Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre

Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre

Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre

Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre

Synopsis

In 1931 Universal Pictures released Dracula and Frankenstein, two films that inaugurated the horror genre in Hollywood cinema. These films appeared directly on the heels of Hollywood's transition to sound film. Uncanny Bodies argues that the coming of sound inspired more in these massively influential horror movies than screams, creaking doors, and howling wolves. A close examination of the historical reception of films of the transition period reveals that sound films could seem to their earliest viewers unreal and ghostly. By comparing this audience impression to the first sound horror films, Robert Spadoni makes a case for understanding film viewing as a force that can powerfully shape both the minutest aspects of individual films and the broadest sweep of film production trends, and for seeing aftereffects of the temporary weirdness of sound film deeply etched in the basic character of one of our most enduring film genres.

Excerpt

It is the between that is tainted with strangeness.

Hélène Cixous, “Fiction and Its Phantoms: A Reading
of Freud’s Das Unheimliche (The ‘Uncanny’)”

The two films that mark the dawn of the horror film as a Hollywood genre, Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein (both 1931), make a curious pair. When I first saw them as a child, I was at once awestruck by the creaky, majestic slowness of Dracula and disappointed to find in the film so little in the way of sensational action and monster effects. No monsters locked in mortal combat tumble through a laboratory about to be flooded with water from an exploded dam, as in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill, 1943), and no vampire glides on a coffin-barge over misty waters toward his next bride, as in Son of Dracula (R. Siodmak, 1943). Instead, Dracula gives us a tuxedoed figure who speaks with a thick Hungarian accent and spends a lot of time glaring. Frankenstein at least had a real monster, and yet this film, too, exuded an ancient quality that set it a world apart from the other horror films I loved. In Dracula and Frankenstein we hear no “movie music,” and this registered to me not as an absence but rather as a scratchy presence that suffused everything in the films with a tangible and delicious weirdness. There was something quintessential about these horror movies as horror movies. Their luminous gray worlds and yawning silences transfixed me. This was before I knew anything about film history. To me, all black-and-white films swam in the same ocean of undifferentiated oldness (except for silent films, which came from another planet) . . .

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