‘What is the horror film?’ is a question that is entirely relevant to Alison Peirse’s detailed examination of one particular decade because, as she alludes, this decade had an enormous impact on the evolution, narrative development, consumer admiration, state interference and social repercussions for the genre – that influenced generations of future directors of macabre and disturbing films.
In the age of annual Saw sequels, Paranormal Activity sequels or an abundance of Gorno films it is lovely to be able to explore the horror genre’s heritage in detail. The title succinctly defines the book’s scope – the 1930s were a golden age for horror. The popularity of the genre faded, as did the quality of productions, in the 1940s (aside from the intellectual wonders produced by Val Lewton and, in England, Ealing’s Dead of Night) but there is no doubt as to the influence these early films would have on future genre offerings. The 1920s gave us a clear link to pre-sound productions, an influential style in the shape of German expressionism and the first horror star in the form of Lon Chaney. After Chaney’s early death (his son became the highly marketable Wolfman) the coming of sound gave birth to the two monsters of horror (if you will), Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film does not avoid discussing these seminal films and their background but its strong point is that it looks at the broader range of films produced within the genre during that decade. It acknowledges the two stars as enormous influences on the market for their roles as Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster respectively, but also examines the films that they appeared in subsequently, as instigators of an international horror culture. The wonderfully titled ‘Stubborn Beast Flesh’ chapter not only looks at the Island of Lost Souls (1932) and its adaptation from HG Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau, but also examines the role of women in the genre, including, of course, Fay Wray who appeared in King Kong (1933) and the tremendous Most Dangerous Game (1932).
A welcome aspect of the book is the link between 1930’s Hollywood cinema and the manner by which the studios embraced 1930’s expressionism. Many German film-makers found their way to Hollywood and made horror pictures, such as Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat , and the influence from overseas in both production and narrative settings is noted. To some extent the coming of sound made international releases more difficult (silent films had the advantage of interchangeable title cards which could be easily switched as opposed to spoken dialogue which was, necessarily, voiced by the actors in one language) but the visual elements and storytelling that had defined the language of cinema were still at fore with the horror genre. This is apparent in the number of films that could be distributed – with small budgets but huge inventiveness – most notably here in the extensive examination of White Zombie (1932), seen as a precursor to Night of the Living Dead (1968), although the zombies as enslaved workers can also be seen in Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966)/. The book also explores the way that censorship developed during the decade, most notably following the instigation of the Hays code and the BBFC producing its ‘H’ category for horror.
Alison Peirse defines the 1930’s as the glorifying decade of the horror film with its broad creativity and wonderful sense of imagination. A welcome look at the background for horror films from a period in time that would influence the genre for many years to come.