Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Garrett Fort: The Bard of Classic Horror

Speaking broadly, horror films aren't exactly known for producing great dialogue. Sure, they can make for eminently quotable moments (some good, but mostly bad) and most cinema goers can recite more than a few lines from their favorite chiller. But, in comparison to the more "respected" genres of drama and even mystery, horror films usually come in last place in terms of the quality of their screenplays. 

Some of this is snobbery (Rob Zombie aptly described horror films as socially accepted pornography) and some of this accurate. There were, are, and will continue to be bad horror scripts, but Garrett Fort didn't write one. Born in New York City in 1900, Fort came from a generation that always knew the pictures, so to him writing for Hollywood didn't seem like the step-down that so many playwrights and novelists characterized it as. Better yet, the screenplay, Fort's primary medium, truly allowed him to shine, and as a playwright working in the era when Hollywood produced films that were more Broadway than pure box office, Fort combined the best of both worlds. 

It is in the horror medium, especially the Gothic Universal films of the 1930s, where Fort found his voice. The list of his top credits reads like the studio's "Best Of" for the decade:

Dracula (1931)
Frankenstein (1931)
Dracula's Daughter (1936)
The Devil-Doll (1936)

Fort's best screenplays, specifically the ones he wrote for Dracula and Frankenstein, have a near classical quality to them, with elevated language and a Romantic tinge that seems more appropriate for Shelley or Byron. For example, recall the scene in Dracula when  Lucy Weston, who has by this point already fallen under the Count's sway, recites a dreary old toast for the undead Romanian's approval:

The Abbey always reminds me of that old toast, "Above lofty timbers, the walls around are bare, echoing to our laughter, as though the dead were there."

In this scene, the more oft-remembered line belongs to Lugosi, who darkly enunciates "There are far worse things awaiting man than death." In truth, Dracula, whose screenplay solely belongs to Fort (as far as we know), is completely full of memorable lines:

Listen to them. Children of the night, what music they make.

I never drink - wine. 

As one of the great, if not the greatest Universal horror film from the early '30s, Dracula blends together the cinematography of German Expressionism with British Gothicism and American sensationalism. As much as Fort should be celebrated for the great script, Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston also deserve special thanks, for its was their play which was transcribed for the screen. In fact, Deane and Balderston probably had the harder time, for Hollywood could consult both them and Fort for Tod Browning's final film. 

Frankenstein, which was also released in 1931, lacked the dazzling supporting cast of Dracula, but ultimately proved to be just as effective of a film. Comparing the two is silly, for they are very different films directed by two different stylists. But, as with Dracula, the screenplay for Frankenstein belonged to Fort, although this time around he had several co-writers (three, in fact). Like Dracula, Frankenstein is dripping with unforgettable lines. 

Look, it's moving. It's alive, it's alive, it's alive. It's moving. It's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive!

 I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now is your chance to—Well, we warned you.

Besides being the breakout role for the long-struggling character actor Boris Karloff, Frankenstein further proved to Hollywood that horror movies could generate revenue. What followed was an intense flurry of activity, with each studio trying to outdo the other in terms of making the biggest and most frightening spectacle. Between 1931 and 1934, some of the best fright films ever produced were distributed to the American and international public, and for a brief while it looked like speculative fiction was going to be the biggest draw for decades.

Then came the enforcement of the Hays Code, which had been on the books since the 1920s, and horror films took the hardest hit. Long the province of exploitation, subversion, violence, and perversity, horror films now became tame things. This dilution of the genre would hold fast until the late '50s and the arrival of England's Hammer Studios. But before that occurred, the era of the great Hollywood horror film essentially died by 1936. 

In that year, Fort wrote the screenplay for the often overlooked Dracula's Daughter, a moody thriller with an obvious lesbian sub-plot. Although not originally Fort's assignment, the job went to him after the original writer, R.C. Sheriff, couldn't get his script past the censors in both England and America. What Fort produced was one of the last breaths of true Universal horror, but even then Dracula's Daughter is a second-tier player in comparison to the two films from 1931. 

The incredible, but short spell of this era of horror filmmaking was only eclipsed by Fort himself. But the late '30s, Fort was a shell of his former self. Having devoted to himself to the teachings of the Indian "guru" Meher Baba by 1934, Fort spent years trying to tie together a script about Baba's life. He even went so far as to travel to India, but upon his return he soon sank into a world of depression. Unable to find profitable work once again Hollywood, Fort became a pauper before eventually taking his own life with sleeping pills in a Hollywood hotel room in 1945. His story is one of great heights and tragic lows; it is, in other words, a Hollywood story from real-life (or vice versa). Still, even despite the gloominess of his final decade, Fort should be remembered for his contribution to films and the greater culture. Imagine if you can a Dracula or a Frankenstein without his words. What a pale world, indeed. 

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