(On Cable TV, December 2019) I’m not sure about others, but in my mind Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Gill-man is one of the major Universal monsters. An often forgotten or maligned one, but still part of the line-up. (I suspect that its aquatic nature means that he’s not as reusable as Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, or the Mummy in the popular imagination, but that’s how it goes.) What’s perhaps more interesting is that his introduction took place twenty-three years after the first Universal Monsters, in a very different environment for horror. The 1950s were nothing like the 1930s—the fantastic was getting more commonplace even outside the core audience for horror, and an entire slew of monster movies emerged during that decade to reflect various Cold War anxieties. As a result, it does feel slightly different—but it’s clearly among the best of those 1950s monster movies, playing off themes of unrequited romance and a somewhat sympathetic monster. There’s a clear line going from Creature from the Black Lagoon to 2017’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, perhaps reflecting the nature of empathy throughout decades. The film’s production values are not bad, especially when you get to the underwater sequences that present obvious acting and plot progression challenges when straight-up dialogue isn’t possible. It remains essential viewing for anyone interested in the origins of lasting cultural icons, but it’s also, thankfully, an entertaining film in its own right.
(On TV, July 2018) The 1941 original version of The Wolf Man is rightly considered one of the big-five Universal Horror monsters (alongside early-thirties Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man), so it’s a bit of a surprise to find out, throughout the film, how much of it seems to differ from our codified understanding of the werewolf monster. This film (scripted by legendary SF writer Curt Siodmak) does bring together werewolves and silver, but not necessarily shape-shifting under a full moon—which is a later innovation. As with many Universal Monsters foundational texts, there is a substantial romantic component at work here, and a cinematography that bridges between German expressionism and American film noir. Lon Chaney Jr has quite a presence as the titular wolf man, anchoring a potentially silly story into something with romantic gravitas. The film has surprisingly good makeup and special effects, though they come in fairly late in the movie. Despite some mythology weirdness compared with the contemporary version of the werewolf monster, The Wolf Man did create much of the myth and so remains a mandatory viewing for horror fans—fortunately, it happens to be a decent movie still.
(On TV, July 2018) It’s amazing to realize how much standard Halloween iconography (“Halloween” being used here as “mainstream watered-down portrayal of horror”) can be traced back to a handful of 1930s Universal movies. In-between The Wolfman, The Mummy, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Dracula (released in 1931–1933, except for The Wolfman in 1941), you have the five classic monster archetypes and the associated iconography. A ridiculous amount of what has become associated with vampire movie portrayals is owed directly to Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula, down to the exaggerated vocal performance (equally taking from the theatrical and silent movie acting styles) and quotable material. It means that Dracula is still worth a look today … but those very same qualities also make it an overly familiar borderline-dull experience. Much like Frankenstein, the film moves through an intensely well-worn plot that was made just as well earlier (Nosferatu) and much later (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). That certainly does not make it a bad film (its legacy can still be found everywhere come late October), but it does nibble at some of the basic enjoyment of watching a film to see what’s going to happen: In this case, we know exactly what will happen and that makes it more like a repertory piece—even to first-time watchers! I’m still glad I saw it, but the rough early-1930s production values mean that if I’m going to watch something based on Bram Stoker’s original novel, I’m going to volunteer the rather entertaining Coppola version.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) When they say that The Bride of Frankenstein is one of the best sequels ever made, they’re not kidding: Even if the original Frankenstein is not a bad movie, it’s so familiar that it can feel underwhelming. While the cultural impact of The Bride of Frankenstein is significant, much of the film feels fresher, more challenging and more imaginative than its predecessor. There are some brilliant special effects here and there, the story is far more morally ambiguous (I mean—the monster is likable, but he actually kills a young girl!) and it doesn’t merely go through the motions of the Shelley story like the first one does. There’s a clear articulation of a mad scientist rivalling Frankenstein, making the stakes ever more complex. This being said, I was surprised to find out that despite the iconic nature of the titular bride, she only shows up for a few moments—and her plot purpose seems to be to reject Frankenstein so that he’s motivated to go kill himself. Hmmm. Nonetheless, I had a much better time watching The Bride of Frankenstein than its predecessor, and its unusual nature is a significant part of it.
(On TV, July 2018) The great things about the handful of classic Universal Monster movies is that they’re iconic enough to be worth a watch at any time. The not-so-great thing about them is that they’re so iconic that they’ve been remade, ripped off, sequeled, and nodded at so often that we often know exactly what will happen even if we’ve never seen the movie. So it is that this 1931 version of Frankenstein is pretty much what we’d expect from a Frankenstein film. There’s Bela Lugosi in traditional makeup, there’s the mad scientist, there’s the lightning-powered machinery, there are the villagers … it’s extremely familiar and while it’s good, I don’t think there’s any surprise to it. I still enjoyed watching it, but I’m having trouble actually finding anything worthwhile to say about it.