Monday, April 25, 2011

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 2: The 1930s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

11. Dracula (1931- dir. Tod Browning)

Before Tod Browning’s Dracula was released on Valentine’s Day, 1931, no one knew what a “horror movie” was. The term hadn’t entered the lexicon yet. Afterward, it was just a matter of time. If a single film can be designated ground zero for horror’s stranglehold on cinema, it is Dracula. This wasn’t the first supernatural monster movie, but it was the first that was so massively successful it sent studios scrambling to emulate it. On a historical level, no one argues with the importance of Dracula. Bela Lugosi’s performance is as iconic as any in Hollywood history. Any time a kid dons a black cape and plastic fangs on Halloween or some joker puts on a lame Hungarian accent to intone “I vant to suck your blahd!” they’re paying tribute to Lugosi, not the vampire in Bram Stoker’s novel, who was gaunt, repellent, and hairy. A lot of contemporary critics would have you believe Lugosi’s performance is unworthy of its reputation, that his readings are unnaturally enunciated, his facial expressions are comically exaggerated. While such strangeness may be more the result of having learned his dialogue phonetically when developing the character on stage than any conscious acting choice, Lugosi’s performance perfectly compliments the film’s atmosphere of weird dread. There is still something deeply eerie about his distorted figure emerging from the shadows at Castle Dracula silently early in the film or stalking a flower girl after arriving in London. Even more chilling may be Dwight Frye’s cackling visage when authorities discover his Renfield in the hull of a ship ravaged by the count’s thirst. Although some of the performances in the film are merely workmanlike—Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing and Helen Chandler as Mina are adequate, while David Manners as Harker barely registers at all—Frye and Lugosi’s work is unforgettable. And though Browning’s direction has been criticized as static and lazy, the film’s stillness is integral to its uneasy mood. It likely would have suffered had Dracula exceeded its 75 minute running time, as evidenced by the 104-minute Spanish-language version produced simultaneously, which wears out its welcome despite George Melford’s superior camerawork. As it stands, Dracula is tight and creepy, flaunts two iconic performances, and cemented horror’s place in cinema. It is a classic.

12. Svengali (1931- dir. Archie Mayo)

Its status as a horror film is debatable (the film is more like a comedic, romantic, creepy thriller), but the title character of Svengali has much in common with the enthralling monsters of Phantom of the Opera and Dracula. Like those two particular films, Archie Mayo’s adaptation of George du Maurier’s (grandfather of Daphne) Trilby leans heavily on German Expressionism to bring a turn-of-the-century Gothic novel to life. The hypnotist/nefarious vocal coach Svengali may not be a monster in any traditional sense, but his sinister yet sympathetic persona puts him in the same category as such classically conflicted heavies as the Wolf Man and Jekyll/Hyde. As wickedly manipulative as Svengali is (hence his name's place in the vernacular), he is far easier to care about than the jerks constantly jeering him about his poor hygiene. Still the close-ups of his milky, mesmeric eyes are chilling, and the distorted sets are magnificent— the scene in which a miniature village links Svengali's gaze with Trilby, the woman he wishes to possess, is masterful. As Svengali, John Barrymore brings rare complexity to a character that could have easily been played as a two-dimensional, mustache-twirling villain. Even the finest horror films of the 1930s have a tendency to conclude in slap-dash fashion, but Svengali's dénouement is both unexpected and completely satisfying.

