When I was in college, I gravitated toward the film studies section of the library, and especially toward the sci-fi/horror film section. A handful of titles stood out: Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, Edmund G. Bansak’s Fearing the Dark, Robin Wood’s Hollywood from Reagan to Vietnam, Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws, among others. Over the next few years, I also discovered Douglas Drake’s Horrors!, David J. Skal’s The Monster Show, and David Pirie’s A Heritage of Horror. Each of these books had a profound effect on me, because they made me see things—things that I already knew a lot about (or thought I did)—in a new light.
Jon Towlson’s new book The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films has had the same effect, forcing me to reconsider my perception of the “classic” horror films of the 1930s. His basic thesis is that “horror’s first golden age” is misunderstood. Most of us think of the monster movies of the 1930s as quaint and ideologically “safe,” and Towlson suggests that’s because we too-casually associate the Universal monster movies of the ‘30s with the more family-friendly Universal monster movies of the ‘40s. Also, because America’s “masters of horror” (Romero, Carpenter, Hooper, Dante, et al) and first wave of serious horror critics were raised on censored versions of the famous films. As a result, there is an strong tendency among today’s critics and viewers alike to separate horror films into two groups: “classic” (1930s – 1950s) and “modern” (1960s - present). But Towlson contends that the horror films of the 30s are actually an “embryonic form” of the revered American horror films of the 1970s…. and that they are much more subversive and much more gruesome than we remember.
I was so fascinated by the book that I decided to hunt down the author and ask a few followup questions.
[FAIR WARNING: THE AUTHOR’S ANSWER TO QUESTION #6 CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT AND SPRING. SO MAYBE WATCH THOSE FILMS FIRST…]
1) What were the books that got you into studying horror? Since you make a clear distinction between “histories” (like Carlos Clarens’ An Illustrated History of The Horror Film and Tom Weaver’s Universal Horrors) and “theories” (Robin Wood, Andrew Tudor, etc.), which type of study do you prefer?
TOWLSON: As a horror fan I grew up with William Everson, Denis Gifford, Alan Frank, even though their histories were very biased against graphic modern horror and made us think the thirties pictures were all shadow and suggestion – which they weren’t! I became interested in theory after postgraduate study, which got me interested in Wood and Tudor among others. Recent scholars of thirties horror like Kyle Edwards, Rhona Berenstein, Alex Naylor, Alison Peirse have combined history and theory within an industry context - which I also have tried to do with this book. I wanted to draw on primary sources as far as possible – studio records, memos, trade journals: I was able to access the Hays Office records of all the key horror films of the 1930s from DRACULA to THE DEVIL DOLL, and I found these to be fascinating reading. I include as much of these sources as I can in the book, particularly the bits and pieces that I haven’t seen published before. In fact, someone should publish the Hays Code files in their entirety because they speak volumes about how the horror genre developed in the thirties and, of course, how it was censored.
2) I read a book a few years ago called Ghouls, Gimmicks and Gold, which included an appendix listing the contents of all the Shock Theater TV packages from the 1950s. I was surprised at how many of those films I hadn’t seen, or even heard of. In your research, did you discover any “lost gems” from the 1930s?
There were quite a few, but the one that intrigued me the most was Julien Duvivier’s 1936 version of THE GOLEM, about a giant built out of clay to protect the Jews of Prague. Variety described it as “especially appropriate at this time in the world’s affairs”, referring, of course, to Hitler’s rise in Germany. It was predicted best grosses of any foreign-language film in the States when it was released in 1937. The original version contained long gruesome torture sequences which were cut for the American release, probably by the distributor.
3) The children of the 50s and 60s grew up with Shock Theater. The VHS generation grew up with a different set of titles (and, in some cases, different cuts of famous films) on home video. Today, viewers have instant access to many newly-restored cuts (KING KONG, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS), but limited access to some titles that the previous generation took for granted (DOCTOR X, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, THE OLD DARK HOUSE, MAD LOVE, THE DEVIL DOLL, etc.)…. Has any one generation had it better than the others?
I think we have greater access to these films uncut than ever before. Even in the 1980s, as you say, some of these films weren’t yet available, or only in censored versions. The Production Code Administration recut reissues of ‘pre-Code’ horror films from 1935 onwards and it was these more heavily censored versions that played for years theatrically and on TV in the Shock Theatre packages. FRANKENSTEIN, for example, wasn’t seen uncut until the 80s. But even in the ‘pre-Code’ days, American audiences often saw cut versions, depending on where they lived, as state censors often made cuts. In fact, the studios would sometimes prepare different versions for different audiences. Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931), as another example, was shortened by Paramount after its ‘deluxe’ city run before it was shipped out to the provinces, where audiences were considered less sophisticated! So it’s only now that we’re getting a true idea of what these thirties horror pictures were really like, seeing them – for the most part – uncut.
