Today: February 22, 2024

The Universal Monster Family

Think ‘horror movies’, and it’s almost impossible not to conjure up images of the movie monster poster boys created by Universal Pictures in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Think ‘horror movies’, and it’s almost impossible not to conjure up
images of the movie monster poster boys created by Universal Pictures in the
1930s and ‘40s.
Of course, Universal
wasn’t the first film studio to try and bring some of literature’s greatest
creations to the big screen. The silent era had Edison’s Frankenstein, Murnau’s
Nosferatu
and many more. Yet it was Universal who set the standard for
on-screen terror and their take on these classic creatures has become so
ingrained in our collective psyche that, 80 years on, they’re still being
referenced in films like Hotel
Transylvania
and Frankenweenie.
As Universal Classic Monsters: The
Essential Collection
is released on shiny new bluray, Edward Boff looks
back at these masters of the macabre and the sequels that secured their status
as all-time greats.

Dracula

Whatever
shortcomings Dracula has as a film, it’s impossible to deny its place in movie
history. For a start, it propelled a little known Hungarian actor into the
spotlight. With his strong accent, halting speech and stagy delivery, Bela Lugosi’s performance has become
the definitive on screen Dracula – and there can be no doubt that it’s Lugosi
who was almost single handidly responsible for today’s image of vampires as
suave seducers. It unfortunately
also meant that Lugosi, who wanted to play romantic, heroic leads, was doomed
to be forever typecast. A fact he acknowledged when he asked to be buried in his
Dracula costume! As for the rest
of the film, it’s more than a bit too stage bound, with the camera work and Tod Browning’s direction oddly static,
even for a film of the period. The acting’s mostly bland (apart from you know
who and a few others), but it scarcely mattered to audiences at the time.
Dracula was a massive box office success, convincing not just Universal but
most other studios that horror was where the money lay.

Sequels a-plenty followed
featuring not just the Count himself, but his offspring. (Dracula’s Daughter and Son
Of Dracula
are both well worth seeking out.) However there’s one
interesting addition to the Dracula story, which is included on the new Blu-ray
box set. In an era before subtitling or dubbing, if you wanted to make the same
movie in another language – that’s exactly what you had to do! So this disc
includes the Spanish language version of Dracula, made at the same time, (on
the night shift to Tod Browning’s day shift) on the same sets, but with a
completely different team working on it.
The truly remarkable thing is that this version is perhaps much better
than the English language one.
It’s half an hour longer, and uses that time well to build up more
atmosphere and fix quite a few plot holes. The acting and direction is stronger overall, except for
Dracula himself. Carlos Villar is no
Lugosi. But then who was?

Frankenstein (Main Picture)
Universal’s
bolt-necked, flat-topped movie Frankenstein Monster set the standard and
iconography for almost every film since – to the point where it’s eclipsed Mary Shelly’s original creation. The
role of the Monster was originally offered to Bela Lugosi, who turned it down.
In his place, an English stage actor called Boris Karloff, grabbed opportunity by the tailcoat. Sporting a
superb make-up job by Jack Pierce, Karloff’s Monster quickly became a screen legend. It’s his performance, though, that
won hearts and minds. Karloff’s creation is truly an innocent. He never asked to be bought into the
world and his ‘crimes’ are either acts of self-defence or accidents.

The focus on the Monster as
the outsider has often been seen as a reflection of Director James Whale’s
experiences of being singled and persecuted for being gay in an age of
intolerance. Whale brings a great sensitivity to proceedings, including set and
lighting designs influenced by German Expressionism, that build up far more
style and mood than Dracula accomplished.
Of particular note is the creation scene, where the monster is
‘born’. The sound, the lightning,
the SCIENCE. All building to the line “It’s Alive!” is pure
cinema. Dracula got the ball
rolling; Frankenstein knocked it out of the ballpark!

