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Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Are Classic Monsters For A Junk Heap?


Out With The Old, In With The Less Old


Seems stuff I love is increasingly spat on even by those a mere fifteen or less years younger. Proof of schism is recent episode of Comic Book Men, AMC's series about guys that run a funnybook and collectibles store in Red Bank, NJ. Producer/moderator is Kevin Smith (born 1970), who splashed with Clerks and Chasing Amy some time back, plus lots of comedy on TV. Recent Comic Book Men has a would-be seller coming into the "Secret Stash" with Marx toys of the Universal monsters, these issued in 1963 when interest was hot among boomers (what a tired term that has become, and how younger folk must resent our being such a large constituency). The Stash staff do repartee as accompany to each buy and sell, this said to be off-cuff, though I bet the program has as many writers as Hope or Skelton in heyday. What gulled me was their disdain for sacred (to me) gallery of horrors --- "really boring" says Brian Johnson (born 1967). Walt Flanagan (also '67) tries to defend the old films, but it's no go. Moderator Smith sums up by citing "the rest of us" who realize we've "moved on" from done-and-out chillers, comparing them with TV antiquity The Beverly Hillbillies and discarded device that was radio (big laff at that). Tough, then, seeing lifetime totems so trampled. Must mythos we cling tightest to be stripped altogether away?

Maybe it's old schools who must let go of paragons a current fanship has no love for. Serial and cowboy followers gave way, or died out. Before that was cling to crystal sets, dime novels, 78 shellac, other discards. Survival of the fittest ... or most current. I'm sure dinosaurs too were aggrieved when conditions no longer accommodated them. I'm a fossil perhaps for clinging to Frankensteins and Draculas. The Comic Book Men (their very name summing up arrested development in us all) will see their favorites head for dust bin of pop's culture, and lots sooner than they expect. There's no blur quicker than in-out of entertainment. Sometimes a single weekend is enough to clear deck, like spent scraps down a disposal. I read lately where Universal gave up effort to create new franchise out of old monsters after sunk stone The Mummy and tepid response to Van Helsing, plus a modernized Wolf Man that took the silver bullet. Did young execs predict futility of reviving creatures they after all had not grown up with?

Extraordinary was 50-60's generation of youngsters embracing a fright past that flourished twenty and thirty years before them. Did we love these films in part because they were of our parent's day? It may have been arrival of later and color horrors to television that diminished our preferred brand. 30's Universal couldn't help but seem stately beside Hammer remakes and TV shows dedicated to scary (the Comic Book Men have rhapsodized before on made-for-tube movies that floored them). To be born beyond a certain point was to find vintage monsters "boring," it seems, Universal's dumping the franchise a nod to tides gone out that won't be back. I'd like to know if any young people find Karloff uncanny, or Lugosi living eternal, or Chaney a "Master Monster." Maybe we should marvel at their staying so long as they did and forfeit the future to those who "Fear The Walking Dead" or whatever other brooms sweep out memory of Universal's classic gallery.

23 Comments:

Blogger Donald Benson said...

In the postwar years a lot of pop culture got second and third lives, thanks to television's insatiable appetite for cheap content and boomer kids who responded to the higher production values and general novelty.

For boomers and a few later arrivals, the monsters were seemingly immortal. They had their original runs, then Saturday matinee revivals, and finally TV slots. There was no reason to believe they'd ever pass out of fashion, but there wasn't another perfect storm to carry them forward to a post-local-television generation. Decades of newer content, both theatrical and made-for-TV, had accumulated in film vaults. Some of it was good and most of it was in color, the latter being required. And Infomercials began to fill those late night hours once reserved for cheap old movies.

Home video may have helped pull the monsters from the airwaves as well. For the faithful, there was no reason to watch "The Mummy's Hand" with a quarter hour of mood-breaking modern commercials when one could own or rent the original. Kids couldn't really discover them while channel surfing. They had to be introduced, and ideally not by the same grownups who tried to sell them on asparagus.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

Was there a fascination with stuff that was old? I'm a boomer and don't claim to be typical of any group, but when I stumbled on material on TV that was clearly old, I paid attention. The fact that it was so different from current TV shows made it exotic. While I was in the New York area, with more channels than much of the country, it was still relatively rare to see films from the early '30s compared to contemporary work or films from later years.

