Friday, February 13, 2009

Frankenstein movies...

I. Frankenstein (James Whale,1932). Images from this movie are current in popular culture three-quarters of a century later. Whale manages to create shadowy black and white scenes of compelling, almost expressionist sharpness. Boris Karloff as the monster is hulking and impressive, and wholly creaturely—not a shred of humanity here, unlike the creation of the author here billed as “Mrs. Percy Shelley.” True, there is a little playfulness, and he likes children—though he throws little Maria into the lake after they run out of flower petals to throw. Colin Clive is the nervous doctor, whose impression of genius borders on the neurasthenic. He is only animated when he cries out, “It’s alive!” The monster dies in the fire that consumes the windmill where he takes refuge from the angry visitors.

II. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935): This sequel begins with a truly horrifying little skit: an overdressed trio of actors impersonating Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron chat in an overdecorated drawing room while thunder rages outside the window. Byron (Gavin Gordon) limps slightly and rolls his Rs and waggles his eyebrows at Mary (Elsa Lanchester) flirtatiously. Mary allows that she has more stories to tell, and then this one starts right up. Henry Frankenstein is pursued by the ominous Dr. Pretorius (Ernst Thesiger) who has plans to make a female creature, and so he does. It’s Miss Lanchester, she of the electrical hair—but in fact she's really only in the movie for five minutes or so. A few tidbits from the original book occur here (the blind violinist). A comic role, Minnie the noisy maid, is added for Una O’Connor. The monster dies in the explosion in the tower.

III. Son of Frankenstein (Rowland Lee, 1939): The monster (Karloff) is joined by Ygor (Bela Lugosi), who has befriended and taken over him, using him to kill the village jurors who previously had sentenced him (Ygor) to hang. They hide out in a stone dome laboratory, partly ruined. Lionel Atwil makes a good Inspector, complete with a prosthetic arm that locks in place and is almost as hard to control as Dr. Strangelove’s hand. Oh, and he stores his darts in the wooden arm. Eventually the monster dies in a pit of boiling sulphur.

IV. The Ghost of Frankenstein (Earl C. Kenton, 1942): The fourth of the early series, this time straying farther and farther afield--this could be one of the first major B-movie franchises, and Karloff was not invited to the party. It turns out that Dr. Heinrich Frankenstein had a brother, Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke), who is an eminent psychiatrist with tired-looking eyes, a frustrated assistant, and a pretty daughter. Ygor, the assistant (Bela Lugosi) digs up the monster (Lon Chaney) out of the sulphur pit and goes to the hospital, where he plans to have his own brain transplanted into the monster's skull. Then it's alive. I forget how the monster dies this time.

V. Frankenstein meets the Wolfman (Roy William Neill, 1943): What a great idea! Let the stars of two spooky franchise work together, sort of like a scary Hope and Crosby on the Road to Transylvania. Poor Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), brokenhearted lycanthrope, chips the monster (Bela Lugosi) out of a giant block of ice. Perhaps to justify Lugosi's exotic accent, the location has shifted mysteriously to a small central European country of Vasalia, home of Castle Frankenstein, where the Countess Frankestein (Ilona Massey). Some of the cast from the Wolfman have strayed onto the set, notably the old gypsy fortuneteller Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya). The monster dies again in the end, of course.

VI. House of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1944). It's a party and everybody's invited! The wolfman returns, played by Lon Chaney as a sad, cursed soul longing for the release promised by the evil Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carroll Naish), in love with the gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), also the object of Daniel’s fruitless passion. Escaping from an asylum after a terrific thunderstorm, Niemann and Daniel take over a travelling show of horrors after killing the proprietor, and reawaken Dracula (John Carradine), who moves about menacingly, opens his eyes wide, and becomes a badly-animated bat, but then he disappears from the plot fairly early. Some of the same minor players from earlier movies appear, notably Leonard Atwill and Sig Ruman, but the movie is noteworthy for its complete embodiment of the generic horror story with a cast of, well, dozens. It’s fascinating to see two ex-monsters in human guise; the monster is played by an extra and has very little to do except die in the last minutes of the movie, this time in quicksand.

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