It all began in 1931 with “Dracula.” This is regarded as a horror classic–although Universal hedged its bets by marketing it as “the strangest love story ever told.” In truth, an emblematic performance by Bela Lugosi keeps this film alive. Some imaginative opening shots at Castle Dracula aside, this is a photographed stage play and creaks with age. Tod Browning had done such imaginative work in silent films, and still had “Freaks” ahead, that I hate to assign all the blame for this staginess at his feet, but the fact remains that George Melford, a much less imaginative director, produced a livelier, more imaginative Spanish-language version using the same costumes and sets. Probably the fact that Universal wanted a strange love story rather than a shocker had something to do with the choices Browning made. Oddly enough, without realizing it, Universal’s publicity department was describing the following year’s Boris Karloff vehicle, “The Mummy.” Lugosi’s Dracula is a leech, pure and simple, with no love for anyone other than himself. Although “Dracula” was a hit and made money for Universal, the studio waited five years before producing another Dracula film–and this time they focused it upon Dracula’s daughter, rather than the Count himself. “Dracula’s Daughter” is a not-bad horror-romance. It was one of the earlier films to feature a female vampire, it was the first time we were confronted with a vampire who wants to be cured, and it tip-toed delicately around the subject of the countess’ lesbian tendencies. There would be no further Dracula adventures until 1943, when Universal offered up Count Alucard–“Son of Dracula.” Now this film takes its occasional lumps, but I’m fond of it, and I would remind the critics of two points–by the 1940s Universal had embarked upon a second cycle of horror films, for the most part were budgeted to be “B” pictures and there was little of the European influence that so heavily colored the classics of the first cycle. Secondly, for those who criticize Lon Chaney, Jr. rather thuggish interpretation of the vampire, I would point out that “Son of Dracula” is a Robert Siodmak film, made on the cusp of the film noir movement–and Siodmak would be recognized as a master of noir. What has this to do with Dracula? Simple–taken as part of Siodmak’s total oeuvre, it becomes clear that the center of the film is not Alucard but rather Claire Cauldwell, the death-obsessed Southern belle who willingly becomes a vampire. Claire is the femme fatale of the piece. She is its Kitty Colfax, its Anna Thompson Dundee. Claire’s desires are what set the plot in motion. Alucard is a mere means to an end. Consequently, Chaney’s playing the vampire as a brute rather than a suave seducer takes him away from the tradition of Bela Lugosi and places him firmly in the ranks of Albert Dekker’s “Big Jim” Colfax and Dan Duryea’s “Slim” Dundee. Whether you love Chaney’s turn as Alucard or hate it, he was the last stand-alone Dracula. (Interesting thing about the name–or course Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards–but is Alucard actually Dracula himself or, as the film’s title suggests, Dracula’s progeny? I like the notion of Lugosi looking at poor Lon and saying to himself, I might as well make a vampire out of him, he’s not much good otherwise.)
Now we proceed to Universal’s franchise monster–their Bugs Bunny and their Mickey Mouse–I refer of course to the synthetic man, made from parts of corpses and re-animated by electricity–the Frankenstein monster. The monster made his debut in 1931, the same year as the Count, but quickly outstripped him in popularity. He made a star out of Karloff and Karloff created a new type of monster–at once horrible and yet pitiable. Other performers–Lon Chaney, Sr., Conrad Veidt–had tried to do the same during the silent era, but perhaps it took sound to add that extra bit of humanity to the performance. “Frankenstein” was an even bigger hit than “Dracula,” and the studio bosses began at once to plan for a sequel. Sequels were not as common then as they are now, so the fact that audiences were intrigued enough to want to see more of the monster tells just how strong its initial impact was. Director James Whale tried to avoid the chore as long as he could, but by 1935 all of the pieces fell into place. Karloff would return as the monster and Colin Clive would encore his performance as Henry Frankenstein. Rather than presenting a by-the-numbers re-do of the earlier hit, Whale chose to re-tell the Frankenstein story as a Fractured Fairy Tale. Henry would now work with the craftily demented Dr. Pretorious to create a mate for his creation. The films were never really about the monster. “Frankenstein” was the name of its creator. The sequel “The Bride of Frankenstein” refers to Henry’s waif-like wife Elizabeth–although Pretorious muddies the waters a bit by declaring their gauze-wrapped artificial woman to be The Bride of Frankenstein. But how far off the mark is he? In the release version of the film the ending is bit of a cruel joke as the monster discovers that even his corpse-bride prefers the handsome Henry to him. But in the earlier version of the script–parts of which may actually have been filmed–Dwight Frye’s grave-robber Karl murders the captive Elizabeth and it is her heart that goes into the artificial woman. Today we know that the heart is a muscle for pumping blood, but in 1935 there was still a sufficient hang-over of Victorian sentimentality to allow audiences to believe that emotion and character resided in the heart–what could be more natural then for the heart of Elizabeth to reach out to her husband Henry? This development would certainly have given the film a more tragic coloration, and would explain the presence of Henry Frankenstein in the watchtower-laboratory as the monster “blows them all to atoms.”
