Mark Gatiss celebrates the achievements of horror cinema, beginning by exploring the early era of Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.
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How do you do?
Mr Mark Gatiss feels that it would be unkind to present
this programme without just a word of friendly warning.
We are about to unfold the story of horror films,
of the men and women of the motion picture community
who sought to create monsters, without reckoning upon God.
I think it will inform you,
it will entertain you,
it might even horrify you.
So if any of you feel that you do not wish to subject your nerves to such excitement,
now's the time to...
Well, we warned you.
The cinema was made for horror movies.
No other kind of film offers that same mysterious anticipation
as you head into a darkened auditorium.
It's alive! It's alive! It's alive!
No other makes such powerful use of sound and image.
The cinema is where we come to share a collective dream, and horror films
are the most dreamlike of all, perhaps because they engage with our nightmares.
I hear something. Stop! Stop!
In this series, I'm going to revisit
the three greatest eras of horror pictures
and explore what made their finest films so special.
I'll venture onto the locations of unforgettable horror moments,
and invite leading actors, writers and directors to share their stories.
There's a little shrine to me here.
This should be an eternal flame.
Or a huge knife! So whether you're a dyed in the blood horror fan
or a nervous newcomer,
I bid you welcome.
Of all the things that have inspired me as a writer and actor, horror films have been the most important.
I still have very vivid and very happy memories
of staying up late in the 1970s to watch double bills of Hammer films and old Universal films.
I was always, as my mam used to say, a very morbid child, and I was totally crackers about horror films.
I even used to watch Pro-Celebrity Golf
just in case Christopher Lee used to pop up, as he occasionally did.
I think what always appealed to me most
was just the sense of going into a different realm, a realm of shadows and suggestion and spookiness.
Because horror is such a personal passion of mine, this series will be unashamedly selective.
I'm going to build my account around my favourite films and periods.
And I'd like to start with the era when I believe horror cinema
really came into its own - the first great age of Hollywood horror.
An age which begins with this moment from 1925's silent Phantom of the Opera.
The Phantom, played by Lon Chaney, has warned Mary Philbin's character never to look beneath his mask.
It's a classic, shocking reveal.
And it captures the essence of being a horror movie fan.
It's about knowing you shouldn't look but wanting to see.
And then maybe getting more than you bargained for.
Horror cinema is replete with pioneering film-makers.
Few more so than the man beneath the Phantom's make-up, Lon Chaney, the godfather of horror actors.
Chaney was one of the giants of 1920s Hollywood,
and among his few surviving contemporaries
is a fellow cast member from the Phantom, Carla Laemmle.
The niece of the founder of Universal studios, she's now a spry centenarian.
I can only say he was a genius.
Whatever part that he played,
he was that part.
There's a story that Mary Philbin fainted when she took off his mask.
It could have been true because it was enough to make anybody faint!
Lon Chaney, the man of a thousand faces,
played a succession of maimed and monstrous characters
during the silent era,
in films like The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and London After Midnight.
His self-taught make-up skills drew on his background in travelling vaudeville and theatre.
Chaney described his talent as "extraordinary characterisation."
He did all his own make-up and it was pretty horrible.
-Yes, all that!
-I don't know
how he did it himself, but he did.
Exactly how Chaney achieved his make-up effects has always intrigued me.
Fortunately, just as the Phantom lurked below the Paris Opera, the relics of Chaney can be found
in the bowels of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum,
under the custodianship of Beth Werling.
So Beth, what treasures do you have for us here?
We have Lon Chaney's make-up kit.
There he is, Lon F Chaney, Hollywood, California.
Wow, it's extraordinary.
-What's in here?
-This is one of the glass eyes
that Chaney had especially made.
It's particularly gruesome in its own little box, isn't it?
-When I was a kid, I kind of grew up with the stories of the lengths he went to
to create these things. He put himself through an unbelievable amount of pain.
And that's an example of that.
To wear something that thick, covering over almost your entire eye, couldn't have been comfortable.
-It's not exactly a permeable lens, is it!
-No, definitely not.
It's like putting a billiard ball in your eye.
