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Uncanny Bodies

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

Robert Spadoni
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 202
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  • Book Info
    Uncanny Bodies
    Book Description:

    In 1931 Universal Pictures releasedDraculaandFrankenstein,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 Bodiesargues 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94070-3
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-7)

    The two films that mark the dawn of the horror film as a Hollywood genre, Tod Browning’sDraculaand James Whale’sFrankenstein(both 1931), make a curious pair. When I first saw them as a child, I was at once awestruck by the creaky, majestic slowness ofDraculaand 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 inFrankenstein Meets the Wolf Man(Neill, 1943), and no vampire glides on...

    (pp. 8-30)

    The coming of sound fueled a number of genre developments in Hollywood cinema. One obvious example is the film musical. Less obvious is how the horror genre also dramatized and explored potentials that synchronized sound brought to Hollywood films. Where do we situate this outgrowth of the sound transition in relation to others of the period? We can start by noting that some genre developments were inspired by impressions, widespread at the time, that the coming of sound marked a huge forward leap in cinematic realism.

    Signs of this impression appear everywhere in commentaries on the new films. Many noted that human...

    (pp. 31-44)

    Bela Lugosi could make a stronger impression as an undead creature after George Arliss and Myrna Loy had stopped doing the same. Indeed, virtually from the moment the sound transition began, the uncanniness of sound film began to fade. This was in part because, virtually from the beginning, thenoveltyof sound film began to fade. In 1932 Carl Laemmle Jr. remarked that “the fact that the screen now has a voice is no longer a novelty.”¹ In 1930 the foreign correspondent who, as I note in chapter 1, implied that Parisians who did not understand English were going to...

    (pp. 45-60)

    The first word out of the mouth of a horror film fan at the mention of the 1931Draculais likely to be “classic.” All agree that the film casts a long shadow over the history of its genre and that its influence would be hard to overstate. The second word out of the same fan’s mouth might be “creaky,” “stagy,” “funny,” or possibly “bad.” The film does not enjoy the same classic status as, say,Casablanca,in which the work’s sterling quality and timeless appeal lift it high above the context of its first screenings. The capacity ofDracula...

    (pp. 61-92)

    Viewers today callDraculatheatrical, and ones in 1931 might not have disagreed. Then, the film’s theatricality simultaneously announced itself and transformed the whole film into an uncanny cinematic spectacle. This spectacle was made incandescent by the moment’s proximity to the coming of sound. Lighting up the center of Browning’s “phantasm assembly” was the figure of Count Dracula.

    Compared to prior imaginings of Stoker’s vampire, the one in Browning’s film stands out for certain basic features that he lacks. He exhibits none of the overt sexual interest in his victims that we find in Deane and Balderston’s play and Bromfield’s...

    (pp. 93-120)

    FrankensteinsurpassedDraculaat the box office and with the critics.¹ Many reviewers hailed James Whale’s film as superior to Browning’s, finding the film not only artistically more impressive but also scarier and more shocking.² How scary the film was on its first release is suggested by the fact that at the time, and unlike any time since then, the view of Boris Karloff’s monster as a sympathetic figure was not unanimously taken for granted. The monster’s accidental drowning of the little girl, for example, a scene that critics have long singled out as especially moving, prompted one initial reviewer...

    (pp. 121-128)

    In this book I have argued that the coming of sound stirred up sensations of the strangeness and ghostliness of cinema, sensations that also characterized some perceptions of the medium during its first years. The introduction of sound resensitized viewers to the artificial nature of cinema, and the resulting resurrection of the forgotten phantoms of the earlier time haunted the sound film screen long enough to shape the beginnings of a Hollywood genre. InDraculathe debt to the sound transition is clearest because there it is the least mediated. WithFrankensteinthe uncanny body embeds itself more deeply in...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 129-162)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 163-178)
  13. Films Cited
    (pp. 179-182)
  14. Index
    (pp. 183-190)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 191-191)