Back in the day, most major studios in Hollywood became known for specializing in a particular genre. They produced all kinds of pictures, of course, but their output in one specific type of movie helped establish their identity. 20th Century Fox, for example, had science fiction films. Warner Bros. did gangster pictures. MGM had its musicals, and Disney naturally excelled at animated features.
But the monsters… the monsters belonged to Universal.
April 30th marks the 100th anniversary of Universal Pictures, founded by dry goods merchant Carl Laemmle who believed that “nickelodeons” were the wave of the future. Over the years, the studio produced films of every variety, from Schindler’s List to Animal House to Francis the Talking Mule, and added eight Best Picture Oscars to its trophy case in the process. Time and again, however, it returned to cinema’s darkest corners, and in the process created a truly impressive array of horror classics. In honor of the anniversary, we thought we’d take a brief look at Universal’s proud history in the genre, and the influence their movies continue to exert.
From the earliest days, Universal had a knack for monster movies. The company officially incorporated in 1925, the same year they released Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera. Two years earlier, Chaney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame became the studio’s highest grossing film ever. With the star as their engine, they plunged forward enthusiastically with a full bevvy of horror films. Subsequent silent works included The Cat and the Canary, The Cat Creeps, and The Man Who Laughs: a film that Batman co-creator Bob Kane cited as a major influence on the development of the Joker.
Chaney died in 1930, but the blow didn’t slow down the trend he helped create. Indeed, with the advent of sound came a legacy that may stand unequalled in the annals of the genre. German Expressionism fueled the movement, as did anxieties about the Depression and the rise of fascism across the globe. Horror movies, particularly those from Universal, gave audiences a safe catharsis for those fears. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein appeared in 1931, projects that Chaney would have likely headlined had he lived. Their immense success launched two decades’ worth of classic monster pictures, including The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Raven, The Old Dark House, The Black Cat, Werewolf of London and a seemingly endless array of sequels and spin-offs.
The trappings of these movies quickly become horror clichés – spooky castles, gypsy curses and hunchbacked assistants – and now serve as the basis for every elementary school Halloween decoration in the country. Lugosi and Karloff remain the definitive version of their respective characters, as do The Invisible Man’s Claude Rains, The Wolf Man’s Lon Chaney, Jr. and The Bride of Frankenstein’s Elsa Lanchester. Even as the trend faded in the late 1940s, Universal continued milking it – most notably with the last of their “classic” monster movies, The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954, but also in satires and parodies like Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
The 50s saw a fundamental shift in the genre, as Gothic houses and romanticized undead gave way to the terrors of the atomic age. Universal struggled to keep up with changing tastes, while ownership of the studio changed hands and various corporate owners began sticking their fingers in the pie. Though they produced a pair of minor classics in It Came from Outer Space and The Incredible Shrinking Man, the bulk of Universal’s horror output in this era suffered a severe dip in quality. Monster movies ultimately took a back seat to westerns like Winchester ’73 and melodramas like Written on the Wind. For a time, it looked as if Universal would all but abandon the genre that put it on the map.
This trend continued in the 1960s, when MCA purchased the company and began heavily focusing on television. Low-budget shockers like The Leech Woman became the order of the day, as did Hammer film imports like The Evil of Frankenstein which Universal merely distributed. The few bright spots appeared courtesy of Alfred Hitchcock, who had enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the studio for many years and who produced his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show on the Universal lot. Though initially a Paramount release, Psycho was shot at Universal and subsequently became one of the most valued films in its library (the studio tour still includes a look at the Bates Motel). Hitchcock also delivered The Birds to Universal, giving the studio a sharp punchline to an otherwise dismal decade.
So it remained until 1975, when a young director named Steven Spielberg helmed an adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws. Spielberg cut his teeth in the studio’s television branch and impressed the top brass with his TV movie Duel. Jaws transformed the fortunes of director and studio alike: rescuing Universal from decades of movie doldrums and launching Spielberg as the preeminent talent of his generation. The genre that made the studio had just rescued it, and Universal quickly took advantage of the opportunity.
As the Reagan Era began, Universal turned to several noted auteurs to deliver high-quality horror projects of the sort they once excelled at. John Landis brought the studio a pair of smash hit comedies – Animal House and The Blues Brothers – before expressing an interest in something darker. They let him run and the result was An American Werewolf in London, generally regarded as the best lycanthrope movie since the original Wolf Man. (It also won an Oscar for Rick Backer, establishing him as the go-to name for monster make-up.)
John Carpenter also helmed a number of Universal productions in the mid-1980s. His remake of The Thing was initially viewed as a major bomb – withering in the light of the studio’s juggernaut E.T. – but found its audience on home video and now stands as one of the greatest horror films ever made. Carpenter also directed Prince of Darkness and They Live for Universal, and Universal produced the sequels Halloween II and Halloween III based on Carpenter’s iconic original film.
Nor was he the only horror legend working under the Universal banner. Wes Craven directed The Serpent and the Rainbow, Shocker and The People Under the Stairs for the studio, the former of which ranks among his best. Other notable Universal horror films of the era included Tremors, Ghost Story, the remake of Cat People and Stephen King’s Firestarter.
The “silver era” of the 1980s eventually gave way to creative malaise: punctuated by sequels such as Child’s Play 2 and 3 and remakes such as Carpenter’s version of Village of the Damned. Sam Raimi provided a modest boost in the early 90s, producing Darkman and Army of Darkness for distribution by Universal. In 1993 Spielberg rode to the rescue again with Jurassic Park – a film that, like Jaws sat atop the all-time box office charts for a time. Despite that success, however, the renaissance of the 80s slowly dissipated, leaving creative bankruptcy in its wake.
One of the more notable Universal efforts of the 1990s actually received comparatively little attention at the time, but proved instrumental in the development of a future auteur. With a strong resume of low-budget creature features and a recent art house hit in Heavenly Creatures, director Peter Jackson created a ghost story called The Frighteners for the studio. It fared poorly, but the effects computers purchased for the production gave Jackson the idea to produce a trilogy of movies based on The Lord of the Rings. The rest, as they say, is history.
But for that moment, however, the last two decades have not been kind to Universal’s horror films. Remakes like Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead and Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon seemed to be the order of the day, as Hollywood kicked “branding” into overdrive. Conversely, more creative efforts like Slither and Drag Me to Hell failed to gain traction at the box office, while the studio’s only bona-fide horror classic of the 21st century – Shaun of the Dead – came from European production companies. Universal currently has no horror movies scheduled for release in 2012 or 2013, a glaring absence considering the studio’s pedigree.
Nothing is eternal, however, and this company has been through dry patches before. In the interim, the films in its library form an imposing percentage of the best ever made. Were it not for those efforts, the studio might never have made it to 100. Happy anniversary Universal Pictures, and thanks for all the scares. I suspect your second century will end up just as frightening as your first.