Perhaps none of the original suite of Universal Monster films has such an enduring reputation as James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It is frequently highlighted as the high point in this series of iconic films.
Narratively Bride of Frankenstein plays almost like an early example of fanfic. It is a story “suggested by” Mary Shelley’s novel, functioning as an extension of it. The film opens with Mary Shelly and Lord Byron inserted into the film. This leads into a pretty incredible early example of structurally recapping the first film, as Shelley goes over the events of Frankenstein (1931) with cut scenes from that film playing onscreen. Unfortunately though, after this quite inspired beginning, the narrative is pretty unsatisfying, mainly because of where attention is focused. Namely, the focus is more on the human characters and elements of the story rather than the monsters. Frankenstein’s monster is denied agency throughout, which is generally not how these characters are treated in the Universal canon. The very basis of the plot – a bride for the monster – does not come from the monster. Some scientists just decide to make one for him, denying the character the agency to determine their own path. The story being driven by the humans, makes the plot drag badly, rather than the more kinetic progression that would have made the film stronger. On a much more simplistic level, this film needs way more bride of Frankenstein. She shows up with maybe six minutes to go. We’re are talking Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) levels of not giving the people what they want. It’s a bummer too because she is such a great character, both in terms of appearance and what she brings to the story.
The film is at its best when being unique and quirky, rather than the more stock horror elements. There is a wildly fantastical touch when some miniature people show up. Similarly fantastical are the scenes of the monster walking through the woods as a mythic feeling soundtrack plays. It appears James Whale was experimenting with the content and form of these films, and his boldest expressions work the best. The main joy that I took from the film came from these little touches. Boris Karloff is now billed simply as ‘Karloff’ whilst the iconic ‘?’ credit now goes to the monster’s mate. Also, like all these Universal films, it looks great. Such a creativity to the set design and the film always feels so atmospheric even when the story fails to deliver.
Boris Karloff is such a cerebral actor and this may be one of his best performances, even though the film is weaker. He has such a physical presence. And it is not just that he looks hulking, but also in the way that he acts with his whole body. The performance is even more impressive given the character is much more ill-defined than in the first film. At times he is tender, at others viciously murderous, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why he acts a certain way at each point. Perhaps the major misstep is having the monster talk. It is totally unnecessary as the character was already iconic without that ability. This choice amplifies a broader clumsiness in the film, that is the characters speak the themes, rather than the story embodying them in any coherent manner. In addition to Karloff, the other standout performance comes from Colin Clive as Dr Frankenstein. He is able to convincingly convey the experience of a beaten, battered man going through torment. A man torn apart that provides a solid emotional core to the film.
Verdict: I had high hopes going in, but I have to say Bride of Frankenstein is unfortunately one of the lesser Universal Monster flicks. The choice to deny the original monster of any real agency, and the bride of any real screentime, means we are stuck with less interesting human characters to accompany through the story. Schooner of Carlton Draught
Of all the iconic entries into the series of Universal Monster films, probably none can match James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) on that front. Of course starring Boris Karloff as the monster, the film is one of the earliest examples of turning an intelligent source into an intelligent, yet at times rollicking, genre film.
Frankenstein takes Mary Shelley’s rather large scoped source novel and extracts from it a taut tale, covering off on the most cinematic aspects of the novel. We see Dr Frankenstein, beset by a kind of madness, give life to his monster. We see the ‘humanity’ of this monster. Which is perfectly encapsulated in a heart wrenching, and really quite confronting scene, that is perfect in its performance and execution (I won’t spoil it, but if you have seen the film, then you should know the scene I refer to). Then we see the horrors that the created creature can reap and in a brilliantly shot finale the village folk gain their revenge, but it is safe to say that you won’t be cheering at the sight (I wonder if people did when the film was first released?). The script of the film enhances the gothic elements of the piece, which is one of the film’s strengths and also manages to be populist without being mind numbingly dumb. Watching this film does deliver a real sense of nostalgia, though that is not to say that it is a dated film. It still feels relevant and still works as a piece of cinematic enjoyment too. Perhaps it is a little nostalgic for me in particular as it beings back memories of my iconic turn as Igor (Fritz in the film) in the Mudgee High School year 7 stage production of the Frankenstein story (a production that also famously starred Josh Jordan as baby Frankenstein).
