A dark room is illuminated as a heavy door opens. A large figure lumbers through it, slowly walking backwards. As it turns around, we see that it isn’t entirely human. The skull is misshapen, and the features are sunken into a thin face, completely at odds with the heavy brow. Two jarring camera cuts bring us closer to the monster, and we see large scars and a pair of bolts through its neck.

Think about films that you’ve seen in the last few years. Whether dramas, comedies, horrors, science fiction or whichever you prefer. How many of them have involved anything that could truly be seen as iconic?

By ‘iconic’ we’re not just talking about something that can be put on a t-shirt. We’re talking about the level of ubiquity that involves images being used in children’s books and comics. We’re talking about the kind of basic images that can end up having sitcoms based around them. Because when we’re talking about these kind of images, more than almost any in cinema, we’re talking about the Universal monsters.

Think about images that everybody recognises immediately. Almost to the point that, wherever they are in the world, they’ll see a single image, and be able to tell you something about that character. Images like Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and the Sam Spade Private Eye detective. Superheroes like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. And horror icons like Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman.

It’s partially because these are the images that we grew up with. All three characters are present and correct in ‘The Munsters’, which helped enormously. It also helps that, whenever a vampire, monster or werewolf turns up in a cartoon like Scooby-Doo, it’s usually based on one of those three performances.

We see a man walking through the interior of an enormous castle, with a huge sweeping staircase. Out of the window, three bats linger, floating rather unconvincingly. A man clad in black, holding a candle, walks silently down the stairs past enormous cobwebs. The first man is distracted by two armadillos (yes, really), and doesn’t see his host until he turns around. The man in black can now be seen to be holding a velvet cloak around his formal wear, and has an eerie smile on his face, framed by his slicked-back hair..

It’s not really the same with more modern creations. It’s not that the masked slayers of the seventies aren’t iconic in their own right – after all, you only need to think about that white expressionless mask in Halloween, or Jason Vorhee’s hockey mask in order to prove that – but more that they lack the character that these older monsters had. A mask that covers the face will do that.

It’s not that the actors involved don’t do great things with their bodies, even if their faces are obscured. But even Michael Myers surveying his dead victim thoughtfully doesn’t have the same level of expression as the look of sadness, pain and anger etched across Boris Karloff’s face. The special effects on Bela Lugosi in Dracula were confined to two tiny spotlights on his eyes, in order to draw attention to his hypnotic stare. It’s no coincidence that Freddy Krueger is the most popular modern horror creation amongst children*. There’s a face and a character there, and that’s immediately more appealing and interesting.

The man has recently saved a friend of the woman he is in love with from an attack by a wild creature. However, he was bitten by it as he beat it with his walking stick. A gypsy fortune teller has told him of a curse that he has inherited. Later that night, he feels uncomfortable, and starts to strip his clothes off. He looks down at his feet, which begin to change shape and grow thick hair…

While a lot of this can be attributed to Lon Chaney Senior for paving the way, the undoubted king of the iconic monsters was Jack Pierce. Universal’s make-up genius, he created the looks for Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and, by proxy, even The Joker (Pierce created the makeup for The Man Who Laughs, which was the direct inspiration for the clown prince of crime). He was, during his life, and remains, a massively undervalued part of the Hollywood mythos.

And they weren’t easy to create. Pierce spent hours putting together these outfits and masks, and they were often physically uncomfortable for the actors to endure. But what legacies they have left behind them. No matter if more modern films, or even arguably better films, come later, the basic template for the vampire is Bela Lugosi. It’s still the shorthand for sketch shows, or even children’s shows. The basic template for the monster is Boris Karloff. The basic template for the werewolf remains Lon Chaney Junior.

Although they may have been fairly extreme for their time, part of the longevity and status that is afforded these performances is the relative safety of them. You might get violence alluded to, and there may even be hints of sex (lesbianism was hinted at occasionally, as in Dracula’s Daughter), but they’ve now aged very comfortably. Even Hammer Horror, as camp as some of it is, is a little bit bloody for the little ones.

Another part of it may be snobbishness. While The Wolf Man may not be, Dracula, Frankenstein and even the Phantom of the Opera are all recognised as ‘proper’ classic literature. There were ladybird adaptations of these stories, and again, that’s just another example of how far reaching these characters, and stories are. And what images did these stories use?

Just guess.

She can’t bear it any longer. She has to know what is under the mysterious stranger’s mask. He’s hunched over, playing the organ, and she takes her chance. She pulls at the mask over his face, and he stops playing, his mouth open in shock and pain. The audience sees his horribly burnt face before she does, but he turns around and points accusingly at her. And she screams. Oh, how she screams.

There aren’t many other genres that have that level of iconic status, let alone so many in a comparatively short time. This is really something that horror fans can take pride in. That the first major run of horror films contained interpretations of characters which remain some of the most recognisable and beloved images in the world.

The next time you watch one of the Universal classics, raise a glass to Jack Pierce, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney’s Jr and Sr. Between them, they created some of the most enduring faces in Hollywood history.

 

*This is purely anecdotal evidence, based on the author’s experience at primary school in the nineteen eighties.

Written by Christopher Brosnahan

 

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