It wasn’t that 1937 was necessarily a terrible year for film. It saw the release and absolute box office domination of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Its returns were so great that it enabled Disney to build a studio in Burbank.
Unfortunately for my essay series, this was exactly the type of escapism that people wanted. Both the studios and the viewing public were showing no interest in horror films at this time. Bela Lugosi was appearing in a film serial about the Coast Guard. Boris Karloff appeared in a pair of adventure films. And by June of 1937, Frankenstein’s Colin Clive was dead from tuberculosis at the age of 37.
But while the Western world had turned its back on horror, the East saw its own milestone. During the 1930’s, China was pushing out films with leftist political themes: class struggle and the common people, in addition to its struggles with Japan. The Chinese film industry revolved around Shanghai, up until the Japanese invasion of China in July of 1937. Out of this time period came what is considered to be China’s first horror film, Song at Midnight.
Song at Midnight is a Chinese adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. I have trouble passing judgement on it for a variety of reasons. First, the only prints that seem to be available online are terrible. Bad sound, and dark visuals would make a movie in English more difficult to follow, let alone one in Chinese. Speaking of which, the translation leaves something to be desired. At one point, the Phantom (Song) tells his ward that he has a “hot liver”. When Song has acid thrown in his face, the crowd shouts “Grasp the murderer!” On top of it all, there’s a wide cultural gap to cross. Chinese music is very different, and I have difficulty telling what is considered good singing and what is considered poor.
But while all the opera scenes are in a Chinese dialect, the soundtrack uses a lot of Western music. When Song runs from the police, we get sped up versions of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”, and Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, both of which are coincidentally best known for their later appearance in the Disney film Fantasia. That said, it has some very solid moments. When Song’s former lover hears of his “death”, she goes straight up insane, and it’s a pretty unnerving scene.
1938 was no better for Hollywood horror. But while America was freaking out over the alien invasion told to them by Orson Welles, France was facing history’s greatest monster. Earlier in the year, Hitler’s Germany had absorbed Austria. His next target was the Sudetenland, parts of Czechoslovakia that were mostly populated by ethnic Germans. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in a misguided attempt to prevent further war, agreed to cede the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. He brought in the French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier and Italian leader Benito Mussolini to sign the agreement, and Hitler signed a peace treaty with Chamberlain. The Czechoslovakian government, on the other hand, was only consulted after the choice was made for them. The next year, Germany invaded Poland, heralding the start of World War II.
You may remember from the World War I podcast, where I touched on J’Accuse, a 1919 film on the horrors of war, directed by Abel Gance. In 1938, when another World War seemed inevitable, Gance decided to remake his silent masterpiece. This time we not only see the end of World War I, but the beginning of World War II, a crime so great, it drives the protagonist into madness. He goes catatonic after a spate of accusations, but eventually regains his composure long enough to raise those killed by the war. The shock of seeing the dead walking through the streets is the impetus the world needs to end war.
I hesitate to call J’Accuse a horror film, though the final act, and easily the most significant part of the film is essentially a zombie horde. These zombies are not a threat to the populace, at least not physically. This is definitely more of a war film with horror elements. I’ve got to say, when Abel Gance has a message, he really hammers it home.
I’m afraid this is it for horror. If you can’t find either of these films (and they’re not super easy to find), then you can always watch my favorite film of this era, the famous Bringing Up Baby. A leopard running around loose is kinda scary? In the next year, Universal will renew their interest in horror, and lose one of its great champions. Stay tuned.