Who was the First Universal Monster? Was it Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula? Lon Chaney Sr. as The Hunchback? No – it was King Baggot in the dual role of Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE way back in 1913! Baggot, considered the first Hollywood “superstar”, essayed the part in this two-reel effort, and was directed by Herbert Brenon, whose silent resume includes a pair of Betty Bronson vehicles (PETER PAN and A KISS FOR CINDERELLA), DANCING MOTHERS with Clara Bow, and Chaney’s LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH. I hope you enjoy this slice of Hollywood Horror History as the all-but-forgotten King Baggot stars in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE:
James Whale’s brilliant BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of those rare occasions where the sequel is better than the original… and since the original 1931 FRANKENSTEIN is one of the horror genre’s greatest films, that’s saying a lot! Whale’s trademark blend of horror and black humor reached their zenith in BRIDE, and though Whale would make ten more films before retiring from Hollywood moviemaking in 1941, this was his last in the realm of the macabre. It turned out to be his best.
William Hurlbut’s screenplay start with a prologue set during the proverbial dark and stormy night, with Mary Shelly (Elsa Lanchester ), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton), and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon ) discussing Mary’s shocking novel “Frankenstein” as clips from the 1931 film are shown. Then Mary tells them there’s more to the story, and we pick up where the original left off, the burning mill that spelled the end of The Monster. Hans, whose daughter Maria was killed in the “floating flower” scene, is determined to see the creature’s charred bones, despite his wife’s protests, and falls through the wreckage, discovering it’s alive! The wounded Monster kills both of them, frightens Frankenstein’s maid Minnie, and wanders off into the forest.
Henry Frankenstein, recuperating at his castle with bride Elizabeth by his side, is payed a late night call by the gaunt and sinister looking Dr. Pretorius, his former philosophy professor, “on a secret matter of grave importance”. Pretorius has also been experimenting with “the mysteries of life”, and brings Henry to his humble abode, where he unveils his creations… several homunculi, miniature people he keeps in jars, dressed as a king, queen, archbishop, devil, and mermaid. He wants to take Henry’s work to the next level by creating a mate for The Monster, but Henry balks at such a dangerous suggestion.
Meanwhile The Monster, wounded and scaring every living thing in the woods, is spotted, and the local Burgomaster leads the villagers on a hunt. The brute is captured, trussed up like Christ on the cross (one of many Christian images used during the film), and chained up in a dungeon. But mere chains can’t hold Frankenstein’s unholy creation, and he escapes, leaving a murderous swath in his wake. Returning to the primeval forest, alone, hurt, afraid, he stumbles onto the hut of a blind hermit, who befriends the beast, nursing him to health and teaching him a rudimentary vocabulary. They lead an idyllic existence until a pair of hunters (one of whom is John Carradine ) intrude, ruining the friendship, leaving The Monster once again alone in the world.
Hunted again, The Monster hides in a graveyard crypt, where he meets none other than Dr. Pretorius, who tells him of his plan to make a mate, someone like him… stitched together from the dead. Pretorius uses the creature to coerce Henry into collaborating by having The Monster kidnap Elizabeth. Together they reprise the creation of life, bringing forth a female (“She’s alive! Alive!”), who is totally repulsed by the sight of The Monster (“She hate me, like others”). The pitiful Monster sends Henry and Elizabeth away, ordering Pretorius and his intended Bride to stay (“We belong dead”) as he pulls the lever which blows the mountaintop laboratory to smithereens.
Boris Karloff didn’t like the idea of having The Monster speak, but he pulls it off with his usual great acting ability, making the patchwork man seem all-too-human. His scenes with the blind hermit (O.P Heggie) are memorable, although Mel Brooks’s YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN parody flashes through my head whenever I watch it! The Monster is both terrorizing and tender here, with Jack Pierce’s makeup still giving audiences the shivers. Colin Clive returns as Henry Frankenstein, a ball of nervous energy, but 18-year-old Valerie Hobson replaces Mae Clark as Elizabeth. Ernest Thesiger as Pretorius is a sight to behold, as mad a scientist as they come, and he gets all the best lines (“Do you like gin? It is my only weakness”). Una O’Connor annoys the crap out of me as Minnie, the “comic relief” maid, but I l do like E.E. Clive as the pompous Burgomaster (“Monster, indeed!”). Dwight Frye, Fritz in the original, is back as Pretorius’s assistant Karl, who’d rather kill than rob graves.
But it’s Elsa Lanchester as The Bride who shines brightest. Her herky-jerky, birdlike movements, balletic pas de deux with Clive in the laboratory, and repulsed hiss at seeing The Monster make her brief part one of horror’ most iconic, aided in large part by Pierce’s genius with makeup. The bride of actor Charles Laughton, Miss Lanchester had a fifty-plus year career in film and television; some of her many credits are THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, LADIES IN RETIREMENT, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, COME TO THE STABLE, THE INSPECTOR GENERAL, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, MARY POPPINS, and WILLARD .
