Even a man who's pure in heart
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.
I made up that ditty when I wrote The Wolf Man for Universal Pictures in 1941. The title came from Boris Karloff, who never played the Wolf Man. I gave the monster a name: Larry Talbot. Now film historians believe that my four-liner was taken from German folklore and that Larry Talbot's name also is part of European horror history. That's how film history is being made.
Walter Evans, a professor in the English department at Augusta College in Georgia, gave a lecture on popular tragedy, which explains the basic impact of horror stories and movies on the public. He talked about Aristotle's Poetics and The Wolf Man. The Universal studio writers (I was one of them) who hacked out the scripts for so many film monster movies were, one assumes, largely ignorant of Aristotle's Poetics (one would assume right in my case), but like Aristotle, and those of whom he wrote, these script writers had a finely-tuned sense of the inner dynamics of powerful popular art.
The Athenian noble watching a semi-religious dramatic performance and the modern teenager looking at a monster movie demand a protagonist who bears some moral responsibility for the suffering and terror to which he and his community will be committed. The Western cowboy hero, the Detective, the Secret Agent are almost invariably blameless. The protagonist in a monster movie, however, like the hero in a classical tragedy, has, through some character flaw or error of judgment, helped create or release the monster which he must now aid or exorcise. In Nosferatu a German horror story of the early 1920s, a young real estate agent must seek out the vampire whom he helped to locate in urban Germany. Henry Frankenstein must destroy the Monster he created. Carl Denham must help track down the monster ape he kidnapped from Skull Island. Dr. Jekyll must destroy Mr. Hyde.
It is just as well that we writers do not always kow what we are writing and that we simply work with our techniques and our emotions, which seem to lead, sometimes, the right way. Written thirty-five years ago, The Wolf Man still plays on television in prime time. Something basically right must be propping up that original story. It might be that the story follows the Aristotelian laws. But knowing those laws, as Dr. Evans does so well, would certainly inhibit the imagination of such a writer as myself.
I remember that I was given the title and a deadline: seven weeks for the screenplay. I was told the cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Madame Ouspenskaya, Warren William, Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy and a very pretty actress whose greatest talent was a most terrifying scream, Evelyn Ankers from Australia. The picture, I was told, should be in the range of $180,000. My salary was $400 a week, no percentages of course, and I only had twenty-four-hour, cut-off employment. When the picture made its first million, the producer got a $10,000 bonus, the director a diamond ring for his wife, and I got fired, since I wanted $25 more for my next job. Per week, of course. I was told to get my raises outside, then Universal would pay too. That was the policy of the motion picture industry. I invented a name for Dracula in Son of Dracula: Count Alucard, Dracula spelled backwards. It stuck. Now the name is part of Hungarian folklore. History is made behind the typewriter.
But the history of horror movies also has its frightening cycle. The popularity of horror films and current historical trends are interrelated. Horror stories and horror movies are safety valves for human anxieties. During World War Two there was a renaissance of the Frankenstein, Wolf Man and The Invisible Man stories. That trend lasted until the war's end. Though the cloud of the horrors of war permeated our everyday lives, motion pictures of heroic soldiers mowing down hordes of enemies only increased anxieties, since everybody knew that one machine gun couldn't liquidate five thousand Nazis and that fathers and sons were in the battleline facing death. But abstract horror movies--the Monster kidnapping the fair lady, the Wolf Man anxiously watching the moon which could change him into a murderous beast--were highly successful thrillers. Their horrors were detached from reality. When the audience left the theatre they knew they had seen a fantasy.
The day the war ended, the bottom of the horror movie industry fell out. Even Germany, having shed the Nazi spirit, liked only "Schnuitzen," insipid love stories, all sugar and spice. Horror pictures couldn't even be given away. In the United States the musicals and comedies had their heydays. Then, with Truman's cold war policy, with Russian and American atom bombs and other apocalyptic weapons against which there was no defense, horror pictures returned in quantity. They peaked in the early 1950s with the election of Eisenhower and with the cold war abated for a time. Then, they again faded away. But with the Kennedy, Johnson and later administrations and renewed world tensions, the horror movie cycle returned. Again the world's accelerating insecurity tried to find release in horror films and horror novels. As the danger for humanity increased even more with sophisticated weaponry, so the theme of horror pictures grew in magnitude. Disaster pictures like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake tried to top each other; the mental horror films like Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen presented stories of devilish possession as though the world were ruled by Satan and humans had no power.
Horror stories and movies of anxiety are here to stay until the world's tensions diminish. To a writer's mind, global catastrophy might accelerate the world's quest for a solution to its problems. All this sounds rather grim. It is. Many great minds work on plans of how to rearrange the world we live in without fright and fears. The blueprint of the continuation is being worked on. Does mankind have the will to carry it out? When the monsters die for good, the world might have died with them. Or we might have found a way to live together with a sense of social justice and ecological stability.
The way you walk is thorny through no fault of your own.
For as the rain enters the soil and the river enters the sea,
so tears run to their predestined end. Your suffering is over.
Now find peace for eternity, my son.
Brave words, intoned by a former star of the Moscow Art Theater, Mme. Maria Ouspenskaya, over the Wolf Man's body. They were not his final epitaph. He was revived many times. That leaves hopes for the world.
--CURT SIODMAK, "By Way of Introduction: The Wolf Man"
from Classic Movie Monsters, 1978
German-born Curt (or Kurt) Siodmak has long been associated with science fiction, horror and fantasy films. A real-life reporter in Germany, his attempt to interview director Fritz Lang got him a part as an extra in Lang's 1926 science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis. In 1937, Siodmak came to Hollywood, where he amassed a great number of screen credits, many of the films he wrote or directed having fantastic content.
Among such screen-writing credits are Her Jungle Love (1938), The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, The Ape, and Black Friday (all 1940), The Wolf Man (1941), The Invisible Agent (1942), Son of Dracula, I Walked with a Zombie, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (all 1943), House of Frankenstein and The Climax (both 1944), The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949), Riders to the Stars (1954), The Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) and the German language Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes ("Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace"). Siodmak wrote and directed Bride of the Gorilla (1951), The Magnetic Monster (1953), Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956), and Love Slaves of the Amazon (1957).
In 1958 he turned to television and directed "The Face in the Tombstone Mirror," the pilot episode of the unsold "Tales of Frankenstein" series. Four years later he directed several episodes of another unsold series, "No. 13 Demon Street," which were released as a feature-length film entitled The Devil's Messenger.
Perhaps the most famous of all the prolific writers' stories is the 1942 novel Donovan's Brain, about a scientist who keeps alive the brain of a financial genius. The story was adapted to other media, including a two-part radio version by Orson Welles for the CBS series "Suspense," during the 1940s. Three motion pictures were made from the story, The Lady and the Monster (Republic 1944), Donovan's Brain (United Artists 1953) and the German Ein Toter sucht seiner Murder ("A Dead Man Seeks His Murderer") seen in America as The Brain (Governor 1962). There have also been countless stories, comic book tales, radio and television dramas and motion pictures about living brains, all owing their existence to the Siodmak original. In 1968, Siodmak wrote a sequel to Donovan's Brain entitled Hauser's Memory. It became a Universal television-movie in 1970.
--DONALD F. GLUT, from Classic Movie Monsters, 1978
On September 2nd, 2000, Curt Siodmak, who had devoted 90 of his 98 years to writing, died quietly in his sleep at his 50-acre Three Rivers, California ranch, where he had lived since 1958. His brother and creative partner, Robert, died in 1979.
A selection of Curt Siodmak's works.
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A selection of Curt Siodmak non-fiction.
A History of Horror
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