Monday, 21 October 2013

Tank Top Movies History of Horror - Part 1: Universal Monsters

It’s that time of year again. Halloween is fast approaching. Whether you’re the kind of person who goes all out at this time of year, pumpkins carved and costumes planned months in advance, or you don’t care for the largely American adopted tradition, there is one aspect most can agree on: We all love a good Horror movie. Horror movies have been around for practically as long as the medium of film itself. Many of the earliest recorded films in the early silent era were Horrors, such as Frankenstein (1910) and Nosferatu (1922) perhaps most famously. For as long as there have been films, there has been a good one to scare us.

Today we are going to take a look at the Golden era of Hollywood horror, the Universal Monsters. Carl Laemmle Jr in a time of depression in the US, was the driving figure in producing a series of high budget, but extremely successful horror classics for Universal Pictures. Some of these films have truly stood the test of time. They are so ingrained in our collective memories and culture, that even if you have never actually seen them, they will likely feel familiar. The Simpsons latest treehouse of horror opening, by Guillem Del Toro, is a great example of how these monsters are still fondly remembered and loved. We are going to have to have a look at some of the best Universal Monster films currently available on UK on-demand services. Just head over to Tank Top Movies to get your horror viewing sorted.

Universal Pictures really hit their stride at the start of the 30’s with their monster movies when Carl Laemmle Jr got his chance to be Head of Production, but they did have some solid horror credentials from the silent era already. Phantom of the Opera (1925), starring the brilliant Lon Chaney, had what we can perhaps call the first Universal Monster.

Phantom of the Opera tells the story of a jealous violent man who terrorises the Paris Opera House for the sake of the woman he loves. Lon Chaney performance as the Phantom is incredible. Under heaps of make up that contorted his face he was still able to convey a huge range of emotions and expressions. Like the later Frankenstein movies, you can really sympathise with the ‘monster’. Chaney was perhaps the definitive silent movie actor. Both his parent were deaf so he was an expert in communication through expression and body language. He also did his own make up. Unfortunately Chaney died in 1930, just as the silent era ended- perhaps the two were just made for each other.

Dracula (1931) was the start of the golden Universal Monster era. Nearly every cliche you know about Dracula comes from this film. Garlic, Bats, tombs, stakes, crosses and everything vampire. Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi donned the cape after playing the part for years on stage. His accent and the rhythm and cadence of his voice set the standard in particular for the way people imagined Dracula's speech for generations. The film tells the story of Dracula’s relocation to London. It is an extremely eerie film with an almost dream like quality. It was also the first sound horror movie, and as such has little to no musical soundtrack. This merely adds to the creepy atmosphere. Sure, to audiences today, there is very little that is going to scare the Heebie-jeebies out of you, but to audiences of the day, it must have been quite the shocker. Bela Lugosi has to be the all time best Dracula for me, legend has it he was even buried in the cape.

Frankenstein (1931) came out in the same year as Dracula. Universal pictures in the same year immortalised the two most famous movie monsters in history. Colin Clive played Dr Frankenstein, while Boris Karloff was given the role of the Monster. The film tells the story of mad scientist Dr Frankenstein’s attempt to create life and all of its gritty, horrible and disastrous consequences. Based off the Mary Shelly book of the same name, the film deviates quite dramatically from the original story. The addition of a hunchback assistant is one that has really stuck as part of the Frankenstein mythos, though called fritz, not Igor as you might think. The sets and design of the movie create such a fantastic atmosphere. The opening graveyard scene just screams classic horror and Frankenstein's laboratory was the prototype for so many after to copy. The greatest strength of the film is the sympathy we feel both for Frankenstein and the monster he created. They both do evil or unethical things, but you can’t help but root for them both as the chaos unravels and they clash.

There was discussion that Bela Lugosi after so successfully playing Dracula would play the Monster too. Thankfully, for whatever reason (some say he thought the role needed no talent) he declined the role and the great Boris Karloff got to make his mark. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi went on to star in many universal horror movies alone and together, but it was as Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster that they would forever be remembered for.

In the year after the massive success of Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal followed it up with The Mummy (1932). Not the most scary name for a monster movie and in truth not the scariest monster.  Boris Karloff off the back of Frankenstein, got cast as the ancient mummy Imhotep. You might expect to see him walking around covered in bandages slowly creeping up upon his victims but that style of Mummy actually came later in sequels about a different Mummy. Very quickly into the film Karloff is out of the bandages, and he gets to show a more conventional side to his acting talents. Some have described the Mummy less of a horror movies and actually a love story spanning thousands of years. Imhotep is determined to be reunited with the reincarnation of the lover he died for. The flashback of his mummification perhaps is the most enjoyable horror aspect of the film.

The Invisible Man (1933) is perhaps my favourite Universal Horror movie and maybe the most watchable today. It tells the story of Dr Jack Griffen, played by the fantastic Claude Rains, who discovers the secret to invisibility. Slowly his new found power drives him insane and on a plot to rule the world. Claude Rains due to the inherent nature of the role, provides a fantastic voice performance as the invisible man. The special effects of this film are a real treat and still look great to the modern eye. It is fantastically done and achieved without the help of digital effects making it even more impressive. Like the Mummy, The invisible Man is not solely a horror film, but very funny too.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) was the first Universal horror movie sequel and easily the best one. It picked up right were the first left off. The sequel follows many aspects of the book that the first film neglected to explore. The Monster is even more sympathetic than ever and with the help of the real villain of the piece, the evil Dr Pretorius, convinces Frankenstein to make him a Bride. This film has everything that was great about the first one, the sets, the atmosphere and fantastic iconic monster design but raises the content and level of the plot. There are a lot more interesting relationships and emotions explored in this classic Universal Horror.

The Wolf Man (1941) saw Lon Chaney’s son, Lon Chaney Jr become a horror movie icon just like his father. The Wolf Man is perhaps the third most iconic Universal monster after Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster. Unlike previous monsters, the wolf man was just an ordinary man who suffers a horrible fate. Larry Talbot is a logical man, afflicted with the curse of the werewolf. In many ways the film is a psychological thriller, as Larry doubts his sanity and whether he really is transforming into a monster by night. It’s all about the beast within every man. Surprisingly, there is not a single shot of the full moon in the film or the conventional transformation scene. Those iconic moments came in the numerous sequels and monster mashup films that came after, starring the wolf man, Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster together.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) is considered the last of the classic Universal Monsters. While I would argue the golden era ended with the Wolf Man and the perpetuation of the mashup genre, this was the last new monster in the classic black and white Genre. The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a fun horror movie, with plenty of action and impressive underwater sequences. However, the creature is just not as interesting as previous Universal Monsters, and he certainly is not as sympathetic. It’s a decent swansong from Universal Pictures horror era but it pales in comparison to the classics of the 30’s.

After World War 2 the world changed, and so did horror movies. Gothic and mythic stories were no longer scarier than the reality of the atomic age: Science fiction and b movies took over. Universal’s time was over and it was time for someone else to take the reigns.  

In the next edition of Tank Top Movies History of Horror we will take a look at The Hammer productions reinventions of the Universal classics, so keep an eye out for that. For now, to check out all the films mentioned in this blog and thousands more - get yourself over to and signed up to Tank Top Movies.

By Matthew Taylor