The Ghost of Frankenstein – 1942
One of my earliest memories of my father talking about movies is when he described, as a child of the Great Depression, seeing the “Frankenstein monster” movies. He wasn’t even ten when he went to see the film with a friend in his small hometown in southern Illinois. On the way home, he and his friend were jumping at every shadow. Finally, at one point they lost it and just ran home as fast as they could. This is one of the dragons I have been chasing my whole life.
When I watch the Universal Frankenstein films, it’s my young father I have in mind. Certainly, much of what I see is through the jaundiced view of someone who has by now seen hundreds of films either more grotesque or “blasphemous.” How can I capture the essence of fear he felt when none of what I see even matches what I still feel about Halloween?
Of course, the John Carpenter classic is in the same wheelhouse for my kids as Frankenstein is to me. I spend much of my time watching the first Michael Myers film last year with my daughter in her friend explaining why what they were seeing should be terrifying. They were barely even scared by the 2018 version. In fact, my youngest just recently sped through the SAW series just for information on who did it each time.
It can’t be, I believe, the changing times or even the age in which someone sees a film exclusively that makes something scary. Get Out will always be scary. Or will it?
Frankenstein – 1931
Director James Whale
Screenplay Garrett Fort, Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert Florey, John Russell based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye, Edward van Sloan, Frederick Kerr
Frankenstein’s great gift to cinema include a horrific makeup job for a re-animated corpse, an unrelenting social commentary and James Whale’s moving lens.The film, based as much or more on the plays that followed Shelley’s book as the novel itself, is a narrow 71 minutes. Much of this run time is a product of the time, be it attention spans or censorship.
To be fair, this is a completely different era. The morals are without a doubt
It’s tale is limited to Henry Frankenstein’s (Clive) crazed attempt to “create” life out of a collection of parts from various bodies. An accident by hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Frye) gives the monster an abnormal brain of a crimminal and the subsequent chaos leads the town to burn down the windmill he is in after the pitchfork mob runs him down.
The strength of the story is in the idea of innocence with this absolutely grotesque abomination created by the patience and gifted acting of Karloff. He’s at once scary and endearing. We see our own sense of hope in Karloff’s soft eyes, even as his clunky movements present the unhinged look of a beast.
Overall, the film is too choppy to be anything more than a flawed but groundbreaking effort. Much of this would be improved by the second film.
(***1/2 out of *****)
Bride of Frankenstein – 1935
Director James Whale
Screenplay William Hurbut based on the book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Elsa Lanchester, Ernest Thesiger, E. E. Clive
The second film in the Frankenstein Universal series is a huge improvement over the first. It’s so good, it might almost feel like it was made by a different director were it not for the name on the credits. Whale’s skill is such that not only is the film altogether more frightening than the first, it is also more beautifully filmed and has much more of a story. Even though it is only four minutes longer at 75 minutes, the film feels like it covers twice the ground.
Revisting the end of the first film, we are told Henry Frankenstein (Clive) died, then miraculously survived. This goes against the ending of the previous film to an extent, but it gives Frankenstein’s wife to be Elizabeth (Hobson) some time to over emote. Soon enough they are back on their way preparing for marriage, even through Elizabeth has a vision of death. Strange.
Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s monster is badly burned but fell through the windmill to the water down below. He survives, much to the detriment of the parents of the little girl who was killed in the first film. He saves a young woman from drowning, but she screams in terror. He is caught, captured and locked up. Then promptly escapes and terrorizes the area until he finds a blind man who does not fear him. From this man, he learns several human concepts including friendship and thankfulness. The acting here is exquisite on Karloff’s part. It feels like hope, which is a strange commentary on those of us who can see. Soon enough, some seeing citizens wander by and mess things up by showing the same irrational fear.
Meanwhile, Frankenstein is approached by his former mentor Doctor Pretorius (Theisinger), who insists they partner up to create a female companion for Frankenstein. This segment is augmented by his showing some truly bizarre homunculi that he had created. He doesn’t go into great detail on how he creates these fantastic beings. He does inform Frankenstein that he has created an artificial brain. He then is to work with Henry to find the other parts to go with this brain.
