"We saw every ballet, every film. If a film was good we would go and see it five times. Walt rented a studio up in North Hollywood and we would see a selection of films - anything from Charlie Chaplin to unusual subjects. Anything that might produce growth, that might be stimulating - the cutting of the scenes, the staging, how a group of scenes was cut together... The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu, were things we saw. (...) We didn't miss a trick, really."
Marc Davis, Crimmer's Harvard Journal of Pictorial Fiction, Winter 1975
Disney and World Cinema
It may come as a surprise to some who have grown up in the digital age, but once upon a time, Walt Disney's films were very serious business. Today it's hard to imagine the reams of praise heaped upon Disney not just in popular and trade publications, but in higher, official forums of "cultural taste". One famous admirer was Robert Benchley, a crony of American wit Alexander Wolcott ("Everything I like is either illegal, immoral or fattening") and dean of the "Algonquin Round Table", a group of New York upper crust luminaries which included Ruth Hale, George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, Robert E. Sherwood, and sometimes Harpo Marx. Robert Benchley is the star of the Disney feature "The Reluctant Dragon", a bizarre film made by Walt to publicize his production methods and brand-new Burbank Studio. The fact that Disney could do something like that and not be critically savaged speaks volumes to the respect he was afforded at the time.
Disney took from everything, watched everything, and was loved for it. The early Disney features are some of the most astonishing blends of popular culture and high art in American cinema. It doesn't take much probing about in World Cinema classics before you start turning up influences:
Faust, F.W. Murnau, UFA, 1926
Fantasia, Walt Disney Productions, 1940
Faust, F.W. Murnau, UFA, 1926
Fantasia, Walt Disney Productions, 1940
Haxan, Benjamin Christensen, Svensk-Film, 1922
World Cinema returned the favor. One conspicuous example is Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, who left Europe in 1930 to make a film for Paramount. On his tour of Hollywood he met Walt Disney, who was by then already an unlikely cultural hero in the Soviet Union. Disney himself was later in life a staunch conservative and so the Walt Disney Company has largely swept this fact under the carpet and it has received little attention in English writing on the subject.
Before 1930, Eisenstein's famous Soviet agit-prop action spectacles like Battleship Potemkin and Strike! are filmed with the shaky, nervous, hyper-kinetic camera which recalls both amateur film and the documentary newsreel of the era. After Eisenstein's Hollywood period during which he accumulated techniques and ideas, his films become hyper-surreal, stately paced things which revel in bizarre pictorial symbolism. If early Eisenstein films create meaning famously by juxtaposing shots which represent ideas, by the sound period he's using every element in the film frame - actors, decor, lighting, camera placement - to juxtapose ideas against each other. The editing becomes slower because each inch of the exposed image is now steeped in symbolic concepts.
Eisenstein, Alexander Nevsky, 1938
Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible Part One, 1944
This sort of crazy, chock-a-block imagery has only really survived in popular films in the medium of animation. Because animated films are created a frame at a time using an incredibly expensive process, every character on screen, every gesture, and every brush stroke works to create meaning and often employ symbolic staging and expressive images to help create mood and sensation in a way that would look quite strange in "reality". This is what Eisenstein took from Disney.
Around the same time, two filmmakers on the (literal) Other Side of the World were grabbing the ball left in the air by the Disney studio and creating their own eye-popping movies. These men were Michael Powell and Emmerich Pressburger, and instead of copping from the Burbank lot the hand-crafted, symbolist nature of the studio's output, they went after the visual spectacle, the impression of art, music, form and color all flowing freely and as one.
This still from their 1946 A Matter of Life and Death speaks for itself:
As do these stills from their famous The Red Shoes, which itself seems to be constantly straining against being a live-action film and attempting to move into the realm of animation or moving painting:
And their own effort at topping Fantasia, the 1949 Tales of Hoffmann:
As if to make the link clear, in 1956, after splitting with Pressberger, Michael Powell went on to make his own short film - of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, in a similar style! So there.
Look at how much of those stills above are painted representations - moving illustrations, animation with live actors instead of Mickey Mouse. All through the 40's Disney worked again and again at perfecting a process for seamlessly inserting live action actors into animation, but Powell and Pressburger simply bypass the technical trickery of something like Three Caballeros and Song of the South and create their animated landscapes the old fashioned way - using super impositions and stage sets.
