Halloween is here and as a movie goer it’s always a good time for scary movies. But I am going way back to the beginning now with the Universal Monsters. It might be black and white, but damm these guys changed horror to what it is today. So here are my top five Universal Monsters films:
The Phantom of the Opera
It’s pointless to write a plot summary of this–everyone knows the story! Universal decided to film this back in 1924 with the then very popular Lon Chaney in the title role. Unfortunately, it was a nightmare. Director Julien constantly fought with Chaney and stormed off the set more than once.Things got so bad Julien was fired and somebody else was brought in to finish the film. Even Chaney himself directed a few scenes. Costar Mary Philbin also hated doing the film–the constant fighting got on her nerves. It’s a miracle this turned out as good as it did.It’s very well-directed (nice use of shadows and light and dark)and has a just excellent performance by Chaney. Philbin is quite good too (even it she does overdo it a few times). The sets are big and very elaborate and there’s a color costume party in the middle, with the Phantom showing up looking quite scary as the Red Death. The sequence in which he spies in Christine and the Count on the roof of the Opera House is VERY effective–that skull face of his will not leave me and the billowing red cape is eerie. The unmasking scene still can make you jump and the film moves at a VERY quick pace (it’s only 90 minutes).
Lugosi may have tragically ended his career making some of the worst, most laughably bad productions of all time under deservedly infamous names such as Ed Wood, but for a while, he stood in the golden arches of Hollywood and nowhere else is this more evident than his iconic portrayal of Bram Stoker’s famous vampire Dracula in this 1931 masterpiece of the same name. Who can forget Lugosi walking down the great steps of a rundown Transylvanian castle, hair sleeked back, clad in dark robes, a candle in one hand, a pale face, grinning, and announcing himself with deliberate hesitations and exaggerated pronunciation: “I am…Dracula.” Or maybe: “I never drink…wine.” Evidently, nobody can forget since basically every conception of a vampire, whether on stage or film or simply in the imagination mirrors Lugosi’s performance in “Dracula.” This is one of the most influential and popular horror movies of all time. Now does it still terrify audience members as its advertisements claimed? No, Lugosi is not scary and I’m not quite sure he ever was. But if there is one thing that he is and most certainly always was, that is awesome. He’s a spiffy, cool, groovy vampire who does not come across as unintentionally funny. He won’t terrify you, he won’t make you laugh unless he wants to, but he will keep you entertained because he’s such a terrific screen presence.
The Wolf Man
In his signature role, Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot, who returns home to his father’s estate in Europe after being away in America for 18 years. During the night of a full moon, Larry accompanies Gwen Conliffe and her friend Jenny to a gypsy carnival, where a fortune-teller (Bela Lugosi, in an all too brief cameo) sees the mark of the pentagram in Jenny’s palm and later attacks her. Larry, trying to save her, kills what he thinks is a plain, ordinary wolf & is bitten in the process. Thus beginning the tragic saga of the Wolf Man.The rolling fog seen throughout this movie makes for great atmosphere & the musical score is terrific. Chaney excels in his role of Larry Talbot; a very likable, and simultaneously tragic figure. At the start of the movie, we learn that Larry stayed away from his native home for so many years because of his feelings of neglect, due to his older brother getting all of his father’s attention. And now that Larry’s been more or less “Americanized”, he feels like a stranger in his own homeland. That little wolf bite he receives further escalates his troubles. Then there’s Claude Rains as Larry’s dad. His eldest son is already dead, and he’s not reunited with Larry for a whole week before not only losing him, but being the cause of his son’s death. There’s just tragedy all around in The Wolf Man. Lending great support to this picture is Maria Ouspenskaya as the wise, old gypsy woman who becomes a substitute mother figure to Larry here and in the sequel “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man”.
The film that made a major star of Boris Karloff remains one of the greatest horror films of all time. What can I say about a movie like this which has already had so many positive things said about it for over 80 years? It’s a film that was actually scary to me when I first caught it on television as a child, and while it’s not very likely to retain that power for adults, I’d wager that small children would still have nightmares after watching it today, jaded as they are these days.Beginning with Karloff, his performance is impeccable. He gave the Frankenstein Monster a personality and sense of pathos, but could just as capably turn on the nastiness when his creature was persecuted. The cadaverous makeup design by Jack Pierce is one of the most classic and instantly recognized masterpieces ever conceived; often imitated, never duplicated. Colin Clive is perfectly cast as the eccentric and neurotic scientist who stitches together pieces of dead bodies and endows it with life through the means of Kenneth Strickfaden’s flashy electrical machinery. IT’S ALIVE…! Director James Whale mostly keeps the proceedings grim and bleak. Thunder, lightning, blackened skies,gloomy castles and graveyards are prevalent, yet occasionally Whale sprinkles his own brand of dark humor throughout the proceedings. He would go on to make BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, a sequel which in many ways outshines its original with heavier emphasis on satire.This is one early horror talkie which actually benefits from having no music soundtrack. One could go through the entire 70 minute running time and never even notice it was missing.
Creature from the Black Lagoon
Creature from the Black Lagoon was made in an era when corny sci-fi films were coming out left and right. Bu Creature from the Black Lagoon changed the sci-fi industry after it was made and took it into a new direction. The movie is given thought and a plot hard to find in the infamous 50’s. A scientific expedition is in progress. David Reed (Richard Carlson), Mark Williams (Richard Denning) and a few other scientists and locals are leading the project in search of fossils. After many days along the Amazon they become stuck inside a lagoon known as ‘The Black Lagoon’ and people have been disappearing around it. After a few days a few members are attacked by a mysterious half-fish & half human thing. Through the chaos the beautiful Kay (Julie Adams) is abducted by the Creature and the crew men must make an attempt against this prehistoric monster and retrieve Kay.I use to watch this when I was kid on the VCR and found it to be awesome. Being fascinated with the subject of monsters and dinosaurs when I was a pip-squeak I found this to be the best film. the acting is great, Richard Denning and Richard Carlson are awesome along with everyone else. The make-up is pretty good for a 50’s film. The creature is menacing and complex at the same time. This is a classic and should be seen by any horror buff film type person.