100 Years Later, the Universal Monsters Characters Continue to Resonate

Thứ sáu - 17/05/2024 23:42
A Halloween Horror Nights house and recent NECA action figure spotlight the power of the earliest Universal Monsters characters from the silent era.
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2023 is a big year for 100th anniversaries in Hollywood, but while Warner Bros. and Disney celebrate the 100th anniversary of their entire company, Universal has hit the 100-year milestone for something arguably just as important – the Universal Monsters characters, who many would argue were what cemented the success of the studio (itself founded in 1912) and ensured it would still be here a century later.

While horror icons like Freddy, Jason, Michael, and Chucky get plenty of attention, it’s remarkable to see the staying power of the Universal Monsters, who proceed them by decades. They may ebb and flow when it comes to hit films, but they are still a notable brand in and of themselves, which is underlined by the Universal Monsters: Unmasked houses at Halloween Horror Nights at both Universal Orlando Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood this year. The house goes all the way back to the beginning by mainly focusing on characters from the silent film era, including the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. And yes, that means a lot of visitors won’t know the source material yet, but that doesn’t mean these characters still can’t make an impact and gain the characters new fans in the process.

The Hunchback Who Started it All

Lon Chaney in Universal's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Halloween Horror Nights has been doing a Universal Monsters house for several years now, featuring different combinations of characters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Bride of Frankenstein, and the Wolfman, but Universal Hollywood’s John Murdy explained that when it came time to decide which characters would be focused on this year, “I was pushing really hard for the silent films,” specifically because 2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the Universal version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As Murdy noted, “Really, in the world of the Universal classic monsters, that’s the first one. Without that film, there would be no Universal Monsters.”

Murdy explained how prior to Hunchback, Universal mostly made “two-reelers,” short silent westerns or comedies, usually running around 26 minutes, and that back then, “We didn’t make big, expensive prestige pictures. That’s just not what they did at that time. But they did on [Hunchback]. This was the first production of its kind on the lot. They built all of the village in that film here on the backlot. There’s still remnants of it out there that you can see on the Studio Tour. They built it all from scratch. They built Notre Dame Cathedral… If you know Notre Dame, there’s these huge gothic doors. They built it up to that level, which has got to be like 25, 30 feet.” Murdy noted that the filmmakers then used clever camera trickery to blend a miniature they’d built of the rest of Notre Dame with their set.

Lon Chaney -- a very busy guy in this era -- in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Added Murdy, “It was a cast of 2500 people, it was massive. And it was a huge gamble. Because if it would have failed at that stage that could have ended the whole movie studio. It was over a million dollars [budget] and that was a hell of a lot of money in 1923. But luckily, it was a big hit and became a classic. And that enabled the studio to do, a couple years later, Phantom of the Opera. And then, in the 30s, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, etc., etc. Those films basically built the studio.”

Doing research, Murdy and his team also discovered that a decade before Hunchback, Universal made a two-reeler of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that “almost nobody remembers today,” but helped lead to them including Jekyll & Hyde in this year’s HHN house as well – along with one character introduced after the silent era, Jack Griffin, AKA the Invisible Man, who hadn’t been featured as much as his 1930s era contemporaries so far.


NECA's Phantom of the Opera figure takes his place alongside fellow Universal Monsters Ultimate Collection figures of the Bride of Frankenstein and the Creature from the Black Lagoon

Even as the characters have become a mainstay at Horror Nights through the years, another example of the continuing pop culture power – merch included – of the Universal Monsters characters can be found at NECA Toys, who are now several years into producing a line of Universal Monsters Ultimate Collection figures, which recreate the original movie versions of the characters in screen accurate form, complete with a ton of accessories – and even with alternate black and white versions of many of the figures, for those who want to truly replicate how they first looked.

Notably, NECA has also now delved all the way back into the silent era with last year’s release of a Phantom of the Opera figure based off of Lon Chaney’s iconic version as seen in that 1925 Universal film – so fingers crossed Chaney’s 1923 version of the Hunchback might join the Ultimate line down the line as well. Looking at the fantastic action figure NECA made, it’s clear that even if you haven’t seen the original Phantom of the Opera, it’s hard to deny that is a striking looking character (and collectible), which is a testament to those original Universal Monster films and their highly creative character designs, not to mention the groundbreaking cinema makeup Chaney and the memorable characters he depicted were known for.


The Phantom as seen in Universal Hollywood's Universal Monsters: Unmasked house

Just as there are probably many NECA collectors getting some of those Ultimate figures who aren’t that familiar with the films — especially something like the 1920s Phantom of the Opera —  beyond the title, there are always films from all eras featured as houses at Halloween Horror Nights that plenty of younger attendees won’t have seen. But with the Universal Monsters houses in general, and now particularly with Unmasked, they’re going way further back than, say, a cult 1980s title, given it’s based on century-old silent films. However, whether through a toy or a haunted house, there’s always a new fan in the making.

Said Murdy, of introducing these characters to many for the first time, “Going back to 2018, when we did our first Universal Monsters house, that was a big challenge. You’d be hard pressed to find anybody who knows more about these films or is more obsessed about these films than me. Since I was 4, that’s been my whole trajectory. That’s the reason I work here. But as a creative director of Horror Nights, you have to also understand there’s a good chance there’s a fair amount of your audience who never watched a silent film from 1923 or 1925. And you also have make it play for a modern day audience. The way our philosophy from day one on that was, we are going to start with what’s iconic with all of the characters. We’re not going to just invent something that isn’t inherently part of their story. Because there’s a reason these characters have been around for 100 years.”

Murdy said any fears that audiences who haven’t seen the source material couldn’t engage with the HHN houses were quelled with that first 2018 Universal Monsters house, recalling, “It was the number one rated house that year. That convinced me ‘Okay, our audience will accept this.’ But up until that point, we didn’t know. So now we’re just continuing that tradition and finding new stories to tell. And that’s why we’re tapping into the silent films.”


The Hunchback of Notre Dame as seen in Universal Monsters: Unmasked at Halloween Horror Nights

Though the HHN houses are meant to primarily scare you, Murdy said he was happy they also could include touches referring to other nuances of these characters, such as the pain both the Hunchback and the Phantom feel being shunned by society… which often results in them violently lashing out, whether it be the Phantom’s more overt murderous tendencies or Hunchback terrifyingly striking back after others try to harm the kindly Esmeralda. “What I love about it is it creates aspects of the Universal Monsters franchise that I have always felt very strongly about, and that is that they’re essentially Shakespearean tragedies. These are tragic characters. They’re not just mindless killers.”

The Phantom strikes in the Universal Orlando version of Universal Monsters: Unmasked

As with the other Universal Monsters characters Horror Nights has featured in recent years, the Unmasked group have been given some noteworthy visual upgrades. The Phantom for instance certainly looks more grotesque than he did in 1925 rather than their exact match of the NECA figure, even as you can still see the inspiration at work from Chaney’s version of the character in both his features and costume.

As Murdy explained, “We wanted to make it so that it would play for a modern horror audience. So we’re just taking things that already exists with the character’s backstory, and bringing them to the surface. So in the case of Phantom of the Opera, it’s his disfigurement. In some versions of it, it was from birth and in other versions, he had acid thrown in his face. So we take that as inspiration and then play to that aspect of horror and bring it a little bit to the surface. But when you look at them, anybody should be able to recognize that’s Hunchback or that’s Phantom.”

The Universal Monsters: Unmasked house can be currently visited at Universal Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights on select nights through October 31 and Universal Orlando’s HHN through November 4.

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