10 Things I Hate About the Universal Monster Movies

Hello, my name is Gary, and I am a horror movie aficionado. No, scratch that…I am a Monster Kid. In the spectrum of fright film fandom, Monster Kids are Baby Boomers who grew up in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and whose fondest childhood memories include weekend TV viewings of vintage horror/sci-fi fare, usually on UHF stations and presided over by a congenial local host (in the Philadelphia area this meant the late, great Dr. Shock, along with such syndicated weirdos as Seymour and the Ghoul); going to the newsstand or drug store each month for the latest edition of Famous Monsters of Filmland; and meticulously painting and assembling  your very own rogues gallery of plastic Aurora models. Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, King Kong, Godzilla and their fellow fiends didn’t scare me as a youngster, and I never tired of watching their exploits, even when they came to a screeching halt every 12 minutes or so for commercials for clear plastic slipcovers or car dealers. Now, of course, people can see movies uncut and uninterrupted any time they want, and my home DVD library boasts a large number of the fear faves of those halcyon days.

Since I’ve gone from Monster Kid to Monster Middle-Aged Man (Yes, I still have my back issues of FMOF and Aurora models), however, I’ve noticed something about my beloved ’30s and ’40s Universal chillers, something I think I knew even way back when…a few of the things that happen in them don’t make much sense. I’m not talking about tana leaf tea bringing Egyptian mummies back to life or a man turning into a wolf every full moon; I’m more than happy to suspend disbelief for that. No, I’m referring to on-screen goofs, gaping plot holes, and other oddities that are harder to ignore than Dwight Frye’s maniacal laugh. And since today is Halloween, it seems like a perfect time to look back on some of these films and go over my top ten peeves:

Dracula – “Among the rugged peaks that crown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age.” So reads coach passenger Carla Laemmle (who, incidentally, celebrated her 103rd birthday last week) in the opening scene of Tod Browning’s 1931 vampire thriller. Yes, the crumbling castle of bloodsucking count Bela Lugosi is clearly located near the Borgo Pass, in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe’s Transylvania region. Why, then, in the shots of Dracula’s basement lair do we see North American armadillos and opossums scurrying around the coffins of the Count and his undead brides? Are we supposed to think they’re Transylvanian rats? Does Drac like to collect exotic pets? Browning must have liked the critters, because four years later he used them again in MGM’s Mark of the Vampire.

Frankenstein –  Universal took many liberties with Mary Shelley’s original story in its 1931 adaptation starring Boris Karloff as the monster and Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein, including the addition of a scene where Fritz (Frye), the doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, breaks into a medical school to steal a brain. Fritz winds up dropping the “normal brain” (good help is so hard to find!) and wings up absconding with the grey matter of a deceased criminal, much to his employer’s dismay later on. But wait a minute: the jar holding the organ was clearly marked “ABNORMAL BRAIN,” so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to Frankenstein…unless Fritz took it out of the jar and carried it home in his pocket, or hidden somewhere on his body (ewww!).

The Mummy – A sinister figure, with the unwitting help of a poor chap driven insane by the experience, rises from the grave and sets out to draw a beautiful young woman into his bizarre world of the undead, unless the girl’s beau and a scholar wise in the ways of the occult can stop him. This was the basic plot of Dracula, and one year later it was wrapped up in fresh bandages, given a nice Egyptian look to cash in on the discovery of King Tut’s tomb the previous decade, and turned into the Karloff thriller The Mummy. Try watching the two movies in order and count the similarities. Universal even re-cast Dracula co-stars David Manners and Edward Van Sloan in essentially the same roles, and both films also use music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as their theme song!

Murders in the Rue Morgue – Just as happened to Shelley and Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal detective story lost quite a bit in its 1932 screen translation. It also gained, along with the obligatory romance, a fine role for a post-Dracula Lugosi as unibrowed sideshow pitchman/mad scientist Dr. Mirakle, who abducts women and injects them with ape blood in an attempt to create a mate for his simian sidekick Erik. Now, Erik is supposed to be be a gorilla (the Poe tale featured an orangutan), but the costume worn by primate impersonator Charles Gemora must not have been to someone’s liking, because the filmmakers added in close-ups of a lovable chimpanzee who looks nothing like the fearsome gorilla seen elsewhere in the picture.

The Invisible Man – Claude Rains made his Hollywood debut (just his luck that audiences only get to see his face in the film’s final 15 seconds) in this classic 1933 adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel. This was one Universal shocker that did hew fairly closely to its source material. One part where it didn’t, however, is the dramatic scene near the end when police surround a barn where Rains’ unseen title character is hiding out and set it on fire to draw him out. Since snow has fallen on the ground, the lawmen are able to follow Rains’ movements by looking at his footprints. There’s just one problem, though: Rains is supposedly buck naked, and the snowy prints are those of someone wearing shoes!

Bride of Frankenstein – Director James Whale’s 1935 follow-up to his earlier Frankenstein is one of those rare sequels that outdoes the original, and the film’s memorable final scenes feature Karloff’s heartbroken monster about to blow the lab–and everyone in it–to atoms, thanks to a handily-placed lever (now there’s a peeve: Who puts a lever like that in easy reach?). First, however, he allows Dr. Frankenstein (Clive) and his wife Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) to leave the building. This romantic ending was apparently a last-minute script change, though, because after that darn lever is pulled, Clive can still be seen in long shots as the explosions go off.

Son of Frankenstein – Look at the opening scenes of 1939’s third entry in the series, as Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) and his family are travelling by rail to his ancestral estate. The train car passes the same gnarled, leafless trees several times while Rathbone gives his expository dialogue (Hey, I didn’t say these were all major things in the movies! I just said some of them bug me!)

The Wolf Man - Lon Chaney, Jr.’s best known screen role is undoubtedly that of lycanthropic Larry Talbot, first seen in this 1941 film. And in the first transformation scene, a fearful Talbot feels the change coming on and takes off his suit, stripping down to his undershirt and trousers as the full moon–and studio make up whiz Jack Pierce–turn him into a bloodthirsty man-beast. A bloodthirsty man-beast, that is, who is seen in the woods wearing a long-sleeve shirt and different pants. Apparently the Wolf Man, in spite of all that fur, felt a little bit chilly and didn’t want to catch cold before heading out for a late-night snack!

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man – He sure does…nearly 70 minutes into the movie, for the final two and a half minutes or so! Unless the title was referring to Ilona Massey’s character of Baroness Elsa Frankenstein, who joins a revived Larry Talbot (Chaney) in a search for her grandfather’s research that leads to the still-living monster (finally played, after famously turning down the part 12 years earlier, by Bela Lugosi), this 1943 monster mash-up has one of the most misleading monikers since How to Make an American Quilt. My quibble here isn’t with the title or even the length of the dueling creatures’ showdown, though. It’s with Lugosi’s flailing about during the fight and his stiff-armed gait that everyone (thanks, too,  to later turns in the role by Glenn Strange) now imitates as the “Frankenstein Walk.” You see, in the film that immediately preceded this entry, 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, that old “abnormal brain” was replaced by that of Ygor, the conniving shepherd first played by Bela in Son of Frankenstein, resulting in a blind monster with Lugosi’s voice.  Well, preview audiences, the story goes, laughed at a “Frankenstein” speaking in a Hungarian accent, so the footage was excised. This may help to explain why the climactic battle was so short, but it left folks wondering why the monster has his arms outstretched like a sleepwalker.

Son of Dracula – While this 1943 sort-of sequel to the Lugosi original does offer an atmospheric Southern bayou locale (which Universal would reprise a year later in The Mummy’s Curse) and a nice shot of Count Alucard’s (Lon Chaney, Jr.) coffin rising from the swamp as he turns from mist to vampire, there’s a detail here that always bothered me. No, I don’t mean Lon’s John Waters-like mustache or lack of a Hungarian accent, or the “genius” idea of spelling your infamous surname backwards to fool your enemies, or even the ongoing question of whether Alucard is really the son of Dracula or the original Count himself (even the opening credits list Chaney “as Count Dracula”). No, I’m talking about the fact that Alucard/Dracula is basically a real estate grifter, coming to America and wedding a wealthy, occult-obsessed woman so he can claim her family’s plantation as his own. Oh, and this undead creature of evil really has to marry his prey to claim her as his bride? What, he didn’t want them to be “living in sin”? Thanks a lot, Hays Code.

