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06 February, 2010

The Crypt-ic Correspondent: Bobbie Culbertson's Interview with Constantine Nasr

[CORRECTION: Due to an error on our part, author Greg Mank's name was misspelled when this was posted. That mistake is now corrected, with apologies to all concerned. Ed.]

[Editor’s Note: Recently, Bobbie Culbertson, someone who has grown increasingly familiar to the Crypt’s readership, had the opportunity to interview filmmaker Constantine Nasr. Nasr, who has amassed quite an impressive filmography according to www.IMDb.com, is familiar to fans of Universal Horrors as the creator of documentaries examining the lives and careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and has now done the same for Lon Chaney, Jr. Bobbie spoke to him regarding that documentary, which will be on the upcoming Universal Legacy Series THE WOLF-MAN Special Edition DVD, and is sharing that conversation with The Unimonster’s Crypt.]

Bobbie Culbertson: Will this documentary be about just THE WOLF-MAN movie or will it be about Lon Chaney, Jr's entire life?

Constantine Nasr: Umm. Well. We made two new documentaries for the release. The first and really the foremost documentary was a biography of Chaney, Jr. And that's something I have been wanting to do for quite some time and it's always good to know that the studio would actually back that. Um, as they had done with some documentaries I had done on Karloff and Lugosi. And, prior to that, Jack Pierce.

BC: Yes. I've seen all three of those.

CN: Oh. Good, well I hope you liked them. I actually think Chaney might be the best of all to be honest with you. Um, just because I think, well, although Jack Pierce was very special because no one had really tackled that subject. But I think that people know Chaney, Jr and they just have never given him the break even in the one or two documentaries there have been about his life. So I kind of wanted to rectify that if that was possible. And, try to, you know, in other people's words—because it's the people that are talking—help prove that Chaney was a better actor than he really got credit for.

BC: I totally agree with you. I mean, he was in an Oscar-nominated movie, OF MICE AND MEN. And I think in a lot of ways he reprised his role through everything he did after that. You know, that vulnerable kind of...

CN: He... he, yah. He definitely had a type of performance and a persona that I think even if he was... You know, I mean sometimes when he was playing Dracula, Lenny didn't... didn't come through. But then again, when he played Dracula he had a different slant on that character too that I think is... is something that's noted in the documentary. Something that's...empowering. Physically empowering. And I think that's one thing that you definitely get whenever you see Chaney. Is a physically empowering...you know, gentleman. (laughter)

BC: Yes. That's true.

CN: So, I mean. I would have loved to have met him. I didn't meet him, but, I'm sure he would have been. You know. They talk about the big bear hugs that Lon used to give. and I think he probably meant that with ... Those bear hugs were representative of the big gentle giant within, let's say.

BC: About his relationship with Jack Pierce. I've read articles that indicate he and Jack pierce had a rather acrimonious relationship on the set of THE WOLF-MAN and Lon Jr accused Jack Pierce of purposefully burning him with a curling iron several times. And I was wondering of there was any truth. Did you find out if there's any truth behind that?

CN: Well, it's very hard to find out what is truth and what is sort of legendary hearsay that sort of becomes... becomes true. And that's hard enough when you read biographies written by people who never met him. Who were never there. You know. In my documentary only a few people that I met. Actually, I did interview some people that worked with Jack...worked with Lon Chaney, including director Jack Hill, actor Sid Haig, Bob Burns, and Janet Anne Gallow who was a little girl in Ghost of Frankenstein. She was like six or seven when she worked with him, but she had memories.

With regard to what you're saying, I guess when it comes down to it. That...it. It's most likely a fact that sitting in that chair for hour after hour with people playing with your face really got on Lon's nerves. And it was probably especially later on. I mean, after he was hoping that after THE WOLF-MAN he would probably have some bigger success. But all they kept bringing him back was for mummy movies and things, so... my feeling is that there is truth and that he gave Jack a hard time and Jack, who was the master of his domain, you know possibly singed Lon (laughter) to prove... you know, look. You just sit in that chair and do what you're being told to do. I mean, these were two guys who were probably appreciated each other's work when the day was done. And probably when they both would go and have a drink together? If that was ever possible? But during the tension of 8 hours in the make up chair putting on the hair... you know, you can't blame Chaney for probably getting mad at Jack for his meticulous attitude and nature.

BC: And the man was definitely meticulous. There's never been anyone else like him.

CN: Yah. And I think that, you know, that's part of Jack's downfall, but that's part of his genius. And so, I'm sure that Lon would have loved to just put on a mask like he did for The Mummy. (laughter) But instead, you know, even in HOUSE OF DRACULA. Fourth time in a row. He was like, do I have to do this again? You know, I'm sure that was Chaney's attitude. BUT. He loved his character and you know, at the end of the day I really don't think he gave a bad performance as THE WOLF-MAN. So...

BC: Oh no. It's his one stand out performance other than OF MICE AND MEN. That's what he's remembered for is THE WOLF-MAN.

CN: Yah. Yah. Yah. Even, even, even when he came back, you know, to do FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF in Mexico. I think even then there was like some attempt to bring Lon Chaney's pedigree to the table. But that movie is very sketchy. (laughter) I don't know if you've seen that one.

BC: Yes. I have actually.

CN: So, anyway.

BC: Do you think that Lon Chaney, like Bela Lugosi, was both blessed and cursed with his role? Bela in Dracula and Chaney in THE WOLF-MAN?

CN: Well, that's a good question. I think that both actors were stars for a reason. They had a persona. And that... you know, I think Lugosi's struggles were almost... I don't want to say rather unfair. Both of them had issues. Both of them had. I think Lugosi had a... let's put it this way. Both had greater talents than people appreciate them for now, outside of their cult fan base. And, I mean, that's I think evident if you really explore the work of Lugosi and if you really explore the work of Chaney. And in the documentary we tried to show. We showed a clip of this TV film called the GOLDEN JUNK MAN, in which Chaney Jr gives a really stand out performance. and makes you wish that he had given... that he had opportunities that gave him more character roles like this. Both men grew into, they grew in older age, reliable character actors. But they really wanted to be stars. I think definitely Lugosi, more so that Chaney. But, I think that's kind of what happens when you define something. When you become so associated with a character. It is somewhat a blessing or a curse. And, somehow, Karloff escaped it, but Chaney, Jr didn't. But frankly, I mean, you could say Karloff was much more versatile. Even more versatile than Lugosi. You can say that. I don't necessarily agree with these things.

BC: No, no. I think, by and large, Lon had a... a broader talent base because he did a lot of other memorable roles. He was in ALLIGATOR PEOPLE, admittedly a very cheesy movie. And speaking of Jack Hill, SPIDER BABY.

CN: Oh, SPIDER BABY is fantastic. In fact, we do show some of Lon's best work in SPIDER BABY in the documentary. So, whenever I do these things, and it's very, very hard because fans want to see everything. They often don't understand the, uh, not simply the creative but the budgetary and production time limitations, the legal limitations that we're given. You know, what films are in public domain may not be in public domain to other companies. You know, every studio respects the ownership rights of other studios. So things don't, might be in public domain, you know, to Universal, they are not going to like go out there and steal some other films. We have to do all of this very carefully. So, fortunately, in the documentary we were able to license some clips from OF MICE AND MEN and from SPIDER BABY and show some other images and clips from other of Lon's work. Some good, some not so good. But, the great thing when you're doing, when you're doing a project like this for Universal, is that you have practically free access to their library. So, and most of Lon's, the work that everyone loves Lon for, for the most part, is his work in the 1940s. And so we really tried to show some moments from the INNER SANCTUM movies or even tiny little clips from NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE. Stuff like that. But, um, I'm sorry. Your question was regarding... Oh. SPIDER BABY.

I just want to go back to the issue with Chaney as an actor who was typecast. You know, it's easy to blame... There's a lot of easy outs with Chaney's life that you could say, well, it was his father or it was his alcohol, or it was his family. All these things, but I think, at this point, it would probably be best to focus on the things we do have. And see what he did offer to the world. And that's like the movies he did leave us. And it's very clear when you watch these films that there's an appeal in these movies when he's on screen. That, even when he's in, even when he's the Mummy, I mean, I know that's not his best role, but, there are things that he's doing that at least allow you to see that he's trying to make the performance better. A lot of people knock his performance of the Frankenstein Monster on Tales of Tomorrow for whatever reason.
Whether he was imbued at the time or he thought it was a rehearsal. But the truth is, in my opinion, if you watch that, he's performing the monster role as a newly birthed child, which is exactly what, you know, that's what the script calls for. So if he thought it was a rehearsal. But I think if you just watch it, you know, it's not an Oscar winning performance, but it's certainly something that is different and something that... I mean, different in a way where you see he didn't want to do Karloff. He wanted to do something that was his own. He tried doing Karloff's, you know acting in GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, and I think he did an admirable job. You know, who else could have done that? I think that was an important role, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. But I think, you know, Chaney wanted to do something different. And I think if people viewed it that way and appreciated what is his role supposed to be and what is the role he delivered. I don't think that was a bad performance.

Anyway, I kind of went off on that, but I do believe that Chaney... It's easy to knock performances like that because "Oh, he was drunk" or "He wasn't reading the script. Someone had to tell him his lines.” Come on. We know now that there are actors that don't even memorize their lines. And they don't get knocked for that. But Chaney was a professional. He showed up every day. That's the truth. I mean, that was actually said in the documentary by his producer friend A. C. Lyles that Lon was a complete professional. He always showed up on time. That's what Jack Hill said and these were people who worked with Lon Chaney. You can read books about people written by people who have absolutely no idea about what the guy was like on the set back in the 1950s. Or you can talk to people that actually produced movies with him and said "Yah. I made 10 films with Lon. He was there every day, on time, gave great performances, and was there to support the team.” So, anyway, that's kind of my, my gist of Lon's, you know. How do you feel sorry for him? I just think we should appreciate what we have.

BC: Definitely. I agree entirely. There was one other thing that I wanted to ask you. He's quoted as saying, "I am most proud of the name Lon Chaney. I am not proud of Lon Chaney, Jr because they had to starve me to make me take this name.” There are two theories behind that. That Lon... that Creighton took Lon Chaney, Jr in order to get more roles because he'd been playing stagehands and everything else up to then. Or, that he was kind of frozen out of the system until he agreed to change his name. Um, so, it once again depends on who you read.

CN: Yah, um, so are you asking me what is my opinion? Why did he take the name?

BC: Yes. Your opinion of why he took the name.

CN: Um, well, again, I wish I could have asked Lon that myself. And I think I'm going to defer to what Lon himself said. Because I guess the facts are all pretty much there. Yes, he was doing bit parts and yes, he really wasn't making it a success. But the thing is that, when he chose to be an actor, he didn't take the name of Lon Chaney, Jr. at all - when he could have. Because when he became an actor (after) his dad was dead. It's not like he was going to offend his dad or if he really cared that much. But he tried to stick it out as Creighton Chaney and the other fact is that by the time, you know, let's say that the horror film boom was being resurrected with SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. That was not something that Karloff wanted to be a part of. And that was not something that I think Hollywood wanted Lugosi to be a part of. I mean, that's the irony of this. That, that it was like forced upon him. Because, you know, when you look at it, you know, Lugosi became the star because Chaney died. And then Karloff became the star because Lugosi didn't want, you know, everyone became a star because.

And then when Karloff didn't want this and they didn't want Lugosi. Oh, well, we need some movie star. And, I mean, they tried him out. He wouldn't have been a star if he didn't work in MAN-MADE MONSTER. And they wouldn't have given him the break if he wasn't so good in OF MICE AND MEN. So, I just think that it became something that Hollywood pretty much thrust on him. I'll have to defer to Lon Jr because, like, based on the facts, it's like he could have done this for ten years, the whole decade of the '30s. And he didn't do it. And, you know, whatever his name was, I mean, he still was the one performing and turning in something as good as OF MICE AND MEN. That was all Lon...Creighton...Chaney's work.

BC: Well, I have to admit, even in his later years when, when he had been relegated to B movie status and was being used mostly for his name he still put in the performance. You could still feel the magic when he was on screen.

CN: Oh yah. And, I think that's what is... that's what fantastic about all of these stars. I mean... like, when you see Peter Lorre when, in later years. Or, uh, I mean, Lugosi. I can still sit there and appreciate something like BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA. The worst, you know, the worst movie that Peter Cushing is in, but when you've got a good actor in there, that knows how to at least make at their performances worthwhile. I'm not saying it's going to raise the whole film up, but, you know, DRACULA vs. FRANKENSTEIN really can't be elevated because of Chaney's performances. But for the most part, I mean, he does make you want to keep watching what's on screen. I mean, I...I think to some degree you have to be a fan of his to begin with to watch some of these later films. But when he's in THE DEFIANT ONES or when he's in HIGH NOON or, you know, even like THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE, fine films. You know, not the greatest, but, you know, for what it is.

BC: His performance in it was amazing. It's the best part of the movie.

CN: Oh yah. When he comes on screen even though he's not the lead star, you know, you sit up. Because he was a star. You know. So there's a quality about him that certainly... We remember him for a reason. His, performances in any of these films were at least worthy of taking a look at. Even the worst of them. And when it was, you know, some of the best performances - they're worth talking about.

BC: When Lon Chaney attacks Beverly Garland in THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE, I mean, it really felt very real. It felt like he was flinging her around the room and I thought that was an outstanding scene. And in DRACULA vs. FRANKENSTEIN, his last movie, I almost cried to see him in that performance. I mean, he... he was still... he still was projecting star quality, but it was just a sad thing to see. He...

CN: Yah. I think that... at least in the documentary that we made, we tried to... Let me rewind here. When we did the DRACULA or the Karloff and Lugosi documentaries, we didn't, unfortunately, have the budget to be able to include things we wanted to show. We talked about TARGETS as far as Karloff's career. And Karloff had an unbelievable career. That thing is worth studying over and over again. But, um, you know, it is too bad that Lugosi didn't have something like TARGETS, but Chaney did and that's SPIDER BABY. I mean, we kind of end on SPIDER BABY. We mention to some degree the other roles that Chaney did, but it was, it was a sad end those last few years. But SPIDER BABY is a great one to end on. And what I think we all learn is that he, could do, you know, comedy, if you [sic] just had better opportunities. And it, is too bad that he didn't have...uh.. I mean, his health took him out early and he had his own battles throughout his life. But, there are still plenty enough gems that, you know, you look at James Dean and he had, what, a handful of films?

BC: (Chuckle) Yes.

CN: And, then there are other actors that, as one of our commentators, Kim Noonan, says, they're people at the time who were major stars that nobody cares about now. Or, you know, there are even smaller cults. I mean, like, how many people were talking about Broderick Crawford, you know? And,, without Broderick Crawford we wouldn't have had OF MICE AND MEN—at least the situation that put Chaney where he was. And, you know, I don't know how many hundreds of people are talking about who Broderick Crawford is compared to the thousands of Chaney fans across the globe. Or tens of thousand or even a hundred thousand Chaney fans. You know.

BC: I read that when they were both doing the stage play OF MICE AND MEN that they would quite often get drunk and beat each other up.(Laughter) So...

CN: Yah. There's a picture we found of, I can't remember what... actually... my book is not here... what movie set it is from. They did something in the mid-'40s and they, uh, there's a picture of the two of them brawling. I guess as a publicity still.

BC: That would have been something worth seeing as they were both very large, powerful men.

CN: Oh yah.

BC: Well, I thank you for your time today. And...

CN: Sure.

BC: ...I'm looking forward to THE WOLF-MAN. And I feel somewhat reassured that you will treat him as kindly as you did in the Lugosi documentary.

CN: Well, thank you. I... I think...It could have been very easy, like I said, to have gone into other areas. And my intention was not to do that because to be, to be honest with you, it had already been done. People already know those things. Or they think they know the things. We tried to just... you know, we didn't brush over them. Okay? I mean, that... they, they are discussed, but almost in a way in which it may help you understand the performances he was giving. And I didn't want to say that in this interview. And I want the documentary to kind of speak itself. Or speak to, to that. And the thing is, you know, Chaney is just very, very complicated. As a lot of these actors are. I don't know if you've read... One of my friends is a writer, Greg Mank. I'm sure you know his work. Have you read his work?

BC: I believe so. Yes.

CN: He just did an excellent revised edition of Karloff and Lugosi. This gigantic, 1000-page tome of their life. And you kind of come away, really walking away from that book, now I'm promoting his book, where you get almost a really humanized portrait of both men. More on Lugosi. Karloff you're wondering, wow. This guy, he truly lived for acting. That was his...almost his curse. You know? But what I discovered with Jr was that I think he really... he's... as complicated as his relationship was with his father, he really wanted to see the Chaney name continue. I think he... once he became Lon Chaney, Jr, as opposed to Creighton, I think he bore the responsibility. You know, he like, put that on his shoulders himself. And, I mean, he didn't ask for these roles. I've not read anywhere where it's like Lon Chaney fought for the role of Dracula and kicked out Lugosi. (Laughter) It was none of that. You know, he just, he was saddled with this and then tried to do his very best.

BC: Well, I know in '41 he was promised the role in THE INVISIBLE MAN and it went to Claude Rains. And then the very next year he does THE WOLF-MAN with Claude Rains and I don't remember reading about any acrimonious relationship developing there so I think he must have been very forgiving.

