Horror films came into their own as a viable film genre in the 1930s, thanks in large part to the films produced by Universal Studios which gave the world such “famous monsters” as Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Werewolf of London and the Wolfman. The chief world builder of “Earth Universal” was James Whale, who helmed four classic productions: Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Old Dark House (1932). Whale’s films were filled to bursting with bizarre, expressionistic brio and while he made other films in other genres, it is his work in the horror genre for which he is best remembered. But Whale wasn’t the only visionary genius that defined the genre in the ‘30s.
Tod Browning, born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880, ran away from home at the age of sixteen to join the circus. Young Browning traveled extensively throughout the United States with various sideshows, carnivals and circuses. His jobs included being a barker for the Wild Man of Borneo, performing a live burial act in which he was billed as “The Living Corpse,” and working as a clown. All of these experiences would inform his film work in later years.
When he became a film director, Browning’s penchant for the macabre was demonstrated in such films as The Eyes of Mystery and Revenge (both 1918). But his career as a horror film director was set when he directed Lon Chaney, Sr., the legendary “Man of a Thousand Faces,” in The Wicked Darling (1919). The duo went on to make ten films together over the next decade including such milestones as The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927) and London After Midnight (1927), a cinematic treasure that remains lost to this day.
Browning and Chaney were planning to work together on Dracula (1931) but Chaney died in 1930 and the studio insisted upon using Bela Lugosi in the title role. Dracula was Browning’s only film for Universal. He went back to MGM (where he had worked with Chaney) and produced three more horror classics including Devil Doll (1936) and Mark of the Vampire (1935), which re-teamed Browning with Lugosi in a remake of London After Midnight. Browning’s last film was Miracles for Sale (1939). He retired from film making in 1942 and died in 1962.
Dracula was the first of the Universal monster movies during the studio’s first great golden age of horror. Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, who had played the part in a successful stage version, was cast as the undead title character Count Dracula and was forever associated with the role. It was a part that defined him for the rest of his life and although it brought him immortality, it also locked him into a certain type and range of film performances. Lugosi was a limited actor but he possessed a certain exotic presence that was perfect for the part. His strange accent and piercing, hypnotic stare defined Dracula for decades to come and even though there have been hundreds of other cinematic vampires since, Lugosi’s portrayal must be regarded as one of the best.
The film, based on a stage play, is a compressed version of the original Bram Stoker novel. Real estate agent Renfield (Frye) journeys to Castle Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains at the start of the film. There he meets the Count and falls under his spell. The action then moves to contemporary London where Dracula stalks his prey, Mina Harker (Chandler) and is opposed by Dr. Van Helsing (Van Sloan), the only person who knows the truth about vampires.
The first two reels of Dracula are far and away the best parts of the film. The sets are wonderfully atmospheric and creepy. The rest of the film is static, stagy and talky betraying its’ source material as a play. Nonetheless Lugosi and Van Sloan give it their all and Frye is wonderfully deranged. The climax is also nicely staged but the staking of Dracula takes place off-camera. There’s no musical score but strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” accompany the title credits.
Dracula was a box-office smash and its success prompted Universal to immediately begin production of Frankenstein. A sequel, Dracula’s Daughter was made in 1936. Despite his inseparable identification with the role of Dracula, Lugosi would play the Count only once more in 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Browning’s Freaks, one of the most legendary (and for a time, banned) horror films of all time, features sideshow oddities like the ones he knew when he was with the circus. These radically different people, at first evoke fear, curiosity and pity, feelings that soon turn to warmth, respect and amazement. The titular “freaks” are extremely talented performers who band together when one of their own is humiliated. Midget Hans (Earles) is played for a fool by a gold-digging “normal” trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Baclanova), who marries him for money and then flaunts her love for muscleman Hercules (Victor). The freaks exact a drastic revenge. They crawl after her in the mud with knives in their mouths in one of the most frightening scenes in film history before turning her into an unspeakable monstrosity. The “freaks” in the film are ultimately portrayed as monsters because that’s how the “normal” victims see them. Although treated like children, the performers are adults with a family code worthy of gangsters: mess with one, mess with all.
Because Browning insisted on working with real sideshow performers, the film had a great deal of trouble with the censors who objected to both the violence and the unmistakable sexual undercurrents. Some prints had scenes (including the epilogue) removed and after initial release, the seldom screened Freaks was almost a lost film. In the early 1970s, when the “midnight-movie” circuit for cult, obscure and off-beat films flourished, Freaks was dusted off and put back into circulation where it became a durable, popular and still shocking feature attraction. Almost eighty years after it was made, Freaks still stands as one of the most disturbing horror films ever made and a testament to the twisted milieu of the films of Tod Browning.