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Feature: Universal's Monsters

Monsters Unleashed

Universal monsters

While Universal resurrects its most famous monsters for the summer blockbuster Van Helsing, we revisit the original fright-fests as they finally arrive on DVD…

In Universal’s new motion picture Van Helsing director Stephen Sommers brings back to the movies – and not a moment too soon – a tremendous trio of terrors: Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and The Wolf Man, facing Hugh Jackman as the legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing. But the story of how these three monsters came to the screen and rose to prominence as genre icons is a tale that stretches back almost to the dawn of cinema history.

Bram Stoker’s horror novel Dracula was published in 1897 and soon became a great success. In 1924, a stage version of Dracula opened in London adapted by Hamilton Deane, who for reasons of cost condensed Stoker’s globe-trotting book and placed a suave Count Dracula into a respectable drawing-room setting. The play was taken to Broadway, where producer Horace Liveright cast an expatriate Hungarian actor called Bela Lugosi in the title role – Lugosi had fled the political unrest in his homeland and arrived in America unable to speak more than a few words of English.

Universal Producer Carl Laemmle Jr saw the stage version of Dracula and immediately realized the story’s potential for the screen. The intention was that Lon Chaney, Universal’s celebrated ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ would play the Count, but Chaney’s untimely death from cancer in 1930 meant that a substitute had to be found. Actor Conrad Veidt (from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) was considered, until Laemmle settled on Lugosi. Joining Lugosi from the theatrical Dracula were actors Edward Van Sloane and Dwight Frye, who played Van Helsing and Renfield respectively.

The director for Universal’s Dracula was Tod Browning, who had worked with Lon Chaney on some of his most successful films, including London After Midnight, in which Chaney played a detective who impersonated a vampire. Browning was a master of silent film, but he was feeling his way with sound, meaning that for all its eerie charm, Dracula has a halting, stilted rhythm. Many attribute the success of Dracula to cameraman Karl Freund, a leading exponent of the German expressionist style and a director in his own right.

Released on February 12 1931 (Browning was superstitious and wouldn’t let it première on Friday 13th) Dracula was a sensation, cleverly marketed and exploiting Lugosi’s smouldering sex appeal. Lugosi was soon established as a Hollywood star, and would be associated with horror pictures for the rest of his career. Universal were keen to make a follow-up, but strangely, did not revive Lugosi’s Count. Instead, they constructed a film around Van Helsing, played again by Edward Van Sloane, who opposes Dracula’s aristocratic daughter – bewitchingly played by Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter in 1936.

Frankenstein was initially proposed as Bela Lugosi’s follow-up to Dracula. It too had been a successful stage production, adapted from the classic 1818 novel by Mary Shelley, and an early silent film version had been made in 1910 by Thomas Edison’s company. In 1930, French director Robert Florey submitted a treatment to Universal, but Lugosi was not keen on playing a part with no scripted dialogue, and turned the role down – then Laemmle unceremoniously replaced Florey with Englishman James Whale.

by David Miller

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Photos © Universal, Image © Visual Imagination Ltd
Feature © Visual Imagination 2004. Not for reproduction

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Ultimate DVD #54
June 2004
ships from May 13 2004
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