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THE FOUNDATIONS OF FEAR
How horror’s been with us from the dawn of cinema, how Universal built their empire with monsters, how The Twilight Zone created clever, thoughtful terror with a twist, and how Famous Monsters of Filmland and Tales from the Crypt became required reading for the monster kid generation
When Sam Raimi was making movies for Universal, he loved to spend his free time roaming the backlot, where the great movie monsters of the thirties once dwelled. “There’s a certain feeling you get walking down the hallowed streets of Universal Studios,” Raimi said. “Big stages towering to your left and right, thinking, ‘They made the classics here.’”
For horror fans, it was like visiting ancient Rome, and walking where great warriors once stood, a time where Chaney, Karloff, and Lugosi made the movies that made them eternally famous, and cemented the studio’s foundation. Fans visiting Universal would constantly take themselves back in the time machines of their imaginations, trying to recapture what it must have been like to make the classics back then, and wondering if the ghosts of Chaney, Karloff, and Lugosi still wander the lot.
Back in the thirties, there was new ground broken practically everywhere you stood. This was where the modern horror film began, not long after film itself began. Universal watched what was going on in Europe with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, as well as the 1927 sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis, and they drew from all of these classics. But Universal also had its own sensibilities, and combined with the European filmmaking styles, built its own horror foundation in the States.
Looking back on the Universal days is a valuable lesson for horror fans, because you can see where history repeats itself many times throughout the genre, and in many ways, the appeal of the horror film often leads back to the Universal classics. At Universal, horror films broke new ground with special effects, and stars like Lugosi, Karloff, and Chaney became synonymous with horror, and quickly became stereotyped. Other studios jumped on the horror bandwagon when they saw how much money it was making, eventually lowballing the genre, just wanting to just churn ’em out fast and cheap.
Horror also would eventually become more reflective of the outside world in times of trouble. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was a reaction against the fear of nuclear power and pollution, and horror films like Night of the Living Dead and The Last House on the Left reflected the turmoil at the end of the sixties, even if it often creeped in unconsciously. The public has often turned to horror to help deal with the worst of times.
The Universal films still stand strong as classics today because of the great stars like Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney who embodied the monsters and brought them to life. The incredible, iconic monster designs by the founding fathers of special effects makeup also became stars in their own right. The limitations of film technology then, like the beautiful black-and-white cinematography that captured the looming shadows and textures, proved to be an asset that helped make the films timeless. (Another obvious limitation that became an asset, which a lot of people making horror today would have a hard time doing without, is that horror films couldn’t have gore back then.)
Between Dracula and Frankenstein, the Universal films progressed not just with special effects and the growing language of cinema, but also with the complexity of the creatures. As Universal’s movies proved, they were much more than just monsters. Dracula was clearly a creature of the night who embraced the dark, where Frankenstein and the Wolfman were much more complicated and tragic. The Frankenstein Monster was childlike in that he didn’t understand the damage he caused, and the Wolfman had an element of Greek tragedy because he couldn’t escape his destiny, and his story also had elements of a deeper psychological drama with the father-son conflict.
In the early thirties, the original Dracula and Frankenstein films didn’t just make stars out of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, they were major moneymakers that kept Universal’s doors open during the Great Depression. When the studio tried to move away from horror, the public still couldn’t get enough, and monsters would save Universal from going out of business more than once.
The classic Universal monsters would eventually be brought together in the “monster rally” movies of the forties like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and House of Frankenstein. They would also be reinvented with comedy, and given their send-off in 1948 with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Moving with the times, next came The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Universal monsters were now directly reflecting the modern fears of the cold war. Later, with the advent of television, a new generation of young fans would rediscover the Universal classics on Shock Theater, launching the “monster kid” generation that would make their own fantastic scarefests when they grew up.
In the seventies when Universal was trying to decide whether to go forward with Jaws 2 or not, some executives worried it would bring about another era of monster movies at the company. Some at Universal were embarrassed by the company’s monster past, but the classic monsters were the stars the company was built on, and it was a strong foundation that held up well for decades.
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Carl Laemmle, an immigrant from Germany, was originally in exhibition and distribution, and he built Universal Studios in North Hollywood, Lankershim Township. Laemmle bought the land for $165,000, and the studio opened their doors for business on March 15, 1915.
Norman Zierold, author of Moguls: Hollywood’s Merchants of Myth, wrote that Laemmle was “the prototype of the more than slightly mad movie mogul, impulsive, quixotic, intrepid, unorthodox and unpredictable.” But it was Laemmle’s son who moved the company into much different directions.
Universal was a company heavy in nepotism, and when Carl Laemmle, Jr., became general manager of the studio when he was twenty-one, many considered his hiring the most obvious example of it. Carl Sr., was worried his son wouldn’t do well without his help, but once Junior was in power, he expanded Universal’s repertoire by setting up a wider variety of movies than the usual Westerns and serials the studio was churning out, including the 1930 Technicolor musical King of Jazz, and the war drama All Quiet on the Western Front, which would win Best Picture for 1930 (it would be the last time a Universal film would win Best Picture until The Sting).
Before Universal got in the horror business, horror pictures were already causing quite a stir with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, released in 1920 and 1922, and both films were remarkable steps forward in the art of cinema when it was a brand-new medium. It’s a testament to the staying power of both films that they’re still well regarded in an era where many young film fans still haven’t seen a black-and-white movie.
The expressionism of Dr. Caligari, with its use of composition, shadow, architecture, and dark psychological themes, would show itself repeatedly in horror and film noir. Many have remarked that the off-kilter design of Dr. Caligari draws you into the film, and closes in on you at the same time. (Considering how far horror has come in terms of extremity, it’s also remarkable to note that one modern fan raving about the film on the Internet Movie Database recommended not showing Dr. Caligari to children.)
The image of Nosferatu with its hideous, rodentlike features is still disturbing after all these decades, and the scene of the vampire rising straight up out of his coffin is still a terrifying vision today. Where Dr. Caligari utilized hand-painted, surreal settings, Nosferatu was shot in real locations that are still standing in Germany today, shooting on location and using nonactors for realism, again while cinema was a brand-new medium.
In creating their own horror films, Universal was looking to combine the European influences of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu with its own sensibilities. Universal wanted make the big-screen adaptation of Dracula as early as 1915. It was what Hollywood would call “a hot property,” but it was considered too extreme for the time. It took Lon Chaney, the legendary “Man of a Thousand Faces,” to break the ice for horror at the studio with The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 and The Phantom of the Opera in 1925.
Irving Thalberg, who started out as Laemmle’s assistant and moved up to head of production at the age of twenty, and was also a lover of classic literature, got the studio to green-light the Victor Hugo story as a “prestige” vehicle for Chaney. Laemmle wasn’t sure about more ambitious films, having lost money on Erich von Stroheim’s film Foolish Wives, which was billed as “the first real million-dollar picture,” but Hunchback finally went ahead, and it was Universal’s biggest hit that year.
Phantom of the Opera was Chaney’s tour de force, the deformed appearance of the unmasked Phantom the most incredible achievement in makeup to date, and the scene where he is finally unmasked by Christine, played by Mary Philbin, is still one of the most iconic in cinema history. Rumors abounded that the film was too scary to be shown, and Universal kept the Phantom’s unmasked appearance top secret before the movie’s release. There were also reports of fainting and ambulances outside the theater, two publicity stunts that were repeated in horror for many years.
But the Universal monsters weren’t just about scaring an audience. Having to learn pantomime because his parents were deaf, Chaney brought a great deal of pathos and sympathy to his work. “His parents’ condition gave him an early understanding of what it is like to be different and an outsider,” said his grandson Ron Chaney. “And it gave him a lifelong sympathy for the outsider that would illuminate his greatest roles.”
”I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice,” Chaney said. “The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since the Hunchback, such as The Phantom of the Opera, He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three, have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do.
“The parts I play point out a moral,” Chaney continued. “They show individuals who might have been different if they had been given a different chance.”
Next Universal went back to Dracula, which was a big hit play in London and on Broadway in 1927. It was still considered a tough project to adapt for the screen, and one Universal reader noted, “It will be a difficult task, and one will run up against the censor continually … but there is no doubt as to its making money.”
Laemmle, Sr., had his concerns about the project as well, telling his son he didn’t believe in horror films, and that people didn’t want to see them, while Junior couldn’t wait to prove everyone wrong.
Junior overrode his father to make Dracula, and directly negotiated with Florence Stoker, Bram’s widow, for the rights. The deal to make the big-screen adaptation of Dracula closed in the summer of 1930, and director Tod Browning, who directed Chaney at Metro for ten years, came aboard that July.
