Creating A Monster Universal's early horror movies left a legacy of frightening classics, brought back to life on TCM.

October 09, 1998|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN STAFF

Poised on the brink of bankruptcy, about to witness the disintegration of a dream his father had nurtured for nearly two decades, Carl Laemmle Jr. turned to the most unlikely of saviors -- a dead guy with a thirst for blood.

Sixty-eight years later, that decision still haunts the world. In a good way.

By giving the go-ahead to a film adaptation of "Dracula," Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios, did more than just keep his creditors at bay (at least until 1936, when mounting debts forced the studio's sale). He also initiated a series of horror films unmatched in Hollywood history -- dark, foreboding, sometimes erotic tales of men who have run afoul of God, brimming with wondrously Gothic atmosphere, showcasing the talents of actors and directors whose creations have become part of the world's cultural fabric.

Over the years, those Universal films -- most notably "Dracula," -- "Frankenstein," "The Bride of Frankenstein," "The Mummy" and "The Wolf Man" -- have become the stuff of which our nightmares are made.

"When you ask somebody to draw a picture of Frankenstein, they draw a picture of Boris Karloff," author David J. Skal ("Hollywood Gothic") says in the documentary "Universal Horror," celebratory look back at the first great wave of Hollywood horror (8 to 10 tonight on TCM). "When you ask any 8-year-old to talk like Dracula, they talk like Bela Lugosi. I think that's an amazing testimony to the sheer durability of these characters."

Not to mention the artistry of the films and their creators. From Charles D. Hall, the art director responsible for the cavernous chambers of Dracula's castle, to Jack Pierce, the makeup maestro who visualized both the Frankenstein monster and the Wolf Man, scores of film technicians would do some of their best work under the Universal horror banner.

Their work produced some wonderful films, as tonight's thorough and entertaining documentary bears out. Compiled by Kevin Brownlow, who with his late partner, David Gill, is responsible for some of the best film documentaries ever made ("Unknown Chaplin," "Hollywood: A History of Silent Film in America"), "Universal Horror" is that rarest of creatures -- a work that respects its subject without turning it into a museum piece. The result is as enjoyable as it is scholarly.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Universal churned out a steady stream of horror flicks. All had something to recommend them, and many became minor classics -- including Lon Chaney Jr. as "The Wolf Man," Claude Rains as "The Invisible Man" and Karloff as "The Mummy."

But no two better typify Universal horror than the first two. Although "Dracula" is rightly criticized for sometimes seeming as lifeless as its title character, the opening sequences, especially the unsuspecting Renfield's coach ride to the count's castle, are chilling in the extreme. In the public's eye, at least, it remains the definitive vampire flick from among the scores that have followed.

And "Frankenstein" offers a vivid tableau for the wicked humor and fevered imagination of director James Whale -- a richly textured style of filmmaking, owing much to the German expressionists of the silent era. Although its sequel, "The Bride of Frankenstein," may be the better film, filled with everything from religious allegories (the monster is hanged from a cross) to a hairstyle on Elsa Lanchester's Bride that looks like something out of a Dali painting, it's "Frankenstein" that remains the cultural touchstone.

Universal also had the good fortune to find a pair of actors, in Lugosi and Karloff, who wore their roles like finely tailored suits. As Skal suggests, it's still almost impossible to think of anyone else in the roles, although both the vampire and the monster have been portrayed by countless actors since the original 1931 films.

"Dracula" was originally promoted as a romance, "the strangest passion the world has ever known." Nervous Universal executives weren't sure the public was ready for a monster that owed its existence to the supernatural instead of the imagination; until then, as tonight's documentary points out, most movie monsters had turned out to be dreams or fantasies.

The public, however, proved too frightened to pay much attention to the romance, but not to buy tickets. By year's end, "Dracula" had grossed an impressive $700,000 -- nearly twice its cost.

While Lugosi had been quite the hit playing Count Dracula on the New York stage, Universal chose to ignore him. Only after several other Hollywood names turned down the role, including Paul Muni ("Scarface"), did Universal relent.

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