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Fragments of Fascism: An Alternative Look at the Universal Monsters (Feature Review)

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While Horror cinema can safely be said to have originated in Europe with Méliès’s Le Manoir du Diable, Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—among a few other remnants of early cinema—, it was in America, with Universal Studios, that a classical approach to the horror genre was reified. While Universal experimented with horror throughout the 20s, most successfully with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925)—which unfortunately is not featured on this release—, and The Man Who Laughs (1928), it was with Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) that Universal Studios would launch the brand, now referred to as Universal Horror or the Universal Monsters. From Dracula, Universal would go on to generate over 30 films, defining not only an era but also numerous styles and subgenres. Monsters, Vampires, Invisible Men, Werewolves, Phantoms, and the Walking Dead were all subjected to individual series; it was an era of development, of birth. The visual and narrative tropes that were established in this era are still very much with us today; fragments of Lugosi’s chivalrous, romantic depiction of Count Dracula, of Karloff’s misunderstood, dimwitted monster are embedded in nearly every vampire and Frankenstein-esque film since their release. Besides the exception of something like Hammer Productions, Universal Studios remains, to this day, one of the most important and iconic names for the horror community.

vlcsnap-2014-11-19-13h06m45s47Inclusive boxsets, like the Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection, are interesting in that they offer us a chance at a cultural and historical reflection of specific movements in cinema. For the Universal Monsters, something that appears strikingly clear, now distanced by numerous decades, are the films’ individual representation of the social and political climate of the 1930s and ‘40s. By Dracula’s release, America was a full year into The Great Depression, one of the severest eras of not only nationwide but also worldwide depression. In the face of crippling despair, Hollywood managed to persevere through the times. While attendance dropped from roughly 90 million to 60 million per week, theatres stayed open and films continued to be produced. Films, in general, turned towards two approaches: the escapist film and the social conscious films. The former, whether through the guise of gangsters, music, or screwball comedy, spoke to audience’s fears; granting an outlet to exercise fears on a grandiose scale. The latter discussed contemporary events, often focusing on the tribulations of farmers and the lower middle class. While the horror films produced between the 30s and 40s have a semblance of both approaches, they are more firmly rooted in escapism: the fantastical elements of the Monsters standing in place for the realities that audience members faced.

vlcsnap-2014-11-19-13h18m01s53And yet, in retrospect, there is something that rings distinctly true about the Universal Monsters in relation to the rise of fascism in Europe. 2 years after the release of Dracula, Hitler was inaugurated as Chancellor for Germany, becoming Fuhrer in the following year—a reign that would last for over a decade. In his seminal text, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Siegfried Kracauer argued that the films of the Weirmar Republic (1920-33) represent premonitions of the rise of Fascism in Europe. While this argument has not gone untested, his work has still remained one of the most widely read and circulated texts analyzing post-WWI, pre-WWII films from Germany—including many of the films of the iconic German Expressionist movement. Loosely adapting Kracauer’s approach, how can we read the Universal Monsters films in relation to their socio-political climate, especially those produced prior to America’s involvement in WWII?

First, it is necessary to acknowledge the fact that a great deal of German Expressionist filmmakers emigrated from Germany to the US and began working in Hollywood during the 20s and 30s—a fact that has often been attributed to the rise of the film-noir style. Of these emigrated filmmakers there are two names that have a specific influence on Universal Horror, Paul Leni and Karl Freund. After completing Waxworks in Germany, Leni would embark to America and work on four influential proto-Universal Horror films, including The Man Who Laughs and the The Cat and the Canary. Leni would also be a principle figure of influence for one of Universal Horror’s most prominent directors James Whale (Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man.) The second, and more directly influential, filmmaker was Karl Freund. Starting as a cinematographer in the Weimar Republic, working on films like The Golem, The Last Laugh, and Metropolis, Freund made his largest mark on Universal Horror as cinematographer for Browning’s Dracula. For his efforts, Freund helped establish a majority of the tropes that would shape the visual aesthetic for the remaining pictures. There are rumors that Freund was even left to direct a great deal of the film, albeit uncredited, which would attribute an even greater significance to his lasting impression. Following Dracula, Freund would go on to establish the norms for another of the major series, by directing the 1932 version of The Mummy.

