Saturday, 28 February 2015

Remembering the Monsters: Universal Edition 2/3

Did you enjoy The Avengers? Of course you did. Hype, hype, Joss Whedon, hype. The idea of years of intricate cross-continuity playing out in a single two-hour film, featuring the characters of several franchises, was previously unimaginable. In the comic industry - a medium that probably retcons its storylines more frequently than I change underwear - sure, but in a film series? No chance. I brought this rapidly failing comparison up because I feel the Universal Monsters achieved a similar sort of concept. A series of loosely connected 'Creature Features', movies that were sold based on the perceived popularity of their starring monsters and have since been absorbed into the larger cultural memory. These films also occasionally crossed over into ensemble flicks; such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and The Creeper Joins the TSA.

A while back I posted the first instalment of what I hope will be a permanent series exploring the origins and histories of popular movie monsters. Think of it like Monster Mash with added swears. This article is the second of a three-part special looking at Universal Monsters, the early meal tickets of Universal Studios. Eventually, I hope to branch out to Kaiju/Daikaiju, and mythological creatures. Last time I looked at some of the most famous creatures (Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Creature), whereas here I've decided to slow things down and focus on the lesser entities. But not The Mad Ghoul though; a character who essentially turns into a mindless ghoul after being exposed to an ancient Mayan fart cloud should be so lucky to be included on any celebratory list.

Let us begin with a monster who is crinklier than a McCoys Deep Ridge crisp - The Mummy.

The Mummy

The concept of the animated murderous mummy can be traced back to Jane C. Loudon's 1827 novel, The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. And you only have to look back to the past two hundred years to see from where it came originated. Prior to the 19th-century archaeological investigations of the tombs of the Pharaohs, any such curses were believed to be caused by the superstitious idea of mishandling mummified corpses. It was only when archaeologists started translating hieroglyphics, discovering the curses laid out by the execration texts that the idea of a curse as a vengeful, supernatural force took on its romantic form. It was basically the precursor to the "Hello, my name's Maggie and I'm dead" chain messages that plague many a comments section of a Facebook status.

Though the early Universal film The Mummy (1932) is often perceived as being the first such film, the concept had been done before in the Thanhouser Company's The Mummy (1911). In the latter, now destroyed film, the titular Mummy is a rather attractive Cleopatra-esque figure, who violently ravishes the male protagonist. Very Davian indeed. It is the 1932 film, however, that I am going to refer to as it codified many of the ideas we have about the concept of a walking mummified corpse. Mainly that his shambling, crusty, withered form resembles Daniel Stern from a realistic version of Home Alone. Brought to life by Western doltish intervention in the East - how quaint - Imhotep (Boris Karloff) drags himself out of his dusty crypt to maim his way through civilisation. You may already be familiar with the story of The Mummy, as it was loosely remade in 1999. That's right, I'm referring to the unimaginably titled Brendan Fraser vehicle, The Mummy (1999). Christ, these film-makers are taking naming cues from the One State.

Imhotep, like Dracula, is a figure who presents film-makers with the considerable challenge of modernising. Everything about him screams antiquity. He's literally a corpse from ancient times. And even the idea of his character stems from a sort of outdated Western 'otherization' of Eastern culture. As a result, we don't tend to get many Mummy themed movies in modern cinema. It's hardly surprising, the idea that a singular reanimated corpse - magical or otherwise - could pose a serious threat to automatised society is as ludicrous as a food fight with Condiment Man. Sure, we could take the Stargate-SG1 Egyptian Gods are aliens approach, but that feels somewhat overcomplicating the initial problem. Like inviting a child-abducting serial killer to remove a plague rats peacefully from your village.

Consequently, I would say that adaptations should be limited to a period setting. The sense of being on the verge of a wondrous discovery, coupled with the rudimentary equipment and weaponry of the early twentieth-century, makes for an excellent combination. The only films in recent memory to aim for this vibe are The Mummy tetralogy (if you count The Scorpion King). But those were more swashbuckling/light-hearted Pirates of the Caribbean style fantasy-lite than horror. And the only good films of the franchise were the ones with Arnold Vosloo - so that'd make half of the franchise terrible. There was also the far more recent The Pyramid (2014), which attempted to take Egyptian mythology and a creepy tomb setting and marry it with clunky found footage horror. Unfortunately, the execution was as embarrassing as being the CEO of a Dutch oven manufacturing company being asked about his job.

The Phantom

Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra has a lot to answer for. There's nothing particularly wrong with the original text but as the progenitor of the story, it is directly responsible for decades of incongruous misaimed fandom - culminating in the ludicrous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in 1986. Leroux's creation is a psychopathic monster driven by emotions that he is too mentally undeveloped to understand fully. Most adaptations would have you believe he's merely slightly a bastard - a bastard with the potential to be changed. If this were a high school comedy, then the Phantom would end up being the douchebag called Chad perpetually wearing a baseball jacket.

The 1925 silent adaptation, The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney is the best known outside of Webber's, and probably the most faithful too. Largely this is due the efficacy of Chaney's rubber-faced performance. His phantom is a repellent monster through both his appearance and actions. By the 2004 version the titular monster is dark, handsome (only slightly disfigured) and sensual; so it seems rather bizarre that Christine regards the idea of being with him as grim as the prospect of having a "my dad's harder than your dad" argument with Perseus. Especially considering the darker aspects of his personality result purely from her rejection of him. She's such a tease, like finding the last Starburst in the packet only to discover that it's fucking strawberry.

As great as the 1925 version is, however, it is 1943's Phantom of the Opera that is instead part of the official Universal Monster cannon. Claude Rains dons the mask for this adaptation, and he does an acceptable enough job - even if his Phantom comes across as more of a Count of Monte Cristo type. The problem with the 1943 film is that it represents the flanderization of the Phantom's character. Suddenly he's Batman with his elaborate schemes and unlimited resources. A tortured genius, rather than an opportunistic, violent psychopath. As a result, most adaptations lack the atmosphere of the 1925 film - that presented the well trodden 'murderous monster hiding amongst the innocent public' trope rather well. The outlandish depictions of the Phantoms feel utterly implausible. I can't help but think of the authorities in the 1943 film as rather incompetent; seemingly unable to locate a figure who is about as subtle as the International Dick Waving Competition.

However, I am not saying that I think the Phantom is a lost cause. Obviously at this point we need to separate the Webber Phantom from the Leroux Phantom. The whole romantic Phantom isn't going away. People are too invested in the easy escapism and deniability of clearly toxic relationships being disguised as romantic for that happen; which is the same reason why Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray were as successful as they were. But that doesn't mean there cannot be a resurgence of the vengeful, misanthropic Chaney-esque Phantom. Hell, Dario Argento's giallo version, Opera, came out a year after the musical. So while Michael Crawford was on the West End stage singing about 'The Music of the Night,' Opera's villain was jamming needles under people's eyes. Well, some mothers do have 'em.

The Metaluna Mutant

In the 1950's the greatest threat to society (apart from Nancy Boys and the Reds), were extraterrestrials with ballsacks for heads. Before Captain Kirk took to the yawning expanse of space to bring the joys of unwanted pregnancy to its sexy green women, it was the aliens' turn to come to and have their way with our women. And laugh at our pitiful space program, because, Soviet Union parallel. Perhaps they wanted revenge for Professor Barbenfouillis' reckless disregard for celestial bodies during his Trip to the Moon. What a contrived reference.

One such figure with a ray-gun to grind was the Metaluna Mutant, the antagonist of This Island Earth. The Mutant is actually the secondary foe; part of a race of elite mooks to the real adversaries, who were essentially the typical "our planet is fucked, so we're nabbing yours" variety. But his cool appearance, an amalgamation of 1950's low-budget sci-fi monster creativity and semi-decent costume effects, result in the Mutant becoming the real star of the show. He's described by Metalunian go-between Exeter as essentially being their equivalent of an insect type lifeform. This influence is reflected in his ungainly design; he is basically a bi-pedal insect combined with The Menagerie. Bumbling along with disproportionately gangly arms like fucking Mr. Tickle after his accident with the printing press.

This Island Earth had a lot of interesting ideas, and I feel like the Metaluna Mutant was the least utilised of them all. Sure, by today's standards he is a hackneyed, cheesy, and biologically senseless creation, but the design of the creature evokes the nostalgic Golden Age magic of 50's sci-fi movie posters. Unlike most Universal Monsters, the Metaluna Mutant was not part of a successful franchise, nor was his film subject to excessive remakes. Instead, this particular monster has lived on through countless tributes, cameo appearances (in the likes of ET and Looney Tunes), and the inevitable metal songs based on him. Orbitron from the Colourform Alien toyline was even inspired by his design, and similar creatures continued to appear in sci-fi (such as the trading card game/Tim Burton adapted film: Mars Attacks!). That he only appears briefly during the third act, yet still manages to leave a lasting legacy, serves to reinforce my admiration.

Unfortunately, the Metaluna Mutant is likely doomed to serve as a piece of movie history reserved for cameo roles or obscure metaphors on a crappy movie blog. The aspects of his design that make him interesting are the very things that work against him. Modern alien invasion films tend to place less emphasis on holding up a particular aspect of culture for scrutiny. Alien invasion has been used to reflect on the perils of empire, and to disparage perceived enemies of the state - such as the Red Scare in post-Second World War America. A modern director is often solely interested in providing bombastic action and terrifying alien aggressors, possibly with a little bit of Bush-administration satire thrown in. Therefore, the Metaluna Mutant is surplus to requirements in this blockbuster landscape. He fights like a Roger Moore era Bond villain for Christ's sake. 

It just goes to show that the movie industry in the fifties was surprisingly creative in creature design when not creating racist allegories for minorities.

Oh, fuck off.

To be concluded with: The Wolf Man, Invisible Man, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and various Sons, Brides, and Ghosts, of Dracula and Frankenstein.

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