The Unexpected Comfort of Monsters with Faces
Let me say upfront that I am not an NBC Universal employee, nor do the thoughts and opinions I express in this article reflect the views of the company itself.
When NBC Universal launched its streaming service last summer, it seemed like an also-ran compared with all the streamers that movie corporations have launched direct-to-consumer.
Disney+ was the big pre-COVID premiere. HBO Max dropped in the middle of quarantine.
Then this service arrives. It checks the streaming boxes: nostalgic favorites, a flagship original series, etc.
The distinguishing feature is the tiered membership. At its most basic, I don’t have to pay for it.
Not expecting that I’ll spend much time watching Peacock, I do what I’ve done with all these streaming services since March: I scan through the catalogue and add the free content to my watchlist. Movies I can visit and watch when I feel “in the mood.”
This will likely be another instance of personal “watchlist failure.” You know the feeling. There are movies and shows in the Netflix queue for years that you have been meaning to watch, but the mood just never strikes.
Such is not the case with Peacock.
To my surprise, I have already binged a bunch of bookmarked movies with which I am familiar but have never actually seen…
The Universal Monster Movies
Since creating a Peacock account, I’ve watched Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Invisible Man Returns, The Raven, Night Monster, and I show no sign of slowing.
At this rate, soon the monsters will be visiting each other’s sequels and facing off in the first “shared” universe of films. Then they’ll meet Bud and Lou.
I’m recognizing the contract players who show up in all of these. Dracula’s sniveling slave Renfield? Henry Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant Fritz? Same actor. His name was Dwight Frye, and he even has an un-credited cameo in The Invisible Man as a reporter.
More than any sitcom, more than fantasy films, I found myself returning to these black-and-white monsters during the pandemic. They provide an unexpected comfort.
Giving Fear a Face
In Dracula, we witness the character Lucy die on an operating table after the doctors fail to revive her with yet another blood transfusion. One of the leading experts suspects a culprit from across the seas…
In Son of Frankenstein, the scientist’s heir arrives at a village steeped in folklore. As a result, superstitious civic leaders disbelieve the scientist’s motives…
In The Invisible Man, police and journalists broadcast to warn England’s residents they should lock their doors and stay inside their homes — an invisible murderer roams the countryside. The titular character, battling the madness caused by his formula, searches desperately for an antidote…
Think back to when these movies were first produced in the early 1930s, and how they were instantly popular.
In 1931, when Dracula premiered, the United States was two years into its greatest economic depression. People felt frightened by the forces of poverty and starvation, two invisible monsters that attacked homes and families and caused a huge divide between the haves and have-nots.
Movies were the escape. Audiences could go see lighthearted musicals and comedies that distracted them for seventy-five minutes.
Audiences could also see their greatest fears rendered in the flesh and destroyed…
That undead creature who is infecting the blood of innocent victims? He has a name. He has a weakness. Let’s drive a stake through his heart.
That invisible murderer? He’s invisible, not invincible. Flesh and blood. Let’s follow his footprints in the snow and shoot the sucker.
That walking cadaver? He’s misunderstood. There are ways to avoid death. Don’t lose your nerve to mindless mob mentality. Show some kindness.
Audiences could see their greatest fears rendered in the flesh and destroyed…
Eventually, after the Great Depression and World War II, the classic monsters were relegated to parodies of themselves. Abbott and Costello met the entire roster, and audiences roared with laughter.
America had found insular prosperity. Suburbs supplanted farms and Main Street, so the agrarian terrors of Victorian folklore gave way to the new cold-war terrors of atomic ants, giant tarantulas, and body snatchers.
These atomic age monsters did not possess distinct personalities. They gave a tangible form to the country’s paranoia, but that is not the same as giving fear a face.
A monster with a face taunts you.
It maliciously leers at you.
It cringes when you discover its weakness.
When it perishes, the life drains from its eyes.
You the viewer reap far more satisfaction from victory.
And when the sequel arrives, you can relive victory once more.
On a pure cinematic level, these films stretch every studio department’s skills to new heights.
What makeup! What practical special effects! What massive sets! What extraordinary lighting and composition (the eerie entrance of the diabolical Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein is the direct forerunner to the ominous entrance of battle-ready Father Merrin in The Exorcist).
No one today would say these films are scary, but no one today can deny their scale and pageantry.
Thanks to directors such as James Whale, the pantheon of horror icons retain a mythic grandeur. Much like the pantheon of ancient Greek gods, they serve a social purpose.
For the ancients, the gods helped them comprehend nature.
For us moderns, the monsters help us comprehend fear.
We must give fear a face, a name, and a personality. That makes it more human, and that makes it perishable.
This basic need will never die. It’s instinctive. It’s ingrained.
Jake Thomas is a writer, filmmaker, and wannabe chef. Along with writing articles and reviews for Fanbase Press, he has toured with the improv comedy groups Spats&Cane and Nice People. To create the perfect evening, he adds a dash of black-and-white movies with a splash of chilled white wine. He’s on Twitter and Instagram, and you can see his work at jakethomasmakesmovies.com.