May 6th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Blah |

What’s Classic About Classic Horror?

by Ghastly McNasty

“What’s that thing?”
“A knife.”
“What’s it doing?”
–The Raven (1935)

When you think of horror films from the 1930’s, the first thing that might come to mind is their historical value. After all, without the huge successes of the original Dracula and Frankenstein, horror movies would have been off to a slow start indeed, and we probably wouldn’t have the more modern classics that we take for granted today. No Night Of The Living Dead, no Alien, no Scream…a bleak prospect, indeed.

What else does 1930’s horror make you think of? They do have a certain glamour (refreshingly different after the endless fashion revivals of the Sixties and Seventies), the screen presence of greats like Karloff and Lugosi, and a particularly gleeful “full speed ahead” feeling. There’s none of the moral complexity and downbeat mood of, say, Forties horror, like Isle Of The Dead or The Body Snatcher.

The Raven

You can also see the twisted reflections of the problems of the day in Thirties horror movies. The Depression drained people dry, just like Lugosi’s Dracula, and who wasn’t anxious about the latest Frankenstein Monster-like technological advances? (Looks like the Nord had a dark side.) These pleasures are mostly for students of that era, however.

The most attractive thing about these horrors from the 30s is just how fun they were. They comprise a separate little world of their own, an old-fashioned but thoroughly moderne world where you can be chased by zombies, mummies, vampires or man-made monsters, experimented on, stuffed and mounted in a glass case, sacrificed to Satan, and rescued by David Manners. And all depicted in the most tasteful Deco manner. No boring gore; the horrors were all left to your imagination. And isn’t the imagination sometimes the scariest thing of all?

It’s more than just the meeting of mad science and perennial terrors, however. These films all have a certain similar structure, and a cast of characters so familiar that they make any horror fan feel right at home. These films were the source for all the horror movie conventions we take for granted, which makes things predictable, but fun and satisfying.

Each film starts with our heroes, the Charming Young Couple. They are usually either newlyweds or engaged (although sometimes they meet during the course of the film, as in The Mummy). One thing’s for sure, though, it’s True Love, which is why their relationship endures all kinds of monsters.

If only real life were that simple…And as for charm, well, this couple are sometimes interesting as a reflection of the ideals of their time and place. But let’s face it; the audiences want to see the monster, not Madge Bellamy or David Manners.

The Charming Young Couple consists of the Monster Bait (her) and the Useless Hero. More about him in a moment.

Next, there’s the Wise Old Man. He alone knows of the threat posed by the monster, villain or force of nature, and combats the threat while trying to warn the others. Thanks to the Useless Hero, however, he sometimes has an uphill struggle.

Here’s an example from Dracula, when Van Helsing and Harker are at the lunatic asylum, trying to figure out who the vampire is:

  • Van Helsing: “The vampire casts no reflection in the glass. That is why Dracula smashed the mirror.”
  • Harker: “I don’t mean to be rude, but that’s something I’d expect one of the patients here to say!”

The Monster Bait usually wakes up to what’s happening, but the Useless Hero persists in his dangerous ignorance. (Hubby knows best, dear.) Here’s an exchange from “The Raven”, where Jean wakes up to see Bateman, the villain’s sidekick, sneaking into her room through a trapdoor in the floor:

  • Jean: “Jerry, I saw a man coming up through the floor!”
  • Jerry: “Darling, I can understand you imagining all sorts of things, but not a man coming up through the floor!”

And now we come to the good stuff: The monster, or villain, and his sidekick. (The monster and villain are not always one and the same, however. In Bride Of Frankenstein, the monster is portrayed in a very sympathetic way, and actually becomes the sidekick, whereas Dr. Pretorious is most definitely the villain.)

Bride of Frankenstein

The villain is usually very charismatic as well as powerful, for example, Dr. Vollin, Dracula, Dr. Pretorius and Hjalmar Poelzig. Although he tends to be pretty one-dimensional, somehow this strengthens the character rather than detracting from him. As a rule, we don’t see much of his motivations, although Dr. Vollin from The Raven is one exception.

“When a man of genius is denied of his great love, he goes mad! His brain, instead of being clear to do his work, is tortured, so he begins to think of torture. Torture for those who have tortured him!”

This doesn’t explain all his villainy, though, because Dr. Vollin was into hobby torture before his ill-fated attraction to Jean.

If the villain has a sidekick, this character will usually have a change of heart, sometimes inspired by the kindness or beauty of the Monster Bait, which will cause him to double-cross the villain and allow the Charming Young Couple to escape.

Who can forget Bateman locking Dr.Vollin into the “room where the walls come together” in The Raven, or the Monster pulling the lever that destroys the lab at the end of Bride Of Frankenstein? (By the way, why did Dr. Pretorious install that lever? I’ve been in a few medical labs in my time, but I’ve yet to find one with a lever that will “blow us all to atoms!”)

And now, last and often least, we have the Painful Comedy Relief. “Bride of Frankenstein” is a perfect example. It has plenty of arch humor in each of the horrific scenes, beautifully incorporated, so why did James Whale include the unbearable Minnie (Una O’Connor)? Am I the only one who was waiting for her to become the next victim of the Monster?

The Black Cat also has two fairly painful “funny” characters, who both try to persuade the hero to visit their home towns, along with the hypochondriac Colonel from The Raven. (Personally, though, I quite like the party guests). The humor of a horror film always seems to work best when it’s a sly by-product of the horror, rather than put into a separate character or scene.

So there we have it–a set of fascinating horrors just waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation of guys and dolls. Let’s have a toast: “To a new world of Gods and Monsters!”

by Ghastly McNasty

Theatre of Terror

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