Whilst obviously not as detailed as in the source novel, there is a lot of thematic exploration in this one. Most prominently is the notion of what it means to be a god and what it means (from a very standard Christian standpoint) to toy with that. The thematic focus is on Dr Frankenstein as the man corrupted by his own intelligence and more importantly power. The themes explored through this character are universal ones, both obvious analogies such as the use of scientific progression, as well as more subtle ones such as everything from world affairs, to the use of information to really anywhere that a power structure exists and is exploited (so everywhere basically). There is so much detailed craft and imagination in this film. One of my very favourite touches comes in the opening credits where the monster is listed as being played by ‘?’ (Karloff is listed in the closing credits). Despite looking like it was modestly budgeted, the sets lend the entire film a real gothic quality. Like all of these Universal films, the filmmakers did so much with so little and the design of the sets really transcends the budget. Though some sequences do feel a little like they are taking place on a theatre stage, it is never distracting and is really as much to do with the writing as the sets.
James Whale, as a person, must be one of early cinema’s most interesting characters. An openly gay (very rare for the time), English migrant and former WWI prisoner of war who played a major role in the early invention of the horror film in the American industry with films such as this one, its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Invisible Man (1933). Like many American directors of the time, Whale seems to have been particularly influenced by the work of early German directors such as Fritz Lang and you can clearly see the influence of films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) on this film, with plenty of canted shots playing up the gothic aspect of the film. As the monster, Karloff again shows that he is more than just a vehicle for physical transformation. Just like in The Mummy (1932), Karloff brings so much emotion to the role of Frankenstein’s monster and along with the script helps to convey humanity in this creation that makes the film far superior to how it would have otherwise ended up. The acting style across the board works well. The mannerisms are quite over the top without ever becoming distracting. But the performances always feel like they are at the service of the plot and the themes, rather than the actors aiming to steal scenes. I have already mentioned that Dr Frankenstein is the thematic focus of the film and this is assisted by Colin Clive’s intense performance. A performance that culminates awesomely in the famous “it’s alive” sequence, which delivered by a lesser actor would have been cringeworthy to the point of being unwatchable.
This is the second time I had watched this film and strangely it felt less dated to me this time. The acting is better than most films of the vintage, particularly genre ones and of all the Universal monster films, this one excels the most at iconic scenes and also probably at thematic exploration.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
2014 Progress: 13/101
The Golem (1920) is actually the third in a series of German films chronicling the Jewish folk character, though this is a prequel to the two previous films. Those two are considered ‘lost films’ however, so this is the rendering of the tale that most will think of if you are discussing a silent version.
The film sees the Jewish community of a city threatened with exile due to, among other things, their “magic”. In order to remedy this, the elders in the community bring back to life The Golem, as a saviour of their people. The character is in some ways an ironically Christ-like one. Obviously any film that has a Jewish community threatened is going to have a certain level of resonance, even one that preceded World War II by close to two decades. But it is impossible to watch the film except through that prism, which I think does imbue the film with a level of power. The film chronicles the struggle of the rabbis and their Golem to win their right to stay in the city through intimidation and various other means. One of the issues that I had with the film is that it was not always entirely clear what was happening. Neither it is entirely obscure, I just feel that in terms of coherence, the narrative could have been a little sharper. The film does weave a lot of magic into the narrative, with astrology giving a rabbi the first hint of trouble looming, as well as the Frankenstein-esque animating of The Golem from inanimate materials. The film also moves along at a really fast pace, the viewer is bombarded with plot developments and action, which is a little different to many silent films which traditionally took a more measured approach to pacing.