CN: Oh, wait. Um, I'm sorry. You've got me confused. THE INVISIBLE MAN. Claude Rains. That was '33. So you mean THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS?

BC: Yes.

CN: Oh. OK. No. I mean, I don't think. No. The only people who seem to have not gotten along with Chaney, Jr was, you know, he'd complain about Evelyn Ankers being too heavy. I mean that it was a joking nature rather than, really animosity. Uh, I mean, I think he joked and teased Lugosi for being older than him. But the truth is, I mean, he seemed like a very, very good, warm person. Very complicated. Probably needed a lot of love that he probably didn't get all the time. Whether it was from his co-workers or studios. I'm sure from his wife. But he also, you know, I think he... it's that troubled childhood. I don't think you can escape that. You know, I think that he cared about his dad quite a bit. But I think it was very, very complicated. And it's very easy to just sort of accuse it. It's just too complicated to really understand. And the one thing I would love to see is this Chaney book—A Century of Chaneys—, which Jr was trying to finish back in the '70s. He died in the middle of writing it. And, for 40 year now, it has been talked about like they're going to put it and publish it and finish it and it's never been done. And, um...

BC: I think his grandson, Ron Chaney, is working on it. That's the last I heard.

CN: Yah. I hope it happens because it's been going on for 20 years that it's going to be finished. And the truth is, if the next generation doesn't understand or know who Chaney is, we can lose the importance of these people very quickly. You know? I mean, that's, that's the sad thing about. Each generation passes and they're going to take their love of their stars with them.

BC: I don't think that's possible with Lon Chaney, Jr. Not after he did THE WOLF-MAN. He will always live on. If in nothing else, then as THE WOLF-MAN. And the re-release next month... I know I and my friends are very excited about this.

CN: I agree with you. But, it... um, it's fantastic that you're willing to publicize this and help support the release, believe me. That's the fantastic thing. I want more people to do that. I've struggled very long and hard, as you do, to keep the memory of these classic films alive. And all I can say is that when young people today, who are five or six years old, that grow up watching television have no idea who Bugs Bunny is... How are they going to know (laughter) I mean, I'm just saying, you know, it's not in the consciousness as it was. You know, I grew up with... I grew up with Starlog and Fangoria. My very last issue.. The only, the only issue I ever bought on the newsstand of Famous Monsters was the last issue. But all that said, I was very fortunate to at least know Forry Ackerman and actually be part of that whole... You know, I mean, that's why I'm getting people like John Landis and Joe Dante and these filmmakers that love these movies to come forward and say it. But the point is, at the end of the day, I don't think you'll ever replace Lon Chaney Jr's WOLF-MAN with any other werewolf character, bar none. As much as there are werewolf films, and there's going to be this new remake, which I think looks fantastic. But it's going to be Lon Chaney Jr when it comes to werewolf movies.

BC: Yes.

CN: You gotta share that with the next generation. You've gotta keep it in the public consciousness. And that is extremely hard today when it's an old movie and black and white, and... believe me. I love silent films and it's hard to keep Chaplin important. You know?

BC: This is true. I mean, it's rather sad that if you mention something that you know for a fact is a re-release that's coming out or a redo and the younger generation will go "Oh, that's so unique and refreshing.” And you actually have to point out that that was done 30 years ago. It's a redo. (laughter). So, it is kind of sad. but...

CN: No, I know. I know. But that's why, you know, it's like THE LORD OF THE RINGS. If people love it. Or even the original FRANKENSTEIN, that book's public domain had been out of the... no one is making real profit on that book right now. No individual, so it's not like there's a reason to, you know, for any major publisher to be putting out Frankenstein. But if you don't keep putting it out, it becomes a relic. It's like "Oh, that thing. Oh yah, Frankenstein.". But, it's like THE WOLF-MAN. If you don't keep putting it out, or these classic movies, or Charlie Chaplin, whatever it might be. Then the fans keep complaining about the reissue. "Why are they re-releasing it? I've bought it four times now.” But if you don't keep putting it out there, then the person who has never seen THE WOLF-MAN will never see it. I hate to say it, but these disks that are coming out, they have a certain amount of shelf life. They only print so many. So, even though you've had, say, three versions of THE WOLF-MAN, that first version that came out in 1999, that's out of print. So if you don't keep putting it out there it's not going to be there anymore. And that's what I think sometimes the fans are missing. And I understand the complaint, but if you really want to help keep THE WOLF-MAN alive... I've just said, I just posted on the classic horror film board a couple of weeks ago, buy this copy and give it to someone for their birthday. Or tell somebody about it. Or just be happy that, hey, THE WOLF-MAN is coming out again. I won't buy it, but hey. Tell someone else about it.

BC: Oh, trust me. We do. (laughter)

CN: I know. I know. So, I'm not trying to be a salesman for this particular release. I'm trying to let people know that if they don't support these things... classic movies, I mean, they're shutting the doors on these catalog films like you wouldn't believe. And I've produced a lot of them. And it's bad. I used to do, I used to do like 20 audio commentaries a year. I haven't done anything in a year.

BC: You have a very impressive filmography on IMDb though.

CN: Oh. Thank you. There's, a lot of other things that I just haven't done that I... I was telling someone that I did the commentary for WAGON MASTER, which just came out, and we had the great fortune of having Harry Carey, Jr and Peter Bogdanovich come and we did the commentary and we got some of John Ford's original audio into this, hearing John Ford talk about WAGON MASTER. No one will ever know I did that except for, like, I'm telling you now.

BC: Except me. (laughter)

CN: Yah, yah. (laughter) Except the people who know I did it. One day I'll put that on IMDB. But, I haven't done any... That was like a year and a half ago. And WAGON MASTER sat on the shelf for about a year. It finally came out. And there are so many great films that have yet to be released. By major stars and major studios. And you know, maybe this article will... Who knows. If you type "Hey, Universal. Put out ISLAND OF LOST SOULS next in your Legacy series.” Believe me.

BC: Oh, I would agree. ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is a marvelous movie!

CN: I've been trying for... seven years now? ... to promote getting out a Paramount horror collection. Or thriller. Or... you start naming anything that's not already been out there. It's very, very hard. And sometimes I've been able to get things out there just because the studio doesn't know and I inform them that, this is just my opinion, hey, you've got a movie like The Undying Monster or let's do a John Brahm collection for Fox. And, you know what, they listen. And we, did a box set on John Brahm movies. I'm like, how did that happen? You know?

BC: Well, please, from all the fans of these movies everywhere, I'm speaking for all of them, please keep talking to these people. Because we need to have these movies released.

CN: Oh, I will do my very best. And, what you're doing is excellent because the more people will, not only go to your Web site, but if the studio even takes a look at what you've written, like "Oh. You know what. Maybe there's a reason to put out ISLAND OF LOST SOULS now." or "Let's do a 75th edition of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN."

BC: Oh please!

CN: Well, that's what I want. Honestly. I want THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and I want to do a James Whale a documentary, so, you know, there's a lot to be done. And we'll see how it goes.

BC: THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is, I think, superior to even to the movie FRANKENSTEIN. I mean, it's a perfect movie.

CN: Yah. You know it! . Let's just hope. You know. And uh, if there's anything else that I can ever do. Or if you want to talk about other horror films. Or you have friends that... I'll do... It's not like I really want to do interviews just to do them but if I can, if I can help get a public voice out there to... You know, if there's a reason for someone to write an article about a classic monster movie that needs to come out, then I, believe me, the studios will listen.

If there's enough of a hubbub that goes on for a film that you really want, and there's some press about it, or there's, I don't know, some talk about Island of Lost Souls, then they might listen. But what the fans will need to do is go and support WOLF-MAN because if WOLF-MAN doesn't get support, they're not going to do this again. I haven't seen a Legacy series release... this is the last one that I know of for quite some time. So if the fans come out and support it, then, you know, there might be. So maybe in your article you could say, "Hey. ISLAND OF LOST SOULS could be next.” Or whatever you want. (laughter)

BC: Or THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

CN: Or yah. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. It is the 75th anniversary and, um, you know. But, all that said, I was very grateful to Universal. There's also another little documentary on Curt Siodmak and his werewolf-WOLF-MAN mythology on the DVD, So I hope you take the time to look at that as well.

BC: Thank you. I will.

CN: And, that was my little giving some love to Curt. And uh, yah, when you see it, please let me know. I'll give you my email address. I would be happy to do that if you would like. I would just love to know what you think of the doc. Even if you like it, hate it. I wish you had shown this clip. Uh. that's fine with me. I'll take notes for the sequel.

BC: Thanks!

CN: And I'm a producer, senior producer and filmmaker over at New Wave Entertainment. We're out of Burbank. And you've obviously seen my other horror movie stuff.

BC: And I thought they were wonderful too.

CN: Thank you. Thank you very much. I do it for fans like you. I do try to keep you all in mind. Even though I don't know you, I'm one of you so...

BC: Well, trust me. I'm one of the least rabid of all the fans I know. So when the word gets out you will get supported.

CN: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it. And if there's anything I can do for you in the future, please do not hesitate to call or email me. OK?

BC: Thank you very much.

[Author’s Note: I want to urge readers of the Unimonster’s Crypt to please encourage family, friends and fellow-fans to write to: Evan Fong c/o Universal Studios at 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal Studios, CA. 91608 and request a Legacy Series re-release of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Thank you!]

The Universal Monsters: How Universal Studios Created the Horror Film

[Ed. Note: This is it—the first article I wrote for Sean Kotz at Creaturescape.com, and the first article I wrote as the Unimonster. It’s rough; though it’s not been a drastic improvement, my writing has gotten somewhat better in the nearly six years since I wrote it. I hope you overlook the flaws and enjoy the look back into the Unimonster’s past.]

How Universal Studios created the Horror film.

A pretty bold thesis, considering there were no shortage of such films from other studios in the years following the end of the First World War. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (released in 1920), NOSFERATU (1922), and METROPOLIS (1927) are all considered seminal works in the genre, and rightly so. As early as 1910, Thomas Edison’s motion picture studio produced a version of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, FRANKENSTEIN. By 1918, no fewer than 3 movies featuring mummies had been made, and between 1908 and 1920, at least ten versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE were produced, including the superior Barrymore version of 1920. So how, you may be asking in righteous indignation, can I claim that Universal Studios created the horror film?

Simple… Universal took a nascent genre, one that, while having drawn its first breath was still in its infancy, and in the space of fifteen to twenty short years, transformed it into a staple of the movie-goer’s diet. Carl Laemmle’s Universal created horror films the same way that Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s created fast food: with the franchise.

Universal’s rise to horror prominence didn’t occur overnight, and it certainly wasn’t accomplished without resistance. In the early 1920’s, Universal was considered a minor player in Hollywood, nowhere near an equal to studios such as M-G-M or Warner Brothers. The studio made low budget films, primarily westerns, with poorly paid contract actors and actresses.

Then, following the success of 1923’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, Laemmle was persuaded to finance the studio’s first big budget film: Rupert Julian’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). Starring arguably the best actor of his time, Lon Chaney, this adaptation of the classic Gaston Leroux novel opened to huge critical and financial success, and went a long way towards convincing Hollywood that horror just might have a place in motion pictures. Many hold that, had the Academy Awards existed in 1925, Chaney would have walked away with the Best Actor award, and the film would have undoubtedly been Best Picture.

That success was due in part to fantastic marketing on the part of Universal, whose executives knew the value of publicity, especially the free kind. No photographs were allowed of Chaney in make-up, except for some production stills that were circulated with the Phantom’s face redacted out (very similar marketing methods were used six years later, during the production of FRANKENSTEIN).

The popularity enjoyed by THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA inspired Universal to look for other horror properties that would be suitable for filming, and their attention turned, quite naturally, to the two most popular genre novels of their time, Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, and Bram Stoker’s DRACULA.

While F. W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece, NOSFERATU, had been based (without permission) directly on Stoker’s novel, Universal, now under the control of Carl Laemmle, Jr., who had received the studio for his twenty-first birthday, wanted to produce the version made famous as a stage play; this version featured a more romantic, less ghoulish interpretation of the infamous count. With Tod Browning slated to direct, it was widely assumed (indeed, ‘Papa’ Laemmle practically demanded,) that the star of the film would be Lon Chaney, who had worked with the director in several films.

However, Chaney’s death in 1930 meant that someone else would get the job. After an extensive search for a replacement, it was decided to give a screen test to the Hungarian actor who had had great success with the Broadway release of the play. Though he was no one’s first choice for the role, his willingness to take the part at a quarter of the salary he could’ve gotten clinched the deal. It would become the role of a lifetime for a forty-nine year old, unknown actor named Bela Lugosi.

DRACULA, released in February of 1931, catapulted Lugosi to stardom, and helped give Universal Studios it’s only profitable year during the Depression, though Laemmle, Sr.’s financial bad habits continued to insure that Universal would not be in fiscally sound health. Though the critics weren’t quite as kind to it as they had been to THE PHANTOM, the public loved it, and flocked to the theaters to see the supernatural mystery and sensual, subtle eroticism of the vampire. Lugosi so captivated the imaginations fans that from that moment on, vampires have been set in a mold for which he is the model. Until recently, it was rare to see any portrayal of a vampire that differed significantly from what I would call the ‘High Society’ version that Lugosi, for all intents, patented.

DRACULA set Universal apart as a producer of the horror film, and made the studio a major force in Hollywood. But the year was still young, and, in November, the film would be released that would forever cement the studio’s place in the history of the genre.

James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN has been hailed as perhaps the greatest horror film ever; certainly the best of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Though Whale’s direction is impeccable and the story is excellent, it is the performance of a forty-four year old English-born Canadian named Boris Karloff that elevates this film to such lofty heights, and establishes Universal as the premier player in the genre. A long-time veteran of silent films, Karloff was able, even from under Jack Pierce’s heavy make-up, to convey more emotion and pathos with a glance and a growl than most actors can with a ten-minute soliloquy.

Once again, Universal’s marketing department went into high gear promoting the film, with rumors circulated about that Karloff’s appearance was so frightening that sensitive cast and crew members fainted at the sight of him, and that Mae Clark, who played Henry Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth, refused to work with him. The secrecy associated with THE PHANTOM returned for this film; as Karloff wasn’t listed in the credits, the actor who portrayed the Monster simply being identified as “?”.

Having enjoyed a phenomenal 1931, the studio needed little encouragement to return to the horror well. John Balderson, a reporter who had been present at the opening of King Tut’s tomb (and who had written the play on which DRACULA had been based), supplied a story involving the discovery of a cursed tomb, an undead mummy, and his eternal love for an Egyptian princess. 1932’s THE MUMMY, directed by Karl Freund, was another showcase for Karloff's talents, and while the story was little more than a rehashing of the plot from DRACULA, (indeed, in what would become one of the studio’s trademarks, many of the cast of DRACULA appeared in THE MUMMY) Karloff’s performance as Ardath Bey carried the film, and made it more than successful, if less than original.

This was followed by films such as THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), THE BLACK CAT (released in 1934, it was the first of six on-screen pairings of Karloff and Lugosi), THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) and DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, (1936). But it was James Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, released in 1935, that truly gave birth to the horror franchise. Considered by some to be even better than FRANKENSTEIN, this film gave the Monster a voice as well as a (reluctant) bride. But public opinion, as expressed by politicians and newspapers, was turning against horror films. Images and themes that to modern viewers seem mild and inoffensive shocked and outraged many critics in the 1930’s. Following outcries by media and religious groups over 1935’s THE RAVEN, starring Karloff and Lugosi, among other films, the first half of Horror’s Golden Age came to an end.

By the late 1930’s, Universal, no longer the property of the Laemmles, had fallen on hard times; and, in what would become a pattern that continues to this day, fell back on the monsters to regain financial health and well-being. Though they had decried horror films, claiming they wouldn’t make another one, the continuing popularity of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN convinced the new ownership that new horror films could be financially viable, and a continuation of the Frankenstein saga was quickly produced. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) was Karloff’s last appearance as the Monster, and featured Basil Rathbone as the son of his late creator, as well as Bela Lugosi as Ygor, his second-most famous role.

Universal then saw the wisdom of further Monster pictures, and quickly developed the horror film into a commodity that could be mass-produced, much like Henry Ford’s Model T. And just as the Model T made automobiles affordable for the common man, Universal’s Horror Factory insured that the public received a steady diet of the monsters they had grown to love. From 1939 to 1945, more than a dozen films were released featuring Universal’s growing stable of monsters. Many good: GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942); THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942); SON OF DRACULA (1943); HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944). Some not so good: THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE (1944); THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944); HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). A few just plain bad: INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940); THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944).
And one unforgettable classic: THE WOLF-MAN (1941).

One of Universal’s most popular movies, THE WOLF-MAN came on the scene just as the second half of Horror’s Golden Age was beginning to take off. The war in Europe, increasing economic prosperity, and changing tastes were going to put the monsters out of business, according to the critics. Instead, they were entering the period of their greatest popularity, due primarily to Universal’s first truly sympathetic monster. Audiences loved Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot, cursed by the bite of a werewolf to an eternal, nightmarish existence, more beast than man. Directed by George Waggoner, it provided a fresh perspective on the monsters; one from the monster’s point of view. Within five years, Chaney, Jr. would become Universal’s biggest star, having portrayed every major monster in their stable.

