By Craig Leask
Who doesn’t like a good old black and white monster movie, especially around Halloween? My other half and I pull them out each year to help us get in the mood for the annual night of haunts. I guess they’re all somewhat simplistic today, but they really are a weird kind of fun – the music, the foggy atmosphere, the superstitious and worked up villagers, the long dark shadows, Lon Chaney, Claude Rains, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi. It doesn’t get much better.
The Universal classics are, of course, Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Wolf Man (1941). They have all become a staple and the basis of many horror stories and movies which have followed. If you think about it, it’s these movies that established those long dark shadows, atmospheric stormy nights and iconic castles on the hill – which are now key components of any reputable scary movie. What people may not know are the circumstances behind the creation of some of these tales, which on their own could be the basis of some very good horror stories.
While many think the definitive monster of the horror genre is Frankenstein, the character which actually launched the era of Universal classic horror movies was Dracula, released on February 14, 1931, nine months prior to the release of Frankenstein (November 21, 1931). Beyond the legacy of the iconic Bela Lugosi character, the film introduced stormy nights, frightened and superstitious villagers and the ominous dilapidated castle on an isolated mountain top.
Dracula is based on Bram Stokers 1897 book of the same name. Stoker claimed the plot was based on a nightmare he had (caused he felt by eating too much crab meat) about a “vampire king” rising from his tomb. The interpretation of the novel was first produced as a play, opening on August 5th, 1924 at the Grand Theatre in Derby, England. On October 5 1927, Dracula the play opened at the Fulton Theatre in New York City, running until May 19, 1928 after 261 performances. It starred a relatively unknown Romanian actor by the name of Bela Lugosi in his first major English-speaking role. Lugosi made the role his own by portraying the character as a charismatic, suave and refined nobleman, rather than the fierce demon who Stoker described in his novel as “cruel looking” with the “red light of triumph in his eyes, and a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.”
1931 was a rough period for Universal Pictures after having completed several high cost transactions and investments designed to bring the studio up to date. They bought and built theaters, introduced sound production, and made investments in technology to vastly increase the quality of their productions. Films being released at the time were often expensive: Show Boat (1929), the $1 million musical Broadway (1929) and Universal’s first all-color musical King of Jazz (1930). As these depression era investments were not providing the returns necessary and were pushing the studio onto the brink of receivership, Studio Head Carl Laemmle, Jr. gambled on the development of a horror film niche for the studio, beginning with Dracula (1931). In August 1930 Universal paid $40,000 for the rights to the Dracula book and play, developing a filming budget of $355,050 and paying Bela Lugosi $500 per week in a two-picture deal.
Dracula became the movie that launched the horror genre, securing the way for Universal’s development of more of the monster classics. The production wasn’t perfect (think rubber bats and armadillos standing in for large rats in Dracula’s castle). Nevertheless there is an unmistakable level of suspense, creepiness and dread throughout the film. The plot proceeds at its own glacial pace, slowly drifting through the story development. Directors Tod Browning and Karl Freund masterfully build suspense through slow, deliberate pacing until the film reaches its chilling climax.
Dracula was a phenomenal success, earning $700,000 in its first US release and $1.2 million worldwide and spawning numerous sequels: Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Son of Dracula (1943) and House of Dracula (1945).
At the age of 73 Bela Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956, at his Los Angeles home. He was interned in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California, wearing his signature Dracula apparel, including the iconic cape and jewelry. Bela Lugosi left behind a legacy just as his most iconic role, but he proved Dracula never really dies.
Today Dracula is widely regarded as a classic of the era and the best of all the vampire movies. In 2000, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation and inclusion in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Everyone knows the story: Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is passionate about reanimating the body of a dead man as his greatest scientific achievement. To do so, he and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) exhume a recently buried body from a nearby cemetery. Unfortunately, it is discovered that the head and brains of the body are unusable, requiring the theft of a new and superior brain from a nearby laboratory. With the new brain in place, lightening is tapped during a ferocious thunderstorm to bring the experiment to life. This experiment became Frankenstein’s monster as famously played by Boris Karloff.
