GUEST POST: Universal's Cinematic Marvels

By Mikki A Lexa

Season's shriekings, BOILS, GHOULS, and non-binSCARY fiends! 

It is I, your humble Stackeeper, Alexandra, here to introduce a brand new creature-feature to my humble little primordial ooze-letter. Once a month or so, as funds allow, I will be purchasing a piece from a freelance writer/creator and sharing it here. 

Strangely, I didn't have this aspect of the project in mind when I started... oh, no. Could it be? It's too horrible! We have been visited by the fearsome FEATURE CREEP!

 *thunder crashes* 

If a newsletter employing freelancers strikes you as a bit eerie, well... my Twitter platform gave me a LEG up in launching on Substack, so it would be terribly uncouth not to lend a HAND. I've always believed we all have our parts to play, if we want to get a HEAD. Will it work? Can it work? Well, when I started career writing original fiction on blogging sites, people called me mad, MAD! But who's laughing now? I have always tried to do what works, and sometimes the only way to know if there's life in a concept is to strap it to the slap and sent it up into the tempest above.

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Now, without further a-BOO… I have arranged a very special Hallowe'en treat for you all, brought to you by a GHOST WRITER... wait, that one already means a thing... a very special GUEST FRIGHTER... film historian Mikki A Lexa, of My Gender is Cinema, is here to give us a little horror story on the most am-VICIOUS crossover event in Hollyweird history! 

That's right, CHILL-dren. It's...

Universal's Cinematic Marvels: The Monster Always Rises Again

by Mikki A Lexa

In 1917, actor Lon Chaney quit the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. Already a veteran of over 100 silent movies since 1912, the vast majority of which have long been lost, Chaney and studio executive William Sistrom butted heads over Chaney’s salary, with Sistrom declaring that the moderately popular performer would never be worth more than $100 a week. Frustrated by the production company’s lack of appreciation for his talent, Chaney struck out on his own, spending the next year honing his craft in a series of bit-character parts and struggling for work and recognition from the then monopolistic studio system.

His hard work and determination paid off the following year, when he caught the eye of the then reigning king of the westerns, William S. Hart, who cast Chaney as the villain in his newest picture, Riddle Gawne. One of the first auteur directors, Hart often wrote, directed, produced and starred in his own films, allowing him near if not total creative freedom on and off set, away from studio politics or interference. Playing the murderous cattle rustler Hame Bozzam, Chaney wowed audiences with a menacing but emotionally complex performance opposite Hart, resulting in an impressive million-dollar box office that no Hollywood studio could ignore.

As crowds packed Universal theatres, demanding to see Chaney’s previous work still held by the company, Universal was forced to admit their mistake from the year previous, and begged Chaney to return. His star rapidly on the rise, Chaney quickly found he could write his own ticket, and no longer constrained by a studio contract, he began appearing in films produced by Universal’s rivals, MGM and Paramount Pictures, forcing Universal not only to open their wallets, but to give Chaney more creative control over his own projects, a power Chaney didn’t hesitate to take full advantage of.

After first finding success on the big screen, Chaney had used his new found fortune to snatch up the film rights to one of his favorite books, Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Who Chaney would produce the film with had been the talk of Tinseltown into the early 1920s, with the project allegedly stalling a few times under its own size and projected budget of over a million dollars. It wasn’t until 1922 that an associate of Chaney, producer Irving Thalberg, found a home for the lavish film, back with a now apologetic Universal, who bowed to Chaney’s decisions at almost every step of the production.

The result was the studio’s first true classic, pulling in nearly $4 million at the box office in 1923 from an audience both fascinated and terrified by Chaney’s onscreen transformation into the hideous yet sympathetic titular hunchback Quasimodo. Unlike today’s vast industry of special effects and makeup artists, performers were often left to devise their own appearances, and none were greater with a makeup brush than Chaney, who designed the appearance of this first grotesque movie-monster to perfectly match and support his performance. Dubbed ‘The Man With A Thousand Faces’, these fearsome character parts would become his specialty, with his 1925 follow up appearance as the titular villain in The Phantom Of The Opera, horrifying audiences across the globe, resulting in many theatre-goers fainting in fright upon the reveal of his now famous death’s head makeup, and his lesser known Man In The Beaver Hat from 1927’s London After Midnight, that would directly inspire the appearance of the Babadook 90 years later. Chaney however would not live to see the spark he lit at Universal become a flame, as he died of an aggressive lung cancer in 1930, at the age of 47.

