y first encounter with a Universal Studios horror film happened, as was probably not normally the case, in broad daylight at my grandmother’s house, a squat ranch home that one would never otherwise associate with the macabre. Passing through the family room during a rough-and-tumble game of hide-and-seek, I paused in front of the television, where some surgeons in their white scrubs were huddled around an alabaster female form on a gurney. As an operating theatre of students looked on, one of the surgeons called attention to two puncture marks on the throat of the deceased. Even though I did not tarry long in front of that television set, talk of necks and puncture wounds is bound to startle you the first time you encounter it. I did not know it at the time, but that film was the iconic 1931 version of Dracula. The scene never left my memory.
This kind of engraining of a scene in the individual (and ultimately collective) consciousness could well be the hallmark of the best of the Universal horrors. Unbeknownst to me when I had that first encounter at six years old, the classic Universal monsters were familiar with the daytime entertainment habits of suburbia and rural hinterland alike. In New England, we had the program Creature Double Feature, which would beam assorted horror classics into the family den on Saturday afternoons. On offer was everything from Japanese Godzilla flicks to Germanic expressionist masterpieces to low-budget 1950s schlock. These were the pictures that featured the core roster of early horrordom’s finest, with Dracula, Frankenstein (and his Bride), the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon up to their singular hijinks. But even as an over-awed child, I knew there was something beyond hijinks with these films. They weren’t the same as the rest of the fare you saw on Creature Double Feature. There was something more human, and humane, about them. They were a unique mix of idolatry and faith, comedy and tragedy, all together. They seemed less to me about experiments gone wrong in the dark forests of Germany than about frightening oddities one might encounter anywhere in daily life, if one knew how to see them.
In the years that followed, I sought out those Universal horrors often, first on VHS tape and later on DVD. The earliest among them (Dracula and Frankenstein both date to 1931) were dogged by technical problems. Filmic antiques of a sort, their creators had not intended for them to stand up to the scrutiny of an evolved technological environment some half a century later, and the materials themselves were not in the best shape. Dracula, for instance, with its career-making (and one might argue career-destroying) Bela Lugosi performance, featured inadvertent fuzzy images. There was little in the way of sharp, well-defined contrasts, and there was enough of an ocean of soundtrack hiss to make you reach for an asprin. Frankenstein, an honest-to-goodness American cinematic masterpiece from director James Whale, with Boris Karloff delivering one of the magisterial performances of the early sound era as the Monster, looked a little sharper. But it too had a welter of hiss, and whenever I watched the film I felt like I was seeing a diminished, diluted version of what Whale had in mind.
Fans of Universal horrors are a passionate lot. One online forum features hundreds of pages of commenters weighing in on the purpose of a scrap of cardboard on a nightstand in Tod Browning’s Dracula. Letter writing campaigns have ensued over the years to get the studio to restore the films so that they might be appreciated by current fans and future generations instead of being thrown on the ash heap of early movie curios. True, the DVD versions of Dracula and Frankenstein in particular looked better than what you see on television or VHS, but then Universal got into the habit of re-issuing the DVDs whenever a commercially advantageous anniversary came around. More troubling was the fact that these re-issues weren’t exactly consistent. In one of them you can hear Bela Lugosi’s death groans as Edward Van Sloan’s tireless Doctor Van Helsing drives his stake home, only to discover that the groans had gone missing with the next DVD offering.
he news that Universal would be restoring eight of its most important monster films and releasing them on Blu-ray was thus met with some skepticism. The doubt was not so much whether the studio would be true to its word but over the point of the endeavor. Could that beat-up Dracula print really hold its own in our modern hi-def age? Dracula was a particularly big deal in 1931 for the simple reason that American filmmakers did not make films featuring the supernatural. The Germans had done so with pictures like Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), a Dracula film in everything but name, thanks to Bram Stoker’s widow, who had quashed all plans for anyone to film her husband’s most famous work. Indeed, she won a court case that decreed that all existing prints of Nosferatu be destroyed, although one, thankfully, had already made it out of Germany. The Count, in that sense, was free, out in the world to go about his crepuscular business. Americans, meanwhile, had Lon Chaney, whose gruesome transformations landed him the sobriquet “the man of a thousand faces.” Chaney’s pictures, frequently made with director Tod Browning, were terrifying, grotesque twists on what society considered “normal”, but the supernatural played no role in them.
Into this landscape came the 1931 version of Dracula, a kickstart for what would become a genre that continues today, across a range of media, whether in the form of novels for Twihards, cable shows like The Walking Dead, or the latest revival of the primal archetypes established by early Universal horror purveyors like Browning and Whale.
