Behold! Dracula, the movie that launched a twenty-three year progression of monster movies we call Universal Classics. Who could have predicted the success despite a rather tremendous stage career of not only the film but also the glowing eyed antagonist, Bela Lugosi? Dracula, the dashing, mysterious godfather of modern horror cinema, released at the Roxy Theater in New York City, on February 12, 1931. Even the cleverly crafted “fainting” rumors and “on-call” medical staff in the lobby orchestrated by nervous executives, hoping to induce some natural sense of morbid curiosity, was unnecessary. According to film historian Michael Fitzgerald, within the first 48 hours of Dracula’s release, the Roxy Theater had sold over 50,000 tickets. Horror had just become mainstream. Dracula’s acclaim paved the way for the other classics we’ve grown to love, our other Universal Studios Monsters, such as: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolfman, each owing their existence to the success of one film, even if said film wasn’t entirely all that great. There were some issues, on and off stage. But I think, by and large, the success, as it began at first, was due to the period in which the film released. Lets take a look back in time (key Twilight Zone theme). Continue Reading
Nothing is more alluring for both audiences and writers than dusting off old tropes. This is true. There is no argument against this statement. Resistance is futile. Boom. Done. Let’s pack it away, boys. No? Okay, I guess we could talk a little more about this very general statement I just made. And if I’m going to be talking about housekeeping motifs and tropes, do me the favor and humor me by nodding your head or something and when passersby asks why you’re nodding your head, you tell them about this brilliant piece you’re reading, as I delve into this odd analogy to FX’s dark horror show, The Strain. Let it be known now, while I may make mention of some of the newer seasons, my focus will mostly be with the first season, as it is the best and has one of my top ten TV/movies favorite openings/pilots. The only big let down with the second season is the new kid they got to play Zack Goodweather, as he plays a larger role in the second season, he became downright annoying and I’m secretly hoping something really bad happens to him. If that was the point then bravo to the writers cause I really do loathe that little bastard. Anyway, that’s not really why we’re here, is it? Tropes. That’s the term I used before and that is precisely what I want to talk to you about. Dusting off aged tropes is, in my humble opinion, an excellent method of storytelling. The classics for horror being Dracula, Wolf Man, Mummy, and Frankenstein, etc. etc, and how can we use these today? In this endeavor, The Strain is an excellent example we can learn from.
Before we scourge the graveyard any deeper, here’s a quick synopsis from our favorite source, IMDb:
A mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism ravages the city of New York.
Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause, if you please, for another stunning synopsis from IMDb. Well, they’re not wrong. There is a virus going around, and it certainly creates hosts that act very vampiric. A very fresh take, I think, on the classic vampire trope. No. This isn’t Lestat. These are monsters, as well they should be. And I love this reimaging of the vampire. The Strain uses invokes classic myths, such as The Master, or “patient zero,” as one of the characters refers to him as, in a way of explaining the legend to a couple of non-beliving doctors. Silver and sunlight are also here too. But no longer crosses and garlic, both of which are hardly ever mentioned. So, despite that the fangs are gone and they have a “stinger,” a worm like tentacle, that the vamps use to “latch on” to their prey, it’s still very much in tune with the aged trope. Better, in my opinion. While we all love Bela, the dashing vampire is too tired nowadays, and xenophobia is more rapid and in your face for such subtlety. We need monsters. Vampires are not lonely outsider boyfriends that sparkle. They are killers, and worse. They are a virus, a scourge, a blight. Some films get it right. 30 Days of Night was good. And Let the Right One In was an instant classic.
What really sets The Strain apart is the use of some of the more classic character types that are largely ignored in modern vampire storytelling. Sure, you cannot have a vampire movie without the preverbal “Dracula,” and in The Strain, we get The Master, who is without question truly terrifying and oddly alluring. But besides the “Dracula” character, what else is offered. I’m going to start off with my favorite. Instead of Abraham Van Helsing, we get Abraham Setrakian, an aged, very aged professor now turned pawn shop proprietor. His history within the context of the show is very rich. Setrakain is a Holocaust survivor who was taught by his grandmother regarding certain “creatures of the night.” As a young man, Setrakian believed her stories to be just that, stories. For a young Setrakian, the Holocaust proved to have enough horrors of its own without the need of mythical monsters. However, as it would seem, the concentration camp, Treblinka, in which Setrakian is incurred is besieged by, not just from war and death and human injustice, but also by a physical parasite that moves about during the night. Witnessing the creature with his own eyes, his grandmother’s stories flood back and he works quickly at finding a way to dispatch this monster. He fails at this but survives the encounter and the war. He then dedicates his entire life at tracking down The Master and his creations and riding the world of the Strain.
The Van Helsing motif in Setrakian was very well thought out, taking the old trope and making it more, giving it more life and substance. For me, Abraham really makes the show enjoyable, especially during flashback episodes that show Setrakian’s evolution.
Another interesting twist with tropes is the Renfield motif found in not just one character, but two, each with their own set of motives that feel very parallel to each other. The first is a human named Eldritch Palmer. While Renfield in the film and Bram Stroker book feels both pathetic and sympathetic, Palmer takes that notion to a different level. Due to his disabling sickness, whatever condition he seems to suffer from physically does not hinder the power of his will, his sheer determination to get whatever it is he wants. And what he wants most of all is to live. This desire seduces him in aligning with The Master and helping the Strain spread over New York. We feel bad for him, as we do with Renfield, for the kind of life he must have had, never knowing which breath would be his last, while at the same time we are appalled by his greed for life and uncaringness towards others. The second Renfield character is in the person of Thomas Eichhorst, played wonderfully by Richard Sammel. Eichhorst is, for lack of a better word, the Master’s right-hand man, but in reality, he’s more of a puppet than anything else and is in fact used quite literally as a puppet whenever the Master feels like “speaking” through him. But his character is more alluring for me than Palmer is. Palmer is just pathetic, especially in season 2. An old groveling to maintain his authority. Eichhorst has an interesting history that is connected with Setrakian, making the motivations for their rivalry very believable, and solidifying Eichhorst as a fan favorite baddy.
There are other characters in the show, a lot of hunters and community leaders, most do not necessarily correlate to classic Dracula trope. We could say that Dr. Ephraim Goodweather could be a close match to a Jonathan Harker motif. But Harker wasn’t really a well thought out character in the movie, perhaps more so in the book. There is one character though that needs mention. The part of Kelly Goodweather as a trope for Mina Harker. While the Master’s fascination with her still begs the question, her role is without a doubt very much Mina-like. When she is turned, she is used, more or less, as a tool to find her son, Zack Goodweather, and in turn to stop Eph and the merry band of vampire hunters. The Master’s interest in Kelly seems to only relate to his interest in stopping the good doctor, perhaps using Kelly and keeping her around just to taunt him.
Have you ever heard the statement, “There is nothing new under the sun?” It’s a saying from Hebrew scripture, Ecclesiastes 1:9. I’m often fond of saying it, especially when fellow writers pitch me their book or story idea and ask if it’s too much like another story. I’ve done the same as well, wondering if this “new idea” is too much like something else. Recently I published a short story with Matt Shaw is his release of Bah Humbug! An Anthology of Christmas Horror Stories. My story is called “Happiness U.S.A.,” and is “inspired” by a classic Twilight Zone episode titled “Garrity and the Graves.” The basic concept is a con artist that travels through an old west town and cons the town into thinking he can resurrect the dead. The catch is that the people in this old west town do not want their dearly departed returned to them, and so to put them “back in the grave” they have to pay Garrity more money. This is one of my favorite shows and one of my top favorite episodes. It’s both cheeky and disturbing, as many Twilight Zone episodes are. And I wanted to do my own take on Mr. Garrity and this old west town. But my version, my dusting off of the classic trope/motif was asking myself, what if Garrity wasn’t really a “con” artist per say, what if he could really bring back the dead. What kind of person or being could do something like that? An angel…or devil? So I took that concept and made my town of Happiness a small Texas oil town back in the mid-1970s. And the price the people of Happiness will have to pay will be much steeper than gold or silver.
This feels like a long way around to basically say, it’s okay to resurrect old trope, give them a good dusting, and retell the story in a new and exciting way. The Strain just so happens to be my favorite example and I wanted an excuse to talk about the show. I’ve started in on the novel the show is based on. There are some differences, but the meat and potatoes are pretty much the same. So if you need a recommendation, you’ve got it. Give this show and book a go. You will not be disappointed.
AND if you happen to be curious about that Christmas anthology I mentioned, follow the image below.
And if perhaps I can tempt you with one more book. I’ve got a new novel that released this week. Conceiving (Subdue Book 3). “…an evil [is] biding its time…waiting for them all,” Conceiving can be read as both a standalone or as part of the series. You can find out more about the book here. Or you can check it out on Amazon. Currently, the book is marked down to $0.99, but only for a limited time. Available for both kindle (or kindle apps) and on paperback.
For the past nine months, my weekends have had the added benefit of screening a new Universal Monster movie on Saturday or sometimes Sunday nights, from Frankenstein to The Wolf Man and all the lesser known sequels and House specials. The majority of which I had not previously seen. They were new and largely unknown to me. And of those unknowns, yes a few were just god-awful, but for the most part, the majority were intriguing, a few breathtakingly mesmerizing, and fewer still, though odd and unusual, they held a certain charm about them. When watching movies with 86 years of separation between then and now, you’re bound to find conflicts with storytelling and filmmaking that go against how you understand them. Things were done differently then. People held different beliefs and ideology than today. Different cultures and even customs. Some of those things are pleasant reminders of a simpler time, the way dialogue was crafted with care and chivalry, poetic in its own right. And there were also aspects that were uncomfortable to watch, such as sexism and discrimination towards women and those of African or even Asian descent. Remembering the historical context of the films can help relieve some of the conflicts we feel with those nostalgic glitches.
When Dracula released in February of 1931, the world was in a state of flux. The economic depression (known as The Great Depression) was setting root in not just America, but all over the world. In Germany, the first pangs of the rise of Nazism was felt. Though defeated by a majority win, in just two years time the elected German president, Hindenburg, will elect Adolf Hitler as chancellor . Eugenics was a pop science in which the sterilization of unfit parents and the “euthanasia” of “the defective” and “useless eaters” is making the rounds, not just in Nazi Germany, but also on the shores of the United States. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws are passed (the first major steps in annihilation and extermination of European Jewry, ie, The Final Solution). In 1936, the Spanish Civil War begins. In 1937, the Rape of Nanjing, which is basically the systematic rape, torture, and murder of more than 300,000 Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers as they invade China. 1939, Germany invades Poland, and by December 7th, 1941, the Day that will Live in Infamy, the once “civilized” world is thrown back into global conflict. These were uncertain times, to say the least. And we have to keep in mind that this was the backdrop during the production of the majority of the Universal Monster movies. Intentional or not, history shapes and continues to do so.