As ever though, the show had to go on, and between financial uncertainty during the early days of the Great Depression, competition from rival companies, and then staggering loses from a string of box office failures, the pressure was on at Universal to find a niche market that they could corner. While still a fresh face in the industry, Carl Laemmel, Jr. had been among the first generation raised within Hollywood. According to legend, his father, Carl Laemmel, Sr., had founded what would later become Universal after watching customers stream in and out of an early theatre, counting the number of tickets sold over the course of a single day, and discovering they far outpaced the profits from his own simple dry-goods store. Born just a year after Sr had begun the Yankee Film Company, Carl Jr. grew up surrounded by his father’s industry, and quickly developed a keen sense for the business, producing hit after hit during the late 20s and early 30s.

Enamoured by both the success and artistry of Chaney’s Hunchback and Phantom, Laemmel believed that horror was the future of Universal prestige line of pictures, called ‘Jewels’, and decided on Bram Stoker’s Dracula to be the first in this new line of cinematic terrors. Like many, Laemmel had greatly enjoyed German expressionist F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, which while a capable and at times stunningly shot adaptation of the novel, had been produced without the authorization of the Stoker family, who sued Murnau and his production company into oblivion, with all but a single print of the film being destroyed as per the demands of the Stoker family. Not looking to repeat Murnau’s mistake, Laemmel not only legally bought the film rights to the book, but also the rights to a popular Broadway stage-play, itself an official adaptation of the novel, that had been delightfully horrifying audiences since the mid 1920s.

He however was less interested in the star of the play, a Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi, who had performed the blood-sucking count off and on since 1927, between failed stints in the film industry. Undeterred by constant rejection from Universal for the part, Lugosi wore down Laemmel, who had himself grown frustrated by his inability to find a more famous actor to handle the role. Dracula was Lugosi’s, after agreeing to accept a paltry $500 a week for the part, and production began in 1930 under director Tod Browning, a legend of the silent film era who had worked closely with Chaney in the previous decades. Made on a modest budget, with sparse visual effects and a deliberate tension building slow pace, Draculadebuted in 1931 and was a smash success, selling over 55,000 tickets in its opening week alone, saving the company from ruin and launching Lugosi’s to international stardom. Laemmel declared that the silver screen scare would become the new backbone of Universal, and immediately gave the greenlight to begin production on a string of monster movies that marked the studio’s Golden Age, starting with Frankenstein later that year, set to once again star Lugosi as the marquee monster.

Plans soon changed though when Lugosi discovered that the version of Frankenstein’s creation in the script was a violent, monosyllabic brute, rather than the collected and verbose creature of Mary Shelley’s novel. Rather than pause production for an accommodating rewrite, the studio dropped Lugosi from the role, and instead turned to a journeyman actor from the silent era, William Henry Pratt, who went by the stage name Boris Karloff. A film of striking post-expressionist design, Frankenstein would prove to be a memorable hit, defining the look of the horror genre for decades, and recharacterizing Shelly’s monster in the popular imagination to the modern day around Karloff’s flatheaded, shambling zombie. Boris would also star in the 1932 follow up, The Mummy, the first of Universal’s monsters not to be based on a previously published work, but rather inspired by the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The character of the mummy, appearing first as the dessicated corpse of Imhotep and then in disguise as the creepy Egyptologist Ardath Bay, allowed Karloff a wider range to act in, presenting a shrewd and calculating supernatural villain driven to resurrect his ancient and forbidden lover, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon.

Karloff would have continued as the star of 1933’s The Invisible Man, based on H.G. Wells’s popular novel, had Laemmel not taken the opportunity to renegotiate his contract in an attempt to lower Karloff’s salary, despite the success of his previous two films. Instead Laemmel eventually turned to veteran stage actor Claude Rains, who had only appeared in one film, 13 years before. The film had not only been scheduled to come out after The Mummy, but production delays had pushed it back almost a full year. The Invisible Manwas Universal’s biggest monster-hit yet, not only wowing audiences with impressive and ground-breaking special effects who flocked to the box office, but also earning the director, James Whale, a special award from the Venice Film Festival.

Further production delays meant that 1934 would be a year bereft of movie monsters, only for 1935 to make up for it two a double bill, beginning with one of Universals’ most popular and iconic films, and their first horror sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. Helmed once again by Whale, a sequel to Frankenstein had been in the works since test audiences had fallen in love with the original, but script after script was rejected by Universal for being far below the quality of the original, often featuring the creature going on bizarre and banal adventures following the end of the first film. It wasn’t until Whale himself tasked writers John L. Balderstone and William Hurlbut to focus on an oft-ignored part of the story in which the Monster requests Dr. Frankenstein build him a mate that the production found its footing, with Karloff onboard to star opposite his characters new bride, played by Elsa Lanchester.

While Bride proved to be yet another hit with audiences, 1935’s other offering, Werewolf of London, was Universal’s first monster flop, bombing at the box office and being thoroughly drubbed by critics and audiences alike at the time. 1936’s Daughter of Dracula, which sought to strike the same vein as Bride of Frankenstein, did somewhat right the ship, but the damage had already been done to the Universal Monsters brand, as loose as it was at the time. This failure to perform coincided with an internal coup that saw the Laemmel family stripped of studio control, and Universal ceased production on all horror films until a 1938 double bill of Dracula and Frankenstein at a California cinema reignited the public’s interest in not only the films, but also stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

This set the new heads of Universal to following up the popular horrors, beginning with 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, with Karloff returning to the title role, and Lugosi creating another classic character of the Frankenstein lore, the hunchbacked assistant Ygor. Sillier than the previous offerings, Son of Frankenstein once again hit a nerve with audiences, who flocked back to the theatre, either to revisit these old favourites, or to enjoy them for the first time. A slew of sequels and remakes soon followed, such as The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, Son of Dracula, The Ghost Of Frankenstein, Phantom of the Operaand so on, although only the 1941 remakes of Werewolf of London, now titled just The Wolf Manstarring Lon Chaney, Jr., son of the late star, would later be included in the higher pantheon of the Universal Monsters.

In 1943, the studio stumbled onto the format they would eventually chase off and on for decades, with Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, starring Chaney (the Jr. having been dropped by the studio looking to dupe audiences into believe the father and son were one and the same) and Bela Lugosi, finally portraying Frankenstein’s Monster, albeit an imitation of Boris Karloff’s famous performance. This ensemble setup would lead to the brand’s most successful and yet creatively debilitating era, with 1948’s outright comedy, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which also included appearances by Chaney’s Wolf Man and Lugosi’s Dracula. A further 4 Abbott and Costello films would be made within the Monsters Cinematic Universe, all tied by a loose continuity to not only the comedic pair’s other films, but also all of the monsters’ previous adventures.

As American tastes for scares changed with the development of the Cold War and fears of nuclear destruction aroused in the popular imagination, the traditional monsters were phased out in favour of radioactive wonders and alien invaders. The last of the top tier Universal Monsters would appear in the midst of this comedic era, with 1954’s Creature From The Black Lagoon, featuring a uniquely invented and designed aquatic beast, the Gill-Man, in a cash-grab filmed to capitalize on the fad of polarized light 3D (the stereotypical blue/red lensed projection and glasses). By the end of the decade however, audiences had lost their taste in monster films, while Universal sought to step away from the increasingly sneered-at drive-in horror market, with the company bowing out of producing anymore monster flicks, with two minor exceptions (1979’s romance Dracula and 1981’s comedy The Incredible Shrinking Woman), for nearly 40 years, appearing only in promotional materials, such as Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights.

While Universal’s characters stagnated, the original intellectual properties were freed up to be used by anyone without restraint. From cartoons to cereal box mascots, Universal’s specific designs for Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy became, to pardon the pun, the universally accepted looks of those characters, copied so often that the original films and the horror they inspired was lost altogether in the popular imagination. It wasn’t until Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope would produce the erotic thriller Bram Stoker’s Dracula (so titled to distinguish itself from Bela Lugosi’s cape and widow’s peak interpretation) in 1992 that Universal would start shopping around for a reboot of their classic series, deciding on The Mummy as the most unique due to the original being an invention of the studio itself, and thus unavailable for other studios to copy.

Over the next 7 years, the project would go through multiple revisions, including dark sexual fantasy by author Clive Barker, a dramatic contemplation on the nature of immortality starring Daniel-Day Lewis, a fish-out-of-water directed by George A. Romero, and a passing interest from Wes Craven. It wasn’t until Stephen Sommer, a former script writer for Disney, approached Universal in 1997 with the idea of reinventing The Mummy series as an action-adventure that production finally took off. Starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and Arnold Vosloo, this mixture of high adventure, screwball comedy and special effects spectacular proved to be a major hit with audiences, grossing over $400 million worldwide against an $80 million budget, though critics at the time derided it as mindless popcorn pushing.

Regardless, Universal had their hit, and soon began to milk it for all it was worth, producing its immediate sequel, The Mummy Returns, in 2001, which saw Fraser and Weisz’ heroic O’Connells racing the once-again returned Imhotep to a macguffin of great power. It also introduced the semi-popular spin-off character the Scorpion King, originally played by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, spawning a series of 5 low-budget prequels often starring professional wrestlers of decreasing popularity, giving Universal the film series they desired, but not of the profitability or quality they had hoped for. While the fifth Scorpion King film would be released direct to video in 2018, Sommer’s Mummy franchise itself had stalled a decade before with the lackluster Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, which though financially successful, had disappointed most critics and audiences, who both had become nostalgic about the first two Sommer Mummy films, and wary of any more monster films from the producer following 2004’s Van Helsing.

