Midnight Screenings: Universal Horror Films, Part 1

Catching up on some of the famous Universal Horror films I have missed a chance to review until now. Just in time for Halloween too! ‘Tis the season…

The Mummy

With Dracula and Frankenstein enshrining Universal Pictures as the new patron saint of genre cinema, the prospect of renewed wealth stoked a fire in the loins of the company. Projects were suddenly being green-lit left and right. Expediency was the name of the game, but the pedal-to-the-medal production and narrative qualities of Universal Horror never diminished the prowling crawl of the individual frights within their films, works which, in the early days, were not only commercial ventures but artistic expeditions into the unknown as well.

Still, there was no time for ego or excess in the early days of Universal, and productions were humble and forthright. This was never more-so true than with The Mummy, a reminder that, if Universal wasn’t always the most experimental or transgressive production company circa 1932, they were a well-oiled cinematic machine all the same.

A well-oiled machine with a knack for finding the right people, no less, and thus the promotion – to the director’s chair – of Karl Freund, arguably the great cinematographer of the silent era and possibly the diving rod of all early horror cinema (he was also the only person in the production on his A-game for Dracula). With much to prove in his new seat, Freund wastes no time with The Mummy, Universal’s ace in the hole for ensuring their credibility after their two-fisted trip to the bank from 1931.

Waste no time, indeed, for the prelude of The Mummy is one of the great spellbinding episodes of fantastique in the entirety of 1930s cinema. A magisterial mini-movie fraught with tremors as a pair of archaeologists come come across a scroll that, it is said, may just unleash the curse of an ancient Egyptian priest on them. Right from the beginning, the deep-focus camera always hints at the suspicion of Imhotep, the mummy itself, lurking behind the explorers as Freund submerges us in a swamp of thickly-felt silence and penetrating emptiness. We barely see the mummy, in fact – in his bandaged form, he only appears in this scene and for all of a minute or so – but the impact of his searching, purposeful hand when it does strike is an instant chill down the spine.

More than ever again in the Universal canon, Freund nails the sense of the fringes of death here. The titular figure, played by Boris Karloff, who manages to exceed his work in Frankenstein (although not his future work in Bride of Frankenstein), drags the film right to the brink of its tentative mortal coil. There is a shot where Karloff (disfigured by Jack Pierce’s sublimely grave make-up work) opens his eyes that drags on with a tactile weight never bestowed upon a mummy in a feature film ever again; the rotting emptiness of death has never been an easy film sensation to capture. There’s gravity to his movement here, and to his appearance, and to the hallowed winds that carry him away from the frame not a second after he first appears. This is a creature with a thousands-year purpose, and his sangfroid and stillness invokes both his weary tragedy and his malevolent assuredness.

From there, The Mummy is firmly entrenched in the Universal spirit, albeit without that sort of experimental wandering mental breakdown mania that drove the avant-garde proclivities of Frankenstein and James Whale. This film is, instead, a Dracula re-write at the superstructural level, and thus a fairly basic story of doomed romance across thousands of years all-told. Unfortunately, the slightly more everyday narrative that follows the phenomenally devilish prelude is nothing more than a sharp, incisive potboiler that works, functionally, because Freund has an air for economic visuals (the film, like just about every Universal film, is a scant 70 minutes long) and because Karloff is, with everything in the world to prove, a force to be reckoned with. As the human Imhotep who graces most of the film, Karloff is an avuncular blanket diaphonously masquerading a subfuscous slab of menacing granite. The Mummy is not a masterpiece, but its director and lead actor seldom bettered themselves before or since.

Score: 8/10

The Invisible Man

After The Mummy continued the trend of Universal success, the volcanic force of the Universal machine set to it that no one would end their graverobbing fun, and any and all projects – even those that were outsiders to the Gothic horror spirit of the company – were game. The Invisible Man is, nowadays, firmly entrenched in the Universal canon, but the novella by HG Wells is all domestic Britain, blunt crime, and “what’s all this then”s, about as far from the theatrical garish ghoulishness of the Universal style. Then, the style wasn’t necessarily so obvious in 1933, still only a pair of years past Dracula and Frankenstein. Universal Horror was still in its wild years, a fact which brought with it a sense of possibility (the unbelievably eccentric Bride of Frankenstein was still to come after all), a possibility that director James Whale, of Frankenstein, took to like flies to a corpse.

Yet the possibility of The Invisible Man, for him, was to indulge his venomous, brutal streak with a work that is far more vituperative, cruel, and unforgiving than either of his wonderfully arcane, whimsically tragic Frankenstein pics. Like those movies, The Invisible Man barely resembles our ever-present idea of horror from the looking glass of 2015, but it doesn’t necessarily capture the spirit of “horror” as it was known in 1933 either. Frankenstein and Dracula were seismic shifts in the film canon, surely, but they grew on Universal’s silent output and its baroque proclivities and fantastical sense of primordial otherworldliness.

The Invisible Man, in comparison, hues much closer to something like Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse or M, primarily functioning as a paranoia thriller about a locale gripped with the stillness of fear. The criminal here is Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), a scientist who injects himself with a serum to make him invisible, with the unfortunate side effect that he quickly loses his mind with mania and delusions of grandeur and violence. From there, a relatively feline, lithe thriller emerges from Whale’s loins, a film with precious few moments of his trademark sexual camp (the consistent implications that Griffin is naked are among the only transgressive bits) but more than enough viciousness to overcome its grounded nature. This is no mere mercenary production, or, perhaps it is more accurate to state that the ruthlessly carved-to-the-bone mercenary nature of the film is its most enlightening success.

More than the other Universal pictures of the time, The Invisible Man feels merciless in its mostly exposition-free narrative (thank writer RC Sheriff and usual Universal editor Ted Kent for that). The very structure of the film feels like being held hostage, with Griffin afoot as we follow an endless plunge of attempts to stop him; there is little time for Universal’s often melodramatic habit of needless romanctizing, and thus little distraction from the sinister menace of the production. Arthur Edeson manages a few sterling shots straight from the graveyard – the introduction of Griffin, wrapped in bandages in a nod to Universal’s recent success with The Mummy – is chilling cinema, but The Invisible Man is defined by the spareness of the edits between shots, and not the shots themselves.

Claude Rains, meanwhile, carries along the Universal torch of sublimely devilish physical performances for each and every one of their trademark monsters, although Rains achieves the feat without even the benefit of being able to use his face. His theatrical cackles and deliciously over-zealous hand motions convey a circus of warped mental disarray all their own, giving The Invisible Man in its own form of acidic life. The best Universal films found deathless life precisely because of how much they reveled in death, and The Invisible Man is right up there, carnal abandon and all.

Score: 8/10

 

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