13. Frankenstein (1931- dir. James Whale)


Mixed reviews be damned; Dracula was a massive blockbuster for Universal. Not knowing how long the public’s zeal for supernatural thrillers would last, the studio didn’t waste a second in following it up. Before 1931 was over, studio chief Carl Laemmle, Jr., had acquired another stage play adapted from a classic Gothic horror novel. Rewritten for the screen by Dracula-stage-play scribe John L. Balderston, Frankenstein made the writer’s adaptation of Stoker seem positively faithful. Gone is the chatty, philosophical creature in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 novel. Gone is the arctic wraparound story. Gone is the monster’s vaguely alchemic creation. Gone is his demand for a mate (but not for long). In are a slew of elements soon to become monster movie staples: a hulking, mute beast, his animation by lightning, the hunchback assistant, the angry villagers with their torches and rakes. Director James Whale, who was none too thrilled about his monstery project or the horrific path on which it set his career, brings an artist’s eye to the film’s subtly distorted design. Some aspects of Frankenstein are lazy: its abrupt conclusion, Frankenstein Senior’s tiresome comic relief (how did such a buffoon sire such a scary mad genius?), the noticeable wrinkles in the sky backdrop during the climactic monster hunt, the way Frankenstein survives his bone-shattering fall from the windmill. Many are unforgettable: Fritz’s brain manhandling, the dizzying creation sequence, the Monster’s first appearance in a series of unnerving jump cuts, his tragic encounter with Little Maria, the brilliant parallel shots of the Monster and his creator glaring at each other through the windmill’s spinning gears. Most important is the film’s central performance. Boris Karloff created an almost entirely sympathetic creature. Despite his lumbering gait and iconic necro-make-up (designed in collaboration by Whale and Universal’s resident mad scientist, Jack Pierce), there is an undeniable sadness in those half-mast eyes, making for a particularly poetic “villain” at the center of a world full of fear-addled, bloodthirsty villagers and mad doctors. Colin Clive, as the title doc, also proves a more interesting monster-foil than Edward Van Sloan did in Dracula (Van Sloan is relegated to a minor role in Whale’s film). Most will acknowledge that there was one Frankenstein film that topped the first one, but the original, along with Dracula, formed the lab table upon which all future monster movies would be built.

14. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931- dir. Rouben Mamoulian)

Universal’s monster movie success in 1931 was not lost on other studios. Paramount was determined to outdo Dracula and Frankenstein by treating gruesome subject matter with a greater degree of respect and stronger production values while still delivering the horror goods. The results are, in the opinion of this writer, the greatest pure horror movie ever made. Paramount stuck close to Universal’s formula. Creepy 19th century literature—Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde— provided the source material. Wally Westmore followed the lead of Universal’s Jack Pierce by designing a memorable monster, and trumped him by developing one that subtly devolves over the course of the film. However, the inconsistent plotting and attention to detail of Universal’s films is nowhere in sight. Director Rouben Mamoulian is more sure-handed than Browning or Whale and even more inventive. He uses every trick available to animate Stevenson’s story: jarring first-person camera perspectives, bizarre montages, clever special effects utilizing lights and filters to make Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde seamless. But Mamoulian’s secret weapons are Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. As delightful as Lugosi, Karloff, Clive, and Frye’s performances are in the Universal horrors, those films are generally marked by campy, overly theatrical acting. March’s performance in the title roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is staggering. He covers an unbelievable range of moods without ever losing sight of the distinct natures of his character(s). He plays Jekyll as a smart, witty, frustrated, and desperately horny fellow, who while deeply conflicted about his own nature, really only wants to do good. When he is in Hyde mode, there isn’t a damn good thing about him, though his initial wicked playfulness is infectious. As the movie unfurls, the comic energy fades from Hyde’s evil games until he becomes utterly terrifying. As great as Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster are as horror icons, I doubt any modern audience would consider either of them scary. That isn’t the case with March’s Hyde. His performance is all the more disturbing for the conflicting feelings it rouses in the viewer: one moment he’s making us giggle by kicking a bearskin rug; the next he’s strangling us into silence by terrorizing poor barroom floozy Ivy. Miriam Hopkins’s performance in that role is just as powerful as March’s. Most comparable roles for women in horror movies required little more than a lot of screaming and fainting. Hopkins makes Ivy a living, breathing woman: humorous, wickedly sexy (this pre-code film is notorious for one overtly erotic scene later heavily edited for certain re-releases), heartbreaking, realistic at a level rarely present in movies from the ‘30s. Screenwriters Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath, Mamoulian, and his wonderful cast work together to transform Stevenson’s somewhat dry parable about the duality of man into a harrowing, emotionally draining portrayal of an abusive relationship. When Victor Fleming remade Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Spencer Tracy in 1941, this subplot remained but the dryness had returned. More tragically, MGM removed Mamoulian’s infinitely superior film from circulation to prevent it from competing with their remake and it was long believed lost. The lack of a Universal-style marketing machine further reduced the film’s reputation in the pantheon of major monster movies, yet it remains a masterpiece; one of the few adaptations of its time to greatly improve on the source text and a rare classic that hasn’t lost a drop of power.

