Sunday, 4 August 2013

Remembering the Monsters: Universal Edition 1/3

It's officially summer time here in Blighty, and I'm sweating like King George VI attempting to pronounce 'Ku Klux Klan'. During these horribly arid months I'm less Flash Gordon fondling Lady Godiva atop a mountain, and more like a displaced penguin trying to cool itself in front of a refrigerator. So for the time being, I'm going to be focusing less on reviews and more on smaller pieces like the following - I'm that out of it any words I write just look like the Flying Spaghetti Monster after a horrible accident. 

I've been thinking about the Creature Feature a lot lately; in particular - the black and white Universal Creature Features. Back in the early days of cinema, the vast majority of mainstream horror films came from Universal Studios: Churning out dozens of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy movies over a forty year period (1923 - 1960). And when I say 'came up with,' I of course mean: 'lifted from almost every pre-eminent horror novelist of the mid to late nineteenth century,' much like how metal bands treat Lovecraft's work like it's open source. They were basically Hammer Horror without all the disappointing nobbing and camp acting: Perhaps, also, lower in quality. Regardless, I consider them to be culturally important: The Universal Monsters are icons of cinema, what we picture when imagining Dracula and his ilk. Universal's designs are often accepted as the definitive design. It's rather sad really that the closest you get to a Creature Feature now are slashers where the antagonist looks a wittle bit strange.

So join me as I have a look at some of cinema's great monsters and chart their history, decline and what can be done with them.   


Perhaps of all the critters to feature on this list, Dracula is the least redeemable. One of the most popular, and enduring, icons of early cinema; Dracula naturally found his origins in book - Bram Stoker's seminal eponymous 1897 novel to be precise. If you've never read the book then your idea of him will most likely come from either Bela LugosiChristopher Lee or Gary Oldman. Lee usually played the Count as a cold blooded predator, and last man to pull off the cape, who approached his terrified victim with the type of primal glare usually adorned on the face of a technophile in PC World. Gary Oldman's approach was closer to Stoker's vision, but hell, it's Gary frigging Oldman - he doesn't just chew the scenery: he swallows it whole, goes home and regurgitates it into the mouths of his young (probably). The main problem with Oldman's Dracula is that it seemed as though Francis Ford Coppola never really decided on how he wanted Oldman to portray the character, so his personality is all over the place - he's far too inhuman and evil to be sympathetic, but he's also too pained and lonely to be truly horrifying. And that's pretty much it for Dracula: He's invariably either comically evil, or practically a pin-up for tortured teenage girls; or, perhaps more horrifically, some kind of late 90's cool, alternative outsider type, รก la Dracula 2000

Of course, this piece is specifically about Universal Monsters, so we have to give Lugosi an honourable discussion. Appearing in the first Dracula talkie in 1931, Lugosi is, for many, the definitive Count. Much of the tropes we still apply to Dracula movies came from that flick - the animal magnetism, black cloak, etc. Whilst he's still nowhere close to how I picture Stoker's affably evil, old man Dracula, he portrayed the monster with the right amount of malice and humanity. Perhaps Lugosi's most jarring divergence from Stoker's yarn was portraying Dracula as some kind of sex god; in the original novel it is the female vampires who undergo an awakening and become sexually liberated (understandable, given the time period) whilst Dracula is essentially a stand-in for the era's ideas on colonialism and physiognomy. So the idea of Dracula being desirable in a rather primal way comes from these old black and white movies. Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, Lugosi's shtick was done to death (Haw-Haw) by those who followed - and the whole handsome dark man with cape and enchanting stare, feels rather tired. 

I'm not exactly sure what we can do with Dracula, as envisioned by Universal, now. Vampires are in a weird place - thanks to Twilight, Vampire Diaries, True Blood, etc. - and we expect them to have some resemblance of a personality or sympathetic element: Even if it is the personality of a Dawson Creek character. Pulling off a master vampire who's so unimaginably cruel would be hard. Making him genuinely scary, and not cheesy, would be harder still. This is the age in which the serial killer protagonist must kill the bad guys; the hitman character cannot kill women or children and be the good guy, and the vampire either has to be sympathetic, or a brainless beast. Vampires are now less creaky castle dweller and eccentric aristocrat, and more nightclubbing yuppie, who spend more time nobbing than they do blood sucking: Maybe we should give up on Dracula before he's re-imagined as a young brat who accidentally kills a stripper and is forced to use his powerful father's influence to get away with it.    


Back before CGI or wizard-like FX prosthesis, the only way to bring a monster to life was to simply stick a man in a costume (stop motion being unsuitable in portraying monsters that require some level of acting). The Creature (or Gill-Man) is one of the most prominent - if not defining - examples of the Man in a Suit Monster, even if he looks as he though should be in a Classic Doctor Who episode that takes place in a carpet underlay factory. Gill-Man presents an interesting case, as, unlike his comrades, he is a creation exclusive to cinema and only featured in three movies - and certainly not alongside Abbott and CostelloAfter that he simply phoned it and resigned himself to making more cameo appearances than Jesse Heiman in a documentary on the history of nerds.