It's now believed that Chaney achieved the Phantom's famous missing nose effect
using thin wire to pull his own nose back, creating that truncated, snout-like look.
Remarkably, he did much of this working on his own,
but it turns out he had something to practise on.
This is a life cast that Chaney had made of his own face,
with glass eyes inserted.
He used this to practise some of his make-up techniques.
He would take a look, see if he needed a little more here, a little less there.
If he didn't like the look entirely, it was much easier to scrub it off
and to decide, looking at yourself in a mirror, so to speak,
than to actually apply it on his own face.
It's quite fitting that someone so obsessed with bodily dismemberment
ends up with his own head in a box!
According to Hollywood legend,
Chaney's ghost still haunts the Paris Opera set at Universal Studios,
which, remarkably, has survived as a grand monument to the silent age.
It's also a reminder that for all Chaney's astonishing transformation,
The Phantom of the Opera is as much an exercise in epic spectacle as it is a claustrophobic horror picture.
That's probably because Universal's founder, Carl Laemmle,
was no fan of horrific material.
But The Phantom's success helped his ambitious son and partner,
Carl Laemmle Junior, to persuade him otherwise.
Carl Laemmle Junior now set his sights
on an even more chilling property,
Bram Stoker's sensational vampire novel, Dracula.
Junior envisaged another extravagant production.
But he was about to have his wings clipped.
1929 saw the Wall Street Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.
Like other Hollywood studios, Universal had cash flow problems
which meant it had to scale down its productions.
Fortunately, Junior came across another, more cost effective way of telling the Dracula story.
Stoker's novel had been adapted for a modest British touring production
which had gone on to become an unexpected hit.
For ease of staging, this was a kind of drawing-room Dracula, set largely in a Hampstead house.
And the play had transformed Stoker's hairy, moustached, rank-breathed old count
into a more elegant figure who could be welcomed into London society.
As for me, I am a stranger in a strange land.
Yet I have grown to love this great London with its teeming millions,
so different from my own land of Transylvania.
After all, the walls of my castle are broken, the shadows are many,
and the wind breathes cold through the broken battlements.
The play ruthlessly cut back the action
and locations of Stoker's novel and added rather a lot of talking.
But that didn't bother Junior Laemmle.
Dracula was going to be the first horror picture with sound.
You're in the very first scene of Dracula.
Oh, yes, the opening scene, and I say the first lines of dialogue.
-Can you remember them?
"Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass
"are found crumbling castles of a bygone age."
Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass
are found crumbling castles of a bygone age.
-Hooray, I did it!
-I can't remember lines that I was supposed to learn yesterday.
As well as basing itself on the play's script,
the film also took on the play's Broadway lead, a Hungarian actor called Bela Lugosi.
I am Dracula.
A veteran of Budapest's leading theatres, Lugosi's American career
had previously been limited by his accent.
Listen to them.
Children of the night.
What music they make!
Lugosi's somewhat drawn-out delivery
helps render the film's many dialogue scenes rather ponderous.
Hollywood was still getting the hang of talkies, and director Tod Browning was on surer ground
in the film's wordless sequences.
Here Lugosi becomes a shadowy figure who comes to get you while you sleep.
You can see why people might have found this terrifying and in some cases, illicitly thrilling.
Were you aware of anyone finding him
exotically attractive in a Valentino way?
He had a charm.
I mean, you could call him handsome, his dark eyes and all of that.
He had this tremendous power of
attracting you. Almost, you couldn't resist the guy, you know?
Lugosi's charisma aside, the film rarely rises above its stage origins.
We never even see a drop of blood or the flash of a fang.
That's why it's a particular treat to get a closer look at another surviving cast member.
-Not so frightening looking now.
-I'm not so sure!
-What's it made of?
-It's basically a wire skeleton
or frame and over it they stretched some heavy duty cotton fabric.
I assumed it would be rubber or something.
No, it gave it a much more realistic look flapping in the wind
with the fabric than it would with rubber.
No, Master, I wasn't going to say anything.
I told him nothing.
I'm loyal to you, Master!
-Do we know what this hair's made of?
-No, but I wouldn't be surprised
if it turned out to be some kind of domesticated animal.
