Monsters of classic literature and lore, Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man or werewolf, were the first to bring horror to the big screen.
Moviemakers used the contemporary black-and-white cinematography to depict the stories’ shadowy undertones. Yet there was even more to the scenes that made folks shudder, and couples nuzzle close.
Aspects that are anthems to this cinematic era, and are timelessly haunting.
I asked Robert Leininger, filmmaker and host of “Classic Movie Monsters” weblog, what movies epitomized Frankenstien, Dracula, and the Wolf Man. Here are the movies he selected and comments about some of their clasically chilling moments.
“Frankenstein” (Universal Studios, 1931)
The film, so early in sound cinema time, is without background music. That fact actually adds to the horrifying effects. The audience hears resoundingly sounds like dirt hitting the coffin when the gravedigger covers a new grave.
One of the creepiest scenes, Mr. Leininger said, happens after the monster escapes captivity. He meets Maria, a farmer’s young daughter. He enjoys her company, and unwittingly drowns her.
The monster returns to hiding. Meanwhile, Maria’s father discovers her. In his shock, he carries his young daughter’s lifeless body through the village streets, and the townsfolk react with bewilderment.
“Dracula” (Universal Studios, 1931)
Again, the lack of a background music score added to the film’s effectiveness, said Mr. Leininger.
Like “Frankenstein,” this movie is extremely atmospheric. It draws us into eerie surroundings from the opening moments as Mr. Renfeld takes a carriage through the Carpathian Mountains.
The movie uses incredible attention to detail in the scenes.
And it uses long shots, like a gaze at Dracula’s coffin, as we see crawling rats and armadillos, and hear their patterings and squeals.
“The Wolfman” (Universal Studios, 1941)
“The Wolf Man” isn’t as atmospheric as “Frankenstein” or “Dracula,” yet it still does a good job to thrill, Mr. Leininger said.
The movie features point-of -view shots,. One of the scariest is when the gravedigger, at a graveyard deep in the woods, first sights the Wolf Man standing next to a distant tree.
The gravedigger has to look again, in disbelief. Before he understands what he sees, the Wolf Man attacks and kills him.
Being in the audience then
In the early days of cinema, the very nature of how movies were presented contributed to the eeriness. The black and white screen, the lack of background music so audiences were left to silence at tense times, or left only to the voice of Dracula, or to the shrills of the villagers pursuing Frankenstein. They were left to the shadows of the Wolfman lurking. The directors, the actors built upon that. To bring magnificent horror.
This was the beginning of these classic monsters darkening the big screen. There was nothing fancy about it, no special effects. Certainly no resorting to blood nor gore. Classic monster movies were made via the most simple, and most compelling tools to present a chilling story.
Audiences back then absorbed the sheer eeriness with wide eyes, and shuddered in a way future audiences would never experience.
The way the movies were made then were a product of the times. And if you envision being in the audience back then, you might experience a twinge of what they did — and you will sense an eeriness that sinks to your bones.
Link here to enjoy Mr. Leininger’s weblog Classic Movie Monsters.