There is one decade where I could not possibly narrow down my selected films to five. The 1930s were the heyday of the horror film and, for this reason, it alone earns two posts. The primary producers of horror films shifted from Europe to America, even if many of the filmmakers were British and German in origin. As the U.S. reeled from a financial collapse, the public sought escape through greater horrors in the cinema, and that’s what Hollywood, led by Universal Studios, gave them.
The first horror film with sound gave the world a voice for Dracula that would be inseparable from the character thereafter. Bela Lugosi, himself from the Hungarian region near the historic Vlad Dracula’s home, brought his authentic accent to the role, first on Broadway and then, after much campaigning, to the film. Lon Chaney was originally destined for the role, in an adaptation much closer to Bram Stoker’s already classic novel. However, Chaney died and the depression caused the studio to adapt the Broadway play for film rather than the book for the sake of expenses. What we were given, though a departure from the novel, is legendary in its own right. Count Dracula is no reclusive monster as he is in the book and in Nosferatu. He is a suave, charming continental aristocrat, dressed to the nines and frequenting operas and socializing in drawing rooms. Yet one person sees through the devil’s genteel exterior: the wise Professor Van Helsing. The wise old doctor confronts the vampire, and their standoff just before the climax is a true battle of wits. Dracula scoffs, thinking the doctor will try to repel him with wolfsbane, but he is confronted with the cross instead. Meanwhile, the show is almost stolen by Dwight Frye as Renfield, the lunatic enslaved to Dracula, constantly torn between the dark promises of Dracula and helping those he knows are on the side of good.
The film itself is spectacular, visually. The cinematography is stoic, yet powerful. Some appreciate the cinematography of the Spanish version film concurrently on the same sets with Latino actors, and it is more fluid, but the overall effect of the shots is less powerful. Recently restored, the picture looks remarkably crisp in its latest Blu-Ray edition. The film originally existed without a score, however all recent editions have an optional score composed by Philip Glass that is worth hearing, but only after watching the film for the first time in its eerie quiet.
What could Universal follow up Dracula with but that other, earlier staple of gothic literature, Frankenstein. Once again, they chose to adapt a stage version rather than the book directly, which contributed to the serious departure from the novel’s storyline. In the film version, the creature does not speak, however Boris Karloff manages to convey more through his face and hands than many actors do with their unrestrained body and voice. The scene where the creature accidentally drowns a little girl is heartbreaking to this day, as are the scenes where the creature is being chased by an angry mob. He is a victim of his own existence, a man not created by God, truly loathed and forsaken by his creator. Henry Frankenstein celebrates in the moment of bringing the creature to life, “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” By the carnage-filled conclusion, we know that Mary Shelley’s original remarks were right, “Supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
With Dracula and Frankenstein secured successes for Universal, Paramount Pictures put into production that other great story of gothic lit, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Following the pattern of Universal, Paramount followed the template of a stage adaptation more than the actual novel. Instead of an old man, Henry Jekyll is a young up-and-coming physician known for his charitable acts, but whose inward desires (fueled by his prospective father-in-law continually postponing his marriage) have led him to develop a serum that will allow him to break Victorian social codes and express his primal self. That primal self comes forth, through a transformation sequence that would not find its equal for decades, and Jekyll becomes Hyde. While Universal’s monsters were sympathetic, Hyde is everything to the contrary. He is senselessly vulgar, violent, and, when he takes barmaid Ivy as his concubine, incredibly abusive to a verbal and physical extreme. One doesn’t wonder about the intentionality of these sequences on the issue of domestic violence; it is all too clear. It is all the more fitting then that, while starting with a somewhat apelike appearance, the character become more hideous and more primal as the story progresses and his actions become worse. Jekyll loses control of his alter-ego and it takes over, the sin wrestling away all power from the do-gooder and becoming the perverse and murderous fiend that exists in all of our hearts. Jekyll has tried to take the battle between good and evil into his own hands, rather than the hands of God, and he is destroyed in the attempt. March won an Oscar for his portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde, the first Academy Award given to a horror film, and he puts Spencer Tracy’s tame performance in MGM’s direct remake in 1941 to shame.
If American was making straightforward stories of monsters, Europe still had figures perfecting style over substance. But what style! There are few films that are as visually stunning and nightmarish than Vampyr. The dreamlike state of the entire film, with sequences that don’t quite fit together logically, recalls strange nightmares that make no sense when they are over. The vampire in this film is an old woman, her victim a young lady, and her assistant the very doctor treating the sick girl. The protagonist of the film, Allan Gray, described as having a fascination with the Occult, comes upon this scene when staying at a remote inn. We are never sure if Gray is projecting the horrors from his mind, if he is drawing them to him because of the fascination, or whether this is all happening in true form. Shot on-location in old building in the European countryside and using such techniques as filming through gauze to achieve its strangely dreamy effects, Vampyr is still incredibly haunting many years later.
If Vampyr is in all ways nonrealistic (and it is), then perhaps Tod Browning’s Freaks brings us too up-close-and-personal with the gritty underbelly of the real world, at least for the audiences of the early 1930s. Browning sets his film amongst a circus sideshow, using real performers with deformities and abnormalities as his cast. The “freaks” are portrayed as the honorable characters, with the “normal” humans taking advantage of them and, eventually, trying to murder the sideshow midget Hans for his inheritance. The sideshow performers turn on the two and, in a brutal act of retaliation, make them into freaks themselves. These later sequences of the film are quite disturbing. Unfortunately, Browning more or less wrote his own ticket out of Hollywood with the production, as apparently the American public was not ready to see these elements of society portrayed up-close-and-personal. It initially was a box office disaster in the U.S. and was banned in Great Britain. History has been on the side of Freaks, however. Its reputation as a masterpiece ahead of its time has grown, and it has been preserved as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the U.S. National Film Registry.
(Cover image: a still from Dracula)