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Building a Franchise

In this weekend’s episode of the All New Showcase podcast, Kenny Fanguy and I talked about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as other studios that are trying to duplicate their success. Sony is trying to expand their one Marvel franchise — Spider-Man — into a full-blown universe, while 20th Century Fox is planning to merge their two Marvel properties (The X-Men and the Fantastic Four) into one world. Warner Bros is finally launching a DC Cinematic Universe, and Disney seems to have similar plans for the Star Wars franchise now that they own Lucasfilm. It’s the usual pattern in Hollywood, folks — whenever somebody finds success, everybody else wants to duplicate it. In this case, though, I applaud it. A lifelong comic book nerd, the shared universe style is something I dearly love. And in fact, it’s something that kind of surprises me has never been done in the movies before.

Oh, there have been small crossovers. Alien Vs. Predator comes immediately to mind, and Freddy Vs. Jason. Godzilla faced off against King Kong and a plethora of other kaiju back in the day, and if we go back to the 40s, Universal Studios had their “Monster Rally” sequence of films, in which the likes of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf-Man, and Abbott and Costello would encounter each other over and over again. But nobody ever did it on the scale that Marvel has, or that these other studios want. In fact, I’ve heard some rumors buzzing that the big movie studios are looking at a lot of their different properties to see just how this may be done. So that gets me thinking: what other film properties might evolve into this sort of larger cinematic universe?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is Harry Potter. Granted, the books have all been adapted, but Warner Bros has recently announced a new sequence of films based on the spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This should surprise no one. For over a decade now, the top-grossing Warner Bros movie has either been a Harry Potter film or a DC Comics film. Since they’ve got neither scheduled for 2014, they’re no doubt looking to fill the gap in their schedule. If they can get creator J.K. Rowling on board for this, I’m fine with an expansion of the Potter universe. Now let me make something clear — I don’t want any more movies about Harry Potter. His story is over and done with, and I really don’t need to see his adventures as an Auror after the death of Voldemort, because frankly, anything else is going to be anticlimactic. But one of the best things about the Harry Potter world is that Rowling did, in fact, create an entire world — a rich, detailed world, one with many curious ideas and facets that she only brushed up against in her original seven novels. Fantastic Beasts will be the story of Newt Scamander, a wizard who lived centuries ago and cataloged the most amazing magical creatures in the world. There’s plenty of story potential there. Stories of young Dumbledore or McGonagall? I’d watch that. The story of the founding of Hogwarts? I’m there. There are ways to expand the Potterverse that don’t require Harry, Ron, or Hermione, and if anything, that’s the direction Warner Bros should go in.

Universal Studios is planning a remake of Van Helsing, which itself was an attempt to do a sort of modern “monster rally” film. I say they should go all-out. The Universal versions of Frankenstein and Dracula are still the most recognizable in the world, so why not use the new Van Helsing to relaunch a Universal Monster Universe? Throw in Frankie and Drac, put in a Wolf-Man, give us the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Tie in the Brendan Fraser Mummy films while you’re at it — the original Van Helsing had a very tenuous tie in the first place, and it’s easily the most successful Universal monster franchise in decades. Even kids who have never seen a Boris Karloff picture love the monsters, and this is a perfect time to bring them back.

20th Century Fox, as we’ve said before, has both Aliens and Predator in its pocket, and regardless of the quality of the crossover films in those franchises, it’s a pretty natural pairing. The two concepts fit well together, and I think there’s still more that could be done with them. But you know what else Fox owns that could do with a bit of a boost? The X-Files. Think about it for a minute… a new X-Files movie, one that opens with Mulder and Scully sent to investigate a mysterious crash site uncovered beneath the arctic ice, and they wind up finding a Predator, or one of the Engineers from Prometheus. Ridley Scott may not be wild about it (especially if, as the rumors persist, he plans on linking the Aliens franchise back to this own Blade Runner film), but I think there’s room for connectivity here.

