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The Beasts Within . . . Universal

Celebrating terror classics unleashed from the studio during the '20s and '30s, its heyday of horror.

October 04, 1998|Susan King | Susan King is a Times staff writer

During the 1930s, Warner Bros. was known for its gangster pictures. MGM excelled in lush period dramas. Twentieth Century Fox brightened the Depression-era with mop-top Shirley Temple. Paramount was famous for its Cecil B. DeMille spectaculars and sophisticated romantic comedies. Columbia was home to Frank Capra's comedies.

It was Universal, though, that scared the living daylights out of audiences with such masterpieces of "boo!" as "Dracula," "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein." Clever, inventive directors such as James Whale ("Frankenstein"), Tod Browning ("Dracula") and Paul Leni ("The Cat and the Canary") brought a new vision to the horror genre. Bela Lugosi's Dracula and Boris Karloff's Frankenstein monster quickly became part of popular culture.

Hollywood's house of horror is now the subject of a new documentary, "Universal Horror," premiering Friday on cable's Turner Classic Movies. The documentary is part of TCM's monthlong tribute to horror movies.

Written and directed by British film historian Kevin Brownlow ("Hollywood: A Celebration of American Silent Film," "The Unknown Chaplin") and narrated by actor Kenneth Branagh, the documentary combines archival footage from classic Universal productions, coming attractions and stills and restored sequences from silent classics such as Lon Chaney's "The Phantom of the Opera."

Included are interviews with "Titanic's" Gloria Stuart, who appeared in Whale's "The Old Dark House" and "The Invisible Man"; Lupita Tovar, who starred in Universal's Spanish-language version of "Dracula"; and science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who developed his taste for things that go bump in the night as a youngster watching these horror films.

Universal, says Brownlow, put the horror film on the map because the studio took the genre more seriously than other studios. Actually, Universal began scaring audiences as early as the '20s with Chaney's indelible performances in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Phantom of the Opera." It also set the standard for haunted house flicks with the 1927 thriller "The Cat and the Canary," directed by German Expressionist Leni.

Other studios began taking the genre seriously when the Universal films made money. "Frankenstein" alone grossed $12 million in its initial release.

"As soon as that happened, the horror style was set," he says. "Every other studio wanted to do them. 'Dracula' [in 1931] was really the beginning of the American horror film where you had a supernatural character accepted [by audiences]."

"The Universal horror classic movies have endured because of a combination of things coming together," says Bela Lugosi Jr., who appears in interviews throughout the network's horror tribute.

"You had a unique group of actors of the time who had, in my dad's case, a very classic background. The fact that he had played the role on the Broadway stage for many years, he had perfected it by the time he got to Universal. The other actors had an intensity and a way about them which was memorable. I think the filmmakers created this whole aura by all sorts of techniques with the sets, the lighting and directing. They had nurses on call [at the theaters] when they played those movies."

Brownlow says British audiences were scared even before they went into the theater, finding the thrillers so scary that children weren't allowed to see them.

"They got 'H' certificates, 'H' for horror, and the idea of going to see an 'H' certificate film was terrifying to begin with. Kids were not allowed to see these pictures over here which they were in America, which surprises us all here. They are so frightening for little kids, but kids love them."

Including Lugosi Jr. "My parents would take me to see my dad's movies when I was preschool age, like 5," he recalls, "with the local children in the neighborhood. They would be scared to death hiding behind their seats. With me, I was just watching Dad on the screen."

Still, says Brownlow, those films were restrained compared to the gruesome horror movies of today like "Halloween" or "Scream."

"The French call it 'Cinema Vomitif,' " says Brownlow, laughing. Today's filmmakers, he adds, say they are inspired by these classic films, "but one doesn't see much evidence of it. But they all pay tribute to James Whale and, of course, the characters of Lugosi and Karloff."

The documentary also examines the fact that these deformed, haunted creatures played by Chaney, Karloff and Lugosi were sort of an "unspoken comment on the terrible wounds that soldiers came back with from the First World War," Brownlow says.*

*

"Universal Horror" can be seen Friday at 5 and 8:30 p.m. on Turner Classic Movies. "The Wolf Man" will be shown Friday at 9:30 a.m; "The Mummy" on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.; "Frankenstein" on Friday at 7 p.m. and next Sunday at 11 p.m.; "The Bride of Frankenstein" on Friday at 10:30 p.m.; "Dracula" on Saturday at 5 a.m. and "The Invisible Man" on Saturday at 8 p.m.

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