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November 05, 2022

Saturday Evening Movie Thread - 11/4/2022 [TheJamesMadison ThatPrometheusGuy]

Ace has branded me, it seems.

Universal Horror: A Franchise Story

Hollywood studios have been chasing franchises pretty much since the advent of the medium, it was just never as evident or ubiquitous as it is today. From the Thin Man movies to the adventures of characters like Blondie (28 made in 13 years) or Charlie Chan (48 made in 24 years), Hollywood has always been happy to rely financially, to some limited degree, on familiar faces in familiar situations that they could make with lesser talents as long as certain familiar points were hit. There is a granddaddy to the cinematic universe as we know it today, though, a series of films that took interconnectedness to more than just a simple linear franchise to another level, and that was the Classic Universal Monster movies.

Starting as serious and lavish adaptations of ghoulish and respected literature, spearheaded by Carl Laemmle Jr., the son of Universal's original founder, it continued on this path until a hostile takeover late in the expensive production of Show Boat ended the Laemmle ownership of the studio. Setting up with the studio's creditors as new owners, Universal moved on with the franchise by focusing more on sequels in the late 30s, eventually moving into crossover adventures throughout the 40s, and finally swerving into outright comedy in the 50s.

However, where people tend to forget completely about Blondie while the Charlie Chan and Thin Man films remain the hearts of a certain small subset of film fans, the Universal Monster movies retain more general acknowledgement. Why is that? What was it about these unconnected horror movies that lent themselves to interconnectedness to begin with? Are the sequels worthwhile?

Opulent Beginnings

The Universal Monster movies have roots dating back to the silent era with Laemmle Jr.'s lavish productions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, both starring Lon Chaney Sr. in thick makeup appliances that he designed himself. These were successful films, but the train on the larger effort didn't really begin until the sound era with Dracula, a film Chaney was going to star in before he died. An adaptation of a stage play based on the Bram Stoker novel, it brough Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi great fame and Laemmle large financial returns, getting him to quickly move to adapt Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. After some disagreements with Lugosi and the original director Robert Florey, reportedly around the characterization of the monster, both Lugosi and Florey left the project, replaced by British director James Whale and British bit actor Boris Karloff.

Combined, both Dracula and Frankenstein represent the largest and most expensive-looking productions a studio in the early sound era could produce. Dracula uses huge sets with large vertical spaces to sell the vampiric count's Transylvania home. Frankenstein leans heavily on German Expressionistic influences to create stark images of the unnamed country's landscape for the Monster to terrorize. The follow up on the Monster line was The Mummy, though, and for all of those who enjoy the film, it's a marked step-down in terms of production quality. There are smaller, less ornate sets, including a flat, unappealing extended flashback to Ancient Egypt that looks incredibly fake. The Mummy had half the budget as Frankenstein, and Frankenstein had been a huge success for Universal. The move towards cheaper fare had already begun.

It wasn't a straight line, though. The Invisible Man spent a fair amount of money on special effects to convincingly show the invisible man running around with only a shirt on (well, convincingly for the 1930s). Even Dracula's Daughter looks like there's real money behind it.

Everything changed when Carl Laemmle lost control of Universal, though.

Under New Management

The new bosses at Universal were happy to take over a movie studio to grind out some money, but they decided to take a very different approach to how they were going to run things. No more huge productions like Show Boat, they were going to make smaller films with lower risk profiles to try to make more consistent money, avoiding the kind of large debts that Laemmle racked up. Take a break from horror films for just a few years, they came back with Son of Frankenstein, directed by Rowland Lee.

A very clear callback to the German Expressionist roots that inspired a lot of the visual look of some of the early Universal Monster movies, the visuals of the film are spare but stark. The central set is the Frankenstein castle (it changes from one movie to the next), this time a long hallway with bare walls and a malformed set of stairs running up it with lights shining through them to cast jagged shadows on the wall. It's also as much an inspiration for Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein as the original film, especially Basil Rathbone's performance as the titular son. Rathbone didn't take the role seriously and gave a manic, sarcastic performance that seems just a head of curly hair away from Gene Wilder's take on the Frankenstein grandson.

However, Son of Frankenstein ended up representing an exception to the rule of what this middle period of Classic Monsters became. The Invisible Man Returns, The Mummy's Hand, and The Ghost of Frankenstein are all rote, repetitions of what came before without trying anything new of any interest or even doing the same thing as before well. There were still little surprises to be found here and there. Invisible Woman is a somewhat charming comedy that doesn't try to replicate much of what came before in its series (even the method of gaining invisibility is completely different), and Invisible Agent moves from a similar light comedic touch as Invisible Woman before becoming a surprisingly adept spy thriller in its final half.

This is also where The Wolf Man came about. The original script was more of a psychological thriller about a man who might be going crazy, and that was never fully cut out of the final product. Actually the second attempt by Universal to create a werewolf monster (the first is Werewolf of London and has no connection to The Wolf Man), it introduced the son of the man with a thousand faces, Lon Chaney Jr. Universal put him in makeup, just like his father, and they matched him up against Claude Rains. Chaney, never a great actor and with a major alcohol problem that got worse as his career as the Universal Monster Man continued, really tried his first couple of times out in The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but his roles become decreasingly demanding as the Universal machine started pushing these things out faster and faster and faster through the 40s.

Race to the Bottom

There were efforts to create new monsters like Man-Made Monster and The Mad Ghoul, but nothing really caught on. The only consistent financial success Universal met was with their core four monsters, and the late re-introduction of a Wolf Man that actually worked mean that he ended up getting folded into the monster mash up craze that Universal became convinced was the only way to create interest in new adventures with Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster (the Invisible Man only gets a cameo in one of these, for some reason). Waning interest could only be assuaged by gimmicks.