15. Freaks (1932 – dir. Tod Browning)

MGM had a growing reputation as the most prestigious studio in Hollywood, so it is ironic that its first talky horror picture is still regarded as one of cinema’s greatest disgraces. Contemporary charges against Freaks focus on Tod Browning’s exploitation of the film’s sundry circus performers. The original backlash was less politically correct. Audiences found such spectacles as conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, “half boy” Johnny Eck, “human skeleton” Peter Robinson, “living torso” Prince Randian, “pinheads” Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow, and the concept of little Harry Earles marrying full-sized Olga Baclanova—not to mention the film’s themes of castration and, errr, chicken-lady surgery—revolting. Browning’s film is dicey no matter how you shake it. Although there is no question that its villains are two “normal” characters—Baclanova’s gold-digging Cleopatra and her co-conspiring strongman boyfriend Hercules—and the “freaks” are the underdog heroes, Browning does invite us to gawp at them like sideshow spectators. That being said, it is hard not to be amazed by Randian’s ability to roll and light a cigarette without the use of hands, and though the cast was clearly chosen for their unusual bodies rather than their acting skills, Eck and the Hilton sisters give fine performances for amateurs. A former sideshow performer himself, Browning is also more personally invested in this material than Dracula, which really shines through in the emotional gravity of Cleopatra’s horrific treatment of Earles's Hans and her cruel explosion during their wedding banquet. And though Browning’s initial depiction of his sideshow performers (friends of his from his own carnival days) as childlike sweethearts is patronizing, he empowers them ultimately by allowing them to take revenge on their tormentors. Still the sight of them crawling through the rain and mud like animals on their way to the kill stirs further ambivalent feelings: it is dehumanizing to our heroes, yet rivetingly shot and staged. Perhaps the true villains of Freaks are we the viewers.

16. White Zombie (1932- dir. Victor Halperin)

Maybe it was because Dracula was a bit of an albatross, but Bela Lugosi always contended that his greatest role was Murder Legendre in White Zombie. Lugosi’s delightfully named zombie slave master hasn’t had Dracula’s impact, but the actor does vivify him with even greater Mephistophelian menace than he brought to the count. White Zombie is the first major zombie film of any note, though contemporary genre fans might find it lacking. This film features the voodoo variety of walking dead familiar to E.C. Comics readers rather than the sci-fi brain-eaters George Romero invented decades later. The film seems to be making some hazy commentary on the evils of slavery, though the fact that no one is galvanized to defeat Legendre until he mesmerizes a white woman (hence, “white zombie”) is typical of the time. Though the film has been criticized for its acting and plot, director Victor Halperin crafts a pungent atmosphere. The dank odor of German Expressionism is all over this film, with its weird shadows, skeletal graveyards, and floating, disembodied eyes. Definitely slow moving, White Zombie is either hypnotic or boring depending on ones sensibilities. I opt for the former. The soundtrack, which includes pieces by Mussorgsky, Borch, and Wagner, as well as an original chant by Guy Bevier Williams, is superb.

17. The Old Dark House (1932- dir. James Whale)

Whether he liked it or not (not), James Whale would forever be branded a monster wrangler after the gargantuan success of Frankenstein. Whale longed to bring more personal stuff like the World War I epic The Road Back to the screen. Universal insisted he give them another spook show starring Karloff. Whale biographer James Curtis notes that the director “went about the business of shooting [The Old Dark House] as quietly as possible,” implying he wasn’t too thrilled about the assignment. That may have been the case, but the film clearly is a personal project, certainly more so than Frankenstein. A bit of a snob when it came to his countrymen (he daily broke filming to host Brits-only afternoon teas), Whale loads the cast with a stellar crop of English actors: Charles Laughton as a blustery knight, Ernest Thesiger as the neurotic head of the household, Eva Moore as his Bible-thumping sister, and of course, Karloff as the Lurch-like butler Morgan (though Chas Addams always insisted his character was not based on Karloff’s). More significantly, Whale’s droll wit is given greater range in The Old Dark House, and it may be the first horror/comedy to play to a more sophisticated audience than sillier stuff such as The Cat and the Canary and The Bat Whispers. American Lilian Bond is particularly hilarious as Laughton’s hot footed, flapper gal pal Gladys. The Old Dark House is not merely good for a laugh; in one absolutely chilling sequence, Moore’s haggard face is reflected in various surfaces, growing more and more distorted as she rants at negligee-clad Gloria Stuart. The reveal of Moore and Thesiger’s insane 102-year old brother, played by actress Elspeth Dudgeon, is just as unsettling.

