So then my accursed minions, let’s dust off the cobwebs, stagger nervously through mist drenched marshes, summon up a posse of pitchfork and brasier wielding peasants and give 2013’s first programme a resurrecting blast of cobalt electricity, *distant booming spectral laugh* yes you hunchbacked fools it is time to exhume the Universal Monster movies of yore. Having received the glorious Blu-Ray package for Christmas, officially the best horror themed release of 2012 according to numerous genre specialists and aficionados I knew that this could form the spine of another ambitious season of reviews and articles, and this time my insane plans may have just gone too far, or at least that’s what the superstitious fools down in the village would have you believe. Although there are eight core movies in the box-set the entire Universal cycle encompasses no less than 27 pictures, or 30 if you include Abbott & Costello meeting Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, or the Mummy. So my inhuman experiment is this – to compose capsule reviews for the 27 ancillary movies, and fully fleshed articles for the central octave of monstrous darkness, a programme that should eclipse my expansive Hitchcock season and should give me enough to chew/gnaw/feast upon for the next twelve months. I already have some other strands planned so fret not if you sacrilegious cretins have no interest in this moody material, I’m making my inaugural 2013 visit to the BFI this afternoon and a very interesting screening has cropped up at the Stratford Picturehouse next week. But let’s stay on subject so here’s a reminder, ‘the abyss gazes also’ and all that eh;
First things first, I realise that the Wikipedia article cites something in the region of 40 films belonging to the cycle, these things are always open to debate (is The Hunchback of Notre Dame really a horror film?) so my 27 is culled from the list inscribed in the box-sets supporting booklet, even I won’t have the time for 40+ plus reviews if a few plans come together in the next couple of weeks. Anyway, you have to admire Universal’s commitment to their heritage in this their centenary year, these creatures and their movies are no doubt the studios biggest licensed money spinners over the decades when you consider their iconic status and the copyright fees they must accrue when reproduced in media around the world, but nevertheless it is good to see a studio devoted to maintaining their legacy which stands in contrast to the approach of some of the other major studios who landfilled or simply sold off their memorabilia due to a succession of corporate mergers and philistine executives – and who’s heard the recent scurrilous rumor that Warner Brothers have accidentally destroyed the original camera negative of Days Of Heaven? That’s scary stuff. Anyway let’s get started with the first strand of the cycle, the 1925 first silver screen iteration of The Phantom Of The Opera, this terrified audiences way before some rich Tory munchkin got his grubby paws on it and made some bloody awful West End musical out of the original Gaston Leroux novel;
Starring the near forgotten Lon Chaney this horrific tale in the mould of contemporaries Edgar Allen Poe concerns a deformed ghoul who haunts the gothic chambers, concealed infrastructure and Seine soaked catacombs of the Opéra de Paris. After falling in love with Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) whom he has secretly coached from the cloaked shadows from understudy to prima donna he kidnaps his muse, setting his will against Christine’s tenacious lover Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry). During a masked ball which echoes The Masque of The Red Death the Phantom ignites his wicked plan to despatch his adversary and win Christine’s love.
You really do get a sense of the changes in the art form when revisiting the Silents, the pacing and static camera, the way that scenes are covered in mid-shot with few edits, the exaggerated figure movement and Intertitles supplanting dialogue, and if you peer closely the lavish production design, set dressing and costumes can be discerned through the boxed ratio focused, murky and malodorous, shuddering images. The Grand Guignol stylings are appropriately macabre, I’m going out on a limb in terms of my knowledge but I’m also sure that a 1 hour, 47 minute run-time would have been quite lavish for the period, thus this was probably quite a prestige production for the infant studio under the dominion of the now legendary Carl Laemmle. This is certainly less moribund and languidly paced that many Silents of the era I have seen, it dances along with a grotesque grace, and some of the Phantom’s moral traps could even be discerned in more modern fare almost a century later – I think you know what texts I’m talking about. I distinctly remember that chilling skull visage of Chaney as the Phantom from the photo captures in many of the Horror handbooks I accrued as a child, it’s still a little unsettling today so I can only imagine the swooning and fainting it provoked amongst the more refined punters back in 1925;
Lon Chaney is a criminally overlooked figure in early horror cinema, whilst fans dote on the films of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, James Whale and Tod Browning we tend to overlook one of the pioneer physical performers and make-up geniuses who established some early parameters of the genre, and I shamefully include myself in that estimation. Fascinating article here on his techniques, a pioneer of make-up artistry that paved the way for Jack Pierce through to the modern grotesques of Greg Nicotero and Tom Savini, maybe one day his sorely missed London After Midnight will finally surface, just like the full version of Metropolis and recent rumors of Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle there is hope. Next up we tackle the ‘Listen to them, children of the night. What music they make…’, but before that on the horror front look what else is slowly materialising out in the twisted woods…..
Oh dear, some more bad news. At the risk of sounding selfish, I’m particularly sad about this as he actually came and did a NFT event a couple of years ago and I didn’t go figuring he’d come back at some point – just shows you eh? Carpe Diem and all that, it’s my birthday today so I’m feeling a bit maudlin, OK?. Still, 62 seems very young for a film creative who has given us some of the most memorable creature designs of the past thirty or so years. I was fortunate enough to see a print of ‘Aliens‘ at Abbey Road studios a couple of years ago as part of season of films that had been scored there and the film stands up very well against todays CGI saturated blockbusters.
Some bloggers have quite rightly pointed out that his job was especially difficult and his achievements all the more spectacular given his work in the SF, horror and fantasy film genres. Production designers working in other genres will have a whole host of reference and support materials to aid them in their vision when you think about it. If you have to construct a believable 1950’s Manhattan apartment for example then you have a number of architectural journals, fashion, design and periodical magazines, photographs, films and TV of the era for reference, inspiration and to assist with accuaracy. In Winston’s case you have to envisage, develop and build something that has never been, never existed (OK, apart from Dinosaurs but still) and make them convincing and breathe life into them on screen – no small task given the ratio of successful versus laughable designs that have littered the movies since ‘King Kong‘.
So finally here is a celebration of the great mans work which like many others have helped inform my cinematic childhood. Winston always was more of straight-forward fantasist rather than the splatter masters Rob Bottin and Tom Savini who are his foremost peers in my humble opinion. It’s also interesting to speculate on what his passing will have on one of the most eagerly anticipated projects of the last ten years which should hopefully, finally be with us next year.