Well, it’s time for me to get ready for trick-or-treaters and then settle in for a night of classic horror flicks. But what about you, fellow Monster Kids? Am I battier than the battlements of Castle Dracula? Let me know your thoughts…and, in the immortal words of Philly’s Dr. Shock, “let there be fright in the night!”

 

 

 

  • Maxfabien

    Good article Gary! You’ve pointed out the same flaws that have been bugging me for these many years. I’d like to expand on one of them, namely, Larry Talbot’s sudden clothes change when he changes into the Wolf Man. I noticed In all the Wolf Man films, “The Wolf Man”, “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man”, “House of Frankenstein”, “House of Dracula”, and “A&C Meet Frankenstien”, he wears the exact same dark shirt and pants whenever he is the Wolf Man, regardless of what he was wearing before the change.

    • Maxfabien

      Here’s another flaw (and it’s not on IMDB). In “The Invisible Man”, it starts out at night with a big snow storm outside. The next day, when Griffin jumps thru the window and goes on his mischief spree, there’s not a flake of snow anywhere and it’s warm enough for him to be naked (totally invisible.)

      • Wayne P.

        thats the part where he next scares the lady while singing “here we go gathering nuts in may, nuts in may…” so have always thought it was a late spring weather event, or something!? :)

        • Wayne P.

          the rest of the song goes: …here we go gathering nuts in may, on a cold and frosty morning

      • Danny D

        It seems to me that Griffin had been working at the Inn for sometime before he was ‘exposed’. Remember, the innkeeper complained about not paying his rent.

  • Blair kramer

    Awww c’mon…  What’s to hate about them?  Any film,  or film series,  will carry flaws.  Why focus on the flaws?  I prefer to revel in what makes them entertaining.  And after all is said and done,  all the Universal monster movies certainly are very entertaining.

    • Johnny V

      He does come across a little whiny, I think.

      Lighten up, Gary. Nothing’s perfect so enjoy them for what they are.

  • Hank Zangara

    Your description of yourself growing up in the 60’s watching the Universal classics (along with King Kong, Harryhausen and other sci-fi films) on TV is also a perfect description of myself!  Except that as a Jersey boy, I had the pleasure of watching them on Chris Steinbrenner’s Million Dollar Movie on WOR Channel 9 in New York. The fact that you are so intimately familiar with them all as to catch these minor flubs just goes to prove that you don’t “hate” them – you love them!

  • Wayne P.

    Hey Gary, relax, the Frankenstorm is over and we need some relief, comic or horrific…you should not be allowed, by authority of MU fanfare police, to visit IMDB hunting continuity errors and such on Halloween for Fright Night at the movies! 

  • Maxfabien

    Wayne, I don’t think he hunted for the errors, most of them are fairly well known.

    • Wayne P.

      guess have forgotten to include the obligatory ;) and this is all hallows eve, you know, so alls in good fun but am thinking we should keep the scare in the movies as mayhaps some havent seen all these classics yet!

  • http://twitter.com/Bryankr Bryan Ruffin

    I have to admit that I have seen some of the little foibles, but I also have to admit that I still enjoy the movies! I really liked the Frankenstein meets the Wolfman. I even thought the story line was worth the watch. I know there were some things in the movies that , well, they were silly! Odd thing is, it never really took away from the movie.

  • williamsommerwerck

    There are things much worse than the flubs you note. Universal made sequels that were almost always inferior to the originals (with one magnificent exception). The “Mummy” films, in particular, are excruciatingly bad, an insult to the wonderful original.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.head.739 Scott Head

    The Hays code would not allow the studios to use live rats in any movie being released in the USA (Dracula) hence the armadillos and opossums

  • Marty

    The Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man was a head scratcher when he all of a sudden had a shirt tucked in. It happened in the Paul Naschy movie Werewolf Shadow aka Werewolf vs. the Vampire Women. He is laying a a slab in the morgue with no shirt on and the doctor takes out the silver slugs, then he comes back to life, changes into a werewolf and has a nice new shirt on …tucked in no less!

  • Danny D

    An odd bit in Frankenstein. At the start of the movie in the graveyard scene Dr. F rejects a freshly hung corpse because the neck was broken rendering the brain “unusable”. However a brain that has been soaking in formaldehyde for an indefinite period is “OK’? Weird science indeed.

  • Nils Goering

    All of the gaffes and flubs in the Universal monster films have been duly noted many times over the past decades by many ‘Monster Kids’. Being among their legion, I have opined and chuckled over all the ones mentioned in Gary’s article. None of them really bug me. However, what has baffled and bugged me down through the decades is trying to figure out the historical time frame for the films. The first Frankenstein film had very modern clothing for the players suggesting a 1930s contemporary setting – subsequent films in the series merged modern with 19th century trappings that muddled the time period continuity of the episodes. In ‘The Wolf Man’ the film clearly shows Larry Talbot arriving at his English home in a motor car then the film abandons using it for the later action in the film (the same in ‘Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man’ where the action moves to Europe) The preferred modes of transportation in many of the Frankenstein, Wolf Man outings are a creaky old donkey cart (Ouspenskaya driven), horseback, and horse drawn wagons and carriages. Automobiles, motorcycles and aircraft were not foreign to England and Europe even in small villages back in the day. But they weren’t employed in these films to help clue the viewer to what era the story was set in. Flashlights were also in abundance in the 30s and 40s so why resort to the more clumsy and dangerous burning torches? Telephones were rare in the films (the ‘electric box’ used in ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ was a primitive device compared to the available telephone system already in place in the early 20th century) I suppose the filmmakers decided that using archaic trappings added to the spooky atmospherics and only allowed sophisticated electronics, capable of raising the dead, to intrude a modern sensibility to the action. There were some trains (actual and implied) and, in the Abbott and Costello outing, there was a motor boat. I still find it difficult to plot a clear historical timeline of action for all of the Universal fright films utilizing Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man. Karloff’s ‘The Mummy’ and Henry Hull’s ‘Werewolf of London’ are two films that stand on their own. Their settings are clearly contemporary to their eras and are free of confusion. The Kharis Mummy films also have a clearly modern setting and an unconfusing continuity. Except, of course, the baffling mystery of Kharis and his love sinking in a swamp in New England (in ‘Mummy’s Ghost’) and resurrecting in a Southern bayou (in the follow up film, ‘Mummy’s Curse’). The strange and supernatural forces of Amon-Ra must have been in play. Well, there you have it. I still find these creaky old Universal thrillers enormous fun to watch and will remain a fan for life.

  • Joseph Levin

    So how did you feel about the Hammer Films remakes? Didn’t most of them scare you?

  • williamsommerwerck

    I can think of more-important things to hate — such as the general cheapness and stupidity of the sequels (“Bride” being the obvious exception). The Mummy sequels are terrible, among the worst films of any kind I’ve seen.

  • Eric Nilsson

    It is sad that the gaffes seemingly override the many scary moments of the old Universal movies. This is an unexpected consequence of hindsight. it is also the bane of viewing old movies or books through current lenses.

    To see Karloff’s eyes as he struggles against the wrappings; to see Frye’s eyes (mentioned above) and to hear the maniacal laugh as Renfield looks out of the Carpathia’s hold; to hear Jack Griffin’s lament, “I meddled in things best left alone!” — these are the reasons these movies retain power.

    Were these movies drawn directly from their sources? Absolutely not. That honor belongs to Stroheim’s “Greed”, a gripping movie even at four hours (cut from the original ten).

