Monday, November 25, 2013

'Universal Horrors' is an incredible piece of research of a golden black-and-white era

By Doug Gibson

"Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946," 2nd Edition, from McFarland, is a simply incredible work of reference from genre writers Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas. Eighty-six films from Universal, spanning 15 years, are covered in so much detail that I can't imagine what can be added. Every film, whether "Frankenstein" or "The Spider Woman Strikes Back," receives near equal consideration and analysis. The authors deserve full credit for spending what must have been thousands of hours working on a project that likely yields more kudos than dollars.

I read the book over a two-week period and at times had to stop, frankly overwhelmed by the details in every film. The $55 book is meant as a reference guide, to be perused at one's leisure. Its use to prepare one to view a Universal film is invaluable. I recently watched and reviewed "The Old Dark House after re-reading the extensive research on the film provided by Weaver and company.

If one does spend a great deal of time with the book, one notes the gradual decline in Universal products, that begins more subtly in the late 1930s, gains steam in the 1940s and eventually leads to the studio that produced "Bride of Frankenstein" turning out films such as "House of Horrors" and "The Brute Man," efforts that were akin to poverty row studios. One notes the gradual decline in budgets from the 1930s monster films to under $100,000 efforts in the 1940s such as "Man Made Monster." In between the years it's interesting to see the studio's original, classic monsters slip into second-tier status in the 1940s' Kharis Mummy films and the "House of ..." monster-fests. Or watch its stars move from Lugosi and Karloff to Chaney Jr. and Carradine and eventually Rondo Hatten.

Highly regarded directors, such as Tod Browning, James Whale and Earle C. Kenton were eventually replaced with by-the-numbers guys such as William Beaudine or Jean Yarbrough. It's also interesting to track the reviews through the 15 years. The earliest classic Universal monsters received grudging respect by the major newspapers (think New York Times) but gradually over time the reviews became -- appropriately -- pans. It's amusing to read the deliberate snide pans over the years from one New York Times film critic, the amusingly named Bosley Crowther!

As mentioned, there are scores of films. The authors are liberal in their selections, including comedy farces, Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes series and Lon Chaney Jr's Inner Sanctum soap operas. But more is a plus here, as each film contains a treasure chest of genre facts for the reader. Weaver & Co. can be snarky at times, particularly at Bela Lugosi fans (they suffer from a syndrome that prefers John Carradine over Lugosi as a screen Dracula) but these matter nothing, Universal Horrors is far too valuable a tome to refuse over a few critical differences. I loved it and will use it as a reference for a lifetime.

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