Thursday, October 10, 2013

The History of Horror: The Cinema, Part I

The Beginning: Early Cinema and 1930s Talkies

Dracula, 1932
Since its birth, the cinema has been the perfect venue to showcase our deepest fears and terrors. The very fact that one must sit in a darkened theater in order to watch the fantasy sequences played out on a blank screen poses psychological suggestions of the way our own imaginations play out in our minds. While symbolism and imagery have played a huge role in the literary genre, visual images use these analogies to equal effect, bringing to screen what we have long since imagined of our nightmares in the collective experience. In these series of articles, I'll examine a brief overview of those cinematic representations of horror.

Early Cinema

During the late 19th century, from since the invention of the moving picture and through the 1920s, filmmakers have used horror as a storytelling device to shock and engage audiences. European filmmakers were often the forerunners of horror movies. One of the first horror films committed to screen was directed  by cinema pioneer George Melies with his three-minute short debut, Le Manoir du Diable (1896) or The Devil's Castle. During the German Expressionist period, filmmakers such as Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), used stylistic sets, lighting and camera movement to create a nightmarish dream world of vision and fantasy. In Nosferatu, which was based on Irish writer Bram Stoker's Dracula novel, the scene in which a coach is sent by Count Orlak to pick up Hutter, the film's hero and Jonathan Harker stand-in, is sped up, giving the image an otherworldly and frightening aspect.

In the United States, horror films were arguably represented by Lon Chaney, Sr., who would star in such classic films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Known as the Master of Disguises, Chaney used makeup and prosthetics to disappear into his frightening characters. One classic scene of Chaney's film work occurs in The Phantom of the Opera, when the heroine rips off the phantom's mask as he is playing the organ, revealing the phantom's hideous countenance underneath.

During this period of early filmmaking, directors mined the large catalogue of horror literature in order to tell their stories. Stoker's Dracula inspired many different versions of the vampire, while novels such as the aforementioned the Phantom of the Opera (written in 1911 by Gaston Leroux), Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, among other, became the basis for many films. Using classic literature, many of which had been read by thousands, made it easier for filmmakers to create horror films that were popular and familiar with audiences, and therefore successful at the box office.

1930s: The Talkies

When sound was invented during the late twenties, filmmakers had the opportunity to bring another aspect of horror into the cinema. Sound is as important as image in rendering terror and fright. Footsteps, creaking doors, growls and, especially, screams added to the fun. Though Universal Pictures had been delivering chills to audiences for some twenty years at that point, their place in cinema history for creating some of the classic examples in the genre occurred just as audio replaced the live orchestration in movie palaces. Some of the classic horror films of this period include the incomparable Dracula (1931), starring Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. The success of Lugosi's Dracula created a trend in horror films, many released by Universal. Also released in 1931 was the extremely successful Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff. Both films made household names of Lugosi and the British born Karloff, who would go on to star in other horror films, as well as sequels of the originals. Lon Chaney, Jr. also earned a headlining spot on the marquee through horror films. Chaney's successful Wolfman, along with Frankenstein and Dracula, are some of the most recognizable film horror characters in the genre. Films such as The Mummy (1932), also starring Karloff, King Kong (1933), The Invisible Man (1933), starring Claude Rains, and White Zombie (1932), another Lugosi vehicle, rounded out the countless horror films that were released during this period.

The German Expressionist movement only a decade before had an enormous impact on Hollywood filmmaking. Many directors, such as Murnau and Paul Leni were brought to the United States to create American films. Actors such as Conrad Veidt, who starred in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Peter Lorre, who starred in Murnau's M (1931), a film about a serial pedophile, also worked and became famous in the United States during this era. Universal Pictures also made household names of directors in this genre, an amazing feat since during the early days of the studio system, many directors were simply filmmakers for hire and had little name recognition outside the system itself, such as James Whale (Frankenstein) and Tod Browning (Dracula). Directors Whale and Browning later directed classic horror, such as Frankenstein's Bride (1935) and Browning's bizarre Freaks (1932). A literal freak show starring the real life denizens of carnival side shows, Browning's film is about a trapeze artist who marries the leader of the sideshow performers to gain control of his inheritance. When the other sideshow performers catch onto the trapeze artist's scheme, the seek vengeance in the most gruesome way, shocking then audiences not accustomed to gore, implied though it may have been for studio tastes dictated by the Production Code. The film's ending, when the sideshow performers chase the trapeze artist in the rain is one of the most eerie and creepiest scenes ever depicted on film.

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