Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Universal Monsters!

It is Scary Movie Month at F This Movie! And I have a confession to make: I tried. I really tried. I just could not do it.

I tried to come up with something snarky to say about the original Universal Studios Monsters. I swear to you that I honestly tried to shit on them, but nothing would come out of my ass-mouth. “This should be easy,” I kept saying to myself, “They are ‘old;’ they are black-and-white! Impossibly dated. Low budgets. No stars. Some of them are B-movies, created only to round out a double bill. They have been parodied to death. Some of their effects are really bottom of the barrel. These movies have been exploited to sell breakfast cereal.”

I am talking here of the original Dracula, the original Frankenstein’s Monster, the original Mummy, the original Invisible Man, the original Igor, the original Wolf Man—all of those beloved Universal Monsters of the early talkie era.

Yes, I thought that this would be like shooting zombie fish in a radioactive barrel (a different barrel than the one mentioned above because this one is radioactive). It should be easy to cast aspersions, to mock, to deride. I cannot.

The truth is, I grew up with these films. I love them. Good Lord, I have practically memorized them! I love them; I love them all.

The love affair started when my cousin Mike outgrew his subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. The subscription lapsed, but for years they kept sending him free issues. He gave them to me.

This was the first issue I ever read. I was 11 years old:

 The importance of the original Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (edited by Forrest J. Ackerman, who readers called “Uncle Forry”) cannot be overstated. It was an ink-and-paper clubhouse for kids who were not very good at sports, who liked to read, and who had imaginations.

FMOF was the gateway drug to the rest of the imaginative world. Reading the magazine got me interested in horror movies, which soon led to being interested in ALL movies. Reading the magazine got me interested in reading, which soon led to reading EVERYTHING. At thirteen, I vowed that I would read every book in my town’s public library filed under the Dewey Decimal System number 791.43. Those are the books about movies.

It took me six years, but I did it—every single one.

I love the Universal Monsters so much that it does not matter if a film in the series is low budget or if the excitement occasionally lags. These films all take place in a little European village that I have dubbed Monster Town (Universalville?). I love to spend time there. That is why I actually loved the 2010 remake of The Wolf Man; though it goes bat-shit crazy in its second half, it was a chance to walk around Monster Town again.

I remember the first time I visited Universal Studios in California. The tram turned a corner, and I saw what looked like the distinctive town square plaster arch seen in boatloads of Universal Horror films. The heavens opened. It was Lourdes, it was Mount Ararat, it was Mecca, but with torch-bearing villagers, and Frankenstein’s monster pulling the arm off a guy! Hallelujah!

I will also excuse any mistakes or gaffes in these films. Like a birthmark on a beautiful woman, it only makes her more beautiful. And let me tell you, these films have birthmarks:

• A lighting technician on the original Dracula (1931) left a big hunk of cardboard stuck to a bedside lamp. It is visible in several shots; he obviously thought the lamp was out of frame. This doesn’t bother me. I just imagine the girl’s family hastily constructed this device to keep that blazing lamplight out of their sick daughter’s eyes.

•  I am also willing to forgive the glaring continuity gaffe in The Bride of Frankenstein. At the end of the film, Frankenstein’s monster is about to blow up the lab. At the last minute he allows Dr. Frankenstein, his creator, to flee. We see the doctor running away from the castle lab. The monster pulls the lever. We see the doctor running away. We cut to inside the lab—the doctor is still there. Was he running away from himself? Look! He is on the far left.

I am willing to forgive this because it is obviously the result of reshoots. The studio got cold feet and decided to let the doctor live. This last-minute change resulted in one of the greatest lines in all of horror cinema:

(To Dr. Frankenstein)
“Yes. You go. You live.

 (Turning to the evil Dr. Pretorius)
You stay. We belong dead.”

My love for the original stable of Universal Monsters got me through a fairly difficult childhood (everyone’s childhood is difficult) and helped me deal with a somewhat dysfunctional family (every family is dysfunctional).

Now when a friend or colleague has a completely unjustifiable opinion of some piece of entertainment – an opinion that just does not square with anyone’s perception of the world or the basic laws of physics – I wait. What I often hear next is this: “I saw it when I was a kid, and that’s probably why I love it so much.” And I give them a free pass. It is one of few justifications for the unjustifiable that makes sense. “I have loved it since I was a kid.” I get it. I have no desire to argue with the 8-year-old you.

Famous Monsters of Filmland led to reading, which led to loving English, which led to majoring in English in college. Monsters led to movies, which led to Film, which led to a Minor in Film. An English Major and Film Minor led to teaching English and Film… for twenty-seven years. And it also landed me this sweet gig, writing for you beautiful F-Heads.

Thanks, Frankenstein. Thanks, Uncle Forry.


  1. That is nice of you to say, Kathy.
    Next week I promise to be mean again.

  2. Until a few days ago, I had never seen any of the classic Universal Monster movies. Not something I'm proud of, because I want to be well rounded, but it had just not happened. Well, I bought the Legacy collections for Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man (complete with busts of those three characters!) and am slowly working my way through them and really, really enjoying myself. Because I didn't see them when I was a kid, I have no sentimental attachment to them, but yet they still work, and are still very, very effective. The scene at the beginning of Dracula where he is looking at his vampire brides rising out of their coffins and walking toward him...the camera does this slow zoom toward Lugosi, who is lit well and just looks dark and evil. I think to myself "this film is 80 years old, how can it still be effective?" But it is. Admittedly, there are some slow parts for me, but by and large I am finding these movies captivating. I didn't think I'd enjoy them this much, but I really have.
    I'm watching Frankenstein now, and the graveyard scene at the beginning is just fantastic. As atmospheric and well shot as movies today, probably better than most. I guess I've discovered what the hype is all about. I'm sure they aren't perfect, but they're so much fun.
    Anyway, I just thought I'd share my experience, as someone just watching them for the first time for Scary Movie Month.
    Great column, as always, JB. Thanks.

  3. It makes me happy to hear that you have begun wading through these. You will not regret it. Boy, what I would give to watch The Bride of Frankenstein again FOR THE FIRST TIME. These films are the bestest.