Reel Terror: The Scary, Bloody, Gory, Hundred-Year History of Classic Horror Films

Reel Terror: The Scary, Bloody, Gory, Hundred-Year History of Classic Horror Films

by David Konow

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From the author of the definitive heavy metal history, Bang Your Head, a behind-the-scenes look a century of horror films

Reel Terror is a love letter to the wildly popular yet still misunderstood genre that churns out blockbusters and cult classics year after year. From The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Paranormal Activity, Konow explores its all-time highs and lows, why the genre has been overlooked, and how horror films just might help us overcome fear. His on-set stories and insights delve into each movie and its effect on American culture.

For novices to all out film buffs, this is the perfection companion to this Halloween's movie marathons.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250013590
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/02/2012
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 608
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

DAVID KONOW is the author of Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal, and has written for numerous publications and websites including, L.A. Weekly, The Wrap, Turner Classic Movies, Rue Morgue,, Guitar World, MovieMaker, Fangoria, and more. He lives in Southern California.

DAVID KONOW is the author of Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal, and has written for numerous publications and websites including, L.A. Weekly, The Wrap, Turner Classic Movies, Rue Morgue,, Guitar World, MovieMaker, Fangoria, and more. He lives in Southern California.

Read an Excerpt



How horror's been with us from the dawn of cinema, how Universal built their empire with monsters, how The Twilight Zone created clever, thoughtful terror with a twist, and how Famous Monsters of Filmland and Tales from the Crypt became required reading for the monster kid generation

When Sam Raimi was making movies for Universal, he loved to spend his free time roaming the backlot, where the great movie monsters of the thirties once dwelled. "There's a certain feeling you get walking down the hallowed streets of Universal Studios," Raimi said. "Big stages towering to your left and right, thinking, 'They made the classics here.'"

For horror fans, it was like visiting ancient Rome, and walking where great warriors once stood, a time where Chaney, Karloff, and Lugosi made the movies that made them eternally famous, and cemented the studio's foundation. Fans visiting Universal would constantly take themselves back in the time machines of their imaginations, trying to recapture what it must have been like to make the classics back then, and wondering if the ghosts of Chaney, Karloff, and Lugosi still wander the lot.

Back in the thirties, there was new ground broken practically everywhere you stood. This was where the modern horror film began, not long after film itself began. Universal watched what was going on in Europe with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,Nosferatu, as well as the 1927 sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis, and they drew from all of these classics. But Universal also had its own sensibilities, and combined with the European filmmaking styles, built its own horror foundation in the States.

Looking back on the Universal days is a valuable lesson for horror fans, because you can see where history repeats itself many times throughout the genre, and in many ways, the appeal of the horror film often leads back to the Universal classics. At Universal, horror films broke new ground with special effects, and stars like Lugosi, Karloff, and Chaney became synonymous with horror, and quickly became stereotyped. Other studios jumped on the horror bandwagon when they saw how much money it was making, eventually lowballing the genre, just wanting to just churn 'em out fast and cheap.

Horror also would eventually become more reflective of the outside world in times of trouble. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was a reaction against the fear of nuclear power and pollution, and horror films like Night of the Living Dead and The Last House on the Left reflected the turmoil at the end of the sixties, even if it often creeped in unconsciously. The public has often turned to horror to help deal with the worst of times.

The Universal films still stand strong as classics today because of the great stars like Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney who embodied the monsters and brought them to life. The incredible, iconic monster designs by the founding fathers of special effects makeup also became stars in their own right. The limitations of film technology then, like the beautiful black-and-white cinematography that captured the looming shadows and textures, proved to be an asset that helped make the films timeless. (Another obvious limitation that became an asset, which a lot of people making horror today would have a hard time doing without, is that horror films couldn't have gore back then.)

Between Dracula and Frankenstein, the Universal films progressed not just with special effects and the growing language of cinema, but also with the complexity of the creatures. As Universal's movies proved, they were much more than just monsters. Dracula was clearly a creature of the night who embraced the dark, where Frankenstein and the Wolfman were much more complicated and tragic. The Frankenstein Monster was childlike in that he didn't understand the damage he caused, and the Wolfman had an element of Greek tragedy because he couldn't escape his destiny, and his story also had elements of a deeper psychological drama with the father-son conflict.

In the early thirties, the original Dracula and Frankenstein films didn't just make stars out of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, they were major moneymakers that kept Universal's doors open during the Great Depression. When the studio tried to move away from horror, the public still couldn't get enough, and monsters would save Universal from going out of business more than once.

The classic Universal monsters would eventually be brought together in the "monster rally" movies of the forties like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and House of Frankenstein. They would also be reinvented with comedy, and given their send-off in 1948 with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Moving with the times, next came The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Universal monsters were now directly reflecting the modern fears of the cold war. Later, with the advent of television, a new generation of young fans would rediscover the Universal classics on Shock Theater, launching the "monster kid" generation that would make their own fantastic scarefests when they grew up.

