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The Mummy and the history of the Universal monster movie


New Tom Cruise movie The Mummy is the first in step in Universal's planned 'Dark Universe' franchise. Broadly speaking, this will act as a glossy, star-led, 21st century reboot of their classic monster movie back catalogue.

Universal were in fact the pioneers of the monster movie back during the earliest days of cinema – so we thought we'd open the vault and take a look back the spine-tingling, ghoulish creations that defined the movies. 

The early days

The birth of cinema is credited as starting in the 1890s, with infamous examples such as the Lumiere brothers' 1895 short Arrival of a Train at a Station causing audiences to flee the cinema in terror.

Meanwhile pioneers like George Melies were experimenting with the visual texture and special effects techniques of fledgling moviemaking. His celebrated A Trip to the Moon released in 1902 is the perfect example.

Of course, prior to the first 'talkie' movie (generally credited with being 1927's The Jazz Singer), film was silent and relied on a symphonic accompaniment and the physicality of the actors. And on that note...

The birth of horror

Big screen scares have been around since the earliest days of the medium, with actors like Conrad Veidt (pictured above) and Max Shreck terrifying audiences. In fact, the latter's skeletal appearance as Count Orlock in Nosferatu is one of horror cinema's most enduringly unforgettable images.

Amidst this period of experimentation, Universal released their first official monster movie: 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring genre icon Lon Chaney as the eponymous Quasimodo.

Based on Victor Hugo's classic novel of tragedy and romance, the movie catapulted Chaney to international stardom and was noted for its relatively lavish production values, including an exact replication of Notre Dame and its surrounding Paris streets. This was said to have taken a massive six months to complete.

Of course, the greatest special effect of all is Chaney's wonderfully ghoulish visage. Known as 'The Man of a Thousand Faces' Chaney was a pioneer in silent film acting, as well as a noted director, writer and make-up artist in his own right.

It was official: the Universal monster movie was born.

Universal goes universal

As the oldest working movie studio in the USA and the fourth-oldest in the world as a whole, Universal's legacy encompasses the entire history of cinema.

They then entered the next phase by ramping up their planned monster slate. This involved a reunion with Lon Chaney for The Phantom of the Opera, the extraordinary actor completely transforming his appearance once again for this most famous of Gothic tales.

Released in 1925 and based on Gaston Leroux's novel (written only 15 years earlier), Chaney's famously shocking make-up was in fact kept a secret until the movie's premiere. The actor was tasked with creating his own look for the character and was reported to have induced screams and fainting upon his classic reveal.

The advent of sound

Post-Phantom the landscape of cinema had completely changed. From 1927 onwards the arrival of 'talkies' (in other words, sound pictures) allowed actors more of a voice in their own projects, and boosted the technical power and emotional impact of cinema in revolutionary ways.

As mentioned the first officially credited movie was The Jazz Singer with its fully synchronised musical soundtrack and dialogue.

Of course, this opened up an extraordinary host of possibilities for Universal, who capitalised on the boom with their instantly iconic Frankenstein, released in 1931. This was the movie that defined the Universal monster movie as a brand, establishing Boris Karloff's bolt-necked monster as one of cinema's greatest icons.

British-born Karloff would become one of Universal's key players. A man who turned his back on his rich upbringing to drive trucks in Canada, Karloff's arrival in Hollywood saw him transformed into a horror legend. He performed the role in heavy, four-inch platform boots, adding to his imposing presence.

He would reprise the role in both 1935's Bride of Frankenstein and 1939's Son of Frankenstein. Other notable appearances included Universal's very own The Mummy, released in 1932 and inspired by the discovery, 10 years prior, of Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.

Karloff's extraordinary transformation into the titular Imhotep, replete with iodine, linen bandages and more, began at 11am in the morning and finished at 7pm at night. Karloff then filmed until 2am, at which point it took another two hours to remove the make-up from his face. 

The Mummy was in fact directed by Karl Freund, cinematographer on another noted Universal horror movie...

Children of the night...

