Universal Monsters: A Whole Lot of Horror

Dan Doody | SIFF Programmer | Wednesday, September 28, 2022


No other Hollywood studio is as connected to a single genre as much as Universal is to horror films. They didn’t invent horror cinema, but the studio did pioneer it in Hollywood, and proved such films could return big box office. We look at these early horror films now, some 80-90 years later, as being iconic, if a bit quaint, but in their time, they were both controversial and notorious. They shocked and thrilled and, yes, even horrified contemporary audiences. Local jurisdictions, both in the US and abroad, subjected the films to censorship, cutting scenes and dialogue considered too graphic, obscene, or blasphemous. This established a legacy that has recurred each and every time the genre has risen to popularity.

So how did Universal become Hollywood’s Studio of Horrors? In a word, money, or more accurately, lack of it. In classic Hollywood, Universal was a second tier studio. Eight studios dominated Golden Age Hollywood: the Majors or “Big Five”—MGM, Warner Bros, Paramount, Fox (merged with 20th Century in 1935), and RKO—controlled their own cinema chains, where the real money was to be made; United Artists, Columbia, and Universal, a.k.a. the “Little Three”, did not. Universal Studios had to rely on “rental fees” as their sole source of income, whereas the Big Five could also generate income from their cinemas’ ticket sales and concessions. This meant that Universal was one of the poorer studios in Hollywood (though it had one of the biggest studio lots). Two factors worsened their station: one was the coming of sound films, which shook the industry as a whole and raised production costs, the other was the Great Depression. By the early 1930s, these two factors contributed to Universal running in the red.

At this time, Universal was still overseen by its founder, Carl Laemmle Sr. with his son, Carl Jr. serving as Head of Production. (Yes, the great Hollywood tradition of nepotism is that old and has been immortalized in a brilliant couplet attributed to Ogden Nash: “Uncle Carl Laemmle / Has a very large Faemmle.”) Junior conceived the idea of doing a big screen version of Dracula in a manner similar to the studio’s version of The Phantom of the Opera, made in 1925. Junior wanted two things, spectacle and thrills. The former would be tempered by the studio’s finances, while the latter would be provided by an innovation, supernatural horror.

Prior to Dracula, Hollywood churned out few films that could be considered “horror”, and indeed that word wasn’t ever applied to any Hollywood films until Dracula. Suspense or Mystery were the genre labels studios felt most comfortable applying to their films. If a film had some sort of supernatural scares, those moments were usually tempered with moments of slapstick humor and, by film’s end, revealed to be the tricks of some criminal mastermind seeking a fortune, à la your favorite Scooby Doo episode. Even the aforementioned Phantom of the Opera wasn’t really a phantom but a creep in a mask stalking a beautiful soprano. If you wanted the supernatural in your cinema, you turned to foreign films, particularly those from Germany (Nosferatu, Faust, Der Golem). Dracula changed all that forever; Dracula was a real vampire from Transylvania, an undead revenant who could spread his curse to the victims he fed upon.

The tangled web of Dracula from novel to stage to screen is the subject of Hollywood Gothic by David J. Skal, one of the best film history books ever, and a must read for anyone who loves horror cinema of the bloodsucking variety. There’s much, almost too much really, that could be said about the Bela Lugosi classic, but this Halloween season SIFF is screening the lesser known Spanish-language Drácula, which is a richer and more cinematic version than its English-language counterpart.

When Hollywood made the transition to sound, they suddenly lost a large portion of their international market. As Skal mentions in his book, half of Universal’s revenues during the silent era came from foreign markets. Silent films could be recut with title cards in any number of languages. Sound cinema lacked that pliability: subtitling wasn’t universally accepted yet, while dubbing was technically challenging and therefore impractical. The solution, and it was a short-lived one, was for studios to concurrently produce non-English versions of their films using the same sets and scripts, but recast with native speaking actors.

In the case of the Spanish-language Drácula, Junior Laemmle assigned Paul Kohner to oversee the production. It would shoot at nights on the same sets used by the English-language film. Kohner hired George Melford to direct. Melford had directed Valentino in his most iconic film, The Sheik, but didn’t speak a word of Spanish; his directions were translated on set by dialogue director E. Tovar Avalos. The count was played by Carlos Villarias (credited as Carlos Villar), who not only wore Lugosi’s hairpiece but was also the only performer allowed to watch dailies from the English-language film. Universal wanted Villarias to imitate Lugosi as much as possible. Mexican ingenue Lupita Tovar (and the future Mrs. Kohner) played the lead female role of Eva (Mina). Medford and his cinematographer George Robinson were on a mission to outdo the higher profile Lugosi film, and for the most part succeeded. As Skal writes, “Kohner’s treatment of Dracula was nothing if not ambitious, and today can be read as an almost shot-by-shot scathing critique of the [Lugosi] version. And whatever else it is, the Spanish Drácula remains one of the few examples in world cinema of a simultaneous, alternate rendition of a familiar classic, richly illustrating the interpretive possibilities of a single script.”

