Tuesday, 2 October 2012

A Tribute to the Classic Universal Monsters

A recent (like, a year ago, tops) discussion with some fellow film fans revealed that not everyone thinks that the classic monster films of Universal in the 1930's and 40's are as cracking as I do. Sure, those films are iconic in their imagery and widely recognized as essential building blocks of horror as a genre. But their sometimes slow-moving pace and theatrical acting don't appeal to everybody.

Since we celebrate the studio's 100th anniversary this year and Halloween's a-coming, I'll take a chance to say a few words about why I dig these movies. True, it's mostly due to several brilliant directors such as James Whale and Tod Browning, but there's just something about Universal's horror movies in general which appeals to me.

Bela Lugosi's Dracula is a perfect mix of fascinating sexuality and the underlying threat of that.

True, the films are somewhat old-fashioned. But in that lies also their greatest strength. For the basic thing about Universal's monsters are that they are films about being different and out-of-place. It is easier to sympathize with the monsters, often expressing some pretty human desires and goals, than with their narrow-minded, old-fashioned conservative mindsets. When the crime of being true to oneself and just wanting some love gets the monster destroyed in the end, it's not too far-fetched to see some of these stories as much like Greek tragedies.

A gifted hero grows too ambitious, goes mad and to his downfall, like Claude Rains's Invisible Man.

Of course this was also at the point where movies serialized and every subsequent effort either undid the emotional punch of the first ones, or went to really weird and unexpected places, such as the Frankenstein sequels. But I'd rather take brain-switching antics and Ygor over House of Frankenstein-style ill-advised anthologies.

As mentioned, the sexuality of the monsters is also a strong underlying theme. One of the reasons so many sequels were so boring was that censorship, too much political correctness and understanding made them wishy-washy. The real classics pushed the limit as much as was available to hint during those chastise days. The Bride of Frankenstein even has a fair amount of hinting at the society's handling of homosexuals, which is a radical idea for the time. And it did it with much more grace than any X-Men movie, trying out similar metaphors.

Dr. Pretorius is as camp as they come.

As a child, of course the major draw to these movies was the iconic look of these monsters, replicated, redone and slapped into memorabilia since time immortal. It's hard to imagine Frankenstein's monster that doesn't look like Karloff nowadays (Everyone picks him over Robert DeNiro for a good reason). This look was created by a string of very talented artists (in the case of Frankenstein, make up artist and stunt man Jack Pierce. How's that combo for a balance of the masculine and the feminine?). As a contrast, nobody remembers what the zombies looked on the contemporary, also smart horror film I Walked With A Zombie, for instance.

This bolt-neck however is one of the most iconic characters in the world. Up there with Mickey Mouse and Angry Birds.
If I went into the films to see iconic characters, I stayed for the gothic athmosphere. Lonely castles on hilltops, misty moors, gypsy caravans, mad doctor's lairs. These things basically created your basic horror imagery from scratch, and even though they are clearly studio sets, this creates a sense that something is afoul and a bit wrong in the worlds of these films. a it should. Sadly, the budget for the sets and props also diminished with time and a lot of stuff was recycled from one movie to another. As you may guess, the films that created new things were the ones that stuck to my mind.

Universal's films are frank and theatrical, focusing on the main attraction and building everything around it. Plot-wise, the films adapted some very famous horror novels but cut a lot of corners in their storytelling. While it's sad that a proper adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein still lets fans await for itself, Universal's loose version is a true corker, and a true classic to boot. At it's core the Universal movies are easy morality stories, with a good, a bad and an ugly character duking it out. Often there are curses, magic or other supernatural forces that prevent or limit the lives of the characters.

Karloff's Mummy only appears like this for one scene. But the horrible magic that brought him back to life is apparent in every scene.

But the ideas are certainly not hard to gasp by even the youngest viewers. Since the scariness of the stories has long since vanished, they even work as a sort of gateway drug to horror enthusiasm, as dozens of gifted filmmakers born since the 1930's can testify. Come for the cuddly creatures, stay for the gothic worlds.

While the main plot was simple, the subtext was heavy and the visions strong. The high-quality workers on the job of these movies gave life to films by even lower-quality directors, such as the original Wolf Man or The Mummy. Sets, lights, make up, costumes, the right mood and character actors salvage a lot. For major studio films, Universal's horror pictures still feel artistic in their dream-like visions told.

Karloff's Frankenstein with some much appreciated me-time.

In the end, Universal cranked out the films maybe a tad too many (one idea can only last so long) and usually the more sequels got made, the worse they got. But the studio did show to be creative with their large back catalogue of iconic characters until at least the turn of the millennium. Say what you will about Hollow Man, but having Paul Verhoeven remake The Invisible Man as an erotic thriller was a ballsy move from the studio. It's sad to see they've lost their touch, churning dreck like Van Helsing and the new Wolf Man nowadays. But still, the old monster movies of Universal should be watched and appreciated by film fans still today.

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