Thursday, October 28, 2010

Universal Universe

One of the coolest Halloween surprises of the past few years was Lileks' special Halloween Diner episode in 2006, in which he paid his first visit to the Haunted Diner (you can download the mp3 here). It was an extravaganza of humor, haunted sound effects, and silly old monster novelty songs, and of course, it opens with a nightmarish dream sequence featuring Jack Webb and Speedy Alka-Seltzer.

He followed it up the next year with another big production that wasn't as new, but still fun, featuring alternate dimensions and a roomful of zombie Allen Ginsbergs. The next two years were kind of perfunctory, as Lileks professed to be tired of Halloween now that it had become a month-long extravaganza and had pretty much lost his zest for the Diner as well. He says he's working up a big one for this year. I guess we'll find out tomorrow.

But one thing that he repeats every Halloween is how ridiculous it is that all these novelty songs from the 60's seem to adopt the attitude that the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, and all the other monsters know each other and hang out. How silly to take all these monsters from separate stories and assume they coexist!

Except that it's not. Of course, all these songs take their cue from the classic Universal monsters, which were being exposed to new audiences starting in the late 50's, thanks to a resurgence of interest in the classic monsters due to the stylish Hammer remakes and the older films being rerun on television.

And the thing about the Universal stable of monsters that people who haven't watched all the films might not realize is that Universal had basically created the movie version of the Marvel Universe, starting with "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" in 1943. The Frankenstein monster had by that time already been featured in four films, but the Universal Universe really got its start when the Wolf Man was brought into the storyline. The next film, "House of Frankenstein," brought Count Dracula into the mix as well.

One thing that's funny about the series is how much role-switching took place. Nowadays, we associate the Monster with Karloff, Dracula with Lugosi, and the Wolf Man with Lon Chaney, Jr.

But pretty much everybody got a turn playing the Monster. After Karloff took three turns in the role, it was passed on to Chaney, then Lugosi, and then taken over by Glenn Strange for the final two films, "Son of Dracula" and "Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein." It was apparently assumed that audiences wouldn't much care who was under the make-up. On the other hand, nobody other than Chaney ever played the Wolf Man. Dracula was stuck in the middle, with both Lugosi and John Carradine taking two turns each in the role.

The point is, after four films in which the major monsters were shown to exist in the same world and interact, it was only natural for the song writers to assume the same thing. And given that Universal had also made a series of five Mummy films and had given the Invisible Man a brief cameo at the end of "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," it wasn't a stretch to toss them in the mix as well, by which time, you've basically created a monster version of the DC/Marvel Universe, in which there is a huge parallel subculture of monsters who all seem to know each other.

Man, I wish those old movies weren't so boring, because I'd really like to rewatch them in order now. Maybe next Halloween, because every day between now and then is totally booked.

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