The Mummy Unwrapped: Original Shifting Sand from Universal to Hammer

Karloff the Uncanny The Mummy

The original shared film universe of Hollywood is stirring in its crypt, as a new Universal Mummy is set to emerge in 2017. This Halloween found Jokerside wrapping itself up in… The Mummy. Before we head to action-adventure, we first pitch Boris Karloff against Christopher Lee in two undead classics!

THERE’S A HIERARCHY OF HORROR, YOU DON’T NEED ABBOT AND COSTELLO TO POINT THAT OUT. From the great gothic tradition, there are some clear if conflicted leaders. Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde have been adapted over 140 times. Mary Shelley’s older diabolical exploration of nature and nurture has led Dr Frankenstein to the screen over 150 times, and that’s not to mention, unironically, a legion clones. It’s no surprise that these characters along with the odd Phantom of the Opera and Invisible Man have led the charge of literature adaptations in Hollywood and across the planet.

That was never clearer than when Universal Studios were propelled to another level by their adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. Those smashes came almost ten years after the studio had kicked off what would become a highly successful brand of heightened stylish horror, fantasy and science fiction. On screen, names were made overnight. A number of actors still have their names indelibly attached to parts that were galvanised during the Studio’s peak. Although many swapped across various leading roles of the key franchises that spilled down from these iconic originals, there’s no doubt whose names are still a breath away from that era’s Frankenstein, his monster, Dracula or the Wolf Man. But standing head and shoulders above them all, sometimes literally, there’s one of actor who’s name shouts the loudest. A year after originating Universal’s definitive Frankenstein’s Monster, English actor Boris Karloff originated a threat of a different kind. It wasn’t one that obviously sprung from the literature of the previous century, but it slotted so perfectly into contemporary zeitgeist and the essence of success behind those gothic adaptations that that it quickly set a permanent mark on horror cinema. No wonder it’s gearing up its major relaunch under Universal’s care for 2017. Dracula may not have rediscovered his lost love so much, slashers may not have been the same, zombies might never have caught on… without… The Mummy.

The Universal universe

It was Karloff who portrayed the Egyptian mummy Im-Ho-Tep himself in that first eponymous film, before other actors took on the role for five sequels in various states of bandage. A giant of the horror film, and certainly one of the finest actors the country has ever produced, the English actor’s nuanced performances as much as his distinctive looks are in large part responsible for the continued hold Universal have over the cultural the perception of The Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster. Karloff acted in a number of Universal films before their association ended with 1952’s The Black Castle. Intriguingly, an earlier temporary break came after The House of Frankenstein as the early rise of Universal’s shared film universe proved too much for him. He later retired to Hampshire in England and before he died in 1969 could not have missed the rise of the British rival to Universal’s hold on the horror film genre. Hammer Studios were in the middle of, if arguably past the peak of, their Dracula and Frankenstein series by the time the world of horror lost Karloff. Hammer is similarly defined by a key core group of actors. And there it’s Christopher Lee who stands out as the key comparator to Karloff. He remains most famous for his occasionally feral blood-eyed Dracula, but it was Lee who followed in Karloff’s footsteps in originating Hammer’s Frankenstein’s monster and then Hammer’s The Mummy.

Hammer Time

And those were greatly different beasts. The brands and rivalry of those two great horror studios were never clean cut. Universal distributed Hammer films in the United States, and various exclusive deals and copyrights led the Hammer adaptations to be markedly different to their Universal forbears. That was clear in not only the look of Hammer’s various monsters of Frankenstein, but also in the emphasis that fell to Baron Frankenstein rather than those creations. Things were a little more muddled with Dracula. Hammer’s Horror of Dracula was typically distributed by Universal having forfeited the rights to distribute the film themselves to gain the rights, earning a longer title to distinguish it from the 1931 Universal film. Although Bram Stoker had never found a publisher in the United States and his most famous book remained out of copyright, Universal had signed an unusual deal with Bram Stoker’s wife that forbade any other film adaptations at the time. Hammer went through the grinder to produce their version, a mere four years before the work became public domain in the United Kingdom. Lee was famously and increasingly more dissatisfied with his role as Dracula, apparently rebelling against the sequels that worked further from the source novel by refusing to speak in some. And that’s after Hammer’s original had managed to be more faithful to Stoker’s original novel than Universal’s effort, though not by much. When it came to their Egyptian starring roles, a product of film rather than prose, things were a little different. Read more…

