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13 February, 2011

The Year Horror Began

Eighty years ago this month, the Horror Film, as we recognize it, was born.  On Valentine’s Day 1931, Universal Pictures premiered Tod Browning’s DRACULA, the first Horror Film produced in the United States that can be described as a “modern” horror—one where the antagonist truly was what it was purported to be.  Dracula wasn’t a lunatic mistaken for a monster, or a master criminal in disguise; he was exactly what he claimed to be—a vampire, an undead creature of the night.

The catalog of the American Horror Film wasn’t extensive by the beginning of the Sound era, and it largely owed it’s existence to the efforts of two men:  director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney.  Browning was the quintessential master of the macabre throughout the 1920’s and into the beginning of the 1930’s, and Chaney was his star, the “man of a thousand faces” who was the personification of Horror on the silent screen.

In a string of 10 movies produced between 1919 and 1929, the two defined Horror as a psychological experience, not a supernatural one.  In roles as diverse as Alonzo the Armless in 1927’s THE UNKNOWN, to ‘Dead Legs,’ the evil wheelchair-bound magician who sells his own daughter into white slavery in WEST OF ZANZIBAR, Chaney’s characters were no less monsters for the fact that they were human.  The hatred and darkness in them owed nothing to the paranormal, and everything to the pathological.

Browning wasn’t the only director working in Horror in Hollywood, of course.  Under contract to M-G-M, in 1923 Chaney was borrowed by Universal, for director Wallace Worsley’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.  In 1925, Chaney appeared in two Horror Films—one mostly forgotten, and one that is unforgettable.  The lesser of the two efforts was Roland West’s THE MONSTER.  Chaney portrayed a mad scientist who poses as a monster in order to force vehicles to crash, thereby providing him with subjects for experimentation.  Half horror, half comedy, it was an average programmer for the period, with little other than Chaney’s performance to recommend it.  However, that same year, Universal released what is arguably the greatest Silent Horror film to originate in the United States—Rupert Julian’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, the role of Erik (the Phantom) would be acknowledged as Chaney’s defining performance.

Just as Browning wasn’t the only Horror director, Chaney was not the only star who made Horror Films.  In 1920, John Barrymore starred in John S. Robertson’s version of DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE.  This adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, though eclipsed a decade later by Reuben Mamoulian’s Oscar-winning version, was nonetheless groundbreaking for it’s time.  In 1927, Paul Leni, a German émigré working for Carl Laemmle at Universal, adapted a popular Broadway play into THE CAT AND THE CANARY, the originator of the “Old Dark House” style of Horror Films, starring Laura La Plante, an attractive young contract player, as Annabelle West, heir to the vast fortune left by her ancestor, Cyrus West.  This movie saw an early version of the “scream queen” in American Horror, though her screams could not be heard.  A year later, Conrad Veidt, who was an established star in his native Germany, appeared in Leni’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS for Universal.

All of these silent American Horrors had one thing in common—the complete lack of the supernatural.  Though supernatural creatures had inhabited silent Horrors from the rest of the world, most notably Germany; in American films they were, for all intents, nonexistent.  In German film, phantoms, vampires, and monsters existed; they were depicted as what they were.  Max Schreck played Count Orlok as a vampire, not a criminal masquerading as a vampire.  American conventions were the opposite.  However unreal or grotesque the antagonist might seem, there was always a logical explanation at the bottom of it.  Like the Scooby-Doo cartoons fifty years later, at the end there would always be an unmasking, as the “monster” was revealed to be anything but.

But as the era of the silents was drawing to a close, that was due for a change.  Universal was planning to go into production on DRACULA, with Tod Browning at the helm[1].  Carl Laemmle had recently ceded control over the studio to his son Carl Jr. (a twenty-first birthday gift), and Junior (who was christened Julius but later changed his name) was fond of the gothic tales of horror such as Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein.  “Uncle” Carl Laemmle preferred Westerns and other, “less gruesome” fare, but Junior wanted Horror pictures.

Legend has it that the senior Laemmle demanded that Chaney portray Dracula, or the picture couldn’t be made.  In truth, there’s no record such a demand was made (though Junior was hoping to lure him back to Universal for the picture, one reason he hired Browning to direct), or that Chaney was ever attached to the project (it must be remembered he was still under contract at M-G-M, though Universal often sought reasons to request the loan of one of the Silent Screen’s biggest draws).  In any case, Chaney passed away of throat cancer on 26 August 1930, and conjecture about how “the man of a thousand faces” would portray the Lord of the Undead will forever remain just that:  Conjecture.

