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Horror Films of 1931: Bruce Markusen’s Retrospective Celebrates the Year’s 90th Anniversary



Horror Films of 1931: Bruce Markusen Respective Celebrates the Year's 90th Anniversary

What is the greatest year in the history of horror films? That is a question that has been asked by writers, fans, and industry icons many times over. A number of horror historians have tried to come up with a reasoned answer, but there has never really been a consensus as to what the correct answer might be.

Certainly, there are a few years that come to mind. One is 1968, when two landmark films made their debuts in American theaters: Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby. They are two absolute classics of the genre. The year also produced some very good secondary films, principally Witchfinder General (in one of Vincent Price’s most vicious roles) and the underrated Hammer film about Satanic worship, The Devil Rides Out. That makes for a core of four very good to great horror films.

One could also make a very strong argument for 1979, when both the original Alien and the well-promoted blockbuster, The Amityville Horror, became box office sensations. Supplementing the two headliners was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, a successful sequel to Night of the Living Dead, and the atmospheric Nosferatu the Vampyre, a terrific collaboration between director Werner Herzog and the often psychotic actor, Klaus Kinski. The summer of ’79 was so rife with explosive horror that Newsweek ran a cover article titled “Hollywood’s Scary Summer.”

Nosferatu the Vampyre 1979

Another candidate would be 1986, a year that boasts of an absolute classic in Aliens and two cult horror favorites, The Hitcher and Night of the Creeps. The year also had its share of disturbingly graphic horror, including the highly publicized remake of The Fly and the rather sickening story told in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. There’s a lot of impact to be found there, even if some of it could best be described as stomach-churning.

And then there was the more recent year of 1999, which produced two of my favorite horror films of all time: The Sixth Sense and the underrated Stir of Echoes, both of which dealt with themes of ghosts and hauntings in wonderfully creative ways and also gave us unexpected twist endings. The year also supplied us with two horror ventures heavy on action, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and the always-entertaining romp through the Egyptian landscape, The Mummy.

Frankly, one cannot go wrong in selecting any of these years. They all produced quality films, including legitimate classics, and plenty of depth, too. When one year features four or more very good horror releases, it’s a year that is sure to become memorable for those of us who consider ourselves horror “freaks.”

Night of the Creeps 1986 Alien

At least one other year needs to be mentioned. It was a year that predated most of us, at least those of us who are under the age of 90. It did not have the depth of quality films like the years mentioned above, but it did bring us two classics of the genre, along with a second-tier classic, all the while introducing us to some of the most famous monsters from both film and literature.

The year was 1931, making this a 90th anniversary celebration of sorts. I would hesitate to call 1931 the greatest year in horror films, in part because of the lack of depth, but also because Hollywood was still enduring the growing pains of the newly burgeoning sound era. But I’ll gladly make the argument that 1931 was the most influential year in horror history, because of its ability to introduce us to monsters that most filmgoers knew relatively little about (at least those who didn’t read their source-material novels), along with its strong influence on the moviemaking industry. 1931 hallmarked the beginning of Hollywood’s new era of horror, clearing a path for so many great films that came out over the rest of the decade and well into the 1940s.

The history-making nature of 1931 began early in the calendar year. On February 9, Dracula debuted in theaters in a place we don’t associate with major film releases—Asheville, North Carolina. Three days later, it made a bigger splash with its New York City premiere. And then on February 14 (Valentine’s Day, no less) Tod Browning’s film gained a nationwide release. It did not take long for word to spread about the film, which consistently filled theaters across the country.

Dracula 1931 Bela Lugosi

Dracula’s immediate box office success, while stunning, is not meant to indicate that it is a great film. It has many shortcomings. The story moves slowly, the camerawork is awkward, the editing is choppy, the special effects are primitive, and the lack of music makes for plenty of “dead air” during slower moments. It is a stodgy production, one that displays too many of the clunky features that filmmakers had relied upon during the years of the Silent Era.

Yet, we can put all of that aside, because Dracula became an extremely important film for two reasons. First, it showcased the enormous talents of Bela Lugosi, who plays the vampire that moves from Transylvania to the more heavily populated country of England. In so doing, Lugosi provided the template for so many future vampires of both cinema and television. Lugosi’s presence, from his steely-eyed stare to the deliberate and haunting delivery of his lines, carried the film. While director Browning showed only passing interest in leading the production, Lugosi took it all very seriously, threw all of his effort into the role. Thanks to Lugosi, and a supplementary effort by Dwight Frye as the crazed Renfield, Dracula went from being a potential disaster to becoming an iconic and intriguing production.

And second, Dracula proved that horror films could make money. In fact, Dracula did so well through walkup ticket sales that it saved Universal Studios from bankruptcy. Within 48 hours of its New York City premiere, Dracula sold 50,000 tickets. It would eventually turn a profit of $700,000, making it the most successful film for Universal in 1931.

Dracula 1931 Star Bela Lugosi

Without Dracula, Universal might well have fallen into financial ruin, perhaps never to recover. Dracula also kickstarted a wave of future horror films. In the short-term, we would see Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the longer view of 1930s culture, films like The Mummy, The Black Cat, and The Invisible Man made their entrances into theaters—and eventually onto American television screen. Without Dracula, it’s likely that none of those films would have been made, at least not in the 1930s and perhaps not ever.

With Dracula an unquestioned success, Universal’s head of production, Carl Laemmle, Jr. greenlighted more ventures into horror, starting with a not-so-little film called Frankenstein. Produced during the summer and early fall, Frankenstein first appeared in theaters on November 19, shown in Midwestern locations like Detroit and Peoria, Illinois, before gaining a more substantial nationwide release two days later.

Despite the lack of a precise marketing plan and promotional strategy, Universal found immediate success with Frankenstein. As noted horror historian and author David Skal explains, “I don’t think Universal had a particular distribution strategy. Unlike other studios, it didn’t have its own theater circuit and probably just made use of available play dates around the country.”

Frankenstein 1931 Star Boris Karloff

In spite of the scattershot distribution, which was also characteristic of Dracula, Frankenstein quickly won over fans, satisfying their newfound taste for horror. At one point, Universal announced a profit margin of over $708,000, matching the profit on Dracula (though much of that money did not arrive until 1932). Much of the credit for the success of Frankenstein goes to a 44-year-old actor who was unknown at the time. Boris Karloff, a journeyman actor from the Silent Era, delivered the performance of a lifetime as The Monster, a hulking, resurrected man constructed from the body parts of the deceased. It’s worth noting that The Monster was listed with a question mark in the initial credits, largely because Universal wanted to keep the actor’s identity a mystery, but it did not take long for Karloff to become the star of the film.

A strong supporting cast – Frye, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, and Edward Van Sloan – also delivered in supporting roles. Not only is the film well-acted, but it is buttressed by a good pace, great makeup, and an iconic monster that makes us hate him at times, but extracts sympathy at others.

If there is a weakness to Frankenstein, it is the running time, just an hour and 10 minutes. (This was a common problem with many of the horror films of the 1930s.) When Frankenstein ends, we want more; we don’t want the story to end.

Frankenstein 1931 Angry Monster

All things considered, Frankenstein is a far superior film to Dracula. It has a more intricate story, with better and smoother editing, judicious use of music, and a better array of dramatic sets. In many ways, Frankenstein delivered at a more sophisticated level than Dracula, which looked too much like a film left over from the Silent Era. Frankenstein, while still not fully evolved, played more like a film that could take advantage of sound, makeup, and special effects.

Quite frankly, Frankenstein needed to be better than Dracula. While Dracula did well with its audience, it’s important to remember that its theme and presentation of a vampire monster was relatively new and novel. (Up until then, Dracula had only been seen as a stage production.) It is not likely that moviegoers would have been as patient with Frankenstein committing the same mistakes just a handful of months later. Films fans were expecting improvement, as followers of any new hobby or trend would inevitably pine for.

Thanks to Frankenstein and Dracula, Universal Studios was now on more stable ground, and fully convinced that horror movies could work very well. Other studios took note. One of them was Paramount Pictures.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, released in the later days of 1931, hoped to cash in on the recent success of the horror genre at the box office. Based on the famous novella written by Robert Louis Stevenson, the film places the focus on the work of Dr. Henry Jekyll (correctly pronounced as Jee-kul in this version, making it faithful to the book). Dr. Jekyll believes that man’s evil side can be separated from the good. He concocts a chemical potion that helps transform himself from a kind, rational physician into a raving madman. As the beastly Mr. Hyde, his manner is course, vulgar, and detestable.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931 Fredric March

Accomplished actor Fredric March passionately took on the two title roles. March’s performance as both characters turned out so brilliantly that he earned an Academy Award for best actor, while lifting the film to legendary status, just a notch below Frankenstein.

March is brilliant in both roles, charming and amicable as Dr. Jekyll, but also believable as he acts out the raving lunatic tendencies of Hyde. It’s almost as if two different actors took on the two characters, but it is indeed March all along, displaying a full range of behaviors.

March is ably supported by the excellent direction of Rouben Mamoulian, who oversees seamless camera work and a fine use of light and shadow. Unlike many films of the early 1930s, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does not suffer from the awkward movements of camera work typical of the early days of the sound era. Even the special effects, depicting the gradual transition of Jekyll into the beastly, werewolf-like Hyde, are well ahead of their time.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931 Fredric March Smiling

Mamoulian succeeds in creating a dark and violent film, one that concerned the censors, even in the days before the Motion Picture Production Code. The film also delves into other controversial matters, including an important character who is actually a prostitute. The censors demanded a number of cuts, but Mamoulian found his way around most of those demands.

One of the few weaknesses of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the sometimes melodramatic dialogue assigned to the female characters, a common problem with films during the early years of the sound era. The by-play between Dr. Jekyll and his girlfriend can be cringe-inducing, but those exchanges don’t last long enough to detract from the film.

March’s acting overshadows this small pitfall. Another strength involves the spectacular sets and scenery, a product of the larger budget that Columbia supplied for the film. The end result is a film that looks far different than Dracula and even Frankenstein. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde looks more like a film from the 1940s or fifties, simply based on its level of sophistication.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931 Top Hat

Financially, the film proved a huge success for Paramount. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde grossed $1.3 million, allowing it to turn a profit of over $700,000. Through no fault of its own, that was not enough to save Paramount from going bankrupt in 1935, but the studio would soon recover under new leadership. Artistically, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also achieved new heights, becoming the first film from the genre of horror to earn an Academy Award.

Thanks to the assist from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and led largely by Frankenstein and Dracula, the year of 1931 became a landmark in horror history. Spearheaded by the three groundbreaking films, it might be the best year in horror film history. Then again, it might not. But with regard to impact, influence, and its ability to bring iconic monsters to the big screen, there is little doubt that 1931 reigns supreme.

As David Skal puts it so succinctly, “1931 was the greatest year for monsters.”

Consider picking up Bruce’s new book Hosted Horror on Television, which is currently available through the McfarlandBooks website.