Horror Retrospective: 1931 (Editorial)

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Article by Geoff Fogleman

The purpose of this weekly column is to provide readers with a list of the top five horror films from every year, beginning with 1931 and ending, well, we’re not sure yet. Obviously, there were some excellent horror films prior to 1931 – THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920), THE GOLEM (1920), HÄXAN (1922), NOSFERATU (1922) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) just to name a few – but, frankly, 1931 was the first “golden” year of horror, due mainly to Universal Studios tireless efforts to bring now-classic monsters to the screen.

Of course, these weekly lists are only one person’s opinion, and my reasons for creating them are two-fold: 1) to hopefully introduce you to some early horror films that you may not be aware of, and 2) to foster discussion about classic horror. I’m hoping that if you have a dissenting opinion (which you surely do!), then you’ll comment on my lists and post your own in the comments section. Happy watching!

THE YEAR: 1931

FRANKENSTEIN

(D) James Whale
(W) Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh
(S) Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, and Mae Clark

This is the quintessential horror film. Based on the seminal novel by Mary Shelley, FRANKENSTEIN has everything that a genre fan covets: a dark tone, superb acting, and a fantastic monster, wonderfully portrayed by Boris Karloff. By now you know the story: a brilliant – but insane – Dr. Frankenstein (a delightfully deranged Colin Clive) thinks that he can reanimate the dead, and, in true mad scientist fashion, he brings a composite corpse (Karloff) to life in his laboratory (an exquisite set), much to the chagrin of his betrothed, Elizabeth (Clark). Karloff plays the monster with a vulnerability unmatched by any other actor to don the neck bolts, and he has some truly gruesome and heartbreaking scenes. This is a must-watch for horror fans, especially if you’re only familiar with some of the more recent – and unfortunate – “re-imaginings.”

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DRACULA

(D) Tod Browning
(W) Garrett Fort
(S) Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, and Dwight Frye

Along with FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA was Universal’s other heavy hitter of 1931, and it launched Bela Lugosi’s tumultuous career. Lugosi plays the titular Count with a sensuality that was present in the original Bram Stoker novel but missing from previous adaptations (see 1922’s NOSFERATU). Let’s not forget that Lugosi stare, helped immeasurably by Karl Freund’s photography. As good as Lugosi is, Dwight Frye steals every scene he’s in as Renfield, the solicitor who’s initially driven mad – and then driven to serve – by the Count’s bloodthirsty cravings.

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DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE

(D) Rouben Mamoulian
(W) Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath
(S) Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, and Rose Hobart

Lon Chaney, Sr. be damned! I kid of course, but this version is my favorite adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson story, and Fredric March’s truly dichotomous performance as the title character(s) is the reason why. It’s no surprise that March won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal(s), as he executes the roles of both the debonair Dr. Jekyll and the maniacal Mr. Hyde with equal aplomb. The film is also notable for its then-revolutionary make up techniques that made March’s transformations all the more hideous and memorable. Modern day directors are still trying to get this one right – and not doing a very good job.

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DRÁCULA

(D) George Melford
(W) Baltasar Fernández Cué
(S) Carlos Villarías, Lupita Tovar, and Barry Norton

No, you’re not seeing double. This Spanish-language version of DRÁCULA shared its English-language counterpart’s stages and sets, but it was filmed at night, whereas Lugosi’s DRACULA was filmed during the day. While this basically matches DRACULA shot for shot, it’s Villarías’s performance as the Count (or, in this case, El Conde) that makes this film a unique experience. Like Lugosi, Villarías plays El Conde with a potent sexuality; however, unlike Lugosi, there is very little “cheese” in Villarías’s performance. If not for the poor performances of the supporting cast, I might have ranked this one a little higher.

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THE MAD GENIUS

(D) Michael Curtiz
(W) J. Grubb Alexander and Harvey Thew
(S) John Barrymore, Marian Marsh, and Charles Butterworth

This selection was a toss-up with another John Barrymore/Marian Marsh film of 1931, SVENGALI. While both movies feature outrageous plots, THE MAD GENIUS is the more twisted of the two tales. Barrymore plays Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov, a crippled puppeteer who helps a young boy, Fedor (Donald Cook), escape from his abusive father (Boris Karloff). Fedor becomes an accomplished ballet dancer and falls in love with Nana Carlova (Marsh) . . . who Tsarakov also happens to admire. Aside from his jealousy, Tsarakov believes that Nana will ruin Fedor’s career as a dancer. Needless to say, things don’t work out as the characters want them to. Don’t miss this bizarre little film!

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  • Patrick Cooper

    I’ve gotta check out THE MAD GENIUS, thanks!

  • STRIK9

    This is a cool column. I’ll be checkin for it.