One of Chaney's old hairpieces!
For all its limitations, Dracula had the supernatural, it had sound, it had Lugosi.
The combination was a box office smash.
You could say Dracula was the first modern horror film. But it lacks something.
Dracula features some atmospheric settings - dark, decaying castles and cobwebby crypts -
but it doesn't really capture that gothic sensibility, the heightened
atmosphere of romance and morbidity that makes the novel so thrilling.
Now take a look at this.
The moon's rising. We've no time to lose.
-Within the first minutes of Frankenstein,
we find ourselves in one of the grimmest graveyards in cinema...
Here he comes.
..watching a freshly buried coffin exhumed, and caressed with necrophilic tenderness.
He's just resting, waiting for a new life to come.
This is a film with no inhibitions about embracing the dark and macabre.
Frankenstein was shot only a few months after Dracula.
But in its daring tone and stylish execution, it's a massive leap forward.
It's alive. It's alive.
It's alive. It's moving.
It's alive. It's alive! It's alive!
In the name of God,
now I know what it feels like to be God!
But exactly who was alive under all those bandages?
Universal originally wanted Bela Lugosi to play the creature,
even promoting the film with him in the role before it had been shot.
But after what would now be called "creative differences", Lugosi left the project.
The picture was handed to an up and coming English director, James Whale.
He needed to find a monster.
Sitting in the Universal canteen one day, Whale spotted a fellow diner and beckoned him over.
"Your face", he said, "has startling possibilities."
The owner of that face was another ex-pat Englishman,
whose birth name was William Henry Pratt.
Pratt's distinctive features owed something to Indian blood in his family.
After more than two decades of theatre work and bit parts in films,
he'd become resigned to never having a major role.
His stage name was Boris Karloff.
It was my father's 81st film.
And no one had seen the first 80, essentially.
So, after 20 years in the business,
my father became an overnight success.
In August 1931, James Whale began filming Frankenstein at Universal, on sets such as this very one.
But for the first week of shooting at least, one key player
was conspicuous by his absence - the monster himself.
He was undergoing a fittingly gruelling process of creation.
But the result would be one of cinema's most enduring icons.
Here he comes. Let's turn out the light.
Karloff had been placed under the auspices of Universal's head of make-up, Jack Pierce,
who spent two weeks working directly with him
on top of the six months he had already spent researching ideas.
Pierce's monster is surely one of the greatest make-up designs in cinema.
Visionary, but credible.
Thought through with a chilling logic.
The top of the head is misshapen and stitched
because a different brain has been placed in another man's cranium.
It also adds to Karloff's height.
The bolts in the neck,
often thought of simply as screws holding the head on,
are in fact the electrodes used to reanimate the corpse.
This is a face which really does tell a story.
But the heart of the film, what has made it immortal, is Karloff's performance.
In his hands, the monster becomes so much more than just a brilliant piece of make-up.
It understands this time.
-Frankenstein, Frankenstein! Where is it? Where is it?
HE SCREAMS Quiet, you fool!
Get away with that torch!
Initially childlike and gentle, he's only later goaded into violence.
Do you think he identified with the monster as society's outsider?
I think that, probably due to his own personal experiences...
..as a young boy in school, he experienced a lot of prejudice because of his dark colouring.
He understood that looking different makes a difference.
I think he brought some of his own personal experience to his interpretation of this role.
He always said that children got it.
They understood that the creature was the victim and not the perpetrator.
The little girl in Frankenstein was never afraid of him in his make-up.
Ah, yes. The little girl.
This was where James Whale's risk-taking got a little too far ahead of the times.
Malibou Lake is scarcely half an hour's drive from Hollywood, but it feels like a different world.
And it was in this idyllic setting that the first truly controversial scene in horror cinema was shot.
I can make a boat.
See how mine floats?
No! You're hurting me! No!
Even today, the killing of a child on screen is shocking.
Back in 1931, it was considered by many to be wholly unacceptable.
Censors in several American states and countries, including Britain,
insisted on cutting away before little Maria is thrown into the lake.
Universal themselves re-edited all the prints of the film when it was reissued a few years later.