I’m just spitballing, friends, I’m throwing stuff around to see what sticks, but I think there could be fun had in any of these directions. If Sony insists on bringing back Ghostbusters, why not build that into a universe with not just ghosts, but all manner of supernatural entities and different squads of heroes combating them? Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are probably done with Men in Black, but there’s plenty of juice left in that universe. Sam Raimi is already planning to tie the reboot of The Evil Dead back into the original Evil Dead/Army of Darkness franchise — why not take a page from the comics and have Ash encounter the likes of Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, or Herbert West?

I know I’m throwing a lot of things around here, but that’s how these things start. Here’s hoping that somebody decides to run with this ball soon, and decides to do it the right way.

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DRACULA WEEK DAY 1: John Carradine in House of Dracula (1945)

House of DraculaDirector: Erle C. Kenton

Writer: Edward T. Lowe Jr.

Cast: John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Martha O’Driscoll, Lionel Atwill, Onslow Stevens, Jane Adams, Ludwig Stossel, Glenn Strange, Skeleton Knaggs

Plot: Count Dracula (John Carradine) approaches a scientist, Dr. Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), and asks him to discover a cure for his immortal curse. Edelmann and his hunchbacked assistant, Nina (Jane Adams) study Dracula’s blood and discover an unknown parasite. As Edelmann begins his experiments on Dracula a new patient arrives – Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), who seeks a cure for his own curse. When told the doctor is unavailable, an upset Talbot flees to the police station and demands to be locked up. The police summon Edelmann to examine him, and he arrives just in time to witness the rising full moon and Talbot’s transformation into the Wolfman.

Edelmann believes he can cultivate a mold that will allow him to reshape Talbot’s skull, which will relieve the pressure on his cranium and prevent his transformation. (It doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of the movie either.) Unwilling to wait for enough mold to be cultivated, Talbot flings himself from a nearby cliff. That night, as Edelmann searches for Talbot, the Wolfman attacks him. Talbot changes back before Edelmann can die, and the doctor discovers he’s hiding in a cave perfectly suited to grow the spores he needs. As they search the cavern, they find something totally unexpected: the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange). Because what the hell. They bring the monster to the hospital, hook him up to machines that can bring him back to life, then decide not to do it. This should end well.

Dracula, remembering that his name is in the title of the movie, stops by and sees Edelmann’s assistant Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll) playing the piano. For no discernible reason, he uses his power to mesmerize her. Wary, Edelmann tells Dracula he will require another transfusion to test his theory, and Dracula agrees. Edleman falls asleep during the experiment, though, and Dracula reverses the transfusion, placing his own blood into the doctor’s veins before fleeing. Edelmann follows Dracula to his coffin, which he drags into the sunlight and opens, reducing the vampire to a skeleton and laughing at the fact that there’s still a third of the movie left to go.

The transfusion begins to affect Edelmann, darkening his eyes, causing his reflection to vanish. He is becoming a vampire. This conveniently leads to him having a dream sequence largely made up of clips of earlier Frankenstein movies, which tempts him to resurrect the monster. The good in him forces back the evil, and he decides to use the spores to operate on Nina while he’s still himself. She convinces him to use his time to operate on Talbot instead, and he does so, knowing it will not be until the next full moon that they can be certain he was successful.

Edelmann, meanwhile, begins to succumb to the vampire, killing a villager and fleeing the same crowd of angry townspeople who spent most of the 1930s and 40s waiting for Universal to make another monster movie so they could find work. The police come to Edelmann’s hospital, believing Talbot responsible for the murder. Talbot realizes Edelmann is the real killer, and he pledges to help him stay sane long enough to help Nina, then destroy the evil within him. As the next full moon approaches, Talbot is astonished to find he does not transform: the operation was a success. The Wolfman is no more. As Nina tries to tell Edelmann, she finds him resurrecting the Frankenstein Monster, having given in to the evil within him. He kills Nina and has the monster attack the police. Talbot retrieves a police weapon and guns down Edelmann as the mob arrives for their scheduled appointment. The lab catches on fire, because 1945, and the monster is destroyed as the mob, Talbot and Milizia flee.

Thoughts: By 1945 the Universal Monster franchise had largely evolved into a bizarre mishmash where the monsters – particularly the three heavyweights – appeared in each other’s films indiscriminately and with little to no regard to continuity. Just the year before, in House of Frankenstein, audiences saw Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster each meet their demise, but here they are without any attempt at an explanation. Today we’d just call it a “reboot” and pretend the earlier movies never happened, but nobody wants to ignore the Universal Classics… nobody in their right mind, anyway.

