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Horror's Golden Age 1930-1939 and Beyond

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Jack Pierce

Jack Pierce with Bela Lugosi for Son of Frankenstein

Jack Pierce is hardly an unsung hero of thirties horror, but he’s certainly not as well known as someone like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. He is, however, perhaps as responsible as anyone else for the genre’s success in the thirties. The imagery of movies like Frankenstein and Dracula is so enduring as to be representative of the novel’s characters and Pierce’s touch can be found all over those movies.

He is probably best known for his work designing the make up for Frankenstein – the iconic, square headed, scarred, electrode-bolted monster is so iconic as to become the look for Frankenstein’s creation. Even today, whether the illustrators are  representing Karloff, Lugosi, or Strange,  it is Pierce’s makeup that has remained the iconic image of the Monster.

Although both Karloff and director James Whale apparently contributed somewhat to Pierce’s design, the credit has always rested largely with Jack Pierce.

Pierce also designed the Dracula costume both for Lugosi and the later design of Son of Dracula and all of the John Carradine Dracula films. Another notable collaboration with Lugosi is the tropical gothic White Zombie. Murder Legendre’s iconic look is certainly a very important part of that film.

bela lugosi as murder legendre

Although Pierce continued to work on Universal pictures throughout the forties, notably designing the Wolfman makeup and feuding with that picture’s star, Lon Chaney Jr, he was gradually edged out of the business due to the changing nature of makeup application.

He is regarded with reverence by the generation of makeup artists that emerged later, names like Rick Baker and Tom Savini acknowledge a supreme debt to the mastery of Jack Pierce.

It is important not to forget those like Pierce who made huge contributions to the field of thirties horror, even though they did not command the crowds like the on screen stars.

Amazon has a variety of books and movies about Jack Pierce

The Symbolist Movement

Sirin and Alkonost by Viktor Vasnetsov

Sirin and Alkonost by Viktor Vasnetsov

 

The Symbolist movement refers not to the literal practice of using one thing to represent another, but to an aesthetic, literary and artistic movement of the nineteenth century. The movement has close ties to the Romantic movement, which spawned Frankenstein (the novel) as well as Polidori’s The Vampyr, which can be seen as a sort of precursor to Dracula.

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Peter Lorre

peter-lorre-m-1

The great tragedy of Peter Lorre’s career is the premature end that ghettoization, typecasting, and alcoholism brought it. His early career is possessed of such HIGH highs and he ended it with a premature death and a series of weak performances in worse movies.

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Fritz Lang

A Young Fritz Lang

Imposing and innovative German director Fritz Lang was born in 1890 and went on over the next 80 years to help define film as we know it today. Although regarded as a true auteur and an artist, most of the films he made were genre films.

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Zita Johann

Zita Johann

One of the most interesting actresses of the Universal 1930’s horror pictures, Zita Johann appeared in exactly one classic horror film: she played Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnation of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon in the Boris Karloff classic, The Mummy.

Although The Mummy can rightly be criticized for being a Egyptian re-skinning of Dracula, it has many virtues of it’s own, which I hope to explore in a later post specifically about the film. One of these virtues is Zita Johann, whose acting is above the curve in general for a movie set in the 1930’s, and also has the virtue of having the Princess save herself and her soul at the conclusion of the film, a significant departure from many of these films.

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Dracula (1931)

poster for dracula 1931 starring bela lugosi

Dracula has been many things since it’s been released – it was epochal upon its original release, the commercialization of sheer terror, the sexualized menace of Bela Lugosi, the Gothic writ large in Silver Nitrate. Later, compared to efforts that followed, the sheen began to wear off of Lugosi’s Dracula, its star reduced to less mythical stature.

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White Zombie (1932)

lugosi in white zombie

White Zombie, the 1932 movie starring Bela Lugosi, was made by the Halperin brothers to reflect the aesthetic of the previous decade. It’s hard for us to imagine now that movies made in 1932 would feel too modern to anyone, but apparently the Halperins felt the “talkie” was the beginning of the end for Western cinema. For some reason that isn’t entirely clear to me, they made their own talkie in protest.

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Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Bela Lugosi as Doctor Mirakle from Murders in the Rue Morgue

Murders in the Rue Morgue: Not a movie that really impressed me. I’m certainly a Poe fan, as were it seems the people in charge of making horror movies in the thirties, given how many of his stories they elected to adapt. Or maybe they weren’t fans at all, and that’s why they insisted on making these bizarrely unfaithful adaptations of his stories.

Murders has sort of attained “classic” status over the years, and there are some things to recommend it, as well as a few things that don’t. Let’s review!

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Doctor X

Doctor X

Doctor X Will Build A Creature

Doctor X, although not a movie that is often discussed in the same breath as say, Frankenstein or Dracula, is every bit as weird and wild as them. In fact, it is the general peaked insanity of Doctor X that makes it so much fun and so memorable. The movie is lurid and nonsensical. It features great performances by genre veterans Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, an improbable Old Dark House murder mystery plot, and absolutely inappropriate comedic elements.

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Bela Lugosi

Annex - Lugosi, Bela_02

Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian immigrant born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, is certainly most famous for playing the role of Dracula in 1931. The film defined not only his career but increasingly, defined his life.

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