Friday 21 July 2017

Hollywood howls at the moon

Paul Whitington

Joe Johnston's The Wolfman, starring Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro, evokes memories of a time when the word horror meant very different things in Hollywood. In it Del Toro plays the unfortunate Lawrence Talbot, a decent Victorian gentleman who is investigating some spectacularly brutal murders on his land when he realises that the culprit might just be himself.

It turns out he's a lycanthrope, who sprouts hair and runs amok every time the moon is full, a potentially insurmountable obstacle for the film's romantic interest, Gwen (Emily Blunt). Boasting elaborate special effects, The Wolfman is a remake of the 1941 classic of the same name and is a dream come true apparently for Del Toro, who is a huge fan of the Lon Chaney Jr film and a collector of Wolf Man memorabilia.

These days 'horror' often involves either the indiscriminate slashing of smug college kids or the protracted torture of unfortunate females, but once upon a time it was an altogether gentler genre. The classic horror films of the early Hollywood years were mainly based on the classics of romantic literature, in particular the stories of Mary Shelly, Dr Polidori, Bram Stoker and Edgar Allen Poe. And so popular did these gothic extravaganzas become that they produced a group of actors who specialised in horror.

Lon Chaney Jr, who starred in the 1941 The Wolf Man, was actually the son of the actor who could be said to have started it all. For Lon Chaney Senior was Hollywood's -- and the world's -- first horror film star. Though horror films are almost as old as cinema itself (the first one is reckoned to be the 1896 French short Le Manoir du Diable), Hollywood began experimenting with the genre in the early 1920s, inspired by the great German expressionist directors such as FW Murnau and Paul Wegener. And when Lon Chaney starred in Universal studio's adaptation of Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923, he became one of the world's biggest stars virtually overnight.

Chaney had been born in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in 1883, and owed his remarkable gifts as a physical actor to his parents, both of whom were deaf. In order to communicate with them, he became very skilled in mime, and by his early 20s was plying his trade in vaudeville. He would probably have stayed in the theatre, too, if it hadn't been for an unseemly scandal. When Chaney was performing at the Majestic Theatre in Los Angeles in 1913, his unhappy young wife turned up and tried to poison herself with mercury. The cloud of scandal forced him to turn to film acting instead.

After he'd scored his first success with the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Chaney starred in a string of hits that earned him the nickname 'the man of a thousand faces'. In films like The Monster (1925), Mr Wu (1927) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Chaney used wires, padding and deft make-up to transform his relatively handsome face into various hideous contortions. And he used real grace and subtlety to give his monsters heart.

Though he would possibly not have fared well in the sound era, he died as it was beginning, of complications from bronchitis, in 1929. He was just 47. But in the early sound era a pair of new horror superstars would emerge from the Universal backlots.

Bela Lugosi (born Bela Blasco) was a dashing Hungarian actor who arrived in Hollywood in the late 1920s and immediately caused quite a stir among the ladies (he would marry five times).

When Universal had first decided to make a film based on Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, they'd had Lon Chaney in mind. By 1931, though, he was dead, and Lugosi, who'd already played the role on stage, certainly looked the part. He had the accent too, and brought a wonderful theatricality and menace to his portrayal of the sinister count, though funnily enough he would hardly ever play the role again.

That same year an equally iconic film would turn an English actor whose real name was William Pratt into an even bigger star. William had wisely changed his stage name to Boris Karloff during his early Hollywood years, and his portrayal of 'the monster' in James Whale's Frankenstein terrified audiences around the world.

Though not especially tall or ugly, Karloff's mute and lumbering blockheaded giant was an unforgettable sight, especially in the scene where he gets the wrong end of the stick while skimming stones with a boy and throws the kid in to see if he'll bounce.

Through the 1930s, Universal capitalised on the success of these films by making a series of high-quality horror features. Karloff starred in The Mummy in 1932, and in Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. And he and Lugosi appeared together in several fine gothic chillers, most notably The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). But while Karloff had the good sense -- and the range -- to work in non-horror films as well, Lugosi was typecast from the start, and would become marginalised in the 1940s.

Lon Chaney Jr became a horror actor of note when he scored a big hit with The Wolf Man in 1941. Through the 1940s he would get to play the full gamut of stock horror characters including the Mummy and Frankenstein, but Chaney had a touching, child-like quality on screen that made him an altogether less sinister proposition than his father, and in any case these traditional horror films had by this stage begun to go out of fashion.

They were revived, if only briefly, in the early 1960s by Vincent Price and Roger Corman, who came together to make a string of lurid and inspired films based on the dark stories of Edgar Allan Poe. In The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Corman and Price memorably evoked Poe's nightmarish world, and for many Vincent Price's purring voice will always be synonymous with terror.

In England, Hammer Studios were beginning to churn out their low-budget versions of the Draculas and Frankensteins starring Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. But by the early 1960s the days of such quaint and mannerly horror films were numbered: Alfred Hitchcock had just released Psycho, which featured an altogether scarier and more believable kind of monster.

The Wolfman opened nationwide yesterday. pwhitington@independent.ie

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