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Monday, 31 October 2011

When The Autumn Moon is Bright: Why Horror is Universal

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.




The Wolfman

Lon Chaney Jr. is having a very bad hair day.
Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot, the unfortunate man who is cursed with the sign of the werewolf, in George Waggner's 1941 film that draws inspiration from European myths and folklore about lycanthropy and supernatural animal transformations. Although the wolf make-up looks primitive by today's standards, and the scenes with Larry as a werewolf are only mildly violent, Chaney Jr. cultivates a wonderful sense of pathos and frustration as the tortured but decent Larry Talbot, and is supported by a wonderful cast that includes Claude Rains (who also starred as the eponymous Invisible Man) and Bela Lugosi, who most famously played the evil Count Dracula. The pacing of the film is superb, developing Larry as an everyman before finally condemning him to his fate as the wolfman. The relationship between Larry and his father, played by Rains, is well developed, with his father convinced that Larry is merely suffering from a schizophrenic delusion that he is a werewolf. The 'no-one believes the hero' horror cliche is played remarkably well here, and what is particularly great about it is there is genuine ambiguity over whether Larry really is a werewolf, or merely insane. When, as a wolf, Larry attacks his victims, it is usually by strangulation, or other decidedly non-wolfish means, and when he is killed (by his own father, no less) after a final rampage, his body 'returns' to normal before anyone has a chance to see him as a wolf. Even his father remains suspiciously quiet, allowing the villagers to believe that a real wolf attacked Larry before he had a chance to intervene. Although the sequels dispensed with the ambiguity by having Larry resurrected by moonlight, I think the alternative reading of the original Wolfman stands up, and makes for a much more interesting film.

Dracula
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.

Frankenstein
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.

Bride of Frankenstein
To a new world of gods and monsters: the eerie Bride.
Bride is one of the few sequels in the Universal canon that not only matches its predecessor, but actually betters it. The audacious opening positions the film directly as an adaptation, but is only slightly more faithful to the novel than the original film. It also introduces the new character of Dr. Pretrorius, who has created life through alchemy, in contrast to Frankenstein's scientific approach. Pretrorius convinces Frankenstein to create a bride for the monster, and while Pretrorius does not exist in the novel, his presences allows the film explores the conflict between the natural and the unnatural suggested in Shelley's work. More importantly, the strange, slightly predatory and very homoerotic relationship between Drs. Frankenstein and Pretorious is made all the more interesting and poignant given that Whale himself was both homosexual and working within the restrictive and homophobic strictures of the Hays Film Code. The final scene of the film, not present in the novel, is a brilliantly executed, and is by turns a tense and tender sequence, the impact of which is visible in Danny Boyle's recent, otherwise faithful, stage version of Shelley's novel which refers explicitly to Whale's film in a sequence that mirrors the final scene in Bride.

These summaries are by no means an exhaustive account of the horror films produced by Universal Pictures in the 1930s and 40s (I'm still working through the library myself), but I hope they give a sense not just of the series itself, but from where we draw much of the iconography of this season. The films that Universal produced during this period have given us imagery that remains popular and recognisable, but if we return to their source, also give us some incredibly rich, nuanced and, yes, frightening cinematic experiences.

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