Horror Films


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), starring the highly regarded stage actor John Barrymore, helped legitimize the genre in Hollywood, but the genre was not clearly established until shortly after the arrival of sound when Universal Studios produced a cycle of horror films, notably Browning's Dracula , with Bela Lugosi, and James Whale's Frankenstein , with Boris Karloff, both released in 1931. Lugosi and Karloff became the great horror stars of the 1930s, attaining iconic status in American popular culture. For three decades the studio produced a series of loose sequels and spinoffs, including The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and House of Frankenstein (1944), ending in the 1950s with parodies featuring Abbott and Costello, another important Universal asset. The Universal films were heavily influenced by the mise-en-scène of German expressionism: for example, The Mummy (1932), another Karloff vehicle, was directed by German cinematographer Karl Freund, who had photographed Der Golem and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), among others, before emigrating to Hollywood in 1929. Universal was run by Carl Laemmle, himself born in Germany. The popular mythology of Frankenstein's creature, the vampire, the werewolf, and the mummy (the latter invented by the movies) were established and reworked in the studio's horror films.

Although other studios produced the occasional big-budget horror film, such as Paramount's remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) with Fredric March and RKO's King Kong (1933), Universal dominated the genre during this period. The major exception was MGM's Freaks (1932), directed by Browning. The story involves a traveling circus sideshow and the cruel woman trapeze artist who exploits them. Browning used a group of people with actual physical oddities, and the climax, in which they pursue the trapeze artist in the rain and mud, is particularly chilling. Uniting in camaraderie, the "freaks" are depicted as more humane than the physically normal characters, anticipating the reinterpretation of the monsters that would characterize horror films from the 1960s onward. Evidently this was a radical reversal that was ahead of its time: the film was severely cut for its American release and banned for thirty years in Great Britain.

The war years saw the unwelcome intrusion of real horror on a global scale, and Hollywood movies accentuated the positive to boost morale on the home front. From 1942 to 1946 at RKO, the producer Val Lewton (1904–1951), a former script editor for David O. Selznick, made a series of nine horror films with several directors, including I Walked with a Zombie (1943), directed by Jacques Tourneur, and The Body Snatcher (1945), directed by Robert Wise, that exploited ambience and suggestion through economical means. Tourneur's Cat People (1942), for example, concerns a young woman, Irena (Simone Simon), who believes the superstition of her Old World village upbringing that she will turn into a dangerous leopard when emotionally or sexually aroused; but there is no transformation scene such as those in horror movies about werewolves and adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde , in which such scenes are not only a convention but a visual centerpiece. In one scene the woman Irena sees as her rival, swimming alone in an indoor pool at night, hears faint footsteps and sees an indistinct shadow cross the wall, and when the cold and frightened woman goes to retrieve her robe, she finds it shredded, as if it had been ripped by the claws of an animal. Similarly, in The Leopard Man (1943), also directed by Tourneur, we hear the violent death of a

b. Leonidas Chaney, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1 April 1883, d. 26 August 1930

Known as "the man of a thousand faces," Lon Chaney was the first major star of the horror genre. As the child of deaf-mute parents, Chaney learned the expressive possibilities of pantomime, a skill he brought to the silent screen in a series of bizarre characters, often featuring some variation of grotesque distortion.

After his beginnings as a comedian and dancer in the theater, Chaney went to Hollywood in 1912. He appeared in a steady stream of films from 1914 on, playing villains in formula Westerns as well as a variety of other strange characters, from a French Canadian in Nomads of the North (1920) to Fagin in Oliver Twist (1922) to a one-eyed hoodlum in The Road to Mandalay (1926). Chaney was famous for his skill with makeup, and publicly emphasized the extremes that he would undergo to create his monstrous, distorted outsiders. In The Penalty (1920), he plays a criminal kingpin whose legs had been mistakenly amputated, requiring him to wear a painful leg harness so that he could walk on his knees as if they were stumps; in The Unknown (1927) he played Alonzo the Armless, a circus knife-thrower, with his arms strapped tightly to his body. As Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), he wore a hunch in a harness that had a combined weight of seventy pounds.

