Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fright Flix Happy Halloween B-town classic Monster Mash-up!!

The classic Universal Monsters are, in my opinion, the best movie monsters ever created. Frankenstein and his Bride, Dracula, the Wolf Man and even the Invisible Man entertained and frightened audiences at the time and are still well worth watching over and over again. Long before the days of computer animation, actual people played the parts of the greatest monsters ever to grace the silver screen. Those people were some of the best actors of the time as well.

In 1931, Universal Studios released Dracula on St. Valentines Day. Bela Lugosi became an overnight sensation. He had been the actor in the Broadway stage version of Dracula and won the movie role after the death of another all-time great, Lon Chaney, Sr. The Man of a Thousand Faces, as Chaney was called, was a superb silent movie actor and was a natural to play the role of Dracula. But Chaney died from a throat hemorrhage on August 26, 1930. The studio then chose the most likely candidate to fill the part, Bela Lugosi. Lugosi had won critical acclaim in the stage version and brought life (undead life) into the screen version. Audiences were thrilled and Universal Pictures gave birth to a generation of classics. A well written sequel, Dracula's Daughter, was released in 1936.
Universal followed up Dracula with the release of Frankenstein later that same year. The lead, of course, was offered to their new star, Lugosi, but he turned it down. He did not want to portray a character that had no speaking role. It was a decision he spent the rest of his career trying to overcome. Universal turned to finding a replacement and discovered little known actor Boris Karloff. Karloff gave Frankenstein's monster a soul and another legend was born. Carl Laemmle, then the head of Universal, had struck gold again. Karloff went on to play the monster in two more features: The Bride of Frankenstein (some think this is better than the original) and Son of Frankenstein.
Riding the success of Karloff, Universal released The Mummy in 1932. The Mummy starred Karloff in his first all-speaking Universal horror role. This picture stood on its own as Karloff proved once again how great he is. His portrayal of ancient Egyptian prince Im-Ho-Tep was a chilling performance. The makeup for the the mummy and the decaying scene was superb. Of course, this had become the norm for talented makeup artist Jack Pierce, who also did Karloff's makeup for Frankenstein's monster.
In 1933, Universal released The Invisible Man. Although Karloff was to be the lead, he got into a contract dispute with Universal and turned it down . The starring role then went to Claude Rains. Just as Frankenstein had made a star of Karloff, The Invisible Man made a star of Rains. It's said that Universal executives watched one of Rains' old screen tests and were unimpressed by his look, but director James Whale told them, "I don't give a hang what he looks like. That's how I want [the Invisible Man] to sound--and I want him!"
It seemed as if Universal Pictures had come to an end of a great run, but they weren't through yet. In 1941 Universal began a horror movie comeback with the release of The Wolf Man. It starred a struggling actor by the name of Creighton Tull Chaney, the son son of Lon Chaney. But after succumbing to studio pressure, he changed his name to Lon Chaney, Jr. It took 6 hours for the master Jack Pierce to apply makeup to Chaney and the result was masterful. The Wolf Man proved very popular, and so Chaney reprised the role in four more Universal films: Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The Wolf Man has the distinction of being the only classic Universal monster to be played by the same actor in all his classic 1940s film appearances. The Mummy was also revamped in this period in films such as The Mummy's Hand and The Mummy's Curse.
This comeback of the genre resulted in Universal reviving the monsters with new movies. They teamed-up Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and the Big 3 (Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man) in two movies: House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. They also starred the monsters in comedy movies with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. These films were great, too, in my opinion as it showed the fun the actors could have with the characters. After all, they're just movies and movies are supposed to be fun!
Universal still had one great monster to introduce. The 1950's ushered in a new Atomic era that led the way for a new kinds of movie monsters. In 1954, Universal released The Creature from the Black Lagoon and introduced the Gill Man to the world. Although now simply referred to as the Creature, it is the greatest monster to come out of 50's. To many, this film ranks as the greatest of the Universal classics. The Creature seemed to show signs of humanity just as Frankenstein's Monster did years earlier. This film was originally supposed to be made in 3D, but proved too difficult especially for underwater scenes. It was a good decision to make a quality film instead of one with bad special effects. Too bad those kind of decision makers aren't in Hollywood today!

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