After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film, by Alison Peirse.

Posted by Dale Townshend on December 02, 2013 in Reviews tagged with

After Dracula: The 1930s Horror FilmBy Alison Peirse
London and New York: I.B Taurus (2013)
ISBN: 978 I 84885 53I I

Reviewed by Glenn Ward
Histories of horror cinema habitually measure genre films of the 1930s against the output of Hollywood’s Universal Pictures. While the influence of silent German Expressionist works such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) is acknowledged, interwar horror is said to belong almost entirely to Universal. Beginning with Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), this studio’s products have come to define the canon and dominate the history. As her title suggests, Alison Peirse doesn’t wholly jettison historiographies which place Browning’s film as the ‘birth’ of sound-era horror: Universal was rapidly established as market leader in the field, and three of Peirse’s chapters focus on Universal films made in Dracula’s wake. Nevertheless, the author takes a wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary approach which problematises notions of that studio as the single, determining essence of early talkie horror, and of Browning’s classic as the fount of its dominant tropes.

Peirse’s engaging account of genre developments in the 1930s destabilises the canon by focusing on a small number of European and American films which have suffered various degrees of neglect. The back cover blurb, if not the author, arguably exaggerates the extent to which some of these films have hitherto been critically sidelined; we might also cavil at the suggestion that Dracula is more canonised than James Whales’ Frankenstein. But this is nit-picking. Peirse combines close textual, intertextual, and socio-economic analyses to create fascinating new readings of her chosen case studies. The chapter on The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932) historicises the concept of the uncanny by discussing overlaps between Sigmund Freud’s and the film industry’s use of that term. Building on this notion, Peirse discusses Freund’s film as a site of morbid cultural memory, its optical unconscious haunted by the British Nineteenth Century spectacle of “mummy unrollings” as well as the phenomenon of Egyptomania.

Peirse’s chapter on Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1932) discusses the many ideological and industry-led determinants shaping the figure of the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke) in that film and its publicity materials. Given her commitment to multi-determinacy and intertextual discourse analysis, it is a little surprising to find Peirse describing the Panther Woman as the “origins of the female monster” in cinema; nevertheless, her discussion of the contradictoriness of the monstrous beauty’s narrative and visual construction is subtle and persuasive. Peirse’s examination of the Werewolf of London (Stewart Walker, 1935) similarly situates Walker’s film as the “origin” of werewolf cinema, since it predates The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941) by several years, but the question of origination is less significant than her thorough treatment of the film’s censorship-related trials and tribulations, and of the complex processes of ‘genrification’ through which the portrayal of the horrific and frightening was codified.

In different ways, the chapters on Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932) and The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934) place their subjects in interstices between Europe and America, and popular genre and the arthouse. I am inclined to quibble with Peirse’s implicit association of Europe with art and Hollywood with mass culture, even though she does argue that the films are cross-fertilised by these areas; likewise, the description of Jess Franco’s vampire films as “European art-horror” seems simplistic, but is drawn from Joan Hawkins’s work and can be overlooked since Franco is far removed from the book’s central concerns. More importantly, Peirse effectively describes the impact of Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) on the style of Vampyr and, in another chapter, White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932). Since German Expressionism is commonly reified as the heart of horror’s visual poetics, the influence of French impressionist cinema on the genre seems a fruitful line for further enquiry. The chapter on The Black Cat offers a thoughtful study of the complex interactions between European modernist set design, horror characters and gothic themes. The film’s figure of the modernist architect as a sadist ensconced in his “ghoulish and necrophiliac set design” has intriguing implications for how the relationships between modernism and genre cinema can be conceptualised. Although Peirse doesn’t mention it, the name of the film’s evil architect, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), is a clear reference to the German architect Hans Poelzig; the real-life Poelzig was responsible for the I.G Farben offices in Frankfurt, built between 1928 and 1930. Famous at the time as the longest office building in Europe, I.G Farben was taken over by the Nazi Party in 1933, and Zyklon B was eventually produced there. Such connections may be coincidental (Ulmer and Poelzig had both worked on the production design for Der Golem, Paul Wegener, 1920), but point to even wider webs of resonance than are traced by Peirse’s book.

Chapter 6 most successfully scrutinises previously undervalued items. Here, Peirse compellingly explores three diverse British horror features produced by Gaumont-British studios. Each is framed in relation to the demands of the British Board Film Censorship, transnational cultural influences, and other factors which shape the films’ textuality above and beyond individual directorial intention. As in the rest of the book, these studies deftly weave carefully researched production and reception histories with formal and post-Freudian analysis. Even when Jacques Lacan rears his head briefly, in relation to Vampyr, Peirse uses him selectively and strategically, overwhelming neither text nor reader. In short, After Dracula usefully reminds us of the heterogeneity of transnational 1930s horror and opens the field up to fresh new insights.

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