[Horror History] Death, Rebirth, Redeath (The 1990’s)


This is Part 9 of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 as well

Can you ever have too much of a good thing? Absolutely, and horror films are no exception to this rule. In the 1990’s, the grotesque masks, buckets of blood, and half-naked co-eds that had defined the genre during the preceding decade wore thin. The overindulgence of the Age of Excess was leading to a cultural tummy ache, and it nearly killed horror altogether. As in the 1940’s, repetition and over-sequelization meant that the original monsters introduced in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s were now relics of their former selves. Once terrifying, they now elicited laughs either through ham-fisted wisecracking or their relentless returning from the dead to stab and slash again and again. Moving through the same old plot points ad nauseum, Freddy, Jason, Michael, Pinhead, Chucky, and all the rest had become as dry as a mummified corpse. It was time for horror to slink back into the shadows from whence it was born to uncover something new.

As in all of the previous decades, horror in the 1990’s drew on real contemporary fears to create compelling fiction. The first Gulf War and the recession of 1990 set the cultural tone at the opening of the decade. The negative consequences of regulation and unchecked capitalism were beginning to show their effects. Though a small elite profited from the “greed is good” mantra of the 80’s, many were left worse off, and it would take some time before people realized just how badly. Major news events like the L.A. riots in 1992, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal were reported globally on the emerging 24/7 news cycle, making the apparent doom of a cracked society inescapable to the everyday person. With the L.A. riots, conflict was brought right to Hollywood’s front yard, causing shockwaves through the entire movie business. Even though the Cold War was finally over, people were still being fed plenty of reasons to fear, and increasingly, harm the Other: skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disease, addiction, political ideology.

The decade also saw its horror movies reflecting fears about the approaching end of the millennium. Would there be truth to ancient, cryptic prophecies foretelling the end times? Would the year 2000 trigger a deadly sequence of global catastrophes resulting in the Apocalypse? Followers of the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate died en masse for their beliefs in 1993 and 1997, respectively. The intense coverage of both events centered around the simple but daunting question: were they right? Did they achieve early salvation? Were the rest of, left behind, damned for years of pain and suffering? As the world fretted about the future, many horror filmmakers looked to the past for answers, reinterpreting old narratives through a postmodern lens. A simpler, more authentic entertainment took the place of the comic excess of the 80’s. “Raw” and “real” were the monikers of the day, but that didn’t always allow room for fun. Horror films of the 90’s lean towards brown palettes and muted, earthy tones. New sorts of monsters were thus needed to match this somber mood.

Or at least, new versions of the old ones

At the beginning of the decade, Tim Burton was the most high profile filmmaker in the genre business, but his one true pure horror film of the 90’s didn’t come out until they were almost over, 1999’s Sleepy Hollow. All of his films still tended to deal with freakish outsiders, however, and were certainly heavy on dark, Expressionist imagery and atmosphere, whether it was the fairy tale-like Edward Scissorhands (1990) or the gothic dreamscape Batman Returns (1992) or even his very sincere biopic Ed Wood (1994). But it didn’t pay to do true horror, anyway. Franchises were floundering left and right, as demonstrated by The Exorcist III (1990), Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), Bride of Re-Animator (1991), Amityville 1992: It’s About Time (1992), and constant returns to Elm Street, Crystal Lake, and Haddonfield. All these series petered out in the 90’s, later to be revived, remade, or re-envisioned in the new century.

And yet, it was in the early days of the decade that horror made one of its strongest, most stylish impacts of all time in the form of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), adapted from the bestselling novel by Thomas Harris. The book is a sequel to Red Dragon, which Michael Mann had filmed as Manhunter (1986) without anyone really noticing, but Silence feels much like a standalone. It became the first horror movie not only to win Best Picture, but to sweep all of the Big Five categories at the Academy Awards. The topic of serial killing was not new to horror–characters like Dracula and Mr. Hyde are technically serial murderers, and Jack the Ripper was mimicked heavily in 1940’s efforts like The Lodger (1944) and The Spiral Staircase (1946). And that’s not even mentioning Norman Bates, Michael Myers, and the copious black-gloved slashers of Dario Argento’s gialli films. Through the 80’s, however, as the term “serial killer” became more widespread, more films began to tackle the subject in a clinical, realistic manner, notably John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), which wasn’t widely seen until the 90’s. Silence was the first film to co-opt the serial killer as found in police procedurals with the inside-the-mind-of-a-madman drama and produce a horror film. In the process, Demme proved that the horror movie could be a matter of treatment as much as subject.

Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who combines elements of both Dracula and Renfield, became the boogeyman of the 90’s. A cultured cannibal psychiatrist, words away from any real life serial killer, he is witty, sensitive, charismatic, and very, very dangerous. Hopkins reprised the role in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001), from Harris’s sequel novel, and Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002), a remake of Manhunter done in imitation of Demme’s style. As the cycle progressed, Lecter became less an uncontrollable psychotic and more a refined vigilante, dining on “the free-range rude.” There were, inevitably, imitations with increasingly bizarre genius murderers and neurotic profilers, from the aptly named Copycat (1995) to Kiss the Girls (1997) to The Bone Collector (1999). David Fincher’s Seven (1995) came from the Silence tradition, but it held water on its own strengths. The killer’s gimmick–grisly deaths themed to the Seven Deadly Sins–would have been right on point for Vincent Price in Dr. Phibes mode, but the film’s distinctive noir, rainy, twisted intensity helped it stand out, and has been copied copiously. Equally mimicked is the five-minute credit sequence of Seven, directed by Kyle Cooper–a montage of diary entries, classical paintings, crime scene photos, and other strange artifacts cleverly edited together that has been imitated in everything from Buffy to Mindhunter.

You’ve definitely seen this style more than seven times

Hopkins moved from Lecter to Van Helsing for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), one of the most significant gothic revivals. The film promoted itself on its faithfulness to Stoker’s text right in the title, but reworked the story in ways that its author would have found ridiculous. With the slogan “Love Never Dies” hanging over the film, our beloved Count (Gary Oldman) seeks not to bring a vampire plague down upon Victorian Britain, but to reunite with the reincarnation of his lost love (Winona Ryder). Though it didn’t quite blow anyone out of the water, the film opened the way for a number of big budget gothic horror romances: Anne’s Rice long-in-development Interview with the Vampire finally made it to the big screen in 1994, with Neil Jordan directing a pouty Brad Pitt and a hissy Tom Cruise as the louche vampires Louis and Lestat; Kenneth Branagh tried to wrestle Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) into a tale of passion rather than rejection, with Robert De Niro giving an especially disappointing performance as the Monster; Mike Nichols’s Wolf (1994) saw Jack Nicholson as a meek publisher who becomes an alpha male werewolf in pursuit of Michelle Pfeiffer; and Stephen Frears ended the cycle with the much maligned Jekyll and Hyde variant Mary Reilly (1996), adapted from Valerie Martin’s novel where Stevenson’s story is seen from the point of view of a maid (Julia Roberts) in the household of Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich). As is often the case, the most reviled of the cycle is also the most interesting–Frears takes Stevenson and Martin seriously rather than paying lip service in an effort to churn out a gothic date movie.

Auteurs committed to the genre were struggling. George Romero and Dario Argento collaborated on a Poe project, Two Evil Eyes (1990) before Romero made a decent Stephen King adaptation with The Dark Half (1992) and went silent for over a decade. Argento made a string of disappointments mostly starring his daughter Asia. Larry Cohen directed a Hitchcockian thriller, The Ambulance (1990) then reverted to peddling spec scripts, one of which became Phone Booth (2002). Sam Raimi did well with Darkman (1990), a superhero monster movie, and Army of Darkness (1992), the third Evil Dead movie. He then tried his hand at a Western (The Quick and the Dead, 1995), a sports movie (For the Love of the Game, 1999), and a thriller (A Simple Plan, 1998). David Cronenberg dabbled in literary adaption with Naked Lunch (1991) and M. Butterfly (1993). Clive Barker let the Hellraiser franchise slip away from him and followed it up with the very interesting if botched Nightbreed (1990) and the makeshift Lord of Illusions (1995). He did maintain a strong presence in the genre as the original author of Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), which became a minor franchise of its own and a turning point for Black horror. John Carpenter had steady work with In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Village of the Damned (1995), and Vampires (1998). Though they are on the weaker side of Carpenter’s resume, all of them are better than Tobe Hooper’s Spontaneous Combustion (1990), Night Terrors (1993), and The Mangler (1995). Brian De Palma had found his way into mainstream affairs like Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Carlito’s Way (1993), and Mission: Impossible (1995), but he still found time for one underrated, very personal horror feature, Raising Cain (1992).

