Horror Verses: Warner Bros. At 100

Defining a studio via horror landmarks, immigration, and innovation.

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · April 5, 2023, 2:43 PM EDT
House of Wax 1953

"That immigrant anxiety, over feeling freed yet lost, has never gone away, but in America, a mass medium was set up, for fun but as a version of moral guidance and comfort: the stories told people how to live, or what to believe in…" ― David Thomson Warner Bros: The Making of an American Studio (2017)

The medium of film became a "dynamic and disruptive" platform that catered to the "loneliness and instability" of immigrants that had begun to make a (new) name for themselves during the first quarter of the 20th century. They were the ambitious entrepreneurs who became pioneers of a modern art form ― America seeing an illuminated transformation ― inevitably moving towards those bright lights of Hollywood. There seemed no place for darkness ― Warner Bros. was seemingly more "averse" to horror than other studios ― yet, over the past 100 years, there is no doubt that when there was a dose of shock treatment needed, the studio set out to change not only the genre but also cinema.

Sons of a Jewish Shoemaker, the Wonsals had moved away from Poland and the looming shadow of Russia. Originally settling in Canada, the father, Benjamin, changed the family name to "Warner" and, as with many immigrant families, gradually gave his children Anglicized first names [1]. Via their upheaval, the "Warner brothers" ― Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack ― had become accustomed to what could be seen as a façade; their inventiveness helping to forge the illusion of film coupled with a daring energy that would later appear in their choice of material. Somewhat contradictory to an apparent social conscience ― "… crime does not pay, they said, but get ready to enjoy these hoodlums of ours!" ― their conservatism often held steadfast.


The company's roots can be traced back to Sam Warner recruiting his brothers to project films for local Pennsylvanian mining communities in 1903, opening their first theater that same year. It would take almost another twenty years to establish their reputation ― the silent war drama My Four Years in Germany from 1918, the brothers' first feature film production ― and although often claiming 1905 as the founding date, they officially presented themselves as Warner Bros. Pictures, Incorporated on April 4, 1923. This was all down to their first major movie star… a dog called "Rinty" (aka Rin Tin Tin) rescued from the battlefields of WWI and catapulted to fame in their first breakout success, Where the North Begins, released that same year. If ever there was a symbol of adversity, it's an immigrant canine born from the wastelands and horrors of war. It would seem that the Warner brothers' dogma was their belief in not just a dog… but also the power of cinema. What follows are some crucial verses (and universes) in the (horror) history of the studio.

First things verse: sound, color, and other dimensions

When exploring the history of horror movies, Warner Brothers' dance with the macabre was fleeting compared to Universal's output when the latter's "Classic Monsters" ushered in the 1930s. As the "gangster studio," Warner Bros. was all about grit and determination, an attitude cemented during the Depression era, dramatizing unstable times. This may not have led to many examples of "terrifying tales," but the Brothers did punctuate the history of cinema with groundbreaking processes that, despite cynicism and pushback, were a quantum leap ahead of their time.

the haunted house

As a pioneering "Dream Factory" and distributor, they soon became responsible for the first "talkie," The Jazz Singer, in 1927; the film's success enabled Warner Bros. to purchase First National Pictures in 1928, acquiring further distribution rights. Therefore, owning another studio's films, the studio's contributions to horror can be linked directly to their first National Picture release, The Haunted House. This oldest surviving Warner horror was directed by Benjamin Christensen, the man behind the hybrid documentary/film Häxan. Although a lost film since the '70s, The Terror is the first horror movie ever to use sound [2] and a precursor to 1932's Doctor X, the first horror film in color. Such huge technological developments helped place Warner Bros. amongst the leaders responsible for the classic Hollywood system ― Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, Fox, RKO ― becoming part of the original "Big Five" [3] who would lead the charge for years to come.


It is interesting to see that during this pre-code era, the marketing of such material often avoided the term "horror"; Christensen's film a prime example of the "Old Dark House" format sold as a "mystery"… because… why would anybody want to be horrified? It was no different for director Michael Curtiz's Edgar Allan Poe-inspired Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, both starring original scream queen Fay Wray. Posters reference "weird mysteries" and phrases such as "thriller" and "exciting entertainment," detracting from the sadistic and troublesome subject matter ― cannibalism, elective suicide, rape, and pornography ― all glossed over by Max Factor [4]. Oscar-winner Curtiz would, of course, go on to direct the Errol Flynn Technicolor swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood and classic romantic drama Casablanca, both Best Picture winners.

doctor x

The Walking Dead saw Curtiz direct Boris Karloff, exploiting the success of Frankenstein. Somewhat of a step back in their already limited horror, it would take another decade to see something "certified fresh" with Robert Florey's The Beast with Five Fingers. Based on English writer William Fryer Harvey's short story from 1919 and co-written by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man), the film revolves around the murderous severed hand of a dead pianist that attempts to kill the heirs to his fortune of cherished books. It is an understated classic, to say the least, as it was Warner's only foray into the genre during the 1940s.


Again, few and far between, but in pushing technology, Warner Bros. returned to familiar territory in 1953 with the Vincent Price-led House of Wax, marking the first color 3D feature from a major studio; a gimmick that would attempt to bring audiences back into theatres when the studio system had begun to collapse, and the impact of television had taken hold. But TV screens were still in black and white, color being pushed to encourage audiences to leave their homes. Aside from the gloriously violent (and colorful) Looney Tunes, let us picture that historical bloody shot to the eye of Christopher Lee's Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein. Helping Hammer Film Productions find an audience stateside with the release of their first Gothic horror, Warner Bros. began distributing a number of the British studio's films for the next decade, a short-lived partnership but an integral one in the history of both Warner and Hammer when it came to transnational distribution and pushing horror from outside of the US.

Then, in 1962, Warner's slice of the American Gothic ― their "Grande Dame Guignol" ― What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? played as Jack Warner's personal nightmare; (aging) powerhouse stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford having given him a run for his money back in the "old days." Aldrich's iconic film plays as the definitive Hollywood horror with unforgettable performances from the feuding female leads that still set the standard today.


MonsterVerse: creature features and nuclear origins

godzilla 2014

It would appear that giant monsters have come full circle for Warner Bros. This can be traced back to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953; the atomic monster movie a direct influence on Ishirō Honda's post-war metaphor Godzilla. Producer/distributor Toho would eventually agree to Legendary and Warner Bros. building the recent MonsterVerse [5] that began with 2014's Godzilla and, more recently, colliding with Godzilla vs. Kong. A major international success for the studio, once again this was down to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms being at the forefront of groundbreaking effects and technology, boasting the first feature with animator and special effects legend Ray Harryhausen in full charge of technical effects. During the production, Harryhausen created a technique he called "Dynamation," which involved separating the background and foreground of pre-shot live-action footage so he could animate his puppets to interact with the environment and actors. A technique that would become the bedrock of visual effects for the next 40 years… until another type of dinosaur hit the big screen.


The following year, atomic ants blew up the screen in 1954's Them! Produced and distributed by Warner Bros., with journeyman director Gordon Douglas at the helm, the film was originally conceived to be in 3D and "Warner Color," but due to a camera malfunction, it was filmed in black-and-white with only the title remaining red and blue. As a "creature feature," it is one f the best examples of science fiction from the era that captures post-war America's high tensions and paranoia. What is also interesting about the film are the obvious parallels to James Cameron's Aliens; not only the obvious "bug hunt" but also the traumatized mute girl who wanders out of the desert carrying her broken doll. Comparisons can also be made to The Thing From Another World, swapping out the Antarctic isolation ― also populated by a male-dominated cast (and single white female) ― for that of the New Mexico desert.

Other universes: franchises and beyond…


Despite becoming a major part of the counterculture, even Hammer horror eventually looked stale against the backdrop of the real horrors taking place. But, in 1967, the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts' release of Bonnie and Clyde changed everything. Influenced heavily by the French New Wave (and fewer restrictions on censorship), this crucial period gave birth to modern cinema as we know it, with a handful of horror movies going on to set the tone throughout the '70s. Nestled between Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper's definitive new wave horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [6], William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, released by Warner Bros. in 1973, was another major landmark in horror. Directed by William Friedkin ― who even defies being lumped in with "The New Hollywood" crowd ― the film remains a tour de force 50 years later. Of course, The Exorcist inspired its own franchise (a legacy sequel currently in the works), a major IP that would ramp up the horror level and influence many possession and demonic child movies. Even before Jaws defined the blockbuster two years later, Blatty and Friedkin helped remind audiences that when Warner Bros. committed to horror, it would be with something innovative. The result: what most horror fans would call the first true horror blockbuster.


