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The Universal Suspects: 40 Monsters, 31 Movies, 12 Months, No Escape

In 1941, Lon Chaney, Jr. created the iconic look for werewolves in :"The Wolf Man."
Universal
In 1941, Lon Chaney, Jr. created the iconic look for werewolves in :"The Wolf Man."

Digital Gym kicks off a year-long tribute to the classic Universal monster movies

Midday Movies: The Universal Suspects
GUESTS: Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter and co-curator of The Universal Suspects Miguel Rodriguez, director of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival and co-curator of The Universal Suapects

That is how Abbott and Costello looked at Dracula in 1948. This is almost two decades after Universal Studios created Dracula and Frankenstein on the screen for the first time. Watching this movies today some modern audience might giggle at things that seemed [indiscernible] [00:00:24] hanging, the way Dracula enters for the first time, the music cues that we get. Back in the 1930s when Universal introduced these creatures to audiences, these things might have seemed a lot fresher wouldn't they Miguel. Miguel Rodriguez: Yeah, do believe that at the time this was the birth of first of all the talkies. So a lot of the sound affects you are talking that would have been fairly new experiences for cinema audiences you would do more with that with film than what people were used to with the stage plays, like for example Dracula itself was based more on the stage play then the Abrams Doctrine novels. So, even the people who had experienced the stage play would have gotten more of an array feeling from Tod Browning film. Beth Accomando: So Universal deviled in monsters in the silent films with the Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Phantom of the Opera, but Dracula was the first time this monsters got a voice. So lets us hear what people would have heard when Dracula first introduced himself. [Video presentation] 1.29 to 1.45 I am Dracula. It's really good to see you. I don't know what happened to the driver and my luggage, and... well, and with all this, I thought I was in the wrong place. I bid you welcome. So this is Bela Lugosi as Dracula coming on screen for the first time. This has become such an iconic image of Dracula that has held through over the decades. Miguel Rodriguez: So iconic that it has become a breakfast serial, I mean when people think of Dracula you have Bela Lugosi in his long black cape and his [indiscernible] [00:02:09] and the slicked black hair with the widows peak and it defined a whole icon and myth for us, that still resonates today even with redefinitions. Beth Accomando: Is another very classic movement for him Bela Lugosi as Dracula. [Video presentation] 00:02:30 to 00:02:37 Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make. This Dracula came out in 1931 how was it received. Miguel Rodriguez: Huge, absolutely huge it was a phenomenal success in terms of box office. And that is saying something especially considering 1931 was right in the middle of great depression and Universal Studios are the Studio run by Uncle Carl Laemmle was in some dire straight at that time. This is really what pulled them out of the financial burden that they had in a way this monsters saved Hollywood. There are lot of different factors here partly is it Bela Lugosi’s accent. This is Universal I believe there first talky if not their first then one of their first. And one of their first voices is this Hungarian accents saying these lines in this very unnatural way that I think a lot of people that was part of the fear for them and also part of the draw, is just the way Bela spoke, even that pause you know the way he said lines was so much fun. Beth Accomando: And following right on the heels of this was another monster movie that gave us a very different kind of monster if Bela Lugosi was all about the accent and the talking Frankenstein gave us a silent monster. Miguel Rodriguez: That is right. So same year in fact James Whales and Frankenstein came out, but the funny thing about that is Bela Lugosi was considered for the part of the monster for Frankenstein’s monster, but Bela’s Monster was a very different idea what we ended up with Karloff in the role of the monster what we ended with screen is very much the sympathetic beast monster for lack of a better word that we all come to know in love. Beth Accomando: And we have the Director James Whale really to think for bringing this kind of humanity to the monster that wasn't in the original plan. Miguel Rodriguez: Oh, yeah I completely think that is the case and in fact James Whale was so successful and his take was so revered by audiences that Universal did not want to let James Whale go they wanted him as their contract director for many more films to come. He nailed something there with the sympathetic monster. Beth Accomando: And talking about iconic lets us listen to a moment from Frankenstein that has resonated for decades [Video presentation] 00:05:07 to 00:05:20 that notion of being god is so key to Frankenstein and some of this other monster movies because this is science not so much science gone wrong as where they were going to talk about, but science that kind of make this scientist a little drunk on power because they are discovering this ability to create. Miguel Rodriguez: I am not even kidding when I trust, when I say I just got shivers listening to Colin Clive in that scene, you know we are living in a time now where you can have scientist do shows like Cosmos that are very well received by the public, but at the time that when the novel was written and when this film came out scientist and science were still fairly far removed from the general public and had this kind of mystique about them that they were playing with things that maybe we were not meant to know and if we do want to know about the inner workings of everything, then yeah that comes with some kind of power madness about it and that whole idea of I, now what I what is like to be God, maybe we are playing in God’s domain, so very resonant in both the book and in fact the alternate title of Mary Shelley’s original novel is The Modern Prometheus and this idea of someone stealing something from the God’s. Beth Accomando: Also key to brining these monsters to life was makeup artist, Jack Pierce. Tell us about his influence on these films. Miguel Rodriguez: Well, Jack Pierce is not only the makeup artist, but kind of the designer for how they looked. The directors did have a lot of input for exact what James Whale wanted Frankenstein’s monster to have that flathead like a big soup can that you can lift off and put the brain in, but all of our images of this monsters. We can really attribute to Jack Pierce and his makeup artistry. Before Jack Pierce and his makeup artistry really was not a regular thing. It was really more like what people would do for the stage, actors did their own makeup. In fact in Dracula the first of these in 1931 Bela Lugosi and [indiscernible] [00:07:30] doing his own makeup, before that you had Lon Chaney in the silent era launching a senior doing his own makeup and that is why he still well-known as he did such and wonderful job of it. But Jack Pierce was kind of the birth of what we see as a makeup artist now and has inspired everyone from Rick Baker to Gregory Nicotero and all these wonderful makeup artist we have now. We have Jack Pierce who was not even credited at the time. He was just some dude that they had working for them just another [indiscernible] [00:07:58], but a true artist in and I think the people who really appreciated him were the actors who sat in his chair for hours and hours and hours. Beth Accomando: Well and he brought both sense of the horrific and the humane in the monsters and we also have the bride of Frankenstein as well which was the very successful sequel to Frankenstein. Miguel Rodriguez: I think what Jack Pierce was able to do with his own personal style. He invented a lot of what he did so he was very innovative, but his makeups even though they were very extreme they left a lot of movement of the eyes and the mouth so fascial expressions were still, the actor had a lot of control. Joshua Karloff did in the monster makeup and Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. You have no choice, but it’s a route for him, the sad eyes you know the lumbering walk everything about him that he could bring even under awfully painful appliances that Jack put on him. It really, really shows through and speaks to the audiences. Beth Accomando: Now Dracula in Frankenstein were both taken from literally sources. Universal next turned to the kind of ripped from the headlines kind of sources material and their next monster was the Mummy. So let us hear a little bit of about the Mummy. [Video presentation] 00:09:23 to 00:10:03 tells a little about what inspired The Mummy. Miguel Rodriguez: The Mummy came out in 1932 a decade after the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun you know it is a whole decade, but for the hugeness of that discovery it was still fresh and people were really obsessed with the idea of King Tut and you can see why what we have is a body from 2000 years ago it still has flesh on it and that idea of mummification was both fascinating and terrifying and I think that where we get this idea of the body of King Tut looks so intact what if it could come back and this idea of resurrection is a big part of what drives the mythos of the 1932 Mummy where we have Karloff delivering amazing dialog and his amazing voice he is allowed to speak unlike really Frankenstein had them do them much. Beth Accomando: The Mummy as well as Dracula going back to that also introduces this notion of foreigners and the way they are able to kind of awaken or certain sexuality in the poor puritanical young women of America. So that was part of the draws well. Miguel Rodriguez: That blind runs through a lot of things of the mysterious foreigner coming to take our women. Dracula had that in spades, so I mean there was Bela Lugosi was very seductive again harking back to that accent his eyes, the movement of his fingers, and then of course we have the now The Mummy with Boris Karloff who was not English men, but playing Egyptian coming back to life to find who he believes this is resurrected love and both films are very much not just horror films, but melodramas. These were very melody dramatic romance films as well. Beth Accomando: And what kind of allow the women to act a little more free was the fact that the sense of hypnosis were that they were hypnotizing this women and taking control of them and this kind of allowed them to become involved in these romances of sorts with foreigners was kind of a, that was a different kind of scary for an American audience at that time. Miguel Rodriguez: The fear and xenophobia that was attributed to the mysterious foreigner taking our women was that they were putting some kind of power over them some kind of, that was a very real fear to and so this movies gave that a literal meaning. Beth Accomando: I am speaking with Miguel Rodriguez director of the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival. Now next upon the monster line up for Universal it is kind of a bit of a return to the notion of Gods and monsters and scientist drunk on power a little bit and this is the invisible man. This is the first film to start one of the more underappreciated actors I think in Universal raptor and that is Claude Rains who plays the invisible man, let’s hear him [Video presentation] 00:13:15 to 00:13:34. Alright this was 1933, so tell us was this was popular as the other Universal monsters. Miguel Rodriguez: Yes, and actually also directed by James Whale as you mentioned the greatest success in this movie is the invisible man himself Dr. Jack Griffin played by Claude Rains and one of the reasons I think it is so impressive is you never see his face. He is going completely on his voice, which is extremely powerful and the movement of his hand and the tilt of his head that kind of, because it is completely when is not invisible because he is wrapped in bandages. The whole time just playing the clip that you just played Rains his madness come through, so well and I could listen to that again and again and again. Beth Accomando: Well we are on the topic of madness there is another Universal monster the wolf man, which harkens back to a lot of myths