A love letter to the Universal Monster Movies

THE ‘FOR GODS SAKE GET TO THE POINT’ INTRODUCTION……

I was asked just the other day by a friend of mine (yes, I do have one) as to where my obsession with the horror genre came from. The question was whether my love of horror grew steadily over the years, or whether there was actually a specific ‘KER-BOOM’ moment resulting in an outbreak of love for horror, as it were.

Ah, an easy question to answer! In all honesty, each of the three genres of sci-fi, fantasy and horror come with their specific origin story; in terms of sci-fi it was the simultaneous power-punch around 8 years of age when I discovered the delights of The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who; for fantasy, I was 9 years old, and it was The Hobbit being read to my class for the very first time by my English teacher. As for Horror, well you have a certain Son of Frankenstein to blame for that particular obsession when I was 11 years old.

Now, dear reader, don’t ever let anyone ever tell you that back in the good old days life was easier and simpler……Bullshit and nonsense I say! Let me tell you that in a number of ways life was in fact incredibly crap, especially when it came to television. You see, in the dim dark days of the mid to late 1970’s, television here in the UK was rather pitiful in terms of choice – and believe me, that description is being kind to say the least.

To begin with we had just three channels to choose from – that’s right millennial’s, sit down, catch your breath and take a pill, I said three channels. If that wasn’t bad enough (and let’s face it, it’s a pretty diabolical number) none of the channels could broadcast past midnight and there was even some Einstein in one of them that thought it was a groovy idea also not to broadcast in the afternoons.

Instead the channel in question would would some picture card on for people to look at. If this wasn’t enough to anesthetize the mind the god-awful elevator music that accompanied it would well and truly send one over the psychological precipice.

From this here child’s point of view in the late 70’s, this was all bad enough. However for me Saturday night TV, with a choice of games shows, chat shows, and the odd decent movie of the week was particularly soul destroying. So when the odd change from the norm came around is was a big deal, a VERY big deal.

THE ‘THANK GOD YOU’RE ACTUALLY PLANNING ON GETTING TO THE POINT’ PART…..

It was a cold winters Saturday night when I was a mere boy of 11 when this particular big deal happened. My parents had arranged to go out for a few hours with some friends which meant my younger brother and I would be looked after by an elderly neighbour. Now, the child-caring individual in question had the habit of falling asleep on the sofa in our front room by around 9pm – I knew this by the sounds of her snoring that would emanate around the house to signify the aforementioned neglect of child-caring activity.

Of course, being a boy of just eleven years old meant that I would use this opportunity to sneak downstairs once the snores became well and truly echoic and proceed to raid the cupboards for all manner of chocolate & sweet goodies. Sometimes I would take the candy booty haul and wake my younger brother to share. However sometimes, if the notion took me, I would sneak into the other downstairs room and watch some late-night tv. Believe me, regardless of how bad the tv might be, the nefarious act of a late night stolen feast while watching television WELL PAST MY ALLOWED BED TIME was rebellious gold dust to this boy. This may sound far more risky than it sounds as the chances of being discovered were slim – my parents invariably wouldn’t return home until the early ours and once the babysitter fell asleep……well lets just say that a full symphony orchestra booming out the 1812 Overture from the kitchen next door wouldn’t have succeeded in raising her elderly consciousness from the land of nod.

So this night, armed with a supply of Asda’s own cinema-style popcorn and a practically full bottle of American Cream Soda, I switched the TV on…….just in time for the announcement that the next installment of the BBC’s Saturday night classic horror movie series was about to start – It was called Son of Frankenstein.

In all honesty this cinematic event that proceeded in some ways to change the course of my life almost didn’t happen. For as soon as I saw that this was some old grainy old Black and White film I almost switched channels (yes that’s right, to those other two choices). However, even my then very young self was aware of the Frankenstein lore, albeit to a basic degree and so I stuck with it……. and so began a lifelong love affair, not only with Frankenstein, but with the studio that made it and a plethora of other horror classics – Universal Pictures.

In broad terms, the output of what would be regarded as classic horror became the hallmark of Universal Pictures starting in the early days of cinema in the 1920’s and lasted through to the early 1950’s.

Now, there are some unmentionables who would state that many (if not most) of these productions were of a lesser b-movie standard complete with over-acting, cardboard sets and cheesy dialogue. Of course, I would advocate that it wouldn’t be an over reaction for those with such views to be publicly hung and ritually disemboweled. It’s only right.

Yes there is a small modicum of accuracy, particularly when compared with the complexities and sophistication of contemporary cinema, there may be some examples of lower levels of production value. However, this would be a genuine case of catastrophically missing the point. The simple fact is that when they were done well (which particularly up to the mid 1940’s was more often than not) the films overflowed with atmospheric tension, hard-hitting emotion, often witty dialogue and positively dripped with Gothic inventiveness. Perhaps most importantly of all (possible BECAUSE of the grainy Black & White film) they were incredibly frightening.

Even if you you happen to be one of those unmentionables who would dismiss the quality of Universal Pictures monster movie output, you simply couldn’t deny the impact many of the actors and characters had, not just on horror cinema but also on wider popular culture. The films gave us bona fide horror icons with the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Wolfman, The Mummy and The Phantom of the Opera – to name but a few. Not only that, but actors such as Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff are as close to the definition of icon as anything since.

On a personal level, the middle period of the 1930’s is quite simply incredible. Yes I know that the adaptations of two literary classics, Dracula and Frankenstein were a mile away from their source material. However, their impact and popularity (particularly in terms of the look of the characters) still resonate with the wider public today.

THE ‘GOOD GOD, WE’RE NEARLY AT THE END’ PART…...

As I mentioned earlier, my first introduction to this period’s incredible run of quality films started not with the first of the Frankenstein films, but instead began with the third in the series – Son of Frankenstein. Now those who know me well will be fully aware of my knack of being completely behind the curve in regard to doing things in the correct order. After all, this is the man who for some reason managed to see the Godfather 2 before Godfather…… However, this does not bother me, because that first night’s experience which terrified me off my tits has never left me. What it did do was make sure that as soon as humanly possible I watched the rest of the Frankenstein series.

For me, the Frankenstein series is without equal. I know that as they progressed the level of quality in the likes of Son & Ghost of Frankenstein may have dropped, but the overall result was to leave us with a body of work that is golden beyond belief. For a start is gave us for perhaps the first time an example of a sequel than the first in the form of Bride of Frankenstein. In addition it provided us with the truly incredible acting range of Boris Karloff – a fact that is sometimes overlooked in the overall contemplation of these movies. To be able to convey such powerful emotions ranging from absolute anger to pitiful desolation, often with no more than a flicker of his eyes, is still amazing to see after countless views. The fact that he left the series after the third film may well have impacted on the overall quality.

As for that particular Saturday all those years ago…… this is genuinely no exaggeration, but I can still remember running as fast as my legs would take me up to my bedroom. I dived into bed and lay awake for hours thinking that the monster would appear from the wardrobe, or even worse, grab my legs suddenly from under the bed. I never told my parents why I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks after, or why for months I insisted that a light be left on at night until I did finally fall asleep. I simply could not shake the experience and memory of watching this film. Good times.

A year or so later the series of films were shown again…….and yes, I sneaked downstairs to watch them.


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