“The story of the strangest passion that the world has ever known.” This line from the poster for 1931’s Dracula aptly describes the entire archive of the commonly called ‘Universal Monsters,’ the 1920-50s films that planted the seeds of the horror genre. And the credit lies definitively at the feet of one film studio which came to dominate this genre: Universal Studios. The tale of how they did so is an incredible testimony to the rich history of cinema.
The opening chapter of this memoir is 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, more of a tolling bell compared to the light ringing sensation of Disney’s 1996 bedtime story. It set the tone for all of Universal’s horror exploits; death hung in the air, and everything was under the spell of hanging black shadows lurching out from some towering Gothic architecture. Its star, Lon Chaney, would also later star in The Phantom of the Opera, two years later before his untimely death in 1930.
After this, Universal started to seal their place in cinematic folklore. Bela Lugosi played the eponymous Count in Dracula while Boris Karloff was truly animated in Frankenstein (both 1931). Both actors would become defining stars of Universal Monsters, along with Dwight Frye, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Edward van Sloan.
Perhaps more significant even than them was the death of the silent movie, a blessing to both Dracula and Frankenstein. Suddenly, the creaking of the floorboards, distant groans and demonic voices fuelled fear. Terror became the primary source of profit for cinemas during the Great Depression.
Throw in 1941’s The Wolf Man, and Universal suddenly had something which could be called the first cinematic universe (although this term was not coined until decades later). From the 1940s onwards, sequel after sequel was created, along with other stand-alone films such as The Black Cat (1941) and Calling Dr Death (1943). The 1950s saw the studio start to merge more elements of science-fiction into their horror stories, and the likes of Tarantula (1955) show a move away from dark atmospheric doom to a grander scale of terror which would bear heavily on the genre from that point on.
But it is those original creepy baddies – Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, The Wolf Man – who are the ones which continue to mess with our minds and hold our imagination in the palm of their cold, dead hands. The obsession with cannibalistic half-humans, blood-sucking creeps and the reanimated dead has persisted, and the legend surrounding them only increases with age.
Interestingly, there were several movies whereby these characters met each other, resulting in some terrifying titillation for those watching. This is where the concept of a ‘cinematic universe’ has clawed its way out of the darkness and into the spotlight of popularity.
Nowadays, Cinematic universes are almighty businesses. Star Wars was perhaps the next big example of this, the DC Extended Universe will get properly underway next year with the release of Justice League, and right now Marvel executives are diving into a pool of golden pennies. And it all started with Universal Monsters.
It may well end with Universal Monsters, too. They are about to come back in a big way.
This is nothing new, its worth remembering -or maybe its not, depending on your take- Van Helsing (2004) and The Mummy Trilogy (featuring a largely bewildered Brendan Fraser) have already been traced back to the Lugosi-Karloff era. But now Universal is formalising it all, praying for a repeat of the popularity of the original films while desiring to match the success of modern day cross-overs.
Tom Cruise will be in the 2017 reboot of The Mummy (with Sofia Boutella wrapping herself in bandages). Russell Crowe will cut quite the dapper Victorian gentleman as Dr Jekyll, although whether he will also fill the mangled boots of Mr Hyde is as yet unknown, while Johnny Depp will be ‘seen’ as The Invisible Man. Let’s hope that golden tooth doesn’t give him away…
Going through most people’s minds at this point is an instant accusation of Universal ‘cashing in.’ Nostalgia is a secret weapon in modern cinema, and with the recruitment of A-list stars, it’s hard not to view this as a move driven by profit. But there is little guarantee that it will work.
How are Universal going to unite a set of ancient movie monsters, associated only by age and choice of décor? It’s a monstrous task, and unlike The Avengers, audience unity won’t be won easily. And nostalgia could easily work against Universal too; what would the original stars make of even the idea of a reboot?
But movie goers shouldn’t be too pessimistic. There are undeniably some things to look forward too, most of all Javier Barden with bolts in his neck as he fills the role of Frankenstein’s Monster. As a successful heir to Boris Karloff, Universal would have struggled to find anyone better. Universal also still have time to pull out of the cinematic universe ploy if they want, instead going for a series of unrelated escapades all harking back to their rich horror history.
The big risk is that Universal stain their heritage. Karloff, Chaney and the like brought the characters to life, but its Universal who brought them to the screen. Their place in the history books has never been under scrutiny. You don’t produce over eighty films in thirty years without achieving something, and the original films will forever mark a major point in the art of film-making.
Perhaps, in ten years’ time, we will be talking about how all these creatures should have been laid to rest, and that they have been disgraced all in the name of audience gratification and the stacks of money that will result from curiosity if nothing else. But maybe we will instead be heralding Universal Monsters as a worthy addition to our cinemas, reeling in the excitement and terror they provide as escapism from a world full of increasing uncertainty and conflict, a move which Universal already pulled off eighty years ago.