Sorry I’m late with Tuesday’s article but after writing for four hours my software decided to crap out and corrupt the saved file, then I got angry and went to bed. Let’s try this again.
When I come up with the ideas for “When It All Changed” I think it will be a great research opportunity and then quickly realize I must be a masochist, tonight’s article has become a Doctorate Thesis. It is Wednesday, February 11th 1931 and in twenty-four hours Tod Browning’s Dracula will open across America but to understand how important this film is we need to know what the landscape looked like at the time. To that conclusion let us talk about twelve American and nine foreign films that happened in the ten years leading up to…
When the film premiered at the Roxy Theatre in New York on February 12, 1931, newspapers reported that members of the audiences fainted in shock at the horror on screen. This publicity, shrewdly orchestrated by the film studio, helped ensure people came to see the film, if for no other reason than curiosity. Dracula was a big gamble for a major Hollywood studio to undertake. In spite of the literary credentials of the source material, it was uncertain if an American audience was prepared for a serious full length supernatural chiller. Though America had been exposed to other chillers before, such as The Cat and the Canary (1927), this was a horror story with no comic relief or trick ending that downplayed the supernatural. As a side note, as I found while doing my research, Dracula was the first American film to be strictly a horror film. I added the “Genre” to the credit listings to demonstrate how previous films had to sugar coat the scary with adventure or comedy.
Nervous executives breathed a collective sigh of relief when Dracula proved to be a huge box office sensation. Within 48 hours of its opening at New York's Roxy Theatre, it had sold 50,000 tickets. Later in 1931, Universal would release Frankenstein to even greater acclaim. Universal in particular would become the forefront of early horror cinema, with a canon of films including The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941).
Today, Dracula is widely regarded as a classic of the era and of its genre. In 2000, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". It was ranked 79th on Bravo's countdown of The 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
To many film lovers and critics alike, Lugosi's portrayal is widely regarded as the definitive Dracula. Lugosi had a powerful presence and authority on-screen. The slow, deliberate pacing of his performance ("I bid you… welcome!" and "I never drink… wine!") gave his Dracula the air of a walking, talking corpse, which terrified 1931 movie audiences. He was just as compelling with no dialogue, and the many close-ups of Lugosi's face in icy silence jumped off the screen. With this mesmerizing performance, Dracula became Bela Lugosi's signature role, his Dracula a cultural icon, and he himself a legend in the classic Universal Horror film series.
Let’s start the learning with American films released previous to 1931 in chronological order.
A Blind Bargain (1922)
In return for money and medical aid for his mother, struggling author Robert Sandell (Raymond McKee) agrees to subject himself to some experiments by Dr. Lamb (Lon Chaney), who believes he can prove the theory of evolution by changing a man into an approximation of his simian ancestors. Robert is strapped to an operating table before he realizes the nature of the experiments but is saved when a hunchback (also Lon Chaney), a previous subject of the surgeon, uncages another victim, an ape-man (Wallace Beery), who crushes Dr. Lamb to death.
The Monster (1925)
Dr. Ziska (Lon Chaney), an insane surgeon who believes that he can bring the dead back to life, presides over a sanitarium where he conducts bizarre experiments. He selects his human subjects from passing motorists, whom he abducts and confines in a dark dungeon. When the evil doctor kidnaps Luke Watson (Edward McWade), Johnny (Johnny Arthur), Watson's clerk, who has just received a diploma as a detective from a correspondence school, sets out to find him. He penetrates the sanitarium and is captured by Ziska, who intends to use him in an experiment. Ziska also captures Betty (Gertrude Olmstead), Watson's daughter, and Hal (Hallam Cooley), the senior Watson clerk. Johnny escapes from the sanitarium and returns with help, arriving just in time to save Betty from a horrible death under the mad doctor's knife.
The Phantom of The Opera (1925)
Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), an understudy at the Paris Opera, is guided to stardom by a mysterious and compelling voice that emanates from behind the walls of her dressing room. The voice eventually summons her to a meeting, and she discovers a sinister man whose face is covered by a mask. He demands that she give up her fiancé, Raoul (Norman Kerry), and devote herself to her music and her mentor. She agrees, and he allows her to sing again. Realizing that she is going back on her word, The Phantom (Lon Chaney) kidnaps Christine, takes her to his underground chambers, and is revealed, when his mask is removed, to be hideous beyond description. Raoul and Ledoux (of the secret police) follow The Phantom, and he traps them in an infernal device. A mob follows, and The Phantom flees. Raoul and Ledoux (Arthur Edmund Carewe) escape, rescuing Christine. The mob forces The Phantom into the Seine, where he drowns, grotesquely defiant to the last.
