This installation of my classic horror series focuses on those Universal movie monsters we all know and love, the ones that defined the genre in the 1930s and 1940s. Oddly enough, I thought I had seen some of these movies but, watching them now, I think I had only ever seen parts of them. I can’t think of a better testament to how much they have permeated our culture.
Rooted in folktales and superstition, these monsters all represent a key theme in horror: metamorphosis. Some move from the world of the dead to the living (Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy), others transform from human into the antihuman (vampires, werewolves). Whether the cause is supernatural or manmade, these monsters represent a clear violation of the boundaries of nature as we see them.
Perhaps the best known of these classic monsters is Count Dracula. As I wrote in The Silent Scream, Nosferatu (1922) was a brilliant adaptation of Bram Stoker’s tale (despite being unauthorized) and I was eager to see how Universal’s version would hold up. Unfortunately, Dracula (1931) was extremely disappointing. It is so hard for me to believe this is by the same director as The Unknown and Freaks. It starts off promising enough, throwing you right into the middle of the action in the Carpathians; however, the switching out of Harker for Renfield in these early scenes means that it is hard to buy into the stakes (!) later on when Lucy is threatened. There were certain touches I liked, but I’ve realized that Lugosi, who stars in a number of the horror films on my list, just doesn’t do it for me. His “evil” just isn’t convincing after Nosferatu.
Lugosi’s portrayal is even less convincing after seeing Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958), Hammer Horror’s take on the classic tale. While I didn’t really love this adaptation either, Lee’s Dracula is strangely magnetic and you really feel the simultaneous attraction/repulsion on the part of his victims. And Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing is spot on. However, this adaptation also radically transforms the Dracula tale, unnecessarily in my opinion, though ultimately I think the story works far better than the 1931 version. Still, after really enjoying Hammer’s take on Frankenstein, I expected better. [Side note: OMG, I just realized I may come out of this classic horror series thinking Francis Ford Coppola’s take—one of the three films in my life where I have considered walking out of the theater—is the superior one. A truly terrifying thought.]
Look. It’s moving… It’s alive. It’s alive… It’s alive. It’s moving… It’s alive. Oh, it’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive!!!! In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!
I was sure I had seen both Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) but neither seemed familiar when I sat down to watch them all the way through. Maybe repeated viewings of Young Frankenstein just made me think I had seen them. Or maybe it was the web of lies I spun in my high school days as I once used Bride to lie to my mother while at a drunken party. [I called to say I wouldn’t be home because I was staying over at a friend’s house to watch movies (this was in the early days of LaserDiscs and Betamax) and when my mom asked what I was watching Bride of Frankenstein was the first thing that popped into my head. I guess along the way I convinced myself I had seen it.]
I’ve read that Bride is often regarded as one of those rare sequels that is better than the original, but I have to disagree. Frankenstein is just too perfect, even if the adaptation is only a loose one. The Gothic creep factor is there from the beginning, what with starting in the cemetery and all. The story is tight and the characters are really fleshed out, even Elizabeth, who is allowed to be far more than a mere damsel in distress—she really gets in there and is involved. [Side note: she also has fabulous dresses.] Plus, the monster is much more sympathetic here than he is in later portrayals. Frankenstein just really held my attention throughout.
While Bride of Frankenstein includes my favorite scene from the book (the blind man in his cabin), and the reveal of the bride herself is stunning, overall it is just not cohesive. There are too many narrative threads and it really loses me with the living dolls of Dr. Pretorius, which don’t seem to fit in with the science of this world. What’s worse, in addition to replacing the actress who played her, they completely butchered Elizabeth’s character. And it all comes to a resolution far too quickly. I would have traded the entirety of the unnecessary prologue for five more minutes with the bride. [Side note: OMG, I just realized that Bride of Frankenstein is The Empire Strikes Back—the sequel that everyone remembers as better but is really sort of a hot mess when you take a second look.]
What to say about Son of Frankenstein (1939)? This film was produced under the new Universal regime, after a lull in horror production resulting from the twin blows of a British embargo on the genre and the forcing out of the Laemmles from Universal. The lack of practice shows. While the story isn’t bad, and Basil Rathbone as the prodigal Frankenstein is excellent, the monster has become a caricature at this point. In contrast to the first two installments of the series, he elicits zero sympathy and is simply a flat-out murderer. And don’t even get me started on the Flintstones fur get-up he wears. However, as atrocious as the monster’s costuming is, it can’t hold a candle to Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Ygor, who is chewing scenery in the worst way possible throughout the film. In short, I decided to skip Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), which is supposed to be even worse.
Despite being somewhat dismayed by where the Universal Frankenstein series ended up, I was eager to see what Hammer Film Productions would bring to the story in their first color horror film. Much to my delight, I thought their version was brilliant, despite the fact that The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) bears little resemblance to the original book. It just goes to show you how visceral these things can be and some films just work for certain people whereas others don’t. Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein successfully captured both the arrogance and single-mindedness of his character, while Christopher Lee’s monster really looked and acted like an assemblage of parts come back from the dead. The only scene that didn’t quite work for me is that of the blind man, which seemed like an afterthought.
The Mummy (1932) is another one I was pretty sure I had seen before but the plot didn’t seem familiar. It could just be that Boris Karloff is so striking as both the mummy Imhotep and Ardath Bey that his scenes are unforgettable even if you have only seen clips of them. His makeup is great and some of the visuals are extraordinary, which is perhaps not surprising given that director Karl Freund was the cinematographer of Metropolis. And maybe I’m just a sucker for stories of ancient Egypt and eternal love, but I thought the plot was very well constructed (until the rather ludicrous conclusion anyway) and the performances very strong. To go by some of the lists I found, I’d say this one is rather underrated by critics and the public. I think it will end up rather high on my list when all is said and done.
The Wolf Man
Oh, the werewolf, the werewolf, please have sympathy
For the werewolf, he is someone, so much like you and me
—Barry Dransfield, “The Werewolf” (1972)
The appeal of The Wolf Man (1941) totally eludes me. As a cautionary tale for stalkers I suppose it’s okay, but as a monster movie it’s pretty weak. For starters, the effects are super cheesy and it feels like you are on a movie set the entire time. The story also needs work: The labored set-up of the telescope is, well, labored, the werewolf comes out of nowhere plot-wise, and the father’s obtuseness in the face of the evidence is utterly unbelievable. Even the performances are pretty flat, a sad statement when you have the likes of Claude Rains on hand. Unsurprisingly, Bela Lugosi overplays his hand. The one saving grace is Maria Ouspenskaya (last seen in Dance, Girl, Dance) as Maleva.
Chaney is no more threatening in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), the first of a series of films in which the comedy duo meet classic movie monsters. Here, in addition to Chaney’s Wolf Man, we also get Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster. And there’s a quick voice cameo by Vincent Price as the Invisible Man. I liked this more than I thought I would (I’m not really a fan of slapstick), but I suppose that’s because it’s sort of a screwball take on horror. In fact, it made me even more sad I wasn’t able to get a hold of Hold That Ghost for my post on “old dark houses” (A Dark and Stormy Night).
Do you have a favorite movie monster? Is this a #TeamCap/#TeamIronMan kind of thing? Is one either #TeamDracula or #TeamFrank? Have you ever been one of these monsters for Halloween?
Horror Filmography: Monster Mash
The Mummy (1932)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Wolf Man (1941)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Horror of Dracula (1958)