Darke Reviews | Frankenstein (1931)|

Continuing my reviews of the Universal Classics, I must touch on Frankenstein. It was the second film in what is considered the Universal Monsters set. Dracula was a near Valentines Day release, with Frankenstein being a near Thanksgiving release. This gave the producers and directors time to see how Dracula did and make modifications based on audience response.  There are some really nifty factoids and tidbits worth mentioning so I want to cover them in this review. Please consider yourself warned this review does have Spoilers; at 83 years I think I am beyond the statute of limitations.

The movie was produced by the owner of Universal at the time Carl Laemmle Jr., son of the founder of Universal and heir to the empire from 1928 to 1936. This was one of the first directorial roles for James Whale, which would then be followed by the Invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It is easy to see he took a different tact to the film making than those who made Dracula. There’s at times an almost clear sense to take a more clinical and far less romantic approach to it. Even the writing, blocking, and delivery of the actors has started to drift away from the stage plays and silent films before. Not entirely mind you, but some of it is showing, mostly in the scenes with Henry Frankenstein and Fritz. It has more in common with later science fiction than it does with the some of the other horror films at the time; or perhaps more in common with Jekyll and Hyde. For those that like the movie Young Frankenstein, I recommend watching this and then the comedy. You will be amazed at how many references and callbacks were made with all due respect to the original films.

The story of course is inspired by the original work of Mary Shelley, adapted by Peggy Webling, then further adapted by John L. Balderston, and adapted once again to the silver screen by Garret Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh. I would say this suffers from the writers curse of too many writers, but movies were so nascent at this time it is difficult to tell where some of those story issues lie. Of course it is worth mentioning some of what we know about Frankenstein was not in the original film at all. The movie actually begins with the grave robbing and acquisition of the brain. It was not Igor, but Fritz – played by the magnificent Dwight Frye. The doctor is Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), not Victor; who is played as a friend of Henry. Boris Karloff, was not credited originally. The title card simply read:

credits

 

That sort of thing is unheard of these days. I mean sure actors go uncredited in movies, but a major character within the film? Awesome. The movie also wastes no time getting us into the “action” of the piece with friends and the love of Henry coming to see him concerned about his well being before he even animated The Monster. The movie also couches much of itself in the science of the time; even if it is technobabble, it is the technobabble of the 30s. In a rather interesting twist, rather than turn his people away before the animation he actually shows off his work to the intrigue of his former teacher Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan – again, see I told you he was in everything). His fiancee, his best friend, and his mentor not only watch the animation but help to keep it secret from the rest of the world! There’s no argument. There’s no fighting about if it should or could be done. It has happened and they just go with it. I actually miss the simplicity of that.

The famous “It’s Alive” , is so beautifully done by Colin Clive who does not nearly have the career he deserves; due to a too early death. It gets cut off in most modern clips you hear, mostly due to censorship in the late 30’s,  but when its said in the film its chilling, I am giving you the text, but you just need to see it!

“It’s alive, it’s alive. In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God…”

The beautiful arrogance is wonderfully entertaining. I may be the Vampire Princess, but I prefer the acting in this film to that of Dracula, mostly around Clives performance. The conversations between him and Waldman are professional discussions on what has happened, not the moral implications. The science is the conversation. The risk of such an experiment in that name as well. Even as the movie progresses it is still a conversation and a partnership – no matter how dark it goes.

It’s of course worth mentioning that the stiff arms out did not come until a later film (Frankenstein meets the Wolfman 1943) when The Monster was blind, his movements are rigid but not nearly as clunky as we think of. There is such subtlety in the expressions Karloff gives the monster, there is a reason he is considered a legend and a reason we remember him today. The iconic look was created by the infamous Jack P. Pierce – you will be hard pressed to find a make up expert in the industry who was not at some point inspired by Pierce. Even though it is a massive departure from Shelley’s description, it is what we remember. Even the green grey look we consider for the monster was due to the grease paint used to make him look dead on screen and off colour from the other performers. That look, by the way, is under Universal copyright until 2026 and I am sure it will be renewed after. I do, also, recommend the most recent releases to watch as they contain less unedited footage, including what happens to the little girl, Fritz, Dr. Waldman, and more importantly how the monster reacts to them.

Some of the technicals are not as solid as the make up work. You can clearly see it is a backdrop painting on a set, but other than that it is more solid than some of the films we get now!

TL;DR?

Look, this is an awesome film that holds up better than most of the Universal Monster films. If you love the classics you should have already seen this, but if not. SEE IT.

I had an opportunity a year ago to see this and the Bride of Frankenstein as a double feature in a theatre. I do not regret it. If you have options to see this on the big screen take it.

This one is a great and it should be treasured and watched for all time. Here’s to the House of Frankenstein!

Darke Reviews | Dracula (1931)

Going back to the classics is fun. Watching how they were shot, how they were scripted and acted. Dracula is no exception to this. When I was a little girl my elementary school and the public library had books on some of the Universal Monsters. I devoured them with special attention to the Wolfman and Dracula, though unsurprisingly Dracula was the one that truly captured my attention then and forever. I tried to read the book around the same time, but as bright as I am told I was, the wording was too dense for me at the tender age of 7. I have long since fixed that and even managed to get my hands on the tome that is the Annotated version. So being able to review this movie, while not quite the best, it is definitive. All other Dracula and Vampire movies after owe something to this.

While not the first time the name graced the silver screen -I am not including the stage plays – , it was the first authorized time. Ok, there is also a little known Hungarian Film “Dracula’s Death” which has a character who thinks he is Dracula in it.  FW Murnau’s Nosferatu was the first film vampire, though this was unauthorized after a suit from Stokers widow and all copies were ordered destroyed. This can also be considered the first supernatural thriller, I will add the addendum, by American hands. Universal studios hit something special when they did it. Little known fact that a Spanish version of the film was shot simultaneously. Now you might be going “alright cool, they made a version in spain at the same time.” Yet, I return with “No! They filmed on the same set.” The american version shot on the stages during the day and the spanish version at night. The spanish version is sometimes considered technically superior and for the time a bit racier and sexier than its American counterpart.

The movie was directed by Tod Browning officially, though behind the scenes stories and comments made by cast and crew indicate there was either a total lack of direction or that Karl Freund, the cinematographer, stepped in. Browning was a go to director for studios having done dozens of films prior, including the Lon Chaney classic London After Midnight. His expertise was in silent film and outsiders. This explains much of the silence within the film and certain choices that were made. Freund for his part was just as important. Tracking shots , high camera dollies, and even the atmosphere within the movie are largely attributed to him. Horror movies in general owe so much to this, both good and bad.

Edna Mode does not approve.

Edna Mode does not approve.

 

Its hard to talk about a story and the writers since everyone knows it. Of course it is inspired by Bram Stokers novel from 1897. Stoker for his part had heard of the man Dracula and used him as a springboard with next to no research and never having been to Romania himself. This accounts for many of the descriptions of places and things within Transylvania not being remotely like how they’ve been filmed. His novel then was adapted for the stage, officially, by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston (Didn’t I mention him recently in the Mummy). Garret Fort has credit for a version of the play script. When it comes to the movie however, this one falls under the movie writer curse: 5 total writers, including the director. There are significant changes from the source material to this of course, no real change there from Hollywood, but the biggest and probably most impactful is the Lugosi look. Dracula was always described as off putting, yet here we have something and someone foreign and handsome.

 

 

Real vs Movie Borgo Pass

The Borgo Pass: Erosion the true terror of Dracula

Lugosi was not the first pick. He wasn’t even the second or third. The original choice was Lon Chaney who died, before production began, due to cancer. Called the Man of A Thousand Faces, his roles in Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame made him one an easy pick. I don’t know what he would have looked like in the make up, he was one of the rare actors who truly enjoyed the chair and the prosthetics. Lugosi however with his look, powerful and hypnotic eyes, and trade mark accent ended up with the role and the world has never been the same. Sadly the studio did not offer him a contract after the success of Dracula, as they did with Karloff on Frankenstein and he had trouble being seen outside of a certain genre after. Perhaps one of his greatest single work after shows the mans true talent for acting, The Black Cat, in which he starred  against Karloff himself.

The rest of the cast has Helen Chandler as the ever staring Mina, who was fantastic on stage but did not make much of an impact in movies. David Manners, who also appeared in the Mummy and Frankenstein as John Harker here. Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing. Seriously all this man plays is the Doctor who knows it all!  Dwight Frye though is the standout. His Renfield defined the role for almost a century to come. It was as problematic for him as it was for Lugosi in the work field after. He shows the widest range of acting in the film with his eyes, vocal pitch, laugh, and mannerisms are truly iconic.

Even the movie magic of the day was amazing. While obviously not a lot of it holds up today, some tricks like Dracula walking through a spider web really do. Today someone would use some half baked CG work and give us something laughable, this wasn’t. This was alien and new and creepy.

TL;DR?

I highly recommend any cinephiles to see this at least once in their life, if they have not already. If you are a fan of all things vampire like I am this is a must have in your collection.

