When Universal Studios released "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" in 1931, America's love affair with horror movies was born. Michael Mallory, author of Universal Studios Monsters, A Legacy of Horror, explains why these pivotal films revolutionized cinema and how they live on in the recent horror flick "Paranormal Activity."
BOB GARFIELD: With the seventh and eighth installments of the torture-porn Saw franchise already in development, it’s difficult to imagine what body parts have yet to be amputated, flayed, or - microwaved. But this year, one low-budget creeper shied away from the gore and still managed to scare.
KATIE FEATHERSTONE AS KATIE: If it’s not a ghost, what is it?
BOB GARFIELD: Author Michael Mallory says the movie Paranormal Activity has something of the flavor of the Universal Studios horror classics of the 1930s. He’s the author of Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror. He says such monster flicks as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy had more to do with expressionism than evisceration, and left an indelible mark on the horror industry. He joins us now. Michael, welcome to the show.
MICHAEL MALLORY: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: First off, I don't think there was any studio that had a monopoly on westerns, and I don't think there’s a studio particularly associated with gangster flicks; they all did them. No one really cornered the market on musicals. And yet when it comes to the horror genre, it’s kind of like all Universal all the time. How did that come to be?
MICHAEL MALLORY: It was primarily a convergence of people. One was Carl Laemmle, Jr. who was the son of Carl Laemmle who founded Universal. And when Laemmle, Jr. was 21 years old, his father gave him the studio, in essence, and Laemmle, Jr. was the one who was interested in these kinds of stories. He was the one that really wanted to do a film version of Dracula. But also there were a lot of German expatriate filmmakers that landed at Universal, and these were the people who had been doing similar kinds of films in their native land in the '20s. And when they came over to America, largely to escape the political situation that was going on over there, they would infuse these movies with a kind of German expressionism. And then, as time went on, these same filmmakers would very subtly do parallels to what was going in their homeland, and you suddenly had mad doctors who were trying to create super races and things like that.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you mentioned Dracula and the German cinema Diaspora. I guess a precursor of Dracula and the whole horror genre was the German expressionist film from the early '20s, Nosferatu, based on the 19th century Bram Stoker novel, no?
MICHAEL MALLORY: Yes, it was based on the novel. The only things they changed were the names. You had Graf Orlok instead of Count Dracula. The movie was made without securing the rights, so in 1931 they set about to secure the rights and do an official version of Dracula at Universal, starring Bela Lugosi, which is the version that we all know.
BOB GARFIELD: You write that whereas in all previous attempts to do horror the story was always ultimately presented as a figment of somebody’s imagination, a bad dream, but that in the Bela Lugosi Dracula it was all presented as if we were to take it at face value, that this horrifying [LAUGHS] narrative had actually taken place.
MICHAEL MALLORY: In America, if you had a horror movie or a Gothic melodrama, such as The Phantom of the Opera or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, they were not supernatural. They were people who may be monstrous, but they were human beings. If you did have anything that was a haunted house, such as The Cat and the Canary or a vampire story, such as the movie London After Midnight, which was not Universal, the monster turned out to be somebody in disguise who was fooling the other characters. Only when you come to the Bela Lugosi Dracula in 1931 do you have an American film that is unapologetically supernatural. He really is a vampire. He really bites people. He really lives in a coffin.
BELA LUGOSI AS DRACULA: To be really dead, that must be glorious.
HELEN CHANDLER AS MINA HARKER: Why, Count Dracula!
BELA LUGOSI AS DRACULA: There are far worse things awaiting man than death.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MICHAEL MALLORY: And that is really kind of what changed the whole face of these sorts of movies in America. As a matter of fact, at the very end of the film of Dracula it contained an epilogue where Edward Van Sloan, the actor who had played Professor Van Helsing, gave this little benediction about we hope you enjoyed the movie and, by the way, on the way home when you are walking through the dark, alone, remember, my friends, there are such things. Goodnight! You know, and then the audience [BOB LAUGHS] gets up and goes home. And so, that had a major effect [LAUGHS] on audiences, I think.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the next big hit and the next big classic out of Universal was possibly the most famous horror film of all, and that was Frankenstein.
