It’s that time of year again, when innocent pumpkins are slaughtered and mutilated in their thousands and children dress up as murderers, ghouls and monsters in order to blackmail sweet confections from total strangers. Tell me this isn’t better than Christmas!
Horror movies have provided the inspiration for costumes for many a year. Watch the streets on the 31st and you’ll find a variety of contemporary icons of the macabre in miniature form. However, it’s a fair bet that the majority of Halloween costumes will represent four of horror’s most enduring and classic monsters; Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Werewolf. So, in honour of Halloween, here’s a potted history of The Big Four, from their origins to the best that celluloid has given us in their name.
The vampire has its origins in a plethora of myths throughout Eastern Europe. These myths evolved from a variety of sources, such as premature burials, pre-psychology lunacy and diseases like porphyria and rabies. John Polidori’s The Vampyre, in 1819, first devised the character of the seductive, gentlemanly vampire, elevated beyond the dirty and decaying creatures of folklore. However, it was Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, and the subsequent movie adaptations, which really pushed the vampire into mainstream consciousness. Taking the name from that of Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Dragon), and his son Vlad III (The Impaler), who would used the name Dracula, Stoker created one of the most iconic characters in literary history.
F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu was the first movie adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Well, sort of. With no copyright permission, Murnau simply changed the names of all the characters and rewrote the ending. Count Dracula now became Count Orlock, and was portrayed by the terrifying Max Schreck. However, no-one was fooled and Stoker’s widow succeeded in suing Murnau, who was ordered to destroy all prints of the film. Fortunately some survived, and Nosferatu still stands as one of the finest adaptations of Stoker’s novel to date.
Perhaps the most iconic Dracula performance was that of Bela Lugosi in Universal Studio’s 1931 Dracula. As with most adaptations of the novel, the story and details were altered significantly. Having played the character on stage, it is ironic that Lugosi only got the part after Todd Browning’s original choice, Lon Chaney, died. Lugosi spoke very little English at the time and had to learn his lines phonetically, but his accented delivery became the standard for corny Dracula impersonations forever. After he died, poverty stricken and largely forgotten, Lugosi was buried in his cape.
When Hammer Studio’s joined the fray, with Christopher Lee as the titular vampire, they made even more changes to the narrative. Jonathan Harker is now a vampire-hunter rather than a solicitor and is turned into a vampire before being killed by Van Helsing. Still, Lee is charismatic and engaging as the seductive Count, a role which would ultimately become something of a millstone to the actor. Lee would not return for Hammer’s next Dracula movie, but did make a further six movies as the character with the studio.
In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola’s effort, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was an attempt to create a more faithful adaptation of the original novel. Certainly, it adhered to Stoker’s book more than the movies before it, even if it did take the liberty of making Dracula the Vlad III, rather than simply a character inspired by him. Gary Oldman’s charming Count grows younger throughout the movie, as he does in the book. Few actors could retain their dignity while wearing a wig that looks like a huge ass, but Gary manages it. Luckily, he has Keanu Reeves’ dreadful English accent to attract the derision.
Created by Mary Shelley in her novel Frankenstein, published in 1818, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his attempts to create life from death is the original cautionary tale of the dangers of man playing God. Driven by a thirst for knowledge, Frankenstein takes the bodies of the dead and creates a monster beyond his control; one which will ultimately spell his doom, and the doom of those he loves. Widely considered to be one the first entries in the Science Fiction genre, Shelley was only 18 when she wrote it, supposedly after a nightmare. That was some bad dream she had, it has to be said. Frankenstein is bleak, violent and tragic. Yay.
Edison Studios, the production company owned by Thomas Edison, produced a 13-minute-long Frankenstein that was the first ever adaptation of the book for the screen. Made in 1910 by J. Searle Dawley, it featured a particularly bizarre looking monster, played by Charles Ogle, and has great curiosity value if nothing else. Check out the early special effects during the creation sequence, as Dr Frankenstein seemingly creates his creature from a skeleton. Not for the last time, Shelley’s tragic story was given a happy ending.
Universal Studios went the same way for their classic interpretation of the tale in 1931. Boris Karloff is perhaps the most iconic monster, originating the square head and neck bolts. Why a man made from bits of other men should have a flat, square head is beyond me, but it looks pretty cool. Director James Whale followed his Frankenstein with Bride of Frankenstein, a superior sequel in that the monster was made far more sympathetic than he appeared in the first movie; an interpretation much closer to the novel. Elsa Lancaster’s hair is probably the most memorable ‘do in cinema history.
Hammer Studios added their own spin on the tale with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, with Christopher Lee as the monster. While wisely ditching the square head, the movie does deviate even further from the source material. Victor Frankenstein is now a murderer as well as a creator. Played by the imcomparable Peter Cushing, the character became increasingly more evil with each subsequent sequel, even to the point of becoming a rapist in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, which is still regarded as the best of Hammer’s many efforts in the series.
Perhaps the most faithful screen adaptation is Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in 1994. While still altering certain narrative details of the original novel, all the important elements are kept true to the source. Robert De Niro’s reanimated patchwork creature is not only a rampaging monster, but a thinking, reasoning man; both victim and threat. The novel’s ending was kept, with all its snowbound tragedy and pathos, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also looks gorgeous. Definitely my favourite interpretation of Shelley’s novel, and sadly underrated.
Egyptian mummification can be traced back as far as 3300 BC, but the idea of the reanimated mummy is a little more recent. Edgar Allen Poe’s 1845 short story Some Words with a Mummy is possibly the first instance of such a character in fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle devised the notion of the reawakened mummy as a tool of vengence in his story Lot No. 249, in 1892, and Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars concerned an archaeologist’s attempts to revive the mummy of an Egyptian queen. But it was the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, and the subsequent deaths of many of those who found it, that brought the idea of Egyptian curses into the mainstream.
The first mummy movie, entitled Cléopâtre or Cleopatra’s Tomb, was made in 1899 by the great pioneer of the moving image Georges Méliès. It is 2 minutes long. However, up until the thirties the bulk of mummy movies were comedies. It was Universal who brought on the horror with the 1932 The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff as the revived priest Imhotep, blending into contemporary Egypt after 10 years and searching for his lost love, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. Or someone who looks like her, anyway. You know how it goes.
Christopher Lee took on the role in Hammer’s The Mummy, released in 1959. Tall and imposing, Lee makes a particularly creepy mummy. Unlike Karloff’s, Lee’s mummy is a silent, relentless killing machine and much scarier as a result. Hammer continued a run of mummy movies, using Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars as the basis for Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971). Of all Hammer’s efforts, it’s The Mummy’s Shroud that sticks in my mind from childhood as the scariest. I haven’t seen it since so apologies if you watch it and it sucks.
Dawn of the Mummy, a low budget movie made in 1981 by Frank Agrama, is not a great movie but it does feature one of the creepiest mummies put on celluloid. Played by an uncredited actor who is skinny as hell and about 8-foot tall, the mummy of Sephriman is the best thing about this movie. Again, however, it’s been a long time since I saw it. Interestingly, what Dawn of the Mummy did that no mummy movie had done before was to latch onto the George Romero inspired undead fever and put zombies into the mix. Sooner or later someone was going to do it.
Possibly the most imaginative use of a mummy, and my personal favourite of the genre, is Don Coscarelli’s 2002 Bubba Ho-Tep. The residents of a retirement home are being terrorised by a mummy, and only the aged Elvis Presley and a wheelchair-bound black man who claims to be JFK can save the day. Featuring an inspired turn from Bruce Campbell as the geriatric King, Bubba Ho-Tep took the mummy movie full circle, back to comedy again. Together with Stephen Sommers more adventure orientated mummy trilogy, it may be some time before this character regains its horror status.
The werewolf has its origins in various myths scattered throughout the world, going as far back as the Ancient Greeks and possibly beyond. Many of the tales share a connection to vampire folklore and origins. Pagan rituals involving the moon and the wearing of wolf skins, carriers of rabies, legends which built up around the savage, fur-wearing Vikings, and stories of children raised in the wild have all contributed to the belief in lycanthropes. Greek mythology tells the story of cruel Arcadian King Lycaon, who was punished by Zeus by being transformed into a wolf. The werewolf has appeared in folklore and fiction longer than any of the other classic monsters.
Universal’s Werewolf of London (1935) was the first movie to feature the werewolf in its best known form, as a man who involuntarily transforms into a wolf during the full moon. This was followed in 1941 with the superior The Wolf Man, with Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular character. Chaney plays Larry Talbot, who returns to his family home in Wales after the death of his brother. He is bitten by a wolf while defending a woman from it. Soon he finds himself having to sit in the make-up chair for four hours a day. Chaney reprised his iconic role four more times, but never to such success.
Hammer Studios only ever made one werewolf movie, The Curse of the Werewolf in 1961, with Oliver Reed. Based on the 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore, the film moves the story to 18th Century Spain. Reed plays Leon, born on Christmas Day and cursed to become a werewolf at every full moon unless his spirit remains pure. Or something. Frankly, who cares? We just want the werewolf and when we finally get it, after a very long build-up, it’s a classic. Few people are as convincing when running around growling as the late Oliver Reed.
The werewolf genre suffered something of a slump for a long while, until Joe Dante hit with The Howling in 1981. Special effects guru Rick Baker created startling new transformation effects for the movie which he then went on to perfect in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London in the same year. Quite simply the best werewolf movie ever made, this story of an American student infected by a werewolf while backpacking in England was also the first to have a lycanthrope that looked more like a wolf than a man.
In 2002 Neil Marshall reinvigorated the once again flagging genre with his debut Dog Soldiers. Pitting six British soldiers on a training mission in the Scottish Highlands against a pack of indigenous werewolves, Marshall’s movie made magic with a limited budget and a talented cast. Dog Soldiers took its cues from An American Werewolf in London by using humour to sharpen the horror. The werewolves themselves, returning to the bipedal variety, were well executed and the location was especially spooky. Dog Soldiers proved that there’s life in the old genre yet.