Ever since he was a young teenager, Robert Pattinson has been obsessed with the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The English author’s stories inspired his 2011 film Eclipse, which was a critical and commercial success and is now considered one of the greatest adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.
Lovecraft’s influence can be seen in Pattinson’s earlier films, particularly Belonging (2012), which has a similar atmosphere of dread and unease. But it was his next film that solidified his love for Lovecraft’s work. In 2014, Pattinson starred in Mad Max: Fury Road, a gritty adaptation of the popular video game where he plays a psychotic, cannibalistic man who lives in a post-apocalyptic world. And yet, despite the film’s intense violence and gruesome content, it was a critical and commercial success and is now regarded as one of the greatest films based on a video game.
What’s more is Pattinson had to battle for the role of Max, which he described as “one of the most difficult roles I’ve ever had to play.” The actor underwent rigorous back-to-back auditions and callbacks before winning the part, which he said was a “miracle.”
Lovecraft’s stories often revolve around the theme of “cosmic horror,” which is when the elements of science fiction and horror collide. The fear is not only that the world will come to an end, but that it will also be terribly chaotic and unpredictable. This tension between order and chaos is present in all of Lovecraft’s stories.
But it wasn’t just his fascination with Lovecraft that turned Pattinson into an international celebrity. The Twilight Saga actor also helped to reinvent how we look at vampires in cinema, starring as a brooding, seductive character who is actually quite gentle and sensitive.
Let’s take a trip back in time to the early 1900s, when classic tales of werewolves, vampires, and ghouls were first being written and polished for publication.
The literary circles that circled around Aleister Crowley, Jack London, and H.P. Lovecraft were some of the first to experiment with horror fiction. With the development of motion pictures in the early 20th century, filmmakers began to draw on these famous names and their fantastic stories in order to shock and horrify their audience. So it was that horror fiction began to be used as a tool for cinematic storytelling, with the very first horror movies being published in the teens and early 20s.
The three pillars of classic horror – wolves, vampires, and ghouls – were first adapted for film by British authors and screenwriters, leading to an explosion of interest in these creatures among the general public. Hollywood took note of this trend and began to build on it, with many famous horror stars being bankrolled by the film industry in order to encourage writers to continue producing fantastic stories about monsters living among us. It wasn’t long before these creatures inhabited Hollywood screens, with numerous movies adapting the works of these famous writers and sparking a craze for occult fiction.
The Wolf Man
The very first screen adaptation of a classic tale of werewolves was actually a very faithful adaptation of the 1938 novel rather than the vintage 1930 horror movie. It featured Universal’s very own “man-wolf”, Lon Chaney, as the eponymous Wolf Man.
Chaney’s incredible career was mostly spent playing monsters, with a majority of his roles being memorable characters in horror movies. He often played mad scientists and other characters with a dark side, and was known for his portrayal of the werewolf character in the 1933 film The Wolf Man. He was also the father of horror director William ‘Bill’ Chaney.
The Wolf Man was a massive hit, both critically and financially, and sparked an interest in werewolves that continues to this day. Audiences were genuinely frightened by the unknown creatures, and the fear that they would one day turn on those they loved was palpable.
It was another British author who brought Dracula, the legendary vampire prince, to life on the silver screen. On October 25, 1931, it was reported that Warner Bros. were looking to make a movie out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. They had apparently seen a stage production of the play and wanted to bring it to the screen. It wasn’t long before the studio began looking for a suitable screenwriter to turn Stoker’s Gothic novel into a cinematic masterpiece.
It took them four years to finally make the film, with a script being commissioned in 1936 and shooting beginning that same year. The studio made several important casting choices: they hired two of the most renowned actors in Hollywood at the time, Boris Karloff and Lionel Barrymore. The pair were an incredible choice for the roles of Dracula and his bride, the Countess Dracula. Karloff had previously starred in films such as The Mummy and Frankenstein, while Barrymore had recently starred in a series of successful movies, including Father Came Too!, the sequel to Father Knows Best. He was also known for playing Father Brown in the popular TV show.
The two men delivered exceptional performances that were perfectly suited for the roles, and they would go on to play key roles in a string of subsequent films based on iconic horror characters. The first of these was Karloff’s majestic portrayal of the titular monster in the 1939 classic Son of Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale, it would be Karloff’s final film role before his death in 1969. The image of Karloff wearing a leather jacket, holding a scepter, and baring his fangs has since become one of the most iconic images in cinematic history.
Barrymore would star in a series of crime-fighting father-son movies with Robert Taylor, playing the role of a patriarch who enforces his strict moral codes on his children. One of the most iconic scenes in this sub-genre is undoubtedly the 1932 film Murder on the Dance Floor, in which Taylor’s character is framed for the murder of a former lover. Despite his reputation for being a strict disciplinarian, the actor was actually very open to new ideas and was behind some of the more progressive films of the time. A dedicated Christian, he would even go on to found the Christian Film and Television Commission, becoming its first chairman. Barrymore died in 1986.
Barrymore and Karloff’s performances in Dracula were so successful that they spawned numerous parodies and humorous references to the legendary creatures. It was almost a decade before another major player would arise to challenge these two titans of horror.
The film that finally toppled the king and queen of horror was James Whale’s Frankenstein, released in 1931. Much like Dracula before it, the movie was initially inspired by a play, in this case a London production of the same name. It was a natural fit for Whale, who had previously starred in several plays as well as directed several others. Whale’s previous experience as a director was valuable in helping to make the film realistic and immersive. It was a major production and had several major sets, which were all built over the course of a year in his native England. The special effects were first-class, with Whale even enlisting the help of his son, Jack, who had previously worked in films with his dad.
What’s more is the film was shot on a relatively low budget of £13,500 and made on location in London instead of being constructed in a studio. This meant that the sets and costumes had to be adaptable and portable, with Whale noting, “We shot on location, so we had to modify the sets as often as was necessary. This required a great deal of ingenuity because we were always on the move from one location to another.”
Like its predecessors, Frankenstein was a major box office success upon its release and is considered one of the greatest films of all time. A combination of grand production values, top-notch special effects, acting talent, and on-location filming undoubtedly helped to create one of the greatest suspense films of all time.
It was Karloff and Barrymore’s reign as king and queen of horror that was brought to an end by a couple of upstarts from Brooklyn. The year was 1939. More details to follow…