Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Houses of Frankenstein: Universal and Hammer's Horror Epochs

“We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein... It is one of the strangest tales ever told… I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even — horrify you.”

These words helped usher in Horror’s golden age when Edward Van Sloan spoke them in the prologue of Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein in 1931. For the next ten years, the studio was the first and last word in Horror. All others paled in terms of production values, iconography, and well, interest. Although other major studios produced great horror movies during the decade—Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Island of Lost Souls, MGM’s Freaks and Mad Love, Warner Bros.’ The Mystery of the Wax Museum—only Universal aligned itself with the controversial new genre with utmost fidelity. That’s because studio chief, Carl Laemmle, Jr., wasn’t just a fad-hopping dabbler like the heads of the rival majors. He was a genuine monster fan; cinema’s first horror hound. And under his watch, all of Horror’s essentials were carved in granite: the vampire, the creation monster, the werewolf, the mad doctor, the twisted lab assistant, the mummy, the monstrous bride. The pictures were big money makers, hence the pretenders from outside Universal, but they were dismissed by critics for their lowbrow luridness. Junior’s own father thought his son’s devotion to all things macabre and ghoulish was foolish. So, when he was muscled out of Universal in 1935, the studio’s interest in producing quality Horror gradually faltered. Following its final prestige monster movie, 1941’s The Wolf Man, Universal proceeded to churn out fun but fatuous sequels, some barely distinguishable from the Z-grade flicks rolling off Poverty Row. So went the ‘40s. So went the ‘50s.

Well, at least in the States.

In England, Enrique Carreras’s Hammer Productions was a small studio that slipped out a few movies in 1936 and ’37 (including The Mystery of the Marie Celeste starring Bela Lugosi) before declaring bankruptcy amidst an economy more concerned with looming war than producing B-pictures. Like The Mummy, Hammer was in mere hibernation.

With the War two years past, Enrique’s son James helped utter the incantation that revived Hammer in 1947. The studio birthed cheap sci-fi and mystery pictures, “quota quickies” designed to slip in and out of cinemas and turn a fast pound. One such film was 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment, Val Guest’s sci-fi potboiler about a rocket that returns to Earth with an infectious monster in tow. Another quota quickie for sure, but The Quatermass Xperiment did not behave itself as other pictures of its ilk had. This was a different kind of sci-fi movie than anything that preceded it, more concerned with horrifying than stirring the imagination—and on a more revolutionary level, the first film bent on grossing out its viewers. The violence was more graphic, the mutations goopier. There was no way this movie was going to make it to theaters with anything less than an X-certificate. In a brilliant, and rather cheeky, stroke, James Carreras and producer Anthony Hinds seized on the undesired rating, stamping a big, blazing “X” in the film title. Audiences rushed to see this nasty piece of work. Carreras and Hinds plotted their next move.

And this is where Hammer Horror is truly born—and the monsters of the Universal age are reborn. There had been Frankenstein films before James Whale’s, but it was his that solidified the Monster in the collective consciousness. No longer was he the articulate, jaundiced creature Mary Shelley described in her novel. He was now a mute blockhead with electrodes jutting from his neck, droop eyed and decked in hobnail boots and a sport coat. Whether the face belonged to Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., or Glenn Strange, the basic design was always the same. For any studio beside Universal to present the Frankenstein Monster in any other way would be downright iconoclastic.

Hammer, of course, was now in the business of iconoclasm. The filmmakers tossed out the make-up devised by Universal’s Jack Pierce. This new monster would be lean rather than bulky, more like a horribly scarred man than a misshapen, otherworldly creature. Karloff was chosen for his grim countenance. This new Monster was matinee-idol handsome when not scabbed, stitched, and clouded. And most shocking of all, his gory scars and wounds would be presented in vivid Technicolor. The Universal Horrors that were so questionable during their day would be rendered quaint by Hammer’s new approach. Karloff’s extreme pathos is barely detectable in Christopher Lee’s almost mechanical killing machine. Colin Clive’s moral turmoil has been dissolved in favor of Peter Cushing’s unrepentant evil, and from here through subsequent sequels, Dr. Frankenstein would always be Hammer’s wickedest villain. His tawdry affair with his maid introduced another integral element to the Hammer stew: sex (though the studio’s fixation on heaving cleavage was still several years away). The Curse of Frankenstein was released on May 2, 1957, and with it, the Hammer Horror era had begun.

No shocker that critics were outraged, and none that audiences turned The Curse of Frankenstein into a box office phenomenon. The formula was now set. Naturally, Dracula would swoop in after Frankenstein, the Mummy would stalk out next, and then the werewolf, almost in the very same order they paraded across the Universal back lot. And like that studio, there would be a stock company of monsters and mad scientists. Universal had the Laemmles, James Whale, and Karl Freund behind the camera and Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr., in front of it. Hammer had the Carrerases, director Terence Fisher, who rendered his images with a painter’s eye, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, Cushing and Lee. Uncannily, Hammer also followed Universal’s creative trajectory. Its stealthily artistic early films eventually gave way to tossed-off moneymakers, endlessly trotting out the same monsters: fun but fatuous sequels. Serious Horror gave way to camp. And reflecting the times as much as steering them, the films became lazily edgy: bigger buckets of blood, bigger boobs.

But before the decline, Hammer resembled Universal in another crucial way: it pulled Horror into vogue. The 1960s was the most vital time for the genre since the ‘30s, and Hammer’s stylistic paw prints were as evident on Eyes without a Face, Psycho, The City of the Dead (starring Christopher Lee), Night of the Eagle, Viy and the films of Roger Corman and Roman Polanski as Universal’s stamp was on the Horror pictures of its era. But once Hammer faded in the late ‘70s, the genre did not crumble around it like some desiccated old dark house, as it did when Universal’s epoch wound down. By helping to embolden the genre in a time that produced much similar (and, to be honest, often superior) work, Hammer helped Horror get its foothold in cinema once and for all. Some of its spawn—Psycho, The Haunting, Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, The Exorcist—also gave it a scaly leg up in terms of artistic and critical credibility.

Hammer too has enjoyed its own critical reevaluation in more recent years. Once synonymous with the basest drives behind movie making, Dracula, Curse of the Werewolf, The Mummy, and the one that started it all, The Curse of Frankenstein, are now regarded as cinema classics. Lee and Cushing remain the most beloved team of miscreants since Karloff and Lugosi, and Terence Fisher’s kaleidoscopic imagery has been copied endlessly by filmmakers from Mario Bava to Dario Argento to Tim Burton, but rarely bettered. Karloff’s face may forever be the first that lumbers to mind when one hears the word “Frankenstein”, but Universal may not necessarily be the first studio that leaps forth when pondering Horror’s definitive laboratory.

The Curse of Frankenstein was released 55 years ago today.
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