In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!
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.
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.
Writer: John Landis
Cast: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, Anne-Marie Davies, John Woodvine, Frank Oz
Plot: American college students David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking across Europe, beginning in northern England with plans to work their way south to Italy. The plans are shattered, though, when they stop at a small-town pub called the Slaughtered Lamb in the town of East Proctor. The locals distrust them, and Jack distrusts the five-pointed star painted on the wall. They leave, disturbing the barmaid and prompting warnings to stay on the road and beware the moon. The Americans are attacked by a huge wolf, which kills Jack and bites David before the villagers arrive and shoot it down. As he passes out, David sees that the beast has turned into a man.
He wakes up in a hospital in London three weeks later, where the police take his statement, but believe he was attacked by a lunatic rather than an animal. One of the Nurses, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) takes a personal interest in him, convincing him to eat even when he isn’t hungry, keeping him company at night. He begins having dreams of running through the woods, naked, slaughtering and eating animals, then later seeing himself in a hospital bed, threatening Alex. After a particularly bad dream, Jack appears in his room, chatting jovially with his friend despite the fact that he’s a mutilated corpse. As David struggles to figure out if he’s dreaming, Jack starts quipping about his own funeral, putting him at ease before he can drop the bomb on his buddy. They were attacked by a werewolf, and since he was killed by a supernatural being Jack is cursed to walk the earth until the werewolf’s bloodline is severed. David, bitten by the wolf, is now part of that line, and Jack begs him to kill himself so they can both find peace. Jenny comes into his room, thinking him waking up from another nightmare, and he kisses her and declares himself a werewolf. When David is discharged, Jenny invites him to stay with her, and their relationship progresses quickly. Despite his newfound happiness, Jack’s corpse continues to haunt David, again begging him to kill himself before tomorrow’s full moon.
David’s doctor, Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) drives to the town where David was attacked, trying to figure out why David’s version of events differs so greatly from the official report. He finds himself blocked by the same villagers who turned out David and Jack, but this time, one is willing to talk. He warns Hirsch that David is in danger, and will “change” with the full moon. That night, as Jenny works a late shift at the hospital, the predictions come true – David undergoes a terrifying change from man to monster. He rushes into the night and attacks people, as the previous werewolf attacked him. Hirsch returns to London and compares notes with Jenny. Convinced that something is wrong in East Proctor – and wrong with David by extension – he calls her apartment. When David doesn’t answer, he calls the police.
The next day, David wakes up in the zoo, naked, in a wolf pen. With some quick thinking, he covers up and gets away. Hirsch, meanwhile, finds the morning paper full of stories about a brutal series of murders where the victims were half-eaten. When David returns to Alex’s apartment, particularly excitable and enthusiastic, she plans to take him back to the hospital. Along the way, the cab driver tells them about the murders, and David flees, planning to turn himself into the police, but the officer dismisses him. He runs away and Alex, Hirsch and the police who investigated his attack begin searching for him. David calls his family in America, hurriedly telling his sister he loves her before attempting to slit his wrists. Finding himself unable to do so, Jack’s corpse appears again, leading David into an adult ovie theater. The corpse, now more decrepit than ever, introduces David to the people he killed the night before, now trapped as a living dead just like Jack. He’s still in the theater when night falls again, and the killing begins again. The wolf escapes into the London streets, going on a bloody rampage, killing some and causing traffic crashes that kill many more. The police corner it in an alley and Alex rushes to the scene, approaching it and trying to draw the real David out. It lunges at her and the police open fire. The beast turns back into David as it dies, and Alex weeps.
Thoughts: Reportedly, director John Landis wrote the first draft of this script in 1969 and fought for over a decade to get it released, as studios thought it was too funny to market as a comedy and too scary to market as a horror film. You’ll excuse me if I find that just precious – as the whole point of my project is that the two both can, and have worked hand in hand for decades. On the other hand, the fact that I’ve located so few great horror/comedies before 1980 to include in this project seems to indicate that it wasn’t always the relatively easy sell it is today, and I have to suspect the success of An American Werewolf in London is one of the things that helped turn the tide and convince filmmakers that the conflicting styles could, and do, work together.
Landis is clearly a fan of the old Lon Chaney Jr. Wolfman pictures, even throwing out several references to them throughout film. He goes much farther than Universal could in the 40s, though, showing extremes of violence that wouldn’t have been allowed at the time. His special effects are, as to be expected, considerably more advanced as well. The transformation scenes are very good – simply done, but effective. Not to harp on it, but there’s no way this movie would be made today without giving in to the temptation to do the entire transformation via CGI (see the 2010 remake of The Wolfman if you don’t believe me), and that would really kill one of the most memorable sequences in this film. Naughton’s performance during the transformation is really excellent – even before any of the special effects show up he’s putting on a terrific, very convincing show of agony that makes you receptive when the limbs and face start to transform and the hair begins to sprout.
But the truly innovative thing about the movie, to me, is the tone of the film. This takes us back to a Type A picture, and an extreme Type A at that, far more horror than comedy. Landis basically wrote a monster movie, a modernized retelling of the Lon Chaney Jr. picture, and laced it with just enough humor and off-the-cuff commentary to market it partially as a comedy. Most of the humor actually comes through Jack – a snarky type even when he’s alive, but he becomes the master of the deadpan quip after he dies. David gets a little bit of physical comedy later, once he transforms for the first time. The sequence where he tries to sneak out of the zoo naked, stealing bits and pieces of cover-up along the way, feels like it could have fallen out of an old Marx Brothers or Hope and Crosby routine.
Landis is great at pulling an emotional reversal as well. When David calls home and tells his sister he loves her, there’s a horrible sense of finality to it. It’s a very genuine moment, where you understand you’re listening to a man who’s planning to die, trying to get everything straight before it happens. Considering that David was dancing around in a red fur-trimmed coat just minutes before, the viewer is left completely unprepared. The pace of the film as a whole is surprising, in fact. There’s a very long build-up to David’s first transformation, and once he realizes he’s responsible for the murders you blink and realize there are only about 20 minutes left in the film. It feels like there should be more, like everything has happened much too fast. When the end finally comes, it’s over in the blink of an eye. BAM-David is shot! Alex cries! Begin credits! There’s no denouement to cling to, no moment to allow your emotions to work themselves out before you feel a bit of a tear turn up for the poor American who became something he never wanted to be, did terrible things he never wanted to do, and died in a way he never would have wanted to die. It was a departure for Animal House director Landis and it’s a bit of a departure for this project, but it’s a good one.
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.
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.”