The Classic Connection of Warner Bros., Big Bugs and Hammer Horror
Gangster films, innovative musicals, hard-boiled detective movies and female-centered dramas. Porky Pig, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and Batman, too. That’s quite a distinct and diverse group of genres and characters that are part of the 100-year history of Warner Bros.
A word you don’t see in that impressive list? Horror.
Sure, the studio produced such noteworthy films as The Exorcist and The Shining, in addition to one of my favorites, the teen vampire flick The Lost Boys. But as a fan of classic horror movies, I was lacking a connection with Warner Bros. and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
I found it not in the number of classic horror films Warner Bros. made, but in its unique impact in the genre through innovation, the popular big-bug movies of the 1950s and spreading the gospel of Hammer horror.
Let me explain. It appropriately started with a film called The Terror.
Journey into Terror
Warner Bros. was officially incorporated in 1923 and a four-legged actor named Rin-Tin-Tin quickly leapt to stardom. Yet by 1926, Warner Bros. was having financial difficulty and only considered a second-rate studio behind the likes of Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and William Fox. So, it did what it would do throughout its history: it took a big gamble with technology. In 1927, moviegoers watching the studio’s “silent” film The Jazz Singer were shocked – and enthralled – when Al Jolson spoke the first words heard in film:“Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothing yet.”
The following year Warner Bros. released the industry’s first all-talking movie Lights of New York. Two months later came The Terror, a horror film where guests at a British country inn were stalked by a killer called the Terror. Based off the 1927 play of the same name by Edgar Wallace, the film starred May McAvoy and Edward Everett Horton.
What makes The Terror special for Warner Bros. is that it was the studio’s first horror film. What makes it important in film history is that it was the first horror movie to use sound.
That use of sound led to immense profits for Lights of New York and The Terror allowing Warner Bros. to purchase the Stanley Theatre chain and a majority stake in First National Pictures. It was now alongside the big boys as a major Hollywood player.
After purchasing First National, the studio’s first film was the silent drama/comedy The Haunted House (1928). As obvious from the title, this was an early entry in the popular old dark house mystery genre. Thelma Todd and Larry Kent starred in the story of heirs drawn to a mansion for the reading of will. The film had the wonderful horror mix of a mad scientist, secret rooms and crazy characters. It was directed by Benjamin Christensen who is best known for Häxan (1922), a documentary/feature which traces the history of witchcraft and is still shown today.
From sound to visual advances
Warner Bros. then turned an eye toward color innovations. Doctor X (1932) was the first horror film to be shot entirely in color, using the two-color Technicolor process. (It was also shot in black and white which is the way many people have seen it.) The film’s talented creative trio – actors Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray and director Michael Curtiz – returned for Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). It was the last film made using the two-color Technicolor by a major studio before technology advanced to glorious three-strip Technicolor used by Warner Bros in films like The Adventures of Robin Hood. As superb as that is, the two-strip process had a unique muted beauty that gave Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum a moody atmosphere that set the tone in a horror film.
Both were pre-Code films that went beyond murder to include such topics as rape, pornography and cannibalism. Doctor X also had a touch of humor thanks to Lee Tracy as a reporter investigating murders that took place under a full moon. Multiple suspects are investigated at a nearby medical academy run by Doctor Xavier (Atwill), where we also meet the his lovely young daughter Joanne (Wray).
In Mystery of the Wax Museum, Atwill is a talented sculptor disfigured in a wax museum fire set by his partner for insurance money. He reappears more than a decade later with a new museum inhabited by his gorgeous wax figures that look uncomfortably real. The film was called “too ghastly for comfort” in a 1933 review by Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times, which I consider high praise.
Horror fans will recognize the same story in the fantastic 1953 Warner Bros. film House of Wax starring Vincent Price in the Atwill role. Keeping with the Warner Bros. philosophy of bringing modern advances to its audiences, it was the first film produced in 3D by a major studio. Even watching the film at home today, we can pick out scenes shot for 3D effectiveness like the bouncing paddle ball.
Getting films be seen
Beyond making movies, studios distribute films and sometimes for other studios as Warner Bros. did as part of its contribution to classic horror.
Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) is an important film in horror and sci-fi. It brought stop-motion animation master Ray Harryhausen out of the shadows and into the spotlight. It also was the first of the atomic creature films with Harryhausen’s impressive fictional Rhedosaurus awakened by A-bomb testing and rumbling off to terrorize the East Coast.
With the help of major distribution it received from Warner Bros., Beast from 20,000 Fathoms became a surprise financial hit and helped create two popular horror genres: the tag team of giant monsters/nuclear testing (this includes Godzilla movies that are still part of the WB repertoire) and big-bug films. After all, if a dinosaur running amok was popular with audiences, wouldn’t multiple giant ants be even better? That’s what Warner Bros. thought.
In Them!, James Arness and James Whitmore led the charge against giant ants that terrorized the country. It became the highest grossing film of 1954 for Warner Bros., yet the studio didn’t continue with the trend, instead concentrating on such Cinemascope films as King Richard and the Crusaders and A Star is Born. Thankfully other studios followed the Warner Bros lead and jumped on the big-bug bandwagon, giving us such classics as It Came from Beneath the Sea, The Giant Behemoth and Tarantula. .
[To read more about big-bug movies, see my Classic Movie Hub column:All bug-eyed over big-bug movies.
The studio’s influence on film history when it came to distributing the work of other students didn’t stop there.
We think of Hammer Films for its delectable array of horror movies in the 1950s and beyond. But without the help of U.S. studios including Warner Bros., American audiences may never have seen these films or at the very least, seen enough of them to make the House of Hammer the horror giant it is in film history.
At least nine U.S. studios were involved with distributing Hammer films including Columbia, Universal, United Artists, MGM, Twentieth Century-Fox and Warner Bros.
A huge moment in the partnership between Warner Bros. and Hammer was the worldwide distribution in 1957 of the Christopher Lee-Peter Cushing film The Curse of Frankenstein. It changed everything for Hammer as author Howard Maxford sums up in his book Hammer, House of Horror:
“Warner would also give Frankenstein the kind of promotional campaign Hammer could only dream of affording. Consequently, when the film opened at the Warner Bros. Theatre in London’s West End on May 2, 1957, the lines stretched round the block, despite an almost universally hostile reaction from the press,” Maxford writes.
While the U.S. studios helped get Hammer out to the world, it remained a tumultuous time of feast or famine when it came to this support. In 1968, Hammer was without a U.S. distributor and again facing financial problems. The timely merger that created Warner Bros.-Seven Arts saved the day starting with Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), the fourth in Hammer’s Dracula series.
Though that merger only last about two years, Warner Bros. distributed and even produced more films for Hammer. Other films included Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Moon Zero Two (1969), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Crescendo (1970), and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rights of Dracula (1973) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974).
However, Warner Brothers also held the rights to these films and was, to say the least, very slow in putting them on home video. Even then, the movies were released without any bonus material. That’s one reason for the 2018 documentary Hammer Horror: The Warner Brothers Years which traces the important relationship between Warner and Hammer from the brief, but important, period of 1968 to 1974, while also giving fans the interviews and background information they craved.
Warner Bros. may not have produced a large number of classic horror films, but when it did, it was with creativity and innovation. And at the very least, this big-bug film fan is grateful for Them! and all the oversized creatures that followed.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.