A Quick Guide to Universal Monster Movies

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The widow’s peak and opera cloak. The flat-topped head and neck bolts. The angry mob of pitchfork-wielding peasants. The hunchbacked assistant. These things are iconic to the point of cliche when it comes to monster movies but they all originated in the horror output of Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s; an era that left a defining legacy on cinema and pop culture in general.

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Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Right from the early days, Universal Studios was known for dabbling in the horrific and the macabre. Lon Chaney starred in two silent horror pictures for Universal; The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His grotesque (and self designed) makeup appalled and thrilled audiences and earned him the title ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’. Further silent chillers from the studio included The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928) which was based on Hunchback writer Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. 1928 was also the year that Universal Studios’ founder Carl Laemmle Sr. made his son, Carl Jr. head of production as his 21st birthday present.

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Carl Jr. was more of a risk taker than his father and as well as building a chain of theaters he pushed Universal’s move into sound production. He also recognized the lucrative potential of horror movies and, much against the advice of his father, pursued the rights to Dracula for the studio’s first horror ‘talkie’. Based on the stage play rather than Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula (1931) starred Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in a career (not to mention character) defining performance as the count. Due to its massive success, Universal quickly went into production on a second horror picture. Frankenstein (1931) was originally conceived as a vehicle for Bela Lugosi, but it was to be Boris Karloff who would eventually play the monster in a remarkably sympathetic portrayal. It wasn’t just the flat-topped head and neck bolts that Frankenstein left as its legacy. The sparking electrical effects and fizzing Tesla Coil became the standard for Frankenstein movies as did the hunchbacked assistant (who does not appear in Mary Shelly’s novel). The film was another hit for Universal and Karloff quickly overtook Lugosi as the studio’s leading horror icon, appearing in the following year’s The Mummy. Universal went down a more comedic route with The Invisible Man (1933) which blended slapstick and groundbreaking special effects. Then they created the first real werewolf movie in Werewolf of London (1935). The same year, Karloff and director James Whale returned for a sequel to Frankenstein. Bride of Frankenstein is widely regarded as a masterpiece both in terms of style and characterization and is often quoted as a rare example of a sequel superior to its source.

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Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

draculas_daughter_-_poster_1936Despite the popularity of its horror niche, Universal Studios floundered in the late 1930s. Carl Laemmle Jr., known for his wild spending, went against his father’s rule of never borrowing money and took out a loan of $750,000 to finance a lavish remake of 1929’s Show Boat with the Laemmle family’s controlling interest in the studio as collateral. Show Boat (1936) was vastly over budget and, although a commercial success, it was too little too late. Out went Carl Jr. and his big budget monster movies with him. Dracula’s Daughter (1936) was the first Universal monster movie to be made as a b-movie. While successful, it wasn’t enough to revive Universal’s monster trademark and the genre remained untouched until the end of the decade. The re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein as a double-bill in 1938 was immensely popular and encouraged production on a new movie. Son of Frankenstein (1939) starring Basil Rathbone as the titular son and Bela Lugosi as the hunchbacked assistant Ygor, did very well and revived Universal’s monster formula for a new decade.

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Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolfman (1941)

1940 saw the release of three low-budget horror movies keen to carry on Universal’s horror brand. Rather than being a direct sequel to the original, The Mummy’s Hand swapped Karloff’s intelligent if decrepit villain for a shambling bandage-wrapped corpse murdering at its master’s whim which became the blueprint for most future mummy flicks. The Invisible Man got two sequels that year – The Invisible Man Returns and The Invisible Woman – the latter of which was a definite comedy rather than a horror film. 1941 gave the world one of Universal’s most influential monsters. Lon Chaney Jr. (son of the Man of a Thousand Faces) followed in his father’s footsteps and became a horror icon in The Wolfman; an atmospheric second take on the werewolf movie which Universal had previously attempted in 1935’s Werewolf of London.

frankenstein-meets-the-wolfmanThe rest of the decade was dominated by low-budget sequels to Universal’s earlier hits. Kharis the mummy lurched across screens three more times in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and the The Mummy’s Curse (1944) while H. G. Wells’s concept was continued in Invisible Agent (1942) and The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944). Lon Chaney Jr. tried his hand at other roles and starred as the monster in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein and as the count himself in 1943’s Son of Dracula. But the Universal monster formula was about to change. Allegedly inspired by a cynical joke, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) finally featured Bela Lugosi as the monster and Lon Chaney Jr. back in his most famous role. This ‘monster mash-up’ idea was continued with House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), both featuring Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman and Dracula in convoluted plots involving cures and revivals.

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‘Gill Man’ from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

By the late ’40s, Universal’s monster appeal was, once again, starting to wear thin. Their once terrifying creatures were now foils for the slapstick antics of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello who starred in three comedic riffs on the studio’s monster hits. The world had changed too. With the developing Cold War the horror film had begun to incorporate the space race and the atom bomb. UFOs and radiation were considered far more terrifying than vampires and werewolves and in 1954, Universal gave us their last great classic monster. The ‘Gill Man’ in Creature from the Black Lagoon presented a more science based monster to keep with the times and appeared in two sequels; Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). While some consider the likes of the big-brained alien mutant from This Island Earth (1955) to be a continuation of the Universal monster, there can be no denying that by this point the classic age of Universal’s movie monsters was over.

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Famous Monsters of Filmland was a magazine that ran from 1958 to 1983 and captured the rise of monster fandom.

Universal’s monster movies have had a huge influence on pop culture. In 1957, a package of 52 Universal horror movies were released for television syndication. Hosted on various stations by horror hosts like Zacherley, as ‘Shock Theatre’, the package introduced Universal’s monsters to a new generation who took them to heart. From the Munsters TV series in the ’60s to the Aurora model kits, Sesame Street, Ben Cooper Halloween costumes and Count Chocula breakfast cereal, the Universal monster legacy has never died.

the_mummy_2017_teaser_posterUniversal Studios have ever been reluctant to let their monster franchise die. Imhotep was revived for a new version of The Mummy in 1999 (spawning two sequels). Its director, Stephen Sommers, took another crack at the monster menagerie in 2005 with Van Helsing; an action adventure that pitted Hugh Jackman against Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman. The Wolfman itself was remade in 2010 and Dracula got an origin story in Dracula Untold (2014). Currently there is talk of a shared Universal Monster Movie Universe after the fashion of Marvel’s superheroes, the first installment of which is The Mummy starring Tom Cruise due for a 2017 release.

1942-complete-cover-2My most recent novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – is an homage to the monster movies of the 1940s as well as Film Noir. It’s an action-packed mystery-horror novel set in 1942 and deals with a virus spawned by a military research project in the Amazon that threatens to turn all of Los Angeles into blood-hungry monsters. I included many nods to Universal’s legacy including vampires, werewolves, reconstituted corpses, a hunchbacked scientist and even a mummy.

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New Novel Coming soon!

It’s been over a year since the last Lazarus Longman novel came out and now I’m back with a new series! Celluloid Terrors will be a series of stand-alone horror novels inspired by grindhouse and b-movies of various decades. The novels will have no relation to each other but will take their cues from the types of movies that were popular during the periods in which they are set. The first novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – is set in the 1940s. This was when Universal Studios was having great success with their monster movies, many of them sequels to their earlier hits like Dracula (1931) Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Wolfman (1941). During the war and with limited resources, they started to throw monsters together in movies like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) and House of Dracula (1945). The 1940s was also the period of Film Noir; shady crime flicks that showed the seamy underbelly of the American city, filled with post-war paranoia and cynicism. This set the perfect mood for a pulpy detective story in a city overrun by creatures of the night.

Curse of the Blood Fiends is set for a late December/early January release. Take a look at the cover and blurb and watch this space!

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The year is 1942 and something deadly lurks in the shadows of the City of Angels.

When private detective Rosa Bridger took the case of tracking down a drug-addled starlet for her fiancé’s movie mogul father she thought it would be a simple missing person’s case. She needs the help of her ex-fling, Steve; the only honest cop she knows. This doesn’t go over so well with her fiancé, Flynn; Hollywood’s hottest swashbuckler. And Rosa has stumbled over the trail of something much more sinister than the hoodlums and hop pushers she is used to dealing with.

A military research project in the Amazon has gone horribly wrong spawning monstrous man-made creatures who kill all in their path. One man survives and makes the long journey home to Los Angeles. Henry Gross – game warden and tough-guy for hire – has been infected with the virus that makes him kill by night. And that virus threatens to turn the entire city into immortal creatures ravenous for human blood.

An action-packed mystery-horror novel inspired by Film Noir and the monster movies of the 1940s.

