Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Film Appreciation - The Universal Monster Legacy

Guest contributor Rich Stange returns to celebrate the classics in this edition of Film Appreciation.

For over 80 years now, the Universal Classic Monster films have been scaring, thrilling, and entertaining audiences. Inspired by the early silent films of Germany such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, Universal Studios jumped into the monster mayhem with such classics as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, both starring Lon Chaney as the title characters, whom also did his own makeup. In 1931, Universal Studios released their first talking horror (or monster) film; Dracula. It would not be until 1956 when Universal would release their third and final film in the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy, titled The Creature Walks Among Us, that they would finally close the coffin lid on an era. This era which lasted from 1931 through 1956 would be known to most film historians as the Universal Classic Monster era.

It is difficult to categorize these films specifically as horror films. They are horror, fantasy, action adventure, comedy, and suspense. These films transcend any one particular genre, so they are just simply the Universal Classic Monsters.

Universal Studios released six Universal Classic Monster Legacy Collection DVDs back in 2004: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. These are definitive DVD collections that collect all 27 films of the classic Universal Monster franchise. Using these DVD releases as a guide, we will appreciate this wonderful era of film together. 

Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, just might be THE most classic film ever made. It offered atmosphere like none other. Film historian David J. Skal has called this era of film "Hollywood Gothic" and there is no film which better fits that bill than Dracula. The Spanish Version of Dracula was a longer film and looked better from a technical standpoint. The first sequel in this series came out in 1936, called Dracula’s Daughter, a straight sequel to the first film. Countess Zeleska continues her father’s legacy in this gothic film with strong lesbian undertones. In the early '40s, Lon Chaney Jr. played Count Alucard (spell it backwards) in Son of Dracula. Lon Chaney Jr. was a great actor and very authoritative in his role as the vampire.


Frankenstein from 1931 was Universal’s second monster film ever made. Boris Karloff and Colin Clive’s performances, along with James Whale’s direction, are what made Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein the classics they are today. Boris Karloff returned to play The Monster one last time in Son of Frankenstein, while Lon Chaney Jr. would take over as the big green guy in The Ghost of Frankenstein. The most noteworthy performances in those two films, however, would be Bela Lugosi as Ygor.

Universal started their werewolf films in 1936 with the film called Werewolf of London, starring Henry Hull as the title character. This film is said to have originally been written as a Jekyll and Hyde film, but it was reworked as a werewolf film and is amazingly underrated. The signature werewolf film would be released in 1941. The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. in his signature role as Larry Talbot, is THE single greatest werewolf film ever made. In the mid-'40s, Universal would make a side story type film which played out as more of a mystery, called She-Wolf of London.

After those three series of films, Universal would then make an amazing trilogy of crossovers in which multiple monster characters feature in one film. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was more of a straight-up sequel to The Wolf Man, but featuring Bela Lugosi as The (worst of the series) Frankenstein Monster. Then we had Boris Karloff return to the monster movies as a mad scientist in House of Frankenstein. House of Dracula would then demonstrate science being utterly powerless against the cold hard supernatural.

Jack Pierce did an amazing job on every stage of Boris Karloff’s makeup in The Mummy. The scene where the creature opens his eyes while in the coffin in the very beginning is very scary, even today. This film was rebooted as The Mummy’s Hand. The concept was reworked into a story about the mummy staying a wrapped-up walking zombie, which is what people think of as a mummy. Lon Chaney Jr. would play the title role three times in these fun films: The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse.

James Whale brought the immortal classic tale by H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man, to the screen in 1933, using special effects still used in film to this day! Claude Rains provided the voice of the invisible one. This film produced three straight-up sequels: The Invisible Man Returns, Invisible Agent, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge, along with a side story which played out as more of a comedy in The Invisible Woman. These films are pioneers in cinematic special effects. Imagine the thought of a person standing next to you whom you can’t see! That is a scary thought!

Last but not least is Universal’s Darwinian trilogy featuring a creature made up of a complete costume. Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature, and The Creature Walks Among Us make up the Gill Man trilogy, which is a visual representation of the theory of evolution.


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