Penny Dreadful: The Last Rites

Penny Dreadful Trilogy

That gnawingly immaculate show, clinical, gothic… surely it was intended as a joke for Lit grads? It shouldn’t have gone anywhere but it did until in its third year it was prematurely staked. Jokerside’s final look at Penny Dreadful this Halloween dwells on where the those otherwise immortal characters ended up.

*Spoilers for the complete run guaranteed.*

World Without a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

And so it ended with Wordsworth, the romantic poet so extricably linked to the Frankenstein myth that was just one of Penny Dreadful’s beating hearts. In 2014,the show provided one of the best Frankenstein adaptations during a first season that Jokerside couldn’t help but include in a review of the state of Mary Shelley’s legacy that year. The fall of the witches, a surprising turn that powered the show’s second season, its strongest, was also irresistible. Jokerside mashed it together with Hannibal’s final season in our 2015 update (the best things come in threes), as that show veered from the indulgence of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal to his early perfect thriller Red Dragon.

So, how could Jokerside resist a glimpse at the bitter-sweet end of Penny Dreadful, now the soil has landed on the coffin lid? Happy Halloween.

Certainties

Despite an emphatic if premature conclusion, it’s difficult to say anything about Penny Dreadful with absolute with certainty. After three seasons of curiously differing lengths the story was noticeably dramatically shortened. Some characters retreated from their potential in the rush while some premises faded away. Hastiness didn’t work well in the Penny Dreadful universe, and that was more apparent than ever when the motley crew entered the villain’s lair in the finale, the climax of three years of meticulous plotting and prophecy. It was the primary storyline revolving around the enigmatic Miss Vanessa Ives that showed the strain, despite the rich fabric that stretched across compelling supporting characters. Those sub-plots, many feeding into the primary story, had mixed success in concluding individual stories. Penny Dreadful was always particularly good at expanding minor and complementary themes, lifted from the great works of gothic horror, and using them to breathe new life into familiar characters. Many had already reached a satisfying end point at the end of the first or even second year only to be have new life breathed into them for the third. Take Caliban, the original creature of Frankenstein who ended the second season on an oh-so-fitting icebreaker his story thwarted in misery, only to return to London to have yet more heartache heaped upon him in the third year.

The finale began as it ended: with death. That was to be expected, but as much as it delivered more sumptuous horror from the pen of John Logan, who’s to say prolonging the pain of these characters was really the enjoyably right thing to do? Even the glimmers of hope were steeped in melancholy.

It’s a key question, as Penny Dreadful, a sometimes purposefully difficult mix of clinical stylisation and gothic romance was always a contrary beast.

Back to one

“The dead place”

Few shows matched Penny Dreadful’s first year success, when it simultaneously provided a compelling conclusion while enhancing and priming its central roster of characters ready for a heightened second year. Not every character made that first year of course, but Brona Croft’s demise not only allowed Ethan Chandler’s story to fulfil its supernatural promise, but through the creation of Lily, propel the good Doctor’s story onto the Bride of Frankenstein. Every character, except Sir Malcolm Murray’s manservant Sembene, was left in a stronger position come the close of that first season. And most tellingly of all, although a strong and unmistakable shadow had been cast, the show’s main nemesis not only failed to appear but wasn’t even named. Come the second season, the show’s longest at 10 episodes, there was an astonishing turn of events as the villain we all anticipated fell back, replaced by the revelation of two separate nemeses of unimaginable power and evil. Two brothers. Two fallen angels. Both of many names. Dracula assumed the physical side. And on the unphysical, the one most easily called Lucifer.

The second year, Lucifer’s time in the limelight, closed with a glorious pitched invasion of the witches lair, a beautifully realised coven enslaved to Lucifer. Her back story having once again taken mid-season prime position, there was no doubt as to the importance of Miss Ives as those dramatic events unfolded. By the end every character had lost something, but for Miss Ives it was the one constant she’d held on to for two years: her faith. That was a strange response to an infernal meeting and escaping the jaws of the devil, but it left her alone in London while the majority of other characters were scattered across the globe.

The third season seized those reins, embracing the global diaspora after the claustrophobic events of the show’s second year. It was a tough act to follow and the multiple, parallel strands in the Arctic, London, America and Africa, unsurprisingly lost the momentum that had made the previous year the show’s strongest. Despite the show’s clear intent to forge powerful stories of its own around familiar characters and original creation Vanessa Ives, the third season couldn’t match the rhythm of its predecessor. That second year benefitted from storming set-pieces, a chilling and opaque foe in those powerful witches and their puppet overlord, a disembodied foe of mystery. That year undermined expectations, pulling characters further from their source works, and the third year consolidated it.

“A grisly, undead thing”

Having established the challenging threat of the two brothers, the third series expanded its interest in pairs. Gothic master of duality Henry Jekyll was a high profile addition, working with his old school friend Victor Frankenstein to control the latter’s second surviving creation. Unfortunately, although the news of the show’s cancellation came late into the run, the third year was forced to confront the imminent apocalypse with indecent haste. And it was a singular mission for the most part. As Vanessa Ives walked into the arms of her immortal lover, other characters were forced to battle their personal demons and almost entirely the consequences of their earlier actions before they could join her. Yes, Vanessa’s true love was the knockout twist of the third year, matching the powerful reveal of Dorian Gray’s painting the year before. This was the year we met Dracula. But anyone expecting the two diabolical brothers to be pitted against each other were to be disappointed. There was little point pitting evil against evil when their rivalry could simply fuel the terror and impossible odds stacked against our anti-heroes. For each one had shown their fair share of weakness and flaws since in the three years prior. One foe eventually had to rise above the other. As established in the year’s mandatory exploration of Vanessa’s background, this time in the claustrophobic confines of an asylum cell, Lucifer was on the descent, Dracula very much on the ascent. Read more…

“You fool Hyde, you can never defeat us” – Jekyll and Hyde AD 2016

Jekyll and Hyde 2015 2016

Following the gothic cross-sectional glimpses at Frankenstein and Dracula over the last two years, Jokerside looks at the rocky state of Dr Jekyll and the ever chaotic world of Mr Hyde… From ITV’s recently axed Jekyll and Hyde to what 2016 has in store for the character in adaptation. And yes, requisite mention for NBC…

*May transform into spoilers*

THE DEFINITE ARTICLE SHY NOVELLA STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL & MR HYDE WAS PUBLISHED IN 1886. WITH IT, 36 YEAR OLD AUTHOR ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON NOT ONLY ENTERED THE ILLUSTRIOUS PANTHEON OF 19TH CENTURY HORROR WRITERS, BUT PENNED A SLIGHT STORY OVERSTOCKED WITH INFLUENCES. Although set in the far more commercial London, it makes for a heady exploration of the original city of two-sides, Stevenson’s home town of Edinburgh. In the latter days of the Victorian era, it’s also a handy analogy for contemporary fears for the individual, privatisation and public ownership, and class division. As the 20th century brought new concerns, Jekyll and Hyde was readymade to reflect them, much as the universally adaptable themes at the heart of Bram Stoker’s Dracula ensured it permanent relevance. Stevenson’s story was first adapted for the stage a year after its publication and continues to spread into films, music, books, art across the world. To the point that the good Doctor and his dangerous alter-ego make up the third most filmed literary character. The last decade has seen two major British adaptations, both modernising in their own way, while it’s provided inspiration for serials in America and America. There’s little sign of the original horror icon of split personality disappearing any time soon. And indeed, its themes have spawned other works that have stomped their own giant footprint on popular culture.  Currently mixing with the best of the box office, it’s impossible to look at the current state of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde without mentioning the Hulk in the room…

The shadow of the Hulk

“I decided I might as well borrow from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well “ – Stan Lee, 1974

Few sources have been as overshadowed by their inspirations as Hyde has been by Hulk, and Jekyll by Banner. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s most famous exploration of split personalities is a thinly veiled update, although has had far longer to explore the relationship between both personalities. Banner was similarly driven and doomed by his scientific genius, but never experimented on himself, as Lee drew liberal inspiration from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well.

