The older I get the more I like Halloween. I like the parties and fancy dress clothes, carving pumpkins is definitely more fun than putting up the Christmas tree, and there's a delightfully knowing tackiness to the whole affair. And so in that spirit I have decided that this fortnight's post will be about the horror films that Universal Studios produced throughout the 1930s and 40s. While Warner Bros. were busy with gangster films like The Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties, Universal Pictures was creating its signature genre with a spate of horror films based on nineteenth century gothic fiction and folklore, with early examples including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Man Who Laughs (1928). Influenced by the menacing shadows and distorted angles of the German Expressionist films of the silent era, the Universal horror films in turn influenced horror iconography throughout the twentieth century, and are largely responsible for our modern perceptions of the classic Halloween monsters. Universal Pictures is a major studio nowadays, but in the early days it was best known for producing B movies. They were made quickly and cheaply, often with the same roster of character actors and stars appearing in each new film. However, with talent on board like director James Whale or the intense Boris Karloff, many of Universal's B-horrors rose above their roots as exploitation pictures. The Universal horrors have become so iconic that we are familiar with their imagery without necessarily being familiar with the films, or even from where that imagery originates. When we think of the Frankenstein monster and of Dracula, we invariably think of the Universal versions of those monsters, and it is largely the Universal Frankenstein series that is to blame for the modern confusion between Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. This post is a beginner's guide to four of the most popular and enduring films of the Universal monster canon, and the three that I personally find the most fascinating and compelling. Incidentally, all of these little summaries contain SPOILERS.
|Lon Chaney Jr. is having a very bad hair day.|
|Strange, powerful and iconic: Lugosi as Dracula|
Adapted from Bram Stoker's classic novel, the 1931 Dracula, directed by Tod Browning is part of the first wave of Universal sound pictures. Browning's film simplified Stoker's film by keeping the action in England and reducing the number of characters, but succeeds in adapting the eerie, uncanny atmosphere of its source. Compared to the other two films I'm discussing, Dracula feels a little wooden and stagey, with most of the scenes consisting of characters talking to each other in rooms. However, this is counterbalanced by Bela Lugosi's unnerving performance as the eponymous vampire, some incredible sets depicting Dracula's castle, and a great supporting cast including Dwight Frye as the lunatic Renfield. The film is loosely faithful the novel, but its brevity and less ambitious globe-trotting streamline Stoker's novel into a pacy and tense picture. Lugosi's Dracula is the iconic screen incarnation, with the widow's peak, east-European accent and sweeping cloak all a product of this film, and now indelibly associated with the character. Fascinatingly, there exists an alternative, Spanish-language version of Dracula that was filmed simultaneously on the same sets with a Spanish cast. In the days before dubbing was perfected, English-language films were sometimes re-filmed in different languages for the foreign market. The Spanish-language version of Dracula has become famous because, incredibly, it is superior to the original version. When they were filming, the Spanish crew would come in after the Americans, watch the day's footage and actively try to better it. As a result, the direction is far more fluid and less stage-bound, the sexuality of the female characters is less restrained, and it has a longer running time. Carlos Villarias plays Dracula in this version, and although good, he is no match for Lugosi. Despite the technical superiority of the Spanish version, Lugosi's Dracula will forever remain the iconic vampire of cinema and pop culture.
|It's alive! Boris Karloff gives life to Frankenstein's creation.|
Perhaps the only other monster to rival Dracula in terms of recognisability is the Frankenstein monster, and again, it is the Universal studio interpretation of the character that has lodged itself firmly in the popular cultural zeitgeist. The flat top of the monster's head, exaggerated brow, and electrodes through his neck are all products of the Universal film, but are now as inseperable from the character as the widow's peak is from Dracula. Frankenstein, masterfully directed by James Whale and released the same year as Dracula, is often criticised for reducing the intelligent, articulate character of Mary Shelley's superlative novel to a lumbering, dumb brute, and for only loosely following the novel's events. But Boris Karloff, under layers of make-up, invests the monster with surprising and disarming pathos, sensitivity and subtlety. Besides, we all know that criticising adaptations on the basis of their faithfulness is a rocky position. Incidentally, that Frankenstein the novel has a tradition of adaptation, borrowing from and referring to previous works of literature, makes, I think, the film one of the most interesting of the Universal horror stable. In many ways, the film pays tribute to the experimental nature of the novel, playing with and reinterprating the characters and their relationships. The transgressive nature of the relationship between Henry Frankenstein and his creation is subtly hinted at in the first film, only to be expanded on in the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein.