If you were lucky enough to grow up in 1970s Chicagoland, you knew about WGN’s Saturday night Creature Feature, which ran old horror classics, especially those made by Universal Pictures and starring the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the mummy, and the wolfman. Creature Feature was best remembered for its opening theme, Henry Mancini’s “Experiment in Terror,” which played over a montage from the famous movies, and for its logo, based on a still of Lon Chaney’s Man in the Beaver Hat from London After Midnight. Being of tender age, I couldn’t get through the show’s opening without running out of the room—though I always came back.
That dynamic of repulsion and attraction has defined horror films from the beginning, and in 2017, when it rolls out a new edition of The Mummy, Universal Pictures is hoping that it will work for a new generation. The studio is embarking on an ambitious reboot of its venerable monster franchise in an attempt to create something like the Marvel Universe of branded characters. After early reports suggesting that the remakes would be done in action/adventure style prompted criticism from traditionalists, the filmmakers promised that “horror” elements wouldn’t be shortchanged. But with a Mummy plot centering around stars Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise, who plays “a Navy SEAL hunting terrorists,” it sure sounds like a summer shoot ‘em up.
In any case, it’s not likely that the new versions could stay true to the originals. For one thing, these movies have been parodied for generations. In the early 1970s, when Creature Feature was in its prime, Mel Brooks was putting the finishing touches on Young Frankenstein, and the “Monster Mash” had been camping up Halloween for a decade. And too much has changed in our cultural DNA, with everything from psychological thrillers to zombie dramas to the “torture porn” of Saw.
Yet the Universal films would have no constituency for a revival if they didn’t retain some cultural power. They left behind a lingering sense of the archaic, of moldy crypts and spider webs, horses and carriages, shadows and stormy nights—and a pervasive sense of the grave. In this, they were carrying on a tradition that began in the mid-eighteenth century, Walter Kendrick wrote in his 1991 study, The Thrill of Fear. Kendrick maintained that the horror tradition arose out of the change in how Western societies viewed death. Up to about 1750 or so, people lived on intimate terms with death, cadavers, and rot—not to mention sewage and waste. Death was less an object of horror than a point of instruction; preachers invoked the decay of the body as a warning. Modernity, which allowed for the tidy disposal of corpses, severed this intimate connection with death while heightening our fear of it—especially with the decline of religious faith. The horror genre, Kendrick argued, lets us confront death elliptically, while making a depressing subject entertaining and even consoling.
Today, it’s unlikely that the Universal classics would scare many viewers, even young ones, but at their best they were masterworks of cinematic iconography. The early scenes of Dracula (1931), with their Gothic imagery of the count’s dilapidated castle, and Bela Lugosi’s eerie mannerisms, remain evocative. Lugosi’s Hungarian accent counted substantially in the quotient of his exoticism, but he had other tools in his kit, including penetrating eyes, expressive hands, and a genius for weirdness. Frankenstein (also 1931) opens as funeral rites conclude in a cemetery that looks medieval, with crosses, a crucified Christ, and a reaper-like skeleton standing by. The eventual entrance of the monster, played by Boris Karloff, must rank on a short list of great close-ups. Less than a year after Frankenstein, in 1932, Karloff was transfixing in The Mummy, which combined elements of Dracula and Frankenstein while capitalizing on current events—it had been only a decade since the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and the idea of dead pharaohs getting up and walking around proved irresistible. The Mummy’s Egyptian flashback scene is so dreamlike that contemporary viewers might almost believe that it was shot in an ancient world.
The fourth great figure in the Universal pantheon, the werewolf or wolfman, was the most aerobically active of the beasts but also the least mystical. In 1941, The Wolfman created the template, sending Lon Chaney Jr. prowling through the fog as he fulfills the unhappy prophecies of the elderly gypsy fortuneteller (Maria Ouspenskaya). Here the monster is less a metaphor for death or timelessness than for the subconscious id, and he can be destroyed with a mere silver bullet. To neutralize vampires and mummies, you need instruments both practical and sacred, and to slow Frankenstein’s monster down, you must call on earth, air, fire, and water—though nothing really works.
It’s fitting that the monster would prove to be the most deathless of the group, because the Frankenstein movies lap the field. Their Gothic touches rival those of Dracula, and the monster’s boxlike face, the creation of makeup master Jack Pierce, will be recognized for as long as there is a Hollywood. Karloff conveys, as near as probably anyone could have done, how a man-made person, constructed from parts of other persons, might move: with determination, incomprehension, and rage. Frankenstein also boasts the starkest sequence in all the Universal films: wherein the monster plays with the little girl, Maria, and then kills her, unintentionally, when he tosses her into the water in which she had thrown flowers (a scene censored for decades). Her father carries her lifeless body through streets of unknowing revelers. Frankenstein also has the advantage of a high-class literary source (Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, though the film alters it dramatically), and it continuously tosses out ideas—not just the well-trod warning about man playing God but also of the cruelty of the lower orders (like hunchbacks) to those still lower (monsters) and the rapidity with which mobs become set on their goals. Then in 1935, The Bride of Frankenstein surpassed the original and essentially created the Hollywood sequel.
Karloff went on to a long horror career but also branched out with some success, even doing the voiceover narration in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Such a respectable fate eluded Bela Lugosi, whose foreignness, bad luck, and drug addiction relegated him to ghoulish roles in obscure, low-budget pictures with plots too often resembling this one: “A mad scientist develops an aftershave lotion that causes his gigantic bats to kill anyone who wears it.”
In a way, Lugosi’s fate mirrored that of the Universal classics, which became parodies of themselves, reaching their logical terminus in 1948, when the monster starting rotation (minus the mummy) battled Abbott and Costello. In the 1950s and 1960s, the British studio Hammer revived the monsters in color, with the help of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Vampire product has always been plentiful, from Anne Rice to Francis Ford Coppola to Twilight. Kenneth Branagh tried, unevenly, to bring to the screen a Frankenstein closer to the Shelley novel (with Robert De Niro as the monster); a Mummy series scored big at the box-office in the 2000s, though it resembled a Raiders of the Lost Ark knockoff; and werewolves never go out of style, with a Wolfman remake hitting theaters in 2010, boasting Benicio del Toro in the starring role but, overwhelmed by CGI, coming across as Spiderman with fur.
Some who love the old films will take heart that these familiar characters are returning for another go round. Others suspect that the action/adventure/superhero model, so pervasive today, will thwart even a director’s best intentions. “We belong dead,” the monster says in Bride of Frankenstein, and maybe Universal should leave old things alone. But if people ever took advice, we’d have no monster stories, old or new.
Photo: Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster