It’s that time of year again. Halloween is my favorite time of the year, and it provides a convenient excuse to explore one of my favorite genres of film (as I have done for the past couple of years). In preparation for this year’s six week celebration of Halloween, I pretty quickly drew up a list that could easily take me through ten weeks… I doubt I’ll get through them all, but I’m going to have fun trying. Highlights include this week’s look at classic Universal Horror films, a sampling of the later Monster revival with Hammer Horror, perhaps some Vincent Price, and of course, some slashers and miscellaneous horrors to round out the pack (including the much anticipated Trick ‘r Treat, amongst others). If you can’t get enough Halloween madness here, be sure to visit Kernunrex, who’s been doing this whole Six Weeks of Halloween thing a lot longer than I have… (Someday I’ll redesign Kaedrin so as to allow for an easy switch to Halloween colors like he does… that day is probably not coming anytime soon, but still.)
Its the nicest weather Earth has ever had!*
As previously mentioned, this year’s marathon kicks off with a look at Universal Studios’ classic monster films. I’ve seen two of the following films before, but not since I was very young, so I figured it would be worth revisiting (as a result, I now want to revisit the original novels upon which the following films were based, which if my current queue is any indication, means I’ll get to them sometime in the 2020s). Here goes:
- Frankenstein’s Fiancee (Robot Chicken)
- Frankenhooker (trailer)
- Frankenstein (1910 – Full Movie)
- Frankenstein (1931): My memories of Frankenstein were fond but not overly enthusiastic. I remember these films being hokey and over-the-top, and to be sure, there are elements of that here, but it is much more effective than I remember it being. Adapted from Mary Shelly’s classic novel of the same name, the film is dramatically different from both the novel and the many stage variations of the preceding century. Despite the changes, the movie retains the feel and thematic resonance of the novel. This cautionary tale of technology gone awry is something that strikes a chord throughout most of history, perhaps even more now than when it was written. It certainly helps that James Whale was behind the camera and Boris Karloff was in front of it, and the movie has aged quite well (it is perhaps the best of today’s choices). ****
Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster
- Young Frankenstein (trailer)
- Frankenstein for President
- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (trailer)
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935): I may have seen bits and pieces of this film before, but never the whole thing. This direct sequel to the 1931 film features mostly the same cast and crew, and as such, the technical aspects of the film are superb. Indeed, they may even surpass the original. Karloff is given more to do in this film, and while he was wonderfully expressive in the first film, he goes above and beyond in this film, infusing the Monster with emotion and even evoking sympathy. Director James Whale had also honed his skills in the intervening years and the Bride’s creation scene is particularly well done, especially when it comes to the editing. This film’s special effects also stand out, as when Dr. Pretorius displays his miniature experiments for Dr. Frankenstein (the scene holds up remarkably well, which is more than I can say for a lot of special effects from the era… (or even modern effects, for that matter)). Another standout scene is when the Monster encounters an elderly blind man, who teaches the Monster about bread, wine, and rudimentary English. He also introduces the Monster to the concept of friendship, which drives the rest of the story. I must admit that the story does get to be a bit more silly in this installment, but it still works very well. Thematically, the film expands upon the original, and adds some new twists of its own. The ending is actually quite moving, as the Monster realizes what he is and where he belongs. Many consider this sequel to be superior to the first film, and in many ways, it is. However, it is sillier and more over-the-top than the previous film. It is still a wonderful film in its own right, and something I’m glad I caught up with. ****
- Vampire 7:00-8:00AM, Vampire 1:00-2:00PM, and Vampire 8:00-9:00PM (Robot Chicken)
- Bart Simpson’s Dracula (The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV)
- Vampire Chase (Robot Chicken)
- Dracula (1931): I was curious to revisit this film in light of the current pop-culture craze for vampires we’re experiencing right now. There are many who believe that vampires have been watered down these days:
Once upon a time, vampires were monsters. Creatures of the night. Beasts who crawled from their coffins at night; consorted with spiders, bats, and rats; ravaged women and tore out the throats of men. They were demonic; spawns of Satan. The best known image of the vampire is that of Bela Lugosi, whose intonation of the line: “I never drink… wine” has become the standard.
And indeed, many recent vampire stories take a less monsterous approach, favoring instead a more emotional and empathetic creature (though I must admit that I don’t mind that approach either, just that it has become the pervasive approach). So in revisiting this classic film, it was refreshing to see Dracula portrayed as something unnatural and evil. Director Tod Browning is at his creepy best when framing Lugosi’s Dracula onscreen. Lugosi’s menacing glare is undeniably effective and his Dracula is indeed a creature to fear. Alas, the mechanics of the plot (and, uh, the special effects) leaves something to be desired. This is a little disappointing, though still quite entertaining and better than much of today’s vampire stories (I’m looking at you, Twilight!). Someday, perhaps, I’ll check out the Spanish language version of this film, which was apparently shot at the same time and using the same sets. Some believe it to be superior to the English language version… ***
One of the surprising things about all three of the above movies is that they are all between 70-75 minutes in length, significantly shorter than even the shortest movies in theaters today. It’s worth noting that many of the above films are also restored from cut versions. In particular, the scenes missing from the original Frankenstein are quite important (the missing scenes were restored in 1986 and most DVDs of the film have them), particularly the scene when the Monster plays with the little girl. It’s actually quite a disturbing scene, but Karloff was always able to walk that line between evil and misunderstood, creating a monster that was scary and sympathetic at the same time.
It’s also interesting to note that the characters of Dracula and Frankenstein are two of the most frequently utilized fictional characters in the history of film. Dracula has 200+ appearances, while Frankenstein has only had a mere 80+ roles. And I think both will continue to rack up the appearances. Interestingly, I think there are several more recent horror icons that could give the classics a run for their money… Jason Vorhees, Mike Myers, and Freddy Kreuger have established themselves pretty firmly in modern film culture, but I’m not sure they will ever be as prolific as the old Universal classic monsters. Why? Devin Faraci has speculated on this:
There is one major obstacle that’s stopping Freddy and Jason and Mike Myers and Leatherface from really getting to that position of being among the truly eternal monsters of filmland: copyright. While the versions of the Universal Monsters we love are copyrighted in terms of their appearance (although a zillion manufacturers of Halloween ephemera have skirted the edges of that legality), the characters themselves are in the public domain. This is what has allowed them to become such prominent forces in film, keeping them going in permutation after permutation. If Universal outright owned the characters then Hammer, for instance, would never have been able to reinvent them in the 50s and 60s (my colleague Ryan Rotten very astutely notes that what Platinum Dunes is doing with the characters of Jason, Freddy and Leatherface, and what Rob Zombie is doing with Michael Myers, is very similar to what Hammer did with the Universal Monsters, recasting them and re-presenting them for a new generation with new tastes). In fact, the copyright on the Gill-Man from The Creature from the Black Lagoon may be one of the things keeping him from really ascending and going places as a character. Being tightly controlled by Universal keeps him from escaping into the pop culture world at large.
Perhaps audiences will still be squirming in their seats in fear of Jason, Mike, and Freddy a century from now, but maybe not. One thing is for sure though: Audiences will still be entertained by updates on Frankenstein and Dracula…
* With apologies to the MST3K Movie for that joke, though it works even better on the newer variations on the logo…