In the release print of “The Bride of Frankenstein,” Elizabeth manages to free herself and shows up at the laboratory-door. The monster, in a final magnanimous gesture, allows his creator and his creator’s bride to flee. Lucky thing too, because Henry and Elizabeth proved to be a prolific couple. Just four years later, in 1939, Henry Frankenstein’s grown-up son Wolf returns from America where he has been teaching at a university to lay claim to the Frankenstein legacy. As it happens, this includes the monster who apparently was not blown to atoms. In this installment of the saga Wolf wants to address his father’s original error and, by replacing the abnormal brain foisted on the unsuspecting Henry by his assistant Fritz in 1931, with a normal brain, prove to the world that his father was a scientific genius–a maker of men, not monsters. Unfortunately for Wolf, the monster’s keeper, Ygor, has other ideas and the wants the monster to stay as he is–the better to execute Ygor’s enemies for him. This entry ends with Wolf shooting Ygor and toppling the enraged monster into a pit of boiling sulfur.
Since “The Son of Frankenstein” ends with Wolf, his wife and little boy returning to America and the peaceful halls of academe, Universal had to present Wolf with an older brother, Ludwig, who runs a successful private clinic in the neighboring state of Vasaria. Ludwig is a respected member of the community until Ygor shows up his door with a living, but ailing monster in tow. Ygor wants his friend made whole again, and a visit from his father’s ghost convinces Ludwig that he must restore the luster to the name of Henry Frankenstein (and gives this entry of the cycle its title, “The Ghost of Frankenstein”). Things don’t turn out so well for poor Ludwig. First his trusted assistant Dr. Kettering is killed, then his not-so-trustworthy assistant Dr. Boehmer cooks up a scheme with Ygor to replace that darn old abnormal brain with the brain not of Kettering, as Ludwig had planned, but of Ygor. The operation is a qualified success. The monster receives Ygor’s brain–but as a result of incompatible blood types, is blind. The enraged monster causes Ludwig’s laboratory to go up in flames.
By “The Ghost of Frankenstein” the series had absolutely descended to the level of “B” movies. Lon Chaney, Jr. played the monster–thus going down in history as the only actor to play all four of Universal’s major “Marquee Monsters”: Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Wolf Man and Kharis, the living mummy–Bela Lugosi returned as Ygor, Sir Cedric Hardwicke played the unfortunate Ludwig and Lionel Atwill played the dodgy Boehmer. Universal’s “Scream-Queen” Evelyn Ankers was also on hand as Ludwig’s comely daughter. It seems to have become clear to the powers at Universal that the adventures of the Frankenstein monster had just about run their course, so we’ll take up the thread of another Universal creature–the Wolf Man.
“The Wolf Man” was Universal’s prestige horror film for 1941. It boasted one of the stronger casts assembled by Universal for a horror film–Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya and Lon Chaney, Jr. in what was then only his second horror role as Larry Talbot–an American he-man type who, in attempting to save a village girl from the attack of what he thinks is wolf, finds himself bitten by a werewolf, and thus cursed to himself become one at every full moon. All of this was good as far as it went, but it was clearly only a one-picture idea. When the Wolf Man proved an immensely popular new horror type, Universal found itself in a quandary. It was easy enough to resurrect the dead Talbot, but what did you do with him then? Audiences already knew that he was cursed, that he would become a wolf-man at each full moon, that he could be destroyed by a silver-headed walking stick, or a bullet, but then what?
