When it comes to having a long history of monstrous behavior in Hollywood, no one compares to the ghoulish, original terrors of Tinseltown.
These are the classic film monsters made famous in a string of horrific creature features released by Universal Studios between the 1930s and 1950s, when the studio reigned triumphant as the primary provider of big screen scares: “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Wolf Man,” “The Mummy,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”
In “Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection,” all eight of these iconic fright fests emerge in ever-sharper focus in their Blu-Ray debut, just in time for Halloween. And not only do the films offer a tremendous primer on the history of horror in pop culture, they provide a glimpse at the early visual and thematic influences of some of today’s most popular modern movies and filmmakers.
“Those are the films that spoke to me,” director Tim Burton reveals, having long been inspired by the imagery and storylines of the Universal classics and currently paying homage to them in his latest film, “Frankenweenie.”
“Some people like musicals, Westerns, whatever – everybody’s got their thing,” says Burton. “For me, those movies spoke to my emotional life in the sense that if you felt weird or outcast or lonely, you could relate to the monsters. Most of the monsters were misunderstood characters. I think a lot of children feel that way. It was easy to identify with those characters and they psychologically guide you through, ‘I feel like that.’ They help you through your emotional life as you’re growing up and you don’t understand everything on an intellectual level.”
Another visionary film director, Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”), has long proclaimed his love for old school monster movies, so much so that he kicked off a month long celebration of horror cinema at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, beginning with an Oct. 2 screening of director Tod Browning’s 1931 “Dracula” starring Bela Lugosi, and director James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein” starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive. (The Academy’s screening series continues throughout October with films ranging from the 1928 silent “The Man Who Laughs,” comedy variations like 1948’s “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein,” and latter-day re-imaginings like 1981’s “An American Werewolf In London”).
“Basically Universal is a gateway drug to horror,” chuckles del Toro. “Imagine being an eight-year-old kid in a small suburb in Mexico watching these movies. Definitely they started my thirst and my hunger for horror and monsters, and now to come here to honor them, to be able to celebrate one of my favorite movies of all time, which is ‘Bride of Frankenstein,’ and to be able to share that and say ‘This is a film that’s as alive today as the moment it came out – ‘It’s alive! Alive!’ as Colin Clive would say.”
Del Toro embraces the indelible impact the Universal films have had on his artistic approach to horror. “I think that in particular from the James Whale ‘Frankenstein’ duology, you can definitely have the crazy empathy for the monster that is so prevalent in what I do – the love for the monster, the humanity of the monster,” he says. “Even as a kid I wanted to make those movies that felt lush – big production, big artistic effort, big strides in design and trying to make them beautiful-slash-horrible at the same time. And not to try from the get-go to make them down-and dirty only, but to try to give them a certain spectacularity.”
“Universal finally dusting off their classics that I was raised on is a momentous occasion, definitely a reason to celebrate,” says Ryan Turek, managing editor of the popular horror-centric website ShockTillYouDrop.com. “We've seen DVD special editions of these classics released in the past, but with Universal's 100th anniversary [this year], we're seeing a lot more care being put into them – and a lot more bonus content, which is always terrific.”
Turek goes on to add that while some of the scares that once haunted the nightmares of audience members have been lessened over the course of time, the films still retain tremendous entertainment value.
“As pieces of art, the movies that hold up and have something to say are James Whale's 'Frankenstein' and 'Bride of Frankenstein,'” says Turek. “I think of 'Bride of Frankenstein' as kind of being an early precursor to horror comedies in some respect, because while it’s certainly gothic and moody and horrifying, there's this real great sense of humor riding through the whole thing – 'Bride of Frankenstein' definitely has a cognizant funny bone in its makeup. Tod Browning's 'Dracula' is also really solid, still – another really great, gothic piece of work.”
Others in the collection offer their own unique charms. “'The Wolf Man' is not a great movie, and a lot of people write it off, but I still love 'The Wolf Man' because it's about a guy who turns into a werewolf, and Lon Chaney Jr. is so terrific,” says Turek. “He delivers such an impassioned, angsty character turn as Larry Talbot.
The legacy of the original films remains influential over the horror movies and television shows being produced today, from the don’t-mess-with-the-natural-order messages in “Frankenstein” and “Creature” to the love story elements that pervade “Dracula,” “The Mummy” and “Phantom of the Opera.” “Whether it's 'Twilight' or even The CW's 'Beauty and the Beast,’ that element of love and horror is still inherent in a lot of stuff that we're seeing today,” Turek says.
“There are very few characters, maybe a dozen in film and literature, that even the people who have not seen the movies or read the books know who they are,” says del Toro. “I’m talking about Tarzan, Pinocchio, Sherlock Holmes – and Dracula and Frankenstein. You can use them almost as adjectives, to evoke an essence that everybody at the most basic level of world culture shares. Frankenstein and Dracula certainly are two of them. And the Creature from the Black Lagoon – the Gil Man – is a version of Beauty and the Beast or King Kong, in a way.
Director Genndy Tartakovsky, whose CGI-animated film “Hotel Transylvania” had satirical fun with the well-established imagery of the classic creatures and scored the biggest September box office in history, says audiences still connect to the enduring power of the monsters.
“There's a romance and mystery to it,” says Tartakovsky. “Each monster is about dealing with it's own human failure, some human trait that goes wrong, and it's about acceptability when you're different. I think those are universal, very human themes, and I think those big themes have stayed throughout. It's the bigger the mystery, like we all imagined as kids: 'If I could be a fly on the wall or if I could be invisible and not be seen, but still see everything…' I think those are such primitive and naturalistic things that we've all felt at one point. When they're translated into film it's very interesting and compelling.”