If there’s one thing this movie proves, it’s that trying to come up with a scientific explanation for what has always been supernatural in-canon is usually a bad idea. The parasites in Dracula’s blood are bad enough, but the explanation for Larry Talbot’s transformation Wolfman is close enough to “it’s all in your head” as to almost be insulting to fans of the character. One can easily believe George Lucas watched this movie just before he whipped up the concept of Midi-Chlorians.

The good news is, no matter how crappy the plot of a movie, it was always a treat to watch Lon Chaney Jr. and Glenn Strange in their legendary forms. Chaney’s Wolfman has always been the saddest and most tragic of the Universal monsters, a creature that wishes for nothing but peace but is utterly unable to find it. When Stan Lee created the Hulk, he always credited inspiration coming from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I’ve often thought the sad case of Bruce Banner had more in common with Lawrence Talbot. And with that in mind, it’s nice to see him sort of get a happy ending for a change. Sure, by the time he met Abbott and Costello three years later he was the Wolfman again, but so what? Frankenstein wasn’t burned anymore and Dracula had regenerated from a skeleton back into Bela Lugosi somehow. Who cares? It’s the 40’s! Party!

Anyway, on to Dracula himself. John Carradine as the legendary nosferatu has surprisingly little to do in this movie, even though he’s the title character. (In truth, at this point Universal’s naming convention was practically random: grab the name of any monster that appears in the movie and add a few other words. This film could just as easily have been titled Curse of the Wolfman or Return of Frankenstein or Dr. Edelmann’s Wonder Emporium and it would have been equally – if not more – accurate.) To Carradine’s credit, in the time he’s on screen he puts forth a solid performance. There’s a charm and a menace to him, and one can believe a woman would allow herself to be in his presence long enough to be affected by his hypnotic powers, which is convenient, because that’s exactly what the alleged plot calls for.

That said, the Dracula in this film is written in a terrible fashion. He begins the story by seeking a cure for his vampirism (something he never showed any particular interest in before), then starts going right back to his old “hypnotize ‘em and suck their blood” routine as if he wasn’t tired of that crap at all. He falls for Edelmann’s transfusion trick entirely too easily, then sabotages the very experiment he asked for in the first place. I spent half the film watching Carradine and shouting: “WHY ARE YOU DOING THINGS? STOP. THIS MAKES NO SENSE. YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE A HOUSE.”

The real star of this movie is Onslow Stevens as Dr. Edelmann, who starts out as a well-meaning scientist skeptic before becoming a creature of cartoonish evil. The dream sequence he has is nearly laughable, as his “good” and “evil” selves seem to argue over whether or not to resurrect the Frankenstein Monster… as if there could be any doubt that he would. Stevens does a great job with what he’s given, he’s just not given A material.

This is not a very good movie, to be blunt. But even the worst of the Universal Monster pictures had a strange sort of charm to them… the fun of seeing these characters overcame the cheesy effects or the ludicrous storylines. While this should never be anyone’s first choice of a monster movie to watch, if it’s available or if you’re doing a marathon of the classics, it has its place.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Lunatics and Laughter Day 3: Young Frankenstein (1974)

young-frankensteinDirector: Mel Brooks

Writers: Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks

Cast: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Khan, Richard Haydn, Gene Hackman, Anne Beesley

Plot: Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronkensteen,” Gene Wilder), grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein, leaves his inconsistently affectionate fiancé Elizabeth (Madeline Khan), for Transylvania. He is met by Igor (“I-gor,” Marty Feldman), grandson of his grandfather’s assistant, and Inga (Teri Garr), his temporary lab assistant, who quickly displays more affection than the fiancé he left behind. Frankenstein’s castle is kept by Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman), who Frederick questions about his grandfather’s “private” library. That night, Frederick is awakened from a nightmare by Inga, and, after a classic spinning bookcase gag, the two of them locate a secret passageway. At the bottom of a cobweb-covered staircase, they find Igor and the elder Frankenstein’s lab. Frederick reads his grandfather’s notes and finds the secret of animating lifeless matter, something he always believed impossible.

