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Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Universal Horror Series (originally published 10/97)

Last week, we looked at Universal Studio's monster combo pictures, "House of Frankenstein" (1944) and "House of Dracula" (1945), a concept that is about to be repeated by NBC with its "House of Frankenstein" miniseries. These films represented the capstones of a monumentally successful run of monster movies for Universal. They do not, however, represent the studio's highest achievement in that genre. Far from it. As a general rule, the best and most interesting films of any series are likely to be the earliest ones. The Universal horror film cycle of the thirties and forties is certainly no exception to this rule. That being the case, if you really want to sample the exhilaratingly morbid cinematic tradition from which NBC has appropriated the title "House of Frankenstein," I wouldn't recommend that you limit yourself to seeing only the original "House of Frankenstein" and its sequel, "House of Dracula." It's no accident that these moody, macabre little films and the horrific characters who populated them were sufficiently popular with audiences to generate multiple sequels over two decades. If you're curious about why these cool ghouls are capable, some sixty years later, of inspiring everything from a network miniseries to a line of postage stamps, look for these classic Universal titles on video.

"The Phantom of the Opera" (1925). Although not officially part of the Universal horror cycle, this often-remade adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novel was a Universal picture and does foreshadow the shivers to come. Most importantly, it features the granddaddy of all horror stars, the immortal Lon Chaney, Sr. Almost everyone is familiar with the story of the mad, tortured Erik, thanks to the popularity of Andrew Lloyd-Weber's musical, but no one has yet surpassed Chaney's inspired incarnation of this unforgettable character.

"Dracula" (1931). Bram Stoker's epistolary novel about the king of the vampires has been filmed many, many times. In some respects, this is far from the best version. Its script was taken more or less intact from a stage adaptation of the novel, and it shows. Luckily, the producers also opted to cast the stage production's leading actor, Bela Lugosi, in the role of the undead Count. Everything about the Hungarian-born actor seemed right for the part, including such "problems" as his imperfect command of English diction and the stiffness of his manner. His first onscreen words were, "I am Dracula." And from then on, he was.

"Frankenstein" (1931). Later that same year, Universal cemented its hold on the genre by launching its second major horror star. The role of Frankenstein's monster went to Boris Karloff, a mild-mannered Englishman with a pleasant speaking voice accented by a mild lisp. He inherited the role by default after it had been turned down by Lugosi and others as unworthy of their talents. It was, after all, a nonspeaking part in which the actor's face would be buried under Jack Pierce's now-famous makeup. Karloff proved equal to the challenge, and the rest is cinematic history.

"The Mummy" (1932). Although Lon Chaney, Jr. is best remembered in the role of The Mummy, in this first film appearance the character is played by Karloff. In contrast to the mute, foot-dragging mannequin of later films, this Mummy is a fully developed character caught up in a fascinating tale of love and betrayal across the centuries.

"The Wolf Man" (1941). Universal had dabbled in lycanthrope before, in "The Werewolf of London" (1935) with Henry Hull, but it is Lon Chaney, Jr., in the role of Larry Talbot, who is remembered as Universal's real werewolf star. Talbot is almost certainly the most sympathetic of the Universal monsters, because he shape-shifts between a human form and a monster form. In his human form, he loathes and detests the creature he will become when the moon is full, but he is unable to do anything about it. His torment over his condition adds an element of genuine drama to what is normally a purely melodramatic genre, as well as inviting Freudian interpretations.

The odd man out among the continuing characters in the Universal horror cycle is the Invisible Man. He doesn't turn up in "House of Frankenstein" or "House of Dracula," nor, apparently, in the new "House of Frankenstein." He didn't get put on a stamp either, but if you think about it that only makes sense. Who'd want a blank stamp?

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