Every decade, every generation has had a take on the original Universal monsters. Thru the 1950s, into the 60s, 70s, 1980s, 90s, 2000s, and even today, those pillar stories are still being told. And that is a part of what we’ll discuss here today. Those movies we call remakes, the hits of those and the blunders, as well as what waits in store for those of, let’s say, my daughter’s generation. What will the monsters look like tomorrow? This is roughly about 60 years of film history, so we will not tackle each and every monster movie, but rather a survey of each decade. Savvy? Let us begin.
When the last of the Universal monsters, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), aired, a new generation of monsters was born. The 1950s was a strange era, filled with mutated creatures and aliens from other worlds. Big hits during this decade included Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, Godzilla, Forbidden Planet, and Them! (just to name a few). The classic Universal monsters faded into obscurity in America, becoming cult-B movies for those brave enough to venture into the movie theaters with duel Herman Cohen produced flicks, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and the return of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970, a mashup of classic Universal and atomic age science. While the monsters went B in America, they seem to thrive across the pond in the UK as major productions. Universal monsters were reborn in Hammer Production films and a great majority of these are still some of the best monster movies on the market, even by today’s standards. Movies, such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy captivated a new generation of monster lovers. The Mummy (1959) starring both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, I found was especially good and horrific compared to the original Universal films which were not beloved by many.
Trends from the 1950s continue on into the 1960s. The majority of monsters are the creations of mad science or invaders from other worlds. Godzilla and Mothra being some of the most popular monsters during this era, and other very unique monster created by a couple of rogue filmmakers in Pittsburg, Night of the Living Dead (1968). But that doesn’t mean the classics Universal monsters had died away, there some… Hammer Productions continued with The Evil of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Brides of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, and The Mummy’s Shroud, and NOT FORGETTING the best of the best, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In the United States, two classic Universal monsters were melded with the new age craze with the release of Atomic Age Vampire (1960) and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965) and super low-budget flick Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). Leaving only one major production, a made for children stop-motion animated musical comedy titled Mad Monster Party? (1967) starring Boris Karloff in his last appearance in any of the classic Universal Monster movies as the voice of Victor Frankenstein.
Hammer Productions continued to flourish with classic monster films such as The Horror of Frankenstein, Frankenstein, and the Monster from Hell, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. During this decade we’re introduced to a few well known B-Italian (and German and French included) classic monster movies with Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (starring Lon Chaney in his last reprisal in a “Universal” monster film), The Werewolf Versus The Vampire Women, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, and the very strange Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein). Now, for classic Universal monsters in the United States, the 1970s gave birth to a very interesting phase called Blaxploitation. In 1972, on the eve of Blaxploitation, we’re blessed with the likes of Blacula, the tale of an African prince (William Marshall) is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula (Charles McCauley). Sealed in a coffin for several lifetimes, “Blacula” reawakens in 1970’s Los Angeles. Leaving a trail of bloodless victims in his wake. And Blacula returns in 1973 with Scream Blacula Scream. Some other noteworthy Blaxploitation-classic-Universal-monster films include 1974’s Blackenstein and Ganja & Hess.
BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!!!
In 1974, Mel Brooks produced and directed one of the greats spoofs set within the classic Universal monsters lexicon…Young Frankenstein, starring the late great Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Teri Gar, and Marty Feldman (to name a few). Though I am a rabid fan of both Hammer and Blaxploitation films, my love for this era falls directly on Young Frankenstein. The film was absolutely respectful of the roots of Frankenstein and even used what remained of the original set. Not to mention was wonderfully written, directed, and acted. Less not forgetting a few other honorable mentions, Werewolves on Wheels, The Boy who Cried Werewolf, Werewolf Woman, and Legend of the Werewolf are all wonderfully gritty and fun to watch.
It’s really hard to hate the 1980s, especially regarding the volumes of horror movies produced during this VHS era. So many monster films and the birth of a new sub-genre, The Slasher, and the reclassification of Universal tropes, whereas the Gillman from the Creature from the Black Lagoon, became Swamp Thing and Toxic Avenger. One of the more obvious “Universal” carry-overs would be Jerry Warren’s Frankenstein Island, starring John Carradine, one of the last surviving members from the original Universal Monster films. But what made this era really great were three films that took the concepts developed by the traditional Universal tropes and created something new from the old.The Howling, An American Werewolf in London and Silver Bullet took what The Wolf Man did in 1941 and set it in a more reality-toned story if you can believe that. The rules of werewolfism became more complex and reminded audiences how fun these kinds of movies can be if done properly. Now…I’d be a horrible film historian/fan if I failed to mention the one single most recognizable “Universal” heavy monster movie from the 1980s. That’s right folks, I’m talking The Monster Squad (1987). This movie took every 80s cliche and every classic Universal Monster cliche, boiled it in a stew and served it with nard pudding. You either love it or you hate, and if you hate you’re probably too terrified to say so, considering how many damn people love this movie!
Looking back on the 90s is like looking through a kaleidoscope. There were so much realism and so much snark the 90s is often really hard to separate diamonds from the squares regarding monster flicks. The 90s gave us more creature features, not necessarily mutated or atomic…just…creatures. And as far as the use of classic “Universal” monster tropes, we have two different extremes. On one end, we get Frankenhooker (1990), a raunchy B-movie where a New Jersey mad doctor (James Lorinz) rebuilds his girlfriend (Patty Mullen) with body parts from exploded hookers. And not forgetting (though I wish I could) Mel Brooks directed Dracula: Dead and Loving It. But on the other extreme, we get these melodrama films such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), both of which did their best to follow the source material that inspired the original Universal Monsters. In the middle of all this dueling complexity, we have at least one movie that keeps to both melodramatic and B-ish action, one of my person favorites from this decade, NO, not Monster Mash, I’m talking 1998’s comic to film flick, Blade starring Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristoffer, and Stephen Dorff.
And I guess I’d be amiss if I did not mention one of the first more modern remakes directly linked to the Universal Monster classics. In 1999, The Mummy released starring (then loved now somewhat shunned) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Oded Fehr, and America’s favorite weirdo Kevin J. O’Connor. The remake followed most of the basic tenets of the original Mummy while kicking up the action. I remember actually being really impressed with the film and truth be told…I had seen this one before screening the original. Unfortunately, it suffers from what most 1990s movies suffer from, the crappy use of CGI. But overall, The Mummy is still a fun romp on a late night.
(Shhhh…if we’re quiet and don’t make any sudden movements, no one will mention 1997’s An American Werewolf in Paris…)
The 2000s were not entirely unkind to Universal Monster tropes. Strange…but not unkind. Universal Studios themselves had put out a what should have been a return or at least a nod to the classic hey-day with Van Helsing (2004)…and while they did capture the feeling of watching a Universal Monster flick, the story itself and odd choices with effects and the horribly outdated CGI dropped the bottom out on this movie. It’s amazing how much of a turd Van Helsing is, and it could have been so much more, a virtual House of Dracula, giving audiences werewolves and vampires and hunchbacks and even Frankenstein’s creature but instead filmmakers ignored the lore and added strange new rules that didn’t make sense, making a complete mess of a movie.
The decade was not without some gems. I thought Dog Soldiers (2002) was both brilliant and horrifying. There was also Ginger Snaps (2000) and Ginger Snaps II which were both smart. And, though not a lot of folks liked this one, I thought it was fun and an awesome throwback to the classic vibe of Universal Monsters, 2004’s Wes Craven directed Cursed starring Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, and Joshua Jackson. Another fan favorite during this decade was action-thriller Underworld (2003), starring the very leather-clad Kate Beckinsale and the always magnetic Bill Nighy. Underworld has developed into a series franchise, putting audiences into a world of vampires versus werewolves. The sequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans released back in 2009. All of which all fun and entertaining, though very obviously films in a post-Matrix world with all that leather and gun-play. Another vampire hit, for me at least, was 30 Days of Night (2007) which shed the “it’s fun to be a vampire” motif and actually allowed them to be monsters. And while sequels are not always a favorite subject matter, we cannot discount Blade II (2002), this round being directed by then up and coming monster director Guillermo del Toro… And be honest here, who doesn’t love a movie with Ron Pearlman in it? But let’s stop there. No need mentioning Blade: Trinity…ugh!
And as for the best of the 2000s decade, my hat goes off to Let the Right One In (2008), a Swedish “romantic” horror film directed by Tomas Alfredson, based on the 2004 novel of the same title by John Ajvide Lindqvist about a bullied 12-year-old boy named “Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) living with his mother in suburban Sweden, meets his new neighbor, the mysterious and moody Eli (Lina Leandersson), they strike up a friendship. Initially reserved they slowly form a close bond, but it soon becomes apparent that she is no ordinary young girl. Eventually, Eli shares her dark, macabre secret with Oskar, revealing her connection to a string of bloody local murders.” Let the Right One In was one of those “unknowns,” coming right out of left field. It was a slow burn, but so atmospheric and moody and dark…it gives me the chills just thinking about the movie.
Here we are…roughly 70 years of film history. And with just six (nearly 7) years into the new decade, it seems as if those classic Universal monster tropes are making an epic comeback. Or at least, that’s the vibe I’m getting. Let’s start things off here with my favorite, the 2010 direct remake of the original 1941 The Wolf Man, with a star-studded cast including Benicio del Toro, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, and David Schofield to name a few. Now, I’m not saying the movie didn’t have some flaws. The fight scene between Hopkins and Toro is…well…a little odd, but for the majority of the film, the effects and even added CGI wasn’t too shabby. Considering the original is my preferred archetype regarding werewolf stories, I pretty much fell head over heels for this one. And wait, there’s more! Not only did we get a directly linked werewolf movie, but it looks as if the indie film community was filling in where Hollywood failed to capitalize. Consider this fan-favourite and truly underrated horror flick, Late Phases (2014), about a secluded retirement community plagued by mysterious and deadly attacks until a grizzled blind war veteran moves in, rallies the residents, and discovers a beast is behind the killings. Another unrated flick and extremely well done, Stake Land (2010) gives the classic vampire trope a plague-like treatment.
2013’s Wer was another surprise, giving lycanism a hereditary twist and 2012’s Werewolf: The Beast Among Us wasn’t too shabby for a largely unknown action thriller. And 2013’s Frankenstein’s Army was just bizarre enough to be entertaining. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) was a smart and surprise hit among monster fans, where residents of a worn-down Iranian city encounter a skateboarding vampire (Sheila Vand) who preys on men who disrespect women. And I thought Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) was good for a late night screening.
Now…because I’m a dad (totally using this as an excuse), I have to mention one of my top favorites thus far for this decade before moving on to anything else. Hotel Transylvania (2012) was absolutely brilliant. Fun. Funny. And full of classic monster tropes. The story goes, “When monsters want to get away from it all, they go to Count Dracula’s (Adam Sandler) Hotel Transylvania, a lavish resort where they can be themselves without humans around to bother them. On one special weekend, Dracula invites creatures like the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and others to celebrate the 118th birthday of his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). However, an unforeseen complication unfolds when an ordinary human unwittingly crashes the party and falls in love with Mavis.” Say what you will, but I love this movie!
