Horror Begins To Talk... And Scream
The advent of sound, as well as changing the whole nature of cinema forever, had a huge impact on the horror genre. The dreamlike imagery of the 1920s, the films peopled by ghostly wraiths floating silently through the terror of mortals, their grotesque death masks a visual representation of 'horror', were replaced by monsters that grunted and groaned and howled. Sound adds an extra dimension to terror, whether it be music used to build suspense or signal the presence of a threat, or magnified footsteps echoing down a corridor. Horror, with its strong elements of the fantastic and the supernatural, provided an effective escape to audiences tiring of their Great Depression reality, and, despite the money spent on painstaking special effects, often provided a good return for their studio.
The horror films of this period are exotic fairy tales, invariably set in some far-off land peopled by characters in period costume speaking in strange accents. Horror was still essentially looking backwards, drawing upon the literary classics of the 19th century for their source material. Check out the history of Universal, the studio which was most associated with horror pictures during this time. This is the decade when two character actors got lucky: Bela Lugosi (left), and Boris Karloff (right), who brought Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster respectively to the screen. Their images are still synonymous with horror of this period, they both played a selection of roles although Karloff proved to be the more versatile actor; they are enduring paradigms of the genre.
Subject material followed the trend of the 1920s, with largely supernatural monsters wreaking havoc on largely fantastical worlds, far removed from the everyday realities of Depression and approaching war. Here are some of the key pictures.
The Mummy (1932)
Tod Browning's evil little tale of circus freaks and their revenge caused an outcry when it was first released, and it was banned until an upsurge of interest in the 1960s, mainly sparked by the photographs of Diane Arbus. If you can find a copy it is well worth a look, although the sound on the VHS version is appalling. In 1932, humans suffering from deformities could earn their living by allowing audiences to gawp at them. Many earned good livings - the Siamese twins featured in Freaks were celebrities. Advances in medicine mean that many of these conditions do not exist any more, but some still do, and those who suffer from them tend to be hidden away from the public, who deems the very sight of them distasteful. Is this a social advance from the 1930s? Who can say?
Freaks, although not often seen, has been highly influential; everything from the X-Files episode Humbug (Season 2), to the body horror of the 1980s (particularly Basketcase 1 & 2) to the recent novel Others by James Herbert.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
James Whale returned to the Shelley novel and used as his source material all the sections he'd missed out in Frankenstein. This is a stylish and witty film, with many moments of camp humour, and has been described as one of the greatest horror films of all time. The images are dramatically framed throughout, from the burning mill surrounded by pitchfork-brandishing peasants at the start, to the collapsing castle at the finish. Karloff brings his usual wounded dignity to the part of the Monster, which speaks for the first time, in wondrous, mangled syllables. Our villain is Dr Pretorius; Ernest Thesiger relishes his role as the amoral, corpse-stealing former mentor of Henry Frankenstein, who creates miniature people and keeps them in specimen jars. Dr Pretorius is the evil genius behind the new experiments with the creation of life, Henry Frankenstein is reduced to the reluctant helper, who cannot face up to his mistakes of the previous film. Where once he had pretentions to create life, he is here represented as weak, indecisive and bumbling beside the razor-sharp cunning of Pretorius. Elsa Lanchester, in full frightwig and make-up, is touchingly confused and vulnerable as the Bride who simply does not want to exist. The story is treated with delicacy and finess, a far cry from the full-on gore-and-gash prosthetic close-ups that Branagh uses in his 1994 version.
For a touching, thoughtful twist on the James Whale story, watch Gods & Monsters, starring Ian McKellen & Brendan Frasier. What makes a man make such a set of monsters? It's a lovely film in its own right, and gives an insight to the man who wrote many of the rules of the genre.