UNIVERSAL HORROR (Photoplay Productions, 1998), is an inside look of the Golden Age of Hollywood's horror film cycle and the studio that made them famous, Universal Pictures, from the silent era of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923), starring Lon Chaney, to the end of its cycle with ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). Aside from many film clips from the Universal vaults, there are exclusive interviews by numerous people, some who have actually seen these movies in theaters upon their release (Ray Bradbury comes to mind), film historian Forrest Ackerman and author David K. Skal giving their input about the cycle; and the surviving actors who took part in the making of these films, particularly Gloria Stuart who appeared in THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) and THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) to Lupita Tovar, the co-star in the Spanish language version of Dracula (1931). Fans of this genre will joy themselves seeing interviews of relatives of their favorite horror film star, such as Sara Karloff, daughter to the legendary Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE BLACK CAT) himself, among others.
UNIVERSAL HORROR is not ALL Universal movies. The documentary takes time to present scenes of memorable fright moments of horror films produced by other movie studios, including MGM's THE UNKNOWN (1927) starring Lon Chaney; RKO's KING KONG (1933); Warner Brothers' THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933), both featuring Fay Wray, who was also among the ones interviewed. There are also clips from foreign made horror films, ranging from THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) with Conrad Veidt, to NOSFERATU (1922) with Max Schreck as a very eerie Dracula. Other than discussions about the actors who appeared in them, there is also talk about directors Tod Browning (Dracula), James Whale (FRANKENSTEIN, THE OLD DARK HOUSE), Edgar G. Ulmer (THE BLACK CAT), and how they came about the making of their projects.
Other than presenting clips and still pictures from the most famous horror movies of all time, such as THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) with Lon Chaney; Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi; FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE MUMMY (1932), both with Boris Karloff, and the FRANKENSTEIN sequels (BRIDE and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), this production also takes a time to discuss moments from the almost forgotten haunted house mysteries, including THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) and its talkie remake, THE CAT CREEPS (1930); obscure thrillers as THE LAST WARNING (1929); the recently discovered THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932); as well as wanna see films as THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) starring Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin. There are interesting back-stories about Universal head Carl Laemmle who wasn't interested in casting Bela Lugsosi to the role as Dracula (newspaper clippings reported that Ian Keith to play the title role), and how Lugosi himself took a big cut in salary to obtain the part that cursed him forever as a horror movie actor; and how an obscure actor such as Boris Karloff was chosen to play the Frankenstein monster, the role that made him an overnight success. Other than the monsters, either from literary works or imagination from a scriptwriter's mind, ranging from Dracula and The Mummy, the documentary includes segments about mad scientists, Charles Laughton as Doctor Moreau in Paramount's ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1933); Claude Rains as THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), Boris Karloff as a creepy devil worshiper in THE BLACK CAT (1934); Bela Lugosi as the insane Doctor Mirakle in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), and as a sadistic Edgar Allan Poe worshiper in THE RAVEN (1935); and the forgotten name of Lionel Atwill as a demented wax museum owner in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933), a rare early two-strip Technicolor fright film set in modern day 1933 New York instead of a European setting of another century.
The last half of this well produced documentary takes an inside look on the second cycle of Universal horror during the sound era, the 1940s, beginning with SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), with Karloff playing the Monster for the third and final time; THE WOLF MAN (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr., then hailed as a new horror king. Gloria Jean, who was a Universal contract player in the l940s, also discusses her first hand view in seeing these movies in production, and of Karloff's Monster's face being green. There is even a color outtake of Karloff's monster shown from THE SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.
UNIVERSAL HORROR, which premiered on Turner Classic Movies October 9, 1998, is one documentary worth recording and treasuring, especially for an avid film buff of this genre. The documentary concludes with the end of the cycle, being the late 1940s, and doesn't go any further. Fans of the 1950s and '60s cycle of GODZILLA or THE CREATURE will be disappointed, but maybe a sequel to the aftermath of horror movies would be sufficient, focusing on the likes of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and the directorial credits of Roger Corman. UNIVERSAL HORROR, which runs at 96 minutes, is so interesting and re-watchable, even if this documentary were two hours, one would not feel its extreme length. Although excellent, my only complaint is to why "Werewolf of London"(Universal, 1935) featuring Henry Hull was not included. This is a real oversight because Hull, who preceded Lon Chaney Jr., portrayed his cursed full moon character in great style. Since Hull and Chaney did not portray the same characters, Chaney was definitely far more suited as the 1940s wolf man.
So the next time this presentation of UNIVERSAL HORROR is repeated, see it not for historical purposes, but comparing how horror films of today have drastically declined, and can never compare to even the worst horror movie of many years ago. (****)
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