Needless to say the wandering Frankenstein monster ends up crossing paths for Pretorius and something horrible happens. The real monster here is Pretorius, we see. Frankenstein, his monster and the bride are all just victims of his horrible schemes. This is shockingly and expertly portrayed, even through the censorship that afflicted this film at the time and since.
There are several all time classic moments in this film. The portrayals of Karloff, Lanchester and especially Clive are incredible to behold, and Whale’s lens captures them perfectly. There are too many perfections to ignore the film’s effect on cinematic history. It’s proof that even in the most restrictive times, storytelling is an art that cannot be denied. This film belongs in the pantheon of great works.
(***** out of *****)
Son of Frankenstein – 1939
Director Rowland V. Lee
Screenplay Willis Cooper
Starring Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Donnie Dunagan
Years after his father and mother escape the castle, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone) returns home with his own wife and child. They get a concered welcome from the townsfolk, including Inspector Krogh (Atwill), who lost an arm to the monster as a boy. The Baron promises he has no intention of dredging up the past.
Too bad Ygor (Lugosi) has other plans. In a delightful turn, Lugosi’s evil crooked necked villain convinces the doctor to help revive the monster (Karloff in his final turn). Unknown to Frankenstein, the henious wretch befriends the monster, convincing him to do his bidding.
Frankenstein is mostly a sideman here as Lugosi steals the show. His Ygor sets the standard for the villain hidden in plain sight. The story is a relatively long 99 minutes. Lee’s direction is good, though not to the magical levels that Whale achieves with his second film in the series.
The cast are the real stars here. Karloff really belongs fourth in billing compared to the other performances, including a delightful performance by Dunagan as the young child.
Still for a third film in the series, they have yet to really repeat themselves.
(**** out of *****)
The Ghost of Frankenstein – 1942
Director Erle C. Kenton
Screenplay W. Scott Darling
Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill, Evelyn Ankers
The series accelerates into a sort of parody here. We have the brother of Wolf who makes his way into the story as he is conned by Ygor, who survived being shot as well as previously hanged into bringing the big guy back. As Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein, Hardwicke has just learned to remove a brain for surgery, and then place it back. Guess who is next in line for the slab?
The story, convoluted as it is, has familiar elements. The monster is misunderstood. likes kids, put on trial and subsequently escapes. Lugosi’s second time as Ygor yields less of a return as the first film. There is enough here to make those who grew up with the previous films, while leaving less for the adults.
Chaney Jr. is fair enough, but his performance is not nearly as nuanced as his predecessor. Atwill moves from inspector to a peetr Dr. of Frankenstein who has dreams of greatness.
This is not necessary viewing unless one is just plain curious.
(*** out of *****)
House od Frankenstein – 1944
Director Erle C. Kenton
Screenplay Edward T. Lowe
Starring Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, J. Carrol Naish. Glenn Strange, Lionel Atwill
House of Frankenstein is the first of Kenton’s series of films featuring the quartet of Dracula, The Werewolf, Frankenstein’s Monster and a Mad Scientist toying with them all. There are no fewer than three actors that played the Monster. In this film. Karloff is Dr. Niemann. who just broke out of jail with his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (Nash). Niemann is out for revenge on all of the men who had put him behind bars for graverobbing.
On the way, there are some flimsy plot devices that help him encounter Carradine’s Dracula, Chaney Jr.s Werewolf and Glenn Strange as The Monster. The plot involves brain switching, unrequited love and Niemann’s revenge. None of these plotlines will mean anything by the time we get to The House of Dracula which resets the narrative and brings all characters and many of the same actors back to life. We even get Lionel Atwill as the inspector once more: always a day late and a dollar short.
This is a very tame exercise that allows younger viewers the slightest variation of the hits for each character. In this way, The House of Frankenstein is closer to Justice League than it is any of the Avengers films.
(** out of *****)