As for the duds…though I still haven’t screened this one, I’ve heard that the steady-cam take on the Mummy monster trope The Pyramid (2014) was not very good. The concept sounded interesting…maybe I’ll give this one a go before passing final judgment. The same for Dracula: Untold (2014), I just haven’t gotten around to watching it, but I’ve heard that it was decently entertaining. And I still haven’t caught up with We Are The Night (2010) or Byzantium (2012), both of which follow a more feminine-centric story trope. One dud that I did actually watch was comic-book based I, Frankenstein (2014). “Two centuries after Dr. Frankenstein assembles and reanimates his creature, Adam (Aaron Eckhart) is still living. He becomes embroiled in a war between two immortal races: gargoyles, the traditional protectors of mankind, and evil demons. Since Adam is neither human nor demon, gargoyle Queen Leonore (Miranda Otto) and demon Prince Naberius (Bill Nighy) each want him for their own purposes. It is up to Adam to discover his inner humanity and the reason for his continued existence.” The movie could have been so much more but casting pretty-boy Eckhart as the monster…well…it seemed to reek of trying too much to be like Underworld to have any real chance of being its own movie. The concept was fun and the addition to the Frankenstein lore…so, at least it had that going for it.
Also on my to watch list: What We Do in the Shadows (2015), and Freaks of Nature (2015). It just seems, part of my problem is that there are so many classic films to choice from my tastes typically shy away back to the 1970s or 80s. That’s not to say the 2010s have nothing to offer, just look at the list above and you’ll find more than one blockbuster worthy of your time. And the year is not even over yet. A think, largely, everyone has their own tastes for horror, and this is especially true for those of the classic Universal Monster breed. My biggest disappointment is the lackluster treatment of my favorite Universal Monster, The Mummy. While the 1999 remake did a rather bang-up job, that’s been…what, 17 years now? I have to wonder what the aversion is. I’m assuming it’s because the Mummy is not a “fan favorite.” Vampires and werewolves sell movie tickets, is that it? You put a screenwriter who loves the trope, some solid practical effects, and a director who knows what they’re doing, and I guarantee you a great film will be made.
And now…a peek into the FUTURE….
As you’ve no doubt heard, Universal Studios will be reviving from their vaults, the return of the classic Universal Monsters in a new series that will eventually tie together all our beloved baddies. This news has been generating for about two years now and it looks as if they’re finally getting the ball rolling. The first monster up for theatric return will be The Mummy, with a June 2017 release date, and starring none other than Tom “Top Gun” Cruise. It feels fortuitous that my favorite Universal monster will be up first in this new rival. The Wolf Man is said to be next, with a 2018 release date and rumors of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson taking on the lead role. Scarlett Johansson is rumored to be on Universal’s radar for the led in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Angelina Jolie for Bride of Frankenstein. Johnny Depp for The Invisible Man. And supposedly, Dracula: Untold‘s end sequence opens the door for what all these remakes will be leading towards. At first, I had my reservations. Some of the descriptions for what the producers wanted sounded un-horror and un-betrothed to what the originals were. But it seems those rumors were just that, rumors. As more information has released, the more excited and cautiously optimistic I’ve become. If you’ve tuned into any of the reviews in this series, you’ve no doubt noted how much of a fan I am of the classic Universal Monster. And by-Geroge, I’m glad they’ve finally decided to bring them back to their full glory.
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new paranormal series, The Subdue Books, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs here at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.
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Swooping down from the Carpathian Mountains comes…Senior Drácula…. HOLD UP! You may be wondering, “But Thomas, haven’t you already published a review on Dracula?” Oh yes. I certainly have. If you’re brave enough to search the catacombs of Machine Mean, you’d be likely to stumble across a few. From memory, I’m fairly certain I’ve written a review on the Roxy Theater initial release of Dracula. I’ve written a post on Dwight Frye who played Renfield. And I’m pretty sure I’ve written a post celebrating Bela Lugosi, who we all know and was in fact buried as Dracula. But now comes the time, my friends, when we finally get to review the Spanish version of Dracula. According to film historians and most of everyone else in the biz, it was not uncommon for Universal Studios and most of Hollywood to produce Spanish or French or even German adaptations of their films. The unique thing about Drácula is that the Spanish version was filmed during the night on the same set and during the same time as the one we’ve all come to love and adore. That’s right folks, Dracula and Drácula were filmed at the same time, the American Todd Browning directed version during the day, and the Spanish George Melford during the night. The only real difference being the director, the cast, and subtle differences in wardrobe. In fact, according to Lupita Tovar, the Mexican-American actress who played Eva (love interest of both Harkin and Drácula), in the new introduction offered in the Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection, said that because the Spanish film was done on the same set as the American version, the actors used the same markings on the floor that directed them where to stand while being filmed. In this way, Drácula is a near perfect shot-for-shot version of the original.
Now, given the near perfect similarities between the two films, there’s been a rumor among horror fanatics and run-of-the-mill fans alike. The rumor is that the Spanish directed Dracula is better than the American shot version. There is no secret of the troubles Todd Browning’s version faced. Watching the movie even now, one can see how it seems pieced together with more than a few mishaps on stage. The one saving grace was the powerful magnetism of the cast of actors, mostly Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye (if you ask me). In transparency, I must confess, last night as I inserted the DVD, my thoughts went back to those rumors, of how the Spanish version was superior to the original. And after watching the wonderful Lupita Tovar give the introduction, one would think certainly the rumors were true. Well…I’m sure you’re asking by now, “Was it? Was the Spanish version better than the American?” Before we get into that, let’s back things up for a moment and fill in some gaps for those readers who have not yet watched Dracula or even read the Bram Stroker novelisation (poor souls).
Here is a synopsis of the American film:
The dashing, mysterious Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), after hypnotizing clerk Renfield (Dwight Frye) into his mindless slave, travels to London and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon Dracula begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires. When he sets his sights on Mina (Helen Chandler), the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is enlisted to put a stop to the count’s never-ending bloodlust.
And here is the synopsis of the Spanish film:
Soon after beginning work for Conde Dracula (Carlos Villarias), the clerk Renfield (Pablo Alvarez Rubio) learns that his employer is, in fact, a vampire who lives on human blood. Now under Dracula’s spell, Renfield helps his master travel to London, where the vampire takes another victim (Carmen Guerrero). Dracula also has eyes on the lovely Eva (Lupita Tovar), but her fiancé, Juan Harker (Barry Norton), and a wise professor named Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) seek to stop him.
Some slight differences but otherwise pretty much the same. As it should be, given they’re both working with the same script. One of the biggest differences that I noticed right away was how much more easily it was to follow along with the plot of the Spanish version of Dracula. If that was more of my familiarity with the subject or not, I cannot say for certain, but I did find it easier this time around. And even though the Spanish crew was using the same sets as the American one, those sets seemed to have better lighting, maybe this has to do with them filming at night rather than during the day, but the mountains and rooms and villages looked brighter and I enjoyed getting another perspective of the uniqueness and craftsmanship of those designs. The costumes looked mirror image to those of the American version of the film, the one difference (that I noticed) was the design of dresses Eva and her friend wore, which is to say, a little more low cut in the breast region. Lupita Tovar comments on the same during her introduction of the film, quoting that the director had told her the dresses made them look sexy. Watching the film today, the design feels on point to what we normally see in more classy movies, however, I can imagine watching this back in 1931 during a more conservative film era.
The real nitty-gritty for me boils down, not to stages or costumes or scripts or lighting, but the actors themselves. Did the Spanish-American actors outdo the originals? Perhaps I’m bias, seeing how I’m a huge fan of the original…that being said, I had some qualms with some of the performances in the Spanish version. The biggest star of Dracula will inevitably be Dracula. In the original, we were introduced to Bela Lugosi, a very exotic actor (at the time). With Drácula we were introduced to Carlos Villarias. Both actors were largely unknown, and both were recent immigrants to California, Lugosi hailing from Belguim and Carlos from Spain. Despite Carlos’s advantage of being able to act while speaking his native tongue, Bela to me was the better of the two Draculas. It is even more amazing when we consider how Bela was not yet proficient with the English language during the time when Dracula was being filmed and recited the script phonetically from memory. Now, I’m not saying Carlos was a bad actor. He was good, it just…his portrayal as Dracula felt very comedic to me. His facial expressions were, to be frank, hilarious, and thus it was hard to take him seriously.
Secondly, both versions of the lawyer/clerk Renfield were played marvelously by both Dwight Frye and Pablo Alvaerez Rubio. They both felt very empathetic and loathsome…however, again perhaps due to my bias as a fan of the original, Dwight Frye gave the role the extra added creepiness that brought the movie to a whole other level. I was completely fine with Pablo as Renfield until the boat scene with the dock crews searching for survivors and discover the poor clerk below deck. That image of Fyre looking up from the staircase and his maniacal giggle still gives me chills. All Pablo offered was laugh like some loon. And there were a few other scenes, like when Renfield crawled on the ground toward the fainted nurse, Dwight seemed to me like a spider, Pablo…well, I don’t know what he was doing.
Third, the only other really important character to get right would be Professor Van Helsing. In the American version, we are treated to the likes of Edward Van Sloan. In the Spanish version, we get Eduardo Arozamena. Both performances were pretty much the same, in fact, both actors even looked a lot alike. The only difference being the subtle charismatic acting of Van Sloan versus a more pragmatic acting by Arozamena. For me, personally, again perhaps due to my bias, I prefer the American version of Van Helsing. As for the damsel, a truism for most Universal Monster movies during this era, again both Mina (Helen Chandler) and Eva (Lupita Tovar) were very well done. But, looking closer, a think I prefer Lupita Tovar’s performance over Helen Chandler’s. She was not only more exotic, but she was also more sympathetic, in my opinion.
So…who was better? Dracula or Drácula. Were the rumors true? No, and yes. There were many aspects of the Spanish version that I enjoyed. The sets. The more developed story structure. Even some of the acting. But, I think, there is more to love with the original Dracula. Bela and Frye, for starters. And despite the issues with filming, Todd Browning brought a sort of stylization and his own strange vision to the quality of direction in Dracula that George Melford did not have. That’s not saying Drácula is not good. It certainly is and ought to be screened by any fan of horror or fan of the Universal monsters. I’m actually really happy the creators of the 30-movie boxset included this version. Otherwise, I may have never given the movie a chance. But when compared to the Dracula filmed during the day, there just are no substitutes.
My review: 3.5/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new Subdue Series, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.
Did you like what you read here? Be sure to subscribe to our SPAM FREE newsletter. Keep in the loop with new book releases, sales, giveaways, future articles, guest posts, and of course…a free eBook copy of Strange Authors, an anthology that includes some of the weirdest and vilest writers in the horror community. (click below).
Just when you think you’ve seen all Universal has to offer in the monster department, when perhaps you believe all that remains are nothing but phoned-in poor imitations of the forebearers, there comes a movie that pleasantly surprises. Nothing brings me more joy than to admit how wrong I am…at least when it comes to movies. My disposition or assumption (I should say) is due to the lack luster attempt of the previous film, The Son of Frankenstein. I know. I know. How can I say such a thing? Well, its true. Despite the charismatic lead of Boris Karloff as the monster and one of the more tantalizing roles for Bela Lugosi as Igor, the story and direction seemed flat and untangle and the motivations felt totally absurd, especially for the creature and his resurrection. Karloff had evolved the monster in Bride of Frankenstein to a talking, understanding, wanting thing, only to be thrown back into the pit of mindless wanderer/murderer in the sequel. And you can tell on screen how much Karloff was done with the role. He’d taken it as far as he could. After that, what can you do but walk away? And so he did. Let me say, quickly, before I eat up more time here, that I adore Karloff. His signature role will always be the Creature/Monster, the unwanted child of Baron Frankenstein; however, with that said, I was equally impressed with Lon Chaney Jr.’s role as the Creature. Despite being tethered to the flat-lined story of Son of Frankenstein, you can feel his excitement in having the opportunity at playing the Monster. And Bela…oh my. It may be blasphemy to say this, but I think he makes a better Igor than he did as Dracula. Before you start igniting those torches and sharpening your pitchforks, let me say before I hand over this review to our esteemed and more talented guest author, I absolutely loved Ghost of Frankenstein. The acting was top notch. The story made tangible sense. And the plot had deeper meanings than just the typical phone-in message we’ve been getting with other Universal monster sequels. Okay…I’ve said far too much probably! Without further delay, let’s see what our guest has to say about The Ghost of Frankenstein.
THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN
By: David Sgalambro
Just when you believed the “Frankenstein” Monster had truly perished in the boiling sulfur pit, at the end of the third film based on Mary Shelly’s beloved novel, he and his creators spirit both return in the fourth installment of the series titled The Ghost of Frankenstein.
The film was released in 1942 by the infamous monster makers, Universal Studios and directed by Erle C. Kenton. The movie has the signature black and white shadowy feel from start to finish, but the drastic change from its previous predecessors is that Lon Chaney Jr. (known the year prior as The Wolfman) replaces Boris Karloff as the horrifying monster. We once again see the return of the maniacal loner Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi who reprises one of his finest roles, and the incredible talent of Make-Up Artist Jack P. Pierce providing all the fun ghoulish disguises.
I personally am a big fan of all the Frankenstein movies (the first always being my favorite) so the chance for the monster’s story to continue is more than welcomed by me and especially coming from the masters, Universal Studios. Just like all their pictures, I can get visually lost in this one as well. All the scenes ranging from the old quaint village to the Frankenstein laboratory, the film holds you firmly with its intriguing backgrounds and its petrified motionless landscapes.
All these classic monster movies were a huge part of my childhood that I carried over into my adult life because in my eyes, they are always a wonderful reminiscing treat to watch. I would rank The Ghost of Frankenstein right in the order that the series was numerically released, placing it fourth, as my favorite Universal Studios Frankenstein movie (excluding the incredible & hilarious masterpiece Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein).
A group of angry villagers are once again complaining to the town’s mayor that the Frankenstein name has a curse upon them. With destructive intent, they return to the infamous castle only to find an unfriendly Ygor (played once again by Bela Lugosi). With deadly explosives, they think they killed two birds with one stone, but unknowingly they awoke and unleashed the murderous Monster from the castles’ now cracked and exposed dried sulfur pit. Igor is thrilled to be reunited with his old friend and swears to find the second son of his creator Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (played by actor Cedric Hardwicke) who specializes in Diseases of the Mind, and convince him to bring back the strength to his father’s creation.
As the film progresses forward we are introduced to Dr. Frankenstein’s two laboratory assistants Dr. Kettering (played by Barton Yarborough) and Dr. Theodore Bohmer (played by Lionel Atwill) who along with the great doctor, have just successfully removed, repaired and replaced a damaged brain from a patient’s skull. Next we meet Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter Elsa (played by Evelyn Ankers who was also in The Wolfman) and her boyfriend prosecutor Erik Ernst (played by Ralph Bellamy) whose job is to basically keep the angry villagers at bay.
There are a few touching moments in this film (just like every Frankenstein film thus far) that deserves an honorable mention which included a child by the name of Cloestine Hussman (played by Janet Ann Gallow). We once again see a subtle side of the creature as he comes to her aid and rescues her ball, but unfortunately kills two villagers in the process (that’s just poor Frankie’s luck). The big guy is apprehended but of course breaks free and escapes with the help of his buddy Ygor. They show back up at the Frankenstein residence and of course chaos erupts with Dr. Kettering being the unfortunate victim.
The title and the premise of the movie happens midway through the film when a ghostly apparition of Dr. Frankenstein’s father (also played by Cedric Hardwicke, but in an elderly state).appears and gives him advice with regard to saving his creation by transplanting the deceased Dr. Kettering’s brain into the skull of the monster.
With beloved inspiration from the past, Dr. Frankenstein is set on a new path and calls in the aid from his last living assistant Dr. Bohmer. The sudden ruckus of the laboratory brings the attention of Ygor to the lab who suddenly joins in on the fun. Once he hears the details of the operation, he begs the Doctor to use his brain instead, but was quickly denied. A later secret conversation between Ygor and Dr, Bohmer leaves the films promising ending now horrifically speculative.
At one point the Monster gets a full explanation about his upcoming brain transplant operation and decides to leave the Frankenstein residence. He walks back to town and kidnaps little Cloestein with intentions of wanting the Doctor to use her brain in the transplant instead. With a little convincing, the child is returned into the arms of Elsa and the evening’s normal procedures will move forward as planned. Hours before Dr. Frankenstein’s operation, Dr. Bohmer upheld his end of the verbal contract he had made with Ygor and removed his brain. Working solely, he ultimately presents Ludwig with Igor’s contribution.
The operation was a success but left us with a comedic image of Lon Chaney Jr. lying down with a huge bandage upon his monstrous head. The new Lugosi/ Chaney twist to the story and the whole build up to the end is somewhat brilliant, with the results now pending by the assistant’s underhanded scheme. I personally thought the idea was perfect for the film, giving the audiences exactly what they wanted back then … a shock!
The film then plays out that two weeks have passed before the villagers once again storm the Frankenstein residence demanding answers about Cloestein Hussman and Dr. Kettering disappearances and their unbelievable alibis. They send in Erik Ernst first giving the good doctor a chance to explain his intentions for the operation on a more calm and intelligent level. He states that he finally made amends for his family’s dark past and that the monster now has the brain of Dr. Kettering instead, and that all the problems for the villagers were solved.
He brings the prosecutor into the room where the Monster had been hiding, and for the first time since the operation, he speaks to the Monster and after a long pause from the giant … The Doctor was shocked when he heard …??? … Igor’s voice behind his father’s infamous creation. Definitely a great highlight in the film as Lon Chaney Jr. does his best lip-sync job, mimicking Bela Lugosi’s brutal and demanding lines.
The movie’s dramatic finale begins with the anxious angry towns’ people busting down Frankenstein’s front door and entering the residence in an uncontrollable rage. They are able to quickly get little Cloestein out safely, but some of them are quickly subdued by wall vents that release a knockout gas that the doctor had installed in case of violent patients.
The now Ygor/Monster, Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Bohmer are back in the laboratory when all of a sudden the Igor/monster suddenly goes blind. He reaches out and grabs Dr. Bohmer demanding an explanation when Dr. Frankenstein comes forth and tells the reason for the failure. He says that the Monster and Dr. Kettering had the same type blood, but not the same as Igor’s, which caused the brain to react incorrectly with the sensory nerves.
The now blind Ygor/Monster grabs Dr. Bohmer and begins blaming him for the tragic results from the botched brain transplant. Then with his temper flaring, the Ygor/Monster pushes the doctor into a large piece of laboratory equipment which instantly electrocutes him to death. The now blind giant is left stumbling around the laboratory and begins clumsily knocking over everything which sets the place ablaze. The final scenes show the Frankenstein Monster engulfed in flames and sporting a hideous melting face, which I’m sure made the audiences scream. Then they show the helpless monster becoming trapped under beams of burning rubble, as the large residence begins collapsing around him.
Surprisingly the movie never goes back to Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein character after his medical speech to Dr. Bohmer and the Ygor/Monster, so I am going to assume that he also met his demise by the unruly fire. But luckily, the majority of the town’s people managed to escape from the burning home along with Elsa and Erik, who wind up walking off into a dark cloudy “sunset-ish” type night and ending the classic film on a somewhat happy note.
My Overall Review:
Like most of the Universal Studios monster movies, what’s not to love about them? Yes some are better than others, but every single one of them captures a moment in time where a film can just be scary based on its premise, musical score and overall feel. Just because we are now four movies into the Frankenstein saga doesn’t mean there’s still not an intriguing tale left to be told. I once again congratulate the studio for coming up with a brilliant and sinister idea to keep the franchise alive. I felt the role of the monster was played a bit over the top at times by Lon Chaney Jr., but he was still able to incorporate a level of fear into us as the abnormal creation. Bela Lugosi on the other hand definitely nailed another monumental part in these ageless classics as the one and only suffering Ygor.
The only complaint I have about the film is that Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein is probably the most boring (mad) doctor in all of the Universal Monster films. I’ll assume the studio writers probably went with the more subtle approach to the story, being he was the second son of the lunatic creator, but actor Cedric Hardwicke practically performed a lobotomy on me with his dullness.
But between loving the unexpected ending, featuring the lip-syncing dialogue from the Ygor/Monster and the overall feel of another ageless B&W Universal Studios classic monster movie, I still recommend this film to everyone of all ages. My advice is start from the beginning and watch them all in the chronological order they were made in, to achieve your best Frankenstein viewing experience.
Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.
DAVID SGALAMBRO is a horror writer at J. Ellington Ashton Press and a contributing Writer at Resident Rock Star Magazine. He was born in New York, but spent the majority of his life sweltering down in Florida. Growing up, he was obsessed with every 1960’s Monster magazine on the newsstand (He still has hundreds of them that he can’t bear to part with ….ever) and any Horror movie his eyes could watch (He blames some of his lunacy upon seeing the original Night of the Living Dead at the age of nine). His continuous love for the genre has kept him in movie theaters throughout his life indulging in all of the decade’s bloodiest moments, but not up until recently has he tapped into his own dark inner voice as a writer, and brought forth his compelling debut novel published by J. Ellington Ashton Press titled NED. It’s his first attempt at the literary game and he credits his love of Horror for its terrifying content. David is currently working on his second novel which once again explores the darkest depths of his maniacal mind for inspiration and creativity. David’s other current literary escape is as a contributing writer for a music publication called Resident Rock Star magazine out of Colorado. With them he gets the freedom to write about what’s happening in the current music scene pertaining to his own personal taste, Heavy Metal.
