Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Universal Experience!

Summer's over! Blast!

But I did accomplish at least one tiny goal. I watched the early 1930's Universal horror movies in chronological order. Now I've seen these dozens of times, but usually when I bust them out it's to watch the Dracula movies or the Frankenstein movies or whatever.

This time I wanted to replicate what it must have been like to see each of the Universal flicks as they hit the theaters. It's a different experience I will say.

The use of the same actors from movie to movie is more clearly seen this way. The way music began to have a greater impact, and the way the directors made use of the characters to speak to other concerns.


I began with Dracula (and I watched the Spanish version at the same time and despite what people say while the Spanish one is more sophisticated film making, I still find the Bela version more potent). It's a movie that is rough around the edges, but nonetheless demands your attention. With virtually no music it's a movie that forces the actors to work and work hard to keep the atmosphere.

Frankenstein is obviously a better movie, but not necessarily a better story. I have pet theories about how to interpret this one, and I'll address those at another time, but there's no getting away from the way James Whale uses his scenery and his actors to tell a snapping good tale. Karloff's monster is transformative for the very idea of film.


Lugosi nexts shows up Murders in the Rue Morgue. His villain in this potboiler is exotic looking and even more peculiar (if possible) than Dracula. He's a mad scientist to rival Frankenstein, and his lurid desire to make men from apes forms a great core story which alas loses some of its steam before the climax. There are some outstanding shots in this one though, very memorable.

The Old Dark House from James Whale gives us Karloff back, but he's pretty much lost in this charming haunted manor tale. It's a fun movie, one I enjoy more with each viewing, but it's not really a monster tale in the same vein as the other Universal tales. There's no real supernatural element here, just great atmosphere. I'll have more to say about this one at a later time.

Karloff as The Mummy is sterling stuff. This movie is almost perfectly constructed, with so much startling restraint demonstrated when showing the Mummy that you hunger for more from the glimpses. The only modern film that got this right was the original Alien. Less is more and this movie is a perfect example. Karloff is outstanding.


The Invisible Man is a cackling fun movie, but not really all that scary I think. The notion of an invisible madman is intellectually frightening, but doesn't make my skin crawl like some of the other stuff Universal showcased in these early flicks. Whale's technical work on this one is obvious, a dandy movie, but doesn't have the impact of its peers alas.


The Black Cat succeeds masterfully for a number of reasons, but foremost is that it takes Bela and Karloff and thrusts them into an ultra-modern setting. This sets this movie apart from the others Universals, almost all in vaguely historical if mythical locations. The stark lines of the house that Karloff's Satanic architect resides in is lusciously vile. Bela plays a man who wants to attack his host at almost every moment; it's perhaps the best acting job I've ever seen him do.


On the other hand The Raven with the two greats is a bit of clunker. The story should work, but Karloff's role is too small and his make-up is unfortunate and detracts from his acting. You literally cannot take your eyes off his eye and that's a problem. The story is a bit overly complex and for the first time I got the sense in a monster movie that people have to do really stupid things to keep the plot going. It's an indicator that the movie is failing if you have time to think that.

Werewolf in London is a great monster flick, and only fails in that it seems a bit afraid of its own power. The werewolf portrayed by Henry Hull is a beastly man, and as I understand it this movie was more influenced by Paramount's Mr.Hyde movie than anything else. It shows. I did like the strong woman in this one, a nice break from the whiners most monster flicks utilized. The plot does come undone at the end as way too much coincidence is needed to keep it rolling.

The Bride of Frankenstein is the apogee of Universal's monster flicks of this era, and one of the best movies made period. It's smart and there's not a single frame wasted in this one. I won't waste time singling things out here, as I'm sure most folks agree with me, but James Whale never made a better movie than this that I've seen. It's exquisite.


On the other hand Dracula's Daughter, the other sequel is pretty good, but alas not great. Gloria Holden is excellent as a reluctant bloodsucker, but the male lead in this one is sturdy though not compelling. There are some great scenes in this one, but the overall impact is diminished by some clunky planning. The way it functions as a reverse Dracula, getting them back to Transylvania for the finale is a neat idea, but doesn't really come across as it should.

The Invisible Ray closes out this era of Universal's flicks and it again teams Karloff and Lugosi, with Lugosi being a good guy for one of the very rare times. It's more a pure science fiction story with some gothic touches, and it's a hair-raiser. The story is a wee bit complex but offers up some neat scenes of death rays and suchlike. This one really feels more in the vein of Universal's later monster flicks of the 50's.

And that's a wrap for the Universal monsters of this era. There are some other fantastic creepy flicks from other studios from this prime time for monsters, but it's the Universals that establish the standard they are measured against.

If you have them, I recommend watching the movies in this fashion. It will open your eyes to parallels in the flicks you'd perhaps not seen before.

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  1. Those posters are just too cool-looking. I have yet to see the Old Dark House despite my love of Karloff, I just haven't gotten my hands on it. This goes well with that I've been doing a Munsters marathon lately.

  2. I have the Munsters and they are on the list. With school starting, an epidode a day of the Munsters might be just the thing to relieve the stress.

    The Old Dark House I had to order individually. I was gathering up Karloff stuff two summers ago like crazy and got my mitts on it. It's a weird one, and I have some more to say about it. The more I see it, the more I like though.

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