Are Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Still Relevant in the Landscape of Modern American Halloween?

Universal Monsters

The Phantom of the Ville ponders the continued iconic significance of the Universal Monsters.

“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Curt Siodmak, “The Wolf Man” Screenplay (1941)

Universal Monsters

Universal Studios shocked the world when it released Louisville-born director Todd Browning’sDracula” on February 14, 1931, and nearly 90 years later the shock waves created by that cinematic adaption of Bram Stoker’s vampire thriller are still reverberating through the halls of popular culture. Audiences were so terrified by Bela Lugosi’s Transylvanian bloodsucker that the studio felt compelled to include an introductory warning to the faint of heart when they released James Whales’Frankenstein” that same year on November 21, 1931. Lugosi infamously turned down the role of the Frankenstein Monster due to the absence of scripted dialog, opening the door for 44-year-old British character actor Boris Karloff to forge out an enduring career as a horror icon in a twist that would spark rumors of a Hollywood Bogeyman rivalry that would haunt Lugosi until his death in 1956.

The cultural double punch of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” kicked off a franchise of horror pictures that would ultimately encompass 30 films including “The Mummy” (1932), “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), “The Wolf Man” (1941) and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954). Universal will celebrate finally transferring all of their monster films to high definition this Halloween season when they release the “Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection” on the Blu-ray format on August 28, 2018. This new boxed set will include the first-time home video release of the 3D version of “Revenge of the Creature” (1955).

Recently, Universal boldly attempted to resurrect their rogues’ gallery of classic monsters in the age of interconnected film universes the likes of which Disney’s Marvel Studios have so successfully demonstrated. Under the overarching brand of The Dark Universe, the new franchise would have introduced a shared modern world populated by vampires, werewolves and creatures of the night in the spirit of the original films. A-list actors like Johnny Depp and Javier Bardem were already on board to respectively play the Invisible Man and the Frankenstein Monster before the monumental box-office failure of their flagship release, “The Mummy” (2017) starring Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe. General audience apathy towards the film drove a stake through the heart of the entire project and brought into question the current relevance of the Universal Monsters to contemporary culture.

Do they truly belong dead?

Universal Monsters

While the $125 million budgeted “The Mummy” wrapped its’ domestic box-office run with only $80 million in tickets sold, Guillermo del Toro’s much more modestly budgeted “The Shape of Water”, which was clearly inspired by “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, domestically tripled its’ production budget and went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. When it comes to our fascination with Universal’s supernatural brood, the devil is clearly in the details.

The excerpt from screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s original screenplay for “The Wolf Man” that I chose to open this article with was no accident. It speaks to the very heart of tragedy and alienation that defines the best of these moody and atmospheric gems of the black-and-white era. The monsters, as depicted in these films, are often tragic, cursed and/or misunderstood. As a result, we can sympathetically relate to the plight of these poor creatures more than we can to the cardboard cutout heroes often pitted against them. Siodmak, who also would go to write “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” (1943) and Jacques Tourneur’s dreamy and poetic “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943), had a knack for elevating otherwise pulpy, B- movie material to much loftier literary levels. Just consider the dialogue spoken by Russian actress Maria Ouspenskya as the gypsy Maleva in Siodmak’s “The Wolf Man” screenplay: “The way you walk is thorny through no fault of your own. For as the rain enters the soil and the river enters the sea, so tears run to their predestined end.”

Pure pulp poetry.

Universal Monsters

Clearly, “The Wolf Man” is one of my favorite Universal Monster films, introducing the cursed and tragic character of Larry Talbot played by character actor Lon Chaney Jr., himself the son of the famous make-up artist and star of the silent era, LonThe Man of a Thousand Faces Chaney. It seems fitting that Chaney Jr.’s Talbot is bitten and cursed by another werewolf played in human form by Bela Lugosi as the role clearly represents a passing of the torch to a new horror star who would go to play most of the classic monsters including Dracula (“Son of Dracula”), the Frankenstein Monster (“The Ghost of Frankenstein”) and the Mummy (“The Mummy’s Tomb”, “The Mummy’s Ghost” and “The Mummy’s Curse”).

