Wednesday 5 October 2016

The Sublimity of the Universal Studios Monsters

Nothing is so efficacious for horror as the bygone monochrome of the truly silver screen. Only black-and-white held deep enough shadows for monsters to lurk. From within fog-choked forests, immense alpine passes, ancient tombs, and ruined castles, they bid us welcome, show us what it means to trespass in the realms of God, embroil us in the cosmic battle over the human soul, and did it with unparalleled glamour.   

And nobody did it quite as well as Universal Studios. The films of the German Expressionists were beautiful in their artistic, European fashion, and they went on to fuel Universal's own horror pictures. Other films and filmmakers rose to the occasion - White Zombie with Bela Lugosi, Island of Lost Souls with Charles Laughton, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Fredric March, and even the times Mickey Mouse tussled with skeleton dancers and mad doctors - But none matched Universal for sheer output, enjoyment and quality. Hailing from the Silent Era to the Atomic Age, the legacy of the Universal Studios Monsters endures to this day.

An Anglican clergyman and expert on Gothic literature with a bent for Romanticism and writing books about vampire hunting, Montague Summers wrote the following meditation in his introduction to Horace Walpole's seminal novel The Castle of Otranto, which also helps explain the appeal of Universal's brand of cinematic horror:
There is in the Romantic revival a certain disquietude and a certain aspiration. It is this disquietude with earth and aspiration for heaven which inform the greatest Romance of all, Mysticism, the Romance of the Saints. The Classical writer set down fixed rules and precisely determined his boundaries. The Romantic spirit reaches out beyond these with an indefinite but very real longing to new and dimly guessed spheres of beauty. The Romantic writer fell in love with the Middle Ages, the vague years of long ago, the days of chivalry and strange adventure. He imagined and elaborated a mediaevalism for himself, he created a fresh world, a world which never was and never could have been, a domain which fancy built and fancy ruled. And in this land there will be mystery, because where there is mystery beauty may always lie hid. There will be wonder, because wonder always lurks where there is the unknown. And it is this longing for beauty intermingling with wonder and mystery that will express itself, perhaps exquisitely and passionately in the twilight moods of the romantic poets, perhaps a little crudely and even a little vulgarly in tales of horror and blood.
Unlike modern horror, where blood and gore serve the function of reinforcing human meaninglessness in a cruelly indifferent universe, the blood was never the explicit point of Universal's classic monster movies. They did provide a titillating thrill - one can only imagine how shocking the appearance of the Frankenstein Monster might have been in 1931 - but the average Universal horror film only had one or two murders, most of which happened discreetly off-camera.

In their pre-millennial article Monster Fan 2000, Catholic writers and apologists Lint Hatcher and Rod Bennett reiterate Summers' commentary, from the perspective of children who grew up in the pop-culture monster fad of the Fifties and Sixties:
Those kids knew that - strange as it may sound - when they were engrossed in a good old monster movie they were more tapped into who they really were and who they wanted to be than at any other time. Something was stirred up inside them - something that seemed central and true... And as their imagination meticulously worked out the parameters of these supernatural adventures. Those kids discovered new depths in their perspective on good and evil, on courage and dishonor, on beauty and ruin. They cheered one character, feared another -- and for deeply philosophical reasons that took hold in the soul. It seemed, in fact, as though these modern-day fairy tales were not only giving each fan the thrill of their life, but enlarging his or her heart as well -- and in a manner that was neither scholarly nor dogmatic, but incredibly thought-provoking, challenging, and alive.
In short, what these children were experiencing was the Sublime in its most recent incarnation, the horror movie.

As a philosophical and aesthetic concept, the Sublime is that which inspires infinite awe, dread, horror, profundity, and an understanding of our own humble place in the cosmos and in relation to God (that differs from the merely nihilistic "vertigo of the infinite"). The Sublime astonishes and shocks us into an awareness of that which is greater than ourselves: Time and Space, Nature and Divinity.

