Most of the posts in our month long series on Gothic horror (launched here) will concern films produced in Hollywood during the classic studio era of the 1930s and 1940s. We thought a brief primer or road map might be useful for the new initiate.
While all of the major studios produced films in all or most of the major genres, there was a certain amount of specialization. Paramount was known for comedy, Warner Brothers for gritty crime dramas, etc. But only three of the studios made horror films in such profusion that they developed what could be called full on horror brands: Universal, MGM and RKO. The other major studios, while they made occasional horror films, did so only occasionally and cautiously. The caution was understandable. While a particularly sensational horror film could be big box office (indeed some of them were the biggest studio hits of any given year), they could be problematic. State and local censors tended to chop them to pieces; some markets banned them outright. And if they were too horrible or disturbing (e.g., MGM’s Freaks), the public could turn on them too. But some visionary producers and studio chiefs deemed them worth the gamble.
In the long run, Universal became the undisputed top horror studio in the 1930s and ’40s, and it’s always the first one we think of when we think of classic horror. Their success had three major phases. Their first major hit in the genre had been the silent The Phantom of the Opera in 1925. Then in 1931, Dracula was a major smash, to be followed up by Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and too many other films to list. They had great success with these iconic monster characters and began to make sequels with them, although by the mid ’30s the Production Code started to adversely affect the quality of their output. Then in 1941, they had another major smash with The Wolf Man, launching an entirely new cycle, this time with an aggressive schedule of sequels lasting through the 40s and (thanks to Universal house comedians Abbott and Costello, into the 1950s). The popularity of the Universal monsters lasted well beyond the studio era — lasts in fact to this day. Universal also made dozens of other great horror movies featuring top stars like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (e.g. The Black Cat, The Murders in the Rue Morgue) which didn’t center on one of these famous characters.
RKO also excelled at horror, developed its own house style, and had a couple of different phases. Its biggest horror hit was King Kong (1933), which largely overshadows and informs the others, but other interesting ones included The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Son of Kong (1933) and She (1935). I think of the same art deco house style that characterized their musicals as informing the art direction in their horror films of the 1930s.
The second phase of RKO horror (the 1940s) was dominated by the sensibility of screenwriter and producer Val Lewton, who specialized in horror films that today are much prized for being subtle, understated, and noirish.
Today we associate MGM mainly with musicals but in the silent days of the 1920s and in the early half of the 1930s, they had a distinctive horror brand, mostly associated with the star Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning. Popular revulsion to the latter’s film Freaks kind of spoiled the party, although the studio did continue to make some horror films after that.
As we said, the other studios didn’t invest enough in horror to develop distinctive brands, but each turned out a handful of classics:
The 20th Century Film Corp. and 20th Century Fox (name changed in 1935 due to merger)
This studio produced tons of mysteries and suspense thrillers that often verged on horror, but mostly stayed away from horror outright. Some movies that went all the way into the genre included Chandu the Magician (1932), Dante’s Inferno (1935), and The Undying Monster (1942)
Columbia was a smaller studio, almost single handedly kept afloat by the hits of Frank Capra. Their few horror movies, like The Return of the Vampire (1943), and Cry of the Werewolf (1944), tended to be ripoffs of the Universal house style.
Below this of course, we have the smaller independent studios such as Republic, Monogram, PRC etc which made B movies. They released some horror films in the ’30s and ’40s, but such studios would play a much larger role in the horror markets of the 1950s and ’60s.