The plan with Dracula, given its supernatural subject matter, was to shoehorn it into the category of romance. Hence the film premiered on Valentine’s Day. Lugosi was undeniably suave, although he was still a long way from the modern vampire, who would bed your wife or daughter just as soon as he would drain your blood. Not that there isn’t an implied, often priapic symbolism that links those two acts, which speaks to just how Freudian these pictures could get. The scared 12-year-olds wouldn’t quite detect these other, sometimes more sinister levels, but watching something like Dracula now, as an adult, inevitably invites a rich subtext into your life before the screen. Van Helsing stakes Lugosi off-screen, and as the vampire is delivered at long last into death’s grip there’s an orgiastic element of release that comes through pretty clearly on the newly cleaned-up soundtrack. This actually makes a lot of sense in the context of the original material, in which vampirism is presented as an affliction.
The knock on Dracula, until now, anyway, has been just how stagey it is, less a motion picture than a film of a theatrical presentation. Lugosi had assayed the role on Broadway, starting in 1927, and Browning appears perfectly content to treat many of the proceedings as a parlor mystery. The first third of the film has always rated well though, as Dwight Frye’s Renfield makes his way to the lair of the Count. This was the first time anyone had ever entered Universal’s Never-Never Land, a milieu endemic to its horror films that flouted the conventions of time, seemingly existing in both the modern and ancient worlds. We feel like we’re in the mid-19th century at some points, and then later an automobile whips by. But rather than disorienting the viewer, this fractured sense of time lends a fairy-tale, dreamlike atmosphere to the experience—a real boon for Dracula and Frankenstein in particular.
To be frank, I was not expecting Universal’s restoration to imbue those parlor scenes with any new life, my bias being that, having set up a grim atmosphere, Browning shifted more or less to autopilot. Filming Dracula in the first place required a certain nerve, and perhaps that was enough to ensure box office success. Early Hollywood certainly prized novelty. But today, one detects an eerie, cold stillness in those parlor scenes. Terror rises from the quotidian, even from inside the home, the domestic sphere most of us take for granted as a safe and unsurprising place. Then something suddenly, often quietly, goes amiss, and we sense that the victim du jour is not going to get a second chance.
This is not the terror of today’s special effects and heavy forebodings. Dracula, in this context, has become in some ways scarier than it was seventy years ago. Not only do we have a succession of gray and black shadings (which I never expected), but the absence of the “hiss” one typically finds in the old prints lends to a renewed sense of impending Hell, even if one has seen the picture many times over the years. We listen, we wait. We listen harder, trying to pick up clues where that rush of static used to be. When Lugosi slaps a mirror out of Van Sloan’s hands, a mirror, of course, in which his person is not reflected, it’s almost like we’re eavesdropping on their secret conversation. Only the demon and the demon-hunter are supposed to know what’s going on, but somehow we the viewers have also been pulled into this small circle of the initiated. One could even say that vampire kink, or at least its strictly visual components, begins here.
ne school of thought holds that the Browning/Lugosi Dracula pales in comparison with the Spanish version shot at night after the American crew had gone home. This practice was standard operating procedure at the time, and it’s a kick comparing the two restored films in this package (the Spanish Dracula is appended as a “bonus feature”). Director George Melford definitely has a fascination with Lupita Tovar’s cleavage, and his camera is far more ambulatory than Browning’s. But the chief appeal of the Spanish version is its lack of pomposity, helping the film come across at times like a send-up of the American version, a pulpy gloss on a stiffer treatment. There’s a Godard-esque, punkish glee to the Spanish Dracula, making it a one-off in the Universal horror canon.
Then again, Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein was a one-off as well, despite spawning two sequels—one excellent (Bride of Frankenstein) and another that was more or less commendable (Son of Frankenstein). After those films, the Monster began to turn up everywhere: in battles with the Wolf Man, for example, or in misadventures with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the latter constituting an entirely new form of horror. The Monster turned up again in England in the late 1950s at Hammer Studio, from which a whole new era of horror film sprang forth, showing for the first time blood in Technicolor red.
Whale seemed an unlikely dabbler in terror films. A gay Englishman of refined style and wit, the business of reanimating corpses in abandoned watchtowers must have struck him as very off-kilter, but you wouldn’t know it watching Frankenstein or its arguably superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935). As with Dracula, the restorations make all the difference. Screening both films, it’s hard to believe that Whale got away with what he did, or that anyone could be so daring now.