Igor and Frederick steal the corpse of an enormous, freshly-executed man to repeat Victor’s experiment. Igor goes on his own to steal a suitable brain for the beast, but as happened to his grandfather, fumbles with it and is forced to take an abnormal brain instead. In town, the people fear Frankenstein’s grandson, certain he is repeating his grandfather’s crimes (which, of course, he is). They recruit Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) to discover what Frederick is doing.

That night the Monster (Peter Boyle) comes to life. Although he seems gentle at first, when Igor strikes a match, he goes berserk and nearly kills Frederick. Igor confesses that he took a brain from “Abby Normal” just as Kemp arrives.  Frederick sends him off, but while he’s preoccupied Frau Blucher finds the monster and releases it. The creature breaks free from the castle, and Frederick vows to find it before it can hurt anyone. They set a trap for it the next evening, luring it with a violin and sedating it. Frederick insists upon trying to convince the creature it is loved. As he speaks to the beast, he not only takes it under his wing, but accepts his own destiny, declaring, “MY NAME IS FRANKENSTEIN!”

He presents the creature to the town, charming them with a song and dance routine before a light blows and it turns on the crowd and the police haul it away. As Frederick and Inga find comfort in each other’s arms, they receive a telegram that Elizabeth will be coming to the castle that night. After Elizabeth again rebuffs Frederick’s advances for the night, the creature – having escaped — returns to the castle. She passes out and he takes her with him to a hiding place in the woods, where she soon succumbs to its own animal desires. After a mere six times, though, the violin from the castle summons him back. Frederick decides the only way to protect the creature is to use his own brain to stabilize it. Kemp leads an angry mob, complete with torches and pitchforks, into the castle, and are about to make off with Frederick’s body, when the stable creature commands them to put him down. He gives a stirring speech and Kemp realizes the error of his ways. In the end, Frederick and Inga are married, whilst Elizabeth and the creature go off to enjoy domestic bliss of their own.

Thoughts: Coming off the magnificent western/comedy Blazing Saddles, it’s not surprising that Mel Brooks would turn his attention to the horror/comedy genre. (He’d later tackle the epic in History of the World Part I, science fiction in Spaceballs and high adventure with Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He’d return to horror with Dracula: Dead and Loving it, but the less said about that one, the better.) Working off an idea by Gene Wilder, these two took one of the most enduring classics of horror and turned it into one of the best horror/comedies ever.

Young Frankenstein works as a kinda-sequel to the original Frankenstein, building on the mythology of the original Universal films even though there was no official connection. (Young Frankenstein was produced by 20th Century Fox.) It doesn’t really contradict any of the older films, at least no more than some of the official sequels did, but it takes the franchise into an entirely different direction. This is the first film in my little experiment that I’d classify as a “Type B” horror/comedy – more comedy, but using the tropes of horror and spoofing them. The difference is in the plot, really – what puts this in the second category is that the story couldn’t exist without the comedy tropes. Even Abbott and Costello’s antics with the monsters followed a fairly straightforward scary movie plot for the 1940s, whereas certain elements of this film could not be removed or altered without drastic changes being made to the story structure. You could maybe replace the musical number towards the end with something more King Kong-eque, but that would simply feel derivative. And it’d be a lot harder to play up the creature’s abduction and romancing of Elizabeth without the comedy elements in any way that doesn’t make it tread uncomfortably close to plain rape.

The other thing, and the more all-encompassing thing, that makes this a Type B is the characterization. In a Type A universe, we’ve got a frightening situation populated by some funny characters. Bela Lugosi wasn’t a quippy Dracula, and Bob Hope’s cracks about the ghosts were only funny in the context of a world where nobody would take such a thing seriously. Not so for Type B, where all characters – and everything else – can become fodder for humor.  In Young Frankenstein, as in most Mel Brooks comedies, anybody can play straight man to anybody else at any moment. Everyone can crack a joke or make a comment that’s hysterical – to the audience. In-universe, however, nobody recognizes the humor.

