Classic Universal Horror Films
Keywords: universal pictures, universal studios, universal horror, dracula, frankenstein, the mummy, boris karloff, bela lugosi, carl laemmle, the black cat, edgar g. ulmer, karl freund, horror films, lon chaney, hunchback of notre dame, phantomof the opera In the 1930s Universal Pictures produced a series horror films which established the thematic preoccupations and iconography of the genre, not to mention its stars. Many of the horror genre's best-known conventions – the creaking staircases, the ruined castles and the mobs of peasants pursuing monsters with torches – originated in these films.
Universal's earliest success in the horror genre was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). This was based on the Gothic horror novel by Victor Hugo. The hunchback of the title, Quasimodo, was played by Lon Chaney, a great actor of the silent era. He had phenominal skills as a make-up artist and designed his own make-up for the film, although it was torturous to wear. Chaney became the first horror superstar. He was known as the Man of a Thousand Faces because of his ability to transform his appearance.
The filmmakers needed Notre Dame Cathedral as a setting so they built a full-scale reproduction of the frontage. This was an incredible set and was so expensive that they reused it in the next major horror film, The Phantom of the Opera (1925). This also starred Lon Chaney as a disfigured protagonist.
The Phantom of the Opera was based on a mystery novel by Gaston Leroux. It involved the recreation of another major piece of Parisian architecture: the interior of the Paris Opera. Again, this was built full-scale. This set still exists on Stage 28 at Universal, which is dubbed ‘The Phantom Stage’. It’s the oldest filmset in the world. Universal is the only studio still operating on its original site and seems to have a stronger sense of history than other studios. The interior of the opera was used for the 1943 remake of The Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains.
The art director for the film was Ben Carré, who was hired because he knew the below-stage area of the Paris Opera. This subterranean world was recreated for the film; it was a gothic labyrinth. This is where the disfigured organist resides. Lon Chaney's phantom make-up was kept secret until the film was released. Chaney specialised in deformed or disfigured characters.
The success of the early horror films depended on a fascination with grotesquery and the macabre, but where did that come from? It has been argued that the fascination with horror was a reaction to World War I. This was the first truly mechanised war and soldiers were returning with horrific wounds. These were men who would have died from their injuries in the past, but advances in medical science were keeping them alive. This meant that people were faced with scenes of grotesque mutilation and deformity. Like dreams, horror allows us to contemplate our fears without having to face them directly. Horror films represented a cathartic way to exorcise the anxiety unleashed by this spectacle.
Universal was influenced by German Expressionist film. This was because Germany was in political turmoil; the rise of Nazism caused many artists, designers and filmmakers to flee from Germany. The Modernist architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer came to Britain. Filmmakers went to Hollywood. For example, the directors Lang and Murnau went to America, as did the cinematographer Karl Freund. Universal Pictures was founded by Carl Laemmle, who was a German émigré. Universal was the most European of studios and its hired many of these German technicians.
In 1930 Laemmle gave the studio to his son, Carl Laemmle Jr., as a 21st birthday present. Laemmle Jr. had a taste for the macabre and he began plundering the work of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley in search of material. He oversaw the classic, genre-defining horror films of the 1930s. His first effort was Dracula (1931) directed by Todd Browning. Laemmle originally wanted Lon Chaney to play the Count but he died before shooting started. Eventually, the little-know Hungarian actor Béla Lugosi was cast. Lugosi's portrayal is widely regarded as the definitive Dracula. His strong accent and slow intonation gave him the air of a walking corpse, which terrified 1930s audiences.
Universal horror has a strong Gothic atmosphere. The Gothic Revival actually began in literature in the 18th century. Writers began to publish horror novels like Frankenstein (1818), which celebrated the gloomy atmosphere of medieval ruins and so on. These novels inspired a taste for the grotesque. In the early 20th century the iconography of Gothic entered popular culture and was a big influence on the early horror films. Gothic had come full circle. In fact, the film historian David J. Skal coined the phrase Hollywood Gothic to define the aesthetic of these films.
The success of Dracula was followed with Frankenstein (1931), which was directed by the English filmmaker James Whale. It was loosely based on the novel by Mary Shelley. The film stars Colin Clive as Frankenstein. Béla Lugosi was offered the part of the monster, but he turned it down. Instead, Boris Karloff was cast. The hunchbacked assistant Fritz is played by Dwight Frye, excellent character actor who played Renfield in Dracula. It also features Edward van Sloan (who played Van Helsing).
In the opening credits a question mark appears in place of Karloff’s name. The appearance of the monster was one of the key design elements in the film. Universal hadn’t released any pictures of the monster; his appearance was kept top secret. Karloff's pioneering make-up took hours to apply. The iconic flat head and neck-bolts were created by the make-up artist Jack Pierce.
The film was released during the Great Depression and it offered a kind of supernatural escapism, a release from the grim reality of the present. At the same time, it explored contemporary anxieties in a metaphorical way. James Whale grew up in poverty in England (he was born in Dudley). The monster is dressed as a labourer, which marks him out as working class. The concept of the working class victim manipulated and destroyed by the aristocratic Henry Frankenstein can be seen as a criticism of contemporary society. The 1930s were marked by industrial unrest in Britain and America.