18. The Mummy (1932- dir. Karl Freund)

With the genre-galvanizing Dracula and Frankenstein beneath his belt, Carl Laemmle, Jr., set his sights beyond 18th century Gothic lit and schemed to cash in on the current wave of Egyptian fever sparked by the opening of King Tut’s tomb. The result may have been original in name, but The Mummy does owe a heavy debt to Dracula. Both films star an undying, coffin lounging creature, who mixes with aristocracy in order to infiltrate their ranks and make off with the lady of his fancy (both films even use the same passage from Swan Lake for theme music!). Whereas Dracula seemed to mostly crave Mina as a snack, Imhotep’s (Boris Karloff) intentions are intensely romantic. He knowingly commits a fatal sacrilege in order to resurrect his dead love, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon (Zita Johann), and is mummified and buried alive for his crime. Revived by an ancient curse (aren’t all curses ancient?), he crosses eons to find his reincarnated lady friend… so he can kill her and have her join him in eternity. Romance Universal horror style. Karloff’s performance in The Mummy is more slow burn than blazing passion, which perfectly suits the desiccated ghoul he portrays. Yet there are still moments of real fire, as when he shows the princess images of their past in the reflection of an enchanted pool. The mummification flashback is among the most disquieting in classic horror.  Karloff and Johann make a most memorable duo. The Egyptian tomb set design easily trumps that of any other classic Universal horror production, as does the opening sequence, in which Bramwell Fletcher reads a bit from the Scroll of Thoth and goes mad as the Mummy first goes “for a little walk.”

19. The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933- dir. Michael Curtiz)

The first color horror movie was Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X. The first great one didn't appear until six months later. Another Curtiz creation, The Mystery of the Wax Museum feels like the next leap forward in the genre’s evolution. Along with its primitive Technicolor, which saturates the picture in sickly pink tones and establishes a pervasive undercurrent of unease, the film develops upon the more contemporary flavor of The Old Dark House by pumping up the patter and moving the action into the city. The Mystery of the Wax Museum bustles with the energy of its NYC setting and gains extra edge from its commanding heroine and hip references to sex and drugs. Lionel Atwill, who was on his way to becoming one of the genre’s most prominent character actors, is Ivan Igor, a wax figure sculptor everyone thinks died in a fire at his museum.  Surviving as a sort of Phantom of the Opera figure, Igor continues his work in ghoulish fashion as living and dead locals start vanishing. Although she is billed beneath genre superstar Fay Wray (who plays a more conventional damsel in distress), Glenda Farrell has a much meatier role as the scene-stealing, sassy reporter investigating the disappearances. The film zips along on its dialogue, but its moments of horror are equally potent. Not since the golden age of Lon Chaney had a film gotten so much shock mileage out of deformed faces, whether they be on the misshapen head of Lionel Atwill’s tortured artist or the melting visages of his waxwork “children.”

20. Island of Lost Souls (1933- dir. Erle C. Kenton)

Although Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was an Academy Award-winning success for Paramount, the studio was not particularly interested in becoming another horror grind house like Universal. A full year passed before the studio released another such picture, and like Jekyll and Hyde—and Freaks, which it resembles in a number of ways—the studio’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau was beset by controversy. In the U.K., where animal cruelty was a big cinematic no-no, Island of Lost Souls was banned for its themes of vivisection, even though we never actually see any such thing in the film. Wells disdained the picture, feeling it degenerated his allegorical novel into a crass monster movie. Actually, Wells’s anti-imperialism message makes the transition from novel to film fairly well, and director Erle C. Kenton doesn’t spend much time ogling his man-beasts. The focus of the piece is Moreau, played with unctuous self-satisfaction by Charles Laughton. Without Frankenstein’s inner-discord or Jekyll’s chemical-induced madness, Moreau is the most unequivocally evil mad scientist of his era. While the monsters in Universal’s films were generally conflicted, few were more inherently sympathetic than the creatures in Lost Souls, brought into pitiful existence by Moreau to be tortured and controlled. Their climactic monster riot is as satisfying as the similar scene in Freaks, and it zaps the film out of its muggy lethargy: Kenton’s camera grows more active, the monsters lunge at the viewer in horrific close-ups, and Moreau is dispatched gruesomely in his own House of Pain.

