Crossing the Threshold

The last of the popularly recognizable Universal monsters, the titular Creature from the Black Lagoon swims across the threshold between two eras separated by one of the most transformative inventions of humankind. While the rest of the Universal crew have their roots in literature and folklore, mostly from Victorian Britain, the amphibian is simultaneously yet another version of the exotic Other and an avatar of Atomic Age cinema. For as much as the creature is associated with the rest of the Universal pantheon (or panmonstron?), its literary roots are closer to the pulp fiction of the ‘20s and ‘30s than Victoriana, and its countenance is at least as similar to the B-movie monsters of the ‘50s and ‘60s as it is to anything portrayed by Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, or Lon Chaney, Jr. in the ‘30s or ‘40s.

The plot is straightforward enough: a group of scientists, aided by a boat crewed by locals, heads to the Black Lagoon in Brazil in search of any fossils or other finds that match up with an amphibious claw found not far away, only to be tormented by a living example of the species. The body count rises, the creature covets and eventually kidnaps the one woman in the group, and the surviving men must confront the creature and find a way to escape. Along the way, we’re treated to a visually fantastic movie, featuring lots of underwater work and some – to continue deploying a word I’ve already overused – iconic monster design.

Like The Mummy or The Wolf Man, this movie can’t be traced back to a pre-existing story. However, the Victorian era did feature mummy stories and werewolf tales that could serve as inspirations for their respective movies. Very little in that era would lend itself to an archaic, bipedal fish-thing in the neighborhood of the Amazon, although the theme of explorers finding more than they expected certainly has parallels in the works of Jules Verne, among others.

Verne’s stories would be followed by the pulp tales of Lester Dent, Walter Gibson, and others, who gave us Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Avenger, the Spider, and other adventurers. The mysterious Amazon, and of Central and South America generally, provided a frequent source of material. Creature from the Black Lagoon would fit comfortably into this storytelling tradition, moreso than the Gothic and romantic moods of its predecessors at Universal.

In addition, the U.S.A.’s use of two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II and ushering in the Cold War, would end up influencing film across the world for decades. While Japan would give us Godzilla and the rest of the mega-monster kaiju, American theaters would be treated to a seemingly endless succession of nuclear-generated monsters. Some of these would be humanoid – see The Beast of Yucca Flats and any number of similar creatures portrayed by the likes of Tor Johnson – and others, like the giant ants of Them!, decidedly less so. As the Atomic Age grew to incorporate the Space Age, alien visitors from other worlds would join the party.

The rubber-suited variations from these movies share an aesthetic heritage with the amphibian, who debuted roughly nine years after the bombing of Hiroshima. The image of a humanoid monster holding a woman while a rugged hero-type strives to save her is an archetype of the era, and one which Creature from the Black Lagoon enacts as well as the best of them. The only thing setting the amphibian apart from the rest of the ‘50s B-crew is their origin as a Devonian leftover rather than a mutated byproduct of fission.

In this, the creature is more like Dracula or Imhotep, a woman-craving Other from somewhere outside western Europe. Whether eastern Europe, Egypt, or South America, one common idea across these movies is the threat outsiders pose to white, English-speaking women. Unlike any of the other Universal Six, however, the amphibian has no apparent human heritage. Its existence is not the product of a curse or mad science. Instead, it is something older than humanity, something which has been lurking in the dark wilderness.

And still, like the best of the monsters, there is something sympathetic about the amphibian. It did not ask to be disturbed, nor does it understand what rules it is trespassing when it first engages with humanity. Once humans as a group are revealed to be a threat, the creature does what it thinks is necessary to defend itself, while also showing discernment in its treatment of the interlopers. Its fascination with Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) produces tenderness, while the toxic Mark Williams (Richard Denning) earns its wrath. One can see parallels between Frankenstein’s creation, especially in the first movie, and the amphibian.

(A note: Throughout this post, I am referring to the eponymous creature as “the amphibian” rather than the more common “gill-man.” While the creators likely intended the creature to be read as male and its feelings toward Kay as romantic or sexual, nothing in the movie demands such a reading. As such, I find an interesting exercise in imagining additional variations on the story where the creature is female or of an entirely different sex or gender and/or where its/her/his interest in Kay is platonic. Those interested in a strictly male romantic/sexual reading are invited to return in a few days for the post on The Shape of Water.)

One other narrative hallmark of most Universal monster movies to which this movie falls prey is the reductionist treatment of non-western Europeans and the working class, as the boat’s local crew are for the most part ill-served by the story and their largely one-note depictions. One can see variations on this all the way back to the played-for-laughs working class characters of Dracula, the peasantry of Frankenstein and Bride, and of course most Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and African characters in The Mummy and Roma characters in The Wolf Man.