The original scene wouldn't be restored for another 50 years.
Frankenstein's heady content didn't stop it from storming the box office.
With two hits in a row, horror was now well and truly established as a proper cinematic genre,
and Lugosi's Dracula and Karloff's monster were the twin pillars upon which it had been built.
Other Hollywood studios were quick to respond. The result was a flowering
of imagination and innovation.
Paramount's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde featured a dazzling,
single shot transformation sequence,
heightened by a subjective camera that enables us to experience it through Jekyll's own eyes.
The secret to the trick was a rotating filter on the camera
which revealed layers of different coloured make-up.
The sequence helped Fredric March win the best actor Oscar in 1932.
Warner Brothers were best known for their gritty gangster pictures, so it's not surprising that they
broke with the gothic tradition and set their horror films in the present day.
Mystery Of The Wax Museum was shot in early Technicolor,
which gives disturbing,
lifelike flesh tones to these melting wax figures
in the film's striking opening sequence.
In a sensationally creepy plot which would later inspire the wonderful Carry On Screaming,
Lionel Atwill plays a sculptor who steals corpses and embalms them in wax to exhibit in his museum.
When Atwill decides to try his technique on Fay Wray,
the film achieves a memorable variation on The Phantom's unmasking.
It still makes my hair stand on end today.
Let me go! Let me go, let me go!
Splendid films, both.
So why aren't they as well remembered as Universal's?
Perhaps it's because their monsters just weren't as rich and nuanced as Dracula and Frankenstein's creature.
Universal also had another great asset, one of the most stylish directors of his time - James Whale.
To use a much later term, I think that Whale was the first horror auteur.
He followed up Frankenstein
with a series of increasingly idiosyncratic films
which reflected his own rather complex personality.
In 1932, Whale made The Old Dark House,
perhaps the definitive take on that classic scenario
in which lost strangers stumble across an isolated house, and open a Pandora's box of menace.
The road's blocked on both sides, landslides.
Even Welsh ought not to sound like that.
The brutal butler was played by Boris Karloff,
once again unrecognizable under Jack Pierce's make-up.
And the film's leading lady was Gloria Stuart.
She remembers how, unlike many directors of the day,
Whale exerted exceptional control over the production.
He had said several times, "I go over the script
"the night before the morning I shoot."
He made it very clear to all of us that he had prepared the script.
And it was unusual.
He took very special care of me and was very critical.
Hurt my feelings a couple of times.
He was very sharp.
What sort of things did he criticise you about?
Diction, approach to the speech.
He could stop you cold. "No, Gloria, that's not it."
Whale's cultivated precision belied his origins.
He'd been born into a working-class family
in the black country town of Dudley, and he carefully concealed his background behind a sardonic manner.
He was also gay, and this may have further encouraged his arch and rebellious sense of humour.
As a result, The Old Dark House is both menacing and blackly comic.
You're wicked, too. Young and handsome, silly and wicked.
You think of nothing but your long, straight legs and your white body and how to please your man.
You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don't you?
That's fine stuff. But it'll rot.
That's finer stuff still, but it'll rot too, in time.
Don't! How dare you?
I think Whale was pioneering what we now think of as camp -
a knowing excess which is as much about humour as shock.
Maybe somewhat off-putting if you're just expecting a straightforward horror film,
but it may also explain why Whale's films have aged so well compared with those of his contemporaries.
Mr Penderel! Miss DuCane!
Mr Penderel! Miss DuCane!
This is a very famous scene in which Boris menaces you.
How was it to actually make that scene with Boris Karloff?
How do you get grabbed by Karloff and look happy?
You don't look happy. You look like you've been grabbed and you're scared.
-I wouldn't know how to do it any other way.
-Did you feel frightened by being approached by him?
He was a pussycat. Come on!
No, I didn't feel frightened at all.
He was always very gentlemanly.
Carl Laemmle Junior now pleaded with Whale to make a follow-up to their most successful collaboration.
But Whale laid down a key condition.
January 1935 saw James Whale back on the Universal lot,
making another Frankenstein movie.
He'd been tempted back by the promise
of complete creative control.
