‘Universal Horror’ was the very first shared franchise in film that ran successfully from the late 1920’s to the early 1950’s. The studio gave the world the visual embodiment of some of the greatest characters in literature with Bela Lugosi as ‘Count Dracula’ and Boris Karloff as the ‘Monster’ in Frankenstein. While theses two images stray somewhat dramatically from the original characters from the classic novels it has not stopped the public image that still exists of Lugosi and Karloff as ‘Monsters’, only proving how powerful the impact of ‘Universal Horror’ has been on the world. While these films are certainly classic and have stood the test of time on their own merits they clearly have been surpassed by contemporary horror films. John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, considered by many to be the gold standard of horror movies owes much to its ‘original talkie’ predecessors.
Dracula and Frankenstein, both produced in 1931 are the most famous horror stories/films in the world. Based on two novels that also run high on the list of greatest novels ever written, the films were adapted for the screen by Universal Studios at the advent of the ‘Sound-era.’ It is crucial to understand the time period of when these films were made, along with The Mummy in 1932 to know their greatness and their flaws. In the 1920’s, German expressionism film was revolutionizing the movie industry. Films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, and Nosferatu are only the tip of the iceberg for the style that thrived on abstract set designs and dark, moody lighting with more shadows than had ever been seen on screen to that point. One of the movements most famous members was Cinematographer/Director Karl Freund who had shot some German expressionism showcases like Metropolis, The Golem, and The Last Laugh. Freund was also credited with inventing the technique called ‘Unchained Camera’, which is basically a fluid camera, detached from a tripod, and really the forerunner to the modern ‘Steadicam’ used brilliantly by directors such as Martin Scorsese.
The marriage of German Expressionism with Universal Studios was one made in heaven. One of the signatures of ‘Universal Horror’ films is the ‘gothic’ style sets matched with shadows and light. The magic of Hollywood was able to give us the dramatic sets of ‘Dracula’s Castle’ and ‘Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory’ with winding stone staircases and cobblestone alleys that in German films to that point were mostly paintings on a wall. Viewers at the time did not need to stretch their imagination too far because with the set design and cinematography, Universal transported you to the Carpathian mountains or the Bavarian hills. Makeup, most notably in Frankenstein was another signature of ‘Universal Horror.’ Boris Karloff is almost unrecognizable in his two most famous roles as the ‘Monster’ and as the title character of The Mummy in 1932. In the days of ‘CGI de-aging’ it is even more impressive that the original filmmakers and special effects artists were able to get it right “in camera.”
Fast forward to the late 1970’s, during a decade of true rebellion in filmmaking. Epic studio pictures with wider screens, larger sets, and exaggerated special effects had long ruled the previous two decades. When John Carpenter set out to make the independent horror film Halloween he had no more than a bundle of fake leaves, a ‘Captain Kirk’ costume mask, and a long kitchen knife. What Carpenter did have was the blueprint of how to make a great horror film straight out of the Universal playbook. Halloween employed a few of the classic horror film ‘tropes’ that go all the way back to the 1930’s. One of them being the ‘Monster escaped/unleashed.’ Michael Myers may sound like the boy next door but it is in the first scene that we are thrust into his homicidal past when he murders his sister on Halloween night. While he is a mental patient, confined to an institution for 15 years, as soon as he escapes the mental hospital he becomes no different than Dracula unleashed in London, Frankenstein’s Monster terrorizing the Bavarian countryside, or the Mummy roaming out of the museum.
Another lasting theme is that of the ‘Doctor’ as savior. Dracula and Frankenstein were both written at moment in history when science was seen as something mythical or supernatural. Therefore, when an ‘evil/unnatural being’ or creation was unleashed, only a scientist, such as ‘Dr. Van Helsing’, was able to capture and defeat the evil. The three classic Monster movies from ‘Universal Horror’ mentioned here even had the same actor, Edward Van Sloan, play the ‘Heroic Doctor’ in all 3 films. In Halloween this role belongs to the outstanding Donald Pleasance as ‘Dr. Sam Loomis.’ Pleasance reprised his character in several sequels, unfortunately watering down the intense ‘tour de force’ he gave in the original production where his maniacal pursuit of Michael Myers carries the whole film.
Lastly, while this ‘trope’ may seem minor, if you watch any horror film you are most likely to find it. It is the ‘Creepy Hand’ of the the monster. When Michael Myers escapes from the mental hospital at the start of Halloween he commandeers the nurses car in dramatic fashion. While parked waiting for Dr. Loomis to check out a strange scene outside the hospital gates, the Nurse hears a rumble on top of the car. When she rolls down the window to take a peak, a large hand creeps in through the window and grabs her hair. Without seeing his face, we already know who the hand belongs to. This technique is no different than the moment Dr. Frankenstein tries to reanimate the Monster with electricity and we are shown a close up of Boris Karloff’s large, rugged hand hanging off the table, fingers twitching. Or a coffin in the basement of Castle Dracula, whose lid slowly opens and a hand with long, wiry fingers creeps out from under the lid. And what about Boris Karloff again in The Mummy, at one moment, standing up in the coffin, arms folded, lifeless, to the next moment when his hand reaches out from behind the museum worker, and grabs the Egyptian scroll off of the desk, then escapes from the museum as the worker can only watch and scream in terror.
Very few films can still have an impact almost a century after they were made. In the case of ‘Universal Horror’, although these films may be more comical now than frightening, they laid the groundwork for the horror films that followed. The ones that haunt our dreams and make us want to sleep with the lights on.