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.

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