21. King Kong (1933- dir. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)

No monster movie before it and few since have been as ambitious as King Kong. It is an ocean voyage/jungle adventure/dinosaur rampaging/New York-trashing/giant gorilla movie with some of the greatest visual effects of the pre-computer age, courtesy of stop-motion wizard Willis O’Brien. Merian C. Cooper poured all of his experiences as an air force pilot and “Jackass”-style wildlife photographer, who’d risk being eaten by a tiger to get the magic shot, into Kong. Cooper and co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack’s scope is panoramic. The film is part Island of Lost Souls-style jungle romp and part Wax Museum-style urban jaunt. Unlike the makers of those movies, the Kong crew exploits its environments completely. Following an atmosphere-rich ocean voyage seasoned with Max Steiner’s spooky score, we travel deep into the jungle to encounter savage natives (a culturally offensive element that has dated badly), a menagerie of dinosaurs, and the biggest, baddest ape in cinemadom. Then we move to Manhattan, where Kong goes on a midtown murder spree in search of the little blonde lady of his dreams that leads him to a fateful showdown atop the Empire State Building. Kong is not quite as sympathetic as some might recall him to be, but he is certainly more so than the white hunters who drag him from his natural environment to be ogled by the upper crust. Despite the film’s racism and sexism, white men are undeniably its villains, though Cooper may have been as clueless on this point as his characters. Robert Armstrong’s “great white hunter” Carl Denham famously declares  “it wasn't the airplanes...it was beauty killed the beast,” but we know that isn’t true, and Denham bears sole responsibility for the monster’s sad death. Despite its dicey themes, King Kong has aged better than a film like, say, The Birth of a Nation, because its racism is offhand and ignorant and not its reason for existing. Cooper and Schoedsack made their masterpiece for one reason only: to entertain. On this goal, King Kong succeeds like few other films and it remains a wonder to behold 80 years after its creation.

22. The Invisible Man (1933- dir. James Whale)

Frankenstein established James Whale as an expert horror craftsman. The Old Dark House provided an initial glimpse of his wicked sense of humor. The Invisible Man was his perfect fusion of these two poles. That any adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novella would require groundbreaking special effects is a given, and Whale’s film delivers on this count completely. The invisibility effects are spectacular, and not just in a “that’s-pretty-impressive-for-1933” way. Whether depicting the mad Dr. Griffin unraveling his bandages to reveal a cackling blank space, his seemingly rider-less bicycle careening down a village street, or his empty pants jigging after a screaming woman, John P. Fulton’s resourceful effects haven’t dated a bit. What Wells’s story does not suggest are the endless opportunities for off-the-wall humor, which sprang from Whale and uncredited co-screenwriter Preston Sturges’s imaginations. The film nearly qualifies as pure comedy, with its barrage of visual jokes (the dancing pants), over-the-top performances (particularly James Whale’s favorite comic relief actress, Una O’Connor, as the wailing, flailing inn hostess), and bizarre one-liners (“How’s that for a hairbrush, George Henry?”). Yet Griffin’s shocking murder spree keeps the film at arm’s length from farce. Though he only gets 10 seconds of face time in the film, Claude Rains makes Griffin a fully dimensional character with nothing more than his expressive voice.

