Cheap Thrills

#6 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

In the 1930’s the Great Depression ransacked the country and the movie industry.

Of all the studios, only MGM continued turning a profit, as when Depression-era audiences were able to scrape together enough money to go to the pictures, they wanted to see the stars.

The remaining studios were on the brink of disaster.  How were they to compete with MGM?  They had no Gable, no Garbo, no cash in the bank.

Carl Laemmle Junior, the studio head at Universal, had an idea.

If he couldn’t dazzle audiences with lavish production and stars, he’d settle for scaring them half to death.

And thus Universal’s dominance in the low-budget horror film genre began.

Laemmle bought the rights to two classic horror novels and got to work.

Let’s start with Dracula, a film based on Bram Stoker’s novel that started the vampire myth way back in 1897.

There’s no getting around it—despite his immortality, Dracula has aged poorly.  Many parts of the movie are just plain silly to the modern eye—for example, when Dracula’s bat form hovers outside his victim’s open windows, the bat looks like it’s made of rubber and someone is pulling fishing line to flap the wings.

For a villian with such violent and intimate killings, the movie cuts away right at the moment when Dracula is about to sink his teeth into his pretty victim’s necks.

And yet, it is still a thrill to watch Bela Lugosi in the role he was born to play, hissing at mirrors and proclaiming, “I am Dracula!” in the Hungarian accent we will forever associate with the Count from Transylvania.

Like vampires themselves, stories of vampires are immortal shapeshifters.  We can’t get enough of them.  It doesn’t matter if the vampires are evil beasts to be hunted down and killed (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or tortured souls who try to resist human blood (Edward Cullen, Twilight).  They can feel modern (Bill in True Blood), old world (Louis in Interview With the Vampire), or even melodramatic (Barnabas in Dark Shadows.)

These versions are not as far from Lugosi’s Count as they first appear.

As different as they are, all vampire stories are about temptation and desire.  The vampire’s desire for human blood—and sometimes the human’s desire to be bitten.  There’s the temptation of immortality, despite the price of becoming an animal who must kill to endure.

And vampire stories are always about sex.  The vampire and his victim are always dancing on a knife’s edge between sex and death.

Lugosi’s Count Dracula has all the seeds that would grow into the tangled vines of vampire myths.  Lucy is attracted to his accent, his dark foreign looks, and his mystery.  He bites both Lucy and Mina in their bedrooms, where they are spread out sleeping with exposed necks.  And once he has bitten Mina, he gains a hypnotic power over her even without turning her immortal.

Love makes you crazy.  Lust crazier still.  Vampire blood drives you completely insane.

While Frankenstein has not inspired nearly as many contemporary retellings, it’s a much better film.  Boris Karloff plays Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster with a humanity that makes him a figure of both terror and pity.

Dr. Frankenstein, a mad scientist, quite literally plays god when he brings to life a creature he has cobbled together with parts from dead bodies he’s robbed from graves.

Overcome with the implications of what he has done, he abandons the monster.  The unnamed monster does not start out evil.  He learns cruelty and violence from the people he meets who treat him with nothing but fear or scorn.  He quickly learns to kill first and ask questions later.

The Monster meets a young girl, the first human to treat him with kindness.  In a horrifying scene, the Monster unknowingly murders the girl when he throws her into a river, believing she will float like the daisy petals all around.

In the end, all the Monster really wants is someone who will love him.

Enter the fabulous sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, in which the Monster persuades Dr. Frankenstein to make him a mate.

Yet in the darkly funny twist ending, even the Monster’s handmade wife cannot stand the sight of him.

Watching these films today, it is hard to imagine the terror they wrought on the audiences of the 1930s.  In early screenings of Frankenstein, audiences were so distraught they walked out of the theater.

But when they kept coming back in because they had to know how the story ended, Carl Laemmle Junior knew he had a hit on his hands.  

Some wondered if these films were taking things a bit too far.  While making money in the short term, would such spectacles of gruesome horror turn people off movies and cost the entire industry money in the long term?

Long term, these shoestring budget films became franchises that spawned enough sequels to keep Universal afloat in the darkest days of the Depression.

Longer term, these Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein are embedded so deeply into our culture that people who have never seen the films recognize Bela Lugosi’s Count with his cape and widow’s peak, and Boris Karloff’s Monster with his staggering gait and bolts in his neck.

Every Halloween, thousands dress in costumes that owe their origins to these films.  They are a testament to the power of a good story, and a reminder that money doesn’t have to stand in the way of great art.

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