Hello again and welcome to Part II of Garland’s Movements in the Dark, a weekly editorial essay series where you and I will delve into the history of horror cinema to identify important movements in the genre, and the key films that made the movement a successful one. Last week, we put on philosopher robes and attempted to crack the grimy veneer of the New French Extremity movement. This week, we’re going back to what could feasibly be identified as the first real high point, and critical breakthrough, for horror filmmaking–The Universal Classic Monsters.
What is it?–
The movement itself began in 1931 when Universal Studios put out Dracula and Frankenstein, two films we will look at in-depth a little bit later, but the branding and sequenced line/cinematic universe angle was constructed in 1995, the heyday of the Home Video Boom when a marketing executive at Universal pitched the idea for rebranding the studio’s horror output from the 1930s into a consciously organized series. It was with this new marketing angle that the brand as we know it today became the official image for the series of films, which continues now into the streaming era with the way the films are presented on Peacock service.
By 1931, Hollywood was in the final stages of making the move from silent films to “talkies”. Universal Studios had just recently come under new leadership when the original founder Carl Laemmle, Sr. put his son Carl, Jr. in charge of the studio’s productions. While this allowed the studio to implement changing technologies and experiment with the “talkie” for the first time, the early films were critically and commercially unsuccessful. However, soon the studio did get some dramatic success after hitting a stride.
All of that to say, when 1931 rolled around, the studio was looking for a fresh idea or a new property. Like most of the studios at the time, it was helpful for your studio to be known for something, proficient at it (think MGM’s musicals). This led to the greenlighting of two different horror films, both adapted from respected pieces of Gothic literature. Of course, those are Dracula and Frankenstein. We’re going to look at the two films, and how they set up the movement’s tropes and stylistic flourishes, but we’re also going to look at The Invisible Man, a lesser-seen entry in the now-canon Universal Classic Monster series.
To wrap up the quick history, the movement proved to be a successful enterprise throughout the decade and into the early 40s before audiences grew weary of the lofty and often-historically-distant films and they fell out of favor. But they are important, perhaps less for their scares or content, but rather for being the first serious effort to produce horror without schlock, novelty, or relying on make-up and special effects. As a result, much of that effort instead went into crafting villains and set designs that have long since transcended being iconic into something almost organically interwoven within the genre’s very own DNA.
Alright, fellow children of the night, let’s dive in.
The 1931 version of Bram Stoker’s gothic vampiric tale of lust and supernatural tortures was the first filmed version that was allowed to use the name of the source material. Since then, there have been quite literally hundreds of interpretations of Stoker’s prince of darkness, and some of them such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Gary Oldman garnered their own followings and critical acclaim. However, none of them have managed to stay lodged in the public’s memory like Bela Lugosi’s take on the titular character.
Dracula established itself as horror’s first real successful attempt at taking itself completely seriously on the screen, especially in the world of Hollywood. Not only that, but the film serves as a bridge between the worlds of Silent Era and Talking Era, and in ways that are organic to the story it is trying to tell, and more importantly, the atmosphere it seeks to establish. That atmosphere, a bleak yet romantic place in between love and lust, is a crucial element to the overall success of the film and would carry on into every other film released in the now-series.
The brand of visual storytelling the film invokes allows Lugosi, in particular, to embody the Count as he broods and seemingly glides around the gothic architecture and decrepit castles. His voice, though becoming a point of parody over the years, managed to straddle that campy/terrifying line so well that the actor was never allowed any roles that weren’t a direct continuation of his performance style in Dracula (a real-life tragedy that is brought to life spectacularly in Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood.)
Lugosi on set having a cigar
The film plays less like a film meant to garner cheap thrills and immediate audience reaction, and more along the lines of the grandeur of opera, particularly German operas by Richard Wagner and even Don Giovanni by W.A. Mozart. The set design is immersive and theatrical while still maintaining its rightful place on celluloid, the costuming is particularly opera reminiscent, and the musical score is as much of the main character in the film as Lugosi himself.
As the first film in the movement, Dracula is seminal for obvious reasons. Its entire aesthetic presentation would become the mold for the following films, as we will see in a moment. Not only that, the film is one of the most influential horror films in the history of the medium, with its blend of German Expressionist imagery (a forthcoming installment in the series, rest assured) and Hollywood spectacle being a formula replicated infinite times in the 90 years since its release.
