Halloween is getting closer, so in this mood, while drinking pumpkin latte and thinking about the costume for that night, let’s get to know better members of this macabre team known as Universal Monsters.
Universal Monsters is a title of a series of horror movies made by Universal Studios during the twenties, all the way to the early sixties. Their first, in 1923, was The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an adaptation of the famous story of Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Paris during the fifteenth century. Soon after this realization came even more famous one, a story about The Phantom of the Opera, based on the famous novel by the author Gaston Leroux. Both movies made Lon Chaney extremely famous, but since the thirties, his place is “occupied” by Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, two names that became a symbol of Universal Monsters, horror, macabre and the first half of the twentieth century when it comes to the cinema. In the next three decades, some of the most famous horror characters were created by this studio, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the Universal’s first movie from the beginning of the twenties, based on Victor Hugo novel. This was their most famous silent movie which brought them a profit of over a 3 million dollars. It took over three hours of makeup, every day, to transform Lon Chaney into Quasimodo since this was one of the first movies in the history to acquire such a huge transformation of the lead actor. Thanks to the wig, fake nose, eyes, teeth and the hunch he wore every day on the set, which was so heavy that there are even some speculations that Chaney suffered serious back injuries, Universal Monsters were born. In addition to that, Chaney was talking to the people who had serious physical deformities for months, trying to prepare himself for the role. Fact that terrified people, after watching the movie, thought that Quasimodo was a real figure, tells us that he really had a role of his life.
The Phantom of the Opera was the second Universal’s silent movie, an adaptation of the novel from 1910. Few of us don’t know the story of a macabre phantom who hunts the famous Paris Opera House, causing many troubles in attempts to make a woman he loves a star. The movie was remembered mostly for the effective appearance of the Phantom, played by Lon Chaney. Once again, his makeup was a masterpiece of that time, but not many people know that the Studio let Chaney create his own Phantom look from head to toe. He framed his eyes with black eyeliner to make them appear like a skeleton, after which he lifts the tip of his nose and fixed it with a piece of wire, and at the end, he wore the wig and fake teeth. The final impression was very much zombie-like. Most of the audience was outraged, and many even claimed that some women fainted at the premiere of the movie during the scene in which the Phantom takes off his mask and shows true face. What came as a surprise was Chaney’s insistence that not even Mary Philbin, who played the role of Christine, doesn’t find out how the Phantom really looks like behind the mask so that she doesn’t have to act like she is surprised when she sees him. This was, she was actually terrified. Also, fun fact, this movie is on the list of 1000 movies you must watch before you die.
Dracula, a horror classic from 1931, based on the piece written by Deane Hamilton and John Balderston, which is partly based on the famous novel by Bram Stoker. Vampires, Transylvania and Bela Lugosi are our first association when someone mentions this movie. Lugosi was actually Studio’s first choice for the role of the Frankenstein, which he ultimately refused, but eventually, a few years later, he did take it in some of the movies remakes. First selection for the role of the Dracula was, once again, Lon Chaney, nut since he died one year before the shooting, Lugosi got the role. He wanted to play Dracula so badly that he accepted a weekly salary of only 500$ (Karloff, for example, made 6,000$ per week at one moment). Despite all of that, Lugosi remained most famous Dracula ever. Like all the other vampires Universal Monsters, Dracula never appeared with the characteristic vampire fangs, which was apparently not used in the cinema until 1957. Also, unlike the usual shifting into a bat, Dracula had the power to turn himself into the wolf too. One of the really touchy moments is that, when Lugosi died, in 1956, he was buried in the Dracula coat. What made this movie so spectacular is the fact that this was first non-silent movie ever filmed, which is why, many years later, still has that cult status.
The Mummy was inspired by the opening of the Tutankhamun tomb in 1923, and the story of its cursing. The movie achieved great success and brought fame to the Boris Karloff, who said that this was the most difficult role ever, due to the complicated makeup and heavy costume causing him enormous pain. It took eight hours per day to make Karloff look like Ramses III, who served as an inspiration for his character. Unlike other Universal Studio horror movies, The Mummy did not have a direct sequel, although there was a remake during the 40s called The Mummy’s Hand. Original announcements for the movie were simple “Karloff…The Mummy” and they were inspired by the fact that Karloff was not really known as the monster from the Frankenstein, therefore many believe that it was this role that brought him a status of a celebrity. Despite many historical bloopers in the movie and the fact that they didn’t quite faithfully present Egyptian culture and mythology, Mummy was one of the biggest blockbusters of the Universal Studios.
The Invisible Man, the movie from 1933, an adaptation of the famous novel by H.G. Wells, showed us incredible actor skills of Claude Rains. This role was actually his first role in a non-silent movie, and even if we don’t get to see him all the way to the last scene, his voice and laughter haunting us. The first choice for this role was Karloff, but he refused since he really didn’t like the idea to be, well, invisible during the whole movie. This turned out to be a very good move because critics today agree that Rains mastered the role to the perfection thanks to the vocal abilities and effect that were unseen at that time. This way, he managed to keep the attention of the audience, constantly keeping them asking who is the mysterious man. Since there were no CGI effects during the thirties, invisibility was achieved by using a variety of tricks, such are velvet suits and masks, shot in front of the velvet background. Rains suffered from the claustrophobia, so his costume didn’t bring him that much happiness, but anyway, he refused the body double for most of the scenes because he was a few inches shorter than him.
The Wolf Man was a movie that proved that blood is not water and celebrated the son of the famous Quasimodo and Phantom of the Opera – Chaney junior. Just like his father, he had a gift of amazing physical transformations and patience to sit on the set for hours until his makeup and costume aren’t finished. As for the movie itself, this may come as a surprise, but Wolf Man, although is one of the first movies about this creature, and certainly the most famous one, doesn’t use the idea of a fool moon as a moment in which man turns into the hairy monster. No, this idea was developed a few years later, in the not so famous movie sequel. Even though it was believed that, unlike the most of the Universal Monsters, Wolf Man is not adaptation of a novel, according to the documentary about Universal Studio, it is inspired by the experience of the writer named Curt Siodmak during the Nazi Germany, in which he fell into the complete chaos after the harmony of everyday life, similar to Larry Talbot when he transforms himself from a man into the beast, while the wolf is used as a metaphor for the Nazi. According to the original scenario, the audience was left to wonder if Talbot really experiences the physical transformation or is that just a part of his imagination, not to say madness, but the studio thought that it would be more sensational and better for the profit if they saw the actual beast.
Creature from the Black Lagoon, a movie that Ingmar Bergman allegedly watched every year for his birthday; movie for whose needs Ricou Browning, a professional diver, and swimmer, who played the Creature, had to hold his breath under the water for 4 minutes, and the only Universal movie in which at the end you are left to wonder about the destiny of the monster, did he survived or not. It was based on a legend that the producer William Alland heard, about the mythical species that is half man half fish and lives in the Amazon river. It’s interesting that, although Frankenstein and Dracula are the most famous Universal Monstrous, and these movies had several remakes, Creature was the first movie captured in a 3D technique and first one to show underwater scenes that are literally breathtaking, considering that this movie was made in 1954. Also, a fun fact is that this movie is considered to be one of the movies that made the biggest impact on Steven Spielberg, who even gave homage to this movie in the Jaws.
By Miss Psycho Cat