Possibly ahead of its time, Van Helsing was an ambitious attempt to reclaim Universal’s Monsters with an unofficial reclaiming of 1987’s Monster Squad, produced by TriStar, which had used slight variations of Universal’s popular character designs in a shared universe horror-comedy. Sommers vision was for an ambitious cross platform series, starring Hugh Jackman as a younger, buffed up Van Helsing, hunting classic monsters across Europe, including Jekyll/Hyde, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Creature and Count Dracula, portrayed by a scenery chewing Richard Roxbury, with planned sequels, cross overs and an ongoing television series, set in and titled Transylvania. While it made back just under double its budget, the film was roundly ridiculed by critics and audiences, and plans for a Van Helsing-verse were quickly abandoned.

By 2012, Universal found themselves lagging behind the times, watching the newly launched Marvel Studios quickly take dominance of the box office with their ever-expanding shared universe, copied in many ways from Universals’ half a century old model, and their previously popular Mummy franchise dead in the water. 

Surely if Marvel could make audiences fall in love with a talking tree and a raccoon with a machine gun, Universal could rekindle their love of the classic superpowered terrors. They set out to build their own top-down cinematic universe, beginning once again with their most famous monster, Dracula, with 2014’s Dracula Untold. Starring Luke Evans, the film combined their property with Coppola’s still popular romantic reinterpretation of Dracula’s connection to Vlad ‘The Impaler’ Teppes-Dracul. Untold revealed the backstory of the Count during the Wallachian-Ottoman wars of the 1400s, combined with a nod to F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, played by Charles Dance, as the creature that turned Vlad to vampirism in a failed attempt to save his wife and avenge his kingdom, before launching him into the modern day to retell Stoker’s novel. Even before production had finished though, there were concerns and reshoots to fall in line with their new brand, the Dark Universe, which had begun talks with Tom Cruise.

Seeing any Cruise-helmed feature to take precedence over a film starring the relatively unknown Evans, Universal quickly shoved Untold first into theatres to make what it could, then down a memory hole to be forgotten forever to make room for their re-relaunch. 2017’s The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman and starring Cruise with Russell Crowe as Jekyll/Hyde, had an eye towards making more dramatic, prestige horror, with an already planned and announced slate of films, including Frankenstein (Javier Bardem), The Invisible Man (Johnny Depp), Bride of Frankenstein (Angelina Jolie), The Wolf Man (which had failed in a 2010 revamp that was distributed but not produced by Universal, starring Benecio Del Toro), Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Phantom of the Opera (last seen in an unrelated big screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical in 2004 starring Gerard Butler) and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, (who Disney had co-opted for the animated feature films in 1996).

The film and series however had two major problems working against it. The first was Cruise’s contractual stipulations that gave him near unprecedented control over the project, sometimes rewriting the script on the fly to suit his mood, and frequently taking directorial power away from Kurtzman to make the film he wanted to make, rather than the one Universal had signed on for. This resulted in a film that often seems off balance and unsure of itself, seemingly jumping from plot point to plot point, connected often by little else than a checklist of winks and nods to not only other films in its own series, but other cinematic universes altogether, making for an often-tedious watching experience.

The second major problem with The Dark Universe was that no one seemed to have checked to see if audiences were interested in the least to begin with; what draw could Jekyll and Hyde have for an audience who have a richly characterized Hulk, or watch Blade kick Dracula’s butt, or see the X-Men make a mockery of the weight of resurrection and the ethical quandaries of science? Less than a year after The Mummylimped out of theatres, ridiculed by critics and audience alike, the Dark Universe had quietly been cancelled, with the slated productions postponed indefinitely, and all future films to exist as standalones rather than as a united cinematic universe, the lone survivor being 2020’s The Invisible Man, a reportedly greatly-reworked script following Depp’s removal from the project with the revelation of domestic and substance abuse problems, and now starring Elizabeth Moss as the former love interest of the titular character.

If Universal’s Monsters are good at anything, it’s rising from the grave, and in September of 2019 word began to spread across Hollywood that director Paul Feig had begun production of a film called Dark Army, allegedly featuring the wider cast of horrific characters, once more thrown together for an ensemble, written by Feig himself, and tentatively scheduled for a possible 2023 release...

...100 years after Lon Chaney first filled audiences with fear and fright. 

Former investigative journalist, now writer and producer of educational and historical articles, podcasts and videos, Mikki can be found haunting Eastern Shores in Canada, luring locals into the cold watery abyss

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