred Hitchcock thriller about Jack the Ripper, certainly came close enough, though it wasn't as probing or cerebral as it's celebrated 1944 remake with Laird Cregar. Low Budget companies released all manners of mysteries and thrillers, including The Monster Walks, whic contained an old dark house, a killer ape and Mischa Auer dressed in clothes to resemble the Frankenstein Monster. RKO was busy making a secret project called, "Jamboree", waiting for effects man, Willis O Brien to give life to a giant ape named Kong. Meanwhile, the production company shot another production on the same sets that was the first adaption of The Most Dangerous Game. It was also the best adaption, featuring some of the King Kong cast, including Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong. The hero was a young Joel Mccrea and the villain was a perfectly cast Leslie Banks.

Carl Dreyer reacted to the new craze in film terror, quipping after seeing Dracula and Frankenstein, "I can do one of these!" and so he did, but in a much different manner than Hollywood. Opting more for the surreal and the subtle, Vampyr was a masterpiece that is the best cinematic interpretation of a nightmare ever attempted. While, it was a rare film for several years and did not have immediate influence, the film would go on to become an art house classic and influence generations of filmmakers. Vampyr was very much apart from it's contemporaries, but it did have something in common: enthusiasm. The reason 1932 is the best year in horror is because of the adventure of it. This was a genre in it's infancy and there were no rules and no guidelines yet. The Production Code was still three years away and filmmakers had virtually free reign to do as they pleased. What resulted was one of the most creative periods in film history and horror thrived through it all. Unfortunately, it was also an embattled genre and films like Frankenstein, Freaks and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, recieved much controversy, recieving several cuts and in some cases, being banned outright. The explosion of screen horror in 1932 created a competition unlike any other seen before or since as everyone attempted not just to do something new, but to outdo the competitors in horrorific impact! Many classics were produced in the process, but the controversy surrounding screen horror began to reduce the number of films produced, the numbers significantly lower the following year, though Island of Lost Souls was released that January and Universal would unleash The Invisible Man, and of course there was RKO and King Kong. 1932 was just plain special, for this was when anything was possible. It was before the cliches and stereotypes of the genre were known. It was the beginning of the rise and fall of many of it's legends and the genesis of a golden age. 1932 was the birth of the horror film.

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