Steampunk Wednesdays #10 – Van Helsing: The London Assignment (2004)

Van_Helsing_The_London_AssignmentSome time ago I took a look at the 2004 disappointment Van Helsing. Far better is its animated prequel The London Assignment which came out on home video to coincide with the movie’s release.

If you’ve seen the movie then you may remember its Paris-set opening where Van Helsing battles the Hulk-like Mr. Hyde, wrecking the stained glass window of Notre Dame in the process. This short animation leads up to that encounter and plays on the long established connection between the Jekyll and Hyde story and the murders of Jack the Ripper (utilised in the 1971 Hammer Horror Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and in my own novel Onyx City). The plot involves a romance between Dr. Jekyll and Queen Victoria. Jekyll tries to keep Victoria young and beautiful by giving her potions made from the souls of young women – which spells bad news for the prostitutes of London’s Whitechapel district.

A Quick Guide to Mummy Movies

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Mummies feature in my novels Curse of the Blood Fiends and Silver TombIn writing them I drew on mythology more modern than ancient. Although the concept of reanimated mummies are never mentioned in Egyptian sources, the writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were fascinated by the creepy possibilities they posed as plot devices. With the rise of cinema, mummies were every bit as suitable for celluloid terror as vampires and other monsters and there were several silent mummy-themed movies like The Eyes of the Mummy (1918, released in the U.S. in 1922). However, few of these films actually featured a reanimated mummy. Most dealt with reincarnation and some were comedies in which a character wraps himself up as a mummy in order to scare people.

7204978_f520It wasn’t until 1932 that the definitive mummy movie would make it onto screens. Universal Studios, fresh from their success with Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) were looking for a vehicle for their new star, Boris Karloff. They landed on Ancient Egypt, still popular thanks to the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb ten years earlier and all the associated talk of curses. The Mummy tells of Im-Ho-Tep; an Ancient Egyptian priest who was mummified alive for blasphemously attempting to bring back to life his deceased lover, Ankh-es-en-amon using the Scroll of Thoth. Accidentally reanimated by a young Egyptologist involved in uncovering his tomb in 1921, Im-Ho-Tep gets a new lease on life and promptly vanishes, leaving the young scholar to die raving in a madhouse. Ten years later, an expedition of British archaeologists are led to the tomb of Ankh-es-en-amon by a helpful (although decrepit) Egyptian called Ardath Bey. Bey turns out to be none other than Im-Ho-Tep, now mostly restored to human form, who is still looking to reanimate his lost lover. When he encounters Helen Grosvenor – daughter of the governor of the Sudan – he sees in her the reincarnation of Ankh-es-en-amon and decides that she will do instead.

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Universal’s 1940 follow-up – The Mummy’s Hand – was less of a sequel and more of a remake with the mummy this time around being Kharis, buried alive for attempting to restore his lover, Princess Ananka, using the sacred ‘tana leaves’. Far from being an independent thinker restored to some semblance of his former self like Karloff’s Im-Ho-Tep, Kharis remains under wraps (so to speak) and is under the control of the Priests of Karnak, ordered to kill at the behest of the insideous sect. Kharis is much more of a traditional lumbering monster than Karloff’s articulate and intelligent character and remained so in the three sequels that followed. Set thirty years on in (supposedly) 1970, The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) sees Kharis and his new master travel to the United States to wreak vengeance on the Banning family who desecrated Ananka’s tomb in the first film. The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) is also set in the ‘future’ of 1970 and has a further disciple of the Priests of Karnak (now called the Priests of Arkam, inexplicably) revive Kharis and attempt to return him to Egypt. The final entry in this series – The Mummy’s Curse – was also released in 1944 and is set twenty-five years later, (presumably 1995, despite the hats and spats on show). In this one an engineering company inadvertently dredges up Kharis and his bride, Ananka, from the swamp where they perished in the previous film. The old tana leaves are brewed up once again by a new disciple of the Arkam sect for a final lurch across screens. As with most other Universal monsters, the Mummy got the Abbott and Costello treatment in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) which was to be the comedy duo’s final movie together.

mummy_1959_poster_01Hammer Film Productions – the British heir to Universal’s horror mantle – had already found success with remakes of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1958 and naturally dusted off the Mummy for their next full color outing. The Mummy (1959), starring Hammer stalwarts Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as John Banning and the mummy respectively, was a remake of The Mummy’s Hand rather than Universal’s 1932 original, although Hammer dispensed with the tana leaves idea and reverted to the ‘Scroll of Thoth’ as a plot device. Hammer borrowed elements from the other Universal mummy movies like the pursuit of John Banning to his homeland (this time Victorian England) by Kharis and his master and the use of a local swamp as both the site of resurrection and eventual fate of Kharis.

