We have a treat for The Moderate Voice readers. Film genre author and scholar Frank Dello Stritto chats with us about his book of essays, “A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore: The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films,” Cult Movies Press, 2003. Frank has written several books, including a memoir of being a “Monster Boomer,” “I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It.” Frank’s contributions have been invaluable to Plan9Crunch blog. Below this post will be links to reviews of his previous books..
“A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore, “ (buy it from the publisher here), covers many familiar staples of the genre, and some you may not be as familiar with. Here’s a few sample essays: “The Dracula That Never Ends”; “What Good is a Brain Without Eyes to See”; and “Angel or Father? Friend or Phantom?”
The book is a wonderful read. Here we go with the interview!
1) Bela Lugosi remains the most iconic Dracula, despite playing the role only twice on film. There are no videos of his stage performances. How does he retain that status in a film that you and others have described as stagey, particularly compared to more lush action-oriented adaptations, such as Horror of Dracula and Bram Stoker’s Dracula?
Dello Stritto: Lugosi is the most iconic Dracula, but I always have to remind myself that he is not everyone’s favorite Dracula. That’s another story. Lugosi’s Dracula would be an even more iconic figure but for the Lugosi vs. Universal lawsuit that challenged the studio’s use of his likeness in its products. That’s another story, too.
Of course, Lugosi was perfect for the role, and he had a lot of experience with the character before he made the movie—almost 500 stage performances. In addition to being a fine actor, his Old World style and pace ideally fit the part. And then there is the accent. So, no one could touch him.
Unfortunately, the definitive Dracula did not appear in the definitive Dracula movie. But for all the 1931 Dracula’s flaws, its first 15 minutes—Renfield goes to the castle, and falls victim to Dracula and his wives—is certainly among the best effective sequences in all of horror films. The movie gets slow and disjointed after that, and Lugosi is not seen all that much. But he’s off to a great start.
Do not underestimate the importance of Lugosi’s second screen Dracula, in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, in his legacy. That’s the movie that hooked me as a Lugosi fan, and it hooked a lot of others as well. I was once on a panel of Lugosi experts, and five of the six of us discovered Lugosi in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. He is great in a great movie.
If Dracula has one of the best beginnings of any horror film, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein has one of the best endings, as Dracula and The Wolf Man battle, and Frankenstein’s Monster chases Abbott & Costello through the castle. So, Lugosi’s Dracula starts and ends with a bang.
I wish more people would see Lugosi’s other screen vampire in Return of the Vampire. He is Dracula in everything but name. He is very good in that, and his three vampire movies in sequence form an unintentional trilogy. Again, that’s another story.
Lugosi could not shed his accent or his screen persona. Almost every role he played reminded audiences of Dracula. That was a curse on him personally, but kept Dracula alive between absences from the movies.
Lugosi’s three screen vampires are black & white, with special effects today seen as primitive, and barred by higher powers from showing anything provocative. One of the faults of Dracula is that we are told too much, and shown too little.
Comparisons to the Technicolor, sexy, hi-tech more recent versions of Dracula of course puts Lugosi at a disadvantage. But those “new” movies are now themselves getting old, and the gimmicks are wearing thin. Once the shock value is gone, what’s left? Dracula. And stripped of all the glitz, Lugosi’s Dracula is the best. For me at least.
Something else keeps Lugosi’s Dracula iconic. His is the only Dracula that can really be imitated. Comedians, the Count on Sesame Street, Count Chocula, Count Floyd, and so on. They are homages to Lugosi, and keep the icon going.
2) In your opinion, how would a Robert Florey-directed Frankenstein have contrasted from James Whale’s creation? And would, in your opinion, a Florey-directed film with Lugosi as The Monster been as memorable and iconic as the film we have?
Dello Stritto: The short answer is ‘No.’ I don’t think the combination of James Whale and Boris Karloff is possible to beat. What would a Florey Frankenstein have done with The Monster? Allegedly, Lugosi resisted The Monster role because in the script he was shown, it was simply not much of a part. The Monster became the character we know after Whale took over from Florey. And if Lugosi is a better Dracula than Karloff could ever be, so Karloff is a better Monster than Lugosi—or in fact—anybody else.
We almost have a Florey Frankenstein in Murders in the Rue Morgue. Lugosi is very fine in that movie, but none of the characters have the depth of those in Whale’s Frankenstein. That’s what sets the Whale Frankenstein apart.
We have a Whale film with a simplified monster in The Old Dark House. Karloff’s character doesn’t do much more than grunt. It is a good movie—same as Murders in the Rue Morgue—but both lack the depth that makes Frankenstein a classic.
3) Lionel Atwill was a key horror star in the early 1930s, with Mystery of the Wax Museum, Doctor X, Murders in the Zoo, and The Vampire Bat? The first three are, in my opinion, particularly horrific pre-code films. Atwill possessed menace, single-mindedness, callousness, and brutish force in the various films. Why, in your opinion, did he fade as a major horror antagonist, and play secondary roles in iconic horror films the final decade-plus of his life?
