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Universal Monsters in Review: House of Frankenstein (1944)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pros:

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?

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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.

Cons:

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.

Rating:

9/10

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.

xxx

Channy Dreadful

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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.

 

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Universal Monsters in review: Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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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


Universal Monsters in review: Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein (1948)

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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

 JR Park

 

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.’

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will host a month-long series of screenings of classic horror films with “Universal’s Legacy of Horror” in October.  The series is part of the studio’s year-long 100th anniversary celebration engaging Universal’s fans and all movie lovers in the art of moviemaking. Pictured: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Glenn Strange, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Bela Lugosi in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, 1948.

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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

‘What’s that?’

‘That’s the wind.’

‘It should get oiled.’

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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.


The Incredible Mr. Blasko!

“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…

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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.

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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.”


There is just something about Dwight Frye as Renfield..

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).


Dracula (1931): 82 year review

When Dracula released at the Roxy Theater in New York, on February  12, 1931, no one could have guessed how huge of a box office sensation it would become. Even the cleverly crafted “fainting” rumors 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 (Universal Pictures: A panoramic history in words, pictures, and film). Horror had just become mainstream. Dracula’s acclaim paved the way for the other classics we’ve grown to love, our 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.

The era of (what we’d call today classic) Universal Studios is one of most interesting bits of Americana cinematic history. Why? The roar of the 20’s was coming to an end and the decade that had ushered in high booms would eventually end in the same dramatic fashion. The Stock Market Crash, also known as “Black Tuesday,” on October 29th, 1929, while still under much debate among certain historical circles, we can say that following the panic fire sells of stocks, America went into the greatest depression she, thus far, had ever known. By March 1930, 3.2 million people would be unemployed (see PBS for credible timeline). And while Americans were  growing uncertain regarding the future in the face of food riots, strikes, and lamentable upheaval, even more uncertainty was developing on the horizon.

Beginning in 1928, against the backdrop of Germany’s (and all of Europe, really) almost two decade long depression and the peoples utter discontent with what they considered a failure with Wiemar Democracy, the Nazi Party (The National Socialist Party) slowly began taking over the Reichstag (Reichstagsgebäude). Fascism was darkening the cloud over the Atlantic. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. By 1935, the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were established, and by 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland, World War II began.

This is just a brief look at the world during the era of Universal Horror. Only with the “luxurious logic of hindsight” (Ronnie Landau, The Nazi Holocaust, pg.116) can we contemplate why executives were nervous over Dracula’s success in the first place. The very world was in turmoil. What better escape than a simple drive to the movies? And for the silent and black & white era, “going to the movies” was no humbug experience. Especially for theaters such as Roxy, in New York. The Roxy was a Grand Theater, a “Cathedral of the Motion Picture.” Going to the movies to see Dracula was not the same experience as going to the movies today, to say the least. Going to the movies during the 20’s and 30’s was like going to the Opera in today’s standards. Folks dressed up for cheap tickets and excellent performances. And live orchestras opened the night before the large velvet curtain pulled away revealing the traditional white projection screen underneath. Going to the movies, was going to the show.

As a film, Dracula is still, in my humble opinion, scary. The fact that the movie is, in its own way, still disturbing stresses something important about the kind of story being told. A horror story playing on fears realized in the hearts of folks told since the first campfire. Dracula was so good and still is (though, i’d argue for socially different reasons) because it plays on our fears of the foreign invader, fears of madness, fears of hierarchical purity (Nazi Germany called this: Volksgemeinschaft; the United States called it: eugenics), fears of the unknown, fears of losing freedom (especially the freedom of choice), and fears of death.

One of the greatest (of many) appeals for Dracula was its quality of acting. While Dracula was Bela Lugosi’s signature role, a role he played beautifully, my favorite was Dwight Frye’s portrayal as Renfield. Watching the movie, even now 82 years later, Renfield gives me the chills. His sensibility as Dracula’s minion, a raving lunatic, was delivered with pure genius. Especially during the scene aboard the Vesta, when the London longshoremen discover Renfield hiding below, the look on his face looking up at them is, to say the least, disturbing.

Bottom Line: Dracula is the grandfather of modern mainstream horror. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you really ought to give it a go. Don’t be shied away because of the black and white picture, this isn’t a completely artsy film; its a completely human film with real human fears, both then and now. If you are planning a Halloween horror movie marathon or hosting some other macabre party, considering adding Dracula to you’re list. You will not be disappointed.

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