|The Monsters of Universal (and Masters of the Horror Universe.)|
What is it about horror? A reasonable person would veer from any form of storytelling, visual or otherwise, that involves anything even resembling the realm of terror, yet we collectively, gluttonously feast upon such things like Tantalus unchained. While getting a chill up the spine or getting a little shock treatment can cause quite the pleasurable burst of adrenaline-- the heart races, the body sweats in a psychological sex tease-- I think the appeal of this genre goes quite deeper than the superficial, physical sensations it induces. Looking particularly at the epic success of the Universal Monsters of the '30s and '40s, one can't help but be moved by the passion the public still maintains for these immortal beloveds-- all in various stages of decay, sanity, and even inter-special transition. People don't line up at theaters or bulk up their DVD collections because they really look forward to biting their nails. They seek revelation of some deeper, forbidden part of themselves. They long for a cathartic release of the beast within or for a symbolic figure to rebel against society, which too often misunderstands and seeks to suffocate each individual's "otherness."
For example, the mystic gift of Chaney and his rapport with the public is attributed to the twisted natures-- physical and mental-- of his characterizations, which were in sync with the sometimes crippled, limbless, and scarred soldiers returning from the Great War-- altered men who in many ways were mere shadows of their former selves. Chaney gave them their spirit back, hence the success of the repulsive yet empathetic villain in Universal's "The Phantom of the Opera." No one blamed the malformed Erik for being mad. Life had slowly built him that way, one painful day at a time.
We are all monsters. We internally envision ourselves as outcasts, deviants, and madmen. Thus, when the perfect symbols of ourselves are given the liberty to wreak havoc and cause a little much needed destruction, we all breathe a sigh of relief-- even if it comes out as a scream. It is sometimes terrifying to look yourself in the face, yet you look, because something lives in that reflection that both beguiles you but is uncannily familiar. Looking into your double face just feels right, even when it's "wrong." The following is an analysis of these demon children who grew up to be the Godfathers (and mother) of our tragically lost souls.
DRACULA: The Sex Fiend
Dracula (1931) was the first official Universal "monster." Hitching their wagon to the star of the Broadway sensation of the hit play, the studio latched onto the tall, imposing, and frightfully foreign Bela Lugosi (left) and created a totally new genre. While Chaney had created freaks, killers, and hard-nosed tough guys with hearts, the anti-hero of Dracula was different. He wasn't interested in the heart. He wanted blood. While his appeal was seductive, emphasizing the ideology that sex is not about love but power, he didn't make choices based on any emotional reason. His methods were biologically fueled. He had to feed, and the exchange of fluids through blood--exposing the sexual act as a purely primal and shamelessly visceral experience-- suddenly became a thoroughly naughty, but not altogether unheard of, experience of both pleasure and pain. Dracula was the root of this natural impulse when not bedecked in lace and church hymnals. Only bad guys have that kind of dirty sex. Jonathan Harker was small potatoes next to the burning fury of Count Dracula. Lugosi's totally composed and supremely confident veneer could instantly transform to uncontrollable hostility when the mood struck him. The foreplay and interaction with the humans who would become his meal were mere entertainment for him-- a game. Like a serial killer/rapist, he craved the hunt and the orgasmic release of the final act. His guiltless conquest for it night after night made him both terribly fearful and deathly sexy.
Tod Browning's direction was not flawless. He did not have the technology or immediate know-how to create the special effects without his silent tricks to make Dracula's transitions from man to bat, or bat to smoke, seamless. These innovations would quickly improve over the coming years, but this new branch of the medium was in its infancy. So, when a rubber bat awkwardly flutters over Mina's (Helen Chandler) head, it's a bit laughable, by today's standards at least. The dialogue is also awkward, and the actors seem self-conscious and stiff. This, in Browning's defense, was a mere result of timing. Tod was coming off an extremely successful silent film career, wherein he had created his own style with his particularly distorted perspective on life and art. Now, he had to learn how to transition his purely visual capabilities into the instantly permanent world of the "talkies." However, the skill of the director and his perverted sense of humanity is still palpable in the moments of stillness and silence. His capture of Lugosi's movements, the sliver of light cast across his hypnotic eyes, the camera dollying forward under his spell-- these are the touches that made this a phenomenon in its time, as it remains today.
