Happy Halloween folks! Or as I like to say, Happy Samhain! Either way, it's the "Night of the Dead", and strange things are afoot. This time of year, but most especially this night, the end of the harvest, and the beginning of the "Dark Half" of the year, has always been deeply connected to magick and mystery, demons and spirits, ghouls and monsters. From ancient times, when today was a deeply sacred holiday, and actually the equivalent of the "Celtic New Year", to modern times, when the day has been saturated in sugar and commandeered by commercialism. But despite all of that, or perhaps IN spite of it, the day still retains it's same aura of "specialness". And in honor of that feeling, I am here today to share with you my thoughts and to impart a little knowledge, surrounding what I call the "True Icons of Horror".
Now, when I say "Icons", I don't merely mean the monsters themselves. No, those are just ideas, images that have existed in the human mind for centuries. What I mean, is the people, the actors, who gave those characters life and burned them into our minds via the magick art of the cinema. Today, for "Part 1", I'm going to be focusing on the "Golden Age" of classic horror films, and more specifically, the primary horror actors of the time. Now, it's always best to start at the beginning, but when it comes to film history, that is sometimes a very tricky proposition. I've already discussed in the last article how early filmmakers and studios didn't often have the foresight to take measures to preserve the physical prints of their work, and thus many of the earliest films wound up now "lost" to us. Indeed, the very earliest horror films actually appeared with the beginning of cinema itself, all the way back in the 1890s. 1896, to be precise, with prominent French film innovator Georges Melies, much of whom's filmwork is in fact now sadly lost. But to my mind, the first true notable horror actor, is someone whom most have probably never heard of.
|The earliest adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein".|
Charles Stanton Ogle - What you see above is the very first "Frankenstein" film, in it's entirety. Indeed the entire cast was uncredited, as was likely common practice this far back in film history, but Charles Ogle was the man who first was made-up to embody Mary Shelley's iconic "Frankenstein Monster". Looking at this film now, to most it certainly wouldn't be very impressive, and indeed might even come off as a bit silly, but I assure you that back in 1910, this probably blew people's minds, not to mention scared them out of their wits. Motion picture was still quite new and fantastical, and most people by 1910 likely still hadn't even seen a "movie", so take that and add in a representation of chilling horror, and you can imagine how some might have reacted. Charles Ogle himself is not a well known actor today, and certainly doesn't stand out on likely anyone's list of "Top Horror Actors", but I felt he deserved a mention, simply for the fact that he was one of the first MAJOR "Movie Monsters" of all time. That in itself is a very prestigious and important distinction. He was a fairly prominent character actor of his time, appearing in over 300 films by the end of his career, including a turn as Captain "Long John" Silver in a 1920 adaptation of "Treasure Island", but I'm not certain that any of his other roles were in horror films, which did not become prolific until the sound era.
Notable Roles: Frankestein's Creation, in "Frankenstein" (1910)
|Tell me that isn't still creepy as hell.|
Max Schreck - Now there were major horror films in the 1910s and early '20s, such as adaptations of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", productions of "The Golem", etc. But the next one that immediately stands out, and another silent era actor who deserves mention purely based on one outstanding role. Just as Charles Ogle was the first actor to play Frankenstein's Monster, Max Schreck, a German character actor, was the first to (TECHNICALLY) play Count Dracula. Now, I say technically, because that was precisely the case. The German filmmakers (including famed impressionist director F.W. Murnau), wanted to make an adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" novel, but could not obtain the rights, and so legally, they couldn't use the name "Dracula". Thus, they went ahead and adapted the novel anyway, but instead called the movie "Nosferatu" (1922), and re-named the central character to "Count Orlok". But regardless of semantics, Mr. Schreck took that role and made it his own, leaving such an indelible image imprinted on the social consciousness, that even people today who've never seen this silent era classic, are probably still subconsciously familiar with the image of Schreck as Orlok. Why? Because the costume and make-up, not to mention his acting, were so damn good, not just by 1920s standards, but by any standards, that it still stands as one of the creepiest images and performances in cinema history. But again, similar to Charles Ogle, while Max Schreck was himself a successful actor of his time, and unlike so many other silent film stars, actually survived into the sound era before his death in 1936, I don't know that he ever had any other prominent horror roles.