The Magician (1926)
Oliver Haddo (Paul Wegener), a student of the occult, demonstrates on numerous occasions his powers of magic and after years of search finds a formula in a Paris library for the creation of human life. Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry), the niece of Dr. Porhoet (Firmin Gémier), is a sculpture student and is injured while working on a huge faun. Dr. Arthur Burdon (Iván Petrovich), a noted American surgeon, performs a delicate operation on her spine before many famous doctors, including Haddo; and during her convalescence, Margaret and Dr. Burdon become romantically involved. By trickery Haddo gains entrance to Margaret's apartment and puts her under a hypnotic spell. Burdon follows them to Monte Carlo, but she is irretrievably under Haddo's power. In the Sorcerer's Tower, Haddo is about to extract her virgin blood for his secret formula, when Burdon and Dr. Porhoet arrive and overcome him; Haddo falls into a fiery furnace, and the tower is destroyed, freeing Margaret from the spell.
The Unknown (1927)
To escape the police, Alonzo (Lon Chaney), who has two thumbs on one hand, poses in a sideshow as an armless wonder. He falls in love with Nanon (Joan Crawford), and when detected by her father, he kills him. Then, discovering that the girl abhors the touch of a man's hand, he has both his arms amputated. Returning, he finds to his dismay that she has fallen in love with Malabar (Norman Kerry) and is to marry him; Alonzo seeks revenge on Malabar, but loses his own life.
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
At the hour of midnight, exactly 20 years after the death of Cyrus West, an eccentric and wealthy recluse, his relatives meet in his mansion to hear the reading of the will. The nearest kin are dismayed to learn they have all been disinherited because they considered Cyrus crazy, and that his most distant living relative, Annabelle West, will inherit the estate provided that she is proved to be sane; otherwise a contingent heir will be named. But the lawyer mysteriously disappears, and various unexplained occurrences cause the family to doubt Annabelle's sanity. Her cousin, Paul, imprisoned in the walls, is attacked by the "monster," who is ultimately captured by the police and proves to be Charles Wilder, the secondary heir.
London After Midnight (1927)
Five years after the "suicide" death of Roger Balfour in his London home, detective-inspector Burke is still investigating, unable to believe that Balfour committed suicide. Sir James Hamlin, Balfour's closest friend; Arthur Hibbs, Hamlin's nephew; Lucille, Balfour's daughter; and the butler: these are all still suspected. Inspector Burke, an accomplished hypnotist, solves the mystery by hypnotizing the primary suspects, Hibbs and Hamlin, placing them in the murder setting, and observing their reactions. Drawing a blank with Hibbs, who is in love with Lucille, Burke discovers that his man is Hamlin.
The Cat Creeps (1930)
The Cat Creeps is the first of three talkie versions of John Willard's durable stage melodrama The Cat and the Canary (filmed under its original title in 1927). Twenty years after the death of misanthropic millionaire Cyrus West, the old man's heirs are summoned to the spooky ancestral mansion for the reading of two recently discovered sealed envelopes. The first contains West's will; the second envelope is to be opened only if the terms of that will are carried out. Summoned to the West estate for the "grand opening" are West's grandniece Annabelle (Helen Twelvetrees) and several predatory would-be heirs. On the verge of opening the second envelope, the sinister Lawyer Crosby (Lawrence Grant) disappears behind a secret panel -- only to turn up murdered a few moments later. Is Annabelle --the last person to see Crosby alive -- the guilty party? And what's all this about an escaped lunatic wandering through the ghostly mansion? Alas, The Cat Creeps is evidently a lost film; not even the simultaneously-filmed Spanish version is still extant. Fortunately, the original sound discs have been recovered, allowing future generations to at least hear this landmark "old dark house" chiller.