The Incredible Hulk currently finds himself in successful, if not straightforward times. Assimilated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the beginning, The Incredible Hulk was a modest success in 2008 compared to stablemate Iron Man. Through the witty script of Joss Whedon, the Hulk became one of the stand-outs in 2012’s The Avengers although curiously, never with the suggestion that this audience appreciation could translate to a successful solo outing. Indeed, as Mark Ruffalo was the third actor to take on Banner in so many films, the road was rocky. While solo outing rights remained blocked at Universal, forthcoming buddy movie Thor Ragnarok (due 2017) will pit the green brute alongside the Norse God in a build-up to the two Avengers Infinity War movies that Ruffalo has suggested forms a quasi-Hulk solo movie of its own.

Two-faced

Of all the legacies of Stevenson’s creation, the Hulk sits at the top of the pile, and will be dominating blockbusters for years to come. And as a pop culture behemoth, the Hulkification of Hyde was inevitable almost as soon as Marvel’s pop culture behemoth survived cancellation after six issues in 1963, just as Banner had survived the gamma radiation. Over at DC, the home of personified literary grotesque Gotham City threw up a thin, but fascinating most-of-the-time rogue in Harvey Dent. Two Face surfaced from law rather than medicine, but has proved one of the compelling and tragic figures in the rich tapestry of Batman’s friends and rogues. Obsessed with duality and literally split down the middle as the result of an acid attack that reawakened severe and deep-rooted personality disorder. Taken down by his job, from the heights of District Attorney, he’s Batman’s fallen angel and much like the Hulk (although admittedly a little more black and white), never the villain but an amoral presence in the original Hyde mould. Like Hulk, Two Face has had a mixed form in adaptation. His first big screen moment in 1995 showed how poorly he could be treated as Tommy Lee Jones channelled the nuances of personality disorder through alternating talking and shouting. Fortunately, 2008’s The Dark Knight stunned when it pulled a Two Face origin out of its rich script, drawing on many of the same tragic lines as what might remain Harvey Dent’s finest hour: Batman: The Animated Series’ Two Face in 1992. The Dark Knight did highlight the difficulties of the character however – without re-treading his inherent conflict, Nolan’s masterpiece showed that the fleeting last act emergence of the villain was just about all he needed in comparison with other rogues of Gotham.

Crucially, both Hulk and Two Face are victims of circumstance, although scuppered by their own genius. Still, these villainous and superheroic versions of Stevenson’s character might have brought out the comic book potential of the character, but they haven’t stopped the original making his mark on the medium.

One of the most prevalent examples came in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – something even more blatant in the doomed 1997 film adaptation. After Fox’s failed television update has now morphed into a film reboot, that version won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Still, hopefully they’ll stick closer to the source. As one of Britain’s premier adapter’s and adaption curmudgeons, Moore’s love letter to these literary constructs deserves deft work.

The rebounding comic book stylings of the children of Hyde where also clear in the recent ITV adaptation, which imposed the central figure into a comic inspired set-up and even expanded the universe with nods to Marvel. As Hulk stories had soon developed in the sprawling storylines of comic book chronology, Hyde was now become an indefinite article. He is a Hyde and is not alone, least of all with the late arrival of his sister and lycanthropy dripping through another family line. “I’m a Hyde” his sister said knowingly. But that was just one of the references flowing through the blood of his most recent vehicle…

Jekyll and Hyde (ITV, 2015)

The Gordian Knot…

Before purposefully transforming into Hyde for the final time during the tenth episode of ITV’s big budget repurposing of Jekyll and Hyde, Robert Jekyll drew a comparison between his predicament and the Gordian Knot of Alexander the Great lore. How right he was. Sadly, a month since that finale aired, ITV have not only enacted their own quick slicing solution on the show, but Ofcom have found it in breach of broadcasting regulations. Read more…

Hammer: Dracula Prince of Darkness at 50 – Dead and just not putting up with it

Hammer Dracula Dead and not putting up with it

Of the minor things worth celebrating in what’s been a rather terrible week is the 50th anniversary of the US release of Dracula Prince of Darkness. Jokerside breaks the gloom with a look at the glorious world where resurrection is FACT.