David Lynch, meanwhile, had an iffy decade commercially, but continued to maintain a reputation of being at the cutting edge of…well, everything. Twin Peaks (1990-92), an ambitious TV series Lynch co-created with Mark Frost, began as a mix of small town melodrama, quirky comedy, murder mystery, and psycho-horror, morphed into quasi-Lovecraftian terror thanks to its nightmare-inducing boogeyman “BOB” and the constant bleeding of the supernatural into the lives of a peculiar, isolated community. Twin Peaks drew on Stephen King, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Thomas Harris, and was itself a massive inspiration for The X-Files (1993-2002; 2016-2018), Lars von Trier’s Danish haunted hospital TV soap The Kingdom (1994-97), and a surprising number of mainstream horror films. Lynch’s big screen prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), wasn’t as beloved by fans at the time, but is arguably the scariest movie of the decade. Lynch went on to do Lost Highway (1997), another mixed genre affair with some truly terrifying material, then pivoted to The Straight Story (1999), which showed he could tell a softer kind of tale. All of Lynch’s films have proven more rewarding with multiple viewings. Mulholland Drive (2001) is another touchstone, a film that countless horror films of the new century look to for ideas in casting, stone, and subject matter.

And all the lesbian undertones

Wes Craven borrowed a Twin Peaks couple (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) for his monstrous landlords in The People Under the Stairs (1991), an underrated social cartoon that mixed Scooby-Doo chases with a horrific rumination on class and race in contemporary America. He then moved on to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1992), a meta-meditation on the Elm Street films which takes place in “our world” and is an ingenious, postmodern think piece that still remembers to be quite scary. And yet, neither of this reflective pieces worked with audiences at the time. They much preferred Craven’s Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), an Eddie Murphy vehicle that was severely lacking soul. After this, Craven signed with Dimension, Miramax’s genre outfit, to direct a script called Scary Movie, written by horror enthusiast Kevin Williamson. During production, it was retitled Scream (1996) and the resulting film clicked in a way Craven’s other 90’s films–and really, anyone else’s 90’s films–hadn’t. Scream revived not only Craven’s career but the slasher sub-genre as a whole. It was postmodern, yes, but far more approachable than New Nightmare, and it has a feel for the callous hipness of 90’s American teens that gives it an uneasy undercurrent. Craven spent the rest of the decade on for Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000), making sure that Williamson’s clever concepts and smart dialogue paired well with perfectly calibrated stalk-and-scare sequences. The Scream trilogy displays Craven’s penchant for timing and his knack for turning potentially hackneyed scenes of people menaced by masked killers into textbook exercises in shock and shiver.

Williamson went on to script I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), which kept the slasher renaissance alive and earned its own disappointing sequels. He also wrote The Faculty (1998), a high school take on the body snatching sub-genre, then directed Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999). The runaway success of Scream encouraged both new gimmick, meta slashers like Urban Legends (1998) and Cherry Falls (2000) and also helped old properties get better funding. Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998), which Williamson contributed to, achieved a much higher profile than the sequels between Halloween II (1981) and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), aided of course by the return of Jamie Lee Curtis to the franchise. Williamson’s writing style was catchy and smart, similar to his contemporary Joss Whedon, who had written the run-of-the-mill teen horror comedy Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). Whedon was still able to somehow relaunch the story as a long-running, successful TV series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar–a victim in both Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Buffy (1997-2003) spun off a vampire detective series, Angel (1999-2004), and encouraged a slew of similar shows like Charmed (1998-2006) and Smallville (2001-2011). Many of the stars and supporting actors from these shows soon found themselves in quickie, teen-themed horror that all sought to capitalize on the success of Scream.

The Faculty was directed by Robert Rodriguez, who handled another script from a 90’s hot name in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), a road movie/vampire story from Quentin Tarantino, originally planned to be an entry in the Tales From the Crypt film series, as was Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996). The 90’s saw an influx of video-store-clerk horror filmmakers, many who imitated Tarantino’s style and wanted to honor the exploitation films they had grown up with. Jackson, who had come on the scene with Bad Taste (1987), honored the splatter style with Braindead/Dead Alive (1992), a zombie comedy with a sweat streak and a willingness to go for the extreme which seems odd in light of Jackson’s later Tolkien-powered enthronement as an Oscar winning A-lister. Meanwhile, Guillermo del Toro went from Cronos (1993), an unusual Spanish-language vampire film, to Mimic (1997), a New York-set giant insect picture. As with Sam Raimi, these directors waffled between big budget studio fare and down and dirty projects, but solidified their reputations as being handle hundred million dollar spectacles with an eye on box office records and/or Academy gold.

