Welcome back, class! I ask that you open your textbooks to the next chapter in the course outline. We are about to delve into a time of uncertainty, broken dreams, ruined lives, and a depression so great that it affected the entire world. The roaring 20s gave way to the dirty 30s where dust shrouded a nation, nay a planet, in a cloak of uncertainty and desperation.
But out of the ashes of a downed phoenix arose many splendors because you see, dear pupils, art finds a way.
Universal’s Overture of The Monsters
The 1930s ushered in what was to be the heyday of monster movies, specifically for Universal Studios. These days it’s tough to picture anyone other Boris Karloff’s flat-headed, neck bolted Frankenstein or Bela Lugosi’s widow-peaked, wooden stake fearing vampire. Even Karloff’s characterization of The Mummy just a year later is the only iteration of the character that seems to last in the public psyche. Do you really think Arnold Vosloo’s version of the undead pharaoh holds up to Karloff’s original? I think not.
Universal drew inspiration the same way early European filmmakers did, by drawing from the gothic horror of authors such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and Bram Stoker. With 1931’s doubleheader of Frankenstein and Dracula making household names out of both Karloff and Lugosi. Boris Karloff who, while established in show business already, truly broke into the mainstream in his turn as the iconic literary character of Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster and Tod Browning’s Dracula ushered Bela Lugosi into the prime of his career.
Despite the Hungarian actor appearing in forty-seven films prior to Dracula, it wasn’t until his turn as the prince of darkness that the quintessential image of the beloved creature of the night truly saw this realization. Fun fact; Bela Lugosi added the famed Dracula medallion to his costume himself with a piece from his own personal jewelry collection.
Both Karloff and Lugosi went on to make solid careers almost exclusively within the horror genre and are among the first to do so. This was a time when the genre and business were in no way the juggernauts that they are today. Today we have a plethora of actors who have made incredible life work out of the horror style of filmmaking. Bruce Campbell, Robert Englund, Kane Hodder, and many more would not have the careers they have had it not been for the forefathers of Karloff and Lugosi.
More Macabre Movie Making
Monsters weren’t the only thing Universal had up the creepy little sleeves, not by a long shot. In fact, the studio had a solid string of horror hits between 1930 and 1935. Drawing once again from the great authors of the time, the studio followed up with a trilogy of films based on three tales from Edgar Allan Poe’s works. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) starred Bela Lugosi, The Black Cat (1934) which featured both Lugosi and Karloff on screen together, and The Raven(1935), another picture featuring the two stars collectively.
After the success of the Frankenstein and Dracula films, Universal released sequels to each film, this time with a little estrogen to sooth that savage soul. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) starring Elsa Lanchester as the Monster’s Bride and Dracula’s Daughter (1936) with Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska, Dracula’s Daughter were unleashed onto unsuspecting audiences with great success. The studio was also responsible for the first mainstream werewolf movie, Werewolf of London (1935) which starred Henry Hull which was a box office disappointment at the time but has garnered admiration from audiences in today’s market.
Freaks, Geeks, and Horror Movie Peaks
Following the success of the Universal properties, other studios soon followed suit. Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s controversial Freaks (1932), which featured characters played by people who had real deformities, caused quite a stir among moviegoers, frightening audiences so much that the studio even repudiated the film. It was so poorly received, the picture was banned completely in the United Kingdom for over 30 years.
Paramount Pictures tried their hand in the horror market with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) starring Fredric March as the titular character and bosted innovative photography filters to portray Jekyll’s chilling transformation. RKO also put their hat in the horror game when they created one of the most highly successful and influential monster movies of all time, King Kong (1933), which starred one of motion picture’s first final girls, Fay Wray.
Prince of Darkness, or Denmark?
1932 also saw Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer create the horror fantasy Vampyr (1932). Elements from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly were used to envision the author’s collection of supernatural stories. The German-produced sound film, or “talkie” as the term came to be, tells the story of Allan Gray who is a student of the occult. He ends up under the curse of a vampire and wanders into an unsuspecting village. Vampyr’s is among the first vampire films to explore the themes of sexuality and eroticism, thanks, in part, to it’s distinct, dreamy aesthetic.
The short theatrical run of Vampyr is an interesting one. It premiered in Berlin on May 6, 1932, to a hostile audience that booed the film leading Dreyer to cut several scenes out of the film after the first showing. The Paris premiere was in September 1932 where Vampyr was the opening attraction of a new cinema on the Boulevard Raspail. The reaction was less than positive. At a showing of the film in Vienna, audiences demanded their money back. When this was denied, a riot broke out that led to police having to restore order with nightsticks. At the premiere in Copenhagen, Denmark (March 1933), Dreyer did not show up for fear of audience reactions. The director soon had a nervous breakdown shortly after and went to a mental hospital in France. The film was a financial failure.
In a decade where most of society lied in ruins, lives and business crumbled to dust, some of the most enduring art was made. There was a great need for an escape from the devastation of the Great Depression and Universal’s fledgling monster universe filled a huge part of that bleak, empty landscape. Art, in this case, film, is often a reflection of the culture of the times and these movies were a pitch-perfect echo of that.
Frankenstein followed themes pertaining to the pitfalls of isolation, the devastation of loneliness, and the inevitability of lost innocence. Dracula drew from the consequences of modernity, the threat of female sexual expression and in what must have felt like a Godless time, the promise of Christian salvation. Even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde harkened topics of relevance to society’s truths. The duality of human nature, the importance of reputation and science, reason and the supernatural all reflected the struggles, concerns, and fears of a world lost in desolation.
This brings a close to this lesson, class. I trust this has been an enthralling, encapsulating escapade in education for everyone. Judging from your test results from last class I highly doubt this to be true. In light of this epic failure, the worst I have witnessed in my tenure at this fine facility, I am therefore holding you all for detention. Until further notice, you are all to remain here until all of you can correctly answer the question to the test I administered the last lesson. I expect to see the comment sections of the various class social media platforms flooded with the correct answer… and perhaps some plights of mercy. Do not mistake my lenience as weakness and do not mistake my strick nature and heartless. I may be a tenacious teacher but simultaneously I am a fair one. You get one pass and one pass only. Every decision to ignore official course tests going forward means certain death… er… excuse me, certain expulsion.
That being said, be sure to use this time here wisely. I would suggest you do your required reading from the list I provided you in your course outline at the beginning of the year. The NOFS Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Reddit pages include everything you need to survive this course. let’s hope you’re not still here come next month. Until then, straighten up and fly right!