It's hard to believe the studio knew what they were letting themselves in for.
Whale wasn't interested in simply repeating himself.
The film he had in mind was highly personal, eccentric and quite extraordinary.
In Bride Of Frankenstein, Whale makes the monster
an even more sympathetic victim of a brutal society,
at one point bringing this home with a scene that's almost blasphemous in its blatant symbolism.
But Whale's main focus of interest in the film
seems to be neither the monster nor Frankenstein,
but a new character - a masterly camp creation.
He's a very queer looking old gentleman, sir.
"I must see you, on a secret grave matter", he said.
-Bring him in.
-Henry, who is this man?
Baron Frankenstein now, I believe?
Pretorius was played by Ernest Thesiger, an old friend of Whale's from his theatre days in England.
Between takes on set, Thesiger practised needlepoint, at which he was highly accomplished.
Alone, you have created a man.
Now, together, we will create his mate.
Yes. A woman.
That should be really interesting.
Pretorius is one of the most subversive figures in 1930s cinema,
a quite obviously homosexual character
pursuing a grotesque substitute for heterosexual reproduction and loving every minute of it.
To a new world of gods and monsters.
The film builds to the climactic unveiling of the bride,
heralded by Pretorius with a suitably queenly flourish.
Resplendent in Jack Pierce's Nefertiti-inspired make-up,
she's a perverse idea of womanhood.
The Bride of Frankenstein.
A stitched together combination
of daughter and mate,
the bride is beautiful -
in a wholly insane way.
Bride Of Frankenstein was Whale's greatest achievement as a director.
It was also his last horror picture.
Having pushed the genre as far as he wanted, Whale was perhaps happy to let it symbolically collapse.
And Hollywood horror really was in an increasingly unstable position.
In the early 1930s, America had nothing approaching effective censorship
and some films were pushing well beyond the camp and the gothic
into remarkably twisted, sadistic territory.
There was Mad Love, in which a shaven-headed Peter Lorre
grafted the hands of a murderer onto a mutilated concert pianist.
In Island Of Lost Souls, Charles Laughton experimented on animals
to create a race of half-human creatures.
And then there was The Black Cat, which climaxed with Bela Lugosi flaying Boris Karloff alive.
We only see it in silhouette, but nevertheless...
However, one film above all others from the era remains notorious to this day.
When I was about eight, I got the best Christmas present I had ever received.
In fact, it's the only Christmas I can remember where all my other presents lay unopened
because I was given this wonderful book.
Alan G Frank's The Movie Treasury Of Horror Movies, which for many years became my absolute bible.
And there was a time when I knew every single page and every single picture.
But there was one photograph that I used to hurry past. In fact, I can remember
paperclipping two pages together in order to avoid looking at it.
And it's no wonder. It was a still from the 1932 film, Freaks.
Freaks is a lurid but wholly original saga
of sexual manipulation and revenge, set in a travelling sideshow.
It was made by Tod Browning, the director of Dracula,
who boldly decided to use actual carnival performers in the film.
It was that blurring of fantasy and reality that made the picture in the book so disturbing for me.
This isn't a brilliant Jack Pierce make-up job.
These are real people.
An early bad omen for the film's reception came when the novelist and screenwriter F Scott Fitzgerald
walked into the MGM canteen, saw a pair of Siamese twins
having their lunch, and ran outside to throw up his own.
For much of the film, Browning presents the carnival characters sympathetically.
But he also establishes an uncomfortable sexual tension
with the passion of the midget, Hans,
for the statuesque trapeze artist, Cleopatra.
She strings him along and poisons him so she can inherit his fortune.
When they discover Cleopatra's deception,
the other performers exact a terrible revenge
in a vividly staged sequence that's like a primal, oozing nightmare.
Characters who were earlier portrayed with sensitivity
and are now depicted as crawling, squirming and menacing.
It's a shameless case of double standards from Browning.
But it can't be denied that Freaks has one of the most
memorable pay-offs in horror cinema,
when we find out the true nature of the revenge exacted on Cleopatra.
It plays as both a grotesque reveal and as the punchline to the blackest of jokes.
Believe it or not, there she is.
