Ah, the month of October! Summer is gone and there’s a brisk nip in the air giving you fair warning that Winter will soon be upon us – but before it arrives, we have Fall. That in-between time, too warm for Winter yet too cold for Summer, a time of changes, both seasonal and personal. The light clothes are put away and the sweaters come out. The nights get darker earlier and the houses are decorated – with every sort of ghoul and goblin imaginable. Why? Because Fall is also the time for Halloween. Forget Christmas – many a child will tell you that Halloween is REALLY their favorite holiday, that one special night they get to stay up late, get dressed in a costume and go door-to-door trick-or-treating for candy. I still recall a year I went out with my son and he went non-stop for three hours! It’s also the season to revisit old friends and family … but not the kind you’d invite to dinner.
While Thanksgiving is the traditional family reunion time, I’ve always looked at Halloween as a time to revisit the cinematic aunts and uncles who made me the unabashed horror fan I am today. It’s a tradition I passed on to my son when he was young, and one I hope he continues. If you’re looking for something spooky to show to the young and/or timid of heart, may I recommend the Universal Studios Classic Monster Collection. An eight disc DVD boxed set, it’s a crash course in monster-dom; specifically the Old School monsters of Universal Studios.
Are you a Twi-hard? Love the vamps of TRUE BLOOD or THE VAMPIRE DIARIES? Then check out their great-granddaddy Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (1931, 75 minutes). Originally released on Valentine’s Day in 1931, it was advertised as “the story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!” Director Tod Browning was no stranger to vampires, having directed Lon Chaney in the (long lost) LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT in 1927. Sadly, seen today, his DRACULA is no better than a curiosity, almost filmed as if it were a stage play, with very little camera movement to bring it to life (as it were). That’s where the joy of the Special Edition DVD kicks in: on the same disc is the SPANISH edition of the film, shot on the same sets with a different cast and director (George Melford), and with a creeping feeling of terror the Lugosi version never masters. They are both eerie in their own ways, and make for a fascinating night of side-by-side comparisons.
Vampires leave you cold? How about something a little more … stitched-up? Then you need to check out director James Whale’s one-two punch of FRANKENSTEIN (1931, 71 min.) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935, 75 min.) – both with the gifted Boris Karloff. He was indelibly linked to the Frankenstein Monster his entire career, calling the character “my old friend”, and had an amazing gift for pathos under the heavy makeup and pounds of costuming. Even today, you still feel the creature’s plight, thrust into situations not of his making, wanting only love and companionship and shunned and attacked on all sides. If possible, see these with a young horror fan, who is just seeing them for the first time – it’s a revelation what the kids come up with. Karloff said many times that when children wrote him fan mail, they always understood and sympathized with his portrayal of the creature, and felt bad for him. BRIDE is a Hollywood rarity: a sequel better than the original. Both Karloff and Whale were familiar with and more assured in their roles, and it shows. The addition of Elsa Lanchester as the titular Bride, with her electric hairdo, remains a stunner today.
If vampires and monsters are STILL too much for your timid audience, then start them out with 1933’s THE INVISIBLE MAN (71 min.) – another James Whale film, this time with Claude Rains in the (unseen) titular role, with ground-breaking special effects by John P. Fulton. Of all the films so far discussed, this one was closest to it’s original source, the novel by H. G. Wells. DRACULA, although based on Bram Stoker’s novel, more resembles the stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, while FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE were a mish-mash from all over, taking bits of Mary Shelley’s original novel and spreading it out over two films, along with play adaptations and original bits from Whale himself. THE INVISIBLE MAN sticks very closely to the novel, and thrilled audiences of the time, especially with Rains’ dramatic unveiling of … nothing … underneath his bandages, before going on his crime spree.
We now turn to my personal favorite in the collection, 1932’s THE MUMMY (74 minutes). Another masterful performance by Boris Karloff under the brilliant (and daunting) makeup of Jack Pierce, THE MUMMY still brings chills today. I have written about the film before in greater detail, so rather than rehash it again, may I direct you here: mummy-january-1992.html.
For those of you who prefer monsters of the more hirsute variety, there’s the 1941 production of THE WOLFMAN (70 minutes). Lon Chaney, Jr. portrayed the cursed Lawrence Talbot for the first time in this film which, like Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster, would become his signature character. Bitten by a werewolf at a gypsy camp (Bela Lugosi), Talbot is now eternally cursed with the affliction of lycanthropy and all it entails. His father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), believes none of this, eventually killing his own son with his silver-headed cane … until the next sequel. Of all the films in this set, I think this one has the most quotable lines (courtesy of writer Curt Siodmak), such as my favorite, “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” The film still holds up well today and was the basis of a criminally ignored remake in 2010 starrring Benicio Del Toro in the Lawrence Talbot role.
The weakest link in the set is provided by 1943’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (93 minutes). Supposedly a remake of the 1925 Lon Chaney version, this Technicolor extravaganza forgets who the story is supposed to be about, concentrating more on the opera performers (Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster) than the Phantom himself (Claude Rains) – ironically, by shifting the mood away from horror to romance, it predates the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version, which was one of his most enduring successes. The film is still worth seeing, but you would be better served tracking down the original silent Chaney version to see the story done properly.
The collection ends with Universal’s last great original monster: THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954, 79 minutes). I still have fond feelings for this old chestnut, as it was the first film I saw in 3-D (at a re-release showing). I was so taken by it I ran a 3-D double feature of it and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE one weekend at my college, and those silly glasses were popping up all over campus for months afterwards! Sadly, the version here is not in 3-D, but the film holds up well in whatever dimension you view it in. The tale of scientists who come across a missing link ‘Gill Man’ deep in the Amazon and his fascination with the woman aboard the expedition (Julia Adams), it’s the deepest (no pun intended) themed film here. A lot has been written and seen in this film that I’m not sure director Jack Arnold ever intended: themes of conservation vs. destruction of native environments, of erotic interspecies romance, etc. Sometimes a monster movie is just a monster movie, I say! It is another title that holds up as well today as when it was first made, and is another favorite of mine – I have a stuffed Creature behind me in my office as I type this, so I have to watch what I say! :)
Finally, if you have any interest in or love for the old Universal Horrors as I do, it would be remiss of me to end this article without mentioning a book from 2009, Michael Mallory’s Universal Studios Monsters: A legacy of Horror. Filled with stories and anecdotes about the films mentioned above and more, by the people who made them, this is an AMAZING oversized book, crammed with detail and behind-the-scenes photos, many of which I’ve never seen published before. It’s a perfect complement to the DVD set for the horror fan in your life.
So when the pumpkins have all been carved and the trick-or-treaters have all been served, sit down and turn off the lights and get to know your Halloween family all over again – you’ll be glad you did.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services