Edmund Burke, the English philosopher, has perhaps the most widely held view towards the concept of the Sublime, courtesy of his 1759 essay A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful. In the following quotation, Burke defines the Sublime as a sense of supreme astonishment and the horror that comes therefrom, prefiguring the idea of cinematic "shock value":
The passion caused by the great and the sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.
Burke also outlines the differences between beauty and the Sublime which speaks quite clearly to the sensibilities and motifs of classic horror films:
Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure; and however they may vary afterwards from the direct nature of their causes, yet these causes keep an eternal distinction between them, a distinction never to be forgotten by any whose business it is to affect the Passions.
This all adds up to Montague Summers' vaunted sense of wonder and mystery, the Romance of the Saints at the heart of every classic, pre-modern horror film. The grand exterior world of picturesque mountains and sunless gorges, ancient deserts and primordial swamps mirrored in gorgeous celluloid monochrome the critical morality of the interior world, where the cosmic powers of Good and Evil waged war within the souls of mere fragile humans. Hatcher and Bennett clarify:
What exactly was the old-style monster fan "liking" when he "liked" monsters? Was it simply that they "scared" him?... But often -- probably most of the time -- they didn't scare him much. In fact, he could probably remember the last time a monster movie had really "scared" him and it was usually some childhood recollection from the time before he actually became a monster "fan." No, what he felt when looking at King Kong and The Invisible Man was something more akin to wonder -- a giddy, exhilarated appreciation is probably the best phrase. He papered his walls with stills of a particular personality like Karloff or Lugosi or of a particular "creepy character" in their repertoire -- a character that, like Frankenstein or Dracula, strangely fleshed out for him the stupendous outline of that "new world" in which he was now dwelling. They illustrated large moral dilemmas like "There are some things man was not meant to know" or riveting themes that grabbed his imagination... "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely."
The young horror fan was inducted into a new and broader world of deeper moral dilemmas and philosophical breadth. In their "cinema-inspired life of the imagination" they would confront the dark Count Dracula amidst crumbling Gothic tombs and resist the temptations of unholy might and immortality he would offer them. They would learn about the heavy burden of obsession thanks to Immhotep the Mummy and Eric the Phantom, or about the old values of life's sanctity and nature's power thanks to the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Dr. Frankenstein's horrifying mistake. They would thrill to the exotic locations that the films would take them, from Egypt to the steaming jungle, and marvel at the vastness of it all and their place in it.

The 30 year legacy of the Universal Studios Monsters began with Dracula in 1931. It was preceded by Lon Chaney's Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925), an adaptation of the Victor Hugo historical drama The Man Who Laughs (1928) and the "old dark house" comedy The Cat and the Canary (1927), but Dracula marks the true beginning of the franchise. The film catapulted Bela Lugosi to fame, precipitated Boris Karloff's Frankenstein later the same year, and primed a public coping with the Great Depression and the traumas of The Great War for even darker thrillers to come.

The initial phase of the Universal Studios Monster films ran from 1931 to 1936, featuring some of the greatest movies ever made of any genre. After Dracula and Frankenstein, audiences of 1932 saw Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Old Dark House, and The Mummy. The Invisible Man was released in 1933 and the sheer insanity of The Black Cat in 1934. The Bride of Frankenstein, Werewolf of London, and The Raven were released in 1935, to be followed by The Invisible Ray and, finally, Dracula's Daughter in 1936. The success of these films was a Providential combination of directors, cast, and source material. Stories were pulled from Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe, acted out by charismatic luminaries like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Claude Rains, Charles Laughton, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye, Gloria Stuart, and Ernest Thesiger, directed by the likes of James Whale, Karl Freund, and Robert Florey, under heavy influence from German Expressionism.

Each, in their own way, reinforces the preoccupations of the Sublime. In Frankenstein, a scientist is driven mad by his trespass into the prerogatives of God, having unleashed a monster in the process. In Bride of Frankenstein, his creation calls him to account, but the real monster is the gleefully blasphemous Dr. Pretorius. The obsession of the scientist - including The Invisible Man, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Invisible Ray, Werewolf of London - is one shape. The Mummy also shows us the obsession of the denied lover who would trespass the boundaries between life and death laid out by the gods. Horror movie scholar David J. Skal has argued that part of the success of the Universal Studios Monsters was their capacity to articulate the traumas of World War I and the broken bodies and souls that came back from it. The Black Cat most clearly addresses this, by staring Boris Karloff as an evil German scientist and Satan worshiper who has built his ultramodern home over the corpses of a terrifying battle, and starring Bela Lugosi as the anti-hero obsessed with revenge.

Unfortunately, Universal's films also challenged ideas of public decency. Situations like reanimating the dead, draining the blood of prostitutes, hinted-at lesbianism, and Boris Karloff keeping Bela Lugosi's dead wife in a jar while sleeping with his daughter and performing Satanic rituals only to meet a graphic comeuppance, brought the studio under fire. Succumbing to the Hays Code, Universal cancelled their otherwise profitable series.

The moratorium didn't last long, however. The founders of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmles Sr. and Jr., lost control of their company in 1936 over debts accrued during the production of Show Boat (1936). The new owners, Standard Capital Corporation, decided to shift Universal's production towards B-movies, serials, and melodramas of various sorts. During Hollywood's Golden Age, the moviegoing experience was much different from today. For a nickle or a dime, patrons could spend all day in the threatre if they wanted to, being entertained by a revolving series of cartoons, newsreels, serials, B-movies, and A-list feature films. B-movies were typically short, about an hour long, cheaply produced, expediently made, and not always well-written. Roy Rogers was one of the kings of the B-movies, with his unending series of admittedly entertaining "singing cowboy" Westerns. Universal got into the act of making B-movies by resurrecting Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man from the dead.

The new series began with Son of Frankenstein in 1939, which starred Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Basil Rathbone, who had just kicked off a new Sherlock Holmes series for Universal that same year in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sets and contracted actors were reused for Tower of London the same year, telling the story of King Richard III. Vincent Price guest starred in his first Universal role. Though one of Universal's most expensive productions that year, Son of Frankenstein didn't have the same vividness that James Whale brought to the previous two films (Whale had transitioned from horror films and was due to retire from filmmaking altogether in 1941). Universal Studios Monsters films from the b-movie era, 1939 to about 1952, were still charming and spooky, but nonetheless workmanlike affairs.

Vincent Price returned for The Invisible Man Returns in 1940, which touched off an Invisible Man series with The Invisible Woman (1940), Invisible Agent (1942), and The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944). The Mummy's Hand (1940) began a new Mummy series, completely unconnected with the 1932 Mummy. It was followed by The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Ghost and The Mummy's Curse (both 1944). A new series about a gorilla surgically transformed into a comely lady began with Captive Wild Woman (1943), and continued with Jungle Woman (1944) and The Jungle Captive (1945). The somewhat weird, horror-infused radio murder mystery series Inner Sanctum Mysteries was licenced for a film series: Calling Dr. Death (1943), Weird Woman, Dead Man's Eyes, The Frozen Ghost  (all 1944), Strange Confession and Pillow of Death (both 1945). A plethora of one-off films were also made, mostly involving mad scientists and murder mysteries: Black Friday (1940), Man Made Monster (1941), Horror Island (1941), a much different version of The Black Cat (1941), Night Monster (1942), a Technicolor remake of Phantom of the Opera (1943), The Mad Ghoul (1943), another Technicolor production called The Climax (1944), The Frozen Ghost (1945), House of Horrors (1946), The Brute Man (1946), She-Wolf of London (1946), The Strange Door (1951), and The Black Castle (1952).