The saga of the Universal Monsters would unfold to eagerly awaiting matinee crowds from 1931 until the mid-50’s. The last great and equally misunderstood monster in the Universal Monster legacy was arguably the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” who made a splash on cinema screens in 1954 during the science-fiction craze. Universal was concentrating more on radioactive mutations and outer space visitors at this time and had moved on from the Gothic, shadowy thrillers of the 1930’s and 1940’s, but the Gill Man was popular enough to demand two sequels while guaranteeing his rightful place near the top of the Universal Monster hierarchy.

The story of how the Universal Monsters became Halloween icons is a tale of evolving technology worthy of Frankenstein’s creation. After World War II and during the economic boom that came to the US as a result, more and more American homes had at least one television set, and this number rocketed with the introduction of color TV in 1953. In October 1957, Universal Studios licensed its’ popular monster movies in a package known as Shock Theater, providing local television stations across the nation with cheap content to fill airtime on Friday and Saturday evenings. Following the success of JohnThe Cool GhoulZacherley’s horror hosted movie programs in Philadelphia and New York and Vampira’s similar program in Los Angeles, homegrown horror hosts began cropping up all over the country to show creaky, black-and-white double feature monster movies on the weekends. Our own WDRB-41 here in Louisville produced “Fright Night” featuring the Fearmonger from 1971 to 1975 which could be considered the tail end of the Monster Craze that peaked during the 1960’s.

Essentially, the Universal Monsters invaded our neighborhoods and homes via television. This resulted in a belated phenomenon that generated model kits, action figures, comic books, magazines and inexpensive Ben Cooper and Collegeville dime store Halloween costumes. During this time, the classic monsters became trick-or-treat staples and their legacy became intertwined with the Halloween season. Anyone visiting a haunted house in the 1970’s could be expected to find a Frankenstein’s laboratory, Dracula’s crypt and a growling Wolf Man.

Eventually, the 1980’s provided a new rogue’s gallery of Halloween icons that included Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and all of their contemporaries, but instead of fading into the sunset, the classic Universal Monsters held onto their throne as the old guardians of the Halloween tradition. I would argue that they are still the very beating heart of Halloween in America.

Legend at Pope Lick Creepy Classics

Locally, you can still find love for the classic monsters in several popular Halloween attractions including the entire first section of The Devil’s Attic, the Transylvania scenes at Grim Trails and in the Mummy’s Tomb at Nightmare Forest. New this Halloween season, The Legend at Pope Lick Haunted Attraction in Jeffersontown is adding a tribute to both the Universal Monsters and classic haunted attractions. Legend at Pope Lick Haunt Manager, Katie Rogers, confirms that a vintage style Spook House is being added to the carnival section of the haunt. The Spook House is a remnant of the legendary Schildknecht Bros. Circus whose circus train derailed near the haunted trestle of Pope Lick years ago.

Rogers, who has an entire Universal Monsters tableau permanently inked across her upper chest, tells us that the facade for the Spook House (which features Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon) was acquired from the late, legendary Rocky Point Haunted House in Utah. Rocky Point Haunted House opened in 1979 and was one of the world’s first professional haunted houses, certainly the first to design and build massive Hollywood quality sets and apply professional level make-up and costumes. Rocky Point Haunted House operated annually from 1979 until it closed in 2007. The amazing facade was acquired from former Rocky Point owner, Cydney Neil, the very last piece of Rocky Point history she says she will ever part with.

In my mind, the black-and-white images of the Universal Monsters are as essential to the Halloween season as the traditional orange-and-black colors that represent the holiday. The fall season begs me to return to the crumbling European castles, foggy English forests, musty Egyptian tombs and murky Amazon lagoons where these tragic creatures of the night dwell.

Long live a new (and classic) world of Gods and monsters.

The Phantom of The Ville

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