The only exception would be Marty Feldman’s Igor, who leans heavily on the fourth wall, winking at the audience, and throwing out some meta-puns that make him seem both wackier than and more savvy than the rest of the characters. His comedy is easily the broadest of the troupe Brooks and Wilder assembled, and he’s probably the funniest as well. His timing is flawless, his sense of propriety non-existent, and his ability to key into other comedy from other eras makes his performance as funny now as 40 years ago.

What elevates this above most other Type B horror/comedies (coughScaryMoviecough) is the way Brooks and Wilder are still capable of crafting real characters instead of caricatures, telling a real story instead of just creating their own Frankenstein-patchwork of other movies. Even this film, which literally could not exist without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as its inspiration, feels fresh and original.

Just as important, Brooks and Wilder don’t simply repeat moments, but build upon them. The crummy spoofs of the 21st century are frequently completely devoid of actual jokes, instead just referencing a better movie under the assumption that the audience will understand the reference and laugh at the recognition. This is a stupid, asinine way to make a movie that far too many of my 11th grade students mistake for humor. In a Brooks comedy, though, we touch on the familiar moments and make them new. Igor stealing the brain, for example, begins with a glance at the camera, because he knows that we know what’s coming. Then, when the brain of a “scientist and saint” is accidentally destroyed, he goes for the abnormal brain immediately, despite the fact that the next brain over is clearly labeled “visionary.” The camera just pans past the other label, though, and a viewer may watch the movie two or three times before they even notice it. Modern films are incapable of this sort of subtle, Easter Egg humor – a film by Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer (perpetrators of such crimes against comedy as Meet the Spartans and Vampires Suck) would be sure to hover over that label, make sure everybody sees it, and drain every iota of comedic potential from it before moving on to what everybody knows they’re going to do anyway.

Modern spoof movies suck, is the point I’m trying to make.

Anyway, the film is built on small moments. Kenneth Mars’s assorted shtick with his artificial arm, the disastrous game of darts, and the bit where a choking Frederick has to play charades to make his incompetent accomplices understand he wants them to sedate the monster that is actively murdering him are the sorts of thing that make for a great spoof. None of these are repeat jokes, they’re built on the characters and story as presented instead of spending all their time making allusions to everything else. In fact, except for the full-film allusion to the original, the only references to anything else are when the town elders imply they’ve dealt with monsters five times in the past (referring, of course, to the line of Frankenstein pictures made by Universal) and Madeline Kahn’s hairstyle after she becomes the creature’s “bride.” And as those are both clearly references to the Frankenstein lore as a whole, if not the first movie specifically, we accept them.

When the movie references the original directly, it often does so in order to subvert it. When the creature encounters a little girl playing with flowers, we’re prepared for the worst, based on what happened to the little girl in the Boris Karloff original. Instead, we get a hysterical seesaw gag which completely takes us by surprise and is more than funny enough for us to forgive the fact that it really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the story. Gene Hackman’s cameo as the blind man serves a similar purpose – not actually progressing the plot, but showing us the character of the beast as it attempts to make friends and is thwarted, not because he’s a monster, but because his potential companions aren’t entirely capable.

When I asked for help assembling the movies for Lunatics and Laughter, one of the first suggestions I got was Scary Movie. And while I considered it, I decided not to do it, at least for the first phase. It may make the expanded edition, but only because of its influence on movie as a whole, not because of the quality. As you’ll see as we continue our march to Halloween, the vast majority of the movies I’ve chosen for this project are A-Type horror comedies, because most of the B-Types, frankly, are terrible. This is hands-down the best, the finest, the funniest horror spoof I’ve ever seen, and it’s frankly ruined me for most of the other ones. And for that, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder most assuredly have earned my thanks.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 2: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

abbott-and-costello-meet-frankensteinDirector: Charles Barton

Writers: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo & John Grant

Cast: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, Lenore Aubert, Jane Randolph, Frank Ferguson, Charles Bradstreet

Plot: Chick and Wilbur (Abbott and Costello, respectively, although why they even bothered with giving their characters names at this point is beyond me) are employees of a delivery company. They get a nervous phone call from Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) in London, asking about a pair of crates being sent to a house of horrors. He tells them that he’s flying to Florida the next day, and they are under no circumstances to deliver the crates until he arrives. The full moon rises in London and Talbot undergoes a startling transformation, becoming a Wolfman. Confused by the growling on the phone, Wilbur hangs up. Moments later, Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) arrives to pick up the crates, which he claims contain the remains of the true Count Dracula and Frankenstein Monster. He tells this to Sandra (Lenore Aubert), Wilbur’s girlfriend, who Chick thinks is far too alluring to be with his bumbling friend.

