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31 Days of Halloween – Universal Monsters

It's time to kick off the 31 Days of Halloween, and what better way to start than with a look at the most iconic screen monsters of all time?

Universal Monsters - Frankenstein

If you love Halloween as much as we do, then you’ve come to the right place! Welcome to CliqueClack Flicks’ 31 Days of Halloween.  All month long our coven of writers will dust off some of our favorite horror movies and discuss what makes them a seasonal favorite.

To kick off the month, we’ll start with what is arguably the movie famous and beloved collection of movie monsters ever committed to celluloid — the Universal Monsters: Dracula, Frankentstein, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man (the Creature from the Black Lagoon is often lumped in with this group, but the Gill Man didn’t come along for another 20 years).

Dracula (1931) was based on a stage play which was based on Bram Stoker‘s novel — the first official adaptation of the book (Nosferatu was, infamously, nearly erased from existence when Stoker’s widow sued for infringement on the material). The movie, like the play, cast the debonair Bela Lugosi in the title role — a departure from the novel’s tall, elderly man with the long white mustache — to give the Count more of an air of sophistication and smoldering sexuality. The better to mesmerize you and drain your blood. If reports are to be believed, the film was so frightening to audiences that woman were fainting in the aisles. Today, it’s a slow, stage bound adaptation of a stage play (a Spanish version filmed at night on the same sets is considered by many to be far superior to this classic). Frightening or not, it certainly holds its place in history as an iconic horror movie.

Universal really struck it rich with its adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and all the credit goes to director James Whale for his stunning visual style and his casting genius. This is the movie that made Boris Karloff a star, and unlike Lugosi, he managed to have a long, successful career (albeit, mostly in horror films) and is beloved by fans the world over. Besides Whale’s expert direction, Karloff’s performance lifts the Monster (mistakenly referred to by many as Frankenstein) from just a simple caricature to a creature with deep emotional turmoil. His iconic makeup scared the pants off of audiences in 1931, but they also felt sorry for the misunderstood creature as he plunged to his death in the flaming windmill at the end of the movie.

The movie was such a hit that Universal demanded a follow-up, so the Monster was resurrected (again) for The Bride of Frankenstein, which is considered to be one of the best monster movies ever made. Again, with Karloff’s performance, Whale’s directional influence (and Whale certainly managed to camp things up with some not very subtle homosexual subtext — two words: Ernest Thesiger) and the addition of Elsa Lanchester as both the Bride and Mary Shelly, this might actually be the first horror film with comedic overtones. Whether funny, scary or both, The Bride of Frankenstein is simply brilliant filmmaking all around.

Whale also contributed to another Universal classic, The Invisible Man, which featured Titanic‘s Gloria Stuart and made a star out of Claude Rains … even though he was hardly seen for the bulk of the movie. The film’s then state-of-the-art effects might look a little cheesy today, but it’s still an effective story of a man driven insane by his own scientific experiments.

The Universal Monsters stable also included The Wolfman and The Mummy. The Wolfman gave the son of the legendary horror icon Lon Chaney the role of a lifetime as the average Joe who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and got turned into a werewolf. Like Lugosi, Chaney Jr. was never able to capitalize on the success of his starring role and ended up a sad character actor in mostly Grade-Z movies in the 50s and 60s. The Mummy gave Karloff another role to sink his teeth into, and while his bandage-clad image is the one that it most indelible, he doesn’t spend the entire movie in that state. I’ll never forget seeing The Mummy on TV as a kid and falling asleep just as the mummy came to life in his sarcophagus, giving me some nightmares from only about five minutes of actual movie!

Universal knew they had a gold mine on their hands with these characters and milked them for all they were worth. There were several sequels to both Frankenstein and The Mummy, and spin-offs from Dracula, and when they ran out of ideas for a single monster, they decided to combine them in movies like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula (HoF is the better of the two). But, as time were changing and plots were getting to their limits (The Mummy somehow ended up in the swamps of Louisiana at one point!), Universal pretty much put the final nail in the monster series in 1948 with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The movie is a bona fide classic, but once the monsters became figures of ridicule, the cycle was over. Abbott and Costello would go on to “meet” Boris Karloff, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but by that point movie monsters were mutating — literally — into giant bugs as we entered the Atomic Age.

The Universal Monsters may not be frightening in our current day and age, but they are iconic and even now, if you turn down the lights and allow yourself to be transported back to that era (with the modern assist of a DVD player!), you still might feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck at the sight of Karloff, Lugosi and company. Go on, give it a try. What are you afraid of?



Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Categories: General, News

2 Responses to “31 Days of Halloween – Universal Monsters”

October 1, 2011 at 9:28 AM

. . . . .

For this monster lover, the hey day of Universal and its cadre of creatures is not complete without mention of 1954’s Creature From The Black Lagoon. True, he (it?) was part of the “second generation” of classic Universal monsters, but I give him his due just the same.

Side Note: I had the pleasure of meeting Bela Lugosi, Jr. at Comic-Con this past summer. Kind and terrific gentleman … the spittin’ image of his famous father.

Spiffy post, Chuck.

October 1, 2011 at 2:24 PM

Thank you, sir. Yes, the Gill Man is undeniably a part of Universal’s classic monster collection, but he’s not really one of the founding fathers like the guys from the 1930s. Of course, Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame really laid the groundwork for what became Universal’s niche in the 30s.

Very cool about meeting Lugosi Jr.! Jealous!

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