Don’t you make that face at me, Quents

The countdown to the millennium brought with it thoughts of the end of all things and, eventually, religion. The potential apocalypse included a revival of the alien invasion/disaster genre thanks to Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster Independence Day (1996) and Tim Burton’s retro Mars Attacks! (1996). Michael Tolkin had produced a quieter, creepier effort several years earlier with The Rapture (1992), which at once depicts and criticizes the fundamentalist Christian vision of the End Times. Later, the direct-to-video market became swarmed with character actors like Mr. T, Caspar Van Dien, and Gary Busey doing battle against the Antichrist in films like Apocalypse (1998), The Omega Code (1999), and Left Behind (2000). The tone of these Protestant films isn’t all that different from the run their Exorcist-style Catholic counterparts from the same era: Stigmata (1999), End of Days (1999), Bless the Child (2000), and Lost Souls (2000). The Devil was back in business, but audiences were by and large attracted to more tangible menaces. A more sustained, unusual kind of apocalypse was keyed to a prescient finale in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), a canny rethink of Jekyll and Hyde for changing times that reflects on masculinity, identity, and unrestrained impulses.

In the closing days of the century, three horror films became global, cultural phenomena. From Japan, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) was the breakout entry in a run of Asian ghost stories that had quietly begun with the Korean haunted school effort Whispering Corridors (1998). Drawing from classical Eastern ghost stories of melancholy, lank-haired, girl specters, Ringu brought a fresh angle to urban legends with its cursed videotape that brings doom within a week to anyone who watches it. A box office hit, Ringu took a minute to connect internationally but became hugely influential, spawning several sequels and an effective American version in 2002. Meanwhile, another ghost story took the States by storm. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) was a subtle, affecting, genuinely scary peek beyond the veil. Along with Fight Club, The Sixth Sense made an instant cliché out of its twist ending. Shyamalan made films on the same pattern in the new century with varying degrees of success, but none resonated with filmgoers the way The Sixth Sense did. The third hit of the millennium’s finale year was even more unexpected: Edward Myrick and Daniel Sanchez’s micro-budgeted, ingeniously marketed The Blair Witch Project (1999), a mockumentary with a keen sense of the unappealing way people actually behave in dire situations. The film’s atmosphere oozes dread, accomplishing a great deal of terror while showing next to nothing. The Blair Witch Project launched the found footage sub-genre into a nigh unstoppable beast in the new millennium, a symbol of the shifting nature of the horror film and a harbinger of the innovation and change that was to come.

Potentially the single scariest frame in all of horror

Next up, found footage and J-horror help usher the genre into a new era, while teen slashers and new gothics mingle with emerging creatives

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

[Horror History] Exotic Monsters (The 1930’s)


This is Part 3 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Once again, we begin with Dracula.

When Bela Lugosi was interviewed about his stage performance as the Count, journalists would often ask if he was worried about being typecast in “mystery plays.” After Lugosi starred in Tod Browning’s 1931 film adaptation of Dracula and Frankenstein (1931) entered pre-production at Universal, competing studios began rooting about for similar properties to chase the Dracula dollars and the term “horror film” slipped into general usage.

When the British Film Board instituted a special rating for these “distasteful” items, they labeled them as “H” for “Horrific”–which seems to have sealed the deal insofar as naming the genre went. It wasn’t a linguistic inevitability, though. Terms like “macabre,” “gothic,” “weird,” “terror,” “monster,” and “shudder” were also available. And though Dracula signaled the birth of a cinematic genre, there’s a sense that neither the studio nor the director had their heart in the film. Both were involved with the project because of Lon Chaney. With his death in 1930, it may have even seemed like a contractual obligation to see it through. Universal dilly-dallied with casting choices before resorting, essentially because he was cheap, to Lugosi. It may be that they didn’t go with Conrad Veidt because they didn’t see Dracula as a super-spectacular like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which was then in re-release as a semi-talkie film, or even The Man Who Laughs (1928).

Browning also hardly gave Dracula his best work. Though stunningly designed and photographed by Karl Freund, who had done The Golem (1920) and Metropolis (1926), the picture is basic filmmaking, certainly not on par with The Unknown (1927) or other Chaney-Browning films. Some have argued that the simultaneous Spanish version of Dracula, shot on the same sets from a translation of the John L. Balderson script is more excitingly directed by George Melford. There’s no denying that Browning’s version is more succinct, however; he tore out redundant pages that Melford faithfully plods through. With the better pacing of the English version, and Lugosi’s iconic performance in a role Carlos Villarias cannot claim to own in the way that the Hungarian did (and does), the English-language Dracula stands strong on its own. Browning’s film also has the definitive fly-eating Renfield played by Dwight Frye, whose cracked laugh is also as imitable as Lugosi’s haunting “I…am…Dracula” accent.

