For the past nine months, my weekends have had the added benefit of screening a new Universal Monster movie on Saturday or sometimes Sunday nights, from Frankenstein to The Wolf Man and all the lesser known sequels and House specials. The majority of which I had not previously seen. They were new and largely unknown to me. And of those unknowns, yes a few were just god-awful, but for the most part, the majority were intriguing, a few breathtakingly mesmerizing, and fewer still, though odd and unusual, they held a certain charm about them. When watching movies with 86 years of separation between then and now, you’re bound to find conflicts with storytelling and filmmaking that go against how you understand them. Things were done differently then. People held different beliefs and ideology than today. Different cultures and even customs. Some of those things are pleasant reminders of a simpler time, the way dialogue was crafted with care and chivalry, poetic in its own right. And there were also aspects that were uncomfortable to watch, such as sexism and discrimination towards women and those of African or even Asian descent. Remembering the historical context of the films can help relieve some of the conflicts we feel with those nostalgic glitches.
When Dracula released in February of 1931, the world was in a state of flux. The economic depression (known as The Great Depression) was setting root in not just America, but all over the world. In Germany, the first pangs of the rise of Nazism was felt. Though defeated by a majority win, in just two years time the elected German president, Hindenburg, will elect Adolf Hitler as chancellor . Eugenics was a pop science in which the sterilization of unfit parents and the “euthanasia” of “the defective” and “useless eaters” is making the rounds, not just in Nazi Germany, but also on the shores of the United States. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws are passed (the first major steps in annihilation and extermination of European Jewry, ie, The Final Solution). In 1936, the Spanish Civil War begins. In 1937, the Rape of Nanjing, which is basically the systematic rape, torture, and murder of more than 300,000 Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers as they invade China. 1939, Germany invades Poland, and by December 7th, 1941, the Day that will Live in Infamy, the once “civilized” world is thrown back into global conflict. These were uncertain times, to say the least. And we have to keep in mind that this was the backdrop during the production of the majority of the Universal Monster movies. Intentional or not, history shapes and continues to do so.
Every decade, every generation has had a take on the original Universal monsters. Thru the 1950s, into the 60s, 70s, 1980s, 90s, 2000s, and even today, those pillar stories are still being told. And that is a part of what we’ll discuss here today. Those movies we call remakes, the hits of those and the blunders, as well as what waits in store for those of, let’s say, my daughter’s generation. What will the monsters look like tomorrow? This is roughly about 60 years of film history, so we will not tackle each and every monster movie, but rather a survey of each decade. Savvy? Let us begin.
When the last of the Universal monsters, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), aired, a new generation of monsters was born. The 1950s was a strange era, filled with mutated creatures and aliens from other worlds. Big hits during this decade included Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, Godzilla, Forbidden Planet, and Them! (just to name a few). The classic Universal monsters faded into obscurity in America, becoming cult-B movies for those brave enough to venture into the movie theaters with duel Herman Cohen produced flicks, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and the return of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970, a mashup of classic Universal and atomic age science. While the monsters went B in America, they seem to thrive across the pond in the UK as major productions. Universal monsters were reborn in Hammer Production films and a great majority of these are still some of the best monster movies on the market, even by today’s standards. Movies, such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy captivated a new generation of monster lovers. The Mummy (1959) starring both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, I found was especially good and horrific compared to the original Universal films which were not beloved by many.
Trends from the 1950s continue on into the 1960s. The majority of monsters are the creations of mad science or invaders from other worlds. Godzilla and Mothra being some of the most popular monsters during this era, and other very unique monster created by a couple of rogue filmmakers in Pittsburg, Night of the Living Dead (1968). But that doesn’t mean the classics Universal monsters had died away, there some… Hammer Productions continued with The Evil of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Brides of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, and The Mummy’s Shroud, and NOT FORGETTING the best of the best, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In the United States, two classic Universal monsters were melded with the new age craze with the release of Atomic Age Vampire (1960) and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965) and super low-budget flick Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). Leaving only one major production, a made for children stop-motion animated musical comedy titled Mad Monster Party? (1967) starring Boris Karloff in his last appearance in any of the classic Universal Monster movies as the voice of Victor Frankenstein.
