Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Classic Horror Essentials - Part One

Part one of my horror essentials is devoted to the classic horror of Universal Studios. Before the success of Dracula, horror films popped up here and there during the silent era with a number of successes but they didn't become a regular thing until this film. With the addition of sound you could now hear the damsel scream, the creak of the tomb, and the thunderous storms. Universal's films also had a very special feel. The majority of the films took place in the present day (the 30's or 40's), and much of them had to do with the supernatural of the past colliding with the modern era and being met with doubt. What I think I personally like most is that you can always find some way to identify with the monster; there's always a spot of revelation where you can see into what they're feeling or what their motivation is behind what is obvious. For example, Dracula is an obvious villain but when he first meets Jonathan, Mina, and Lucy in the theatre and says the line "To be really dead...that must be glorious", you get the feeling that Dracula might actually want to be freed from his curse. What follows is a list of what I consider the best of Universal's classic horror, in no particular order.

1931 Directed by Tod Browning
Although not the first horror film to come from Universal, this was the first in the great cycle and set the tone for most of what was to follow. Tod Browning originally wanted Lon Chaney to star as the Count, but Chaney's untimely death in 1930 unfortunately put an end to their longtime collaboration. After much lobbying, Bela Lugosi finally won the role that had made him so famous on stage. With his appearance in the film, his characterization immediately became what would forever be thought of as the definitive look and sound of Dracula for all time. After all, who can think of anyone other than Lugosi when hearing the line "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music the make."
1931 Directed by James Whale
After Dracula's immediate success, Universal went on to bring another classic gothic monster to life: Frankenstein. Lugosi was the favorite to play the role but declined because the role of the monster would be mute, and also because of the extensive makeup that would be required. James Whale happened to see Boris Karloff in the commissary one day, was fascinated by his looks, and the rest is history! The job of transforming Karloff into the monster fell to makeup designer Jack Pierce. After much trial and error, and some collaboration with Whale and Karloff, Pierce finally came to the look that became "the monster": the sunken cheeks (thanks to Karloff removing a dental bridge), the hooded eyes, and of course the famous neck bolts. As with Lugosi in Dracula, the Universal presentation of Karloff as Frankenstein's monster soon became the definition of what the monster is pictured as. And although the monster never speaks, there were several instances where Karloff brought a great deal of sympathy and dimension to the character, making the character memorable for more than just it's look.

The Bride of Frankenstein
1935 Directed by James Whale
Four years after Frankenstein, Whale followed his classic with what many consider to be one of the greatest sequels to a film. The Bride of Frankenstein starts out with an introduction featuring Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley in a recreation of the famous party at which Mary first told her story of Frankenstein. Mary picks up the story where the first film left off; the windmill that the monster was in has finished burning and the fire has presumably killed the monster. Obviously, we soon learn this is not the case. Whale's success with this film is due in no small part to his mixture of a number of elements in with the base of the horror story; love, guilt, ego, the human need for companionship, and the main item that seems to tie it all together, humor. Karloff thought it a mistake for the creature to speak, but it truly was a necessity in the progression of the creature and this "life" he has been given. It's this new ability that allows the creature to express his deep loneliness and need for a companion like himself who won't turn from him in horror. Unfortunately, his bride (another iconic creation of Jack Pierce) does just that. The fact that Whale mixes so many elements together so well, makes it a sequel that is well rounded and helps progress the story of the first film.

The Mummy
1932 Directed by Karl Freund
After Karloff's enormous success as Frankenstein's monster, Universal kept the ball rolling by starring him in The Mummy. Directing The Mummy would be Karl Freund, who had just recently worked on Dracula as the cinematographer. This is the first of Universal's horror films not to be based on classic literature or on any type of folklore, with the inspiration coming from the craze for all things Egypt after the discovery of Tutankahmen's tomb only ten years before. Although it is a unique story, you can see many callbacks to Dracula. Most notably, David Manners again takes the role of the romantic lead and Edward Van Sloan once again falls into the role of the scientist educated in the occult whose knowledge is able to help in fighting off the supernatural villain. Although Karloff appears as the mummy very briefly, the unforgettable makeup Jack Pierce created took eight hours to apply and an additional two hours to remove once they were finished filming for the day. However the pain may have been worth it, as Karloff was now cemented as a master of horror after portraying yet another memorable supernatural being and was now in high demand after years of struggling as an actor.

The Phantom of the Opera
1925 Directed by Rupert Julian
Based on the 1911 novel by Gaston Leroux, this was the first major horror production to come from Universal. Though the novel was not originally well received, the film starring Lon Chaney made it an enormous success and it has become one of the most adapted stories of all time. Universal's production was one of their most lavish to date, with a reproduction of the grand opera house (which is still in use today), the use of two strip Technicolor for the Bal Masque sequence, and Chaney's use of one of the most horrific makeup creations ever to be used. Chaney based his makeup for "The Phantom" largely on the description that is in the novel. The dramatic unmasking scene that finally reveals The Phantom's horrific face is still considered to be one of the most startling sequences in film and has helped make The Phantom of the Opera one of the greatest silent films of all time.

The Invisible Man
1933 Directed by James Whale
Based on the H.G. Wells novel, the main challenge was to portray an invisible man in the visual medium of film. In clothes, the invisible man would be bandaged on any exposed portions of skin, mainly his face. However, in scenes where "The Invisible Man" would be partially clothed is where the real challenge began. These scenes were accomplished by filming Claude Rains in a black velvet bodysuit under any other clothes he might have on, against a black backdrop. These shots would later be combined with the scene shots through a matte process. This was the first attempt at a special effect of this type. There are a few places where you can just barely see the outline of Rains in the bodysuit, but for the great majority of the film the effect is seamless. Compared to the sequels that followed when more technology was available, the effect is far superior. The Invisible Man was another great success in Universal's horror series and consequently made Claude Rains a star. The funny things is, although Rains was the star of the film, he didn't actually "appear" until the final moments of the film when his character dies and the effects of the invisibility drug wear off!

The Black Cat
1934 Directed by Edgar Ulmer
Although the title is credited to Poe, the story really has no resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe's short story. The Black Cat has many distinctions to it's credit for the horror genre; it was the top grossing picture for Universal in 1934, it was the first pairing of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a film, and it is a horror film that does not feature an actual monster but rather focused on the horrific idea of devil worship and black magic. In addition to the dark arts, there were also aspects of torture, revenge, human sacrifice, sex, and perhaps most shocking of all, Boris Karloff's character is skinned alive in a scene near the end of the film. Released in May of 1934, these tabboo topics most certainly would not have been allowed in the film if it had been released a month and a half later when the Production Code went into full effect and required films to have a certificate of approval before they could be released. If it had been released after the code, The Black Cat would most certainly have been a very different film and very likely would not be the memorable classic that it now is.

The Wolf Man
1941 Directed by George Waggner
Although Universal released it's first werewolf film in 1935 with Werewolf of London, it was their release of The Wolf Man in 1941 that proved to be the bigger success. The success of The Wolf Man is due in no small part to the rich mythology the film created surrounding the idea of lycanthropy. The famous poem repeated numerous times throughout the film was not from any ancient legend, but was rather the invention of the screenwriter Curt Siodmak. The idea that a werewolf could only be killed by an object made of pure silver was also an idea created for the film that has stuck with the werewolf legend. Once again, Jack Pierce's makeup became the centerpiece that became the look for what a werewolf is supposed to look like. Makeup took six hours to apply and three hours to remove. The Wolf Man became so popular that Universal immediately started pairing the werewolf with two of it's other famous monsters, Dracula and Frankenstein, in various pairings in four subsequent films. Lon Chaney Jr. also played The Wolf Man in these four films and is the only actor to have played the same monster in all of it's following film appearances.

The Creature From The Black Lagoon
1954 Directed by Jack Arnold
Based on a legend of a half-man, half-fish creature living in the depths of the Amazon, The Creature from the Black Lagoon became Universal's final great original monster of the golden age of horror. Filmed in 3D, it produced two sequels and actually has the distinction of being one of the few of Universal's major "monsters" not to end up in a comedy spoof film with Abbott & Costello. "Creature" is unique in that the "monster" doesn't come to the modern world creating chaos, but rather it's the modern world intruding on the realm of The Gill Man. It's perhaps this reason that makes The Gill Man the most sympathetic of all of the classic monsters that Universal produced. Even in the sequels that followed, although he is now in the modern world, he's still extremely sympathetic because he's mainly trying to get back to where he came from. This makes it quite a different from the typical horror film where you can not only sympathize with the human characters, but you almost sympathize with the "monster" a little bit more.

Images used are from Dr. Macro

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