Classic Movie Monsters: the Ancestry of Horror
Last year, Universal spread the word that it would be unleashing its classic movie monsters once again on the world in their Dark Universe. When I was asked to write about whether or not the original monsters still hold their own today, I was excited. Who doesn’t love the quintessential monster squad? (Not to be confused with the 1987 kid-filled Monster Squad.)
Classic movie monsters are just that–classic. They continue to stand the test of time. Even if someone hasn’t seen the original movies, they likely know who the monsters are. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy. They’re part of the continuity of pop culture. They’re timeless.
In spite of this, I needed to take the other viewpoint into consideration. Perhaps these monsters were old and moldy after all. Did anyone care anymore about wolf men, phantoms in operas, or hunchbacks of Notre Dame or any other Top 10 schools, for that matter? Maybe not.
Dracula, the Rodney Dangerfield* of Monsters?
As a matter of fact, a couple years ago I took a tour of my favorite cemetery, Hollywood Forever, with the lovely walking Wikipedia, Karie Bible. Actually, Karie’s better than Wikipedia–she knows the facts.
Karie was lamenting her fellow movie-goers at a recent showing of director Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). Rather than appreciating the beauty of the film and understanding the acting style was of a certain time, they laughed. They made fun of the late, great Bela Lugosi. They were mocking the original horror movie.
According to Kendall R. Phillips in his book Projected Fears, “prior to 1931 there was no such thing as a ‘horror’ film – a term coined after the success of Dracula and its successor, Frankenstein.”
Unlike the presumably young and disrespectful Dracula audience, Shaun Reiland (Dallas, Texas) has a more introspective view on the subject.
When asked if he thinks the classic monsters are still relevant for contemporary audiences, Reiland says no. “Without a major shift in the appearance and characteristics of each monster, I don’t believe so. The modern public has become so desensitized to the horror genre, in general, that these archetypes no longer impress audiences.”
He has a point. If Dracula walked on screen in a modern film looking like Lugosi’s version, he would appear to be a caricature, a parody of himself. The most seductive of all monsters would incite laughter and–perhaps worse–pity.
Be that as it may, I attest that Dracula will always be relevant. He has spawned a long lineage of vampires, from Frank Langella’s version** to The Lost Boys and beyond. Lugosi’s Dracula is the beginning of the movie bloodline. He’s the alpha, and there is no omega in sight.
In the Beginning, There Was…
When Bram Stoker’s Dracula was first published in 1897, it was praised by reviewers but didn’t become a sensation until the movie version appeared 34 years later. Film buffs may wonder why I don’t cite the eerie, silent Nosferatu (1922) as the catalyst. The reason, says Phillips, is because while American filmmakers were inspired by those in Germany, “American audiences, on the other hand, had only limited exposure to these films in their initial release.”
Browning’s Dracula was sexy and dangerous. Both men and women would fall under his thrall. No one was safe from this enigmatic, sensual man-creature. That’s right–he’s never been just a man or a creature. He’s a powerful force that can transform into a wolf, a bat, and mist. (How can you save yourself from mist? It can go anywhere!) Dracula also allows us to give in to temptation without repercussion. We couldn’t help it! We were under his spell!
According to The Telegraph’s Martin Chilton, as of September 2015, “more than 1,000 novels and 2oo films have been made about the vampire, Dracula.” The great Christopher Lee alone portrayed the character nine times.
But what about the other monsters? Let’s take a look at them and their legacies.
Man Plays God
In Frankenstein, Dr. Henry Frankenstein obsesses about bringing the dead back to life. He builds a creature that is an abomination. It, not surprisingly, goes very wrong. But the doctor doesn’t fix his mistake; he turns his back on it. So not only does he play god by reanimating the dead, he refuses to accept responsibility.
“Frankenstein is probably the most visionary of all of the original monster movies,” says artist Bill Douglas (Moline, Ill.). “Man is still on a quest for perfection. But the question still exists: Just because we can do something, does it mean we should?”
Aside from Young Frankenstein (1974)–a classic in its own right–the first Frankenstein-inspired movie that comes to mind is 1985’s Re-Animator. Everything’s Interesting editor Eric Langberg*** summarized the movie with, “Herbert West has invented a ‘reagent’ that revitalizes and reanimates bodies that were previously dead. But he hasn’t perfected his serum yet; sometimes, his reanimated corpses have a tendency to become, well, murderous.” Sounds about right.
Many movies are based on Frankenstein. Plus, there’s a slew of other movies inspired by the playing-god concept. They include (but are far from limited to) Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), Deep Blue Sea (1999), I Am Legend (2007), and the many incarnations of Planet of the Apes.
Whether it be experimenting on humans, sharks, or apes, when man plays god, it never ends well. But it basically begins with Dr. Frankenstein and his creature.
They’re not alive, they’re not dead… they’re the walking undead. Mummies have a creep factor the other monsters don’t. How do you kill something that’s already dead? Mostly.
The first mummy movie was director Karl Freund’s The Mummy with Boris Karloff. It was released in 1932, the same year as Victor Halperin’s White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi. While both films have inspired numbers of films (and TV programs), zombies are the ones who’ve come out on top. But let’s not dismiss this dusty old monster outright.
“Lumbering around, covered in bandages, [mummies] don’t have the literary cachet of Frankenstein’s Monster or the sexual appeal of Dracula,” Den of Geek’s Marc Buxton said. “But mummies have a historical edge, a faded part of lost empires, angry at the modern world, desperately longing for the days of their past glories and lost loves.”
Buxton also said that no matter how marginalized they may be, mummies can be “really freakin’ scary.”
The popularity of mummy movies comes in waves. As with the original film, the consecutive ones spawned multiple sequels. Between 1932 and 1955, Universal made six mummy films. The British Hammer Horror series released four more films from 1959 – 1971. It would take more than two decades for the next installment to come.
Stephen Sommer wrote and directed the 1999 remake, which starred Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Two more films followed it in 2001 and 2008. Plus there was the Scorpion King series spin-off.
During the summer of last year, Universal introduced the first of the Dark Universe series, The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. According to by Ramin Setoodeh and Brent Lang of Variety, the movie “was supposed to be the start of a mega-franchise for Universal Pictures.” Unfortunately, the movie (which was rumored to have cost up to $190 million to make and another $100 million to market worldwide) had an opening-weekend box office take of only $32 million.
Will the Dark Universe Continue?
Although The Mummy was disappointing, it doesn’t necessarily mean the Dark Universe won’t continue. It also doesn’t mean it was the fault of the monster herself (this time the mummy was female). There are 99 reasons a monster movie can tank, and, in my opinion, a monster ain’t one of them.
“They’re timeless,” says Douglas. “At the root, there are a lot of things in the original movies that still ring true to the human condition. They’re morality tales, and those stories are relevant. With the right storytellers in place, it doesn’t matter when the stories are told.”
*If you don’t know who Rodney Dangerfield was, he was one of the big names in stand-up comedy for years. His self-deprecating, “I get no respect” sense of humor is legendary. Even his gravestone reads, “There goes the neighborhood.”
**I was probably around 10 or 11 when I saw the Frank Langella version of Dracula, and my pre-pubescent self was instantly confused. Was I turned on by this suave man with his shirt unbuttoned? What did “turned on” mean? Was it bad? Good? (Sadly, I still ask these questions today.)
***If you don’t follow Eric Langberg, you should. He knows horror, is a great writer, and is the classic Hollywood- and horror-obsessed brother-from-another-mother I never had.