Franz Waxman’s score is one of the most memorable of horror’s Golden Age, or any age for that matter. Whale and DP John J. Mescall’s use of chiaroscuro lighting, along with the Expressionistic sets by Art Dircetor Charles D. Hall, show the heavy influence German films had on Whale’s style. And of course we can’t forget Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical marvels, working their magic to bring The Bride to life. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN not only tops the original, it is one of the all-time great movies, a horror fantasy for the ages that gets better and better with repeated viewings.
THE BLACK CAT has nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe , but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this thoroughly dark, twisted film. Not only is it the first teaming of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi , it’s their only movie together that plants the two stars on equal ground. It’s also the best film ever made by cult director Edagr G. Ulmer , who’d never again get the opportunity to work at a major studio, or the chance to work with a pair of legends like Boris and Bela in one film.
Bela is Dr. Vitus Verdegast, eminent Hungarian psychiatrist, returning after 15 long years in a Russian prison camp to “visit an old friend” at Marmaros, “the greatest graveyard in the world”, where tens of thousands died during WWI. Vitus is forced by chance to spend the train ride with American honeymooners Peter and Joan Allison, he a “writer of unimportant novels”. They share a cab through rocky terrain during a blinding thunderstorm that causes the car to crash, injuring Joan. Vitus and the couple, along with Wedegast’s manservant Thamal, are forced to seek refuge at the fortress home of Vitus’s “friend”, Engineer Hjalmar Poelzig.
Boris is Poelzig, looking like the devil himself, whip thin and moving as slow as the living dead. The Austrian architect sold out his countrymen during the war, and has returned to the scene of his crimes. Vitus believes Poelzig has his wife and daughter, both named Karen, and has come for revenge, but his deathly fear of black cats paralyzes him. Poelzig is also the High Priest of a Satanic cult, and soon has designs on Joan, leading to a deadly game of chess for her immortal soul…
The Twin Titans of Terror play off each other well, with Bela the Avenging Angel to Boris’s Demonic Deacon. The censors had a fit when they read the script by Peter Ruric, demanding many changes, though Ulmer does gets away with a lot here. Poelzig’s home is a bizarre, Art Deco shrine to decadence, featuring a hall of dead women suspended in glass cases (including Vitus’s wife), a masterpiece of the macabre by Art Director Charles D. Hall and an uncredited Ulmer. The penultimate scene where Vitus, having tied Poelzig to his embalming rack, begins to skin the engineer alive, “slowly, bit by bit”, with a gleefully mad bug-eyed Bela, is shown in shadow, punctuated by Boris’s agonized screams, and is without a doubt one of the most gruesome of the 1930’s horror cycle.
David Manners of DRACULA and THE MUMMY plays Peter, and though many deride him in this I thought he did a fine job. Jacqueline Wells as Joan was a stalwart of Universal ‘B’ films; she did much better when she moved to Warners in 1941 and changed her name to Julie Bishop. Others in the cast are Harry Cording (Thamal), Lucille Lund, Henry Armetta , and Egon Brecher. Familiar Faces in the devil’s cult include King Baggot, Symona Boniface, Lois January, and Michael Mark , as well as a familiar back of the head… that’s Ulmer’s future BLUEBEARD star John Carradine playing the organ!
THE BLACK CAT is the first horror film to feature a continuous music score, as Heinz Roemheld incorporates pieces from Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and that old Universal stand-by “Swan Lake”. The music adds to the film’s atmosphere, and though Carl Laemmle hated it, Ulmer insisted upon it, and would utilize classical music throughout his career. But it wasn’t the director’s stubbornness that caused him to be banned from the major studios, nor was it THE BLACK CAT’s graphic for their time scenes of horror, or the perverse nature of the material… it was love. Ulmer met and had an affair with Shirley Kessler Alexander, wife of Laemmle’s nephew Max, and the scandal landed Ulmer on Poverty Row for the rest of his life. Edgar and Shirley married in 1936, and together they collaborated on all of Ulmer’s films until the end of his days. THE BLACK CAT is a masterpiece of the macabre, and a must for this Halloween season!
James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN set the bar high for horror, and his follow-up THE OLD DARK HOUSE is one of the blackest comedies ever made. But with THE INVISIBLE MAN, Whale raises that bar by combining gruesome terror with his macabre sense of humor. THE INVISIBLE MAN doesn’t get the respect of other icons in the First Horror Cycle (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Imhotep), but Claude Rains’s outstanding performance as the mad scientist Jack Griffin, driven to insanity by the chemicals he’s pumped into his veins, is as sick and deranged as any you’ll find in the genre… and the fact Rains does much of his acting using only his voice is an amazing feat, and a testament to the man’s acting genius.
