Universal Horror

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A couple of Halloweens ago I worked my way through a blu-ray box of the horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1930s and 40s. It was a fun and instructive experience: fun because I’d not watched many of the films properly for a long time; instructive for reaffirming my dislike of Tod Browning’s Dracula, a film so inert and lacking in cinematic drama it may as well be a series of still pictures. Browning’s film is further diminished when you have the opportunity to watch James Whale’s Frankenstein films immediately after it. The collection also allowed me to compare the BFI release of Universal’s silent version of The Phantom of the Opera, where Lon Chaney is an unforgettable Phantom, with the 1943 remake, a film I didn’t recall having seen before. The only positive things about the remake are the always worthwhile Claude Rains, even if he is wasted in the Phantom role, and seeing the massive Paris Opera House set from the silent version being reused.

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The differences between the Universal adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein are noted in Kevin Brownlow’s 90-minute documentary which is an extra on the Frankenstein disc. Brownlow’s film, which was originally made for TV in 1998, charts the evolution of Universal’s horror films from their roots in silent cinema and German Expressionism up to the 1940s when the cycle deteriorated into sequelitis and self-mockery via Abbott and Costello. “Universal” here may be taken as referring to all of Hollywood’s early horror films. Rather than waste time on the studio’s increasingly inferior sequels, rival productions from other studios are briefly discussed: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Paramount), The Island of Lost Souls (Paramount), King Kong (RKO), and Mystery of the Wax Museum (Warner Brothers). In doing this Universal Horror follows the template that Brownlow established with fellow film historian David Gill in 1980 when they produced Hollywood for Thames TV, a 13-part series about the birth of American cinema which I rate as the best documentary series about film ever made. (Gill died in 1997 so Universal Horror is dedicated to his memory.) Hollywood interviewed as many people as possible connected with the production of the first silent films, following the format of the landmark The World at War (1973) series which related the events of the Second World War in 26 hour-long episodes. The World at War was narrated by Laurence Olivier; for Hollywood Brownlow & Gill had James Mason, not only an equivalent voice of authority but also a man with a great enthusiasm for silent cinema. Subsequent Brownlow & Gill documentaries had Lindsay Anderson as narrator, another silents enthusiast with a similar gravitas in his narrative delivery. The narrator of Universal Horror, Kenneth Branagh, isn’t bad as such but whatever his qualities as an actor, his voice alone is a poor match for these heavyweights. He does at least seem to have controlled the sporadic squeaks which mar his delivery in an earlier Brownlow & Gill series, Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995).

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Universal Horror and Cinema Europe both fall short when compared to Hollywood by being made too late. By the 1990s most of the men connected with the early years of European cinema had died, and so had many of the actors who made the Universal films. It’s left to a handful of survivors, most of whom are women, to remember the days of their youth: Nina Foch (The Return of the Vampire), Gloria Stuart (The Invisible Man), Fay Wray (who must have spent most of her later years repeating stories about King Kong but here also discusses her role in Mystery of the Wax Museum), Lupita Tovar (the Spanish-language Dracula), Turhan Bey (The Mummy’s Tomb), Rose Hobart (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), and Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man). Additional commentary is provided by the daughters of significant figures: Sara Karloff, Carla Laemmle (who has a cameo in Dracula) and Arianne Ulmer whose father, Edgar G. Ulmer, directed The Black Cat for Universal, a much better film than the 1943 Phantom of the Opera, and one which should have been in the box set instead. Lastly, there’s some outsider commentary by Ray Bradbury (who also appeared in Brownlow’s next documentary, Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces), Gavin Lambert, James Karen, Forrest J. Ackerman, Curtis Harrington, James Curtis (author of James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters), and David J. Skal (author of Hollywood Gothic, The Monster Show, etc). Given the breadth of the subject—two decades of film history—this should have been a series like Cinema Europe, but horror on the page or on the screen remains the most abject of the genres, continually marginalised, complained about, ignored, censored, banned. Ninety minutes of documentary time is often as good as it gets, especially with Kevin Brownlow producing.