In David’s own words, “I would would like thank Thomas S. Flowers for asking me to be one of his reviewers on this very important and very cool webpage. I am also honored to find myself on a list that includes such amazing and talented authors in the literary world of Horror. And as always…. Stay Brutal !!! – David Sgalambro.
Looking back on the start of this series, I’m wishing we’d done these reviews in chronological order instead of random selections. Tracking the progression of certain characters now that we’re in our twilight hours of Universal Monsters in Review, it is becoming quite difficult. Considering especially Frankenstein’s monster, which has already appeared on film four times since the original 1931 fright flick. AND, ole Frank-in-monster has also changed hands twice already, from the granddaddy, Boris Karloff (who defined the role as Monster), to Lon Chaney Jr. (who played the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein) and now with Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, and the more questionable of choices for Universal Studios, Bela Lugosi. Later on, Glenn Strange will also don the endless hours of makeup and prosthetics in future Frankenstein movies. As for the Wolf Man, his progression is much easier to follow. In fact, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is considered to be a direct sequel from the original 1941 The Wolf Man. It ALL can get rather confusing. Oh well. What is done is done. Perhaps moving forward in our discussion here, we should consider Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man has not a direct sequel from Ghost of Frankenstein, but rather, a sequel for The Wolf Man. And besides, most of these movies are basically stories in and of themselves, holding only quasi connections to the originals. As I will be your host for the evening, shall we begin our review?
Here’s a synopsis so that we’re all on the same page:
Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney Jr.) grave is being robbed, but strangely, despite the passing of four years since the events of The Wolf Man, his body is remarkably preserved. And covered with blooms of Wolfs Bane. The grave robbers soon realize that perhaps Mr. Talbot is not as dead as they originally believed. The next scene, we find Larry in an asylum, recovering from an operation performed by good natured yet strictly scientific Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles). Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey) finds him there, too, wanting to question him about a recent spate of murders. Talbot escapes and finds Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the old gypsy woman who knows his secret: that when the moon is full, he changes to a uncontrollable werewolf. She travels with him to locate the one man who can help him to die – Dr. Frankenstein. The brilliant doctor proves to be dead himself, but they do find Frankenstein’s daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey). Talbot begs her for her father’s papers containing the secrets of life and death. She doesn’t have them, so he goes to the ruins of the Frankenstein castle to find them himself. There he finds the Monster (Bela Lugosi), whom he chips out of a block of ice. Dr. Mannering eventually catches up with him only to become tempted to to use Frankenstein’s old equipment to fully power the monster.
Before this series, in the long ago, before I had ever dreamed of becoming a published author and creating my own tales of fright, Frankenstein meets the Wolfman was the first Universal Monster movie I had seen. I’d watched bits and pieces of the other movies before, scenes made infamous and those that became direct inspirations for other movies that I had watched. But this one, this was the first. Gathered together with a group of buds for a “guys movie night.” The host’s dogs, Bear and Willie, begging at our feet and scheming for morsels of popcorn. Displayed on the big screen of some monstrous TV birthed from the late 90s, my eyes beheld for the first time, in its completion, a Universal Monster movie. Later on, inspired by this film, would go on to watch The Wolf Man, and then later Dracula and Frankenstein, and so on and so on. There is not much that I remember from that first screening, only that it did ignited a desire to see the others, to return to the past of cinematography. And my History in Film classes in college certainly helped with that desire too. Going back and watching the movie again, for this review, after consuming most of the others, all of the originals, the story played out a little more defined in my mind. And at bottom, I have to say, this is not a Frankenstein movie, at all. This is a Wolf Man movie. And it is a movie about certain ideals and the dangers of obsessive behavior and mob mentality.
The story focuses almost/nay exclusively on Larry Talbot’s quest for an end to his life. The movie opens at the Talbot crypt four years after the events of the original Wolf Man film. And Larry is still somehow alive, though seriously injured. The place on his skull where his father had struck him with the silver cane is fractured. Next, we see Larry’s collapsed body being discovered by police and ushered quickly to the hospital. The doctor, a very scientific minded Dr. Mannering, is shocked at how fast Larry recovers from his surgery. Its all very supernatural. Keep that word in mind while watching this movie. Screen writer, Curt Siodmak, the creator of The Wolf Man character, is taking us on a journey in which the ideals of supernaturalism and science (logic) will clash, head to head. I found it somewhat thought provoking that Larry is completely obsessed with ending his life and that the monster, representing science, is a misunderstood creature…well, until the end in which he becomes an unstoppable machine. There’s a quote from Siodmak that I used in my debut novel, Reinheit, it goes, “You’ll find superstition a contagious thing. Some people let it get the better of them.” And while watching Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, you get a sense of what he’s saying. The villagers on the stage of this idyllic Germanic town, full of song, wine, and good cheer, also harbor anger and resentment, not just to the Frankenstein name, but also strangers and gypsies, mostly fueled by antagonists who insight the rage of the community by reminding them of the injustices that had transpired in the past. Is all this starting to sound familiar? Considering Curt Siodmak was a Jew escaping the growing threat of Nazi Germany, it ought to sound familiar.
The deeper meaning in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is commendable, but there are still some unresolved issues with the movie itself. I felt like the entire movie was brilliantly set up and had a wonderful progression as we followed Larry on his quest toward suicide. The end felt tacked on. Dr. Mannering’s character did not feel fully vetted nor relatable. His motivation seemed very sudden. From wanting to take Larry back to the hospital to becoming obsessed with seeing how powerful he could make the monster. Everything until then was golden. And like with most Universal films of this era, the final scene was very abrupt. With the manic villager blowing up the dam, releasing the river, destroying Castle Frankenstein, along with the Wolf Man and monster, and the town itself, presumably, all happens within a span of 60 seconds. Boom. Boom. The End.
Judging the film as a whole, yes,while Mannering’s character did feel very unbelievable regarding “re-charging” the monster, and with the ending being rushed to its final conclusion, the other meanings are hard to dismiss, how our obsessions, be it science or superstition, will ultimately destroy us in the end. Its a powerful message, especially when considering the history of the screen writer and the decade in which the film was made. Looking at the film as a direct sequel to The Wolf Man, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man was an excellent continuation in the story, introducing new branches to the werewolf mythos. The casting couldn’t have been more perfect. Except for perhaps Bela Lugosi as the monster. To me, despite trying very hard to be a dim witted creature, he still sounded too suave. Watching Bela as Frankenstein’s monster was too disconnecting and his mannerisms seemed desperate to separate himself from his more iconic role as Dracula. Honestly, some actors just aren’t built to play certain roles. One could surmise the same about Chaney and how he should never have played the Mummy. My favorites for the film were Maria Ouspenskaya, who was was once again wonderful, as was Lon Chaney, likewise at his best as the very tragic and sad Larry Talbot, both utterly magnetizing and wonderfully depressing.
My rating: 4/5
I have a bad habit of assuming how movies will turn out. Show me a cast of characters and maybe a movie poster and chances are you’re going to get what you get. With a title like, “House of Frankenstein,” one ought to be able to safely assume the movie is going to be something similar to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello and the great insurgence of American vaudeville. Goofy. Slap-stick. Silly. However, that is not the case with House of Frankenstein. The cast was wonderfully selected, with Boris Karloff returning not as the stumbling monster, but as the mad scientist. The story, though not without blemish, is interestingly layered. The pace holds steady, clocking in a traditional 70-80 mins. While Karloff holds your attention whenever he’s on screen, the character who impressed me the most is unknown character actor J. Carrol Naish who played the hunchback Daniel. Yes, he uttered the expected “Yes, Master,” whenever addressing Karloff’s character (Dr. Niemann). But there were other moments, especially concerning love interest Rita Hussman (Anne Gwynne) in which he truly shines. This is the second Frankenstein movie in which I found myself more in awe with the hunchback than with the monster. Names have changed, but motives remain the same. The pursuit of life after death, the creation of life, and the improvement of the human form. The latter was played up more with this movie than the others, as both Daniel and Larry Talbot desire new improved bodies, free of their respective so-called flaws. Oh yes, the Wolfman is in this picture, as is Dracula, played by a new actor, John Carradine. I’m not sure why they didn’t just hire Bela Lugosi, who is known to work for cheap. But look at me blabbing on. Before I chase another rabbit, lets see what our special guest has to say about House of Frankenstein.
House of Frankenstein (1944)
horror, fantasy, science fiction
By: Channy Dreadful
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Screenplay Writer: Edward T. Lowe Jr. (billed as Edward T. Lowe)
Story Writer: Curt Siodmak
Main Cast: Boris Karloff as Doctor Gustav Niemann, J. Carrol Naish as Daniel the hunchbacked assistant, John Carradine as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot (AKA the Wolf Man), and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster
Detailed plot summary:
may contain minor plot spoilers!
The movie begins on a dark and stormy night in the jail cell of Doctor Niemann and his evil hunchbacked assistant Daniel. Lightning crashes and the wall separating Niemann and Daniel crumbles down and the two men escape from the prison that once contained them. The duo embarks on a journey to search for Doctor Frankenstein’s research so Niemann can also reanimate the dead.
While running through the trees, they arrive on a dirt road and see the travelling horror show owned by the great Professor Lampini stuck in the ditch. Niemann and Daniel help pull him out and request that he take them with him to repay their act of kindness. He reluctantly agrees, and the three men begin their journey.
Lampini tells the men about his most popular attraction, which he claims is the real skeleton of the late great Dracula himself — stake through what-used-to-be-his-heart and all. He then continues on with the folklore of the vampire, and how if anyone ever removes the stake from where it stands Dracula himself will return and will cause havoc throughout the world. Niemann laughs at his accusations and doubts the man’s stories. The carriage comes to a fork in the road and Niemann requests that they go to Reigelberg so they can talk to the burgomaster there – who, unbeknownst to Lampini, was the man who had had Niemann arrested. Lampini argues and said that is not where his next show will be taking place, so with a nod of approval from Niemann Daniel then kills Lampini and the man driving the horse-drawn carriage.
The scene then cuts to Burgomaster Hussman of Reigelberg, his grandson Carl, and his fiancée Rita discussing whether or not to attend the traveling horror show that is set up on display in town for tonight only. With much convincing from Rita, they decide to attend.
Her face lights up upon their arrival and they see many freakshow-esque horrors on display. Niemann, acting as Professor Lampini, arrives on stage and begins introducing the main act, the skeleton of Dracula. The crowd heckles and claims the man to be a fraud, but the burgomaster says to Carl that he recognizes that man from somewhere. Once the show is over and the curtains close, Niemann idly removes the stake from the skeleton’s heart and Dracula begins to reform and appear right before their very eyes. Niemann tells Dracula that if he does what he requests of him he will not stake him, and will have his coffin ready and prepared for him before the dawn of each day for when he returns.
