The Moviejawn History of Universal Horror, Part Three

by Francis Friel, The Projectionist

Part Three: The Tom Coward Memorial Edition

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You’re just expected to know everything, aren’t you? You’re expected to have already seen every movie. To know every piece of background info on all your favorite films. You’re supposed to be an expert. It’s not okay to not have seen something. It’s disheartening, to say the least. It’s a technique used to stymie film lovers and film writers and to convince them they aren’t good enough, aren’t worthy of being in The Club. This is important, because it means that, all other things being more or less equal, there’s an expiration date upon which it’s become too late for you to start watching films and educating yourself about them.

Obviously, that’s horseshit. I’ve been watching films my entire life, studying them to varying degrees, and have gone through phases of being, from time to time, either more or less able to eloquently express my thoughts on them. You get better or worse with time, have good pieces and not so good pieces. But even then, there are people who will chop you to little bits if you publish something they don’t think is quite as good as what they’ve considered to be your best work. But you know what? It’s not easy. Some will tell you it is, but they’re lying to you.

Scharpling once pointed out that there are essentially two types of artists. In the first group, you have geniuses, people for whom the work, as work itself, may or may not take an extraordinary amount of effort, but for whom, also, the initial spark of inspiration has been brighter or clearer or otherwise “better” than what you or I might have come up with. And their work, therefore, reflects that spark, that ability to see it sustained and carried through to its conclusion. So, on the other hand are the second group, the workers. These are the people who might have a million good ideas a day but, not being “geniuses,” all of these might eventually add up to something equal or lesser than what the first group might have up their sleeves. Also, the work is invariably harder. It’s work. It takes time. The time it takes feels like time. It ages you. It feels like a chore at times. You procrastinate. You make excuses. Maybe I’ll just grab a cup of coffee first, smoke something, watch something, listen to something, work on something else entirely… It’s a grind.

For myself, I’m comfortable with having had one or two genuinely inspired ideas in my life that I followed through on, but it was always work. Even when the writing or drawing or filmaking seemed like it was flowing straight from my mind and into the world, it was work. It was never natural. It always felt like I was lying, fooling everyone, convincing other people that I knew what I was doing and always sweating and rocking back and forth waiting for them to find me out. Strangely, it even felt that way when I showed work to someone that I knew was great, that I knew was the result of the best of my abilities at that time. Always that bit in the mind of, “I’m not supposed to be doing this.” And I know I’ve had countless more ideas that are gone forever simply because I didn’t write them down or tell anyone about them. And that right there is the biggest motherfucker of them all.

You listen to these Bogdanovich interviews and realize you have no hustle. This guy had done more for himself and for his career by the time he was thirty than most of us will be able to claim over a lifetime. Which is meaningless, of course, since he also had enormous advantages over most of us. Nevermind that this was fifty years ago. These were advantages any way you slice it. But the fact, too, is that he was watching movies. From there he started writing reviews for his high school paper, which led to him getting in free at his local cinema, which in turn, got him access to theater owners, filmmakers, and museum curators who read his work, which he continued with as he got older and began turning in pieces for those museums. He’d eventually write monographs for theaters and museums to coincide with their festivals or retrospectives or whatever they had happening at that time. But always he wanted to be making films.


So even when he was doing work most of us would kill for, he wasn’t satisfied. It was directing that mattered to him. I’ve gone back and forth on this myself. Having made a number of films myself, and worked on movies made by friends and acquaintances, it’s at times been the absolute only thing that mattered to me. But now I find that writing about film is what does it for me. I know I will still make films again, maybe even my best movie is still waiting to get out (I mean, christ, hopefully, right?), but overall, today, I prefer the writing to the making.

But the writing is also getting to me and here’s why: I’m not good. I read film writing all day long, by strangers, well-known writers, friends, and colleagues. And when I stack them all up, I find myself on the bottom. And I’ve figured out why that is. It’s a weird thing, too, because it’s such an easy thing to stop doing and I just can’t care enough sometimes to look at it and make a meaningful change. But here’s what: I repeat words too much. Simple, right? But it’s deeper than that. It’s because I’m kinda dumb. I write things like “anyway,” and “but” and “obviously” way too often. I start paragraphs with “Again,” or “Like I said,” and ugh, good grief, it annoys me. Worst of all, I use the phrase “which is unfortunate” wayyyy too much to indicate that, while here’s the stuff up front that doesn’t work about this movie, ON THE OTHER HAND, here’s why it didn’t have to be that way. I also capitalize a lot. I use “a lot” a lot.

More than any of that, though, my biggest thing recently is wondering whether or not I even know what the fuck I’m talking about most of the time. And here’s where we arrive at the next batch of Universal horror films. These were tough. A few of them were great and I loved them, but some were just… I don’t know. They didn’t grab me. But I still liked them. Here in Part III of the Moviejawn History of Universal Horror is where I’ve seen some of these films only once before or never before, simply because I spent those hours watching other things. But that’s also okay. I’m still learning how to watch things, just like all of us. I know all the tricks, understand cinematic grammar, and (I think) can pretty much confidently say I “get” movies, no matter what kind they are. It’s just that I’m still in process of nailing down my own point of view. It changes, like anything else. It’s connected to personal preference, personal growth, even just plain old age. I’m older than I was when I saw these films for the first time, and that’s altered, to a large degree, my understanding of what’s going on in these films. In any event, all else aside, I’m glad I’m writing about these movies.

With nowhere left to go with this already too-long ramble of an introduction, I’ll do this other thing I do too often and just draw a line, drop this line of thought entirely, and jump right in. Let’s go.

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While Universal was creating a brand on Monster Movies, their secondary horror movies were moving in a completely separate direction. Maintaining the overall tone of gothic drama as the serialized Dracula and Frankenstein films, these smaller stand-alone features were quietly revolutionizing the way filmmakers would tell stories. Romantic subplots, a preoccupation with sci-fi and outer-space elements, and wackier optical effects would all contribute to a stretch of films that would also see a more sustained, running theme of “damsels in distress” than the studio was otherwise known for at the time. It also saw the filmmakers taking advantage of maybe the greatest set of cinematic resources at their disposal: the teaming of Boris Karloff with Bela Lugosi, and the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

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Released in 1932, The Murders in the Rue Morgue was the beginning of Universal’s weirdo Poe period. Much like their takes on other nineteenth century literature, they’d use the bare bones of their properties to build larger, more cinematically satisfying narratives. That is to say, shorter. The studio was establishing a house style. It demanded that horror stories have a hook, start off creepy, and - no matter what - be rolling the end credits seventy minutes later.

But with Rue Morgue, they found a story that worked pretty much as-is, which would prove exceedingly rare as time went on. All the essential elements were kept in place, up to and including an “ape man” (not exactly the orangutan from the book, but close enough). And it gave them an excuse to let Lugosi go wild with with his characterization of Dr. Mirakle, a carnival barker with some pretty bizarre tricks up his sleeve.

The evil ritualistic nature of Mirakle’s plan is inescapable. He kidnaps women and injects Erik the Ape-Man’s blood into them in order to create a new race of beings. Mirakle, of course, would be their leader (how would that work?) and is looking for the perfect woman to get the job done. Unfortunately, this plan wasn’t really thought-through very well, so he ends up killing quite a few people in the process. That plan, by the way, kind of comes out of nowhere. He’s been killing people every night even before the events of the film get under way, and while we eventually come to understand what’s going on, it’s hard to put together why Mirakle is obsessed with this idea beyond simple “mad scientist” motivations. But either way, it’s a fascinating early example of Universal stretching their influences and bringing in some increasingly grotesque special effects and makeup work.

It would also begin a long decade of films devoted to plot machinations that boil down to either “everyone’s trying to kill that lady” or “everyone’s trying to fuck that lady.” These are themes that would only grow more apparent as the horror films progressed and became more and more burdened with endings that amounted to little more than two secondary characters kissing as the screen faded to black. Monster just got dropped in the river? Cut to a kiss. Fade to black. Killer just evaporated while being chased by police? Cut to a kiss Fade to black. Enormous castle just crumbled to dust? Cut to a kiss. Fade to black. Really. It’s noticeable!

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James Whale’s The Old Dark House is easily the funniest of the early non-Monster movies. Right from the start, it hits the gas on the comedy in a way none of the films that came before really ever even attempted. This is also where most of the modern horror comedy tropes came from. In fact, you can pretty much trace the basic plot structures of Clue and The Rocky Horror Picture Show directly to Old Dark House. The only thing missing is the mad scientist who wants to unveil his Big Cool Thing at the stroke of midnight, but that’s okay, since most of the films coming up in the rest of the decade would do exactly that.