At the end of our tour of the major Universal monsters, this is also a good time to dwell on the advances in movie-making between Dracula and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Fewer than 25 year separate a movie that was still learning how to take advantage of sound (even to the point of wariness about the use of music) from a movie originally released in 3-D with extensive use of music, practical effects, and underwater photography. Whatever common or problematic narrative patterns the movie might fall back on, it remains a tour de force of innovative production.

Thus do we conclude an exploration of the main canon of Universal monster movies. There are certainly other, less well-recognized films and derivative sequels in the mix, many of which are worthy of revisiting in their own rights. They, however, are out of scope for this project.

Our final pairing will be, as already mentioned, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Before Halloween, I’ll also tackle at least one monster mash-up movie in The Monster Squad. I may also try to sneak in another Penny Dreadful recap or two, as well as a reflection on some less successful mash-up movies like LXG: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing. Tell then, just keep swimming monster fans!

The Not-So-Versatile Predator: The Wolf Man

If the classic movies covered so far constitute Phase I of the Universal cinematic monster-verse, The Wolf Man kicks off Phase 2. Made in 1941, this film gave Universal a new monster who would go on to unite several of their franchises during subsequent crossover pictures. In true Hollywood fashion, it also relied on at least three distinct horror legacies to bolster its street cred while launching something new.

Pedigree and legacy aside, The Wolf Man’s title character is also a monster unlike any of the characters yet seen in Dracula, The Mummy, or either of the Frankenstein movies. This opens up new opportunities for story-telling, and the movie explores the most obvious ones in ways that future movies would go on to rehash in increasingly less interesting ways.

Without further ado, let’s head to the moors and talk about some spoilers!


Continue reading “The Not-So-Versatile Predator: The Wolf Man”

Back to the Slab

Bride of Frankenstein Poster

Four years after Frankenstein was a runaway hit, Universal brought us the first major monster movie sequel. The Bride of Frankenstein is one of those rare sequels that’s better than its original (which was already damn good). It reunited Boris Karloff’s Creature with Colin Clive’s Dr. Henry Frankenstein under the skilled direction of James Whale. We also get a few new characters and some fascinating themes and motifs.

Gods and Devils

Of all the characters in The Bride of Frankenstein, the most monstrous is obvious: Dr. Pretorius. While Dr. Frankenstein regrets his past experiments, Pretorius revels in his. He delights in showing off his homunculi, explaining with glee the role he’s assigned to each. That he’s styled the one that resembles himself as the Devil is not the most subtle foreshadowing.

Continue reading “Back to the Slab”

Of Mummies, Other Monsters, and the Other

A poster for The Mummy (1932)
Image from

OK, it’s time to talk about sex and race.


We’ll do the recap bit in a hurry. The Mummy of 1932 rehashes several of the plot points (and a couple of the actors) of Dracula with an extra dose of exoticism. An unsuspecting Brit revives Imhotep, who spends all of a minute of screen time in bandage-wrapped mummy form before converting into an exotic mind controller. Add a time jump, and Imhotep – in full Karloff-ian glory and using the pseudonym Ardeth Bay – is leading the next generation of British archaeologists to the tomb of his beloved. Repeat the mind-controlled love interest plot of Dracula, with even more useless turns from the characters played by David Manners (Harker in Dracula and Frank Whemple here) and Edward Van Sloan (Dracula’s Van Helsing and The Mummy’s Doctor Muller), and end with the monster defeated at the last minute. The big difference at the end is that Manners and Van Sloan are totally incidental to the defeat of the monster; the heroine (Helen Grosvenor, played by Zita Johann) takes down Imhotep with an assist from the goddess Isis.

What The Mummy gives us that we didn’t get in Dracula is backstory. Perhaps because there is no source for the story other than Western stereotypes about Near Eastern curses, the movie uses magically-aided flashbacks to explain why an ancient Egyptian burial practice has led to the movie’s plot. Midway through the movie, we see Imhotep in his original life falling in love with his pharaoh’s daughter, who oh-so-coincidentally is identical to the beautiful Miss Grosvenor (of the half-Egyptian heritage). The present-day storyline in 1932 is all about him using mind control on Helen to draw her to him so that he can engage in some vague rituals that will kill and resurrect her to join him in eternal life. It is only her resistance at the very end that drives her to appeal to Isis, who provides the final help necessary to end Imhotep.

Even in its most literal reading, the movie doesn’t exactly portray white dudes in the best light. It’s a brazen British imperialist-slash-plunderer who revives Imhotep, and the rest of the Euro-coded male characters prove completely ineffectual in stopping the mummy. In its way, the movie is a condemnation of white-knightdom, with the various “nice” men who condescendingly try to help a woman winding up totally ineffectual. Helen, even deluded into somewhat thinking she is the Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, fights for life and appeals to Isis before Whemple and Muller even arrive on the scene.

Possibly unintentional feminism aside, the movie still has some pretty deep issues.

Continue reading “Of Mummies, Other Monsters, and the Other”

Frankenstein and the Monstrous Questions

Frankenstein Face
From Flickr user Insomnia Cured Here.

I’ve always been tall and big, and when I was growing up, I tended to identify with the large characters in teams or ensembles. To this day, I often find myself being self-conscious about how much space I’m taking up and whose view I might be obstructing. I was also very much a math and science nerd growing up, and even though I no longer do much with those subjects, I’ll get excited at the possibility of having an idea that could change the world. The part of me that is still eight years old, in applying that emotional logic to the Universal monsters, leads me to identify with both Frankenstein and his monster.

Acts of Varying Immorality

Of course, I don’t have anyone’s deaths on my conscience. Frankenstein’s monster, on the other hand, kills three people over the course of Universal’s Frankenstein, and attacks a few others. The extent to which he is aware of the moral consequences of his actions is up for debate, though.

(Oh, I’m skipping plot recap for this one – you almost certainly know the key details of the Frankenstein story already.)

The connection between the “abnormal” nature of the monster’s brain and his actions is fuzzy. Does he show so little remorse about killing Fritz the assistant and Dr. Frankenstein’s old professor because his physical brain used to belong to a criminal, who potentially had a skewed or nonexistent moral compass himself? Or are his actions more those of an animal reacting in self-defense to Fritz’s torment and the professor’s impending dissection?

The amount of brutality the creature displays certainly varies. The three deaths he causes – those of Fritz, the professor, and Maria, the little girl – follow a decreasing arc of murderousness. The monster straight up hangs Fritz, presumably with the whip the assistant used to torture the monster. The professor’s murder seems more of an act of self-defense. Despite having plenty of potential weapons at hand, the monster settles for strangling the old man. Maria’s death is the least intentional; it appears to be a misunderstood extension of the let’s-throw-pretty-things-in-the-water game (and it’s honestly a little surprising that she died of being tossed a few feet into the water). There’s no apparent ill will motivating the monster when he kills her.

However unintentional the monster’s killing of Maria may have been, there’s no question that his assault of Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth, is no fault of hers. She’s simply a tool of the monster’s quest for vengeance against Frankenstein. His later near-murder of Frankenstein comes in a moment of self-defense after his attempts to flee the angry villagers fail and is thus easier to defend. The attack on Elizabeth, though, makes the monster’s morality in the last act of the movie complicated. As sympathetic as he sometimes is, and no matter how much he may misjudge his own strength, he is not a blameless innocent.

Frankenstein Chase
Not from the actual movie. Image from Flickr user Pascal.

The Monstrous Questions

This leads us to a pair of enduring questions in many monster stories, questions that Dracula didn’t raise. The simpler of the questions is, “Who is the real monster of this story?” The second is, “What makes someone (or something) a monster?”

Continue reading “Frankenstein and the Monstrous Questions”

The Versatile Predator: Dracula

Dracula Poster
From the Internet Movie Database

And so we begin at a beginning.

Not the beginning. Dracula wasn’t the first horror movie made by Universal, nor the first vampire movie based on Bram Stoker’s novel. It was adapted from a play, which was based on the book, which was the crystallization of folk tales and lurid history.

And yet it is still a beginning. The first of the Universal horror movies with spoken dialogue, and the first made under the leadership of Carl Laemmle, Jr., rather than that of his father. The first authorized adaptation of Dracula for film. The first of the iconic monster performances that would define an archetype.

The Story

Renfield, an Englishman with little regard for the warnings of the townsfolk in Ye Olde Eastern European Village, travels to Castle Dracula to help Count Dracula finish taking ownership of and moving to Carfax Abbey in Britain. In return for his help, he is transformed into a manic slave who will spend the rest of the movie hungering for bugs and rats, staring wild-eyed at everyone he meets, and occasionally trying to resist Dracula’s commands for brief episodes before ultimately succumbing to his master’s will.

In London, Dracula takes in dinner and a show. Dinner comes in the form of a young woman selling flowers, and the show is a symphony performance that puts Dracula into conversation with his new neighbor. Dr. Seward runs a sanitarium (where Renfield has conveniently been confined) next to Carfax Abbey. Also in Seward’s box at the symphony are his daughter, Mina, her fiancee John Harker, and their friend Lucy Weston, who is quite taken with the exotic count.

Dracula preys on Lucy, who dies of symptoms that perplex the British medical establishment while the Count moves on to Mina. Thankfully, the more open-minded Van Helsing shows up and accurately diagnoses the problem as caused by vampires. When he and Harker note that Dracula doesn’t have a reflection in mirrors, Van Helsing confirms that the count is the vampire in question. Attempts to keep Mina safe fail, and she ends up falling victim to Dracula.

When Van Helsing and Harker head to Carfax Abbey just before dawn in a final effort to save Mina, they are quickly discovered. Dracula kills Renfield before fleeing deeper into the abbey with Mina. He is just able to make it to his box of native soil to sleep before the sun rises, which leaves him vulnerable to Van Helsing’s stake. Once Dracula is dead, Mina appears released from his thrall, and she and Harker walk up the long stairs leading out of the abbey.

Predation and Vulnerability

Watching Dracula in our current climate, I found myself drawing comparisons to the ongoing series of revelations about sexual harassment and abuse across contemporary U.S. society.

Dracula himself appears incapable of having a one-on-one conversation with another person without trying to control their mind, feed on them, or both. Even when it’s not necessary – for example, his hypnosis of a ticket-taker at the symphony to tell Seward he has a call just to give Dracula a pretext for introducing himself – he winds up wielding his power over others.

Along the way, Dracula ends up making many others complicit in his predation. Renfield is the most prominent of these, but many other bit and supporting characters are turned into tools of Dracula’s larger designs.

And yet, Dracula is in many ways a pathetic and insecure creature. When Renfield arrives at Castle Dracula, there is no sign of any staff. Dracula is the one driving the coach to pick up Renfield, and is most likely the one to take Renfield’s luggage to his room and prepare Renfield’s meal. (These last two may have been accomplished by Dracula’s “wives,” but in any case, there’s no evidence of any servants.)

Wolfbane, crosses, and mirrors are among Dracula’s weaknesses, and he tends to recoil from them with a pronounced lack of chill. His suave affect is easily disrupted, although he’s also quick to put his composed front back up. Ultimately, he’s not clever or powerful enough to save himself. Van Helsing knows how to take advantage of this predator’s weaknesses, and does so after besting Dracula in a one-on-one contest of wills.

The use and abuse of power, in part to cover for insecurity, all while putting up a socially acceptable – at times, even enticing – front…the parallels to the Harvey Weinsteins of the world strike me as pretty clear.

One of the features of storytelling in genres like horror, fantasy, or science fiction, of course, is the versatility of the metaphors. Dracula is not just a parallel to sexual predators; he’s a parallel to predators of all types. For example, an audience member in 1931 and the years that followed might easily have drawn parallels to a different sort of predator on the world stage. Hitler, after all, was a man who used his power and the charisma he cultivated to prey on others, and was also a man of deep insecurities.

Creeper Lugosi
From Flickr user Insomnia Cured Here

The Monster as Villain

While many of the coming months’ monsters will balance destructive acts with sympathy-inspiring vulnerabilities, Dracula is the unambiguous villain of his own movie. He preys on others literally and figuratively, violates consent left and right, and appears motivated by nothing more than a desire for more power. What led him to decide it was time to abandon Transylvania for Britain is left unsaid. When he arrives, however, he appears to have an elaborate plan already laid out. If he had managed to overcome Van Helsing, who knows how far his evil could have spread? (Those interested in this question who haven’t already done so might be interested in reading Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, which explores this scenario.)

I don’t know if this will play out, but something I’ll be keeping an eye on in the coming films is the degree to which a monster’s unambiguous villainy is connected with their status in society. Dracula, while a foreigner in Britain, is still an aristocrat. His social status is quite high, and his monstrousness is never tempered with anything that would leave us sympathetic to him. We’ll see how social status and sympathetic elements of character development relate in future films.

Random Thoughts

It’s fascinating watching movies made shortly after sound became an option. The performances are very different from those in silent films, and it’s interesting to see the influences of live theater interact with the cinematic techniques established during the silent era.

This movie also comes before the Hays Code was an aggressively-deployed tool of censorship in cinematic storytelling and technique. I’ll be interested in seeing what, if anything, is different about the movies from later in the Code’s existence.

Trying to watch Bela Lugosi’s performance with fresh eyes, discarding the decades of copycats, parodies, and counter-performances, is challenging, but makes for an enhanced viewing experience.

Just a quick reminder that the time between the source material and the movie is shorter than I, at least, first realized. The book came out in 1897 and the movie in 1931, which is about the same length of time as if there was a movie of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman coming out this February.

Closing Thoughts

This was a great movie to use as a beginning. I may post other thoughts as they come along between now and next Wednesday; goodness knows there’s plenty more to say.