Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Tod Browning, 1927
Starring: Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Norman Kerry, Nick De Ruiz

The Unknown is a bizarre, creepy film about a perverse romance and it is amazing that something this morbid was ever willingly financed by MGM and distributed by Universal. Though there are elements of melodrama and this is not an outright horror film, the imagery and plot are so unusual and disturbing that the film doesn’t really belong in any particular category. With a story by director Tod Browning (known for Dracula and Freaks), The Unknown relates the tale of Alonzo, an armless circus knife thrower who is in love with the young bareback rider, Nanon. Nanon has a phobia about men’s arms and rejects the circus strongman, Malabar, who is also in love with her. Alonzo tells Malabar to pursue her aggressively, thinking it will drive Nanon to himself. 

But Alonzo has a secret. He actually has arms, which he hides with a trick corset. He is hiding out at the circus to evade the police, who are pursuing him for a number of crimes and will be ably to identify him by his mutated hand: he has a double-thumb on his left hand. The only person who knows this and helps him is Cojo, a malicious circus midget. When Alonzo thinks he really has Nanon’s love, he travels to an underground surgeon and blackmails the man to amputate his arms. This time away has pushed Nanon and Malabar closer together. Alonzo returns and, to his horror, learns that they are to be married. He is distraught and soon develops a plan to get rid of Malabar once and for all. 

Browning and Chaney had a ten-film cinematic partnership that explored transgression, punishment, mutilation, mutation, perversion, and the gruesome, carnivalesque side of life. All Chaney’s characters for Browning (and many of Chaney’s characters in general) were anti-heroes, physically and mentally damaged men living on the outskirts of society. Like Chaney and Browning themselves, many of these characters were also performers, many of whom led double lives. The Unknown is their best film together and, though it doesn’t involve elaborate make up, I believe this is Chaney’s finest performance. 

Though Chaney did many of the armless scenes himself, he did have help for some of the trickier stunts from armless circus performer Paul Desmuke, who is actually in some of the shots with Chaney. (Desmuke went on to become a Texan judge!Like all of Chaney’s characters, Alonzo is physically deformed and has become twisted by life. He is a sympathetic and charismatic character, but he is not a good person, though we are given a glimpse of the only good that remains when he is around Nanon. Though Alonzo does not seem to understand what love is (he wishes to possess Nanon at any cost), his feelings for her do seem to be genuine. Though he is a tragic figure, he is also one of Chaney’s most terrifying, threatening figures and, oddly, his most sexual. 

The overt sexual tones to the film are threatening, invasive and the film is steeped in castration-phobia symbolism. The opening scene includes a very sexual knife throwing act where the young Nanon has her clothes stripped away by Chaney’s knives. We also see Chaney without make up and, in one  elaborate and fetishistic scene, without a shirt as he removes the corset that binds his arms. This scene also reveals his double thumb for the first time, his real mutation. Then there is Nanon, whose sexual neurosis causes her to develop a phobia about men’s arms and men touching her. When her father is killed (secretly Alonzo, because the man discovers he has arms) and Nanon is not overly distressed, there is the implication of past sexual abuse, which is a likely cause for her extreme sexual revulsion. A very young Joan Crawford is excellent here as Nanon, both fiery and vulnerable, and it is clear to see why Alonso has fallen so hard for her. She is an unusual female character for the period in that she has a certain amount of agency and does not solely rely on men to act for her. Though it is nearly impossible to watch anyone else when Chaney is on screen, she manages to hold her own. She has also said that the most she ever learned from acting was from Chaney during this production. 

Though Browning’s camera work is never particularly dexterous, the film moves at a brisk pace and always lingers long enough on Chaney’s captivating face to deliver the necessary emotion intensity. Some of his scenes, particularly when he laughs hysterically at the news that Nanon and Malabar are to be married, should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in cinema. Browning's film is small, intimate, claustrophobic. The circus sets were used again on some of his other circus-themed films, Freaks and Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Though the film was thought to be lost for many years, a print was rediscovered and The Unknown is available as part of the Turner Classic Movies Lon Chaney Collection, alongside The Ace of Hearts, Laugh, Clown, Laugh, a restored version of London After Midnight, and a documentary on Chaney, Man of a Thousand Faces. The Unknown comes with the highest possible recommendation and is the finest collaboration between Chaney and Browning. This is a great starting point if you have never seen Chaney at work, or especially if you have only seen Hunchback of Notre Dame or Phantom of the Opera and have never seen Chaney work without elaborate make up. It is also an excellent starting point for those who want to explore Browning's career outside of his much more famous, though relatively staid, parlor room pot boiler, Dracula

Monday, April 29, 2013

Paul Leni (1885 - 1929)

“I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evince no idea of reality... It is not extreme reality that the camera perceives, but the reality of the inner event, which is more profound, effective and moving that what we see through everyday eyes.”
-Paul Leni

Born Paul Josef Levi in Stuttgart, Germany, Leni went on to become one of the most important figures in German Expressionist cinema and also made a few influential films for Universal in the ‘20s that helped kick off their classic horror boom of the ‘30s. His distinctly expressionistic style, brought to the U.S. with The Cat and the Canary, represents the collision of German horror/fantasy films and American horror, which would help develop Universal’s classic horror films, as well influence the upcoming noir genre. 

In Germany, Leni got his start as a painter and studied at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, which led him to work designing film posters and sets. He worked as an art designer for such directors such as Joe May, Max Mack, Ernst Lubitsch, E.A. Dupont, Karl Grune, Arthur Robison, and Alexander Korda. He began directing his own films in 1917. He made a handful of films in the late ‘10s and early ‘20s, though the most famous of these is Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1923). Also known as Waxworks, this is a silent anthology horror film about three personalities in a wax museum - Caliph of Baghdad, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper. This starred some of the most famous German actors of the period - Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, and William Dieterle (also later a director in his own right) - and went on to be one of the most beloved horror/fantasy works of German Expressionism. This experimental, carnivalesque film was hugely influential, reaching far past genre films and all the way to master director Sergei Eistenstein, who was influenced by the stylized cinematography of Helmar Lerski, and the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. 

The success of Waxworks attracted the attention of German born Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal studios. After the success of the most famous German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Universal sought to capitalize on the dark themes and inventive, otherworldly visuals found in Expressionist cinema. Leni made four films for Universal, though his first was undoubtedly the most expressionistic and the most influential for American horror cinema. The Cat and the Canary (1927) is part mystery, part horror film, and part black comedy. It is full of Leni's trademark inventive, shadowy visuals. A long dead, wealthy, and eccentric man has his family called together to his creepy old mansion so that his will can be read, but they are forced to stay the night when a killer known as “the Cat” escaped from the local asylum and hides out somewhere in the house. This would go on to influence an entire sub-genre of “old dark house” films, all horror-themed murder mysteries set in spooky old houses. 

Next, Leni made The Chinese Parrot (1927), the second film in the Charlie Chan series. Charlie Chan was a world-traveling Chinese American detective created by Earl Derr Biggers for a series of mysteries novels. Though the series is ridiculous by modern standards, they somewhat helped to counter negative stereotypes of Chinese villains like Fu Manchu. A film series began in 1926, though ironically only became popular a few films into the series when a caucasian in make up, instead of an Asian actor, was cast as Charlie Chan. The eventual popularity of Charlie Chan resulted in over a dozen U.S. films, Mexican and Chinese productions, radio shows, a television adaptation, a cartoon, comic books, games, and more. Leni’s film is now believed to be lost. The central mystery involves a jewel theft that is bizarrely solved by a parrot. 

