The first American horror films

Two US stars

As the macabre German expressionist films paved the way for a new kind of horror film in 1920, movie makers overseas were also starting to dabble in the occult, but in a much more realistic style. Although it would take some years before the Americans would have the chutzpah to churn out as twisted movies as their European counterparts did at the time, 1920 was still a landmark year for American horror films as well.

John Barrymore (right) as Mr Hyde

First of all, it was a year that saw the release of a film that is widely regarded as the first American full length horror movie, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Second it introduced two of the most memorable American actors in history to the horror genre, John Barrymore and Lon Chaney, also known as the man with a thousand faces.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Barrymore
Inspired by the early short versions of the film, producer Adolph Zukor of the Famous Players-Lasky company took on the challenge to bring this eerie tale to life as a full length film. Like many later horror films based an works of literature, the film was adapted from a stage play rather than from Robert Louis Stevenson’s original novella. Company director John S. Robertson was hired to direct the film, which is his most memorable movie to date. The critical dual role of Dr Jekyll / Mr Hyde was entrusted to budding movie star John Barrymore, considered one of the greatest American actors in history, both on stage and screen.

BELOW: Watch the creepy transformation scene

John Barrymore was at the time an aplauded stage actor, exploding onto the world of theatre with his role in Galsworthy’s Justice, following up with several successes on Braodway, including plays by Tolstoy and Shakespeare. In the year the film came out, he did one of his most hailed performances as Richard III. Like many other actors of the time, Barrymore considered film acting as merely a way to make some extra money between seasons, although Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde gave him a chance to bring to screen something quite different from the short films and light comedies he had done previously. His devotion to the production even got him to lend many of his famed potted plants as set decoration.

The film portrays a purehearted, noble doctor who becomes obsessed with the idea of separating the good and evil in him into two different personalities, as shown in a line from  movie: “Wouldn’t it be marvellous if the two natures in man could be separated – housed in different bodies? Think what it would mean to yield to every evil impulse, yet leave the soul untouched!” Thus he concocts a potion which will turn him into an evil menace, and a cure. But of course everything goes horribly wrong.

Although the film is slightly marred by a bit of over-acting, regular in early movies with stage trained actors, Barrymore churned out what is probably the most iconic portrayal of Mr Hyde to date, one that inspired the picture of the tall, slender, pointy-nosed and wild-eyed picture of the beastly man that we refer to today. As a very charismatic performer, Barrymore succeeded in making Mr Hyde more than just a monster. He created an interesting and beguiling character, in a way much more likable than the hypocritical Dr Jekyll. The genius of the acting was such that he was able to completely distort his face with the use of almost no make-up at all, although as the movie progresses and the evil becomes stronger, we begin to see a bit of dark make-up around the eyes. Fredric March, who reprised the role in the praised 1931 talkie relied on a much heavier masque to a much lesser result. The magic of Barrymore’s performance is that the viewer finds himself liking Mr Hyde a lot more than his counterpart, despite the atrocities he is guilty of. A later director would probably have left out the wierd prosthetic fingers, though.

John Barrymore - without make-up

Barrymore actually only made one more horror film, Svengali, in 1931, but instead continued to portray Shakespearean characters, as well as Sherlock Holmes, Captain Ahab and Don Juan. Throughout his career he played the lead in over 60 films, opposite beauties such as Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard. John Barrymore often appeared alongside his brother Lionel, also a noted actor. He is the grandfather of later movie star Drew Barrymore.

CLICK TO WATCH THE FULL MOVIE “DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE”

The Man of a Thousand Faces
The other significant film of the year was The Penalty, starring Lon Chaney. Strictly speaking the film is a psychological thriller rather than a horror movie. But you can’t help to place a movie in the horror genre in which a crippled crime lord sits as model for a bust of Lucifer. The Penalty tells the story of the sadistic crime lord Blizzard (Chaney), who mistakenly has his legs amputated as a child – resulting in fierce self-loathing and hatred for humankind, and a female police agent that infiltrates his ranks. And then we naturally have the beautiful artistic daughter of the doctor that cut off his legs, who wants him to model for her bust (and of course he wants to do a bit of modelling on her bust).

The film itself is an unusually dark and sinister tale for the time, and there is none of the classic softening that we find in many later horror films. The man is simply evil and sadistic to the bone. The absolute star is Lon Chaney, wearing extremely uncomfortable and painful prosthetics. Wikipedia describes them as such: “The apparatus worn by Chaney to simulate amputated legs was complex and incredibly painful. Consisting primarily of two wooden buckets and multiple leather straps, Chaney’s knees sat in the buckets, while his lower legs were tied back. Though studio doctors asked that Chaney not wear the device, he insisted on doing so, so his costume would be authentic”.

BELOW: A SCENE FROM THE PENALTY

The character of Blizzard becomes an incredybly complex one as we see him struggle throughout the movie with his handicap, which is never covered up. Chaney must have busted his ass walking up and down stairs, jumping on and off chairs and even climbing ladders in his awkward stumps. Yet he looks as if he would have been doing it for a long time. Chaney was later known not only as a wonderful actor, but as a make-up artist. He himself made the memorable (and painful) make-up for films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera and London After Midnight.

CLICK HERE FOR MY PLAYLIST CONTAINING THE BOTH FULL LENGTH FILMS

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