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Showcase Presents the Universal Dracula Legacy

It’s Halloween once again, and the Showcase crew assembles for their (mostly) annual monster movie marathon. This year the gang tackles the six films that make up the legacy of the king of the vampires: Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

 

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 5: Frankenstein (1931)

frankensteinDirector: James Whale
Writer: John L. Balderston, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris

Plot: Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has a plan to create life. Assembling a body from the pieces of corpses, he builds an enormous monster of a man. But alas, his plan goes awry when his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye)  places a criminal brain into the creature. The creation (Boris Karloff, climbing that rocketship to stardom) is innocent, but powerful and terrifying. When it gets loose and accidentally kills a small child, there can be only one solution – destroy the creature before it’s too late.

Thoughts: Right off the bat, this film is more engrossing than Dracula was for me. Henry Frankenstein (changed, for some reason, from the novel’s “Victor”) and his assistant begin the film with the eerie process of excavating the recently-dead to use their parts in Victor’s creation. Like Dracula, this actually adds to the original novel in ways that have become accepted as part of the lore – for instance, Mary Shelley was somewhat ambiguous about where Victor obtained the pieces he used to construct his man, even implying some of the parts were not human in origin. The whole segment with the abnormal brain, which is not pretty iconic for Frankenstein, started here.

That’ s by no means the only place where the film deviates from the source material, of course. It’s a pretty loose adaptation and abandons volumes worth of backstory, but it succeeds in creating a memorable, timeless interpretation of the character that has dominated our perceptions ever since. Every legendary image of Frankenstein — the green skin, square and scarred forehead, and bolts sprouting from the neck — originates here. This, my friends, is the reason Herman Munster was the man he was.

And let’s be honest here – it’s justified. This is a powerful piece of work. The creature in this film (Karloff, interestingly, was not named in the opening credits, but was given his due at the end) isn’t really a monster. He’s huge, he’s powerful, but he has no real desire to do harm until harm is done to him. This assertion, of course, is somewhat undercut by the idea that Fritz places a “criminal” brain into his body – that seems to imply that violence is in his nature after all. But then again, maybe that’s the point the filmmakers were going for.

Speaking of Fritz, I’m really starting to become a fan of actor Dwight Frye. His Renfield was one of the most memorable aspects of Dracula to me, and his portrayal of Fritz is creepy, laced with just a touch of comedy. The man really was a gifted actor, and did some magnificent work here in the early days of Universal Pictures. The classic “Igor” version of the mad scientist’s assistant actually doesn’t show up until later in Universal’s Frankenstein series, but Fritz is where the archetype has its foundation, making Frye responsible for two of the most enduring villainous second bananas in cinematic history.

Karloff, of course, is unequaled as the monster. He wasn’t really that big of a man, and reportedly the four-inch platform boots he wore as the monster were hell on him, but he brought in a tragedy to the performance that would make you think he was doing Shakespeare. You watched this creature and you felt for him. You watched the townspeople (in the classic torch-and-pitchfork wielding mob) chase after him and you had to wonder exactly who was in the wrong here. That’s what’s so great about this story – the way it can chill and still, at the same time, raise ethical questions. The creature did kill Marylin Harris, but is he actually responsible for her death? He didn’t know what he was doing. Counter-argument: if a wild animal kills a child, you put it down. Counter-counter argument: a wild animal isn’t a human being, and can’t be taught as one. Could the creature? We have to ask here – was he a monster, or was he an infant, unaware of his own strength, who had the potential to grow into a thinking, feeling man if it weren’t for all those people who wanted to poke him with stabby things and burn him with burny things?

To be fair, later films in the franchise would sort of throw away this particular hook, with the monster becoming less innocent and more malevolent, not to mention outright dangerous. But you can’t judge the original on those grounds. In this case, we can look at Frankenstein and his mob attacking the beast and wonder who was in the right. Frankenstein’s monster isn’t a zombie in the strictest sense of the word, but the ethical questions raised here feel like a precursor to the sort of things George Romero was later going to do in Night of the Living Dead and its better sequels, and that other, lesser filmmakers have attempted to do ever since.

I think it’s safe to say that Frankenstein – both the film and the creature – is my favorite of the classic Universal Monsters. But we are going to look at one more of them before we move on. So tomorrow let’s fire up the DVD player and step forward in time one year to 1932, and thrill to the tale of The Mummy.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 4: Dracula (1931)

draculaDirector: Tod Browning
Writer:
Hamilton Dean & John L. Balderston, based on the play by Garrett Fort, based in turn on the novel by Bram Stoker
Cast:
Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Solan & Francis Dade

Plot: The mysterious Count Dracula and his unwitting slave, Renfield, travel to England. When the ship is arrived, the entire crew and passenger manifest is dead, save for Renfield, who has gone mad. Dracula takes up residence in an abbey near Renfield’s sanitarium, and mysterious sightings and deaths occur, spurring the noted professor Van Helsing to confront the Count, and expose him for what he truly is – a vampire.

