Last month I discussed The Adventures of Superman now it’s time to tackle yet another old time radio show that featured a hero…
The Shadow featured a superhero of a different breed. The character wasn’t all smiles and handshakes like Superman and his show wasn’t really for young listeners either. It was detective/mystery, thriller and horror all rolled into one. My first introduction to the Shadow was with 1994′s live action film starring Alec Baldwin and Penelope Anne Miller. I wasn’t sure who this Shadow guy was, but he appeared to be a superhero so that was enough to hook me to watch the movie. Well, the movie sucks. Looking back, having become familiar with the original incarnation of the Shadow, they really screwed things up. The Shadow just doesn’t fit into the summer blockbuster mold.
So I finally get to write this. Believe it or not, what became The History of the Universal Monsters was originally meant to be just a list of my favorite Universal Monster movies. Notice I said Universal Monster and not Universal Horror. Though I’ve liked the Lugosi/Karloff pairings I’ve seen in the past month and especially enjoyed The Raven, it is the monsters that keep me coming back for more.
Maybe by this time next year I’ll be knowledgeable enough to have a list of favorite Universal Horror films, but this is the year of the monsters. You’ll notice a lack of The Mummy/Invisible Man/Creature from the Black Lagoon movies. Well, that’s because I’m not all too familiar with those films and many of them I’ve never seen. Hey, I can always update this list next year too, right?
The Wolf Man also does not make my list. While I like the character, the movie doesn’t impress me when compared to Dracula and Frankenstein films. I like the Wolf Man in the monster mash ups, but I don’t think he carries a film well on his own.
It is obvious that the Frankenstein franchise was treated with the most care by Universal (again, the studio showing preference to KARLOFF) and the first two films from that line are two of the most respected movies in horror history. The only Frankenstein movie that does not make my list is 1942′s The Ghost of Frankenstein.
The Invisible Ray (1936) is the third Karloff/Lugosi teaming for Universal. It’s quite a departure from the Poe-inspired The Black Cat and The Raven because this movie is mostly a science-fiction thriller and not an actual horror movie. It does not feature any of the creepiness or Gothic vibe of the two previously mentioned films. I still liked it just because I enjoy seeing Karloff and Lugosi outside of their best known roles.
The film features Karloff as Dr. Janos Rukh, a scientist who has developed a telescope that can look far into space, far enough to see images reflecting back of Earth’s past. After seeing a meteorite crash in Africa “thousands of millions” of years ago, Karloff and a group of his colleagues (including Lugosi as Dr. Felix Benet) head off to Africa to find what they believe will be a great new element Rukh calls “Radium X”. Rukh ends up getting radiation poisoning from his new find and begins to glow and now has a “touch of death”
The initial idea was that this new element could be used to heal people, but Rukh keeps toying around with the destructive abilities of it. Tired of Rukh’s strange and methodical ways, Benet and the rest of the crew take the element back to Europe and proceed to use it to heal people. Of course, this upsets Dr. Rukh because, well, did I mention that Dr. Benet has concocted a serum to keep Rukh’s poisoning in check and that the serum is slowly causing Rukh to go mad? Yeah, this doesn’t end well.
An enjoyable movie based on star power mainly, but it vaguely passes to be branded as “Universal Horror”. Seems like “Universal Science-Fiction” to me. If old scif-fi movies are your thing though, then yes, give this one a shot.
I’m still digging into the less flashy Universal horror films! This 1935 film that was “suggested” by the famous Edgar Allan Poe poem, is the second teaming of Karloff & Lugosi.
In this movie, Bela Lugosi plays the weird, smug, egotistical Dr. Richard Vollin. Vollin is obsessed with Poe to the point of building torture devices in his basement that were inspired by many of his poems (the pit and the pendulum, shrinking room, etc). The movie itself cleverly twists the poem into a thriller while acknowledging the poem itself (the poem is Vollin’s favorite).
Lugosi’s character is coaxed out of retirement to help save the life of a young woman by the name of Jean Thatcher (the very striking Irene Ware). After he does this, he begins to fall for the girl. The girl begins to develop a crush on him as well and her father confronts the good bad doctor telling him to take it easy and let his daughter marry the man she is already engaged to. Hearing that Jean has an “infatuation” with him really drives Vollin to insanity and he begins to plot torture and murder for all in his way so that he may finally have Jean (his “lost Lenore”).
As luck would have it, the wanted criminal Edmund Bateman (Boris Karloff) arrives on his doorstep looking to have the doctor operate on and change his face. Vollin agrees to do this but only if Batemen will torture and kill for him. Bateman reluctantly agrees and as insurance, Vollin damages Bateman’s face in the operation, promising to finally change his face for the better once the job is done.
Where it goes from there is pretty fun and twisted and this movie was apparently very controversial for the time and it is not hard to see why given the theme of torture throughout.
Lugosi OWNS this movie. Predictably, Karloff got top billing, the Lugosi’s presence here is amazing. It is said this is his other great role. Karloff does a fine job too, when he comes to us, we know he is a murderer on the run (he says he had no choice but to murder) but he quickly earned my sympathy as someone who just wants to shed his self-described ugly face and live out a decent life in anonymity.
This is another short movie, barely going past an hour. For the shocking theme of the time and the delightful Lugosi performance, this is a must-see.
A few factors led me to finally watching this movie this year:
1 – the recently released Universal Studios Monsters book, which speaks highly of this movie
2 – James Rolfe’s (the Angry Video Game Nerd) Monster Madness piece
3 – my general love for Universal Horror and a desire to dig further into the library past the usual Dracula and Frankenstein movies
The Black Cat was released in 1934 and it is the first pairing of horror movie legends Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. I have never read the Edgar Allan Poe story, but apparently the film is an extremely loose adaption of it. I’m not sure how heavily a black cat is involved in the Poe story, but in the movie, the cat is barely seen. It just seems odd to even have the cat in the movie because it never really comes into play other than showing the quirkiness of Lugosi’s character, who is terrified at the sight of felines. His reaction to when he first sees the cat is almost comical and really took me out of the movie for a minute.
Other than that, this is a fine, creepy and brief movie (clocking in at a little over an hour). It’s great to see Karloff (as Hjalmar Poelzig) and Lugosi (as Dr. Vitus Werdegast) not playing the major monsters they are known for and acting as flesh & blood humans. This time, it is only their personalities that are monstrous, not their physical abilities or looks. Actually, I found myself sympathizing with Werdegast quite a bit. Yes, he has evil intentions for Poelzig, but those intentions are for Poelzig only and he seems like quite a sane and caring person other than that. Poelzig on the other hand, while much more cool and calm than Werdegast, is pure evil– a murderer and a Satanist. Anything Werdegast has planned for him is well deserved (he married/killed both Werdegast’s wife AND daughter!).
Early in the film, I had some trouble understanding Lugosi through his thick accent (some say his accent is what hindered him in Hollywood with getting beyond horror movies), but either he got better at controlling it or I got used to it because later on I had no problem understanding his words.
This was Universal Picture’s top-grossing movie of 1935 and it is no surprise with Karloff and Lugosi headlining at the peak of their popularity. It is a historic movie for that fact alone, but additionally, it is a fun horror movie with Boris and Bela in full control of their scenes, displaying star power and charisma at every turn.
Well worth tracking down for fans of classic horror.