Heed My Lesson, You’ve Been Warned
Hello, students and welcome back to class. I trust you’ve been keeping up on your studies since we last convened. We all know what happens to those who come to class unprepared. Reminds me of my days whilst attending this very academy. A young exchange student from Nepal was in this very class and wasn’t, shall we say, familiar with the standards and proceedings of this alma mater. You see, this individual hadn’t completed their required reading and promptly found themselves in the Dean’s office strapped to an electric chair, switch thrown and now spending all of their free time running through people’s television shows with no end in sight. Shocker, I know, but true nonetheless.
Exquisite Expressions From Germany
In our last gathering, I spoke of Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1915-1920) trilogy and how it was the forerunner for film sequels, prequels, and even franchises. His trilogy was also an early representation of German Expressionism, a movement that swept the European film world shortly after WWI when German nationalism was at a low following the country’s defeat in 1918. This, of course, led to low morale among German citizens with spikes in inflation and severe drops in their currency, the German economy was in turmoil.
The Expressionism grew from this discontent and was, in its nature, a dark style of art. With an emphasis on the expression of introversion through stylistic elements, the film movement was an expressive form used to describe the mentality of a defeated nation stricken with poverty and anger. Therefore as a reflection of those troubled times, the Expressionist art was a direct reflection of those struggles lending itself directly to the darker genres of the industry, horror being the biggest.
Robert Wiene’s contribution to the Expressionist movement was Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). The good (or not-so-good) Doctor’s film was a worldwide success having made a lasting impact on the film world, particularly for horror. This wasn’t so much for the story as it was for the familiarity of its literary origins. In terms of the film’s style, it was a stand-out from the rest. The movie’s settings were some of the most darkly imaginative of its time. Simply painted canvas backdrops, strangely distorted, caricatures of narrow streets, oddly shapen walls, crazy rhomboid windows, and drunken doorframes combined with light and shadow effects (painted black lines and patterns on the floors and walls) gave the movie an off-kilter feel, causing uneasiness to most viewers from the opening scenes to the final frame.
When director F. W. Murnau couldn’t obtain the rights to make a cinematic version of Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic horror novel Dracula, he did what anyone would do, he made his own. This was, arguably, the first vampire-themed movie and it borrowed, quite liberally, from Stoker’s source material. Nosferatu (1922) was his unauthorized version of the Dracula novel containing some of cinema’s most lasting and haunting imagery. Shadows of the creeping Count Orlok stalking his castle create a distorted reality, stimulating the human psyche. The images and the ensuing (and lasting) popularity of the film helped popularize the Expressionist style in filmmaking having influenced the horror film genre greatly.
Expressionism, if you haven’t guessed already, often dealt with madness and insanity and Wegener, Murnau, and Wiene were significant influencers of these themes not only in horror films but in the industry as a whole. Arthur Robison’s film, Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (1923), (Warning Shadows) is also one of the leading German Expressionist films. It tells the story of house guests staying at a manor envisioning the consequences of the manor’s host catching him making advances towards his host’s beautiful wife. The host’s twisted features are true to the classic Expressionist performance style, his unnatural feelings physicalities transforming him into something… inhuman.
1924 saw German filmmaker Paul Leni release Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxwork). The horror film tells the fable of a writer who accepts a job to write a series of stories for a wax museum about several of their exhibits, some of the world’s most heinous butchers. Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper are all the subject matter he needs to write about in order to boost business for the museum. While Waxworks is often considered a horror film, the anthology actually goes through several different genres including fantasy, adventure, historical, and of course horror through its various segments.
Rise of the Monsters
When you think about monster movies usually the first to come to mind are Frankenstein, Dracula, or The Wolf-man These are the classics we’ve all grown up on and when you think about the classic era, you think Universal Studios in the 1930s and 40s. It didn’t start there. In fact, it started much earlier than one would expect. The first Frankenstein film was made in 1910, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was made even earlier in 1908, but when it comes to the monster movie everyone thinks about, those started in the 1920s. Once again a literary classic was canon for the production but seeing the horrible beast before one’s eyes instead of in the imagination was all Universal Studio’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) needed to get the proverbial ball rolling.
The film starred Lon Cheney, an already established character actor, as the Hunchback, Quasimodo and the role catapulted him into Hollywood stardom. The film was adapted from the 1833 gothic novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, about a horribly deformed bell ringer in the cathedral of Notre-Dame. It was a film that would both help set the standard for horror films to come and launch a thirty-year reign of horror for Universal Studios.
Other noteworthy Universal films to be released at this time are The Phantom of the Opera (1925), also starring Lon Cheney, The Unknown (1927), yet another Cheney vehicle, The Cat and the Canary (1927), and The Man Who Laughs (1928), the latter two directed by German Expressionist Paul Leni.
I see we only have a few minutes left in the lesson. Just enough time to complete the test I promised you in our last class. If you will all close your textbooks. Now, now, I didn’t say this would be an open book evaluation, it is merely a quiz to separate those that are paying attention from those who are facing an untimely death. I trust you have all been paying attention.
It consists of one question and one question only. Anyone who scores less than one hundred percent on this test will be expelled from the school by way of the gallows in the academy’s center courtyard. You will place your answers in the comment section of the various social media platforms you are taking this course on and there will be no do-overs. Ready?
What, ahem, is my name?
Keep in mind that if you have been paying attention and reading your course outline, you should be able to pass this test effortlessly. If you are struggling, then perhaps a thinning of the herd is in order.
Be sure to visit NOFS Twitter, Subreddit, Instagram and Facebook Horror Movie Fiend Club for more course required reading. It’s worth eighty percent of your mark so if you value your life… er… your education, you’ll heed my warning… ahem… my advice. Until next time, pupils, straighten up and fly right!