As Frankenstein opens, Colin Clive, as the titular doctor, shovels dirt into the face of the Grim Reaper in a cemetery scene straight out of the imaginations of the Brothers Grimm, as the night sky (a cyclorama), ripples in the background. That cyclorama soon proves central to Frankenstein’s mise-en-scène as a cloth backdrop meant to approximate the heavens. It works as an artifice that renders everything unholy and surreal, as man makes yet another attempt to escape the innocence of the Garden of Eden by stepping beyond the bounds of the natural order. As Karloff’s Monster comes to life, Clive delivers the words that still silence any theater that plays Frankenstein: The doctor’s repeated cries of “It’s alive!”, give way to an admonishment, in the name of God, to stop. “In the name of God? Now I know what it feels like to be God.” As with Dracula’s death, there is an aspect of the orgiastic here. Clive shakes, sputters and releases whatever he has in him, becoming totally and visibly spent as a result.
Karloff’s performance is the towering thespian achievement of the Universal horrors, and he accomplished it without a single line of dialogue beyond a series of grunts and groans. He is more human than one might suppose a monster could be and, disarmingly, as human as one might expect any viewer to be. Subtle hand gestures prove a portal to the soul in Frankenstein as Karloff’s entreaties move us from an outside world of torch-wielding villagers and science run amok to an internal one with which we can all identify. Confusion, sadness and doubt reign, with advancing bits of knowledge and emotion in perpetual battle with all of the detritus that kicks around in any psyche.
Karloff is given a voice in Bride of Frankenstein, one of the finest of all American films, and a hybrid of sorts in its melding of horror and comedy. It’s very dark, with Ernest Thesiger playing Doctor Pretorius, a mad scientist-cum-voyeur who takes his meals in crypts. Thesiger plays the role in the manner of the mad scientists of 1950s sci-fi: as a man who likes mayhem for the sake of his own ability to make it. In this film the cyclorama has been replaced by boughless trees, one arbor after another of stakes rammed into the ground. Whale uses these stakes to stage a crucifixion scene that somehow got past the censors. The created monster spares his creator in the end, electing instead to perpetrate a murder-suicide with his would-be bride. On plot points alone, this is Greek tragedy, but given that this is the horror medium, it is fitting that the devil is in the details. In this case, Karloff’s performance makes his final gesture less an act of immorality than one of charity from an unnatural creation on behalf of the natural order. The problem, of course, is in delineating who, or what, exactly, is the right and true monster. But the problem is the point.
he first two Frankenstein films represent the apex of Universal’s horror art, but this box-set is an effective reminder that The Mummy (1932), The Wolf Man (1941) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) weren’t that far behind. Phantom of the Opera (1943) is a bloated, overly musical affair, but there is still enough wit in James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) to stock a dozen solid comedies, none of which would alarm you as much this particular trickster of a picture does.
Still, The Invisible Man does not have the horror cachet of The Wolf Man, a piece of pulp cinema that blends real and invented folklore with audiences’ growing expectations of sound bites and slogans. Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Wolf Man was very lunchbox friendly, a monster that led the Baby Boomers back to Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster. The Baby Boomers, in fact, were the real disseminators of the Universal horror ethos, but only after Hammer Studios in England had recast Universal’s creatures in splashy Technicolor. Hammer films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) played in American theaters, and even Universal honchos must have been surprised by how far their ghoulies’ grip extended. These new British films were bold: You got red blood and plenty of pink female curves. This was a marked difference from the visual restraint of the earlier Universals, but if that former glory run of horror pictures had never transpired, it’s hard to believe that Hammer would have been moved to produce anything beyond its standard low-budget fare of potboilers.
Baby Boomers ate up the Hammer product and, in turn, took to perusing the local television listings, as I later did, for a glimpse of the earlier works that informed these newfangled ones. The demand became so great that Universal put together the first Shock Theater package: 52 films that went to television stations. The films tended to air late at night, when there wasn’t much else going on, but I have no doubt that many a kid conspired to stay up past bedtime to enter the hermit’s hut with Boris Karloff.
That dogged fandom only added to the lore of the Universal horrors, with each generation intent on reproducing that earlier magic in new iterations—so many iterations to the point that one hardly recognizes the traces of Tod Browning and Bela Lugosi in Count Chocula and Twilight. The Universal saga became the standard horror saga of pop culture, giving it a debased universality of a different kind. Like everything artistically real from before the age of American hyper-consumption, this too got taken to the bank in cold blood. But the originals are still there, and thanks to the new Blu-ray release more fans than ever are likely to see them. Anyone with a Netflix subscription, working cable or a library card is in luck.