23. The Black Cat (1934- dir. Edgar G. Ulmer)

Ever since their twin masterworks at the decade’s outset, Karloff and Lugosi were the Monuments of Monster Movies, the Titans of Terror. So it was simple box office logic that they’d eventually co-star in a picture. Ultimately, the duo would perform in six movies together, but the first was their best and the one in which they were best matched. The Black Cat adapts Edgar Allan Poe in title only, though the film’s themes of sadism, devil worship, and flaying would have been right up the writer’s alley. For one of the very few times in his career, Lugosi plays the good guy… albeit a good guy with a penchant for torture. Sporting the severest widow’s peak in cinema history, Karloff is diabolical as Hjalmar Poelzig, with his yen for human sacrifice and macabre chess games. Poelzig is an architect, Satanist, and war criminal responsible for the deaths of 10,000 soldiers during World War I. As was his style, Karloff underplays the role, relying on his piercing gaze and lulling voice to convey Poelzig’s smoldering evil. His relishing delivery of “He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats” is among the most memorable line readings in the Universal horror cannon, as is Lugosi’s observation, “Supernatural, perhaps; boloney, perhaps not.” The grave robbing of Frankenstein and throat chomping of Dracula are hopscotch games compared to the smorgasbord of perverse horrors director Edgar Ulmer and screenwriter Peter Ruric cooked up for The Black Cat. Ulmer’s art deco set design is an alien alternative to horror’s more common Gothic settings, while his Man Ray-esque imagery supplies Gothic flavor of a more futuristic sort.

24. Bride of Frankenstein (1935- dir. James Whale)

With three horror films on his résumé, James Whale was not keen on making another one. He certainly had no interest in returning to the subject that first typecast him. The director reportedly said, “I squeezed the idea dry with the original picture, and I never want to work on it again.” The execs at Universal kept pushing the sequel issue, and Whale ultimately gave in. Figuring he would never top Frankenstein, the director supposedly said his only goal was to make the sequel “a hoot.” He was absolutely correct in deeming Bride of Frankenstein a hoot but dead wrong in thinking it would not top the original. The film is an explosion of imagination, ingenuity, pathos, subversive humor, wonderful characterizations, wonderful performances, glorious sets, and spectacular special effects (those bizarre miniatures!). The cast all seem as though they’re having the most fun they’ve ever had, especially Ernest Thesiger, who plays the campy, devilish Dr. Pretorius (“Do you like gin? It is my only weakness”). With only a handful of words in his arsenal (“Friend!” “Fire bad!”), Karloff turns in a touching performance as the monster who just wants to be loved. Although she only occupies about three minutes of screen time, Elsa Lanchester makes a seismic impact as both the creature’s reluctant bride and Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, who appears in an ingenious prologue. We also get some positively hysterical performances from Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, and the inimitable Una O’Connor. Whale’s humor was never sharper, more daring (“follow the lead of Nature– or of God, if you like your Bible stories”), or more poignant. The maliciousness of The Invisible Man gives way to a humanity that manages to remain sincere even as it mingles with laughs, especially during the Monster’s encounter with a blind hermit. Bride of Frankenstein is too eager to please to have the terrifying power of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but for sheer fun, it is peerless.

25. Mad Love (1935- dir. Karl Freund)

American audiences got their first glimpse of Peter Lorre in Karl Freund’s final directorial effort. Mad Love revisits Maurice Renard’s novel The Hands of Orlac, already adapted as an expressionistic silent by Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in 1924. Lorre is Dr. Gogol, the maddest of mad scientists, driven by his desire for Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) to graft the hands of a knife-throwing killer onto her disfigured husband, Stephen (Colin Clive), and frame him for murder. There is a wildness to this film only comparable with the horror-comedies of Whale. And though Mad Love is rich in morbid humor, it is no comedy, nor is Peter Lorre an urbane villain à la Lugosi’s Dracula or Karloff’s Imhotep. Experiencing his sweaty, neurotic, googly-eyed Dr. Gogol matched with the ever-manic Clive— and heightened by Freund’s zooming camera and vertiginous montages— is anxiety inducing. On top of that appropriately “mad” atmosphere is the most perverse parade of forbidden fruits since The Black Cat: torture, corpse mutilation, a condemned killer who seems to take pleasure in the guillotine, a journalist who hounds that killer for his autograph, sexual obsession and sadism, and implications of waxwork-fucking. This kind of freewheeling depravity was not long for Hollywood. Mad Love feels like a genre gone too far and an era nearing its end. It was.