And, reasoned the Universal executives, if one monster was a success, what would happen with two? A chance remark by Curt Siodmak, the screenwriter of THE WOLF-MAN, provided the spark, and thus was born FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN (1942). Now, there was a rivalry, and the two biggest stars of Universal’s line-up would do battle twice more before the end of World War II, in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944); and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). By now, the Universal Horror film was a set formula, almost a patented recipe. It didn’t matter who directed what film, or who played which monster, or even that the script be good. If the formula was followed, then the fans would continue to come. Horror films had completed the transition from hand-crafted works of art for the few, to mass-produced, assembly-line manufactured goods for everyone. Sixty years later, things haven’t changed all that much, have they? Movie franchises such as FRIDAY THE 13TH, HALLOWEEN, and NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST. continue to demonstrate the truth of that.

Did Universal make the very first horror film? No, of course not. Henry Ford didn’t build the first car. McDonald’s didn’t make the first hamburger. But Universal did do what they did . . . moreover, they did it better than anyone, made it available to everyone, and transformed it from something rare and exotic, to something that we all could enjoy. And in so doing, they’ve inspired generations of fans who will never forget the simple joy of being scared.





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Creighton’s Creature: THE WOLF-MAN and Lon Jr.

Following the departure of the Laemmles from Universal Studios in the mid-1930’s, Standard Capital, which was headed by J. Cheever Cowdin and was the studio’s new owners, made a conscious decision to avoid Horror films, hoping to become known for a more “upscale” product. They failed, as would a so-far unbroken line of their successors, to give the studio’s iconic Monsters the respect they were due, and fans of the Monsters credit for knowing what they wanted.

By 1939 however, the studio was dealing with both a lack of mainstream success and a hurting bottom line. The continued popularity of both DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN in Los Angeles-area theaters convinced the studio that maybe Horror Films weren’t such bad ideas after all, and before the year was out, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, starring Karloff, Lugosi, Rathbone, and Atwill marked the return of Horror to Universal. That, and the debut in 1940 of the studio’s other great cash cow, the comedy duo of Abbott & Costello, insured that the Monsters would find gainful employment for some time to come.

But they needed fresh material to work with, not just sequels to existing properties. They needed a new Monster. And a script by Curt Siodmak gave them a great one: Larry Talbot, aka—the Wolf-Man.

The first article to carry the Unimonster’s byline said this about Siodmak’s creation, “One of Universal’s most popular movies, THE WOLF-MAN came on the scene just as the second half of Horror’s Golden Age was beginning to take off. The war in Europe, increasing economic prosperity, and changing tastes were going to put the monsters out of business, according to the critics. Instead, they were entering the period of their greatest popularity, due primarily to Universal’s first truly sympathetic monster [Larry Talbot]. [C]ursed by the bite of a werewolf to an eternal, nightmarish existence, more beast than man … it provided a fresh perspective on the monsters; one from the monster’s point of view” [The Universal Monsters: How Universal Studios Created the Horror Film, 6 February, 2010]. The werewolf make-up would be designed and executed by Jack P. Pierce, Universal Studios master craftsman of Monster-Making, based upon designs he created for 1935’s THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON. And to play Talbot, the studio cast the son of the first icon of the Horror Film—Lon Chaney, Jr.

Born Creighton Chaney in 1906, the younger man was estranged from his father and raised by his mother, whom Lon had abandoned. Creighton had no intention of following in his father’s Horror footsteps; indeed, his breakthrough came in the role of Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s 1939 version of John Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN, for which he won critical acclaim. However, pressure from studio executives meant an end to his dreams of a straight dramatic career, and to his public identity as separate from his father. He had occasionally been billed as “Lon Chaney, Jr.” since 1935, and in 1940, Creighton appeared in ONE MILLION, B.C. under that name. Creighton Chaney, at least as far as the movie-going public was concerned, ceased to exist.

Though in retrospect this outright manipulation of an actor’s career may seem callous and overbearing, in the context of the times it was accepted practice for studios to make decisions such as this. The Hollywood “Studio System” completely dominated the film industry—it was the closest thing this country’s ever had to a tyrannical despotism—and if you desired to work in Hollywood, then you paid obeisance to the system. The studio had a legitimate need, and no one felt any qualms about using Creighton to fill that need.

For along with Universal’s requirement for fresh material with which to work, they also needed a new star, a Horror icon to replace both Karloff and Lugosi, who had faded to supporting roles. Who better to fill the void than the son of the “Man of a Thousand Faces?”

Lon Jr.’s Horror debut came on 28 March 1941, in MAN-MADE MONSTER, a B-grade programmer, directed by George Waggner. Co-starring Lionel Atwill, Anne Nagel, and Samuel B. Hinds, the plot concerned a sideshow performer (Chaney, Jr.) with an unusual immunity to electrical shocks. He agrees to be studied by a pair of scientists: One benevolent, played by Hinds, and one evil, played to perfection by Atwill. Unbeknownst to everyone, Atwill begins treating “Dynamo” Dan with increasingly powerful electrical impulses, transforming him into a mindless automaton with a deadly touch. The movie was well-received, if a little ahead of it’s time. A mere decade-and-a-half later, it would have fit perfectly on a Drive-In Double-bill with THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN or MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS. In fact, it probably did, as it was reissued in 1953 under the title THE ATOMIC MONSTER.

Later that same year would come the film that would strengthen Lon Jr.’s status as a Horror star, and it, like MAN-MADE MONSTER, was to be directed by Waggner. THE WOLF-MAN, released five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, would become one of Universal’s most beloved Monster movies, and one of it’s most successful.

Scripted by Siodmak, and starring Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, and Maria Ouspenskaya, THE WOLF-MAN gave Universal its first truly original monster, and the star that would carry Universal’s Monster franchise through to it’s end. From 1941 to 1945, Lon Jr. appeared in all of Universal’s first-class Horror Films, and a large number of their second-class Horrors, such as the series of Inner Sanctum pictures that began in 1943. He would play every one of Universal’s “Fab Four” of Monsterdom—Frankenstein’s Monster, in GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN; Dracula, in SON OF DRACULA; the Mummy Kharis, beginning with THE MUMMY’S TOMB; and of course Larry Talbot, the Wolf-Man.

After the success of THE WOLF-MAN, Universal wanted a sequel, and a chance remark by Siodmak, intended as a joke, became 1943’s FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN. The studio had found the formula for Horror success in the ‘40’s—Multiple Monsters, formulaic plots, a beautiful girl or two to menace, some knock-down, drag-out Monster fighting, and a happy ending. A simple prescription, true—but it kept theaters packed.

Lon Jr. would play Talbot three more times: 1944’s HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1945’s HOUSE OF DRACULA, and the 1948 pairing of the Monsters with Universal’s other moneymaking property of the ‘40’s, Abbott & Costello, in ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. That film would mark the beginning of the end of the Classic Monsters of Universal, relegated to the status of comedic props. It would also mark the end of Lon Jr.’s association with the studio that had made him an icon, and which he, in turn, carried on his furry shoulders throughout the war years.

The end of the war meant the return of millions of GI’s to the Home Front, as well as revelation of the true suffering visited upon the tens of millions of victims of totalitarianism and fascism throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim. True horrors, revealed and remembered, left little room in the minds of moviegoers for the Monsters of fantasy and fiction. Universal Studios, ten years removed from the days when Carl Laemmle, Sr. ran the show as a ‘family’ business, where the head of the make-up department could be hired on a handshake, fired Lon Jr. in 1948. Nor did they stop there. Jack Pierce, the same make-up artist who had created the image of every one of the studio’s iconic Monsters, from Dracula, to Frankenstein’s Monster, to the Mummy, to the Wolf-Man, the head of the make-up department who had been hired on the basis of a handshake, without a contract, was just as unceremoniously canned.

Recently however, the titular descendants of the men who so callously sacked Lon Jr., Jack, and others found a renewed attraction in the Monsters of Universal; an interest that had never waned among their devoted fans. Beginning with 1999’s THE MUMMY, directed by Stephen Sommers, Universal has resurrected most of the studio’s great Monsters of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. So far, there’s been little interest in revisiting the Invisible Man, first realized by James Whale and Claude Rains in the 1933 classic. And plans for a remake of the studio’s greatest Horror Film of the 1950’s, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, have been up in the air for years now.