In the seventies when Universal was trying to decide whether to go forward with Jaws 2 or not, some executives worried it would bring about another era of monster movies at the company. Some at Universal were embarrassed by the company's monster past, but the classic monsters were the stars the company was built on, and it was a strong foundation that held up well for decades.

* * *

Carl Laemmle, an immigrant from Germany, was originally in exhibition and distribution, and he built Universal Studios in North Hollywood, Lankershim Township. Laemmle bought the land for $165,000, and the studio opened their doors for business on March 15, 1915.

Norman Zierold, author of Moguls: Hollywood's Merchants of Myth, wrote that Laemmle was "the prototype of the more than slightly mad movie mogul, impulsive, quixotic, intrepid, unorthodox and unpredictable." But it was Laemmle's son who moved the company into much different directions.

Universal was a company heavy in nepotism, and when Carl Laemmle, Jr., became general manager of the studio when he was twenty-one, many considered his hiring the most obvious example of it. Carl Sr., was worried his son wouldn't do well without his help, but once Junior was in power, he expanded Universal's repertoire by setting up a wider variety of movies than the usual Westerns and serials the studio was churning out, including the 1930 Technicolor musical King of Jazz, and the war drama All Quiet on the Western Front, which would win Best Picture for 1930 (it would be the last time a Universal film would win Best Picture until The Sting).

Before Universal got in the horror business, horror pictures were already causing quite a stir with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, released in 1920 and 1922, and both films were remarkable steps forward in the art of cinema when it was a brand-new medium. It's a testament to the staying power of both films that they're still well regarded in an era where many young film fans still haven't seen a black-and-white movie.

The expressionism of Dr. Caligari, with its use of composition, shadow, architecture, and dark psychological themes, would show itself repeatedly in horror and film noir. Many have remarked that the off-kilter design of Dr. Caligari draws you into the film, and closes in on you at the same time. (Considering how far horror has come in terms of extremity, it's also remarkable to note that one modern fan raving about the film on the Internet Movie Database recommended not showing Dr. Caligari to children.)

The image of Nosferatu with its hideous, rodentlike features is still disturbing after all these decades, and the scene of the vampire rising straight up out of his coffin is still a terrifying vision today. Where Dr. Caligari utilized hand-painted, surreal settings, Nosferatu was shot in real locations that are still standing in Germany today, shooting on location and using nonactors for realism, again while cinema was a brand-new medium.

In creating their own horror films, Universal was looking to combine the European influences of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu with its own sensibilities. Universal wanted make the big-screen adaptation of Dracula as early as 1915. It was what Hollywood would call "a hot property," but it was considered too extreme for the time. It took Lon Chaney, the legendary "Man of a Thousand Faces," to break the ice for horror at the studio with The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 and The Phantom of the Opera in 1925.

Irving Thalberg, who started out as Laemmle's assistant and moved up to head of production at the age of twenty, and was also a lover of classic literature, got the studio to green-light the Victor Hugo story as a "prestige" vehicle for Chaney. Laemmle wasn't sure about more ambitious films, having lost money on Erich von Stroheim's film Foolish Wives, which was billed as "the first real million-dollar picture," but Hunchback finally went ahead, and it was Universal's biggest hit that year.

Phantom of the Opera was Chaney's tour de force, the deformed appearance of the unmasked Phantom the most incredible achievement in makeup to date, and the scene where he is finally unmasked by Christine, played by Mary Philbin, is still one of the most iconic in cinema history. Rumors abounded that the film was too scary to be shown, and Universal kept the Phantom's unmasked appearance top secret before the movie's release. There were also reports of fainting and ambulances outside the theater, two publicity stunts that were repeated in horror for many years.

But the Universal monsters weren't just about scaring an audience. Having to learn pantomime because his parents were deaf, Chaney brought a great deal of pathos and sympathy to his work. "His parents' condition gave him an early understanding of what it is like to be different and an outsider," said his grandson Ron Chaney. "And it gave him a lifelong sympathy for the outsider that would illuminate his greatest roles."

"I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice," Chaney said. "The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since the Hunchback, such as The Phantom of the Opera, He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three, have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do.

"The parts I play point out a moral," Chaney continued. "They show individuals who might have been different if they had been given a different chance."

Next Universal went back to Dracula, which was a big hit play in London and on Broadway in 1927. It was still considered a tough project to adapt for the screen, and one Universal reader noted, "It will be a difficult task, and one will run up against the censor continually ... but there is no doubt as to its making money."

Laemmle, Sr., had his concerns about the project as well, telling his son he didn't believe in horror films, and that people didn't want to see them, while Junior couldn't wait to prove everyone wrong.