Why do we still love Dracula? Bela, with his threatening otherness and his selfish, caveman depravity-- picking off beautiful women left and right, either leaving them for dead or making them eternal "bitches" in his undead harem-- is forever the Dark Pimp. He is our constantly subdued bad-ass penchants set hedonistically free. The subversive nature of the story and its inference into human lust and the sadomasochism of the male-female relationship-- the kinky dominatrix versus the submissive object-- make it identifiable on an innate but heavily cloaked level of brutal human understanding. Both the villain and victim roles are forms of rebellion and surrender. Each combats the chaos of the world in its own way, either by submitting to their baser nature by seizing control of one the visceral experience that remains pliable in their hands (I will destroy you!), or otherwise yielding to such an imposing counter-power and, in doing so, fostering their compulsion for self destruction, (Go on, destroy me!). At the film's end, we are of course instructed that such cravings are evil, which is why we must clutch the cross tightly to our breasts and keep these urges at bay. To do otherwise, would just be bad manners. Yet, it is not the victorious and cerebral Van Helsing that people hold up as a hero. We prefer the guy who gives life to fantasy, even in death. (Right with Chandler).
FRANKENSTEIN'S MONSTER: The Puppet
Boris Karloff's haunting interpretation of the most misunderstood of God's Godless creatures (left) in Frankenstein (1931) remains the fan favorite for most. He is a being who has been raped from the earth, forced into an existence he did not ask for, and programmed to ignore his instincts and obey his master. He was not supposed to be. He was not made of star dust; he was born of lightning, which makes him a product of the pagan divinity Jupiter, I suppose. He is also a mere child, one with a diseased brain that seems absent of any memory of its past life. There too we see that he is a reincarnation, a returned and damned man from the other side. He knows not where he came from, nor where he's going, and he is baffled by what he is. Again, he did not come from the spirit world. He is a natural, unnatural character of the dirt. From his first step into the light before his audience, the haunted look in his eyes and the uncertain, clumsy, and sluggish movements reveal that he is not a threat. He is instantly a victim, one frowned upon as a freak for his innate divergence from the norm. In his struggle for identity, his initial acquiescence turns to rebellion against his enforced role as a pawn in the rich man's game (Colin Clive as the Doctor-- a man playing God because he can afford to and he believes that the ends justify his self-serving, pride-filled delusions of grandeur).
The doctor is the parent who thoughtlessly has a child because he thinks it will fulfill his own destiny. The gift of life is something to defy his own tenuous grasp on mortality, a reflection of himself, and his name metaphorically tattooed on the flesh of the genetic landscape of another: I was here. He's right to fulfill man's biological, creative urge, but his motives are so self-centered and misdirected that he nonchalantly refuses to take heed of the responsibilities this creation of life demands. He is not a good father. His child is a trophy on the wall-- something he has accomplished. He has made himself a man, but he fails to instruct his son of his own independent manhood. The Monster has no identity, no knowledge, he is helpless and reliant upon only his daddy and what serves as his own brutish instinct-- again, that cave man root at our core. He lashes out when frightened, when intimidated, or when fighting for a small corner of territory, but his maturity is stunted. "The Man" keeps him in chains. The pain and innocence that Karloff was able to incorporate beneath his heavily-lidded eyes, hulking form, and intimidating size is amazing. James Whale's portrait of this childlike nature is best exemplified in the iconic scene where the Monster tosses flowers into the lake only to become frustrated and toss his little girl friend in as well. This was not an act of malice. It was not premeditated. The Monster, vulnerable and unlearned, lashed out as the house cat that has been held too long and scratches at the face to be free.
Whatever way one chooses to unpack the many themes within the film, the questions of life and death, God and Man, and Man vs. Man, are the ones most obviously studied and shared within the mind and heart of the viewer. The Monster is a tool, robbed of divine, independent purpose as soon as he enters the world. He is to serve the mortal who made him, not his own spiritual enlightenment nor his own urges. In a world where we most often feel like dancing monkeys in another man's show, the Monster remains our sad, emblematic clown. He conveys our need for escape (right), to take what it is we have been given and explore life in our own way instead of being tailored to suit the greater needs of those who seek to control us. We are all lost babes in the woods, grappling with the painful experience of life, its brevity, its seeming purposelessness. To question what is beyond-- and the Monster is what is beyond-- is to inflict the heavy burden of the nature of existence onto your world weary back, where you will also find a target. Reveal any mark of societal disparity or greater questions, and you will have tossed a wrench into the well-oiled machinery of life as we (choose to) know it. As such, you will be chased out of said society with torches. Your life is not in your hands nor under your power. You were born to serve. You were born to die. When the Monster was killed (or so we thought), we all felt better. Not because the world was a better or safer place without him, but because he was free of it. God may not have blessed him, but we still do.