Despite the call from Talbot, McDougal has the proper paperwork, so Chick and Wilbur deliver the crates To McDougal’s House of Horrors. Wilbur is on-edge, surrounded by the creepy contents, but Chick is convinced Dracula and the Monster are just characters from stories. As he leaves Wilbur alone, Dracula (Bela Lugosi, reprising his role for the first time since 1931) rises from his coffin, terrorizes him, and mesmerizes him. With Wilbur entranced, Dracula awakens the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). McDougal and Chick arrive and argue over where the exhibits are while Wilbur, hysterical, tries to explain what happened, but McDougal has them arrested.

Dracula flies to a remote castle where waits Dr. Stevens (Charles Bradstreet) and his assistant… Wilbur’s girlfriend, Sandra. Dracula wants to avoid Frankenstein’s mistake and give the monster a new brain, one so simple and naïve that it will never question his master. Sandra, of course, has just the brain in mind.

Talbot finds Wilbur and Chick, just out of jail, and confirms Wilbur’s story. He has been chasing Dracula, but he can’t go to the police for fear of revealing his own secret. As the moon is about to rise, he gives Wilbur the key to his hotel room and begs him to lock him up overnight, not letting him out no matter what he hears inside. Wilbur’s compliance lasts almost 45 whole seconds, before he goes into Talbot’s room to bring him a bag he left behind. In another comedy sequence, Wilbur narrowly avoids being torn to shreds by a Wolfman he never sees.

McDougal, furious over Wilbur and Chick’s release from jail, meets insurance investigator Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), who plans to use her feminine wiles to trick Wilbur into revealing the location of the missing exhibits. She narrowly avoids Sandra, who came by to arrange a meeting with Wilbur for that evening’s masquerade ball. Joan convinces him to take her to the ball as well, and while Wilbur revels in his two dates, Chick tries to figure out what his dumpy friend has that he doesn’t. (As Sandra tells him, “A brain.”) The two go to Talbot’s room, where they find it’s been torn apart. Talbot wakes and tells them about his curse – he was bitten by a werewolf, and transforms whenever the moon was full. As Wilbur saw the monsters, he pleads with him to help him. They don’t believe him, and continue their preparations for the ball.

Chick, Wilbur and Joan pick up Sandra for the ball (Wilbur allowing each girl to believe the other is Chick’s date). Sandra finds Joan’s ID card for the insurance agency, while Joan finds Sandra’s copy of Frankenstein’s book on life and death. Each suspicious of the other, they return and meet Sandra’s employer, Dr. Lejos, who Wilbur somehow fails to recognize as Dracula wearing a robe instead of his cape. Lejos insists that Dr. Stevens join them for the party, but Sandra suddenly claims she has a headache and can’t go. She brings Dracula aside and says that Joan and Wilbur’s snooping and Stevens’s inconveniently inquisitive nature are making the operation too dangerous. Angry, he hypnotizes her and bites her, and they go to the ball.

At the ball, Chick and Wilbur encounter a fearful Talbot, who is upset by Chick’s wolf-mask. Sandra, now a vampire, tries to bite Wilbur, but he’s saved by Chick and Talbot, seeking the now-missing Joan. As they search, the full moon appears and Talbot transforms. He attacks McDougal, who blames Chick when he sees the wolf-mask. The party goes mad and people flee, with Chick and Wilbur finding a hypnotized Joan with Dracula. He mesmerizes the boys and takes Wilbur and the girls away. Finally convinced, Chick finds Talbot and they go to Dracula’s mansion, where Wilbur’s brain is being prepared for transplant. Talbot and Chick burst in. Talbot is about to free Wilbur, but once again, he transforms, and Frankenstein’s Monster breaks free. The five of them engage in a mansion-encompassing battle of positively Scooby-Doo-ian proportions, until finally the Wolfman seizes Dracula and they plunge off a cliff. The Monster chases Chick and Wilbur to the dock, where Stevens and Joan set him on fire. As they sit in a boat, Wilbur berating Chick for not believing him, a cigarette hovers in the air, and the unmistakable voice of Vincent Price introduces himself… he’s the Invisible Man.