In fact, it's really just a short imaginative leap from the sort of crazy, distorted, but still real sets found in Tales of Hoffmann to Disneyland in 1955. Very often the film Hoffman reminds us of the sort of thing Claude Coats would've dreamed up for Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
Which brings us around to our point of entree today, which is my old muse, The Haunted Mansion. Haunted Mansion is an exemplary model of the bleed-over points between film and theme park, and this has to do with the fact that the Mansion itself is one of the thickest soups of cultural melanges in the whole Disney back-catalogue. Haunted Mansion draws on dozens of influences, references, and deeply ingrained concepts to produce a heady blend of horror and comedy. It sometimes seems to be the apotheosis of the entire cycle of Gothic horror pop culture.
After 1969, popular horrors would steer less in the direction of the traditional Gothics and more towards things like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. This shift reflected the Vietnam War, the rise of tabloid culture, and increasing cultural disillusionment. In fact, if we want to look for cultural signposts that point us away from the Haunted Mansion and towards the sea of gore we all float in today, there's one of the very same weekend - in fact the very same official day of the attraction's opening - the Sharon Tate murders of August 9, 1969.
Of course, we all know this already. The films which influenced the development cycle of the attraction have been extensively covered on the Internet because the Haunted Mansion is the ultimate Disney ride and the Internet is the ultimate depositary for minutia. But instead of glossing over the typical still images and trotting out the same old titles, I'd like to approach The Haunted Mansion from a different perspective: as just another branch in a very large family tree of popular horrors. To trace that tree we have to start below ground - at the seed. I'd like to map a road to the Haunted Mansion from film history instead of taking the typical approach, which traces from the Haunted Mansion to popular films.
By taking the long route we can see the prehistory and history of the ideas that went into the attraction as it came together - why it throws so many deep, deep switches in the dark places of our minds. And to do that, we have to take a leisurely tour of the entire phenomenon of what we now know as the "horror film". This means I'm going to spend the entire first half of this article digging through film history that will appear to be of little direct consequence to the Disney ride. But when we reach the Mansion and the influences begin to converge, I believe it will be beneficial to have all that background information at your fingertips instead of having to elide or summarize concepts that had been building through decades of genre films.
I put "horror film" in quotes above because, like me when I was younger, you've probably at some point gone back to the "elemental" classics of horror cinema and come away pretty disappointed. Those early films just don't seem to be all that scary. This is because those films were made before the concept of a horror film existed. And if we trace the influences we can find those points of connection where the web of cultural history - of which the Haunted Mansion is just one interlocked strand - becomes clearer.
So let's begin. It was a dark and stormy night....
Proto-Horror and the Great War
One hundred years ago, there was no such thing as a horror movie.
Would anyone today call this film a "pictorial melodrama"?
The style is actually an even more recent phenomenon than that; a quick search through the archives of the New York and Los Angeles Times reveals that it's difficult to even get relevant results for periods predating 1936. The earliest mention I found of a "horror film" in the generally accepted sense of the term is in a 1932 article by Grace Kingsley of the Los Angeles Times - "New Horror Film Planned" - announcing the start of production on Murders at the Zoo. To put it another way, the early 30s cycle of Hollywood shockers seems to have established the genre as a viable format, and with that viable format came a recognizable name.
This makes the horror film unique, in that it was a late bloomer in the pantheon of film genres. When you go back far enough in film history it's easy to uncover, say, early dramas, comedies, action movies, heist movies, Western, nature documentaries... all of the essential colors which are blended in modern cinema to form various hues and tints which make up our tradition of popular entertainment. But what you don't find is horror movies.
There was a one-off abnormality, the Edison Company's 1910 film of Frankenstein. Although it's since been rescued and promoted by genre enthusiasts as an early example of the horror film, Frankenstein was a creative dead end. The film did not establish the genre and was in its own day quickly forgotten. Edison themselves advertised that anything unpleasant in the source story had been removed!
Frankenstein may be a dead end, but if you go forward a few years to 1914 and across the Atlantic to France, you'll find more fruitful roots in the form of Louis Feuillade, who initiated his famous cycle of serial crime thrillers with Fantomâs. Fantomâs is a 6 hour set of 5 films which chronicle the unending search for a ruthless criminal terrorist who kills and robs to no apparent end and uses disguises and modern technology to hide his identity. These films, which by film standards were shockingly violent and suspenseful in their day, were a runaway success - in one case inciting a riot. French film authorities unsuccessfully tried to ban the films - you couldn't stop people from seeing these things.