THE MUMMY: The Lover
"Karloff the Uncanny" delivered the second of his most popular creations when he returned (again) as the undead. The Mummy (1932), under unflinching the eye of director Karl Freund, is horror's most romantic tale. Sure, it's about a rotting corpse who is reawakened from ancient days by modern fools who have no respect for the living or dead. Sure, he's hell-bent on vengeance. Sure he's a creeper... But, Imhotep died for love. He waited for centuries-- in Hell? In silent suffocation? In misery?-- to find this love again and reunite with her. A man in love can be dangerous, particularly this one. He's already been buried alive, punished for defying the Gods, and robbed of his heart's desire once. He is the unstoppable wooer who woos the object into submission through sheer persistence and willpower. How can you intimidate such a person or stop him? You can't. He's indestructible. He possesses a power that cannot be fathomed, fueled by some sort of dark deal he must have made with the Devil himself-- or the Egyptian equivalent. His one frailty is the woman who has kept his tell tale heart beating within the tomb. Until he obtains her love again, he will have no satisfaction. He will remain a shadow, waiting in pain for her return and for the consummation of a love that even time cannot kill. He will not let you get in his way. When a guy meets the girl... game over.
The asexual quality of Karloff is what makes his Monsters so interesting. Imhotep, who reintroduces himself into the mortal realm as Ardeth Bay, is not an attractive man with his sunken eyes and cheeks, a strange lisping voice from the ancient days, and an odd choice of clothing. He is not the golden haired, muscular, masculine hero on overdrive that you read about in sappy love stories. He is just a man, and thus he possesses the romantic idealism of a real man-- a lovesick freak at heart. Love comes not easily to everyone, and Imhotep's unlikely winning of Princess Anck-Su-Namun so long ago makes the loss of that devotion even more devastating. He is a tragic hero in his normality and unimpressive looks. He is the geek that landed the prom queen. As such, he has not tasted the fleeting nature of emotion that most experience-- that tinged with lust and left to taper and die. He knows the effects of true love, and true love never dies. Imhotep, therefore, is every man who has ever fallen into the abyss of obsessive love. He too is every man who has asked the pretty girl to the dance and been intercepted by the hotter guy (David Manners). Why do girls go for shallow fools when there are impassioned vessels of desire waiting to play their humble servants? To treat them like Goddesses? To worship at their feet? This sexual/romantic frustration is what fuels Imhotep, who uses entrancement to get the reincarnation of his long lost love (Zita Johann) back into his arms.
Acting out on behalf of the underdogs everywhere-- the undead, the acned, the overweight, the undesired-- by not only taking down anyone who gets in his path-- descendants of the madmen who wrapped him up and shut him away (in what I consider to be the most terrifying moment in the film)-- but by locking his woman down (right). He has burned, he has pined, he has perished... It's her turn. It's her turn to serve him, in this life and the next. Imhotep has come back with swagger and centuries of desire have made him both desperate and immovable. Don't let his thin frame fool you. He is packing rage from the ages. If anthropology teaches us nothing else, it is that human being continue to do crazy, mad, even despicable things for love. Sadly, the Mummy does not get his way, and this makes both him and the movie poignantly tragic. True love stories don't always end as "happily ever afters." For we regular folks, there is just a fleeting possibility of great love. Some don't get a love story at all nor do they get to experience the exaggerated life or death intensity of it-- at least not while holding their beloved's hand. Thus, Imhotep's victory was in the trying. Most of us possess the same level of passion for life and love, but few of us are brave enough to embrace it. In this at least, the Mummy was victorious.
