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Saturday, 10 November 2012

In praise of Universal Monsters

In praise of Universal Monsters

When writing about the output of horror material from Universal studios I could talk about many things. I could talk about a the impact Universal had on a previously belittled film genre, providing a rich source of material and in the process becoming immensely influential in the horror film genre. All of which is virtually irrefutable. 
I could talk in possibly grand terms about how Universal studios brought the themes and technical artistry of German Expressionism to Hollywood cinema and forever determined our concept of Gothic horror movies in the process.

I could also talk about how more than any other movie production company, the collection of work has left an indelible mark in the horror, thriller and Science Fiction cinema. In the process, becoming synonymous with the genre and creating some of the most iconic figures in all the history of film. The horror movie monsters that occupy our public consciousness all have their origins in the iconic 1930s and 1940s films produced by Universal. Yes, I could go on to talk about how there are some very early attempts at simultaneous  movie domain with the characters of Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the wolf man regularly transgressing into other movies from the Universal misters stable through sequels or 'guest appearances'.

But no, I won't mention those points…… I will though say simply that the impact on first seeing 'Frankenstein' as a young teenager was huge in regard to filling my world with amazing monsters and demons. To this day I can still recall the sense of shock and pleasure I felt on seeing those movies, particularly the first time I was allowed to stay up late and watch 'Frankenstein'. A result of which that night had me charging up the stairs to my room after the end-credits in an almost delicious blind panic that the monster would be waiting under my bed…..and no, I didn't dare look…….and do you know what? They have stood the test of time.

You may note that in the list below of my 5 favourite movies from Universal horror, that there is no entry or mention of a certain Transylvanian male vampire. This may or may not be controversial for some, but while Bela Lugosi's gave one of the iconic performances as Count Dracula, overall the film is actually rather disappointing. With the exception of a couple of performances, the majority of the cast are simply not very good. Moreover, whilst the iconic Gothic appearance of the film is there, the camera work is shoddy and lazy and there really isn't very much tension at any point in the film.

So anyone reading this may feel free to disagree with this list. But be warned, if you do I may just have to send my hunch-backed assistant out to collect you in the middle of the night…..Muraahahahahahaaaaaaa!

Frankenstein (1931)

"We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to – uh, well, we warned you."

There we have a rather courteous notice of intent before the opening credits of perhaps the most visually and stylistically iconic movies of all time about the scientist  who builds an artificial man by using parts from stolen bodies. He succeeds, with the aid of an electrical storm, in bringing the creature to life but, because his assistant has provided the brain of a criminal, the creation proves impossible to control. Eventually the monster escapes, accidentally killing a small girl, and is pursued and apparently slain by angry villagers in the most energised of movie climaxes.

The movie features a stunning performance from a previously little-known English actor who was born by the name of William Pratt, better known as Boris Karloff who gave intricate texture to a character that could have been laughed off the screen. In the end he produced a pathetic and entirely sympathetic creation that has been a template for monster portrayal in cinema ever since.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Arguably a rare example of a movie sequel superior to the original and in my personal top10 movies of all time, Karloff reprises his role as the lumbering yet dignified monster. In the film, Dr Frankenstein is is now tormented by his previous actions and  an unenthusiastic assistant to Dr Pretorius, his former mentor who is now pursuing his own creations of new life.

The delicious Elsa Lanchester, adds a  touchingly mystified and vulnerable  performance as the Bride who his immediately horrified by her own existence. The last horror film directed by James Whale features an evocative and powerful musical score that only further make this production of the finest and most touching cinematic productions of any era. 

The Wolf Man (1941)

Although it is predated by an earlier Wolf Man film (The 1935 Werewolf Of London), this movie is regarded as the benchmark for inventing the cinematic werewolf legend, The ethereal atmospheres, complex scenes and another atmospheric musical score combine to make this a showpiece of the genre. The Wolf Man is a classic Universal horror movie, equal in every way in being as  influential as Dracula or Frankenstein, complete with a sad and reflective script by Curt Siodmak and memorable performances from Lon Chaney Jnr, Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi .



    Dracula's Daughter (1936)

As I've previously mentioned, to some people It may be almost blasphemous  to say that the the original is actually a rather poor movie and that, Dracula's Daughter is a total improvement over the original….but in my opinion, its true. Gloria Holden is gloriously sexy as the Countess Marya Zaleska, who steals her her father's body from the authorities in the hope of cleansing her family from the horror of that nasty Vampire behaviour by burning his body. Of course, she is unable to resist the lure of the blood, in particular the blood of female victims which adds an interesting undertone of vampire Lesbianism that set the tone for Hammer productions some years later.

The movie cleverly contains range off inventive inclusions, apart from the lesbian subtext,comedy too is interjected.  Dracula's Daughter is  a gem that is often overlooked in the pantheon of Dracula-lore and should be regarded among the most peerless of the Universal horror films.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

In my humble opinion, the last great release from Universal Monsters . A scientific expedition searching for fossils along the Amazon River discover a prehistoric Gill-Man in the legendary Black Lagoon. The travellers take prisoner the strange creature, but ( this being the Universal monsters universe) it naturally breaks free, returning to kidnap  Kay ( played by the delicious Julie Adams), fiancĂ©e of one of the expedition members, with whom it has become infatuated. The movie has provided another enduring legacy, finding itself referenced in both the movie medium and the general public consciousness. Featuring a wonderfully designed monster, this is an is an enduring tribute to the imaginative brilliance other Universal creators. A truly stunning epitaph for Universal monsters.

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