Both versions of Dracula were enormously popular when released in the early part of 1931, so much so that Universal scrambled to find a suitable horrific companion to adapt. Frankenstein was the obvious choice. Not only was it, too, a classic work of Gothic horror, but it had been adapted into a stage-play by the same team who had staged Dracula. Universal fast tracked the production of Frankenstein, optioning the play and signing Lugosi to play the monster.

A significant number of events occurred during the nine months between the release of Dracula and the premiere of Frankenstein. Robert Florey was hired to direct the film, then fired in favor of James Whale. Lugosi would leave the film, unhappy that the monster was a non-speaking role—a decision that would define the rest of his career. Whale then turned to a contract bit player he discovered in the Universal commissary whose “face had interesting possibilities.” Boris Karloff accepted the role—a decision that would define the rest of his career—and subjected himself to what would personally be a grueling production: the padded costume and weighted boots he wore led to chronic back issues for the rest of his life. And, of course, there were the hours he spent in the make-up chair while Jack Pierce applied what is now the most iconic monster make-up ever filmed. (How many flat-headed, green faced trick-or-treaters have you seen in your lifetime?) Cinemas were “advised” to have an ambulance and nurse on-hand for screenings.

Frankenstein was enormously successful at the box office, too, but served to be a lightning rod for controversy. At the time, without an MPAA ratings board, local jurisdictions could demand cuts before a film was certified for screening. Two moments received the most attention: the first was after Henry Frankenstein animates the monster and yells, “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” The line of dialogue was noticeably cut almost everywhere and not restored to the film until the 1990s. The other controversial scene was the monster’s encounter with the young Maria, in which he accidentally drowns her. Again, most jurisdictions cut this scene, often making it more sinister by the elision. The film was banned outright in Quebec, Sweden, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and the entire island of Ireland.

Regardless of these controversies, the one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein led to Universal’s only profitable year during the Great Depression.

Junior Laemmle, emboldened by these two successes, began developing further horror properties. Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories served as the basis for Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Black Cat. The discovery of King Tutankhamen’s Tomb inspired The Mummy. Director James Whale filmed the sardonic, campy gothic potboiler The Old Dark House as his follow-up to Frankenstein, however he balked at doing any further scare pictures for fear of being pigeonholed. But in Hollywood you’re only as good as your next film, and Whale’s The Impatient Maiden bombed. He quickly signed onto The Invisible Man, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s scientific romance that Laemmle had optioned in the wake of Frankenstein. When Whale came aboard, the film was in production limbo: Wells had negotiated script approval for the project before it could be filmed and the various scripts Universal had submitted to him, including ones from John Huston and Preston Sturges, did not pass muster. Whale hired his friend R.C. Sherriff to helm a rather straightforward, faithful adaptation of the novel; not surprisingly, this script met with Wells’s approval.

Originally, The Invisible Man was to star Boris Karloff, but by the time it was ready to go before the cameras, Karloff’s acting career had shifted up a gear. Universal was loaning him out to competing studios, for a significant fee, but it also meant he no longer had the time to shoot their film. Whale turned to another middle-aged English stage actor newly arrived in Hollywood. Audiences wouldn’t see his face (till the film’s end) but Oh That Voice! with its rich, brushed velvet tones, able to turn from elegant and erudite to sinister and megalomaniacal over the course of a sentence. Despite being wrapped in bandages for most of his scenes, Claude Rains had his breakout role, leading to a distinguished three decade career during which he would earn four Academy Award nominations.

In many ways, The Invisible Man is the film that holds up best among this season’s classic horrors at SIFF. Wickedly witty, the film has a modernist sensibility that belies the story’s Victorian origins, while its visual effects remain astonishing. There’s an early scene in which Griffin, the eponymous character, removes his fake nose and through the hole in his visage you can see the bandages wrapped around the back of his head. I’ve been told how they did it, but it still astounds me every time I see it. Between John Fulton’s flawless visual effects and Rains’s calculated crazed performance, the film remains a diabolical delight!

James Whale’s success with his three horror pictures made him the star director on Universal’s roster. Universal wanted him to direct a sequel to Frankenstein, but Whale wanted to do a prestige adaptation of Nobel Prize-winner John Galsworthy’s One More River (think Downton Abbey way before there was a Downton Abbey). Junior Laemmle and Whale struck a deal: you shoot One More River first, then the Frankenstein sequel. There’s perhaps a touch of irony that The Bride of Frankenstein is now more remembered and beloved—indeed, it is the greatest horror film of Hollywood’s golden age—than One More River (not even Scarecrow has a copy of it). In Laemmle Junior’s mind, if a Whale directed sequel to Frankenstein hit big, then why not a Whale directed sequel to Dracula? It’s logical, but Whale was lukewarm on the idea; he was much more excited about doing the musical Show Boat (his lone film in the Criterion Collection). Still, he devoted time to the Dracula sequel’s script development, entitled Dracula’s Daughter.

Inspired by the short story “Dracula’s Guest”, Whale and his screenwriter R.C. Sherriff envisioned a dark, decadent gothic chiller with overtones of BDSM. Bela Lugosi would have returned, briefly, in a prologue that would have explained the count’s vampiric origin story. The film would then jump to the present day where the titular character would seduce her victims in a dungeon equipped with whips and chains. Skal speculates that Whale encourage Sherriff to go over the top, “to give the censors some red meat to chew on, the better to maintain control over a film he really wanted to make in a more subdued key.” Unfortunately, Hollywood’s Production Code Administration was now being rigorously enforced by the very Catholic Joseph Breen. Breen was outraged at the prospective script. Whale and Sherriff took the opportunity to exit the project.

Laemmle Junior then hired Garret Fort to revamp (sorry) the script, who authored a more restrained but still captivating work. The dark, aristocratic Gloria Holden plays the title character Countess Marya Zaleska, who is seeking a release from her sanguine addiction. She turns to psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Garth for treatment, but Garth’s science proves no match for Zaleska’s superstition haunted world. Dracula’s Daughter is an underrated gem and a personal favorite. I love how it starts up immediately after the action of its predecessor; in fact, the opening scene shows the police arresting Van Helsing for staking Dracula. Holden gives an achingly constrained performance as a woman horrified to give in to her self-repressed monstrous appetites. The scene in which she hires the young Lili to pose at her studio has become an iconic example of coded homoeroticism in Golden Age Hollywood. While the film doesn’t quite live up to the British Board of Film Censors’ assessment—“Dracula’s Daughter would require half a dozen...languages to adequately express its beastliness”—it is a dark yet beautiful gothic elegy.

Dracula’s Daughter would be the final horror film produced at Universal under the Laemmles; the family lost control of the studio during the film’s production, and the new regime looked unfavorably on the genre. It didn’t help that the UK had initiated a ban on all horror films, limiting the commercial prospects for any future releases. For the next three years, the monsters disappeared into the Universal vaults.

By the late 30s, the new regime at Universal reassessed their stance on horror films. The studio packaged Dracula and Frankenstein as a touring double-feature. It did bang-up business with lines extending around the block at some theaters. The studio warily began production on Son of Frankenstein, which would pair Bela Lugosi as the grotesque criminal Igor with Boris Karloff, playing the monster for the final time. Like its predecessors, it proved to be enormously successful, and kicked off a second cycle of horror films. From 1939 through 1946, Universal would release over 30 scare pictures, bringing back not only Frankenstein’s monster, but also Dracula, the Mummy, various Invisibles, Claude Rains as a new Phantom of the Opera, and introduce a new lupine monster.

Creighton Chaney was a legacy monster. His father, Lon Chaney, famously played the first Phantom of the Opera. However, Chaney Sr. discouraged his son from becoming an actor, and Creighton became a plumbing contractor instead. After his father’s death, Creighton was freed to follow his acting dreams. He disliked being rechristened Lon Chaney, Jr., but it did get him cast in bit parts at various studios. He achieved critical plaudits for his performance as Lenny in the 1939 version Of Mice and Men. This led to a contract at Universal, where he was soon cast in the low budget, Man Made Monster. It was a minor hit and that film’s producer-director, George Waggner, cast Chaney Jr. in his next film, which would become Chaney’s defining role.

The Wolf Man was not Hollywood’s first werewolf film; Universal had produced Werewolf of London in 1935, but that film was overshadowed during its release by both The Bride of Frankenstein and The Raven. The Wolf Man, however, immediately took root in the popular imagination. Curt Siodmak’s screenplay possesses the simple structure of a Greek tragedy, yet it plays out like a folk tale. The film’s most memorable lines—“Even a man who is pure in heart / and says his prayers by night; / May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms / and the autumn moon is bright.”—were invented by Siodmak, but have since been quoted as authentic folklore. Our old friend Claude Rains returns, playing Sir John Talbot, the father to Lon Chaney Jr.'s Larry Talbot, as part of an all star cast that includes Ralph Bellamy, William Wellman, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Evelyn Ankers. Even after 80 years, The Wolf Man is still the quintessential werewolf film; I can’t think of any entry in the lycanthropic film canon that doesn’t reference or quote or draw influence from it—not a one.

Lon Chaney Jr. would go on to play the Mummy, Dracula, and Frankenstein’s Monster during his tenure at Universal, but he is most closely associated with the Wolf Man, in fact he was the only actor to have played the role during the classic Universal Horror cycle. He reprised it four times in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and the greatest horror-comedy ever made, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.

It is by now commonly received wisdom that Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was the film that ended Universal’s second cycle of horror films. It robbed the monsters of their power to scare, but this was a true Faustian Bargain. While Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man were no longer “scary”, what Abbott & Costello did for them was to make these monsters FUN. And it is this fun that appeals to children (and the inner child in every adult). How many of us became Monster Fans by first watching Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein as a kid? Imitated the Monster’s straight-arm stiff-legged gait, used a hoody as a Dracula’s cape, or jumped around the TV room furniture as the wild and wooly Wolf Man? Who then sought out the original films because they loved the monsters and wanted to be scared by them, but weren’t...okay, maybe a little...I mean, I only spent one, two nights with the closet light on. In this way, Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein is the perfect gateway horror film. It revels and delights in the pop mythology of the Universal Monsters; Bud & Lou get scared for you, but in doing so, they show you how much fun being terrified can be—now try it for yourself.

  • Date: September 28, 2022
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