Peirse’s “After Dracula” ably argues the importance of post-Universal horror

book cover - after draculaAlison Peirse‘s new book from I.B. Taurus, After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film, certainly does what it sets out to. The author begins with “the idea that Dracula has been canonised to the detriment of other innovative and original 1930s films produced across Europe and America.”

It’s a logical approach: given that Dracula is, in essence, a stage play brought to the screen, it wins primarily due to financial success and — one could argue just as importantly — the fact that it was first. Followed closely by Frankenstein, one could even further and make the point that Universal Pictures’ role in defining the canon is primarily by virtue of getting out of the gate before anyone else.

And while she doesn’t explicitly make that connection, Peirse does effectively argue that Universal’s The Wolf Man is almost unequivocably cited as being the start of werewolf movies, ignoring or relegating 1935’s Werewolf of London to a footnote, being “damned to obscurity […] its narrative debt to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde undermin[ing] it critically.”

It seems that Universal’s first two successes (three, really, if you want to count The Mummy) really set the tone for every picture that would follow in their wake. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff feature prominently, even in the movies that Peirse is attempting to rescue. Lugosi’s part in White Zombie is part of that film’s role in defining the zombie picture.

While secondary to the role architecture and set design play in The Black Cat, Lugosi and Karloff’s roles are still a large part of that film’s chapter. The poster of that film serves as the book’s cover, and Lugosi has a distinctly vampiric stare working in that particular image, only serving to reinforce that, despite the role any of these films may play in a greater narrative, they still come after Dracula.

Peirse does her best work in After Dracula by elevating European films to the same level as the American pictures of the same time. Well, film, singular, actually. Vampyr gets an excellent chapter of its own that ably makes the point that film should be applauded for its “amalgamation of of ‘high’ art cinema and ‘low’ horror culture.” The chapter on ’30s British horror really only serves to demonstrate that the Hays Code and its various counterparts could easily defang a movie. The Man Who Changed His Mind is more important as an example of what could have been that a film worth entertaining on its own merits.

Still — as I’ve said before, there’s no higher compliment a book on film can receive than making me want to watch the movies about which it speaks, and I’ve been tracking down the films Peirse discusses since I finished After Dracula last week. You can watch White Zombie above, and I’m going to make The Island of Lost Souls my next viewing.