Few movie monsters are as revered, or invoke as much fascination, as Dracula. Author Bram Stoker's literary vampire creation is one of the most influential and famous in the history of the medium, first arriving in novel form in 1897 and spawning a host of adaptations and spin-offs that last until this day.

One of the most famous takes on the legend was Universal's, released in 1931 and with a deliriously vowel-chewing Bela Lugosi as the title character. The actor had in fact already played Dracula on stage in the Deane/Balderston Broadway play, and this would play a key role in both his casting and the development of the movie itself.

That and the fact that his fee for the movie was ludicrously low: $3500 in total for seven weeks work. That's what becoming a horror icon does for you.

Hungarian-American actor Lugosi had in fact begun his career in Germany, arriving in the USA in the early 20th century. Despite his reputation as one of Universal's key horror faces he only occupied starring roles in the likes of 1934's The Black Cat, 1935's The Raven and 1939's Son of Frankenstein. Lugosi's legacy was brilliantly honoured by Tim Burton in the affectionate and delightful ed Wood, which saw the movie legend played by an Oscar-winning Martin Landau.

Now you see me...

In 1933 actor Claude Rains made his bid for horror stardom with the acclaimed The Invisible Man. Based on H.G. Wells' story, the film featured remarkable effects for the time as Rains appears to remove bandages from his face to reveal nothing beneath. Check out the clip below.

Significantly, the movie was directed by British-born James Whale who had earlier established himself with Frankenstein and who would later return to the Universal stable with Bride of Frankenstein. Considered one of the earliest pioneers of the monster movie, Whale in fact directed a dozen movies for Universal.

The next step

By the 1940s Hollywood's techniques, particularly in the realms of make-up and prosthetics, were becoming increasingly sophisticated. It's no surprise to learn that 1941's The Wolf Man established many of the werewolf tropes and conventions we've subsequently come to expect from bestial horror movies.

Lon Chaney Jr.'s depiction of the upright, bipedal werewolf with his fearsomely hairy visage has exerted a massive influence (including on the somewhat disastrous 2010 remake starring Benicio Del Toro). Interestingly the movie features a host of primary Universal actors in supporting roles, Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi among them.

As might be expected the make-up process was torturous for Chaney, requiring him to sit for extended periods of time. Via an enormously complex process that took the best part of 10 hours, whereby each new layer of make-up was filmed separately and layered as a series of shots in the final edit (rendered by a technique known as lap dissolve), the effect was complete.

The later years

Later into the 1940s and 1950s the Hollywood marketplace was changing, becoming increasingly crowded and with teenage viewers increasingly desperate for representation. Blackboard Jungle, released in 1955, is one such example.

It seemed as if the heyday of the Universal monster movie might be over, but nothing could be further from the truth. The legacy of their classic movies was in fact honoured and lampooned by comic duo Abbott and Costello whose hugely popular hits like 1948's Abbott and Costello Frankenstein helped keep the movies alive in the minds of younger viewers. In fact the latter featured a knowing appearance from genre icon Bela Lugosi.

Even so the Universal movie monster wasn't totally played out yet...

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Arguably the last truly great Universal monster movie was this aquatic creature feature, one centred around the discovery of a deadly reptilian humanoid creature within the depths of the Amazon.

Released in 1954 in black and white, Creature from the Black Lagoon's monster, known as Gil-Man, was one of the most terrifying of their output (reinforced by the tritonal menace of the thunderous score from Henry Mancini and others).

Filmed in 3D during the dying days of the technique the movie was actually projected in both that format (typically in larger theatres) and also in 'flat' 2D. Regardless of how audiences viewed it, the eerie shot of Gil-Man approaching a helpless woman from the depths (a clear influence on Steven Spielberg's Jaws) still invites shudders, a delicious embodiment of the enduringly scary Universal monster movie legacy.

Of course, that's just a potted history of the most famous Universal creature features. Their output extended well up until the start of the 1960s, including B-movies like Tarantula, but these are the ones forever seared into audiences' minds.

And with the planned Dark Universe revival already underway (Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp are among those signed up), it looks like we could be welcoming these brilliant beasties back to our screen.

Start the journey now by clicking here and booking your tickets for The Mummy, out now in Cineworld.