Plus that winning smile

There was some enthusiasm for Dracula on Universal’s side, though. It came from studio head Carl Laemmle Jr., newly promoted by his doting father. But even he didn’t consider how radical the material truly was. To the Laemmles, Dracula was a solid, proven property: a novel everyone knew and a play that was still running. The studio that had made their mark with The Phantom of the Opera and The Cat and the Canary (1927) thought they knew what they were getting into. Dracula was even, technically, a remake: Nosferatu (1922) might have been officially suppressed at the time, but it certainly wasn’t forgotten. Clips of the film turn up in a Universal short called Boo! (1932), so there was likely a print on the lot for easy reference. And F.W. Murnau was well known around town as one of the first Oscar winners for his film Sunrise (1928).

The different between what had come before in Hollywood and Dracula was underlined by the play’s epilogue, in which Dr. Van Helsing (played by Edward Van Sloan in the film) comes out from behind the curtain to assure the audience that “there are such things.” Before, the Phantom was malformed at birth. The Cat was just a secondary heir in a fright mask. Even Chaney’s pointy-fanged vampire in London After Midnight (1927) turned out to be a sleuth playing dress up to catch a killer. But Lugosi’s Dracula was a real-life, honest-to-Bram-Stoker bloodsucking reanimated corpse. Hollywood had been leery of “such things” and practical Yankee reviewers often sneered about their appearance in European films. Browning didn’t much care either way. He remade London After Midnight as Mark of the Vampire (1935), with Lugosi in the cloak again, and tried to get away with a Scooby-Doo ending as though he hadn’t founded a whole new cinematic genre with Dracula.

Laemmle Jr. took note of the unexpected box office bonanza of Dracula (reportedly a $700,000 profit on a $340,000 budget), which hit theaters in February 1931. He immediately began to develop Frankenstein, managing to get it out before the end of the year despite a change in both director and star during pre-production. Originally, Robert Florey was set to direct Lugosi as the creature, but Englishman James Whale, whom Laemmle valued as one of Universal’s top assets, was given the pick of all the studio’s properties and chose Mary Shelley’s “man who made a monster.” Lugosi (who, forever after, claimed to have turned down the Monster role rather than being unceremoniously dumped by a Brit who didn’t take him seriously) and Florey were shunted off to make Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), a Poe adaptation that’s also a lightly disguised remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Whale cast his London stage associate Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein, bumping out Leslie Howard, and scuppered Lugosi’s future career by selecting Anglo-Indian bit player Boris Karloff (born William Pratt) to wear Jack P. Pierce’s make-up as the Monster.

And he really does wear it well

In the opening credits of Frankenstein, Karloff is billed as “?” His name, not familiar to the public despite decades of playing secondary villains and one-scene psychotics, was not revealed until the “a good cast is worth repeating” closing crawl. If Dracula is a thrown-together piece that somehow works, Frankenstein is the result of considered thought by the director, make-up man (a great deal of the film’s lasting strength is that unbeatable, copyrighted Monster) and cast. The script is even more makeshift than Dracula‘s, with too many irreconcilable ideas thrown in. Quite a lot of fuss is made about the plot point that the hunchback minion Fritz (Dwight Frye again playing a sycophantic lackey) has snatched an “abnormal brain” for use in the Monster’s skull, but this “explanation” for why the experiment turns out badly is at odds with Whale’s (and Shelley’s) depiction of the creature as an innocent who only reacts viciously when abused or neglected and whose worst crime (drowning a little girl) is simply a tragic misunderstanding.

