Category Archives: film

Movie reviews. Genre commentary.

Brides and Daughters: Women of Universal Monster Movies

Considering my most popular post to date has concerned the women of Hammer Horror, I figured it was time to turn my attention to the classic Universal Studios monster movies of the thirties and forties, and the actresses that made them great. Brides. A daughter. An invisible woman. Even before the age of sound, with its successful Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925), Universal was known for creating memorable monsters. But with 1931’s DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN,  the studio truly mastered the art of monster-making. No one denies that Lugosi’s titular count, or Karloff’s monster are a part of pop culture like no other monsters of the twentieth-century. And, unsurprisingly, it is Lugosi and Karloff  that are the actors most often discussed in regard to horror movie history. But Universal Studios’s horror films contain some equally memorable, frightening (and, at least on one occasion, funny) female characters.

A BEVY OF BRIDES
Dracula's Brides in 1931's Dracula
Pictured from left to right: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw. From DRACULA (1931)

The brides in DRACULA, for example, are truly threatening women. Ethereal creatures. And deadly. It is only through the intervention of the Count that they give up their pursuit of Dwight Frye’s poor Renfield. While Garret Fort’s script takes its cue from Balderston and Deane’s play, the scene gets close to the eeriness of the novel. The appearance of the brides is essential to the film (and the novel), as it establishes Dracula as both a vampire that can create other vampires (an infection), and women as more than mere victims of the Count (by no means the weaker sex). Though their screen time is short, the effect of the brides of Dracula is lasting — one of menace and death.

Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Franstein (1935)
Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Elsa Lanchester, however, as the titular BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) plays a more sympathetic character. Similarly on screen for mere minutes (at the very end of the film, unless you count her appearance as Mary Shelley in the opening to the film), Lanchester plays more of a creature to be pitied than feared — shocked more than shocking as she rejects the advances of the monster for whom she is made. Yet is is her character that is among those best remembered by the audience, with a scream that shreds the silver screen, She is there as men’s (and monster’s) plans literally crumble to dust.

A DANGEROUS DAUGHTER
Gloria Holden as Dracula's Daughter (1936)
Gloria Holden as Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

It is with the character of Countess Marya Zaleska in 1936’s DAUGHTER OF DRACULA that Universal found its first true female monster, a fully fleshed out (and blood curdling) character that is both sympathetic and threatening. Played with sophistication and mystery by the talented Gloria Holden, Zaleska is perhaps the first truly conflicted vampire in cinema history (long before Hammer made it a theme, Anne Rice made a literary career of it, and Twilight a hallmark of its series of films). Though Zaleska feeds (most notably in a scene that many consider the first cinematic suggestion of a lesbian vampire), she yearns for a cure to her condition. Tragically, it is not meant to be.

Invisible Woman (1940)
Press kit promotional still from Invisible Woman (1940)
TWO DUDS AND A DOCTOR

To the opposite extreme is the comedic INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940). Here, the horrible is played purely for laughs with the title character, played by Virginia Bruce, first getting revenge on a sadistic boss then playing foil to a group of thieving thugs. If there’s any doubt as to the silliness of the picture, know that Shemp Howard’s in it. Still, it’s not a terrible movie, unlike…

SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946). An outright misfire. Forgettable, despite a decent enough performance by June Lockhart (long before she was lost in space), the movie is by no means horror, and certainly not (intentional) comedy. Instead, it’s a dull mystery film where a woman believes herself to be a werewolf, responsible for a series of murders where victims had their throats ripped out. Spoiler alert: she isn’t.

Curiously, one of the most monstrous women in all of Universal Studios horror movies is Dr. Sandra Mornay (played by Lenore Aubert). A scientist in cahoots with Dracula to give the Frankenstein Monster a more obedient brain,  Dr. Mornay is a serious threat to the bumbling Wilbur (Lou Costello) in 1948’s ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. With its many monsters and truly memorable performances, the film is actually among the best examples of horror comedy movies. And it was definitely a highlight for Lugosi (only his second, and last time playing Dracula for Universal), whose career was well on the decline.

Lenora Aubert and Bela Lugosi in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
Lenora Aubert and Bela Lugosi in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
BEYOND THE MONSTERS

While some Pre-Code actresses got to play more complex characters, female characters of the late thirties, forties and fifties were too often relegated to roles of the good daughter, the imperiled girlfriend, or the dutiful wife. Women’s liberation was decades away, and Universal Studios, for the most part, played it safe.

Evelyn Ankers gives Lon Chaney Jr. a long overdue trim
Evelyn Ankers gives Lon Chaney Jr. a long overdue trim

Actresses like Evelyn Ankers served as beauties to Universal’s beasts. Ankers, most notable for THE WOLF-MAN (1941) was a Universal Studios staple, appearing also in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Captive Wild Woman (1943), Son of Dracula (1943), The Mad Ghoul (1943), Jungle Woman (1944), Weird Woman (1944), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), and The Frozen Ghost (1945).

Other talented women like Valerie Hobson and Gloria Stuart (both of whom also starred in multiple Universal Horror films) had long and varied careers. Just two among the many actresses that made those movies work as well as they did. Louise Allbritton, Helen Chandler, Mae Clarke. Julie Adams. Susanna Foster. Martha O-Driscoll. Jane Randolph. The list goes on and on.

