We all know these characters and they certainly deserve some mention before we exit the crypt. Certainly, they are just as well-known as Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster and his Bride, the Mummy and the Gill Man, but it’s arguable whether these fellows count as monsters at all! And in point of fact, Lon Chaney Junior never portrayed any of them – which is strong evidence, because as we know, Chaney was always on board to play a Universal Monster.
That being said, the first two characters we shall discuss were played by Lon Chaney SENIOR, the Man of a Thousand Faces, the silent film star whose pioneering makeup work made him a legend. Chaney could turn himself into ANYTHING, it seemed, and was willing to endure great physical discomfort in order to do so.
Chaney made a LOT of movies, some of which have actually disappeared (all we have of ‘London After Midnight’ are still shots, showcasing Chaney’s bizarre vampire makeup), but for our purposes, we’ll focus on just two: ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘ and ‘Phantom of the Opera‘.
Both of these are beautiful films, cinematic masterpieces that are still fun to watch today, almost a hundred years later. And Chaney created memorable makeups for both. But are they monsters?
The Hunchback is Quasimodo, a terribly deformed foundling and the bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral. He’s certainly unpleasant looking, no doubt about that, but he is not perceived as anything but what he is: a deformed, ugly simpleton. Also, he’s not going on rampages or menacing innocent Parisians; Quasimodo is the hero of the story! So this is a tough one. Granted, hunchbacks have figured prominently in horror films ever since, usually as servants of some kind, so poor Quasimodo has certainly left a legacy in films, albeit one as distorted as himself.
With the Phantom of the Opera, on the other hand, we are on firmer ground. The Opera Ghost is also deformed, a man named Erik who was born with a horrific face which he hides behind a mask. Unlike the Hunchback, however, the Phantom is a homicidal maniac, practically a super villain – he has a secret lair and everything! He terrorizes the Opera Garnier, and the inhabitants truly believe he is an evil spirit. So that should count for something.
These movies were remade in sound: Charles Laughton took over the Hunchback role, while Claude Rains played a radically different Phantom in Universal’s big-budget color version of the story, a version which has also had a lasting effect on how the Phantom is perceived. In the remake, the Phantom is a sympathetic character and, rather than being disfigured from birth, his face is destroyed by acid, which is how most versions of the Phantom have been portrayed ever since.
Last but not least, we have the Invisible Man. Universal made a LOT of these movies! Again, hard to say if we’re dealing with a monster, but of our three blokes under discussion, this one probably cones closest.
He certainly doesn’t look like a monster – well, he doesn’t LOOK like anything, being invisible and all – but all the horror trappings are here: mad science, insanity, terrorizing the populace, the usual. And when we first meet Mr. Griffin, he looks pretty scary: covered from head to toe, his face wrapped in bandages with goggles and an obviously fake nose. The poor fellow is invisible, you see, after taking a special potion he invented, and he’s trying desperately to cure his condition.
This does not end well. Griffin goes crazy, starts rampaging about (invisibly, of course; great special effects work in these movies, mainly the work of Robert Fulton) and gets killed. Oddly, death makes the Invisible Man visible again.
There were, as I stated, a big old bunch of these, with various Invisible Men, even an Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent. Some were good guys, some were not. The Invisible Man deserves an honorary mention at the very least because he has a cameo (voiced by Vincent Price) in the last of the Monster Mashes, ‘Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein‘. So unlike the Hunchback or the Phantom (mostly), the Invisible Man must certainly be counted as a monster.
Of course, in one form or another, all three of these characters are part of the legacy of Universal Monsters. These various beings, from the supernatural entities to the products of forbidden science, were forever imprinted on the mass consciousness by the films this studio made from the 20′s to the 50′s. some of these films are almost 90 years old! And to this day, when you picture Dracula or the Mummy, you are picturing the Monsters as Universal made them. It’s a safe bet we always will.