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Guest Blog: Scott Essman’s They’re Still Alive – The Universal Classic Monsters

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In celebration of the October 2nd Blu-ray release of the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection from Universal Studios Home Entertainment, veteran horror historian Scott Essman has prepared a truly monstrous trip back through time for you classic horror fans!

Guest Blog: Scott Essman's They're Still Alive - The Universal Classic Monsters

It’s a quiet dusty morning in the summer of 1916 and all but a small eastern region of the San Fernando Valley is largely undeveloped, to say nothing of unpopulated. For the past year, inside of an unassuming front gate just over the hill from Los Angeles proper, two men are trying to forge their path in the fledgling motion picture business: Lon Chaney and Jack Pierce. Nascent actors Chaney, 33, and Pierce, 27, were completely unknown, but each had an angle; they could both work magic out of a simple makeup case, fully transforming their faces and even parts of their bodies to put themselves into a better position to be cast in a role. They often worked out of Universal’s “bullpen,” getting chosen to play Indians, cowboys, pirates, or virtually any part called for in the roundup of silent shorts at the time. Little did these men know that, less than a decade later, they would initiate a cinematic movement that would change history.

Of course, the place was Universal Pictures, which had been founded by Carl Laemmle, a former midwestern haberdasher who consolidated several distribution enterprises into one operation in 1912, then claimed the named land, opening Universal City in 1915. Surely, Chaney and Pierce engaged in very different career trajectories, but both became key players in the boom of both Universal and the American monster movie. With Universal now celebrating its 100th anniversary, those early years are an essential chapter in the studio’s history, the days when the brand surged to new heights at the box office by taking giddy moviegoers into the dungeon depths of their collective imagination. The magic of those characters, films, actors and filmmakers has never really left us, ever since Dr. Frankenstein famously bellowed, “It’s alive!

Even after leaving Universal to become a freelance actor in 1918, Chaney returned to make the smash hit The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Universal in 1923. Although the grotesque titular character was a makeup landmark, “Hunchback” was never considered a horror film and Quasimodo not a horror character, that honor not bestowed upon Chaney until his next Universal film, made as a loaner from the newly formed MGM Studios. The Phantom of the Opera in 1925 was another unbridled hit, with Chaney’s unmasking as the named Phantom resonating as an all-time classic moment in cinema.

Guest Blog: Scott Essman's They're Still Alive - The Universal Classic Monsters

Taylor White, publisher of The Man of a Thousand Faces, a book of Bill Nelson’s illustrations of Chaney’s vast and varied characters, noted why the Phantom has resonated among Universal’s greatest characters. “Chaney’s Phantom continues to be an indelible character for two reasons,” White said. “On the exterior, Chaney’s unforgettable makeup is still terrifying and obviously set the standard long before any other classic monster. And second, Chaney’s skills as an actor managed to convey both the physical pain and emotional wrenching of a shattered heart in losing his beloved Christine.


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Thus was set in motion the trademark for a studio which was nonetheless long regarded a second-tier operation. Speculation that Chaney would have returned to Universal for additional horror films in the sound era has been widely disputed. His death in 1930 ended any such possibilities, but by then, new faces in the Universal upper echelons set the studio on a new course within horror. Carl Laemmle Jr. had been promoted to the head of production by his father as a 21st birthday present in 1927, which left him running Universal City’s operations and personally selecting such projects as The Man Who Laughs, a late silent hit, and two early 1930s films which to this day define the studio.

Dracula and Frankenstein were both released in 1931, only nine months apart, and set new standards in many moviemaking categories. Dracula is often criticized for its slow pacing and stagy underpinnings, but Lugosi’s performance, perfected on Broadway in the late 1920s, remains indelible and haunting to this day. Surely, Jack Pierce’s work as makeup department head of Universal at the time cannot be understated, though he did not have the chance to create anything elaborate for Béla Lugosi as Count Dracula, the actor putting the kibosh on Chaney-esque makeup concepts. Pierce reserved the complete makeover for Boris Karloff on Frankenstein, planned just a few months after Dracula’s success mandated that the studio follow it up as soon as possible. When director James Whale was brought onto the former picture, Pierce had the license to test different makeups which ultimately required both Laemmle Jr. and Whale’s approval. As Alec Gillis, a makeup and creature master for over 25 years stated, “Frankenstein was the perfect storm of Jack Pierce at the top of his game, with makeup techniques refined enough but not too much, and Boris Karloff at his most cadaverous and brilliant.”

Guest Blog: Scott Essman's They're Still Alive - The Universal Classic Monsters

Surely, Karloff’s metamorphosis from barely regarded character actor to international superstar in Frankenstein is due in large part to Pierce’s techniques and Whale’s direction, as director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) explained. “Jack Pierce’s makeup combined with Boris Karloff’s remarkable performance make the Frankenstein Monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein the most memorable and iconic of the Universal monsters,” Landis said. “Karloff makes the Monster both vulnerable and sympathetic and yet powerful and terrifying when the moment calls for it.

But just as compelling as Whale’s direction and Pierce’s makeup magic on Frankenstein are less heralded elements, such as costume design, art direction and cinematography. Vera West was Pierce’s counterpart as Universal’s longtime head of costume design and contributed the gothic period designs in the film while Charles D. Hall, the studio’s head art director, built the timeless sets for the film, including the castle-bound laboratory set for the opening half, most vividly seen during the climactic “creation” sequence. Director of photography Arthur Edeson undershoots Karloff’s creature in nearly every moment, an approach that has influenced legions of films, both within the horror genre and otherwise. In one more obscure example, witness how Edeson shoots Karloff’s first entry as the Monster as he turns around in the doorway to the castle interior. Edeson frames the creature in three progressively closer shots, a series mirrored in James Cameron’s The Terminator. Watch as the Terminator endoskeleton emerges from the fiery truck explosion at the end of the film; Cameron and cinematographer Adam Greenberg more than quote Edeson’s shots – they are nearly identical.

Guest Blog: Scott Essman's They're Still Alive - The Universal Classic Monsters

During the Laemmle era, Universal capitalized on their triumphant year by following 1931 with an active horror output in 1932-1936 before the founding family had to sell the studio due to mid-Great Depression financial crises. From 1932’s The Mummy, another masterpiece of slow-building terror with an unprecedented Pierce makeup and Karloff characterization, to Whale’s The Invisible Man introducing the striking persona of Claude Rains, to several Karloff-Lugosi pairings, the studio produced many unforgettable films at the time. Arguably the crown jewel of the mid-1930s Universal output is 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, which many consider the finest of the films in many respects. Elsa Lanchester as the named Bride created a remarkable vision of ghoulish beauty, even more impressive when considering she is only onscreen as the wordless creation a few scant minutes at the end of the film. Karloff, given the chance to speak as the Monster, offers one of his best screen performances in Bride, and in tandem with the first Frankenstein film, makes the character recognizable to most any age audience member of any era. Karloff historian Ron MacCloskey elaborated on the timeless nature of Karloff’s appearance. “The look of the Monster, with the flat head, scars and electrodes on the neck, is seen every Halloween,” said MacCloskey. “Even the movements of the Monster—stiff legs, arms outstretched—are all immediately identifiable.

Guest Blog: Scott Essman's They're Still Alive - The Universal Classic Monsters


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Alas, with the Laemmles out, regime change dictated a shift in philosophy at the studio in the late 1930s, and for a time, it seemed that the Universal monster film had indeed died. But audience demand necessitated a quickly-arranged sequel, and at the end of the decade, Son of Frankenstein debuted. Featuring Karloff in his final turn as the Monster and Lugosi, in one of his best performances as the wretch, Ygor, the third Frankenstein film might not have had the facility for fascinating audiences as the first two films, but it ushered in a slew of additional Universal genre films – albeit many sequels – in the early-to-mid 1940s.

Among the horde of genre films at Universal during a time of rotating studio heads, only 1941’s The Wolf Man featured a monster that resonated as strongly for as long a period of time as the characters in the films of the 1930s. Played to perfection by Lon Chaney Jr., the Wolf Man character was not the first lycanthrope on screen and might not have amazed audiences as significantly as the many elaborate werewolves to come, but the film and character continue to fascinate genre fans. Creature creator John Rosengrant (Jurassic Park) explained the longevity of the singular project. “The basic story is timeless as it parallels the storylines of the Greek tragedies,” he said. “A person is suffering by the whim of the Gods through no fault of his own.

Guest Blog: Scott Essman's They're Still Alive - The Universal Classic Monsters

When Universal merged with International Pictures just after World War II ended, directions were again altered, seemingly for good, which might have relegated House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, the two so-called “monster rallies,” as the final Universal horrors in 1944 and 1945, respectively. Yet, there was life still twitching as several characters were brought back – without Jack Pierce, Vera West, or special visual effects expert John P. Fulton – for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. Though that monster-comedy film was an unqualified hit, it did not spurn a return to heavy genre output at Universal-International.

Instead, the 1950s ushered in a slate of science-fiction-based films, with one last monster picture coming to fruition when it debuted in 1954. The Creature From the Black Lagoon was considered in as high regard as its big brothers and sisters from some 20+ years beforehand though decidedly in a modernized technological vein. However, the amphibious Gill-Man shared the tragic path of the earlier Universal monsters, and represented yet another instantly iconic visage as denoted by veteran creature designer and performer Tom Woodruff, Jr.. “There is a blankness to its expression, fitting for its primeval aquatic origins,” he said. “And there is a simplicity to the execution of the build of the suit that resonates the ‘less is more’ school of design.” When the third Creature film unspooled in 1958, it was widely accepted as the last breath of the Universal cycle.

Guest Blog: Scott Essman's They're Still Alive - The Universal Classic Monsters


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Magazines such as Famous Monsters of Filmland helped keep the Universal monsters alive for new generations in the 1960s and 1970s through publishing detailed accounts of making of the films and rarely seen photographs. The films also lived on through broadcasts on syndicated television stations nationwide in a time before home video, which has now obviously brought the films and characters to a new level for contemporary fans. Veteran actor and monster collector Daniel Roebuck connected such new fans to the ones who first viewed the films in a theatrical setting. “Although not scary to the modern audiences, the pathos and tragic suffering of so many of these characters can’t help but touch the viewer,” he observed.

Certainly, the Universal monsters have never truly dipped in their popularity and are still foremost among genre fans despite their notable age in a time of erstwhile short attention spans. Oscar-winning makeup artist William Corso (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) summarized the effect that the films have had on numerous filmmakers working today, including not only makeup people, but visual effects artists, writers, and directors. “Universal’s stable of monsters inspired me and countless generations to enter the fields of art and film,” he said. “Not only can they be counted as some of the most iconic characters in film history, but also as significant works in the history of art, as much as any of the old masters gave us.

Guest Blog: Scott Essman's They're Still Alive - The Universal Classic Monsters

In the end, audiences continually return to the Universal monsters for reasons that cannot often be easily explained. Without question, Hollywood has churned out more visceral, explicit, and even frightening films in most every decade since the originals. So why are the classic monsters a constant presence in merchandise collections, video libraries, and televised and theatrical revivals, both during Halloween season and otherwise? Fred Dekker, co-writer and director of The Monster Squad, the 1987 homage to the original characters, offered one provocative answer. “What’s timeless to me about the Universal monsters is that on one level, they’re not really monsters at all; they’re outcasts,” Dekker said, “and in most cases, not by choice. Dracula has a disease, the Wolf Man an affliction. The Mummy was killed and resurrected against his will, and Frankenstein’s Monster never asked to be born. The Gill-Man is out of his time. So on one level, they’re these iconic boogey men who scare us—but at the same time, they appeal to that part of us that feels like an outsider, a weirdo, like someone who doesn’t quite fit in. I think we relate to them on that level, even if it’s subconsciously.

Scott Essman has written extensively about Jack Pierce and the Universal Classic Monsters since 1996. He can be e-mailed here.


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Synopses and Bonus Features
Dracula (1931)
The original 1931 movie version of Bram Stoker’s classic tale has for generations defined the iconic look and terrifying persona of the famed vampire. Dracula owes its continued appeal in large part due to Bela Lugosi’s indelible portrayal of the immortal Count Dracula and the flawless direction of horror auteur Tod Browning. The Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection includes the original version of this chilling and evocative tale, as well as the rarely seen Spanish version of Dracula. Filmed simultaneously with the English language version, the Spanish version of Dracula is an equally ominous vision of the horror classic shot with the same sets and script. Cinematographer George Robinson and a vibrant cast including Carlos Villarias and Lupita Tovar deliver a chilling and evocative tale filled with the same terror, mystery, and intrigue.

Bonus Features:
• Dracula, the 1931 Spanish version, with Introduction by Lupita Tovar Kohner
• The Road to Dracula
• Lugosi: The Dark Prince
• Dracula: The Restoration – New Featurette Available for The First Time!
• Monster Tracks: Interactive Pop-Up Facts About the Making of Dracula
• Dracula Archives
• Score by Philip Glass performed by the Kronos Quartet
• Feature Commentary by Film Historian David J. Skal
• Feature Commentary by Steve Haberman, Screenwriter of Dracula: Dead and Loving It
• Trailer Gallery

Frankenstein (1931)
Boris Karloff stars as the screen’s most tragic and iconic monster in what many consider to be the greatest horror film ever made. Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) dares to tamper with the essential nature of life and death by creating a monster (Karloff) out of lifeless human body parts. Director James Whale’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel and Karloff’s compassionate portrayal of a creature groping for identity make Frankenstein a timeless masterpiece.

