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Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

Did anyone else ever read the monster books by Ian Thorne? They were a very accessible series on the classic movie monsters that were available in my elementary school library that I read long before I saw any of the actual movies. One of Thorne’s comments that always stayed with me stated that of all the Frankenstein films, Bride of Frankenstein most closely follows Mary Shelley’s book. Today having read the book and seen the movie, I’d say yes and no. Certainly, there are many elements from the book there, most notably the Bride herself (though she’s never completed in the book) and the scene where the Monster befriends a blind man, but the film goes in so many different directions from Shelley, I’m very reluctant to say that it closely follows anything she ever wrote. In fact, I’m rather amused by Lord Byron’s (Gavin Gordon) synopsis of the first film in Bride’s prologue to Shelley (Elsa Lanchester). He describes a series of events she never wrote. Perhaps Thorne took that prologue a little too seriously.

None of this is meant to sound like criticism. Today, I often see films that are based on books that I’ve read, and I take them on a case-by-case basis. I understand, accept, and even embrace some differences while I outright reject others. In the case if the classic movie monsters with literary origins, I’ve learned to accept them as works in their own right, more drawing inspiration from their respective books than being accurate representations of them.

Besides, there’s just so much to love about Bride of Frankenstein. I think if I had to pick one film to represent the whole of the Universal horror catalogue, this would probably be it. First, we have yet another solid performance by Boris Karloff. Many more people die at the monster’s hands in this sequel, but he still manages to remain sympathetic. His brief friendship with the blind man (O. P. Heggie) is very moving, and there’s a particularly touching moment where he looks longingly at the carving of a woman atop a sarcophagus and mutters “Friend”. The Monster is a bit more savage here, especially as his anger towards his creator mounts, but he never loses that pitiable edge.

Next we have the hilarity of Una O’Connor as Minnie, James Whale must have felt he underused her in The Invisible Man because she’s practically everywhere here. She’s part comic relief and part Greek chorus commenting on and running in and out of nearly every scene prior to the climactic sequence. It’s almost a surprise to find she’s a servant in the Frankenstein household considering her presence throughout the village.

Elsa Lanchester’s turn as the Bride is brief, but stunning. She’s not unlike a frightened feral kitten, savage yet vulnerable. I must confess, when I was a kid reading those Thorne books, I always found her a bit sexy. Her male counterparts, Dracula, the Monster and the Wolf Man easily comprise the big three when it comes to Universal’s iconic creatures, but I would place her solidly at number four.

Rounding out the standout performances we have Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius, possibly the maddest of all mad scientists and definitely one of the most entertaining. He certainly outshines Colin Clive’s crazy cackling from the first film, and makes him look quite sane when placed next to him in this one. With his campy demeanor as he introduces his collection of tiny people or his merriment as he dines in a crypt with a pile of bones as his lone party guest, they just don’t come much more eccentric. I could almost see someone giving him his own movie today, but I could not envision anyone but Thesiger in the role.

Finally, all of this comes together nicely under James Whale’s direction. His dark sense of humor reaches a pinnacle in this picture. Note how he takes one of the saddest moments of the first film, the death of little Maria, and gives it a dark punchline in the sequel by sending her parents to join her. Add Pretorius, his little people, and ditzy Minnie and there’s really a lot to laugh at in the film, yet Whale maintains a balance that keeps the film from slipping too far into silliness. The end result is a sublime and enjoyable ride.

This week’s supporting features:

Mickey Mouse in The Chain Gang (1930)

The Our Gang short Fly My Kite (1931)

Next week’s film:

Drácula (1931) starring Carlos Villarías, Lupita Tovar, Pablo Álvarez Rubio, and Eduardo Arozamena

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- DRACULA (1931)

I wish I could see more of the classic horror films on the big screen. Watching Dracula, (or Bride of Frankenstein or Creature from the Black Lagoon or even Psycho, other classic horror films I’ve had the opportunity to view theatrically) you can see how these movies were always intended to be larger than life. In the Thirties, filmmakers like Tod Browning and James Whale probably had no idea their movies would one day primarily be viewed on a little box yet they seem to have crafted them specifically for these giant canvases. Today, I’m grateful I’m able to watch them on my 52 incher, but that still doesn’t compare to the enormity of the silver screen.