4:32 PM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Insightful article followed by very astute comments from Mr. Benson, right down to the hilarious asparagus quip. I'm a boomer - with a lifelong affection for the Universal chillers. Still watch them regularly. My favorites include Karloff's "The Mummy" and "Bride of Frankenstein", "Son of Dracula" (Chaney Jr's far from ideal but everything else in the picture is wow)and the all-star "House of Frankenstein". Plus several of Abbott & Costello's run-ins with the monster brigade. Also love "The Invisible Ray", "Night Monster" and "The Invisible Man's Revenge".
The recent "Mummy" with Tom Cruise" was truly appalling (and -let me be clear - I don't mean that in a good way). But I've always been surprised at the commercial and critical failure of Joe Johnston's 2010 version of "The Wolfman". I thought it was a brilliant re-imagining of the old tale. Ultra-atmospheric, marvelous looking and sounding - incorporating loads of creative innovations that all worked for me. Del Toro may have been shaky reciting Shakespeare at the beginning but from then on I found him brilliant. Anthony Hopkins was superb; ditto Hugo Weaving. I like Emily Blunt and still think this is her finest work. Also loved Geraldine Chaplin's take on the old gypsy woman. Had the bad reviews and box office not surfaced from day one, I'd have bet the farm this would have been a critical and commercial smash. So much for my instincts. But I'm still grateful it got made.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

My kids have generally been more receptive to older films than anyone of their generational acquaintance, but one area that they simply would not adopt my enthusiasm for was monster movies of the 30s. Glumly they accepted the duty to touch base on Frankenstein, Dracula etc., and once was enough to humor Dad each time. The closest either boy got to actual enthusiasm was older son watching The Wolfman right around the onset of puberty, and relating to Chaney Jr.'s fate, but neither of them developed a love for the genre-- which at least means they don't get excited about new Saw sequels and the like, either.

7:17 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

It's been my experience that the old Universal and Hammer pictures are a tough sell to generations who equate "horror movies" with generous amounts of graphic gore and plots that, more often than not, are little more than an excuse to string together a series of violent, explicitly bloody murder sequences.

7:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I had a disastrous university run of Hammer's KISS OF THE VAMPIRE in 2005, 55 students over two showings, virtually all of whom thought it a stinker. I was obviously looking at this one through rose-colored 1963 glasses.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

My daughter-in-law won't watch a black and white movie or TV show. And she's almost forty.

Ask a contemporary college student to use a typewriter, and see what look you'll get.

Things change with time.

I spend considerable time with local college students, theatre arts students mostly. And these kids are brilliant people.

But mention Jack Benny, Tyrone Power or Laurel & Hardy, and all you get are blank stares.

It isn't their fault, it's ours.

6:40 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

There's still a few "serial and cowboy followers" out there. They show up every year at the Lone Pine Film Festival, though their ranks dwindle every year. Bill Sasser, who ran the Williamsburg Film Fest, sadly just passed away.

Like Donald Benson said, I love those old monsters having grown up with them on TV. Still have my Aurora Mummy model - no Secret Stash for him, at least while I'm still around. A couple of month ago I was in Red Rock Canyon, visiting the 'Egyptian' archeological digs from 1932's Mummy. The princess's tomb is still there in (small) fragments as is the rise Karloff rides down on the donkey. All that was missing was David Manners and the Union Jack. Watching the movie the next week was a weird experience.

My younger (29) daughter belongs to the NYC Film Forum and takes in the old films she watched with me as she grew up (and when she visits). Once in awhile the Film Forum shows the Universal Classics and she'll take them in if her schedule allows.

Thanks for your great work on Greenbriar. Many times after viewing a good one on TCM, I'll check this site to see if you have a write-up on it and what you had to say. I was surprised you had nothing on Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

8:40 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Glad to know you're getting use out of the Greenbriar Archive, MikeD.

TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE will show up eventually.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Took a look at the episode. The guy who says those movies were boring looks old enough to be of my generation. He is immediately shot down by a much, much younger staff member who looks young enough to be of this generation.

12:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

As indicated in the post, Brian Johnson is the one who calls the Universal horrors "boring." According to IMDB, he was born in 1967, as was Walt Flanagan, the one who answers him and defends the monsters.

12:32 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

I'm sure those who found the classic monsters "boring" are also bored by Shakespeare, Dickens, and all those other old farts who've been around for centuries and aren't going anywhere. The Universal monsters will be around as long as there's an enlightened minority to appreciate them, which in itself is a tribute to their quality. The best things always appeal to minority tastes.

