Sunday, November 12, 2023

Universal Studios Monsters

I just finished reading Thomas Mallory's excellent book, Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror.  It's a comprehensive overview, featuring many stills and behind-the-scenes photographs I haven't seen before.  I recommend it to everyone in the group who hasn't read it already. It's well-written and quite witty, but nitpicker that I am, I found one small error in the text. It's the passage in the chapter on Dracula (1931).  "Lucy seems fascinated by Dracula, who makes her his first English victim." Actually his first English victim was the flower girl Dracula meets when first strolling the foggy streets of London at night.  Remember when he bites her on the neck? So Lucy wasn't the first.  

Someone has suggested to me that Dracula's first English victim might well be the captain of the Vesta, the ship that takes Dracula from Transylvania to London. For that matter, Renfield, the English real estate agent who meets Dracula in his castle at the beginning of the film, might well be his first English victim. But I assume Mallory was referring to Dracula's first victim on English soil.

Other than that, the book struck me as highly reliable, and a great pleasure to read. By all means, get a copy.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Halloween with The Wolf Man

I noticed an odd thing tonight while watching The Wolf Man (1941).  Early in the film, Lon Chaney visits the antique shop where Evelyn Ankers works so he can ask her out on a date. There's a sentimental piece of music playing in the background which sounded strangely familiar. Obviously many of the Universal horror films of the 1940s used the same stock music, but this sounded like a piece from a non-horror film, and I wracked my brains trying to remember which film it was. 

Finally it came to me:  Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942), also released by Universal.  It's the same sentimental music used when Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane are together. But I wanted to make sure, so I went to the IMDb and looked for the composer of the original music for the Hitchcock film. Frank Skinner. Then I looked at the composers for The Wolf Man. Three names, one of them Frank Skinner. But Hitch was already too important a director to be using stock music for his films, so Skinner must have been recycling some of his sentimental romantic music for Saboteur.  At the very least, the two pieces of music are awfully similar and bear his imprint.  I'm sure a scholar of the film can flesh the details out for me.

As for the film itself, what can I say except... it's The Wolf Man! A film distinguished from other Universal horror films in my mind because of the immense sadness that hangs over the entire story. Larry Talbot doesn't want to be a werewolf, he doesn't enjoy killing people (at least when he thinks about it the morning after when he's returned to human form) and he gives his silver-topped wolf cane to his father, knowing that his dad -- the magnificent Claude Rains -- will protect himself from Larry with it. Which of course he does. Naturally, that doesn't stop Larry from coming back in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, where Chaney and Lugosi meet again. How ironic that Lugosi, as Bela the Gypsy, is the werewolf in The Wolf Man before biting Chaney and turning him into one.  Seems that Lugosi always gets the first bite.

So. A beautifully done film with an excellent script by Curt Siodmak, a superb lead and fine supporting actors, with admirable art direction and production design. Even makeup man extraordinaire Jack Pierce gets his name in the credits, even though we don't see the facial transformation of Larry into a werewolf in this particular film. But why quibble?  What's better than watching The Wolf Man on Halloween night?

Saturday, October 28, 2023

A Pair of Frankensteins

Tonight I watched Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), back-to-back on Turner Classic Movies. I've seen both many times before and I'm still uncertain which is the greater film. Certainly Bride is the very rare sequel which is as good as or better than its original. Frankenstein is more of a pure horror film -- chilling, eerie, deeply unnerving, and it moves like an arrow going unerringly from beginning to end with virtually no pauses. Karloff was never scarier as the monster than in this 1931 film. It's spare and always right on target. Just think of the monster's first appearance in the doorway, turning around to face the camera as it cuts closer and closer to that inhuman face.

By contrast, Bride is a wonderful cornucopia of macabre black humor, satire, a decidedly queer subtext, more lavish production values, and digressions into all sorts of fascinating avenues for the monster to develop as a human being.  (And yes, it's hard to watch the scene with the monster and the blind hermit without thinking of Gene Hackman's hilarious turn as the hermit in Young Frankenstein). That makes it sound like I prefer it to the original, but I really can't make up my mind, and I'm sure that people will be arguing about the merits of both films in comparison to each other for many years to come. 

Suffice to say that I greatly enjoyed watching them one after the other. They seem like one unified movie, impeccably directed by James Whale with Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesinger, and marvelous character actors. Rather than argue which one is better than the other, I recommend everyone watch both films back to back the way I did tonight. The result is enormously satisfying, even if continuity is slightly strained by Henry Frankenstein's fiance played by a different actress, Valerie Hobson instead of Mae Clarke, in Bride, with different colored hair -- well, one can't be too picky about these matters.  Better to focus on a world of Gods and Monsters, and what the implications of that might be.  (NB: Has any actor ever used their few minutes on the screen more effectively than Elsa Lanchester in Bride? Admittedly, she plays two parts, both the bride and author Mary Shelley.)

In short, two masterpieces -- I almost said monsterpieces  -- of horror (or terror, the term Karloff preferred), as thrilling today as they were nearly a century ago.  "We belong dead," the monster says about Dr. Pretorius, the bride and himself at the end of Bride of Frankenstein.  But thanks to devoted fans all over the world, they live!

