Universal Studios didn't set out to be "The House that Horror Built", but Carl Laemmle and company created and recreated the ultimate icons of terror, and those icons were very good to Universal in return.
What are the true icons of horror? Not the currently saleable Halloween costumes out there, but the truly recognizable, universally recognized horror icons that are immediately recognizable true icons of horror? Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein and maybe that walking fish man? Although many of these characters have been around for so long they defy both convention and copyright law, the most recognizable among them are the versions created by Universal Studios for their amazing line of classic monster movies.
Frankenstein’s monster didn’t always have a flat head or electric bolts sticking out of his neck, nor did Dracula always dress like a tuxedoed and caped aristocrat. What about the Wolf Man’s status as a tall, bipedal, clothed monster with wolf-like characteristics? Very few werewolf stories featured such a monster except in mid-transformation. And the most famous Bride of horror with the zapped out hair forming a strange, streaked "do" that makes her look she just climbed out of a speeding convertible? Her visage is shorthand for a horror maven. That’s just one more oft-imitated Universal Studios Classic Horror creation.
Where did these beasts come from and why have they become so distinctive over the years? Not only does everyone recognize these monster configurations, but each of them have become something of a shorthand for monsters in general. Sesame Street features its own Universal-inspired vampire called “The Count”, and has featured cartoons with a green-skinned flat-topped creature with bolts in his neck named “Frank”, who by the way, has been standing on his creator’s foot since the previous Friday. The Universal version of The Wolf Man has become the norm in Horror, almost completely supplanting the previous version of the werewolf, a human who shape-shifts into a full wolf by the light of the moon.
Walk down the breakfast cereal aisle of your favorite supermarket and you’ll find the ghostly Boo Berry, the Wolf-like Fruit Brute, the Egyptian-themed Fruity Yummy Mummy and, of course, General Mills’ own versions of Frankenstein’s Monster and Count Dracula in the form of Franken Berry and Count Chocula. The cartoon commercial version of these mascots even feature voices impersonating Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, Béla Lugosi’s Count Dracula and Peter Lorre, one of the icons of classic horror, emanating from the oft-invisible Boo Berry.
The Universal Studios Horror Classics didn’t start with these iconic monsters, nor was Universal created to be “The House that Horror Built”, although ultimately that’s exactly what happened. Universal Studios was founded by one Carl Laemmle as “The Yankee Film Company”, which soon changed its name to IMP (The Independent Moving Pictures Company) and finally the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, all within the year of 1912. The fledgling studio’s first horror film came the following year in the 26 minute film, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, but it would take another decade before Universal would really succeed with a horror film.
That first success was a lavish production with a set that replicated Paris on an unprecedented scale for a new epic called The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). This amazing classic was Universal’s biggest gamble of 1923, and that gamble paid off to the tune of a full $3 million (in 1923, that was monumental). This success was due in no small part to the man who starred as Quasimodo, the man of a thousand faces himself, Lon Chaney. Chaney’s performance in this silent film is rife with pathos and entrancing humanity even (and especially) when Quasimodo’s own humanity is called into question.
Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera.
The incredible success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the film almost tripled its budget in its original release alone) pushed Universal to seek out more money-hungry horror films and two years later the Carl Laemmle produced The Phantom of the Opera, starring none other than Lon Chaney himself as the title character. As wonderful as the makeup in The Hunchback of Notre Dame was (and, as created by Chaney himself, it was), the expansive production of Phantom of the Opera demanded an even deeper commitment from the man of a thousand faces.
This time, Chaney underwent a remarkably intense and even painful makeover into the skull-like face that author Gaston Laroux described in his original novel. To his end, Chaney painted his eye sockets black, did the same paint-work on his nostrils and pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it back with a wire to give the impression of the empty socket of a skull’s nostrils and reportedly used fishhooks in his mouth to give the gaunt, sunken-cheek look of Erik the Phantom. So convincing was Chaney’s performance that its initial audience had patrons screaming and fainting as his now-iconic (and oft-copied) mask is torn from his face to reveal the horror beneath. Soundstage 28, where the opera house was built, is still mostly intact and is rumored to be haunted. To this day it exists as the oldest surviving movie set in history.
Through multiple re-issues with added color, re-editing and imbedded sound, The Phantom of the Opera continued to make Universal Studios millions and ultimately resulted in the funding of a series of classic horror movies that proved to be incredibly lucrative.
A smattering of horror-themed films followed The Phantom of the Opera but the little scary flicks that Universal both survived and thrived upon kicked into high gear with a lavish 1931 talkie called Dracula. These days there's as much of a shortage of filmic adaptations of Bram Stoker's Magnum Opus as there is a shortage of cell phones in an AMC Theatre. Hell, Universal themselves released not one, but two versions of Dracula within the year 1931, less than two months apart (more on that second film in a moment).
The February 1931 release featured the man who is still most associated with the character of The Count, Béla Lugosi. This was neither the first, nor most accurate adaptation of Stoker’s novel on film. The 1922 adaptation, entitled Nosferatu, closely followed the Stoker novel (to the point that his survivors sued and forced the renaming of the main character to “Count Orlok”). Like the Dracula of the novel, Max Schreck’s Orlock was a truly terrifying creature to behold. While eschewing the long hair and mustache of the title, Schreck’s performance was grotesque and gasp-worthy. A far-cry from the tuxedoed aristocrat we now associate with fiction’s bloodsucker-in-chief.
In contrast, Lugosi's Dracula isn't Stoker's. In fact, this Dracula owes much more of a debt to the stage play by Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort than the legend of old Vlad the Impaler. That said, no one so easily comes to our thoughts as the shining Iconic Vampire than Lugosi's tuxedoed and suave creature of the night. Directed by Tod Browning, this dark delicacy takes a good number of liberties with Stoker's original Epistolary Novel, combines a few characters, and eliminates a great deal of his work for a more direct and immediate scare-fest. The heavily accented Lugosi and the debonair, even sexy Count supplanted the monstrous bloodsucker from the novel and impacted vampire popular culture in general to the point that sexy and stylish vampires are now the rule and no longer the exception. Without Universal and Lugosi’s classic creature, the idea of a union between a human and a vampire would have been similar to the idea of zombie or werewolf sex. In current vernacular, “Totally not hot.”
Lugosi as Dracula.
As mentioned above, Browning’s Dracula wasn’t the only adaptation from 1931, or even the only Universal Studios adaptation from that year. In 1931, the movie industry was barely into sound pictures thus, no studio truly knew what to do with its films in the international market. With silent films, this was as easy as replacing the title cards with Spanish, German, Portuguese and Klingon words. But what was one to do with a “talkie”? Universal’s answer was to hire an entirely separate cast and crew to film a second version of the Stoker Classic in Spanish on the same sets and with the same script as the better known English language film. That's right... the English-speaking cast and crew would start at 8AM and finish after dark, the Spanish-speaking crew would start after dark and end its day at 8AM. With all these similarities there's no question that, regardless of shooting times, the two versions wouldn't be as different as night and day. The result was Drácula, starring Carlos Villar as the Count himself and directed by George Melford (who, interestingly enough, spoke no Spanish). Regardless of languages spoken, many fans consider this Spanish-Language version of Drácula superior to its daytime counterpart.
Also in 1931 came the James Whale-directed terror tale known as Frankenstein which, under makeup genius Jack Pierce, introduced the most immediately recognizable version of the character since its inception. In Mary Shelley’s book, the monster was much less a deformed freak than a romantic, tragic figure. In the 1931 film, Boris Karloff brings forth an enormity of a full-grown child whose growing pains result in pain, death and rejection. Karloff’s genius, almost completely silent performance is rife with pathos and remains the most definitive and influential portrayal of the monster to this very day. Ironically, the part was originally offered to Lugosi who refused the chance to play the part for fear of not being recognized under all of that makeup. Thus, Lugosi was ultimately typecast as the Count while Karloff went on to diversify his resume with a series of frightening, yet varied characterizations.
These characters began the very next year in the 1932 picture The Mummy with Karloff starring as the title character. While Frankenstein’s monster was mute, saving for a few poignant words here and there, audiences got their first real glimpse of the thinking, verbal Karloff in the form of Imhotep himself. Although the story and screenplay by Nina Wilcox Putnam, Richard Schayer and John L. Balderston was billed as being completely original, The Mummy has been criticized as a virtual remake of 1931's Dracula. There is a good case to be made for that, too.
James Dietrich's score is supplemented by Heinz Roemheld's main theme from Dracula. Both stories revolve around an undead prince returning to modern day society and finding his undoing when becoming entranced by a hot woman. Edward Van Sloan is featured here as Dr. Muller, the man who discovers the Mummy's true identity. He appeared in Dracula as Dr. Van Helsing, the man who discovers the vampire's true nature. David Manners' Frank Whemple is the rival love interest to the object of Im-ho-tep's affections, practically reprising his role as Mina's husband in Dracula. Norton's Fletcher character, with his Joker-esque laughing fits, even fills the Renfield void pretty damned well.
That said, The Mummy comes into its own because Karloff steals his own show and becomes both the Prince of antiquity and the terrifying, bandaged-wrapped monster as created by none other than Jack P. Pierce.
The year 1932 also featured two more starring roles for Lugosi and Karloff in Murders in the Rue Morgue and This Old Dark House, respectively, but it wasn’t until the following year that the next major horror Icon would be seen… or, unseen as the case may be. That unseen icon was, of course, The Invisible Man who hit horror screens in the guise of, and horror speakers in the voice of, Claude Rains.
This “must see” is a masterpiece of trick photography, two generations before CGI made its bow. The truth is that Trick Photography is still amazing. Today there are tools that exist that make the special effects from the early years of talkies look remarkably outdated and with the internet and the ready availability of just about any special effects data, the tricks of old and the tricks of today leave little to disbelief. If we take a step back and put ourselves in the era of the blissful unknown, "trick photography" can be a thrill again, and Star Wars continues to be amazing, The Lost World is still a wonder, 2001 A Space Odyssey can take your breath away anew.
"Believable" this might never be, but it's much more than simply “cool”. The great director James Whale and his screenwriters Preston Sturges and R.C. Sherriff brought forth from the novel by H.G. Wells (and Philip Gordon Wylie's 1931 novel The Murderer Invisible) a frightening, yet somehow still campy and humorous thriller that fits perfectly into the collection of Universal Studios' Classic Horror films. Departing from both Wells and Wylie, Whale's Invisible Man is a mad scientist who combines the homicidal bends of The Murder Invisible with the social commentary of Wells' The Invisible Man.
Elsa Lanchester, The Bride of Frankenstein
Lanchester’s face is as beautiful as the bride as it is in the prologue (where she plays Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley), but she moves with a stiff, confused, almost robotic menace. It's hard not to be both enchanted and disturbed by the Bride whose corpse-like movements, frightening look and mesmerizing eyes evoke a whirlwind of emotions in the audience, especially when Karloff is in the room. Lanchester’s aforementioned hair alone has become as recognizable as Karloff’s “old flattop” as he comes groovin’ up slowly and the Universal Pantheon received their first real goddess.
The sequel angle continued with Daughter of Dracula (1936) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) and while both were successful, neither proved to be as well-received as Bride of Frankenstein (in spite of the latter film’s featuring of both Lugosi and Karloff). Later sequels followed in the form of 1940’s The Invisible Man Returns (starring Vincent Price) and The Mummy’s Hand (starring Tom Tyler). Universal also experimented with new horror properties like Tower of London and The Phantom Creeps (both 1939) as well as Black Friday (1940) all of which did well, but failed to produce new icons for the screen.