S1E7: The Universal Monsters
If you love the modern day horror genre themes, you have the Big Six to thank for that. Thanks to Universal Studios taking a chance on terrifying the very people who paid them to entertain them, paid off in a big way!
S1E7: The Universal Monsters
Released October 2020
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The Universal Studio’s Monsters
Bag of Bones Podcast
Season 1: Episode 6
If you love anything about the horror genre in movies, you have the Big Six to thank for that.
The Wolf Man
The Bride of Frankenstein
And The Creature from the Black Lagoon
Universal Studios made these creatures a house hold name and giving actors like Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff a creepy place in our hearts, it spawned an entire new generation of film lovers.
In 1923, a very young Universal Studios created and led by the motion picture patriarch,Carl Laemmele offered up the thriller Hunchback of Notre Dame featuring popular character actor, Lon Chaney. The film boasted lavish sets, an amazing cast and cutting edge filming effects. The movie grossed over three million dollars and Universal got a glimpse of the amount of money people would be willing to pay to be frightened.
In 1922, the novel by Bram Stoker, Dracula had been filmed without permission and the film Nosferatu was sued for plagiarism and copyright infringement by Stoker’s wife. She won and all the prints of the foreign silent film were ordered to be destroyed. (Now we know that didn’t happen… I personally have watched this version and it was a far cry from the romanticized image that we are familiar with today, but actually more in line with the author’s original creation.)
Universal knew they wanted that story, so they went about things in the correct manner and won the rights, legally.
They of course wanted Lon Chaney to take the lead role, he unfortunately passed away from throat cancer only a few months prior.
Believe it or not, the studio looked every where but at Bela Lugosi, who, by the way was already playing the role in the Broadway version and ended up touring with the troupe. The tour just happened to be in L.A. when Universal was searching for their Dracula. Lugosi tried again and again to get the part, but the director, just didn’t want to give him a chance. It wasn’t until Lugosi agreed to do the part for a ridiculously low pay, that the studio decided to bring him on.
Dracula and Lugosi were a HUGE box office success! Released in February of 1931 at the Roxy Theatre in NY the theatre was sold out for the first two weeks. The publicity department placed fainting audience members strategically to ensure continued headlines.
It was Bela Lugosi we have to thank for the Dracula we know today. His version opened the door to the thick, almost always imitated accent. The elegant, sophisticated, gentlemanly manner and the subtleties of fear that you know are there, but just can’t quite grasp where or why.
And while the world recognizes Bela Lugosi as THE Dracula of Draculas-
Of all the vampire movies to come from Universal, Lugosi only donned the costume two times on film. For Dracula, the original film of 1931 and then again in 1947 for Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein.
The other “Draculas” were played by Lon Chaney, Jr and John Carradine. (Side note: I’m sure the Carradine name might sound familiar to many of you. You would be correct at assuming this John Carradine, is in fact, was the patriarch of the eight son, acting legacy.)
Interesting piece of Trivia: all the things Dracula is known for, the fangs, the widow’s peak, bite marks… none of those things showed up in the 1931 version. Lugosi admits to painting on the widow’s peak in future appearances, but he actually wore minimal make-up for the original. His piercing stare, by the way was not created with contacts but with small pen lights pointed at his eyes while filming.
And yes- I know you’ll want me to bring this up because everyone wants this brought up- Bela Lugosi WAS buried in one of his Dracula costumes, however, it was not HIS wishes. It was decided for him by his son and his ex-wife number four Lilian Arch. After his death, the son- also a Bela Lugosi, attempted to sell another of the capes at auction asking for over 1.2 million dollars. He did not get the amount and was strongly encouraged to donate the item to a movie museum.
Frankenstein. The 1931 film classic released only nine months after Dracula is still considered one of the top fifty BEST in the horror genre and one of the most iconic in the history of film, and that is in part, is thanks to the creative make-up of Jack P. Pierce The process to turn character actor Boris Karloff into the green-faced bolt-sporting monster took four hours each day of filming and the entire ensemble added an additional forty-eight pounds for Karloff to have to tote around.
The Frankenstein movie script was based on the stage play version by Peggy Webling which of course was based on the 1818 novel by Mary Shelly.
