LATEST | FEATURES | INTERVIEWS | NEWS | FRIGHTFEST | REVIEWS Renowned Author and critic Kim Newman takes us on a nostalgic trip through Horror Channel's Classic Monster Marathon Day on Sunday 24 November.
By James Whittington, Tuesday 19th November 2019
When Universal Pictures secured the rights to Bram Stoker's Dracula, the property had just been made popular by a Broadway theatre adaptation. Stage star Bela Lugosi got his career-making (and-defining) gig as the Count ('I... am... Dracula') because Lon Chaney, star of Universal's silent Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame, had died and left a gap few thought anyone would ever fill. At the time, the industry classed Dracula as 'a mystery play', lumping it in with the old dark house spookiness of The Cat and the Canary. After the first talkie vampire became a big hit, folks started talking about 'horror films' and 'monster movies' - and the genre as we know it nearly ninety years later was founded. With Dracula as a template, studio head Carl Laemmle Jr looked around for other horror/monster properties, and a more versatile Chaney successor than Lugosi, then rushed Frankenstein into production, introducing Boris Karloff as the man-made monster.
Tod Browning's Dracula and James Whale's Frankenstein are director-led standalone pictures, so the first production line monster movie is The Mummy, a swift rewrite of Dracula crafted for the breakout star of Frankenstein and directed by cinematographer Karl Freund. Then came the brides, the sons, the houses, the team-ups, Abbott and Costello ...and new additions to the gang, like The Wolf Man - played by a literal next generation horror star, Lon Chaney Jr - in the 1940s and the Creature From the Black Lagoon in the 1950s. Reboots, homages, remakes and revisions come along regularly, and a wealth of merchandising (yes, I own a Phantom of the Opera mouth organ and a Creature From the Black Lagoon water pistol).
This very welcome day-long session on Horror Channel affords a chance to go back to where it started, to see classics as they were when new, when the fiends weren't yet domesticated by masks and costumes and toys ...to be reminded that, after all, these monsters really are universal.
Dracula (1931) My lifelong involvement with horror began with a 1970 screening of this film - and no matter how many times I see it, I get the same chills. I even love its stagey drawing room scenes, early talkie crudities and squeaky bats on strings. The opening reel is perfect, from the snatch of Swan Lake over the credits and the unlikely armadillo and giant bug scuttling around the tombs of the brides of Dracula. With Bela Lugosi modelling the black cloak/white tie look with spotlights for his hypnotic eyes and Dwight Frye matching him as the visitor driven mad by his experiences in Castle Dracula and turned into the Count's cringing, whining minion.
Frankenstein (1931) If Dracula is an almost accidental success, Frankenstein is an inspired, crafted work - it wrestles Mary Shelley's philosophical novel into fable-like simplicity and jazzes up the creation scenes with fizzing electrical gear and a gothic laboratory. James Whale, Boris Karloff and make-up maestro Jack P. Pierce are the real Frankensteins here - bringing to life a new, instantly classic character, who is heart-breaking and yet terrifying, a true innocent abused and thwarted and turned cruel. The story has been retold over and over, but this is the version that sticks in the mind - how many kids play Frankenstein at Halloween by putting on a Robert De Niro mask? The flat head, the forehead scar, the big boots, the donkey jacket, and the neck electrodes are add-ons, but it's Karloff's drawn, haunted face - especially his eyes - that sell the character.
The Mummy (1932) Though they looked to Edgar Allan Poe's "Black Cat" and H.G. Wells' Invisible Man, Universal began creating their own characters early in the horror cycle. The Mummy is inspired by tabloid stories about the curse of Tutankhamun and borrows its monster-seeks-reincarnation-of-lost-love theme from "She" (later, that would be added on to many Dracula adaptations). Its plot owes a lot to Dracula as the prologue wakes up another immortal predator who fixates on the heroine, with Edward Van Sloan reprising his role as a Van Helsing type who faces off against Karloff's reanimated mummy Imhotep. Jack P. Pierce again created a lasting, classic look for a monster - the wrinkled parchment face (again enlivened when Karloff's liquid eyes open), the bandage bodystocking - and amid all the pulp adventure there's a whiff of proper ancient magic.
The Wolf Man (1941) Jack P. Pierce devised a werewolf makeup for The Werewolf of London (1935) that star Henry Hull refused to wear, but when Universal decided to have another go at this particular monster eager-to-please, Lon Chaney Jr was willing to be buried in yak hair and fitted with fangs and claws. Set in a strangely Hollywood idea of Wales, the film has Lugosi literally pass on the curse of horror stardom to Chaney Jr, playing the gypsy who bites Larry Talbot (Chaney) and turns him into the Wolf Man. Mists pool in dark woods, psychological sub-texts are talked up, a classy supporting cast (including Claude Rains and the unforgettable Dame Maria Ouspenskaya) chips in, and the snarling man-beast prowls under the full moon. Like most great monster movies, The Wolf Man is in the end a tragedy - a man unleashes his true nature and dies for it.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) After Abbott and Costello had met (and made fun of) Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Mummy - and, more to the point, World War II and the dawn of the atom age made the old creatures seem quaint, Universal stayed in the monster game with a run of terrific science fiction films (mostly directed by Jack Arnold). The Gill Man, a prehistoric fish-human evolutionary byway, was designed by Millicent Patrick, and played underwater by sinuous swimmer Ricou Browning. The film has moments of dread and poetry and strange sexiness - an underwater ballet as the creature lurks beneath white-swim suited pin-up Julia Adams - but also exhibits a new, appropriate savagery (especially apparent in 3D) that shows even as decades change, the monsters refuse to be tamed.
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