Welcome to Psycho Drive-In’s 31 Days of Schlocktober celebration! This year we’ve decided to present the ABCs of Horror, with entries every day this month providing Director information, Best-of lists, Genre overviews, and Reviews of films and franchises, all in alphabetical order! Today brings us U is for Universal Monsters! Long before Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, and Leatherface were hacking up teenagers on the big screen, there was another cadre of horror heroes: The Universal Monsters! Beginning in the silent era and continuing through the 1950s, the monsters created by Universal entered our cultural experience and their likenesses have appeared on Broadway, Saturday Morning Television, sitcoms and even breakfast cereal. The monsters popularized by Universal have been gentrified to the point where they barely register as frightening. Unless you go back to the original source; the films themselves. If you’ve already been desensitized to violence and terror by the “torture porn” of contemporary horror movies, then these films will seem tame. But get past the expectation of gore and, instead, focus on the craft of early horror. Open yourself up to the innovators of the genre and realize that you are witnessing the origination of tropes that have long since become cliché. Introduce them to your children if they begin to show an interest in the macabre. Let them know that Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man aren’t just stickers you find in a box of fruit snacks. Watch these films through innocent eyes and know that what might seem mundane can still be scary. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) More gothic romance than horror, The Hunchback provides us with a “monster” nevertheless. Adapted from Victor Hugo’s classic novel of the same name, The Hunchback gives us the story of Quasimodo, the doomed bell-ringer in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and his ill-fated love for Esmerelda, a gypsy dancer. This was the watershed movie for Universal in 1923 and became their most successful silent film. No other movie, save Intolerance in 1916, could compare with the scale of Hunchback’s setting. That aside, the reason the movie is still lauded today is Lon Chaney. A well-respected character actor, Lon Chaney became a star after his portrayal of Quasimodo. Chaney was film’s first make-up genius as he created his own effects and would continue to do so throughout his career. On top of his technical prowess, Chaney could act! Yes, it’s a little over the top but that was the technique of the day. Silent stars came from theatre and Vaudeville backgrounds where exaggeration was typical. Chaney took it to a new level with his physicality as Quasimodo. He embodied the role completely with a dynamism that has never been equaled. No, the Hunchback isn’t scary but it was Universal’s first attempt with a grotesque as the star. The Phantom of the Opera (1925) Ok, here we go! Again, Universal has one foot planted in gothic romance but this time the other foot is shoved right up horror’s caboose. Lon Chaney transforms himself into The Phantom with such deft genius that it was hard to believe he was the same actor from the Hunchback. Using wires, putty, and fake teeth, Chaney’s face becomes a horror. There are several stories that revolve around the make-up. On such claims that Chaney’s co-star, Mary Philbin’s reaction to the Phantom’s reveal is genuine since she wasn’t allowed to see Chaney in make-up until the scene was shot. Another involves cinematographer Charles Van Enger. As the story goes, Van Enger was called to Chaney’s dressing room under false pretenses. When he entered, Chaney was standing there in full make-up and Van Enger fell over a stool in fright. The make-up was only part of The Phantom’s success. Chaney brought a blend of maniacal energy and quiet supremacy to the role. The film was beautifully shot and the grand, looming shadows add to the horror. After this film, Universal committed to the monster. Dracula (1931) There isn’t anything I could say about Tod Browning’s Dracula that hasn’t already been said (waaaaaay better) by Psycho Drive-In’s own, Sean Reid. His review can be found right here. Frankenstein (1931) I’ve already gone on (and on and on) about Frankenstein earlier this month. If I do it again, my editor may kill me. You can find that column here. The Mummy (1932) After Lon Chaney’s death in 1930, Universal needed an actor that could handle himself in make-up and embody the horrific. They found Boris Karloff and movie magic was made. Karloff didn’t have Chaney’s energy but, for the roles he played, he didn’t really need it. As Imhotep, Karloff plays a shambling, reanimated corpse with every bit the silent strength that made Frankenstein such a success. Later in the film, he portrays a fully fleshed Ardath Bey (Imhotep in disguise) and begins a plot to resurrect his ancient love Ankh-es-en-amon. Karloff is brilliant and menacing in both guises. The film itself feels slow by today’s standards, lacking those “cat jumping out of nowhere” moments but it is a very solid and entertaining movie. The character of The Mummy is one of the most recognized of all the Universal monsters. Number 3 in the Big 4. The Invisible Man (1933) He’s the monster you can’t even see and that might make him the most frightening of all. Claude Rains plays Jack