Friday, October 21, 2011

HORROR HARVEST: Part Three -- In the Valley of Vasaria

Once upon a time, there a nice old uncle from the old country named Carl Laemmle (pronounced Lem-lee). He founded a cozy little Hollywood film studio (Universal) in 1914. It was one big happy family – literally; at one time Carl had more than 70 relatives on the payroll. Carl loved nothing more than creating imaginary worlds that audiences could pay to sit in the dark and climb into, at a price.

And Carl loved his son Junior very much – so much so that he kept letting Junior spend more on big-budget films than they made back. Every once in a while, though, they hit paydirt – especially with horror films. Beginning with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1923, Universal became known as the home of horror, just as Warners seemed to produce most of the gangster films, and MGM handled the family-friendly fare.

Horror was so popular that it spawned sequels and spinoffs. (This was not the beginning of a trend – the movie business since the days of Melies and Edison was dedicated to crafting a recognizable product that consumers would turn to again and again.) Even after Carl and Junior were forced out of the studio in 1936 by creditors, the film factory kept cranking out stories about monsters, ghosts and ghouls.

This was the Golden Age of horror: the archetypes of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Mummy and the Wolf Man all start here, in glorious silver and gray tones. Of course, as with most film sequences, the later films are weaker; in many cases the original and compelling characters of the unnatural creatures are reduced to plot points – forces set in motion by the vengeful, set up to be knocked down and burnt/drowned/staked/shot/clubbed/frozen, with the sure and certain hope of their resurrection for the next feature.

(The Invisible Man provoked the most gimmicks -- from the woo-woo suggestiveness found in "The Invisible Woman" to the confound-the-Nazis antics of "Invisible Agent" to the hackneyed plotting of "The Invisible Man's Revenge.")

Universal’s standing sets were dressed and redressed, but became recognizable to habitual horror fans as a kind of scary Brigadoon to which we return again and again. Each remake was populated with the same burgomasters, maidens, elders, angry pitchfork- and torch-wielding peasant men, their wives sobbing into their aprons, their children God-knows-where, probably in the clutches of that monster at this very minute!
The Universal Studios set for the village of Goldstadt -- that is, Frankenstein -- I mean, Vasaria. Depends on which movie we're in.
Lon Chaney’s leading example of playing a monster as a pitiable creature was not lost on the studio. Every beast had a back-story. The Mummy suffered in the cause of forbidden love; Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Griffin and all the other mad scientists are led astray in a quest to improve man’s lot; Larry Talbot becomes the Wolf Man simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Only Dracula seemed unperturbed by his lot; significantly, he spawned the fewest sequels.)

Frankenstein’s monster is the supreme example of this phenomenon. The shifts in plot, tone and theme from Mary Shelley’s original novel could fill and have filled books. In director James Whale’s hands, the Monster is an inverted Christ figure – he literally comes back from the dead, he is misunderstood and abused, and he is crucified, over and over. (Careful examination of the two Whale films shows this identification cropping up everywhere.)

Boris Karloff cannily played up the Monster’s vulnerability. From the moment when he holds his hands up to the light making its way into his dungeon, Karloff’s Monster becomes something we can all identify with – the uncertain, awkward, unwittingly destructive, uncomprehendingly despised child.

Only Lon Chaney, Jr. surpasses him in anguish, and much of that feeds directly from his own life. Overshadowed by his brilliant father and haunted by the mental instability of his mother, Chaney Jr. could only pursue success at the cost of dropping his original Christian name, Creighton, and taking on his father’s – a box-office move forced onto him by the studio.

The younger Chaney was also crippled by a lifelong dependence on alcohol. Towards the end of his career, he advised his directors to get all the work they could out of him mid-afternoon, as he was usually too incapacitated to continue productively after that. He was bereft of his father’s transformative abilities, but he was an actor of depth and complexity when given the right role. Anyone who has seen his astonishing work in “Of Mice and Men,” and his marvelously resigned stolidity in a supporting role in “High Noon,” can only imagine what other work he might have turned in without so many demons working at him.
Lon Chaney Jr. -- typecast as a tormented figure.

What follows is a list of the Universal horror sequences, and other entries of the period that came from competing studios. I’ve highlighted only the most worthy entries with posters and clips – if you are an obsessive completist with time to spare, as I was, you can watch all of them. If you do, beware. It all starts to blend together, and the ultimate effect is that of going to a big family reunion – you have to put up with a lot of boring, obnoxious behavior, but you end up learning a lot here and there as well.

Dress warmly -- the forecast calls for fog . . . and darkness . . . 


Frankenstein
James Whale
1931

The Old Dark House
James Whale
1932


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Rouben Mamoulian
1932


The Mummy
Karl Freund
1932

Murders in the Rue Morgue
Robert Florey
1932

White Zombie
Victor Halperin
1932


The Invisible Man
James Whale
1933




Island of Lost Souls
Erle C. Kenton
1933

Mystery of the Wax Museum
Michael Curtiz
1933


The Black Cat
Edgar Ulmer
1934

The Raven
Lew Landers
1935


The Black Room
Roy William Neill
1935



The Bride of Frankenstein
James Whale
1935




Mad Love
Karl Freund
1935

Werewolf of London
Stuart Walker
1935

Dracula’s Daughter
Lambert Hillyer
1936


Son of Frankenstein
Rowland V. Lee
1939

The Invisible Man Returns
Joe May
1940

The Mummy’s Hand
Christy Cabanne
1940

Man Made Monster
George Waggner
1940


The Wolf Man
George Waggner
1941

The Mummy’s Tomb
Harold Young
1942

The Ghost of Frankenstein
Erle C. Kenton
1942

Son of Dracula
Robert Siodmak
1943

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
Roy William Neill
1943

The Mad Ghoul
James P. Hogan
1943

The Climax
George Waggner
1944

The Mummy’s Ghost
Reginald Le Borg
1944

The Mummy’s Curse
Reginald Le Borg
1944

House of Frankenstein
Erle C. Kenton
1944

House of Dracula
Erle C. Kenton
1945

NEXT UP: Val Lewton and the terrors of the unseen