their characters have become iconic, the now classic fantasy monster films of
Universal Studios have suffered a reputation of creakiness, cheap thrills, poor
characterization and logic gaps. While the images of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula,
Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, and Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of
Frankenstein dominate magazine covers, notebooks, posters, mugs and other
collectibles, the series of movies that introduced these characters seems to
get very little respect from film historians. A step in the right direction to
correct this is the excellent new book The Monster Movies of Universal Studios
by James L. Neibaur, published by Rowman and Littlefield. In this fascinating
new study, the author puts Universal’s horror series into proper historical
context. Unlike other books on the subject, Neibaur has limited his focus to
films that feature one or more of Universal’s line-up of monsters. This book concentrates
on the classic era, with the range of focus highlighting movies from 1931
through 1956. Any movie made by
Universal Studios during this period with Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the
Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon
is discussed in-depth with a chapter devoted to each feature, twenty nine movies
in all. These include all of the sequels and films that blended fantasy and
comedy elements when Universal paired up their monsters with their house comedy
duo Abbott and Costello. The book is an impressive work of film scholarship and
shines a spotlight on classic Hollywood moviemaking by looking at one of the longest
film series at a major studio.
disappointed that Neibaur didn’t discuss such mystery and horror offerings from
Universal during this period such as The Old Dark House and Murders in the Rue
Morgue (both 1932) shouldn’t be. The focus on the monsters makes the book a one-
of- a- kind study devoted to characters that seem to always be taken for
granted. While Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) is celebrated for it’s
daring, unconventional storyline, the films that feature the monsters seem to
get lumped in with low budget movies from a later era. In fact, movies such as
The Invisible Man (1933), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Dracula’s
Daughter (1936) share more in common with The Black Cat than just being made at
the same studio. The author restores these films to their proper place as
valuable works of cinematic art.
isn’t to say that when there are jumps in narrative logic, especially evident
in the later movies, Neibaur doesn’t point them out. However, even these
assembly line B films are given more respect in this book then in previous
studies of the Universal genre catalog. The usual pattern of writers discussing
movies made during the Great Depression and World War II is to highlight the
escapism and lighthearted nature that many of those films exhibit. Examples
that prove this pattern include the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers cycle at RKO, the
Topper films, etc. In this work Neibaur presents a different argument- that the
monster series presented something very real to fight against, a threat that
personified the evils of economic crisis and foreign fascism. Given this
argument, it is somewhat less hard to believe that the horror series at
Universal would decline in popularity after the war ended.
addition to the nation’s and the world’s economy fluctuating during the time of
the Monster films covered in this book, it was also true that there were money
problems at Universal as well. First, Universal founder Carl Laemmle Sr.
borrowed too heavily and lost control of the studio. It was then decided at
that time that the horror series would continue as B films, relegated to a more
factory mode of filmmaking. Whereas Universal’s monster series began with cinematic
artists such as Tod Browning and James Whale helming Dracula and Frankenstein
(both 1931), the series ended with Jean Yarbrough directing She-Wolf of London
(1946) in a decidedly non-flourished way, with cost cutting in mind. The
contrast couldn’t be more evident as She-Wolf is a film with a Scooby-Doo like
ending, a far cry from the earlier films that embraced supernatural elements
such as vampirism, invisibility, lycanthropy or fantastic science that brought
life to the dead through lightning or tana leaves. It’s interesting to note
that when the B movie factory mode of the series finally ran its course, a
happy ending was not in the cards.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Although 1946 is a coda of sorts for the Universal monster series, it is not the final word. Unlike other books on the franchise, Neibaur ends his survey on the Universal monsters with The Creature Walks Among Us, which was released in 1956. A few months after the movie’s release, Bela Lugosi, the star of Universal’s first foray into monster movies, died. This makes the year 1956 a true ending point and a valid place to conclude the book.
Each chapter is full of behind the scenes information and welcome analysis into the filmmaking process. It’s clear that Neibaur has studied the screenplays for these films, as he points out in The Wolf Man (1941) chapter that the script written by Curt Siodmak never mentions Larry Talbot turning into a werewolf. Another example is the chapter on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) where the author points out that the exchange banter between Lou Costello and the character of McDougal wasn’t originally in the screenplay. He also details the director’s choices and how that affects each film. Things like shot construction, use of negative space and lighting are discussed and are welcome additions to movies that are sometimes seen as just assembly line end products. Many of the chapters contain rare trade ads, which give insight into how Universal marketed these films to theater owners. In addition to contemporary reviews of each movie, some of the chapters reference a series in the Motion Picture Herald called “What The Picture Did For Me,” in which theater exhibitors wrote in to the Herald and discussed how well certain films did at their theaters. This is a viewpoint of film history that sometimes gets ignored and it is to the credit of the author’s research that he has included these very welcome additions in certain chapters.
The Monster Movies of Universal Studios is a great book on the history of one of Hollywood’s oldest franchises. This past summer, efforts to start a new Universal monster movie series seem to have faltered, as the big budget The Mummy with Tom Cruise was a critical and commercial failure. It’s fascinating to realize that despite a low budget and the difficulties in making early sound movies, the 1932 The Mummy is a much better movie then the 2017 remake. When resurrecting the franchise, much was made how the team at Universal was looking to tie all of their movies together and looked at the way Marvel Studios was capable of that. As Neibaur’s book shows, none of that mattered to the original series of movies. In fact, from film to film they frequently brought back to life a monster that had been destroyed in the previous film. Still, each film was able to stand on it’s own as a good achievement in moviemaking. The book is an excellent look at studio and genre filmmaking in a bygone era. It is the perfect Halloween read.