Review: Why we'll always love the Universal Studios Monsters

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Once upon a time, it was not done with pixels. Once upon a time, the monsters who scared us were creations not of some computer programmer's hard drive but of hard-working actors enduring hours in makeup chairs so they could then pursue starlets through old, dark houses.

Once upon a time the greatest purveyor of such entertainments was Universal Studios, which between the late '20s and the late '50s ruled the horrific pantheon with its definitive versions of Dracula, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man and Frankenstein's monster.

Now this once upon a time is commemorated with Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror by Michael Mallory (Universe, $40.00, 252 pages), a loving overview of the work of the one studio responsible for turning so many monsters into cinematic brand names. Publicity stills and screen shots round out a history largely grouped by monster, not by chronology, which may lead to some confusion in the accounts of the several films where the signature monsters appeared together, as in the entry on 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which appears immediately after the one on The Wolf Man but by necessity references The Ghost of Frankenstein, as it was covered by another chapter entirely.

Mallory has fun pointing out the errors and the inconsistencies in the films, which in the case of The Mummy had the titular character sink into a bog in Massachusetts only to emerge, one film later, from another bog in the vicinity of New Orleans. That's one hell of a connecting aquifer.

But there's genuine love for the films, as well, even the less-than-famous ones, like Captive Wild Woman; Mallory shies away from calling any downright bad, even those that are. He also does a wonderful job profiling the personalities involved, not just the marquee names, like director James Whale, actors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and the father-and-son Lon Chaneys, but also lesser players like Dwight Frye (who, thanks to his performance as Renfield, was typecast as a raving loon virtually until the day he died) and Rondo Hatton (an actor grotesquely typecast by illness who, unlike Karloff and Lugosi, didn't have to apply even an ounce of putty to portray a monster capable of making audiences scream in fright).

Universal Studio Monsters is a frightfully good time.