Frankenstein, released in the same year as Dracula, was truly a Universal effort. The director, James Whale, had worked and would go on to work, with the studio for a majority of his career, while star Boris Karloff became a fixture of the movement, appearing in the film’s sequels and even as a new monster in 1932’s The Mummy, a minor classic in its own right. Like Dracula, the film was adapted from a popular piece of gothic fiction and featured predominant themes of a misunderstood protagonist who is at odds with the world around them.
While Whale’s film is certainly more ‘showy’ than Dracula in terms of its overall presentation and elaborate science lab sets, complete with the now-iconic hunchback lab assistant, but it is also quite clearly cut from the same cloth as that film. Again, we see a heavy emphasis on gothic interiors in gothic towns, hardly any shots of the daytime, and a brilliant and legendary central performance.
Like Lugosi before him, Karloff’s performance manages to transcend the film into becoming a piece of pop culture at large. Just as many people’s first mental image of the Dracula character is Lugosi’s performance, so it goes for Frankenstein’s Monster and Boris Karloff, who also found himself frequently typecast as the physically imposing antagonist of the film (though by the end, it’s clear that is Dr. Frankenstein himself, but I digress). Somehow via his genuine acting chops and his physical performance, Karloff is able to build a complex figure out of a character that could have just been a pitiful brute. This is a super important facet of how the following Universal Horror Monster movies would operate for the movement’s duration.
Karloff on set having coffee and a cigarette
After the success of both films, the focus very squarely became to focus on the villain/creature/monster and to find an actor who could pull it off. As a result, many of the film’s monster roles are filled by actors who would turn the role into their signature performance; of course, the downside of that is that virtually every one of the aforementioned actors found themselves typecast and virtually bound to continue working with Universal, for it was the only game in town that would hire them.
Nevertheless, Frankenstein remains of the greatest horror films ever made and a truly excellent companion piece to Dracula as a place to start in the world of classic horror.
The Invisible Man (1933)–
Really, we could have touched on any of the other films in the movement and this last brief analysis would have come out roughly the same. However, 1933’s The Invisible Man is one of the more cerebral and mature films to come out of the movement, and it stars Claude Rains, a character actor who did find some other success outside of the movement in films like Casablanca. Rains was a gifted actor who was able to confidently and convincingly portray the plights of a tortured genius. In addition to playing the titular role in this film, Rains also contributed another iconic Universal Monster performance in the studio’s take on The Phantom of the Opera in 1943.
The film, another literary adaption, this time of a novel by H.G. Wells, tells the story of a mad scientist who discovers the secret of invisibility. The rest of the film follows his fall from grace, and subsequent descent into murderous madness. Rains brings a gravitas that had not previously been seen in the previous Monster films, which relied much more on visuals as opposed to The Invisible Man‘s more dialogue-driven nature. That being said, the film still contains some scenes of technical trickery that are still pretty impressive all these decades later.
Claude Rains in The Phantom of the Opera (1943)
In theory, the Universal Monster Horror movement was one of cinema’s original “shared universes.” Throughout the many films released by the studio over the 30s and 40s, almost all of the original films got sequels and crossovers into other films. Karloff, Rains, and Lugosi all appeared in at least two films under the umbrella, and while there is not a consistent narrative arc across all of the films, there is certainly a consistent tone and approach to the material. Because the studio and filmmakers took the subject matter seriously, intending to produce a quality horror film, they succeeded in planting the seeds of the following movements and artists to come. Throughout the scope of modern Hollywood horror, from big-budget films all the way down to the smallest indie releases, there is some element of the Universal Monster Horror formula that appears.
Are they cheesy? Yes.
Products of their time? Absolutely.
But they are also brilliant and well-crafted films that have stood the test of time in a genre that typically moves on very quickly. And there’s a reason for that.
Thank you for joining me again here on Dark Nowhere for Part II of Garland’s Movements in the Dark. If you’d like to read Part I–The New French Extremity, you can click here. Otherwise, have a great week and I’ll be back next Thursday(ish) for Part III–The Giallo Films.