The Mummy

The traditional image of the Mummy is of some shuffling somnambulant, entirely
covered in bandages. And for the first few minutes of the film, Karloff The
Uncanny (as he’s credited) is exactly that. The rest of the time, as the re-animated Im-Ho-Tep, he is free from the
bandages, but still in a remarkable make-up job that truly makes him seem
utterly ancient, with skin like papyrus.
He’s also a proper character, a former high priest that’s trying to use
the power of the gods to bring back his long lost love. It’s an interesting film, though it does
borrow a lot from Dracula. There are a lot of similar story beats, actors
playing essentially the same characters, Swan Lake plays at the start … Despite this, it stands on its own, and
Karloff’s Mummy is a one of a kind.

Later Universal Mummy movies
aren’t really sequels as such as they follow a new story, with a completely
different mummy, Kharis, raised using mystic Tana leaves. In fact it’s The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse (and the inevitable Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy)
which established the Mummy archetype that’s persisted ever since. It’s also from these films that
many subsequent Mummy movies take their inspiration, although the 1999 action
movie Mummy and its sequel, The Mummy Returns, do borrow a
surprising amount from the Karloff original, and not just in terms of plot.

The Invisible Man

Based on H.G. Wells’ classic novel, this was a
major special effects triumph for the time, and a surprising number of effect
shots still hold up pretty well today.
For scenes of the partially invisible scientist, Griffin, complicated
shots of the actor in black, shot in front of a black background had to be
matted together. However, what was also important was that the titular
character shouldn’t be just a walking effect but a fully realised character –
and for that we can thank actor Claude
Rains
. He gives a magnificent
performance, mostly using his voice alone. In fact it’s notable that, of all the actors who played
Universal monsters, Rains had by far the most success outside the horror genre,
with classic roles in Casablanca
among other things.

This film’s subsequent
‘sequels’ proved to be surprisingly flexible affairs too. The only direct sequel in terms of storyline
was The Invisible Man Returns which
had a new titular character played by a young Vincent Price. Later
films went from the comedic Invisible
Woman
, the wartime propaganda, Invisible
Agent
, and of course Abbott &
Costello Meet The Invisible Man
(see a pattern forming?).

Bride Of Frankenstein

Notably the only sequel on this list, director James Whale and most of the cast
are re-united for his final horror film and the one over which he got the most
creative control. The end result
is not only far more emotionally charged than the first, with the monster being
pretty firmly the real protagonist, but it also showcases the sense of humour
Whale brought to his films. It’s
of a sort that might be termed today ‘camp’, a certain theatrical excess, which
can be seen in the new character Dr. Praetorious (wonderfully played by Ernest Thesiger) and quite a few other
side characters. But of course, it takes very seriously the Monster’s
journey. Emerging from the fiery climax
of the previous film (with an even better make-up job), the film follows the
Monster’s ongoing search for companionship and ultimately ‘a Bride’. The Bride herself, played by Elsa Lanchester, is another incredibly
memorable creation, even though she only appears for the very last sequence of
the film. With her mock Egyptian
hairdo and movements inspired by the swans in Hyde Park, despite her limited
time on screen, she leaves an undeniable impression, especially on the Monster
she was made for. It’s a shame
then that nothing more was really done with her after this, apart from the
not-quite remake The Bride in 1985.

As for the Monster, he still
had a healthy career ahead. Many
consider the third Frankenstein movie, Son
Of Frankenstein
to be the best in the franchise. It certainly was an important title and its 1939 release,
inspired by the success of a Dracula & Frankenstein double feature
re-issue, started the second main wave of Universal Horrors. It’s an impressive piece of work, with
perhaps Bela Lugosi’s best screen performance as Ygor, and Basil Rathbone in fine form in the titular role. It also marked
Karloff’s last turn as the monster.
The role later went through the hands of Bela Lugosi (Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man), Glenn Strange (House Of Frankenstein, House Of Dracula and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein) and Lon Chaney Jnr. (The Ghost
Of Frankenstein
). Speaking
of…

The Wolf Man

Lon Chaney Jnr. never meant to follow in his father’s footsteps but Hollywood
came calling. His build and
family name were perfect for the new wave of chillers Universal were making, so
the studio moulded Junior into a man like his father: A Man Of A Thousand Faces. Chaney played Universal’s Mummy Kharis
three times, Frankenstein’s Monster once, the titular Son Of Dracula, Alucard,
and, of course, his most famous role, the tormented Larry Talbot, The Wolf Man.

