LATEST | FEATURES | INTERVIEWS | NEWS | FRIGHTFEST | REVIEWS Universal Monsters are back on Horror Channel and Kim Newman is here to tell you all about them
By James Whittington, Thursday 14th October 2021
Respected journalist, film critic, and fiction writer Kim Newman takes us through the Universal monsters joining Horror for our Classic Horror Halloween event running from 30th-31st of October.
With Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Wolf Man (1941) and The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), Universal Pictures introduced the lasting icons of horror... combining the presence of stars Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr with the make-up artistry of Jack P. Pierce (except for the Creature who came later in the day and was designed by the extraordinary Millicent Patrick ). These are the genre's cornerstone fiends, and - despite the way they have been domesticated and parodied (notably in The Munsters), the original films retain the power to instil terror, awe, pity and reverence. These are the films where the story starts...
But another thing Universal more or less invented was the sequel. Decades before Marvel decided to have a Cinematic Universe, Universal decided that all their monster films were interconnected and a night would come when Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Monster would prowl together (until they ran into Abbott and Costello, which is another story). One or two silent monsters had mini-franchises - there were three Golem movies, though only one survives - but we never saw Son of Nosferatu, Bride of Dr Caligari or The Phantom of the Opera Returns.
Initially, Universal opted for follow-ups rather than sequels... after Dracula, they made Frankenstein. The reasoning was that the main acts died in their first films. It took a few years to realise monsters probably couldn't die in any lasting sense - even if they were irrevocably turned to dust, they might still have relatives around to take over the business of terrorising unwary souls who crossed their paths.
Horror Channel's Classic Horror Halloween Weekend includes Channel premieres of some of the greatest follow-ons of all time.
The Invisible Man (1933) The Invisible Man pops up (played by Vincent Price) in the tag scene of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, confirming that he's a part of the monsterverse - though his screen career is an odd mix of science fiction, horror, humour, heroism (in Invisible Agent, he's a Nazi-fighting proto-superhero) and villainy. James Whale's The Invisible Man, based on the novel by H.G. Wells, was the last of Universal's first slate of monster movies and a special effects showcase which is imitated by every invisible man movie down to the recent reboot. Claude Rains gives raspy voice to the megalomaniac title character, sometimes under bandages and dark glasses (and a disturbing false nose) and sometimes as an unseen presence. His misdeeds range from mischief like stealing a postman's bicycle and tweaking noses to wholesale murder (by crashing a train, the Invisible Man racks up a bigger body count than Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and the Mummy put together).
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) The first great horror sequel, this is also a sly send-up, shot through by director James Whale with satirical, camp, sacrilegious and whimsical humour even as it delves even more deeply into the nastily grotesque. The Monster (Karloff) survives the burning mill of the first film and wanders through the countryside one clumping step ahead of the angry mob, only to fall in with a blind hermit who teaches him rudimentary speech ('bread, gooood ... fire, baad') and the pleasures of friendship and cigars. Dr Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is tempted back into the mad science business by the supremely eccentric Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who thinks a suitable challenge would be the creation of a mate for the Monster. In the finale, we meet Elsa Lanchester as another indelible Jack Pierce creation, the shock-haired bride.
The Mummy's Hand (1940) Though it lifts Egyptian flashback footage from the 1932 movie, The Mummy's Hand isn't strictly a sequel but a reboot. It is, in fact, the template for almost all later mummy movies, with a linen-wrapped thug limping after those who have dared violate the sacred tomb and screaming victims backed into a corner to be strangled. Unwary archaeologists Dick Foran and Wallace Ford, not to mention stage magician Cecil Kellaway and his hotcha assistant Peggy Moran, trespass in the tomb of Princess Ananka and the fez-wearing high priest (George Zucco) doses up the living mummy Kharis (Western star Tom Tyler) with a brew of 'tana leaves' that keep him stumbling and invokes the curse whereby all the infidels must die. Whereas The Mummy is a romantic supernatural melodrama on the model of Dracula, The Mummy's Hand is a lively adventure movie - this is where that Brendan Fraser version got its tone - with thrills, spills, laughs, and a bandaged bogeyman.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) Grave-robbers disturb the resting place of werewolf Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr), who returns to life and travels to middle Europe in the hope that the surviving notebooks of Dr Frankenstein hold the secret of curing his affliction. This was the first great team-up monster movie, simultaneously a direct sequel to The Wolf Man, in which Chaney Jr created his most lasting monster character, and The Ghost of Frankenstein, in which he had taken over from Boris Karloff as the flat-headed, big-booted Frankenstein Monster. Since Chaney couldn't play both title roles, it was a clever, if ironic casting stroke to put Bela Lugosi, who missed out on playing the Monster in the 1931 film that made Boris Karloff a star, into the make-up. Silly but enormous fun, complete with gypsy musical numbers and a battle royal finish as the monsters rip each other apart while some loon dynamites the dam and the castle is swept away in a flood.
Return of the Creature (1954) In the 1950s, Universal retired their gothic monsters and concentrated on science fiction fiends - the mutant of This Island Earth, The Mole People, Tarantula! But only one of this generation earned sequels, and approached the iconic status of Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, and company. The Creature From the Black Lagoon was such a hit that the Gill-Man, sinuously played underwater by swimmer Ricou Browning, was revived for a follow-up in which he was kidnapped from his South American habitat and transplanted to a Florida aqua park for study... only to resent captivity and rampage again. Returning director Jack Arnold stages plenty of action and remembers to include those odd lyrical moments that - as Guillermo del Toro's virtual remake The Shape of Water bears out - make the Creature one of the oddly sexiest monsters in the menagerie. Watch for a tiny bit by young hopeful Clint Eastwood as a lab assistant.
Related show tags: -, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, RETURN OF THE CREATURE, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY'S HAND, THE WOLF MAN MORE ARTICLES Stagefright to be released thanks to Shameless
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