The Turn to Gruesomeness

In his new book, Jon Towlson‘s claim is that in the era of DVD and Blu-ray, we can re-examine the classic horror films of the 1930s (specifically the “golden age” of 1931-1936) and find that if it weren’t for the censors, we would see some of the most “gruesome” horror films of all time. As an example, he suggests that “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932) might be a precursor to “torture porn” and “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974). Interestingly, even in their “tame” incarnations, the genre called horror really didn’t even begin until “Dracula” (1931) – the first film to warrant a new word for such “gruesome” features.

Some examples of the gruesome themes mentioned early on are the idea of inter-species sexual relationships (Murders in the Rue Morgue, Island of Lost Souls), the skinning of a rival (Black Cat), and the feeding of a kidnapped human baby to a vampire (Dracula’s Daughter). Of course, unlike today, these themes are much more implied than actually shown, but does that make them less gruesome? The imagination can be a very dangerous tool. “Rue Morgue” even used the word “gruesome” in its marketing, as though it was a good thing!

What impressed me the most about this book is how the ground that has been trodden countless times was gone over again and made fresh rather than stale. Quite possibly the two most written-about horror films in history are “Dracula” and “Frankenstein”, both films of the 1930s. Surely nothing more at this time could be found, right? Well, maybe not if we stuck to just these two staples.

But the book casts a wider net. Early on, Towlson brings up “The Black Cat” (1934), one of the best (and least seen) horror tales of the era. Did you realize it was an allegory about tensions in Europe? I didn’t. On a personal note, my research for the last few years has been on the life and movies of Karl Freund, with a special focus on “Mad Love” (1935). Without a doubt I can say that far too little has been written on this gem, and it is overshadowed by the Universal Monsters. Towlson rectifies this. He quotes extensively from the script notes kept at the Academy Library, a source I have never seen in any other book or magazine article. And if it had been used, surely I would have stumbled on it by now.

So, for me, the book is worth the price of admission alone just for the work on Freund. Not only is “Mad Love” given respect for the first time ever (to my knowledge), but Towlson gives more credit to Freund in developing “The Mummy” than is generally established. He sorts through the records and finds that the oft-repeated story of a two-day preparation time is most likely a myth.

Although the focus is on the “gruesome” aspects of 1930s horror, one of the things I enjoy are the asides that add historical context. We hear of “Frankenstein” breaking sales records, something horror still does today – and the success terrified censors and religious moralists. It’s well-known that Junior Laemmle pushed for horror films over his father’s wishes, and was right in doing so. But it’s interesting to see that little has changed in 80 years. Universal was running low on money, released a few horror films, and was back in business. The same can be said today. Horror is rarely number one at the box office, but it has the best margins. A good horror film can be made for $1 million and easily earn ten times that opening weekend. A superhero film (the current trend) might earn $500 million, but it also costs a great deal more to make.

Towlson also spends time discussing the idea of “cycles”, and how horror hit its stride just as the Depression was at its worst. Horror hit a slump circa 1932, but so did all movies because people couldn’t afford to go out. The genre was quickly revived in 1933 thanks to “King Kong”. Today it is no secret that Hollywood loves cycles and trends. As mentioned, we’re in a superhero cycle now. We’ve had western cycles, and romantic comedy cycles. But it’s interesting to see that already in the 1930s the press was talking about these things – they were fully aware even at the dawn of cinema that horror, gangster pictures and more would have good years and bad years.

But long story short, Towlson’s book is ridiculously informative, and yet still a well-paced, entertaining read. A perfect balance of fact and fun. This is not only one of the best horror history books I’ve read this year, but stands as one of the best on the golden age ever written. Jon Towlson, if he continues writing, could easily find himself as exalted as Gregory Mank or Tom Weaver.

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