Saturday, October 21, 2017

Ghoul Days

Well, if the last two posts got you guys thinking that I’m some kind of classic monster purist, then boy are you in for a surprise.

Just like a lot of people, I grew up watching the goofier monster stuff too.  I recall watching reruns of The Munsters on TV and cartoons about vampire ducks.

But the one comedic/children’s entertainment monster trope I want to talk about right now is the “school for monsters”.  In a way, this post is a spiritual successor to the post I wrote on Fairy Tale Fandom about “fairy tale schools”.  There are a couple of differences, of course.  For one, I don’t have to write out a whole list of them because TV Tropes already composed a list that’s right HERE.  The other thing is that unlike all the fairy tale school properties that seemed to pop up over the last few years, the monster school trope has been around for decades.

Now, keep in mind, I specifically mean schools that are meant to cater to monsters (with maybe one or two human students as “fish out of water”).  This does not count situations where monster kids go to school with human kids, like in the Fifth Grade Monsters books I read as a kid.  It also doesn’t include other establishments for monsters.  I am aware of hotels for monsters, summer camps for monsters and farms full of monster animals, but they’re not taken into account here.

Before we go any further, I’d like to show you the variation of this trope I had when I was a kid.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is Rick Moranis in Gravedale High:
If there was ever a show that screamed “90s Saturday mornings” it’s probably this one.  It’s even one of those celebrity tie-in cartoons that were common back then.  Why someone thought the idea of Rick Moranis as a human teacher at a school for monsters was such a winning idea with kids, I’ll never know.  But still, it hit all the monster archetypes, all the high school stereotypes and then some.  There was Vinnie Stoker, a cool greaser vampire.  Reggie Moonshroud, a nerdy werewolf.  Duzer, a sort of valley girl gorgon.  Gill Waterman, a slacker/surfer swamp creature.  J.P. Gastly, a rich kid . . . um . . . um.  Honestly, I’m not sure what kind of monster J.P. was supposed to be, but he sounded kind of like Peter Lorre.  But yeah, they covered all the bases, sometimes twice.  I mean, between Frankentyke and Sid the Invisible Kid, they had two different takes on the “class clown” character.  Overall though, it was just a really average ‘90s kids cartoon that cribs from shows like Happy Days and Welcome Back Kotter  as well as the Universal and Hammer Studios monsters.  Though it does show some of the standard parts of this trope.  One is juxtaposing classic horror archetypes against everyday school stuff, showing that the monster students are “just like us” while also being very different from us.  The other is puns.  Lots and lots of monster-related puns.

I tell you though, I’ve seen practically every variation of this trope in researching this post.
I read Marc Sumerak’s graphic novel All Ghouls’ School.  It seems to be something of an underappreciated comic seeing as it ended on a cliff-hanger with no follow up.  However, it was pretty well-written and had some strong themes in regards to bullying.

I discovered that there’s a pre-school cartoon called Super Monsters on Netflix that uses the idea of a “pre-school for monsters” but adds a bit of a superhero twist.  The show plays up the idea that each monster kid has a “super-power” and even gives them a transformation sequence that happens when the sun goes down.  It’s a cute and harmless show.

I found an Australian live action puppet show for kids titled Li’l Horrors.  The show only seems to partially take place in a school.  The rest happens at the estate of an old horror movie starlet where a bunch of monster kids live.  This one has to be seen to be believed.  Largely because the puppets in this show seem to walk a very fine line between cute and creepy.  There are a couple of decent gags in it, though.  I love the one about how the zombie kid is constantly watching TV.

I’ve also long been aware of the variations aimed more at teens and adults like the webcomic Eerie Cuties and the manga Rosario+Vampire.   One notable thing about those is that they take advantage of their older audience to touch on more adult, often sexual, situations (both have had a succubi in their main casts of characters).

The main thing that comes up when looking at all this is the question of what makes a trope.  Or rather, what makes a trope seem so appealing that people will visit it over and over again?  And what makes any use of the trope popular enough that it can last for years on end?

Well, in terms of the former question, I think I can echo some of the same things I said with the “fairy tale school” post.  For a young audience, there’s a certain relatability connected to putting characters in a school setting.  However, the fairy tale school concept plays somewhat on the idea of school as a journey from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after”.  The monster school trope has an undertone that plays more on the idea of school being an ordeal.  To some extent, especially when adolescence is reached, there can be a certain amount of anxiety associated with school.  In other words, school can be a scary place.  So, why not play on the idea of school being “a living nightmare” in a tongue-in-cheek way by depicting it as literally being “a living nightmare”?  Who the nightmare is for changes depending on who is the viewpoint character for the series.  In All-Ghouls’ School, the main character is a normal girl named Becca Norman.  In that case, the anxiety is about her classmates and fitting into social situations.  In Gravedale High, the primary character is the human teacher Max Schneider.  While the students do have their own storylines and parts to play, the main source of anxiety seems to come from whether or not Mr. Schneider can help the misfit class of monster teenagers he’s been assigned.  You get the gist of what I’m talking about here.

As for the second question, for that I think we should look at probably the most successful take on the monster school trope: Mattel’s Monster High.

Monster High started as a line of fashion doll line launched in 2010 (sidenote: For a 30-something guy with no kids, I seem to blog about fashion doll lines more than you’d expect).  Naturally, with the line’s runaway success, it also spawned a web cartoon, straight-to-DVD movies, books and other merchandise.  The line originally started with five characters: Frankie Stein (Frankenstein monster), Draculaura (vampire), Clawdeen Wolf (werewolf), Cleo DeNile (mummy), Lagoona Blue (sea monster) and Deuce Gorgon (gorgon).  Though, many, many more were eventually created.  Now, I have dabbled in watching some of the Monster High media through the magic of the internet.  It’s an interesting phenomenon if nothing else.  The idea of marketing monsters to little girls seems unusual and daring, especially as conventional (read as: kind of sexist) logic dictates that little girls don’t like things that are creepy.  It’s also probably the first line of dolls to embrace a slightly goth aesthetic.  It was one of the first toylines for girls that questioned exactly what young girls were into and would respond to.  After it proved successful, a number of other unconventional lines of dolls would be spawned.  And it seems that the line isn’t ready to stop anytime soon as it just got a fresh coat of paint this year with a reboot of sorts.  Before the reboot, the media associated with the line had much more of a “slice-of-life” slant.  This is probably because they were originally set in a world that was very monster-oriented, right down to there being monster versions of real places (Boo York, Boo Hexico, Scaris, etc).  The post-reboot Monster High seems to be a bit more adventure-oriented as Monster High is now located in the human world and a lot of the web cartoons seem to focus on seeking out and recruiting new monsters to go to the school.  But the one thing that’s consistent in both versions and the thing that I believe makes it so popular for seven years is a strong sense of theme.  And that theme is “self-acceptance”.  Basically, the line equates being a monster to being a flawed and unique human being.  The idea is that everyone feels like a monster sometimes.  Everyone feels strange or freaky or like their flaws are too great.  The theme is that that is a good thing.  It’s good to be a unique, flawed, dynamic human being.  In other words, it’s good to be a monster.  I think that is what kids respond to most and keep this property going.  It’s also what a lot of the other “monster school” properties lack and the reason that most of them didn’t last all that long.  I can’t speak for some of the foreign properties, but the American versions usually don’t have much of a shelf life.  The only one that I think comes close in terms of having as strong a theme is All-Ghouls School and I feel that one failed more because it couldn’t find an audience among comic book readers (it probably would have done better as a cartoon show).

I’m afraid that brings us to the end, though.  And now I’ve examined and dissected another facet of the “special school” storytelling trope.  The only other type that’s done nearly as much as fairy tales and monsters is the “school for superheroes”.  But that’s a post for another day.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Gorilla My Dreams: Universal Horror's Forgotten Franchise.

The thing about Universal’s output of horror films in the thirties and forties is that some stuff is likely to fall through the cracks.  Sure, most of the ones that were popular enough to spawn franchises became part of the Universal Monsters brand.  There is, however, one that didn’t.

I’m talking about Universal’s Ape Woman trilogy.
The movie Captive Wild Woman was released in 1943 starring Milburn Stone, John Carradine, Evelyn Ankers and Acquanetta.  The film extensively used footage from the Clyde Beatty circus film The Big Cage.  The film starts with Stone’s character of Fred Mason returning from a trapping expedition for the circus and meeting his girlfriend Beth Colman played by Ankers.  Mason then introduces Beth to a gorilla named Cheela that he brought back from Africa, which he claims is one of the most humanlike animals he’s ever seen.  Beth then tells Fred about her meeting with an acclaimed endocrinologist played by John Carradine.  The endocrinologist, Dr. Walters, is being called on to treat Colman’s sister for a rare glandular disorder.  He takes a rather keen interest when he finds out the Colman sisters both work for the circus.  Walters later visits the circus and takes an interest in Cheela.  Needless to say, Dr. Walters is a mad doctor with an interest in transforming some forms of life into other forms of life using glandular secretions.  He gets his hands on Cheela with the help of a disgruntled circus employee.  With glandular injections from Beth’s sister and a brain transplant from his own nurse, Walters manages to transform Cheela into a pretty human woman whom he dubs Paula Dupree (played by Acquanetta).  Paula isn’t quite human, though.  She has an uncanny way with animals, able to scare the daylights out of lions and tigers just by looking at them.  This nets Paula a job helping with an animal act, but things start to go pear-shaped when Paula develops an attraction to Fred Mason and starts to see Beth Colman as a rival.

It’s a fun little movie.  The use of other footage is done really well.  Acquanetta puts in a good pantomime performance as Paula Dupree.  And the Ape Woman make-up for the times when Paula is changing between ape and human forms is done by industry legend Jack Pierce and is very well done.  There are a couple of holes.  For example, the brain transplant that’s supposed to deal with Cheela’s animal instincts don’t seem to do much of anything besides show that Dr. Walters was willing to kill his nurse.

And that would just be the end of it in most cases.  A fun, obscure monster movie.  Except that this movie has two sequels.
The sequel, Jungle Woman, was released the next year.  This film finds the body of Cheela who seemingly was killed at the end of Captive Wild Woman acquired by a doctor by the name of Carl Fletcher.  Fletcher finds out that Cheela is still alive and revives her.  Fascinated by the work of Dr. Walters, Dr. Fletcher purchases the sanitarium where he worked so he can look over his papers and equipment.  One day, Cheela disappears only for Paula to appear on the grounds.  Trouble follows though, when Paula develops another romantic fixation.  This time on Bob Whitney, the fiancĂ©e of Dr. Fletcher’s daughter.  This movie adds a couple of things to the “myth” of the Ape Woman.  First of all, the idea that Paula is incredibly strong even when in human form.  Second, the idea that the natives of Africa have stories about a strange doctor changing humans into animals to explain Cheela’s human-like intelligence.  What this does is adds a bit of ambiguity and mystery to Paula’s story.  It blurs the line between human and animal so you’re never sure if Paula is more human or more ape.  One big point against this movie though, is that Paula develops the ability to speak.  The real issue is Acquanetta’s line delivery.  A great number of her lines come across as flat and emotionless.
The third Ape Woman movie, The Jungle Captive,  came out in 1945 (boy, they put these movies out fast).  Paula’s body once again finds itself into the hands of a mad doctor.  This time, Paula is played by Vicky Lane.  The doctor, Mr. Stendahl (Otto Krueger), with the help of his hulking assistant Moloch (Rondo Hatton) once again manage to revive Paula only to find that her mind has reverted completely to a bestial state.  Stendahl decides that another brain transplant is necessary and has decided one of his female lab assistants from the university is the unwilling donor.  The movie isn’t as much about Paula as it is about the mad doctor who wants to operate on her and the lab assistants who find themselves wrapped up in the whole thing.

But still, there it is, a whole trilogy of Ape Woman films.  It’s as many films as The Creature from the Black Lagoon got.  Heck, it’s more than The Wolf Man got.  After his first outing, he had to share billing with other characters.

So, why has the Ape Woman faded into obscurity.  Well, a good part of it is probably because the racial and sexual politics of these films is more than a little dated.  The actress Acquanetta, real name Mildred Davenport, was known for being rather cagey about her ethnicity.  At the time of these films, people used to speculate on her race.  Some claim that she was at least partially African-American.  Others claimed she was from Venezuela, nicknaming her “The Venezuelan Volcano”.  Others claimed she was a Native American of Arapaho descent.  Overall though, these movies doubled down on the idea of her as being this racially ambiguous “exotic” jungle woman.  It’s something that would have been seen as alluring at the time but insensitive now.  The resulting films though, are entertaining.  The thing about Universal being the undisputed kings of horror during the ‘40s is that even their films that weren’t ground-breaking or genre-defining were still rather watchable.  Though, you can tell they were really running out of steam by 1945 when The Jungle Captive came along.  It is too bad these movies and the Ape Woman never became as iconic as the other Universal Monsters, though.   I mean, there aren’t really any other female monsters that aren’t defined by their relationship to another character (like The Bride of Frankenstein or Dracula’s Daughter).  The concept certainly has potential.  It’s kind of like being able to narrowly focus on one of the beast-people from H.G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.  But these movies are still out there on DVD for those who want to see them.  Captive Wild Woman is available on the Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive set.  Jungle Woman was released as part of the Universal Vault Series.  The Jungle Captive has not been released on DVD, but I did notice that there’s a copy taken from an old VHS tape that’s been uploaded to YouTube if people really want to see it.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hidden gems from the Universal Horror catalog, but those are a subject for another day.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Horror with a Heart: The Universal Monsters.

Hey, it’s October!  That means you should expect a lot of Halloween-y content.

I have to tell you though, I’m not your typical horror fan.  In fact, most hardcore horror fans wouldn’t think of me as a horror fan at all.  Generally because I’ve never watched any slasher films, watched very few zombie films, don’t see gore effects as an appealing feature and really don’t like jump scares.  Heck, while I like the supernatural fantasy aspects, I’m not all that fond of being scared.  So, I’m either a really picky, particular horror fan or not one at all.

But I do love the Universal Monsters.
The Universal Monsters refers to a collection of horror and sci-fi movies that Universal Pictures made from the ‘20s to the ‘50s and the monster characters from them.  Among the movies in question, are Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon as well as the assorted sequels of such movies.  Many of these movies featured notable actors like Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Elsa Lanchester, Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan among a number of others I just can’t seem to remember at the moment.

Now, for a little history.  The Universal Monsters films are a part of Universal’s horror output from the 1920s silent era until the mid-to-late ‘40s when horror fell out of favor.  Universal’s menagerie of monsters would then get a bit of a boost in a decade when they started making ‘50s sci-fi movies.
Now, the age when Universal was the undisputed king of horror didn’t last long, but these movies found a new fanbase particularly among children in the ‘60s when the shows would be aired on local Saturday afternoon or late night horror movie shows.  These would be shows like Creature Feature, Svengoolie, and a number of others across the country (you know, the kind of movie shows that MysteryScience Theater 3000 parodied).  This led to the various monster characters being merchandised as plastic model kits, toys, board games, etc.  Sometime around the 1990s, the Universal Monsters became an actual brand.  As a brand, Universal Monsters is like . . . how do I put this?  It’s kind of like a spookier Disney Princess with a dash of Marvel Superheroes.  No, really.  Just like the Disney Princess brand, it’s a brand based around a bunch of characters from a number of movies that are pretty much unrelated aside from genre and the company that made them.  The only thing that makes Universal Monsters different are a few sequels that cross over the characters of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man.  Otherwise, characters like the Phantom, the Invisible Man and the Mummy have nothing to do with any of the other characters.  Heck, The Creature from the Black Lagoon was produced a good 20 years after most of the other movies.  So, it’s like the Disney Princess franchise if there were a handful of those straight-to-DVD sequels that teamed up Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.
Dodgy branding aside, they’re genuinely good and entertaining movies which is why they’re largely recognized as classics.  It’s not just because of the way they defined horror cinema either.  Horror, at least on the visceral level, has a way of losing its effectiveness over time.  However, what makes them last is their approach to character.  Universal Monsters fans always talk about the “sympathetic monsters” of these movies.  What they mean is that all the monsters have some sort of basic human need or quality that drives them.  The Wolf Man is a man who has a darker side that he can’t control.  The Frankenstein monster is misunderstood and wants acceptance.  The Mummy is driven by a love that’s turned toxic.  And the Gill-Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon is the last of his kind looking for companionship.  The one major deviation from this is Dracula, who is not sympathetic but was changed into an alluring, seductive presence that offers eternal life (honestly, this would have been very hard to pull off if it weren’t for Bela Lugosi’s screen presence.  Much props to him).  In other words, all the monsters have something that draws you to them and makes you invested in them beyond how many people they kill.  On some level, we can all relate to Frankenstein’s monster as the world starts to turn against him.  We all can relate to the Wolf Man’s alter ego Larry Talbot because we all have negative (even monstrous) parts of ourselves that we’d rather keep to ourselves.  And by and large, since the monster in horror movies is almost guaranteed to die at the end, what was on one level a horror movie gains another level as a supernatural tale of tragedy.  It’s kind of like how Marvel revolutionized the superhero genre by creating superheroes that were more flawed and human.  In fact, I’m pretty sure the Universal Monsters are the inspiration for a lot of the tragic qualities in the Marvel superheroes.  The Thing and the Hulk especially share qualities with the Frankenstein monster and the Wolf Man.

Now, they’re not perfect films and there are issues with them and their legacy.  They were revolutionary but they also created tropes that, when you looked at the greater Universal Horror canon, they repeated constantly.  Mad doctors seemed to be a dime a dozen in those days.  They also tend to overshadow older interpretations of the same concepts and stories.  The movies Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man pretty much reinvented werewolf lore wholesale.  Also, the cinematic versions of Dracula and Frankenstein were very different from the books by Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley respectively.  Though, there may have been a reason for that.  You see, both Dracula and Frankenstein weren’t actually based on the books.  They were based on plays that were popular at the time those movies were made.  It actually says so right in the opening credits for both films.  Dracula was based on a play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston.  Frankenstein was adapted from a play by Peggy Webling.  So, the films were already a couple of degrees away from the novels anyway.  It makes sense at the time, because in the 1930s, filming a movie was a lot like staging a play on camera.  Comparing these movies to the original novels is kind of like comparing L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to a stage production of Wicked.  Probably the most faithful of the movies is The Invisible Man.  This is largely because H.G. Wells was alive at the time it was released.  Even then, Wells didn’t like the end product.  Though, probably the biggest problem is how many actors got typecast in the roles from these movies.  Actors like Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. struggled to define themselves away from the horror genre and never really managed to do it.

