With this being the season of Halloween, it’s a perfect time to recognize the 90th anniversary of two extraordinary, and perhaps unlikely, pop culture phenomena.
It’s a notable historical nugget that, as America and the world slipped deeper into the abyss of the Great Depression, people turned to the movies to escape the uncertainties of the real world. For the price of a ticket, you could leave those worries behind for a few hours, which was great mental health maintenance back then.
And yet, this was also a time when horror films enjoyed immense popularity, right along with screwball comedies and lavish musicals. The fact that movie monsters became popular draws during those darkening days has always been a curiosity.
The pivot for all this came in 1931, but you know that — although you may not realize it. On Valentine’s Day of that year, Universal Studios released “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi, a movie gamble that became a monster hit (literally). Only then did the studio decide to make another horror film, and in November, it unleashed “Frankenstein” with Boris Karloff, which was also a huge hit. These two movies ushered in the “golden age” of Hollywood horror films, particularly from Universal.
More than that, they changed us forever.
You DO know this, even if you find those old black-and-white films tepid compared to the full-color, high-def frights of modern horror cinema.
You know this because, whenever you think of vampires, Lugosi’s performance 90 years ago instantly comes to mind. His bloodsucker was a suave, well-dressed (with a cape), attractive aristocrat with an eerie accent (mostly because Lugosi, a Hungarian refugee, never bothered honing his English-speaking skills) and mysterious manner. You see this in innumerable vampire depictions even today, whether it’s in movies, on television, in Halloween decorations or even in breakfast cereals. Even the beloved Count on “Sesame Street” is a Lugosi clone. (In fact, Lugosi’s universal identification as the Transylvanian count, and vice versa, left him hopelessly typecast.) And you’ll probably see Lugosi’s ancient ghost trick-or-treating in neighborhoods near you this weekend.
We take that well-worn caricature for granted now, but there were once other visions of vampires. Most notable was the classic 1922 German silent film “Nosferatu,” which was not-so-loosely based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula.” But “Nosferatu’s” Count Orlok, played by Max Schreck, was a cadaverous monstrosity: a bald, bug-eyed, clawed grotesque, a sinister shadow with none of the sensuous allure Lugosi delivered. Is “Nosferatu” terrifying today? Not really. (Count Orlok once popped up in a “SpongeBob SquarePants” episode, so there’s that.) But, as film critic Roger Ebert once noted, “Nosferatu” lets you see how vampires were portrayed before Lugosi’s count became so indelible, and then so cliche and fodder for send-ups.
By contrast, we have virtually nothing by which to compare Karloff’s “Frankenstein.” There were very few film versions of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel made in the silent days, and various depictions with the book looked merely menacing at best.
Not so with Universal’s vision of the monster. Makeup artist Jack B. Pierce based his creation on broad (albeit wildly unlikely) scientific concepts that resulted in a flat-top skull and electric bolts in the neck. But through the gray skin, dead eyes and lurching movements (not to mention the painful daily make-up process) shone a tortured, misunderstood humanity, courtesy of Karloff, that spoke to audiences despite the creature’s initial lack of dialogue. (When Karloff eventually DID talk in this and other roles, his chilling voice became renowned, including, of course, as the Grinch each Christmas on TV.)
Today, just uttering the name “Frankenstein” reflexively conjures up the image of Karloff (who technically wasn’t Frankenstein) from nine decades ago. He played the monster three times (while many others followed) and is permanently etched in our consciousness.
Ninety years ago, Lugosi and Karloff turned in performances that are more than just remembered today; they still define those images completely. Even if you’ve never seen either film, you’ve seen THEM — that is, the iconic characters they created — literally every Halloween since.
It’s a minor piece of history, but it’s also an entertaining example of how little things from so long ago can live on and on in our culture — and our imaginations are still proof of that, especially on Halloween.
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