Thoughts: This film is, inarguably, the greatest horror-comedy ever made. Okay, maybe it’s not inarguable. You can argue it. You’d just be wrong. What’s not arguable, however, is that it is by far my favorite movie out of all the films selected for Lunatics and Laughter, and (with the possible exception of Ghostbusters) the one that I’ve watched the most times. It isn’t Halloween unless I see Bud and Lou go toe-to-toe with the greatest Universal Monsters.

That, in fact, is what makes this such a fantastic movie, friends. Universal Studios took their two greatest comedic stars at the height of their popularity and mashed them into a movie with three of their most popular monster franchises, even getting the classic Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. to reprise their roles as Dracula and the Wolfman, respectively. (Only Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is missing from the classic trinity, and he would get his chance to dance with the boys later in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff and again in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

It’s such simple alchemy – director Charles Barton got five amazing performers and allowed them to do what they do best for 83 incredible minutes. Abbott and Costello pull off the same sort of brilliant wordplay and slapstick that made them Hollywood legends, while Lugosi, Chaney and Strange (playing the Monster for the third time since Karloff’s retirement) give their performances all the force and horror they had in their respective series. The film doesn’t bother with little things like continuity either – there’s no effort to explain how Talbot knew Dracula or the monster, how Dracula found the creature’s remains, or even how any of the monsters were alive, as most of them had a tendency to die at the ends of all of their films. The sequels usually had a halfhearted resurrection scene, but Barton sees no need to even bother with that. The audience doesn’t care about any of these things. They know who Bud and Lou are, who Dracula and the Wolfman and the Monster are, and that’s all they need.

And damned if they weren’t right.

Like I’ve said, comedy and horror are flip sides of the same coin, and I’ve never seen a movie that demonstrates it as perfectly as this one. Our five lead characters (because that’s who Bud and Lou are, no matter what names they were using in the movie, they played the same two characters they always did) come from totally different styles of film: slapstick comedy and tales of pure terror. But when we put them together there is no clash. Everybody is themselves, everyone is entirely in-character, and it all fits together seamlessly. Even the scenes with Lugosi popping in and out of his coffin, giving Costello the stimuli for one of his legendary freak-outs, works for a Dracula who simply enjoys toying with his eventual prey. He even pulls the same sort of hypnosis and gets the same light-across-the-eyes treatment as he did in the original 1931 version of Dracula.

The plot, meanwhile, is straight out of the horror movie handbook. Dracula’s scheme to give the monster a simple brain keys into Costello’s movie persona perfectly. At the same time, it’s still the kind of devilish plan that many a horror movie villain has concocted over the years. Hell, let’s be honest – it’s a more logical plan than thousands of the others movie monster baddies have conjured up over the years. Talbot’s logic – “the police won’t believe me unless I tell them I’m a wolfman” – is kind of sketchy. It’s more likely they’ll just think him even crazier. But it’s still the same sort of logic that dominated this sort of movie back in the 40s and 50s, and therefore is easy to forgive. Similarly, the special effects are of the highest quality available at the time. Talbot’s werewolf transformation looks as good as it ever did in his own films. And while it may be pretty obvious that the Monster burning on the dock at the end is a mannequin being pushed along with sticks, in 1948, how else were you gonna get that shot?

Truly, the only moment that strains credibility, even for the time, is when Talbot and Chick plan their rescue mission. Talbot tells Chick they should hide and wait, since it is now morning and Dracula will be helpless until nightfall. Um… wouldn’t that make this the perfect time to attack? Come on, dude. (Honorable mention, though, goes to the fact that Talbot makes his transformation four nights in a row. Isn’t three usually the limit for a full moon?)