Whale’s opening shot sets the eerie tone, as a solitary figure, his face swaddled in bandages, trudges through a snowstorm and enters the Lion’s Head Inn seeking solitude. The patrons seem freaked out by the man’s visage, but the mercenary Mrs. Hall (Una O’Connor , far less annoying than in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) sets him up with a room. We soon learn the man is Jack Griffin, a scientist whose dabbling with an exotic drug called monocaine has rendered him invisible. He’s searching for an antidote, unaware the drug has a side effect that causes madness. But Griffin’s far too late, as the insanity has begun to consume him, and he causes chaos at the Inn, terrorizing the locals.
Griffin coerces his former colleague Kemp (William Harrigan) into doing his bidding, and here Rains, covered in bandaging, uses his vocal talents to convey the madness within: “We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men – well, just to show we’ll make no distinction. I might even wreck a train or two… just these fingers on a signalman’s throat, that’s all.” A manhunt has begun to capture The Invisible Man, and the frightened citizenry, listening to radio reports of his misdeeds, lock their doors and bolt their windows in fear. Kemp calls in Griffin’s fiancé Flora (Gloria Stuart ) and her scientist father (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE’s Henry Travers), and also betrays Griffin to the police, causing the madman to vow to murder him the next night at ten o’clock. Griffin makes good on his promise, despite the police protection surrounding Kemp, and commits mass murder and havoc on a grand scale, before a fortuitous snowstorm, like the one which began the film, leads to his ultimate demise.
Rains is brilliant as the mad Jack Griffin, even wrapped in bandages or not on screen at all save his voice. One of my favorite parts occurs when we see Mary Gordon (Sherlock Holmes’s future landlady) screaming down the road in terror as a pair of pants chases her down singing, “Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May”, another example of Whale’s bizarre black humor. Rains is aided by the special effects wizardry of John P. Fulton, who uses early “black screen” technology to make us believe an invisible man exists. The effects hold up surprisingly well 85 years later… well, maybe not so surprising, as Fulton was one of Hollywood’s pioneer effects men, sought after by everyone from Alfred Hitchcock (REAR WINDOW , VERTIGO) to Cecil B. DeMille (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS ), and won three Oscars over the years for his work.
Though THE INVISIBLE MAN is one of the best films in the First Horror Cycle, the character itself doesn’t get the respect it should because each subsequent film has a different Invisible Man. The 1940 sequel THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS has Vincent Price made invisible by the brother of Jack Grifffin, and later films in the series all feature other characters as Invisible Men. The sequels are all well made, with Fulton Oscar nominated for three of them, but can’t hold a candle to James Whale’s original, with a star-making performance by the great Claude Rains.
The horror cycle of the early 1930’s cast its dark shadow on other film genres. SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM is one of those “old dark house/locked room” mysteries showing that influence; it’s a creepy, atmospheric little movie about mysterious murders, with horror vet Lionel Atwill front and center among the suspects. There aren’t any “monsters” here, but some good chills courtesy of director Kurt Neumann, who later directed the 1950’s sci-fi horrors KRONUS, SHE DEVIL, and THE FLY .
It’s a dark and stormy night (naturally!) at Castle von Hellsdorf, and Irene, daughter of Master of the House Robert, is celebrating her birthday with three suitors: Captain Walter Brink, Frank Faber, and Tommy Brandt, while outside, a mysterious stranger lurks. The conversation turns to ‘The Blue Room’, kept under lock and key after three strange (some say supernatural) murders occurred many years ago, always at One AM. Tommy, eager to “prove his courage” to Irene, proposes all three would-be beaus spend a night in ‘The Blue Room’, with himself going first. The next morning, Tommy has completely vanished from the room, despite it being locked! Frank follows up, and is found shot inside the locked room. The police are called in ,and the cagey Commissioner Forster holds an inquiry, where family secrets are exposed, the identity of that “mysterious stranger” revealed, and the killer is unmasked as…. ?
If you haven’t figured it out before the movie ends… well, you’re not a very good Armchair Detective! There are plenty of suspects to keep people guessing though, chief among them Lionel Atwill, who played ‘red herrings’ in films like this almost as much as he did mad scientists. Atwill’s presence lends SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM some horror cred, as does the shadowy camerawork of Charles Stumar, who later shot WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE RAVEN for Universal. Also lending horror cred is leading lady Gloria Stuart , in her second of three Universal Horrors. Future Oscar winner Paul Lukas (Walter) would appear twenty years later as Professor Aronnax in 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , Onslow Stevens (Frank) would return to horror in the 40’s with HOUSE OF DRACULA, and Robert Barrat (Paul) later played a Martian in 1951’s FLIGHT TO MARS. Character actor Edward Arnold , best remembered for playing corrupt businessmen and gangsters in prestige films, is on the right side of the law here as the Commissioner.