The burgomaster, Carl and Rita all start to walk home when they get picked up by a carriage. Unknowingly by the group, Dracula, who introduces himself as Baron Latos, is also on that same carriage. After some conversation the burgomaster invites Latos to his home for a few drinks. He accepts the invitation, and once they arrive Dracula is left in the room alone with Rita. Rita gazes into his eyes and becomes entranced as she stares upon the ring he’s wearing. Dracula asks the woman what she sees and she claims to see a strange world, a world of people who are dead but are alive. Dracula states that it is the place he just returned from, and Rita says it frightens her and that she is scared of it. He comforts and informs her that if she wears his ring it will drive away her fears. He then slides the ring on to her finger and she begins to see the world as Dracula does and is instantly under his spell. He tells his that he will come for her before down and he bids the burgomaster farewell and leaves his abode.
The burgomaster begins work in his office, and finally comes to the realization as to where he recognizes Lampini from, and that he is actually Dr. Gustav Neiman. He begins to call the authorities as Dracula returns to his home and transforms into a bat. He flies to the burgomaster and begins to kill him and drink his blood.
During the murder of the burgomaster, Rita is upstairs along with Carl and she begins speaking in a very strange way and he begins to get frightened. He then notices that she is wearing a ring that he had not seen her wearing before and recognizes it, coming to the conclusion that it once belonged to Dracula. In a panic, Carl rushes downstairs only to find his grandfather dead with two bite-wounds exposed on his neck. Carl calls the police informing them of what happened. While Carl is talking to the police Rita leaves with Dracula in a horse-drawn carriage. Just as they are leaving, the policemen on horses arrive and chase after them. The carriage crashes as the sun starts to rise. Dracula scrambles to get to his coffin (which had fallen out of the carriage) but does not make it in before his turn back into a skeleton. The ring slides off of Rita’s finger and she is now free from Dracula’s spell.
Niemann and Daniel witness all that happens and leave Dracula behind and continue on their way in search of any and all research that Doctor Frankenstein may have left behind. Eventually the two make it to the village of Frankenstein’s, and discover the ruins that were once his castle. Within the ruins they discover an ice cave, in which they find frozen in solid ice the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster. Niemann and Daniel build a fire and are able to free the two creatures from the ice. The Wolf Man wakes up and begins to turn into his human form Larry Talbot, who asks the men why they would free him and the monster that lives within.
Niemann offers Talbot help and says that if he can help him find Frankenstein’s research that he will be able to build him a new brain which will be free from the Wolf Man, and that he can live the life he had always wanted. Talbot agrees and the men start searching and tearing down walls and removing bricks until they finally discover a book written by Henry Frankenstein titled “Experiments in Life and Death”.
Now that they have finally found what they were searching for, Niemann, Daniel, Talbot and the monster return back to Niemann’s lab to begin working on the monster and returning him to the world of the living. Talbot begins to panic and requesting that the Doctor begin work on him first, seeing as that evening there will be a full moon. Niemann shoos him off, saying he must work on the monster first, but to begin his work he will first need to find his two nemeses who helped put him in jail, Herr Strauss and Herr Ullman.
With the help of Daniel he finds the men, kidnaps them and takes them back to his lab. He explains that he needs Ullman’s brain for the monster to be able to come back to life and that he wants to put Talbot’s brain into Strauss’s body so that Strauss will be the one who has to carry the curse of the Wolf Man.
Will he succeed? Will Talbot get the life he always dreamed of? What will happen to Niemann and Daniel if the monster is resurrected from the dead? For answers to all of these questions and more you will just have to watch House of Frankenstein.
Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., and John Carradine’s acting is nothing but of the highest quality as per usual. The group put on an amazing performance, giving you the feel of true classic horror and provided the stepping stones to many horror movies that we see in more recent years.
The reveal of Dracula was well played out, starting with being a skeleton in a horror freak show and having the stake still in his heart. It was dark and mysterious and you are left wondering if the skeleton was just a set up to make Lampini money or if he somehow got his hands on the real skeleton of Count Dracula. His transformation scenes, turning from skeleton to vampire and from vampire to bat as well as bat to vampire, were amazingly done for the time and looked more realistic than many things that I see today. A lot of directors and special effects crew can really take a few pointers and learn how to properly achieve a fun but effective transformation scene by watching this film.
I absolutely loved the death of Dracula in this film. It was dramatic and the setting was brilliant. In a way, the audience kind of feels bad for him because he is trying so hard to crawl to his coffin and make it in before the sun rises, and he gets so close to doing so before the first beam of light hits his skin and all that is left of him is the bones that we see at the very start of the film.
Later in the film, the discovery of the monster and the Wolf Man was done in such a creative and different way that really drew in my attention. It’s definitely possible that this is the logical progression from the events of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), where the monster and Wolf Man get swept in a flood at Frankenstein’s castle, starring the same actors. The hidden ice cave below Frankenstein’s castle in a way was very reminiscent of the Thing (1982) for myself, which did not come out before this film but it is a movie that I have seen long before this one. It was creepy, damp and cold and I was unsure of what to expect. Although it was completely unrealistic or possible, it made for an exciting scene to watch. Keep in mind, this is a monster movie, so how realistic do the locations really have to be as long as they keep the audience interested?
My favourite part of this film is the inclusion of three of the most famous universal monsters, Dracula, the Wolf Man and the monster. It is one of the main reasons why I chose this movie to review in the first place — well, that and Boris Karloff. I have always been a fan of his work and this was one of his movies that I had not had the pleasure of viewing before. All in all, whether we see them come back from the dead or not, it was great seeing all three in this film with different goals and wanting different outcomes for themselves, which only would be made possible by the doctor.
My cons for this film are very minimal and for the most part situational. Although I loved the transformations scenes, there was a time where Dracula turned into a bat and it was very obviously not real and was controlled by strings. I can hardly take any points off due to this seeing the film came out in 1944 and they used all of the technology available to them at the time.
My only other complaint would be the possible universe continuity error being the fact that Boris Karloff plays Doctor Niemann in this film, but in previous Universal Monster movies he plays Frankenstein’s monster. A little bit confusing, but something that you can easily look past seeing as he looks much different in this film then he does playing the monster in Frankenstein (1931.) Glenn Strange has also played the monster in previous films as wells. I am assuming Karloff would have reprised his role as the monster, but the screen time the monster gets in House of Frankenstein is so minimal that it would be a waste of an amazing performance that he could provide.
When Thomas S. Flowers reached out to me and offered me a chance to write a blog post for his website, I was absolutely thrilled. He continued and explained the project to me and sent me a list of movie titles from the Universal Monster series that were still left to choose from. There were a few, including this one, that I still hadn’t seen yet so I did a bit of research and decided to choose this one because of the monsters that were in it. I was not wrong to choose this movie. It was absolutely brilliant from start to finish with hardly a complaint that was relevant to the year that this film came out. The transformation scenes, even nowadays, were brilliantly executed and were even better than a lot of others that we see today in more recent films. Although there were a few minor continuity errors (which is one of the very few reasons I didn’t give a perfect score,) it did not take me out of this film and it was still really enjoyable to watch. Overall I rate this movie a solid 9/10 and recommend that you add this one to your horror movie collection.
Chantel Feszczyn — also known as Channy Dreadful — is one creepy ghoul hailing from a small city in Saskatchewan, Canada. She is a regular podcast voice frequenting on the podcasts, with the first being Dead as Hell Horror Podcast, and as well the likes of The Resurrection of Zombie 7, Land of the Creeps and Whedonverse Podcast. For the last three years she has brought her focus towards written reviews, posting occasionally on her Tumblr blog and recently moving to her new website dreadfulreviews.com — where she posts weekly reviews discussing movies, comic books and horror-themed merchandise.
Another first for me. Fresh from a late night screening of Dracula’s Daughter, expecting perhaps something humdrum or worse, mediocre. However, the most sublime thing happened. Dracula’s Daughter turned out to be an actually wonderfully fantastic film. With beautiful cinematography and superb acting, its a wonder why folks don’t talk about this film more. It is astounding how the general consensus on movie review sites, such as Rotten Tomato, is nothing more than a snore, between critic and everyday reviewers alike. I suppose walking the line between boring and atmospheric is a very narrow path. Personally, I felt Dracula’s Daughter was very atmospheric and I can see now where more recent vampire adaptations picked certain images. When I first glimpsed Countess Marya Zaleska (played by the enchanting Gloria Holden), with her face hidden behind a black hijab, she reminded me of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Of course, one the significant differences the between two, Countess Marya Zaleska seems to prefer to prey on women than men, which also gives us some rather homoerotic vibes, especially concerning a certain scene between the Countess and a woman her man servant Sandor brings in off the street under the guise of needing model for a painting. Thankfully, we’ve got a special guest with us today to help us sort through this film. Teacher, screen writer, film maker, author, podcaster, and all around great guy, William D. Prystauk has graciously agreed to take on this Universal classic. Lets see what he has to say!
Dracula’s Daughter (Universal, 1936)
by William D. Prystauk
This is the official sequel to 1931’s iconic Dracula, this tale takes place a few months after the count’s death at the hands of Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). Dracula’s Daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), with the help of her right-hand man, Sandor (Irving Pichel) steals the body of her “dead” father, and burns Dracula to a crisp in order to rid herself of the desire to consume blood that possesses her – except it doesn’t work. As Van Helsing remains in court defending himself against murder charges because he rid the world of a vampire, the countess takes victims by mesmerizing them with a jeweled ring. Even so, she meets up with psychiatrist Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger), and undergoes therapy while trying to use sheer force of will to keep her bloodthirsty cravings at bay. Seeking a distraction, Sandor brings the countess model Lili (Nan Grey) to paint. In the beginning, Zaleska resists her urge to attack Lili, but ultimately fails. Though Lili survives the assault, she soon dies when Dr. Garth tries to hypnotize her. Realizing a cure is impossible at the same time Dr. Garth realizes she’s a true blue vampire, Zaleska kidnaps the doctor’s lover, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), and whisks her off to solemn Transylvania. In order to save Janet, Dr. Garth must allow himself to be bitten by Zaleska so he can become her partner – forever. However, the countess had promised Sandor eternal life. And before her fangs can penetrate her soon to be enslaved beau, Sandor, pent on revenge for the snub, destroys her with an arrow.
The only one to reprise his role from the first film is Van Sloan. Hell, the studio didn’t try to get Tod Browning to direct again, and James Whale took a walk – and they didn’t even show Bela Lugosi in a coffin (even though he came cheap as stars go), but used a wax bust of him instead. Simply put, Universal wanted to cash in on the Dracula name one more time.