By far, the most notable series was the one featuring Frankenstein, Dracula, and later, the Wolf Man. The "cinematic universe" is all the rage these days, but the basic idea of intertwining film series goes back to the Universal Studios Monsters. The Wolf Man, a film comparable to the first series of Universal horrors in its quality, gravitas, and scope, was released in 1941. This was followed by Ghost of Frankenstein in 1942, which was a direct sequel to Son of Frankenstein. The two were joined together in 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which was the direct sequel to both The Wolf Man and Ghost of Frankenstein. Dracula returned in 1943's Son of Dracula, where the undead lord has come to America in search of fresh, young, and virile blood. All three monsters met up in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), which effectively ended the series by killing Dracula (again) and curing the Wolf Man of lycanthropy!

Throughout these and Universal's other films were a regular stable of actors including Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Lionel Atwill, Cedric Hardwicke, Evelyn Ankers, Claude Rains, Rondo Hatton, John Carradine, Glenn Strange, and most importantly, Lon Chaney Jr. Chaney, building on his father's name, had the distinction of playing all four of Universal's major monsters - Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and The Mummy - in addition to the Man Made Monster and the lead on the Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Some of the roles could have been played by anybody (he said as much about The Mummy), and Chaney was ill-suited to the role of Dracula. He was, however, pitch perfect as the Wolf Man and unlike Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Mummy, nobody else played that role. Chaney's "aw shucks" Midwestern demeanor and bewildered innocence well-suited any hapless human who suddenly found themselves transformed into a monster.  

By the end of the Forties, the Universal Studios Monsters were getting long in the fang. So was the comedy duo of Abbott and Costello. Therefore, Universal logically paired them together. Perhaps one of the most perfect horror-comedies ever committed to celluloid, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is a bittersweet piece of Halloween candy. Though one of the best films of either series it failed to affect any lasting reinvigoration. Instead, it was the final act of petrifaction, preserving Hollywood icons through fossilization as the next cinematic era dawned.

Returning to Edmund Burke's On the sublime and the beautiful, the otherwise overwhelmingly frightful experience of the Sublime can become an aesthetically, morally and spiritually edifying experience "at certain distances" and with "certain modifications":
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is a product of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure... When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.
The ultimate distance and modification from the supernatural pain which the classic Universal horror movies expressed came in the Fifties and Sixties courtesy of the fad for monster kitsch. Raymond Castile, a self-declared "monster kid," describes these times:
In the late-1950's, Universal syndicated a package of its classic monster movies to local television stations across the country. Television "Horror Hosts" such as Vampira helped make these films a weekly viewing habit for millions of young people. Monsters became a hip part of the youth culture.

Warren Publishing responded to this growing movement by introducing Famous Monsters of Filmland in 1958. The brainchild of editor Forrest J. Ackerman, Famous Monsters magazine popularized horror and science fiction movies, making them seem more fun than scary. Though obviously aimed at children, the pun-filled magazine was originally conceived as a Playboy-style journal for the monster crowd. The first cover of Famous Monsters featured a man in a rubber Frankenstein mask, wearing a Hugh Hefner-esque jacket, standing close beside a playful young woman.

This may seem incongruous today, but it made perfect sense in 1958. Playboy magazine had become the standard bearer of "hipness" in the late 1950's. Monsters were also "in," so naturally they would be marketed in conjunction with whatever else was en vogue. This is the reason The Munsters used surf music for its opening theme, why the hot rod auto fad became connected with grotesque "Daddy Roth" monster caricatures, and the reason The Monster Mash became a hit party anthem. Monsters were a ubiquitous part of late 50's and 60's pop culture. Their cross-over appeal made them darlings of the beat, surf, hot rod and "playboy" crowds - not to mention little kids.
Often considered the last of the "true" Universal Monster movies, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein plays both the horror and the comedy completely straight. The classic monsters are locked into their final archetypal forms as they play straight men to Abbott and Costello's misadventures. Celeste Olalquiaga, in her study The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience, succeeds in providing an almost perfect, albeit unintentional, description of ...Meet Frankenstein:
...[K]itsch is nothing if not a suspended memory whose elusiveness is made ever more keen by its extreme iconicity. Despite appearances, kitsch is not an active commodity naively infused with the desire of a wish image, but rather a failed commodity that continually speaks of all it has ceased to be - a virtual image, existing in the impossibility of fully being. Kitsch is a time capsule with a two-way ticket to the realm of myth - the collective or individual land of dreams. Here, for a second or perhaps even a few minutes, there reigns an illusion of completeness, a universe devoid of past and future, a moment whose sheer intensity is to a large degree predicated on its very inexistence.
In Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and The Wolfman of ...Meet Frankenstein we encounter the final suspended forms of these cinematic icons. From this point, the horror film became part and parcel of hip, youth, drive-in theatre culture. Shock Theatre, The Munsters, and The Addams Family were on TV, Rankin-Bass' Animagic feature Mad Monster Party? (1967) was in theatres, Mego figures and Aurora models were on children's bookshelves, and Tales from the Crypt and Famous Monsters of Filmland were at the newsstand. Kids could even eat them: Count Chocula and Frankenberry cereals were first produced in 1971. The horror icons enter the mists of myth and an annual resurrection at Halloween in masses of goofy glow-in-the-dark novelties.

The Universal Studios Monsters series did continue after ...Meet Frankenstein, but in a form radically different from the Gothic horrors of the Thirties or B-movies of the Forties. Though Abbott and Costello would reunite with different monsters for another four films - ...Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), ...Meet the Invisible Man (1951), ...Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), ...Meet the Mummy (1955) - the immediate future belonged to atomic monsters and martian invaders. World War II ended and the Atomic Age began, with all the anxieties that came along with it.

Universal's Atomic Age of horror was shorter lived than its Gothic era, and included It Came from Outer Space (1953), This Island Earth (1955), Tarantula (1955), Cult of the Cobra (1955), The Mole People (1956), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Land Unknown (1957), The Monolith Monsters (1957), The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958), Monster on the Campus (1958), Curse of the Undead (1959), and The Leech Woman (1960). These films have largely been forgotten (or in the case of This Island Earth, remembered only for the purposes of mockery in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie), but the Atomic Age did add one last member to the Universal Monsters ensemble. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was released in 1954, to be followed with Revenge of the Creature in 1955 and The Creature Walks Among Us in 1956. The consummate Atomic Age Sci-Fi film, Creature from the Black Lagoon begins with the primordial creation of the Earth and the drama of evolution's unfolding, and lead actor Richard Carlson pummels the viewer with soliloquy after soliloquy on the benefits of science.

Though the Sublime and Romantic themes the classic films dealt with would still haunt the generation of "monster kids," the changing times of looming, instantaneous and random atomic destruction, moral ambiguity, and suburban commodification would require a new sort of horror. The Romance of the Saints was missing from an increasingly nihilistic society and so, as Walter Benjamin pointed out with regards to fascism, "Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order." This would be the dawn of the modern horror film: the Slasher horror and torture porn of Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Evil Dead 2 (1987), Alien (1979), John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996), Friday the 13th (1980), Saw (2004) and countless other tales of explicit gore, dismemberment, and cosmic chaos. There would only come poor and occasional compensation for the loss of the historic horror film in action movies featuring monsters instead of terrorists, such as Universal's own The Mummy (1999) and their threatened "Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe" ostensibly begun with Dracula Untold (2014). Even remakes attempting to meet things half-way, such as Universal's Wolfman (2010) are pale in Technicolor. They don't reach the same caliber.

But it is a tall order to aspire to. We now turn again to Hatcher and Bennett for the last word:
In truth, beneath that goofy Famous Monsters t-shirt, there beat a heart which was actually embracing -- using an admittedly limited vocabulary culled from these pop-culture icons -- a deeper, firmer belief in Good and a more dedicated refusal of evil than his parents could have imagined. Whatever else our monster fan knew, he knew that life was more than just getting through high school and college, getting a good job, and then making the bucks. And he learned it not from Socrates or the Saints, but from Frankenstein.