This documentary examines the early rise of the straggling upstart studio Universal Pictures, which made a name for itself by focusing on the neglected horror genre in the 1920s and 1930s. Kenneth Branagh narrates over archival footage and clips from some of the most influential and important entries in the genre. At various intervals, testimonials by writers and actors about the influence of these films on their own work are intercut with the older footage. The first person interviewed is best-selling author Ray Bradbury, who credits the films with having a profound influence on him, even as a child. Actors Nina Foch and James Karen's attempt to define the aesthetic of the horror film leads into a debate about whether the low-budget art direction of the early Universal films was effectively creepy or simply cheesy. Carla Laemmle recalls her studio mogul father Carl's role in supporting the genre, and Sara Karloff remembers her father Boris's reaction to being cast as Frankenstein's monster in the most famous adaptation of the classic horror novel. Horror historian Forrest J. Ackerman, whose house is a museum of horror and science-fiction artifacts, weighs in about Universal's horror legacy, and author David J. Skal notes that Universal's "Dracula" adaptation, with Bela Lugosi; "Frankenstein"; and the "Wolfman" of Lon Chaney, Jr., "provided the backbone of the studio's income." After a few more testimonials from actors like Gloria Stuart, clips from some of the more influential films are screened. Critic Gavin Lambert explains the significance of clips from "Dr. Caligari," "The Cat and the Canary," and "The Man Who Laughs." Lambert screens a clip from the Lon Chaney/Tod Browning collaboration "London After Midnight" and reveals that it was the first film to be blamed for being so shocking and terrifying that it inspired a real-life murder. The next segment of the documentary looks into a rarely explored phenomenon that occurred throughout studio production in the early days of sound film in Hollywood -- simultaneous, foreign-language versions of American pictures. Studios like Universal would concurrently shoot an English-language version of a film as well as a French- or Spanish-language version for international release. The example used in this documentary is "Dracula," chosen because the Mexican-based version is largely considered to be technically and formally superior to the English-language "original." Another section of the program looks at the influence of Germany's expressionistic art movement on American horror films; a clip from F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" is screened. The documentary closes with a look at the American censorship that caused Universal to restrict its output of horror films. Even films based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe were frowned upon.


  • DATE: October 9, 1998 Friday 8:00 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 1:35:19
  • COLOR/B&W: Color/B&W
  • CATALOG ID: T:63463
  • GENRE: Arts documentaries
  • SUBJECT HEADING: Horror films
  • SERIES RUN: TCM (Turner Classic Movies) - TV, 1998


    • Peter Langs … Executive Producer
    • Patrick Stanbury … Producer
    • Kevin Brownlow … Director
    • James Bernard … Music by
    • Kenneth Branagh … Narrator
    • Forrest J. Ackerman
    • Ray Bradbury
    • Tod Browning
    • Lon Chaney
    • Nina Foch
    • James Karen
    • Boris Karloff
    • Sara Karloff
    • Carl Laemmle
    • Carla Laemmle
    • Gavin Lambert
    • Bela Lugosi
    • F.W. Murnau
    • Edgar Allan Poe
    • David J. Skal
    • Gloria Stuart