The early stirrings of censoring grumblers (especially in Britain, the spiritual home of Dracula and Frankenstein) did more to excite than depress box office figures. With two proven hits, Universal realized they had a new-made genre on their hands–complete with iconic stars, supporting actors, standing sets, behind-the-camera talent like Whale, Pierce, and Freund, and a shelf load of suitable material–and that their horror monopoly would not last long. Lugosi, though he signed on for a Poverty Row quickie (shot on a Universal lot, ironically), White Zombie (1932), retained some of his Dracula magic in the troubled Murders in the Rue Morgue and would remain, resentfully, the studio’s number-two bet for any horror role. But Whale and Karloff were the treasured pair, and were both cannier and more ambitious than Lugosi in parlaying their breakout success into whole careers. The duo reunited for The Old Dark House (1932), adapted from a J.B. Priestly novel, which summed up the entire genre of pre-Dracula “old dark house” horror comedies. Whale even recreates some of Paul Leni’s compositions from The Cat and the Canary. The gloomy drawing room is filled with clipped, soon-to-be-familiar British players like Raymond Massey, Ernest Thesiger, and Charles Laughton. They sprout sardonic dialogue while Karloff grunts about as the below-stairs brute Morgan, the drunken Welsh butler. Whale was a working class lad who reinvented himself as a West End gentleman, whereas Karloff was the public-educated black sheep of a distinguished diplomatic family who’d oddly served decades as a manual laborer before becoming an actor. Whale disparagingly referred to Karloff as “the truck driver.”

Perhaps sensing that he was being “kept in his place,” Karloff passed on Whale’s offer for The Invisible Man (1933), in which his voice would finally be heard but only on the condition that his face was kept off screen. Claude Rains, another well-spoken Englishman of humble origins, landed the role instead. His silky voice quickly established him as a character star. Meanwhile, Lugosi moaned that if only he had played the Monster he would have gotten all the career breaks which came to Karloff. Karloff, for his part, never insisted that if had played the Invisible Man he would have landed Rains’s stand-out roles in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca (1943), and Notorious (1945).

Do you know how many children the Invisible Man has? None, he’s not apparent!

Karloff was at last allowed to talk, revealing an educated lisp, in The Mummy (1932), a swift rewrite of Dracula mingled with She and contemporary tabloid stories about the “Curse of King Tut.” With Karl Freund promoted to director and a streamlined script with little eccentricity, The Mummy can comfortably be called Hollywood’s first conveyor-belt horror film, i.e. commissioned by a studio that knew what they were getting, modeled after what had worked before, and showcasing a star that was both a proven talent and a box office draw. The Mummy is informed by a small whiff of graveyard poetry in the form of another memorable Jack Pierce makeup job and the melancholy tunes of Swan Lake playing over the credits, as in Dracula and many other Universal movies of the time.

By now, the competition was on the rise. Every studio in Hollywood had their onw would-be Dracula or Frankenstein on the starting blocks. Paramount, the most elegant and sophisticated of the major studios, looked to classic novels which nevertheless offered an opportunity for lurid, sexualized violence. First, they greenlit Robert Mamoulian to direct Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), with Fredric March trumping John Barrymore’s silent performance by playing the handsome doctor as a parody of matinee idol Barrymore and the ape-like mister as a shaggy thug in evening dress with a nasty streak of sadistic humor. Paramount’s second-string monster flick was Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1933) with Charles Laughton as a flabby, whip-wielding incarnation of H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau. An unrecognizable Lugosi hides under face-fur as a beast man added in post-production to beef up the film’s horror status. March won Best Actor at the Oscars that year for his Jekyll/Hyde and his victory started to silence prudes who thought the film was too explicit about the double-man’s relationship with with Soho tart Ivy (Miriam Hopkins). Meanwhile, Island of Lost Souls was banned in the U.K. for its vivisection and implied bestiality.

Warner Brothers, who specialized in rattling, contemporary, torn-from-the-headline dramas (even their musicals are realistic) had Michael Curtiz direct a pair of twisted whodunnits in lovely new Technicolor, Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). These introduced Lionel Atwill as another British horror face, voice, and leer. Paramount snapped him up for their nasty Murders in the Zoo (1933) but then lost him to Universal. These films also introduced Fay Wray as a leggy beauty, though she’s upstaged by Glenda Farrell’s wisecracking proto-Lois Lane in Wax Museum. The two films mixed disfigured fiends, mad geniuses, “moon murders,” and “synthetic flesh” with snappy reporters doing self-aware gags (“he makes Frankenstein look like a lily”) and complaining about Prohibition. Warner Bros. never really committed to horror, but Curtiz did land Karloff his role in The Walking Dead (1935), which sees gangsters stalked by a vengeful zombie in one of the first body-count movies. The studio also put their contract player Humphrey Bogart in an unlikely “scientific vampire” role for The Return of Dr. X (1939).

Humphrey Bo-gey man?

