Plot: While uncovering an ancient Egyptian tomb, an archeologist accidentally resurrects the priest Imhotep (Boris Karloff). Imhotep flees, and returns ten years later posing as a modern Egyptian and seeking a way to bring back his lover, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. He meets a woman (Zita Johann) he believes to be the reincarnation of his love, and attempts to reawaken within her the memory of their past, leading to a terrifying final confrontation.
Thoughts: Now this is interesting. I admit, this is my first time watching the original, 1932 version of The Mummy, although I was a fan of Stephen Sommers’ remake in 1999. However, I’d always assumed that the 1999 version was one of those sequels in name only, just an attempt by Universal to jumpstart a long-dead franchise in a modern way. Watching the original, I’m surprised to see just how much of the original film actually made it into Sommers’ version. The mummy, Imhotep, was cursed in both for similar crimes (love of/attempting to resurrect a forbidden princess). Also, in both versions the mummy is resurrected by accident (not really a surprise there, who would do it on purpose?), and finds a woman he believes to be his ancient lover, and thus attempts to bring her back to him.
The difference, of course, is in scale. By 1999, special effects had progressed considerably, so instead of a mummy that basically did his work by walking around and creeping everybody the hell out, we had Arnold Vosloo, who morphed from a wet, gushy corpse into… well… Arnold Vosloo, and at the same time had the power to whip up sandstorms that looked like his face. The remake is far more of an action movie than a horror movie, but I think you can attribute that to the fact that these old Universal Monsters aren’t really considered anything to be afraid of. They’ve become beloved icons of creepiness, but aren’t actually creepy anymore. They’re instantly recognizable Halloween costumes, and cartoons that sell us breakfast cereal.
At least… the iconic image of the mummy has become that. This is what’s interesting to me. When you think of a horror movie mummy in your head, you conjure up that immediate image of a desiccated corpse wrapped up in gauze or, if your parents didn’t make it to the store until 6:30 in the afternoon on October 31st, toilet paper. But Boris Karloff only appears in that particular mummy form for a scant few minutes at the beginning of the film. When he turns up again after the ten-year lapse, he looks more or less human. Old, kind of leathery, like he’s been out in the sun for a hell of a long time, but not the mystical monster he actually is. His power is internalized, and you don’t really get a sense of him being a creature of the undead until his destruction at the end, when the goddess Isis ages him instantly and he drops dead.
David Manners, who I found rather dull and lifeless in Dracula, returns to again be rather dull and lifeless here. I’m not really sure what to make of this, why in all these old-school horror films it seemed like an attempt was made to make the ostensible hero as boring as possible. Manners really does nothing in the film. He’s there to give Zita Johann’s character a love interest, but he doesn’t come to the rescue, he doesn’t get her into the trouble in the first place in any meaningful way… he simply doesn’t need to be there. By the 80s, of course, it wouldn’t matter. You’d have a thousand slasher flicks where the audience no longer really needs to identify with the supposed protagonist, and instead is really pulling for the monster, waiting to see how many kills he can rack up and how creative the filmmakers can be in throwing blood at the screen. The other characters are placeholders until they get killed, except for the final survivor – usually a teenager girl. She may survive with her boyfriend, who will be easily identified as he’ll be the only male in the movie who isn’t a complete douchenozzle.
But in 1932 that wasn’t the case. Karloff was supposed to be the bad guy, Manners was supposed to be the good guy, and the good guy was just plain dull. Karloff steals the show entirely, and while his comeuppance at the end is inevitable, it’s really hard not to wish that he had at least managed to take out David Manners on his way out.
1932 was a big year for horror, as it turned out. Next up will be one of the most controversial films of the time – and honestly, it’s still controversial today. It’s time to get into Freaks.
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.
Director: 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.”