WE’RE NEAR THE END OF A WEEK THAT’S PILED ON SOME TERRIBLE LOSSES. AND 2015 WAS PRETTY BAD. Over the last 12 months we’ve lost two British icons whose careers seemed to defy any idea of death. Sir Christopher Lee and David Bowie. Bowie played a vampire of course, in Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Lee’s illustrious career would take in everything from Gremlins to Jabberwockies and heavy metal, but he will be long remembered as a definitive vision of Stoker’s legendary vampire.

Of course, this horrid week also saw the loss of Alan Rickman, most famous to millions of Harry Potter fans for his glorious portrayal role of the vampiric Severus Snape. And just yesterday, Roberts Bank Stewart, the legendary British screenwriter, father of Bergerac, was also lost. Among his many achievements was the creation of Doctor Who’s premier shapeshifters the Zygons. Ah Dracula, one of literature’s great shapeshifters.

So from the depths of gloom, where better to look that at the glorious fall, rise, fall, rise and so on of Lee’s Count Dracula. As this bloody week ends, let’s celebrate utterly ridiculous over the top and glorious concept of resurrection.

Dracula Prince of Darkness was the second of Hammer’s films to feature Lee as the eponymous Count. Of course, it wasn’t the second of Hammer’s Dracula films, but 1960’s The Brides of Dracula can be dismissed along with 1977’s The Legend of the Golden Vampires. While both starred Peter Cushing as (a) Van Helsing, neither featured Christopher Lee. The latter even attempted to replace him, painfully. If you’re after the modes of vampire slaying therein: the shadow of a giant cross and a spear through the heart.

Dracula Prince of Darkness signalled the glorious return of Christopher Lee as the Count, eight years after his first appearance and sparking off the Hammer Dracula franchise proper. And as the first true sequel, it kick-started the Count’s ability to return. And of course, despite the wonderful recap of Dracula’s death almost a decade before, it rendered the whole final act killing of a vampire utterly pointless. The franchise didn’t care a jot for that however, and so began one of the earliest examples of a series where every successive film practically wiped out its predecessor. Don’t pursue that logic too heavily though. You’ll end up with The Satanic Rites of Dracula sat shivering and alone in the corner.

There’s more to Dracula Prince of Darkness – as well as bearing quite probably the best title of any Dracula film, it also kick-started double-bill horror. Released 50 years ago this week in the US it was accompanied rather oddly by The Plague of the Zombies. Some were luck to receive plastic vampire fangs and zombie eye glasses on attendance.

The film’s script features a very handy reminder of the many weaknesses of a vampire. Just as a refresher:

“He can be traced to his resting place during the daylight hours and there, a stake through the heart. He can be exposed to the direct rays of the sun. Running water will drown him. The cross will burn him. He is not invulnerable.”

But who needs to be invulnerable when you can constantly be reanimated, even a century later? And so, let’s have a good old and tongue-in-cheek rummage through the many resurrections of Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula.

Dracula (1958)

“I am Dracula and I welcome you to my house”

By no means a direct adaptation, it was still hammer’s most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s original novel. Jonathan Harker duly turns up to meet the Count, this time at the Castle Dracula outside Klausenburg, but the real reason for rapid departures was the lock-tight contract Universal Studios had cunningly taken out with the Stoker estate two decades before. Universal’s take, with Bela Lugosi apparently defining the role, looked to have the eminently adaptable story sewn up  (Stoker after all was business manager of the Lyceum Theatre for 27 years). Read more…

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