Universal Monsters are the Greek Chorus of the horror genre. The original films that spawned them are almost secondary to their current kitsch-infused celebrity status. They’re a constant wellspring of self-reference, self-deprecation, and creative reinterpretation. Universal Studio’s original, iconic take on classic literary characters like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, plus their own signature contributions like the Wolf Man and Creature From the Black Lagoon, virally invaded the cultural mainstream from the moment of their inception, and to varying degrees, they haven’t ever left. They remain the perennial stars of cheap pre-packaged Valentine’s Day cards, plastic-smelling vinyl Halloween masks, forgettable TV specials, and pompous cinematic re-emaginings to this very day.
Both I, Frankenstein and The Black Lagoon are supposedly slated for theatrical play later next year, and The Wolfman and Dracula have both been remade during the past two years, the latter by none other than eccentric horror film demigod Dario Argento. Spanning the period from the late silent era to the early ‘50s 3-D craze, Universal’s original monster films are hit-and-miss, with a few films standing the test of time and others diminished greatly by age.
What stands out today, more than anything, are the strength of the films’ performers, who like the characters they created have successfully staked an undying claim in the public consciousness. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr. and Sr. in particular are remembered as much for the nuanced humanity and pathos they brought to the grotesque characters they portrayed as for the singular eeriness and menace those same characters evoked.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
With a background in stage drama and Vaudeville, the senior Chaney is better remembered for his rendition of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera two years later, but his similarly deformed and tragically pathological take on Victor Hugo’s Hunchback in 1923 deserves recognition, not only as a highlight of Chaney’s career, but because it’s generally considered the first entry in Universal’s monster canon. Hunchback is more of a tragic romance than a straight-up horror film, but its darker elements and the truly painful contortions of its lead actors face and body inspired a powerful combination of revulsion, fear, and pity in contemporary audiences. Although it drags occasionally, Hunchback is for the most part surprisingly entertaining and fast-paced, especially for a silent film.
Though Boris Karloff had established himself in previous films as a solidly reliable and occasionally exceptional character actor, Frankenstein was the film that would secure his status as an enduring icon of the genre. Though the monster’s presentation is less dimensional in James Whale’s original film than in his 1935 follow-up, the film is notable not just for establishing Karloff, but for establishing the monster’s signature look – the bolted neck, flattened skull and broad shoulders that have become so inextricably associated with Shelley’s character in the popular consciousness date back to this particular visual interpretation, with previous filmic translations (such as Edison’s, in 1918) depicting the monster entirely differently.
Despite being directed by the often-entertaining Tod Browning, Dracula is actually one of the most unfortunately stilted and badly executed of the early Universal films, possibly because the director was not yet fully comfortable working with sound. Bela Lugosi, natch, is the one whose career was established so solidly here, and it’s easy to understand how his stiff, hypnotic delivery captivated audiences. Though not with Universal, Lugosi would go on the following year to star in White Zombie, widely considered the first zombie film ever made. He would also appear in several lesser roles for Universal and others before being unfortunately relegated to a string of B-movies unworthy of his talents toward the end of his career.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Having already appeared in several high-profile genre roles following the success of Universal’s original feature-length Frankenstein (including Universal’s similarly popular and influential The Mummy in 1932), Karloff reprised the role that made him famous in an unofficial continuation of Shelley’s story, once again directed by Whale. Although Elsa Lanchester’s bookended performances as the monster’s bride and his real-life creator, Mary Shelley, are memorable and woefully underrated, the meat of the film is an emotional exploration of the monster’s tragically isolated reality. The new layers of humanity Karloff brings to the character, portraying him as a vulnerable and confused victim of mindless persecution, give the film distinctive emotional resonance. Whale also went out on a limb in a few sequences to incorporate religious parables, which are occasionally forced, but ultimately cement the movie’s themes regarding the inhumanity of the masses, and the potential for individual transcendence through self-sacrifice.
The Wolf Man (1941)
Following in the footsteps of his father, The Wolf Man features Lon Chaney Jr. as a hapless newcomer to a superstitious small town obsessed with ancient folk legends. In addition to Chaney, the film features Claude Rains, best remembered for his starring role in Universal’s The Invisible Man. Lugosi also makes an appearance, playing a doomed gypsy fortune teller. The film’s transformation effects were done with time-lapse photography, and although they appear primitive by modern standards, at the time of the film’s release they appeared revolutionary and shocking. Chaney Jr.’s performance isn’t as refined as his father’s painful, grippingly tragic filmography, but he’s a compelling and tragic figure nonetheless.
The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
Creature was one of the first films to be shot and marketed in 3-D, and was directed by B-movie master Jack Arnold. The creature was an original creation of Universal, unlike most of the iconic monsters, who were adapted from literature. Chronicling the attempts of a team of fictional scientists to locate, capture, and study a mysterious half-man half-fish whose traces have been found in the Amazon, Creature is a relatively fast-paced monster movie, and helped usher in the ‘50s era of gleefully celebrated rubber monsters. It’s less emotionally nuanced than many earlier entries, with the personal motivations of the monster being explored only superficially, but it’s still a fun and entertaining example of fledgling monster cinema.
Come back next week for an all-new installment of Terror Cult!