Victor Frankenstein was an amalgamation of numerous real scientists in 1815, the time of the original writing by Mary Shelley, who often had to resort to grave robbing to complete their research as the use of volunteered bodies was seen at the time as a criminal act. During the same period, a scientist by the name of Giovanni Aldini demonstrated an experiment using electricity on the body of recently executed criminal George Forster, which created movement within the deceased body. Shelley confirmed that both factors played into her imagination while drafting the story of Frankenstein.
Interestingly enough, the back story is hinted at in the early frames of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in which Elsa Lanchester portrays a dual role as both that of the monster’s bride and that of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley the author of the famous tale. Unfortunately, no one has further developed her true back story, which I do believe is an account worth telling. In June of 1815 Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori met at a rented country estate, the Villa Diodati, near Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. 1815 had become known as “the year without summer” due to a volcanic eruption in Indonesia the previous year. Clouds of volcanic ash filled the atmosphere, effectively blocking out the sun, plummeting temperatures and causing constant torrential rain. Due to a rash of thunder and lightning storms caused by this rare anomaly, the group spent the time indoors using the weekend to create and share ghost stories to entertain each other and pass the time. Two of the tales became Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and The Vampyre by Polidori which ultimately influenced Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. As each shared their tales, the other guests wrote their stories down, ultimately becoming the basis for the famous monsters.
The iconic laboratory equipment used in the film was designed by Kenneth Strickfaden (May 23, 1896 – February 29, 1984). The success of the effects made them an essential component of all subsequent Universal Frankenstein films. The sparking effects were so intimidating to Karloff, who was cast to play the monster, that Strickfaden himself had to double for Karloff during the creation scene, as Karloff was afraid of being burned during filming. When Mel Brooks was developing Young Frankenstein (1974) he was able to borrow the original equipment from the still living Strickfaden who had kept the all of the still working props stored in his Los Angeles garage.
Frankenstein opened in New York City at the Mayfair Theatre on December 4, 1931, grossing $53,000 in its first week. Due to its success Universal was quick to mount a series of sequels: Bride of Frankenstein (1935); Son of Frankenstein (1939); Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and House of Frankenstein (1944).
The Mummy (1932)
With the successes of Dracula and Frankenstein, producer Carl Laemmle Jr. engaged story editor Richard Schayer to locate a novel which could be developed into an Egyptian-themed horror film, inspired by the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt. It was hoped that a novel could recreate the success of 1931 films Dracula and Frankenstein, ultimately forming the origin of a new film which could match their successes. Having no luck locating a suitable novel, Schayer, along with writer Nina Wilcox Putnam, wrote a nine-page outline entitled Cagliostro. The story was about a 3,000-year-old San Franciscan magician who had survived throughout the centuries by self-injecting homemade potions. With the outline approved, Laemmle turned to John L. Balderston, who co-wrote Dracula and Frankenstein, to draft the script. As an added credential, Balderston had been the New York World magazine journalist deployed to Egypt in 1922 to cover the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb, so he was in a unique position to bring a level of authenticity to the script. Based on this knowledge, Balderston relocated the story from San Francisco to Egypt, and renamed the film The Mummy.
Being a Universal property, the studio was able to capitalize on their own in-house talents for the development of the project and its production. This included utilizing director Karl Freund (the cinematographer on Dracula); the use of the music from the Tchaikovsky ballet Swan Lake for the opening credit sequence (which had also been used for the opening credits of Dracula); make-up artist Jack Pierce, who created Boris Karloff’s famous look in Frankenstein, was retained to develop the look for The Mummy; and the casting of Boris Karloff, who played the monster in Frankenstein, as Imhotep, the mummy.
Pierce based Boris Karloff’s mummy’s look on the authentic statue’s images and the remains of the real mummy of Seti I, who reigned over Egypt through 1294 BC to 1279 BC. The make-up Pierce used included the application of collodion and spirit gum to Karloff’s face and clay to his hair before wrapping him in linen bandages, which had been soaked in acid and baked in an oven to achieve the required antique look. To transition Karloff into the Mummy, a typical day had Pierce beginning to apply makeup onto Karloff at 11 a.m., continuing until 7 p.m. that evening. Filming normally completed at 2 a.m. This would be followed by an additional two hours to remove the application before the actor could return to his quarters, with the process being repeated again the following day.