As the film begins, we meet our first group of characters as they get caught in a massive rain storm. The roads are flooding and an avalanche blocks them from turning back, so they so say, “Hey, why not stop at that big scary-looking castle? Surely nothing could go wrong!” So they do. One by one, they get to meet the owners of the Old Dark House, a family of creeps so goofy that we kind of think nothing of it when Karloff turns up wearing what looks like a wig on his face. Universal sure had a thing for giving Karloff horrible facial hair back then, didn’t they? The guests even comment on how ridiculous he looks.

Soon after, more knocks on the door and more guests arrive. This time they’re loud and obnoxious, stomping and dancing and drinking and just ruining everybody’s chilled out night in the big gross empty castle. But they all settle down for dinner and try to get to know each other.

Ernest Thesiger, a favorite of Whale’s, plays the house’s owner, Horace. Along with his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), they come off as so exaggeratedly creepy that you can tell they just did not give a fuck at all about what audiences were supposed to make of all this. Whale, as usual, was going to do whatever he felt like, and if The Old Dark House was his take on a gothic horror movie, then we’re lucky to have it. The performances by Thesiger and Moore as the screaming, hysterical and completely whacked-out siblings is reason enough to see the film, and they bring all of that to the movie before it turns into The Weirdness and creates an almost hallucinatory feeling of racing, pants-shitting adrenaline. It’s like if you were told to tap dance as fast as you could or else this giant bearded Karloff monster would kill everyone you love, and also there’s this old deaf lady screaming at you about her father, who is played by an old woman, and the rain won’t stop and the fire and trees and candles and dinner and mirrors and bottles of booze and overturned tables and OOoohhhhhhhh it’s intense!

And the sound! Universal’s back at it with the sound and lighting designs, with the film non-stop pounding you with lightning flashes, thunder cracks, bursts of pouring rain coming in through the windows and headache-inducing blasts of branches and shutters banging against the house. That’s why Rebecca’s deaf! She lives in a thunder house! Really, the entire cast is constantly screaming at each other because the house is surrounded by the storm. It’s so so great!

It wouldn’t last.

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For some reason, Secret of the Blue Room has been remade so many times that it took me forever to actually find the correct version to watch for this review. Look it up on youtube and you’ll find a ton of live broadcast productions, Masterpiece Theater episodes, stage productions, etc. And I have to wonder why, because the story is… kinda stupid?

The 1933 Universal version was already a remake of a German film that had come out less than a year earlier. The story makes no sense, the characters have close to zero motivation, and it’s not scary or suspenseful or funny or whatever the hell else it’s supposed to be. The characters even point most of this out towards the end, when everyone asks why the bad guy did it, and then ask if he thought about what the end result of his plan was supposed to be, and why he thought anyone would simply go along with all this, and he’s forced to answer… “Oh, right… yeah, my plan made no sense. Sorry!” I really don’t get this movie.

Not only that, but the opening scene is some of the creepiest shit I’ve ever seen. It starts at the 21st birthday party for Irene, played by Universal Horror Superstar Gloria Stuart. There’s a big dinner, lots of wine, and the guests are her father and three best friends, all men. After dinner, her father proposes a toast and says something like, “Okay, now how about you go around the table and give us all a birthday kiss!” Sooooooo, they all surround her. First her father gives her a long, lingering kiss on the lips, then all the other fucking creeps take turns slobbering all over her. It’s incredibly disturbing, serves no purpose at all, and does nothing to advance the story which… well, the story kinda doesn’t go anywhere anyway.

And, but, so here’s what’s going on with the blue room. The secret. The story goes that, according to Irene’s father, years ago her mother spent the night in the blue room and died at exactly 1am. The door was locked from the inside and no one could’ve entered or left the room. Years later, another man died in the blue room under exactly the same circumstance, at 1am, door locked from the inside, no one entered or left, blah blah blah. SO THEN. Turns out all these guys want to marry Irene (remember how I said a lot of these movies follow one of two basic plots?). Two of them are cool, respectable, kinda rich guys, and the third guy is a squirrelly little nerd. But it’s the nerd who loves her the most. So, to prove himself worthy of her (or something?) he says he’ll spend the night in the blue room. Sure enough, the next morning the room is empty and the window is open. So they figure out that he must have been launched out the window in the night. So they all scramble and try to figure out how this happened. Since none of their theories make any sense, they come to the only logical conclusion: another idiot should spend the night in the blue room and see if they end up getting killed. Cool.

