Welcome back to Through the Fears, where we reach into history to find the greatest horror films that time has to offer. I’m Matthew O’Leary, a writer out of Columbia, South Carolina, and this is Episode 9: 1935.
In April of 1935, Dracula director Tod Browning released another vampire picture starring Bela Lugosi. Mark of the Vampire is a remake of Browning’s 1927 silent London After Midnight, which starred Lon Chaney and is now lost. Doubtlessly the original was more exciting, as this version tends to drag, until it reaches an absurd and contrived ending. A bride-to-be’s father is found dead with holes in his neck and drained of blood, so the village assumes the culprit were a couple of vampires who hang around the town. It’s very dumb.
What is significant is Lionel Barrymore, making his first appearance in this series of essays. Most people recognize Barrymore as Mr. Potter, the villain of It’s a Wonderful Life. Barrymore plays a cut-rate Van Helsing, filling in the cast and audience on all they need to know about vampires, though the facts seem to have changed since Dracula. Now the only way to kill them is to cut off their heads and put the vampire equivalent of wolfsbane in their neck. He also seems to spend the entirety of the film getting grouchy at the characters who don’t follow his instructions. Lugosi doesn’t say anything until the last minute of the film, when the story reveals, SURPRISE, the vampires were all a hoax to flush out the real murderer.
By this point, the Universal Monster pantheon had begun to take shape: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. Universal had seen a man transform into a beast with 1932’s Dr. Jekyll, but Mr. Hyde was still, ultimately, a man. It would be another six years before the Lon Chaney Jr. film premiered, setting the gold standard, but May 1935 saw the release of Werewolf of London. The title character was played by Henry Hull, an American character actor perhaps best known at the time for playing Abel Magwitch in an early version of Great Expectations. Hull plays Dr. Wilfred Glendon, a botanist who, while on expedition to Tibet, is attacked and bitten by a creature. When he returns to England with the plant, he meets Dr. Yogami, who knows Glendon better than one would expect. Yogami is played by actor Warner Oland, best known for his unfortunate role as Charlie Chan. Bela Lugosi had been considered for the role, but he was busy with his two lines in Mark of the Vampire.
It’s not particularly shocking that this version didn’t take off like many of its contemporaries. It’s definitely weaker than the 1941 film. Glendon is an unpleasant protagonist. He treats his wife terribly even before he transforms, so when he does start to show concern for her, it’s too late. When he does transform, it’s closer to Dr. Hyde than to the completely animalistic werewolf we would grow accustomed to. And the very ending is particularly hokey. It’s solid enough, if ultimately forgettable.
Much like The Black Cat, Universal’s The Raven has the thinnest of connections to the Poe piece it references. And again, Bela and Boris share the screen. Lugosi plays Dr. Vollin, a doctor who saves a dancer’s life when no other doctor can save her. Of course, afterwards, Vollin is obsessed with the girl, and wants to be with her. When her father objects, Vollin cons a criminal named Bateman, played by Karloff, into becoming his servant. Bateman spends the bulk of the movie under makeup that includes an unconvincing fake eye.
I’ve always preferred Karloff to Lugosi, and it frustrates me that Karloff is given so little to do, other than to grunt and stare. This was acceptable in The Old Dark House, but three years later, Karloff should be given room to perform. Honestly, the whole affair is kind of goofy. Much is made of the dancer’s first post-accident performance, which takes place in a crowded music hall. Jean leaps and twirls while an actor reads half of the Poe poem, and the whole show seems to last for all of three minutes. As for Vollin’s master plan, it falls apart almost immediately. The New York Times were not particularly fond of it, calling it “a fatal mistake from beginning to end.” I don’t disagree.
July sees the introduction of a new face to the pantheon: Peter Lorre. An Austro-Hungarian actor, he’d turned heads at the beginning of the decade in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M. But when the Nazis rose to power in 1933, the son of a Jewish couple fled to Paris. After that, he fled to London, where he was picked up by a producer to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. After filming, he moved with his wife to Hollywood, where he would be first billed in Mad Love.
If you remember my podcast on the Weimar, you may also remember I briefly touched on a film called The Hands of Orlac. Mad Love is an American version, which even uses the character name. Stephen Orlac, played by Colin Clive, is a classical pianist whose hands are damaged in a train accident. His wife calls on Dr. Gogol (Lorre), a brilliant doctor who is in love with her from her performances on the stage. In a desperate attempt to please her, he replaces Orlac’s hands with those from a recently executed knife thrower/murderer. This turns out to be as good an idea as it sounds.
It’s pretty good, actually. Lorre is great, naturally. Frances Drake turns in a great performance as Orlac’s determined wife, and gives Gogol an impressive dressing down. Clive, whether by his craft, his tuberculosis, or his alcoholism, is convincingly shaken to his core, particularly when Gogol disguises himself as a disfigured Rollo. It’s an incredibly disturbing image that gets less play than it should. If I have a main criticism for this film, it’s that the ending comes rushed and improbable. Everything gets wrapped a little too neatly for my taste, but it’s still my runner-up choice.
The gold medal goes to an earlier release, which saw the return of Colin Clive and Boris Karloff to the roles of doctor and monster, respectively. The film is, of course, James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein. This time, the monster speaks, which means that Karloff has to leave his bridgework in, which is why the monster’s face looks less gaunt in the sequel, though it takes place immediately after the events of the first. Clive, in addition to his other health conditions, had broken his leg, which is why he spends so much time in the movie sitting down. Added to the cast is Ernest Thesiger, who had been one of the weirder characters in Whale’s 1932 release The Old Dark House. The real shining star is Elsa Lanchester, who plays author Mary Shelley in the prologue (alongside a scenery-chewing Lord Byron) and the Bride herself, silent except for screams and hisses.
The big change in the sequel is definitely the monster’s developing an ability to speak. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. However, what makes this story more interesting is that the monster is arguably the protagonist. He’s a sympathetic character who doesn’t want to destroy, though he often does through selfishness or ignorance. What he really wants is a friend, and he almost gets one for a short but memorable scene when he befriends a blind hermit. The villain of the piece is Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorious, who uses the monster’s desire for companionship as a way to manipulate both Victor and his creation. Eventually, the tables are turned, though I find the “happy ending” the studio made them shoot to be more than a little tacked on.
I would like to add a little something to this series, by having a recommendation that doesn’t fit into the purview of horror. One of my personal favorites from this year is Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Thanks to films like The Birds and Psycho, which are both masterpieces, Hitchcock routinely gets lumped in with horror. His true skill was suspense, which he normally used in the service of thrillers, many of which are some of the greatest films ever made.
Thank you for reading. The next episode sees us in a year where horror really took a backseat to a number of “feel-good” comedies and dramas. Next time: 1936.