No Sleep October: The Frankenstein Cycle

Don’t miss Lou Harry’s new play, Popular Monsters, performing at The Irvington Lodge in Indianapolis 10/24-10/28 and 10/31-11/14. Tickets are available here.

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Lou Harry’s more than 40 books include Creative Block (Running Press), The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures (Quirk Books), and the novelization of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. His produced plays include Midwestern Hemisphere and The Pied Piper of Hoboken. His play Popular Monsters, set in the office of a horror-movie magazine in the 1970s, will have its world premiere production in October and November via Catalyst Repertory Theatre.

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There is a moment in Son of Frankenstein when Boris Karloff — in his last appearance as the creature — finds the body of his friend Ygor and lets out a bloodcurdling, very human cry of grief and confusion.

While the moment may not be as iconic as the creature’s lakeside idyll with the young girl in Frankenstein or the smoke break with the blind man in Bride of Frankenstein, it nonetheless captures, for me, what makes the Frankenstein films the most fascinating and re-watchable of the Universal Studios horror flicks.

Here, a creature built from body scraps and a damaged brain — one we’ve seen kill without remorse — suddenly experiences deep, deep loss. It’s not the first time he has felt these things. But compounded by the rejection by his creator in the first film and the cold shoulder given him by a made-to-order bride in the second, he now seems fully aware of how alone he is. A damaged and dangerous child, he’s struggling to make sense of the world and just can’t.

Audiences may have come for the scares. But what they got in the Universal Frankenstein films — at their best — was a fascinating, oddly empathetic central character. And one that has astounded me since I first found him on my black-and-white TV in my bedroom more than 40 years ago.

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Universal made eight Frankenstein films between 1931 and 1948. That’s hardly an overwhelming number compared to the current onslaught of Marvel superhero movies or the half-century of James Bond films, but impressive nonetheless when you consider Universal only cranked out six Dracula films (some of which didn’t include the Count himself) and five featuring the Wolf Man.

The cycle began with the original Frankenstein, followed by Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which used the same doctor / creature / director team of Colin Clive, Boris Karloff and James Whale. Karloff stuck around for 1939’s Son of Frankenstein but handed his bolts over to Lon Chaney, Jr. for The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).

Because it would have been a challenge for Chaney to fight himself in the first crossover flick, 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Bela Lugosi took over the part (his third in the series, having played Ygor in Son and Ghost). The creature was essentially reduced to a cameo in the monster pileups of House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula in 1944 and 1945. There he was played by Glenn Strange, who held onto the part for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, putting an end to the series in 1948.

While I’ve seen all eight of the Frankenstein films multiple times, I’d never seen the cycle in sequence. And that may be a good thing. Audiences today that grew up with on-demand viewing (or, at least, DVD sets) expect a certain level of continuity … or at least a stab at covering up inconsistencies. During the time of their original releases — and with multi-year gaps and few opportunities to rewatch unless you were a movie mogul with a private screening room — narrative leaps and unanswered questions didn’t matter so much. Binge-watching today, however, reveals that, as with the creature itself, the parts don’t perfectly fit together.

Discovering them, as I did, in the 1970s meant a weekly, feverish search through TV Guide where I circled the movies I wanted to see, then built my life and sleeping schedule around them. (A prime spot was the 11:30 p.m. movie on Friday nights; another was Saturday morning at 10 a.m.). Pre-video, pre-DVR and pre-streaming also meant ordering them properly wasn’t an option. I’m pretty sure I saw the Abbott and Costello film before any of the others, with multiple viewings of Meets the Wolf Man before I ever got a glimpse at Ghost. 

None of these films ever scared me and they are unlikely to scare anyone but the youngest audiences today. But that doesn’t diminish their pleasures.

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The original Frankenstein remains remarkable, particularly for those expecting a monster-on-the-rampage film. It’s an origin story and those, for me, tend to be a bit less interesting to rewatch. But Colin Clive as the doc and Dwight Frye as his assistant keep the buildup to the big reveal manic and fun. (It’s fun to watch for Frye throughout the series, playing a variety of characters.)

