Before the stars of horror films became psychos with chain
saws, there was a kinder, gentler genre. After all, what was the Wolfman really but just a
misunderstood guy with the night crazies and a need for about 40 gallons of Nair?
Most of the great horror films of the era -- featuring
Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy -- were the product of one studio: Universal. Its
output gets analyzed in Universal Horror, a documentary for Turner Classic Movies,
which will precede a marathon of those films.
Most documentaries these days have a uniformness: a great
narrator (here, it's done with verbal aplomb by Kenneth Brannagh), some familiar
clips and talking heads reminiscing about the subject. But this segment goes beyond:
Producers have located footage from some "lost films."
Its interviewees -- Ray Bradbury; Gloria Stuart, who
starred in films like The Invisible Man long before she sailed the Titanic;
and Fay Wray -- are most entertaining and informative.
Further, footage has been included to explain some of the
early effects used in these spook-fests. The mystery of Claude Rains' disappearing
act will be revealed, along with the method behind Fredrick March's on-camera
transformation into Mr. Hyde.
Author David Skal provides interesting social and
historical context for the films. He tries to explain why post-World War I and Depression
Era theater crowds ate these horror films up (even if critics or censors deplored them).
It may just be my great affection for the source material,
but these two hours flew by. As an appetizer for the horror marathon, it is certainly
effective, but the special also stands alone as a mini-primer on gothic German cinema,
early special effects and Hollywood history.
I'll take the sensuality of that era's Dracula
over the hack and whack of Michael Myers or Leatherface anytime.
Universal Horror will debut Oct. 9 at 8 p.m., followed
immediately by the 1931 version of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff. The
marathon ranges from that classic, to 1967's The Fearless Vampire Killers, to Pardon
Me But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, starring Sharon Tate.