In honor of TCM's upcoming new book Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond, we wanted to know your questions about horror movies. Now, ten of your questions have been answered by author and film historian David J. Skal. Check out the answers below and if your name is on the list, congrats -- you'll be receiving Fright Favorites in the mail!
Martin Friedenthal asks:
What was the first "horror" movie?
David J. Skal: Fantastic, frightening characters and situations appeared in motion pictures since the dawn of the medium, notably in the groundbreaking trick films of Georges Melies. Frankenstein was adapted by the Thomas Edison Company as a short in 1910. There were also early films based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But the first full-length horror movie in its own right, not inspired by a book or play was Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1919. It remains one of the greatest examples of German expressionism, in which distorted visuals, crazy angles and menacing shadows are used very theatrically to depict inner states of anxiety and terror. It was a highly influential film, with characters and situations thatclearly anticipate later developments in the horror film, especially the first American versions of Dracula and Frankenstein.
Jan Rittenhouse asks:
To your knowledge, David, have any actors ever quit working on a horror movie midstream because they've gotten too scared?
David J. Skal: The closest example I can think of is Paul Picerni’s refusal to perform a live stunt on a working guillotine for House of Wax. Warner Bros. finally added some safety measures, but not before temporarily suspending the actor for insubordination.
John LaPorte asks:
Why can't Universal Studios find the footage of Bela Lugosi's dialogue as the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man? Wasn't it discovered and then lost again? This lost footage would truly allow historians to evaluate his performance and the movie that could have been.
David J. Skal: Deleted footage was rarely saved, much less archived for future use, because no one anticipated any such possibility. Universal similarly destroyed almost all of its silent film prints and negatives, rather than incur the costs of storage, which in the talkie era seemed pointless. In 1943, the year of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, films were rarely revived theatrically, film studies didn’t exist as an academic discipline, and the need for film preservation was recognized by almost no one, and there was no expectation of the revised “director’s cut” which is so common today. In the case of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the monster’s ability to speak was the result of a brain transplant in the previous film, Ghost of Frankenstein, and the brain was that of Lugosi’s character Ygor. By all accounts the effect was unintentionally comic, and was ultimately removed for that reason. Fortunately, the full shooting script has been published with all the missing dialog, so fans can decide themselves whether or not the idea was truly inspired, or a misfire that needed correction.
Debbie Hamilton asks:
How were the cast members of the 1932 classic Freaks located and assembled?
David J. Skal: In 1932, circus and carnival sideshows were still thriving in North America, and the human oddities they employed were not difficult to track down. MGM’s casting department assembled a wide variety of publicity photographs and souvenir postcards for Tod Browning to peruse prior to production. One amusing story was recalled by actress Leila Hyams, who visited Browning’s office and found the midget Daisy Earles poring over a stack of photos. She pointed to one, shaking her head. “Can you imagine looking like that?” she asked.
Dave Sikula asks:
Are the stories true about Boris Karloff driving home in the Frankenstein monster makeup and scaring the bejeezus out of people?
David J. Skal: Not true. Removing Karloff’s makeup was almost as elaborate a task as putting it on, and nothing the actor could possibly manage by himself at home. Stories like this were usually the invention of studio publicity departments. The only verified example I’ve found of a Universal actor taking home a costume was Claude Rains borrowing his Phantom of the Opera mask and cape on Halloween to accompany his young daughter for trick or treating in Brentwood.
Judy Boyer Finnegan asks:
Has there ever been a horror classic that was banned in a U.S. theater or town? If so, why?
David J. Skal: I’ve found no example of an outright ban in the United States, though individual state censor boards did succeed in prohibiting individual scenes and shots in a number of classics. The most famous is the drowning of Little Maria in Frankenstein, but other examples included New York’s deletion of Olga Baclonava pouring poison into the champagne bottle in Freaks, because it demonstrated “the technique of crime.” In Massachusetts, Sunday showings of Dracula were forbidden to include a glimpse of a skeleton and, inexplicably, that bizarre shot of a bug crawling out of a miniature coffin.
Christian Gallichio asks:
Considering your previous work on Bram Stoker, what do you think is the most faithful adaption of the novel Dracula? The least faithful?
David J. Skal: None are completely faithful, others are faithful in specific ways. The two-part BBC series with Louis Jourdan, Count Dracula (1977), is the closest to Stoker’s story and characters, but the figure of Dracula himself is not presented as Stoker describes him. Nosferatu (1922) probably comes closer than any other film in capturing the sense of revulsion the vampire creates in his victims. Audiences still shudder. Perhaps the least faithful is the 1992 Coppola film. Despite its title, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it so completely reinvents Dracula as a lovesick, romantic character that it almost exists in an alternate universe. However, almost every Dracula adaptation has elements I really like, and my favorite would probably be a mash-up edited together out of all the major versions. It’s too big a project for me to take on, but I hope someone else does. It would be a lot of fun.
Jonathan St. Martin asks:
Do you have horror movie that you make a point of watching every Halloween season?
David J. Skal: Before this pandemic year, I was usually on the road for most of every October, appearing at fan conventions, giving college lectures and doing bookstore signings, with little time myself to celebrate Halloween, much less watch movies. But this year, when TCM asked me to select four films to kick off their October programming, I chose exactly the films I would want to personally screen for a Halloween party, one representing each decade from the 1930s to 1960s: Dracula, Cat People, House on Haunted Hill, and The Haunting.
Kevin Gallaher asks:
Why do you think horror films are so overlooked by the Academy Awards?
David J. Skal: That may have been true once when most horror films existed in a low-budget ghetto and were simply off the radar in terms of award consideration. However, there have always been exceptions, such as Fredric March’s best actor nod for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931. Today, elements of horror/fantasy/and science fiction are frequently integral to big budget blockbusters. The technical categories alone guarantee that films with strange creatures and special effects will continue to attract attention. Monsters were once peripheral, now they often occupy the center, and demand to be recognized. Just look at the way The Shape of Water — an homage to Creature from the Black Lagoon, of all things — swept the Oscar nominations and won best picture, director, music and production design. And it more than deserved to win in most of the categories it lost, especially the acting nominations. More recently, Toni Colette earned a deserved best actress nomination for her bravura performance in Hereditary. On a personal note, I sensed a major sea change coming back in 1998 when the first feature film I had been involved in any capacity, Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters, earned best acting nominations for Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave, and won the award for best adapted screenplay.
Kevin Thomas asks:
My question is about the genre of horror anthology film — how did it come about, and where did it go? It seems like its heyday was from the 1960s through the 1980s, but besides the recent Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, it's hard to think of any from the last 30 years.
David J. Skal: Actually, there have been more than a dozen in the last decade or so, including Trick ‘r Treat (2009), Grave Tales (2011), V/H/S (2012), Volumes of Blood (2015), Tales of Halloween (2015) Galaxy of Horrors (2017), and many others. During this time, I’ve frequently served as a film festival juror, and can personally attest that each and every year sees an extraordinary number of accomplished short films that deserve to be seen, and ought to be packaged together in anthology formats. Programmers and distributors: take notice!
Thank you David and thank you to everyone who submitted questions!