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Universal film studios

director - Hollywood - James Whale - USA

Boris Karloff in James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein
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Horror at the Universal Studios, 1930s

Universal became the home of horror in the Thirties; no other studio had as much success with the genre (even if some of the films made at Paramount and MGM were actually better than the ones made at Universal). The double whammy at the box-office of Dracula and Frankenstein led to Karloff taking on the role of The Mummy in cinematographer Karl Freund's directorial debut (it was he who lensed Dracula the year before, his expressionistic lighting giving that film its one note of resonance), and, later on, the creation of The Wolf Man in the Forties, with Lon Chaney Jr finding his father's footsteps rather too difficult to follow. Frankenstein itself, a marvellously atmospheric and chilling version of the classic story, spawned a couple of excellent sequels; Bride of Frankenstein, in particular, is unquestionably the masterpiece of the series (mainly because James Whale was at the helm once again), with Son of Frankenstein chiefly being remembered for Karloff's last performance as the Monster and Bela Lugosi's touching portrayal of Ygor, the lonely shepherd, who becomes the Monster's only friend. Both The Mummy and The Wolf Man, despite some great performances (Karloff in the former, Maria Ouspenskaya in the latter), are pretty turgid affairs, with the odd moment of horror to lift the proceedings (Karloff's reanimation in The Mummy is well-handled and worth the price of admission on its own). --Noel O'Shea

Universal Horror is the name given to the distinctive horror films made by Universal Studios in California from the 1920s through to the 1950s.

Universal's earliest success in the horror genre was Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, for which the actor famously designed and endured a torturous make-up. The interior of the Paris Opera House was recreated on an epic scale for the film, and remains the longest-standing film-set to this day, being used for the 1943 remake with Claude Rains, as well as numerous non-horror pictures.

In the 1930s, the studio scored massive success with Dracula (directed by Tod Browning) and Frankenstein (directed by James Whale), both in 1931 and launching the careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff respectively. Many of the horror genre's most well-known conventions -- the creaking staircase, the cobwebs, the swirling mist and the mobs of peasants pursuing monsters with torches -- were first seen in these films and those that followed, including The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Wolf Man (1940), which also established Lon Chaney, Jr., as a leading horror actor.

Aside from Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney, the Universal horrors provided steady work for a number of genre actors including Lionel Atwill, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan and John Carradine. Other regular talents involved were make-up artists Jack Pierce and Bud Westmore, and composers Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner.

The series lost impetus towards the end of the 1940s, but The Creature from the Black Lagoon (directed by Jack Arnold, 1954) is still generally regarded as a legitimate "Universal horror".

Mel Brooks's 1974 parody Young Frankenstein paid brilliant homage to the films' style, and in 1998, filmmaker Kevin Brownlow made the documentary Universal Horror, narrated by Kenneth Branagh and featuring interviews with many of the original stars. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Horror [Sept 2005]

The Old Dark House (1932), again directed by James Whale, is the only Universal film from the period that has any of the qualities that lent Bride of Frankenstein its brilliance. Emphasising the black humour of RC Sheriff's original novel Benighted, the film provided Whale with his first opportunity to illustrate his unique talent for mixing comedy and horror to produce something wholly original. The cast is one of the best assembled for any horror film: Raymond Massey, Boris Karloff, Gloria Stuart (last seen gazing tearfully at computer readouts in James Cameron's Titanic), Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton and Melvyn Douglas, all add the weight of their considerable thespian skills to the production. As he did in Bride of Frankenstein, Thesiger walks away with the acting honours, mouthing his lines with obvious relish ("have a po-tat-o," he says at one point, underlining every delicious syllable, the innocence of the line taking on suitably macabre qualities when given the Thesiger treatment). The Old Dark House was a haunted house story like no other, and is in marked contrast to the established classics in the field, like Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) and Stuart Rosenberg's The Amityville Horror (1980). --Noel O'Shea


  1. Dracula (1931) - Tod Browning [Amazon US]
    When Universal Pictures picked up the movie rights to a Broadway adaptation of Dracula, they felt secure in handing the property over to the sinister team of actor Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning. But Chaney died of cancer, and Universal hired the Hungarian who had scored a success in the stage play: Béla Lugosi. The resulting film launched both Lugosi's baroque career and the horror-movie cycle of the 1930s. It gets off to an atmospheric start, as we meet Count Dracula in his shadowy castle in Transylvania, superbly captured by the great cinematographer Karl Freund. Eventually Dracula and his blood-sucking devotee (Dwight Frye, in one of the cinema's truly mad performances) meet their match in a vampire-hunter called Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). If the later sections of the film are undeniably stage bound and a tad creaky, Dracula nevertheless casts a spell, thanks to Lugosi's creepily lugubrious manner and the eerie silences of Browning's directing style. (After a mood-enhancing snippet of Swan Lake under the opening titles, there is no music in the film.) Frankenstein, which was released a few months later, confirmed the horror craze, and Universal has been making money (and countless spin-off projects) from its twin titans of terror ever since. Certainly the role left a lasting impression on the increasingly addled and drug-addicted Lugosi, who was never quite able to distance himself from the part that made him a star. He was buried, at his request, in his black vampire cape. --Robert Horton

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