RKO had their own monster in the works with King Kong (1933), though the giant ape doesn’t seem to be as much an attempt to mimic Dracula and Frankenstein as it does the 1926 film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which had proved that Willis H. O’Brien’s hand-animated prehistoric creatures could carry a picture. While producer-directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper were toiling Kong, they had time to use the same sets and lead actress Fay Wray in a quickie classic, The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Here, Leslie Banks was cast in the Karloff-Atwill-Rains mold as Count Zaroff, a Russian huntsman with perfect Shaftesbury Avenue tones and a distinctive way of holding a cigarette. Zaroff’s passion is stalking “the most dangerous game,” man. The Richard Connell story would be remade often and Zaroff is an early archetype of the sadistic mad genius who would feature in many horror melodramas before mutating into the role model for classic James Bond villains (Christopher Lee’s Man With the Golden Gun in particular has many Zaroff traits). After the awe-inspiring debut of King Kong, RKO rushed out Son of Kong (1933), the genre’s first disappointing sequel. The poor reception led to the studio quitting horror altogether until the 1940’s.

MGM, which liked to think themselves the most prestigious studio on the row, obviously now had to get in on the horror fanfare. Chaney and Browning had worked there through the 1920’s under the aegis of supposed living genius Irving Thalberg. Browning returned to the studio for Freaks (1932) with Chaney replaced by real sideshow oddities. The result is regarded as Browning’s masterpiece, though it is wildly inconsistent in tone. The film was then hastily sold off by the studio to grindhouse exhibitors who touted it as a roadshow shocker alongside Dwain Esper’s astounding Poe-derived Maniac (1934). Since Freaks didn’t work at the time (though it’s fondly looked on as a genre classic now), the studio played it safe by hiring Karloff and adapting a proven property with The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). But once again, MGM vacillated, switching directors and failing to settle on a proper tone. Despite this, Fu Manchu was the film where Karloff really broke out and showed that he could more than a dutiful studio employee, relishing sadistic camp in a manner even Whale wouldn’t dare. Myrna Loy, playing the devil doctor’s daughter, played her character as a sadistic nymphomaniac and puritanical, moralistic studio boss Louis B. Mayer, in a perpetual power struggle with Thalberg, was duly horrified. Browning, though regarded as burn out now, was still welcome on the studio lot. After Mark of the Vampire, he managed one other quirky effort, the grotesque science-fiction tale of miniaturized assassins, The Devil-Doll (1936). Perhaps MGM’s best horror film of the decade, however, was another attempt to fit the Universal template, Mad Love (1935). Freund was hired to direct from a script based on Maurice Renard’s novel The Hands of Orlac (1920). The story had previously come to screen as a German silent film and the new version starred established second-rank horror players Colin Clive and Peter Lorre, who was well on his way to the first-rank after his performance in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) impressed all the Hollywood executives too scared to greenlight a film about child murder.

Finally, the independent Halperin organization gave Lugosi one of his better roles in White Zombie, drawing on the then-hot topic of Caribbean voodoo. The film introduced the apparatus of wax dolls and walking corpses and exploited the genre’s simultaneous fascination with and denial of ethnic cultures (the implication of the title is that a “Black Zombie” wouldn’t be news). Never a major force, even on Poverty Row, the Halperins managed to produce a semi-sophisticated tale of possession with Supernatural (1933) and a near-unwatchable follow-up, Return of the Zombies (1936). Other quickie outfits were ready to sign Lugosi and Atwill and borrow Universal sets. Majestic produced The Vampire Bat (1933) with Atwill and Fay Wray, along with Condemned to Live (1935). The success of White Zombie inspired Drums o’Voodoo (1934), Black Moon (1934), and Ouanga (1935). If things dried up in Hollywood, there were always jobs abroad. Karloff returned home in triumph for The Ghoul (1933) and The Man Who Changed His Mind (1933), while Lugosi was made welcome in England for The Phantom Ship (1935), one of the first features from newly founded studio Hammer Films, along with The Dark Eyes of London (1939), directed by Edgar Wallace. But if horror had a true home, it was still on the Universal lot.