Bud and Lou, a classic vaudevillian comedy team whose act translated to film and television far better than most of their contemporaries, pull off a lot of the same shtick they usually do. They engage in verbal battles, with Bud tossing out unnecessarily complicated words so Lou can amusingly misunderstand them. Bud leaves Lou alone at inconvenient moments so he can be the sole witness to creepy happenings and have entertaining panic attacks. And once or twice, Lou is allowed to get the better of his buddy in a battle of the logical fallacies. In short, they take their standard routine and inject it into a horror movie. But not for one second does it feel forced, do any of the comedic interludes feel like a distraction, or does any of it feel like padding. They’re just there to have fun, as they always do. (Reportedly one scene – where Wilbur sits on the Monster’s without realizing it – took an absurdly long time to film because Glenn Strange simply couldn’t stop laughing at Costello’s antics in his lap.)

Even the old comedy trope – the panicky one sees the madness, the straight man conveniently misses everything until the last minute – feels fresh and original here. And no, it wasn’t, not even in 1948. When Chick pulls out the wolf-mask, you just know there’s going to be a moment when Wilbur encounters the real Wolfman and thinks it’s his buddy in disguise. You’re waiting for it. You would feel disappointed if it didn’t happen. But Abbott and Costello never disappointed on that front.

The finale is simply great. From the moment Talbot and Chick arrive at the mansion until Vincent Price makes his uncredited cameo, we go through one chase after another, with doors and props being smashed at every turn, our heroes bumbling into the monsters at the worse possible moments, often saved through circumstance, luck, or the good ol’ Rule of Funny. If you are physically capable of watching this movie without laughing, you need intense psychoanalysis. And if you didn’t love the Universal monsters before, this will do the trick.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen: the eBook now available!

Reel to Reel - Monsters NO BLEEDLast year, you guys may remember that I spent the entire month of October watching and talking about assorted scary movies, chronologically tracing the evolution of horror films from the 1920s up until the present day. I really enjoyed that little project and I think a lot of you did too. And now, as Halloween approaches again, I’m ready to launch the next stage of that project, my new eBook Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen.

This eBook collects the 35 essays I wrote last year, plus five brand-new ones written just for this collection. Over the course of this book, I look at how the things that scare us have grown and evolved over the last century, dishing on some of the greatest, most influential and most memorable scary movies ever made. This eBook, available now for a mere $2.99, is hopefully going to be the first in a series, in which I’ll tackle different cinematic topics the same way.

If you read the essays last year, check this one out and enjoy the new ones. If you haven’t read any of them, dive in now for the first time. And tell all of your horror movie-loving friends about it as well! After all, the reason I decided to write this book in the first place is because I wanted to read a book like this one, but I just couldn’t find one. The market is out there, friends. Help us find each other.

(And lest I forget, thanks to Heather Petit Keller for the cover design!)

You can get the book now in the following online stores:

Amazon.com (for your Kindle or Kindle app)
Smashwords.com (for every other eBook reader)

And in case you’re wondering, the movies covered in this book include:

*The Golem (1920)
*Nosferatu (1922)
*The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
*Dracula (1931)
*Frankenstein (1931)
*The Mummy (1932)
*Freaks (1932)
*Cat People (1942)
*The Fly (1958)
*Peeping Tom (1960)
*Psycho (1960)
*Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Terror (1962-New in this edition!)
*Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
*The Haunting (1963)
*The Birds (1963-New in this edition!)
*Wait Until Dark (1967)
*Night of the Living Dead (1968)
*Last House on the Left (1972)
*The Exorcist (1973)
*The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
*Jaws (1975)
*Carrie (1976)
*Suspiria (1977)
*Halloween (1978)
*Alien (1979)
*The Shining (1980)
*Friday the 13th (1980)
*The Evil Dead (1981)
*Poltergeist (1982)
*The Thing (1982)
*A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
*Return of the Living Dead (1985)
*Hellraiser (1987-New to this edition!)
*Child’s Play (1988-New to this edition!)
*Misery (1990)
*Scream (1996)
*Ringu (1998)
*The Blair Witch Project (1999)
*Saw (2004)
*The Cabin in the Woods (2012-New to this edition!)

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.