If you want to see where it all began, absolutely watch this.

Modern movie goers will eye roll at the acting and some interesting flubs in the film, but it is a classic and worth watching – at least once

 

 

 

 

 

Darke Reviews | The Mummy (1932)

I promised I would spend time this year talking about the Universal Monsters. These are the originals. These are what all else since has been based on, inspired by, or outright copied from. Sure there were a handful of adaptations of some of these works before hand, but these were the ones that caught the public eye and the imagination of an generations. There have been a few false starts and failed reboots in the past twenty years or so of some of these original creature features and rumor has it that Universal is going to try again with these films. The recent remakes have had mixed success with fans, critics, and the box office. So for todays film, lets discuss archaeology a bit, shall we?

Some spoilers below.

Egypt had been awash in mystery and mysticism to the western world for decades when this film came out.  The celebrity status of the ancient culture had gone, well quite frankly, viral ten years prior when Howard Carter had discovered the intact Tomb of Tutankhamun (King Tut). This launched (or relaunched I suppose) the modern era of Egyptology. It really comes as no surprise that after the success of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931 that Universal would be seeking out another monster to fill their slate. They had to look no further than sensationalist newspapers tales of the Curse of the Pharaohs. I suppose the media blowing things out of proportion isn’t as new as we thought neh? With the ideas of curses on mummies and their tombs and an audience hungry for something to scare them magic was bound to happen.

The story was originally written, though uncredited, by Richard Schayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam. It was adapted to the screenplay by John Balderston, who also wrote the screenplay for Dracula and Frankenstein. Balderston, fascinatingly, was a foreign correspondent who covered Carters opening of the Tomb in 1922.  He also prior to this had written stageplays for both Dracula and Frankenstein. He also adapted the first version of the film Last of the Mohicans. If we thought Hollywood was a factory now, churning out writers and spitting them out, it looks to have been worse in the early days with people going uncredited, underpaid, and in some cases having no rights to their work and being forced to sue.

The film focuses on the recent discovery of an intact mummy, by the name of Imhotep,  found in unusual circumstances. The movie wastes no time before the title character resurrects himself through the greed of a young explorer. Imhotep plans his not so nefarious plot to resurrect his equally dead and mummified love Ankh-es-en-amon. Yes, that is right – this is a love story with the focus on a monster. He isn’t the rotting corpse image we often imagine, but rather a dry and only slightly emaciated individual who actually spends time amongst people and takes on the name Ardeth Bay, in his search for the reincarnation of his lost love. He finds her in a young british socialite named Helen Grosvenor and begins to use his powers to remove those who would stand in the way of his love; while our “heroes” try to save the young woman’s life. It’s fascinating to me how much I find myself siding with the so called monster as I watch this and want him to succeed. What is equally fascinating is that, for its time, it is no act of our protagonists but rather the female center of the film that wins the day.

I think part of the success of the film resides in the reserved yet deeply emotional performance of Boris Karloff. Karloff, a man so awesome all they used was his last name on the poster, was already forty-five when he took this role and had a huge career behind him. He had recently been thrust into the limelight as Frankenstein. The films made the man seem a towering giant against his cast mates, yet he was only 5’11. He had decades of acting experience before him in both stage and silent pictures before. It’s worth mentioning amidst this praise that the rest of the cast does well. The style of film at the time had movies shot as if they were stage plays rather than motion pictures. Blocking, dialogue, even a bit of hollow over acting come from that particular style. Along with Karloff, Edward Van Sloan was a regular in these original films, always playing the same character by type if not by name. In the Mummy he is the wizened Doctor Muller, who understands the powers of The Mummy, his goals, and the fact that “the old gods of egypt still have power here…”

Another special mention goes to director and cinematographer Karl Freund. Sadly uncredited in Dracula for his work, he was given the appropriate credit in the Mummy. His knowledge of the camera was probably some of the best in the world at the time having worked in film since 1914. He was also the cinematographer on the German classic Metropolis. His eye for the technology, light, and even color (its important in black and white…) gave the Mummy its much needed atmosphere.

TL;DR

The Mummy is a classic and if you truly appreciate old Hollywood needs to be part of your collection or at least watched. It will not satisfy modern movie goers a single iota, but if you want to see where we came from. If you want to see what inspired so much in the years to come. Take 73 minutes of your life and give it a watch.

The next review will cover it’s most modern remake and I will touch on all the things they took from this film.

 

If you do want a copy of this I would have to recommend getting it and all of its ilk here Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray]