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Classics Set for a Monster Comeback
Classics Set for a Monster Comeback
The public and the monsters served up for hunting by the title character in Universal Studio's "Van Helsing" are well acquainted. Oh, and in other giant understatements - Bill Gates is rich, Mother Teresa was nice, and the Pacific Ocean is vast.
Since Universal released "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" in 1931, the two icons have been something like a friendly-but-distant-cousin to movie goers; you see them every few years, spend a few hours getting re-acquainted and then leave with good feelings until next time, but they are definitely part of the family. These two characters have grown into universally (no pun intended) recognized icons. In their monstrous footsteps followed the Mummy, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and a host of other imitators.
Universal - more or less - invented the "horror" movie as it is recognized today with the release of these two giants. So imprinted on the public conscious are the images of Boris Karloff (as Frankenstein's monster) and Bela Lugosi (as Dracula) that the actor's rendition of the characters are now the very stereotypes in almost everybody's mind. Frankenstein's monster simply looks like Karloff with his ample brow, flat head and two bolts in his neck to receive the life-giving electricity.
In fact, so ingrained is the monster design, most people simply take it for granted, even if they have never seen the original films! Simply put, they are part of 20th Century world culture. This can be directly attributed to the work done by director James Whale and Make-up artist Jack P. Pierce, as well as the actors. Children dressing for halloween as either of these two icons are certain to follow in the design concepts of these great creators without even knowing why.
In 1997, for Halloween, the U.S. Postal service released a series of five stamps based on the look of Frankenstein and Dracula, as well as Karloff as "The Mummy", Lon Chaney as "The Phantom of the Opera," and Lon Chaney Jr. as "The Wolf Man," validating them as part of Americana. (In fact, Sideshow has a framed piece hanging in the office of these stamps) Other nations have also embraced blood sucker stamps. (For tax men maybe?) They include Canada, Chad, Sierra Leone, Romania, Ireland and Britain.
But these monsters have invaded more than mailboxes. Frankenstein has rubbed shoulders with a lot of other icons as well. His list includes Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, 1948), Alvin and the Chipmunks (Alvin and the Chipmunks meet Frankenstein, 1999) and in the ultimate 1966 crossover "Jesse James meets Frankenstein's Daughter." Other "Frank" movies with horrible sounding names include 1998's "Frankenstein General Hospital" and 1981's "Frankenstein Island." Dracula fares no better with "Batman Dracula" and so many bad vampire movies (and a few good ones) that it almost becomes impossible to make a list.
They have simply invaded society. For example, each had a breakfast cereal inspired by the images they made: "Count Chocula" and "Frankenberry." Movie inspired cereal friends "Fruite Brute" (Wolf Man look alike) and "Yummy Mummy" didn't have the staying power apparently, and are retired as cereal while the generic character "Boo Berry" remains. The big two were also paid tribute by "Flintstones meet Rockula and Frankenstone" in 1979.
After sequels to both the Frankenstein and Dracula catalogs, along came the Wolf Man for Universal with 1941's "The Wolf Man," featuring Lon Chaney Jr. The werewolf icon created with that film and its subsequent tie-ins to both shambling monster and vampire legends has popped up in pop culture so prevalently that one cannot escape them. Chaney too is the face of the classic lycanthrope.
For the last half century or so, the Hollywood machine and B-movie studios have been churning out horror films that use these characters in more years than not. Today's horror icons such as Stephen King, Anne Rice and Clive Barker cannot help but trace some of their roots to the fertile ground of these legends.
Still, despite all the dispersion of the legends and the watering down of the original celluloid characters, the most indelible images remain Chaney Jr., Lugosi and Karloff. They are classic and eternal.
"When most people talk about Frankenstein now they don't think of the 1818 novel by Mary Shelly," said Van Helsing's Samuel West (Victor Frankenstein) in a DVD interview. "They think of Boris Karloff in the most famous monster character make-up ever created."
And so it is, in the 21st Century, that Universal has seen fit to re-imagine these timeless legends by shifting the focus to another character present in many of the previously mentioned movies and in Bram Stoker's literary starter "Dracula." Dr. Gabriel Van Helsing (known as Abraham previously) takes over both the title and the spotlight as he encounters these horrific legends.
Audiences and film-making technology have advanced significantly, and so will the story of the great vampire hunter played by the heroic Hugh Jackman. In fact, the opening scene of the new film by director Stephen Sommers hearkens back to the original "Frankenstein" movie with its burning windmill and moves on from there. Universal has picked up its legends, dusted them off, unchained them and sent them back into the world. "Van Helsing" is about the past as well as the future for the studio.
"There's a whole new audience that "Van Helsing" will capture which never experienced the classic monsters," said Ken Graffeo, executive VP of marketing at Universal Home Entertainment in a CNN interview. "They're going to experience them when they see Van Helsing, and they're going to want to understand what the true characters were really like."
Universal also released a DVD collection of its classic films only days before "Van Helsing" hit theaters. Consumers can get the triple threat of Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein that includes the Sideshow busts, as rendered by Oluf W. Hartvigson, in the box set. Each of the three monsters also has his own collection but without the Sideshow busts. (Guess which option I bet Sideshow would prefer you purchased?) The timing of the release is not coincidence according to Universal Pictures Marketing co-president Eddie Egan.
"When we set out on this (Van Helsing) enterprise, we asked ourselves: How can we bring this movie to the widest possible global audience and simultaneously celebrate our company's legacy," Egan said to CNN. "So there are two things going on - an enormous effort to launch the movie on May 7 and a critically synchronized campaign to raise awareness of the original movies which established these characters as true pop culture icons."
Universal is putting its money where its mouth is. The budget for the film is reported to be somewhere around $150 million with $30 million spent in getting the word out. NBC, which is in the process of acquiring Universal, is developing a pilot for a TV series called "Transylvania." According to an article by Richard Verrier of the Los Angeles Times, the series could premier as early as this fall.
Sommers, who helmed "The Mummy" and it's sequel for Universal with good box office results, is featured in an interview on the recently released DVDs. "One thing I can tell you about Van Helsing," he said, "Anybody who sees Van Helsing is going to know that whoever made this thing, loves this thing."
Armed with special effects like the original film-makers could never dream of, and with the classic monsters and monster hunters alike at his disposal, Sommers hopes to please a whole new audience with "Van Helsing." Whatever the outcome of the quest to hunt down and destroy Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, we know they will live forever.
Van Helsing opens in theaters May 7th nationwide. http://www.vanhelsingmovie.com
1915 - The Wolf Man