Allen Varney, writer and game designer


A "Blast From the Past" column from Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine (1996):


by Allen Varney

If I argued that Universal Studios invented the monster movie in the early 1930s, film students would snort with contempt. Film monsters are almost as old as film itself! But Universal's twin cinematic thunderbolts, Dracula (1932) and Frankenstein (1933), made movie monsters a national passion, then reduced them to a category. Over the years, trading cards have tracked our changing attitudes toward Universal's monsters as closely as the monsters followed their pale, overacting victims.

In the early days, when Bela Lugosi leered with bright eyes, or when lumbering Boris Karloff threw some luckless peasant off a cliff, audiences screamed. Apparently a few people became hysterical; these reports derive from Universal's industrious publicity department. But one generation's screams become laughter for the next. Though Dracula is the oldest talking film still regularly shown, and though Frankenstein's smash success engendered a whole crypt-full of Universal monsters -- the Mummy, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon -- I look at those movies now and laugh.

I laugh affectionately at Colin Clive, so overwrought as Dr. Frankenstein. I roll my eyes at Elsa Lanchester, in her bad-hair-day debut as the Frankenstein monster's bride. I chuckle as Maria Ouspenskaya, Hollywood's standard all-purpose gypsy, solemnly intones that quatrain to werewolf Lon Chaney: "Even a man who's pure of heart / And says his prayers at night / Can become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms / And the moon is full and bright." The Universal actors now seem lovably naive, their fears demure and sanitary. With their expressions so full of dread, they have become merely dreadful -- yet somehow charming.

Why? Because familiarity is the enemy of fear. People become desensitized after long exposure to horror, and then their next reaction is usually laughter. After Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Young Frankenstein, Scooby-Doo, and Boris Karloff narrating How the Grinch Stole Christmas, how can these antique creepy-crawlies move us?

Trading cards proved this with the Leaf "Spook Stories" sets from 1963-65. Universal publicity stills, captioned and backed with jokes a child might find funny, appeared in two sets. Cards #1-72 go for $2-3 apiece today ($225/set); the scarcer #73-144 bring $5 each, or $300-350/set. Rarest are the 48 color stickers ($15 each), which have earned the high honor of being counterfeited.

The same movie stills, with different but equally satiric captions, appeared in 1973 and 1980 in three Topps series of "You'll Die Laughing" cards, named for the Jack Davis caricature on the back. (Collectors call these two sets "Creature Feature," from the package name, to distinguish them from a 1959 Topps "You'll Die Laughing" set packaged as "Funny Monsters.") Cards from the two 1973 series (numbered 1-62 and 63-128) fetch a buck or so apiece; the full set brings $140. The 1980 series of 88 cards and 22 stickers costs about $40. All these Topps sets reproduce the Universal stills better than the Leaf series, but look at a typical card back:

Mother Ghost: "Igor, why did you kick your little brother in the stomach?"

Junior Ghost: "I couldn't help it. He turned around too quick."

They're all like that, ordinary jokes lackadaisically "spooked up" by labelling the speakers ghosts or monsters. How lame!

Today we find the Universal monsters not exactly scary or funny, but instead rather endearing, like eccentric relatives. They provoke the tender feelings adults hold toward remembered childhood pleasures. In that spirit, two respectful card sets have appeared from Topps (1994) and Kitchen Sink (1996). And for Halloween 1997 the U.S. Postal Service released a set of six commemorative stamps honoring the Universal monsters and the actors who portrayed them so memorably. After over 60 years, the monsters remain Universal's most lasting contribution to movie history.