Dracula was also another “prestige” film for Universal, and it was announced as “A Universal Super Production” in the trades. Laemmle, Sr., wanted Chaney to play Dracula, but he died in 1930, and Lugosi, whom the studio wasn’t interested in, had to lobby for the role, and finally got it, albeit at a pittance, $500 a week for seven weeks of production.
“They start to test two dozen fellas for Dracula—but not me!” Lugosi recalled. “And who was tested? The cousins and brother-in-laws of the Laemmles,” he continued, making fun of the Universal nepotism. “All their pets and the pets of their pets! This goes on for a long time and then old man Laemmle says, ‘There’s nobody in the family that can play it, so why don’t you hire an actor?’”
Universal also had to tighten the film’s budget after the market crash, and Dracula had the sensibilities of a stage play because a literal translation of the novel would have been too expensive. (Dracula ultimately came in at $441,984.90.)
Even with the sound era coming in, Dracula also still had the sensibilities of a silent movie. Dracula didn’t have much music, except for the pieces from Wagner and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, because it was believed at the time audiences wouldn’t understand music seemingly coming out of nowhere, unless it was coming from someplace like an orchestra being shown on-screen. For modern fans, the absence of music makes the film feel even more unsettling. You keep expecting a scary soundtrack to come creeping in, and it isn’t there.
Browning liked to work without sound, and had a hard time adjusting with the times. When Browning made the film Outside the Law, he was knocked to the floor when he accidentally ran headfirst into a microphone, which then was marked with red warning flags so he wouldn’t run into it again. (There was also a silent version of Dracula with dialogue cards for theaters that weren’t yet equipped for sound.)
It was Lugosi’s look and performance in Dracula that set the mold for practically every vampire to come, with his trademark cape, slicked-back widow’s peak hairstyle, heavily accented line delivery—“I bid you vel-come,” and the classic moment where he states, “I never drink … wine”—and his hypnotizing stare. (Lugosi’s son, Bela Jr., recalled when he misbehaved as a young boy, his father would give him that foreboding look, and it scared him into behaving.) Not to mention Dracula’s musty old castle home, which a great deal of the film’s budget went to, and was kept standing to shoot on it more Universal productions for years.
When Dracula premiered in New York at the Roxy Theater on February 12, 1931, it was a smash hit, selling 50,000 tickets in forty-eight hours. As the film traveled from city to city, the hot streak continued, and twenty-four-hour screenings were set up to meet audience demand. Time called Dracula “an exciting melodrama, not as good as it ought to be but a cut above the ordinary trapdoor—and winding sheet—mystery.” The New York Daily News called Dracula, “Just plain spooky and blood-thirsty. Brrrrr! We enjoyed it!”
Some Dracula reviewers didn’t quite know how to critique the film, and in America there truly hadn’t been anything like it before. As writer and Universal horror authority Tom Weaver explains, “In most silent ‘horror movies,’ like London After Midnight and The Cat and the Canary, the supernatural ‘monster’ turned out to be human and the whole thing was a hoax. Dracula was a vampire, and that was pretty new in 1931.”
As horror historian David J. Skal says, “Dracula was a unique film because it dealt with a frankly supernatural premise.” Because Dracula’s existence was treated as real, “it was a truly creepy experience for audiences and critics.” There was also an epilogue at the end of Dracula with Dr. Van Helsing telling the audience: “There are such things as vampires!” but Universal cut it from the film out of fear of offending religious groups.
Lugosi was lauded by the critics, and as Variety noted, “It would be difficult to think of anybody who could quite match the performance.” Part of Dracula’s success was also attributed to Lugosi’s sex appeal, and he claimed that almost all of his fan mail came from women. One actress called him, “probably the most sexually attractive man I have ever known in my life,” and Carroll Borland, who starred with Lugosi in 1935’s Mark of the Vampire, agreed. “He was certainly the most magnetic man I have ever known. We would just sit in a room and all the [women] would go … whoom!”
The box-office successes of Dracula and Frankenstein were even more remarkable considering they were released during the Depression, when money to buy anything was scarce. “People don’t often realize what a horrible time the early Depression was,” says David J. Skal. “People eating out of garbage cans, no social safety nets, everything was fear, fear, fear. It’s not surprising horror movies struck a chord.”
There are moments in the classic Universal horrors that burn into your memories, and the primary image you remember of Dracula is his penetrating stare, as well as how Lugosi’s eyes were lit by cameraman Karl Freund to make them stand out so strongly.
Freund also shot the sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis and went on to direct The Mummy (1932), and there’s been speculation about how much Freund may have directed Dracula from under Browning, because critics will point out there are significant differences in pacing and camera movement in the film. (Freund also went on to be the director of photography for I Love Lucy and invented the three-camera shot, a television standard today.)
Film fans today love to point out all the gaffes and mistakes in movies, and there’s quite a few you’ll notice in Dracula as cinema was finding its feet, but whether Dracula holds up well today or not is almost a moot point. It’s what Dracula represents in the grand scheme of things with Universal horror, with vampire lore, and with Bela Lugosi becoming a star from playing the title role.
And while Lugosi was obviously the star center attraction, Dwight Frye held his own against him, playing Dracula’s slave Renfield, with his own blinding stare and his fiendish trademark laugh. And sure enough, after playing the hunchbacked Fritz in Frankenstein, Frye was typecast as the maniacal evil assistant doing his master’s bidding. (Alice Cooper would write the song “The Ballad of Dwight Frye” because he felt the characters Dwight played in the Universal movies were much scarier than the actual monsters.)
Where Dracula was a ground-breaking American first, Frankenstein took the genre up another level. Some felt the success of Dracula was a one-time thing because it was something new and different for the era, and indeed, the L.A. Times called it “a freak picture” that “must be accepted as a curiosity.” So when Laemmle, Jr., wanted to make another horror picture, Frankenstein, production executives at Universal thought he was “screwy.” “I didn’t believe in that production either,” Laemmle, Sr., recalled. “I knew that most of the studios in town had turned it down.”
Again, like Dracula, Frankenstein was also adapted into a stage play in London, and Laemmle, Jr., bought the rights. And again, because of the market crash, it was hard to raise money to make the picture.
Director James Whale came to Junior’s attention after making the 1930 antiwar drama Journey’s End, and Laemmle offered him a contract with Universal. Whale jumped at the chance to make Frankenstein, and chose it out of thirty possible projects. “I thought it would be an amusing thing to try and make what everybody knows to be a physical impossibility into the almost believable for sixty minutes … Frankenstein, after all, is a great classic of literature, and I soon became absorbed in its possibilities.”
Before he jumped on board however, Whale gave the book to his companion, David Lewis, and asked what he thought. “I found it interesting,” Lewis recalled, “but, my God, it was so weird.” Then Lewis gave Whale the key to how to portray the creature on-screen: “I was sorry for the goddamn monster.”
There were two versions of how Karloff was picked for the role of the Monster. Whale recalled asking Karloff to join his table at the Universal commissary, and Karloff immediately got excited because as the actor recalled, “He was the most important director on the lot.”
“Your face has startling possibilities,” Whale said. “I’d like you to test for the Monster in Frankenstein.”
“I’d be delighted.”
The other version of the story was David Lewis had seen Karloff in the 1931 Howard Hawks film, The Criminal Code, and recommended Whale check him out.
“Have you thought of Boris Karloff?” Lewis asked. “I had seen [him] in The Criminal Code and he was so good, I cannot tell you. His face—the way he moved, everything about him stuck in my mind. He was powerful, and you have to have a powerful monster.” A review of The Criminal Code in Life magazine also called Karloff “the most quietly terrifying criminal we have ever seen.”
Most people with even a passing interest in the classic monsters probably know Lugosi was up for the role of the Monster as well, but Whale didn’t think he was physically right for the role, and also thought it would be ridiculous to have Lugosi play both monsters because “there’d be terrible confusion” with audiences. (Lugosi maintained he turned the part down.)
From the outset, Karloff thought Frankenstein would be “a fascinating job—he had no speech and hardly any intelligence, yet you had to convey a tragic part.” From the get-go, Karloff and Whale also both wanted the creature to be sympathetic. “We had to have some pathos, otherwise our audience just wouldn’t think about the film after they’d left the theater,” Karloff said. “Whale wanted to make some impact on them. And so did I.” Laemmle, Sr., also said the look in Karloff’s eyes had “the suffering we needed.”
Where Lugosi had a big following with women, Karloff had a big following with children, who understood that the Monster was one of them. He didn’t mean to do what he did, he just didn’t know any better.
Irene Miracle, who became a bit of a horror star herself in Dario Argento’s Inferno, says, “Who can’t relate to the pain of being a misunderstood child, as the monster is in that tragic interpretation? That film brings me to tears at every viewing.”
During the Bride of Frankenstein shoot, Karloff had a scene where he’s attacked by a village mob, and in the mob were a number of children who gathered around Karloff unafraid, lifting his shoes and pinching his legs to try and see what the Monster was made of. (In addition to performing the voice-over narration for the 1966 animated TV version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Karloff also narrated a number of children’s albums.)
Universal told Whale they wanted Frankenstein to be “a very modern, materialistic treatment of this medieval story” and recommended it have elements from Dr. Caligari, Poe, as well as the studio’s own sensibilities.
Where Lugosi’s makeup for Dracula was minimal, the Frankenstein Monster required a much more complex design. Enter Jack Pierce, who was considered the makeup man’s makeup man, the artist everyone in the business looked up to and respected. Pierce was a Greek immigrant who played minor league baseball, and became a makeup artist after working a variety of odd jobs. After seeing Pierce’s work in The Monkey Talks, a 1926 Fox film where Jacques Lerner was transformed into an ape, Universal offered him a permanent post as a makeup man at the studio.
In creating his vision of the Monster, Pierce spent three months researching anatomy, surgery, medicine, criminology, and ancient and modern burial customs. The Monster’s prominent forehead came from Pierce speculating that Dr. Frankenstein was a scientist, but wasn’t a practicing surgeon, so he would make the top of the creature’s head a lid, then clamp it down with brackets.
Karloff called Pierce “a genius,” and generously gave him major credit for the effectiveness of the Monster. “When you get right down to it, it was Jack Pierce who really created the Frankenstein monster. I was merely the animation in the costume.”
When Pierce brought a clay model head of the Frankenstein Monster to Universal, the studio brass was stunned.
“You mean to tell me that you can do this on a human being?”
“All right, we go to the limit.”
As it is today, putting on makeup then was a long and tedious process. Karloff would pull his Ford onto the Universal lot every morning at four when the studio was practically deserted. Putting the Monster together took four to six hours a day, and ninety minutes to two hours to take off every day. For The Bride of Frankenstein, Karloff made sure he would get a facial massage at six in the morning before his 7:00 A.M. makeup call, and in later years, Robert Englund would get similar facial perks when playing Freddy Krueger.
During the shoot, which took place in the late summer, Karloff was sweating like crazy, and Pierce was at the ready with his makeup kit in case anything fell or melted off the actor’s face in the heat. The days were long, hot, and grueling, but Karloff was always a trooper. “There were many days when I thought I would never be able to hold out until the end of the day, but somehow or other I always did,” he recalled.
Whale filmed the creation scene first, where the Monster is brought to life, because he felt it was the most important scene to get right. Audiences had to believe that this monster could be brought back to life, or the rest of the picture wouldn’t work, and the scene was a great spectacle of electricity and light. Then after the fireworks, Colin Clive delivered one of the classic lines of horror history when the Monster slowly lifts its hand: “It’s alive!” The first time you see the Monster, Whale did it in three shots, moving the camera closer and closer every shot, to give the audience a chance to take the Monster in.
In creating Frankenstein’s lab, Whale was inspired by the current sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis as well as Dr. Caligari, which he watched over and over again. Electrical genius Kenneth Strickfaden created the famous lab equipment, and gave names for them like “nucleus analyzer” and “vacuum electrolyzer.” Strickfaden made the lab come alive with artificial lightning, photoelectric and gaseous tube effects, lace light and spark spirits, and he also created spark showers and lightning explosions with a gravity neutralizer. (Strickfaden also created effects for Bride of Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds, and Young Frankenstein.)
Once the film was completed and ready to be previewed, Universal was nervous how the public was going to react, and scheduled the first preview far out of town in Santa Barbara, so word of mouth wouldn’t spread as quickly if it was a disaster. Laemmle, Jr., was also particularly terrified because he had a lot riding on Frankenstein. Even with the success of Dracula, Frankenstein got made against a lot of resistance at the studio, and if it flopped, he was in deep trouble.
The Santa Barbara premiere was on October 29, 1931, at the Granada Theater at 8:15 P.M. Frankenstein was a very stark and strong film for its time, and the preview audience was stunned by what they saw. The Hollywood Reporter review stated, “Universal has either the greatest shocker of all time—or a dud. It can be one or the other; there will be no in-between measures.”
But by and large, the critics raved, and got the more subtle approach Karloff and Whale brought to the material. The New York Times called it “far and away the most effective thing of its kind,” and it would make the Times ten best of the year at number seven.
The New York Daily News called James Whale “an ace megaphoner,” and The Motion Picture Herald hailed that a horror star was born. “Because of his restraint, his intelligent simplicity of gesture, carriage, voice and makeup, Karloff has truly created a Frankenstein Monster.”
Frankenstein was a hit from opening day, breaking house records all over the country, and it was held over in every major city. Frankenstein was also a bigger hit than Dracula, which had to please the Laemmles in that they had proved the doubters wrong.
Frankenstein also came with a lot of controversy. The censors in Kansas and Massachusetts demanded cuts, and newspapers in Providence wouldn’t run ads for the film. One of the most notorious scenes that was removed from Frankenstein, where the Monster accidentally drowns a little girl, was not restored to the film until the eighties.
Like Lugosi, who finally broke through as an actor at the age of forty-eight, Karloff was also a late bloomer at forty-three years old, after he’d been a struggling actor for years. Universal soon offered Karloff a star contract, and he quipped, “I thought, maybe for once, I’ll know where my breakfast is coming from, after more than twenty years of acting!”
“What a pivotal difference that made in my father’s life, both professionally and personally,” said his daughter Sara Karloff. “You know, it was his eighty-first film, but no one had seen the first eighty!”
On Frankenstein, everything came together with the source material, casting, director, and makeup artist. As Sara Karloff adds, “It was inspired by Mary Shelley and you had the magic of James Whale and the absolute genius of makeup artist Jack Pierce and you had my father’s interpretation of the creature. It was just a magical marriage of talent.”
With the success of Frankenstein, the first major horror movie cycle was launched, and the majors all jumped on the bandwagon. MOVIE STUDIOS BUSY WITH NEW HORROR FILMS, read the headline in the Chicago Sun-Times. WEIRD TALKIES COME TO FRONT IN HOLLYWOOD, read another. STUDIOS IN A SCRAMBLE TO PRODUCE PICTURES OF MYSTERY AND HORROR.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Island of Lost Souls (which was remade twice as The Island of Dr. Moreau) were both set up at Paramount; White Zombie, which was made independently and picked up by United Artists; Warners had Mystery of the Wax Museum, which they remade in the fifties as House of Wax, and Doctor X. At MGM, Irving Thalberg told Tod Browning he wanted the director to “out-horrify Frankenstein” with his next film, which was Freaks (he should have been careful what he wished for).
“With Universal’s Frankenstein knocking over all box office records, all the other studios are in a scramble to do likewise,” read one report. “When Dracula was made it looked like a chance. But its great success encouraged Universal to the extent of launching Frankenstein against the advice of all the wise guys, who claimed that the film was ‘too horrible’ and ‘too morbid’ to do business.”
Soon, like Garbo, Boris would be billed solely as KARLOFF. In Bride of Frankenstein, a big hype point of the film was that the Monster finally spoke, which the star wasn’t thrilled with. “If the Monster has any impact or charm, it was because he was inarticulate,” Karloff said. (Karloff always had a lovely speaking voice.)
James Whale was now a top director at Universal, coming off the success of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House in 1932, and The Invisible Man in 1933. Whale also ventured into comedy with By Candlelight in 1933, drama with 1934’s One More River, and was also going to make a sci-fi flick, A Trip to Mars, before committing to Bride, which was released in 1935.
As many fans point out today, Bride of Frankenstein was the first time a sequel surpassed an original, and it still holds up well today. Even though the Bride, played by Elsa Lanchester, is barely in the film at the end, her presence is unforgettable, with her streaked skyscraper hair offsetting her beautiful face. Lanchester also came up with the idea of hissing in disgust at the Monster’s advances, an idea she got from the kind of noises a swan would make.
In Bride, the Monster is an even more sympathetic creature, desperately searching for companionship wherever he can, sadly asking, “Friend?” wherever he goes. He becomes friends with a blind man who obviously can’t be scared off by the Monster’s appearance, and who memorably plays, “Ave Maria” on the violin while the Monster enjoys a smoke. But in the end, with the Monster having to suffer the indignity of a fellow monster rejecting him, it leads to the Monster’s classic line, “We belong dead,” before he pulls the switch that destroys the castle.
Bride of Frankenstein is considered Whale’s masterpiece today, although the director had to endure a lot of backhanded reviews when it came out, calling the film “good entertainment of its kind.” Whale will always be best known for horror films, which of course wasn’t all he did, or did best, but as history would prove, those not naturally drawn to horror, like William Friedkin with The Exorcist, can make some of the best and/or most groundbreaking films in the genre.
From the beginning, the press played the angle that Karloff was as kind and gentle off-screen as he was monstrous on-screen, and by all accounts he was indeed a gentleman. Where Karloff seemed more open, and there was a clear separation between who he was on-screen and off, Lugosi was much more private, which created more of a mystique to the public.
Visiting the sets of his father’s films, Lugosi, Jr., remembered his father was “highly respected. He was famous for getting a scene on the first take and he was very nice to everybody, the cast, and grips, and all.” Lugosi didn’t leave his homeland far behind. He still loved to eat at Hungarian restaurants that had gypsy musicians, who he’d bring home after closing time to play well into the morning.
Lugosi also valued education, would read everything he could get his hands on, and instilled the importance of learning in his son. Lugosi had many times of financial hardship, losing his home and cars at the end of the thirties, and having to go to the Actor’s Relief Fund for help. Lugosi would tell his son about his struggles, that he wanted him to achieve, and Bela Jr. grew up to be an attorney. “Acting is too hazardous a career,” Lugosi said. “The income is uncertain and it is one field in which very few succeed.”
Lugosi was hoping Dracula would be a springboard for other roles, but it became a straitjacket. “Where once I had been the master of my professional destinies, with a repertoire embracing all kinds and types of men, I became Dracula’s puppet,” Lugosi said, adding, “Although I’m afraid I’m typed by now, I’d like to quit the supernatural roles every third time and play just an interesting down-to-earth person. One of these days I may get my wish!”
Where Lugosi cursed being typecast, Karloff accepted it, and wouldn’t look at the glass half empty. “The monster? I’m very grateful,” Karloff once said. “The monster not only gave me recognition as an actor, but created for me a certain niche, which has given me a career.”
“My father could never understand why actors hated to be typecast,” said his daughter Sara. “Because it meant he could find work constantly—and what made an actor happier than working all the time? My father was a superb actor—but the world is filled with hungry superb actors. Frankenstein enabled my father to be a well-fed superb actor.”
Vincent Price would also make a fine living in horror, and was grateful the genre gave him a career. Price felt that the acting required to make an effective horror film often went unappreciated, and he had no time for actors who felt the genre was beneath them.
There was an unspoken rivalry between Karloff and Lugosi, but Bela always spoke of Karloff with respect in public. “Karloff is a good actor,” he said, “and, of course, he has no trouble with English!” referring to the fact that his own English wasn’t the best, another thing that kept tying him to Dracula. Karloff felt sorry for Lugosi, often calling him “Poor Bela.” Karloff once lamented, “Poor Bela. He was worth a lot more than he got.”
Karloff would always be identified with the Monster, but he walked away from the role after the third film, Son of Frankenstein, in 1939. “He was going downhill,” Karloff said. “We had exhausted his possibilities. He was becoming a clown.”
By the mid-thirties, there was trouble at Universal. The Laemmles were bought out from Universal, and the company had to take out a bank loan because the studio was in the hole (England had also put a ban on horror films in 1937, which cut into the overseas market 40 percent). Universal tried to bill itself as “The New Universal,” and the new regime wanted to concentrate on musicals, comedies, and B pictures, with the classic horror films considered Laemmle’s folly.
But without horror, the studio fared poorly. Then a triple bill of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Son of Kong played at the Regina Theater on August 5, 1938, a venue about to go out of business, and it was a smash success. Police had to show up for crowd control, and the theater ran more than twenty hours of screenings. Then Universal struck five hundred new prints of Dracula and Frankenstein, and brought them back to theaters, where the films did major business, even outgrossing their initial box office takes in many cities.
Once the monsters were officially back, Universal would finally be out of the hole, and they churned out horror movies like a factory. Son of Frankenstein was rushed into production with only the title and a release date, and it was on such a tight schedule that the film’s composers, Frank Skinner and Hans J. Salter, were practically held hostage at Universal until they finished the music. They would take turns composing music and napping on the couch for a little more than two days straight. Herman Stein, who was a staff composer for Universal who wrote the music for Creature from the Black Lagoon and other classic titles, once said, “I still have recurring dreams of not making a deadline.”
Son of Frankenstein was finished on January 7, 1939, and premiered nine days later. Similarly, after The Wolf Man wrapped on November 25, 1941, it was edited and scored by December 9, and by mid-December, much of the same cast was working on The Ghost of Frankenstein. “That’s how fast this stuff was being knocked out in those days without much time to really breathe in between pictures,” said Universal monsters chronicler Tom Weaver.
With The Wolf Man, Universal was now grooming Lon Chaney Jr. to be their next horror star. The son of the makeup great changed his name from Creighton to Lon Jr. after going through a divorce, and having his car and furniture repossessed. “They starved me into it.”
The Wolf Man was written by Curt Siodmak. The Universal brass told him, “We have $180,000, we have Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Bela Lugosi, a title called The Wolf Man, and we shoot in ten weeks. Get going!”
The Wolf Man goes all the way back to Greek mythology when Lycaon, a king, was transformed into a wolf by Zeus. Siodmak also brought a sense of Greek tragedy to the story as well, where Lawrence Talbot couldn’t escape his fate.
The key segment that everyone remembers from The Wolf Man, even from one viewing, is the transformation, where shot after shot of Chaney growing progressively hairier blends into another until he’s a full-blown beast.
Like Dwight Frye playing Renfield, Maria Ouspenskaya gave a very memorable performance as the gypsy Maleva, another secondary character ominously foretelling the legend of the Wolf Man curse, complete with the poem created by screenwriter Curt Sidomak. (“Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers at night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the moon is full and bright.”) Like the dignified British actors in the Hammer films, and Donald Pleasence speaking of the nature of evil in Halloween, Ouspenskaya’s delivery really sold those four lines.
The Wolf Man makeup design was originally going to be for Henry Hull in Werewolf of London, but Hull still wanted to be recognizable under the makeup, whereas Lon Jr., in the Chaney family tradition, had no problem being unrecognizable under all that yak hair.
The Wolf Man premiered in December 1941, and many thought people wouldn’t want to go to the movies after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but The Wolf Man was another big monster hit for Universal.
Siodmak felt there was a definite parallel between cinematic horror and horrific events in real life. “When the war ended, the bottom fell out of the horror film business,” he said. “When they began testing the atom bomb, it all started again. In times of peace of mind, there’s no place for horror films.”
Universal also wanted The Wolf Man in production quick because now the studio wasn’t the only game in town for horror. RKO and producer Val Lewton were stealing its thunder, and Lewton’s Cat People made $4 million on a $134,000 budget, saving the company from bankruptcy. Like many in horror, Lewton drew from what personally scared him, turning his fear of cats (ailurophobia) into one of the great horror classics of the forties.
Lewton was the original master of not seeing is believing, showing the cat people only in shadow instead of trying to create the beasts with the effects and makeup available at the time, which could have been potentially ridiculous. With the success of Cat People in 1942, RKO then started their own horror cycle with Lewton producing I Walked With a Zombie in 1943, The Leopard Man the same year, The Curse of the Cat People in 1944, and The Body Snatcher in 1945.
Trying to keep up with the Joneses, Universal then started teaming their monsters together like all-star teams for the “monster rally” movies, like 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (which Universal billed as “The Battle of the Century!”), then House of Frankenstein in 1944 (“The Topper of ’Em All … From the Company That Gave You Them All!”), which used sets from Tower of London and Green Hell. In 1945’s House of Dracula, both Dracula and the Wolf Man seek cures for their monster afflictions, and although Dracula stays a vampire, Chaney is actually cured of his lycanthropy, but the doctor they call upon to cure them becomes a mad fiend in the process. The story goes Chaney was barely in full-blown Wolf Man mode in the film because there was a yak hair shortage during the war. “One monster would be terrific,” the trailer promised, “but here are five to bring you five times the thrill!”
With the help of the classic monsters, Universal stayed in profit, but after House of Dracula, Universal let their contract players go, and tried to get out of the monster business once more near the end of 1946.
Trying to keep themselves from being typecast, the studio relaunched as Universal International, and dumped horror films, Westerns, and serials, in the hope of concentrating on more high-quality films. But once the studio was flirting with bankruptcy again, they turned to Abbott and Costello and the classic monsters to save them.
Abbott and Costello were big moneymakers for Universal, making twenty hit films for the company, but by the end of the forties their careers needed a boost. With the classic monsters needing a reinvention as well, why not bring them together? Costello initially resisted making a monster comedy, saying, “You don’t think I’ll do that crap, do you? My five-year-old daughter can write something better than that!” But he finally agreed to make the movie when he got a sweeter financial deal, and it was the movie that brought Abbott and Costello “back with a roar after the war.”
It was initially a difficult shoot. Bud and Lou often fought like cats and dogs, would storm off the set, and have lengthy card games that held up the production. Charles Barton, who directed the film, recalled, “All three of the ‘monsters’ were the nicest. The real monsters were Abbott and Costello.”
But then once Bud and Lou were in their element, things got much more fun with pie fights and pranks. “The pie bill on a picture like that was $3,800 to $4,800!” Barton said.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein previewed on June 25, 1948, at the Forum Theater in L.A. Variety predicted the “Combination of horror and slapstick should pay off brilliantly,” and it did.
When it opened to the public on July 24, 1948, audiences went nuts. A critic for the L.A. Times reported one matinee show was “bedlam,” and the audience, loaded with kids and teenagers, “shrieked with that fusion of terror and glee which only a motion picture of this sort would have inspired. I wouldn’t have missed the show—the one going on around me anyhow—for anything.” The New York Star also wrote, “It’s heart-warming to see all our favorite monsters once more,” and indeed, the old gang had a great time working together for the last time.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the most successful Frankenstein film since the 1931 original, and it was not only one of the biggest hits of 1948, but one of the biggest hits in Universal’s history up to that point.
Still to this day there are many who don’t think horror and comedy should go together, arguing you don’t go to a horror film to laugh, and the debate first started with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Lon Chaney Jr. would later regret the film, saying, “I used to enjoy horror films when there was thought and sympathy involved. Then they became comedies. Abbott and Costello ruined the horror films; they made buffoons out of the monsters.”
As horror historian Greg Mank put it, some horror purists felt the film was “the absolute and final degradation of the once great horror characters,” but that many others considered it “an affectionate, polished spoof,” and Mank himself found the film “a beautifully mounted, splendidly atmospheric comedy thriller.” (Mel Brooks would also wonderfully spoof the Universal classics years later in 1974’s Young Frankenstein, which also beautifully re-created the look and feel of the monster classics, which greatly enhanced the parody.)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein also inspired other filmmakers to mash genres together like Quentin Tarantino did in Pulp Fiction. As John Landis points out, the horror scenes in the film genuinely scared audiences then, making this mixture of comedy and horror even more bold for the time.
As Landis, who switched genre gears rapidly himself in An American Werewolf in London, also mentions, the monsters in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein are treated with great respect. For fans of the film, it’s a nice send-off to Chaney and Lugosi before their careers slid into schlock.
Karloff also had a great role in 1968 with Targets, where he played an old horror star disgusted with the violence of the real world who eventually crosses paths with a mad sniper. Karloff did four more movies before he died, all low-budget junk, but he wanted to keep performing until he gave out.
To cap off the classic monster era in the fifties, Universal would have a sympathetic creature in the Frankenstein mold, 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a monster created from pollution for an era terrified of the bomb. The Creature, which Rick Baker called “the best man in a rubber suit ever,” was designed by Bud Westmore, who replaced Jack Pierce when foam latex was coming in and he didn’t want to move with the times.
With horror environments like the old dark castle already a cliché, Creature was one of the first horror films to take the story out of the expected environment, bringing it into the humid Amazon jungle, where a monster exists among the beauty of nature.
The Creature had the Universal pathos, but this was also a modern movie warning about the dangers of pollution and atomic power, and the company had to rethink its usual monster approach. As Arthur Ross, one of the screenwriters who worked on Creature, said, “We’re living in another time.”
This was now the age of Jacques Cousteau, and instead of a story about a mad scientist, Creature now had people who wanted to learn about the forces of nature. Arthur Ross wanted Creature to show that nature should be studied, but one needed to be careful not to disturb it.
As Ray Bradbury once pointed out, Lon Chaney’s roles tapped into people’s fear of being unloved. Like King Kong, Creature was also a tragic love story. And like Frankenstein, the Creature only gets deadly when threatened by man, and is desperately in need of companionship.
Moving with the times, science fiction was coming in as the hot genre in the early fifties, and Creature was also shot in 3-D, although most people today have seen it “flat.” With the advent of television in the early fifties, a lot of movies were shot in 3-D with Hollywood hoping it would it bring audiences back to the theaters. Underwater photography was also a fairly new innovation for the time, and director Jack Arnold used it well in the film’s most celebrated scene.
Guillermo Del Toro has said his favorite horror film moment was from Creature from the Black Lagoon, where the monster is swimming right underneath Julie Adams. “Everything is perfect,” Del Toro said. “The white bathing suit, the composition, the hypnotic, balletlike coordination of Beauty and the Beast. The image is a perfect metaphor for their impossible coupling, but also distills the distant longing of the creature. Separated only by a few feet, but so very far apart.” Said Creature director Jack Arnold, “I was happy that it did turn out poetic.” (This scene was also reportedly the inspiration for the first shark attack in Jaws, where we see the shark’s point of view of a naked swimmer.)
Creature was another big hit for Universal, costing $650,000 and making back $3 million. Two sequels followed, and the third movie, The Creature Walks Among Us in 1956, was finally the last gasp of the classic monster days at Universal. The classic films would then debut on television in 1957 as the Shock Theater package, where a whole new generation of kids were discovering them, and were inspired by them, for the very first time.
By now the Universal movies were nowhere near as scary as when they first came out. They were sure to scare some kids, but even by the standards of the day they were great fun, almost quaint. Monster movies were now being geared toward kids, showing up on Saturday afternoon TV, or early enough at night that a kid could catch them before bedtime.
As the classic Universal horror films were first debuting on TV, there was one bible on the subject that was mandatory reading for every young “monster kid”: Famous Monsters of Filmland.
* * *
In the world of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, there was one man whose spirit and enthusiasm for fantastic film was stronger than anyone’s. With the creation of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Forrest J. Ackerman created the ultimate fan guide that inspired generations of kids. The magazine, and the enormous collection of memorabilia Ackerman accumulated throughout the years, was a true testament to his love of fantastic film and literature.
Ackerman was born in 1916, and was an active collector since 1926. When he was in his twenties, he would write to Carl Laemmle, the president of Universal, for movie stills from their classic horror films, and would travel by streetcar to pick up them up (he eventually accumulated 125,000 stills). He had every issue of the old sci-fi pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, which he bought when they were new.
Ackerman owned a copy of Frankenstein that was autographed by Mary Shelley when she was nineteen. He also had the Creature from the Black Lagoon costume a janitor at Universal took home for his kid to wear on Halloween. Not to mention Bela Lugosi’s cape, the model pterodactyl the original King Kong battled, one of the model Martian ships from the original 1953 War of the Worlds, and much, much more.
Ackerman’s collection never stopped growing, and like a malevolent fifties’ science fiction monster, it ended up consuming his house, a four-story, eighteen-room mansion in the hills of Los Feliz, which he dubbed the “Ackermansion.” According to one report, the house became so overcrowded with memorabilia that Ackerman and his wife had to park on the street because their garage was too full.
The Ackermansion was open for tours every weekend, and making the pilgrimage to Ackerman’s home was a badge of honor for any true monster fan. It’s been estimated that more than 50,000 people came to visit when he lived there. When you arrived, he would greet you through the intercom: “Who dares disturb the tomb of the vampire?”
Ackerman also coined the term “sci-fi” and told GQ magazine that he would say “science fiction” every night before he went to sleep because if he died before he awoke, he wanted “science fiction” to be his last words.
The first issue of Famous Monsters was written in twenty hours in Ackerman’s kitchen. Famous Monsters would ultimately put out 190 issues in a fantastic run from 1958 to 1983. The very first issue is now a rare collector’s item; one reportedly sold on eBay in 2001 for $5,200.
Many of the incredible, richly textured cover paintings for Famous Monsters were created by Basil Gogos, who brought the classic monsters to life in full color.
Like many monster fans, Gogos actually felt sorry for the big lugs. “I wasn’t trying to capture the ferocity of the monsters,” says Gogos. “I was trying to capture the humanity, at least the humanity I could give them. Because I always felt they were kind of vulnerable, and there was pathos to be given to the portraits. I was humane about it because they were so helpless. They were killing people, but in the long run you figured that was their nature, and we just out of fear destroyed them without any feelings, but I had feelings for them in the paintings.”
The impact Famous Monsters would have on the fantasy, sci-fi, and horror genre was tremendous. Forry Ackerman was the template for the modern film geek, and Famous Monsters was the monthly that celebrated all things great about monsters.
Stephen King wrote the introduction to Mr. Monster’s Movie Gold, one of the many books Ackerman wrote over the years, and in it King recalled the first time he ever picked up the magazine at a local newsstand. “I didn’t just read my first issue of Famous Monsters,” King wrote. “I inhaled it … I pored over it … I damn near memorized that magazine and it seemed eons until the next one.”
It wasn’t long after King discovered the wonderful world of Famous Monsters that he sent Ackerman a story he wrote in 1960. It was the very first time King ever sent anything out in the hopes of being published. Ackerman was also a literary agent, he represented Ray Bradbury, L. Ron Hubbard, and Ed Wood, and he also could have added King to his roster, but unfortunately he rejected the story. Once King grew up and became a literary powerhouse, Ackerman was one of many in line to meet him at a book signing in L.A. Forry brought a one-of-a-kind item that King signed for him: the original copy of the story King wrote and sent out in the early sixties.
Ironically, where King’s pubescent writings didn’t make the cut, a letter director Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) sent in to Famous Monsters was molded into an article and published in its pages. “We all tried to get our letters and pictures printed in the magazines,” Dante recalls. “It was a badge of honor. It was as if there was this cadre of people out there who had this interest in this material, in these magazines. It was a very small group, it was a whole generation of burgeoning film buffs. They’ve now been christened ‘monster kids’ by people in their middle age looking back: ‘Oh, I was a monster kid! Were you a monster kid?’”
In Ackerman’s massive movie poster collection was a one sheet for Close Encounters of the Third Kind autographed in silver marker by Steven Spielberg: “A generation of fantasy lovers thank you for raising us so well.” Spielberg also said that reading Famous Monsters gave him the “much needed inspiration” to go “scurrying for my father’s eight millimeter home-movie camera,” and start making his first little films. Growing up in Mexico, Guillermo Del Toro taught himself how to read English by poring over Famous Monsters, dying to figure out what it said.
It wasn’t only future A-list filmmakers who enjoyed Famous Monsters. One of the magazine’s biggest fans was Sammy Davis, Jr., who was just as excited to meet Forry as Ackerman was to meet Sammy.
For many years, Ackerman wanted to turn his collection into a museum, but he sadly had no takers. What ultimately happened to the Ackermansion is heartbreaking. According to one estimate, Ackerman’s collection at its peak, which had 300,000 pieces, was worth about $10 million. Yet he had to sell pieces of it over the years when he needed money, and sold off most of what he had in 2002 after a costly lawsuit with a former business partner. Ackerman then lived with what was left of his collection in a bungalow in Los Feliz.
Ackerman made it to ninety-two years old, then finally slipped away on December 6, 2008. Knowing the end was near, fans from all over sent in thank-yous and good-byes, and a number of former Famous Monster readers, like Peter Jackson and Rick Baker, paid tribute to the original monster kid at geek ground zero, Ain’t It Cool News.
Rick Baker said that many articles have been written about him over the years, but none of them had the same thrill as reading my own name in Famous Monsters of Filmland. Jackson wrote, “He united a generation—more than one generation because whenever you read anybody’s tribute to Forry, you only have to substitute names and locations and it pretty much becomes your story.”
In Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, he probably summed it up best: “Ask anyone who has been associated with the fantasy-horror–science fiction genres in the last thirty years about this magazine and you’ll get a laugh, a flash of the eyes, and a stream of bright memories—I practically guarantee it.”
* * *
Launched by renegade comic pioneer William Gaines, the EC Comics, like Tales from the Crypt, had a brief life on the newsstands, but like Famous Monsters they were a big influence on impressionable young kids who grew up to craft their own horror stories.
Yet EC Comics, which first stood for Educational Comics, and then became Entertaining Comics, tried to provide a moral with their stories for their young, impressionable readers, that bad behavior could meet with disastrous consequences at the hands of a zombie or a lunatic with an ax, and ultimately it was in good, gory fun.
Gaines himself said, “A lot of people have the idea we’re a bunch of monsters who sit around drooling and dreaming up horror and filth. That’s not true. We try to entertain and educate. That’s all there is to it.”
In their time, horror comics were blamed for juvenile delinquency, and were eventually shut down by the arbiters of good taste at the same time as the McCarthy hearings, but their influence on the genre proved strong. EC Comics got away with a lot, and it gave many of the leading lights in the future of horror the road map to follow.
“As a kid, I cut my teeth on William Gaines’s horror comics,” Stephen King recalled. “Weird Science, Tales from the Crypt—plus all the Gaines imitators but like a good Elvis record, the Gaines magazines were often imitated, never duplicated.”
George Romero would also say the EC Comics had more influence over his movies than the horror films of the time. “I think a great part of my aesthetic in the genre was born out of EC rather than movies,” he said. “Horror movies, when I was in my formative years, were generally bad. The effects sucked. The EC’s, on the other hand, were nitty-gritty, there was a lot going on in each frame, the stories were great.” Not to mention that there was way more gore in an EC comic than you could show on the screen at the time.
Tobe Hooper was also a big fan, and he recalled, “Since I started reading these comics when I was young and impressionable, their overall feeling stayed with me. I’d say they were the single most important influence on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”
Bill’s father, Max Gaines, is considered the godfather of the comic book. He had previously tried a variety of professions such as working in a factory, as an elementary school principal, a haberdasher, and then working as a color salesman for Eastern Color Printing.
During the depression, Max was living with his mother in the Bronx with his wife and his two children, Elaine and Bill. Max found a bunch of newspaper comic strips in the attic, and had a great laugh looking through them again. The funnies were printed at Eastern Color Printing because it had a state-of-the-art color press. The press was set up for a newspaper page, but if you folded a standard page twice, you could turn it into a booklet with more pages.
Max then put out Funnies on Parade, a thirty-two page comic you could order with a coupon, and Gaines got Procter and Gamble to order a million copies of the issue. Gaines got Dell Publishing to finance 35,000 copies of his next comic, Famous Funnies, which sold for ten cents a copy, and all 35,000 copies sold out in a weekend. But Delacorte thought it was a fluke that wouldn’t repeat, so Gaines had another publisher print up 250,000 more, and eventually circulation was up to a million copies.
Max’s company would eventually print DC Comics, who would soon have the astronomical success of Superman, launching the golden age of comics. After Gaines was bought out of DC, he started EC.
Max’s son, Bill Gaines, wasn’t popular with girls, had asthma, bad eyes, was withdrawn, a nerd, not unlike a lot of the geeks who love comics and horror. He did have a healthy sense of humor, and loved causing the kind of trouble that drove his father nuts.
When Max was killed in a boating accident in 1947, Bill reluctantly took over the family business. “Comics? I hated ’em,” Bill recalled. “Never touched the stuff. I wanted to be a chemistry teacher.”
EC wasn’t doing well after Max Gaines’s demise. They were publishing biblical and historical comics that weren’t selling, and the company went $100,000 into debt. Bill was determined to get EC back on track, and hired artist Al Feldstein who was adept at drawing sexy, voluptuous women.
EC would now stand for Entertaining instead of Educational, and started putting out crime and Western stories. Horror comics began in 1947 with the first issue of Eerie, and EC followed suit, putting horror stories in their Crime Patrol and War on Crime series. The last issue of Crime Patrol had four horror stories, “The Corpse in the Crematorium,” “Trapped in the Tomb,” “The Graveyard Feet,” and a tale told by the Crypt Keeper, “The Spectre in the Castle.”
Al and Bill loved the radio thrillers they grew up on as kids, like Inner Sanctum and Lights Out. Lights Out was created by Wyllis Cooper, who wrote the screenplay for Son of Frankenstein, and Arch Oboler, who would open the show with a warning every week: “This is Arch Oboler bringing you another of our series of stories of the unusual, and once again we caution you: These Lights Out stories are definitely not for the timid soul. So we tell you calmly and very sincerely, if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now.”
