Thursday, October 30, 2014

Culture Shock 10.30.14: '30s horror possessed of timeless glamour

Zita Johann, left, and Boris Karloff in 1932's "The Mummy."
One typically doesn't think of horror films as glamorous. Quite the opposite.

Glamour is enchantment. It appeals to our dreams and desires. It's something we want to escape to. Glamour is Louis Vuitton's "L’Invitation Au Voyage" ads, featuring model Arizona Muse, who in one ad dashes through the Louvre in Paris and hops aboard a hot air balloon, and in a subsequent ad lands her balloon in Venice just in time for an elegant fancy dress ball hosted by a regal David Bowie.

Horror is anti-glamour. It's something we seek to escape from, whether it's something as subtle as a prickling sensation of foreboding or something as blatant as a machete-swinging maniac.

When horror becomes glamorous, it ceases to be horror. The "Twilight" films are soap opera fantasies that happen to involve vampires and werewolves. They're someone's wish fulfillment.

The exceptions to the rule are the horror films of the early 1930s, especially those produced by Universal Pictures. And it is the paradoxical glamour of the these early, archetypal horror films that helps explain why they are so enduring, long after they lost their ability to startle jaded audiences.

As some of the first horror pictures of the sound era, "Dracula," "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" set a benchmark other filmmakers have rarely approached. In terms of cultural impact, only Britain's Hammer Films comes close to equaling what Universal and its early imitators accomplished 80 years ago. And Hammer went about it in an altogether different way, emphasizing shocks and "Kensington Gore" over mood and atmosphere. When film historians speak of "Hammer glamour," they refer to the studio's curvaceous leading ladies, with their pin-up looks and plunging necklines, rather than to the films themselves. It's an altogether different type of glamour.

What makes the horror films of the 1930s different is just that: They're of the 1930s.

In her paradigm-setting 2013 book "The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion," Bloomberg View columnist and former Reason magazine editor Virginia Postrel zeroes in on the '30s as the decade of glamour.

Postrel writes that the films of the '30s created a visual shorthand for glamour that extends across the decades to the present day. They introduced Middle America to "the high-contrast surfaces and streamlined forms of American art deco, the satin gowns and dramatically lit portraits of screen goddesses, the distant shots of the New York skyline, the sleek nightclubs and penthouse apartments, the languorous cigarette smoke."

Universal's horror films transport Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, creatures of Victorian times and earlier, to what was then the present day, or a vague facsimile. Unmoored from their history, they become intruders in a chrome-plated world that evokes an imagined and desired future.

Bela Lugosi, left, and Helen Chandler in 1931's "Dracula."
The title credits of Tod Browning's "Dracula" (1931) play over a stylized bat symbol that's all art deco curves and none of the sharp, Gothic angles you'd expect. The contemporary setting liberates the women from their Victorian layers and corsets, allowing them to float freely inside elegant gowns that barely cling to their shoulders. Even Bela Lugosi's Dracula manages to blend in with style, looking equally at ease in a top hat and tails as he does in a cape. Only his accent gives him away.

In Karl Freund's "The Mummy" (1932), modern Cairo blends old and new into a glamorously exotic locale, where the city's 20th century lights pinprick the skyline beneath the pyramids. And absorbing the view from her balcony is Zita Johann's Helen, named for antiquity's most beautiful woman yet wearing a modern dress and smoking a cigarette. Like all 1930s glamour, Helen is modern yet timeless.

The real menace of the early Universal monsters is the threat they bring to the glamorous world to which we'd like to escape. That is what makes them so compelling to this day.

But the 1930s didn't last, and neither did horror's glamour. "The Wolf Man" (1941), with its doomed, aristocratic hero taking the blue collar form of Lon Chaney Jr., was the beginning of the end.

Abbott and Costello lay just ahead.

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