Thoughts: I’ve been waiting for this one. The Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, more than any other film or piece of pop culture, is what has helped to inform our current perception of the vampire. (Because the things in Twilight are not vampires, damn you Stephenie Meyer.) A lot of people don’t even realize how many of our current tropes come from this film or its sequels or imitators – the explicit connection of the vampire to bats, for example (where in the past – and even in this film – vampires could transform into bats, wolves, mist, and other things), or their aversion to sunlight. As important as those things are to current vampire lore, they didn’t come from the classic lore. (Which raises the question – if the Universal pictures depiction of the vampire hadn’t made him allergic to sunlight, would Meyer still have felt the urge to make Edward Cullen sparkle as an aversion to that trope? Hmm. Okay, I think I need to stop talking about Twilight now.)

Lugosi pops in with his tuxedo, his cape, his pendant, and those convenient beams of light that always seem to fall across his eyes and he absolutely owns the room, mesmerizing whoever’s on screen with him and whoever happens to be watching him. He may not be overtly sexual in the way that writers have tried to make vampires since the rise of Anne Rice, but he’s clearly seductive in a way that defies explanation. Even without the supernatural powers of the vampire, Lugosi’s presence would command anybody.

Other classic horror character tropes appear to be in their infancy here as well. Renfield, once Dracula has possessed him, is extremely effective. Dwight Frye has a madness in his eyes that spreads throughout his entire face. As he smiles and peers up the staircase of the ship at the camera, you find yourself absolutely chilled to the bone – he’s a madman, and he’s coming after you next. The Renfields of this world may come second to the Igors as the horror movie second bananas, but when played right, I’d be more scared of a Renfield any day. The atmosphere of the film is powerful as well – the scenery is fantastic, and the scenery is the stuff of every classic haunted house.

As masterful as Lugosi and Frye’s performances are, however, some of the other elements of this 80-year-old film just don’t hold up as well. Granted, you’ve got to make allowances for the special effects limitations of the time, but the scene towards the beginning where Renfield leans out of his carriage to see a bat flying in front just yanks a modern audience out entirely – it looks as though someone is dangling a rubber bat from a fishing pole, which probably isn’t that far from the truth.

You can’t blame age on stale performances, though, and Lugosi and Frye are really the only memorable actors in the film. The women are mannequins, and Edward Van Solan’s Van Helsing is forgettable at best. David Manners as Jonathan Harker is just plain bland, vanilla, and utterly unexciting.

The climax of the film, however, is what really hurts it. After so much tension and so much buildup, the ending just doesn’t excite. Van Helsing simply marches into Dracula’s lair and stakes him – off-camera at that. Again, I’m trying to make allowances for the time period. There wasn’t going to be any gory close-ups or a fountain of blood (like in the painfully weak Mel Brooks comedy, Dracula: Dead and Loving It), but at the same time, I can’t help thinking there could have been more. In truth, I think it speaks to how the still-evolving language of film hadn’t really been solidified yet. The film is based on the stage play based (legally, unlike Nosferatu) on Bram Stoker’s novel, and in 1931 they were still filming movies as if they were stage plays. I actually worked backstage on a production of this play several years ago, and I know how effective the final scene can be when done properly, but film is an entirely different medium with different demands.

The same goes for the novel – in the book, a great deal of the tension and fear is internal. It’s a lot harder to do that in a movie. You need to give the audience something to look at, something to see and fear. This is one of the reasons I’m not a purist when it comes to film adaptations. Sometimes, what works great on the printed page just doesn’t work on film. This is a case where the screenwriters should have found a more dramatic way to stage that final moment between Van Helsing and Dracula, some way to get the audience more engaged, than just waltzing in and driving in the stake.

I look back at these comments and I start to feel a little worried about myself. This film is a classic of the genre, isn’t it? I sure as hell haven’t endured for 80 years, do I really have the right dismiss something that millions have found frightening? Worst of all, what if I’m falling victim to the same mindset that I so often accuse my high school English students of having? What if I’m unable to divorce myself from my modern mindset and appreciate the film for what it was when it was created?

A terrifying thought.

But then I look at the next film on my list, a film released in the same year as Dracula, and one that I do consider a masterpiece of cinema. And I think, “Maybe Dracula simply doesn’t hold up the way Frankenstein does.”