cinema, Film

German Expressionism and the Universal Horror Film

In the early 1930s Hollywood began producing a string of horror films with aims to simultaneously thrill, scare and provide a form of escapism for the Depression era American public. Whilst the horror genre was well received, critics often noted that the “rigid simplicity of the horror film’s conventions, deprives it of the resonances that inform and deepen, for example, the Western or Gangster film.” (Tudor, 1974). Due to this, analysis often focuses on the aesthetic details linking films together within the genre and the connotations that emerge through horror’s often stylised visuals. The visual and often thematic traits of horror’s early years were largely informed by German expressionism, and the output of Universal during the 1930s is a clear indicator of this.

Universal’s cycle of horror began with Tod Browning’s Dracula (1930) after Carl Laemmle junior gained charge of the studio at his father’s request. The following succession of horror films were Universal’s attempt at staying afloat during the Depression which had been taking its toll on the industry. ‘The studio’s output decreased substantially, and during an industry-wide strike the studio actually closed down for several months.” (Cook & Bernink, 1999, p. 31). Laemmle junior agreed to produce Frankenstein (1931) partly due to the success of the previous year’s Dracula. Universal was in need of a specific generic identity within their company to ensure future exhibition, and the popularity of what was to become a chain of Universal Monster movies aided the minor studio in deciding on horror as its reliable product. This decision was financially beneficial not only in terms of exhibition and potential audience sales but also by means of production. The recent adoption of sound by studios could have proved to be a difficult transition during Universal’s period of financial trouble but producers discovered that subtle use of sound proved significantly cheaper yet chilling. Dracula is a good example of this as “the film’s relative ‘silence’ served to increase the chilling atmosphere.” (Cook & Bernink, 1999, p. 32).

With Universal’s house style firmly cemented by their resourcefulness during the Depression, the mid 1930s saw further additions to their monster roster. Werewolf of London was released in 1935, but more significantly a sequel to James Whale’s hugely successful Frankenstein (1931) rose from the studio to become an unforgettable horror classic. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) director James Whale (albeit initially somewhat reluctantly) and the majority of the original’s cast to continue its gothic tale of science and morality. With both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster surviving the blaze at the windmill, mad scientist Dr. Pretorious sees an opportunity to fulfil his own desires to create human life. When his wife is held ransom, Dr. Frankenstein reluctantly agrees to assist Pretorious in constructing a bride for the monster.
“Frankenstein (1931) was both an outstanding and typical product of 1930s Hollywood, particularly in its confident assimilation of German expressionist aesthetics on which horror’s ‘golden age’ was founded.” (Worland, 2006, p. 158). Its sequel builds upon this German expressionist technique utilising “Germanic lighting, set design and camerawork…to evoke bizarre, otherworldly settings as well as to connote an artistically ambitious production.” (p. 160). Whale studied key films of the German expressionist era running from 1920 to 1927 including Robert Weiner’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), F.W Murnau’s take on the vampire tale. “The angular performances, heavy makeup, and distorted settings characteristic of German Expressionist cinema conveyed an ominous, supernatural atmosphere” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2008, p. 331) that transferred perfectly to Universal’s portrayals of gothic literary classics.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Bride of Frankenstein largely displays its influences through its set design. “In much the same way as the German Expressionists did a decade earlier, whale creates a new world on the soundstage.” (Weaver, 1990, p. 126). Cemeteries with slanted graves, gothic towers and windmills are all complemented by chiaroscuro lighting, canted framings and a variety of unusually high or low angles. (Worland, 2006, p. 160). Pam Cook states that this extreme stylisation of mise-en-scene through chiaroscuro lighting and surrealistic settings are specific features of German expressionist cinema and are often accompanied by similar acting styles and macabre subject matter. (Cook & Bernink, 1999, p. 67). Direct examples of this can be clearly seen in Bride of Frankenstein. “In the spectacular, two-minute creation sequence, consisting of over 80 shots, she comes to life amid the blazing electrical apparatus of Frankenstein’s mountaintop laboratory.” (Weaver, 1990, p. 125). Throughout the scene, canted angle shots create a sense of unease through their purposeful departure from standard cinematography techniques. Extreme low angles reveal the scale and warped architecture of the laboratory with its clashing lines mirroring the abnormalities of the scene’s content. Expressionist chiaroscuro lighting shrouds the scene with mystery whilst amplifying the obscure nature of Pretorious and Frankenstein as the light casts disfiguring shadows across their faces. “The style of German Expressionism allowed the filmmakers to experiment with filmic technology and special effects and to explore the twisted realm of repressed desires, unconscious fears, and deranged fixations.” (Perry, 2006, p. 57). The German visual style confidently informs Universal’s horror output, lending its aesthetic peculiarities to shape themes of fear and madness. Barry Langford states that expressionism’s influence “perhaps lay in the establishment less of a specific stylistic model than of a generic vocabulary that expressed extreme psychological states.” (Langford, 2005, p. 161). German expressionism grew out of a desire to filter the horrors of post war Germany in to a coherent medium. It created an ‘other world’ in which people could view and process the everyday troubles inflicted upon them. “This ‘other world’ often functions as a criticism of bourgeois society.” (Cook & Bernink, 1999, p. 67). Transferred to an american audience, the expressionist style also had a societal effect. “Depression audiences wanted the escapist entertainment which horror provided.” (Pendo, 1975, p. 161).

Whilst German expressionism clearly informed the ‘golden age’ of horror by means of aesthetic similarities, it could also be said that the deeper meanings and messages projected through expressionism also succeeded in informing Universal’s approach to film production. German expressionism channelled through films such as Bride of Frankenstein reflected many aspects of society apparent during the Depression. “The monsters were actually creatures with souls and human longings, that underneath the formula plots, these characters represented society’s rejects who were trying to stake a claim in a world in which they had no place.” (Weaver, 1990, p. 4). Even the mob in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein could be likened to “an enraged populace lashing out in frustration against the Depression – and the man they perceived as indifferent to their plight, Herbert Hoover.” (Matthews, 2009, p. 33). Despite the aesthetic and thematic similarities, Universal succeeded in creating a series of unique cinema classics that whilst clearly informed by German expressionism, stand on their own as an advancement of Hollywood genre cinema and as a reflection of a nation emerging from financial struggle.


Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2008). Film Art (8th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2008). Film Art (8th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Cook, P., & Bernink, M. (Ed). (1999). The Cinema Book (2nd ed.). London: British Film Institute.

Langford, B. (2005). Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond. Edinburgh: University Press.

Matthews, M.E. (2009). Fear Itself: Horror on Screen and in Reality During the Depression and World War II. North Carolina: McFarland & Co Inc.

Pendo, S. (1975). Universal’s golden age of horror. Films in Review, 26 (3).

Perry, T. (2006). Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema. Indiana: University Press.

Tudor, A. (1974). Image and Influence: Studies in the Sociology of Film. London: Allen and Unwin.

Weaver, T., Brunas, M., & Brunas, J. (1990). Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946 (2nd ed.). North Carolina: McFarland & Co Inc.

Worland, R. (2006). The Horror Film: An Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley – Blackwell.
Browning, T. (Director). (1931). Dracula [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

Murnau, F.W. (Director). (1922). Nosferatu [Motion picture]. Germany: Film Arts Guild.

Walker, S. (Director). (1935). Werewolf of London [Motion picture]. United states: Universal Pictures.

Whale, J. (Director). (1935). Bride of Frankenstein [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

Whale, J. (Director). (1931). Frankenstein [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

Wiene, R. (Director). (1920). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [Motion picture]. Germany: Decla-Bioscop.


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