Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Horror Of...Universal Monsters *UPDATED*


Those words conjure potent images.

Going back a century the horror films coming out of Universal have set benchmarks. And up through the 1950's the creatures and figures at the center of these movies became cemented in the minds of movie goers and kids.

For me, my first experience with them was with an early line of toys from the 1980's.

I didn't know any of these movies...But I knew those faces. They drew you in, and jump started a kid's imagination.

I didn't know that the deal was with The Phantom. But I could stare at the intricacy of Lon Chaney's makeup work, and be revolted and fascinated. And that sullen creature of Frankenstein's. The strange gills and scales of that green monster. And the piercing stare of Dracula.

And, eventually, I came across Dracula, late one night.

Playing with an old black and white TV, moving the antenna around and scanning though UHF channels. And then it was there. Grainy as it was, I saw a horse drawn carriage racing through the night. How do you walk away from an invitation like that?

I was fully hooked on the Universal Monster Movies.

The story of these movies goes back to the creation of the studio, and before. It begins with Carl Laemmle. Laemmle began with some nickelodeons. And soon expanded with others to form movie production companies. This company would become the Independent Moving Picture Company. Then partnering with others, he formed the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in 1912.

The first of there horror movies emerged the next year with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913). It made for a good choice in those early silent days of film making. For decades it had already been a popular book that was translated to stage in the late Victorian era. So some innovative makeup work and film trickery brought the monstrous Jekyll to life.

But this movie isn't really remembered. It wasn't really made by Universal, rather Laemmle's original company. Perhaps that's why. It's also only 26 minutes long. It may also be a matter of lacking a certain actor, not to dismiss Fredrich March's toil.

But it was not until the next decade that we see the better remembered and heralded monsters. It was also the era that found Universal working with the great Lon Chaney. The Man of a Thousand Faces.

Chaney was a sought actor, brilliant and bringing characters to life. And for a short time, he was with Universal Studios. His most successful films while with Universal ended up being The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). In these films he was allowed to raise up some exceedingly memorable characters.

Quasimodo (of The Hunchback) is not considered one of Universal's Monsters. And that is good. After all he isn't really part of that club. He's more the put upon figure.

And that was something that Chaney worked to portrait in these two Universal productions. Outwardly they were both made to be disconcerting to see. But they were sad and somewhat misunderstood. The later is far more true with Quasimodo, than with The Phantom.

Now The Phantom is different from Quasimodo. The Phantom has stuck with film and horror fans for decades. The look and feel of the character haunts us.

But, oddly, when Universal recently released a set of Universal Horror movies, The Phantom of the Opera that they included was not this 1925 version (Which I admit I assumed it would be.). It's the 1943 version (with Claude Raines). It fits in more with ages of the rest of the Horror Collective. Though it is also in color, making it still the odd one out.

Even though the 1925 version is older and silent. It IS The Phantom of the Opera for many of us.

Well, I guess this is The Phantom for quite a number.

But before Andrew Lloyd Webber, it was this...

That's a face that sticks in your mind and haunts your dreams. It's magnificent craftsmanship by Lon Chaney.

There's a good reason that this iteration of The Phantom sticks and connected so well with future Horror Icons.

By the end of the 1920's Carl Laemmle had put his son, Carl Laemmle Jr. in charge of the studio (this was a common practice for Laemmle at Universal). He worked to modernize many areas of the company.

And by the start of the 1930's, he was moving to start producing more landmark horror movies. It took awhile to try and repeat the success of The Phantom of the Opera. But what do you make? Dracula was a film that there was long interest in. But the blood, sexuality, and range of settings made it seem to much a risk to even start.

Thankfully, a version of the story was proving a success on Broadway, and was touring the country. And the studio had it's opening to seize.

And in 1931 Dracula made it's way to the screens. And proving such a success, they quickly looked to Frankenstein, which also had been translated to the theater. And people loved the experience of these undead beings coming to life at a matinee.

Universal had rediscovered that love of a good scary Gothic tale. And as studios always want to do when they find success, they looked to replicate it.

And this new era of horror proceeded. It was a time that saw filmmakers coming to gripes with sound. It also saw a number of European filmmakers and films coming over and influencing what was to come.