Once the '80s exploded in all its excessive glory, Warner Bros. led the charge by distributing the independent slasher Friday the 13th internationally and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining stateside. Digging their teeth into Stephen King's Macroverse for the first time, they followed up with the distribution of Cujo in 1983. Other notable Warner horror of the decade include body horror Altered States from 1980, Ozploitation piece Razorback and Joe Dante's Gremlins from 1984, Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys in 1987, and Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, 1988. As would be expected, further acquisitions saw the decade out with publisher Time Inc. purchasing Warner Communications for 14 billion dollars. That's (not) all folks… Time Warner then purchased New Line Cinema in 1996 and ended up owning the rights for another major horror franchise, A Nightmare on Elm Street.


After ushering out another decade with the '99 remake of House on Haunted Hill ― closely followed by 13 Ghosts ― the noughties was a mixed bag of demons, the undead, and an inspired piece of work involving… a… devil child? We'll get to that little gem, but first, we have 2005's Constantine. Owning DC Comics, the title is a natural fit for Warner horror; however, this version of John Constantine is as much a far cry from Superman as Keanu is from the eponymous blonde-haired British (working-class) warlock. But, surprisingly, the film still manages to capture the source material's spirit. Then there was the return to Richard Matheson's classic 1954 post-apocalyptic horror novel, with Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend, a last man on earth tale that skews Matheson's thought-provoking conclusion, littered with cartoonish CGI.

orphan 2009

But it is Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra who set a new standard. Tapping into the tropes and conventions of children in Spanish horror, mixed with a whiff of The Omen, 2009's Orphan provides one of the best horror twists in decades. Although there has been a recent prequel ― Orphan: First Kill ― Collet-Serra's film has been somewhat overshadowed by the subsequent success of James Wan's The Conjuring, kickstarting a new horror cinematic universe with nun 'n' doll spinoffs galore. Wan territory is often entry-level with formulaic frights that, although hardly push the genre forward, always deliver on the fun, cashing in on the (eerily) familiar.


It would be a crime not to touch upon Warner Animation. As an animated movie, Batman: The Doom that Came to Gotham is the epitome of not only what we would associate with American horror stories ― an Elseworlds tale steeped in Lovecraftian lore ― but, in mixing the modern American myth of the superhero, it would appear that as a Warner work of art, it is a perfect 100th-anniversary piece in itself. Harnessing the studio's legacy of animation coupled with their definitive renditions of Batman (with a twist), it is another example of pushing storytelling and the medium towards untapped potential buried in the DC vaults.

Final verse

Indeed, it could be said that Warner Bros. has had much more of an impact on our dreams than our nightmares. They may lack the heft of horror history we would associate with Universal, but as explored, we have witnessed some of the most memorable (and liminal) moments that have not only aimed to push the barriers of cinema but also continued to set a distinct tone and standard within the genre. If there is one major thing in common with any other studio and its moguls, it is that these Jewish immigrants built Hollywood. The sense of alienation and (lucrative) obsession with becoming someone else is at the core of American cinema ― modern entertainment transporting people away to other places ― filmmakers and their actors posing as strangers in a strange land; while those "true" Americans, as David Thomson reminds us, still "look upon "immigrants with suspicion and fear." It may horrify, but as a veritable feast of frights, what defines Warner horror is the innovative masks it wears to tell its stories ― not just the superhero and anti-superhero ― but from wax to monster mash, and the iconic killer characters it has inherited along the way.

1.Hirsz became Harry, Aaron/Albert, Szmuel/Sam, and Jacob… the infamous Jack L. Warner; the first brother born in North America. There were 11 children in total (two dying young), including two more brothers and five sisters.
2.On with the Show! the first all color feature in 1929.
3. The "Little Three" were United Artists, Universal, and Columbia.
4. In a time when most studios didn't have a makeup department and filmed in two-color Technicolor, the uncredited makeup and special effects were created by Ray Romero, Perc Westmore, Rex Wimpy (Mystery at the Wax Museum), and Fred Jackman Jr. (Doctor X).
5. It was announced last year Warner Brothers would be exiting the partnership.
6. Not forgetting the superb Canuxploitation Christmas slasher, Black Christmas (1974).