Halloween Havoc!: BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1935)

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.

Mary Shelley’s got a story to tell…

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.

The peculiar Dr. Pretorius

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.

The Monster and his friend (O.P. Heggie)

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.

Two Universal Monster Icons

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.

The Bride

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.

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE INVISIBLE MAN (Universal 1933)

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.

 

Halloween Havoc!: FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1931)

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.

Director James Whale and his star

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.

Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Universal 1932)

William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, but horror movie icon Boris Karloff was “born” when he teamed with director James Whale for 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. The scary saga of a man and his monster became a big hit, and Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle Jr. struck while the horror trend was hot, quickly teaming the pair in an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel THE OLD DARK HOUSE. This film was considered lost for many years until filmmaker and Whale friend Curtis Harrington discovered a print in the Universal vaults. Recently, a 4K restoration has been released courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection, and a showing aired on TCM this past Halloween. I of course, having never seen the film, hit the DVR button for a later viewing.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE has not only been restored to its former glory, but is a delightful black comedy showcasing Whale’s macabre sense of humor. Karloff gets top billing for the first time in his career as the brutish mute butler Morgan, though he’s not the “star” in the true sense of the word. Instead, he’s part of an ensemble of actors who’re engaged in a mission to send a shiver down the audience’s collective spine. Whale, screenwriters Benn Levy and R.C. Sheriff, cinematographer Arthur Edeson, art director Charles B. Hall, and Universal’s make-up genius Jack Pierce all collaborate to create a memorable mise en scene inside the creepy old Femm house of horrors.

The story: it was a dark and stormy night (as Snoopy would say), and bickering couple Philip and Margaret Waverton, with their wayfaring travelling companion Roger Penderel, get stranded deep in the Wales countryside. They seek shelter at a gloomy mansion, where they’re greeted at the door by the mute, horribly scarred butler Morgan. Entering the foreboding domicile, the three are introduced to brother and sister Horace and Rebecca Femm, he a gaunt looking weirdo with a fondness for gin, she a half-deaf religious fanatic. To say the siblings are lacking in the social graces is an understatement!

During the bizarre supper ritual, two more wanderers knock at the Femm door, boisterous Sir William Porterhouse and his “friend” Gladys DuCane (formerly Perkins). The storm outside rages on, and then a storm front moves indoors as Morgan gets “at the bottle again”, attempting to rape Margaret, and releasing brother Saul Femm from his locked room, a milquetoast looking pipsqueak who turns out to be the biggest maniac of the bunch…

Boris is menacing as Morgan, aided by Jack Pierce’s make-up job, but isn’t given much to do in the acting department. His is a mostly physical role, threatening Margaret Waverton in his drunken stupor, needing three men to subdue him. It’s Morgan who lets loose the psychotic Saul, putting things in motion that lead to the film’s conclusion. Morgan may not be the focal point of THE OLD DARK HOUSE, but it’s an important film in the Karloff canon. It’s his first top-billed role, and the movie’s posters herald him as only KARLOFF, the last name alone now recognized by audiences of the day as the last word in terror! Boris would have many more opportunities to show his acting skills in the horror genre (and others), thanks in large part to his popularity in FRANKENSTEIN and this, his second Universal Horror.

“A Universal Cast is Worth Repeating”, and this one’s a doozy! Let’s start with Melvyn Douglas , just beginning his film career in the part of Penderel. His character’s from ‘The Lost Generation’, a disillusioned WWI vet whose aimless life contains no meaning, until fate steps in. Raymond Massey (Philip) was already an established star, with his iconic role as Abraham Lincoln waiting in the wings. Gloria Stuart (Margaret) was a WAMPAS Baby Star and Universal contract player just getting started; modern audiences fell in love with her as the elderly Rose in TITANIC. Charles Laughton (Porterhouse) makes his American film debut here, bringing both humor and pathos to his role. Lilian Bond (Gladys) never quite made the impact her costars did, but she’s more than good as the ex-chorus girl, and had a long career.

The family Femm are certainly a grotesque lot, with marvelous Ernest Thesiger as the emotionally dead Horace and Eva Moore his completely creepy sister Rebecca. Thesiger, known to horror fans as the sinister Dr. Pretorius in Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, is perfect as the cadaverous Horace, so uncomfortable around people he can’t connect with anyone, except his palpable hatred for sister Rebecca. Moore is a revelation as the  religious nut, obviously sexually repressed, especially when talking about her late sister (“She was a wicked one… with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck”). In a scene that’s pure Pre-Code, Margaret gets out of her rain-soaked clothes, stripping down to her slip. Rebecca feels the smooth fabric, stating, “That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot”. Then, placing her hand on Margaret’s breast, says “That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time”, causing Margaret to withdraw in repulsion, the vanity mirror behind them distorting both women’s faces. It’s a frightening scene, beautifully staged by Whale and acted by the two ladies.

Brember Wills is Saul Femm, who is feared by his siblings, but looks harmless at first. But as the cameras roll, we see his demeanor change before our eyes, and this little man becomes a psychopath of the first order, obsessed with flame and fire, and determined to burn the family homestead to the ground. Wills was primarily a stage actor, with only six film credits, but this movie elevates him to the pantheon of Universal Monsters! As for 102 year old patriarch Sir Roderick Femm, confined to bed and looking like he’s already past his expiration date, actor John Dudgeon is credited. Only there’s no such person… Sir Roderick is played by 61-year-old actress Elspeth Dudgeon, a Whale in-joke. Loaded up with Jack Pierce’s old age makeup, Elspeth does a gender-bending splendid job. If I hadn’t known beforehand that it was a woman behind all that makeup, I never would’ve guessed it!

James Whale seems to have had a good time experimenting with oddly tilted camera angles and moody lighting on this, a warm up perhaps for his THE INVISIBLE MAN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. He certainly leaves his stamp on the film, with its expressionistic look and warped sense of humor. THE OLD DARK HOUSE, unlike some films I’ve long heard about, did not disappoint me upon my first viewing, and I’d highly recommend anyone with a Blu-Ray to purchase a copy pronto. Boris Karloff may not be the star of the show, but his Morgan is suitably gruesome enough to satisfy die-hard horror fans, as is the movie as a whole. Happy birthday King Karloff; long may you reign in the nightmares of monster lovers everywhere!