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The Phantom of the Opera (1925).  I saw it again recently with the color sequence in the picture above. I was surprised to find the pace extremely brisk this time -- it didn't drag at all.  The Phantom appears early on and is present for most of the film, giving the audience a lot of Chaney's great performance. I particularly noticed the influence of German Expressionism in the lighting, photography and sets of the underground lake and lair of the phantom. After the initial shock of seeing his face, I didn't feel frightened by The Phantom but rather felt enormous pity for him this time around. He's obviously quite mad with loneliness and frustration and the burden of his hideous appearance. He's still the best Phantom of them all.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Monster Kid

I guess I really was a "monster kid."  I never liked to think of myself as one, just as trekkies dislike being referred to by that term. But I have to cop to the facts. As a lad I watched as many horror films as I could on New York's premiere horror shows, "Creature Features" and "Chiller Theater."  I bought my copy of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" every month along with the somewhat more sophisticated magazine "Castle of Frankenstein." I even had my photo included on the fan page of FM. I read the horror fiction of Mary Shelley, Bram Soker, Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch. I read horror fanzines: the excellent "Gore Creatures" as well as the slick-paper "Photon" and "Cinemafantastique."  I bought every issue of the horror newspaper "The Monster Times" and purchased reprint volumes of the great EC horror comics of the 1950s. I lovingly assembled and painted the Aurora monster models and owned the complete "Phantom of the Opera" (1925) on Super 8 film. I also shot my own horror films with a Super 8 camera. I dutifully went to all the new horror films, no matter how dreadful some of them were, such as Al Adamson's "Dracula vs. Frankenstein" (1971), because Forrest J. Ackerman had a cameo in it, the names Dracula and Frankenstein were in the title, and it included performances by Lon Chaney, Jr. and J. Carol Nash.  (It also introduced the now justly forgotten "Zandor Vorkov" as Count Dracula.)  I went to the science fiction and comic book conventions in Manhattan and published a fanzine of my own. (One issue!) I wrote horror stories and had one published in the fan pages of James Warren's comic magazine Creepy. Dracula and King Kong posters adorned my bedroom wall.  Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price and Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr. were gods to me. Eventually I went on to other things, but here I am, back again. I'm still a monster kid at heart and always will be.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

In honor of Halloween, I watched this great comedy horror film again Saturday night on Svengoolie for what must be the 50th time, or something like that. I still marvel at how seamlessly the comedy and horror blend together into a perfect whole. Ironically, the introduction of Abbott and Costello infused new blood (no pun intended) into the franchise. And the "appearance" of Vincent Price's voice as the Invisible Man at the very end was the cherry on top of this very rich ice cream sundae. Plus the film gives you lots of Bela for your buck.  Not to mention that Walter Lantz of Woody Woodpecker fame did the animation sequences.  Kudos also to Lon Chaney, Jr., Glenn Strange, Lenore Aubert, the wonderful Frank Ferguson, and Bud and Lou, for a grand entertainment indeed.  As critic Leonard Maltin said, the movie works because "the monsters play it straight."  Just as performances of the Greek tragedies would be followed by a comedy, so the Frankenstein/ Dracula / Wolf Man series comes to an end with a laugh.

Dracula (1931)

Last night I watched Bela Lugosi and company in the 1931 Dracula for the first time in many years. I've seen clips from the film since then, but this was the first time I viewed it from beginning to end in a long while.  I was immediately drawn into the brilliantly eerie atmosphere. With all its flaws, and it does have some, it's still a masterpiece. Yet I continue to feel the movie ends a bit abruptly.  Indeed the subplot with Lucy, which was included in the script, was partially deleted from the film. You get a little bit of it and then the movie drops it. I think that was a mistake.  

I also paid close attention to the famous piece of torn cardboard leaning against the lamp in both Lucy and Mina's bedroom.  Apparently nurses would use the cardboard to shield the light from their patients who were sleeping in the bed next to them while the nurse read a book. Yet that doesn't explain why the cardboard shows up in Lucy's bedroom next to the lamp before she even needs a nurse. There's no explanation for it in the film, and anyone looking at it on a big screen has to wonder what that ugly piece of cardboard is doing there in both scenes. I've read that one shot from the earlier scene was taken and used for the later scene. And the famous Spanish version of Dracula (1931), the furniture is arranged differently and there's no cardboard light diffuser at all.

Nevertheless, Lugosi continues to compel, and the film offers many chilling delights to this day. I think I may have underrated Helen Chandler's performance in the past. She's very good when she's possessed by Dracula. Her eyes are mesmerizing.  

Another thing that Rhodes points out is that a close examination of the English and Spanish Draculas reveals the Tod Browning moved his camera more often than people recall.  His camera was not as static as is often believed.  

One final note. When the couple ask Van Helsing if he will be coming with them, he says "not right now, presently." Apparently Universal was going to have him speak to the audience at the end much the way he does at the beginning of Frankenstein. But the scene was never included in the film and it leaves a mystery in the mind of some viewers.  

But all nitpicking aside, this is a landmark horror film that can be watched with pleasure again and again.  I just wish it was a bit longer.  Which may be yet another indication of a great film.