And it worked financially for a while (very little of it works all that artistically or entertainingly, they're mostly just kind of boring), but throwing Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolf Man into yet another movie together could only work so long. The Universal Monster universe was dying a predictable and steady death.

With the failure on every level of She-Wolf of London, Universal was stuck. They had degraded the original visions of terror and horror to the point that they were effectively just cultural jokes. They weren't making money, but there was still this potential for money to be made. Well, there were two final efforts on Universal's part to try and get things moving. The first was to simply embrace the silliness that Universal had thrown itself into, and the second was one final monster.

Last Gasps

The comedic duo Lou Costello and Bud Abbott were offered the opportunity to star in a new mashup movie, and after some haggling including bringing in Charles Barton as director, a man they both trusted, they got rolling on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, an inherently silly and funny look at a madcap plot by Dracula to use Frankenstein's Monster to make himself powerful, Lawrence Talbot's efforts to stop it, and our comedic pair at the center of it all mugging for the camera when appropriate. It was a big success, followed a few years later by adventures with The Invisible Man and The Mummy.

I find it amusing that Abbott and Costello are responsible for the best Monster Mashup movie as well as the best Mummy movie of this era (I'm not the biggest fan of their adventure with The Invisible Man, and there's no way it comes close to the heights of the first Invisible Man film).

Universal had one final trick up it's sleeve, and that was The Creature from the Black Lagoon, an accidentally decent film. I say accidental because there were actually two directors on the film (Jack Arnold directed the above water stuff and James Curtis Havens directed the stuff underwater), and the two halves actually clash in an interesting way. Above water, the Gill Man is a mindless monster, but below water, he's a sympathetic innocent being invaded by scientists that want to hurt him. It's King Kong to a certain degree. However, with the follow up feature, Revenge of the Creature, it becomes obvious that Jack Arnold had no idea what made the first film interesting and turned out a bland, dull, monster B-movie. The second sequel, The Creature Walks Among Us, goes so far as to change the rather iconic design of the creature while also being dull and boring.

Abbott and Costello breathed new life in the moribund franchise, but Universal still didn't know what to do with it.

A Model

It's interesting to look back at the franchise more than sixty years after it died out. Universal made other horror movies over the years, and the monsters would come back in different forms, especially from production companies like Hammer in England, but from 1931 to 1956, Universal was the name in horror, and through ownership changes and the movement of culture, they milked it for every penny they could get out of it.

If there was an interest in artistic merit, it was at the beginning under Carl Laemmle, Jr., and nowhere else. Every artistic success after Bride of Frankenstein (there are certainly some) feels like a happy accident. This was Hollywood doing what it has always done best: seeing a success and trying to replicate it in the least imaginative ways possible. The most emblematic element of that, in my mind, is a relatively minor detail where every Frankenstein movie had to have an actual Frankenstein (original, son, other unmentioned son, granddaughter, ghost of) but also a scientist going mad with the power to create new life. Why not just let Frankenstein's monster be out and about and run into Dracula?

The entire franchise, from its nascent state to its assembly line state in the 40s, was producer driven. Laemmle had a success in Dracula, so he tried to replicate it with Frankenstein. Later, Universal had these properties, and they just made more product (one might say content) to fill the local cinemas with and try and capture a few more dollars from the masses, just enough to justify the current production and starting on the next. There was no desire to make art, or even entertainment. The movies just get more and more boring as they cover the same ground again with less and less talent. I've seen some one-hour long movies here that drag harder than Lawrence of Arabia at four hours long.

Still, it was fascinating. I enjoyed a fair bit, especially in the first half of the whole thirty-one film journey. There were sparks of interest in the second half, and Abbott and Costello arrived just in the nick of time to keep the ending from being a complete slog.

I wonder if there are lessons to be had for modern franchises...?

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:

Armageddeon Time

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "I remember seeing the trailer for the first time a few months ago and thinking that it would be, at best, a mildly amusing diversion. Instead, I walked away from the experience absolutely delighted." [The Roku Channel]

Phantom of the Opera (Rating 3/4) Full Review "It really pushes the film out of the horror genre almost completely but for the mere presence of the Phantom himself. I was engaged through it all, though." [Personal Collection]

Son of Dracula (Rating 2/4) Full Review "Does the whole of the film work? Not really. Chaney's miscast and there's too much exposition. However, it does do well with its setting and its ending." [Personal Collection]

House of Frankenstein (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "It doesn't work overall, but there's real narrative meat on the bone, even if the whole thing is somewhat malformed." [Personal Collection]

House of Dracula (Rating 1/4) Full Review "Instead, he reached back and recollected the dreariness of his earlier The Ghost of Frankenstein for another unsuccessful entry in the whole Universal monster cinematic universe." [Personal Collection]

The Mummy's Ghost (Rating 0.5/4) Full Review "Seriously, these Mummy movies are the bottom of the barrel." [Personal Collection]

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Rating 3/4) Full Review "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein may not be the height of the whole franchise, but it's an entertaining direction to take a moribund series that had descended into repetition in the hands of lesser talents over the previous decade." [Personal Collection]

Creature from the Black Lagoon (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "It's not the worst monster movie ever, but it's no King Kong." [Personal Collection]

The Deadly Companions (Rating 3/4) Full Review "Is this movie some kind of lost gem of Peckinpah's career? Maybe. The first four-fifths of the film are something special, but that ending is just not at the same level at all." [YouTube]


Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.
I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

My next post will be on 11/26, and it will cover the career of the director Sam Peckinpah.

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