The greatest scene in the film is the creation scene. This features spectacular electrical effects created by Kenneth Strickfaden, who was an eccentric inventor. He was almost a mad scientist like Frankenstein himself. Strickfaden managed to secure the use of at least one Tesla Coil built by the scientist Nikola Tesla. The creation scene involves modern technology in a medieval tower. It creates a kind of techno-gothic aesthetic. Frankenstein was one of the first mad scientist movies, which became a staple of the sci-fi genre.
Charles Hall was the art director on the film, but James Whale was closely involved in the design. He was influenced by German Expressionist cinema. He created a brilliant Gothic atmosphere in the opening scene of the funeral. This is an Expressionist compostion, with the light shining through the bars and casting shadows on the walls. The set has distorted angles. In particular, Frankenstein was influenced by Der Golem, a German film by Paul Wegener and based on a Jewish legend. The Jewish village set in Der Golem was an example of pure German Expressionism. The peasant village in Frankenstein was a direct echo of this set and was built on the Universal backlot.
Universal developed its classic monster movies into long-running franchises, and numerous Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies were made. The first sequel to Frankenstein was The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It was directed by James Whale and stars Boris Karloff as the Monster. Elsa Lanchester plays the dual role of the monster’s mate and Mary Shelley in a prologue. Dr. Pretorius is played by Ernest Thesiger, who was a master of camp comedy.
It’s an even better film that the original, but turns it into a subversive comedy. It drew on a subplot of the novel in which the monster forces Frankenstein to build him a mate. The bride's conical hair style, with its white lightning streaks, has become an icon of cinema. The hair style was based on Nefertiti, the Ancient Egyptian queen.
The film has been seen as a Christian allegory. Christian imagery is ‘hidden in plain sight’ throughout the film. The monster crucified by the peasants; a figure of Jesus appears in the graveyard; the hermit has a crucifix on the wall of his hut. The Monster consumes the Christian sacraments of bread and wine at his ‘last supper’ with the hermit. The film historian David J. Skal suggests that Whale's intention was to make a ‘direct comparison of Frankenstein's monster to Christ’.
However, another historian, Scott MacQueen, noted that Whale had no religious beliefs and disputed the notion that the Monster is a Christ-figure. Instead he argues that the Monster is a ‘mockery of the divine’ because it was created by Man rather than God, so it ‘lacks the divine spark’. One of the iconic images of Univeral Horror is the peasants chasing the monster with flaming torches. The monster is afraid of fire because it reminds him that he wasn’t created from the fire of the gods like the human race; he was created by electrical power harnessed with science.
The third of Universal’s classic monsters was the Mummy (1932). The Mummy was directed by Karl Freund, a German émigré who had been the cinematographer on Dracula. It starred Boris Karloff as a reanimated Ancient Egyptian priest. The Mummy allowed him to show what a subtle actor he was. The film was essentially a remake of Dracula, but wrapped in Ancient Egyptian iconography. The film was made in a climate of Egyptomania. In 1922 the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered by Howard Carter and it launched a craze for all things Egyptian. Ancient Egypt influenced Art Deco design and popular culture. The craze was spread by the new mass media and The Mummy was a key example.
Carl Laemmle hired John L. Balderston to write the script. Balderston had contributed to both Dracula and Frankenstein, but as a journalist he had actually covered the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb for New York World, so he was well-placed to write the script. He named the title character Imhotep, after the Ancient Egyptian architect who designed the step pyramid. The princess was named Ankhsenamun, after the wife of Tutankhamun.
Karloff played the mummified priest buried alive for committing sacrilege. Again, Jack Pierce provided the make-up. He transformed Karloff by applying cotton, collodion and spirit gum to his face. Pierce had studied photos of the mummy of Seti II to design Imhotep. This is Karloff with Zita Johann, an excellent actress of the 30s. She actually believed in reincarnation, so she was perfect for the part of the reincarnated princess.
We’ve seen that Modernist designers fled to Germany to escape Nazi persecution. Likewise, many of the key personnel in the German film industry emigrated to America. The director Fritz Lang. Karl Freund was a radical German cinematographer. He shot Universal’s 1931 version of Dracula. He later directed The Mummy (1932).
One of the lesser-known Universal horror films was The Black Cat (1934), starring Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi. This was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a German filmmaker who had worked for F.W. Murnau. It was based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, but the film has little to do with his work. The Black Cat was shot in 19 days on a low budget. However, Ulmer specialised in low-budget filmmaking and he managed to produce a uniquely personal and enigmatic film.
Ulmer was in love with avant-garde art and design. In particular, he was fascinated by the Bauhaus, the radical design school in Germany which was a centre of Modernism. The main character is a Modernist architect called Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Boris Karloff. He lives in an ultramodern villa of his own design.
This means that the film’s production design was in the Modernist style, which was very unusual for a horror film; Gothic was the usual aesthetic. Poelzig’s villa has Le Corbusier-style strip windows. The décor emulated Bauhaus designs. The house is located above a World War I cemetery, upon the ruins of a medieval fortress called Marmaro. Lugosi’s character calls it ‘a masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of a masterpiece of destruction.’
It is very unusual for an architect to be portrayed as the embodiment of evil. Karloff’s character was named Hjalmar Poelzig, after the genuine Modernist architect Hans Poelzig. The fact that he was named after Hans Poelzig has been interpreted as a vicious joke on the part of Ulmer. Ulmer worked with Poelzig on the sets for Paul Wegener's film Der Golem and the connection may have been an act of revenge.
For more information on German Expressionism, please see:
For further discussion of horror cinema, see: