Sunday, August 13, 2017

Enjoy The Monster Movies of Universal Studios

Book review by Doug Gibson

I really enjoy reading "The Monster Movies of Universal Studios," Rowman & Littlefield, June 2017, the latest film genre offering from the prolific James L. Neibaur (an Amazon link is also included). This book is not as deep a dive as "Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946," from Tom Weaver and Michael and John Brunas. But it's not intended to be that comprehensive.

Neibaur focuses on only the monster movies, with Dracula, the Mummy, Invisible Men and Women, the Frankenstein Monster, Wolf men and a woman, and the 1950's Creature From the Black Lagoon. He also includes the Abbott & Costello monster comedies.

While I have to confess I probably would have preferred chapters from Neibaur on the early Universal films "Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Black Cat" and "The Raven" instead of a couple/or three of the so-so Invisible Man sequels, I was impressed by the research and smooth writing skills of the author, which have become a staple of his books, the most recent (at least I read) a take on WC Fields' films and soon to come is one on Andy Clyde's Columbia shorts --- sheer manna for us!

Twenty-nine films are assessed, starting with "Dracula" and ending with "The Creature Walks Among Us." Generally, the chapters start with an info box cover, the genesis of the films from conception to planning -- who writes scripts, who directs, the cast assembled -- with a synopsis of the film. Also covered are budgets, how the filming went, how the film was received both critically and financially, what was planned for the future, and the author's assessment of the film. Neibaur has gathered film reviews and exhibitor assessments of the period, and includes sourced quotes, mostly from film participants.

As I mentioned, this is not as detailed as "Universal Horrors" but even that will make it a perhaps more relaxed read for the more casual films of the genre. As the father of a 12-year-old son who, thanks to my efforts, loves the old Universal horrors, he's soon to read "The Monster Movies of Universal Studios," while a turn at the larger "Universal Horrors ..." is still a few years away.

And there is fun, interesting information gathered by Neibaur. For example, a young Betty Grable was considered for the female lead in both "Dracula" and "Frankenstein." She didn't quite pass muster, though. In the early 1940s, Universal really trimmed its budgets. "The Mummy's Hand," for example, was made for a mere $80,000! In fact, as Neibaur notes, the films generally easily made money due to the parsimony of the studio. Also, an  angry Bela Lugosi, in his more prosperous first half of the 1940s, swore never to work for Universal again. That would change as he gladly accepted his iconic role with Abbott & Costello a few years later. Another interesting tidbit is that Lou Costello was convinced "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" would be an unfunny box office failure. So sure was he, Neibaur notes, that he seemed annoyed that it was a success.

One more thing that gets across in the book is that Neibaur generally both loves and has great respect for these films with now-iconic monsters. There's none of the snark that occasionally can sour a good read about this genre. About the only film that gets a solid pan is "She Wolf of London," which frankly merits it, since it's a -- in my opinion -- shallow attempt to capture the spirit of Val Lewton.

There are a few typos in the book that could be fixed with another edition or at least e-book or Kindle. An example is Universal spelled as Universale in some chapters. But it's a fact-filled, genre-fun read of a piece of Hollywood history that so many cult film fans love. It merits real estate in your book case. And, trust me, it's a relief to read about Boris Karloff as the Mummy after watching that dreadful Tom Cruise Dark Universe film release.


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