MICHAEL MALLORY: Right. Really, Frankenstein, even more so than Dracula, I think is the film that really cemented the horror genre in Hollywood because Dracula is a good creepy film with a monster but the character himself is not very sympathetic. The monster in Frankenstein is hugely sympathetic. He’s a human being, despite his monstrous looks, and he has the soul and the mind of a child. When they made the movie, I don't think they realized what kind of an impact that was going to have on audiences but audiences of the time, and particularly children of the time, really identified with this poor gangly creature that was trying to get by and everybody hated him.
BOB GARFIELD: The Frankenstein monster is a child killer.
MICHAEL MALLORY: The monster does kill a child in the movie, and that was a scene that was censored because it was thought to be too horrifying, where he picks the little girl up -
LITTLE GIRL: No, you’re hurting me! No!
MICHAEL MALLORY: - and puts her in the water, thinking she’s going to float like the daisy and, of course, she doesn’t.
[LITTLE GIRL CRIES OUT/FRANKENSTEIN GRUNTS]
[DRAMATIC CHORD/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] And when you see the full scene, which has since been restored to the film, he is absolutely distraught. He’s panicked. He’s frightened. He doesn't know what he’s done. By cutting that out, they gave the impression that something an awful lot nastier happened to that little girl [LAUGHS] before she drowned. But even his killing the girl did not take away from his basic humanity because he did not intend to. This was the only person who had been nice to him. And that established monsters with a sense of humanity and a sense of sympathy, which makes them all the more accessible. And they continued to do that throughout the Universal horror cycles.
BOB GARFIELD: I grew up with these Universal horror movies. But here’s the thing: I grew up in the '60s, 25-30 years after these things were released. How did they become such a big part of my childhood?
MICHAEL MALLORY: In the – post-war, basically, in 1946, Universal changed management, sold the rights to all of its films to a company called Realart. They were released to television in the 1950s with a very successful program called Shock Theater, where you'd have a local horror host showing the movies, and you also had another dynamic, which was a very popular magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland, which totally re-popularized these movies.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that one of the iconic films was called The Creature of the Black Lagoon.
[CLIP: MUSIC/SCREAMING/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Where did that fit into the evolution of Universal horror flicks?
MICHAEL MALLORY: It was made in 1954. By that time, the traditional monsters, the Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, were all gone, essentially. They were props for Abbott and Costello. And so, the producer, William Alland, came up with this idea based on an actual legend about a fish man, and so they made this movie but they made it half horror, half science fiction, just like the creature is half fish, half human.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
NARRATOR: Science couldn't explain it, but there it was, alive, in the deep, deep waters of the Amazon, a throwback to a creature that had existed a hundred million years ago, immensely strong and destructive.
MICHAEL MALLORY: He really paved the way for what became known as the big bug movies of the '50s. After The Creature from the Black Lagoon you then have giant tarantulas, giant praying mantids, giant spiders, and that carries you right into the nuclear era science fiction movies where the creature was created through radiation.
BOB GARFIELD: The Thing.
MICHAEL MALLORY: The Thing, yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Wasn't he a radioactive carrot or something like that?
MICHAEL MALLORY: He was a radioactive carrot.
[BOB LAUGHS] He was a very, very big carrot. If they would take that movie and put it with another film called Night of the Lepus, about a gigantic rabbit, I think you would have a wonderful double feature.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] I guess the state of the art in the creeping-the-audience-out industry is a film called Paranormal Activity. You’ve recognized echoes of Universal Pictures circa 1930. How so?
MICHAEL MALLORY: Well, in that it is going for a psychological effect. In the old monster movies, you didn't actually see the brain transplants. They couldn't show it, but you got the implication that something horrible was going on. In things like Paranormal Activity, you’re not getting horrible faces jumping at you out of closets or you have to saw your own leg off to get out of somewhere. It’s all playing upon your mind, and playing so very, very effectively with shadow and lights, going back to that expressionistic style. And so, that’s why I think we, in a sense, have come full cycle. We've gone through all of the visceral bloodletting – and I'm sure there’s going to be more to come – but we're now getting back to how can we scare people without rolling a head down the stairs.
BOB GARFIELD: Hey Michael [LAUGHS], thank you very, very much.
MICHAEL MALLORY: Thank you so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Mallory is a historian and author, most recently of Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror.