by Randy Fox
The Belcourt’s Universal Horror series that begins this week features six of the very best horror films produced by Universal Studios 1931-1936. After a three-year hiatus, the studio re-opened its monster factory and produced a second wave of films between 1939 and 1946. While the latter films are marked by lower budgets and fewer artistic aspirations than the ones of the early 1930s, there are still many great examples of classic monsters in action. Here are six of my personal favorites.
Son of Frankenstein (1939) — Son of Frankenstein re-launched the Universal Horror franchise in a grand manner. While lacking the art and style of James Whale’s Frankenstein films, Son of Frankenstein is rollicking good fun with striking art design, impressive sets and memorable performances from Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, and Lionel Atwill. Along with Bela Lugosi in his finest screen performance as Ygor, the scheming, broken-necked lab assistant and monster provocateur. The picture was a huge success for Universal and demonstrated what a money maker the ghoul factory could still be. It also became the main inspiration for Mel Brooks’ spoof and unofficial sequel Young Frankenstein.
The Wolf Man (1941) — One of the last truly great A-picture horror films produced by Universal, The Wolf Man gave Lon Chaney, Jr. the role that he would be forever known for — the tormented and tragic lycanthrope, Larry Talbot. It’s a testament to Curt Siodmak’s wonderful screenplay that much of the popular lore about werewolves — the curse that can be passed on by a bite or scratch, that only silver can harm a werewolf, and the poem that tells the legend (“Even a man that is pure in heart…”) — was all introduced or popularized by The Wolf Man, not drawn from actual folklore. The Wolf Man is as much a classic as any of the first wave of Universal Horrors.
Son of Dracula (1943) — The success of The Wolf Man made Lon Chaney, Jr. the reigning king of the Universal horror factory. While that may have been good for steady work, it also meant that the studio was shoehorning him into every horror role they could. Chaney was very effective playing good-natured lugs beset by demons (which pretty much describes him in real life), but the very concept of him portraying a smooth, menacing sophisticate like Dracula (or his son as the movie implies) is a felony of miscasting on the order of Lou Costello playing Abraham Lincoln.
But poor casting aside, what makes Son of Dracula interesting is its attempt to transfer old world Gothic evil to a small-town American setting (echoing Hitchcock’s “evil in Our Town” ethos of his 1943 hit for Universal, Shadow of a Doubt). Director Robert Siodmak (who would later direct many film noir classics including The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949)) injects a huge dose of noir sensibility into the picture as the femme fatale played by Louise Allbritton willingly destroys her own family in pursuit of vampiric immortality.
The Mad Ghoul (1943) — By 1943, horror movies were a steady cash producer for Universal, but the days of big budget productions with name directors were over. With the exception of the Technicolor remake of The Phantom of the Opera, the rest of Universal’s horror shows were low-budget quickies. Which makes The Mad Ghoul even more outstanding — this tale of fate, doom and the living dead mixes in elements of film noir, good performances and several offbeat touches for a memorable, fast-paced chiller that makes it one of the best of the later Universal horrors.
George Zucco plays a scientist researching a poison gas used by ancient Mayans to turn sacrificial victims into the living dead. He uses his discovery on unsuspecting medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) who is quickly transformed into a zombiefied Manchurian Candidate, ready to follow any commands given to him by his master. The only cure for the condition is the fluid from freshly harvested human hearts. Need I say that no good comes of this situation?
The Mad Ghoul has been a favorite of mine since I stumbled across it on WTVF’s afternoon movie program The Big Show back in the early ’70s. I had to wait 20 years to see it again when it was finally released on home video in the mid-1990s. While not as well-known as the big name Universal monster movies, The Mad Ghoul is a movie well worth tracking to its lair.
The Mummy's Ghost (1944) — The Mummy from 1932 featured Boris Karloff as “Imhotep,” a sophisticated, erudite resurrected Egyptian mummy who quickly shed his wrappings for natty robes and a fez. But when Universal decided to create a new Mummy franchise in 1940, starting with The Mummy’s Hand, the decision was made to have this second-generation mummy, “Kharis,” remain a shambling, inarticulate, moldy bandage-wrapped murder machine — a rather thankless role for actor and stuntman Tom Tyler, who shambled off after one film to be replaced by a very unhappy Lon Chaney, Jr. (Chaney reportedly made it through long days of filming by stashing a flask of vodka in his bandages.)
The Mummy’s Ghost was the third film in the series and borrows an idea from the original Mummy, along with a level of gonzo craziness that makes it the most fun. While the plots of the first two films were basically “You violate the curse/Kharis comes after your ass,” The Mummy’s Ghost adds the extra twist of having Kharis’ lost love, the Princess Ananka, turn up reincarnated in the curvaceous form of Egyptian exchange student Amina Mansouri (Ramsay Ames). More trouble arises when the Kharis-cult high priest (played by the always wonderfully hammy John Carradine) decide to keep the babe for himself, a plan that sets none too well with Mummy dearest.
Make no mistake, The Mummy’s Ghost is not a classic by any means, but for 60 minutes of goofy, bandage-wrapped mayhem, it’s hard to beat.
House of Frankenstein (1944) — The success of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943 revealed to the Universal studio execs the potential profits in teaming up their stable of creatures. Thus were born the “monster rallys” that Universal produced through the end of the second wave. Compared to the original Frankenstein or Bride of.., House of Frankenstein amply demonstrates just how far the original franchise had fallen in terms of artistic aspirations. But for pure fun, it delivers the goods.
Boris Karloff returns to the series that made him a star, but no longer as the monster. Instead he assumes the role of mad scientist Dr. Gustav Niemann, who with his hunchbacked assistant in tow (J. Carroll Naish), busts out of prison. Along the way they cross paths with a resurrected Dracula (John Carradine), Wolf Man (still Lon Chaney, Jr.) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange, in his first outing with the square head). No further plot description is necessary, just sit back and enjoy the fun, and listen closely to the dialog. You’ll need to remember it when you’re reenacting the monster battles on the playground during recess tomorrow.