Though their cult of followers is not as prominent as those for the women of Hammer Horror, the women of Universal’s monster movies are undeniably essential to the success and legacy of those films.

 

(for more on Universal monster movies, click here)

Unyielding in Their Mystery: Cats in Horror Films

Cats as mysterious creatures is more widely accepted among cultures worldwide than is certitude that the earth is round. You  will never find anyone arguing the former. Ubiquitous are tales of cats as otherworldy animals — from ancient Egypt to the modern day. It’s only natural, then, that the mythology and folklore of cats would find its way to film. And no films are better suited to tales of cats than those of the horror genre.

An 1894 short called “Falling Cat” by French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey is believed to be the first film in history to show a live feline; it consists solely of a cat falling down and landing on its feet. Why do we say a cat has “nine lives”? Its righting reflex, apparently. Mystery solved. But not really. Throw all the science you want at it; the fact remains that cats are mysterious creatures. The supernatural in our homes.

That writers of the nineteenth century inspired filmmakers of the twentieth is not surprising. And that Edgar Allan Poe is first and foremost among them is no surprise either.

Poe’s titular black cat alone has been the subject — even title — of several films. Boris Karloff totes one around in the 1934 film bearing the name (with little other resemblance to Poe’s classic). Similarly separate from anything resembling Poe is 1941’s THE BLACK CAT — a semi-comedic film in the “old dark house” style with the now common trope of a crazy cat lady.

Closer to Poe is 1966’s THE BLACK CAT where a mentally disturbed man is convinced his black cat is possessed. Closer still is Roger Corman’s wildly entertaining TALES OF TERROR (1962) that finds Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in a mash-up of Poe’s story with another of the author’s works: “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Vincent Price as Verden Fell in Tomb of Ligeia
Vincent Price as Verden Fell in Tomb of Ligeia

But tales of a cat as a truly supernatural being get no better than Corman’s atmospheric Poe adaptation TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). There, Vincent Price as the mournful eccentric Verden Fell (one of the best named characters in all of horror films… with the coolest sunglasses) has the spectre of his wife’s death hanging over him.  Her spirit seemingly inhabits a black cat that torments his new wife, Rowena.

“The eyes, they confound me,” says Fell of cats. “There’s a blankness, a mindless sort of malice in some Egyptian. They do not readily yield up the mystery.” By film’s climax, the cat attacks Fell as Ligeia’s tomb burns down around him.

Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

Written by Robert Towne — best known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for CHINATOWN (1974) — TOMB OF LIGEIA takes Poe’s theme of the dead having influence over the living and adds possession to the mix. Is it metempsychosis? Or is it paranoia? That the cat could be a symbol of Fell’s unnatural love for Ligeia, or her undying influence (and possible revenge?), is left to the audience to decide.

Shadow of the Cat (1961)
Shadow of the Cat (1961)

Revenge, however, is definitely at the heart of Hammer’s 1961 SHADOW OF THE CAT, starring studio regulars André Morell and Barbara Shelley. There, a cat named Tabitha who witnesses the murder of her owner, exacts revenge on her killers just as they try, and continually fail, to kill her.

Cats exacting revenge runs throughout Rank Organization’s THE UNCANNY (1977). Although it performed poorly at the box office, and is pretty much universally panned, it is notable for star Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Wilbur, whose book about cats — as supernatural creatures and the devil in disguise — frames not one but three tales of feline revenge.

The theme of a cat as avenging devil may be at its most gory and over-the-top entertaining in an adaptation of a 1977 Stephen King short story entitled “The Cat from Hell.” Directed by George Romero as the second of three stories in 1990’s TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, “Cat from Hell” finds a wheelchair bound old man named Drogan hiring a hitman to kill a black cat (whose visage graces the header of this blog post). Drogan believes the cat is murderous. Downright evil. When it is revealed that the man’s pharmaceutical company killed thousands of cats while testing a new drug, it becomes clear that the cat is not evil as much as it is vengeful: exacting its revenge as it kills Drogan’s sister, friend, butler, and hitman, before ultimately dispatching Drogan himself.

A young Drew Barrymore holds General, her savior, in Cat's Eye (1985)
A young Drew Barrymore holds General, her savior, in Cat’s Eye (1985)

But cats are not always killers. Sometimes, they are our saviors. 1985’s CAT’S EYE, written by Stephen King, finds a cat named General figuring into three separate stories. The last — and most effective — is the one named for the cat, which finds General at the home of a little girl whose mother dislikes the animal — going so far as to have it euthanized. But General knows that a malevolent troll has moved into the little girl’s home. And it’s up to the cat to fight the troll and protect the child.

Then there’s the unassuming white kitty in 1999’s remake of THE MUMMY. By merely walking across piano keys, it scares Imhotep, the titular character, and the monster runs away.

Avengers. Saviors. Emissaries of the dead, or the dead themselves transmogrified, cats will undoubtedly continue to capture the imagination of audiences eager to delve into their many mysteries for years to come.

Insofar as to how they have been used in horror films, this post has only scratched the surface.