The four pillars of Hollywood's house of horrors

Critical Eye

October 30, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In one year in the midst of the Great Depression, Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde and a troupe of vengeful sideshow freaks invaded Hollywood. In four films, released from February 1931 to February 1932, the American horror film was invented, refined and - some would argue - nearly perfected.

In that morbid 12-month period, Universal Studios would set the gold standard of Hollywood horror with the release of both Dracula and Frankenstein, while Paramount countered with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and MGM took an uncharacteristic journey down the path of depravity with Freaks, in which the denizens of a carnival sideshow enact vengeance on those who consider them less-than-human. Together, those four films would form the template on which nearly 75 years of celluloid terror have been based.

"The four films each contain essential monster archetypes that can be merged and recombined into almost everything that's followed," says David J. Skal, author of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror and a teacher of horror literature and film at Canada's Victoria University. "Dracula is the quintessential monster of superstition, just as Frankenstein's creation is the quintessential monster of science. Jekyll and Hyde present us with the monster of duality and transformation - the classic doppelganger. And in Freaks, it's the monster of physical depravity. They're all basic building blocks, icons in the history of horror literature and entertainment."

The creep show commenced Feb. 12, 1931, with Tod Browning's Dracula, a throwaway production that hardly anyone thought would succeed. Universal head Carl Laemmle was repulsed by the very idea that audiences would want to see such a depraved tale onscreen. Still, when the film went on to gross more than a million dollars, he eagerly signed off on a film version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Hollywood had been making fright films for decades. The story of Frankenstein and his monster had been filmed as early as 1910. Actor Lon Chaney, so expert at transforming himself with make-up that few moviegoers knew what he really looked like, had made a career of scaring audiences in such silent-film grotesqueries as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and London After Midnight (1927).

But such horror had always been based in the real, the human. There was nothing otherworldly about Hunchback's Quasimodo or Phantom's Erik. Even the vampire that stalked London proved to be just a criminal's con job. The supernatural remained a distinctly European brand of film horror, in such movies as Nosferatu (1922) and The Golem (1920), classics of German expressionism that centered on honest-to-goodness inhuman villains - respectively, a vampire and a stone statue come to life.

"Dracula was an entirely new proposition," says Skal, "and the [Hollywood] studios were frankly worried about whether the public would buy the fantastic premise."

No problem. Audiences eager to embrace scares not rooted in the vagaries of the human condition (hadn't they had enough of those, thanks to the very real horrors of the Depression?) couldn't get enough of the film.

Seen today, the erotic/exotic nature of Bela Lugosi's performance as the bloodthirsty count remains intact. And despite the lugubrious pacing of the latter part of the film, which suggests director Browning had simply lost interest, the first half, set in Dracula's castle, is deliciously creepy.

Frankenstein, rushed into production on the heels of Dracula's success, would prove a far better movie. English director James Whale, borrowing heavily from the German expressionists, created a world in which scientist Henry Frankenstein's delusions of Godhood seemed both natural and understandable. As the monster cobbled together from dead body parts, Boris Karloff brought an unexpected pathos to the screen. Yes, his monster was terrifying, thanks in large part to make-up master Jack Pierce's memorable prosthetics. But this was clearly a creature that didn't deserve the depraved hand he was dealt.

By the time Frankenstein opened in theaters, nine months to the day after Dracula's New York premiere, the Hollywood studios were in a horror-movie frenzy. The following New Year's Eve, Paramount's production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, based on Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of an upper-class scientist who invents a potion that unleashes his dark side, joined the fray.

Like Frankenstein, director Rouben Mamoulian's film depended on make-up for much of its impact, as handsome actor Fredric March had to be transformed form the urbane Jekyll to the monstrous Hyde. But there was also an unusually frank sexual aspect to the film, as Hyde prowls the back streets of London.

In addition, Jekyll helped legitimize the newfound horror genre by lending it a touch of respectability. In 1932, March was awarded a Best Actor honor (he shared the award with The Champ's Wallace Beery) for his work.

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