In cons behaving badly, Fan X in Salt Lake City revisits the issue of inviting a guest with a history of Predatory behavior to their convention.
The boys review Deadpool 2 and Solo.
Jeff can’t decide if he is going to Hotel Artemis or Ocean’s 8 opening weekend.
Jeff talks about a little known comedy from the 90s called Oscar.
Celebrating the Expanse being saved by Amazon.
Jeff degress into stories that show that neither of them have a real sense of what would be considered blasphemy leading to awkward social situations. This leads Daniel to talk about phrases from books that have no meaning anymore due to how society and technology have advanced.
Also why Daniel always always say “its a love story” in awkward situations. It invovles Dracula.
Daniel talks about his birthday present which brings the whole episode full circle.
Hotel Transylvania is a deviation from our normal Halloween reviews in that it is not a horror movie, but a comedy using horror tropes. However, I expect it to become a Halloween movie staple in the years to come.
The basic premise of Hotel Transylvania is a bit silly; after losing his wife to an angry mob, Count Dracula (Adam Sandler) is left to raise their daughter alone. He builds a five star hotel to serve as both a refuge for the world’s monsters from the human world and a safe haven in which to raise his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez).
On Mavis’ 118th birthday Dracula holds a huge party with all the monsters coming to celebrate. These include Dracula’s best friends Frankenstein (Kevin James) and his wife Eunice (Fran Drescher), Wayne Werewolf (Steve Buscemi), His wife Wanda (Molly Shannon), and their horde of children, Murray the mummy (CeeLo Green), and Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade).
Two things complicate Dracula’s plans for the event. One is that Mavis is tired of being confined to the hotel and wants to explore the world. The other is that a human, Johnny (Andy Samberg), has stumbled upon the hotel. Dracula needs to keep the monsters from finding out Johnny is human or they will flee the hotel in terror. Adding additional stress is that Mavis is attracted to Johnny. Disguising Johnny as a monster, Dracula tries to find a way to safely get him out of the hotel, deal with Mavis’ wish to spread her wings, and keep his hotel a safe home for the monsters.
On the surface, Hotel Transylvania is a concept that should not work. It is an animated horror comedy starring Adam Sandler. But it does work. A lot of the credit goes to the script writers (Peter Baynham and Robert Smigel) but the most credit goes to the director (Genndy Tartakovsky, who worked on Powerpuff Girls and created Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack).
Hotel Transylvania is a very fast paced and kinetic movie, but does slow down for some well-done emotional scenes. There is never a scene that drags. The character designs are expressive and inviting, even when they are monstrous. Many of the character designs bear a resemblance to the voice actors playing them.
On the voice acting front there is not a single dud amongst them. Having a cast of comedy veterans and SNL alumni was an excellent decision. Sandler stands out in this group, not only as the main character, but doing some of the best work of his career, even if there is an occasional accent slippage.
Music also plays an important role in the film, even with it not being a musical. There are several occasions where characters, especially Johnny, are performing as part of Mavis’ birthday. The music in the film is done by Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo) and works well in the film, even if it is not particularly memorable.
Hotel Transylvania is a charming movie that can easily be enjoyed by both children and adults. I give Hotel Transylvania a grade of B. Genre fans should enjoy it, and even non-fans should be ok with watching it with their kids.
Side note: This year my five year old god daughter has decided to be Mavis for Halloween, and so the whole family is going as characters from the film. She decided I would be Frankenstein, and who am I to argue with a determined five year old on Halloween.
Normally when I review a new series I like to watch five episodes, review it, and then do a follow-up review at the end of the season. With Penny Dreadful there was no point doing this as the first season only had eight episodes.
Penny Dreadful is a Showtime production that follows in the footsteps of Wold Newton, by way of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Anno Dracula. It is a cross-over universe set in Victorian London that brings together the novels Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, along with hints of other stories appropriate for the era.
The story follows Sir Malcolm Murray, as he assembles a group to search for his daughter Mina, who has been abducted by a mysterious force. This group includes Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) a childhood friend of Mina’s who is also a medium, Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) an American sharpshooter who clearly has a troubled past, Sembene (Danny Sapani) an African who acts as Sir Malcolm’s manservant, and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) who Sir Malcolm brings in for his medical knowledge.
Along the way, these adventurers encounter other characters who further complicate matters: Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), who finds Miss Ives fascinating in a way he cannot explain; Brona Croft (Billie Piper) an Irish prostitute, dying of consumption, who Ethan falls in love with; and Frankenstein’s Creature (Rory Kinnear) whom the others are not aware of, but makes his presence felt none the less.
One of the strengths that Penny Dreadful has over The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Anno Dracula, is that not all of its characters are taken directly from the novels. In fact outside of Dorian, Victor, and the Creature, all the other main characters are original to the series. This gives the show much more freedom in how it wants to portray them.
The show has also benefited from the short season. There was no filler. Scenes either advanced the story, or advanced the characters. Next season will increase to 10 episodes, but that should not do any damage to the pace.
It is also clear that series creator John Logan is aware of the difference between gothic horror vs an action story using horror characters. The horror is on full display here, and the mood is pervasive. The monsters here are not portrayed as beautiful misunderstood outsiders, but as alien horrors to be rightfully feared. This is counterbalanced by watching the effect the events have on the main characters and how, in many ways, that is more horrible than the monsters themselves.
The acting in the series is excellent, which isn’t surprising given the experience of the cast. What is surprising is that the standouts tend to be the lesser known actors. Harry Treadaway and Rory Kinnear give poignant portrayals to Frankenstein and his creation. They are so good that the series could just focus on them and it would still be well worth watching. This is not to take away from the other actors. Eva Green gives one of the best performances of her career as Vanessa, who is conflicted by guilt over her role in Mina’s peril, and the cost that saving her friend is taking on her. Timothy Dalton portrays Sir Malcolm as a man obsessed with saving his daughter, but blind to how his efforts are tainted by that obsession. Josh Hartnett does a fine job with his role, which is often to be the voice of reason, meaning he is often at odds with Sir Malcolm.
Overall, the show does an excellent job of conveying a mood and style consistent with Victorian horror.
I give Penny Dreadful a final grade of B. Fans of the horror genre will enjoy it and non-fans should still find it entertaining.
Reviewing the new Dracula TV show has been an interesting process for me. If you follow me on Tumblr, then you know that on the night of the series premier I live blogged my sister’s reactions to the show as she live blogged watching it. It was an interesting night that led to my sister repeatedly thumping one of her copies of the original novel on the coach while yelling NO!, and drinking enough that she declared that she could not feel her feet.
After it was over, I declared that I was going to write a full review. However, to be fair to the show, I could not just review the pilot; I needed to watch several episodes in order to do this properly. She said I was braver than she, while clutching her fanged bunny Clovis for support.
So here it is. Fair warning, there will be spoilers, so enter freely and of your own will.
For those not in the know, the new Dracula series is a reimagining of the tale. Still set in Victorian England, the story now has Dracula pretending to be an American inventor and industrialist, named Alexander Grayson, in order to promote a new type of energy. His goal is to undermine the financial might of his ancient enemies, the Order of the Dragon, by reducing the worth of their oil holdings.
I think I pulled something writing that last sentence.
Having watched the first few episodes I have drawn the conclusion that this show was pitched as something other than Dracula and that it was repurposed, probably due to executive demands that it be based on a familiar property.
Of all the characters only Lucy Westenra acts anything like her counterpart in the original novel, and even she has significant changes.
Starting with Dracula, he is far from the monster in the novel, in fact he seems more of the noble monster trope here. He is out for revenge on the Order of the Dragon for killing his wife and turning him into a vampire. The show has also gone with the reincarnated lost love angle that has been used so often it almost seems a must for vampire stories.
Speaking of that reincarnated love, Mina has gone from a school teacher to a medical student studying under Professor Van Helsing.
Her Fiancé, Jonathan Harker, has gone from being a solicitor to a journalist hired by Dracula to investigate his rivals.
Lucy is still a rich high society girl, presented as a Victorian party girl. The one change here is that she harbors secret romantic feelings for Mina.
In one of the biggest changes from the novel, Renfield has gone from a madman whom Dracula enslaves to a trusted manservant who can counter Dracula’s instructions for Dracula’s benefit without repercussions and whose advice Dracula values.
But that pales in comparison to Van Helsing. In the novel he is Dracula’s arch nemesis and in media his name is synonymous with monster hunter. Here he is the one who frees Dracula from his tomb as he also seeks revenge on the Order of the Dragon for killing his family, and needs the vampire as his partner to accomplish this. He even goes so far as to try and find a way to allow Dracula to walk in the daylight.
For the order of the Dragon they are so generic in being bad guys that even reading a synopsis of episodes it is difficult for me to tell who is who.
The one exception is the order’s female vampire hunter, Lady Jayne Wetherby. Not suspecting that Grayson is in fact Dracula she starts an affair with him, while the order wants to ruin him as a business rival. She seems to serve the dual purpose of having a female vampire slayer in the show, and to have a character Dracula can have sex with every episode.
Another issue I have is the anachronisms throughout the show. In 1881, when Van Helsing frees Dracula, he uses a battery powered flashlight. In a scene in 1896 you see Dracula wearing s modern style wristwatch. You also have the female characters wearing off the shoulder dresses to society events. I think a lot of this is due to the show having a very steampunk sensibility, with Dracula as a pastiche of Nikola Tesla and his goal of bringing broadcast power to England. I think more of it is due to the show being more concerned with eye candy than any kind of accuracy.
Overall, this show feels like it was meant to be an entirely original franchise and it had Dracula tagged on for name recognition. The sad thing is I would probably be more tolerant of it, had it been an entirely original idea. One of my biggest issues with it is the complete rewriting of the classic characters. Were Renfield and Van Helsing original characters I would have no problem with their behavior. I would also have been just fine with the struggle between an American industrialist vampire and a Victorian secret society were the industrialist not Dracula.
Also, not everything is terrible. The production designs and cinematography are both terrific. The show looks incredible.
In the end, this is a show that could have been great, had they made it anything other than Dracula. As it is, I cannot get past that fact as it is too distracting.
I give Dracula a D on the Fanboy News Network grading scale. It is a very disappointing effort.
As I stated in my review of Dracula, a common practice in Hollywood during the early days of talking pictures was to film a second version of a movie using the same sets and shooting script in a foreign language. At the time, dubbing was not a very refined art, and many considered it cheating anyway. Sadly, most of these films have been lost as they were considered secondary to the English language version and less effort was made to preserve them.
Fortunately, one of the few to survive was the Spanish language version of Dracula.
There is no real reason to go over a synopsis of the film’s plot. It is identical to the English language version that I reviewed last week. Go back and reread that if needed, I’ll wait.
A lot of interest has been given to this version over the years, as many people feel it is in fact superior to the Bela Lugosi classic. Are they right? Let’s find out.
The film was directed by George Melford who was already famous for having directed Rudolph Valentino’s silent classic The Sheik. Working for Universal, Melford directed four Spanish language films. Melford did not speak a word of Spanish and had to use a translator.
Melford also had a competitive streak, at least when it came to Tod Browning and Dracula. Melford and his crew would come in at night after Browning’s crew had wrapped for the day. He would get to look at the dailies with the idea that he would mimic what was shot. Instead Melford decided he could do better and chose to try and improve on what Browning had shot.
Watching this version can be jarring if you are familiar with the English version. Many scenes are identical in look and feel. However, as the movie progresses differences start to become more apparent.
First of all is the pacing. The Spanish version is much better paced, shrugging off the theatrical roots of the material. While the camera work is not as fluid at times as the English version, it makes up for it with grander sweeps and faster movement. There are two scenes in the Browning version that go on a bit long, a battle of wills between Dracula and Van Helsing, and a vampiric seduction of Harker by Mina. Melford improves the pacing by having them happen simultaneously and cutting between them.
Another very clear change is on the close ups of Dracula. In the Browning version, it is always a tight shot of his face with a band of light across his eyes. In Melford’s version, it is a tight close up of just the eyes, or a tight close up of the face and then a jump cut to the close up of the eyes.
Of course we also have to look at the performances by the actors as this is the chief difference between the two.
Carlos Villarias plays Dracula. Of the cast he was the only one allowed to look at the dailies, as the studio wanted him to mimic Lugosi. While there are similarities between the two performances, they are still very different. Villarias plays Dracula more energetically than Lugosi did, and due to less stringent standards for the Spanish audience was able to make the seductive elements of the character more overt. In many ways this is a better performance than Lugosi’s. However, the difference is that Villarias did not have the same commanding presence as Lugosi. So while it might be a better performance technically, it was in no way matching the iconic one given by Lugosi.
Pablo Alvarez Rubio played Renfield. Here I feel that while his performance was equal to Dwight Frye’s, it was different. Manic Frye was menacing, where Rubio was just over-the-top raving. Calm Frye was sympathetic where Rubio became sinister.
Eduardo Arozamena played Van Helsing. Here I feel the performance was flatter compared to the one given by Edward Von Sloan.
The biggest difference was in the female lead. When I reviewed the other version I glossed over the performance of Helen Chandler as Mina. I felt it was just serviceable and did not really stand out. In the Spanish version, Lupita Tovar played the renamed Eva. Her performance was much more dynamic, especially when under Dracula’s thrall. It should be noted that Chandler’s career did not extend beyond the 1930s, whereas Tovar was working through the mid-1940s.
So in the end, I can say that yes, the Spanish version of Dracula is the superior film. Its biggest down fall is that it lacks the iconic performance of Lugosi.
I give it a grade of B-
Hopefully it will not take a year to get back to the Universal Horror movies again. When we do return, we will look at the final member of the Horror trinity, the Wolf Man.
After nearly a year, I am getting back to my review of Universal Horror classics. So let’s take a look at the 1931 Universal production of Dracula.
Before I get into the review I want to cover an interesting topic.
In the early days of talking pictures, it was common for a version of a Hollywood production to have a second version of a film made using the same script and sets, but in another language. Apparently overdubbing was not that refined a process and many considered it cheating anyway.
Dracula had a Spanish version that was filmed at night using the same script and sets. Most of these foreign versions have been lost, but Dracula is one of the few they were able to recover.
I have watched both. While this review is going to just cover the English language version, next time I will go over the Spanish version, as it deserves its own article.
On to the review.
For years Universal had wanted to make Dracula. Specifically Carl Laemmle Jr., son of Universal founder Carl Laemmle Sr., wanted to make Dracula. Originally as a silent picture with Lon Chaney as the Count. Several factors delayed production. First was just securing the rights, as author Bram Stoker’s widow had sued the producers of Nosferatu for not having secured the rights, and won. Then there was Chaney himself who developed throat cancer and died. Finally, you had the great depression which resulted in the movie having a smaller budget. Originally Laemmle had envisioned a grand film on the scale of the Hunchback of Notre Dame that adhered very closely to Stoker’s novel. Now he needed to tone it down and eventually the film more closely adhered to the Broadway stage version.
The other challenge was casting. Most of the cast came together fairly quickly, except for Dracula himself. At first, Conrad Veidt was considered. He had been successful in horror, both as the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and lead in The Man who Laughed. Unfortuantely Veidt had to return to Europe, so he was out.
Interestingly, the studio was against casting Bela Lugosi, who had played the part to much acclaim on Broadway. Lugosi himself lobbied hard for the part and with choices dwindling the studio decided to give him a shot.
The director of the film was Tod Browning. Browning was a successful silent film director, including having worked on the vampire-themed London After Midnight with Lon Chaney.
The story begins in Transylvania with a real estate agent named Renfield traveling to meet with Count Dracula to finalize his purchase of Carfax Abby in London. After securing the deal, Renfield is put under Dracula’s thrall. Traveling to London, Renfield is institutionalized at the Sanitarium next to the Abby run by Dr. Seward. The count begins preying on London, with focus on Seward’s daughter Mina. Seward brings in Dr. Van Helsing to look into a rash of anemic deaths which Van Helsing correct deduces are the result of vampire attacks. Van Helsing suspects the Count, and once confirmed, begins a hunt for the vampire’s resting place in order to bring an end to the menace.
Let’s take a look at what does not work.
Pacing is the number one problem with the film. You can clearly tell this is an adaptation of a play, as that is how it is paced. One striking thing is that the Count almost never moves quickly, preferring to stalk towards his victims.
I suspect that Browning added to this as he was used to silent film and did not know how to adapt the pacing for the inclusion of sound. One reason this is glaring is the lack of background music. This was not the fault of the production, however. In the first few years of sound, the only time music was added was if there were musicians visible. It was assumed that music would confuse the audience as to where it was coming from.
Another oddity is some of the editing choices. There are several times when Dracula is onscreen that it will cut to a close up of his face with a band of light across his eyes. This is an iconic image and I would think perhaps creepy to a 1931 audience, but seems jarring by today’s standards.
On the cast, sadly many of them just don’t stand out. Several of the cast did not have long careers in Hollywood, and you can see why here.
However, moving on to more positive aspects, there were some exceptional performances; otherwise I doubt this movie would have become a classic.
It almost should go without saying that Bela Lugosi dominates the film. He brings, charm, mystery, and menace to the role.
Next to Lugosi is Dwight Frye as Renfield. He starts the movie as a normal, if dull businessman, but as soon as he is under Dracula’s control he is a raving madman. Frye makes him stand out as a man who wants to be free, but cannot escape Dracula’s grasp.
Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing rounds out the good performances as Van Helsing, conveying the man’s will and determination to defeat the vampire.
Of interest is that later in 1931 both Frye and Van Sloan would be part of the cast of Frankenstein, securing their place in horror history.
Another bright spot for Dracula was cinematography. The film was lucky to have gotten ground breaking cinematographer Karl Freund. Thanks to his work, the film looks wonderful even today, and many of his tracking shots were considered ground breaking at the time.
Finally we have to look at the legacy of this movie. It solidified the image of the vampire in the public mind. Even today, the stereotype of the vampire is based on Lugosi’s performance. It also gave us the image of the haunted castle, with crumbling walls and cobwebs. The tropes associated with a vampire’s minion were set in stone by Frye, just like he would later in the year with the mad scientist’s hunchbacked assistant. And the vampire hunter in the mold of Van Helsing would also be influenced by this film.
It is also worth noting that Dracula was the first film made in Hollywood that was overtly supernatural. Until then all Hollywood horror involved the deformed, the deranged, or someone using trickery. Europe had some supernatural elements in their films, but this was the first for Hollywood, and opened the doors for all horror that would follow.
In the end you can see why this made such an impact.
However, I do not feel that it has held up as well as Frankenstein.
I give the 1931 Dracula a grade of C+.
Join us next week when we see how well the Spanish language version holds up.
As long as there has been fiction one of the favorite tropes has been the crossover, characters from one set of stories meeting characters from another. Sherlock Holmes matching wits with Count Dracula, Allen Quartermain and Captain Nemo teaming up to repel an invasion from Mars, Rick and A.J. Simon teaming up with Thomas Magnum to take down a con artist. There is a desire to see interaction between these characters. And it is not just the realm of fan fiction that these happen. The examples I used above were from various published or produced works.
But there is one person who took the crossover idea to a new level, Philip Jose Farmer. In 1972 Farmer wrote Tarzan Alive. This novel was a biography written as if Tarzan had been a real person. This alone made it an interesting book as Farmer attempted to reconcile several of the inconsistencies in the Tarzan novels, such as claiming the apes that raised him were not actually apes but something closer to an African species of Sasquatch. Towards the end of the book and in his follow up the next year Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life Farmer formed the basis of what would come to be known as the Wold Newton Family. This concept would be an attempt to tie Victorian and Pulp era heroes together in one great shared universe.
The concept takes its name from a real world event. On December 13th 1795 a meteorite fall just a few miles away from the small Hamlet of Wold Newton in Yorkshire, England. It was the first intact meteorite to be found in England and of great scientific interest.
What Farmer did was to take this event and use it as a jumping off point. According to Farmer when the meteorite struck two coaches were nearby carrying a group going on holiday at a county estate. Due to some unknown effect of the meteorite’s landing the people in the coaches had their DNA altered leading to their descendants being extraordinary individuals.
Amongst the passengers were the following:
John Clayton, the third Duke of Greystoke, and his wife, Alicia
Sir Percy Blakeney, (the Scarlet Pimpernel), and his second wife, Alice Clarke Raffles
Dr. Siger Holmes and his wife, Violet Clarke Raffles
Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife, Elizabeth Bennett
Sir Hugh Drummond, and his wife, Georgia Dewhurst
George Edward Rutherford, and his wife, Elizabeth Cavendish
Honore Delagardie and his wife, Philippa
Sebastion Noel, a medical student of Dr. Holmes
The coachmen were Louis Lupin, Albert Lecoq, Arthur Blake and Simon MacNichols
You may have notice some familiar sounding names in there. The idea from here is that the descendants of these individuals would be great heroes and villains.
An example is the family of John Clayton. Clearly he is the grandfather of Tarzan, but as it turns out Doc Savage, James Bond and even Fu Manchu can claim him as an ancestor.
Sebastion Noel’s family line includes Professor James Moriarty (who for a time went by the alias Captain Nemo), Dr. No, and Lex Luthor.
Sir Percy’s family includes the Shadow. Sir Hugh’s family has Bulldog Drummond, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Captain America.
I could go on but why don’t you go here and here to look at the vast family trees involved.
Here is a good time to point out that Farmer may have started this, but others have picked it up. It has become a literary game. People will go in and try to find connections to bring new characters into the Wold Newton family. Originally it was just Victorian and Pulp era characters but it has expanded to include modern characters from novels, TV, movies, video games and comics.
Example: Indiana Jones is a Holmes as is his nephew, Daniel Jackson of Stargate SG-1. In what should surprise no one Lara Croft was one of his students.
Additions have been made that incorporate Star Trek, Lovecraft’s Mythos and Doctor Who.
And the monsters, oh the monsters.
The amount of detail some people have gone to in order to include the Universal Monsters is truly amazing.
There are chronicles for the families of Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll.
Conceits are created to explain different versions of the characters. For Dracula the idea is introduced that he could turn a person and then imprint his mind on theirs (a process he called soul cloning). Since the process was not exact it could explain differences in how the character acts in different stories.
For Frankenstein you have the idea of the family having an obsession that carries from generation to generation.
And then there are the attempts to tie things together. Let’s look at the story of the creature created by Frankenstein’s Great-Grandson Frederick Frankenstein, which you will all know from the movie Young Frankenstein. According to Wold Newton Elizabeth, the fiancé of Fredrick who fell in love with creature was in reality named Lilith and was the daughter of one of Dracula’s soul clones. When Van Helsing’s organization the League of Anti-Diabolists learned of their attempt to lead a peaceful life they stepped in to help, hoping to see if monsters could be rehabilitated. They were moved to America along with Lilith’s father and given guardian ship of a young orphan named Edmond who was infected with lycanthropy. A league member Marilyn Krough was placed with them to observe their attempts at domestication. The creature adopted the name Herman. Thus they became the Munsters.
Try to tell me that is not a cool concept.
One more I really like.
Henry Jekyll’s formula did not work with way he thought it did. All it did was trigger his latent Therianthropy. This is a trait he would pass down to his offspring, many fathered as Mr Hyde. His decedents would include Bruce Banner and Ben Grimm.
I’m sure many of you have noticed similarities to both Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series. Both authors have stated that the Wold Newton Family was an influence.
And all this just scratches the surface. You can spend hours going over all the details people have added to this particular academic exercise. Go here for the best web site resource I know of. Also check out the book Myths of the Modern Age which is a collection of articles edited by Win Scott Eckert.
Now all we need to do is figure out which family tree Gibbs from NCIS belongs in.
Last weekend I finally scored DVDs of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman. These are the digitally remastered Universal 75th Anniversary series from 2004. I have wanted them for a while. I still need to get the Mummy, Invisible Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon to complete the set.
You see this is all part of a grand scheme.
I grew up a huge horror fan and this was a major part of my development into the fanboy I am today. I remember watching old horror movies, sometimes between my fingers or hiding behind the coach. The advantage of growing up before the cable network explosion, I could watch the classic on the old creature feature shows on the local TV stations.
And there was nothing better than the classic Universal Monsters.
So my plan is to start a periodic series of reviews of Classic Universal Horror.
For those not as familiar with what I am talking about, here is a primer.
The Universal Horror era is largely acknowledged to have started in 1923 with the release of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. When it ended is up to some debate, but I say it was 1958.
Universal Studios was a struggling company in the early 20’s. I won’t get into all the details here but one of the things that saved the studio was signing Lon Chaney. The legendary man of a thousand faces became a huge draw for the studio. His performance and make up design for the Hunchback of Notre Dame thrilled audiences who had never seen its like. He followed it up with other great horror films such as The Phantom of the Opera and London after Midnight.
Besides Chaney’s films Universal also had success with The Cat and the Canary and the Man who Laughs. The latter has added fanboy significance as its main character Gwynplaine served as Bill Finger’s chief visual inspiration for the Joker.
One point of interest is that during the silent era none of Universal’s horror films had any actual supernatural elements, in fact no film from Hollywood did. They either featured characters that were disfigured or someone that was employing trickery to appear supernatural.
That all changed in 1931 with the release of two films that changed film history, Dracula and Frankenstein. Now the supernatural and the inhuman were fair game. Both films launched horror franchises and made stars out of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The next two years saw the release of the Mummy and the Invisible man.
The next great horror franchise did not come about until 1941 with the release of The Wolf Man Starring Lon Chaney Jr. With this the trinity of Universal horror was complete. To this day Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man are ingrained images as horror icons, forever associated with Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney.
Throughout the 30’s and 40’s Universal set the standard for the horror genre, creating many of the tropes that have come to be associated with it. Creaking staircases, Cobweb infested castles, fields filled with mists, the secret passage behind the bookcase and mobs with pitchforks and torches, all were introduced, or at least made popular, by Universal.
By the end of the 40’s Universal’s desire to milk every last drop out of their horror franchises seem to have spelled the end of them. The release of so-called Monster Mash movies where Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man all appeared, while still popular, seemed to be the final curtain for the classic monsters. With the release of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein the trinity of horror icons was retired.
But Universal Horror was not done yet.
In 1954 the last great Universal Monster was unleashed, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. A total of three Creature films were made in the 50’s.
However even the coming of the gill-man could not keep the franchise going and with the release of Monster on Campus in 1958 the Universal Horror era ended.
But the influence did not.
Think about it, when someone says Frankenstein, what image comes to mind. I’ll bet it isn’t the creature design Christopher Lee wore in the Hammer Horror films, or Robert DeNiro’s version.
Our expectations of these iconic characters have been formed by Universal and are the widely accepted version.
And Universal has not forgotten this. They make periodic attempts to revive the Universal Horror franchises. While none have been the restart the studio hopes for, one cannot help but figure it is just a matter of time.
Add to that the fact that every Halloween Universal Studio’s theme parks host their Halloween Horror Nights event where the parks are turned into massive haunted houses. My wife and I attended the 20th year of the event in Florida. It was one of our best vacations ever and proved why we are the perfect match (I’ll cover that adventure another time.)
Universal is still the name that will forever be associated with classic horror.
Going forward I will start the actual reviews of specific movies. In these reviews I will go over what makes the movie work, what are its flaws, how well they hold up over time, and what influences it has had on pop culture. These will be spaced out as I need time to review the movies and I don’t want them to dominate the blog. Also I need to track down copies of more of the Universal Horror catalog.
But I will leave you with this, first up will be Frankenstein.