The Mummy relies predominantly on mood and atmosphere, rather than the suspense which had been the basis of the first Universal horror films. This new approach proved to be a successful formula in creating The Mummy, which realized a gross of $370,000 in its initial release. Thus, the same technique was copied in the studio’s Mummy sequels which included: The Mummy’s Hand (1940), (which employed some of the footage used in the original); The Mummy’s Tomb (1942); The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944).
The Invisible Man (1933)
Through the ingestion of a potion, Dr. Jack Griffin (Rains) achieves his goal of invisibility, however side effects result in the deterioration of his brain, causing murderous tendencies and paranoia. This results in his causing the derailment of a train, killing hundreds, as well as murdering his friend Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan), placing him in a car which he pushes over a cliff.
The Invisible Man marked the U.S. film debut of Claude Rains, in which his face is not seen until the final frames of the film, requiring the actor to rely solely on his voice. Rains churned up his rasping voice to achieve the bone chilling personality of the ethereal, mad doctor. He also added his own high-pitched maniacal laugh to show the insanity of the character. Rains spends almost the entire film either concealed under bandages or, while invisible, not even in the scene, having to rely solely on his voice to develop his character.
It’s the special effects that really make the film. Groundbreaking visual effects by John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams are credited for the success of the film. To film Rains disrobing or partially dressed, the effect was achieved by shooting him in a black velvet suit against a black velvet background and then combining shots using a matte process. Scenes involving the partially dressed Rains (when just a shirt or pants) the effect was achieved through the use of wires.
Director James Whale was retained to direct, capitalizing on his previous successes with Frankenstein (1931) and The Old Dark House (1932), receiving a special recommendation for this work at the 1934 Venice Film Festival.
As with the other Universal monster movies, the success of The Invisible Man led to The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Invisible Woman (1940), The Invisible Agent (1942), and The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944).
The Wolf Man (1941)
Based on the success Universal Studios had with its previous monster films, a decision was made to continue the genre with one final effort that would hopefully launch another franchise, The Wolf Man, making a star out Lon Chaney Jr. The werewolf tale had been tried previously, most successfully in in the film Werewolf of London (1935).
This one ticks off all of the boxes: fog, creepy mansions and crypts, angry local gypsies, and a main character who has no knowledge of what is going on. All of which enhances a basic sense of mystery and dread that surrounds the main character, Larry Talbot. This is the role which firmly established Lon Chaney Jr.’s career.
As with most classics, the success of The Wolf Man is due to a combination of elements. Like The Mummy, Universal was able to pull from its stable of actors and behind the scene talents in making the film, including Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi as gypsies, and Claude Rains as Chaney’s father. This is all pulled together by Curt Siodmak’s credible script and supported by the true star of the film, Jack Pierce’s make-up. Siodmak had also written The Invisible Woman (1940) and The Invisible Man Returns (1940) for Universal. Jack Pierce was known as The Monster Maker for Universal, being the mastermind behind the make up of many films including The Mummy (1932), The invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Pierce’s make up for The Wolf Man captured the essence of the character, and created an immortal masterpiece in make-up history and giving the movie the distinctive element which sets it apart from all the versions which have been developed since. To create the brilliant transformation scenes, a plaster mold was made to hold Chaney’s head still as his image was photographed and drawn on panes of glass in front of the camera. Then, using grease paint, a rubber snout, wigs, and layers of yak hair glued to Chaney’s face it would be filmed again. This process would be repeated six to seven times to capture the transformation which took some 10 hours to complete.
As with the other Universal monster movies, the success of The Wolf Man, led to sequels Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and She Wolf of London (1946).
Aside from the classic Universal movies mentioned, there are some 200 other movie and TV incarnations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein alone including such notables as: Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958); Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster (1965); Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971) and Frankenstein Island (1981). The interesting thing is that each revisit of any of the classic Universal monster movies has maintained the original intent of the century old story lines.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.