Notable Roles: Count Orlok (Dracula), in "Nosferatu" (1922)
|The Man of a Thousand Faces|
Lon Chaney Sr. - Now the first person to TRULY be known and considered as an "Icon of Horror", was none other than one Lon Chaney, or as he would later be known (because of his equally famous son), Lon Chaney Sr. Mr. Chaney spent a vast majority of his acting career doing serious films, dramas, even comedies, he was a jack of all trades, and despite his future reputation for embodying famous monsters, he was quite the handsome leading man. It wasn't until 1923's adaptation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", where he first took his first steps into Horror Immortality.
|He's got his EYE on you. Okay...bad joke.|
It's worth mentioning that unlike pretty much all later horror stars, Lon Chaney Sr. did his own make-up effects, which makes it all the more amazing, because, I mean just LOOK at those pictures! Also of note, is the fact that he grew up under the extraordinary circumstance of having not one, but TWO deaf parents, so he had to become very good not only sign language, but pantomime, at a young age. This lent itself perfectly to a silent film career, and made him better and more expressive than many of his contemporaries. In "Hunchback", he played the pitiful victim and anti-hero, Quasimodo, and while others have come and gone who have portrayed the character very well (especially Charles Laughton), none are more iconic or better remembered than Chaney's. He would go on to play other horror icons, such as "The Phantom of the Opera", the other role his is primarily remembered for. Sadly, Lon Chaney Sr. died right before the sound era really came into full effect, and as such, never got to act in a film where people could hear his voice. He truly died with his era.
Notable Roles: Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923), Gustav Ziska in "The Monster" (1925), Erik, The Phantom in "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925), Mr Wu in "Mr Wu" (1927), Alonzo the Armless in "The Unknown" (1927), Inspector Edward C. Burke in "London After Midnight" (1927)
|Mr. Atwill in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939)|
Lionel Atwill - Another actor who is perhaps lesser known today, but was very well known during the "Golden Age" of sound horror films, is one Lionel Atwill. Not the same brand of character actor as those I've mentioned so far, he was not known to dress up or play many iconic monsters. And yet, he did in fact star or appear in well over a dozen horror films. His first such turn came in 1932's "Doctor X", a horror/mystery film in which he plays the title character, Dr. Xavier, who is implicated in cannibalistic murders. He also played the primary villain and central character of the original "Mystery at the Wax Museum" (1933), where he played sculptor Ivan Igor. This is one role where he did get the full "monster make-up" treatment, as Igor is a sculptor whose wax museum is not making enough money, and one of his investment partners decides he wants to burn it down and collect the insurance, which Igor fights, leaving him knocked out and left for dead, winding up horribly burned. He resurfaces years later, re-opening his wax museum through sinister means, and setting about a plot of revenge. He even had a turn as the infamous Professor Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" (1943). But probably his most iconic and enduring role, at least in horror films, was that of Inspector Krogh, the only sensible man in town, in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939). He would go on to play various other characters in several following Frankenstein films, but this was his most iconic, even being parodied/homaged in Mel' Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" (1974).
Notable Roles: Dr. Jerry Xavier in "Doctor X" (1932), Ivan Igor in "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933), Inspector Neumann in "Mark of the Vampire (1935), Inspector Krogh in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), Dr. James Mortimer in "Hound of the Baskervilles" (1939), Dr. Paul Rigas in "Man Made Monster" (1941), Dr. Theodore Bohmer in "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942), Professor Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" (1943), The Mayor in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943), Inspector Arnz in "House of Frankenstein" (1944), Police Inspector Holtz in "House of Dracula" (1945)
|Mr. Lugosi, in the role he is still synonymous with to this day.|
Bela Lugosi - Now on to the meat and potatoes of this entry. Mr. Bela Lugosi, born October 20th, 1882 in his native country of Hungary, came to America in the in the early 20th century, around 1920, after fleeing his country due to the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. He moved around Europe a bit before coming to New Orleans as a seaman aboard a merchant ship. An experienced stage actor, also having appeared in many Hungarian and later German films, he eventually took up stage acting once more in America. He played the central role of a 1927 Broadway production of Bram Stoker's "Dracula", which is what ultimately landed him the same part in what would be THE first ever horror film of the sound era, 1931's "Dracula", directed by Tod Browning. Lugosi's role as Count Dracula, though technically he only ever played it in two films (also the 1948 comedy "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein"), wound up being so iconic, so memorable, that when people think of the character of Dracula now, most people likely don't automatically think of Max Schreck, or John Carradine, or Christopher Lee or Gary Oldman. No, they think of Bela Lugosi. He's so synonymous with that role, that most media depictions of the character even imitate his thick Hungarian accent, his look in the film, and his mannerisms. He would, of course, go on to play many other roles, in fact in the 1930s and '40s, he was one of the top billed stars of Hollywood. He even received top billing over starring actors in several films where he only had smaller or even cameo roles, because name sold tickets. Some would contend that Boris Karloff wound up the bigger star, but honestly, I would put them both as dead even, because both of them gave portrayals of classic characters which are to this day remembered and imitated.