Chaney made eight films with director Tod Browning, beginning with The Wicked Darling in 1919, and including The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown , and West of Zanzibar (1928), their last film together. Chaney's skill at physical metamorphosis combined with Browning's gift for macabre horror stories to create a series of films about masochistic men ridden with castration anxiety. This preoccupation reached a peak in The Unknown , where the viewer finally discovers that Alonzo really does have arms, which he keeps secret, but then amputates them in a doomed attempt to win the sympathy of the woman he loves.

Chaney's last role was as Echo, a criminal ventriloquist in the remake of The Unholy Three in 1930, his only talking film. He used five different voices in the movie, showing that he could make the transition to talkies. But shortly after the film's release, Chaney died from a hemorrhage in his throat. After Chaney's death, his son Creighton changed his name to Lon Chaney Jr. and followed in his father's footsteps by starring in a series of horror films, the most notable of which was his tragic Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941).


The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), West of Zanzibar (1928), The Unholy Three (1930)


Anderson, Robert Gordon. Faces, Forms, Films: The Artistry of Lon Chaney . South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1971.

Beck, Calvin Thomas. Heroes of the Horrors . New York: Collier Books, 1975.

Blake, Michael F. The Films of Lon Chaney . Lanham, MD: Vestal Press, 1998.

——. Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces . Vestal, NY: Vestal Press, 1993.

Barry Keith Grant

Lon Chaney in London After Midnight (Tod Browning, 1927).

teenage girl attacked by the title creature, but all we see is her blood oozing under the locked door of her house.

In the 1950s horror overlapped significantly with science fiction. Cold War and atomic age anxieties produced numerous monster movies with creatures that had mutated or reawakened from eons of slumber because of nuclear radiation and testing. Monsters such as the giant dinosaur of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the giant ants of Them! (1954), and the creature in Behemoth, the Sea Monster (also known as The Giant Behemoth , 1959) all are the results of nuclear testing, as is the radioactive cloud that causes The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) to shrink and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) to grow. The Thing from Another World (1951) set the tone for the decade's monster movies. Based on a novella by the science fiction writer John W. Campbell, the film sacrifices almost all the scientific reasoning featured in the story to emphasize instead the inarticulate howlings of a vegetable-like creature, who somehow possesses technological knowledge way beyond that of earth-lings and is bent on killing humans for their blood.

By the mid-1950s the youth audience had emerged as a significant consumer group, particularly for movie-going, and many horror films, from I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) to The Horror of Party Beach (1964), were produced with the aim of appealing to adolescent viewers. American International Pictures (AIP), an American film distribution and production company founded in 1954 by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, specialized in B movies—teen pics, exploitation films, and horror films such as The She-Creature (1956), Terror from the Year 5000 (1958), and Attack of the Puppet People (1958). A few of these were directed by Roger Corman (b. 1926), including the campy A Bucket of Blood (1959). One of the independent companies that showed the way in the 1950s toward the strategy of targeting market segments, AIP moved from distribution into production and eventually began making movies with higher production values, beginning in 1960 with Corman's House of Usher , a loose adaptation of a Poe short story, which starred Vincent Price and was shot in color and Cinemascope. Corman made several other films for the company based on Poe themes with Price, including The Masque of the Red Death (1964), which features cinematography by the British cult director Nicolas Roeg. Also in the 1950s and early 1960s, the exploitation master William Castle (1914–1977) moved from thrillers and westerns into horror with a series of gimmicky horror films including The Tingler (1959), Thirteen Ghosts (1960), and Mr. Sardonicus (1961).

In England, Hammer Film Productions Ltd. released several classic science fiction films along with their other dramas, including The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and X the Unknown (1956), but launched in earnest into the production of horror with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), directed by Terence Fisher (1904–1980), a studio stalwart. Hammer went on to produce a substantial series of horror films that revisited the monsters of old, including Frankenstein's creature, Dracula, and the Mummy, through the 1970s, as well as inventing new ones ( The Gorgon , 1964). The Hammer films revitalized the genre by revisiting but also updating its traditional gothic iconography with a bold use of color and a decidedly modern dose of sexual content. Many of these films starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who were the most familiar and consistently productive horror stars of the period.

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