The Cinematographic Gothic World of Universal Monsters

The Cinematographic Gothic World of Universal Monsters
© Photograph by Max Weber

It is fair to say that horror film after 1960 has tried to resurrect every single Gothic monster that has ever existed: ghouls and monsters from both the Anglo-American and European traditions. But while gorgons or phantoms of the opera have been invoked sparsely, vampires, Frankenstein’s monsters, witches, werewolves and zombies are recurring figures in modern and contemporary horror. Of these, Frankenstein might be credited for having revivified an interest in Gothic horror that is unparalleled since the days of the Universal monster cycle. Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (Fisher 1957) and The Revenge of Frankenstein (Fisher 1958) revisited their respective icons and added copious servings of Technicolor blood (an eye being shot) and viscera (organs in formaldehyde). But if these films’ landmark status derives in some measure from their titillating nature, they also brought to filmic Gothic a strong concern with embodiment and death. Revenge toyed with metaphysical quandaries by proposing that the soul could be transported from one body to another, and The Evil of Frankenstein (Francis 1964) saw the baron (Peter Cushing) boldly stating that the origin of life is a simple case of “biophysical chemistry,” or “chemical action and reaction controlled by the external impulses.” But it was perhaps Frankenstein Created Woman (Fisher 1967) that was most wildly imaginative in this respect. In it, a hanged man’s brain is transplanted onto the body of his female lover. The monster then takes revenge on those who had abused them in the past, in an improbable but beguiling experiment on the persistence of brain memory.

Hammer aside, Frankenstein horror films from the 1960s onward have tended to adopt polar positions: they have either attempted to be as faithful to the original as possible, or they have deliberately deviated from Shelley’s novel for other purposes. In the first category, Terror of Frankenstein (Floyd 1977) is particularly noteworthy, although it did not capture the popular imagination to any great extent. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Branagh 1994) was received in a similarly lukewarm fashion, and its tragic temperamental monster, played by Robert De Niro, originally garnered mixed reviews. In fact, it could be argued that the Frankensteinian monster has been kept most vibrantly alive through reinterpretations of the myth that have come from considerably varied cinematic quarters, and in films which cannot easily be classified as horror. Among others, the original The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman 1975) developed the sexually progressive Dr Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry); the spoof-homage Young Frankenstein (Brooks 1974) managed to convert the story into a successful comedy following the life of the doctor’s ashamed grandson; the explicit art-horror of Flesh for Frankenstein (Morrissey and Margheriti 1973) offered the controversial possibility of a homosexual monster; Frankenhooker (Henenlotter 1990) saw the myth turn to a critique of pimping via exploitation cinema; and The Bride (Roddam 1985) produced a feminist reworking that is ripe for critical consideration. More recently, The Frankenstein Syndrome (Tretta 2010) has tried to bring the monster into the present by locating Frankenstein’s godlike ambition to create life within the ethical conundrums of unregulated stem cell research. This film shows that the Frankensteinian monster might still be able to escape its literary remit in critically productive ways from within the horror genre.

Vampires, for their part, have proven extremely successful and have managed to move well beyond their most famous representative, Stoker’s Count Dracula. This is partly due to the fact that vampiric characteristics can be worked into metaphors for a number of human obsessions or anxieties. Thus, vampirism has simultaneously stood in for drug abuse (Ferrara’s The Addiction, 1995), or as a suggestive metaphor for the tribulations of adolescence (Romero’s Martin, 1976), or, in the case of The Hunger (Scott 1983), as a powerful portrayal of the fear of ageing. Another aspect that makes vampires particularly liberating Gothic figures in cinematic terms is their ubiquity. Mummies are still necessarily grounded within a potentially costly or narrative-limiting Egyptological background, but vampires can exist anywhere. In fact, key films in the genre have shown the need for such adaptability. The 1970s began freeing these creatures from their original Transylvanian motherland as well as from the period settings that had until then become the norm. Count Yorga, Vampire (Kelljan 1970) and Salem’s Lot (Hooper 1979) transplanted the myth to America, while Hammer’s own Dracula A.D. 1972 (Gibson 1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Gibson 1973) brought the Count back to life in contemporary England. These vampires still wear capes, are of foreign extraction, and are pitted against the newer generations; in a sense, then, they still remain social outcasts and outsiders. This is an image that has found a continuation in films such as Nadja (Almereyda 1994) or the HBO series True Blood (Ball 2008–present), with the latter having gone so far as to imagine a society in which vampiric alterity may be successfully integrated into the status quo.

I have intimated above that vampires have developed independently of the literary model. In fact, Hammer’s own Dracula became increasingly marginal and almost accessory throughout the 1960s – witness the mute Count in Prince of Darkness (Fisher 1967) – and other vampires soon appeared in The Brides of Dracula (Fisher 1960) or The Kiss of the Vampire (Sharp 1963). By the early 1970s, the studios had vouched for a highly eroticized and almost predominantly female vampire. Although Dracula’s Daughter (Hillyer 1936) already envisions the notion of the “monster queer” (Benshoff 1997) in the 1930s, it is perhaps The Vampire Lovers (Baker 1970) that most openly exploited the vampire’s erotic potential. A loose adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1872), the film traces the adventures of a vampire (Ingrid Pitt) and her sexual encounters with the women in the von Spieldorf household. Of particular interest is Carmilla’s emotional attachment to the general’s daughter, Laura (Pippa Steel), a passionate attachment which is fodder for full-frontal nudity and homoeroticism.

Other interesting productions, such as Lust for a Vampire (Sangster 1971), Twins of Evil (Hough 1971) or the non-Hammer Anglo-Spanish co-production Vampyres (Aguirre 1974), further developed this trend, upping the amount of on-screen nudity and sex. John Badham’s dandy Count in Dracula (1979) culminated in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Coppola 1992), a film which, despite its claim to faithfulness, fabricated an entire romantic subplot between the Count and Mina that would resonate with the sexy protagonists of Interview with the Vampire (Jordan 1994). These new supernatural heroes, both appealing and deeply flawed, have seen their most financially viable progeny in teenage romances.

Monsters in the latter half of the twentieth century have also been ineluctably tied to the feminist movement and to changes in attitudes toward the screen presence and social role of women. If telekinesis has been specifically linked to young girls in two Brian De Palma productions, Carrie (1976) and The Fury (1978), witchcraft has proven an effective backdrop for the interplay between the desires and anxieties of ageing women. Night of the Eagle (Hayers 1962) sees middle-aged Tansy (Janet Blair) making recourse to various spells and talismans in order to protect her husband from the powers of a colleague’s jealous wife. This form of agency and empowerment is repeated in The Witches (Frankel 1966), where Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh) goes as far as to assert that witchcraft is a “sex thing” that older women go in for because “they relish the idea of a secret power, especially when their normal powers are failing.” The tyrant titular character in Witchfinder General (Reeves 1968), famously played by Vincent Price, would soon thereafter make its way through seventeenth-century England, punishing women who threaten or refuse male authority. Dr Jekyll’s Mr Hyde, another Gothic monster which aside from Mary Reilly (Frears 1996) and Fight Club (Fincher 1999) has been critically overlooked in recent years, was put to a similar gender-vindictive use in Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (Baker 1971). The film explores social fears about sexually-active women through sister Hyde (Martine Beswick), Jekyll’s female Other, as well as the restrictive movement and limitations of young women through Susan (Susan Broderick).

Gothic monsters, then, are also utilized in the film to negotiate problems related to adolescence and the coming of age. The obvious connection between sexual awakening and the shape-shifting qualities of lycanthropy were cemented by Hammer in The Curse of the Werewolf (Fisher 1961), and by the 1980s, the werewolf had become most typically a teenager. An American Werewolf in London (Landis 1981) and The Company of Wolves (Jordan 1984) also show a fascination with the transformations themselves, scenes often granted extended on-screen time and depicted as painful moments of bodily rebellion that could be read as grotesque renditions of growing pains. These elaborate metamorphoses are not just a testament to advances in special effects; they also construct werewolves as monsters which project anxieties surrounding identity, lack of self-control or corporeal changes. Ginger Snaps (Fawcett 2000), where Ginger’s (Katharine Isabelle) entry into lycanthropy is paired with her first menstruation, captures the metaphorical possibilities of the werewolf brilliantly. The film follows Ginger’s mood swings as she morphs into a sexually-active teenager, later infecting a boy through unprotected sex. Ginger’s body becomes a material prison that she cannot escape, and point to what I am suggesting is contemporary Gothic horror’s single-most important trait: the establishment of an embodiment as the prime site of fear and uncertainty.

The excesses and weaknesses of corporeality have also been the subject matter of zombie films. Night of the Living Dead (Romero 1968) created a new creature diametrically opposed to the voodoo victims of Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) or Revolt of the Zombies (1936). With Night, zombies became rotting corpses with a never-ending hunger for brains, a characteristic which made them particularly appealing to splatter directors. Corporeal limits are transgressed in the various blood and limb showers of Braindead (Jackson 1992); in Re-Animator (Gordon 1985), based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, severed heads talk by themselves in autopsy rooms; and in Shaun of the Dead (Wright 2004), splatter shares the spotlight with black humor. Contemporary zombies, since the successes of 28 Days Later (Boyle 2002) or I Am Legend (Lawrence 2007), are also considerably faster than their lumbering forebears, and increasingly their zombified condition is construed as the result of infection.

Although viral monstrosity is not an exclusive province of zombiehood – as Stacey Abbott (2007: 197–214) has noted, vampires have recently embarked on scientific searches for cures in Blade (Norrington 1998), Underworld (Wiseman) and Daybreakers (Spierig 2009) – the trope has suitably enhanced the zombie’s pandemic qualities. At the same time, zombies, traditionally reserved for the B-movie/cult aficionado, have become more mainstream, a tendency witnessed in the high-budget production of Zombieland (Fleischer 2009). And if the rom-zom-com Warm Bodies (Levine 2013) is indicative of future trends, the boundaries between zombies and humans, once questioned in different registers by Return of the Living Dead (O’Bannon 1985) and Day of the Dead (Romero 1985), promise to be further complicated through the introduction of romantic plots similar to those that currently preoccupy vampires.


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