Tom Recommends: The Universal Horror Classics

Gabbing Geek Tom Recommends v2

Horror movies are probably about as old as the movie industry itself.  Thomas Edison made one, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.  That movie no longer exists aside from a few frames, but that was hardly the last time something creepy, evil, and murderous would show up on the silver screen to threaten others.

Universal Studios perhaps invented much of the modern horror genre.  Producer Carl Laemmle Jr., son of the studio’s owner, oversaw much of them, and even if the movies may seem stale or silly by today’s horror standards, these films created the classic look of many monsters that every incarnation since is held up to as well as making household names for many of the actors who played said monsters.

Sadly, these guys did not all appear in the same film.
Sadly, these guys did not all appear in the same film.

General consensus states Universal began its horror series with a couple silent films in the 1920s.  Many starred Lon Chaney Sr., most notably as the Phantom of the Opera.  Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, would appear first as a “talkie,” with Boris Karloff’s memorable take on Frankenstein’s monster appearing sometime later.  These movies left indelible impressions on audiences then and now.  Most any portrayal of Dracula will perhaps inevitably be compared to Lugosi sooner or later.  The same holds true with Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster.

Except, neither Lugosi nor Karloff were the only actors to portray these characters during the heyday of this horror run.  Both films earned multiple sequels, but Lugosi would play Dracula on the big screen only twice.  Interestingly, Lugosi’s two turns as Dracula were from his first and his final big studio movies, namely the original Dracula and then later for Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

As for Karloff, he only wore the familiar monster make-up three times.  Though the man had a certain affection for the character, he did manage to give himself a permanent back injury filming the first one during a scene where the monster tosses his creator across a room.  Offered a chance to likewise revise his famous character for the above-mentioned Abbot and Costello movie, Karloff declined…though he would appear in a different Abbot and Costello movie later, one titled Abbot and Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff.

This is not to say the two men were not part of the horror films.  Indeed, Karloff would play a mad scientist in House of Frankenstein, while Lugosi would play the monster himself for one film, and the broken-necked, twisted, evil shepherd Ygor in a pair of Frankenstein sequels.  Lugosi would also appear as a cursed gypsy briefly in The Wolf-Man, while Karloff would portray the Mummy in its first outing before that role would pass on to other actors.

If there was a workhorse in these films’ casts, it was actor Lon Chaney Jr., following in his father’s footsteps.  He would be the only actor to play the Wolf-Man, as well as the only actor to play Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the Mummy.

Side note:  Chaney’s Dracula movie isn’t very good.

Rounding out the famous monsters, there’s still the Invisible Man, originally voiced by Claude Rains in a star-making turn, the Bride of Frankenstein as the lone female, and finally the not-at-all human Creature from the Black Lagoon.

That’s a lot of monsters.  Funny thing is, much of what ended up onscreen had to be made up for the movies themselves.  Mary Shelly never said how, exactly, Dr. Frankenstein gave life to his creature, or what it looked like.  Bram Stoker kept Dracula as a character who only appeared sporadically, and there was no mention of whether or not he wore a cape.  Old werewolf legends just said a man would be turned into a wolf for one reason or another.  Everything about the full moon, how a person becomes a werewolf, silver, wolfsbane, and everything else was invented for the movie.

Heck, the Bride of Frankenstein isn’t even a character in Shelley’s novel.  She appears in all of maybe five minutes in Bride of Frankenstein, the rare sequel to surpass the original, and still she made an impression enough on audiences to become an easily recognizable figure.

A bunch of years ago, I invested in a few DVD sets of the Universal Horror series.  None of the silent ones were available, but it was fascinating to see the characters evolve.  Not all the movies were very good.  Dracula’s first movie is fine, the Spanish-language one filmed simultaneously was actually a bit better, but until the final film (House of Dracula with John Carradine playing the count), there’s not much worth mentioning.  The Wolf-Man seemed to mostly bounce around as a supporting monster in other horror sequels.  Heck, the Wolf-Man meeting Frankenstein’s monster may have created the concept of the combined universe long before the Avengers arrived on big screens.  One movie on its set was a horrible movie, barely an hour, called The She-Wolf of London, and featured a young June Lockhart who thought she was a werewolf.  She wasn’t.  Nobody was, actually.  It was all a gyp.  I couldn’t even make a, “She played Lassie once too!” quip.

Most interesting was the Invisible Man series.  The studio was a bit smitten with the “invisibility” effect, and used it in all manner of movies.  Besides the original horror film and the two straight horror sequels, there was also a pretty good comedy (The Invisible Woman), and  a rather bad propaganda spy film made in the middle of World War II (The Invisible Agent).  Modern audiences seeing the last one may be frustrated knowing what Nazis were really like, but seeing their more cartoonish antics seemed very wrong to me.  It probably didn’t help that I was reading the novel for Schindler’s List at the time.

As for the Mummy and the Creature, one usually had problems when someone remembered linen bandages were flammable, and the other wouldn’t have bothered anyone if they’d just left him alone.  Plus, The Creature of the Black Lagoon has a nice, almost certainly unintended, environmental subtext going on.

None of these movies are probably what anyone would consider scary today.  They thrived on atmosphere and imagination.  Why show a death when someone can find an off-screen corpse and say that something horrible happened to that person, leaving it entirely up to the audience to fill in the blanks?  These films set standards for horror that are still used today.  The creatures as depicted in these films are more memorable to mass audiences than they ever were in their original source material.  That alone should merit these characters a look from any aspiring film geek.

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