The Bat Whispers (1930)
Despite advance warning to the police, who seal off the area, The Bat, a master criminal, steals a necklace from the safe in the house of a rich socialite. He leaves a note saying he is going to the country to give the police a rest. Pausing only to rob a bank at Oakdale, he proceeds to terrorize the occupants of a lonely country mansion, in a mixture of thrills, chills and laughs. At the end, an actor steps forward through a proscenium arch and asks the viewers not to reveal the Bat's identity to their friends. A film noir shot in black and white, mainly at night in dimly lit scenes.
Now for contrast the Foreign horror films with American release dates previous to 1931. For the record, Weimar republic would be Pre-World War II Germany.
The Haunted Castle (1921)
Before plumbing the depths of horror and despair with such films as Faust and The Last Laugh, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau tested the waters with this moody drama of a storm-bound manor and the grim mystery that lurks within. A hunting party is interrupted by the arrival of a notorious Count (Lothar Mehnert), who is believed to have murdered his brother. The uninvited guest sets in motion an elaborate plot to resurrect the ghosts of the past and bring to light the dark secret that lies at the center of his brother’s death. The foreboding atmosphere and psychological complexity inspired Murnau to delve deeper into the horror genre, which he did the following year, with the immortal vampire tale Nosferatu (1922).
The Phantom Carriage (1921)
At New Year's Eve, the tuberculosis sister of the Salvation Army, Edit, asks her mother and her colleague, Maria, to call David Holm to visit her on her deathbed. Meanwhile, David (an alcoholic) is recounting the Legend of 'The Phantom Coach and his coachmen' to two other drunkards in the cemetery. In accordance with the legend, the last sinner to die on the turn of the New Year becomes the soul collector, gathering souls in his coach. When David refuses to visit Edit, his friends have an argument with him, they fight and David dies. When the coachman arrives, he recognizes his friend Georges, who died at the end of the last year. George revisits parts of David's obnoxious life and in flashbacks, he shows how mean and selfish David was.
God and Satan war over earth; to settle things, they wager on the soul of Faust, a learned and prayerful alchemist. During a plague, Faust despairs and burns his books after failing to stop death; Satan sends Mephisto to tempt Faust, first with insight into treating the plague and then with a day's return to youth. Mephisto is clever, timing the end of this 24 hours as Faust embraces the beautiful Duchess of Parma. Faust trades his soul for youth. Some time later, he's bored, and demands on Easter Sunday that Mephisto take him home. Faust promptly sees and falls in love with the beautiful Gretchen, whose liaison with him brings her dishonor. Is there redemption? Who wins the wager?
The Man Who Cheated Life (1926)
Considered the magnum-opus of filmmaker/screenwriter Henrik Galeen, and featuring actor Conrad Veit in one of his finest performances Student of Prague is considered an important work in German Expressionist cinema. It is also the first to present a dark exploration of the inner realms of the self that would obsess German filmmakers for years to come. The decidedly Faustian tale centers on a student (Veit) who encounters a minion of the devil and in exchange for the love of a woman and wealth, sells him his reflection. The student's mirror image turns into a doppelganger. The student marries a baroness, but his happiness is ruined by his troublesome, malevolent double who destroys his marriage and his life. In hopes of ending the torment, the student tricks the doppelganger back into the mirror and then shoots him. Ironically, it is the student who dies. While the haunting story itself is intriguing, it is film's exquisite production design, careful expressionistic lighting that imbues the film with its moody, humanism.
A Daughter of Destiny (1928)
Hanns Heinz Ewers' grim science-fiction novel Alraune has already been filmed twice when this version was assembled in 1928. In another of his "mad doctor" roles, Paul Wegener plays Professor Brinken, sociopathic scientist who combines the genes of an executed murderer with those of a prostitute. The result is a beautiful young woman named Alraune (Brigitte Helm), who is incapable of feeling any real emotions -- least of all guilt or regret. Upon attaining adulthood, Alraune sets about to seduce and destroy every male who crosses her path. Ultimately, Professor Brinken is hoist on his own petard when he falls hopelessly in love with Alraune himself. Alraune was remade in 1930, with Brigitte Helm repeating her role, and again in 1951, with Hildegarde Knef as the "heroine" and Erich von Stroheim as her misguided mentor.