Nice day for a…white zombie

Laemmle Jr. wanted to spend 1934 teaming up Karloff and Lugosi with another big horror name he didn’t have to pay for: Edgar Allan Poe. The Black Cat (1934), directed by the ambitious Edgar C. Ulmer, owes more to The Most Dangerous Game than the Poe story that shares its name but nevertheless gives the actors lots of material worth chewing over. Karloff plays a perverted diabolist who lives in a modern castle built over the battlefield where all the men he betrayed in the war were killed. Lugosi is a vengeance-seeking obsessive who plans on skinning Karloff alive for his treason. It worked so well that the gang was back together, with Ulmer replaced by the less artsy Louis Friedlander for The Raven (1935), in which Lugosi’s Poe-obsessed mad plastic surgeon gives Karloff’s gangster a new, hideous face. In this pair of films, the stars are evenly matched, alternating lead villain and vengeful stooge. By The Invisible Ray (1936), Karloff was the undisputed lead as a glowing mutant and Lugosi is just along for the name value. Meanwhile, Universal, wary of Whale’s increasing demands, tried to boost other directors to “horror men” status. Stuart Walker handed a couple of gothic Dickens films, getting good mad work from Claude Rains in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935), and was given The WereWolf of London (1935), in which Henry Hull subs for Karloff as a botanist infected with lycanthropy by Warner Oland in the Himalayas. As the first talkie werewolf movie, London ended up less as a mainstay and more as a rough draft for a sub-genre that didn’t quite come together until The Wolf Man in 1941.

What Universal really wanted weren’t just follow-ups, but proper sequels. James Whale was given carte blanche along with a dream cast including Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester to make Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which is at once a genuine expansion of his original and a deconstructive parody of it. Waspish, sly, charming, pervasive, and emotionally devastating, Bride of Frankenstein shows how far Hollywood had come in only four years; already, the 1931 film, with its lack of music and dull, drawing-room chats, seemed antique. The sequel, meanwhile, as a full score by Franz Waxman, no patience for boring characters (Valerie Hobson barely gets a look-in, though she officially has the title role), and enormous visual sophistication paired with bare-faced, blasphemous cheek. If it had been up to Whale, the horror cycle would have ended with Bride. He certainly had no more to say on the subject. Like Browning, he didn’t really work after the mid-1930’s. Universal, of course, saw things differently. They had Dracula’s Daughter (1936) in production with Gloria Holden in the title role and Lugosi nowhere to be found. The sequel films of the latter half of the decade were brisk, efficient entertainments but most lacked in real chills and gothic charm of the originals.

Interestingly, around the time that the first cycle of sequels dominated the production schedule, the horror film fell out of Hollywood favor. Pressure from British censors and moralists mounted due to the rising tension in Europe. Whispers of war and atrocious Nazi crimes were abundant. This brought about a horror hiatus that was somewhat bizarre given that the voice of Hollywood horror had a distinctly British accent. Much of horror’s subject matter came from British authors and the remarkable Tod Slaughter was in constant employment in tiny studios around London outdoing any depravity Karloff or Lugosi could imagine, particularly in Sweeney Todd, or the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) and The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936). Meanwhile, Karloff spent the end of the thirties playing a Charlie Chan knock-off Chinese sleuth for the low-grade Monogram studio and Lugosi was on welfare. Yet as the decade came to a close, it seemed the horror express would be back on the rails.

Of course when I think of “horror express” I’m reminded of this terrifying Hey, Arnold! episode

Hailed as “the greatest year for film,” 1939 was certainly the year of super productions. Besides mammoth Southern drama Gone with the Wind and ultimate children’s tale The Wizard of Oz, there were several epic-scale, all-star, A-picture revivals of genres that had fallen to programmer status, notably the Western drama Stagecoach and gangster flick The Roaring Twenties. Horror also made a triumphant return thanks to a successful double-feature re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein that prompted Universal to produce Son of Frankenstein (1939)–inevitably casting Karloff in his final go-around as the Monster and Lugosi as the broken-necked Ygor, arguably his finest screen role. The incisive Basil Rathbone and clipped Lionel Atwill rounded out the principle cast and made up for the absence of dry, British Whale, who was replaced by Rowland V. Lee.

Rathbone also donned the deerstalker that year for the first time to star in Fox’s Hound of the Baskervilles while Paramount polished off an old Universal property and cast Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in a remake of The Cat and the Canary alongside perennial supporting suspects George Zucco and Gale Sondergaard. RKO mounted a lavish version of another silent Universal hit with The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton. There was even time within the year for follow-ups: Universal had Lee, Karloff, and Rathbone get together to make historical horror Tower of London, Fox pinched Rathbone back for a macabre duel against Moriarty (Zucco) in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and RKO got another Broadway mystery remake in the can with The Gorilla starring the Ritz brothers, Atwill, and Lugosi.

Like the classic monsters themselves, horror was back.

Boris Karloff climbin’ in yo windows in The Ghoul (1933)

Next, Part 4 looks at the looming, animalistic terror of the 1940’s

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.