But this month will see the return of Larry Talbot to theaters nationwide, as Universal unveils THE WOLFMAN, directed by Joe Johnston and starring Benicio Del Toro as Talbot, Anthony Hopkins as his father, Sir John Talbot, and Emily Blunt as Gwen Conliffe. A big budget reimagining of the original story, the trailers promise a movie that looks beautifully filmed and exquisitely designed, with the requisite amount of dazzlingly spectacular special effects. It remains to be seen whether or not it has managed to capture the spirit, the essence of what made the original film one of Universal’s most loved Monster movies. One thing it has most certainly done is render invalid one of Lon Jr.’s proudest claims. As he once told an interviewer, he had played all the Monsters—from Dracula to the Mummy. But he—Creighton Tull Chaney—was the only actor to ever play the Wolf-Man. No longer is that true.

Lon Jr. would continue to play monsters, maniacs, and murderers for another 25 years, until his death in 1973. He would play many memorable characters in his later years, most notably Bruno the caretaker, from Jack Hill’s SPIDER BABY or, THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD. But he was destined to be forever defined by his greatest role—that of a Welshman cursed to become a snarling, murderous beast, driven to bloodlust by the brightness of an autumn moon.







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Title: THE WOLF-MAN LEGACY COLLECTION

Year of Release—Film: Various

Year of Release—DVD: 2004

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment



When Universal released the first Legacy collections in 2004, fans hailed the sets as a concrete expression of the studio finally giving the beloved Monsters their just due. Little did we realize that these would be the first raindrops of what would prove to be a torrential downpour from the storied Universal vaults.

One of that first series of releases was the WOLF-MAN Legacy Collection, four films that made Universal’s stable of lycanthropic lunatics, particularly Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Larry Talbot, some of it’s most popular properties. Comprised of WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935); THE WOLF-MAN (1941); FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN (1943); and SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946), the set is beautifully produced and nicely packaged, though not as nicely as the recent Anniversary editions have been. Though the quality of the storytelling varies widely from one film to the next, all have some very important characteristics in common.

The first thing one notices whenever viewing the classic Universal Horrors is how beautifully designed and filmed they were. These films are better preserved than the studio’s older Horrors, most notably DRACULA. Consequently, we can fully appreciate the work of those who brought the Universal style and look to the screen. People such as the cinematographer Joseph Valentine, who photographed THE WOLF-MAN, or R. A. Gausman, responsible for the design of virtually every Universal Horror from DRACULA to THE LEECH WOMAN, are seldom noticed, even by fans of the movies. However, their contributions are invaluable, and when one remarks on how Universal established the concept of the Horror Film that remained fixed in American consciousness for the next twenty years, it must be remembered that it was primarily due to their work.


WEREWOLF OF LONDON

Widely believed to be one of the first werewolf movies, 1935’s WEREWOLF OF LONDON is a smart, literate film. While not quite the classic that its Universal stablemates are, it’s still a very entertaining and enjoyable movie.

John Colton’s script (from a story by Robert Harris) has few plot holes and the characters are as well drawn and realistic as you can reasonably expect in a film of the ‘30’s. Skillfully directed by Stuart Walker, the cast performs capably, though apart from Warner Oland (of CHARLIE CHAN fame) there are no standouts. Henry Hull’s performance as Dr. Wilfred Glendon, the botanist cursed by the bite of a Tibetan Werewolf, is melodramatic and overly theatrical; he seems to be trying to project his dialogue to the back row. In addition, Valerie Hobson is far too young (only 18 at the time) to be convincing as the sophisticated wife of a middle-aged scientist; she comes across more as a whining child.

The photography, by Charles Stumar, is very attractive; it is also unique in comparison to other films from Universal. The production design is also atypical for Universal, but it does create a convincing atmosphere for the film. The effects are primarily limited to Hull’s make-up, which in truth has more in common with Fredric March’s look in 1932’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, than with Lon Chaney’s in THE WOLF-MAN. The look is decent, as you’d expect from Jack Pierce’s shop, but not satisfying to those of us who prefer our lycanthropes a bit more hirsute.
While this isn’t my first choice in a werewolf movie, it is enjoyable, and a worthwhile addition to anyone’s collection, something everyone should see. Put it on the Must-See list for dedicated Werewolf or Universal fans.


THE WOLF-MAN

One of Universal’s most enduring classics, as well as starring one of it’s most beloved Monsters, this film came as the Universal Horror Films transitioned from the landmark classics of the 1930’s to the assembly-line productions of the 1940’s.

While not as fine an example of great filmmaking as James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN, George Waggner’s able direction transformed Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the tortured Larry Talbot into one of the most sympathetic Monsters of the genre, perhaps second only to King Kong. The rest of the cast (including Bela Lugosi in a brief, but important, role) performs well above expectations, particularly Claude Rains (as Larry’s father, Sir John Talbot) and the beautiful Evelyn Ankers.

As always, the Special Effects in films of this period consist mainly of blank cartridges in the guns; but they really aren’t missed, especially with the incredible Make-Up Effects, once again provided by Universal’s master creature-creator, Jack Pierce. The photography, by Joseph Valentine, is as always with Universal superb, perfectly capturing the haunting atmosphere of the Welsh moors.

While this wasn’t the first Universal werewolf film, (that honor belongs to the previous entrant) this is the one that set the mold, as well as creating the character that would carry Universal through the ‘40’s. One of the greatest of Universal’s classics, it’s easily deserving of Must-Have status for any Horror-Fan’s collection.


FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN

This film, a direct sequel to 1941’s THE WOLF-MAN, is definitely more of a Wolf-Man feature with the Frankenstein’s Monster as a guest star than a true pairing of the two Universal All-Stars. Not one of Universal’s best, it nonetheless is an enjoyable movie, and set the pattern for the great Universal “Monster-fests” which dominated the next few years for the Studio.

Directed by Roy William Neill, and written by Curt Siodmak, the script begins to show some of the weaknesses that would plague the franchise through the rest of it’s run: Loose, disjointed plots; stilted and stiff dialogue; and unimaginative, overused premises. This film suffers from some of these problems; not many, but enough to be noticeable. The overall pace of the film is slow, with too much time spent developing characters with which audiences were already familiar.

The convoluted paths Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot must take to move the story along simply aren’t convincing, though his performance in his signature role is a joy to behold. Bela Lugosi assumes the role that he turned down 12 years earlier; he was correct the first time. He simply lacks the physical stature to pull it off convincingly, and the Monster becomes little more than a stumbling ogre, lacking any of the humanity and pathos that Karloff brought to the character. The rest of the cast is good; not outstanding, but they deliver when called upon.

The cinematography is excellent, and the Special Effects, including a spectacular final sequence, are unusually good for the early ‘40’s. The atmosphere, the look, the feel of the film is quintessential Universal, and by this point is as comfortable as a pair of old slippers. Not the best, but definitely enjoyable, and certainly a perfect fit in this collection.


SHE-WOLF OF LONDON

One of the lesser-known films in the Legacy Collections, SHE-WOLF OF LONDON is completely unrelated to the Chaney Wolf-Man films; it isn’t a true werewolf film at all. Directed by Jean Yarbrough, and starring Don Porter and June Lockhart, it has most of the hallmarks of the Universal films of the mid-‘40’s: Beautiful photography; adequate acting; stable direction; somber, gothic production design; and woefully weak scripts.

The cast of unknowns does a good job with the material provided, and they do manage to convey a sense of reality and believability to the weak script by Dwight V. Babcock and George Bricker, who take a relatively interesting premise and do very little with it.

Maury Gertsman’s photography is well up to Universal’s reputation, and the film just… feels and looks, right. This is what Universal Horror films of the ‘40’s were: Professionals working with what they had to turn out decent entertainment. Not high art, not inspired filmmaking, just good quality movies. More of a Mystery than a Horror film, it nonetheless is an enjoyable, if not great, example of the typical Universal “Factory film” of the immediate postwar period.
This movie’s a tough one for me to rate objectively. I don’t know if most would consider it a Must-Have; I do, and am glad that Universal saw fit to include in this collection.


SPECIAL FEATURES

There are several bonuses on these discs, which do bear mentioning. The best of these is the documentary MONSTER BY MOONLIGHT, hosted by John Landis, director of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and directed by film historian and Universal Horror expert David J. Skal. This is a loving tribute to Chaney, Pierce, Siodmak, and all those responsible for bringing one of Universal’s greatest Monsters to life.

There is also a commentary track, by writer Tom Weaver, on THE WOLF-MAN, as well as a featurette with director Stephen Sommers on THE WOLF-MAN, and the inspiration he drew from it in making his 2005 feature film VAN HELSING.


We now ready ourselves to witness the rebirth of the Wolf-Man franchise as Joe Johnston’s big screen remake hits theaters nationwide, and as a new Legacy Special Edition DVD of THE WOLF-MAN is in stores nationwide. This release features new content, including documentaries produced by Constantine Nasr, [see Constantine’s interview with our Staff Correspondent Bobbie Culbertson, above] on both Lon Chaney and Jack P. Pierce.

