Friday, October 26, 2018

Movie Review: Universal Monster Movies Retrospective

Think back to a time, long ago, before the Dark Universe failed, and before Brendan Fraser was forced to fight a CGI version of The Rock. Way, way back to the 1930's, when Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff reigned supreme, coming alive on the big screen to terrify your dreams as "children of the night." The original Universal monster movies have provided the basis for what we know as the horror genre today. In the spirit of Halloween, we decided to watch and review many of these films to see where and how some of these iconic characters created creeps and scares lo those many years ago.

Dracula 1931 movie still Bela Lugosi
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-"Dracula" (1931): Tod Browning's adaptation of "Dracula" offers one of the most iconic, often imitated versions of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) ever put to celluloid. The film has a stage play-feel as the most interesting moments are talked about on-screen but happen off-screen. Still, its old-school charm, the creepy aesthetic, and the terrifying look of Lugosi as Dracula make this movie excel where other copy-cats have failed. 8/10
Frankenstein 1931 movie still Boris Karloff
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-"Frankenstein" (1931): Directed by James Whale, "Frankenstein" is a story of obsession, madness, and tragedy, how man's quest for greatness often leads to his own downfall. We love "Frankenstein" and think it is one of the best, most timeless films in the Universal monster movie collection. The story of The Monster (Boris Karloff) is painfully sad as he is a misunderstood creation unequipped for our world. The acting from both Karloff and Colin Clive (as Dr. Henry Frankenstein) is fantastic. Clive's reaction to creating The Monster is unmatched even today. The makeup work of Karloff's Monster is exceptional. It is one of the greatest monster makeups of all time and has become synonymous with Frankenstein's Monster throughout the decades. This is a wonderful piece of cinema. 8.5/10
The Mummy 1932 movie still Boris Karloff
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-"The Mummy" (1932): Though "The Mummy" may have the most sought-after movie poster of the Universal horror classics, the titular Mummy does not have the same iconic presence that many of the other antagonists in this universe have. Considering that he spends most of the film in a fez rather than in mummy wrappings, it's not hard to see why. That being said, Boris Karloff does a great job as Imhotep, and director Karl Freund captures some spooky imagery throughout this movie's short runtime. The lighting and other visual effects used in the tight shots of Karloff's withered face are masterful. "The Mummy" also has a great film score that adds to the atmosphere while Imhotep casts his spells. Overall, this is a good, moody horror romance that transcends time. 7.5/10
The Invisible Man 1933 movie still Claude Rains Gloria Stewart
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-"The Invisible Man" (1933): Director James Whale returns to the Universal Monsterverse to create what was a technical marvel of its time in "The Invisible Man." We can't imagine how innovative it must have been to create an invisible character with the technology from 1933. Beyond the stellar visuals, this manages to be a massively entertaining movie that combines both comedy and horror. Claude Rains is fantastic as the titular Invisible Man and does a wonderful job portraying the character's slow fall into madness. It remains the best film we have seen with an invisible lead character. 8/10
Bride of Frankstein 1935 movie still Boris Karloff Elsa Lanchester
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-"Bride of Frankenstein" (1935): Director James Whale helms yet another Universal monster project with "Bride of Frankenstein." This is the only sequel we watched during our retrospective. This time around, Frankenstein seems to have buckets of comedy mixed into his grunts and screams as The Monster tokes up on cigars and becomes very fond of orchestral music and the drink. This movie still has the same type of tragic themes we saw in the original, which adds an endearing quality to the story. We feel for The Monster's desire for friendship and his constant rejections due to his appearance. There's also a bit of social commentary about how monsters can be created because of a lack of compassion from others. Also, is this the first instance of toxic masculinity on film? Because the Bride awakens and rebukes the Monster's advances, then he kills everyone. Sounds like it to us! This movie is not as good as the original, but overall, it can be enjoyable from time to time. 6.5/10
The Wolf Man 1941 movie still Lon Chaney Jr
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-"The Wolf Man" (1941): George Waggner's "The Wolf Man" brings Lon Chaney Jr., son of the late, great Lon Chaney, into the Universal Monster world. This picture deals with a man's loss of control and could be seen as a metaphor for psychosis. The original intention was to leave whether or not Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) was actually a werewolf ambiguous to let the audience decide whether or not he was crazy or a monster. It would have been an intriguing concept, but we're glad it didn't turn out this way. Why? Have you seen the incredibly memorable and detailed monster makeup on display here?! Talk about iconic! As Talbot and others question his sanity, he gets stuck in a catch-22 where in order to prove his sanity, he must admit to being a monster. Not a great position to be in. At just 70 minutes long, "The Wolf Man" is a breeze to watch, and though it is not our favorite Universal monster movie, we still find it very enjoyable. 7.5/10
Phantom of the Opera 1943 movie still Claude Rains
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-"Phantom of the Opera" (1943): And now, we enter a world of color and music for director Arthur Lubin's "Phantom of the Opera." This is the least monstrous of the Universal horror classics we watched for this retrospective. It simply plays out a standard "murder by madman" narrative. It's incredible how easily Enrique Claudin (Claude Rains) takes to killing people with little thought or apprehension. Despite being turned into a musical many decades later, this incarnation of the material has music but is not a musical since the songs don't push the narrative forward. It takes place at an opera, so, of course, people are going to sing! If anything, these musical numbers interfere with the narrative and slow down the pace of the storytelling exponentially. There isn't much tension or fear to be had as The Phantom isn't on screen enough to make an impact as a villain. Most of the other characters seem indifferent to his actions. No one appears to be freaked out about the horrible string of murders going on until the very end of the film. Despite our critiques, we do believe Claude Rains gives a wonderful performance. 6/10
Creature from the Black Lagoon 1945 movie still
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-"Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954): Director Jack Arnold explores our natural fear of the unknown in this literal creature-feature. "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" shows audiences a battle between man and nature as the search for knowledge by a group of scientists leads them face-to-face with a dangerous, undiscovered "Gill Man." The "Gill Man" is somewhat sympathetic because it is an intelligent creature that is viewed merely as a subject to be studied by a scientist who is more interested in headlines than actual research. The effects design is terrific considering the era, especially since the costume had to be used underwater. This is also the first Universal monster flick in the collection to utilize the jump scare. The creature pops into rame as the score volume shoots up dramatically, with a grating tone intended to frighten audience members. This might be a simple story, but it's still a fun one. 7/10

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