The only great roar of pure Gothic spirit in American film, the classic Universal horror cycle of the ’30s and ’40s wore its expressionism lightly, and anyone who grew up in the “monster culture” it engendered will know the imagery in their bones: the dark gray heavens of fake forests, ground fog, decaying castles, cobwebs thick as paste, Tudor villages, gypsy caravans, walking corpses, and Dwight Frye bulging his eyes out like an electrified kinkajou. A hidden, faux-Mitteleuropan hinterland where wolves roam free, the Universal horror landscape must have provided some kind of creaky comfort for Depression-era moviegoers, but for the Aurora monster-model generation, the films felt more like sleepy, corroded dreams of violation (sexual, communal, and otherwise), pubertal shock (as in the Wolf Man’s grotesque parody of biophysical transformation), and deathlessness.
This small handful of films are responsible for more specific cultural touchstones than the era’s westerns, musicals, and gangster films combined: Jack Pierce’s flat-headed Frankenstein monster makeup and hotwired-Afro Bride design, Lugosi’s accent, the hunchbacked lab assistant, the mad scientist, the throbbing electrical hardware of the lab itself, crowds of townspeople with torches, the details of werewolf myth (silver bullets, etc.), the vampire’s old-world urbanity, and so on. If the dream shuddered every now and then with conflicting accents and locales–and the viral way modern anachronisms (suits, gowns, slang, cars) invaded the picture, making it feel safer as the years went on–there was still the nervous sense of watching a forgotten edge-world struggle with its own, seemingly ceaseless metaphysical ruptures.
Not all of the Universal Gothics are created equal; left out of the Film Forum mini-series is a personal childhood fave of mine, House of Frankenstein (with J. Carroll Naish as a lovelorn hunchback), and Son of Frankenstein, undoubtedly Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill, and Bela Lugosi’s finest hours. Easily enjoyed for their rich camp potential (which is why I’m sure the Film Forum audience will be there, particularly on Halloween night), these fecund bedtime tales can still creep under your epidermis if you make an effort to remove yourself from the intervening 60-odd years of exhausted familiarity. Here are the gems:
DRACULA (1931): Tod Browning’s only horror film, remarkably enough, and the most badly dated of the bunch. For that, though, it may be the most disconcertingly tomblike of all American films.
FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN(1943): One of several monster Super Bowls (a strategy most appealing when you’re 10), and the only one with Lugosi as the F. Monster. Bring a kid.
THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932): The only out-and-out comedy, and the series’ best party movie.
THE WOLF MAN (1941): Poor Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) begins his despairing odyssey through the endless corridor of lycanthropy (read: the disease or syndrome of your choice)–only to have it end tumbling madly from a castle window in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), also in the series.
THE MUMMY (1932): If you were still wondering where James V. Hart got all of that eternal love angst in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was from this somnambulistic romance. Moody like crypt air.
THE BLACK CAT (1934): Edgar G. Ulmer’s luridly Caligari-an thriller about devil worship, unsettled WWI scores, and Bauhaus architecture, with a Lugosi-Karloff face-off.
THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933): Claude Rains makes his spoken-word film debut behind a battery of trick photography in this James Whale dust bunny; watch out for the shoe prints made in the snow by Rains’s ostensibly naked feet.
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935): The grandest of Hollywood guignol, this beloved, absurdist hoot has quite a bit of everything, and even today pays off like a slot machine.
FRANKENSTEIN (1931): Sorry, the sequel may be funnier and fresher, but because this is the first, and the grimmest, it still stands alone. Boris Karloff’s lost, mewling patchwork corpse–embodying a childlike fear of flesh in all of its manifestations–is a conception and execution unrivaled in fantastic cinema. Even Colin Clive’s alcoholic whine burns in the memory.