Junior overrode his father to make Dracula, and directly negotiated with Florence Stoker, Bram's widow, for the rights. The deal to make the big-screen adaptation of Dracula closed in the summer of 1930, and director Tod Browning, who directed Chaney at Metro for ten years, came aboard that July.

Dracula was also another "prestige" film for Universal, and it was announced as "A Universal Super Production" in the trades. Laemmle, Sr., wanted Chaney to play Dracula, but he died in 1930, and Lugosi, whom the studio wasn't interested in, had to lobby for the role, and finally got it, albeit at a pittance, $500 a week for seven weeks of production.

"They start to test two dozen fellas for Dracula — but not me!" Lugosi recalled. "And who was tested? The cousins and brother-in-laws of the Laemmles," he continued, making fun of the Universal nepotism. "All their pets and the pets of their pets! This goes on for a long time and then old man Laemmle says, 'There's nobody in the family that can play it, so why don't you hire an actor?'"

Universal also had to tighten the film's budget after the market crash, and Dracula had the sensibilities of a stage play because a literal translation of the novel would have been too expensive. (Dracula ultimately came in at $441,984.90.)

Even with the sound era coming in, Dracula also still had the sensibilities of a silent movie. Dracula didn't have much music, except for the pieces from Wagner and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, because it was believed at the time audiences wouldn't understand music seemingly coming out of nowhere, unless it was coming from someplace like an orchestra being shown on-screen. For modern fans, the absence of music makes the film feel even more unsettling. You keep expecting a scary soundtrack to come creeping in, and it isn't there.

Browning liked to work without sound, and had a hard time adjusting with the times. When Browning made the film Outside the Law, he was knocked to the floor when he accidentally ran headfirst into a microphone, which then was marked with red warning flags so he wouldn't run into it again. (There was also a silent version of Dracula with dialogue cards for theaters that weren't yet equipped for sound.)

It was Lugosi's look and performance in Dracula that set the mold for practically every vampire to come, with his trademark cape, slicked-back widow's peak hairstyle, heavily accented line delivery —"I bid you vel-come," and the classic moment where he states, "I never drink ... wine"— and his hypnotizing stare. (Lugosi's son, Bela Jr., recalled when he misbehaved as a young boy, his father would give him that foreboding look, and it scared him into behaving.) Not to mention Dracula's musty old castle home, which a great deal of the film's budget went to, and was kept standing to shoot on it more Universal productions for years.

When Dracula premiered in New York at the Roxy Theater on February 12, 1931, it was a smash hit, selling 50,000 tickets in forty-eight hours. As the film traveled from city to city, the hot streak continued, and twenty-four-hour screenings were set up to meet audience demand. Time called Dracula "an exciting melodrama, not as good as it ought to be but a cut above the ordinary trapdoor — and winding sheet — mystery." The New York Daily News called Dracula, "Just plain spooky and blood-thirsty. Brrrrr! We enjoyed it!"

Some Dracula reviewers didn't quite know how to critique the film, and in America there truly hadn't been anything like it before. As writer and Universal horror authority Tom Weaver explains, "In most silent 'horror movies,' like London After Midnight and The Cat and the Canary, the supernatural 'monster' turned out to be human and the whole thing was a hoax. Dracula was a vampire, and that was pretty new in 1931."

As horror historian David J. Skal says, "Dracula was a unique film because it dealt with a frankly supernatural premise." Because Dracula's existence was treated as real, "it was a truly creepy experience for audiences and critics." There was also an epilogue at the end of Dracula with Dr. Van Helsing telling the audience: "There are such things as vampires!" but Universal cut it from the film out of fear of offending religious groups.

Lugosi was lauded by the critics, and as Variety noted, "It would be difficult to think of anybody who could quite match the performance." Part of Dracula's success was also attributed to Lugosi's sex appeal, and he claimed that almost all of his fan mail came from women. One actress called him, "probably the most sexually attractive man I have ever known in my life," and Carroll Borland, who starred with Lugosi in 1935's Mark of the Vampire, agreed. "He was certainly the most magnetic man I have ever known. We would just sit in a room and all the [women] would go ... whoom!"

The box-office successes of Dracula and Frankenstein were even more remarkable considering they were released during the Depression, when money to buy anything was scarce. "People don't often realize what a horrible time the early Depression was," says David J. Skal. "People eating out of garbage cans, no social safety nets, everything was fear, fear, fear. It's not surprising horror movies struck a chord."

There are moments in the classic Universal horrors that burn into your memories, and the primary image you remember of Dracula is his penetrating stare, as well as how Lugosi's eyes were lit by cameraman Karl Freund to make them stand out so strongly.


Excerpted from "Reel Terror"
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Copyright © 2012 David Konow.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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