The Hands of Orlac (1924)
In this classic horror film, based on a novel by Maurice Renard and filmed by Robert Wiene (of Dr. Caligari fame), a world-famous pianist burns his hands in an airplane crash. A mysterious doctor offers to do a transplant and the pianist, his career on the verge of ruin, accepts. After a series of mysterious strangulations occur around him, the pianist beings to suspect the culprit might be his new pair of hands. His search for the donor is impeded as his new appendages slowly drive him insane. This film has been remade countless times, the most successful being the 1954 Mad Love version with Peter Lorre in the lead.
The owner of a Wax museum needs for three of his models stories to be told to the audience. For that reason he has hired a writer, who after one look at the owner's pretty daughter, starts writing stories featuring the models, the daughter and himself. In the first, he is a baker, married to the girl, who is a little bit too much flirting with the customers, among them the wezir of sultan Harun Al-Rashid, who has just ordered his execution because the smell from the bakery is drifting to his palace, yet Harun Al-Rashid wants to meet the beautiful girl himself, while an angry baker is trying to get the Sultan's whishing ring to proof he's not a weakling. The second story is about Tzar Ivan the Terrible who likes watching people die together with his court-chemist. When he orders the execution of the chemist, the chemist thinks of a nice revanche, but till the revanche works, a nobleman is murdered, his daughter kidnapped by Ivan and her groom tortured. While writing the third story about Jack the Ripper, he falls asleep and dreams he and the girl are pursuit by that serial killer.
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
A historical view of witchcraft in seven parts and a variety of styles. First, there is a slide-show alternating inter-titles with drawings and paintings to illustrate the behavior of pagan cultures in the Middle Ages regarding their vision of demons and witches. Then there is a dramatization of the situation of the witches in the Middle Ages, witchcraft and witch-hunts. Finally the film compares the behavior of hysteria of contemporary (1921) women with the behavior of the witches in the Middle Ages, concluding that they are very similar. Considered by many to be a documentary this film is in fact a fictional account, some based on real events but overall just a movie.
F. W. Murnau's landmark vampire film Nosferatu isn't merely a variation on Bram Stoker's Dracula: it's a direct steal, so much so that Stoker's widow went to court, demanding in vain that the Murnau film be suppressed and destroyed. The character names have been changed to protect the guilty (in the original German prints, at least), but devotees of Stoker will have little trouble recognizing their Dracula counterparts. The film begins in the Carpathian mountains, where real estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wagenheim) has arrived to close a sale with the reclusive Herr Orlok (Max Schreck). Despite the feverish warnings of the local peasants, Hutter insists upon completing his journey to Orlok's sinister castle. While enjoying his host's hospitality, Hutter accidently cuts his finger-whereupon Orlok tips his hand by staring intently at the bloody digit, licking his lips. Hutter catches on that Orlok is no ordinary mortal when he witnesses the vampiric nobleman loading himself into a coffin in preparation for his journey to Bremen. By the time the ship bearing Orlok arrives at its destination, the captain and crew have all been killed-and partially devoured. There follows a wave of mysterious deaths in Bremen, which the local authorities attribute to a plague of some sort. But Ellen, Hutter's wife, knows better. Armed with the knowledge that a vampire will perish upon exposure to the rays of the sun, Ellen offers herself to Orlok, deliberately keeping him "entertained" until sunrise. At the cost of her own life, Ellen ends Orlok's reign of terror once and for all. Rumors still persist that Max Schreck, the actor playing Nosferatu, was actually another, better-known performer in disguise. Whatever the case, Schreck's natural countenance was buried under one of the most repulsive facial makeups in cinema history-one that was copied to even greater effect by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's 1979 remake - Nosferatu the Vampyre.
I learned a few things while researching and writing this unyielding mass of words. Including shorts, science fiction and marginally connected films there were around thirty horror movies released between 1921 and 1931. As opposed to the hundreds released to theaters and direct to video each year now. It is also my opinion that Tod Browning found inspiration in the German horror films far more than what was being done in the United States. The dark and heavy atmosphere of films like “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or “Hands of Orlac” is closer to “Dracula” than “The Bat Whispers”. I think I’m done now, once again sorry for the technical difficulties.
All information comes from IMDB, Wikipedia and TCM, just go look it up if you like. Thirty-eight separate references would be a pain to try to type out and take up way too much space.
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