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Hammer’s other mummy movies bore no relation to their 1959 version or to each other. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) had a by-the-numbers plot involving three archaeologists who bring the mummy of Ra-Antef back to 1900s London, only to have it come back to life while on tour. The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) parallels the alleged curse of Tutankhamen in that the mummy of a boy pharaoh, Kah-To-Bey, is discovered by a British expedition in 1920. After bringing the mummy to the Cairo museum, the archaeologists soon find themselves hunted down by the reanimated mummy not of the boy-king, but of the devout slave who mummified him and had subsequently been discovered and kept in the Cairo museum. Hammer’s final mummy movie – Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) – did not include a mummy per se, but rather the reincarnation of Queen Tera, being a loose adaption of Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars. The queen – found in her tomb perfectly preserved by Professor Fuchs – is brought back to London and kept in an eerie shrine. As in the novel, the professor’s daughter Margaret finds herself gradually possessed by the spirit of the ancient sorceress.

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Unlike vampires, zombies and werewolves, mummies did not prove much of a box office draw in the following decades and were relegated to low budget grindhouse movies like Dawn of the Mummy (1981) which is more of a zombie movie with an Egyptian theme. A rare exception is the Charlton Heston starring film The Awakening (1980), another version of The Jewel of Seven Stars. Going direct-to-video in the US, Tale of the Mummy (1998) – also available as a directors cut called Talos the Mummy – has Christopher Lee playing the doomed archaeologist this time, unearthing the tomb of Talos in 1938. Fifty years later his granddaughter strives to continue his work, awakening Talos in the process. 1998 also gave us the direct-to-video feature Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy; yet another version of The Jewel of Seven Stars, its title clearly trying to continue the legacy of the Copploa-produced Bram Stoker’s Dracula/Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein double-punch of 1992/1994. A sequel followed in 1999 (also known as Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy) which traded Egypt for an Aztec theme.

The-Mummy-movieposterdbIn 1999 the mummy movie came back in a big way. Universal Studios decided that their original Boris Karloff feature was due for a remake. But this CGI-filled adventure extravaganza was more reminiscent of Indiana Jones than the atmospheric 1932 chiller. Set in 1926, librarian and Egyptologist Evelyn Carnehan hires mercenary Rick O’Connell to take her to Hamunaptra where, due to the unwise reading of the Book of the Dead, the mummy of disgraced priest Imhotep is brought back to life. Imhotep sees in Evelyn the reincarnation of his lost love Anck-su-Namun and brings with him several spectacular plagues in Biblical style. The Mummy was vastly popular resulting in two sequels; The Mummy Returns (2001) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) which ditched Egypt for China and saw the O’Connell family
(including their fully grown son) fend off a resurrected Chinese warlord, yetis and an army of reanimated terracotta warriors. Universal is set to redo the mummy yet again as the kick-off of their anticipated monster ‘shared universe’. Starring Tom Cruise, The Mummy is expected to hit screens summer 2017.

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1942-complete-cover-2My newest novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – is an homage to the monster movies of the 1940s. As well as vampires and werewolves, there is a mummy and a nod to the Universal mummy films in the nefarious Tana Inc. – a research company that unwittingly releases a virus that threatens to turn all of Los Angeles into blood hungry monsters. Blending genres, the novel is also a noirish detective story as PI Rosa Bridger trails a drug-addled starlet into the dark shadows of the City of Angels and uncovers something much more sinister than the hoodlums and hop-pushers she is used to dealing with.

 

 

Vintage Reads #12 – Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mummy Stories

Sir Arthur DoyleRenowned spiritualist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in a variety of genres, not least of which were his tales of the supernatural. As well as taking part in seances  and claiming to be able to communicate with the dead, he lent support to various reported phenomena (later revealed as frauds) such as the Cottingley Fairies. Naturally the mysteries of Egypt appealed to him. He strongly believed in ‘elementals’ created by the priests of ancient Egypt to protect the tombs of the pharaohs in the form of curses. He attributed the death of his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who had been studying a female mummy in the British museum, to these elementals. When asked by a reporter in 1923, he also put the death of Lord Carnarvon (discoverer of Tutankhamun’s tomb) down to his tempting fate, thus fuelling the sensational rumours of ‘King Tut’s Curse’ further. But it was his two short stories dealing with ancient Egyptian magic and mummies that had the biggest effect on popular culture.

