The Thing to Fear is Fear Itself

Hammer brought screen chills to cinema audiences from the 1950s, and many films were made at various studios in Borehamwood. They made stars of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. However, 25 years before Hammer were splashing around Technicolor blood, another company dominated horror films in Hollywood - Universal.

Lon Chaney in London After MidnightIts first master of the macabre was Lon Chaney who, during the 1920s silent era, became known as the man of a thousand faces.

Lon had deaf parents and, from childhood, understood the art of imagery as opposed to the spoken word. He scared audiences to death with his portrayals of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom of the Opera, the set of which still stands on one of the old Universal sound stages and has been used in various movies.

By 1930 he was earning nearly $4,000 a week and was due to star in a new talkie called Dracula, but he died from lung cancer before filming and his body now lies in an unmarked grave.

In the 1950s a film loosely based on his life was made, rather oddly starring James Cagney. The role of the count was inherited by a Hungarian refugee actor named Bela Lugosi, who's accent nicely fitted the role.

He had previously played the character on the stage and, in his own country, had been a romantic lead.

However, Dracula proved to be a curse, as Bela soon found himself typecast and, when such movies faded from fashion, he found work difficult to find.

He did have some success playing the hunchback Igor, in Universal's Frankenstein movies, but by the 1950s he had a severe drug problem and was reduced to 'poverty row' movies.

Bela died in the late 1950s and was buried wearing his Dracula outfit, but he has yet to rise from his grave. To make sure, I visited his lawn cemetery plot only to find his almost next door neighbour is Bing Crosby.

Bela apparently turned down the role of the Frankenstein monster in the Universal classic of 1931 because the role meant being encased in makeup and had no dialogue.

While sitting in the studio restaurant, the film's director, James Whale, noticed a tall, gaunt looking small-part player, and this led to William Pratt being cast.

He immediately became better known throughout the world as Boris Karloff. Boris was from a middle-class English family and was a great cricket fan.

In real life he was softly spoken, well mannered and much liked by his fellow professionals.

He too was soon typecast but, without the handicap of a foreign sounding accent, he seemed to enjoy a steady stream of work for almost 40 years.

Boris never spoke badly of his typecasting and once reflected: "I have a great fondness for the Frankenstein monster as he has provided me with a wonderful life."

In the late 1950s, Boris lived in London and came to Borehamwood to make two films and a television series. By the late 1960s he was severely impaired by arthritis, lung problems and old age, but continued working until a few months before his death.

He was cremated at Guildford and his ashes scattered in its garden of remembrance.

The last of Universal's great horror stars was Lon Chaney Jr, who shot to fame in the 1940s playing The Wolf Man.

Lon was the only actor to portray the Wolf Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein's monster and Dracula during his career, which included good roles in Of Mice And Men and High Noon. He enjoyed a prolific film career mainly in B movies of ever declining quality and became a heavy drinker.

It may be that he forever felt overshadowed by his successful father's career, especially as he bore the same name.

When Lon died, he donated his body to medical science so he has no grave for fans to visit.

It is difficult to imagine the fright enjoyed by cinema audiences of yesteryear on seeing them now for the first time. It was a more innocent age but there was a touch of class about those productions that stands the test of time.


Source: written by Paul Welsh, Borehamwood & Elstree Times

Fanged Films

France, 1970
Moon and Midnight
UK, 1974
Dan Curtis' Dracula / Bram Stoker's Dracula

From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
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Drawn to Vamps?