The Man Who Laughs (1928), Leni's next film, reunited him with German actor Conrad Veidt for this adaptation of the novel by Victor Hugo. Veidt briefly travelled to Hollywood in the late ‘20s to work before becoming a British and then American expatriate during WWII when he had to flee because of his Jewish wife. In The Man Who Laughs, Veidt stars as Gwynplaine, the disfigured son of a disgraced noble. As a child, a permanent smile was cut into Gwynplaine’s face and he makes his living appearing in carnivals until the Queen discovers who he is and orders him to marry the Duchess that currently holds his inheritance. Universal regular Mary Philbin appears as Dea, Gwynplaine’s blind love interest, a girl he rescued as a baby. He refuses to marry the corrupt Duchess and flees with Dea. Though this is more of a romantic melodrama, the expressionistic visuals and post-gothic plot elements place this near enough to the horror genre that it went on to influence subsequent genre films. Veidt as Gwynplaine was also the initial inspiration for the Joker in Bob Kane’s Batman comic. 

Leni’s final film, The Last Warning (1929), reunited Leni with silent film star Laura La Plante and is sort of a companion piece to the The Cat and the Canary, which she also starred in. This mystery-horror film concerns a the murder of an actor at a theater during a play. The stubborn producer decides, several years later, to open the theater and re-stage the play with the same cast to try to solve the crime. This backfires when someone else is killed. This is essentially an old dark house film set in a theater instead of a creepy old mansion and, like many other early horror films, is based on a play. The theater is believed to be cursed or haunted by the ghost of the dead actor, but like most films from this period, the supernatural is really a red herring to distract from the human murderers. This was Leni’s last film before dying of blood poisoning (apparently from an infected tooth) in September of 1929. 

Like Lon Chaney, Leni sadly died before he could have an impact on the American horror boom of the ‘30s, mostly controlled by Universal. If it had not been for his untimely death, he would likely have directed Dracula. The same is true of Lon Chaney, who was slated to appear in the titular role of the film if he had not died of cancer. It certainly would have been a very different Dracula than the one we know today.

If you want to know more about Leni, there are a lot of resources, though the best of these are books and not websites, because Leni doesn't have the popular following he deserves. Siegfried Kracauer’s influential From Caligari to Hitler and Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen are two of the best books on early German horror and include a lot more great information than just on Leni and his works. Also worth checking out is John Willet’s Art and Politics in the Weimar Period, which is a good run down of the art being produced during this period, and Vincent Brook’s Driven to Darkness: Jewish Emigre Directors and the Rise of Film Noir charts the influence of Leni and other German-Jewish emigres on the development of noir. 


Paul Leni, 1927
Starring: Laura La Plante, Forrest Stanley, Creighton Hale, Flora Finch

"He's a maniac who thinks he's a cat and tears his victims like they were canaries!"

Falling in with popular convention for horror films at the time, The Cat and the Canary was based on a stage play of the same name by John Willard and is one of the first films in a growing subgenre of horror films/black comedies about murders in an old, spooky mansion. Annabelle West, along with her other surviving family members, is called to the mansion of her uncle, Cyrus West, whose will is to be read 20 years after his death. To her surprise, Annabelle inherits the family fortune with one condition: she has to be declared sane by a doctor. Unfortunately for everyone, Annabelle and the rest of the family members are forced to spend the night in the house when a homicidal maniac known as “the Cat” escapes from a nearby institution and hides out in the house. 

There are some twists and turns involving a second will that is hidden away, a creepy caretaker named Mammy Pleasant, possible hauntings from the ghost of their Uncle Cyrus, secret passageways, disappearing bodies, hidden diamonds, and a slew of weird relatives who all have something to hide and something to gain from Annabelle’s death or insanity. Really more of a murder mystery than an outright horror film, The Cat and the Canary is a memorable entry in early Universal’s mystery/horror canon. Directed by German expressionist Paul Leni, the film is full of stark, imaginative shadows - prefiguring the noir genre - and incredibly stylized horror imagery, such as a lycanthropic hand with hair and razor-sharp claws that reaches out in the night for the throat of our unsuspecting heroine. 

Leni, including a number of other German directors - some of the finest talents in cinema history - such as Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang, relocated to Hollywood and brought with them the unique, influential imagery of German Expressionism. Universal head Carl Laemmle was impressed with Leni's expressionist horror film Waxworks and hired him to work in the U.S. for Universal. The Cat and the Canary was Leni’s first American film and it is important for the sole fact that it shows the powerful influence of German Expressionism on Hollywood horror, particularly the early horror films made at Universal. Leni’s imaginative visuals and trick camera work make this one of the most appealing and influential films in a string of “old dark house” movies made in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Though this subgenre is named after James Whale’s Old Dark House (1932), The Cat and the Canary is clearly the forerunner, combining the atmosphere of a horror film, incredible visuals, the plot of a mystery novel, comedy, satire, and murder in an a spooky old house. As with Chaney, it is a shame that Leni died (of blood poisoning in 1929) before making the transition into sound cinema, as he would likely have a bigger following today. 

His use of comedy may be baffling for anyone expecting a serious horror film or straightforward mystery and might feel a little Scooby Doo-like, but part of what makes The Cat and the Canary so entertaining is that it never takes itself seriously and essentially satirizes a number of tropes that, though new to film, were already familiar and popular for plays and novels. Writers like Agatha Christie made their careers on these sorts of stories, which were beloved by the public. Leni playfully uses many of these cliches to the film’s advantage and manages to pull off some effective scenes of comedy. He also sneaks in a somewhat surprise conclusion, where the villain is unveiled during a fight with a formerly passive character, and his/her identity is not deduced by the primary detective character of the film. 

As with many silent horror productions, this is not a perfect film and suffers from either wooden or overly theatrical acting and few compelling or developed characters. Though Laura La Plante was a lovely and very popular silent film actress, many viewers will likely find her boring or unmemorable for much of the film. I don't really think this was her fault, as roles for women in cinema, particularly horror films, were very limited during this period. As a heroine in a horror film, she had little opportunity to do much other than scream, bemoan her fate, and eventually be rescued by a male character. The cast of co-stars and side actors are sometimes hard to keep straight because none of them really stand out, but all of the actors give excellent performances and work with what little they have. In addition to La Plante, a Universal regular, there are a few actors here who made the rounds in other horror films from this period, such as Tully Marshall (Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Arthur Edmund Carewe (The Phantom of the Opera, The Ghost Breaker). 

Though The Cat and the Canary may be an acquired taste for contemporary horror fans, it’s a must see for anyone who loves old dark house movies, horror satire, or old mysteries. The film has been remade a number of times after this, though Leni’s version remains the best. In 1930 it was remade as The Cat Creeps (directed by Phantom of the Opera’s Rupert Julian and John Willard, who wrote the original play) though this film is now lost. As with Universal’s Dracula, a Spanish-language version of the film was made on the same set at night, La Voluntad del muerto, starring Lupita Tovar and directed by George Melford, the same pair to work on Drácula. It was famously remade in 1939 as more of an outright comedy with Bob Hope, which kicked off the comedian's career, and again in 1978 by porn/erotica director Radley Metzger. 

If you'd like to see The Cat and the Canary, there are a number of possibilities. There film has been restored and released on DVD by both Image and Kino, as part of the latter's silent horror series. The Kino version includes a new soundtrack, but the picture quality of the Image release is slightly superior. The film is also in the public domain, so you can watch it on Netflix or for free online. Learn more about the different DVD releases of the film at the Silent Era site

If you are interested in old dark house films and want to check out more, I recommend a few things, beginning with the many versions of The Ghost Breaker (1914), technically the first film featuring a murder mystery set in an allegedly haunted house with some comedic elements. The original version was lost, but it was remade in 1922, 1939, and in 1953 as Scared Stiff. This also includes the many versions of The Bat (1926), first made as One Exciting Night by D.W. Griffith, but also remade in 1930 as The Bat Whispers and in 1959 with Vincent Price. There is also the Lon Chaney film The Monster (1925), Midnight Faces (1926), the lost but sort of recreated Lon Chaney vehicle London After Midnight (1927), and James Whale’s famous Old Dark House (1932) with Boris Karloff. Last but not least are And Then There Were None (1945), based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name, and House on Haunted Hill (1959), a Vincent Price vehicle to appear somewhat late in the game. 


