Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946 by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas (book review).
I never saw the first edition of Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas’ book, ‘Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946’ so don’t know how much it was revised and updated. As it focuses on 85 Universal horror films from the pre-1950s, one can only assume further other tit-bits of information and critiques cropped up and were incorporated. As such, with twin column pages, this book is far larger than the 600 page count shows and a massive read.
This book also details the Universal Studios history up to the present, well 2007 that is, as well as several photos of the set exteriors from the 1930s. The only reason Universal made horror films in the first place was to prop up their studio’s finances and in some ways, this has a similarity to why Hammer Films went the same way decades later. Whatever, it made Universal’s name with significant horror films and created the careers of the likes of Karloff and Lugosi.
Your knowledge of films would have to be very scatty not to know that the Universal horror films set the benchmark for all that followed starting with ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ in 1931. If you’ve ever read film books where there is a very brief synopsis and comment then this is not one of them. Each film gets an extended prep-preproduction build-up about crew and cast, a very detailed synopsis and an even longer critique at the end which also draws upon comments made at the time, many lasting over 6-8 pages long. It is also no holds barred, especially when it points out various weaknesses in everything. The writers might appreciate the films but it’s not through ruby or blood-tinted glasses. Take, for example, their look at director Todd Browning, pointing out that his other films, often non-horror, were very turgid. They aren’t afraid to mince words and show warts and all. As such, this makes for an extremely useful reference book that I happily devoured several films a day to take it all in. I suspect, for most of you, you’ll just look up the films that interest you the most rather than work your way through it like I did. That’s a shame, because you’ll miss a lot of detail and quotes that will make you the bane of horror movie quizzes as well as a lot of other information in context.
It’s interesting that the plot formats for ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ was also copied for ‘The Mummy’ the following year. I also picked up on little gems like neither director James Whale or actor Claude Rains were the first choice for ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933). Speaking of whom, I’ve finally found a book that gives Griffin his first name as ‘Jack’. It also identifies all the other Griffin family in the other ‘Invisible Man’ films. Odd bits of trivia pop up like ‘The Invisible Man Returns’ stars Vincent Price and Alan Napier. Do I have to tell you the 1960s ‘Batman’ connection? Indeed, George Waggner or WaGGner as he later became was also directing in the 1940s at Universal. The first horror film Lon Chaney, Jr. did for Universal was ‘Man Made Monster’ (1941). Acromegaly sufferer Rondo Hatton, who features on the back cover, first film was ‘The Pearl Of Death’ (1944) and whose short career only lasted a couple years.
A very interesting fact that the authors raise that although the make-up Karloff made famous as the Frankenstein monster, it is the pose of walking with his arms out by Bella Lugosi came from ‘Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man’ (1943) when he was blinded that is most remembered and used in the model kits. So arms extended was never meant to be an act of menace, just a poor creature trying to find its way in his own personal darkness.
It’s fascinating watching the acting careers of the many actors and directors at Universal over the decades here. The authors aren’t afraid to stop occasionally and give their full histories. The comparison to similar careers today and you suddenly realise things haven’t really changed that much other than not being beholden to any one studio. More so, the photographs are not just from the films but often from behind the scenes. Actually, there is one thing that has changed. Wages! Back in the 30s-40s, actresses got paid a fraction of that paid by their male counterparts in the USA and it’s amazing it stayed that way for so long when you read just how much they got for so long.
It would have been interesting to have seen an appendix in the book showing the complete comparison of how much each film cost to make and their box office return, the detail is given with most films here, let alone how often they went over-budget. I’m sure some of you with databases will address that exclusion.
Although I wasn’t quite sure why Universal’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Inner Sanctum’ films were included, mostly because they weren’t altogether horrific, well with the exception of the latter series by poor performances according to the authors but it does enable the book to be comprehensive.
This is a superb reference book although to get your money’s worth, spend some time reading the entire book rather than just let it prop up your bookshelf. I’m still absorbing information from it after having spent nearly a month reading it. If you have a taste for the old Universal horror films then this is a must-have. The definitive book for what made your grandparents jump in the night.
(pub: McFarland. 608 page illustrated indexed medium-large harback. Price: £50.50 (UK), $37.99 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-2974-5)