On this week’s post, we’re digging into a really nice Blu-ray set I got years ago, covering Universal monster movies of the 30s and 40s. Universal made their name on these kinds of movies, much like Warner Brothers made their name with their gangster movies. Today, we’re looking at their original hits. This week’s movies are:
Tod Browning – Dracula (1931)
James Whale – Frankenstein (1931)
Both of these movies are based on classic literature of the Victorian era, and these films were both major hits. They made the monsters in the films world famous, and helped establish a certain subgenre of the horror film: the monster movie.
Let’s get into it.
A European Count moves to London, and soon after, the residents notice a series of attacks and disappearances, all involving the loss of blood, and two small marks on the neck. Only Van Helsing, a neighbor of the Count, realizes what’s happening, understanding that Count Dracula is a vampire, a legendary creature who feeds on the blood of the living. He works to stop the Count, before his friend’s fiancee is taken by the creature.
The film is directed by Tod Browning, who also famously directed Freaks. It stars Bela Lugosi, the legendary horror movie star, and later famous for his work in Ed Wood films.
Of course, this isn’t the first movie based on the Dracula novel. There was an earlier film by F.W. Murnau called Nosferatu, which was based on the book, but didn’t gain the rights to the original work. In those days, they simply changed all the names, and made the exact same story. Nosferatu is of course a legendary film, with Max Schreck’s performance as the monster one of the highlights. But Max Schreck’s performance as Nosferatu was barely human. He had a giant misshapen head, and claws for hands.’
Lugosi’s Dracula is quite different. He’s noble, and refined. Sure, he wears a cape, but could easily be mistaken for an eccentric fashionista. Lugosi’s Dracula can easily blend into human society, and he works to do just that.
The plot is the classic Dracula story, a young lawyer goes to Transylvania to do some business with Count Dracula. The lawyer, Renfield, is enthralled by Dracula and becomes his willing servant. He travels with Dracula and his wives, also vampires, and watches over them on their journey to London. Upon reaching London, Renfield is taken to be a madman, and placed in an insane asylum, while Dracula installs himself and his wives in the home he’s rented next door to Doctor Seward and some young women, one of whom is engaged to Jonathan Harker.
Let’s talk about Renfield for a moment. Renfield is played by Dwight Frye, who also features in our second film today, and what he does with Renfield is among the creepiest renderings I’ve ever seen. He has this incredible face that makes your skin crawl, and he adds this awful laugh that really sells the madness of Renfield. It’s a character that really lends itself to going over the top and Frye goes for it. He’s unforgettable in this film.
The art direction is also stellar. A lot of it is done with matte paintings in the background, but the film really sells them, making the film seem much grander than it actually is. The sets of Dracula’s castle and underground crypts are very believable. Unfortunately, the special effects don’t hold up as well. The scenes when Dracula turn into a bat are laughable from today’s perspective, with a rubber bat flapping awkwardly on a string. There’s another scene early one when Dracula walks through a large spider web without disturbing it that the film does clumsily.
The film is shot well, and has interesting lighting as well. Every time Lugosi is in closeup, the film uses lighting to highlight his eyes, suggesting he is somehow able to hypnotize people with his eyes. We also get a lot of really nice shots that show off the sets.
As much as there is to like about this film, however, the plot doesn’t really hold up. Despite being a murderer and a monster who has survived for hundreds of years, Dracula seems to have no sense of self-preservation. He introduces himself to his victims, and when he is revealed to be a supernatural being, and informed by Van Helsing that he knows how to kill him, instead of hiding, he goes back to his regular home and coffin, right before sunset, where Van Helsing can easily find him, and is essentially helpless.
In addition, Mina, Jonathan Harker’s fiancee is being stalked by Dracula, and Van Helsing knows how to hold him at bay. He makes plans involving wolfsbane, an herb he knows that Dracula cannot cross, and covers both the door and Mina in it. But then, for some reason, he leaves the maintenance of this herb to the maid, when 1) he knows that Dracula can entrance people to do his bidding, and 2) he’s the only one that has been able to resist said entrancement. So of course, Dracula easily enters the room and carries Mina away.
Jonathan Harker isn’t much better on logic. When Van Helsing confirms that Dracula is a vampire by discovering he cannot be reflected in a mirror, Jonathan still doesn’t believe it, despite seeing the same mirror that Van Helsing was looking at. Apparently for Harker, seeing a person who doesn’t have a reflection in a mirror is not that strange a circumstance.
The film also ends badly, with Van Helsing finding Draculas coffin and staking him, while Jonathan finds Mina while barely trying. Then Harker takes Mina away, while Van Helsing announces he’s staying behind, for no apparent reason. The real reason of course is so we can get a forced moment of Mina and Harker leaving the crypt, even though in this version, Harker is barely a character.
Lugosi is great as Dracula, Dwight Frye should be a legend for his Renfield, and the set design and art direction are stellar. Unfortunately, the characters just don’t act with any kind of logic or reason, and that damages the film over all. This is definitely one to remember and rewatch as a historical artifact, but not much beyond that.
Doctor Henry Frankenstein believes he can bring life to the dead. He steals body parts to enact his forbidden research, with the help of his assistant Fritz. Finally, he is ready to enact his plans, over the objections of his fiancee and mentor. But when the experiment works, he is not ready for the responsibility of creating life.
The film stars Boris Karloff as the Monster(though he’s credited as ?), and Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein. We also see Dwight Frye again, though he’s unrecognizable as Fritz, the humpbacked assistant. Another cast member in both films is Edward Van Sloan, who plays Van Helsing in Dracula, and Dr. Waldman in this film, a mentor and professor of Frankenstein.
Like Dracula, the sets are really well done. Frankenstein’s lab in particular is a wonderful set, full of ‘futuristic’ technology as it would have been seen at the time. Colin Clive also plays a great version of Dr. Frankenstein, manic and a bit crazy. The character loses some interest once he realizes he can’t control Frankenstein and calms down, but the over the top version of Frankenstein is right in Clive’s wheelhouse.
And Karloff as the Monster is unforgettable. He has this way of making his face completely expressionless for most of his performance. The lighting and makeup help a lot as well. We think of Karloff’s monster as the essential version of the character. Every halloween costume and parody of Frankenstein’s monster has the overly large head and suit that Karloff wears in this picture. Karloff was known for playing these sorts of costumed characters, but we’ve also seen him out of makeup in Corridors of Blood, so much like many costumed performers, like Andy Serkis and Doug Jones of the modern era, he’s a real actor.
The lighting here helps a lot, and it accenuates the makeup, making Karloff look even more dull and threatening. What’s most interesting to me about the way this character is portrayed and the plot unfolds is the message (intended or unintended) of how criminals are created by their environment, rather than it being an inborn trait.
In the first part of the film, Frankenstein is looking for body parts, but really needs a brain. He finally finds one in Dr. Waldman’s classroom. Dr. Waldman has two brains, one a ‘normal’ brain, and one a ‘criminal’ brain. Waldman has some questionable theories about how you can tell what kind of person it is by how their brain looks. When Fritz goes to steal the brain, he is startled by a noise and drops the normal brain, replacing it with the criminal brain, which goes into the creature. The film makes a big deal out of this, and I think it’s trying to tell us that the experiment was doomed from the start, as the monster had a criminal brain.
But I think we can look a little deeper. When we first meet the monster, he’s clearly not fully intelligent, but he can understand simple commands and seems fairly tame. It’s only when Fritz enters with a torch that he gets agitated. He is then chained to a wall, where Fritz continues to torture him with the fire. When Frankenstein checks on him again, the monster has killed Fritz.
However, it’s not entirely unexpected. The film portrays Fritz in an extended sequence going out of his way to torture the creature while he is chained to the wall. It seems the only way he can make the torment stop is to kill his tormentor. Once he does so, he is treated as an unhinged monster. Frankenstein and Waldman concoct a plan to get him under control, and then try to dissect him while he’s still alive. When he wakes up to a doctor about to cut him open, he understandably fights back, killing the man.
Out on the loose, the monster is in an unknown world, unaware of his strength or appearance. Meanwhile, Frankenstein is convinced to leave his secretive lab and is living a quiet life in the country, planning his wedding, completely oblivious to the creature he has unleashed. The villagers become aware of the creature when Frankenstein happens upon a young girl and she invites him to her playtime, tossing flowers into the lake, watching them float away. But the creature gets carried away, tossing the girl into the lake, where she drowns.
This gets the villagers up in arms, where they help Frankenstein track the creature, setting fire to the windmill where they discover him, burning him up.
I find this film to hold together much better than Dracula. There’s real tragedy here with Frankenstein’s monster. He’s brought to life by a cold, unfeeling man who rather than trying to teach him about the world and nurture him, he immediately abdicates his responsibility, deciding to kill the creature. I think while initially the film would have been read as a fairly straightforward monster movie, I think now the themes of abandonment, parenthood, and the creation of crime in society are fairly evident.
The monster here is more of a victim, while Dr. Frankenstein himself is more of a villain. He’s an absentee father, and uses his privilege to cast blame on others for his own mistakes.
The Double Feature
These films were made in the same year, by the same studio, and even shared two cast members. While Dracula doesn’t hold up as well as Frankenstein, both films work great together, and are forever marked on the public consciousness. That alone makes them worth watching, but watching horror movies from past eras can give us a lot of substance into what sorts of things people found frightening in that time. I think we can tell a lot about people by what they find scary.
Another note, this is by far the shortest Double Feature I’ve done. Dracula runs 74 minutes, and Frankenstein runs 70 minutes. I’ve definitely watched films longer than 144 minutes during this blog. But in the era, that would have been an acceptable length.
I’m through my dissertation proposal, which means that I am officially All But Dissertation (ABD). This is a huge deal, and also the point where most people fail completing their PhD. But I expect to finish by this time next year. Regardless, I’ll be doing something different after May 2019, because I’m out of funding, whether I finish or not. But I have no doubt I’ll finish the PhD. Just a matter of time.
So what about next week’s films? I normally mix things up week to week, but I kind of want to continue watching these old monster movies for another week. There are 8 in this set, and I don’t think I’ll cover all 8 of them in a row, but I think we can afford one more week of old fashioned monster movies.
So next week’s films are:
Karl Freund – The Mummy (1932)
James Whale – The Invisible Man (1933)
Two more monster movies. Also lurking in that set is Bride of Frankenstein, which is actually a bit more famous than Frankenstein. We will definitely get to that one eventually.
See you then.