Dello Stritto: Atwill did not so much fade as a horror star as rise as an A-list character actor. His last horror of the early 1930s was a small role in Mark of the Vampire (1935). His movie just before that was The Devil Is A Woman, second billed to Marlene Dietrich. That same year, he was third-billed as the villain in the first of Errol Flynn swashbuckler, Captain Blood. He did a lot in character roles at MGM. Karloff and Lugosi might well have envied Atwill’s 1930s career.
He never had an iconic horror role like Karloff (Frankenstein) or Lugosi (Dracula), and so he was never as identified with the genre. His career arc was somewhat like Peter Lorre’s. They dabbled in horror, but only retreated to it as their main activity late in their careers (though Lorre did it about 20 years after Atwill). Interpret “horror” rather broadly, and include in it “scary comedies” and offbeat melodramas in weird settings. (Above, Atwill is (at left) with Basil Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein.)
Atwill’s star was setting when he co-starred in Son of Frankenstein (1939). After that, his horror output increased until his death in 1946. Even then he got good roles in non-horror roles, like To Be or Not To Be.
But for his horror roles, Atwill might be remembered somewhat like Edward Arnold: a fine character actor who had good roles through the 1930s and 1940s, but is remembered mainly for the support he gave to bigger stars. But the horror cult, as it does for so many actors and actresses who might otherwise be almost forgotten, gives Atwill a popularity long beyond his life span.
3) John Barrymore is so good as Svengali. But the character is, as you put it a generation ago, a forgotten horror icon. That still stands today. Do you think Svengali has a future in current film or stage? Is the anti-Semitism still preventing that or could an adaptation without the Svengali described in Trilby and performed by Barrymore be successful? And also, expound on how you think the vampire assumed Svengali-like traits in film, perhaps squeezing that character from the genre?
Dello Stritto: The novel Trilby was published in 1894. Two things about it: as best as the numbers can be documented, it was probably the best-selling novel of the 19th Century. And of the great horror novels of its day—again, interpret “horror” as broadly as you like—Trilby is undoubtedly the poorest written. I think the sun has set on the story. I have read all the classic horror novels more than once, and may read them again. But once for Trilby was enough. Not because of any anti-Semitism—you can find that in a lot of old novels. You can find it in the novel Dracula and The Invisible Man. Trilby is just not a good novel.
Could a successful new adaptation appeal to today’s audience. Maybe, but I don’t expect it.
Barrymore is a fine Svengali, but for a good amount of his performance, he plays the part for laughs. The other great horror performances of 1931—Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Monster, Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein, Fredric March’s Jekyll & Hyde—are deadly serious. Dwight Frye’s two roles that year—Renfield in Dracula and Fritz in Frankenstein—can make audiences laugh, but that’s the character, not the actor. Barrymore’s performance just doesn’t stand with them. The others become their characters. Barrymore seems to be saying, “watch me play this character.”
Now, vampires taking on Svengali traits. Dracula, in the 1897 novel, hypnotizes no one. He more haunts the soul then controls the mind. Svengali is the hypnotist of the 19th Century. By the time the film Dracula appears in 1931, mind control is central to the vampire’s powers. A year later came White Zombie, where the zombie master—again Lugosi—is controlling minds. Horror movies—mainly vampire movies—made mind-control, whether by hypnosis, drugs or the supernatural, a common plot element. Trilby introduced the idea, but others do it better.
Having said all that, Barrymore and Svengali are certainly worth watching, and are important in early horror films. I won’t read the novel again, but will probably see the movie. Give Trilby credit for one great achievement: “Svengali” had entered our lexicon, and is probably there to stay.
4) Taking away the Abbott and Costello adaptations, explain how Universal managed to keep the Mummy and Invisible Man films at a level of competence that kept horror viewers watching them through the 1940s, a decade after the original classics aired? Was there just a little bit of a kitsch factor that entertained audiences?
Dello Stritto: Of course, Universal, like all the major Hollywood studios, was basically a factory. It used the same reliable technicians in film after film. Sometimes, casting the roles didn’t quite work, but the acting was usually more than adequate. Directors were of varying quality, but they were usually so limited by the budgets and schedules that they had to stay close to the basics. So, the factory put out a product of more or less consistent quality. A lot of the quality of the films boils down to the script.
Kitsch-appeal. That’s a personal decision, but kitsch is not a factor in my appreciating them. The people that love these films usually fell for them at an early age, when they sat in awe of the weird tales. They grow up, and the “science” in the movies creaks a bit, and the melodramatics wear thin. But the initial awe is still what draws them back. Now 80 years or so after their first release, they are period-pieces that harken back to a long-gone age. Some might call that kitsch, and that’s fine. But kitsch or camp does not figure in my appreciation. (See Lon Chaney’s Kharis below.)
The appeals of the Mummy films and the Invisible Man movies are quite different. The four Kharis films all share a key plot element: the high priest, assigned to control Kharis, abandons his vows to pursue a woman. Reworking the idea through four films might get a bit old, but the Kharis saga does evolve. He actually grows mentally through the films. He goes from guardian, to avenger, to frustrated lover. Then midway through the saga, Princess Ananka—only talked about in the first films—becomes a major character. So, the changing plots keep the series interesting. Though by the last film, the series was running low on energy.