26. Dracula’s Daughter (1936- dir. Lambert Hillyer)

Amidst Universal’s initial horror frenzy, producer David O. Selznick bought the rights to Bram Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest”, often believed to be the excised opening chapter of his most famous novel. The story arguably introduced Jonathan Harker (never mentioned by name) and followed his weird encounter with a female vampire while heading to Dracula’s castle. Aside from the presence of a lady vampire, the treatment John Balderston composed had nothing to do with Stoker’s story. It did offer a banquet of S&M sex, explicit homosexuality, and bizarre fantasy that would have made Mad Love seem ho hum. Not surprisingly, Balderston’s concept for Dracula’s Daughter was nixed by production-code führer Joe Breen, who branded the treatment “dangerous.” Balderston lost the job and James Whale, who’d been slated to direct, went off to direct his pet musical, Showboat. Garrett Fort’s screenplay was considerably less dangerous, though gay undertones are still present when Gloria Holden’s Countess Marya Zaleska seduces a street girl. Critics have often read much into her desire to get “deprogrammed” from her vampirism (lesbianism) by a psychiatrist. While the former is certainly intentional, the latter is a matter of debate. Edward Van Sloan is back as Van Helsing, who quite logically, is accused of murder when the authorities find him hovering over the Count’s corpse. Sadly, Bela Lugosi is absent. The body is just a wax figure, though it does set up Zaleska’s moody al fresco funeral for her dad. Such enthralling sequences help to mask a weak script, as does the haunted grace Holden brings to the title role. She’s much more of a tragic figure than Dracula because she so thoroughly does not want to be a vampire. She’s certainly Universal’s most reluctant monster until Larry Talbot, and all the more sympathetic because Otto Kruger’s misogynistic Dr. Jeffrey Garth is such a loathsome protagonist. Holden singlehandedly makes Dracula’s Daughter Universal’s most melancholic monster movie. The film also presents the first time in which a female monster really carried a picture, and characters from Princess Asa Vadja in The Mask of Satan to Lady Sylvia Marsh in another Stoker adaptation, The Lair of the White Worm, owe her a debt. During its own time, the severely tamed Dracula’s Daughter was more symbolic of the wind going out of Universal’s cobweb-caked sails. Like so many of its beasts, the studio’s horror strain would largely fall dormant for the next few years, to be revived bigger, meaner, and dumber than ever when the time was right. 


27. Son of Frankenstein (1939- dir. Rowland V. Lee)

With the exception of a few stray aberrations (The Invisible RayThe Devil Doll), the years following Dracula’s Daughter were tragically short on horrors. At least in the cinema. The U.S. economy was in rough shape, and cinema attendance dropped drastically. The Catholic League of Decency, an officious crew of anti-art twits, continued their reign of terror (which began just days before the release of that sadistic classic, The Black Cat). Across the pond, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) established a dreaded scarlet “H” to brand family-unfriendly horror films. In an attempt to get its horror franchise back on track, Universal went back to the well of its most successful monster. Son of Frankenstein is not the explosion of genius Whale’s two films were. For the first time, the Monster is reduced to window-dressing, and Karloff’s insistence that he return to the muteness of the original film doesn’t help. Little Donnie Dunagan, who would later do much better work voicing Bambi, is awful as Frankenstein’s son. At 1 hour and 40 minutes, the film is about a half hour longer than almost any of the Universal monster movies that preceded it, and it drags badly. Yet Son of Frankenstein is also a beautifully designed film. Its expressionistic sets are even freakier than those in either Whale film, more reminiscent of Edgar Ulmer’s abstract art in The Black Cat. Basil Rathbone does a fine job as Frankenstein Junior and is a worthy new member of Universal’s stock monster squad. The film’s greatest triumph is that of Bela Lugosi, who turns in his finest work as Ygor, a manipulative, smug, broken-necked menace. We also get to see Karloff slip on the hobnail boots one last time. Rightly sensing the Monster was on his way to self-parody, the actor refused to ever play him again. A big hit, Son of Frankenstein did revive Universal horror, and the studio still had some iconic monsters yet to terrorize moviegoers. But its golden decade was drawing to a close, and its most groundbreaking artworks were in the past. B-grade horror would dominate the next decade, though a cerebral Ukrainian émigré over at RKO would prove that there was still much room for growth in the genre.

Creep on to the '40s…

Flee back to the ‘20s...
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