Bonus Features:
• The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster
• Karloff: The Gentle Monster
• Monster Tracks: Interactive Pop-Up Facts About The Making of Frankenstein
• Universal Horror
• Frankenstein Archives
• Boo!: A Short Film
• Feature Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
• Feature Commentary with Historian Sir Christopher Frayling
• 100 Years Of Universal: Restoring the Classics
• Trailer Gallery

The Mummy (1932)
Horror icon Boris Karloff stars in the original 1932 version of The Mummy in which a team of British archaeologists accidentally revives a mummified high priest after 3,700 years. Alive again, he sets out on an obsessive—and deadly—quest to find his lost love. Over 50 years after its first release, this brooding dream-like horror classic remains a cinematic masterpiece.

Bonus Features:
• Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed
• He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art Of Jack Pierce
• Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy
• The Mummy Archives
• Feature Commentary by Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns and Brent Armstrong
• Feature Commentary by Film Historian Paul M. Jensen
• 100 Years Of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era
• Trailer Gallery

The Invisible Man (1933)
Claude Rains delivers an unforgettable performance in his screen debut as a mysterious doctor who discovers a serum that makes him invisible. Covered by bandages and dark glasses, Rains arrives in a small English village and attempts to hide his amazing discovery, but the drug’s side effects slowly drive him to commit acts of unspeakable terror. Based on H.G. Welles’ classic novel and directed by the master of macabre, James Whale, The Invisible Man fueled a host of sequels and features revolutionary special effects that are still imitated today.

Bonus Features:
• Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed
• Production Photographs
• Feature Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
• 100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The acclaimed sequel to the original Frankenstein has become one of the most popular horror classics in film history. The legendary Boris Karloff reprises his role as the screen’s most misunderstood monster, now longing for a mate of his own. Colin Clive is back as the proud and overly ambitious Dr. Frankenstein, who creates the ill-fated bride (Elsa Lanchester). The last horror film directed by James Whale features a haunting musical score that helps make The Bride of Frankenstein one of the finest and most touching thrillers of its era.

Bonus Features:
• She’s Alive! Creating The Bride Of Frankenstein
• The Bride Of Frankenstein Archive
• Feature Commentary with Scott MacQueen
• 100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics
• Trailer Gallery

The Wolf Man (1941)
Originally released in 1941, The Wolf Man introduced the world to a new Universal movie monster and redefined the mythology of the werewolf forever. Featuring a heartbreaking performance by Lon Chaney Jr. and groundbreaking make-up by Jack Pierce, The Wolf Man is the saga of Larry Talbot, a cursed man who transforms into a deadly werewolf when the moon is full. The dreamlike atmospheres, elaborate settings and chilling musical score combine to make The Wolf Man a masterpiece of the genre.

Bonus Features:
• Monster by Moonlight
• The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth
• Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr.
• He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce
• The Wolf Man Archives
• Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver
• 100 Years of Universal: The Lot
• Trailer Gallery

Phantom of the Opera (1943)
This lavish retelling of Gaston Leroux’s immortal horror tale stars Claude Rains as the masked phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House. A crazed composer who schemes to make beautiful young soprano Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster) the star of the opera company, the Phantom also wreaks revenge on those he believes stole his music. Nelson Eddy, as the heroic baritone, tries to win the affections of Christine as he tracks down the murderous, horribly disfigured Phantom.

Bonus Features:
• The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked
• Production Photographs
• Feature Commentary with Film Historian Scott MacQueen
• 100 Years of Universal: The Lot
• Theatrical Trailer

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Captured and imprisoned for scientific study, a living “amphibious missing link” becomes enamored with the head researcher’s female assistant (Julie Adams). When the hideous creature escapes and kidnaps the object of his affection, a crusade is launched to rescue the helpless woman and cast the terrifying creature back to the depths from which he came. Featuring legendary makeup artist Bud Westmore’s brilliantly designed monster, Creature from the Black Lagoon is an enduring tribute to the imaginative genius of its Hollywood creators.

Bonus Features:
• The Creature From The Black Lagoon in 3D
• Back to The Black Lagoon
• Production Photographs
• Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver
• 100 Years of Universal: The Lot
• Trailer Gallery

Guest Blog: Scott Essman's They're Still Alive - The Universal Classic Monsters

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Steve Barton

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