The Invisible Man is a different individual in each movie. Alone of the Universal monster series, there are no recurring characters—not even the invisible man. That gave Universal a lot of freedom, which the writers exploited. So, film-to-film, the invisible man goes from a struggling scientist to an industrialist to a spy in Nazi Germany to a paranoid killer. And, of course, once the invisible one is a woman. And Universal got playful with the casting. A lot of familiar faces from Universal’s other monster movies are in the series, but so are John Barrymore, Peter Lorre, Gail Sondergaard, and Oskar Homolka (and a few others). So the been-there-done-that malaise that affects the other series is not as nearly evident with the Invisible Man films.
5) I love the chapter of the vampire films of the early 1940s. It took me years to locate a copy of The Vampire’s Ghost after I read that chapter, for example. Now, today, you can buy a Blu Ray version. Does it surprise you that these poverty-row films from Monogram, Republic and PRC have Blu Ray films, or is it part of a new evolution in fandom? Also, do Blu Rays enhance the viewing experience for you?
Dello Stritto: I must confess that I know nothing about the economics of producing and selling DVDs or Blu Ray discs. I heard once that producing them costs about 10¢ per disc. I don’t know, but if the cost is so low compared to the selling price, I am not surprised to see the old films in new mediums. Plenty of collectors simply must have their movies in the latest format, and plenty of people want personal libraries of monster and horror movies, good or bad.
About enhancing the experience, I have to laugh. I used to watch the movies that I write about on an old black-&-white television with so-so reception and a very small screen. If my father and mother watched with me, I ceded the seat right in front on the TV to them, and I sat on the side. Not only was the small picture a little fuzzy, but I was watching it at an angle.
So, I appreciate the superior quality of a Blu Ray, but don’t need it to enjoy the film. A downside of Blu Rays and big screens is that sometimes you can see the make-up on the actors or the line where their hairpieces meet their scalps. But again, if I can live with lousy reception, I can certainly live with that.
A lot of the today’s movies, especially with CGI, probably benefit from Blu Ray quality. I certainly see my share of them, but most of the movies I write about don’t really need it.
6) Explain how The Great Depression and political and cultural tensions contributed to the movement against horror films in Britain in the early and mid ’30s?
Dello Stritto: Let me make a confession. On the British “ban” of horror movies in the 1930s, I have written one magazine article and one chapter in a book, and given two talks, and I still don’t think I have gotten it quite right. The pressure on studios to drop horror was probably as strong in America as in Britain. But in Britain, it made headlines, whereas in Hollywood it largely between the censors and the studios. So, the definitive history has yet to be written.
Now, to address your question, The Great Depression and the coming of sound films hit the film studios at about the same. Sound made movies more realistic, and the Depression forced film makers to become more daring to draw people into theatres. Horror had a hard time with censors, but so did several film genres—gangster films, “bad girl” films, social message films, and even jungle dramas where scantily-clad people swung through trees. In Britain, horror films attracted most attention, but pressure was on all of them. Tarzan movies, for example, were all rated “Adult” by the British Board of Film Censors.
Any “political tension” in the mix comes from the fact that American movies dominated in British theatres. Most movies in French were made in France; most movies in German were made in Germany. Where were most movies in English made—well, not in Britain. Aggravating the situation is that the British film industry was under the thumb of the very conservative BBFC. That is why in lists of the great films of the 1920s and 1930s, Britain is under-represented. Creativity was suppressed in British movies, and a lot of it was edited out of foreign imports, including imports from America.
The “cultural tension” may be simply that young moviegoers—those supposedly to be protected from horror films—loved them. And not only horror movies—the alleged vulgarities from Hollywood were more popular than some watch dog groups can tolerate.
Sometimes, “cultural tensions” are wars between what trickles down from above—from the elites and intelligentsia—and what bubbles up from below—the showmen and the vaudevillians. So what did Hollywood do: it took British novels like Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, etc., and simplified them, popularized them and served them up to a mass audience.
All the horrors were rated “Adult,” which meant that anyone under 16 had to be accompanied by someone over 16. Young people got around that restriction easily. Stories abound of young boys beating the system. A new rating was needed. “H” came into effect on January 1, 1937, and forbade anyone under 16 from entering a theatre showing a horror film, that is a film given an “H” by the BBFC.
The irony is that by the time the “H” came into effect, horror films had fallen into eclipse by pressures in Britain, America and elsewhere. Of course, they came back big in late 1938 with the reissue of Dracula and Frankenstein on a double bill. And that, of course, is another story.
Interview conducted by Doug Gibson
Thanks Frank, and we look forward to your new book, scheduled to arrive on June 1, “The Passion of the Mummy.”
Here are review links to Frank Dello Stritto books:
Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain , co-written with Andi Brooks.
I Saw What I Saw When In Saw It … a memoir
This interview is cross-posted at The Plan9Crunch blog.