The 1930s remain the “Golden Age” of horror movies. One of the principal reasons for this is technology, given that during the 1930s movies for the first time benefited from sound. Moreover, slightly relaxing social mores enabled filmmakers to push the envelope in terms of more overt supernatural horror, with actual monsters rather than “fake” ones.
Perhaps the most important studio of the time was Universal Studios, which brought many monsters to life on the silver screen. The studio also helped create a new age of monster actors, such as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Reflecting the lurid proceedings projected on screens of America were posters that showcased their monsters and their menace. This list compiles some of the best artwork produced for horror film posters of the 1930s.
Inspired more by the stage play than Bram Stoker’s novel, 1931’s Dracula starred Bela Lugosi as the bloodthirsty vampire who is confronted by Professor Van Helsing. The movie also showcased the talents of Dwight Frye, who played the psychotic Renfield. Directed by Tod Browning, Dracula would influence all vampire films that would follow.
The poster shown here has a value estimated at more than $300,000 (Heritage Auctions, March 2012). The poster showcases Dracula (Lugosi) tormenting Renfield (Frye) while the two are aboard a cargo ship (the schooner Vesta) heading toward England. When the ships strikes shore, Renfield is the only living person found aboard. Renfield’s mad ravings force officials to place him in the care of Dr. Seward, who runs a sanatorium next to Carfax Abbey, which will become Dracula’s new residence.
Like Dracula, 1931’s Frankenstein was adapted more from the play by Peggy Webling than the original novel by Mary Shelley. Directed by James Wale, Frankenstein starred Colin Clive as monster maker. Dr. Frankenstein (whose famous line “It’s alive!” was originally censored, removing the piece, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”). The movie also features Dwight Frye as “Fritz,” Frankenstein’s assistant and the monster’s tormentor. Of course, the most coveted role of the monster went to then-unknown Boris Karloff, who would go on to make various horror movies during his illustrious career.
The poster shown here is taken from the movie, when the monster (Karloff) confronts Henry Frankenstein’s bride-to-be Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). The monster does not kill Elizabeth, but he does frighten her so much that she faints.
Originally released in 1932, The Mummy stars Boris Karloff at the titular mummy, a revived ancient priest (Imhotep) now known as Ardath Bey. The mummy’s goal is to revive his dead love, the Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. The mummy is brought to life using the Scroll of Toth, and it is this same scroll that the revived Imhotep intends to use to bring back his lover. Later movies focused on the mute mummy Kharis, originally played by Tom Tyler but then taken over by Lon Chaney Jr.
The poster shown here features Imhotep (Karloff) wrapped in his signature bandages (which are soon removed to reveal a desiccated undead form) and Zita Johann, who plays Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnated from of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon.
Originally screened in 1933, King Kong was directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Although the movie showcased a stop-motion miniature as a giant ape living on Skull Island, the movie also helped launch the career of Fay Wray, who played Ann Darrow (the beauty to Kong’s beast).
Referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” King Kong in the movie stands at 25 feet and can lift more than two times his own weight. On Skull Island, Kong faces a number of menaces, including a Tyrannosaurus rex, a Pteranodon, and a snake-like Eslasmosaurus.
The poster shown here showcases the climax of the movie, where King Kong stands atop the Empire State Building, with Ann in one hand and a biplane in the other. Although Kong puts up a good fight, the machineguns aboard the biplanes eventually take down the giant ape.
‘The Bride of Frankenstein’
The success of Frankenstein made a sequel inevitable, so in 1935 Universal released The Bride of Frankenstein. Colin Clive returned as Dr. Frankenstein, as did Boris Karloff as the monster. New cast members include Enest Thesiger as the flamboyant Dr. Septimus Pretorius and Elsa Lanchester in the dual role of Mary Shelley and as “the bride.” James Whale also returned as director.
The Bride of Frankenstein builds upon a subplot in Shelley’s novel about the monster asking for a mate. Goaded by Dr. Pretorius, Dr. Frankenstein sets out to do this very thing. Sadly, even the bride finds the monster repulsive, leading to one of the movie’s most poignant lines: “She hates me. Like others.” And moments later, he says to the bride, “You stay. We belong dead.”
The poster shown here features the two monsters, with the monster’s signature greenish skin and electron bolts and the bride’s lightning hair. An original poster like this sold in 2007 for more than $300,000 (Heritage Auction Galleries).
Originally screened in 1932, Germany’s Vampyr was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, who is even today regarded as one of the greatest directors in cinema. The movie was inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu’s short stories collected in the book In A Glass Darkly. This collection features the vampire novella Carmilla and short stories such as “Green Tea” and “The Familiar.”
Nicolas de Gunzburg stars in the role of Allan Grey, a student of the occult who finds himself in a village known as Coutrempierre. The village is held captive by an elderly vampire Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gerard), who uses some of the villagers as minions to carry out her nefarious deeds. Although the film was dismissed during its initial release (it is hard to follow), it has since become a cult classic, particularly with fans of the horror genre.