Hammer Productions continued to flourish with classic monster films such as The Horror of Frankenstein, Frankenstein, and the Monster from Hell, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. During this decade we’re introduced to a few well known B-Italian (and German and French included) classic monster movies with Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (starring Lon Chaney in his last reprisal in a “Universal” monster film), The Werewolf Versus The Vampire Women, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, and the very strange Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein). Now, for classic Universal monsters in the United States, the 1970s gave birth to a very interesting phase called Blaxploitation. In 1972, on the eve of Blaxploitation, we’re blessed with the likes of Blacula, the tale of an African prince (William Marshall) is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula (Charles McCauley). Sealed in a coffin for several lifetimes, “Blacula” reawakens in 1970’s Los Angeles. Leaving a trail of bloodless victims in his wake. And Blacula returns in 1973 with Scream Blacula Scream. Some other noteworthy Blaxploitation-classic-Universal-monster films include 1974’s Blackenstein and Ganja & Hess.
BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!!!
In 1974, Mel Brooks produced and directed one of the greats spoofs set within the classic Universal monsters lexicon…Young Frankenstein, starring the late great Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Teri Gar, and Marty Feldman (to name a few). Though I am a rabid fan of both Hammer and Blaxploitation films, my love for this era falls directly on Young Frankenstein. The film was absolutely respectful of the roots of Frankenstein and even used what remained of the original set. Not to mention was wonderfully written, directed, and acted. Less not forgetting a few other honorable mentions, Werewolves on Wheels, The Boy who Cried Werewolf, Werewolf Woman, and Legend of the Werewolf are all wonderfully gritty and fun to watch.
It’s really hard to hate the 1980s, especially regarding the volumes of horror movies produced during this VHS era. So many monster films and the birth of a new sub-genre, The Slasher, and the reclassification of Universal tropes, whereas the Gillman from the Creature from the Black Lagoon, became Swamp Thing and Toxic Avenger. One of the more obvious “Universal” carry-overs would be Jerry Warren’s Frankenstein Island, starring John Carradine, one of the last surviving members from the original Universal Monster films. But what made this era really great were three films that took the concepts developed by the traditional Universal tropes and created something new from the old.The Howling, An American Werewolf in London and Silver Bullet took what The Wolf Man did in 1941 and set it in a more reality-toned story if you can believe that. The rules of werewolfism became more complex and reminded audiences how fun these kinds of movies can be if done properly. Now…I’d be a horrible film historian/fan if I failed to mention the one single most recognizable “Universal” heavy monster movie from the 1980s. That’s right folks, I’m talking The Monster Squad (1987). This movie took every 80s cliche and every classic Universal Monster cliche, boiled it in a stew and served it with nard pudding. You either love it or you hate, and if you hate you’re probably too terrified to say so, considering how many damn people love this movie!
Looking back on the 90s is like looking through a kaleidoscope. There were so much realism and so much snark the 90s is often really hard to separate diamonds from the squares regarding monster flicks. The 90s gave us more creature features, not necessarily mutated or atomic…just…creatures. And as far as the use of classic “Universal” monster tropes, we have two different extremes. On one end, we get Frankenhooker (1990), a raunchy B-movie where a New Jersey mad doctor (James Lorinz) rebuilds his girlfriend (Patty Mullen) with body parts from exploded hookers. And not forgetting (though I wish I could) Mel Brooks directed Dracula: Dead and Loving It. But on the other extreme, we get these melodrama films such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), both of which did their best to follow the source material that inspired the original Universal Monsters. In the middle of all this dueling complexity, we have at least one movie that keeps to both melodramatic and B-ish action, one of my person favorites from this decade, NO, not Monster Mash, I’m talking 1998’s comic to film flick, Blade starring Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristoffer, and Stephen Dorff.
And I guess I’d be amiss if I did not mention one of the first more modern remakes directly linked to the Universal Monster classics. In 1999, The Mummy released starring (then loved now somewhat shunned) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Oded Fehr, and America’s favorite weirdo Kevin J. O’Connor. The remake followed most of the basic tenets of the original Mummy while kicking up the action. I remember actually being really impressed with the film and truth be told…I had seen this one before screening the original. Unfortunately, it suffers from what most 1990s movies suffer from, the crappy use of CGI. But overall, The Mummy is still a fun romp on a late night.
(Shhhh…if we’re quiet and don’t make any sudden movements, no one will mention 1997’s An American Werewolf in Paris…)
The 2000s were not entirely unkind to Universal Monster tropes. Strange…but not unkind. Universal Studios themselves had put out a what should have been a return or at least a nod to the classic hey-day with Van Helsing (2004)…and while they did capture the feeling of watching a Universal Monster flick, the story itself and odd choices with effects and the horribly outdated CGI dropped the bottom out on this movie. It’s amazing how much of a turd Van Helsing is, and it could have been so much more, a virtual House of Dracula, giving audiences werewolves and vampires and hunchbacks and even Frankenstein’s creature but instead filmmakers ignored the lore and added strange new rules that didn’t make sense, making a complete mess of a movie.
The decade was not without some gems. I thought Dog Soldiers (2002) was both brilliant and horrifying. There was also Ginger Snaps (2000) and Ginger Snaps II which were both smart. And, though not a lot of folks liked this one, I thought it was fun and an awesome throwback to the classic vibe of Universal Monsters, 2004’s Wes Craven directed Cursed starring Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, and Joshua Jackson. Another fan favorite during this decade was action-thriller Underworld (2003), starring the very leather-clad Kate Beckinsale and the always magnetic Bill Nighy. Underworld has developed into a series franchise, putting audiences into a world of vampires versus werewolves. The sequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans released back in 2009. All of which all fun and entertaining, though very obviously films in a post-Matrix world with all that leather and gun-play. Another vampire hit, for me at least, was 30 Days of Night (2007) which shed the “it’s fun to be a vampire” motif and actually allowed them to be monsters. And while sequels are not always a favorite subject matter, we cannot discount Blade II (2002), this round being directed by then up and coming monster director Guillermo del Toro… And be honest here, who doesn’t love a movie with Ron Pearlman in it? But let’s stop there. No need mentioning Blade: Trinity…ugh!
And as for the best of the 2000s decade, my hat goes off to Let the Right One In (2008), a Swedish “romantic” horror film directed by Tomas Alfredson, based on the 2004 novel of the same title by John Ajvide Lindqvist about a bullied 12-year-old boy named “Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) living with his mother in suburban Sweden, meets his new neighbor, the mysterious and moody Eli (Lina Leandersson), they strike up a friendship. Initially reserved they slowly form a close bond, but it soon becomes apparent that she is no ordinary young girl. Eventually, Eli shares her dark, macabre secret with Oskar, revealing her connection to a string of bloody local murders.” Let the Right One In was one of those “unknowns,” coming right out of left field. It was a slow burn, but so atmospheric and moody and dark…it gives me the chills just thinking about the movie.
Here we are…roughly 70 years of film history. And with just six (nearly 7) years into the new decade, it seems as if those classic Universal monster tropes are making an epic comeback. Or at least, that’s the vibe I’m getting. Let’s start things off here with my favorite, the 2010 direct remake of the original 1941 The Wolf Man, with a star-studded cast including Benicio del Toro, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, and David Schofield to name a few. Now, I’m not saying the movie didn’t have some flaws. The fight scene between Hopkins and Toro is…well…a little odd, but for the majority of the film, the effects and even added CGI wasn’t too shabby. Considering the original is my preferred archetype regarding werewolf stories, I pretty much fell head over heels for this one. And wait, there’s more! Not only did we get a directly linked werewolf movie, but it looks as if the indie film community was filling in where Hollywood failed to capitalize. Consider this fan-favourite and truly underrated horror flick, Late Phases (2014), about a secluded retirement community plagued by mysterious and deadly attacks until a grizzled blind war veteran moves in, rallies the residents, and discovers a beast is behind the killings. Another unrated flick and extremely well done, Stake Land (2010) gives the classic vampire trope a plague-like treatment.
2013’s Wer was another surprise, giving lycanism a hereditary twist and 2012’s Werewolf: The Beast Among Us wasn’t too shabby for a largely unknown action thriller. And 2013’s Frankenstein’s Army was just bizarre enough to be entertaining. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) was a smart and surprise hit among monster fans, where residents of a worn-down Iranian city encounter a skateboarding vampire (Sheila Vand) who preys on men who disrespect women. And I thought Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) was good for a late night screening.
Now…because I’m a dad (totally using this as an excuse), I have to mention one of my top favorites thus far for this decade before moving on to anything else. Hotel Transylvania (2012) was absolutely brilliant. Fun. Funny. And full of classic monster tropes. The story goes, “When monsters want to get away from it all, they go to Count Dracula’s (Adam Sandler) Hotel Transylvania, a lavish resort where they can be themselves without humans around to bother them. On one special weekend, Dracula invites creatures like the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and others to celebrate the 118th birthday of his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). However, an unforeseen complication unfolds when an ordinary human unwittingly crashes the party and falls in love with Mavis.” Say what you will, but I love this movie!
As for the duds…though I still haven’t screened this one, I’ve heard that the steady-cam take on the Mummy monster trope The Pyramid (2014) was not very good. The concept sounded interesting…maybe I’ll give this one a go before passing final judgment. The same for Dracula: Untold (2014), I just haven’t gotten around to watching it, but I’ve heard that it was decently entertaining. And I still haven’t caught up with We Are The Night (2010) or Byzantium (2012), both of which follow a more feminine-centric story trope. One dud that I did actually watch was comic-book based I, Frankenstein (2014). “Two centuries after Dr. Frankenstein assembles and reanimates his creature, Adam (Aaron Eckhart) is still living. He becomes embroiled in a war between two immortal races: gargoyles, the traditional protectors of mankind, and evil demons. Since Adam is neither human nor demon, gargoyle Queen Leonore (Miranda Otto) and demon Prince Naberius (Bill Nighy) each want him for their own purposes. It is up to Adam to discover his inner humanity and the reason for his continued existence.” The movie could have been so much more but casting pretty-boy Eckhart as the monster…well…it seemed to reek of trying too much to be like Underworld to have any real chance of being its own movie. The concept was fun and the addition to the Frankenstein lore…so, at least it had that going for it.
Also on my to watch list: What We Do in the Shadows (2015), and Freaks of Nature (2015). It just seems, part of my problem is that there are so many classic films to choice from my tastes typically shy away back to the 1970s or 80s. That’s not to say the 2010s have nothing to offer, just look at the list above and you’ll find more than one blockbuster worthy of your time. And the year is not even over yet. A think, largely, everyone has their own tastes for horror, and this is especially true for those of the classic Universal Monster breed. My biggest disappointment is the lackluster treatment of my favorite Universal Monster, The Mummy. While the 1999 remake did a rather bang-up job, that’s been…what, 17 years now? I have to wonder what the aversion is. I’m assuming it’s because the Mummy is not a “fan favorite.” Vampires and werewolves sell movie tickets, is that it? You put a screenwriter who loves the trope, some solid practical effects, and a director who knows what they’re doing, and I guarantee you a great film will be made.
And now…a peek into the FUTURE….
As you’ve no doubt heard, Universal Studios will be reviving from their vaults, the return of the classic Universal Monsters in a new series that will eventually tie together all our beloved baddies. This news has been generating for about two years now and it looks as if they’re finally getting the ball rolling. The first monster up for theatric return will be The Mummy, with a June 2017 release date, and starring none other than Tom “Top Gun” Cruise. It feels fortuitous that my favorite Universal monster will be up first in this new rival. The Wolf Man is said to be next, with a 2018 release date and rumors of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson taking on the lead role. Scarlett Johansson is rumored to be on Universal’s radar for the led in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Angelina Jolie for Bride of Frankenstein. Johnny Depp for The Invisible Man. And supposedly, Dracula: Untold‘s end sequence opens the door for what all these remakes will be leading towards. At first, I had my reservations. Some of the descriptions for what the producers wanted sounded un-horror and un-betrothed to what the originals were. But it seems those rumors were just that, rumors. As more information has released, the more excited and cautiously optimistic I’ve become. If you’ve tuned into any of the reviews in this series, you’ve no doubt noted how much of a fan I am of the classic Universal Monster. And by-Geroge, I’m glad they’ve finally decided to bring them back to their full glory.
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new paranormal series, The Subdue Books, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs here at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.
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Looking back on the start of this series, I’m wishing we’d done these reviews in chronological order instead of random selections. Tracking the progression of certain characters now that we’re in our twilight hours of Universal Monsters in Review, it is becoming quite difficult. Considering especially Frankenstein’s monster, which has already appeared on film four times since the original 1931 fright flick. AND, ole Frank-in-monster has also changed hands twice already, from the granddaddy, Boris Karloff (who defined the role as Monster), to Lon Chaney Jr. (who played the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein) and now with Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, and the more questionable of choices for Universal Studios, Bela Lugosi. Later on, Glenn Strange will also don the endless hours of makeup and prosthetics in future Frankenstein movies. As for the Wolf Man, his progression is much easier to follow. In fact, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is considered to be a direct sequel from the original 1941 The Wolf Man. It ALL can get rather confusing. Oh well. What is done is done. Perhaps moving forward in our discussion here, we should consider Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man has not a direct sequel from Ghost of Frankenstein, but rather, a sequel for The Wolf Man. And besides, most of these movies are basically stories in and of themselves, holding only quasi connections to the originals. As I will be your host for the evening, shall we begin our review?
Here’s a synopsis so that we’re all on the same page:
Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney Jr.) grave is being robbed, but strangely, despite the passing of four years since the events of The Wolf Man, his body is remarkably preserved. And covered with blooms of Wolfs Bane. The grave robbers soon realize that perhaps Mr. Talbot is not as dead as they originally believed. The next scene, we find Larry in an asylum, recovering from an operation performed by good natured yet strictly scientific Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles). Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey) finds him there, too, wanting to question him about a recent spate of murders. Talbot escapes and finds Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the old gypsy woman who knows his secret: that when the moon is full, he changes to a uncontrollable werewolf. She travels with him to locate the one man who can help him to die – Dr. Frankenstein. The brilliant doctor proves to be dead himself, but they do find Frankenstein’s daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey). Talbot begs her for her father’s papers containing the secrets of life and death. She doesn’t have them, so he goes to the ruins of the Frankenstein castle to find them himself. There he finds the Monster (Bela Lugosi), whom he chips out of a block of ice. Dr. Mannering eventually catches up with him only to become tempted to to use Frankenstein’s old equipment to fully power the monster.
Before this series, in the long ago, before I had ever dreamed of becoming a published author and creating my own tales of fright, Frankenstein meets the Wolfman was the first Universal Monster movie I had seen. I’d watched bits and pieces of the other movies before, scenes made infamous and those that became direct inspirations for other movies that I had watched. But this one, this was the first. Gathered together with a group of buds for a “guys movie night.” The host’s dogs, Bear and Willie, begging at our feet and scheming for morsels of popcorn. Displayed on the big screen of some monstrous TV birthed from the late 90s, my eyes beheld for the first time, in its completion, a Universal Monster movie. Later on, inspired by this film, would go on to watch The Wolf Man, and then later Dracula and Frankenstein, and so on and so on. There is not much that I remember from that first screening, only that it did ignited a desire to see the others, to return to the past of cinematography. And my History in Film classes in college certainly helped with that desire too. Going back and watching the movie again, for this review, after consuming most of the others, all of the originals, the story played out a little more defined in my mind. And at bottom, I have to say, this is not a Frankenstein movie, at all. This is a Wolf Man movie. And it is a movie about certain ideals and the dangers of obsessive behavior and mob mentality.
The story focuses almost/nay exclusively on Larry Talbot’s quest for an end to his life. The movie opens at the Talbot crypt four years after the events of the original Wolf Man film. And Larry is still somehow alive, though seriously injured. The place on his skull where his father had struck him with the silver cane is fractured. Next, we see Larry’s collapsed body being discovered by police and ushered quickly to the hospital. The doctor, a very scientific minded Dr. Mannering, is shocked at how fast Larry recovers from his surgery. Its all very supernatural. Keep that word in mind while watching this movie. Screen writer, Curt Siodmak, the creator of The Wolf Man character, is taking us on a journey in which the ideals of supernaturalism and science (logic) will clash, head to head. I found it somewhat thought provoking that Larry is completely obsessed with ending his life and that the monster, representing science, is a misunderstood creature…well, until the end in which he becomes an unstoppable machine. There’s a quote from Siodmak that I used in my debut novel, Reinheit, it goes, “You’ll find superstition a contagious thing. Some people let it get the better of them.” And while watching Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, you get a sense of what he’s saying. The villagers on the stage of this idyllic Germanic town, full of song, wine, and good cheer, also harbor anger and resentment, not just to the Frankenstein name, but also strangers and gypsies, mostly fueled by antagonists who insight the rage of the community by reminding them of the injustices that had transpired in the past. Is all this starting to sound familiar? Considering Curt Siodmak was a Jew escaping the growing threat of Nazi Germany, it ought to sound familiar.
The deeper meaning in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is commendable, but there are still some unresolved issues with the movie itself. I felt like the entire movie was brilliantly set up and had a wonderful progression as we followed Larry on his quest toward suicide. The end felt tacked on. Dr. Mannering’s character did not feel fully vetted nor relatable. His motivation seemed very sudden. From wanting to take Larry back to the hospital to becoming obsessed with seeing how powerful he could make the monster. Everything until then was golden. And like with most Universal films of this era, the final scene was very abrupt. With the manic villager blowing up the dam, releasing the river, destroying Castle Frankenstein, along with the Wolf Man and monster, and the town itself, presumably, all happens within a span of 60 seconds. Boom. Boom. The End.
Judging the film as a whole, yes,while Mannering’s character did feel very unbelievable regarding “re-charging” the monster, and with the ending being rushed to its final conclusion, the other meanings are hard to dismiss, how our obsessions, be it science or superstition, will ultimately destroy us in the end. Its a powerful message, especially when considering the history of the screen writer and the decade in which the film was made. Looking at the film as a direct sequel to The Wolf Man, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man was an excellent continuation in the story, introducing new branches to the werewolf mythos. The casting couldn’t have been more perfect. Except for perhaps Bela Lugosi as the monster. To me, despite trying very hard to be a dim witted creature, he still sounded too suave. Watching Bela as Frankenstein’s monster was too disconnecting and his mannerisms seemed desperate to separate himself from his more iconic role as Dracula. Honestly, some actors just aren’t built to play certain roles. One could surmise the same about Chaney and how he should never have played the Mummy. My favorites for the film were Maria Ouspenskaya, who was was once again wonderful, as was Lon Chaney, likewise at his best as the very tragic and sad Larry Talbot, both utterly magnetizing and wonderfully depressing.
My rating: 4/5
The Wolf Man has become over the years one of my favorite Universal monsters. Larry Talbot has to be the single most tragic character to ever grace the silver (no pun intended) screen. Curt Siodmak, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, wrote the screenplay for The Wolf Man and several other monster movies and even into the 1950s science fiction era. Given the times and his heritage, I wonder if he had more than a few themes in mind for this horror story. The Wolf Man mythos has Greek tragedy written all over. An innocent, somewhat oblivious, man is cursed with lycanthropy, an uncontrollable transformation from man to wolf. He’s as much a victim as he is a monster. There’s a book written by Siodmak, which I have shamefully not read yet, detailing his creation of the Wolf Man. I am curious how the events of Nazism and WWII and being forced to immigrate to the U.S. impacted his perception of freedom and of humanism. But I’ve yarned on long enough. We’ve got a special guest writer today to tell us a bit about this amazing and haunting movie. Shall we see what Mr. X has to say about The Wolf Man?
When the Wolfbane Blooms
By: Jeffery X. Martin
There’s not a whole lot you can say about a 75 year old movie that hasn’t already been said, but The Wolf Man, a movie which has spawned more bastard children than Mick Jagger, remains so vital, so heart-wrenching, that it deserves to be seen by everyone who has grown up with only Landis and Dante’s version of lycanthropy.
George Waggner’s direction is solid and downright artsy in some scenes. His gorgeous shot inside the town church is utterly breathtaking in its contrast and shadowplay. Who needs color? This black and white work is sublime. He also has an almost symbiotic bond with low-lying fog, a standard element of every werewolf picture to follow.
It’s also right and proper to pour some out for Jack Pierce, the pioneering make-up artist who created the werewolf makeup. He also created the original make-up work for the Frankenstein monster and the Mummy. He may not have been well-liked around the studio, but he was responsible for the looks of almost all of what we think of as the “classic” monsters.
But the heart of The Wolf Man is Curt Siodmak. I know… of course, the writer is going to give credit to the writer. Blood sings to blood and all that. The fact is Siodmak, who was sort of the Rod Serling of his time, wrote a rock-solid script. Lon Chaney pulls off the role of Larry Talbot, who really is just a poor lunkhead, with great aplomb.
There’s stuff in this movie you couldn’t get away with now, like how Larry spies on the girl he likes with a telescope. Stalker! But he’s such a schmoe, such an awkward guy, you can’t help but root for him. You want him to take some power for himself and not be such a noodge.
When he finally gets a bit of that power, and becomes a werewolf, he’s shocked at his own behavior. He doesn’t want to own that kind of personal growth. If Larry has a fatal flaw, it isn’t that he becomes a werewolf when the wolfbane blooms and the gypsies come to town. It’s his humanity that makes him a classic tragic character. He realizes that he’s doomed. He always has been. In a world where the attitude is, as Richard Nixon said, “Fuck the doomed,” he’s never going to get what he wants. No sweetheart, no place as a pillar of the community, no joy. The old gypsy woman was right when she said, “Tears run to a predestined place.”
That gorgeous line is true for all of us. We’re all doomed. We’re all Larry Talbot, awkward and weak in some areas. If we really had some crazy power, would we use it the best way we could, or would we just wish it away? The real question The Wolf Man asks is not, “What is it like to be a werewolf?”
The Wolf Man asks all of us, “What does it mean to be human?”
Jeffery X. Martin, or Mr. X to you, is the published author of several stories that are sure to shock, including those in the Elder’s Keep universe and Tarotsphere. He also published a fantastic tale in The Black Room Manuscripts. You can find his work on Amazon. When Mr. X is not writing creep mind-benders, he’s the host and/or contributor to several podcasts and blogs, including, but not limited to, Pop Shiftier and Kiss the Goat.