Fantomas - the man without a face!
In some ways I'm cheating by including Fantomâs in here because these films were so successful and popular that they initiated their own cycles of influences and remakes -- except for the fact that these influences and remakes intersect tremblingly often with our own discussion today. Fueillade's films, especially his followup to Fantomâs, Les Vampires (calm down, there's no vampires in the movie, it's the name of a gang) influenced an Austrian kid named Fritz Lang, who would go on to start his own cycle of Fueillade-influenced mystery and crime thrillers both in Germany and America. Lang then influenced Alfred Hitchcock, who would go off and start a cycle of Lang-influenced mystery and crime thrillers in England and America.
Lang made a handful of movies that are commonly discussed as having relevance to the horror genre - M (1931) and Metropolis (1927) are often brought up, but easy to overlook but just as clear is Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922-23) and its sequel The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), which are paranoid conspiracy thrillers involving mind control, ghosts, hallucinations and messages from beyond the grave. Hitchcock himself eventually branched out beyond Lang-style pulp thrillers, directing Psycho (1960), The Birds (1962), and Frenzy (1972), whose influence is such that Hitchcock's name alone is synonymous with stylish film terror. So although it's a sidebar to our discussion, you deserve to know and recognize Fantomâs as the source point for what we would eventually call the horror film.
And then, friends, World War I happened and the horror film really got underway.
In the wake of the Great War, much of Europe's male population had been killed or disfigured and were now limping back to the ruins of their cities and towns - where innocent citizens had been bombed and gassed - and it was clear that nothing would be the same. During the war, Hollywood film exports had conquered the hearts and minds of the world, and America had won the war for the Allies. Americans suddenly were exerting both economic and cultural dominance over the Old World. And now we need to introduce a new major player on our landscape: Erich Pommer.
Pommer started off as a producer of educational and cultural films for German audiences as part of the "Decla" film company. After the war, Decla absorbed one company - Meinert-Film-Gesellschaft - and merged with another - Bioscop AG - to form what we would today called a megacorporation, Decla-Bioscop. Decla-Bioscop was then purchased outright by UFA, a massive film production company owned and controlled by... the German government. To put it another way, in the span of about five short years, Pommer went from being a production executive to a CEO to the head of the biggest film production company outside of Hollywood.
Pommer's problem was this: Hollywood had institutionalized production, distribution, and star making techniques into a cultural powerhouse that was leaving Europe in the dust. How do you compete with that? Pommer's solution was to do the opposite of what Hollywood was doing - if Hollywood films were naturalistic, shot against the rolling hills of California, then German films would be anti-naturalistic, shot in artistically conceived fake studio interiors. And if Hollywood had institutionalized a top-down executive committee whose main focus was on making popular, successful, predictable films, then German films would be artistically uncompromising and controlled by artful film directors. Pommer, in effect, would find major film talents and throw seemingly unlimited amounts of money at them, giving them carte blanche to put their dreams on film.
If, when you think of German silent cinema, you think of lavish, strange, visually dense spectacles of expressionism and doom, you are thinking of Erich Pommer's vision for films. Hollywood's trademark was light and fun, Pommer's was artistry and fatality. He branded German cinema as "Expressionistic" for the posterity of world culture, so much so that the words are now inseperable - German Expressionism.
Pommer's breakout production was the 1919 Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Today we know it was cinema's first true horror film, but in 1919 it was somewhat different. The story tells of a bourgeois Herr Docktor who appears in a small town as part of a carnival act where he induces a spooky comatose man to step out of a coffin and voice pronouncements of doom. His predictions always come true, because the Docktor then sends the hypnotised Cesare out to stab townspeople to death under the cover of darkness. Eventually the entire story is revealed to have been told by a lunatic in a asylum.
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a parable of World War I, where the rich send the poor off to kill and maim while they remain at home, guilty but innocent. Not only were the upper class insane to start the war, the film tells us, but the entire exercise was madness. And the entire film, which did not have a popular message given that the war dead were still fresh in their graves, was then shot in a style which was guaranteed to upset people: decadent, indecent, ugly modern art.
Albin Grau art for "Nosferatu" (1922)
Although at the time it was unknowable, Caligari set the groundwork for all proto-horror films to follow: madness, shadows, violence, suspense, even a twist ending. Today it's synonymous with "German Expressionism", but at the time the set design was seen as something of a gimmick and the sociological concerns of the film on the effects of the Great War were commented upon - nobody at the time missed the metaphor. Today, the gimmick is the part most likely to be celebrated and the film's reason for being is all but invisible. Caligari has been absorbed into the horror pantheon.
Here, due to the chronological nature of this account it's incumbent on me to mention the short but potent film career of Albin Grau, a real, honest-to-goodness Occultist who had dealings with, amongst others the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley. Grau found a company in 1921 - Prana Film - to produce what he called "truly occult movies". He hired talented director Friedrich Wilheim Murnau, who was then making adaptations of successful novels for Erich Pommer, on his first low-budget venture: Nosferatu. Grau designed the production himself, including supplying the famous "occult paper" that the crazed Knock receives from Count Orlock with instructions to send Thomas Hutter to Transylvania - supposedly written with real Occult symbols. Grau produced a great deal of art to promote the film, often filled with menacing images and shadows, and probably conceived (or prompted Murnau to conceive) the famous shots of the shadow of Nosferatu sliding across walls and people.
Prana-Film was forced out of business, but Grau went on to form another company with the same mandate: Pan Film, which produced his second feature, Warning Shadows (1923). Directed by Arthur Robison, the use of shadow play is even more extreme. The film begins with a curtained stage with a candle sitting nearby. A disembodied hand grasps the candle and retreats, and the curtains open on a blank movie screen on which huge hands create shadows (exactly like a movie projector) from which emerge the various characters who will populate the narrative. One pivotal scene finds shadows vanishing as space within a room transforms. Grau writes that:
"In film, shadow is more important than light. Cinema is the language of shadows. Through shadow, the hidden and dark forces become visible."
Murnau and Robison went on to make excellent films but would never again use shadow in the same way with the same meaning - Grau is clearly the auteur of these remarkable films. And while Caligari caused a great deal of consternation in the United States as just another scandalous example of the decadence of European art, Nosferatu wasn't released until 1929 and Warning Shadows was - and remains - an obscurity. Despite the fame of Nosferatu, it would not become an influential force in the development of horror films abroad until much later. American horror was going to have to be home-grown.
What would an American horror film look like? The United States, victorious after the Great War, had returned home to an economy that was shortly booming, remarkable modern inventions, and the jazz music that scored the whole crazy era. The cinema was owned by stars like Charlie Chaplin's sentimental comedies, Mary Pickford's "fish out of water" romances and Douglas Fairbanks' astonishing action spectacles. American popular culture was relentlessly optimistic, and those weird movies from overseas were just yet more proof that those Europeans were still mostly in the dark ages.
And then there was Lon Chaney.
Lon Chaney was called by film historian Scott MacQueen "...a shapeshifter who gave voice to the jazz age's darkest impulses", which is pretty much true. Beginning as a bit and character actor in dozens of short subjects and quickees, Chaney slowly made a name for himself as a superb actor of roles which other performers could not or would not portray. He played a sympathetic Chinese cook in Shadows (1922) and a quirky Fagin in Oliver Twist (1922), and memorably doubled his legs up behind his back and hobbled around on crutches to play a legless gangster in the still-shocking The Penalty (1920). By the time he changed his whole body to play Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), audiences were convinced Chaney's makeup and performances amounted to magic. They began to go to Chaney pictures to see his next over-the-top, gruesome character, and Hollywood began to deliver on the expectation.
But none of these films are horror films. Hunchback is a straightforward historical spectacle, The Penalty is a morality play, and Shadows is a straight drama. Chaney's next film, the frightening He Who Gets Slapped (1924), is a revenge drama that resists classification. What all of these films have in common is a remarkable performance by Chaney as an unloved outcast. Chaney played characters who failed to conform to American society, and audiences lined up to watch him menace, and suffer, and watch sadly as the girl of his dreams walks away with the "hero". This was the Chaney formula which made him possibly the greatest and most mysterious star of his era. Chaney's elaborate disfigurements don't look forward to Horror Cinema so much as they look back to the horrors of the Front.
So it's important to see how his next film got green lit - Phantom of the Opera was intended to match Chaney with a gruesome makeup in a historical action spectacle where his monster dies of a broken heart. The source novel, a florid potboiler by Gaston LeRou, is an abnormality - mixing fairy tale with a Fantomâs-style masked villain who has assumed the identity of a ghost so his thefts and murders will go unpunished. LeRou was part of the very same cultural moment as Louis Feuillade and Fantomâs, and he wrote breezy serial adventures starring detectives and super criminals, the best remembered of which is the excellent Mystery of the Yellow Room. His novel is structured like a detective story, making the link even clearer, and had Chaney not played the Phantom in 1925 and sparked a cycle of influences and remakes, both the novel and its author would today very likely be totally forgotten.
The film Phantom of the Opera is curiously poorly made, having come down through at least five different versions and a phalanx of directors, including Chaney who likely directed his own scenes. It's flat and unimaginative until Chaney comes onscreen, in one of film's most hauntingly perfect performances. Despite its flaws and because of an imaginative ad campaign that censored all views of Chaney's makeup, the movie defined the concept of "critic proof": you couldn't stop people from seeing it. This scene, which still gets modern audiences into a lather, caused shrieks of fright in 1925; audiences ducked to hide behind their seats - then dared each other to go see it again.
Phantom of the Opera, however, did not establish a new wave of horror, nor did it ride an existing one. Audiences clucked their tongues about the horribleness of the whole production and women requested more romance. Following Phantom, Chaney teamed with ex-carnival geek Tod Browning to make a series of lurid crime and revenge films, including The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), and West of Zanzibar (1929), all of which featured Chaney as bizarrely disguised or deformed criminals. These have since been accepted into the horror canon, but they're as uneasy a fit as Browning's later, notorious Freaks (1932) is.
The Browning-Chaney film that has the strongest horror credentials is London After Midnight (1927), no doubt because it is a lost film. The stills that survive tend to make it look like a spooky haunted house romp, but always overlooked is the fact that the film is a farce where Chaney dons a spooky-funny vampire costume as part of a plot to expose a murder. He is a detective working for the city. Spooky scenes aside, the film is a straightforward whodunit that nobody in 1927 seems to have particularly liked: "If it were found again, I think people would be rather disappointed" Ray Bradbury once opined. In this way London After Midnight sticks rather close to the mainline of the American Horror Tradition outlined below. It may deserve a place in the pantheon, but even this widely longed-for film has a big asterisk next to its name.
Chaney himself refused to stay pigeonholed and alternated these lurid thrillers with straightforward character roles, usually played without elaborate makeups such as his drill sergeant in Tell It To The Marines (1927). Following a sound remake of The Unholy Three in 1930, Chaney died of lung cancer, having not lived to see the horror boom of the 1930s brought on by his friend Tod Browning's 1931 film Dracula. Still, if homegrown American horror starts anywhere, it starts with Chaney's Phantom of the Opera.
The American Horror Tradition
The most identifiable American horror tradition of the 1920s is the "old dark house" thriller, which began with a cycle of mystery thrillers on Broadway led by The Bat. In 1926, Roland West brought his version of The Bat to cinemas, billing it under the cumbersome description "A Comedy-Mystery-Drama!". Today, we'd just say it's a good old fashioned horror comedy, with the titular Bat as an ingenious criminal on the run, pursuing a stash of diamonds hidden in a big, rambling Mansion by his latest victim, as the various comic characters are variously killed or just barely escape with their lives and finally succeed in unmasking the fiend.
If that description excites you, imagine the impact this fast paced, clever thriller must have had with a fresh audience. The film begins with a delightful title card and never slows down from there:
The Bat was then remade by Roland West in 1930 as the basically identical The Bat Whispers, which is such a scrupulous remake that it uses the same staging, identical sets, and what appear to be many of the same props. Bob Kane always cited The Bat Whispers as an influence on Batman, but he interestingly seems to conflate the two films into one in his memory, which is understandable given how alike the two films are and how close their release was. The 1926 Bat has an intimidating bat head with a flapping jaw and bag full of tools:
The Bat Signal makes an appearance in the 1926 film in a sequence left out of the sound remake (it turns out to be a fly on the headlight of a car):
But The Bat Whispers has the speed of the superhero films it begot, although it's best described as a Super-Villain film. Once he actually appears in the film, The Bat has fantastic pulp dialogue like: "I've got the greatest brain that ever existed!" and "You think you've got me, eh? Let me tell you this: there never was a jail built strong enough to hold The Bat! After I've paid my respects to your cheap lock-up, I shall return! At night! The Bat always flies at night! And always in a straight line!"
And you know what? He looks exactly like Fantomas.
The Bat and The Bat Whispers represent European proto-horror crime thrillers finally coming home to roost on American soil. Although The Bat is a figure of fun and fantasy, he's something hard-headed Americans could identify: instead of an actual revenant ghoul with an army of rats, he's just a crazy guy in a mask. The mysterious and spooky events of the film could be explained away as the machinations of The Bat vs. The Police, with innocent bystanders caught in the middle. And so, as studios rushed all over themselves to come up with their own version of The Bat, they would be compelled to copy its setting, tone, stylization and its very human villain. The "Old Dark House" thriller was born.
These films are one step closer to something identifiable as a horror flick. Mixing Old School thrills with American aggressiveness, the horror cinema began to be born. And it was born in Universal City, Hollywood.
In the 20s, Universal catered to down-market exhibitors with cheap westerns, melodramas, serials, and whatever vice they could slip in. They had produced Chaney's Phantom and Hunchback, making them the sole Hollywood studio strongly associated with shockers. But studio patriarch Carl Laemmle had a streak of class in him too, and had "discovered" and heavily promoted (and then heavily sensationalized) super Auteur-director Erich Von Stroheim. Universal had brought German director Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood, and now they set their sights on a clever director and production designer named Paul Leni. Leni had made a highly entertaining omnibus film called "Waxworks" starring future emigre director William Dieterle which climaxed with an eerie fantasy as Dieterle is stalked by Jack the Ripper. The striking five-minute sequence almost certainly got Leni his next job: as director of the 1927 Cat and the Canary.
Cat and the Canary single-handed invents the comedy-horror film, as Leni combines dark, unnerving European visuals in the Pommer style with American slapstick in a kooky but deadly serious plot of relatives vying for the inheritance of Cyrus West in his dilapidated and possibly haunted mansion. This film became the cornerstone of the Universal "house style": a heavy atmosphere of dread, visually dense (but cost conscious!) setting, capable comedic and dramatic actors, a visually arresting ghoul, and overseen by an imaginative - and preferably European - director. The film was among the most widely seen of its era, and remains so today.
Cat and the Canary is, like Caligari, one of those movies that seems to be a wellspring for a thousand others. Take the example of Benjamin Christensen, a bright young film director from Denmark and a former opera singer. Christensen's 1914 Feuilladian spy caper The Mysterious X was one of the hits of its movie season, where it played around the world. He followed it up with the superb Night of Vengeance, then spent four years making Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, an uncompromising pseudo-documentary which mixes up history lessons with freaky dramatic "imagined recreations" of the practices of witches and their historical persecution. Haxan served as one basis for Disney's superb "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence as seen above, and some of Christensen's visual ideas may have impressed his contemporary Paul Leni:
Benjamin Christensen - Haxan - 1922
Paul Leni - The Last Warning - 1929
But by 1929, it was Christensen who was tagging along behind Leni, making a cycle of Cat and the Canary-derived comedy thrillers, only one of which survives: the weirdly hallucinatory Seven Footprints to Satan.
Leni went on to direct A Chinese Parrot, a lost Charlie Chain mystery, and The Man Who Laughs, a sort of Hunchback redux based on a Victor Hugo story centering on a historical romance starring a man whose lips were cut off as a boy, giving his face a permanent smile (this idea inspired Bob Kane's Joker character). Originally intended for Chaney, Lon backed out and incorporated the shark's-face smile makeup effect he had developed for the film into his Vampire disguise in London After Midnight. Leni backtracked towards comedy for his final film, the remarkable (and remarkably difficult to see) The Last Warning in 1929.
Universal wouldn't give up their dream of a Paul Leni / Lon Chaney pairing, and intended to team the two on Dracula for 1931. Leni suddenly died of blood poisoning in 1929, leaving behind a small legacy of four available features, two of which totally and forever rewrote how to do stylish screen horror - Leni codified the basic language of the horror film.