Griffin, a scientist who creates an experiment that turns him invisible. Rains is perfect as a man on the edge as he falls farther and farther into madness. Rather than depend on deep shadows to create suspense, The Invisible Man goes right for the throat with special effects. Griffin’s reveal as he removes his bandages, underscored by his deranged laughter, was amazing for 1933. Today, the same effect can be created digitally by anyone with a Smart Phone. Back then, it was chemistry, patience, innovation, and sweat. The picture of a man in a robe, wearing dark glasses, and his face covered in bandages means you might not be all by yourself in that empty room. Universal gave us that. Werewolf of London (1935) This movie plays second fiddle to its younger brother made six years later but I find it to be a fantastic film in its own right. Henry Hull portrays Dr. Glendon, a botanist who is bitten by a werewolf during an expedition in Tibet. A rare flower that grows there provides the only means to keep his transformation in check. Glendon is a member of London’s high society and his wife has her eyes on a younger man. Glendon’s ability to contain his bestial nature coincides with his dissolving marriage and truly sets this film apart from the more famous movie to follow. The werewolf Glendon transforms into is more intelligent and scheming, giving the movie a Jekyll and Hyde feel. As for the first transformation itself; it’s breathtaking. Glendon transforms, bit by bit, as he is walking behind several pillars. Beautiful filmmaking. His werewolf is more human than later movie versions, sporting a look that the X-Men’s Wolverine would make famous. Universal did it first. The Wolf Man (1941) I was introduced to The Wolf Man via Abbott and Costello during a Saturday afternoon TV show called “Supe’s On!” that was available in central Ohio. It was your typical, low rent “kiddie” show that featured a double bill of old movies, usually classic horror flicks, along with a few Three Stooges shorts in between, all brought to you by Superhost, played by Marty Sullivan who was a fill-in news anchor at station WUAB. After Saturday Morning cartoons, there I was in my Woody Woodpecker jammies, half-eaten bowl of cereal at my side, floored by Lon Chaney, Jr.’s transformation into the Wolf Man. Superhost introduced me to most of the Universal Monsters but The Wolf Man was my favorite. Lon Chaney, Jr had a tough time of it in Hollywood, over-shadowed by his genius father, but he had some chops as evidenced in 1939’s Of Mice and Men. When he was given the role of Larry Talbot in the Wolf Man, he became an American icon. In the film, Talbot returns to his family home in Wales and is attacked by a gypsy who has transformed into a werewolf. Throughout the movie, Chaney Jr plays a haunted and haggard soul, fearful of the murderous rampage that occurs when he transforms. The transformations are wonderful for their day and Chaney Jr, a large man in real life, is a scary, loping Wolf Man. Lots of fog and dreary sets add to the tension this movie provides. The creature design is perfect, just the right blend of beast and man, much more feral than Werewolf of London. To me, the allure of The Wolf Man is the randomness of the infliction. Like a blood-borne disease, you can catch it from a bite and the rest is inevitable. It can happen to anyone. Even a little kid watching TV in his jammies. Thanks, Universal. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) While The Wolf Man might be my favorite Universal Monster, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is the creation I find most impressive. What a beautiful, horrible monster! The Creature is an ancient fish-man who has lived, undisturbed, in a lagoon in the Amazon. After a strange fossil is found, a group of archeologists hire a boat to explore the fossil’s origins. When they enter the Black Lagoon, they are faced with a fight for their lives against The Creature. It’s a slow build to get to the Creature’s reveal. For a while, it’s just the same shot of a clawed hand reaching out from the water. When we finally see the Creature in full figure, it’s magnificent. Even more amazing is that many of his scenes are underwater. The photography during the underwater fight scenes is phenomenal. During one of the first sequences where we see the Creature for the first time, he is swimming below Julie Adams, who plays Kay Lawrence. The shots are so beautiful it’s easy to forget that the moment could turn deadly but the film always brings you a feeling of dread. The Creature is the last of the popular, classic Universal Monsters and, easily, the most visually striking. Perhaps the horror icons of today will become as loved and revered as the Universal Monsters but I doubt it. There was something magical about these creatures that flourished in a film system that was so restricted on content. They couldn’t show blood and gore. They weren’t really allowed to “win” as each creature was overcome by men at the end of the movies. But it was the tight rules that forced the creators to invent more subtle ways of providing horror and designing monsters that could carry a movie with such restrictions. Universal was the best in their genre. In my opinion, they still are. See larger image Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray] New From: $45.69 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.