Without a doubt though the greatest technical achievement of The Golem is The Golem character itself. Even during its creation, the design and effects really are wondrous to behold. The close-ups of hands, working the clay like material that he is brought to life from look amazing. Not to mention the fact that when The Golem comes alive, he looks incredible. It is an iconic look and I would not have been surprised if James Whale and Boris Karloff took some inspiration from the figure when coming up with their Frankenstein (1931). If there was a 1940s American remake, Karloff would definitely have gotten the gig. The film more broadly does feel somewhat akin to the sensibility that Universal brought to the horror genre, as well as its more obvious connection to German Expressionism. Paul Wegener in the role of The Golem, makes this character just as iconic in appearance and rigid movement as Karloff would do numerous times in the decades that followed. The movement in particular is unsettlingly deliberate but also it is confronting because there is no way to know what the character is going to do next. The relationship between The Golem and his creator does take on an even more overt Frankenstein feel late in the film with the creation suddenly not particularly wanting to be switched off as his creator has the power to do. Thematically the later parts of the film do take on an intriguing turn, veering into the sci-fi esque notions of Shelley’s original novel and even suggesting some of the ideas that Philip K. Dick would later explore in his iconic writing.
Aside from the central figure, the other technical aspects of the film are a marvel given its vintage. The sets are reminiscent of Melies, who James discussed in yesterday’s post. They brilliantly convey a world that whilst grounded strictly in reality, is frequently witness to the fantastical. The lighting as well is really strong in the film and combines with the set design to create intensely strong imagery. I have to admit that my knowledge of Jewish folklore or even the history of the Jewish people more broadly is slight. So from that perspective it is difficult for me to entirely process the perspective that the film comes from. We see anti-Semitism from the local Christians who are the ones trying to rid the city of the Jews. Here the audience is clearly supposed to side with the Jews who are being so unfairly slighted. This part of the film feels like possibly a piece of Jewish propaganda or just a creative rendering of reality. But some later parts of the film can feel almost genuinely anti-Semitic, with an intense focus on the shifty reliance on magic amongst the Jewish leadership.
The Golem is pretty incredible stuff. The effects and ‘world’ that is created is pretty incredible to see over 90 years later. The narrative is slight and the ending rather absurd, which prevents it from reaching incredible heights. But it is still a very enjoyable film and one that all movie buffs should check out.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
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The Black Cat (1934) saw the first team up of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff onscreen. Unfortunately it is a pretty tired affair, for me never managing to scale the heights of some of the two’s more iconic efforts. For much of its running time, the film seems pretty content to coast by, hoping the audience will be wowed by the fact that the world’s two greatest horror stars of the time were finally onscreen together.
Lugosi stars as the creepy, suspicious engineer Dr Vitus Werdegast, whilst Karloff is a Satanist or something. There are plenty of references to the war littered through what is a pretty poor script, however if it was aiming to be some sort of comment on post-war life or the effects that such a transformative historical event could have on two people, it did not work for me. Into the sphere of these two comes newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison. Before too long Karloff has his sights set on incorporating Joan into one of his freaky Satanist ceremonies. This naturally leads to a chess game to see who has rights to the couple… That is the kind of plot that is at play here. Unfortunately there is no real strong narrative core to the film whatsoever or even proper attempts at character creation. The placing of iconic stars into the roles is what passes for character development here. Aspects of the film are decidedly unnerving, though not as in the way a horror film can successfully unnerve the audience. Necrophilia overtones are just plain unsettling in any context. The quality of the film does swing up in the last half hour. However because what has preceded it is so dire, the audience is totally uninvested in caring about what happens to the characters onscreen. It is a shame then that the atmospheric satanic ritual scene toward the end, nicely shot with a bunch of close-ups, is essentially wasted because you won’t care what happens. Ditto an extremely dark scene involving a character being skinned.
As for the all star cast (if two people can constitute ‘all star’), Karloff fares a fair bit better than Lugosi. The former is introduced in a clever but perhaps too self-referential manner. He awakens from sleep and the audience sees his very Frankenstein’s Monster esque profile sit up in a very Frankenstein’s Monster esque way. The makeup that Karloff is forced to wear is totally distracting too, which is saying a lot given this is a man whose makeup in The Mummy (1932) and Frankenstein (1931) did not detract from his performance (if anything it boosted his work in both films). Despite the material and his performance, Karloff does show his acting talent in this film. Lugosi it must be said, does not fair so well. In comparison to his rightfully iconic performance in Dracula (1931), he is pretty weak here. Coming from the Universal stable, The Black Cat unsurprisingly showcases some pretty incredible set design. The mansion at the centre of a majority of the plot must be one of the studio’s greatest achievements in that regard. Massive, labyrinthine and simultaneously gothic and ultra modern, the house manages to bring an atmosphere to proceedings that is decidedly lacking elsewhere in the film.