How can you fail to warm to a film in which somebody is turned into a giant chicken woman?
Well, ask the 1932 audience.
Browning's film bombed at the box office and MGM
plucked it from the movie theatres within a month of its release.
Following costly controversies like Freaks,
backlashes from morality campaigners
and actual bans in lucrative foreign territories like Britain,
Hollywood's enthusiasm for horror began to wane almost as quickly as it had arisen.
But seeking to earn extra cash from its two original horror hits,
Universal re-released Dracula and Frankenstein as a double bill
and was astonished by their popularity.
Even if the studios were losing their appetite for horror,
the public was hungry for more.
The result was a second wind for horror at the end of the '30s.
Universal took the lead with Son Of Frankenstein.
Boris Karloff returned with a remarkable cast,
but James Whale's high gothic camp was replaced
by a more family-friendly, swashbuckling approach.
The film also introduced a new face -
four-year-old Donnie Dunagan, who played Basil Rathbone's son.
The grandson of Frankenstein, if you will.
-Good morning, son.
-Did you have a nice sleep?
So, Donnie, great pleasure to meet you.
I think I really should just say, "Well, hello!"
Donnie's biggest claim to fame is that he would later be the voice of Disney's Bambi,
but for me, the thrill lies in meeting someone
who can give a first hand account of working with perhaps
the greatest cast of any classic horror film.
The first time I met Boris Karloff, the first thing he did was bought me ice-cream.
Now how can you possibly be afraid of somebody who bought you ice-cream, right?
The first time I saw him then, in costume,
and I shouldn't have done this cos it disrupted things,
I busted out laughing. "Cut. Take four." "Donnie, quit laughing."
"Cut. Take six."
This playfulness on the set is reflected in the film,
which has sparkle and humour,
particularly in the form of Bela Lugosi, who,
as the bodysnatcher Ygor, slides nimbly between menace and mischief.
I think it's the best performance he ever gave.
How long has he been here?
It's my friend.
He...he does things for me.
Has he always been here?
Nearly always. This is place of the dead.
We're all dead here.
Some of the crew would applaud him.
I don't remember getting applauded. They laughed at me, you know?
When he was around, people paid keen attention.
And I was at least aware enough to know,
boy, this is a real performance.
Quiet. That'll be all, Ygor.
Go back to Castle Frankenstein and be careful.
Hey! You spit on me!
I'm sorry, I cough. You see, bone get stuck in my throat.
While Karloff had gone from strength to strength since his breakthrough,
Lugosi's fortunes had been mixed.
So much so that Universal were able to secure his services at a knock-down rate.
They tried to hire him cheaper cos they heard that he was having economic difficulty.
And Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff stood up against the studio on that,
and ensured that he had a more responsible salary.
And apparently, he responded to all that help, because his performance was magnificent.
-There's a real twinkle in his eye, isn't there?
This is a film that seeks to entertain rather than horrify,
and Lugosi's gleeful malevolence is balanced by a warmth between Donnie's character and the monster.
Whereas Little Maria was thrown in the lake in the first film,
the monster refuses to harm the boy despite being sent to kidnap him by the vengeful Ygor.
-Did you feel that there was a sort of connection between the child and the monster?
-I know there was.
And I think holding me like this, as opposed to some other more violent thing, I think that was his idea.
They had him hold me like this for two takes, and he dropped me.
I bounced off of the floor. That was a hard deck down there.
And then they decided to wire me to him.
If everybody would look carefully,
you'll see it's an artificial hand.
It's a little phoney,
so he couldn't drop me.
The thought occurred to me, I've got to be the only guy
still sucking air in this world that can say, "I was wired to Frankenstein!"
THE MONSTER SCREAMS
Of course, by now, the audience knew that it would take more than
plunging into a pit of sulphur to finish off the monster for good.
But as far as Karloff's portrayal was concerned,
this really was the final curtain.
He was grateful, really grateful to that role.
And he sometimes referred to the creature in interviews as his best friend.
But he felt that the films and the role had gone as far as it could
or should without the creature becoming the brunt of bad scripts,
bad jokes, and he didn't want to be any part of that.
