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6 Filmmaking Tips from the Directors of Classic Universal Monster Movies

Are these the secrets to creating horror icons?
By  · Published on June 6th, 2017

How do you make a great monster movie? Universal knew the secret for many decades, delivering numerous iconic characters, plus tons more creatures that don’t wind up in the monster mashes and crossovers and — starting with the latest remake of The Mummy — cinematic universes. Will the studio prove it’s still the best when it comes to vehicles for Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, etc.? Or does it need to further study the lessons of those legendary directors that came before, many of them German refugees, and the advice some had to offer?

These six tips are for the writers, directors, and producers of Universal’s newly branded Dark Universe, as well for any fans and filmmakers out there interested in learning something from Tod Browning, James Whale, Karl Freund, Jack Arnold, Joe May, and Curt Siodmak.

1. Tod Browning: Don’t Make ‘Em Laugh

Browning made a single contribution to the Universal Monsters vault, but it’s one of the first and possibly the most famous: Dracula. He’s also known for such MGM horror classics as FreaksThe Unknown, Mark of the VampireThe Devil-Dolland London After Midnight. His tip is a quote from the March 1928 issue of Motion Picture Classic magazine (reprinted in the book “A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney’s Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures“):

“The thing you have to be most careful of in a mystery story is not to let it verge on the comic. If a thing gets too gruesome and too horrible, it gets beyond the limits of the average imagination and the audience laughs. It may sound incongruous, but mystery must be made plausible.”

2. James Whale: Easy Thrills

James Whale is primarily known for directing Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, the two most culturally significant Universal Monsters movies after Dracula (if not also before it). He also did The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House between those two monuments. His tip is a quote on project choice and the fun of the job featured in the 1989 MagicImage Filmbooks Presents book on Frankenstein (reprinted in “Fear Itself: Horror on Screen and in Reality During the Depression and World“):

“I chose Frankenstein out of about 30 available stories because it was the strongest meat and gave me a chance to dabble in the macabre. I thought it would be an amazing thing to try and make what everybody knows to be a physical impossibility into the almost believable for 60 minutes. A director must be pretty bad if he can’t get a thrill out of a war, murder, robbery. Frankenstein was a sensational story and had a chance to become a sensational picture. It offered fine pictorial possibilities, had two grand characterizations, and dealt with a subject which might go anywhere — and that is part of the fun of making pictures.”

3. Karl Freund: “Get to the F**king Point”

Freund is the one we owe for the first Dark Universe installment, as he directed the original version of The Mummy. He was mainly a cinematographer (a pioneer of mobile camera and multi-camera techniques at that) and shot such movies as The Good Earth (for which he won an Oscar), MetropolisThe GolemKey Largo, and Browning’s Dracula, as well as TV’s I Love Lucy.

Before sharing his best tip, I want to include what he had to say negatively about the job of directing, which he gave up because he found it a “dull routine” and lacking in the “latitude of special creativeness” of camerawork. From an interview quoted in the book “Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931–1946“:

“Anyone can make a good cake if he has the right ingredients. It all depends on story, cast, and circumstances.”

And now for the “first lesson in directing,” as relayed in a terrific story told by filmmaker Richard Brooks about what he learned from Freund on the set of John Huston’s Key Largo, the screenplay for which Brooks wrote:

4. Joe May: Don’t Be a Nuisance

Like Freund, May had been a major figure in German cinema before fleeing to America, where he directed the 1940 sequel The Invisible Man Returns and co-wrote The Invisible Woman for Universal. His tip is from earlier in his career, from an article in a 1928 issue of the German magazine Filmküntsler: Wir über uns Selbst (Film Artists: We Ourselves), as translated by a fan site:

“I have taken the trouble from the beginning to create a movie that appeals to the whole world, which raises the absolute claim of movie art but at the same time comes up to the justified wishes of the public on thrill and entertainment. In my opinion, the conditions for a successful movie are: You take thrilling action, add a little mixture of humorous scenes as well as intense sensation. But you avoid spoiling this mixture with too much sensation because each sensation which is there only for its sake and does not follow on from the logical action of the movie has lost its legitimacy and will be found a nuisance.”

5. Jack Arnold: Make Them Believe

Arnold is one of the later Universal Monsters directors, but he’s significant for making Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequel, Revenge of the Creature. He also directed The Incredible Shrinking ManTarantulaThis Island Earth,  It Came from Outer Space, and Monster on the Campus. His tip is related to his work in the sci-fi horror side of the brand and is from an interview in a 1974 issue of Science Fiction Monthly:

“The more I did of these films, the more I liked it because the studio left me alone. No one at that time was an expert at making SF films so I claimed to be one. I wasn’t, of course, but the studio didn’t know that so they never argued with me, no matter what I did…

“I tried to create an atmosphere because I think if you shoot an imaginative film — a film in which you ask an audience to believe things that are bizarre — you have to make them believe it. You can’t do this with the story or actors alone, but you have to create a kind of atmosphere while shooting it in which their credibility will be suspended to the point where they don’t say to themselves, “That’s impossible.” And I think the only way you can get an audience to accept the impossible is to get them involved in an atmosphere, a mood, or what the kids today call vibes, a feeling of what you’re trying to do.”

6. Curt Siodmak: Don’t Joke

Curt is the lesser-known of the Siodmak brothers (the elder Robert is famous for The Killers, and he also made the Universal Monsters sequel Son of Dracula). And his directorial contribution to the brand is the rare, hardly qualifiable Curucu, Beast of the Amazon. But he also was a screenwriter whose credits include Son of DraculaThe Wolf ManFrankenstein Meets the Wolf ManHouse of FrankensteinThe Invisible Man ReturnsInvisible AgentThe Invisible Woman, and Black Friday.

His tip is rather funny and comes from the 1988 book “Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, Directors, Actors, Moguls, and Makeup.” This can either be a warning or a helpful lesson in pitching ridiculous ideas that you might not expect Hollywood to go for:

“Never make a joke in the studio. I was sitting down at the commissary having lunch with George Waggner and I said, ‘George, why don’t we make a picture, Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man — er, Meets the Wolf Man?’ He didn’t laugh. This was during wartime. I wanted to buy an automobile and I needed a new writing job so I would be able to afford it. George would see me every day and ask me if I had bought the car yet. I said, ‘George, can I get a job?’ He said, ‘Sure you’ll get a job, buy the car.’ Well, the day finally came when I had to pay for the car. George asked me that day, ‘Did you buy the car?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I bought it.’ George said, ‘Good! Your new assignment is Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man — er, Meets the Wolf Man! I’ll give you two hours to accept!'”

What We’ve Learned

These old guys were hilarious and yet also no-nonsense, presenting porn movies to set up a lesson in filmmaking and whatnot. It’s the job as you’re doing it and the film at hand that can’t be too funny, whether that’s through keeping the material from being too extreme or maintaining a certain atmosphere. Cast and story and camera position don’t matter. As long as each scene and sensation is believable and seems legitimate, you’re good. But eventually everything winds up going in a more amusing direction, especially as ideas start coming out of jokes about the brand.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.