Universal first dabbled with
lycanthropy storylines with Henry Hull as The
Werewolf Of London
, although that had more of a Jekyll & Hyde
feel. Here, with a solid script by
Curt Siodmak, we get the tragic
figure of Larry Talbot, struggling with the beast within. As Talbot, Chaney is a likeable
everyman. As the Wolf Man, his feral, physical performance aided by Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up, is
terrific. In just one film, wolf man became so successful that he became a
fixture in all of Universal’s later monster crossovers, including the one that
started them all, Frankenstein Meets The
Wolf Man
. Of course, since
then werewolves have become ten-a-penny in horror films but note should be made
of the 2010 remake, that’s actually fairly underrated and is definitely made
with a lot of love for the original.

The Phantom Of The Opera

1925’s Phantom Of The Opera was a
massive success for Universal and, perhaps more than any other film, was the
movie that the original Man Of A Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney Snr. Was best
remembered for. It was a sumptuous
production that was extremely faithful to the original book, sporting a very
neat two-strip Technicolor segment and Chaney’s legendary make-up effects. The character, both in terms of look
and performance, deserves a place on any list of legendary movie monsters. Unfortunately, this isn’t the film
that’s included in the box set; that’s the 1943 version. The’ 40’s Phantom was,
again, another top-tier production, in full Technicolor, this time with
sound. It’s beautifully filmed,
using the sets from the original production, most of which still exist to this
day. However, this film is nowhere
near the quality of its predecessor.
Its biggest problem is the script, with completely dilutes Gaston Leroux’s original tale to the
point that it’s unrecognisable.
The Phantom (Claude Rains) gets a new backstory that’s suspiciously like
Batman’s enemy Two Face, who debuted the year before. This new story means that the character doesn’t make sense
anymore and he also gets a lot less screen time and less interaction with his
love, Christine (Susannah Foster).
The thing that really makes this movie a chore, though, is that there’s too
much singing! This may seem like
an odd thing to complain about with Phantom Of The Opera (especially in light
of the subsequent musical) but none of the songs reflect the plot or move it
along (so it doesn’t really work as a musical), and they go on and on for far
too long.

In the end, the Phantom
definitely belongs in Universal’s horror pantheon, although not this one. Thankfully, the Lon Chaney version got a Bluray re-release from Park Circus recently.
Hunt that one down!

The Creature From The Black Lagoon

Traditionally, the main Universal Monster Cycle is seen as finishing in the
late ‘40s and the Creature is very much a part of the ‘50s Atomic Age. Yet,
Gill Man definitely deserves his place on the list of classic Universal
Monsters in all the important respects.

Firstly, he’s iconic. There hadn’t been anything quite like
him on screen before, and there have been a lot of attempts to outdo him in the
years since (check out The Creature From
The Haunted Sea
). Also, he was
incredibly well realised, in and out of water, in amazing design and stunt
work. Of course, the main reason he’s a classic Universal monster is that he
spawned sequels: Revenge Of The Creature
and The Creature Walks Among Us. The former is only really notable for Clint Eastwood’s screen debut, and the
latter has a few interesting ideas, like the Gill Man forcibly made into an
air-breather. Sadly, so far, Gill
Man hasn’t had his big comeback although rumours of a remake have been around
since the early 80s. However, he
did appear alongside four other famous fiends (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man and the
Mummy) in Stan Winston special
effects glory in ‘80s kid horror favourite
The Monster Squad
.

In Memoriam…

Universal owes its horror titles a great debt of thanks and this bluray set
definitely reflects that. These
are (for the most part) great productions that shaped not just the early days
of cinematic horror but cast a shadow over pretty much every subsequent
creature feature. These characters
form a family of fear that were incredibly well realised and they deserve their
infamy. Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection on Blu-ray is
a must own and most of their sequels are well worth tracking down too, any time
you like to feel a chill down the spine.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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