Guest Blog: Scott Essman's They're Still Alive - The Universal Classic Monsters
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.”
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.
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.”
Source: Courtesy of BTL