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!”