15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Universal Monster Movies
At the dawn of the Dark Universe, take a look at the secret history behind Universal’s monster movies, from Frankenstein to Dracula himself.
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Now that Universal has officially revealed their intent to revive their old monster movies for the modern age as part of their Dark Universe initiative, film fans everywhere aren’t quite sure how to feel. Sure, it’s clear that the studio is attempting to build their own version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by reviving their classic horror properties, but not everyone recognizes the potential in this ambitious plan. Those who are still hesitant to buy in would be well-advised to read into the fact that Universal is attempting to reboot a series of movies which helped establish America as the center of the film world and helped horror movies become a blockbuster film genre.
As popular as movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy are, there is quite a bit that you likely don’t know about them. You have to remember that these films were made at a time when major studios liked to keep stories about the filmmaking process secret, as not to ruin the illusion. That, or they just didn’t want anyone knowing how much or how little they paid their actors. While their secrecy is the source of many of these factoids, others….well, some other unknown tidbits are downright spooky.
Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Universal Monster Movies.
15 John Carpenter Was Supposed to Direct a Remake of Creature From The Black Lagoon
Following the box office success of Halloween and the release of such cult classics as The Thing, They Live, and Big Trouble in Little China, every Hollywood studio wanted to get in on whatever John Carpenter wanted to do next. Universal stepped up and offered the director the chance to dive into their library and pick any property he wanted to remake. He instantly chose 1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon. Immediately, Carpenter began to work on an ambitious remake that would have used the titular creature’s origins as the basis for religious commentary.
So what happened? It’s not entirely clear, but many feel that the tremendous commercial failure of Carpenter’s 1992 film Memoirs of an Invisible Man played a role in Universal pulling the project out from under him. Since then, the remake of Creature From the Black Lagoon has become something of a cursed project. Everyone from Peter Jackson to Guillermo del Toro has been associated with it at some point, but nobody has brought it to screen. Yet.
14 1925’s Phantom Of the Opera Is Made Up of Footage From Two Awful Versions of the Movie
Technically, The Phantom of the Opera isn’t the first Universal monster movie, but the success of the film did help inspire the studio to give that whole “horror genre” thing a shot. The 1925 adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel was so terrifying for its time that Univeral urged theaters to supply smelling salts for those viewers that passed out upon the reveal of the Phantom’s face.
The success of Phantom of the Opera is made all the more surprising once you learn that the final version is comprised of footage from two supposedly awful versions of the film. The first version, directed by Rupert Julian, received such poor reviews that Universal ordered a reshoot. The second version, done by Edward Sedgwick, was met with a similar reaction. Finally, Maurice Pivar and Lois Weber stepped in and managed to cut together the best scenes from Julian and Sedwick’s versions in order to deliver the film that is now considered to be a true classic.
13 Bela Lugosi took a huge pay cut to play Dracula
Part of the reason that Universal was so adamant to adapt the Dracula story into a film was that a stage version of the same story proved to be a tremendous hit on Broadway. However, Universal executives had no interest in hiring Broadway actor Bela Lugosi for the role of Count Dracula, despite the fact that his portrayal of the classic character had received universal acclaim. They tried to get every major film star they could find to play the character, just to avoid having to meet with Lugosi.
Lugosi happened to be touring in Los Angeles when casting began, and he decided to drop by Universal Studios. Even though Universal executives were still hesitant, Lugosi managed to convince them to hire him by taking a drastic pay cut. It’s reported that Lugosi was paid $500 a day to play Dracula, and he only received $3,500 total for his efforts. To put that into perspective, some stars were commanding over $100,000 at this time, and even lesser known actors could make $20,000 from a single movie. Lugosi would come to regret taking such a pay cut, given later events in his life.
12 A Spanish version of 1931’s Dracula may be better than the original
Modern studios will reshoot certain film scenes if they feel they won’t translate to international markets, but back in the ‘30s, it wasn’t uncommon for studios to shoot completely separate films for key foreign markets. What was uncommon is for any of these international versions to achieve any real recognition. Most of them have just faded away into the background of history.
The Spanish version of Dracula remains a glowing exception to that rule. Released in 1931, this version of the film wouldn’t be discovered by non-Spanish audiences until a print was found in the 1970s. What those film fans found was a decidedly different take on the Dracula story that some have argued is superior to the Lugosi version. The makers of the Spanish version were able to watch the daily footage from the American film, and they used it to make various improvements to their iteration. The result is an artistically ambitious movie that tells a much more complete version of the original big screen Dracula tale.
11 Dracula’s Bat Transformation Wasn’t Shown Until The Third Film
In the original Bram Stoker novel, Dracula could transform into a bat, a wolf, mist, and other forms at will. Actually, his ability to transform into a wolf was a pretty crucial element of the original film’s plot. Regardless, the infamous literary figure’s ability to transform into a bat is the one transformation ability that has stuck with the character the most throughout the years. Indeed, the iconic image of a vampire bat is as closely associated with Dracula as anything else.
The funny thing is that the character was never shown transforming into a bat in 1931’s Dracula. It was implied that he could, but the iconic image of the transformation itself never occurs in that film. It wasn’t until Son of Dracula was released 13 years later that audiences finally got to see the process play out on screen. As you’ll soon find out, this was hardly the only instance of the wrong Universal monster film receiving credit for an innovation.
10 Universal Made Horror Movie History by Changing Frankenstein’s Ending to allow for A Sequel
These days, you can rest assured that nearly every major horror film is going to feature an ending that leaves the door open for a sequel. Such endings serve two purposes. The first, obviously, is that they allow studios to pick up where they left off when developing a potentially lucrative follow-up off of an established brand. The second is that they often give an edge to the ending of a scary movie by leaving the fate of our heroes in doubt.
The original ending to 1931’s Frankenstein went against both these principles, as it featured Dr. Frankenstein and his monster dying in a windmill fire. Universal had two concerns about this ending, the first being that it was way too dark. They worried that audiences wouldn’t accept something so drastic and conclusive. More importantly, how were they supposed to make a sequel to Frankenstein if Dr. Frankenstein was dead? As such, they ordered Dr. Frankenstein to be rescued from the fire so that the character could appear again.
9 Bride of Frankenstein’s director did everything he could to prevent the movie from being made
Universal may have known right away that they wanted to make a sequel to 1931’s Frankenstein, but the film’s director James Whale wanted nothing to do with it. The problem was that the studio felt he was the only man for the job. Whale decided to leverage their enthusiasm by convincing them to fund a passion project, One More River, in exchange for him agreeing to direct a sequel.
The truth was that Whale still hoped to convince Universal that the sequel was unfilmable by turning down every screenplay that came his way. Whale turned down four or five scripts that received approval from the rating board and Universal by stating that they weren’t good enough. His overly demanding nature ended up inspiring John L. Balderston to write an incredibly ambitious script that focused on a companion for Frankenstein’s monster. While Balderston was eventually let go, Whale was so impressed with his idea that he handed the concept off to writers William J. Hurlbut and Edmund Pearson to finish what Balderston started. The final result was arguably one of the greatest sequels of all-time, Bride of Frankenstein.
8 Bela Lugosi Has Only Appeared in Two Films as Dracula
While some will argue that Christopher Lee’s performance as Dracula is the greatest of all-time, in the minds of many, Bela Lugosi portrayal of history’s most famous vampire remains the definitive take on the character. The accented drawl, the calculated movements…so many of the characteristics we think of when we think of Dracula come directly from Lugosi’s work. That’s even more amazing when you consider that the actor only appeared as Dracula in two films.
Following the success of 1931’s Dracula, Lugosi worried about being typecast. He was originally tapped to play Frankenstein’s monster, but at that time, Frankenstein’s monster was just a brutish killer with no trace of emotions. When he turned that role down, Universal started to treat Lugosi as a second-tier actor, hyping Boris Karloff as their real star instead. Lugosi wouldn’t return to the role that helped make him famous until 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the last time he played the character in a film.
7 The Wolf Man’s 20-Second Long Transformation Scene Took A Really Long Time To Film
1941’s The Wolf Man wasn’t the first Universal werewolf film – that honor belongs to 1935’s Werewolf of London – but it is certainly the studio’s most famous. Part of the reason that The Wolf Man achieved the fame that eludes Werewolf of London to this day is that it featured a hefty dose of movie magic that helped audiences buy into the idea that a man was really transforming into a wolf. That roughly 20-second long sequence when Lon Chaney Jr. becomes The Wolf Man was revolutionary.
Of course, revolutions don’t come easy. In order to complete the transformation illusion, Lon Chaney Jr. had to sit absolutely still while make-up was applied to him gradually. The director then took shots at key intervals in order to convey the idea of a gradual transformation. The entire shooting process for this 20-second scene took around 10 hours to shoot. Chaney Jr. has long insisted that they production team even went so far as to hook his skin in place, as to discourage him from moving, though others say that that was an exaggeration.
6 1935’s The Raven Was So Vulgar That It Almost Killed the Horror Film Genre
You have to remember that the original Universal horror films came out during Hollywood’s “Pre-code” era. Before the infamous Hays Code was strictly enforced in 1934, studios could get away with a lot more sex, violence, and other questionable content. Fittingly, Universal’s early monster movies were some of the first mainstream films to openly challenge the accepted levels of decency in major American movies.
Audiences back then were onboard with this increased focus on horror and violence, but some say that Universal went too far when they released The Raven in 1935. The Raven featured, or alluded to, concepts like torture and disfigurement. The film didn’t do too well at the box office and contributed to horror movies being banned outright in England. With a major international market no longer in play, Universal decided to get out of the horror game entirely. So what brought them back? Funny you should ask…
5 A Desperate Publicity Ploy Convinced Universal To Keep Making Monster Movies
While Universal’s decision to stop producing horror movies didn’t kill the genre outright, it did threaten the future of horror movies in America. It also caused theater owners across the country to take a huge hit in revenue. They came to rely on the mass appeal of the Universal monster movies and didn’t want them to go away. The owner of the Regina Theatre in Beverly Hills was so desperate for the money that these movies once brought to his now dying theater that he decided to host a special triple feature screening of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Son of Kong.
The promotion worked. The screening soon attracted huge numbers of crowds desperate for more Universal monster movies. It was so successful that the police had to be called in to keep the crowds in line. Universal couldn’t help but notice just how much money this one theater owner was making, and the studio decided it was time to get back in on the action by releasing more monster flicks.
4 The Leech Woman is Considered to Be The Last Original Universal Monster Movie
While the Universal monster movies’ lineage includes some of the most famous horror films ever made, you have to remember that Universal began churning out dozens of horror flicks in the ‘40s and ‘50s. As such, the integrity of the monster movie line became…oh, how to say this…diluted over time. Universal and many other studios began cranking out low-budget horror films in the hopes of stumbling upon a big hit.
It’s why the last recognized film in the Universal monster line is a movie that most people have never even heard of. 1960’s The Leech Woman is considered to be the last Universal monster movie because it featured a Universal monster movie director (Edward Dein), a cast of Universal monster movie regulars, and all the usual monster movie style tropes.
The Leech Woman was never intended to be the final Universal monster movie, of course. Universal only released it so that they could bill an American movie alongside the international release of Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula.
3 Censorship Led to an Iconic Scene in Dracula Being Lost Forever
Remember earlier when we mentioned the strict enforcement of the Hays Code? Well, Hollywood was so adamant about the enforcement of this code of conduct that they even demanded pre-code movies, such as Universal’s Dracula, be re-shot before they can be re-screened in the post-code era. These reshoots, combined with the fly-by-night nature of the industry at this time, led to a lot of cut content simply being tossed aside forever.
One of the most devastating losses of this censorship movement was the original opening to 1931’s Dracula. See, the original version of Dracula ended with a man standing in front of a curtain and informing the audience to consider the possibility that vampires walk among us. This scene was deemed to be “anti-religious”, as it insinuated that audiences should believe in dark forces. As such, it was cut. Oddly enough, a similar scene in the opening of Frankenstein was allowed to stay in the picture, and has become an iconic part of these Universal monster movies. It was even parodied during one of The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror openers. The original footage of this scene as it was used in Dracula, however, has never been recovered.
2 Dr. Frankenstein Never Had a Hunchbacked Assistant Named Igor
Quick, what’s the name of Dr. Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant? Igor, right? Everyone knows that. In fact, we’re betting that you could close your eyes right now, hear someone say “Igor,” and immediately conjure an image in your mind of a hunched-over assistant following Dr. Frankenstein around the lab (or Daniel Radcliffe).
It’s strange to think that Igor is so closely associated with the Frankenstein universe when a character named Igor never appears in the original Frankenstein novel. In fact, there’s no Igor in the original Frankenstein film or Bride of Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein’s original assistant was named Fritz. So where does Igor come from? Well, the first time anyone with a name even close to that appears in a Universal monster movie is when Bela Lugosi played a character named Ygor in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. However, that character does not assist Dr. Frankenstein and does not have a hunchback. To make matters more confusing, Dr. Frankenstein wouldn’t be assisted by a hunchbacked servant until 1944’s House of Frankenstein. However, that character was named Daniel. So when is the first time that a hunchbacked assistant named Igor helps Dr. Frankenstein on film? That honor goes to Mel Brooks’ 1974 parody of the Universal monster movies, Young Frankenstein.
1 The Mummy’s Writer Attended the “Cursed” Opening of King Tut’s Tomb
When Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened in 1922, the world became obsessed with ancient Egypt and its many cultural quirks. This obsession was only fueled by the fact that many who were present at the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb died under mysterious circumstances within a few years of the event itself. Conspiracy theorists attribute the death of 11 people to the mysterious “curse” of the Pharaoh’s tomb. As you might imagine, the hysteria this curse caused helped inspire Universal to produce 1932’s The Mummy.
However, that’s not the only link between the film and the tomb’s historic opening. Before he helped write the screenplay for such Universal classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, John L. Balderston worked for a publication known as New York World. One of his assignments involved extensive coverage of the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb, for which he was present. In fact, Universal originally had no intention of having The Mummy open in ancient Egypt until Balderston came up with the idea. In case you are wondering, Balderston’s eventual death by heart attack is not attributed to the supposed curse.
Do you know of any other fun facts behind the Universal monster movies? Let us know in the comments.
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