When Universal's Classic Monsters Hit the Big Screen for the First Time

Courtesy of Photofest

From "FRANKENSTEIN 100% SHOCKER - OLD HORROR TALE FULL Of THRILLS" to "WOLF MAN' HORRIFIC TALE - POSSIBLY TOO MUCH SO FOR PRESENT DAY"

A new writing team is assembling at Universal to resurrect classic monsters and apparently create a credible universe to compete for years with the slates of Marvel and DC Comics films. Recently, Noah Hawley (TV's Fargo), Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) and Ed Solomon (Now You See Me) were added to work on this new cinematic universe, as The Hollywood Reporter confirmed on Nov. 12.

So, perhaps in a few years time, moviegoers will see an Avengers-style film with Frankenstein, Wolf Man, Invisible Man and the Creature From the Black Lagoon clamoring around to join forces and wreak havoc. For now, with the slate uncertain, one can only guess what ideas are being bandied about in pitch meetings. 

The prospect of a monster mash-up title at least offers modern audiences the potential for some new perspective on characters they've been familiar with for decades. In 1931, when Universal's Frankenstein hit the big screen, it was a less certain prospect.

THR's critic praised the horror title but wondered if it would catch on with audiences. The review flatly asked, "Is it entertainment?" and stated that it could be "the greatest shocker of all time — or a dud."

With the debut of Wolf Man a decade later, on Dec. 10, 1941, only days after the U.S. declared war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the trade paper's headline noted that it was a "HORRIFIC TALE - POSSIBLY TOO MUCH SO FOR PRESENT DAY."

Below are excerpts from THR's reviews of the theatrical debuts of several Universal monster titles, with original headlines from the stories. There's shock over now familiar plot points and even a 1954 complaint about unnecessary "eyestrain" caused by 3D glasses meant to amplify underwater scenes in the Creature From the Black Lagoon.

FRANKENSTEIN 100% SHOCKER - OLD HORROR TALE FULL Of THRILLS

Nov. 3, 1931 - You'll never tell anything about this one from a preview. A preview can only determine the continuity, the photography, the sound — the acting and the direction. All of these Frankenstein has — in perfection. It is the story itself, its effect on a paying audience, the word-of-mouth that will go out that will determine whether or not Universal has the greatest shocker of all time — or a dud. It can be one or the other; there will be no in-between measures.

[....]  Is it entertainment? Only theatre-goers can give that answer. We venture the opinion that this production of Frankenstein will cause more talk, no matter how that talk points, than any picture that has been made in years. By the same token the production brings to mind these questions. If any or all of them prove correct — Universal has something worth while for the experiment it has made with Frankenstein. Will Frankenstein be another Dracula?

[...] As a story Frankenstein dates back to 1831 — for one hundred years it has remained alive in the interest of those book readers who go in for ghost stories. Now we'll see if these same people go to motion picture theatres.

Read THR's Entire 1931 'Frankenstein Review

UNIVERSAL's 'INVISIBLE MAN' Is BIG BET FOR SHOWMEN - PICTURE CREDIT TO DIRECTOR AND STAFF

Oct. 27, 1933 - As we came out of the theatre someone near us said, "Here's the answer to a showman's prayer." And about all we can add to that is the remark that if the showman doesn't know how to use it he had better quite saying his prayers. There's no hope, here or hereafter.

[...] Invisible Man is a legitimate offspring of the family that produced Frankenstein and Dracula. [...] while we are indirectly comparing, we may as well add that it is a picture that will fare far better in the neighborhoods than either of its predecessors, for while it is "horror" it is ... reality "horror comedy." 

[...] It's tough on Claude Rains to make his debut in a part in which he isn't seen until the last few feet, and then as a corpse, but perhaps that's all the more reason to compliment him on the sort of acting that DOES put the character over.

Arthur Edeson will be listing his work on this picture in his "blue list" for as long as he remains in cinematographic circles and daring all to go and see "something different." And In closing, an orchid to the dexterous editing by Maurice Pivar and Ted Kent that plays no mean part in the tricking of suspense and eerie atmosphere. 

'WOLF MAN' HORRIFIC TALE - POSSIBLY TOO MUCH SO FOR PRESENT DAY

Dec. 10, 1941 - The Wolf Man serves its horror straight. A very substantial cast undertakes to sell believably a tale of superstitious folklore — the one about the werewolf — and producer-director George Waggner dresses it up with all the craft at the command of a studio practiced in spinning horror yarns. Still it is impossible to guess how the public will accept The Wolf Man in these times.

Curt Siodmak's original screenplay brings Larry Talbot back to join his father in an English ancestral castle that has remained unchanged for 300 years. Beliefs haven't changed much either, and the superstitious people are quite willing to subscribe to the theory that a man bitten by a werewolf turns into a werewolf himself. And that is what happens to Larry. He is bitten, he does turn, and the only thing his father can do about it is to beat him to death with a silver-headed cane, for — mind you — werewolfs can't be killed by anything that is not silver.

[...] Waggner's production is lavish with atmospheric effects, and his direction completely able in blending together many diverse elements. It is the kind of a job that calls for keen perspective to bring off at all.

Read THR's Entire 1941 'Wolf Man' Review

'BLACK LAGOON' DIVERTING SCIENCE-FICTION MELLER 

Feb. 9, 1954 - Creature From the Black Lagoon is a good piece of science-fiction of the beauty and the beast school, the beast in this case being a monstrous combination of man and fish. It makes for solid horror-thrill entertainment. [...]

Screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross, from a story by Maurice Zimm, is soundly developed, leading to an exciting climax. Jack Arnold's megging is briskly competent, although too much time is wasted on underwater shots which are neither novel or dramatic enough to hold interest for the entire footage. Pruning here would help. [...]

The William Alland production was shot in black-and-white 3-D, the process adding some small value to the underwater shots which don't make up for the eyestrain. William E. Snyder's photography is good. Underwater sequences were ably directed by James C. Havens.

Read THR's Entire 1954 Review of 'Creature From the Black Lagoon' 

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