Notable Roles: Count Dracula in "Dracula" (1931), 'Murder' Legendre in "White Zombie" (1932), Sayer of the Law in "Island of Lost Souls" (1932, first adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The Island of Doctor Moreau), Dr. Vitus Werdegast in "The Black Cat" (1934), Chandu the Magician in "The Return of Chandu" serial (1934), Mr. Fu Wong in "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" (1935), Count Mora in "Mark of the Vampire" (1935), Richard Vollin in "The Raven" (1935), Dr. Felix Benet in "The Invisible Ray" (1936), Dr. Alex Zorka in "The Phantom Creeps" serial (1939), Ygor in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), Bela the Gypsy in "The Wolf Man" (1941), Ygor in "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942), Frankenstein's Monster in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943), Armand Tesla in "The Return of the Vampire" (1944), Count Dracula in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948).
Boris Karloff - Mr. Karloff was born on November 23, 1887, in London, England. Like his contemporary Lugosi, he traveled across the Atlantic to continue his acting career, although in his case he started in Canada. He acted in many films in his career before he got famous in America, but sufficed to say, like Lugosi, he was a veteran actor before his own iconic role came around. That came after Lugosi's turn at "Dracula", in 1931. Universal Pictures wanted to adapt another famous horror novel, after the success they had with "Dracula", and actually originally wanted Lugosi to play the "Monster". There are conflicting rumors, that either Bela Lugosi didn't want to take the role because he felt like the make-up would hinder his acting, or that director James Whale preferred Karloff, but whatever went down, Fate saw to it that Boris Karloff got the role that made his career. As "Frankenstein's Monster", with the help of Jack Pierce's famous make-up, Karloff set the world ablaze to the same extent that Lugosi did as Count Dracula. Even in a role that had zero lines of dialogue beyond grunts and growls, he still owned the role, and used body language and facial expression to give the performance of a lifetime. In later sequel "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), the Monster learned to speak, which allowed him to give the role more depth. Again, like Lugosi, he went on to act in many other horror roles, being one of the biggest stars of the 1930s and '40s, and even staying active throughout the 1960s. But, like Lugosi, his biggest and most remembered role, would remain The Monster from "Frankenstein.
Notable Roles: The Monster in "Frankenstein" (1931), Morgan the Butler in "The Old Dark House" (1932), Dr. Fu Manchu in "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932), Imhotep in "The Mummy" (1932), Professor Morlant in "The Ghoul" (1933), Hjalmar Poelzig in "The Black Cat" (1934), The Monster in "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), Edmond Bateman in "The Raven" (1935), Dr. Janos Rukh in "The Invisible Ray" (1936), Dave Mallory in "Night Key" (1937), The Monster in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), Mr. Wong in "The Mystery of Mr. Wong" (1939), Dr. John Garth in "Before I Hang" (1940), Dr. Gustav Neimann in "The House of Frankenstein" (1944), Dr. Henry Jekyll in "Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1953), Baron Victor von Frankenstein in "Frankenstein 1970" (1958), Dr. Sacrabus in "The Raven" (1963), Nahum Whitley in "Die, Monster Die!" (1965), The Grinch/Narrator in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1966)
On a final note, it's worth pointing out that Lugosi and Karloff, while many perceived them as rivals, actually acted in many films together. By my count, at least half a dozen, if not a little more. They were great alone, and great together. Alright kiddies! That's it for Part 1 of the "Icons of Horror Cinema". Stayed tuned tomorrow for Part 2! I'll give you a hint....it's going to feature another set of horror actors who appeared in many films together, and were themselves iconic in their roles. Till then...be careful out there.