Have you seen Late Phases? Finally! A new werewolf movie to keep my strange fascination were the lycanthrope myth sated, or for at least the time being. Hopefully maybe soon we’ll see some quality Mummy movies grace the silver screen…doubtful at that one. But we can always hope. Its no secret, I’ve got a special place in my heart for the classic Universal Monsters. I’m not at the age to have grown up watching the films. I found them in my adult years, and its probably better that I did. I don’t think most of the kids in my late phased (pun intended) Gen-X generation would have appreciated the classics…not as much as an adult would. Maybe I’m wrong, I’m sure there are a few out there that could, but overall, it is my opinion that the classics are appreciated more by a more mature audience. My appreciation stems from my studies in history thru film. Looking back at society thru the looking glass of cinema is a fascinating way of deciphering prevalent thoughts and themes and attitudes of the day in which the movie was made. The original Universal classics, as such, can be both an entertaining as hell movie and a look into the concerns of the past. Werewolf movies are one of my favorite forms of metaphor. Much how I gravitate toward Romero-esk zombie tales, likewise, I gravitate toward the tradition of werewolf created by Curt Siodmak. Curt wrote the original Universal tale, The Wolf Man (1941) and portrayed the bipedal beast as more of a Greek tragedy, where the monster is also the victim, having no control over his inner demon, per say. Late Phases seems to keep to this tradition whilst also moving the mythos a step farther.
Quick fire synopsis:
Ambrose McKinley; a fiercely independent, yet blind Vietnam War veteran and his seeing eye dog are moved into a retirement community at the edge of a forest. Willful and adamant that he can live on his own, he and his son Will are clearly not on the best of terms. He meets three neighbor women; Gloria, Anna and Victoria, who; while at first admiring Ambrose, are quickly put off by his rough attitude toward them. He meets his neighbor Delores, who shares the duplex with him. That night, during a full moon, something breaks into Delores’ kitchen and brutally slashes her to death. Ambrose hears the commotion and is also attacked by a massive werewolf. His dog comes to his defense as Ambrose struggles to find his gun, he manages to deter the creature, but his dog is mortally wounded. The next day, the police find him cradling his dog, and despite the destruction and his claims of the attack, it is shrugged off as a home invasion. With no one to believe his tale, Ambrose quickly works at preparing for the next full moon and soon discovers the threat is not from outside, but rather from inside this seemingly quiet retiree community.
The Meaning of it All…
And there you go. Plenty of symbolism to keep even the most jaded film graduate student satisfied, while also giving us horror nerds another allegorical tale to place on the shelf of werewolf lore. Ambrose verses the werewolf is an obvious story about how old bones can find purpose and keeps to the Curt Siodmak tradition…with one step farther. The monster here, while struggling at first, in the end accepts his plight and goes about turning other would-be victims into beasts themselves. Religion and faith find their way into the story too, as the priest, Father Roger is summed and cast way and ultimately killed (oops, SPOILERS!). There is also a redemption story between Ambrose and his son, Will. The movie has plenty of heart and even some humor to balance the drama and terror. But is it entertaining?
Where’s the Popcorn…?
Late Phases was very entertaining. There are certainly some bumps in the road. While the use of practical effects should be applauded, there were a few moments where the effects came across as silly. And I’m mostly talking about the werewolf costume. The transformation scenes are respectable, though does not overshadow Rick Baker’s fantastic work in An American Werewolf in London. I’d say, the transformation effects here were more close to Rob Bottin’s work in The Howling. Other then the effects, the pace was steady. There was an absence of exposition, which I found refreshing. Ambrose, played by Nick Damici, was fantastic. I love seeing crusty veteran movies, especially in horror flicks as it is something I tend to gravitate toward in my own writings. If you haven’t seen Late Phases yet, it’s still on Netflix. Make it a night. Pop some popcorn and enjoy a rather fury tale of a blind Vietnam veteran verses the monotony of retirement.
My Review: 3.5/5