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It's ali-i-ive! The Belcourt's Universal Horror tribute lets loose the original monster squad

Gods and Monsters

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Whether stalking across movie screens, cathode ray tubes, or LCD displays, the monsters created by Universal Studios have been with us for more than 80 years. They have become pop culture archetypes and the standard that all subsequent interpretations of the characters are judged by. Over the next two weeks, the Belcourt is bringing a sampling of the very best of Universal horror back to its original lair, the movie screen, and all from beautiful 35mm prints.

The series kicks off this Thursday, Oct. 18, with the 1925 Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera. While not strictly a horror film, it is the grandest of Chaney's portrayals of unloved misfits whose outward scars mirror their damaged souls. And Chaney's Phantom was the first of many iconic fiends to emerge from the Universal lot. Seeing this silent classic in its restored form (including the magnificent Technicolor grand masquerade sequence) is an event not to be missed; the sparkle on the chandelier is live accompaniment by the internationally acclaimed Alloy Orchestra, whose previous sold-out Belcourt appearances ended in standing ovations.

Next up, Oct. 20-21, is a double feature of the films that forever established the link between the words "Universal" and "horror": Dracula and Frankenstein, both from 1931. While age has been less kind to the staginess and plodding pace of Tod Browning's Dracula, it still retains its place as a classic thanks to Bela Lugosi's overpowering screen presence. Frankenstein, on the other hand, still lives up to its reputation and more, as director James Whale burns Mary Shelley's creation myth into the collective consciousness of pop culture.

The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), screening as a double feature Oct. 23-24, are both revelations to modern viewers — proof that Dracula and Frankenstein were merely a warm-up for greater achievements. Directed by one of the most innovative and important cinematographers in cinema history, Karl Freund, The Mummy is a visual delight and an engaging dark fantasy that gave Boris Karloff the chance to demonstrate his full range as an actor. The Invisible Man is marked by a bravura performance from Claude Rains in his first American film. Director James Whale was simultaneously inventing the modern and post-modern horror film, using pioneering special effects that are still impressive today while introducing notes of black comedy and auto-critique that place the movie beyond the scope of mere sensation.

These are followed Oct. 28-29 by the two greatest achievements of Universal's horror factory, Edgar G. Ulmer's masterpiece of stylish depravity The Black Cat (1934) and James Whale's sublime The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Besides teaming Karloff and Lugosi for the first time, The Black Cat still stands as one of American cinema's most disturbing examples of Grand Guignol, with a plot that (oddly enough) anticipates The Rocky Horror Picture Show by stranding two honeymooners in a castle filled with satanists and torturers. (It also makes a fine complement to the Frist Center's new German Expressionism exhibit — Ulmer's earlier work as an assistant to Nosferatu director F.W. Murnau serves him well here.) The Bride of Frankenstein expands on the elements Whale introduced in The Invisible Man to create one of most intensely personal and glorious visions of horror and fantasy ever produced.

The closing film in the series, scheduled perfectly for Halloween night, is the best example of Universal's 1950s shift from gothic ghouls to atom-age terrors: Jack Arnold's The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) in its original 3D, a Belcourt first. A tale of modern man (and particularly woman) meeting prehistoric lust and desire, embodied by what is still one of the best-designed creatures in the history of movies, it's a potent mix of cheesy Saturday-serial heroics and sexual undertones that threaten to claw their way to the surface like the webbed hand the Gill Man extends toward the viewer.

It's easy to write these off now as musty antiquities, compared to today's CGI massacres and torture-porn excesses. But their coded perversions rival anything in the Hostel registry for kink, and these atmospheric, deeply suggestive movies still deliver on their imagination-bound contract with horror fans seeking the dark and forbidden — even if their main thrill these days is one of nostalgia. For any adult who keeps a treasured stash of Famous Monsters or Psychotronic magazines, encountering the Creature and his Universal brethren again isn't a date with terror but a reunion with old friends.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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