These Universal Monsters, of the 1930's and 1940's, often skulk a fantastical European landscape. It's always Fall. Dark, leafless forest. Fog. A certain feel to towns of villages that makes them feel like they are out of time. Like the German filmmakers of the time, they experimented with darkly lit sets, shadows, and new ways to create and move scenes.

We've all come to know the look and feel.

And it was a new experience often for film goers. As jaded as future generation would become, the themes, imagery, and ideas at play often were new and alien to film goers. In particular, to see them acted out on a massive screen before them, as they sat in the dark. A thing that preys and feeds on women. A dead body risen, hulking and stalking. There is a certain innocence we've all lost.

In 1932, Karloff returned to the screen in The Mummy. Not based directly off any existing book, it played mostly on the Egyptology discoveries of the last decade. It offered up a Mummy that is quite different from future incarnation, and views of this sort of monsters. He can talk. He isn't covered in bandages (once he's free). Karloff was allowed to play a sad character who was on a personal quest. (To be fair here, I am not going to be noting all the horror movies Universal produced during this time. For instance, Murder in the Rue Morgue came out this year, with Bela Lugosi as Dr. Mirakle. I want to focus just on those films tied to the Universal Monsters.)

In 1933, The Invisible Man appeared to film goers, starring Claude Rains (though you don't really get to see him. Which is of course part of the Invisible Man has not gotten the same merchandising love that the others received. It can be tricky.) This is a film that uses a little more humor than the previous films. The character taking advantage of his new advantage, as he descends into madness.

In 1935, Frankenstein's Monster returned to theaters in The Bride of Frankenstein, continuing on from the events of the first movie.

This is the first of the sequels, and is arguably the best. In fact, many consider it superior to the original film. It definitely expands on the ideas of the first, and allows characters to grow.

1935 also saw the release of Werewolf of London. But this is not the werewolf from Universal we all know and love. It will be some years still before me meet that sorrowful fellow.

1936 brought the first of the sequels to Dracula, Dracula's Daughter. It follows from the ending moments of the first movie, and offers no Dracula. We won't see him again until the 1940's.

It was during this time the the Laemmle family was pushed out at Universal. But the studio had money making franchises it still loved.

1939 brings us the next of the Frankenstein films, Son of Frankenstein, starring Basil Rathbone. It also keeps Boris Karloff in the role of the Monster. (And we get some Bela Lugosi, who plays the first incarnation of the character Ygor.)

In 1940, the Invisible Man returns in...The Invisible Man Returns. Though this time he's a new man, and a new actor. Vincent Price.

Ooooh, yeah.

This year also saw the release of The Mummy's Hand, a new mummy bringing new trouble. Also, The Invisible Woman. This last one is actually more a comedy about being invisible.

1941 saw the introduction of the classic werewolf of Universal in The Wolf Man. This starred Lon Chaney, Jr. (Yes, this is the son of the silent star, Lon Chaney. He preferred to be credited as Lon Chaney. But I'll maintain the Jr. to separate the two actors.) Of all this era's monsters, this is the one to have a single actor continue in the role until the series was ended. Unfortunately, this is the Wolf Man's only solo film. The rest of the time, he is paired with other monsters.

1942 brought us Invisible Agent, a wartime movie about fighting Nazis. We also got The Mummy's Tomb, which has Lon Chaney, Jr. in the role of the Mummy. We also got The Ghost of Frankenstein, with, again, Lon Chaney, Jr. now playing the Monster. It was a busy year for Lon Chaney, Jr. But this is the last year that the Monster would carry a movie alone.

In 1943 a writer had a crazy idea. Let's see what happen when two monsters meet. And we got Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Lugosi versus Chaney. It would be the last major role that the Monster played in a classic Universal Horror movie.

Lon Chaney, Jr. also played a starring role in Son of Dracula. And, as I noted above, this is the year we see Claude Rain take on the role of The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera.

With 1944 we got The Invisible Man's Revenge. Also two Mummy movies, The Mummy's Ghost and The Mummy's Curse. Both of these star Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Mummy again.

We also had the first of two meeting of the Horrific Trio, Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolf Man, in House of Frankenstein. Karloff and Chaney. With John Carradine as Dracula, and Glenn Strange as the Monster.