With the question of who wouldn’t be playing the role of Dracula at least partially answered, in Chaney’s part by his unfortunate death, there remained a veritable who’s who of actors who were being considered for the job.  Names such as Paul Muni, John Wray, and Conrad Veidt were discussed for the part.  Even Chester Morris, an actor who specialized in ‘tough-guy’ roles (and had been nominated for the second Best Actor Oscar for 1929’s ALIBI), was mentioned—more by virtue of already being contracted to Universal than due to any intrinsic qualities he possessed.

The one to whom Laemmle was adamantly opposed was a 48-year-old Hungarian actor who had successfully played the role on Broadway.  In fact, he sent the production team a telegram stating, “… no interest in [this actor] for Dracula.[2]”  “This actor” was Bela Lugosi, and though the studio professed no interest in him, he definitely had an interest in the part of the Transylvanian Count, campaigning actively for it.  Despite whatever misgivings the Laemmles had about Lugosi as Dracula, he finally won the role, clinching the deal with his willingness to take the job at roughly a quarter of the salary he could’ve gotten.  Even Lugosi, not known for his sense of humor, couldn’t resist a jab at “Uncle” Carl’s legendary nepotism, telling reporters that he was cast simply because the senior Laemmle didn’t have a relative who could play the part.

Supporting Lugosi would be a cast of Universal regulars.  Helen Chandler would be the female lead, in the role of Mina, the main focus of the Count’s lustful attentions.  David Manners would portray John Harker, her love interest.  Dwight Frye would play the lunatic Renfield, slave to Dracula’s control.  And Edward Van Sloan would portray Dracula’s nemesis, Van Helsing.

Principal photography began on 29 September 1930, and would continue until mid-November.  Production went smoothly, though Browning was at best disinterested in the project.  According to film historian Michael Mallory, “The fact that Browning seemed to lose interest in Dracula during the filming, at times turning the direction over to cinematographer Karl Freund, has been interpreted as possible depression over Chaney's untimely death.[3]”  Whatever the reason, there’s little doubt that Browning’s work on this films suffers in comparison to his earlier films, and indeed, in comparison to that of George Melford, who directed the Spanish-language version of DRACULA, filmed at night using the same sets, props, and in some cases, costumes.  Melford’s version is far more complete, a full 30 minutes longer than Browning’s, and is a far more cinematic work.  Browning’s version has been criticized, and rightfully so, as being far too literal a translation of the play upon which it was based.  Everything about the movie gives the impression that one is watching a stage play, from the dialogue, to the occasionally awkward transitions, to the static cinematography.

Melford’s version, on the other hand, just flows so much more smoothly.  George Robinson’s photography has a fluidity and grace that is completely lacking from Freund’s camera work.  In every way but one, Melford’s DRACULA is superior in execution to Browning’s.  That one factor, the factor that makes one a legendary film and the other an interesting side-note, is Bela Lugosi.  Lugosi transforms this film into something that hadn’t existed prior to it’s release—a modern American Horror Film.  This one performance so perfectly captured Dracula in the minds of moviegoers that his version of the bloodthirsty Count has become the archetype for the character.  For the past eighty years, every actor who has played Dracula has had to measure his performance against Lugosi’s yardstick—and has generally been found wanting.

In February of 1931, a new genre appeared on the screen—not a mystery, not a melodrama, not a thriller—but a Horror Film.  Nine months later, in November of 1931, another film in this new genre would debut, the greatest Horror Film of all.  These two films, DRACULA and, of course, James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, would launch Horror’s Golden Age, transform their stars into Icons who would spend the majority of their lives competing with one another for the crown that had belonged to Chaney, and make Universal Studios the original “House that Horror Built.”

This February, eighty years after these films first frightened and captivated audiences, moviegoers, fans, and classic film buffs will have the opportunity to view these movies on the big screen once again.  Thanks to the efforts of long-time friend of the Crypt Scott Essman, head of Visionary media and the man who has led the efforts to secure a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to honor Jack P. Pierce, on the afternoon of 20 February 2011, these movies will once more flicker to life.  On that day, at the Pomona Fox Theater, (301 S. Garey Ave.) in Pomona, California[4], the audience will be magically transported back to 1931—back to the year Horror began.

[1] The primary reference for this article is the superb book Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror, by Michael Mallory.  It is a spectacular volume, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
[2] The Documentary Universal Horrors, released in 1998.
[3] Mallory 49
[4] www.pomonafox.org

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