    IN closing, try not to view these movies from afar; rather, place yourselves with the audience as the curtain rises and you see Edward Van Sloan come on stage.

  • Johnny Sherman

    In The Bride of Frankenstein, I was so ready for the big moment between Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff. And…..she looks at him, and then hisses! I felt really bad for Ole Frankie, but with his short fuse, I knew everything was about to hit the fan.
    Great movie: Warning—-“Empathize At Your Risk!”

  • Movie Fan

    These old films were made with very little money available for things like special effects, writers, cameras, sets and continuity editors. They were made when live theater was still the go-to option. People who were used to live shows had no problem with inconsistencies, plot gaffes or other mistakes. These things were commonplace in stage performances, and were likely not considered unusual when they occurred on the silver screen. There were no televisions, no drive-in theaters, no paved roads beyond major thruways. Most people lived and died within the city limits of where they were born. Education was basic and illiteracy rates were high. Lending libraries weren’t available in every locale. When they saw something on the screen, they didn’t question the authenticity. Many of the audience members had never seen animals other than those typically found on farms, whether wild or domestic. Possums and armadillos are pretty much as nasty as any rat. They eat carrion or anything else available to them. Caskets weren’t always used back then. Need I say more? That may be why they ended up in the Dracula movies. Real life in the 30s, 40s and 50s was hard. Going to the movies was a special treat, a chance to see a world where even the monsters lived in castles and were considered royalty.

  • Bruce Brewer

    This guy is an idiot!!! His opinions are twisted because he can only see today and not as it once was. Actually, Frankenstein and Dracula were closer to the original story than the 1000 remakes.

  • Steven Wells

    Okay, here’s what bugs me: people referring to Ygor as a “shepherd.”

    I’ve never known where anyone got that idea. He was a blacksmith. He not only happens to wear a blacksmith’s leather apron, he says so when he’s testifying before Krogh and the town council in SoF.

    And we all know Ygor would never lie.

    There was talk about some moonlighting he may have done for Dr. F senior, but we can be sure it had nothing to do with sheep.

  • Rob in L.A.

    I didn’t agree with everything the writer said, but I enjoyed reading this article.

  • me

    I don’t know a movie made where some little something was wrong or messed up. You know what mr picky guy, you get over it and enjoy the movie for what it is,instead of picking it apart. Of course if you wanna be a anal retentive butthole you can keep doing that. As for me NOTHING ruins those classic films I love every second of them, and always will.

  • Nicolas

    Have to also take into context when these films were made. Remember that people did not have video in their homes at the time when they could watch these flims over and over again and catch these flaws. even films in the 70’s, made some of the same mistakes.

  • speedle24

    Interesting tidbits for sure. I too am a fan of the old horror/sci-fi genre, but in order to get the full impact one has to be at the front end of the boomer generation. That is to say old enough to have been able to go to the Saturday morning movies without parents in the mid and late fifties. This is where all the fun began with “updated” versions of Frankensteins, werewolves, vampires, and all manner of space invaders. These movies were more…uh…”sophisticated” and certainly more gratuitous than the earlier horror films, and for my taste about as far as Hollywood needed to go in that regard. I’m afraid that the gore and special effects of everything in the last 20 years have left me disinterested (post Alien and Star Trek).

    Yes there were plenty of fax pauxs in these fifties films as well, but who cared. It was the idea that counted.

  • Michele A. Gordon

    I love all the classic Universal movies. I too have found mistakes but there is nothing like them.

  • hupto

    But apart from that, Mrs. Kennedy, how was the trip to Dallas?

  • jumbybird

    Mistakes schmistakes… it’s all part of the charm, just sit back and enjoy them. But you’re beyond that, you can’t enjoy the movies anymore. Sometimes knowing too much about a movie ruins the viewing experience.

  • Jimster

    Your article reminded me of my teenage years in the late sixties, and my buddies and I would load up the car with sodas and snacks and head to the drive in to watch all night horror movies. One night we saw 5 different American International Edgar Allen Poe movies with Vincent Price and saw the same scene of a burning ceiling collapsing in each of the 5 movies.