1945 brings us to the end of this classic era. This year we got the second and finale of the Horrific Trio match ups, House of Dracula. Lon Chaney, Jr., John Carradine, and Glenn Strange all return one more time to their monstrous roles.

In 1945 Universal was bought and merged with International Pictures. Among a series of changes made at the studio was the canceling of all the horror series.

These classic horror characters would only return to be foils for the Abbott and Costello series of comedy films. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

I am a little wistful about it. But was more chance for these characters to bring joy to film goers.

And it would be a break for people from watching Ronald Reagan running around with a chimpanzee, or talking mules. (Yeah, I'm being a snob.)

During the early 1950's, with the success companies like Warner Brothers were having with 3D Horror, we saw a new Universal Monster arise. The Creature.

1953 saw the opening of The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

It was a new era, and the feel of the movie is different from those earlier pre- and inter-WWII films. It's no longer that strange Europe. It's a boat on the Amazon River. It's tropical days. And plenty of underwater filming. In fact, much of film making and film goer interest had changed (or moved on).

But it did connect with audiences. And it is an interesting use of the beauty and the beast motif. The creature, fascinated by a woman. Primal in it's nature, it's driven to take her. And it dooms the Creature.

It was followed in 1955 by Revenge of the Creature (with John Agar). Then we got The Creature Walks Among Us in 1956.

These two were not on par with the original tale. But that was true with many of the sequels to the earlier Universal Monster movies.

And the 1950's continued and we entered the 1960's began, Universal released a number of different horror films, and films with creatures to scare. None connected quite like those of the Universal Monsters we know.

Also during this time, Hammer Films Production began making it's own quite popular series of films in England, often based on the stories and characters from the Universal Monsters line. And when they were looking for distributors for these movies in the United States, Universal Studios stepped up.

But it's obviously not the same. Classic Hammer Horror is what it is (Giving up paint red blood, and the likes of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing). And Classic Universal Horror is what it is.

Still, as eventually happens, there started to be interest in returning to these characters.

1979 saw Dracula. With Frank Langella it was a very different film.

1981 saw An American Werewolf in London, which played some on the name of the first Universal werewolf film, The Werewolf of London, and made use of some aspects of The Wolf Man.

1999 gave us The Mummy. The Mummy was far more powerful in this movie, but he also borrowed greatly from the original, with a very human looking Mummy. (Still...No fez.) It had sequels in 2001 and 2008.

2004 held the release of Van Helsing, a reimagining of Dr. Van Helsing from the Dracula story. The character is most similar to the version in the movie Bram Stoker's Dracula. It acts as a tribute to Classic Universal Horror. I don't think most fans agree that it accomplished much in that effort. It gives us many of the classic monsters. But most fans didn't care for what resulted.

2010 held The Wolf Man. Yeah.

The films varied in success, and in feel. The Mummy was by far the most successful, in part due to it acting more as an action flick. Not that this makes it a bad movie.

When these movies work, they find a successful path of their own. It may not be possible to reanimate the past glory of these Universal Monsters, as they once were. Just relive it.

But these Universal Monsters do stay with us. As a group they have some cultural meaning, reemerging over and over again.

Benchmarks for the ages.

Yet sometimes changing with the day.

And we can't help loving them, as they try and scare us.

Yeah. He finally got his
...Well. It is scarier.
No matter the form they take.

...Now that is just silly.

But this is part of our pop culture to.

So let's start looking at these films, one at a time.

I want to look at the 1930's and 1940's origins of these Universal Monsters. Then I can come back to many of the sequel and follow up films. I want to wait on The Phantom of the Opera, and get into it later, along with some other wonderful silent horror classics.

So we'll start with Dracula.

But I'm throwing a monkey wrench in at the start of even that. I want to first look at the literary and theatric origins of this movie. As I plan to look at many of the future iterations (many from other studios) of Dracula, so it will be nice to consider where they all emerge from. It will help us to also appreciate just how they maintain aspects of the story, and deviate.

So get ready for Dracula's arrival. Just remember, he doesn't


Following on the history of Universal Studio's production of these horror classics, there was the era of Universal Horror being syndicated. Time for some TV! Time for late night horror movies! Time for the horror hosts!

For more on this, look at Universal Monsters and Shock Theater!

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