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 Wolf Man
After a trio of terrific Frankenstein features, a pair of other memorable monster pictures, and a cabinet of curiosity’s worth of assorted slippery cinematic tricks and treats, Universal finished off the 1930s in fine style. Having almost single-handedly ushered the silent cinematic stylings of playful expressionism and fantastique into the sound era, the company was apparently tired. Very tired, and withering away, but not before one final ride into the sunset before the dark days of WWII made fantastical cinematic horror largely irrelevant and quaint compared to the sandblasted nihilism of the curdled noir genre.
That ride was George Waggner’s The Wolf Man, about as overpoweringly autumnal and haggardly Gothic as any Universal movie ever dared be, and thus inescapably divine (or undivine, I suppose, considering this is the hallowed, heretical Universal we are talking about here). Not that it is without flaws – Curt Siodmak’s screenplay is as prone to fits and giggles of exposition as many of his other Universal scripts were, although it seems more off-putting here anyway. As a work of visual and aural luxuriance, however, Universal is as fine a movie to stand teetering on the edge of the company’s drop into the nether as any.
For one, Joseph Valentine’s cinematography is pure forested, forlorn beauty, evoking the British countryside as an autumnal jungle of labyrinthine, expressionist angles and molasses-thick fog, the sort of cosmic, elemental locale a human could lose their mind in. The frosty imagery is warm with coldness and chilly with the fires of the untamed human id manifested in the screenplay about a docile everyman whose internal social alienation (his feeling of isolation in his birth community is palpable) is unleashed. Like with many Universal movies, the tentative nature of the solitary human mind brews underneath the horror of The Wolf Man, but as per usual, horror thrives not because of subtext but because of craft. The Wolf Man is no masterpiece of character analysis – nor is any Universal movie, excepting Bride of Frankenstein – but it is a masterpiece of atmosphere and mood.
And a fairly strapping character story to boot, largely on the backs of Lon Chaney Jr. (the Keanu Reeves of his day), who couldn’t act for anything, but who could convey a total and complete sense of overwhelming confusion better than anyone. Shafted into the actorly realms under the visage of his famed father (of The Phantom of the Opera, Universal’s first horror masterpiece), Chaney never really knew what he was doing in Hollywood. But his middle-America everydayness lost in the pageantry of Hollywood mirrors the same docility of Larry Talbot (his character here) trapped amidst the spectral ground of rural Wales. The film makes defines Wales – much like Hollywood – as a location tapped into another realm separate from our own. Chaney is not giving great acting, and this is not a masterpiece of a film, but both are eminently watchable either way.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon
The 1940s were difficult for Universal Horror. 1941’s The Wolf Man was something of a capstone for the decade that defined the company’s view on that genre, but the company (much like Disney, one of the few other recognizable cinematic brand name at the time) turned to budgetary hack work immediately after. By the 1950s, they had fallen almost entirely out of favor. They had made a reputation as grave robbers – digging up the corpses of fables and novels and rendering them anew – but by 1950, they had been reduced to just another body in the mausoleum. They never recovered – atomic monsters were all the rage in the 50s, and Hammer would beat Universal at its own game with their same monsters by the end of the 1950s. But in 1954 the once proud light of cinematic horror managed to claw its way out of the cinematic slums for one valiant last gasp of sublime cinematic horror: The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It is a consolation prize, perhaps, considering how insipid so many of Universal’s other efforts at the time were, but sometimes with cinema, you just take what you can get.
With Creature, thankfully, what you get is a fairly worthwhile little curio that finds Universal seeing the 1950s its atomic-age sci-fi horror and upping it Universal’s superior take on the material. What is so impressive about the material conceptually is how it triangulates the wild superstitions of classical Universal Horror, the comparative upstart adventurousness of ’50s horror, and the stalwart mythic folklore historically combining the two. It is a film positioned partways between Universal’s heyday and the new school productions of the ’50s, and it benefits from the strengths of each.
On one hand, Creature is shocking for how akin to the spirit of its time it is, showing that Universal knew how to adapt when need be and even to play to the masses; the company was, perhaps, not simply the stodgy old centurion it was sometimes rumored to be. Yet, at the same time, no stretching is required to connect the dots between the sneering, searing chiaroscuro and primal, alien, even magical physical spaces of underwater Amazonia here and the abstracted folklore realms and expressionist lighting of, say, Frankenstein. I mean, Creature is no Frankenstein, but it warrants the comparison, and that is more than you can say for anything else Universal made post-’41. And that includes several films that actually feature Frankenstein’s monster.
Taking the relative brevity of Universal Horror and adapting it to the cosmically stripped-down locales of many budget-starved ’50s sci-fi thrillers, Creature follows an expedition into the fabled “black lagoon” of the Amazon where, it turns out, an amphibious creature from the long days of yore has survived the caul of time. Like many of Universal’s efforts, brevity becomes the soul of carnal terror (Ted Kent, as usual, phenomenally editing the motion picture down to its barest bits). But the real technical standout is the monster itself. A tour-de-force of design (from Disney animator Millicent Patrick and Bud Westmore), sculpture and architecture (Jack Kevan and Chris Mueller Jr) and physical acting (Ben Chapman, on land, and Ricou Browning, underwater), the creature is imbued with pangs of empathy and pity even amidst its animalistic brutality. Other highlights abound, from Jack Arnold’s economical direction and a young Henry Mancini’s bellicose score, but the creature itself rivals Jack Pierce’s heyday in the early days of Universal’s make-up department.
The film’s numerous and luminous underwater sequences are themselves the major showpieces for the creature, and the film, with Browning phallically penetrating the frame with his lanky posture and carnivorously engaging in a pas de deux with the humans who struggle to fight back. Many of the most enticing shots are fish eyed aquarium master shots where the poetry of the human (and inhuman motion) of the prey and predator (which is which can change from shot to shot) unravels with almost abstract fluidity and beauty. The impressionist cinematography from William Snyder forms the architecture of these sequences, visually referencing the sublime Tourneur/ Lewton efforts of the 1940s with a hazier depiction of underwater life. The Creature’s domain becomes a mysterious kingdom of unknown terrors whilst the camera visually evokes the film’s theme of underwater life as another alien frontier (similar to the many ’50s horror films set in the cosmic nether of space). Lewton and Tourneur, with their collaborations Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, stole all of Universal’s thunder with the only two American horror masterpieces of the 1940s, and this film’s underwater sequences reveal that Universal was not blind to those that had bested them.
All things told, then, Universal’s final gasp of cinematic success is a dark harvest of talents both big and small, and terrific send-off for a once proud company recapturing the forlorn, shadow-eyed majesty of its former self. It isn’t perfect; indeed, no monster picture from the 1950s could be. But it is a perfect example of its form, and that is nothing to shake off when an old dog like Universal was successfully learning new tricks.