Lights Out did a lot with sound effects to bring the stories to life. Decapitated heads were sound effects guys chopping cabbage with a cleaver, breaking bones were spare ribs being wacked with pipe wrenches, and people being eaten would be the FX man chomping down on dry spaghetti. Guests on the show included Boris Karloff and Mercedes McCambridge, who would later provide Linda Blair’s possessed voice for The Exorcist.
Lights Out played on the radio in repeats in the fifties and sixties, which is how Stephen King grew up with the show. King recalled: “Oboler utilized two of radio’s great strengths: the first is the mind’s innate obedience, its willingness to try to see whatever someone suggests it see, no matter how absurd; the second is the fact that fear and horror are blinding emotions that knock our adult pins from underneath us and leave us groping in the dark like children who cannot find the light switch. Radio is, of course, the ‘blind’ medium, and only Oboler used it so well or so completely.”
Feldstein’s parents wouldn’t let him to listen to either Inner Sanctum or Lights Out, but he would sneak out of bed and listen at the top of the stairs when the shows were on in the house. He finally told Bill, “Why don’t we put this stuff in the comics?”
Soon Feldstein was soon writing four stories a week and editing seven comic titles that were launched by EC: Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, Vault of Horror, Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories, Weird Science, and Weird Fantasy.
The Haunt of Fear, Tales from the Crypt, and Vault of Horror had a circulation of 400,000, where Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, Two-Fisted Tales, and Frontline Combat had a circulation of 225,000 copies for each title. Soon imitations and clones followed to the point where there were 150 or so horror comics on the market.
Max Gaines had his own set of rules when he was comic king, and his son violated every commandment in his horror comics, including, “Never show a coffin, especially with a corpse in it. Don’t chop the limbs off anybody. Don’t put anybody’s eyes out. No blood or bloody daggers, no skeletons or skulls.” And, of course, “never show anybody stabbed or shot. Make killings in two panels: In one, the villain approaching with the weapon; in two the villain leaving the body with the smoking gun. Never show the kill.”
The “Bill Gaines’s Do’s and Don’ts of Horror” were as follows: “We have no ghosts, devils, goblins, or the like. We tolerate vampires and werewolves, if they follow tradition and behave the way respectable vampires and werewolves should. We love walking corpse stories. We’ll accept the occasional zombie or mummy. And we relish the conte cruel story,” or a tale of sadism.
The covers of the EC horror comics were very lurid, featuring severed heads and limbs, rotting zombies rising from the dead, and you couldn’t show anything remotely like it in movies for well over a decade. Tales from the Crypt was narrated by the Crypt Keeper, who would introduce each story with his trademark “heh, heh” chortle.
One story introduction went: “Heh, heh! Well! So we meet again, dear friends! Welcome! Welcome once more to the crypt of terror! This time I have a really chilling tale from my collection of spine-tinglers to relate to you! Now, lie back in your caskets! Tuck yourselves in with your shrouds! Comfy? Good! Then I’ll begin!”
EC tried to take on issues no one in the fifties wanted to talk about like racism and drug abuse, stories that were called “Preachies.” The stories tried to teach strong moral lessons for the kids reading them. If the characters did something bad, gory karma would soon follow. “If somebody did something really bad, he usually ‘got it,’” said Gaines. “And of course the EC way was he got it the same way he gave it.”
The EC Comics were phenomenally successful, selling ten million copies a year. As Lyle Stuart, who was EC’s business manager, recalled, “Break-even would be 36 or 37 percent. Our magazines were coming in at 89 percent … 93 percent.”
But it wasn’t long before EC came under fire, and it was the toughest scrutiny horror had come under to date. As early as 1940, the editor of the Chicago Daily News Sterling North denounced comic books as “a poisonous mushroom growth” contributing to juvenile delinquency. J. Edgar Hoover also warned against comic books because of “the glorification of un-American vigilante action, and the deification of the criminal are extremely dangerous in the hands of the unstable child.”
The anti-comic campaign was spearheaded by a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham, and he started campaigning against them in 1948, claiming comics were “definitely and completely harmful and was a distinct influencing factor in every single delinquent or disturbed child we studied.” Wertham accused Batman and Robin of being gay lovers and Wonder Woman of being a sadistic lesbian. “As long as the crime comic book industry exists in its present form, no American home is safe,” Wertham warned. In Bill Gaines’s office he had a picture of Fredric Wertham reading a copy of Shock SuspenStories on his wall.
Then the PTA, church groups, and the Catholic Legion of Decency denounced EC comics. The other comic companies were happy their chief rival was taking a beating because EC was outselling them all. Gaines said, “The only way these guys are happy is not if they hear a competitor is dying, but if he’s dying particularly painfully.”
Then came the Kefauver Hearings, which Gaines called “a headline seeking carnival” providing “fuel to those in our society who want to tar with the censor’s brush.”
The hearings were launched by Senator Estes Kefauver, who was part of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. He took on organized crime in the famed televised hearings in 1951, and the anti–comic book hearing took place in the same courthouse in New York’s Foley Square.
Bill Gaines volunteered to testify, and he was the only one in the comic business who would come forward to stand up against Senator Kefauver.
“Pleasure is what we sell,” Gaines testified. “Entertainment. Reading enjoyment. Our American children are, for the most part, normal children. They are bright children. But those who want to prohibit comic magazines seem to see instead dirty, twisted, sneaky, vicious, perverted little monsters who use the comics as blueprints for action. What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of our own children? Do we forget that they are citizens too, and entitled to the essential freedom to read? Or do we think our children so evil, so vicious, so single-minded, that it takes but a comic magazine story of murder to set them to murder—or robbery to set them to robbery?”
Gaines then quoted former New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, who once said he never knew a girl to be ruined by a book. “And no one has ever been ruined by a comic,” he added. “As has already been pointed out by previous testimony, no healthy, normal child has ever been made the worse for reading comic magazines … I do not believe that anything that has ever been written can make a child hostile, overaggressive, or delinquent. The roots of such characteristics are much deeper. The truth is that delinquency is a product of the real environment in which a child lives—and not of the fiction he reads.” (The day after Gaines testified before the Senate, the McCarthy hearings began.)
The boycotts and protests against horror comics continued, and wholesalers were scared to carry them. Within several months, newsstands went from more than a hundred horror comics on the market to practically none.
After the hearings, the Comics Code Authority formed, and comics had to have their seal of approval to be carried in stores. The comics code forbade horror, saying no more “excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism and masochism.” Also no more “walking dead, torture, vampires, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism.”
As usual in situations like this, everybody ran for cover. Gaines went to other comic publishers about forming their own self-regulating group, but they didn’t want to fight the Senate, and caved in (we’d also see history repeat itself like this in the future with battles against horror films, violence in mainstream movies, metal and rap lyrics, violent video games, and so on).
Finally word came down on September 14, 1954, that Gaines would no longer publish horror and crime comics. In the last issues ran an editor’s note that said, in part: “As a result of the hysterical, injudicious, and unfounded charges leveled at crime and horror comics, many retailers and wholesalers throughout the country have been intimidated into refusing this kind of magazine.
“Although we at EC still believe, as we have in the past, that the charges leveled at crime and horror comics are utter nonsense, there’s no point in going into a defense of this kind of literature at the present time. Economically our situation is acute. Magazines that do not get onto the newsstand do not sell. We give up. WE’VE HAD IT!
“Naturally, with comic magazine censorship now a fact, we at EC look forward to an immediate drop in the crime and juvenile delinquency rate of the United States.”
EC nearly went under, winding up $100,000 in debt, and Gaines and his mother had to put up $50,000 to keep the company alive, but Bill soon bounced back with the success of Mad, which survived the comics witch hunt. Now freckled, gap-toothed Alfred E. Newman would replace the decrepit old Crypt Keeper, but the Gaines irreverence would still remain, and once it changed from a comic to a magazine in the twenty-fourth issue, it wouldn’t have the Comics Code people breathing down their necks.
By 1959, polls claimed 58 percent of American college kids, and 43 percent of American high school kids were reading Mad, and it would have a one million circulation. Mad became Gaines’s bread and butter for decades to come and its circulation peaked in 1973 at 2.4 million.
In 1989 Tales from the Crypt was resurrected as the HBO cable series, which was produced by director Richard Donner (The Omen, Superman, and Lethal Weapon), writer David Giler (Alien), director Walter Hill (The Warriors), Joel Silver (producer of the Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Matrix films), and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), and lasted until 1996. By this point, it was clear the effect EC comics had on modern horror, and how instead of inspiring juvenile delinquency, they inspired creativity and delight in such readers as Romero and King.
Annie Gaines, Bill’s widow, said, “The public may remember Bill best for Mad, but Tales from the Crypt and the other horror comics always had a very special place in his heart—as did the people who made them. He loved the material, and he loved the fact that there were all these loyal fans who wouldn’t let it be forgotten. He was so pleased when it became a successful TV series. It was a great vindication.”
* * *
First airing on October 2, 1959, The Twilight Zone was the creation of Rod Serling, who was often called “television’s last angry man.” Serling saw television as a medium of change, and like EC Comics, he was able to sneak a lot of important messages past the network censors by coating them in fantasy.
The Twilight Zone’s impact is still evident in modern horror. It popularized twist endings, brought a healthy sense of irony to horror and sci-fi, and The Twilight Zone also strove to make fantasy believable—just three reasons why the show still holds up and is remembered well.
Says George Clayton Johnson, who wrote for The Twilight Zone, “Rod had been shaping the idea of doing half-hour science fiction stories because that way he could escape some of the worst aspects of censorship. If you want to talk about racism in the South, just make them aliens and that’s okay.”
“Many Twilight Zones address social ills,” said Carol Serling, Rod’s widow. “I think that’s one reason they’re still around. It hasn’t changed that much and I think that’s why they’re still popular. People who’ve never seen them before say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s great,’ because those problems have not gone away. I think some of [Rod’s] best work was when he felt the most strongly about what he was writing about.”
Rodman Edward Serling was born in Syracuse, New York, on December 25, 1924. His family soon moved to Binghamton, New York. Serling’s memories of Binghamton were fond, and he would later re-create idyllic towns like it in episodes of The Twilight Zone, particularly for characters who were overworked and dreamed of magical hometowns like the imaginary Willoughby to escape to.
Serling enlisted in the army the day he graduated high school, and being in battle during World War II traumatized him. During one attack, three soldiers that were in his patrol group were killed and Serling himself was badly wounded by shrapnel. While he was overseas, his father passed away, and he was devastated when he couldn’t get a leave to attend his funeral.
When Serling came back from the army, he was a changed man. His mother was left shattered and frail from her husband’s death and Rod, along with his brother, now had to take care of her. “I was bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service,” said Serling. “I think I turned to writing to get it off my chest.”
Serling started writing for radio and would break into television in the early fifties, writing for such shows as Hallmark Hall of Fame and Kraft Television Theatre. At the beginning of 1955, Serling’s big break finally came with “Patterns,” which was the seventy-first script he’d written that was aired on television. “Patterns” was the story of a young man who becomes a success in the corporate world, but is disgusted with himself when he sees how ruthless that world is, and how soulless he must become to succeed. The following year, Serling won his first Emmy for “Patterns.”
Like many writers after a big success, Serling had to prove, to the media and himself, that he was not a one-hit wonder, that he had more in him besides “Patterns.” On October 11, 1956, Playhouse 90, the legendary anthology show from the golden age of television, aired “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” which was about a washed-up boxer trying to make a new life for himself after his career ends. “Requiem” was a tremendous success and swept the Emmys.
At the age of thirty, Serling was finally a big success, but it was a bittersweet victory. He had important things he wanted to say, but his scripts were heavily censored by the networks so that they wouldn’t offend the sponsors. Live drama was also fast becoming an endangered species. The number one show on the air was Gunsmoke, and television was soon overrun with Westerns. Serling realized TV would have no place for what he wanted to say, so he created The Twilight Zone as a Trojan horse to drive the message through.
“Rod was forever getting into trouble because he wanted to call a spade a spade,” says George Clayton Johnson, who wrote the episodes “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can,” among others, for The Twilight Zone. “They were forever stopping him, for the pettiest of reasons, which made him even more of a little David against a bunch of Goliaths.”
Nobody was sure what Serling was up to at first. “Everybody thought that Rod was taking a big step backward with these little half-hour plays after having won these Emmys and being the great playwright,” says Johnson. “And now here he is off there doing these little science fiction things. So what the hell is he up to here? Is he selling out? No. He was a man who recognized the death of live TV, who saw that everything was becoming film, who was working for several years trying to get this together.
“He had been shaping the idea of doing half-hour science fiction stories because that way he could escape some of the worst aspects of censorship,” continues Johnson. As Serling himself once said, “On The Twilight Zone, I knew that I could get away with Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.”
Carol Serling said The Twilight Zone was a labor of love for her husband for this reason. “He was able to do things in the fantasy genre—say things, make points, confront issues—that he couldn’t do on straight dramatic TV,” she said. “Looking back on it, I think those were probably his happy years on television, because he had the artistic creative control. If he didn’t want something, ultimately it didn’t happen.”
In today’s lingo, Serling would be considered a show runner, the guy who created the program and made it all happen, and Serling was one of the first, if not the first show runner, long before the writer was in charge. Back in the fifties, the producer ran the show, and Serling was one of the first writers who changed this, making the key creative decisions for The Twilight Zone.
“Rod being a writer did not intrude on us,” says Richard Matheson, who wrote numerous episodes of The Twilight Zone. “Rod was very respectful of other people’s talent. They shot it just the way you wrote it, with the best actors and directors they could get.”
“Unlike any other TV show I know of,” said George Clayton Johnson, “The Twilight Zone was oriented towards the writer. The main people making the decisions were writers. No one else could have ever pulled off The Twilight Zone where he could be the creative director and call all the shots.”
Each episode of The Twilight Zone followed certain dictates. “Buck Houghton, the producer, understood The Twilight Zone,” said Johnson. “He understood the formula of only one miracle per story. The girl can’t read minds and levitate objects too. Also, plain people in plain circumstances, because we have plain sets in the background and we can put those together. If you start asking for a pasha’s temple, we haven’t got the set.”
The Twilight Zone was famous for its twist endings, or “zappers,” which many horror filmmakers have tried hard to emulate and outdo since. Says Matheson, “That was part of the structure. You had your teaser, which introduced, hopefully, an intriguing premise. You had your first act curtain, which was the cliff-hanger, and then you had your ending, which hopefully had the twist or surprise. That was the structure of the best Twilight Zones.”
For Matheson, the secret to writing a great twist for The Twilight Zone was that it had to be inherent to the story. “You can’t just tell a regular story and then suddenly tack on what you think is a surprise ending,” he says. “It has to be based on what has gone before. There has to be a logic, that’s my feeling. Fantasy has to have a logic to it, it can’t be far-fetched. It has to be believable.”
The Twilight Zone was also a great screenwriting lesson in that the show set up an intriguing premise, got you involved in the characters, and effectively pulled the rug out on you, all in half an hour, and it wasn’t a setback to have that tight of a framework to work in, because when The Twilight Zone did several one-hour episodes, they didn’t work.
“All of these limitations were huge assets for the kind of writer that Serling was,” said Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion. “I think Serling had a natural, innate sense of the half-hour structure. He was a master at it. He had in mind those sort of O. Henry twist endings. Those don’t really work in an hour-length. You really need the half hour for it to be effective.” (William Sydney Porter, aka O. Henry, wrote short stories for New York World Sunday Magazine that were famous for their surprise endings.)
The most important element of The Twilight Zone were the messages the show conveyed. The heroes and villains usually got what was coming to them, good or bad. “What comes around, goes around, that’s one of the big messages,” says Johnson. “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it. What you really think you need in your life is just what you don’t want in your life, because if you get it, you’ll become a spoiled punk instead of the great scientist you might have become.”
Many episodes of The Twilight Zone reflected the personal fears of the writers themselves, and Serling was certainly no exception. Death, becoming obsolete, and trying to make a mark before leaving the world were all themes he returned to repeatedly. “These are universal human issues,” said Zicree, “which is why Twilight Zone is so successful around the world.”
Like Star Trek, The Twilight Zone’s cult following would grow much stronger after its initial run. In fact, “it was touch and go whether it was going to be renewed each season,” said Matheson. “They even had write-in campaigns by viewers saying, ‘Don’t cancel it.’ That it lasted five years was really miraculous because they were on the verge of canceling it all the time.
“I don’t think anybody knows ahead of time that they’re working on something immortal,” Matheson continued. “If they did, they’d become so self-conscious, it would probably turn into junk. The Twilight Zone is dated and yet it still holds up in today’s world. In later years, the only reason some young producers would even know who the hell I was was because when they were kids they would watch The Twilight Zone. And here it is, from 1959, it’s still showing.”
Copyright © 2012 by David Konow