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German Expression came to fruition following World War I. Following the war Germany’s economy was devastated and country morale was low. In light of the socio-political and economic climate of Germany during the era in which Expressionism rose and keeping Kracauer’s thesis in mind, the rise in the influence of Expressionist style during the 30s seems easily understood. Expressionism infiltrated Hollywood during a similar, albeit not identical, national crisis. This begs the question (a question that can only be hypothesized) as to what effect the growing concerns of the rise of Fascist power in Europe had on American cinema and psychology. It is also imperative to note that it was one year before Dracula’s release that The Hays Code would go into effect. So next time you pop in a Universal Horror classic, think about the political and social climate that existed outside of the film’s production, see if anything pops out at you that may have not previously. Was horror used as a guise to speak about political ideologies that were otherwise punishable? While these are questions that certainly can’t be answered in a short review, one things for sure, Universal Horror remains relevant and exciting throughout the years.

vlcsnap-2014-11-19-13h32m26s36As mentioned, it is inclusive collections like this that grant us an opportunity to compare these unique, yet connected, films. As for the collection’s other merits they are plentiful. We can admit, that in the hubbub of Blu-Ray that we can sometimes forget how good a format DVD still can be. If there is any testament to that fact, Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection is certain to be it. While I am sure that the Blu-Ray editions are even more stunning, these DVDs (with a few exceptions where compression is a slight issues) are nonetheless impressive. Clarity and contrast are superb and black levels are strong; the films really do look better than they ever have. At less than 3 dollars a film, this collection’s entertainment to dollar-spent ratio is enormous. The packaging is not something that will revolutionize the industry, but it comes as a relief that this collection features individual cases for each franchise—all housed in a nice box—as opposed to just shelling them all into a single case. The one strange, but not necessarily bad thing, about the collection is that crossover films are included for each franchise. So you wind up getting numerous copies of films like House of Frankenstein, or some of the Abbot and Costello films. This is obviously because the titles are carried over from Universal’s individual legacy collections, and we can’t really blame them for wanting to save a few bucks by cutting this corner. While it is a shame that there are no newly commissioned special features and films like the 1925 Phantom of the Opera are missing, all-in-all, this collection is not only a great way for beginners and those less informed to break into classic Universal Horror, it also represents a fine collection for advent fans; a one-stop shop for all your Universal Monster needs. Now, all we need is for something like this to happen with the Hammer Series.

Collection Details:

  • Dracula (1931)
  • Dracula (Spanish Version) (1931)
  • Frankenstein (1931)
  • The Mummy (1932)
  • The Invisible Man (1933)
  • The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  • Werewolf of London (1935)
  • Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
  • Son of Frankenstein (1939)
  • The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
  • The Invisible Woman (1940)
  • The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
  • The Wolf Man (1941)
  • The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
  • The Mummy’s Ghost (1942)
  • The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
  • Invisible Agent (1942)
  • Phantom of the Opera (1943)
  • Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
  • Son of Dracula (1943)
  • House of Frankenstein (1944)
  • The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
  • The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
  • House of Dracula (1945)
  • She-Wolf of London (1946)
  • Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
  • Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
  • Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
  • Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
  • Revenge of the Creature (1955)
  • The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)

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About Joe Yanick

Joe Yanick is a writer, videographer, and film/music critic based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the former Managing Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Noisey.vice.com, and Stagebuddy.com. In addition, he has worked with the Cleveland International Film Festival as a Feature reviewer. He is currently a Cinema Studies MA Candidate at New York University.

One comment

  1. Interesting stuff, Joe.

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