He could see a downward trend
and he didn't want to take his friend down that path.
Few of Universal's horror productions now had the quality of Son Of Frankenstein.
By the 1940s, the studio was increasingly busy making sequels.
Not just to Frankenstein, but also to its own original properties.
These included The Mummy and The Wolf Man, both of whom were played by
Lon Chaney's son, Lon Chaney Junior, something of a sequels regular.
This production-line approach showed how Universal's monsters
had gone from being terrifying bogeymen
to familiar favourites.
But surprisingly, it was a rival studio's attempt
to create its own monster parade that would take horror cinema back into the shadows where it belonged,
and exert an influence on film-makers that continues to this day.
CAR ENGINE STARTS UP
No studio looked more enviously at Universal's money-spinning menagerie of monsters than RKO.
Yes, the same RKO which made Citizen Kane
and needed to make quick cash following that magnificent flop.
Across the centuries comes this exciting story of a modern girl
cursed by an ancient legend.
The legend of the Cat People.
During the early 1940s,
RKO released a string of
sensationally-titled horror pictures.
But the actual films showed a subtle mastery of the psychology of horror
that was quite revolutionary.
All were produced by Val Lewton, who was appointed Head of the RKO Horror Unit in 1942.
Lewton's budgets were tight, and his bosses' policy was to choose
a commercial-sounding title first
and then commission a screenplay to fit.
But within these limits, Lewton was given a free creative hand.
And he played it very cleverly.
Lewton's first horror picture was Cat People,
the story of a woman who turns into a panther
when caught in the throes of passion or jealousy.
The film's most celebrated set pieces show her love rival being stalked.
Lewton realised that his restricted budgets weren't a disadvantage,
because in horror, less could be more.
Monsters didn't have to be seen, just suggested.
He also understood that a good shock
didn't have to be caused by something explicit or even intrinsically frightening.
That technique of a slow build-up followed by a sudden but unthreatening jolt
has become known, appropriately enough, as a Lewton bus.
You can spot Lewton buses in much more recent and famous films.
This scene from The Exorcist plays as pure Lewton.
Director William Friedkin uses the shadows in the attic
to keep our nerves on a hair trigger.
Jesus Christ, Carl, don't do that.
But not everyone is so impressed by Lewton.
I just think he's so overrated.
Everybody worships Val Lewton for a couple of scenes.
The swimming pool scene. What?
SCREECHING AND SCREAMING
There's nothing in the frame near her.
It's just lighting. The pool's lit.
She's in the middle of the pool.
Nothing's going to get her. When it's frightening is when there's something around you.
There is an argument, a very strong argument, I think,
that you can do it and do it and do it and then if you then don't deliver, you're cheating.
I totally agree with that.
But if you can, and if you have a monster or a thing that looks pretty good, show it.
Show it. I mean, Jurassic Park done by Val Lewton would be nothing.
But there are many reasons to enjoy Lewton's work.
He gave Boris Karloff some of the finest roles of his career, in films like The Body Snatcher,
which showcased the range of his acting ability.
There, Master Ferris.
Sooner than we thought. A stroke of luck, you might say.
Why, that's the street singer.
I know her, I tell you. She was alive and hearty only this evening.
It's impossible she can be dead.
You could not have gotten this body fairly.
You're entirely mistaken.
You'd better give me my money and make the proper entry.
In this film, Karloff once again plays alongside Bela Lugosi.
But Lugosi is relegated to a secondary role, quite literally overpowered by Karloff.
No, put your hand down.
How can I show you, man?
This is how they did it.
There's something very resonant about the different fates of these two men,
who both played such a crucial role in establishing horror cinema.
Lugosi, who always felt he was cut out for something better,
and Karloff, grateful to horror for his unexpected and late success.
-Doesn't everybody have a room like this?
I would like a bathroom like this.
Karloff went on to enjoy regular work in film and television for the rest of his career,
and lived long enough to enjoy some of the respect
that eventually came to him
as a pivotal figure in 20th century popular culture.
These are the stamps from 1997, the classic movie monster stamps.
My father was on two of them, one for Frankenstein and one for The Mummy.