Dracula’s Daughter, although far from a perfect film, certainly has its moments. First, it distanced itself from the original movie to the point where the film can stand on its own because an entirely different mythos has been created. Where Lugosi’s count wanted control and power, Zaleska is a reluctant bloodsucker. She wants nothing more than to be a normal woman and experience the sun on her face. Thinking and talking about a world she cannot engage with her senses, she seeks out any means to make it happen. She burns her father’s body to dust as if she’s honoring some archaic folk remedy, and when that fails, she turns to modern science because it’s clear Zaleska thinks the problem’s in her head, thanks to psychiatrist Garth who thinks he can cure any “disease of the mind”. If she can find a way of quenching that thirst without unleashing her fangs, she can recapture her humanity. But don’t let this fool you because Zaleska keeps Lurch-like Sandor around. He’s a cold Vulcan wannabe who drops shade upon her fantasies to comedic splendor. Sandor sees death in her eyes, and when she imagines birds and dogs, he sees bats and wolves. Therefore, every smile she conjures he turns into a frown. In this case, he’s not just her servant, but her reality check. In addition, if Zaleska finds a cure for her curse, Sandor will never become the immortal badass he wishes to become. If the countess had chosen Sandor as her companion, there’s no doubt that once he became the immortal dead he’d either stake Zaleska or leave her behind. Beyond those two options, Sandor would have followed in Dracula’s bloody footsteps. However, I always wondered if Universal had made a third installment with the Return of Sandor and Irving Pichel reprising his role. This would have kept the franchise rolling, and could have altered Pichel’s career, which ultimately became waylaid by the truly horrific House Un-American Activities Committee who had him blacklisted as an actor and a director.
One thing that never escapes vampirism in all its forms is the homoerotic element: A villain with fanged teeth (phalluses) penetrating the flesh of men and women. Dracula may have wanted Mina Harker, but he takes her husband to be, Jonathan as a live-in slave, and who knows how he crawled into the mind of Renfield before going after Lucy Westenra. In Dracula’s Daughter, the much talked about scene between Zaleska and Lili makes one wonder if the countess craves the young woman out of hunger or something more. As the young woman stands half-naked before Zaleska, the countess hunger shines through, but one can argue either way if it’s bloodlust (looking at Lili as sustenance) or as a love interest. When Lili fades fast, Zaleska seems to revel in the fact that the woman is dying, because this demise is the countess’s dark creation thanks to her own fangs. This is where some of daddy Dracula’s darkness leaks through, and for a moment we wonder if Sandor wasn’t right all along about those bats, wolves, and notions of death. After all, he knows his mistress better than anyone else ever could.
Most important, unlike Dracula, we feel for Zaleska the monster. She’s in turmoil and seems serious-minded about becoming something better than her uncanny, human consuming self. This allows audiences to appreciate her struggle and have sympathy for the monster, the same as Lon Chaney Jr.’s wolfman, who had become a creature of the night against his will, and Boris Karloff’s poor monster thanks to Dr. Frankenstein. Granted, we don’t really know of Zaleska’s origin, but with her longing for sunlight, she most undoubtedly had been sired against her will.
Regardless, Gloria Holden was a reluctant actress. She did not care for horror and did not want to become typecast as she saw Lugosi becoming. This helped her in creating a “yearning for life” character, a reluctant vampire who had to feed like a human needed a bite out of a hamburger each day, and there was no non-blood alternative to sustain her. Holden maintained her stature and grace in the role, bringing an element of regality to the countess, which appeared as an older, domineering lesbian to some, or mommy dearest like mistress of the damned. One can see how she may have influenced the eyes of Lily Munster or Angelica Houston in the Addams’ Family films. We can only guess what the reaction would have been if scribe John L. Balderston’s original screenplay had been accepted by Universal, and the stifling censorship board (Production Code Administration) at the time. In Balderston’s version, Von Helsing would have returned to the castle to finish off the vampire brides, but we would have been introduced to a countess who enjoyed her role as queen destructive bee. Several scenes apparently implied that the countess had a desire for torturing men, which included paraphernalia equivalent to a 1930’s version of a dominatrix with whips and such. However, Zaleska did have a mental hold on Sandor, and she certainly tortured him with the dangling carrot of immortality.
Ultimately, in Dracula’s Daughter, the beast and her bodyguard butler only discovered death and destruction, while the arrogant cocksure psychiatrist and his love interest earned the chance to live another day. Yet oddly enough, with Garth’s education and prowess to hypnotize there is a subtle hint that he is the human equivalent of a vampire (sans Zaleska’s jeweled ring), though we never learn if he’ll use his mental skills to manipulate poor Janet. We only know that the vampire queen is dead and young women in London and in the valley of the castle’s shadow are safe for another day.
Rate: 3 stars out of 5
William D. Prystauk is an award-winning screenwriter, film producer, and teacher in higher education, as well as a published poet, and essayist. His crime thriller, BLOODLETTING, has been adapted from his script of the same name, and he is currently working on a horror series. William also co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK podcast as Billy Crash with his good buddy, Jonny Numb, and currently has thousands of listeners in 120 countries. You can find more about horror and William on his Crash Palace Productions site. As an Assistant Professor of English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, William teaches business writing, and public relations. You can find more about William at any of these fantastic sites: Amazon: http://amzn.to/1Fu9PHS Barnes and Noble: http://bit.ly/1GhclaJ Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23365977-bloodletting BLOODLETTING Book Trailer One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVNji_G-tSI BLOODLETTING Book Trailer Two: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glK9DiVIHT8 IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm5464477/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/william-d-prystauk/10/9a1/a55 Horror Podcast: THE LAST KNOCK on iTunes Twitter: @crashpalace
I had the absolute pleasure of watching this film for the very first time last night. As chance would have it, a storm was passing through the area. Lightening flashed and thunder boomed, rattling the glass, as I watched, popcorn in hand, one of the last of the Universal Monster Classics to ever don the silver screen. 1948 in film must have been a very strange era, or at least for self-acclaimed film historians such as myself. Certainly there were plenty of post-war film noir going on, but even those would be fizzing out. The real change would be the approaching dawn of Atomic Age Cinema of the 1950s. Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein is truly the last Universal Monster picture before the monsters turned to the atom bomb. While enjoying the rambunctious comedy of 40s famed duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the return of both Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman and Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Chaney had played the role of every single classic monster, aside of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but when the role for the Wolfman came up in A&C meet Frank, and I’m paraphrasing here, the role could go to no one else, he owned the Wolfman as much as the Wolfman owned him, or so he said. And if I’m not mistaken, this would be his last entry as the mythical full moon howler. The role of Dracula however was more ambiguous. Believe it or not, Bela was not the original casting for the famed night stalker. Bela was 66 years old when we dawned the cape and cowl for the last time, and technically first since the original 1931 Dracula. He’d played Dracula-esk roles since 1931, but never technically Dracula himself. You can see from first glance how aged the actor was, but nevertheless, was still mesmerizing and a powerful presence on stage. Film historians have commented that while Chaney as Lawrence Talbot was wonderful, Bela returning as Dracula is what really stole the show. Regardless, A&C meet Frankenstein is a wonderful footnote in the history of film, an important tale at the precipice of another era to come. Today, we’re joined with a equally fantastic author who has a special love for the movie. So, without further delay, let us see what our guest has in store for us.
Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
Universal’s greatest horror comedy
In 1948 the classic Universal monsters Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man, had long since reached the high tide mark of their popularity. In order to maximize continual profits the three had been featured alongside each other in two films, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula (1941 and 1945); both of which had been commercial successes. But their final swansong was yet to come. Teaming up with America’s hottest comedy duo of the time, the originators of many a nightmare were to have one final goodbye. And what could have been a terrible pastiche, a jumping of the shark long before The Fonz donned a set of water skis, turned out to be arguably one of the finest comedy-horrors ever produced.
Jump forward forty years and I was a wee child of no more than four or five. At the time my Gran had some films recorded from the TV, designed to shut me and my brothers up when we came over to visit. Of the features that had been taped there were two in particular I would watch over and over. Both were black and white which even then felt like an outdated concept; black and white usually meant ‘boring’ to me, however these two enthralled me as equally as any modern movie could. Those two films were ‘Them’ a feature about giant radioactive ants, and ‘Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.’
Back then I found the comedy funny and the monsters… well, not scary, but enthralling, fascinating, exciting. Horrific would be too strong a word to describe the characters I’d seen watered down and aped on re-runs of shows like the Munsters. But the action and danger was still there. The pull to the nightmare inhabitants of the shadows had begun its influence.
Looking back I am pleasantly surprised at just how well this stands up. It is an out and out good movie. Not a good movie for its time, or a good movie because it inspired something greater, but a straight up, honest-to-God good movie.
The cast is as authentic as you are ever going to get: Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster and Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolf Man, and the opening credits that announces them is a cartoon sequence listing the monsters and setting things up nicely. This is something that would have definitely provided a hook for my younger self, and a scene that still looks pretty cool now. Once the role call is complete it dissolves into real footage, and within less than five minutes of the run time we are treated to a Lon Chaney Jr werewolf transformation, followed by the lycanthropic creature snarling with rage.
Make no mistake, this is going to be a monster movie.
The plot of the feature revolves around Abbott & Costello working as baggage handlers. One day two crates arrive and they are asked to deliver them to a horror museum by the unpleasant and bossy owner, leading to a few amusing exchanges. Below is just one in a list of highlights.
‘Well that’s gonna cost you over time because I’m a union man and I only work sixteen hours a day.’
‘A union man works only eight hours a day.’
‘I belong to two unions.’
Taking the crates to the museum and opening them up, the hapless Costello discovers their contents are nothing less than the two twins of terror, Count Dracula and the Frankenstein’s Monster! To add more to his woes we discover that his stunning girlfriend is in fact working with the evil Count and plans to put Costello’s feeble brain into the Monster to make it more obedient. Help is at hand as Lawrence Talbot arrives having chased the abominations from Europe, and tries to enlist the help of Abbott and Costello to thwart their dastardly plans. If only he could stop turning into a wolf…
The madness that ensues certainly makes for a tick list of old scary movie components: creepy castles, scary noises, chases, burning bodies, mad science labs, bat transformations, biting necks and possessed people.
But with all this horror where’s the comedy going to go? The answer… all over it.
Abbott and Costello are absolutely superb in this film. Their fast delivery of quick-fire patter is a joy to listen to. Snappy one-liners go hand in hand with great physical comedy, stupid voices and hilarious impressions. Costello’s impression of Dracula when he is so scared he struggles to talk makes me laugh even as I think about it, typing these words. This is rare as there is always a danger that comedy only works in context; taking it out of its social and historic birthplace can render it flat and useless. But not so with the gags and routines that literally fill this film from beginning to end.
However the success of a horror-comedy is dependent on striking that tricky balance between the two opposing genres. The trick here, and is the case in two other fine examples of this genre mash An American Werewolf In London and Shaun Of The Dead, is that the teeth of the monsters are kept as sharp as the wit of the script. All three monsters are in no way dumbed down. Dracula is cunning, he transforms into a bat, he hypnotizes people with his powerful stare and seduces beautiful women before biting them on the neck. Frankenstein’s Monster is lumbering and childlike, but still gruesome in appearance, brutish in strength and perfectly capable of throwing a screaming woman through a glass window, three stores up. The Wolf Man, just like in his 1941 debut, is a tragic figure in human form, constantly in internal agony over the monster inside; and a snarling, uncontrollably ferocious creature when under the influence of the full moon.