and fairytales, but we also get this modern element of physiology and the notion of maybe things are in people’s minds. Let us hear a little bit of this time it is Claude Rains not as the monster, but he is giving us a little background on the wolf man. [Video presentation] 00:14:51 to 00:15:24 so we have Lon Chaney Junior taking on the role of wolf man and what people may forget about almost all of these monsters is they do have this incredible humanity, which give these horror films a very different tone from a lot of what our contemporary films are like. Miguel Rodriguez: Yeah, that is right I think these films can be more attributed to the tradition, the dramatic tradition of tragedies and nowhere is that more evidence than in the wolf man where you literally do see the monsters humanity because whenever it is not full moon he is just a regular guy. Lon Chaney Junior this is his first turn in this cycle of course his father was the legendary Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney Junior probably had a lot to live up to right down to his name, in fact, Lon Chaney is not his actual name it is actually Creighton Chaney, but they insisted he was a contract in the like no you are Lon Chaney Junior because that will sell more tickets. You know grudgingly he went with it Lon Chaney Junior ends up having to communicate this torment that it goes through whenever he changes into a wolf and then is faced with the responsibility of what is has done the next morning. It is really sad and the film does a great job of communicating that as does Lon Chaney Junior the look on his eyes is quite pained and it is that physiology of who I am really and what should I do and I need to really, I need to kill myself and that idea is a terrifying idea. Beth Accomando: The wolf man could be considered the last of the original Universal monsters and the studio tried to milk these original monsters for all their work. So what happened to them kind of in this decade after the wolf man came out. Miguel Rodriguez: Well the wolf man was very successful, but you know following the wolf man Universal kind of fell into this glut of similarly to what we see now of whenever someone complain about oh it is just nothing, but a bunch of sequels and remakes well that is kind of what Universal did. Beth Accomando: We do finally get something original from Universal and this is kind of a new tradition. We get the creator from the black lagoon and now we have science returning as a factor, but unlike the earlier films were we get more of the sense of the gods and monsters notion of scientist trying to become god. Now we get this notion more of in the 50s of science gone wrong and there is more of sense of the science going wrong because we are messing with the nature. Let us listen to the beginning of creature from the Black Lagoon which kind of sets the tone for the film and for a lot of what we would get in the 1950s in our science fiction horror [Video presentation] 00:18:13 to 00:18:22 so talk a little bit about the creature, the creature introduced us to this great character for anybody who has not seen it describe what the Gillman looks like. Miguel Rodriguez: It is a full body fish man for lack of a better term. The suites the costume that the actors there were two actors who played the Gillman was wearing is so convincing and so well done that most makeup artist and special effects are as today still sided as one of cinemas best special effects makeup jobs ever. It is head to toe there are no seems visible you see it from all angles there is stunning underwater photography. So the creator from the Black Lagoon gave us something that audiences really had never seen before something really startling not to mention it was in a new technology called 3D in 1954, so now we are talking 33 years after the Universal cycle started and the creature was a real revitalization of it and what you are mentioning about science aspect before we had scientist as this kind of larger than life figures now we have the scientist characters as these are just guys with jobs just like anyone else and you have two different scientist. So instead of the insane mad scientist there is one scientist who is ethical and there is one scientist who is not quite as ethical and the theme really comes from that ethics conflicts between the two scientists and that is actually essential conflict to the film, very interesting film. Beth Accomando: We play one of the scenes that you enjoy from this film and then you can explain to us why [Video presentation] 00:20:17 to 00:20:27. Miguel Rodriguez: I love this scene I think this scene perfectly captures what the film is trying to say you have two people out of their element hearing sounds they are in the middle of the amazon forest on a boat and they are hearing this noises and they both have completely different interpretations of the sounds that they are hearing one is this kind of almost [indiscernible] [00:20:45] these are animals that are trying to kill it is about death and the other one is you know there maybe they are just afraid and they are trying to save themselves as more of a survival technique it is a very man versus nature film, but nature is arguably not the total bad guy here and I love that scene for that. Beth Accomando: We started with Abbott and Costello so I think lets go out with Abbott and Costello again. Abbott and Costello is responsible for keeping these monsters alive during their leaners years. And they really offered a nice take on some of the [indiscernible] [00:21:19] and some of the monsters, so what we are going to go out with here. Miguel Rodriguez: Well we have Lou Costello on the phone, Abbott and Costello in their [indiscernible] [00:21:27] in this film work for a shipping company and Lou Costello is on the phone with Lon Chaney Junior in the middle of the transformation. [Video presentation] 00:21:42 to 00:21:45. Beth Accomando: I have been speaking with Miguel Rodriguez Director of the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival and one of the programmers for the Universal suspects at the Digital Jim Cinema. Thank you very much for talking with me. Miguel Rodriguez: Thank you this has been a blast. [Video presentation]