When Chaney died almost a year later, Universal decided if they could not have him, they would have his greatest director. It's difficult to imagine now how differently things would have turned out with the dream team of Leni and Chaney on Dracula. We certainly would have a much more accomplished and entertaining film, but we would also be robbed of the iconic Bela Lugosi and his still-riveting persona. Tod Browning did directing duties and moves the camera about with almost apathetic precision, and the film is quite without the blood and thunder he later brought to his major masterpiece Freaks (1932). But the film was a smash hit and, most shockingly for 1931 audiences, Dracula turned out to be a real vampire!
Today this seems like a minor accomplishment, but audiences at the time were shocked, and even more shocked by Frankenstein from later the same year, played deadly straight. Frankenstein was directed by Englishman James Whale, who had screened a number of Universal's early thrillers in preparation for his assignment of Frankenstein and spent the rest of his life eagerly talking up both Cat and the Canary and The Last Warning. Whale went on to appropriate Leni's seamless blend of laughs and thrills for his triumvirate of comedy thrillers The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
But 1931 is the landmark year. Dracula and Frankenstein, with their straightforward mystery thrillers without disguises or final twists, is the point where the proto-horror of the American and German schools finally seamlessly combine into Horror Movies. The despair on the screen matched the mood of America, and now Universal's home-grown genre was pulling ahead and the other major Hollywod studios were playing catch-up.
Universal spent the rest of the 30s horror cycle continuing the Leni formula of heavy atmosphere and light comedy helmed by European emigres like Whale, or Frenchman Robert Florey, German Karl Fruend, or Austrian Edgar G. Ulmer. Warner Brothers had Czech Michael Curtiz directing their own horror comedies like Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum and RKO sent out the nasty little The Most Dangerous Game. Even MGM jumped on the horror bandwagon, setting Tod Browning to work on the silly Mark of the Vampire as Karl Fruend made the disturbing Mad Love with Peter Lorre.
But the party ended soon: Ulmer's Black Cat went so far, with its climatic scene of Boris Karloff being skinned alive while Bela Lugosi laughs manically, that some overseas companies began to ban all horror films outright. As overseas money slowed to a trickle, in July 1934 the Hays Office began to actually enforce its Motion Picture Production Code. Whale's Bride of Frankenstein is basically a coda to the whole crazy cycle of the first wave of American screen horror that began with Phantom of the Opera and saw America begin as an emergent world power and end in the pit of the Great Depression. Whale originally filmed his sequel with something like two-dozen onscreen deaths and a phalanx of sneaky debauchery, homosexuality, and blasphemy. The final film is considerably toned down. When Karloff pulls the self-destruct lever at the end of Bride of Frankenstein, the resulting explosion kills off the style for good until the start of World War II.
If it seems like I've spent a long time muddling about in obscurity and flipped past the entire Golden Age of Hollywood Horror in two paragraphs, it's because not only are these classic era shockers much better known, but they are in no particular danger of disappearing; fans of both horror films and the Haunted Mansion - you know, people probably reading this sentence - probably have ready access to the bulk of films mentioned above and dozens more. But it's also because, for better or worse, the horror film stops evolving after 1931. Once you've charted the progression from World War I to Erich Pommer, and from Pommer to Paul Leni, and from Paul Leni to James Whale, there isn't much further to go.
After the Golden Age
Screen horror enjoyed a brief vogue in the late 30s and early 40s, and this is when Universal began their second cycle of increasingly juvenile monster rallies, starting with Son of Frankenstein (1939) and ending with House of Dracula (1945). At the same time, RKO handed a paltry sum to a paranoid production executive named Val Lewton to go off and make a movie designed to ride the coat-tails of Universal's superlative Wolf Man: Cat People. Get it? They may have a Wolf Man but we have Cat People! It can't miss!
Lewton took a dumb title and made a beautiful psychological horror thriller out of it, then then did it again with more RKO market-tested titles like I Walked With a Zombie and The Seventh Victim. Along the way he started a new tradition of horror, and promoted several of his underlings to full director: Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson. We'll hear from them later.
But these films were not universally respected and were designed to return on investment; the era from 1936 to 1957 was dominated by film noir, epic romances, romantic comedies and historical dramas. The nearest mainstream Hollywood would get to horror in this period were the numerous "women's thrillers" like Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945) or Secret Beyond the Door... (1948), which played with concepts like insanity and ghosts in much more structured, predictable ways.
