Sunday, 8 February 2015

A Legacy of Universal Horror


Lugosi’s Portrayal was a notable change and one which charmed both through image and through evil. Dracula is perhaps the most Handsome of all the famous monsters, yet he is the most evil, as he holds absolutely no sympathy or pathos. 

A Legacy of Universal Horror is the first film analysis essay I wrote as part of my A-Level Film Studies course back in 2007; although, there is an earlier essay I wrote as part of my GCSE English Literature course. 

However, in the Legacy essay I focused on the Universal Horror pictures, as they were a collection of films with which I had become acquainted in my adolescence and of which I subsequently grew very fond. Therefore, as every film student selects film material held in high esteem, the Universal Horror pantheon was my favourite choice for my first marked film essay. 

My writing was not great at this point and there are many grammatical errors throughout, but I was out to impress with this piece of work and ultimately earned an A for my efforts! 

I have updated the essay to include illustrative clips, but the actual essay is still hardly manages to express my appreciation of the Universal Horror pantheon.


A Legacy of Universal Horror

In the early years of cinema, between 1900 – 1930, many countries made what they considered to be horror films, however, only one country really made a formula of horror which was successful in both thrilling and frightening the spectator. This country was Germany and it produced not only some of the greatest film makers but also some of the greatest ground breaking films which still entertain today, these included such classics as: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927). 


Nosferatu - the stuff of nightmares.



The formula of horror which German films used was soon imitated by all who saw it and this was most notable in American Cinema: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Man Who Laughs (1928). This would continue into the 1930s, however, these horror films would begin to evolve as both a new generation of filmmakers was introduced as well as the addition of sound into movies, as all films before the thirties had been silent. 

A brief introduction to Universal Horror

This essay will specifically look at the Universal horror films which were made in the pre-1960s era. Two keys films: Dracula (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) as well as two key sequences shall be explored. Using these as examples the generic features, the hallmarks and conventions, of both sequences will be explored to determine how the audience finds them continually entertaining and also to illustrate how these films are typical of the current horror genre of the time.

The second of Universal’s talking horror films was the 1931 adaptation of Dracula, directed by Tod Browning. This was the second cinematic adaptation of Dracula to be made as the first had been made as an unauthorized 1922 German adaptation entitled Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Manau. The Universal version, however, even though it was inspired by the same formula and style, would differ in many significant ways. 

A trailer for Dracula.


The first and most notable would be its depiction of the character Count Dracula by the actor Bela Lugosi. Lugosi would play Dracula as a very sincere gentleman figure who, at first glance, did not appear evil just mysterious. The scene in which he is first introduced sets this up as the camera slowly pans into a figure of a elegant stance who is covered in fine black cloths and is newly awoken from the coffin he has just crawled from. The camera zooms into his eyes which hold both mystery and evil and it is this mystery which dares and teases the audience to keep watching. 

Dracula's introduction.

This portrayal was in contrast with both that of the book and of the 1922 adaptation, in which the count appeared grotesque as a kind of hybrid of vampire and rat. Lugosi’s portrayal was a notable change and one which charmed both through image and through evil. Dracula is perhaps the most Handsome of all the famous monsters, yet he is the most evil as he holds absolutely no sympathy or pathos. 

This is a subject which James Whale would later explore in his films, for his philosophy is that beautiful people always have evil thoughts, i.e. Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) in the opening prologue sequence of The Bride of Frankenstein - “Can you believe that lovely brow conceived of Frankenstein?”. 

"The perfect night for mystery and horror, the air itself is filled with monsters."

This is one of the conventions of the Universal Horror, in that; the films and characters contain very much a Film Noir aspect. This holds pleasure because the audience is fascinated by the dark side of the psyche, as famous horror tales such as Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde demonstrate.

The introduction scene of Dracula and the three subsequent scenes that follow are significant because these contain many key hallmarks of horror films before and horror films that would follow. In these scenes Count Dracula is very much the spider luring the fly into his web: “The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly” is directly referencing the seduction of the character Reinfield, played by Dwight Frye, however, it is also referring to how the film is luring the spectator into the web. For the spectator is just as unaware as Reinfield and will eventually be just as horrified. 

Dracula gets a craving.

Dracula is much more of a manipulative character compared to someone who just scares through killing. This is something which the audience enjoys, they like to let the film carry them or as Reinfield be lured further inside of Dracula’s castle where he will be surrounded by evil. 

The scene in which Dracula shows Reinfield to his room is very much a generic feature which is reminiscent of films before and films after. An old dark house is something which features prominently in nearly all of universal’s horrors: a building with tall windows, winding staircases, billowing curtains and expensive surroundings: for extravagance and terror go hand in hand to culminate in an atmosphere of romantic horror. The idea of a mysterious figure allowing a person shelter in their old dark house and then within that night evil occurrences happen is a narrative which turns up in many horror films of this period: The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Cat Creeps (1930) and The Old Dark House (1932). 

A from The Old Dark House also directed by James Whale's, this clip demonstrates his fascination with the decay of beauty, his preoccupation with death (he would commit suicide in 1957).

The house is the prison in which the wary character is trapped much like a nightmare from which they can not escape. The spectator enjoys these types of narratives because the spectator is the unwary traveler who finds themselves within these different, strange and even fantastically gothic surroundings, for this makes the spectator a part of the film which means they will enjoy and experience it all the more.

Another of Universal’s iconic horror films is 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale. One of the most famous and iconic sequences from the film is the Bride creation and introduction scene. It is very similar and a homage to the creation sequence of the monster in the previous film. 

"She's alive!"


Yet this one is vastly superior through: atmosphere, cinematography, budget and Mise-en-scene. This is also a scene which would become a convention of Frankenstein films as it turns up in every subsequent Frankenstein instalment. It has an apparent popularity with the audience, because they relished and expected it, yet the ones after Bride would never be as effective or superior. The creation sequence is successful and popular with the audience because it contains all the right ingredients; the German expressionistic laboratory made from stone, filled with all kinds of electrical apparatus, surgical tools, knobs and switches which all culminate and combine together with the ravaging lightning storm that creates an atmosphere of pure fascination. 

"He's alive!" The creation sequence from Frankenstein 1931.

The creation sequence is much like a fireworks show, in that, everybody knows what to expect yet each time they watch they are just as fascinated and mesmerised as the first time. Like a fireworks show the ingredients of the Bride creation sequence are iconic and universal throughout the world, for it has become one of those things which resides in the collective consciousness. This scene is very unique, in that, the spectator may not like the film but they will still be fascinated by it; the creation sequence is the Bride’s fireworks show.

The horror films of the pre-1960s era were restrained by the times in which they were made and later in the thirties by the Hays code. Better known today as the production code, it was a system of rules and regulations which set out to enforce censorship and to protect the spectator; it stated what could be put into a motion picture according to what was ethically correct. This meant that the horror films of the first half of the twentieth century were not as graphic, in blood and violence for example, as their modern day counter parts. 


Thus, these early horror films would use such devices as film noir, grotesquery, gothic design and the macabre as tools of horror and fright, yet these would all be kept in check by the Hays code. These regulations and codes seemed to have lead to much more character driven narratives and this is perhaps found in all the horror films of the time and is what makes them typical of the then horror genre. As each horror film contained more characters and more monsters which were all explored: The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf-Man, The Creature and not least Frankenstein’s Monster, played by Boris Karloff, who contains a significant amount of pathos and character development.

The Frankenstein Monster's soft side...

The monsters themselves can also be seen as generic features of this genre as in most cases the monster is a flawed character with whom the spectator can connect and sympathise with. This is a tool which works specifically well with the spectator for in these cases they become a part of the film and no longer have the stance of the spectator. The genre also contains characters who are larger than life, such as Count Dracula or Dr Pretorius, and who tease, fascinate and disgust the spectator by committing actions that both thrill and frighten. 

The Universal Monsters.


The films also contain many famous set pieces and perhaps the most famous and which is immediately identifiable is Frankenstein’s laboratory in which he stitches dead bodies together and then harnesses the power of lighting in an amazing spectacle of noise and light to create iconic monsters. Other set pieces include: Dracula’s castle and the Paris opera set which has featured in three of the four cinematic adaptations of the tale. 

These are all identifiable set pieces which are well known for the characters and events which took place within them from all the horror films in which they appeared and thus have become generic features which, because of their familiarity, create a sense of nostalgia in the audience which makes them enjoy them all the more. These early horror films together with their generic features of: characters, monsters, narratives, set pieces and style all culminate together into a legacy of Universal horror.


I also curate A Legacy of Universal Horror Pinterest board, I bid you welcome, children of the night...





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