Rupert Julian, 1925
Starring: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe

Based on French novelist Gaston Leroux’s novel of the same name, The Phantom of the Opera relates the tale of Erik, a hideously deformed man who lives in the catacombs under the Opera and haunts the denizens above. He falls in love with a young chorus singer, Christine (Mary Philbin), and goes to any length - including murder - to make her into the Opera’s star. The Opera House is currently performing Charles Gounod’s Faust. Christine has recently been promoted to understudy because of secret training she has been getting from the Phantom. Her success causes her to decline a marriage proposal from her love Raoul, though he continues to pursue her. The Phantom, meanwhile, has begun secretly demanding that Christine be given the female lead in Faust

He haunts the theater and sends threatening letters to Carlotta, the Opera’s outraged prima donna. When Christine is temporarily given the part, she gets a standing ovation. Carlotta takes the role back, but tragedy strikes when a massive chandelier falls on the audience. Christine is lured down a hidden staircase into the depth of the Opera house and is ferried across a lake into the Phantom’s lair. The masked Phantom introduces himself as Erik and tells Christine that he loves her. She faints and doesn’t awaken till the the next day, when she discovers a note from the Phantom saying she is free to do what she likes, as long as she does not disturb his mask. Curiosity overwhelms her and she tears off his mask. He vows to keep her as his prisoner, but she convinces him to let her go above ground one last time, so that she can secretly meet with Raoul at a masked ball. What they don’t realize is that the Phantom has followed them and overheard all their plans. He kidnaps Christine during a performance and Raoul is forced to brave his underground lair to save her. 

Though it is one of the most famous and influential early horror films, part of the problem with Phantom for some viewers will be its uncontrollable theatricality, which is partly due to the time period and partly to following Leroux's source material so closely. This version is certainly more faithful than any other film adaptation. For anyone who has never seen a silent film, it might be difficult to take Erik seriously as a threatening figure and much of the acting will seem absurd and overblown. The mediocre direction from the disagreeable Rupert Julian doesn’t do the film any favors. He was replaced during post-production and may have been replaced on some scenes by Chaney, who occasionally directed. The two men certainly clashed during filming. But if you can ignore Julian's directing and adjust to the style of acting, you will lose yourself in Chaney’s macabre world. 

Like the earlier Chaney vehicle, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Universal spared no expense on the set, going so far as to recreate the Paris Opera House (this set still survives today), the catacombs beneath, and some truly impressive costumes. This ultimately paid off, because it was one of their most profitable films of the ‘20s, despite the production difficulties, and paved the way for their many classic horror films of the early ‘30s. 

Though there are elements of the film that are more melodrama than horror, Erik will appeal to many horror fans. He created an underground, labyrinthine house of horrors, sleeps in a coffin, and a dons a Red Death costume inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Masque of the Red Death.” Indeed Erik, and Chaney’s portrayal of him, is the primary reason to see this film. Chaney’s facial acting is incredible, particularly considering that he had a fair amount of make up on, including elaborate cheek padding, all of which was self-designed and inspired directly by Leroux’s descriptions of the Phantom’s skull-like visage. The scene where Christine unmasks the Phantom still holds power, though back in the ‘20s it was so shocking that a number of theater patrons actually fainted. Erik is similar to many of Chaney’s other characters; he is a deformed and mad, yet sympathetic character who lives on the outskirts/underbelly of society and is gripped by an all consuming, unrequited love. 

Some of the controversy with Phantom is that there are actually multiple editions of the film. There are primarily two versions: a 1925 sound version and a 1929 version with some audio. The 1925 version is somewhat complicated, because after the original premier in January of 1925, Universal panicked at the audience reaction and had much of the film reshot and re-edited, lessening the intensity and adding comic relief. This version was hated by audiences, so Universal had a third version made that was much closer to the original print, but included the ending from the second version. In the novel, Erik dies of a broken heart when he realizes that Christine truly loves Raoul. This was the original ending of the first version of the film, but Universal changed the ending so that Erik is swarmed by a mob and drowned in the river. Almost all the original prints of the 1925 version were destroyed, but fortunately one, single nitrate print was recovered. 

Image released a double-disc DVD, the Ultimate Edition of Phantom, which includes both versions of the film. The restored 1929 version comes with a new score from Carl Davis or with the original score. This release reinstates the Technicolor during the masked ball scene, as well as another scene with additional coloring. The somewhat massacred but surviving print of the 1925 version is also included, as well as a number of extras and a great commentary track from film historian Scott MacQueen. If you want to know about the other releases of this film, Silent Era has a great comparison page and the film is in public domain, so it is available online. There is also a Blu-ray and both the 1925 and 1929 versions are available for free online. Though there are numerous remakes (six, including the musical film from 2004) and rip offs, as well as Andrew Lloyd Weber’s famous musical, this is really the only version worth watching, due to Chaney’s immense talent and powerful charisma. You can also read the script and learn more about the film here

Friday, April 26, 2013

Lon Chaney (1883 - 1930)

“Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney.”

I have no memory of the first time I saw Lon Chaney, he was just simply always there. This is probably due to the fact that I grew up watching old movies on TV with my grandmother, who, though she claimed to have no memory for it, constantly pointed out her favorite actors or people she thought were interesting. It is easy to see how Chaney made it on to this list with his fantastical costumes and impressive, self designed make up. By the time of his early death in 1930, Chaney was beloved all over the country for his versatile acting talents. He was dubbed the “Man of a Thousand Faces” because audience were desperate to know who - or what - he would appear as next. 

Leonidas Frank Chaney was born on April 1, 1883 and within a few short years began a life-long acting career that would launch him to silent film stardom and would forever change the face of movie make-up and the future of horror cinema. Perhaps part of Chaney's strength as a silent film actor is due to the fact that he was born to deaf parents and, early on, became an expert at pantomime and emoting with facial expression alone. He got his start with traveling vaudeville acts. Unlike traditional theater, vaudeville involved a mixture of unrelated acts and performers and spanned musical numbers, dance, animals acts, magic, comedy, female/male impersonators, burlesque, short plays, juggling, acrobatics, and more. 

From LonChaney.com
A few years later he met his wife, the young singer Cleva Creighton, and they soon had a son, Creighton Chaney (better known under his stage name, Lon Chaney, Jr.). The early years of their marriage were spent on tour until they settled in California, but they soon developed marital problems. Cleva attempted to kill herself during one of Chaney’s shows by swallowing mercuric chloride (once a syphilis treatment), which only succeeded in damaging her vocal chords and ending her career. Chaney divorced her and was forced to try his luck in the film industry because of the scandal. 

He got his start during the first World War with Universal, mostly appearing as an extra or taking on bit parts. He also began appearing in the films of directorial team and married couple Joe De Grasse and Ida May Park. They gave him meatier roles and their work together attracted Universal’s attention. During this period he remarried, to chorus girl Hazel Hastings, and took custody of young Creighton. He also began an acting partnership with Dorothy Phillips, William Stowell, and Claire DuBrey. They were cast in over a dozen films together between 1917 to 1919 - most of which are unfortunately now lost - typically directed by De Grasse or Park. 

Chaney’s first big break came in The Miracle Man (1919), when he took a role called “The Frog,” allowing him to prove his acting and make up skills. During the decade after this, he starred in some of his most famous roles, in films such as The Penalty (1920), which kicked off a 10-film relationship with director Tod Browning, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), the now lost London After Midnight (1927), Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), and more. Chaney ultimately acted in over 150 films and even directed a few. 

His incredibly versatile acting and make up skills took him through an enormous range of roles. He was an artist with the grotesque make up used in his horror films, but he also appeared as clowns, pirates, peasants, circus performers, amputees and handicapped characters, gangsters, an old woman, a vampire, and even portrayed a marine so faithfully that the U.S. Marine Corps made him an honorary member. Even in his only sound film, a remake of The Unholy Three, Chaney used such a wide range of voices that he had to sign a statement saying they were all created with his voice alone and accomplished without doubles or audio tricks. 

He died, entirely too early at the age of 47, of lung cancer in 1930. He continued filming, almost up to his death. Chaney was nationally mourned, but particularly by the film industry. He was a champion of young, unknown, inexperienced actors and crew members alike and was missed by many. Hollywood shut down for an entire day to mourn his passing. Chaney was known for his macabre, often terrifying characters with an undeniable layer of sadness, which often manifested itself as unrequited love. Even his foulest characters were deserving of sympathy. His career is also marked with some of the most incredible transformations on film and it is unlikely contemporary cinema would be the same without him. 

If you want to learn more about Chaney or see some of his amazing films, there are fortunately a lot of great resources. The Turner Classic Movies Lon Chaney Collection box set is a great place to start and includes The Ace of Hearts, The Unknown, and Laugh, Clown, Laugh, as well as a reconstructed version of London After Midnight and the excellent documentary, Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces. The Warner Archives Classics Collection includes He Who Gets Slapped, The Monster, Mr. Wu, and both versions of The Unholy Three, the second of which is the last film Chaney made before his death and his only sound film. LonChaney.org also has some great resources. 

I will leave you with the words of the great Ray Bradbury, a huge Chaney fan, who had this to say about the wonderful, beloved actor: “He was someone who acted out our psyches. He somehow got into the shadows inside our bodies; he was able to nail down some of our secret fears and put them on-screen. The history of Lon Chaney is the history of unrequited loves. He brings that part of you out into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you never will be loved, you fear there is some part of you that's grotesque, that the world will turn away from."

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Wallace Worsley, 1923
Starring: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry, Nigel de Brulier

Though it is a historical melodrama and not a horror film, the importance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame on subsequent Universal horror movies makes it a necessary inclusion in any discussion of Universal horror. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, though with some significant changes, Hunchback relates the 15th century tale of Quasimodo and Esmeralda, two outcasts in the city of Paris. Quasimodo lives in the Notre Dame Cathedral and works as the bell-ringer. He is forced to avoid human society because he is hideously deformed, hunchbacked, and partially deaf and blind, but he serves Jehan Frollo, the archdeacon’s secretly evil brother. 

Jehan compels Quasimodo to kidnap Esmeralda, the beautiful adopted daughter of Clopin, king of the beggars and gypsies in Paris. She is rescued by Phoebus, Captain of the guard, who happens to be passing by. Phoebus is attracted to Esmeralda and intends to get her into bed, but they fall in love, despite the fact that Phoebus is engaged to Fleur de Lys, one of the loveliest and wealthiest young women in Paris. Meanwhile, Quasimodo is whipped in the public square for the attempted kidnapping. Esmeralda feels sorry for him and brings him some water. 

Phoebus brings Esmeralda to a ball being held in his honor and he makes it known that he plans to marry her, to the horror of Jehan, Clopin, and Fleur de Lys. Clopin crashes the ball and Esmeralda leaves with him to prevent any violence. Jehan, who is desperate to have Esmeralda for himself, stabs Phoebus and blames it on Esmeralda, who falsely confessed while being tortured and is sentenced to death. Quasimodo, who has also fallen in love with her, rescues her and she takes sanctuary in the cathedral. The Notre Dame quickly becomes the site of massive violence, as Clopin leads his forces there to reclaim Esmeralda. Phoebus, who has made a surprise recovered from his wounds, leads the King’s guard there. High above the city, Quasimodo throws rocks, wood, and eventually molten lead at the mob below. Jehan attempts to take Esmeralda, but Quasimodo kills his master and throws him from the cathedral. Quasimodo dies watching Esmeralda and Phoebus’s passionate reunion. 

The success of Hunchback allowed Universal to go on and make a number of horror films in the ‘20s and ‘30s, several of which starred Chaney. It was Universal’s most profitable silent film, amassing over $3 million. It also had some of the most elaborate sets ever created, including a reproduction of the Notre Dame Cathedral and other parts of medieval Paris. The set was almost 20 acres and included over 2,000 extras, and employed the most number of electricians ever to work on a film to allow for difficult nighttime shots. This was the most expensive film Chaney ever appeared in. 

But regardless of cost or production values, Lon Chaney is the real reason to watch this film, even if you don’t particular like historical melodramas or find it difficult to pay attention during silent movies, as I do. There is something about Chaney that transports you away from distraction. His performance here, as in nearly every other film he starred in, is utterly absorbing. With the aid of roughly 40 lbs of make up designed by Chaney himself, he becomes Quasimodo, essentially a deformed, potentially violent lapdog ready to bow to whoever wins his loyalty. There is something of Quasimodo’s character that would reappear in Chaney’s best, most famous characters. He is mostly unlikable - he has no true concept of genuine human relationships or love - but he is also wholly sympathetic. Our hearts break when Esmerelda does not return his love, but, like her, we are repulsed during the violent conclusion when he rains stones and boiling led down on the rioting crowd. There is no place for him in the world and his tragic death is the only logical conclusion to the film. 

Hunchback was really Chaney’s baby - he had the idea to do a film adaptation but it did not get greenlighted until producer Irving Thalberg took interest - and it skyrocketed him to fame. Universal finally took him seriously, giving him starring roles in a number of films after this, as did MGM, who soon signed him to an exclusive contract. He made over 150 films before his early death due to lung cancer. He remains probably the greatest non-comic actor of the silent film period (I had to leave some room for Buster Keaton). 

Though Hunchback is a melodrama and not a horror film, there is certainly plenty of violence (though much of it takes place off screen or is implied in accordance with other films of the period). Quasimodo is whipped and beaten and eventually killed. Esmeralda, the focus of much of the film’s violence, is tortured and nearly kidnapped and raped. Others are stabbed and killed. The most horrifying thing about the film is the swirling, claustrophobic mob sequence, where Quasimodo throws stones and soon molten lead down on people, maiming, disfiguring, and killing many. In addition to the violence, Chaney's elaborate, grotesque make up set the stage for numerous horror films, including his follow up with Universal, The Phantom of the Opera

Hunchback is not a perfect film. The 100-minute running time is arduous at points. Wallace Worsley is not the most competent or imaginative director and relies mainly on static long shots. There are a fair number of boring moments where the plot jumps around and characters we don’t really know are included in the story line. The film definitely suffers any time Chaney is not on screen. Patsy Ruth Miller’s Esmeralda has some captivating moments, though it is hard to sympathize with a character who attracts so much death and destruction. 

I think I have to recommend Hunchback due to its importance in film history and its undeniable contributions to the development of American horror cinema. If you’re expecting something like Dracula or Frankenstein, you are going to be disappointed, but Chaney’s performance is solid enough to captivate even though most attention-deficit viewers. The stunning sets and the dizzying shots of crowds regularly interspersed through the film are also have to be seen to be believed. There are numerous adaptations of Hunchback, including the ill-advised animated version from Disney, but this is the only one worth watching. 

All of the original cellulose nitrate prints of the film were degraded or destroyed, but Hunchback fortunately survives through a number of semi-damaged, 16mm prints distributed by Universal for private viewing. Though Hunchback has entered the public domain, the best version available on DVD is Image’s Ultimate Edition. The restored print will probably look lousy to viewers seeing it for the first time, but this is likely as good as it will ever look and far outshines the versions available for free online. There are a number of special features, including some great commentary tracks. If you don’t want to spring for the Image disc, watch the film on Archive.org or YoutubeLearn more about Chaney here or visit Silent Era’s great page about all available editions of the film. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Universal Classic Horror (1923 - 1956)

I’ve been watching Universal classic horror films for as long as I can remember, thanks to late night horror movies on channels like Turner Classic Movies and, when I was old enough to start blowing my allowance at Suncoast Video, on VHS tapes and then DVDs. Their signature monsters, Dracula, Frankenstein and his reluctant bride, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolfman, the Creature of the Black Lagoon, and the Phantom of the Opera, are household names in many countries and have spanned everything from toys, theme park rides, breakfast cereals, posters, t-shirts, and much, much more. 

Western horror cinema would not exist as we know it without this 20 year run of horror orchestrated by a few key directors, actors, writers, and producers. Studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. ran the show up until 1936 and kicked off most of their major franchises. Laemmle, Jr. took over the studio from one of its founders, his father, Carl Laemmle, a German immigrant who moved to the U.S. in the 1880s. After buying up nickelodeons, he founded IMP, the Independent Moving Pictures Company, in 1909. This was soon merged with a few other small companies and turned into Universal, which began producing films in 1912. It is the oldest studio in the United States. 

After the Laemmles were forced out in the mid ‘30s due to some poor financial decisions, Universal mostly relied on a series of sequels and increasingly silly horror productions, such as the Inner Sanctum Mysteries starring Lon Chaney, Jr. and the Gorilla Woman trilogy, though they also managed to produce a few interesting films at this time. I’m going to try to cover all the major Universal horror films up until the ‘50s. I’m avoiding a few key sub-genres, including horror comedies like the Abbott and Costello series, ‘50s creature feature horror with the exception of the Creature from the Black Lagoon series, mysteries and sci-fi films typically listed alongside the horror films that don’t really belong with this genre, and the Fu Manchu series, which was produced by multiple studios and extended through the late ‘60s. I’m also saving the 14 Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce for a later date, though many of them have horror elements or can be seen as outright horror films. I will also not be reviewing the many horror films made by Paramount during this period, which were later sold to Universal and are technically now Universal films. 

Horror in the 1920s: 
Universal got their start in horror in the ‘20s with silent film icon Lon Chaney. Chaney’s powerful use of make up, his often painful physical performances, and dark, tortured characters earned him the moniker “the Man of a Thousand Faces” and made him one of the first American horror icons. He first starred in Universal’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) as the titular tragic hunchback in love with an unlucky gypsy woman. This silent, historical drama with horror undertones is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. The incredible sets were built to recreate 15th century Paris, including the Notre Dame Cathedral. Hunchback was Universal’s most successful silent film and ensured a future partnership with Chaney. 

His next film with Universal, The Phantom of the Opera (1925), is his first true horror film with the studio. Based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, Chaney again plays a tragic, deformed figure in love with a woman who will never reciprocate his feelings. In order to make Christine, a young chorus singer, into a prima donna, the Phantom begins  secretly tutoring her and demands that the theater put her in the starring role of Faust. This spirals out of control and leads to a number of deaths. The Phantom kidnaps Christine and drags her into the shadowy bowels of the opera house, threatening to end it all.  

Universal’s next horror film, The Cat and the Canary (1927), is the first in a sub-genre known as “old dark house” movies. Based on a play of the same name by John Willard, The Cat and the Canary fuses silent scares and black comedy. A family gathers in a spooky old mansion to hear the reading of their very rich uncle’s will. Universal’s most popular actress at the time, Laura LaPlante, stars as Annabelle, who is named heir... if she can survive the night. To complicate matters, an escaped lunatic known as the Cat may be hiding somewhere in the house. This film is a strong example of the influence of German Expressionism on American horror. German director Paul Leni took up the directorial reins for The Cat and the Canary and a number of subsequent horror films for Universal. His use of stark visuals and eerie shadows are a clear precursor to later noir films.

Lon Chaney returned for his final horror film with Universal, The Unknown (1927), also costarring a very young Joan Crawford. Directed by Tod Browning of later Dracula fame, The Unknown stars Chaney as an armless carnival knife thrower in love with a beautiful circus girl (Crawford). One of Browning and Chaney’s most powerful, tortured, and gruesome films, Chaney’s character is really a criminal (with arms) hiding out at the circus. His love for the carnival girl exposes his troubled past and leads to a tragic conclusion. Chaney’s death in 1930 sadly prevented further outings in his partnership with Universal, though soon his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., would attempt to take up his father’s name and mantle.

Universal returned to German Expressionism with their next film, The Man Who Laughs (1928). Paul Leni was again at the helm and The Man Who Laughs’ star, Conrad Veidt, was famous for his role in what is arguably the most influential German Expressionist film of all time, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). As with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (both films were based on Hugo novels), The Man Who Laughs is an epic, historical melodrama with horror undertones and some terrifying visuals. Gwynplaine, the disgraced and disfigured son of a noble has a gruesome smile permanently cut into his face. He and his companions earn money with street performances based on Gwynplaine’s disfigurement, but he soon finds his way back into his aristocratic lineage with tragic results. 

The Cat and the Canary’s Laura LaPlante returned for horror-mystery The Last Warning (1929), also directed by Paul Leni. This was his last film before his death later the same year. An actor is murdered during the performance of a play and the crime remains unsolved. Several years later the play’s producer decides to get the remaining actors together and re-stage the play at the same theater to solve the mystery. This is a nice early example of the horror tinged murder mysteries that Universal would produce several of over the next 20 years. 

Conrad Veidt and his costar from The Man Who Laughs, Mary Philbin, would return again for The Last Performance (1929). Philbin also costarred opposite Chaney in Phantom and The Last Performance was shot on much of the same set. Veidt plays a stage magician, Erik the Great, who falls in love with the much younger Julie (Philbin), though she is in love with his troubled young apprentice, Mark. When Erik’s other apprentice turns up dead, Mark is the main suspect. Can Julie help clear his name? As with many films in the silent to sound transition, there is a silent version and a version with music, sound effects, and some dialogue. 

The Dracula Series: 
Arguably Universal’s most iconic, enduring, and revisited monster, Dracula (1931) brought fame to director Tod Browning and Hungarian star Bela Lugosi, who first starred as the titular Count in the Broadway product of the play. Browning’s Dracula may seem slow moving and dialogue heavy to modern audiences. This is because the film is actually based on the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, which is in turn based on Bram Stoker’s novel. In this drawing room pot-boiler version, Renfield travels to Romania to do business with Count Dracula. After Dracula makes Renfield his servant, they go to England, where Dracula meets the young Mina Seward. She becomes fascinated with him and he begins drinking her blood. Her father and her fiancee, John Harker, must enlist the aid of Dr. Van Helsing to try and save her from a cold-blooded, demonic fate. Though the film deviates widely from the novel, it is memorable for a strong, genre-defining performance from Lugosi. It is also wonderfully atmospheric, creepy and suggestive; the visuals from great cinematographer Karl Freund would go on to heavily influence the next fifty years of horror cinema. And then there are the fake rubber bats. 

Dracula would shape the rest of Bela Lugosi’s life for better or for worse. Born Béla Ferenc Dezsö Blaskó, Lugosi acted in Hungary but left after the disastrous Hungarian Revolution. Though Dracula made him internationally famous, it did not make him any money, and though he went on to appear in dozens of other horror films throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, he was typecast due to his accent and out billed by Boris Karloff. A painful illness also resulted in his addiction to morphine, which prematurely ended his life in 1956. Lugosi deserves to be remembered for much more than Dracula and he made several other excellent horror films, which I will visit here. Ed Wood also tried to revive his career at the end of his life with films like The Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space

While Lugosi was on the set of Dracula by day, a very different Drácula (1931) was being filmed at night: the Spanish-language adaptation. Starring Carlos Villarias and Lupita Tovar and directed by George Melford, this was shot on the same sets as Dracula and the cast and crew were allowed to watch the Browning’s rushes before they began filming at night, resulting in some improvements over the English-language version. The Spanish version is certainly sexier, with more cleavage and passion, though there are also much more flamboyant hand gestures and absurd facial expressions from Villarias. The Spanish-language version even has more exuberant rubber bats. 

The English-language Dracula was followed by two of the most bizarre horror sequels ever put to film. The first, Dracula’s Daughter (1936), concerns the Countess Marya Zaleska, played by the phenomenal Gloria Holden. She suffers from her dead father’s vampiric curse and is determined to rid herself of it, even if she has to try occult and medical means, including psychiatry. For Zaleska, vampirism is a sexual and physical addiction and as much as she hungers for it, she has an equal desire to rid herself of the thirst for blood even if that means forfeiting her life. The film has some surprisingly overt references to lesbianism and is emotionally bleak, full of Gothic atmosphere and melancholy. 