The Film Geeks at the Digital Gym Cinema present a year of Universal's classic monster movies starting 1 p.m. Sunday with the triple bill of "The Wolf Man," "The Werewolf of London," and "The She-Wolf of London."

Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man — when you think of these monsters the images that come to mind first are probably those created in the 30s and 40s by Universal Studios and featuring the likes of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr.

The Universal Suspects is a showcase described as 40 monsters in 31 movies over the next 12 months. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando and Miguel Rodriguez of the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival are two of the Film Geeks who volunteer their time programming movies at the micro cinema on El Cajon Boulevard.

You could say the Universal monsters started in 1923 when the studio made the silent film, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and then "The Phantom of the Opera" with Lon Chaney, both wildly successful at the box office. Universal followed with the talkies, "Dracula" and "Frankenstein," both in 1931, and both hits as well. Watching some of these movies now, people may giggle at things that seem cliché now — the creaking staircase, the music cues, and the mobs of peasants pursuing monsters with torches—but these things would have been fresh back then.

The 30s also brought "The Mummy," which played on the public's fascination with the recent (a decade prior) discovery of King Tut's Tomb and the mummified corpse that still had flesh on it. (TheNAT has a stunning exhibit on King Tut running through April.) The decade also saw "The Invisible Man" with a much under-appreciated Claude Rains in the title role.

During the 1940s, the most successful of the new series of Universal Horror movies was "The Wolf Man," which also established Lon Chaney Jr. as the new leading horror actor for the studio, following in the footsteps of his famous father, his father Lon Chaney.

The iconic image of beauty and the beast from "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," with the Gill Man and Julie Adams.
Universal
The iconic image of beauty and the beast from "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," with the Gill Man and Julie Adams.

By the 1950s, the monster movie needed revitalization. Abbot and Costello had kept Universal's monsters alive and sometimes on life support through a series of comedies but "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" return the genre to its former heights. But instead of the Gods and monsters of the 30s with scientists drunk on power, "The Creature" looked to science gone wrong and to what happens when scientists mess with nature.

The film series will also host a special screening of the Spanish "Dracula" (1931) that was shot at the same time and on some of the same sets as Todd Browning's American film. Spanish "Dracula" screens as part of the San Diego Latino Film Festival in March.

This is a rare opportunity to see the full canon of Universal's classic monster films on the big screen.

The Universal Suspects kicks off on Sunday. Pre-sale ticket packages are available on Indiegogo or individual tickets can be purchased at the door.