Gill-Man is the granddaddy of all strange aquatic monstrosities to emerge from the murky depths and lust after women. His central arc throughout all three films is largely the same: Gill-Man desires something (women on two occasions, freedom on another), and the only thing standing in his way is the dastardly mankind. He differs from his imitators, however, in that he becomes gradually humanised and seemingly acts out of genuine emotion. There's not a whole lot to Gill-Man's persona: As far as motivation goes he's up there with Cameron Hooker. He's a difficult character to discuss, because unlike Dracula or Frankenstein's Monster, you can't really stand around the water cooler and argue who delivered a more nuanced performance: Ben Chapman or Tom Hennesy. That's like discussing which actor was the least shittest in Twilight.

So what's to be done with Gill-Man? Well the fish men chasing terrified women genre of movies have gone out of style in modern cinema. This is no doubt due to what they represented: It was no coincidence that they were most popular during the fifties and sixties - the height of the civil rights movement. A strangely familiar subhuman wants our women, I wonder what that could represent? Francis Galton would have been proud. So he's not exactly a concept Hollywood's going to want to drag out of the closest and parade around. However, I came up with a fairly decent route the character could still be taken down: Weird Horror. Lovecraft has and always will be criminally under-represented in film, but one aspect that film makers typically carry over from his work is the whole secretive society with a nightmarish secret. Think about it: Gill-Man could return in a Shadow over Innsmouth esque story. The townsfolk know about him - maybe even revere him as a God - and in exchange for his favour they 'offer' him local women as an extreme form of penance; but the protagonist guy - be it an outsider, or village who suddenly grows a conscience - decides to simply end the depravity. It's not perfect but neither was John Thaw's right leg, and that worked. Sort of.

Frankenstein's Monster 

The shambling monstrosity himself. I've always wondered how they came up with the now iconic original design of Frankenstein's Monster - he looks less like a patch work corpse, and more like the result of a romantic union between Sloth and a Blob Sculpin. But internal logic aside, there's something rather quaint about Boris Karloff's portrayal - the design of The Creature has become increasingly mundane over the years, the whole 'monster' moniker referring, symbolically, to his nature rather than appearance. The films were, naturally, based on the eponymous 1818 novel by Mary Shelley. It's a story that by now we should know well enough: An egotistic scientist seeks to explore the darker, antiquated sciences (Galvanism, Phrenology, etc) and sets out to create a sort of revenant out through unknown but presumably occult-like means. Like The Creature himself, the original novel draws from various sources to form a sort of eclectic mix of ideas - taking inspiration from the likes of the Promethean myth and real life personalities such as Giovanni Aldini

Although often referred to as the de facto depiction, the 1931 film was not the first big screen adaptation of the novel, and made many concessions too. For starters, The Monster is reimagined as a simple creature, whose central story arc resembles that of, Of Mice and Men's Lenny in a pet store. Whilst modern depictions steer away from Karloff's visual portrayal, practically everything else is sourced from the 1931 movie - The Monster being dimwitted and unwittingly violent, Dr. Frankenstein using body parts to make his creation, and the whole lightening powered, "It's alive," process. Interestingly one can look at this version of The Monster as a meditation on the human condition. Unlike the source text, Dr. Frankenstein uses the brain of a criminal as the organic processor for his creation. So there's a sense of nature versus nurture at play here: Is The Monster so evil because of his defective 'criminal' brain, or is it more to do with being treated as an abomination who's constantly shunned? It adds dimension to Boris' portrayal, even if the film is eager to suggest it is the former, pushing an idea that's at best a pseudo-science.

I think a shift back toward a Karloff-esque Monster could be a good idea. Look at the upcoming I, Frankenstein - Aaron Eckhart will be portraying an insanely buff (and arguably handsome) version of The Monster, doing battle with other famous literary monsters. Whilst it sounds interesting in a gaudy, Alan Moore kind of way - I imagine it's essentially going to be like a Playgirl / Image Comics cross-over. Plenty of flicks have modernised Shelly's concept - Splice, for example - exploring current hot topics like genetic engineering and cloning; in fact, I'd say the story is more relevant to our society now that it reads less like a horror story and more like a cautionary tale. And within that setting a creaking, bolt necked lumbering monster doesn't really fit in, in much the same way that social responsibility has no place during a stag party. So just like with Dracula, we should probably just let this one die for good (and await the inevitable Frankenstein goes to space reboot).

To be continued with: The Mummy, The Phantom and Metaluna Mutant.

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