By Charlie Ross (Hobbsville, North Carolina)
Horror. It’s a genre known to virtually everyone. When people think of horror, many think of the most recent horror icons such as Jason, Freddy, Chucky, and Leatherface but what many don’t attribute to horror is the classic Universal Monsters of Old such as Dracula, the Wolf-Man, and Frankenstein. Horror itself in cinema may seem kind of bleak now and something we have been used to for the past semi century…but even horror itself has an origin story. Join me as we take a look back at the beginning of cinema’s horror legends with Universal’s Classic Monster Universe. This is Retro Ross’s Halloween Special.
People may cite the Universal Monster Movies as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon as the only Universal Monsters but this however is not so. What you may not know is that Universal began its Monster Universe with the release of The Hunchback of Notre Dame released on September 2nd, 1923 but this was not just any horror film. It, in fact wasn’t really a horror film at all but rather a romantic drama film that added some horror elements to the film. I mean come on! Look at this! This film was considered the “Super Jewel” for Universal in 1923.
The film stars pioneer actor, Lon Chaney who was well known before that point preforming in movies such as The Miracle Man, The Penalty, and A Blind Bargain which was the first time Chaney played a Hunchback character but good luck finding this movie because it’s been considered a lost film for quite a while. Chaney was infamous in his ability as a performer and make-up artist. In fact, his ability to design his own makeup techniques earned him the nickname – The Man of a Thousand Faces. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a big deal at the time. A huge amount of passion was used to create the sets to mimic 15-Century Paris and even a mega-phone and loud speaker that would cost about 98,000 dollars had to be used to direct hundreds of extras in various scenes. What’s amazing is that at least 3,000 costumes had to be designed alone for the extras. This was the debut for the Universal Monster Universe and the movie…well let’s see how the movie fared.
The film is amazing. Probably one of the most heartfelt and relatable movies I can relate to. I don’t want to give up too much of the plot. Many of you have probably seen the 1996 Disney version but this version varies very differently from that film. The story takes place during 15-century Paris around the historic Notre Dame. The sets are amazing. Every scene is built to artistic perfection and the way this film is shot is just brimming with nostalgia. The highlight of the film is of course the Hunchback Quasimodo played by Lon Chaney – The Man with a Thousand Faces. Every scene with him is something to admire. When you first see him, you immediately begin to fear him and then once you begin to see his story, you begin to no longer fear but sympathize for him. Even though this film is a complete silent film, it gives you a very deep feel that wraps you into the story. A notable scene for me is the scene where Quasimodo has been punished by being whipped for being framed for trying to kidnap Esmeralda. The look you see in his eyes literally makes you feel immense sadness and you suddenly understand why it is Quasimodo is the way he is.
He is deformed and looked at as a monster and because of this, he grows a great hatred towards everyone. He’s alone and desperately just wants to be understood. Something I think at least everyone feels from time to time which makes this character have such a huge impact on us. The story follows Quasimodo who is a bell-ringer for the Cathedral. He observes the town celebrating the Festival of Fools which is celebrated once a year for people to kick back and to just let go and celebrate. His master, Jehan orders Quasimodo to kidnap Esmerelda played by Patsy Ruth Miller out of his mad lust for her. This later fails as Captain Phoebus played by Norman Kerry arrests him and his master Jahan flees leaving him hurt and betrayed. After being punished in the public square by being whipped, Esmerelda begins to feel sympathy and sorrow for him and even brings him water when he desperately needs it. This scene alone is the highlight of the film and even went so far as to almost make me cry.
A bond begins to form between Quasimodo and Esmerelda and you can begin to see with Lon Chaney’s acting that Quasimodo is starting to open up and begin to care for her. He’s not much of a sociable character and interacts with the other characters in ways that only he understands. It is very heartbreaking to see how he is treated and how much of a tragic character he is. What’s amazing is that this movie brought the cliché of Monster who’s actually more human than most of us to more light. Captain Phoebus also has feelings for Esmerelda and even leaves his fiancée just to be with her. Jehan, after realizing he no longer can win over her attempts to murder Phoebus and frames Esmerelda and it is then the story picks up and you see how Quasimodo’s feelings are put to the test. This is the first movie of the Universal Monster Universe and the most heartbreaking I’ve seen even more than 1941’s The Wolf Man.
This was the exact kick-off to a universe we needed. The sets are amazing and give off especially The Festival of Fools sets that really give viewers a sense of joy. The characters are all amazing. This movie may not seem much to anyone now but when you really sit down and watch it, you will find yourself immersed into a world unlike no other especially with the lack of music which really pulls you in. What’s sad is that nowadays many people won’t watch a black and white or silent film strictly because their black and white or silent. I honestly feel very sorry for you if you are that type of person because you honestly do not know what you’re missing out on because without these films, cinema now as you know it would be very different and may not even exist. So there you have it. The debut of the Universal Monster Movies. I’m Charlie Ross and I’ll see you next time.