And by the way, I have a friend who's barely in his early twenties and refuses to watch anything that's NOT in black and white!

12:42 PM  
Blogger starofshonteff0 said...

Increasingly in a culture dominated by self-interest and narcissism, people are unable to comprehend the value of anything that existed before their own memories.

Hollywood films of the classical era can sometimes be a valuable reminder we may not have come so far in the intervening decades as we would like to think.

As it becomes increasingly obvious to the mainstream that the future is not going to be better than the past, in will be in the interests of many to ensure such films remain ever more remote and elusive.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

I think it's unfair to characterize an entire generation as disinterested. It's going to be a niche thing from now on. Like old television, silent films, and old-time radio, interest in it will never quite die out but it will never again be mainstream like it was back in the day. There are loads of fans of all those genres (or media) I mentioned, but yes, they represent only a small fraction of people under 30. Or, for that matter, under 50. I turn 47 tomorrow, and I doubt 1 in 10 people my age could identify Jack Benny, much less Jack Webb, Jack Carson, or Jack Pierce. Fortunately the internet really helps stoke enthusiasm in people with such interests. Very few 13 year olds will watch the original Frankenstein, but those who do can then find loads of information (including your archived pages) just a click away. So it's not going to die out. But they won't be household names any more either.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

I was born in 1956 and couldn't be boomier among boomers.I've long since reconciled to now feeling more like a curator to what we speak of. To anyone who will listen, when I was a kid the 1940s was only twenty years earlier, so I had no sense of it being truly old as we'd understand it now. Many of those movie people were still alive. But I'm glad YouTube and other outlets make for outstanding availibility. No longer do I have to stay up to the ungodly hour of 1am to see SON OF FRANKENSTEIN for the first time, as way back when.

9:57 PM  
Blogger phil smoot said...

There seems to be lots of interest in the old Classic Monsters if you look on Facebook.
Many post every day from people 1/3 my age.

11:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Glad to know that, Phil. I got a very good reaction to them at university shows, and certainly there are monster magazines still being published. Surely not all of that readership is middle-aged or more.

5:42 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I am sure there were people who found these films boring when they were first shown. I scheduled a Universal FRANKENSTEIN marathon with FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF, SON Of, Ghost Of, Meets The Wolfman, House Of, House of Dracula and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein first in Rochdale College in the 1970s (it was packed) and later in the 1990's when some said disparagingly, "Aren't they in black and white?" Nonetheless, the turn out was terrific.

What really comes out in a marathon is the use of stock footage. ABBOTT & COSTELLO uses stock footage from BRIDE and GHOST in the climax. A & C is the scariest of the bunch because the horror is played straight and Costello's terror is infectious.

I hate to see people dismiss a whole body of work as that one character in this show did but people do that all the time.

Having these films available all over the net takes away from the vitality of seeing them properly in a theater because those who settle for seeing them on their monitor screen simply are not experiencing them at their best.

These are good films. FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF are great films. Nothing can change that. There will always be an audience for them.

1:20 PM  
Blogger phil smoot said...

Reg:
The end of "House of Dracula" uses stock footage from the end of "The Ghost of Frankenstein",
but
I don't think "Bud Abbott*Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein" uses any stock footage from Bride or Ghost of Frankenstein.
(although there might be a Kenneth Strickfaden electrical effect re-used in a shot or two in the lab scene)

3:46 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Thought they used a close up of Lon Chaney Jr's face at the end during the burning but no, they didn't. I stand corrected. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZQwVWTB2hI

10:12 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I was 6 a movie I saw in a theater scared the bejeeezuz out of me. Years later when I first ran A & C MEET FRANKENSTEIN I realized it was that movie that had done it. What was really interesting during my first all night FRANKENSTEIN marathon was watching a packed house exhausted by so many FRANKENSTEIN films suddenly wake up and GET REALLY SCARED by A & C MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Part of the greatness of that film comes from the fact that the scary parts really do scare. I did several of those marathons. I watched that film do its magic again, again and again.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Rodney said...

For Halloween this year, Target had an entire line of Universal Monster costumes for kids. A six year old son of a friend was very clear that no costume would suffice unless it was the Creature From the Black Lagoon. He's been a Universal Monster every year since he could choose his own costumes.

8:40 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Very reassuring to know this, Rodney. Thanks for passing it along.

8:43 AM  

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