Throughout the month of October we’ll be looking at the best decades that the horror genre had to offer, and how they influenced future filmmakers and movie goers alike.
We remember the 1930s less for its films than for its monsters. Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Mummy achieved pop culture apotheosis in this decade, elevating what had once been characters into archetypes to be ceaselessly referenced and reinvented over the decades. Today many of these original films seem less like vibrant pieces of cinema than dusty historical artifacts. Consider Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). Save Bela Lugosi’s career-defining performance as the Count, the film seems stilted and bereft of any kind of tension. Major confrontations between Dracula and the crusading hero Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) are captured in awkward silence while many of the special effects seem laughably dated and cheesy. Never-mind that contemporary audiences were mesmerized and terrified—today it seems like a film with a missing audio track. But one must consider that the 1930s were a period of massive upheaval in Hollywood, for here was the coming of sound!
Before Al Jolson wowed the world with the immortal line “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” filmmakers had perfected the art of silent horror. Across the Atlantic, German Expressionism bloomed with films that favored fractured narratives and even more fractured stylization, preferring extravagant shadows, odd camera compositions, and a general feeling of otherworldliness. In the States Lon Chaney became one of the first horror superstars with immortal performances as Quasimodo and the Phantom of the Opera. There was an intuitive understanding of the synthesis of image and performance to create films which to this day seem fresh and chilling.
But now the monsters had to talk. How do you create suspense and dread when you have to listen to monsters babble and have music interrupt the atmosphere? The idea baffled many studios. But a handful of directors managed to make the leap with now classic creature features starring monsters ripped from the pages of European folklore and literature. And there’s a reason so many of them have survived to this day. These films tapped into unconscious fears roiling in the underbelly of America. The Mummy wasn’t just a shambling beast, he represented fear of sickness, disease, and corruption. King Kong wasn’t just a giant ape and Count Dracula wasn’t just a vampire, they were cultural and racial others who arrived on our shores to steal our women and kill our men. Even the existential threat of scientific modernity exploded onto the screen. Is it any wonder that the 1930s saw the rise of the mad scientist archetype with films like Island of Lost Souls (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), and The Invisible Man (1933)? (Remember, in Mary Shelley’s original novel Victor Frankenstein was a college student who got in over his head, not a crazed scientist with a laboratory and a hunchbacked assistant.)
The 1930s monsters are rightfully immortal. But maybe the films themselves should be given second looks. In them, we see a nation under transformation, a nation barely managing to keep its sanity in a time of economic depression by coalescing their greatest fears into tangible monsters that could be defeated in the last reel.