Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The Monster Movies of Universal Studios

Universal Challenge

The Monster Movies
of Universal Studios

by James L. Neibaur
R & L ISBN: 978-1442278165

It’s a surprising but no belittling a factor that, in his introduction to The Monster Movies of Universal Studios, James L. Neibaur quickly explains that he has eschewed various of what I would personally say are still very much candidates for the title in favour of, purely, going through the various classic monster movies from that studio which have seen numerous releases over the past twenty years on DVD and Blu Ray and which are nowadays known to fans of that particular sub-genre as The Legacy Collection. Nothing wrong with this, of course and it certainly provides a service for those who are discovering these films in this fashion for the first time... what it does mean, however, is that films that I would personally also consider part of that loose canon... films such as The Mole People, It Came From Outer Space, Tarantula and The Monolith Monsters... especially in light of the fact of the inclusion within these pages of the Creature From The Black Lagoon cycle (not to mention three of the Abbot And Costello crossover movies), are not covered by this book. That’s okay though... perhaps we’ll get a companion volume at some point.

The book starts off by briefly reminding the reader of the climate that brought about the enthusiastic pursuit and production, originally by Carl Laemmle Jr, of these horror vehicles that assaulted the public in the early to mid 1930s and then once again throughout the 1940s in various spin offs and sequels. The success of each movie (sometimes saving Universal Studios from bankruptcy) and the downward plummeting budgets of these movies during the 1940s is subsequently recorded as each film is looked at in chronological order of release. What we have here is a chapter for each film in the recently released (and rereleased on Blu Ray) Legacy collections... so the Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, Mummy, Invisible Man and Creature From The Black Lagoon characters all have separate entries for each and every movie in their respective cycles lasting maybe 7 or 8 pages per piece. Also included is my personal favourite werewolf movie, Werewolf Of London, along with the somehow non-horror movie She-Wolf Of London (I’ve always puzzled why this psychological thriller is included in these sets since there’s no actual monster in the movie at all) and the three Abbot and Costello films... Meet Frankenstein, Meet The Invisible Man and Meet The Mummy.

Each chapter contains a look at how the cast and crew were selected for the upcoming project, followed by a synopsis of the film and a look at how the film fared both critically and at the box office (often two polar opposites when these things were lurking at the cinema). So, for example, in the section on the first Dracula film, he talks about how it was refined down by various writers from the Balderston reboot of Stokers stage version of the novel (as opposed to the novel, on which hardly any of Dracula’s cinematic excursions have been based on) and also talks about Lugosi’s involvement in acquiring the rights from Stoker’s widow, with his subsequent lobbying and accepting of far less money than his fellow actors to secure the role which he had already made his own on stage. Neibaur goes on to make the point about the way the narrative is focused more on the story of the title character as opposed to adding in more significant back story for some of the supporting characters like Lucy, Mina and Dr. Seward, as a more modern take on the material might pursue.

For each film the author makes comments about the stylistic sensibilities of the movie in regard to placement of camera and general cinematography and, sometimes, brings up some interesting facts or observations that I was unaware of (even though I’ve read and watched a lot of documentary material on these films over the years). For instance, in the case of the original script of Cagliostro, The King Of The Dead, which was revised and evolved until it became The Mummy, I was unaware that in that original script, Cagliostro was a 3000 year old magician who remains alive by injecting himself with nitrates. And it’s also interesting to know just a little more detail in the story behind the original make-up for Werewolf Of London, where make-up artist extraordinaire Jack Pearce and actor Henry Hull clashed on how much the make-up would hide the face of the actor... with Hull going above Pearce in the food chain to get his way via the consequences of the original make up to certain things indicated in the script. It’s also interesting to note that when the studio successfully rebooted a werewolf character via The Wolf Man and its subsequent sequels, Pearce went back to his original make-up designs for Lon Chaney Jrs make-up. By the way, in case you are in any doubt, I most certainly disagree with the author’s insistence that Werewolf Of London is somehow inferior to The Wolf Man... not a bit of it.

Another little gem I don’t think I remembered or, perhaps, didn’t know but which this book brought to light is the fact that Son Of Frankenstein was being written/finished on a day by day basis as it was being shot... so I need to go back to that movie sometime soon and see if I can find any plot points or continuity moments which betray that fact. He also talks about the scene in The Mummy’s Tomb where the couple is ‘making out’ in the car but are disturbed by the sound of the film’s main antagonist going past as being the first time this had happened in the horror genre... I’m not 100% sure on that myself because there are so many films from the silent era which are lost to us but I’m happy to take him at his word until other evidence comes to light. That being said, I suspect that one of the later Mummy movies in this cycle may be the first cinematic instance of a living dead person rising up out of the earth but... I’ll get on to that when I eventually get around to rewatching that movie for this blog.

Another interesting point the author makes is that blending comedy with horror was not a new concept by the time of the 1949 movie Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein and his musings on various of the films traces the decline of the monster series', noting which films had lower budgets than each previous, why that was the case (in some instances... like the special effects budget being slashed because more money for effects were needed for a film being shot simultaneously) and also takes note, I believe, of the declining running times as the various films emerged.

He also highlights a lot of the errors in these films such as the horrible continuity problems with the time placements and, sometimes, location settings for The Mummy movies... and its kind of refreshing to hear someone else acknowledging those. He goes on to point out that the footprints in the snow of the presumably naked Claude Rains in The Invisible Man are of shoes and not feet so... yeah, I can’t believe the studio went with that solution, to be honest.

That being said... I believe the author is not above making a few errors himself. For instance, when he talks about the Frankenstein monster as being... “... a legend that most audiences knew due to the popularity of Mary Shelley’s nineteenth-century novel.”... then surely that implies she merely popularised an already existing character, rather than fashion the whole story from clay as I believe is the case. Also, he notes that the stage version of Frankenstein gave The Monster the same name as his creator. Really? I’ve not heard that before and would have thought that, if that were the case and it such a bone of contention for people who love this character... that he is often confused with the scientist who created him... then this would be better known.

However, a few 'possible' errors do not kill a book and, although I knew a lot of the stuff covered here before, much of it gleaned from documentaries and commentary tracks, this book wins out because it is a handy guide to the ‘Universal Legacy’ monsters where all the information is gathered into one place and, also, because there is some stuff I didn’t know about in here and, yeah, that always makes a book invaluable. If you are a stranger to the movies covered in this book then I would definitely cite this tome as being a great starting place to jump on for a flavour of what these movies are all about... although it is, of course, no substitute for watching the actual films themselves. For die hard fans, though, this book is also a nice thing to have on hand to look up the quick, odd fact for when this kind of subject matter comes up in conversation, for sure. The Monster Movies of Universal Studios is a book which belongs on the shelf of any admirer of the genre and a big thank you to the coolest friend who bought me a copy of this one for my birthday. It was much appreciated.

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