Anyway, good god almighty, people keep getting killed until the truth is revealed and, check it out, it’s fucking dopey. Because not only does the film’s conclusion make zero sense, but the writers were obviously aware of it and just do that thing where they comment on it and make it seem like the film only needs to be as smart as its dumbest character in order to work. But that’s ludicrous. Bill Watterson once stated that writing Calvin & Hobbes was easy because he only had to know as much as a six-year-old. Clearly, he was (mostly) kidding. It takes a brain to be really stupid. Just ask PT Anderson. Ask the Coen brothers. But the writer of Blue Room skipped that step and, I assume, just said fuck it, whatever, let’s just end this thing. So we’ll do the same, because the more I write, the more I want to spoil this thing just out of some morbid need to trash it and that’s just mean. I’m trying so hard not be be mean to this movie. Let’s move on, shall we???

Oh! Wait! One last thing - the print that I watched was on youtube, taped off the tv and featured a full broadcast of a 1988 episode of The Night Gallery, which was a local late night horror showcase series run in southern Nevada at that time. I know this because it also included all the commercials, 100% of which were for the Tom Coward Lincoln Mercury car dealership. I wish I could post some of these commercials here for you but I can’t find any online (other than the full version I found on Secret of the Blue Room). Sadly, what I also discovered in my search is that ol’ Tom Coward died in 2004. He’ll never get to see this article, but let’s all take a moment to respect the fact that he could’ve done anything with his money back then, and he chose to sponsor late night horror films for the residents of southern Nevada. Fuck yeah, Tom!

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The Black Cat is the next Poe adaptation in the Universal canon, and boy is it a weird one. For a start, it has fuck-all to do with the short story it’s allegedly based on and, in fact, the opening credits claim the film is “suggested by” the story rather than “based on” it. Which is fair, I guess, but then why use the title at all? Seriously, the film has NOTHING to do with that story, other than it features a black cat, but the cat in the movie serves no narrative purpose whatsoever and is, in fact, confusing every time it shows up, since it’s featured so prominently that you're sure it must mean something or have some reason for being. It doesn’t.

I’ll say this, though - The Black Cat has to be seen to be believed. I actually don’t even want to say too much about this one, other than to mention that Karloff has a weird lisping voice, a bonkers haircut, keeps women suspended, seemingly floating in mid-air, in his dungeon, and it includes futuristic doorways, Satanic rituals, people being skinned alive and more bizarre goings-on that, honestly, I can’t really even do justice to here. Go watch it. I can barely describe it. I got my copy in the Bela Lugosi Collection dvd box set, but you can probably find it online somewhere.

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The Raven, on the other hand, goes all out with the POE. It has the same basic unreliable set-up as The Black Cat, in that it actually has almost nothing to do with The Raven. But it eventually doubles down and ends up so far from where it began that it can include a pit, a pendulum, a high-tech “casque” and weirder references. It moves fast, has a lot of great stuff in it, and is one of the better of the Lugosi / Karloff team-up jawns, but it suffers most from something you’d never expect from a film like this: bad Karloff makeup.

Karloff plays Bateman, a dangerous criminal recently escaped from prison. He comes to the home of Lugosi’s Dr. Vollin. Vollin has been touted as a genius of medicine, having recently restored to health a young woman who would have died had he not agreed to save her at the behest (begging) of her father. So Bateman asks that he let him live with him while on the run and perform surgery to make him unrecognizable. Karloff, buddy, you should’ve known something was up the second Lugosi leered at you and said “I’m no plastic surgeon… but I’m sure something can be done.” Lugosi then proceeds to essentially rewire his nerve endings and give him a full-on Minority Report Droopy Face, complete with droopy eyeball. But here’s the thing, friends: the makeup effects for his Droopy Face SUCK. It looks like someone just plastered a thin layer of Elmer’s glue all over his face to make it look wrinkly then had him close his eye so they could paint a crude-looking droopy eye over his eyelid. It’s the kind of thing that would look really clever if a little kid showed up on Halloween wearing it, but for Universal to just throw this slop up on the screen is surprising, to say the least.

