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‘Universal ’40s Monsters: A Critical Commentary’ (review)

Written by John T. Soister, Henry Nicolella,
Harry H Long, Darío Lavia

Published by Bear Manor Media


Were you a Monster Kid?

I was.

“Monster Kid” is a term used these days for those of us who grew up with local horror movie hosts, Aurora model kits, horror comics, and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

Cincinnati’s Cool Ghoul was my idol and I watched all the classics on his Saturday night Scream-In show—Dracula, Frankenstein, Godzilla, Black Sabbath… I also saw a lot of the grade B, C, and Z monster flicks like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter or Hillbillys in a Haunted House.

In-between those eras, though, came the often-overlooked monster movies from Universal Studios in the 1940s.

Universal 40’s Monsters-A Critical Commentary is the title of a massive Bear Manor Media tome credited to writers John T. Soister, Henry Nicolella, Harry H. Long, and Darío Lavia. Each man apparently writes a different section as different styles are detectable, although the individual sections aren’t credited.

At nearly 800 pages, this is an intimidating book, but if you’re a film buff as well as a Monster Kid, you’ll relish every minute of it. Clearly well-versed in their subject matter, the authors spotlight 67 different films in depth. The entries are separated by year, starting in 1940 and ending in 1948 with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which is generally agreed on as the ending of the two major Universal monster movie eras.

The reader gets the plot, some cast biographies, behind-the-scenes detail on the studio and the making of the individual films, reviews, and even a lot of later references to them from when they appeared on television. All of this is doled out knowledgably and entertainingly, with no major omissions or errors spotted by me.

What movies are covered? Well, as one might expect, all of the continuations of the first wave of classics are here—the Tom Tyler and Lon Chaney, Jr. Mummy series, for instance, the Glenn Strange Frankenstein films, the various Invisible Man sequels and variations, Son of Dracula, the Wolf Man films, and the remake of Chaney, Sr’s Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains.

Even more interesting to me were the lesser-known entries—some completely new to me— such as Horror Island, Man-Made Monster, Night Monster, Sealed Lips, and The Strange Case of Doctor Rx. Some of them only qualify as horror films in the broadest possible definition of that term.

Such is the case also with Universal’s updated Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. A couple of those have at least pseudo-supernatural elements but I’m pretty sure all of them are covered herein. Not complaining, mind you, as they’re all just as well-written and interesting as the other entries and hey, I did catch them back in the day on the same channel that showed the scary Saturday night flicks, although it was Saturday mornings for Sherlock. In reference to the modernized Holmes mysteries, the authors write: “This formula – a contemporaneous Holmes with a ridiculous hairstyle, diminished budgets which somehow did not produce ‘B’-film appearances – seemed to work better given wartime exigencies than had Fox’s ‘A’ features in 1939.”

Considering the number of pages, there really aren’t that many photos but those present, a mix of color and black and white, are not the usual suspects. More than half of the photos in the book are ones that were completely unfamiliar to me, all annotated for the occasion and even corrected when necessary from their original legends.

Nine pages of interesting endnotes round out the book, along with a Bibliography that’s even kind of fun so I can see how many of these books are also in my collection (along with some I will want to track down)!

If you have no interest in monster flicks, B-movies, or old Hollywood, I have no idea what you might think of this big ol’ book. If it does, however, sound like something up your alley, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll love Universal 40’s Monsters-A Critical Commentary.

Booksteve recommends.

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