Yes, we love our horror movies and since 1931 Dracula has been an enduring presence in keeping us on the edge of our seats. But while Universal may have given us the original, Hammer and Christopher Lee gave us the best, writes Tom McParland.
For as long as men have had artificial light they’ve listened to stories around the fire that made their blood curdle. Horror tales predate horror movies. The first famous printed horror book at the nineteenth century’s beginning was Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein – Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula was even more famous at its close.
Horror is the vacuum within us all, whether through our inability to imagine sanctifying grace, heaven, limbo, or hell. Life is often a lonely directionless journey where, unaccompanied, the soul floats on the cold comfort of candle-flicker that temporarily disguises the certain black void ahead.
Cinematic horror is collective and singular. Like life. A guttering flame making longer shadows till they vanish forever. So, we live out our doubting day-by-days on the bird-in-the-hand principle regardless of 2000 years of reassuring Christianity. With a deep uneasiness about whether the end really is the end. This is what the horror movie exploits. But who in Heaven’s name wants to be tortured by Transylvanian bloodsuckers or Carpathian monsters? We do, that’s who.
Today Universal Studios has its own 850-acre city in the San Fernando Valley district of Los Angeles. Nobody lives there except maintenance staff for its 136 working studios and studio lot tours. Since 1915 when German Carl Laemmle founded the studio, tourists today take the Universal Tour. Goggling for their forty-five to sixty-minute delight at attractions such as Flash Flood, Earthquake: The Big One, Jaws, Courthouse Square (Back to the Future), King Kong: 360 3-D, War of the Worlds and Bates’ Psycho Mansion.
Daily, just as the Tourist tram passes the Psycho mansion, an actor emerges with a sheet-wrapped ‘body’ and deposits it in the already open boot of a stationary 1960 automobile. Until very recently the set of Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb was also a premier attraction.
The aeroplane-crash set from the Steven Spielberg-directed War Of The Worlds is yours for $72 on the Halloween night time tour only, gloriously littered with bodies. All these point to two things – the grizzly spells that the 1931 Universal horrors must’ve cast and the cold, cinematic finger that beckons the tourist back to witness again the crime scenes.
The fact that Universal released Dracula on February 14th 1931 only confirms that its intended audience was impressionable adolescents and young adults. For no other calendar date is so seriously marked then instantly disregarded as Saint Valentine’s Day. So, no better date to release a movie about the patron saint of death on the patron saint of love’s feast day.
With talkies barely four years old, two versions of Dracula were released, both talkie and silent, to allow cinemas that hadn’t yet converted for sound to see the movie. It was based on a Broadway play by Irishman Hamilton Deane, containing many of the vampire’s characteristics from another Irishman, Bram Stoker – and his brilliant, eponymous novel.