Luckily, that’s not enough to fully distract from how cool a movie this is, though it is indeed distracting. But movies like this one and The Invisible Ray seem like they were rushed into production, somewhat, trying to get these two guys in a bunch of movies together quickly before their always-tenuous friendship would devolve into a full-on rivalry. It’s still great to see the pair together, but their dynamic seems to be changing from film to film. Here, for example, we see Karloff reduced to another role where he plays a dumb brute to Lugosi’s brilliant scientist character, something that would eventually lead to even greater contention between the two off-screen.

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Here’s where things officially begin to go way off the rails, though. The Invisible Ray is more like a modern film the rest, in that it starts off being about one thing, then by the end it’s like none of that opening stuff was really ever relevant to begin with. This definitely has the feel of being (at least) two different scripts mashed up against each other. What sucks more is that the first half is by far the more interesting story to follow, since where it leads is to some silly-ass nonsense where Karloff has a glowing face and has to keep taking an antidote every night at midnight or else he’ll turn to dust. Eh. Pretty wacky, I guess?

But that opening! It’s great! Karloff demonstrates to a crowd of disbelievers how his Invisible Ray can manipulate light and pick up waves from Andromeda, showing them what amounts to a light show based on TIME TRAVEL. Using the idea that light from the stars takes years to reach us, he shows an entire history of the galaxy and Earth. He’s even able to locate the exact moment when a meteorite crashed into Africa to deposit the theoretical Radium X.

This Radium X, obviously, they need to go look for it, right? Ugghhhh whatever. I don’t know. This is a movie that, more or less, flatlines around the halfway mark before eventually succumbing to the typical ending where someone dies suddenly and two people kiss. But at least it gave us this:

Finally, we get to my favorite of Round 3, 1937’s Night Key. First off, this isn’t a horror film. Not in the slightest. It’s a cool, funny noir thing that sees Karloff going full Doc Brown all over everyone in the movie. Or, rather, he’s a mix of Doc and Walter White, particularly in the incident that kicks off the plot. See, Karloff plays Mallory, inventor of a home security system that’s become hugely successful and is installed in most businesses and private residences in the city. But his old partner stole the patent from him twenty years ago, became head of the company, and is now one of the most respected men in the area while poor ol’ Mallory lives with his doting daughter in a tiny apartment and nobody knows his name. Some bullshit, right?

So when Mallory finally perfects his newest version of the original invention and gets the call that his old partner and head of Ranger Security wants to have a meeting and buy his patent, he thinks he’s being brought on to become a part of the company again. This is not the case, however, and Ranger just wants to buy his technology so no one else can use it, shutting him out again and basically telling him to go fuck himself. Even Mallory’s own lawyer double crosses him, working both sides to make sure Ranger comes out on top with some tricky contract language. Mallory is pissed, hooks up with a low-life street thief named Petty Louie, and the two form a mini gang as they start breaking and entering using Mallory’s device to short-circuit the security systems in businesses all over town to write threatening messages to Ranger, leaving “What I Create, I Can Destroy - Night Key” on walls all over town, starting with Louie’s holding cell (which he helps him to break out of).

Also, get a load of this stupid poster:


That shit has NOTHING to do with Night Key. There’s no death. There’s no wax museum. I have no idea what’s going on here. Did the poster people get confused and just put the wrong stuff on there? Was there a different cut that was all about people getting murdered and turned into wax figures? I’m trying to figure this out, but it’s impossible. Some mysteries are just lost to the ages, like the pyramids, or what Kennedy knew that got him assassinated by his own people, or how Lynch made the Eraserhead baby. We’ll simply never know the truth. But Night Key is such a great movie that sort of defies categorization when it comes to how it fits into the whole Universal Horror thing that maybe they were just doing whatever they could to promote it, hoping people would just forget they thought they were going to see that wax museum movie. If I could only recommend one from this non-Monster run of films, it would be this one. If fact, come on over. We’ll watch it together.

Next week we’ll jump back into those Big Bad Monsters and cover the full runs of Mummy and Invisible Man films. I’m warning you now, if you haven’t seen them all - shit’s about to get real weird.