Published in the Cornhill Magazine imummy ardethn 1890, The Ring of Thoth tells of an Egyptologist named John Vansittart Smith who, on a visit to the Louvre museum, comes across a haggard-looking caretaker who catches his imagination. Convinced that the fellow is an Egyptian of the oldest order, Smith is unable to concentrate on his studies and eventually drifts off to sleep only to awaken to find that he has been locked in the museum for the night. Wandering the lonely and shadow-haunted rooms of the Louvre, Smith comes across the strange caretaker removing a mummy from its case and unwrapping it to reveal a beautiful woman. Startled by the Englishman’s approach, the attendant eventually agrees to tell his story; a tale of love, rivalry and a quest to find the Ring of Thoth which is the only thing that can break the spell of immortality and reunite him with his loved one.

tumblr_mcf5ozVsA41qmemvwo1_500Lot No. 249 is perhaps the most influential of Doyle’s mummy tales in that it was the first story ever to feature a reanimated mummy as a figure of horror. Jane Webb wrote the first mummy story in her science fiction tale of the future The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century in 1827 and Edgar Allen Poe had reanimated a mummy in his satire Some Words with a Mummy (1845) but it was Conan Doyle who can truly be said to be the root of the modern ‘mummy monster’ popularised by the movies. Published in 1892, Lot No. 249 regards medical student Abercrombie Smith who, after moving into his rooms in a crumbling tower at Oxford, begins to have suspicions about his neighbor on the floor below. Edward Bellingham is an Egyptologist who has an array of weird artefacts in his room, weirdest of all is a mummy in a glass case. Smith begins to think that Bellingham is not alone in his rooms at night as the footsteps of a second individual are often heard. Then attempts are made on the lives of Bellingham’s rivals by an unknown assailant…

Whereas The Ring of Thoth undoubtedly influenced Universal’s The Mummy (1932) Lot No. 249 was a definite inspiration for most mummy movies that followed it, notably Universal’s second mummy feature The Mummy’s Hand (1940) which began the cinematic tradition of big, shambling mummies lurching after their victims under the command of wicked individuals. The idea of burning special leaves to control the mummy (a plot device used in most of Universal’s mummy movies) may also have come from Lot No. 249 as strange leaves are found in Bellingham’s room at the end of the story.

 

Steampunk Wednesdays #7 – Van Helsing (2004)

Van_Helsing_posterDracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman in one movie? This isn’t the first time horror icons from Universal’s monster menagerie have teamed up on screen. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945) all featured monster mash-ups not to mention homages in the 70s and 80s like The Monster Squad TV series and the unrelated 1987 movie of the same name. Here the idea gets the big budget treatment from Stephen Sommers (director of 1999’s The Mummy).

This isn’t old Abraham Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s novel, but Gabriel Van Helsing (any family connection is unexplained) a secret agent for an underground society called the Knights of the Holy Order based in the Vatican. Sent to Transylvania, Van Helsing’s mission is to kill Dracula who is waging war on the Valerious family who, due to a centuries-old curse, cannot enter heaven until Drac is dead. The vampire count and his three brides are hatching a scheme to bring life to their children by using the recently bitten Velkan Valerious (now a werewolf) as a power source for the equipment Dracula appropriated from Victor Frankenstein. Why a werewolf is needed for this is anyone’s guess. Teaming up with Anna Valerious (Velkan’s sister), Van Helsing finds Frankenstein’s monster (also wanted by Dracula after his scheme with the werewolf fails) and tries to take him to Rome so he cannot be used in the count’s dastardly plans.

If all of this seems hard to follow, you’re not alone. The film’s main failing is a near incomprehensible plot. I don’t set out to review films on this blog but I can’t help but share my feelings of a wasted opportunity here. It’s not the most solid example of Steampunk put on screen but it is perhaps one of the more well-known entries. There’s plenty of cool gadgets such as Van Helsing’s semi-automatic crossbow, grappling hooks and other gear. But the main ‘steampunky’ thing is the film’s take on Frankenstein’s monster which is part sewn-together creature and part steam-powered automaton.