Only six years pass between 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, the last of the classic Universal monster horror films, and 1960’s Peeping Tom, the first film we might call a “slasher film,” but once the gates were open for blood and violence and full-bore terror, it didn’t take long for more horrifying movies to follow—Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and a straight line (maybe a Saw-line) to today. The unbelievable gore, the oppressive violence, the nonstop terror of today’s horror films tend to make the Universal monster movies a little, well, not scary.
And yet something about these movies still hold a power over the culture at large. As a child of the 80s, I nurtured an obsession with these movies that bordered on the unhealthy, drawing endless pictures of them and staying up late to watch them on the Saturday Creature Feature on the basement TV (in first grade, even!). My mother made me a Dracula ornament one Christmas. When friends came over for a slumber party, we watched The Mummy.
I’m not the only person to become enthralled with these movies. This year, Universal released The Mummy, a film designed to be the flagship of what they call the Dark Universe. Bride of Frankenstein is booked for a Valentine’s Day 2019 release, and the studio announced that Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp have joined Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise, and Sofia Boutella as members of the crew; Bardem will play Frankenstein’s Monster and Depp the Invisible Man.
This investment in high-caliber star power is enough to make us reconsider the original movies, five of which will show at the Byrd on Halloween weekend. They may not be scary—although Lon Cheney, Jr, hitting on the local girl in The Wolfman by telling her he’s been spying on her through his telescope is certainly creepy enough—but maybe there’s a deeper scare than just the jump-fright of today’s horror movies, the kind of horror that might speak to our own deep fears today.
So here are some reasons—a few old, a few new—why you might go see the classic Universal horror movies and find a little of today in them.
Film Studies professors have long pointed out that the neck biting of 1931’s Dracula works as a metaphor for sex, an interpretation that gained even more traction during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Even in a more sexually open society like today’s, the movie still holds an undeniably erotic charge. Consider Dwight Frye’s performance as Renfield, Dracula’s assistant, who clearly desires the Count’s bite and the eternal life that comes with it (apparently, they had to tone down Frye’s performance to get it past the censors). Look at the way Helen Chandler swoons as Mina under the Count’s spell, or the way that Bela Lugosi commands the room whenever he’s on screen. If metaphor’s not your thing, you still have plenty to watch in this movie—atmospheric sets, surprisingly nuanced performances for the time, and Lugosi, playing a role so iconic that he was buried in the costume.
If you fear the Singularity, or any technological mishap that might spell the doom of humanity, Frankenstein (1931) taps into our fear of science and what happens when the things we create get out of our control. Like most of these films, you know the rough story—Victor Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive) creates life out of assembled corpse parts, animated by lightning, only to lose control of the creature. If, when you think of Frankenstein’s Monster, you think of a green-skinned hulk with bolts in his neck and a lumbering gait, you have this movie to thank—our popular concept of the Monster comes from Boris Karloff’s performance. Like Dracula, the sets of Frankenstein add as much to the atmosphere as the performances do, and James Whale’s direction is careful and deft, able to create sympathy in the audience for both Frankenstein and his unnatural offspring.
The film contains a scene originally cut in which the Monster stops to play with a little girl by a lake, and of all the scenes in all the Universal movies, this one might the most disconcerting. We know what’s coming, and the tension of it is almost unbearable. Like an AI, the Monster must follow his programming, and if you’ve ever looked on a machine with fear, you’ll find something to fear in this movie.
1932’s The Mummy features Karloff again in another role that required hours in the makeup chair (and for a comparatively short amount of screen time). This time, he plays Imhotep, an Egyptian prince buried alive but brought back by the ineptitude of some contemporary archeologists (legitimate tip: don’t read out loud any scrolls you find in tombs; nothing good can come of it). Once alive, he sets off in search of his love, who has conveniently been reincarnated into a nearby woman. It’s tempting to think of The Mummy as a movie about the fear of the past, but it’s probably more accurate to think of it as a movie about the fear of love—after all, Imhotep’s only desire is to find his lost love after all those millennia in the tomb, and the love is what leads to his downfall. Those who type the names of high school girlfriends and boyfriends into search engines “just to see what they’re up to” could learn from The Mummy.
“Even a man who is pure in heart / and says his prayers at night / may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms / and the autumn moon is bright,” recite no fewer than three characters to Larry Talbot in 1941’s The Wolf Man. Each time, Talbot smirks—the boisterous, disbelieving American in an Old World country that has both British nobles and a thriving Romany caravan (including Bela Lugosi as a fortune teller!)—but Talbot is doomed to be bitten by the werewolf and become one himself. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, Talbot is an innocent—as much as victim as a perpetrator, and for this reason, The Wolf Man is a film about our fear of ourselves and what we might be capable of if the reason and morality—the humanity, maybe—that guide us in everyday life were suddenly to be taken away. Dissolving shots show Talbot changing into the Wolf Man, and Cheney gives the most human performance of any of the Universal Monsters; his conflicted self brings a different kind of darkness to the Dark Universe.
Creature from the Black Lagoon is the kid of the bunch, coming out almost a quarter-century after Dracula and Frankenstein, and it’s the only one of the Universal movies without a marquee star (apologies to Richard Carlson and Julie Adams, who are great in the movie and had long careers in Hollywood). In many ways, Creature is a stereotypical 1950s monster movie—group of scientists head into the unknown, tamper with things they should, discover something deadly, some minor characters die, some major characters are threatened, there’s a chase scene, and then the monster is dealt with. All this is true about Creature, but it’s all done amazingly well in this movie—the performances walk the fine line between pathos and seriousness, and the Creature is a wonderfully costumed monster, a classic in its own right.
Also wonderful in the movie are the extended underwater sequences, made possible by developments in camera technology that didn’t exist in the early days of these films. Even when you remember that you’re watching a monster swim after an unsuspecting would-be victim, these moments still hold an unmistakable beauty to them. At its core, the Creature is itself—it’s not cursed by a bite or assembled by a mad scientist or brought back to life accidentally; instead, it’s evolved to fit its niche, and can’t help its instinct to defend its homeland. Creature is a movie about our fear of Nature, a familiar topic for anyone who ever swam in a lake or the ocean and felt something brush their leg, or who heard a twig snap not too far from their tent in the middle of the night. We might have technology and civilization, but take those things away, and we’re defenseless.
Despite Universal’s best efforts, this year’s version of The Mummy didn’t do terribly well in America, earning about $80 million of its $125 million budget. The international market more than made up the difference, though, with a worldwide gross of over $400 million, so it looks like the Dark Universe will see the light of day. Regardless of the success or failure of this franchise, however, the original famous monsters of filmland will remain for other generations to discover—this time, though, they’re on the big screen of the Byrd instead of the flickering tube of a basement television.
Colin Rafferty, author