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The Universal Monsters are Forming a New Dark Universe and It's About Time
Perhaps people can learn to appreciate them after all
I was about four years old in 1985. My late, beloved grandfather was born in February of 1934 so I was exposed to a lot of pieces of pop culture growing up that other little boys in the 80s were not. Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, The Honeymooners, etc. And while I still love those things today, I dare say the old movies he taught me about that stuck with me most were the Universal Studios Monsters series of the 1930s and 40s.
I don't remember how exactly I got started on them, I think it was after I saw the original Frankenstein from 1931 on my local UHF channel. From then on, I was obsessed with the Frankenstein Monster, as played by Boris Karloff, who is still my favorite of those creatures today. I always seemed to understand that, as Chipmunk Theodore Seville put it in a film where he and his brothers met him themselves, he just acted like a Monster because everyone treated him like one. Because for such a grotesque-looking creature, Karloff's tormented soul could be gentle when around someone who gave him a chance to be, like little Maria in the original film (before he mistakenly drowned her, not comprehending that she couldn't swim) or the blind hermit in the follow-up The Bride of Frankenstein (a truly touching, beautiful scene). I was the Monster every Halloween. I checked out the junior novelization of the original film every time I was in the old Wolfson Memorial Library. And when I got to catch the other creatures like Dracula, the Wolf Man, etc., I drove my poor first grade teacher Mrs. Saralaikis crazy talking of them. Sadly, though, over the next few years my interest in them kind of tapered off. Until the excellent film Ed Wood came out in 1994.
The (albeit occasionally inaccurate) story of legendary schlock director Edward D. Wood Jr., who employed Dracula star Bela Lugosi in his final, and least employable, years caused me to seek out the Universal Monsters series which Lugosi starred in and Ed Wood loved so much again for the first time in at least seven years and within the next year if there was one film in the Universal Monsters library I didn't have on VHS, I must never have heard of it. But the work of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. fascinated me as much as Doctor Who did to the point where I became a Universal Monsters purist. The atmosphere, the European or pseudo-European characters, the bits that occasionally made me laugh that certainly made people of the films' eras curl up in their theater seats with fright absolutely fascinated me.
Besides that, the three major players of that era, Englishman Boris Karloff (Frankenstein's Monster, the original Mummy), Hungarian Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster) and Lon Chaney, Jr. (primarily the Wolf Man but he played the Mummy, Dracula and the Monster in films too) were captivating on-screen and off even if you weren't fans of their films, I won't tell all their back stories here, that's for another (potential) article, but they all led interesting, complicated and (in Lugosi and Chaney's case anyway) troubled lives.
However, just like with Doctor Who at the same time, I rarely came across anybody who also liked the films and only occasionally would I find a film made about them like 1987's cult classic Monster Squad. Yet certain magazines and occasional Internet posts, as well as all the books I bought on the films and their performers led me to believe somewhere somebody else did. I know a few people who like them too now. As a result, I am hoping the new Mummy film starring Tom Cruise will change that when it launches the new interconnected Marvel-style "Dark Universe", as the Studio is calling it. I was a little perplexed when I heard the new Mummy was a woman but then I remembered this isn't 1932 anymore so there would be things in the new Dark Universe that would make me have to lower my guard as far as being a Universal Monsters purist like presumably classic characters changed or removed, cell phones, wifi, laptops, etc. And I'd have to deal with that.
I was also a little miffed when I heard they were remaking my favorite Universal film The Bride of Frankenstein to follow the Mummy until I learned they hired director Bill Condon, who directed a film (1998's Gods and Monsters) which was a biography of the director of the original film and recreated the atmosphere of the original almost perfectly. Plus, Universal must be taking the reboots seriously to cast such A-list actors as Tom Cruise, Russel Crowe, Johnny Depp (who's playing Claude Rains' Invisible Man) and Javier Bardem (playing the Monster and even though I had been admonished by a few people for never having heard of him, I admit he has exactly the right kind of face for the Monster) in the series. And with Condon, I am feeling kind of optimistic.
Even though they will undoubtedly contain material I will have to get used to as I said, this is a different era than the one the originals were made in. I and other cult fans must take account of that, I really want these films to succeed. Because just like with Doctor Who I want to tell people I loved the Universal Monsters before they were cool.