4) I remember when I interviewed Joe Dante, he talked about THE BLACK CAT being “the only one” of the Universal Monster movies that has a “sense of evil to it?” Do you agree? Is this maybe a quality of what you call the “transitional films” of 1934-5 (THE BLACK CAT, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, MAD LOVE)?
The film definitely has a queasy feeling of sadism about it! But it also has a weird self-referential quality like a lot of those thirties titles that you mention. Actually, audiences of the time didn’t take it seriously, maybe because of that element of self-parody. It’s interesting that films like THE BLACK CAT, MAD LOVE and THE RAVEN seem to comment on themselves - that’s a characteristic we usually associate with postmodernism, not with classical Hollywood cinema.
5) How have Philip J. Riley’s publications of unproduced horror scripts from the 1930s affected your perception of the horror films of the 1930s? Which script(s) did you find to be the most surprising?
Studios would commission different writers to work on various ‘angles’ of a story, and many, many scripts would be rejected because studios were always trying to predict the next box office trend. The thirties horror cycle could have developed in all sorts of directions and these unproduced scripts can challenge staunch perceptions of what thirties horror “is”. The most surprising script for me was R.C. Sherriff’s unproduced Dracula’s Daughter, which comes on like a 70s Eurohorror, even though it was written in 1935. Again, it proves that full-on-in-your-face-balls-to-the-wall-horror knows no time period.
6) You’ve written about the forced happy endings of horror films of the 30s as “tag endings” that are frequently out of step with rest of the narrative. This makes me wonder if you think that some modern horror films exhibit the opposite tendency. Since the 70s, “jump-scare” / “twist” endings have become commercially obligatory…. But are these supposedly-subversive endings sometimes tacked onto “modern” horror films that are essentially conservative?
I think that is often the case. The nihilistic ‘horror never ends’ downbeat tag ending of some modern horror is as much a cliché as the final couple happy ending was in the 1930s, and it often serves to put a capper on a film that’s already cynical or conservative – so that kind of ending can’t really be considered subversive, as you suggest.
Sometimes, as well, a downer ending can be used to dampen any progressive ideas that a horror film might contain. 28 WEEKS LATER seemed to me to have a real progressive thrust – rejection of patriarchal violence, the possibility of a new social order free from violence – until the tag ending which just killed off all hope in the audience: a lot of horror films depict the destruction of society but fall shy of envisaging a constructive alternative to the current political system.
7) You’ve written about the tendency of 30s horror films to end with a “final couple,” whereas most modern horror films famously end with a “final girl.” Since you have written books about both “classic” horror and “modern” horror (Subversive Horror Cinema), do you have a theory about why this changed?
Actually, I think the final couple ending might be coming back into fashion. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, as an example, has a final couple ending, but there’s a crucial difference between that film and the 1930s final couple (who are meant to signify the return to normality after the monster has been defeated) because in A GIRL WALKS… the female is the monster and the male has to accept her as she is. Doesn’t SPRING have a similar ending?
8) You categorize some horror films of the 1930s (THE MUMMY, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, THE WALKING DEAD, etc.) as precursors to the psychological horror films of the 1940s. Do you think these films appeal to a different kind of horror fan than the more gruesome films?
There’s always been the perception that some fans – particularly older fans and women - prefer horror films that rely on off-screen suggestion rather than on gore. Horror developed the way it did in the 1940s partly from the belief – held by the industry in general - that women enjoy only psychological horror. I’m not convinced these kinds of assumptions and generalisations about audiences and fans ever hold true – many fans – male and female, young and old alike - enjoy psychological horror and gore! Anyhow, gruesomeness attracted a large audience in the 1930s, just as psychological horror did in the 1940s.
9) And finally…. What will you be watching this Halloween?
I’ll be watching THE BABADOOK, as I’m introducing it at the City Screen Picturehouse in York on the 31st. And please do come along to the Picturehouse on the 20th to see Universal’s DRACULA and on the 27th to see FRANKENSTEIN, both of which I’m also introducing!
You can order a copy of Towlson’s book The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films RIGHT HERE.