Of course, it wasn't just horror movies that grew in stature thanks to sound. It was at the beginning of the talkie era that the U.S., specifically Hollywood, became the center of the movie universe. And one American movie studio took it upon itself to kick off a golden age of terror flicks.
One of the smaller studios in Tinseltown, Universal didn't necessarily have the big bucks to attract the big stars and produce the prestige pictures. What it did have was visionary studio head Carl Laemmle, who in 1930 greenlit a film adaptation of the long-running stage production of Dracula. Directed by Tod Browning and starring stage headliner Bela Lugosi, the movie was a smash hit--America' first sound horror film. It was quickly followed in 1931 with another adaptation, this time Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the misshapen monster. It was an even larger hit.
Horror was bigger than it had ever been, and Universal was leading the way. Lugosi and Karloff became icons of the genre, and their respective films each spawned a series of sequels, most notable among being the superlative Bride of Frankenstein. Taking some inspiration from the German Expressionist pics of the previous decade, the Universal horror movies were rich in atmosphere and, intially at least, took their subject matter very seriously. Frankenstein and Dracula were followed by such films as The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933).
Universal's success inspired some of the other studios to try their hands at horror movies. A particular stand-out would be Paramount's 1931 production of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, starring Fredric March.
In 1934, driven in part by what it perceived as the shocking nature of the horror genre, as well as other "unsavory" aspects of movies in general, a certain rather conservative constituency in America led to the adoption of the Hays Code. Created by studio heads as a response to the moral outcry, the Hays Code reigned in some of the content seen in movies, and horror was one of the main areas affected.
In the latter half of the decade, Universal's pictures softened somewhat in tone. Despite still being enjoyable films, they fall somewhat short of the gothic masterpieces of a few years earlier.
Universal was still rolling along by the start of the 1940s, and in 1941 produced another classic monster, The Wolf Man, played by Lon Chaney Jr.--son of the silent horror star of a generation prior. Nevertheless, after the success of The Wolf Man, world affairs would play a part in the genre's imminent decline.
With the onset of World War II, horror films fell out of favor with the American public--in large part, many have felt, due to the real-life horror hitting so close to home on a daily basis. Most of the genre, including Universal's output, devolved into more juvenile and campy fare over the course of the rest of the decade, typified by such "monster team-up" flicks as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), or the grandaddy of all horror-comedies, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Still, there was some quality horror being made even during those doldrum years. Chief among the horror filmmakers of the era was Val Lewton, who produced a series of pictures for RKO that included such gems as Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Body Snatcher (1945).
By the end of the 1940s, the United States--and the world, for that matter--was a very different place from what it had been just a decade before. America's place in the world had changed; sensibilities had changed; and what frightened people had also changed. As horror movies inched toward another renaissance, the genre would reflect this as well.
Other major releases:
- Freaks (1932)
- White Zombie (1932)
- The Black Cat (1934)
- Werewolf of London (1935)
- Dracula's Daughter (1936)
- Son of Frankenstein (1939)
- The Mummy's Hand (1940)
- The Uninvited (1944)
Soon to come: Part 3 - It Came from Hollywood