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Points of No Return
The profound spiritual implications of scenes from two classic Universal horror films.
No studio, at least among the majors of the last 110 years or so, has been more associated with the horror genre than Universal. That got its start when Universal applied Lon Chaney’s unique combination of actor, makeup artist, and contortionist to the title role in Hunchback of Notre Dame (1924). The following year, founder and studio head Carl Laemmle, having acquired the rights to film the French novel Phantom of the Opera (1925), due to his personal acquaintance with author Gaston Leroux, showcased Chaney’s talents again.
By 1932, Universal had a stable of actors associated with the horror genre and was enjoying favorable public reception. Lammele was casting about for a followup to Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) and hit upon the idea of riding on public fascination with the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Scriptwriters Richard Schayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam provided him with the story for The Mummy (1932).
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Director Karl Freund had worked with Fritz Lang on Metropolis in the 1920s and, in the 1950s, would be the cameraman for the I Love Lucy TV series. Studio makeup artist Jack Pierce spent laborious hours on Boris Karloff’s head and bandages.
The short first portion of the story takes place in 1922. A British archeological expedition in Egypt has come across a number of finds, including a fairly well-preserved mummy, and a sarcophagus containing a forbidden scroll.
One night, the two lead archaeologists and the assistant of one of them are surrounded by the artifacts when the archaeologists step outside, leaving the assistant, Ralph Norton, played to perfection by Bramwell Fletcher, alone in the room. Norton proceeds to get into the sarcophagus, against the direct warning not to from his superiors. He starts translating aloud the text of the scroll. It’s a spell to bring the mummy back to life.
As he’s reading, he trembles until he’s quaking, beads of sweat forming on his forehead. Meanwhile, behind him, Imhotep, played by Karloff, stirs, first by opening his eyes. Then, in a move perfectly timed by Karloff and Freund, his arms slide down his trunk.
And that’s it. That’s all you see of the mummy’s entire body. You do see his hand, slowly grasping the scroll from Norton. The focus is on Norton and his reaction to seeing this wrapped-up ancient being, which, after one scream, is maniacal laughter. Imhoptep shuffles out of the room. The archeologists hear Norton and rush back in. Howling with laughter, Norton says, “He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!”
I have no knowledge of whether, or to what extent, the scriptwriters were aware of the parallels among what they’d crafted here and the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, or the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box, but they’re strong.
In each case, the divine power has chosen particular objects among all creation—an apple, a box, a sarcophagus—and made them forbidden. The awful penalty for violating this state of things is the unleashing of darkness into creation. Encountering the consequences of what he’d done, face-to-face, drove Ralph Norton mad.
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These stories make us contemplate how insistent a temptation hubris is. In this world, it’s not always easy to keep in mind the consequences of thinking there’s nothing worth standing in awe of, of thinking that everything is ordinary and relative—profane, if you will.
In the case of Larry Talbot, in The Wolfman (1941), we can’t say that he’s to blame. His accursed life didn’t result from succumbing to temptation. No, he was just plain bitten by a wolf and contracted lycanthropy as a result. His world goes out of control every month when the moon is full. The Talbot character, played by Lon Chaney, Jr., first appeared in 1941, with Claude Rains playing Talbot’s Welsh father.
The concept of the 1943 sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, may have a hint of crass exploitation, as in hey-let’s-give-‘em-a-double-dose-of-monsters, but it’s a well-made film, and even includes a musical number. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak was a German emigre, one of many Jews who saw the writing on the wall in the early 30s and came to the US. Siodmak and his brother worked primarily in the horror and film noir genres.
By this time, Universal was under new management. Laemmle was forced out, along with his son, in 1936. Laemmle, also a German, who had come over in the 1880s, spent the last years of his life helping the Jews of Europe leave.
There’s more orchestration in 1940s Universal horror films, and it’s used to good effect, as in Hans J. Salter’s score for Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. That’s particularly true in the transformation scene. Talbot, having been raised from the dead in a botched grave robbery, finds himself in a hospital and is not sure his doctor and nurses understand what’s at stake as they leave him alone in his room on the night of the full moon, which is beaming, with the occasional little cloud floating atmospherically through it, through his window.
He starts from sleep and stares at the sky. Chaney performs one of those scenes in which an actor’s skills come down to facial expressions. Talbot spends several seconds being panicked, even writhing, until a point at which his fangs are protruding, his face covered with fur, and his eyes squinted and beady. It’s as if the being he has now become is saying, “Oh, that Talbot fellow? I’ve properly dispensed with him. Now, excuse me, I have destruction to tend to.”
While this state of affairs is not Talbot’s fault, it is a stark study of the moment when a human soul is given over entirely to evil. When human will is used for demonic purposes, a surrender takes place. Chaos must ensue, and, at some point, a just reckoning. Such was the fate of Larry Talbot.
The reason the Universal Horror Library has such an iconic place in American popular culture is that those who made the films took seriously the crafting of great films, possessing the same array of levels of artistic insight as other genres. The thrills aren’t cheap. They speak to us of elemental forces and the role of choice in our high-stakes lives.
Barney Quick is an Adjunct Professor teaching Jazz and Rock & Roll History at Indiana University Columbus. He received his Bachelor’s degree in English and Literature from Wabash College and his Master’s degree in History from Butler University. @Penandguitar
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