But the revelation is Karloff’s creature. There’s surprising depth of character here — an ache to this poor lumbering wretch — that makes him the most empathy-inducing of the Universal tribe. Given the torment imposed on him, his subsequent actions are, although not commendable, somewhat understandable. He kills a kid and we still are sympathetic. That alone would make the film remarkable. Without an established horror film vocabulary, Whale and company crafted a heartbreaking classic.

Matters take a surprisingly tonal change with Bride of Frankenstein, which struck me as over-the-top even when I was 12. Now it feels like a subversive masterpiece with a very clear — and delightful — queer agenda.

Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, the instigator who pulls Dr. Frankenstein back into the reanimation business, is an inspired addition and Valerie Hobson (the same woman who later married John Profumo of British scandal fame) proves a more compelling suitor for the doc than Mae Clarke was in the original. Elsa Lanchester, onscreen for all of about four minutes (not counting her role as Mary Shelley in the intro), is perhaps the actress who got the most iconic cinematic bang for the shortest appearance.

But the overall sense that the creative team has been let loose to do what it wants (I know that’s not quite the case, but still) is invigorating. Gutsy, silly, creepy and gorgeous to look at, Bride raises the bar not just for the Frankenstein series but for all cinematic horror since. Filmmakers have to be forgiven for rarely reaching its heights. Lightning rarely strikes twice.

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It was another four years before Son of Frankenstein was released and what’s most surprising seeing it in sequence with the others is how polished it is. Vast expressionistic sets, an upgraded cast (at least name-wise) thanks to an over-the-top defensive Basil Rathbone as the title heir, and polished cinematography make it a slick product.

In a sense, it’s the A Night at the Opera of Frankenstein films, giving the impression that the big brass at Universal decided to actually pay attention to the series. The production value upgrade works in some sequences but not in others for the talkiest and longest film in the series.

The surprising plus here is Lugosi, playing the aforementioned Ygor. I’d argue this two-parter — he’s back in the next film — provides Lugosi with one of his best screen roles. With his neck twisted from a failed hanging attempt, Ygor is the driving force in films three and four and adds a welcome element to the usual doctor-plus-monster-plus-threatened-woman-plus-irate-villagers mix.

(Side note: Fans of Young Frankenstein will note that Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks went deep into the saga with their spoof. The wooden-armed inspector (Lionel Atwill — who, like Dwight Frye, played multiple supporting roles in the series) is a direct lift from Son and the personality shifting brain transplant comes from the next in line, Ghost of Frankenstein. (No, there’s no “roll in the hay” sequence in any of them; that’s a Wilder / Brooks addition.)

The last Frankenstein offering before the mash-ups began, The Ghost of Frankenstein subs in Lon Chaney, Jr. for Karloff but hangs onto Lugosi as Ygor. The busy plot here involves Ygor’s efforts to get yet another Frankenstein heir (Cedric Hardwicke) to juice up his pal. This doctor specializes in brain transplants and is tricked into plopping Ygor’s into the creature’s noggin. Why this would impact vocal chords is a question best left unasked, but the result is a talking creature who, because of blood incompatibility, is also blind.

While one of the least respected of the Frankenstein films, I’m actually a fan of Ghost for the same reason I’m a fan of Jurassic Park III — maximum creature and minimum exposition. The creature, by my estimation, has the most screen time in Ghost than in any of the other films, and while Chaney can’t compete with Karloff’s original, he and Ygor make a very watchable team. Scary? Not really. Fun without being jokey? Absolutely.

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At least the monster is still at the center of things in Ghost. In spite of its title, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man tips toward the hairy guy. It’s the first sequel to The Wolf Man and since lycanthropic Larry Talbott is more articulate than the creature (apparently he lost his voice since the previous installment; it was originally filmed with voice but, well, long story), he’s the center of attention.

