Universal horror is the name given to a series of monster movies created by Universal Studios, beginning with the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1923. Universal brought many of the most enduring horror monsters to the silver screen and into the consciousness of the movie-going public, including “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” “The Wolf Man,” “The Invisible Man,” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Universal also employed some of the most iconic horror actors to bring these creatures to life, most notably Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, and Lon Chaney Jr.
The monstrous visions brought to life by Universal Studios remain the primary visages for many Horror Freaks. Who can imagine the Frankenstein monster without that flat head, high forehead, and bolts on the side of the neck? How about Count Dracula complete with black cape and impeccable Victorian garb? These interpretations of the great monsters from literature and other sources are Universal images, brought to life by iconic performers, and are an important element of horror’s roots.
Universal horror set the tone for the monster movie, and brought the public’s worst nightmares to life on the silver screen. The 1930s are considered by many to be the “Golden Age” of Universal horror and spawned many of the great characters who continue to invade the nightmares of Freaks everywhere.
By understanding the humble beginnings of the world’s best movie genre, the casual horror fan can set the foundation for development and elevation to full-fledged Freak.
Universal horror is the place to start. ?
Release February 14, 1931 (U.S.)
Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Bram Stoker (novel), Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston (play), Garrett Fort (play/script)
Starring Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan
Not rated Violence is mostly implied and happens offscreen
The tale of Count Dracula has been told over and over throughout the decades. Beginning with a novel by Bram Stoker published in 1897, the legend of the Dracula vampire continues to inspire fear and Halloween costumes around the world.
The story surrounds John Harker (David Manners) and his trials with the vampire from Transylvania, Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). Early in the film, the solicitor Renfeld (Dwight Frye) travels abroad to visit the Count, and quickly comes under his control and assists him in traveling via train to the populated centers of England.
Once Dracula arrives, he becomes smitten with the fiancé of John Harker, Mina (Helen Chandler), and casts a spell of influence on her via bites to her neck and a taste of his own blood.
Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) discovers the strange behavior of Renfeld, surmises that he is under the influence of a vampire, and joins the fray to investigate.
The signs present themselves to Van Helsing and Harker, notably the fact Dracula does not cast a reflection, that Dracula, too, is a vampire and that he is creating others of his kind who are now roaming the London nights in search of blood.
It is up to Harker and Van Helsing to save Mina from the clutches of the Count and rescue England from this new-found curse.
Although this story has been told countless times with many different variations in horror movies over the years, one typical vision of Count Dracula and indeed vampires in general remains in the minds of most people, and that is the visage of Lugosi in this classic.
Lugosi IS Count Dracula, and was the first to portray the vampire wearing the long cape, slicked back black hair, and regal dress that is the mainstay of recreations and children’s costumes today. Even Lugosi’s voice and accent are mimicked by those wishing to instill vampiric fear and delight in others. Try saying “good evening” as a vampire and see what comes out. Chances are it is Lugosi’s Count Dracula.
Universal’s Dracula is mandatory viewing for any Horror Movie Freak, young or old. Although the film is dated and without a soundtrack in its original form, the historical significance of this film and the portrayal of Count Dracula by Lugosi is of immeasurable importance. ?
Release December 16, 1959 (U.S.)
Directed by Terence Fisher
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux, Eddie Byrne, Felix Aylmer
Not rated Various mummy mischief
Hammer’s The Mummy is the third horror entry utilizing Universal Studios’ characters and together with Dracula and Frankenstein set the foundation for Hammer horror of the era. Based on Universal’s The Mummy’s Hand from 1940, with additional story elements from that film’s sequel, The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), rather than the original 1932 Mummy, Hammer’s version brings depth, humanity, and living color to the oft-told story.
British archeologists search for the lost tomb of Princess Ananka (Yvonne Furneaux) in spite of dire warnings that the tomb should not be disturbed. When are dire warnings ever heeded in horror movies anyway? If they were, we’d have a pretty boring flick. Anyway, the tomb is discovered along with the ancient Scroll of Life. Someone, of course, reads aloud from this scroll, and true to word, it brings the Princess’ guardian, Kharis (Christopher Lee), to life.
It isn’t until three years later that another fellow, a worshiper of Kharis, transports the mummy to England to exact his revenge on those who desecrated the tomb of his beloved Ananka. The Mummy, of course, spies a woman whom he believes to be the reincarnation of Ananka—the archeologist’s wife—and you know the rest.
The trio responsible for making Hammer horror recognizable and lasting is part of the equation in this movie as well: director Terence Fisher and performers Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The masterful direction of Fisher allows for a fast-paced storyline rich with incredible visuals, flashbacks and plot twists to keep Horror Freaks on the edge of their seats throughout the film. Cushing gives his customary complex performance, moving from detached and collected English gentleman to the panicked and impassioned intensity necessary in the end to make the character human and believable. Lee as the monster is, in fact, monstrous. He also has the ability to give a quality of vulnerability to the monsters he plays in Hammer films that inspire not just terror but also a bit of sympathy. He’s not really bad, he’s just made that way. ?
Beginning with the 1955 surprise hit The Quatermass Experiment, Hammer studios embarked on a new and horrifying film-making direction.
I say “horrifying” in a good way, of course, as Hammer Studios began a series of horror films that resurrected many of the monsters of Universal Studios and gave them new life, and box office appeal. In the process, Hammer Studios was raised from bankruptcy and liquidation brought on by the unsuccessful foray into non-horror films to begin a new dawn in movie monsters.
Hammer Studios brought some twists to the classic monsters: new looks, new performers, and Technicolor! The revitalization of classic horror monsters did not come about without some bumps along the way in the form of copyright issues with Universal, but as these issues were settled, Hammer brought back Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy, introducing a new take on the classic monsters and some new stars to lead the way. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee became the new icons to join the ranks of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and director Terence Fisher succeeded Universal’s James Whale and Karl Freund.
Although Universal will always be king of the movie monster, because of the living color and the leaning toward then-unheard of cinematic gore, Hammer Horror films are actually preferred by some to their Universal elders.
Eventually the fickle tastes of the horror movie-going public changed and the bloody monster fell out of favor leading Hammer to move to sex rather than blood to draw audiences. This was only marginally successful, however, and to the Horror Freak, Hammer Studios will always be remembered for gothic horror, compelling stars, ghastly gore, and a colorful take on the movie monsters we love to fear. ?
Release November 21, 1931 (U.S.)
Directed by James Whale
Written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (novel), Peggy Webling (play), John L. Balderston (adaptation), Francis Edward Faragoh, and Garrett Fort
Starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan
Not rated Has mild monster violence
The Frankenstein monster, and the situations leading to his being brought to life and ultimate demise, are well known to most humans on earth. Movies, books, cartoons, and comics have all taken a stab at portraying the creature brought to life by the mad scientist Dr. Frankenstein via a bolt of lightning on a cold stormy night.
Universal Studios, again at the leading edge of fright, is responsible for bringing the most lasting and predominant image of this Mary Shelley literary monster to the silver screen. Also in the process, another iconic horror movie performer was born: Boris Karloff. Few can imagine the monster given life by a mad scientist without also picturing the flat head, obvious scars where the brain was presumably inserted inside the skull, bolts on the neck, and arms that extend well beyond the reach of mere mortal men. Karloff played this monster, and Universal Studios gave him distribution.
The story of Frankenstein is a sad tale, beginning with a man who takes scientific curiosity to the extreme of attempting to play God by creating life. Body parts are collected and connected and a brain is chosen to give the new creature thought and intellect. On a stormy night, the shell of a man is raised high in the air and subjected to extreme voltages of electricity and voila! “It’s, it’s … ALIVE!”
Unfortunately for the newborn creature, he’s not very popular with the townsfolk. First off, there’s something wrong with the brain and the creature has the mind of an infant.
This doesn’t match well with his giant and powerful body and results in injury and death to those who come within the creature’s grasp. He is not evil, merely incapable of coming to the same conclusions of right and wrong that polite society adheres to. The tragic tale of Frankenstein is indeed a classic and Universal’s version is the standard. ?
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