Universal Horror at the time of writing is available for viewing at the Internet Archive, waiting for Universal’s legal goons to put a stake through its heart. Someone has also uploaded the whole of Brownlow & Gill’s Hollywood series which is gratifying to see. The latter is scattered around YouTube in varying quality so it’s good to have a range of options. It’s essential viewing wherever you see it.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Illustrating Dracula
Illustrating Frankenstein
Psychotronic Video
Dracula and I by Christopher Lee
Nightmare: The Birth of Horror
Rex Ingram’s The Magician
The Mask of Fu Manchu

Harry Clarke online

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The Devil’s Wife and her Eldest. A frontispiece for The Golden Hind, July, 1924, a magazine edited by Clifford Bax and Austin Osman Spare. I’ve seen this drawing referred to in print as “Goddem with Attendants” although this isn’t how it was titled in the magazine.

It’s taken some time but with a little careful searching it’s now possible to see (almost) all of Harry Clarke’s major works of illustration online. The Poe illustrations have been available in a variety of different scans for many years, their popularity being followed by some of the Faust drawings. But Clarke’s other books are more elusive, so what you have here is links to the most complete collections of illustrations from each title, several of which also include the accompanying text.

This isn’t all of Clarke’s illustration work, of course. He produced many single pieces for magazines, as well as two rare promotional publications for the Irish whiskey distiller, Jameson. If he hadn’t been so tied up with the stained-glass business he inherited there would have been much more. The biographical books mention titles he suggested to publishers as potential projects, a list which includes Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Huysmans’ À rebours, and—most tantalising of all—Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, 1916.

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A post at Flickr. Despite Clarke’s achievements as a stained-glass artist his colour illustrations aren’t always as successful as those in black-and-white. That’s certainly the case here.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, 1919.

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The 1923 edition is at the Internet Archive, a reprint which added several new colour pieces, none of which fare well in this scan. The book is also missing the frontispiece.

The Year’s at the Spring, edited by Lettice D’Oyly Walters, 1920.

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Another complete edition at the Internet Archive.

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, 1922.

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An almost-complete edition. This one again suffers from a missing frontispiece.

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1925.

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Not great reproductions since this edition is adapted from an e-book, but it does feature all of the black-and-white Faust illustrations in order, and with their accompanying quotes. No colour plates, however.

Selected Poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1928.

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Clarke’s most Decadent and erotic work, this one has yet to turn up in complete form but the defunct art blog, Golden Age Comic Book Stories, posted all of the art here.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Harry Clarke record covers
Thomas Bodkin on Harry Clarke
Harry Clarke: His Graphic Art
Harry Clarke and others in The Studio
Harry Clarke’s Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault
Harry Clarke in colour
The Tinderbox
Harry Clarke and the Elixir of Life
Cardwell Higgins versus Harry Clarke
Modern book illustrators, 1914
Illustrating Poe #3: Harry Clarke
Strangest Genius: The Stained Glass of Harry Clarke
Harry Clarke’s stained glass
Harry Clarke’s The Year’s at the Spring
The art of Harry Clarke, 1889–1931

Weekend links 541

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Virgil Finlay illustrates Hallowe’en in a Suburb by HP Lovecraft for Weird Tales, September 1952.

• Literary Hub does Halloween with an abundance with Draculas, a lazy option but the pieces are good ones nonetheless: Olivia Rutigliano attempts to rank the 50 best (screen) Draculas, and also recalls the Broadway production designed by Edward Gorey. At the same site, Katie Yee discovers that The Addams Family (1991) is really about the importance of books.

• The inevitable film lists: the always reliable Anne Billson selects the scariest ghosts in cinema; at Dennis Cooper’s, TheNeanderthalSkull curates…DC’s Weirdo Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, a list featuring a couple of oddities which have appeared in previous weekend links.

• More books bound with human skin: Megan Rosenbloom, author of Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin discusses the subject with S. Elizabeth.

Beyond all this, however, readers are most likely to read De Quincey for his compellingly strange writing on opium and its effect on the mind. For it is opium, rather than the opium-eater, he writes in Confessions, who “is the true hero of the tale”. He explains the drug cannot of itself create imaginative visions—the man “whose talk is of oxen” will probably dream about oxen. But for De Quincey, with his love for reverie, it gives “an inner eye and power of intuition for the vision and the mysteries of our human nature”. Wine “robs a man of his self-possession: opium greatly invigorates it”. It “gives an expansion to the heart and the benevolent affections”. “This”, he claims, “is the doctrine of the true church on the subject of opium: of which church I acknowledge myself to be the only member.”

“Thomas De Quincey’s revelatory writing deserves greater attention,” says Jane Darcy

• New music: Weeping Ghost by John Carpenter is a preview of the forthcoming Lost Themes III; Moments Of Clarity is a new album of psychedelic(ish) songs from Professor Yaffle.

• “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!” Sean Connery (RIP) was often playing kings in later life but he started early with this performance as Macbeth in 1961. (Ta to TjZ for the link!)

• Mixes of the week: a (non-Halloween) guest mix by Paul Schütze for Toneshift, and the by-now traditional Samhain Séance Mix from The Ephemeral Man.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ big new adventure: an illustrated “reinvention” of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.

Drew McDowall (of Coil, et al) talks Musick, magick and sacred materiality.

• “No one loves the smell of a Kindle,” says Thomas O’Dwyer.

Brüder des Schattens (1979) by Popol Vuh | Nosferatu (1988) by Art Zoyd | Vampires At Large (2012) by John Zorn

Interview with the vampire illustrator

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Some of the many illustrators of Bram Stoker’s Dracula are the subject of a six-page feature in the latest issue of Illustration magazine. The writer of the piece, Simon Cooke, asked me a few questions about the edition I worked on for Editorial Alma in 2018 (previously), and he devotes two pages to analysing my illustrations. I was a little unnerved by this since Alma asked me to produce 27 full-page pictures—one for each chapter—in five weeks, which isn’t the kind of deadline I prefer for work that requires so much historical research. Consequently, I still feel the book is compromised but people evidently like the end results so I should stop complaining. Illustration magazine is available from Cello Press.

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As for my work of the moment, the Joe Banks Hawkwind book will be published by Strange Attractor in the next few weeks, so everyone will finally get to see my Frank R. Paul-derived wraparound cover. And there’s more science fiction on the way with a new cover design featuring a robot as its centrepiece. Watch this space.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Hawkwind: Days of the Underground
Illustrating Dracula

André Castaigne’s Phantom of the Opera

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Frontispiece.

My recent film viewing has included two early adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera, the superb Lon Chaney version from 1925, directed by Rupert Julian, and the not-so-superb 1943 version with Claude Rains as the Phantom. I’d not seen the latter before but it was included in a blu-ray collection of Universal horror films; Rains is wasted in the title role but in its favour the film has Technicolor photography and huge sets, some of which were being reused from the 1925 film. The Chaney version is one of my favourite silent films so it was good to see again after a lengthy absence. It also sent me to Gaston Leroux’s novel at long last, and this in turn led me to the illustrations by André Castaigne for the first edition.

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“She staggered swooning.”

The Phantom of the Opera was published in 1911, and while it hasn’t been subjected to the overexposure sustained by Dracula and Frankenstein it’s still one of those stories where the adaptations now dominate the popular imagination. I’d not seen Castaigne’s illustrations before so I was surprised by how closely the 1925 film followed their details, especially the depiction of the Phantom’s appearance as the Red Death at the bal masque. The same goes for the ghostly head of fire which Raoul and the Persian encounter in the cellars beneath the opera. In the film this is an inexplicable moment but one which would no doubt have been familiar to the novel’s readers. Finally, there’s Lon Chaney’s incredible makeup which turns out to be very close to the glimpses of the Phantom’s skull-like face in these pictures. I often used to wonder about this, how much of Chaney’s appearance was merely an attempt to look as horrifying as possible. (In the 1943 film, and the 1962 Hammer adaptation with Herbert Lom, both Phantoms have been disfigured by acid scarring.)

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“They sat like that for a moment in silence.”

By coincidence, a new illustrated edition of The Phantom of the Opera was published this month by the Folio Society, with a splendid set of illustrations by Taylor Dolan. As for the Lon Chaney film, the restored blu-ray print is the one to look for, with tinted scenes, the bal masque in two-strip Technicolor, and an excellent orchestral score by Carl Davis.

(Note: With the exception of the frontispiece, all the illustrations here were printed over two pages, hence the fold across each picture.)

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“A head of fire came toward them.”

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“Talking of death, I must sing.”

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford