Monsters in the movies

Ron Chaney's hillside home near Palm Springs doesn't look much like a haunted house, but he always looks forward to getting it ready for Halloween. Chaney is, after all, a descendent of monsters.

Lon Chaney in London After MidnightHis great-grandfather was the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, silent film star, Lon Chaney. And his grandfather was the Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr. So on Halloween, Chaney pulls all the family skeletons out of the closet.

"Well, you're gonna run into some vampires," he told Sunday Morning correspondent John Blackstone. "You're gonna run into some phantoms and wolf men, mummies, Frankenstein's. Chaney's played 'em all, and they're all here for Halloween."

Somehow the old monsters from the days of black and white still have a stranglehold on our imagination. No matter how many attempts have been made to kill them off…they just keeping coming back. And these undead creatures have bestowed an immortality of sorts on the actors who played them so long ago: Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster and Lon Chaney Jr. as the wolf man.

"And he was just Gramps to us," Chaney said. "He wasn't The wolf man or a movie star."

But gramps was always the wolf man when Halloween rolled around.

"The kids loved to come to his house," Chaney said. "They'd have him howl for 'em, like The Wolf Man howl. And he did it all night long, God bless him.

Having a monster in the family can add a lot to your Halloween memorabilia.

"It's mainly here in the Bathing with Boris bathroom," Sarah Karloff, the daughter of Boris Karloff. "And when we have parties, you'd be amazed at how many people we lose in the bathroom."

Karloff says her father saw it as his good fortune to become famous as a monster.

"He's one of the owners of Halloween," she said. "He always referred to it as his busy season."

But that didn't mean their door was busy with trick or theaters.

"At home, it was quieter at our house than at yours because people were afraid to ring the doorbell," she said.

Who wouldn't be afraid of the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein. When the film was made 75 years ago it was widely seen as the scariest movie ever, so scary it began with a warning.

"Nobody anticipated the film to be the success that it was," Karloff said. "My father wasn't even invited to the premier."

You might say Frankenstein was a roaring success, so universal studios quickly followed with another monster, Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian immigrant who could barely speak English, took the role of Dracula. He set the pattern for every vampire to follow, says director John Landis.

"To this day Dracula does what Bella Legosi did and they talk like Dracula," he said. "They talk like him, kind of -- you know, it's sad in many ways. It kind of ruined his career. And in other ways it's wonderful. Because who else has that kind of impact on the culture. It's quite something that Bella Legosi had."

Together Dracula and Frankenstein proved that movie audiences love to be frightened.

"It's very much like, you know, you look at parents with their children," Landis said. "What do they do? They immediately go whoops a day, throw them in the air. Look I'm gone. I'm back. I'm gone. I mean, what's more terrifying to a child. I'm gone. You know, I mean, it's, people torment their kids. It's a strange but very human thing."

Landis knows how to frighten. He wrote and directed the 1981 hit "An American Werewolf in London." That movie caught Michael Jackson's attention and he hired Landis to direct his thriller video.

In his horror films Landis got plenty of inspiration from early monster movies. And he is one of the contributors to a new book celebrating universal studios' classic monsters.

The very first of those was the phantom of the opera. The chilling face was Lon Chaney's own creation. He did his own makeup says great grandson, Ron Chaney.

"He was a perfectionist, and it was very important that when he played that role that it did come across that way, that it did scare people to the fact that he wouldn't let 'em show his face until the movie's screened," he said. "All of the lobby cards, no photographs of his face. He said, 'Why would I allow people to photograph me?' It's gonna take all the surprise out of the film when they see it. And thank God, they did, because it just horrified people."

What has kept these creatures alive, says Landis, is that in them we still see ourselves and our fears.

"I mean, Frankenstein could not be more contemporary," he said. "Victor Frankenstein, who is interested in creating life. He reanimates. He builds a cadaver from pieces of dead people, corpses and reanimates it, brings it to life. It's the story of all science, the atomic bomb. It has to do with -- there are some things man is not meant to know like genetics or DNA. These are God's property. And you don't fool around with God. I mean, the Frankenstein monster could not be more contemporary."

What the werewolf goes through is familiar, in a way, to most of us.

"I mean, puberty, all these weird things are happening to our body," he said. "Hair is suddenly sprouting from our face and other places. I mean --all humans -- you know, go through this metamorphosis."

As terrifying as they may be, these classic movie monsters are also strangely sympathetic.

Lon Chaney Jr.'s character, Larry Talbot is just a guy who's attacked by bitten by a werewolf, and he gets the disease.

Ron Chaney agrees that his grandfather's wolfman was a victim himself.

"They wanted to hate him, but they couldn't, because it was something that was put upon them that they really couldn't help," he said. "And I truly believe that's what made it last for so long and why people still enjoy the films to this day."

Even Frankenstein's terrible creation had a softer side one Sara Karloff says was much more like her father.

"My father was very well educated and very well read as an individual and he understood the plight of the monster, that he really was the victim and not the perpetrator," she said. "And he understood abandonment. And he understood the responsibility of Victor Frankenstein for his own creation."

Dracula, on the other hand, is evil, said Landis.

"I mean, he is satanic," he said. "Did you know that Dracula is the number one film to character, more movies made around the world about Dracula than any other character."

So once again it's the season when these monsters are busy making us all face our fears about life and death, love and rejection. And no matter how it turned out for them in the movies Lon and Bela and Boris remain more loved than feared.

"They were all wonderful actors," Ron Chaney said. "And you know when you make something that lasts for so long, I think you've done your job and you've done it well."

Source: John Blackstone / CBS


Fanged Films

USA, 1988
Vampiro A Mezzanotte / Dangereuses Tentations / L.A. Midnight
UK, 1974

From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

Drawn to Vamps?

Vol. 1 No. 3
Vol. 1 No. 103
The Village on the Edge of Forever