In “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,” Frankenstein, in the person of Baroness Ilsa Frankenstein does meet the Wolf Man, or at least his alter-ego, Larry Talbot. But the posters promised The Fight of the Century between two monsters, not a sedate meeting between two humans to discuss a real-estate deal. Further, the movie offers its own take on the Chaplin classic, “City Lights.” When Larry Talbot is in human form, he replaces the dead Ygor as the monster’s guardian and companion, but when there is a full moon, the monster and the Wolf Man are mortal enemies. They finally square off for about the last five minutes of the film until both are swept away by the rushing waters from a dynamited dam. The new winning strategy was clearly to give audiences more monsters for their money.
“House of Frankenstein” (1944) and “House of Dracula” (1945) are Universal’s Monster Rally films. The direct involvement of members of the Frankenstein family has come to an end. In “House of Frankenstein” Boris Karloff portrayed Dr. Gustav Neimann, a disciple of Henry Frankenstein’s who, in his search for Frankenstein’s long-lost notebooks, visits the gutted ruins of the Frankenstein home. During the course of the film Neimann uses and abuses Daniel, a hunchbacked killer who aids Neimann in his escape from a prison for the criminally insane, Bruno Lampini, a carnival showman who claims to possess the skeleton of Count Dracula, Dracula himself, who Neimann revives and uses in the murder of an enemy, and Larry Talbot, who locates the coveted Frankenstein notebooks for Neimann but is cheated when Neimann refuses to operate on his brain to cure him of his lycanthropy. Neimann doesn’t get around to reviving the Frankenstein monster until the closing moments of the film, when mortally wounded by fed-up Daniel, the monster carries him into a nearby swamp to escape a posse of torch-wielding villagers.
“House of Dracula” is a true outlier. John Carradine’s Baron Latos (aka: Count Dracula) is magically restored to life after being reduced to a skeleton in the previous outing, and now wants to be cured of his affliction, so he turns up at Onslow Stevens’ clinic where Larry Talbot is also looking for a cure. But Latos turns out to a very insincere patient and he repays Stevens’ altruism by infecting him with his own tainted blood. Now Stevens and Carradine want to revive the Frankenstein monster and Larry Talbot emerges as a hero, destroying Dracula. As a sort of reward he’s cured of his lycanthropy–now he can live a happy life with Stevens’ beautiful blonde nurse–the same one that Carradine wanted to turn into a vampire. Once again, the monster comes to life for the last five or ten minutes of the movie to be dispatched by a posse of villagers.
One would think after all this that the poor Frankenstein monster had earned a rest, but Universal, now Universal-International had one more indignity in store. Abbott & Costello had been the studio’s top comic attraction throughout the 1940s–why not mix the boys up with the monsters? Wow–what an idea! It can’t miss!
In fact, it didn’t miss. Dracula was restored to life once more–this time played by Lugosi himself–poor Larry must have gotten a bum treatment at the House of Dracula because he’s back to being a werewolf–thus giving Lou endless opportunities to crack wise about guys turning into wolves when they see a pretty girl. Dracula still wants to control the moribund monster and Larry’s feud with Dracula continues unabated. The revived monster runs amok one last time, Dracula transforms into a bat, via some cool animation, and Larry the Wolf Man perishes clawing the bat in mid-air. Bud and Lou wind up in a rowboat where they encounter the invisible man, voiced by Vincent Price.
The Frankenstein monster/Dracula/Wolf Man storyline was the major Universal monster-myth. There were a couple of unaffiliated myths. “The Mummy” (1932) began as a re-do of “Dracula,” tailored to the unique talents of Boris Karloff. Unlike “Dracula,” it really was a tale of a strange love–the love of Im-ho-Tep, a priest of the god Karnak for the Princess Anhk-es-en-Amon, daughter of the pharaoh and herself a consecrated virgin. They enjoy a clandestine romance until the sudden death of the princess. When Im-ho-Tep attenpts to bring her back to life with the forbidden Scroll of Thoth, he is discovered and buried alive with the scroll. When his unmarked tomb is discovered, and a rash archeologist reads the scroll, Im-ho-Tep returns to life. He discovers that his ancient love has been re-incarnated and her spirit now inhabits the body of a modern woman, and the revived Egyptian determines to have her–a strange love story indeed.