When Universal released its package of pre-1948 horror films to television in 1957 as SHOCK THEATER, SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM was included, and if it’s good enough for Universal to qualify, it’s good enough for me! While it’s not out-and-out horror, the film’s got enough spooky moments and frights to keep horror buffs satisfied. Plus, it’s got Lionel Atwill… that’s more than enough reason to watch right there!
Two hundred years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley unleashed her novel FRANKENSTEIN upon an unsuspecting world. The ghastly story of a “Modern Prometheus” who dared to play God and his unholy creation shocked readers in 1818, and over the past two centuries has been adapted into stage plays, radio dramas, television programs, comic books, and the movies, most notably James Whale’s seminal 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, featuring not only a star-making performance by Boris Karloff as the Creature, but ahead of its time filmmaking from Whale.
James Whale had directed only two films before FRANKENSTEIN (JOURNEY’S END and WATERLOO BRIDGE), but the former stage director certainly adapted quickly to the new medium of talking pictures. The story had been made three times for the silent screen, but the new sound technology adds so much to the overall eeriness of the film’s atmosphere. Whale was obviously influenced by German Expressionism, with its chiaroscuro lighting and oddly tilted angles (check out Dwight Frye as Fritz climbing the staircase with his tiny cane and try not to think of Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari). The detailed set design of Herman Rosse and wonderful electronic wizardry of Kenneth Strickfaden set the iconography for all monster movies to come, and Arthur Edeson’s fluid camerawork (under Whale’s guidance) brings it all to horrifying life. Tod Browning’s DRACULA gave us the unsettling stillness of the undead vampire; in FRANKENSTEIN, the patchwork man comes to full-blooded, raging life.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Boris Karloff’s brilliant portrayal of the monster is an Oscar-worthy performance. Inarticulate, unable to communicate, Karloff conveys so much with just his body and facial expressions it’s hard to believe he was relegated for the most part to small roles before hitting it big here. His first scene, slowly turning toward the camera, eyes dead as night, his gait uneasy as he shambles forth on unfamiliar limbs, is a debut for the ages… despite the fact Karloff had appeared in over 60 films, this is the first time he truly stood out. Jack Pierce’s astonishing makeup job transformed the actor into a brute, but Boris doesn’t so much play the makeup as he becomes it, a fully fleshed-out character whose childlike innocence is stripped away after finally lashing out against his tormentor Fritz. The famed “Floating Flower” scene, cut for decades by the censors, still manages to both shock and horrify the audience, as well as elicit sympathy for the monster, who doesn’t quite understand why his little friend Maria isn’t floating like the daisies. Haunted, hunted by the soon-to-be-cliché torchbearing villagers, Karloff’s creature reverts to his animalistic nature, and when he meets his fiery fate in that windmill (a noisy, dark, and violent scene), you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for this monster who never asked to be reborn.
Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein is the maddest doctor of them all, a totally obsessed genius whose quest to play God has driven him beyond the brink of sanity. Watch his eyes: the guy’s truly, gloriously crazy! His gleeful shouting “It’s alive! It’s alive!” leaves no doubt Henry’s gone over the edge. Only later, when he realizes the horror he’s unleashed, does Clive become a more rational scientist, determined to right his wrong. DRACULA’s Dwight Frye (Fritz) and Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman) are two of the genre’s best supporting players, and their presence is more than welcome. Mae Clark as Henry’s long-suffering fiancé Elizabeth doesn’t get enough credit for her part, but she’s very good. I’ve always thought John Boles’s Victor was a superfluous role, and Frederick Kerr’s Baron Frankenstein can be annoying at times. But seven-year-old Marilyn Harris as little Maria shines in her brief but memorable role, as does Michael Mark as her father, grimly carrying her lifeless body through the village amid the wedding day revelry.
As you can probably tell, FRANKENSTEIN is one of my favorite films, one that sparked my love for horror movies that still remains strong today. It’s not just a horror classic, it’s a true film classic that has stood the test of time. It’s inventive, original, and retains its power thanks to the genius of James Whale and the towering performance by the One, True King of Horror, Boris Karloff. And thanks, lest we forget, to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose fertile imagination created a truly immortal Monster.
The fourth annual Halloween Havoc is now in effect – 31 Horror Films in 31 Days! And this year, we celebrate the classic Universal Monster movies all month long! To quench your bloody thirst for all things horror, here are Ten Trailers of Terror as a preview of scary attractions: