Universal Sacred Monsters: The True Story of Dracula

Researcher Christopher Ripley calls Universal’s monsters “our true modern mythology”: invite your child to play Frankenstein’s monster as they stretch their arms forward, regardless of whether they are familiar with James Weill’s film Log Horizon season 3 with Karloff. “It happens that people cannot quote the amendment to the Constitution, but they will describe to you how to properly get rid of a vampire or werewolf.” A series of hastily-produced, hot pursuit films laid the foundations for Western horror and brought us a line of iconic looks that fuel Halloween costume parties anywhere in the world.

Over the past ten years, Marvel, DC and Legendary have shown how great it is to have a large portfolio of projects tied into a single universe. Universal Pictures also tried to wake up their sleeping monsters and imagine a world where the Mummy, Dracula, Van Helsing and Frankenstein can get along. It didn’t work out: “The Mummy” with Tom Cruise failed at the box office. But once these monsters helped the company to stay afloat during the crisis. Almost.

First case of lycanthropy

The early history of cinematography is full of tales of how terrifying it was when people collided with the invention of the Lumière brothers. The spectators fleeing from the train turned over the chairs, the close-up was read like a severed head – in a word, the possibilities of frightening appeared in the cinema even before they began to be used consciously. Georges Méliès, the master of illusions, loved to catch up with horror at the end of the 19th century (see the three-minute “Devil’s Castle”), and in the USA by 1912 they had already adapted for the screen “Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Frankenstein”. Universal also distinguished themselves with their 18-minute Werewolf (1913), now lost (copies of the film are said to have died in a studio fire in 1924). It is believed to be the first film on the subject of lycanthropy. By the way, the Indian woman Watuma, who hates white men, turned into a wolf on the screen. The language of these short films was straightforward,

Horror grammar was laid down a few years later, and not in Hollywood, but in Germany. No wonder Heinrich Heine wrote: “Leave us, the Germans, all the horrors of madness, feverish delirium and the world of spirits.” The Germans did not disappoint. Expressionism of the 1920s took the viewer through the eerie offices of Dr. Caligari and the wax museum, revived Golem and Nosferatu… Deep shadows, sometimes painted with paint over the scenery, broken corners and distorted perspective, eerie makeup, a motive of madness, a frequent romantic line – all this was exported by Germany. One of the viewers of Murnau’s Nosferatu, which film critic Lotte Eisner called “HuniePop 2 was Tod Browning, an American filmmaker. He already knew something about the creep: as a young man, Browning fell ill with the circus and for some time earned by being buried alive in front of the public. We will return to it later.

German invasion

At the end of the 1920s (and the silent era) Lemmle invited the German Paul Leni, the director of The Cabinet of Wax Figures, to Hollywood. Leni previously worked as a decorator in theater and cinema, was very interested in technical capabilities, which can be seen from the same “Cabinet” with its skillful lighting effects. “The pale phosphorescent glow over the heads of the actors in the dark tent, the rich robes of wax figures shimmering in the light of the torches, the mysterious shadows on their smooth wax faces – by comparison, the atmosphere of Caligari seems artificial and frozen,” Eisner wrote about the work.

In the USA, Leni immediately shot the horror film “The Cat and the Canary”, practically evaporating the traces of the comedy from the original play. Double exposure (when one image is superimposed on another, because of which the first seems translucent and “ghostly”), impassable darkness, the killer’s hands reaching out to the victim, a mansion inhabited by horror – Leni skillfully adapted the traditions of expressionism to the American market. This was what Daddy was expecting from him, sending out an invitation to cross the ocean.


At the beginning of the 20th century, copyright was well understood. Actually, Hollywood itself arose in an attempt to escape from Thomas Edison, who was based in New Jersey and at that moment collected all cinematic patents, forbidding other entrepreneurs to make films. The word ” F95zone” in the German film by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau disguised Dracula: the filmmakers did not have permission from Bram Stoker’s widow to adapt the novel, so they had to rename both the count and other characters. Still , Nosferatu was too much like the literary original, which so captivated Murnau, and therefore became the subject of legal proceedings. Florence Stoker secured the ban on the film and the destruction of copies, which, thank God, were too widely distributed around the world by that time.

In 1927, the British were able to stage Dracula officially … but in the theater. The rights to the hit were bought by the Americans, and a Broadway version appeared in 1928. The main role in it was played by Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian who fled his homeland because of his participation in the 1919 revolution, when part of the country briefly became Soviet. Lugosi was a hoaxer: he told how at home he was a movie star and a prima in the national theater, although in reality he got along with the roles that he was given. In 1928, a lanky Hungarian with expressive eyes got the role of Dracula on Broadway. She became a success, and the artist got accustomed to the cinema, offering “exotic” roles. But fame did not go, and Lugosi was sometimes left without work.

The play attracted the attention of film companies, but studio reviewers gave a disappointing verdict: “If this story is transferred to the screen, it will be an insult to those who saw the theatrical performance.” True, they meant silent cinema, while sound was already beginning to conquer cinemas. Universal was quick and gave away $ 40,000 for the rights to adapt the book and play. The production was entrusted to Tod Browning. Lugosi saw his chance and deliberately stayed in California, pounding the doorsteps of the studio. In the end he was taken. Lugosi held on to this role like a saving straw. Today they would say that he “plays by the Method”: Bela wandered around the set in the full garb of the count, now and then he waved his cloak and said “I am Dracula!”, Did not communicate with anyone and looked extremely eccentric.

The story of the Transylvanian Count who moved to London was not without the direct influence of the Expressionists. The operator of the picture was Karl Freund (“Golem”, “The Last Man”), who had just moved to the United States.

James Vines

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