The action is swift here and the final battle is just fine, but Lugosi’s creature is underwhelming and sometimes embarrassing. If they’d have figured out how to make it Chaney vs. Chaney, this might have been a better bump in the series.

Bonus points, though, for having an odd musical number for the villagers parked in the middle of the action, complete with Chaney’s dyspeptic reaction to the festivities. (I’m pretty sure this sequence was cut out completely when I first saw the film on a Saturday afternoon Creature Feature on TV.) Frankenstein’s granddaughter’s ultra-severe shoulder pads help distract from a lackluster doctor with a difficult-to-buy sudden desire to juice up the creature with extra voltage.

And if you want to know where the cliche of the monster with outstretched arms and hesitant walk comes from, blame this one. The seed was planted when the creature went blind at the end of Ghost. Here, the blindness is gone but the stiff walk remains.

Karloff returned for House of Frankenstein, but this time as a doctor seeking revenge. The film actually feels like a double-feature, with the first third devoted to his encounter with Dracula (John Carradine). Once he is disposed, Karloff and company move on to encounters with troubled Larry Talbott and Frankenstein’s creation. The real drama, though, comes in a love triangle between the doctor’s hunchbacked sidekick, Talbott and a gypsy woman who seems like a community-theater Esmeralda.

There’s a kick to seeing Karloff wrestle with the creature he formerly played. And when it comes to sidekick variants, J. Carrol Naish certainly gets a lot more to play than others who have carried the humpback burden. And the plot moves swiftly. Clearly the ideas were running out, and Glenn Strange as the creature isn’t given much to play. But at least Universal didn’t go with earlier plans to include the Mummy and others in the mix.

It did, however, add a Jekyll / Hyde of sorts in House of Dracula, plus a female hunchbacked assistant this time. This time, Dracula (again, Carradine) is incorporated more clearly into the plot but is again the first creature to be disposed. Chaney has more to play as Talbott (and is even given a happy ending … for now) and, as the monster, Strange is pretty much an afterthought. If House of Frankenstein felt a bit like a welcome high school reunion, House of Dracula feels like the reunion a year later: There’s little to add to the stories and a fair amount of waiting around for the inevitable wrap-up.

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The Universal Frankenstein series ended not with a bang but with a chuckle.

In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, there’s little connection to the rest of the saga. It does feature the return of Bela Lugosi as Dracula for the first time since his original. Does it really deserve a spot on the National Film Registry? Not really. But it’s still a fun diversion.

Apparently the cure for Talbott didn’t last. As the film opens, he’s frantically calling America to warn about a shipment that contains the remains of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster. Not-quite hilarity ensues with more brain-switching on the agenda. We do get to finally see a decent battle between Dracula and the Wolf Man and there’s a neat cameo by an uncredited Vincent Price, but clearly the cycle was over.

OK, maybe not quite. The success of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein triggered a series of “meet” films, including encounters with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mummy and the Invisible Man.

But the pleasures of Frankenstein films would have to wait until Hammer Films added color to the mix with its own series, beginning with Curse of Frankenstein. Unlike Universal’s, through, the Hammer series followed the doctor (Peter Cushing).

Come to think of it, I don’t believe my 12-year-old self ever got a chance to watch Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.

But that’s another column …

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For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.

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NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018

 

Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma

Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel

The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull

FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey

Cat People (1942) — Aly Caviness

The Child’s Play Series — Salem

The Shining (1980) — Dave Gutierrez

Hellroller — Richard Propes

Poltergeist III — Greg Lindberg

Scream — Heather Knight

The Witch — Rick Dossey

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors — Sam Watermeier

The Fog (1980) — Joe Shearer

Eastern Horrors — Alex Holmes

Unfriended — Austin Lugar

Freaks (1932) — Alys Caviness-Gober

As Above, So Below — Jonathan Curole

The Beyond — Nick Rogers

The Dentist — Mitch Ringenberg

The Halloween Franchise — Evan Dossey

 



Guest Writer


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