The biggest horror films of the era proved to be a cycle of Universal light horror-comedies probably best typified by Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which also includes the Bob Hope comedy films The Ghost Breakers (1940) and The Cat and the Canary (1939). Compared to the Leni Cat and the Canary or even the talkie remake The Cat Creeps, this newest version was tame stuff, centered around Hope's one liners and almost totally devoid of suspense. Even Universal's big color remake of Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains is remarkably docile, being two-thirds a musical.
Horror and thrillers did return in the 50s... in the form of scientific horrors, minting a new film genre: science fiction in its modern sense. The first film had appeared in 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still, significantly directed by Robert Wise. Once again Universal led the charge with It Came From Outer Space in 1953 and Creature From the Black Lagoon in 1954, and by the time Ishiro Honda's anti-war parable Godzilla landed on American shores in 1956, the rest of the era would sit under the atomic cloud of giant lizards, bugs, arachnids, women, and anything else that could credibly destroy a city.
The Haunted Mansion and Its Era
What this means is that when WED Enterprises sat down to start working on the idea for the haunted house at Disneyland, the pop culture well was pretty dry. The great era of horror cinema had been over a generation before... there was no particularly strong "local" Gothic tradition to turn to to start with. Well... almost. Because now that we've entered the era of Disneyland and Davy Crockett, it's time to introduce the Monster Kids.
In 1957, Universal sold a huge chunk of their now hopelessly devalued horror back catalogue to television, where a new generation of post-war kids thrilled to the same stars their parents had. In a rush to piggyback on this success, Forest Ackerman and James Warren conceived and quickly published a one-off magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland, which along with EC Comics became the paper scourge of the schoolbus set. Famous Monsters grew into a massive genre publication, encouraging serious interest in the subject and creating the next generation of horror and science fiction buffs like John Landis, George Romero and John Carpenter who would set the tone for much of where the genre is today.
Spurred by the renewal of interest on the Universal horrors and the sudden monster cult in America, a cheap little production outfit called Hammer Film Productions in England embarked on their legendary cycle of gothic horrors, amping up and blood and sex appeal as much as the British Board of Film Censors could tolerate. William Castle, a savvy businessman who knew how to extract as much money from his films as possible - using force if necessary - made and promoted Macabre (1958) with a schlock advertising campaign that became the stuff of playground legend. By the time monster movie maker Roger Corman launched his own faux-Hammer Poe cycle in 1959, the little spark that flared horror's rebirth was already a blazing inferno... and it was spreading across Europe, Asia, and South America.
The Haunted Mansion is absolutely part of this cultural cycle, but most fascinatingly, it seems to have been conceived in splendid isolation from it. We know that Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump looked at some of William Castle's shock flicks - echoes of both House on Haunted Hill (a kind of Cat and the Canary update) and 13 Ghosts show up in some early Haunted Mansion concepts, but just as strong is the influence of in-house spook stories like The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949).
It's been well known forever that the Haunted Mansion team looked at Robert Wise's 1963 The Haunting for ideas, although it wasn't until late last year that Disney researcher Melody Dale turned up the "smoking gun" in the form of this 1965 memo:
Cleaned up by HBG2 at Long-Forgotten
But never discussed is the fact that The Haunting was pretty much the only place WED Enterprises had to go. The Hammer flicks were considered the height of poor taste at the time; Disney artisans would be disinclined to go rooting through Castle thrillers like Homicidal or Horror of Dracula, no matter how influential these films would be. There's The Innocents from 1961, but that was a British film that sank without a trace at the box office and was only subsequently rediscovered. From there you pretty much have to go all the way back to 1944 and The Uninvited for a serious depiction of a supernatural event in a Hollywood picture. The Haunting was more or less the only "fresh" thing the Mansion team had to work on.
And as such the nature of the influence of The Haunting has been both exaggerated and under reported somehow all at once. We do know that the Haunted Mansion team were actually paid to go watch The Haunting, but just as often cited is Jean Cocteau's La Belle et La Bete from 1946. We do know that Rolly Crump saw the film - probably in a revival at a Los Angeles art theater - and went around talking it up, but it's pretty easy to exclude La Belle from the docket of serious contenders for "Haunted Mansion source texts".
Always discussed here is the Cocteau film's "living architecture" as being a possible source for the Mansion's eerie leering skulls, statues, and faces.
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