Still, that DVD, and perhaps the remake itself, would not have happened if not for the renewed interest in the Monsters of Universal Studios, fueled by the Legacy Collection DVD’s released in 2004.



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DVD Review: "Life on Mars" The Complete Series

Title: “Life on Mars” The Complete Series

Year of Release—Film: 2008-2009

Year of Release—DVD: 2009

DVD Label: ABC Studios / Buena Vista Home Entertainment


Winner of the 2008 in Review TV Show of the Year, as well as the 2009 DVD Box Set of the Year, ABC’s ‘70’s Police Drama / Science-Fiction series “Life on Mars” was one of the bright lights in the network television firmament a year ago. The story of NYPD Detective Sam Tyler, who finds himself transported from 2008 to 1973 after a car accident, is an example of what television can do well, and that is develop characters and storylines in a way that’s impossible for a two-hour film to duplicate. The ability to spend weeks or months fleshing out the complexities of character and plot allows for a series that involves it’s viewers, drawing them into the world the writers create. Fans of the show were pulled into the ‘70’s with Tyler, and like him were fascinated by the mystery of his existence.

Based on the popular BBC program of the same name, the series, at least this incarnation of it, is the brainchild of André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, who adapted it for American television. Though I’ve not seen the original version, I have heard that there are some significant differences. As it stands however, it is an almost perfect example of an extended mini-series, with the entire arc began and completed in a single season.

The first episode, “Out Here in the Fields,” introduces us to Sam Tyler, an ordinary NYPD detective juggling his personal and professional lives, doing a decent job of keeping both straight. His partner, who’s also his fiancée, and he are working a case, on the hunt for a serial killer. Though they manage to find a suspect, they’re forced to release him for lack of evidence. Maya, Tyler’s partner, disappears while following the suspect. Tyler goes straight to the suspect’s home to find her, but is struck by a car getting out of his SUV.

He awakens in a vacant lot. The suspect’s building is gone, as is the very street on which it was located. His SUV is gone, replaced by a vintage ‘70’s muscle car. His business suit is gone; he’s now dressed in a leather sport jacket and bell-bottoms. The same song is still playing in the car, though instead of coming from an iPod docked to the car’s stereo, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is blasting from an 8-track. Even his badge and ID have changed. The biggest shock comes when he looks towards downtown Manhattan—only to see the World Trade Center’s twin towers rising above the skyline. This begins a quest for answers that will last through the entire series, answers to questions such as where is Tyler, how did he arrive there-—and how does he get home again?

The cast is terrific, led by Jason O’Mara as Sam Tyler. Confused and frightened, uncertain where or when he is, or whether or not he’s alive or dead, we see the world through Tyler’s eyes, with the same modern sensibilities. O’Mara does a wonderful job making the character credible, which helps sell the credibility of the series.

Supporting O’Mara is a cast worthy of a big-screen feature film. Harvey Keitel, the iconic ‘tough-guy’ star of films such as MEAN STREETS, RESERVOIR DOGS, and PULP FICTION plays Lt. Gene Hunt, the head of the 125th Precinct’s Detective Squad. Hunt is a hard-as-nails old-school cop, not afraid to beat a confession out of a suspect, or plant evidence if it’s the only way to bust the bad guys. He rules “Huntlandia,” as he refers to the 125th, with an iron fist, and frequently clashes with Tyler, who insists on doing things by the book.

Michael Imperioli, best known for his work on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” and currently in theaters in Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES, plays Detective 3rd Grade Ray Carling. Carling, jealous of Tyler, the ‘new kid’ who took his slot and his promotion to 2nd Grade, is a rude, sexist, racist Neanderthal of a ‘70’s stereotype. He’s also determined and aggressive, driven to keep his corner of New York City reasonably clean and free of crime. By Tyler’s 2008 standards, he’s a corrupt cop, deserving of criminal charges himself. In 1973, however, he’s one of the best cops in the precinct.

One of the most striking differences Tyler has to deal with is a precinct house without a single black or female detective. In fact, there’s only one policewoman in the precinct—Annie “No-Nuts” Morris. Nicknamed that by the detectives due to her obvious lack of said appendages, Norris is played by Gretchen Mol. Mol, who starred as pin-up queen Bettie Page in 2005’s THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, perfectly captures the image of beauty in the ‘70’s—a lithe, trim figure and a lovely face framed by upswept golden hair, she could’ve been one of Charlie’s Angels. Norris is Tyler’s only confidant, the only person with whom he shares the truth of his existence from the beginning; at least, the truth as he understands it. She becomes his rock, the one fixed point in a world so much like his own yet so different.

Not only is the casting superb, but the design of the production is as well. The texture of the ‘70’s is perfectly captured, both visually and musically. Visually, the decade was unforgettably unique in terms of style, from clothing to art to the ubiquitous avocado-green kitchen appliances, and the producers have done an excellent job recreating that style. For those of us who remember the nightmare of plaid polyester bell-bottoms, few things are more suggestive of the ‘70’s than the sight of long hair and hippie fashion.

One of the factors that is more evocative of those years is the music, and Life on Mars benefits from a rich soundtrack that both sets the mood and frames the action. From the thematic “Life on Mars,” to the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” which supplied the title of the pilot episode, (a device that would be repeated several times) to the climactic “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” by Elton John, the music of the period is woven throughout the series, helping bring the decade to life.

In each episode, Tyler is confronted by situations that offer glimpses of the truth behind his condition yet never seem to reveal enough to provide any answers—only provoke more questions. Is he in a coma as a result of the hit-and-run in 2008? Is he actually back in 1973, and if so, how? Is the 1973 reality the ‘truth’, and his 2008 memories only an illusion? Could he even be dead and trapped in some personal hell?

In later episodes Tyler meets his mother and father, discovering difficult facts about them; has an opportunity to stop a murderer that he failed to stop in time in the future; carries on a romantic liaison with Hunt’s daughter in the precinct’s file room; and infiltrates an Irish gang, giving the Irish-born O’Mara a chance to speak in his natural voice. As the series progresses, Tyler begins to adjust to the world of 1973. He forms bonds with his colleagues, and begins to build some sort of life, while never giving up the search for the truth.

He never stops looking for the answers, and when he does find them, it’s not what anyone was expecting. Some fans hated the way the series ended, some loved it. Personally, the only thing I hated about it was it’s necessity. I quite frankly loved the show, and had hopes that the solution to the mystery would elude Tyler, and us, for a few more seasons. Still, the ending satisfied me, even though it wasn’t the one I was expecting.

As I mentioned earlier, this set was my choice for DVD Box Set of the Year for 2009, and there are many reasons why. First, and most importantly, I love the show. Seldom does network television try to reach beyond the tried-and-true, to take a gamble on something different. “Life on Mars” was one of those rare occurrences, and I’m glad they took the risk. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a television drama this novel and captivating.

Yet that’s not the only reason to own this release. Unusually for this type of set, there are a number of special features present. There’s the obligatory “Making-of” segment, an exploration of the show’s ‘mythology’; a day-in-the-life segment following O’Mara as he works on the series finale; deleted scenes; and a tour of the set featuring O’Mara and ‘70’s icon Lee Majors. Add to that several commentary tracks, and you have a truly worthwhile addition to your video library.

If you are a lover of Science-Fiction, Mysteries, Cop Shows, or all three then I strongly recommend that you give this series, and this set, a try. If you have fond memories of the ‘70’s, then give it a try. If you were alive in the ‘70’s but don’t really have any clear memories of the decade, then give it a try. In other words, just give it a try.








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Monster Movies Head-2-Head: MY BLOODY VALENTINE

MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981)

vs.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D (2009)


MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981)

As the Slasher film genre exploded following the blockbuster success of HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH, “theme-day” Slashers were the rage in Horror films. PROM NIGHT; GRADUATION DAY; HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME; SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT—virtually every holiday, special event, or celebratory occasion had its own psychotic killer associated with it. Among the best of these was a low-budget Canadian-produced film, directed by George Mihalka and starring virtually no one of note, titled MY BLOODY VALENTINE.
Set in the small Canadian mining town of Valentine Bluffs, the story of a psychotic miner wearing a hardhat and respirator and butchering the townsfolk with a pickaxe was a surprise hit for Paramount in the late winter of 1981. Shot for about $2 million (Canadian!), it grossed nearly $6 million in the US, making it a very profitable venture for the studio.

Twenty years previously, on Valentine’s Day, there was an explosion and cave-in in the mine. Five miners were trapped underground; one survived to be found after six weeks. Harry Warden, the survivor, had killed and eaten the other trapped miners, degenerating into insanity.
A year later, Warden escaped from the mental institution to which he had been confined, and returned to Valentine Bluffs. He killed those whom he blamed for the mine disaster, cutting out their hearts. Before disappearing into the mineshaft, he threatened to return for more vengeance should the town ever try to celebrate Valentine’s Day again.