The third and possibly most bizarre film in the series, Son of Dracula (1943), deals with another unusual female character that straddles the line between villain and victim. The Caldwell sisters, Kay and Claire, await the arrival of Kay’s visitor, Count Alucard (Lon Chaney, Jr.), to their plantation home in Louisiana. To put it mildly, Kay is a very strange girl. She is obsessed with the occult and the supernatural. Her guest Count Alucard, who she met during her travels in Europe, is really a descent of Dracula and has come to kill Kay’s father and give her his vampiric kiss. But Kay plans to double cross him and have her fiancé Frank kill Alucard and spend eternity with her as a vampire, regardless of Frank’s feelings about the matter. 

The Frankenstein Series: 
Perhaps Universal’s most profitable series with its most successful star began with Frankenstein (1931), directed by the great James Whale and starring the legendary Boris Karloff. This film also features Dracula’s Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan, two of Universal’s most used supporting actors. Like Dracula, this was based on the play adaptation of a novel, Peggy Webling’s version of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. Both the film and the play make many changes from the novel, turning Shelley’s isolated, yet intellectual creature into a mute, shuffling monster. A young scientist, Dr. Henry Frankenstein, and his hunchbacked assistant begin experimenting on corpses. They soon pieces together and revive one with electricity, which unfortunately has some tragic consequences, as the creature was accidentally given a criminal’s diseased brain. 

Universal and Carl Laemmle Jr were eager to repeat their success and convinced director James Whale, Boris Karloff, and Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein) into returning for a sequel, despite the fact that we are led to believe the monster died in a burning mill at the end of the first film. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is an entirely different sort of horror movie. Henry’s mentor, Dr. Pretorius, convinces Henry to continue his experiments and to create a mate for the lonely monster, who is still being pursued through the countryside. This melancholic, dreamlike film is one of the finest sequels ever created and is easily as good a film as Frankenstein. It remains one of Universal’s best horror films. 

After the departure of the Laemmles from Universal in 1936, there were a few years without any Universal horror films until the studio returned to one of their biggest successes. Karloff returned to the series in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and was joined by Universal’s other major horror icon, Bela Lugosi. Surprisingly successful despite the dumbed down monster, Son of Frankenstein concerns Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) who returns his family to the ancestral Frankenstein Castle and meets the grave robbing Ygor and many suspicious townsfolk. Wolf finds his father’s creature and decides to revive him to restore his family name. Things turn predictably disastrous when the demented Ygor begins controlling the monster. 

For the fourth film in the series, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Lon Chaney, Jr. replaced Boris Karloff as the titular monster, while Lugosi returns as Ygor. This is where the series really went off the rails. Ygor rescues the monster from villagers (even though the monster died at the end of the third film and, really, all the films) and goes to find Henry Frankenstein’s second son, Ludwig Frankenstein, who is off experimenting with brain implants (what is with this family!). The monster is soon captured and Ygor blackmails Ludwig into helping them. He tries to perfect his father’s monster, rather than destroy it. 

The Mummy Series: 
One of my favorite horror films, The Mummy (1932), is the third in Universal’s now classic monster series and was directed by Universal's regular cinematographer, Karl Freund. Starring Boris Karloff as the titular Mummy, the ancient priest Imhotep, and as the strange Egyptologist Ardath Bey, this is the first time Karloff was really able to shine in a horror film. With a plot similar to Dracula, a young woman, Helen, is traveling in Egypt when she entrances the creepy, intense Ardath Bey, who is obsessed with the legend of Imhotep, a mummy recently unearthed and secretly brought back to life. Bey wants to also revive Imhotep’s love, Ankh-es-en-amon and shows the archaeologists where to find her tomb. It turns out that Bey may be more than he seems and he takes Helen with the intent of killing her and resurrecting her as the beautiful Egyptian mummy she resembles. 

The Mummy’s Hand (1940), though still technically in The Mummy series, no longer features Karloff or Imhotep, though it copies much of the doomed, centuries old love story. Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel) portrays the mummy Kharis, who, like Imhotep, was cursed for trying to revive his dead love, Princess Ananka. Modern day archaeologists discover Kharis on their way to Ananka’s tomb and revive him, which results in bloodshed. The mummy is eventually destroyed, the heroine (their financial backer’s sassy daughter) is saved, and Ananka’s remains are found and brought back to the United States. 

In The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), Lon Chaney, Jr. took over as the Mummy, a role he maintained for the rest of the series. The make up was still done by the famous Jack Pierce, who did Karloff’s make up on Frankenstein, among many other Universal horror films. Though this was only the third entry in the series, it was very poorly received. Thirty years after the events in The Mummy’s Hand, the original team of archaeologists and their descendants are being hunted down by a revived Kharis and his companion, Mehemet Bey, an heir to the line of the High Priest of Karnak. Kharis travels to the U.S. to get revenge for the desecration of Ananka’s tomb and theft of her body. 

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944) were both churned out in the same year and both star a reluctant Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Mummy. In The Mummy’s Ghost, the very old High Priest from the first Kharis film, Andoheb, has somehow survived and searches for Kharis, who he knows to be alive. He sends his heir, Yousef, to Massachusetts to find and revive the Kharis, who is still on the search for Ananka, except it turns out that she has accidentally been reincarnated into a new human body. The Mummy’s Curse is a last ditch attempt to revive Kharis, though the action is inexplicably moved from Massachusetts to Louisiana. A local swamp is drained, uncovering the mummified bodies of Kharis and Ananka (yes, really). An Egyptian High Priest and his follower happen to be near by, so they resurrect the Mummy and his bride. Unfortunately Ananka arises elsewhere and Kharis goes on a rampage to find her. Those two crazy kids just can’t get a break. 

The Invisible Man Series:
The next monster in the series is all too human. Directed by James Whale, The Invisible Man (1933) is yet another adaptation of a famous novel, this time H.G. Wells’ sci-fi horror hybrid about a chemist who discovers the formula for invisibility. Unfortunately one of the ingredients in the formula drives him mad and he goes so far as to develop a plot for world domination. The titular invisible man, Dr. Jack Griffin, was played by the incredibly talented Claude Rains. Unlike most of Universal’s horror stars, Rains was not known for being a genre actor and attained fame with roles in Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia, among many others. He was cast in several other Universal horror films after this, though he did not reappear in the Invisible Man series. 

Thankfully for the sequel, Universal did not attempt to revive the now dead Invisible Man and the sequel is more of a spin-off with connections to the first film. The Invisible Man Returns (1940) stars one of horror’s biggest icons, though he did not often work with Universal. Vincent Price plays Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe, who has been framed for his brother’s murder. Before his execution can take place, Dr. Griffin, the brother of the original Invisible Man, injects him with the invisibility serum. Radcliffe escapes prison and must find his brother’s real killer before the serum drives him mad. 

The third film in the series, The Invisible Woman (1940), veers completely off course and is a comedy sci-fi film with almost no connections to the original movie. A crazy old professor (John Barrymore) creates an invisibility device, which is funded by a millionaire. His first test subject is a down on her luck model Kitty (Virginia Bruce), who is successfully turned invisible. When it starts to wear off, she learns her invisibility can be revived with a little alcohol. Mobsters break into the millionaire’s home and try to steal the invisibility device, but Kitty has something to say about it. 

The Invisible Agent (1942) brought German actor Peter Lorre to the franchise and though this is fortunately not a comedy, it is more of an anti-Nazi war propaganda film than a true horror movie. The grandson of the original Invisible Man still possesses the formula, which leads Nazis (led by Lorre) to hunt him down in Manhattan and demand to buy the formula from him. He escapes and is convinced by the U.S. government to use the invisibility serum to become a secret agent, go behind enemy lines, and find a list of enemy agents operating in the U.S. 

The final film in the series, The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), returns to the horror genre and stars John Carradine, John Hall, and Universal regular Evelyn Ankers. A scientists tests his invisibility formula on an escaped convict. When the test is successful, the convict, Griffin, runs away intending to get revenge on a family. Unfortunately for the Herrick family, Griffin is completely insane. Female star Evelyn Ankers would go on to be in a number of other Universal horror films. 

The Wolf Man Series: 
Though the Wolf Man is one of Universal’s most enduring horror icons, this is not a true series like Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Mummy, as the films are unrelated. Werewolf of London (1935) was Universal’s first lycanthropic film. An English botanist, Wilfred Glendon, is traveling in Tibet to find a rare plant. Though he finds the plant, he is also attacked by a strange, wolf-like creature. When he returns home to London, he learns that the bite is contagious and though the rare herb he collected is an antidote, it is only temporary. Before long, he is unable to stop himself from transforming into a blood thirsty monster. 

Because Werewolf of London was not as successful as Universal had hoped, they made an entirely new Wolf Man film with a revised plot. The Wolf Man (1941) starred Lon Chaney, Jr. as the iconic Larry Talbot, who returns to his home in Wales to reconcile with his father. He begins to fall for a girl working at an antique shop and, as a reason to talk to her, buys a walking stick with a silver wolf’s head on it. It is clear the local populace, particularly the villagers and nomadic gypsies, believe that werewolves are real. Talbot tries to save someone from a wolf attack and is bitten in the process. Soon Talbot transforms into a werewolf and begins attacking the villagers. Evelyn Ankers, Claude Rains, and Bela Lugosi co-star. The film’s werewolf mythology would go on to influence nearly every piece of werewolf cinema and fiction to come after it. 

The last film in this loose series, She-Wolf of London (1946), is more a dark mystery than an outright horror film. A lovely young woman, Phyllis (June Lockhart), is about to be married in London and lives in a supposedly cursed family estate. Meanwhile, there have been a series of murders at a local park attributed to a werewolf. Phyllis comes to believe that she is responsible and is turning into a wolf at night due to the curse on her family. Her faithful fiancé begins his own investigation, because he thinks something or someone other than Phyllis is wandering the park at night. 

Monster Rally Films: 
Towards the end of all their classic monster series, Universal decided to try something new: put several of the monster together in one wild and crazy film where anything goes. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) starred Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man and, oddly, Bela Lugosi as Frankenstein’s monster. Larry Talbot is revived from death when the full moon rises and he continues his search for a cure. This leads him to Dr. Frankenstein’s castle, where he hopes to find a way to permanently commit suicide. Here he comes across Frankenstein’s monster and unleashes violence on the local village. 

The follow up, House of Frankenstein (1944) loosely brought Karloff back into the series, though this time as a villainous doctor who escapes from prison with the help of a hunchback, for whom he promises to create a new body. The two murder a traveling performer, take over his exhibit, and begin a revenge plot that involves reviving Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man. Insanity ensues. The film features Universal regulars like Lon Chaney, Jr., John Carradine, J. Carol Nash, Lionel Atwill, B Western star Glenn Strange, and one of Universal’s regular villains, George Zucco. 

House of Dracula (1945) is the final attempt to throw the Universal monsters together in one one weird, campy film. A scientist gets a call from Dracula, desperate for help with his “curse.” Larry Talbot (Chaney, Jr.) also demands help for his furry affliction. The doctor saves Talbot with a medicine made from spores that he has been cultivating to save his beautiful, but unfortunately hunchbacked assistant(?!?). Dracula gets out of hand and the doctor is forced to destroy him, though not before Dracula’s blood infects the doctor and he randomly transforms into a cross between mad doctor and murderous ghoul. Frankenstein’s monster appears and then all hell really breaks loose. Though there are moments of comedy, the film still takes itself fairly seriously, resulting in an almost cartoon-like smorgasbord of Universal horror.

Horror in the 1930s:
Aside from the classic monster franchises, there were also a number of successful stand-alone horror films produced by Universal in the ‘30s. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), loosely inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe story, stars Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist, Dr. Mirakle, who kidnaps lovely young women and infects them with the blood of his insane sideshow ape in order to create a mate for the ape. This is the first horror film of many throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s that features a psychotic, killer ape as the primary monster, usually controlled by a mad scientist or doctor. The film still retains many of the German Expressionism influences found in earlier Universal horror films and has since attained cult status. 

One of the most famous film of the ‘30s, The Old Dark House (1932), follows the formula established by The Cat and the Canary: people are trapped in a spooky old mansion and during the night, someone begins killing them one by one. This genre actually came to be known as “old dark house” films. Directed by Frankenstein’s James Whale, Karloff stars as the deranged, mute butler of a creepy old family, the Femms. During a very bad storm, a number of local travelers are forced to take shelter at the Femm house, but they don’t realize that they will suffer much more at their hands than out in the storm. 

Secret of the Blue Room (1933) is a horror-tinged murder mystery that is actually a remake of an earlier German film. Three men all in love with the same woman challenge each other to spend the night in a room where a few murders occurred several years ago. When the first man disappears and the second man dies, the third suitor must brave the terrors of the Blue Room. This popular story was remade two other times by Universal (bizarrely one of these is a musical comedy) and is one of the finest examples of Universal’s many murder mysteries. Though not strictly a genre film, these movies should still appeal to genre fans. 

Another film very loosely inspired by Poe, The Black Cat (1934), is one of Lugosi and Karloff’s finest films. Peter and Joan, a couple of their honeymoon in Eastern Europe, cross paths with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), who is traveling to visit an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). After a bus accident where Joan is injured, the couple are forced to travel to Poelzig’s home with Werdegast. Poelzig, an architect, built his mansion over top of the fort he commanded during the war. It turns out that Poelzig and Werdegast are old rivals, not friends, and Peter and Joan get mixed up in their decades old feud and Poelzig’s satanic cult. The film was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, known for his work has a set designer for Fritz Lang and for a number of horror films, though this remains his most beloved work. 

The final Poe-based film, The Raven (1935), also stars Karloff and Lugosi. Lugosi is a surgeon obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe, particularly the torture devices in his stories, which he has a great collection of. He falls in love with a young girl after saving her life, but her father rejects him. To get revenge, he blackmails an escaped convict (Karloff) into doing his dirty work. Though the convict is reluctant to cause the girl and her family any harm, the surgeon turns him into a monster and will not fix the convict’s face until his revenge his complete. He then stages a dinner party where the girl’s family has to contend with his Poe-inspired torture chamber. 

Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935) is a horror-mystery based on Charles Dickens’ final novel. The film stars Claude Rains and David Manners, the latter of whom is known for being type cast as the romantic male lead, which he plays in Dracula, The Mummy, and The Black Cat. Rains stars as John Jasper, a choirmaster with a double life as an opium addict. He becomes obsessed with a young woman who is engaged to the titular Drood, Jasper’s nephew, and she begins to fear the choirmaster. Drood doesn’t take her concerns seriously and soon he disappears. 

The sci-fi influenced The Invisible Ray (1936) reunited Karloff and Lugosi, with Karloff starring as the brilliant Dr. Rukh, who invents a telescope that can look far into space, so far that he can get glimpses of the Earth’s past. When Rukh learns of a strange meteor crash, he sends an expedition to dig it up, but it gives off a strange and powerful radiation. When Rukh is exposed to it, he glows at night and beings to go mad. The situation takes a turn for the worse when he wife falls for another man and he becomes obsessed with revenge. 

Lugosi returned for another horror film about a mad doctor, The Phantom Creeps (1939), which is actually a serial shot in 12 parts. Lugosi plays Doctor Zorka, a man hell bent on ruling the world. To do this, he creates a number of outlandish inventions. Spies, both domestic and foreign, try to steal the inventions for themselves. When Zorka’s wife is accidentally killed, he completely loses his mind and plans revenge against all of society. 

The Inner Sanctum Mysteries: 
Throughout the ‘40s, Universal made a series of six films based on the Inner Sanctum Mysteries, a popular radio show that ran from 1941 - 1952. The anthology-style episodes included tales of horror, mystery, and suspense. All six of the films starred Lon Chaney, Jr. The first, Calling Dr. Death (1943), stars Chaney as a neurologist who loses his memory right around the time that is wife is murdered. Learning that he is the main suspect, due to his wife’s infidelity, he must reclaim his memory at any cost. Celebrated actress Patricia Morrison costars as his office assistant. 

Possibly the best film in the series is Weird Woman (1944), which costars Evelyn Ankers. This is based on Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, a tale of witchcraft and murder that was later remade as Burn, Witch, Burn!. A professor marries an exotic woman with some strange, supernatural beliefs. The local community dislikes her and suspects her when one of the professor’s colleagues dies. He must work to clear her name before she is convicted. Dead Man’s Eyes (1944) stars Chaney as an artist who is blinded by a jealous model. His fiancé’s father offers to spring for eye replacement surgery, but Chaney has to wait until the man dies. When he dies suddenly, the artist is the main suspect. Jean Parker (Bluebeard) and model and actress Acquanetta costar. Acquanetta would go on to star in Universal’s Captive Wild Woman trilogy about an ape were-woman. 

The Frozen Ghost (1945) stars Chaney and Evelyn Ankers as a stage magician and his fiancee/assistant. When the magician hypnotizes a skeptical audience member and the man accidentally dies, he is wracked with guilt. He leaves his fiancee and his stage career and goes to work in a wax museum. When the owner of the museum goes missing, the magician is the leading suspect. He must find the missing woman in order to clear his name. Strange Confession (1945) concerns a scientist working on an influenza vaccine. His greedy, millionaire boss takes all the credit and tests it on the scientist’s own son before it is ready. He also tries to steal the scientist’s wife and ruins his career. When the boy dies, the scientist is determined to get revenge. The final film of the series and easily the one with the most ludicrous title, Pillow of Death (1945), concerns an attorney (Chaney) who intends to divorce his wife and marry his wealthy secretary. When his wife turns up dead, suffocated by a pillow, he becomes the main suspect and must work to clear his name. But soon other bodies turn up, all smothered to death the same way. 

Horror in the 1940s:
The ‘40s were an active decade for Universal, though many of the horror films they produced during this period did not reach the heights of their output from the ‘20s and ‘30s. There are still a number of fun horror films, beginning with Black Friday (1940), another Karloff and Lugosi vehicle. This sci-fi/horror/crime hybrid concerns a man who almost dies when he is hit by a car. His friend, Dr. Sovac (Karloff), tries to save his life with a brain implant, but it turns out that his new brain belonged to a gangster. His friend undergoes a dramatic personality change and may know the location of a hidden cache of money. 
Another sci-fi horror film, Man-Made Monster (1941), stars Lon Chaney, Jr. in his first horror role as a McCormick, the sole survivor of a bus/power line accident. He survived because he is inexplicably immune to electricity. The fascinated Dr. Lawrence begins studying him, but Lawrence’s rival, Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) wants to use McCormick to create an army of electro-zombies. He tortures McCormick with electricity and accidentally creates a super-charged and now completely insane monster. 

Horror Island (1941) is a sort of adventure-horror tale about an island that holds a secret pirate treasure. Bill Martin, a suffering businessman, decides to travel to an island he recently inherited when he learns it holds pirate Sir Henry Morgan’s hidden treasure. Unfortunately for Martin and the group he has rounded up, the island is haunted by a phantom who has stolen half the treasure map. They must investigate a spooky castle to try to get it back and find the treasure. The Black Cat (1941) is an average murder mystery that has nothing to do with the previous Black Cat (1934) and has Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone in side roles. The highly underrated Night Monster (1942) concerns a number of doctors who are called out to a creepy old mansion in the swamp to examine the young female heir, who may be insane. Someone begins murdering the doctors and a young man must discover the killer before his lady love - a visiting psychiatrist - is also dispatched before her time. There is tons of fog, a very spooky mansion, some nice special effects, and a small cameo from Bela Lugosi as the odd butler. 

Claude Rains stars in the remake of Phantom of the Opera (1943) and this talkie version may appeal to newer horror fans who have trouble sitting through the original, superior, silent version. To this film’s credit, there are a number of plot changes and other than a basic shared premise, this is a completely different film. It is also the only Universal Monster film to win an Academy Award. George Zucco returns for The Mad Ghoul (1943) as a scientist exploring a nerve gas used in Mayan rituals of human sacrifice. Things turn ugly when he and his assistant fight over a young woman and the doctor exposes his assistant to the gas and turns him into a ghoul-like creature. Unfortunately for them, the assistant can only survive by feeding on human heart blood and they are forced to go on a killing spree. 

Captive Wild Woman (1943) is a sci-fi/horror film that fits into the killer ape subgenre. Model Acquanetta stars as an ape that is transformed into a woman by a demented endocrinologist, but because she still has her animal instincts, all hell soon breaks loose. Universal regular Evelyn Ankers costars. This was followed up by two films, Jungle Woman (1944) and The Jungle Captive (1945). The Climax (1944) was initially intended to be a sequel to Universal’s remake of Phantom of the Opera (1943), but only bears vague similarities to the plot. Karloff stars as the Vienna Royal Theater’s personal physician. He murders his lover, the lead soprano, after his jealousy drives him insane. Several years in the future, he meets another singer who arouses similar feelings. 

House of Horrors (1946) stars the delightful Rondo Hatton as a villain known as the Creeper. A depressed artist on his way to commit suicide winds up saving a drowning man, the Creeper, but he turns out to be a madman and goes on a murderous rampage. Due to a pituitary disorder known as acromegaly, Hatton’s exaggerated facial features made him a prime candidate to appear as a gangster in crime/noir films and as the star of two Creeper movies for Universal. Hatton unfortunately passed away before more films in this series could be made. Hatton starred in a sequel, The Brute Man (1946), where he reappears as the Creeper, this time to get revenge on those who disfigured his face. A loose sequel to House of Horrors, this also explains his origins. Created during the end of Universal’s horror boom, the film was considered lost for several decades until it reemerged in the early ‘80s. 

Creature from the Black Lagoon Series: 
Universal’s true last gasp of horror was the Creature trilogy which began with Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Though this was made in the ‘50s and includes some post-war, nuclear horror themes, it feels very much like one of their classic ‘30s monster entries. It is also one of Universal’s few 3-D films. A scientific expedition in the Amazon finds a strange fossil showing evidence of webbed fingers, so a second expedition is launched to further examine the area. They find that the first team has all been killed and speculate how, but soon they track the creature, a strange amphibious humanoid dubbed the Gill-man, to its lair in the mysterious Black Lagoon. 

This was followed by Revenge of the Creature (1955), the only 3-D sequel to a 3-D film. The Gill-man somehow survived his bullet-ridden ordeal at the end of the first film and is captured and sent to Florida to be studied. To no one’s great surprise, the Gill-man is distracted by a woman and escapes into the ocean. When he finally captures her, the scientists and local police must try to rescue her before it is too late. 

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), the final entry in the series, sadly does not live up to its excellent title. The Gill-man is again captured, but begins shedding his gills after he is burned in a fire. He is given clothes and doctors try to convince him to live with humans. He is clearly depressed on land and when a human betrays him, he goes on a killing spree and triumphantly returns to the sea. 

You, like many people, probably though there were 8 or 9 Universal films and that you had seen them all. Sorry for the rude awakening, but the silver lining is that the advent of DVD and Blu-ray means there are more classic horror films available than ever before. On the other hand, if you're a Universal horror expert and you think there's something I'm missing, please let me know. 

If you’re going to watch along with me, happy viewing! Otherwise, expect detailed reviews of all these films over the next few months. It will hopefully be a fun, creepy, and thoroughly air-conditioned summer.