THE INVISIBLE MAN: The Id
The Invisible Man (1933) may boast the most truly despicable of all Universal villains (left). While it could be argued that Dracula was more evil, one could not say with all confidence that he was innately so. His origin, his turn to the nocturnal life of the God forsaken, is unknown to us, our theories of the source of his malice pure conjecture. It is as if he always was-- one of Heaven's fallen angels. He was, in whatever fashion, created, just as the Monster and his Bride. The Mummy was a banished soul, the Creature from the Black Lagoon was a soldier of and for Mother Nature, the Wolf Man was accursed... The Phantom of the Opera (1943), interestingly also a a faceless Claude Rains creation, is the only other psychopath on par with the invisible scientist Jack Griffin, whose downward spiral is a choice. The entity that is left when he surrenders his mortal flesh-- his appearance of humanity-- is composed entirely of wicked abandon, total self-interest, intense loathing, bitterness, and homicidal tendencies. He is known to frolic naked and cackle maniacally at the joke of human vulnerability and fear. His conscience, his compassion, his sympathy are as vacant as his form. From the original novel by H.G. Wells to James Whale's cinematic interpretation, we are left to deduce that the bare essence of humanity is a Devil. Griffin didn't need to be pushed, bitten, or condemned to become the morally deprived menace he transforms into. He just needed to chip away at the charade of civility to unleash the Hell hound within.
A man ungoverned and totally at liberty, immune to judgment, and possessing something akin to an omniscient power, Griffin can through his pure stealth terrorize for the sake of terrorizing, seemingly penetrate walls, be as the fly on the wall, and-- with no one to account to-- be as bad as he may, devil-may-care. He is thus our inner deviant child-- the little son of a bitch that whispers in the ear and makes us think sinful thoughts, enjoys pulling girls pig-tails, and bullying kids on the playground. This is why we find I actions at times hilarious-- a fact Whale picked up on with his ever astute sense of humor. We would probably perform pretty horrid actions were it not for the learned behavior of cooperation with decency. Imagine being free of the need to "behave." Every rude or politically incorrect thought one has ever had, can suddenly be spoken aloud when there is no shame of having to face the consequences. With no face, and nothing to hide, the lurking ghost that haunts our better judgment can easily take the wheel and use it to ram the car of reason into brick walls, over cliffs, or straight into a pool of sitting-duck pedestrians. Anyone who annoys you can be bitch-slapped. Anyone you've wanted to publicly embarrass, humiliate, or hurt, you are free to harass. There are no boundaries. Who wouldn't go drunk with power? The trouble is that this little demon child has run amok for too long. Just as loss of order turns people into looting, raping, and pillaging animals, so too does the complete lack of restraint birth a murderous, ravenous, incendiary character who has no remaining goodness to counterbalance his ever increasing catalogue of sins.
We all have certain vanities that, were they left unchecked, would lead us down a checkered path. Griffin's flaw was his greed-- his need to indulge his God complex-- a popular theme in the Monster films-- by making a great scientific discovery. Using himself as his own test subject, because he lacks the patience or the ability to share the glory of his innovation, he further feeds his narcissism. Certainly, he will be remembered as Jonas Salk for providing the masses with his genius discovery. Be careful what you wish for... It is not the Devil with whom Griffin has made a bad deal, but himself. He made himself the God of science and is neither answerable to nor able to blame the God of Man. He concocted the potion. He performed the disappearing act. He condemned himself to shapeless limbo. He too is the one that chooses malevolence over humility when he arrives at a place of existential confusion. As such, he is the Devil we all have on our shoulders grown large. It is fitting that he disappear-- that this level of self love and selfish abandon be invisible to the naked eye. The more he submerges himself in his most insane desires, the more he loses touch with reality and banishes himself to some foreign and utterly contemptible level of consciousness. It is only after this demon is exorcised that the real Griffin reappears-- a malicious voice finally given a face. With Rains' tense and crazed movements when visible in his robes and bandages, and the perfectly snarky, heedless, and toying cadences of his voice, he creates one of the most sinister horror villains that never was. We recognize the crookedness of Griffin, and we even envy him for being able to be so unabashedly, unapologetically crooked for awhile. Still, man needs order to survive. The alternative is chaos. If this movie doesn't scare someone straight, I don't know what will. (The Invisible Man's skeletal face of absence, his soul already cast to the oblivion of his demonic mania, right).
To Be Continued in Part Two...