And then later, in 2003, there was a set of ten stamps
that depicted the various disciplines of film-making.
And my father's face was selected for the discipline of make-up.
So I've been told by stamp collectors that my father was
the only person other than a President
who has been on more than two stamps.
So he's been on three stamps, really quite an honour.
Karloff never strayed too far from the horror genre, but he never seemed too worried by that.
Bela Lugosi, however, seemed trapped on the treadmill of horror sequels.
Lugosi had tried to avoid being typecast in Dracula-like roles,
and had not actually played the Count since his debut.
But struggling with his finances and his health, he was finally forced to
re-embrace the role that had defined him in the public imagination.
In 1948, he took up Dracula's cape once again
in an Abbott and Costello movie.
It could have been the final humiliation,
but Lugosi brings a dignity and a knowing humour to the role.
I think this second performance as the Count now stands up better than the first.
I must say, my dear, I approve very highly of your choice.
What we need today is young blood.
What's surprising about Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein
is that amongst the comedy, it boasts some striking horror sequences.
Look at what happens to the woman in this scene.
-Chick, do you believe me now?
Against all the odds, the film is a fine, final flourish
of the Universal horror cycle.
But Lugosi's own horror career had an unexpected last act that took it full circle.
In 1951, he was invited to Britain to star in a revival
of the Dracula stage play.
Lugosi now found himself performing in towns like Eastbourne,
in the sort of regional theatres where the play had first been seen a quarter of a century before.
It must have felt a long way from Hollywood.
The tour seemed to test not only Lugosi's drawing power, but that of the Count himself.
The producers hoped for a West End run
but no-one would take them on until the production had first proved its profitability outside of London.
Lugosi's leading lady on the tour was the English actress Sheila Wynn, who played the role of Lucy Seward.
Why do you think Lugosi took on the tour?
I think he felt his career was sinking.
He was becoming less well known and less important.
And I think he had a great hope that to come to England
and play in the West End would bring his prestige right up again.
And when the management sent the tour out, I don't think they realised
that the audiences had become
much more sophisticated, and they were inclined to giggle every night.
They didn't at Brighton, I don't think,
and they certainly didn't in Belfast, where they screamed,
but there was a bit of giggling in Golders Green and also in Manchester.
And I think this distressed Bela very much indeed.
He once said to me, "You know,
"Dracula is Hamlet to me."
Regional theatres were as far as the Dracula revival got.
Lugosi never achieved the comeback he sought.
He died five years later and, perhaps having finally come to terms
with the role he could never escape, was buried in his Dracula cape.
Why did audiences which had once thrilled at horror now laugh at it?
Lugosi's tour showed how little horror had really moved on since its heyday in the 1930s.
Meanwhile, the world had entered an atomic age.
Hollywood responded with a new set of terrors -
science fiction monsters
that would be defeated by scientists and soldiers, not with a stake or a silver bullet.
By the early 1950s, horror cinema was pretty much extinct, after barely two decades.
But of course, it's just when you think the monster's dead that it comes back. Stronger.
Next time, full colour vampire lust
and gushing gore...
..as Britain's Hammer Films conquer the world.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Three-part series in which actor and writer Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Doctor Who, Sherlock) celebrates the greatest achievements of horror cinema.
A lifelong fan of the genre, Mark begins by exploring the golden age of Hollywood horror. From the late 1920s until the 1940s, a succession of classic pictures and unforgettable actors defined the horror genre - including The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney, Dracula with Bela Lugosi, and Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff.
Mark explains just how daring and pioneering these films were, and why they still send a chill down the spine today. He also traces how horror pictures evolved during this period, becoming camp and subversive (The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein, both directed by Englishman James Whale), dark and perverse (films like Freaks, which used disabled performers), before a final flourish with the psychological horror of RKO Pictures' films (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie), which still influence directors today. However, by the early 1950s the monsters were facing their biggest threat - the rise of science fiction films in the post-war atomic era.
Along the way, Mark steps into some of the great sets from these classic films, hears first-hand accounts from Hollywood horror veterans, discovers Lon Chaney's head in a box and finds out why Bela Lugosi met his match in Golders Green.