With the passage of time, however, Warden’s threat had lost currency, and a new generation was now eager to bring the holiday back to Valentine Bluffs. As word spreads of the upcoming Valentine’s Dance, a murderous miner begins carving his way through the townspeople, the rising body count soon reminding the old-timers about Harry Warden’s ominous warning.
The script, by John Beaird from a story by Stephen A. Miller, is better than the average for this type of film; not great by any stretch of the imagination, but a grade or two above most of the competition. Mihalka’s direction is competent, making good use of limited resources and talents. The acting is at best average; at worst, amateurish. The leads—Paul Kelman as T. J., Neil Affleck as Axel, and Lori Hallier as Sarah—are decent; not strong enough to stand out from the crowd, but no one in this cast is capable of that.

Much of the film’s mystique is based upon the fact that the MPAA required numerous cuts to be made in order for the film to earn an R-rating. According to some contemporary reports, as much as nine minutes of footage was removed, though the 2009 DVD release from Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment, billed as the “Uncut” version, adds only three-and-a-half minutes to the film’s running length.

Still, for fans of the ‘80’s Slasher films, this remains as one of the best of the subgenre. This was true before the restoration of the cut footage, and is only made more so afterward.


MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D (2009)

As has become standard operating procedure in Hollywood, once a certain amount of time has passed, movies, no matter how well executed they were originally, become ripe for remake. Most of the current batch—PROM NIGHT, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, FRIDAY THE 13TH—are little more than wastes of celluloid. Frankly, nothing more than that was expected from the remake of MY BLOODY VALENTINE when it debuted in January 2009.

However, I was soon forced to revise my opinion of remakes; at least, where this one was concerned. MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D is a surprisingly well-written, well-acted update of a classic Slasher, one that rises above the current standard in Horror. While that is hardly a difficult feat in these times of remakes and sequels galore, it is refreshing to see.

The plot is broadly similar to that of the original film, and the script, by Todd Farmer and Zane Smith, retains the three lead characters, Tom (renamed from T. J.), Axel, and Sarah. The look of the film benefits greatly from the western Pennsylvania locations, in much the same way the cold, bleak Nova Scotia locations aided the original. Overall, director Patrick Lussier does a good job tying the parts together into a nice, neat whole.

As the film opens, we find Harry Warden, a miner who was the lone survivor of a cave-in a year earlier, hospitalized in a coma, a coma he had been in since his rescue. He awakens on Valentine’s Day, exactly one year after the cave-in, and proceeds to slaughter the patients and staff of the hospital. He makes his way to the scene of the disaster, a now-abandoned shaft of the Hanniger Mining Co., to find a Valentine’s party underway. He begins killing the young partiers, whittling the group down to four: Tom (Jensen Ackles), the mine owner’s son and the man believed to be responsible for the cave-in; Sarah (Jaime King), his girlfriend; their friend Axel (Kerr Smith); and his girlfriend Irene (Betsy Rue, a 2009 in Review nominee for Horror Movie Babe of the Year).

Just as Warden corners the four survivors, police intervene, shooting and wounding the killer, and driving him deep into the mineshaft. The cops pursue, but lose him in the twisting tunnels.
Ten years pass. Axel and Sarah are husband and wife. He is now the Sheriff, dealing with an influx of media covering the tenth anniversary of the “Harmony Massacre.” Tom Hanniger, who had moved away shortly after the murders, returns to deal with legal issues resulting from the death of his father, a circumstance that now makes him owner of the mine. No sooner does his presence in town become known than Irene, formerly Axel’s girlfriend and now town prostitute, is brutally murdered, along with a trucker and a motel owner.

Axel suspects Tom, first of still being in love with Sarah, second of the motel murders. Tom suspects Axel, perhaps because he is still in love with Sarah. And Sarah is torn, not sure who to trust, and who to fear.

Though the plot is complex, and at times is convoluted, Lussier does a very good job keeping the threads from tangling too much. One gets the sense that he is more of a screenwriter’s director than one who is visually proficient, a better storyteller than photographer, and that serves him well here. The result may not be a beautifully-filmed movie, but it is a comprehensible one.

The movie was shot using a state-of-the-art 3-D process known as Real D, a digital upgrade of the old tried-and-true 3-D from the 1950’s. While fans may swear it’s better, personally I can’t see that it is. Frankly, until they can create true three-dimensional images, then I wish they just wouldn’t bother. Obviously contrived camera set-ups involving a variety of objects thrusting towards the camera went out of style with FRIDAY THE 13TH, Pt. 3.


Head—2—Head

Both of these movies are, no pun intended, a cut above the examples set by most of their contemporaries. Purists, which I freely admit applies to me, will lean towards the original movie. It is a prime example of the Slasher genre at its peak, comparable to such second-tier classics as THE PROWLER and PIECES.

The remake, however, does compare favorably to it, and in comparison to the slew of Slasher remakes that flooded theaters in the past two years is far better. Both films are an entertaining look at one of the most popular genres of Horror, and both belong in any serious Horror fan’s video collection.












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Junkyardfilms.com’s Moldy Oldie Movie of the Month!: A NEW LEAF

Title: A NEW LEAF

Year of Release—Film: 1971



Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) is a spoiled, selfish and wealthy man whose main interests are his men's clubs, his polo ponies and his oft-malfunctioning Ferrari. One day he's informed by his lawyer that he is broke! Distraught over spending the rest of his life in off-the-rack suits and driving a Chevy, he turns for advice from his trusted manservant, Harold (George Rose), who tells him he should borrow $50,000 from a wealthy uncle (James Coco) and use it to live on while he finds a suitable wealthy woman to marry.

Enter Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), an extremely wealthy woman who is a socially inept and seemingly friendless but a brilliant botanist. Knowing he has a limited time to both woo and wed, Henry pours on the charm and less than a week's time (and while kneeling on broken glass!), proposes to Henrietta. Later, as Harold is picking the broken glass out of Henry's knee, Henry pronounces that his intended is a danger to health, is feral and doesn't deserve to live. And a plot is born!

Henry and Henrietta honeymoon in a tropical location (and engage in a very funny bit concerning her Roman-style nightgown!) where Henrietta finds a yet-unclassified species of fern growing on the side of a cliff and, dangling dangerously from a rope, attempts to dig it up as Henry reads a book about poisons. They return home to New York and move into Henrietta's family mansion. Not surprisingly, the household staff is a lazy and shiftless bunch of swindlers and Henry, finding the hidden household accounts, fires them all while Henrietta, seemingly unaware of her surroundings, sends the fern to be classified. It is a true species and Henrietta names it after Henry. For the first time, Henry is genuinely touched by Henrietta's gift of a plastic token containing a bit of 'his' fern.

They settle into home life with Henry taking over the daily running of the household accounts, checking Henrietta for store tags and stray crumbs on her clothes before she leaves to teach a the university, while he reads books on the best way to kill her. One day, Henrietta asks Henry to join her on a field trip to the Appalachians. After ascertaining that they will be alone in the wilderness, Henry agrees. Day-dreaming about Indians and marauding bears making off with his wife, he packs for the trip while Harold pleads with him to reconsider killing the "helpless...not hopeless" Henrietta. Unmoved by Harold's impassioned pleas, Henry and Henrietta leave on their trip.

After several days of Henry being constantly attacked by mosquitoes, he sees his chance to unload Henrietta. Knowing she can't swim, they set off down-river in a canoe. Hitting the rapids, the boat capsizes and Henry swims to shore while Henrietta, clinging to a fallen limb, calls for help. Rehearsing the speech he will give to the Park Rangers when Henrietta's lifeless body is discovered, Henry walks away. But, wait! What's that he spies!?! Could it be another of the ferns discovered by Henrietta on their honeymoon!?! Excitedly, he calls to Henrietta while fumbling for his plastic token. But, the token's gone! Realizing he must save Henrietta, Henry dives back into the river, saves Henrietta and together they walk off into the sunset.

Walter Matthau was born to play Henry! Fast, sarcastic, clever and inventive, this comedy belies its age. Elaine May is perfect as the clumsy, socially clueless yet childlike Henrietta. The support actors (George Rose, Jack Weston, James Coco, Doris Roberts, etc) are all veterans of the genre and give flawless performances in this black comedy. Why this movie, which was nominated for two Golden Globes and for the Writer's Guild Award, isn't available on DVD is a mystery! If you can track down a copy, you won't be disappointed. Just remember to lay in a supply of Mogen David's Extra-Heavy Malaga wine, soda and lime juice first!

Enjoy! Or not!

MSTJunkie























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