I’ve read that Dracula was a troubled production, with a drunken Tod Browning deferring much of the actual directing to cinematographer Karl Freund, fortunately with a strong cast and some beautiful art direction, the film suffers little for it.

First and foremost, we have Bela Lugosi; poor Bela may have been low on the list of candidates for the title role, but today it’s hard to imagine it having gone to anyone else. It’s with good reason that Lugosi as Dracula has influenced the image of vampires in our collective subconscious, and I’m certain he will continue to do so long after the Cullen brood has faded into obscurity. When he’s acting on his vampiric nature, he’s frightening and imposing, yet he’s perfectly charming when he’s the seductive Count. I know I’m saying this with some bias, but I really can’t see any other actor (not even Lon Chaney) pulling off such an iconic performance. The same day as this screening, I felt compelled to watch Tim Burton’s excellent Ed Wood which is as much a film about Lugosi to me as it is about Wood, and although it’s sad to see how far Lugosi fell from the Studios’ graces, it’s nice to think he achieved an immortality much like that of the character that made him famous.

A bit must also be said about Dwight Frye, who played the deranged Renfield. Frye is mostly forgotten today except among horror aficionados, but many of them will tell you his performance is one to be celebrated as well. His maniacal laughter, piercing stare and appetite for spiders and insects make him almost as frightening as the Count himself. Frye also turns up as Fritz and Karl respectively in the first two Frankenstein films and has a cameo in The Invisible Man, unfortunately the size of his roles continued to diminish until his untimely death in 1943. Dracula was truly his time to shine.

I’m glad to say that 80 years later, Dracula still possesses some truly chilling moments: Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) nearly succumbing to Dracula’s hypnotic influence, the undead Lucy (Frances Dade) walking the night as the Woman in White, or the enthralled Mena’s (Helen Chandler) attempted attack on her beloved John Harker. I found it particularly gratifying to hear many in the audience gasp as Renfield advances on all fours toward an unconscious housekeeper. (I hope that somewhere Mr. Frye was feeling some gratification as well.) I might also add, as this is the first time I’ve seen the film since reading Bram Stoker’s book, that it has more elements from the novel than I remembered.

I won’t say the film is without its weak points. David Manners as John Harker is yet another bland do-nothing leading man, and Dracula’s final moments are a bit anti-climatic, although that has been said about Stoker’s novel as well. And I do wonder about some of the filmmakers’ choices. For example, why is castle Dracula infested with opossums and armadillos? I suspect the opossums are meant to be giant rats, and maybe Hollywood thought armadillos would look downright alien to middle America. There’s also something annoying about a scene where Dracula escapes off-screen in the form of the wolf, I would guess the wolf’s no-show was a budgetary problem, but having Harker watch it runaway off-screen only seems to call attention to that fact.

A few more words on seeing it in a theatre in the present day: watching it on the big screen may be great, but sometimes sharing that experience with a modern audience may be a bit annoying. Yes, as a fan of the likes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I’m guilty of laughing at old bad movies, but the operative word there is “bad”. Usually, when I watch old movies, I like to throw my mindset back in time and watch the movie on its own terms. For example, there’s a sequence set underwater in the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad. This was, of course, a time when you could not take a camera underwater, so instead the actors are on wires and all of the sea creatures are puppets, on the surface to today’s viewer it may look ludicrous, but I preferred to marvel at it for the accomplishment it was, considering the limitations of the day. As I sat watching Dracula there was much laughter at the expense of the limitations of 1930s filmmaking, and I found that rather disappointing. I could understand a chuckle or two, but at some point, I wish my fellow audience members could just accept that yes, it’s just a bat on a string, but it’s time to move on and enjoy the film for what it is.

Next week’s film:

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger and Valerie Hobson