The threat is always there. The horror taken seriously. And that’s why this works so well.
The only scene to trivialize the monsters is a moment where Abbott believes the Wolf Man to be Costello dressed in his masquerade costume. The Wolf Man gets stuck in a bush and tumbles over branches as he tries to reach for his victim, whilst unaware of the monster’s true identity Abbott is berating it as he would his friend. This provides a good laugh, but is quickly extinguished when the creature finds its footing and chases the poor man. Suddenly we are back in the realms of horror movies as the slavering beast runs after its prey.
The mix is done right. Each component is allowed to be fully realized and interacts well whilst deftly not tripping over each other. Instead of piling up in a confused mess, the two elements run side by side, making for excellent companions.
The film is a fast moving feature, and all the better for it, with a building climax that doesn’t disappoint. In the melee of the closing moments we have the bumbling duo escape from the scientist’s lab whilst being pursued by Frankenstein’s Monster, all the while trying to avoid the brawling pair of Dracula and the Wolf Man who tear up the castle in a fight to the death. (I won’t tell you who wins).
There’s even room for a joke at the end delivered by master of horror, Vincent Price.
Some films are considered classics, but they aren’t really that enjoyable to watch, and I could name a lot of Universal monster movies within that. For every one that is genuine fun to sit through (eg The Wolf Man, Bride of Frankenstein), there are countless more that are not (eg Werewolf of London, Dracula, The Mummy). Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein might not have the status of some of the others in cinema history, but I would wholly recommend it, not just as an introduction to the classic Universal monsters, but also as fine example of horror-comedy and most importantly because it’s a bloody good film.
‘That’s the wind.’
‘It should get oiled.’
JR Park draws from the crazy worlds of exploitation cinema and pulp literature for his literary inspiration. His family are both equally proud and disturbed by his literary output, dragged from a mind they helped to cultivate. He resides on the outskirts of Bristol in the UK and hopes one day they’ll let him in. Mr. Park is the author of several twisted tales of morbid doom, including Upon Waking and Terror Byte and Punch. He was also featured with a horrifyingly wonderful short in the horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. Besides giving his readers terrifying nightmares, Mr. Park is also one of the founding members of the up and coming UK Publishing team, The Sinister Horror Company, active in promoting other writers and attending numerous conventions.
“Who the heck is Mr. Blasko?” you may being asking yourself… And not to be nefarious or tricky on my part, Mr. Blasko is simply one of many names of one of the great pillars of horror, and certainly a reluctant one at that. The King of Horror Bela Lugosi, the man most recognizable as Dracula, was born Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko on October 20, 1882 in Lugos, Hungary, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His birthplace was only some fifty miles away from the western border of Transylvania and the Poenari Castle, the legendary home of Vlad the Impaler, the historical Dracula, whom Lugosi would portray to great acclaim on both stage and screen. Bela came from farmers and bankers but would never find his place there. He would be a runaway, a traveler in search of himself in the world. Bela became captivated by the touring theatrical troupes that came through Resita and set his heart on becoming an actor…
What is it about horror that seems to take hold of certain careers and never let go? For some stay for only a short while, a place for struggling up and comers to make a splash in the dark pool, a place for actors and actresses to earn their bones, so to speak. Consider the likes of Kevin Bacon or Johnny Depp for example, who played in Friday the 13th (1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) respectively…while both also growing to see much success, would often dabble in horror, they were never typecasted into horror as some tend to be. Its a tragic disposition for many of the classic actors, from their own perspective. They wanted to be actors and not just the strange ones, but as it would be, the world, or Hollywood for that matter, would only allow the strange and menacing portrayals they played so well. Some would dawn these cowls with glee, I think Vincent Prince is an excellent example of someone accepting that history would always look upon him as one of many faces of horror. Bela Lugosi fell into this…though from the very beginning it seem he was always destined for the cowl as King of Horror.
In 1919, when Bela fled Hungary (interesting side note: in 1914, Bela served in the Hungarian Army against Russia during The Great War, discharged in 1916 for health reasons, he would later support the Hungarian Revolution…however, when the revolution collapsed Bela found himself a wanted enemy of the new government) for Germany and broke into the Wiemar era films of the 1920s, he played in many dark films, including The Head of Janus and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was a great success in Germany. Its curious why he decided to immigrate to the United States…
Yet it was for our benefit, was it not? Bela came first to New Orleans during the last waning week of 1920 and then eventually made his way to New York City, working for a Hungarian theater as a stage actor. Again, he found great success performing for his native trope, making it all the way to Broadway. And he even made his way to film, in America, silent-pictures were still dominate and Bela had not yet mastered the English language. Though, it would be in 1927 when Bela’s biggest role would come to fruition.
It was in 1927 when Bela Lugosi first dawned the cope and cowl of Dracula. First it was a play, based on Bram Stroker’s gothic novel of the same name. Apparently, it was one of the more romantic and alluring renditions. According to his biography, Bela was handsome, mysterious and seductive, so much so that its reported audiences gasped when he first spoke with his strange albeit mesmerizing accent. Whoever cast Bela as Dracula for the stage is a genius. For in the minds of those who read the book, he was the perfect depiction for that haunting place known as Transylvania…this unknown, dangerous, yet, romantic place.
The introduction of talking pictures, also known as The Age of Sound, or just “talkies” for short brought a new era of filmography. Universal Pictures at this point had produced some of the most memorable silent-era films, including the more memorable Lon Chaney pictures, like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and there were also Mary Philbin and Conrad Veidt pictures, The Cat and the Canary (1927), and The Man Who Laughs (1928) to name a few. In 1931, Universal set their sights on adapting the famous stage play, which was based on the famous novel by the same name, Dracula. The equally incredible Tod Browning would direct what would be nicknamed, “The Strangest Passion the World Has Ever Known, while Bela would make his own into a major Hollywood role, keeping to his adaptation of Dracula, Bela will forever be idolized and synonymous as the character. The 1931 film was a smash hit, and for obvious reasons. Despite the struggling of production, the film, even today, felt dark and foreboding. Bela was and still is the perfect Count immortal.
Bela would dawn the cowl of Dracula many times throughout the rest of his life, even in roles that were not technically Dracula, directors would want his essence of the immortal count. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, he would never venture far from horror. His most notable performances were Murderers in the Rue Morgue (1932),White Zombie (1932), International House (1933), The Raven (1934), Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). The 1940s would bring the era of spoofs, the terror ebbed away by the effects of another world war, in such films as, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). While none of these roles were especially noteworthy in isolation, Lugosi’s cumulative body of work during the 1930s established him as one of the first great stars of the horror genre. Nevertheless, throughout his entire career Lugosi was frustrated by his inability to break through into other types of films. In 1956, while in production of Plan 9 From Outer Space, he would be buried wearing the iconic costume.
Despite a career filled with iconic roles displaying an incredible range of talent, from his Shakespearean Hungarian days to the Wiemar film era, and finally to the American stage, once performed, there was no turning back from being the personification of the immortal Transylvanian. The incredible Mr. Blasko said it best, when he pondered his own legacy, stating, “I am Dracula.”
Before I say anything about this topic of Renfield and Dwight Frye, I want to show you a short clip from Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931):
Admittedly, my first screening of Dracula (1931) was only a few short months ago. There is no explanation or excuse for this, except to say that in my youth, the classics paid little interest for me. I was too busy enjoying the classics of my own generation. These, according to my own worldview, were the new pillars of horror, 80’s and 90’s classics such as: Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and demonic flicks like Hellraiser and Demon Night. George Romero flicks were popular as well when I was growing up, or at least with me they were always popular!! Honestly, looking back, I’m not sure I would have appreciated these black and white originators of terror. It takes a certain amount of patience to sit through a movie of images and dialogue, without much action involved. Patience, you can say, developed through age. So I’m not entirely sure if I should be happy or a little worried that I’ve reached that pinnacle of maturity? Nevertheless — let age come as it may — within the last five years I have been digesting the TRUE classics of horror, going back to the old silent greats, such: Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney Sr., and The Cat and the Canary (1939) with the ever enchanting Paulette Goddard, The Hands of Orlac (1924) with the haunting Conrad Veidt, and even the curious film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). Just to name a few. In 2014 alone, I’ve seemed to digest more of the old greats than at any other point in my horror film fanatic career. When I watched the Wolfman (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr. at the helm, I fell absolutely head-over-heels. Chaney Jr. played such a pitiful role, you really began to feel sorry for the man. But the conversations and the way people used to speak with one another calls to that nostalgic reminiscence of “those were the days,” even if we never even lived in “those days!”
This brings me to my discussion with you here today. During my first screening of Dracula (1931) my mood was abuzz with an-tic-i—-pation (think Dr. Frank-n-Furter). Watching Bela Lugosi dawn the cape and cowl for his signature role was mesmerizing. The man didn’t say much, but his — whats the right word — presence (that’s the one!) was strong. And while I love Tod Browning’s style of Dracula and the images he used to bring the character to life, or un-life, so to speak, there was just something about Dwight Frye as Renfield that was more powerful, more terrifying than Dracula himself. Lugosi as Dracula, though amazing, was still played as a borderline caricature, instead of a character. Frye shinned as Renfield because he was a character actor in its truest sense. If you’ve watched the clip above, then you know what I’m talking about. There are so many scenes, such as this one, in which you really feel the madness Renfield internalizes. He’s almost funny, in that awful, gut wrenching, maniac kind of way. The best kinds of horror that delve into madness usually — always — borderline comedy. Consider Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove: or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb (1964) as one of the best examples of the nature and influence of “dark-humor” and how off-putting it is. Dr. Strangelove was not a horror movie per-say, but its subject matter and delivery were apocalyptic nonetheless.
Dwight Frye as Renfield is just one of those instances where the minor supporting character out performed the main protagonist or antagonist, depending on how you look at it. Lugosi as Dracula was a noteworthy performance. Hell, Dracula was Lugosi’s signature role — he was buried in the damn costume for crying out loud!! He was — is — Dracula. I’m not trying to take anything away from that. I’m just saying, for me, Dwight Frye as Renfield was more frightening. He was more convincing. One moment he was sane and rational. And the next…a complete raving lunatic who still thought and rationalized in his new normality. Interestingly enough, Frye went on to play Fritz in Frankenstein (1931) later in the same year he played as Renfield. He also went on to play in other horror classics, such as: The Vampire Bat (1933), The Circus Queen Murder (1933) and, of course, Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Despite being such an amazing actor, in my opinion at least, Dwight Frye would not succeed as the main star for any of his later films. Authors of his biography, Gregory William Mank and James Coughlin, said it best in Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh: An Authorized Biography, stating:
“The black magic of Universal had seemingly thrown a curse on Dwight Frye … The actor who so desperately wanted to act a variety of roles was suddenly typed as a ghoul; more personally and ironically, a Christian Scientist with a deep sense of religion found himself linked with movies blazing with the occult, blasphemy and the supernatural” (111).