But I should probably talk about something that’s been on people’s minds since this past summer.  Universal, not content to just merchandise the monsters and let the movies stand on their own, keeps trying to bring them back.
The truth is, it was never going to be an easy return for the Universal Monsters.  Despite what icons they are, they’re from another time.  Remember how I said horror tends to lose its efficacy?  Well, that’s true.  Horror as a genre is obliged to keep pushing the envelope in terms of how shocking it can be.  The Universal Monsters come from a time when they didn’t need to show a single drop of blood to be scary.  Not only that, but they weren’t allowed to show any because of the Hayes Code.  You would think that maybe they’d try to aim a bit younger because of how the Universal Monsters found a second audience among kids.  But even that isn’t such a great bet because horror stories for children have evolved too.  Since the ‘80s and ‘90s, horror for kids has worked to include kids as the main characters and incorporate the anxieties and experiences of their lives (for examples, see: The Willies, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Goosebumps, Deadtime Stories and The Haunting Hour).  So, what did Universal try to do?  Well, one time out of four they tried to make them into adult horror again.  But usually, probably in an attempt to court audiences of both kids and adults, they tried to turn them into action franchises.

It started innocuously enough.  It was a kids’ cartoon called Monster Force released in the early ‘90s.  The show was about a professor named Dr. Reed Crawley and his students who use high tech weaponry and equipment to hunt and study monsters.  Despite looking like a strange combination of Universal Monsters, G.I. Joe and ‘90s X-Men, it was actually a fun little show.  Despite this, the show only lasted one season and only got half that season released on DVD.  The next big attempt came with director Stephen Sommers when he directed a remake of The Mummy.  Under Sommers, The Mummy was transformed from an atmospheric horror film to an action adventure comedy starring Brendan Fraser.  It was a popular take, even spawning a couple of sequels, a spin-off and a cartoon series.  The real downfall came when Sommers tried to take the same approach to Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man in Van Helsing.  Van Helsing proved to be a messy, cluttered movie with a convoluted plot.  It wasn’t a hit with critics or audiences.  Next, they tried to go back to horror with an R-rated remake of The Wolf Man.  I’ve watched it and I’m not sure I should be the one to comment on this film seeing as I don’t watch a lot of R-rated horror films.  But I will say that while it definitely felt different than the original Wolf Man, it didn’t really feel like anything new or fresh.  This could possibly be because of the choice to set the film during the 19th Century.  Last but not least, we have the newest approach with the attempt to create the Dark Universe of interconnected films.  I won’t go into it much but the first entry, another remake of The Mummy, was not good owing to tone and story problems.  And that’s about it in terms of revival attempts in film or TV, other than odd stuff like those DVD movies where monsters got paired up with Alvin and the Chipmunks (no, really.  One nice thing about those is we got a couple of fun songs out of it).

Now, it’s not to say that combining action with horror can’t work.  It’s worked for Hellboy, Blade, Underworld, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a whole lot of other movies and TV shows.  Like I said, Monster Force was actually a fun kids’ action cartoon.  I think the problem with both Van Helsing and The Dark Universe is that both tried to do too much all at once.  Van Helsing struggled because it had to have a plot that utilized Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and a Wolf Man all at once and explore the hero as well.  The plot ended up being a mess and none of the characters really got a chance to develop or shine.  The new Mummy film also tries way too hard to put the mechanisms of its shared universe front and center rather than focusing on the story at hand.  In the process they fail to give the new Mummy the sympathetic pathos that her predecessor was known for.  And the truth is, I wanted it to work.  I wanted The Dark Universe to find a way but it didn’t.  I still think a horror action property based on the Universal Monsters has potential.  Granted, it probably has far more potential as a comic book with the right publisher than a movie series.

Luckily, no amount of dodgy branding and failed revivals can take away the originals.  Personally, I have them all on DVD and new editions seem to be released all the time.  Not only that, Turner Classic Movies seems to air all of them every October.

Well, that should be all I have to say about that.  Except I’m still in a Universal Horror mood.  How about a deep dive into the Universal catalog next week?  I think it’s time to spotlight a horror franchise that has almost been forgotten completely.