Im-ho-Tep is reduced to a pile of mouldering bones at the climax of “The Mummy,” so when Universal decided to give the world “The Mummy’s Hand” in 1940, a new approach was needed. Well, a new mummy anyway. Now the revived Egyptian is Kharis, a prince of ancient Egypt whose love for the deceased Princess Ananka led him to commit an act of blasphemy for which he was sentenced to have his tongue torn out and be buried alive. While Karloff shed his bandages almost as soon as he was revived, and appeared as a wizened Egyptian scholar, Kharis, in the person of Tom Tyler remained bandaged. A new gimmick was introduced in that Kharis can only be revived and re-animated by drinking the fluid of the tanna leaf. He will do anything, go through any obstacle to reach the precious brew. In the first of the Kharis films, brash young American archeologist John Banning discovers the whereabouts of the tomb of the Princess Ananka. Kharis is revived to prevent its desecration. Apparently meeting his death by fire at the film’s climax, he turns up two years later in “The Mummy’s Tomb,” only slightly singed and now turned into Lon Chaney, Jr. Shipped to America to punish the desecrators of Ananka’s tomb, Kharis hunts down Banning and the survivors of his team and kills them all, but apparently perishes himself in a burning house. Two years later he is found to be wandering the countryside in search of tanna leaves. He discovers the modern-day reincarnation of his beloved Ananka and, in a more downbeat than usual ending, drags the slowly mummifying corpse of the girl into the swamp with him. Now the Banning family lived in New England, so we assume that the swamp the Kharis and Ananka sink into was in New England. How strange then that in the next Kharis film, “The Mummy’s Curse,” they turn up in the Louisiana bayou country! Mummified Ananka re-transforms into a young, living woman when the sun’s rays strike her. Kharis remains Kharis and reclaims her re-mummified form. Chaney apparently hated this role more than any other that he played at Universal and apparently a stunt double did much of the shambling and strangling in this final outing. Kharis was dead, but Klaris–played I believe by the same stuntman who did Chaney’s heavy-lifting in “The Mummy’s Curse”–had his ritual encounter with Abbott and Costello, before the living mummy character was finally laid to rest.
The Invisible Man, a creation of H.G. Wells, was first seen in a 1933 film directed by James Whale. It had a rich vein of black comedy running through it, helped immeasurably by Claude Rains’ rich delivery of his lines as chemist Jack Griffith, “the invisible one.” Six years later Vincent Price played Griffith’s brother who uses the invisibility formula to evade an unjust accusation of murder and ferret out the guilty party. But in “The Invisible Man’s Revenge,” Jon Hall played an actual criminal who is rendered invisible by one of John Carradine’s typically dotty scientists. Later on Abbott & Costello got to meet the invisible man, by then, it was almost a tradition.
Perhaps the least-known of Universal’s creatures was Paula Dupree, the ape woman. “She” is actually Cheelah, a female gorilla given glandular transplants by none other than John Carradine. This transforms her into the sultry-looking starlet Acquanetta. Unfortunately for Paula, emotional upsets cause her to revert to her simian state. In the first film of the series, “Captive Wild Woman,”(1943) directed by Edward Dmytryk, Cheelah does the right thing, killing Carradine, rescuing her animal-trainer love-interest from his own lions and dying in a hail of police bullets. In “Jungle Woman,” (1944) she’s back to being Acquanetta and spends most of the film as a patient in J. Carrol Naish’s clinic. Jealousy again undoes her. In the final film, “Jungle Captive” (1945) she was played by Vicky Lane and wore a new makeup that made he look more like a werewolf than a gorilla. Paula the Ape Woman never got to meet Bud and Lou–a real pity. I cherish the idea of Paula/Cheelah having a crush on chubby Lou, playing the assistant to Bud’s mustachioed Frank Buck-like animal trainer. Where is that front-office brain trust when you need it?