Catching Up with the Universal Monsters
Once I realized this pandemic was going to last longer than expected I decided to treat my self to a Chromecast and started streaming up a storm. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Acorn TV were all at my fingertips and I enjoyed indulging in brand new shows and movies. Then along came Peacock the new app from NBCUniversal. I initially had no interest in it but discovered it was to only way I could watch the new Psych movie (I can’t help it, I’m a big fan of those pineapple loving knuckleheads). When scrolling through the app imagine my surprise when I discovered a nice dose of classic films including those staring the Universal Monsters. Right then and there I gave myself a new goal – watch every movie (that I hadn’t previously seen) in chronological order so that I could take a deep dive into the historic franchise.
Back in 1925 Universal Studios released The Phantom of the Opera staring Lon Chaney. This silent adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel was a hit and served as a springboard to the Universal Monster franchise. In the ensuing two decades the studio release a number of films starring, not only the Phantom, but also Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man and the Mummy.
As a classic film aficionado I’d long ago seen the essential films, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, etc., but never got into the nitty gritty of the franchise like The House of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula and The Mummy’s Tomb. I initially wrote them off as pure corn but then I listed to the excellent podcast Secret History of Hollywood and its deep dive into the franchise. I was intrigued and decided I would one day check them out. So when I saw them on the Peacock app I figured it was a good time to get down to business and started watching one film per night until I’d seen every offering from the 1930’s and 1940’s (except for Invisible Agent which wasn’t available).
Since I was skipping to the more obscure films I started with 1935’s Werewolf of London which did not bode well for my endeavor as it was pretty boring. It actually predates The Wolf Man by 6 years and thankfully shares the universal standard of the franchise – brevity. Most films are only about an hour long so even if they’re not so great they go down pretty quickly.
Next came Dracula’s Daughter a psychologically dark tale about the tortured daughter of the world’s most famous vampire. Starring the perfectly cast Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska (Dracula’s daughter) it’s the sad story of a woman cursed into a life she did not ask for and desperate to escape her fate. One of the darkest films in the franchise it’s brilliantly acted particularly by the female leads Holden, Marguerite Chapman, and Nan Grey.
In 1943, we return to the Dracula films with Son of Dracula which is at the total opposite end of the spectrum. This Dracula, played by Lon Chaney Jr., is pure camp and the plotline which somehow finds him in New Orleans is completely ludicrous. Yet, I loved it. How could I not? It’s corn with a capital C right down to Dracula’s head scratcher of a pseudonym, Count Alucard. Get it?
Speaking of corn, let’s talk about The Mummy. After Boris Karloff’s creepy turn in the original the series took a total nosedive yet managed to spawn four sequels – The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse – each one nearly identical to the last. Watching them I was impressed at how the mummy’s makeup got better and better as the films progressed yet was disappointed at how the plotlines refused to evolve. At this point I could write the next sequel. Let’s call it The Mummy’s Headache. A high priest revives the mummy. He instructs the mummy to kill. The mummy captures a bride. The high priest falls for the bride and decides he wants her for himself. The mummy kills him and the local townsfolk come kill the mummy. Probably with fire. There, I did it.
As much as The Mummy makes me groan The Invisible Man makes me smile. Both characters may have bandages in common but while the Mummy has zero personality the Invisible Man is stylish, debonair and a whole lot of fun. And sometimes he’s a woman. And sometimes he’s a secret agent. And sometimes he’s just plain bad and needs his comeuppance. Regardless, from the Invisible Man’s Return to the Invisible Man’s Revenge it’s a series filled with fun special effects and a game cast that offers a good dose of entertainment.
There may be several Universal Monsters but I think it’s safe to say Frankenstein (or rather Frankenstein’s Monster) is the granddaddy of them all. Starring in the most franchises (7 total) he dominates every film he’s in (even when it’s only in the last few minutes). He also spawned one of the most fun aspects of the franchise – the mashup. Why watch Frankenstein or the Wolf Man alone when you can put them together in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man? Why not toss Dracula into the mix? Welcome to The House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.
These movies are just fun. There’s no real reason why all three character should share the screen but when they do it’s quite the ride. I have to say my favorite is The House of Frankenstein which offers each character their most satisfying conclusion (which, of course, is completely erased by the next one).
My foray into the Universal Monsters franchise may not have been the best use of my time but it was sure a lot of fun. It left me with such an appreciation for all the actors involved. Most were relegated to B pictures during their careers which is a total shame because they were truly talented and gave these films their all. I also realized that the Wolf Man is, perhaps, the saddest monster. My heart broke for him and the cruel curse that relegated him to a life of misery. Lon Chaney Jr. was largely overshadowed by his famous father but he brought true pathos to a role that could have been pure corn in less capable hands. And the makeup, the special effects, the sets…such remarkable achievements by all involved. Whether it’s Frankenstein or Frankenstein’s Ghost a Universal Monster film is well worth an hour of your time.