As the year 1931 began, America stood at the brink of the abyss.
The stock market crash of 1929 had ended the Roaring '20s, and, the party over, the hangover had set in.
Economic chaos at home -- a chaos that saw unemployment rising, banks closing and once-prosperous Americans beginning to live in cardboard shantytowns derisively dubbed "Hoovervilles" -- was matched by political chaos abroad.
A militaristic regime in Japan was threatening to plunge Asia into warfare, while in Germany the Nazis, a band of racist thugs disguised as a political party, were beginning to wield influence.
Although no one knew it at the time, the holocaust that had been World War I, the War to End All Wars, had not led to a permanent and just peace but instead had simply created the conditions that would cause, by the end of the decade, a conflagration of unprecedented horror, World War II.
It was against this background that the American horror movie was essentially invented. 1931 was the year of Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde and Freaks, one of the strangest movies ever released in America. All of these movies will be part of American Movies Classics' five-day, 58-film Halloween movie festival titled Monsterfest 2000: The Classics Come Alive, which begins tomorrow.
"Monster movies opened up the possibilities of psychic lawlessness," David J. Skal wrote in his entertaining and authoritative book, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. "A monster, for Hollywood, was a gangster of the id and unconscious. Cataclysmic junctures in history usually stir up strong imagery in the collective mind, and the years following the 1929 economic crash were no exception. Salvador Dali had risen to preeminence among the surrealist painters, and his 1931 canvas The Persistence of Memory defined the movement for much of the public. Dali's flaccid timepieces depicted a dreamlike meltdown of history itself.
"Horror films served as a kind of populist surrealism, re arranging the human body and its processes, blurring the boundaries between Homo sapiens and other species, responding uneasily to new and almost incomprehensible developments in science and the anxious challenges they posed to the familiar structures of society, religion, psychology, and perception."
The horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s have by now lost their ability to shock the way they shocked their contemporary audiences; yet we remain fascinated by them, said Skal, who has written a total of four books about the classic horror movies, particularly those that were produced in the 1930s and early 1940s by Universal Studios.
Skal is serving as a consultant for AMC's Monsterfest 2000, which features such classic Universal movies as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man (1940). The festival even includes the Spanish version of Dracula, shot at the same time as Dracula and on the same sets, but with a different cast, speaking Spanish. It is, according to Skal, whose books include Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of 'Dracula' from Novel to Stage to Screen, far superior to the languid English language version, which introduced Bela Lugosi, a man who couldn't actually speak English at the time, to American movie audiences.
Skal is also a consultant to Universal Studios Home Videos, which is releasing eight horror classics on video this week. Six of them -- Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man -- come from Universal's classic years. …