Cinematic history was made with this film because of the lighting special effects, the make-up and set design but it was the ability of Karloff’s portrayal of what was originally supposed to be a killing machine into an innocent and confused creature thrust into an unknown world that makes this monster story stand out. So well embodied by Karloff, it solicits empathy from the audience that sets him apart from the monster dynasty. And also causes the continued debate even today, (keeping the movie timeless) “Who is the REAL monster? The one who has been created or his creator?”
Anxious to cash in on the popularity of the horror film, sequels for Dracula and the Frankenstein monster were already in the works. And not slowing down in the search for new ways to illicit fear, Universal introduced The Mummy starring Boris Karloff as Imhotep in 1932. It was a time when movie studios could produce new movies every thirty to forty-five days.
The Mummy was an original script based on the opening of King Tut’s Tomb in 1922 and the curses that were associated with the event (another subject still discussed these days!). Karloff, by this time used to sitting in the make-up chair, found that this character doubled in time as his Frankenstein make-up. Eight hours to put on and two to get back off. The full, complete make-up work of the Mummy are really only seen a few times and the rest only partial make-up was used.
Karloff focused on his monster’s humanistic qualities of loneliness and lost love instead of killing for the sake of killing.
The 1940s movie The Mummy’s Hand was a spin-off of the Mummy not so much a sequel and was actually made up of recycled footage from the Mummy so much so that Karloff’s character is clearly seen but he is not credited as being in the movie at all. This makes The Mummy, the only one of the Big Six to not have a trail of sequels in its wake.
As far as the Big Six is concerned and rounding out our Boris Karloff features, The Bride of Frankenstein comes next in 1935. I’m honestly not sure how she became one of the Big Six, I guess they needed female representation, but as far as icons go, she’s definitely up there.
This movie could have been just one of the many Frankenstein monster sequels but this one can stand on it’s own. It was in the back of the minds of the creators from the very beginning, and this script is actually considered a continuation from the Mary Shelly novel, being one of the subplots. Which explains why it may have a slightly better quality script than the many that followed.
It paid off by becoming one of the greats earning over two million dollars at the box office. The New York Times described it as quote “… a grotesque, gruesome tale which, of it’s kind, is swell.”
Boris Karloff’s genius is revived once again as the monster, the make-up, repeated by Jack Pierce upgrading it to reflect the past struggles and injuries creating a continuous timeline, but this time the monster speaks. The audience was anxious for this very moment… that Karloff fought against. He felt that the monster shouldn’t have a vocabulary (and looking back, it is almost laughable) Karloff’s foresight had been for all the right reasons, but was, of course was veto’d. Karloff said publicly, quote “My argument was that if the monster had any impact or charm, it was because he was inarticulate…” end quote
They kept his speech to forty-four different words, and Karloff was still able to endear his creature to the audience. His performance in this movie is lauded almost as much as the original and considered the “best sequel of all time.”
This film, brings back Colin Clive as the excitable Doctor Frankenstein. Director James Whale insisted on his original players and even adjusted the filming to accommodate Clive’s broken leg (which is why he is viewed sitting in so many scenes and his escalating alcohol abuse- Trivia- Boris Karloff broke his hip during the shooting as well and he toughed through all of his scenes, not getting his hip professionally set until the movie’s wrap.
Which brings us to the she-monster played by Elsa Lanchester. She is also seen in the movie’s prologue (in some versions) as the author Mary Shelley. The visual of the Bride was a co-creation by director James Whale and Make-up artist Jack Pierce. She was based on the Egyptian princess Nefretitti. Her hair was built out on a wire cage and she had to be fitted into her dress and bandages with the assistance of several dressers.
And for all of her iconic recognition, her character gets to claim only three minutes of screen-time
Moving along to 1941 with The Wolf Man. Now over ten years in to the monster making game, Universal had it down to a science. With almost forty horror films, made up of sequels and expanding their horror palette, Universal Pictures was at the top of the horror movie mountain. And that even included the 1936 British Ban on Horror films.
So when the The Wolf Man came along as a huge success, following the Universal Magic, it was no surprise. With an original script created from stories of folklore and myth and Lon Chaney, Jr leading the cast, they knew they were down for another win.
This was actually the second werewolf movie by Universal.
The first, Werewolf of London in 1935 starring Henry Hull, was considered successful, but it was the 1941 version that became the iconic vision of the werewolf that we still conjure up today.
And as with Dracula, many of the werewolf idioms that we are familiar with such as becoming a werewolf through a bite, transformation under a full moon, killing the beast requiring a silver bullet- don’t show up until later sequels. Also, the idea that werewolves are immortal came up in a later wolf- movie, just to be able to keep the sequels rolling!
While looking back on this movie with today’s eyes, you can see all the slips and technical faux-pas but back in the day- it was on the cutting edge of special effects. The original Wolf Man doesn’t show a full transformation but does show the last few minutes and there’s also a pretty nifty furry foot transformation.
The make-up was layered and then filmed and the process was repeated for ten hours to get the few minutes we see on screen. But the lap-dissolve technique was refined in The Wolf Man and perfected in it’s many sequels.
Trivia bit: Lon Chaney, Jr (cashing in on his famous father’s name was actually born Creighton) was the only one of the Universal monsters who played his character for every appearance in the 1940s and 50s.
The Wolf Man was released in theaters in December of 1941 only three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor but still managed to be one of the top grossing films of 1942.
Closing out the Big Six, we begin to see the shift in Monsterland with the release of The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954. The entertainment industry is beginning to embrace the sci-fi trend that will eventually launch future classics like Tarantula, The Mole People and the Deadly Mantis.
The Creature is the first film that combines science fiction aspects and the docu-realism that makes an audience member wonder, even if for just a moment, that something like this could actually happen. Even going so far as to give the audience an authoritative narration of evolution and the theory of the half man, half fish. Interestingly enough, the original script was developed from a rumor that someone had found a specimen of half man/half fish swimming in the Amazon.
Again, looking back, we see the blunders of a man wearing a rubber suit, but the director Jack Arnold uses the fear of the unknown to make this movie a home run in the horror genre. He’s quoted as saying, “it plays upon a basic fear that people have about what might be lurking below the surface of any body of water. It's the fear of the unknown. I decided to exploit this fear as much as possible."
It took two men to pull off the creature for the film. Ben Chapman did the filming for the land scenes and Ricou Browning took the underwater scenes having to hold his breath for up to four minutes at a time to get the right shot! Trivia: Browning was the only actor to portray the underwater monster in all of the Creature movies. Want more trivia… It took twenty years for the two men who played both sides of Creature to finally meet at a convention.
The movie was released in 1954 as one of the first 3D films created by Universal (It Came from Outer Space was actually the first released a year prior) and grossed over a million dollars at the box office for only seventy nine minutes of screen time.
The Big Six- these creatures are known for putting monsters on the map.
To round out this historical group of icons though, it’s only fair to also include:
The Invisible Man released in 1933 based on the H.G. Wells book, put actor Claude Reins on the stars map with his first American performance of the witty and sadistic Dr. Jack Griffin, and is remembered by once again, state of the art special effects of it’s time.
The Phantom of the Opera which was originally made in 1925, staring Lon Chaney the silent version and again staring Claude Reins and Nelson Eddy in 1943, being the first horror film in color.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is often crowned Universal’s first monster- released in 1923 as mentioned at the top of this episode. The sets for this movie lasted for many years and can be seen in many other movies including the The Wolf Man which by the way, in case you’ve been taking notes, means that both father and son appeared on the same set almost a quarter of a century apart.
... And finally Jekyll and Hyde- which, by the way was actually the first. The very first monster film by a very baby Universal, released in 1913 starring King Baggot, and was also the first to use the lap-dissolve special effect technique for the shots of human to monster transformation.
While the stories and novels of things that go bump in the night have been around for decades,Universal harnessed it, and processed it, brought it to our theatres and living rooms, making horror it what it is today.
New generations that are enjoying the next round of re-makes and sequels may not realize where these frighting images came from and the classics themselves might still stir up a shiver or two but the art form of creating the horror movie monster and it’s legacy is found at the feet of Universal Studios.
The Phantom of the Opera thrilled audiences in 1925, with Lon Chaney again taking the lead role. The Phantom, Erik, in this version is the closest to the actual author’s rendition. In the original novel, he was born a grotesque creature with thin strips of hair covering his head and deep hollow eyes. And it was because of his appearance that he was “doomed” to live in the catacombs beneath the opera house. It wasn’t until later versions the story changed and made it that his face was scarred with acid.
It was originally released as a silent film but dubbed over in 1930 as a talkie, but not using Chaney’s voice because he died of throat cancer by the time the re-release. The film grossed over two million and they new they were on a roll.
Not wasting any time, the Studio was on the look-out for their next horror film.