Unfortunately The Black Cat lacks the snap and panache that make the best Universal horror films classics that remain essential viewing today. It just totally failed to hold my interest whatsoever. Outside of a pretty incredible set and a decent last half hour, the first superstar team up from Lugosi and Karloff is a pretty inconspicuous one.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
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Amongst the bevy of awesome presents I was lucky enough to receive for Christmas, was the Universal Monsters blu-ray boxset. I always buy (or rent) films. I have neither the technical know how or desire to download films illegally. I know not everyone else feels the same way, but the incredible presentation of this boxset is a reminder why buying is always the best option (or maybe I’m just a 26 year old dinosaur whose house is full of vinyl, CDs and rows upon rows of DVDs, blu-ray and still some VHS). The boxset includes 8 films, an awesome booklet, killer postcards and a whole bunch of extras that accompany all of the movies. In addition to that, the transfer of the films to blu-ray looks absolutely stunning, the money has obviously been spent to do the hard work on this and the images really pop as a result. Best blu-ray transfer I have seen I think. In short, if you are at all interested in these films, then I would highly recommend forking out the coin to get your hands on one of these boxsets.
So I thought I should start working my way through reviewing the set, and thought I would kick it off with The Mummy (1932) which I had never seen before. I am sure that far smarter film analysts have discussed what separates these films from other monster films and why they are thought of so highly. For me, amongst other things, they are just so well shot. The camerawork is assured and interesting whereas other B movies (or B movies trying to be A movies) are clunky, boring and ineptly filmed, which makes enjoying them a lot tougher.
Narratively, The Mummy is pretty stock standard stuff. Poms in Egypt on an archaeological dig. In the interests of academic knowledge, they ignore the curse that is on a casket that they find. Such a bad move. Doing so releases Boris Karloff in all his bandage wrapped glory. Actually he is only in the bandages in the first scene, following that, he spends the rest of the film in some incredible makeup design. The opening of the casket is one of my favourite scenes in the film, toying with audience expectations that must have existed even when the film was first released. When it is opened, it is obviously tense, with the audience waiting for the inevitable terror to take place. But there is nothing but silence, as the archaeologist silently goes about his work. Director Karl Freund continually teases the mummy coming to life, but doesn’t give it to us. Just continues the silence. Then, when the big moment finally comes, it is not a big ‘jump’ scare as you might reason would be coming, rather the mummy slowly and naturalistically opens his eyes, extends his limbs like he is trying to shake a couple of thousand years of stiffness and then makes his move. The realism continues as the impetuous young archaeologist who had opened the casket goes mad in an instant when he realises what has been released.
Flash forward 10 years and there is another archaeological team (with the son of one of the original party member’s involved) in the area. The mummy is still around, sans bandages, and searching for the reincarnation of the love of his life from a few millennia earlier (these monsters, just like us, are always on the lookout for love). And you can basically figure the rest out for yourself (especially if you have seen the Brendan Fraser starring remake). The film stars the most famous of Universal’s monster stars (just beats out Bela Lugosi due to the number of films he made) Boris Karloff. He plays it beautifully, but pretty Frankensteiny. That’s not to say his performance is wooden at all, he really is a very good actor especially in the occasional close-ups which are chillingly creepy. Perhaps that is another thing that sets these monster flicks apart from others, especially contemporary ones, a much higher standard of actor. Karloff’s makeup looks amazing though, and makes you yearn for the days where the default response to anything difficult was not just ‘we’ll do it in post-production with CGI’. The other really excellent performance in the film, perhaps even better than Karloff’s is from Zita Johann who plays his love interest Helen Grosvenor. It is a strange role because she plays someone in a trance for much of the film, which is definitely not easy to do, but she does it very well.
Showcasing the almost lost art of film makeup and a vintage Boris Karloff performance, The Mummy is a lot of fun. If you have an interest in classic filmmaking or monster films then definitely check this one out. Or if you are keen to see what all the fuss is about with Universal’s iconic monster films, then this is as good a place as any to start.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
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