Friday, October 23, 2015

8 Flaws in Universal's Great 8 Monster Movies

From the twenties through the fifties, Universal Studios completely defined horror cinema, bringing iconic literary characters and the exclusive creations of all their Dr. Frankensteins on staff to life. Modern audiences may have trouble relating to these “slow,” black & white films created some eighty or seventy years ago, but they will surely be as familiar with the glowering visages of Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Wolf Man as they are with the mugs of Santa Claus or Jesus. For us fans who do not dismiss the best and most enduring of Universal's monster movies—Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon— these are films that defy criticism. Yet each film does have at least one noteworthy flaw. At the risk of ruining your enjoyment of the Gill Man's underwater frolics or the Phantom's floor show, let's take off our fan caps for a second and put on our critical thinking ones instead, because we're about to whine about 8 Flaws in Universal's Great 8 Monster Movies

The Phantom of the Opera

Our first flaw is the most fundamental one on this list. You’ve got a movie called The Phantom of the Opera. You do not have sound. See the problem? Carl Laemmle could have selected any piece of public domain horror literature under the sun. Why choose one in which sound plays such an integral role before the advent of sound cinema? So there are scenes of singing without song, elaborate orchestral performances with only whatever melody the pit organist could pump out. We need to hear Christine’s lovely voice, and this flaw was not one unrecognized in its time. In fact, as soon as sound started invading film in the late twenties, Universal schemed to reissue its flagship horror with the sound the film always demanded. In lieu of original director Rupert Julian (or Lon Chaney, depending on which making-of account you want to believe), new directors Ernst Laemmle and Frank McCormick began shooting replacement footage for half the movie, which enjoyed a successful opening in 1930. Unfortunately, only the soundtrack remains, and a proper reissue of the sound Phantom of the Opera is not currently available. It’s a testament to the original film’s elaborate design and Chaney’s still-terrifying performance as Erik the Phantom that a seemingly major flaw does not really seem that bad when watching a silent film about opera. No sound remake has ever bettered it.

Every critic seems to have a big, fat opinion about the flaws in Dracula. It’s slow. It’s static. It’s too talky. Bela’s a ham. Blah, blah, blah. You’ll hear no such complaints from me. I love Dracula and honestly believe it suffers from none of the above, but there is one less-exhausted complaint about the film that I can lodge: there just isn’t enough Lucy Westenra (or Weston, as Garrett Fort renamed her). In Bram Stoker’s novel, Lucy was one of the tale’s most interesting characters and involved in some of its most striking scenes. She was the fun and vivacious counterpoint to the more grounded and dull Mina. She was Dracula’s first victim, and her vampiric return as the “bloofer lady”—a creepy night-drifter who feeds on children—is as scary as her true death in her crypt is gruesome and heartbreaking. In Universal’s film, she barely appears. We get enough of Frances Dade as a flapper-style Lucy that we want to spend more time with her, but she’s all gone with a quick munch from the count. Her bloofer scenes are reduced to a few seconds of eerie nighttime wandering. Granted, pulling off scenes of her murdering kids or having her head chopped off probably would have been too much for a 1931 horror movie, but even merely suggestive scenes would have been welcome compared to the teensy bit of Lucy that ended up in the final film.


In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein does not survive his own story, and this too was how Francis Faragoh ended his screenplay for Universal, James Whale shot the last scene of his film, and preview audiences saw Frankenstein. The Monster lobs his creator over the side of the mill to his death. The mill burns. The end. The audience was so flabbergasted by this ruthless, nihilistic finale that they fell silent at the end of the preview. Critics were less quiet, declaring the picture a disaster. Junior Laemmle had a new ending shot that found some Frankenstein imposter lying in bed after surviving a fall that would have killed the Monster himself. Meanwhile, Frank’s dad Baron Frankenstein—the goofiest character in the film—ensures his servant staff that everything will be peachy keen and leads them in a toast. It is abrupt and as forceful an ending as a dry fart. Granted, had Frankenstein actually perished in the stark, stunning, original ending, we would not have gotten the greatest sequel in cinema history. Of course, Universal never had much problem resurrecting characters that had died very unambiguous deaths in earlier movies, so maybe that isn’t true.

The Mummy

The Mummy is one of the tightest early Universal horrors. With Boris Karloff’s icy performance and the studio’s most elaborate horror set design since Phantom, Karl Freund’s film leaves a strong and lasting impression. So does an issue that probably didn’t ruffle a shroud in 1932 but is painful to watch with twenty-first century eyes: the Nubian. As Im-Ho-Tep’s speechless muscle, Noble Johnson had to play a character defined by his “exotic” race. The truly weird part is that Johnson was black, but he apparently was not black enough for Universal, because he was corked-up from pate to torso as the Nubian (not the only time he’d suffer such an indignity—he’d be made up similarly with an additional afro wig in King Kong). It may seem a cop out to call this a flaw when such casual, mindless racism was so common in 1930s cinema, but it is a drag that such a thing has to mar the fun of such a relatively flaw-free cinema classic as The Mummy.

The Invisible Man

Speaking of flaw-free, The Invisible Man is so flaw-free that I almost considered leaving it off this list. Everything about this movie—from the delirious performances to the still-amazing special effects to the still-hilarious humor—is superb. Even the fact that we barely get a glimpse of the star is not a problem since Claude Rains’s voice is so marvelously effective (and since he plays the title character in a movie called The Invisible Man, after all). So where’s the flaw? The best I could come up with is the fact that Dr. Griffin spends so much time buck naked outside in a snowy, English winter. We never hear his teeth so much as chatter! Did the monocane not only make him invisible but also impervious to cold? Maybe we could chalk it up to the drug’s side effect of insanity and simply call The Invisible Man flawless.

Bride of Frankenstein

Bride of Frankenstein, however, is not flawless even if it gets my vote for the most purely enjoyable monster movie ever made. Another hilarious, imaginative, wonderfully acted, special effects extravaganza from James Whale, Bride of Frankenstein also has a dopey ending in which a conveniently placed lever kills all of our villains while our heroes are conveniently allowed to go free. This ending earned my favorite monster movie a place on a piece I wrote called Ten Terrible Scenes in Otherwise Terrific Terror Movies back in 2010. With five years of reflection, I’ve realized that there is something much worse at work in my beloved Bride. The entire film seems intent on humanizing the Monster, eliciting our sympathy with how terribly he is rejected by his creator, how sweetly he takes to a blind hermit, how cruelly ignorant villagers treat him, and how desperately he wants love. However, some sloppy editing nearly destroys our sympathy for the character when it seems as though he has gone on a murder spree that claims the lives of an innocent couple (the Neumans), and more disconcertingly, a little girl named Frieda. According to ace horror historian Gregory Mank, these murders were not intended to be the Monster’s work, but that of Frankenstein’s assistant Karl, who originally featured in his own murder-spree subplot that also had him bump off his own uncle. With the deletion of this subplot, which was allegedly filmed, the random murders can only seem to be the Monster’s work, and one of cinema’s most sympathetic bad guys is rendered totally unsympathetic. Knowing about the deleted subplot allows me to correct the film in my head, but anyone who isn’t aware of it will have a very different, and very unfortunate, impression of the sweet brute... who may actually avenge the deaths of all those poor victims by deliberately killing Karl toward the end of Bride
Dwight Frye as Karl menancing his uncle in a still of a deleted scene.

The Wolf Man

One thing we can count on from Universal’s classic horrors is that they really define the iconic monsters. Gaston Leroux’s Phantom looks like a living skull in a tux. Bram Stoker’s Dracula similarly prefers eveningwear—with special emphasis on the requisite cape— to offset his pasty palor and slick hairdo. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Monster is a flat-headed lug with electrodes in his neck who likes to wear sport coats. His mate, who Shelley never adequately describes (probably because the author never even bothers to animate the lass), wears her hair up and undyed. The Mummy is more about the bandages than the leathered skin of real mummies. But what is a werewolf? OK, so we all know how Lon Chaney, Jr., looks in The Wolf Man; he’s basically a furry man with fangs, claws, and a dog nose. But let’s not forget the werewolf that werewolfs Lon. Bela Lugosi’s Bela the Werewolf is not a fur-man at all. He’s an actual animal (though, to be precise, he’s a German Shepherd named Moose, not a wolf). So what are we supposed to think werewolves are: hairy people or dogs? Obviously, the Chaney version is so iconic that a lot of people do not even realize that there are two kinds of werewolves in The Wolf Man. Nevertheless, for people who have actually seen The Wolf Man, the fact that there is no consistency in its depiction of wolf men can only be viewed as a flaw, though without it, we wouldn’t have the necessary ambiguity of whether or not Talbot is crazy and we wouldn’t have one of horror’s most iconic monsters. So, perhaps this flaw is more necessary than any of the others on this list.
Lon Chaney,Jr., and Moose

Creature from the Black Lagoon

We now jump ahead more than a decade to when the gothic horrors of yore have been shoved aside by an age of scientific horrors bred by the A and H bombs. The Gill Man is not one such horror, though his origin as a missing link between fish and people is more science-based than the vampires, reanimated corpses, cursed mummies, and werewolves of the outmoded gothics. And a genuine scientific innovation—the underwater movie camera—helped make Creature from the Black Lagoon especially unique among Universal’s A-list horrors. Unfortunately, as is so often the case when a new toy comes on the scene, it tends to get abused. Yes, the underwater photography in Creature is enchanting—to a point. But too often the film is like watching one of those video aquariums: too many shots of drifting kelp, bubbles, and people swimming. Creature probably could have shaved five or ten minutes of the underwater footage that makes it drag more than tidier movies like Dracula, Mummy, or Bride of Frankenstein do. But then all of those movies have their own unique flaws too—and let’s face it—the vast majority of movies do. Such flaws make cinema more interesting, and they make being a cinema fan a more engaging activity. And thankfully, all the flaws on this list do very, very little to detract from the enjoyment and thrills that come with watching eight of the very, very finest monster movies ever made.  

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