When you’ve owned as many books on horror and science fiction films and television as I do (almost 200 at last count), it’s very rare to see a new arrival that excites you with a previously neglected subject, or especially that renews interest in an oft-covered one. But for Christmas my oldest brother, Jonathan, gave me a copy of Michael Mallory’s impressive Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror, recently published by Rizzoli/Universe, and, well, I’m excited. Mallory (the author of previous books about Marvel Comics—always a good sign—and Hanna-Barbera) clearly knows whereof he writes, and conveys both his knowledge and his enthusiasm to the lucky reader on every page.
After a self-serving foreword by filmmaker Stephen Sommers, Mallory segues from an overview of Universal’s history and key contributions during the silent era to profiles of its classic monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Gill Man. These are interspersed with informative “spotlights” on actors Lon Chaney (Sr. and Jr.), Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Una O’Connor, and Dwight Frye; screenwriter Curt Siodmak; effects and makeup wizards John P. Fulton and Jack P. Pierce; director James Whale; composer Hans Salter; supporting players; and leading ladies. Separate sections cover such broader topics as “Creatures, Creepers, and Chillers” (incorporating Universal’s second-string monsters and Inner Sanctum mysteries), “Monsters, Madmen, and Freaks of Science,” and the genre spoofs of Abbott and Costello.
As this reviewer knows all too well, summarizing films in just the right amount of detail is harder than it looks, but Mallory succeeds admirably with lively writing and fascinating trivia. (One such tidbit: the 1941 genre-flavored murder mystery Horror Island winged its way into theaters an amazing twenty-five days after filming began.) And while his tone is inevitably pro-Universal throughout, he does not refrain from pointing out slip-ups like the glaring continuity gaffes in the Mummy series whereby, if the films’ internal timeline were actually followed, The Mummy’s Curse (1944) would be set sometime in the late 1990s!
This might be regarded as the coffee-table counterpart to the encyclopedic Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946 (1990) by Michael Brunas, John Brunas, and Tom Weaver, a 600-page tome that tackles the topic in the painstaking detail one expects from McFarland (ahem). Mallory’s lavish volume covers the subject more succinctly, yet with rich detail, reminiscences by surviving participants (e.g., Julie Adams, Ricou Browning, Elena Verdugo), and—most important—a wealth of gorgeously reproduced stills and posters. Sure, I’ve seen some of these photos before, but man, they’ve never looked so good as they do in this 9 ¼” x 12 ¼” format, and many were new to me. The size, clarity, and sheer number of these illustrations is positively jaw-dropping.
The book does display some curious choices and omissions. For example, Mallory rhapsodizes about Olga Baclanova’s smoldering pre-Code performance in The Man Who Laughs (1928), yet makes no mention of her infamous appearance as the ill-fated aerialist in one of the most notorious of all horror films, Freaks (1932), perhaps because erstwhile Universal mainstay Tod Browning directed it for MGM instead. Likewise, the jacket features portraits of all of the major monsters discussed therein, but the Mummy is represented by the otherwise obscure Tom Tyler in The Mummy’s Hand (1940) rather than by Karloff, who created the role in the 1932 original, or Chaney Jr., who endured it in three sequels. This might be excused, since Karloff and Chaney are already depicted as Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man, respectively, yet Dracula appears in the person of John Carradine instead of Lugosi. To exclude the man who was, in a sense, directly responsible for Universal Horror with his breakthrough success in Browning’s Dracula (1931) seems inexplicable indeed.
But these and some unfortunate proofing errors marring an otherwise professional presentation (e.g., “who’s” instead of “whose,” a real Word-Man pet peeve, in a photo caption) can be easily overlooked in a book that offers so much. Not for nothing have the Universal Horror films remained favorites for almost eighty years, and this admiring, affectionate tribute gives them their due in a respectful and effective way. Highly recommended.