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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I stumbled across this the other day without having heard anything about the film. Tis a fantastic premise – that Frankenstein was actually based on true events. The trailer depicts a somewhat bizarre mix of B movie and homage to the imagery of Shelley’s book. Doesn’t quite convince, but I think I will be keen to check this one out when hit hits cinemas (or more likely DVD). Thoughts people?
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Of all the people that Halloween is important to, above all are the kids. They get to engage in trick or treat, dress up as basically whatever their heart desires and score some free candy. Studios often tap into this by releasing Halloween or sorta-horror themed kids films at this time of year. For Halloween Week I checked out a couple that had opened recently in Australia.
Despite thinking it was a cute idea, expectations were pretty low for me when I checked out Hotel Transylvania. Having Adam Sandler attached to a film generally has that effect these days. Looks like others had the same thoughts, as the early morning weekend session that I went to saw me all alone, in my local complex’s biggest cinema. Having said that though, the film has performed really quite well at the box office, despite not being a received that well by critics. I suspect that word of mouth may have had something to do with that, because the film is really quite charming and more enjoyable than a majority of animated flicks I have seen of late.
The titular Hotel Transylvania is run by Dracula (voiced by Sandler) who set it up as a place for his fellow monsters to escape the oppression of humankind. There is a wonderful inversion of horror norms running through the entire film, with Dracula and co all doing anything they can to avoid crossing paths with any people. The simple storyline sees preparations for Dracula’s daughter’s 118th birthday party thrown into disarray when backpacker Johnny stumbles across the hotel. Along with Dracula, the film features a veritable who’s who of film monsters – The Mummy, Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s Bride, Quasimodo, The Invisible Man and The Wolfman all at the hotel to celebrate the occasion. It is great to see that the visual look of these characters has been thoughtfully designed, delightfully reinterpreting their most iconic iterations. Much of the fun in the film comes from the riffing on horror conventions, Dracula as a doting dad one such example.
The character of Johnny is a hilarious one, a brilliant cipher of every backpacker you have ever met, with the lingo and the spirit of this lifestyle spot on. Despite the occasional juvenile moments (it is a kids flick after all), the script in general is very clever. Skewering with abandon but also throwing in enough simpler jokes so that kids will not be bored. And also avoiding the Shrek trap of aiming too hard for pastiche and forgetting to tell a story at all. I guess one aspect of this film which jars a little and is probably a little off-putting for family audiences is a couple of instances where Dracula flies into a rage. These are only very brief moments, but they are genuinely frightening and would be especially so for young kids. It seems strange to include them at all when they do not add a whole lot to the film overall. The film also nearly finishes with a truly terrible song and dance number. But saves grace a bit by actually closing with a Pink Panther-esque, traditionally animated credits sequence which was a cool way to finish things off.
I was hoping to be mildly entertained by this, but it exceeded that. I had a really good time with this film, and found myself laughing quite a lot actually. Proves that in an animated film thoughtful design and a clever script can go a very long way.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
The second kids film that I checked out was the rather more anticipated Frankenweenie, a stop motion film from the mind of Tim Burton. The folklore goes that when he was working at Disney in the 80s Burton decided to make a short film. Instead of happy singing & dancing, Burton turned out the short Frankenweenie, a much darker tale. So dark was it in fact, that Burton was fired from Disney as a result. It is rather ironic then that the House of Mouse are actually behind this version of the film. They’ve come around to Burton’s vision, albeit the best part of 30 years later.
This film looks utterly fantastic. Black and white is used, as it should be in any old school horror homage, and it makes everything look really sharp. Burton employs 3D cleverly too. There are no gimmicky flourishes here, just some subtle enhancing of depth, and I think it makes the film look much better. I rarely see films in 3D, but I am glad that I forked out the extra bucks for this. Right the start Frankenweenie is referencing classic horror films, especially James Whale’s Frankenstein. The plot sees Victor, a lonely child with no friends besides his beloved dog Sparky, distraught when his dog dies. Inspired by a wonderful new science teacher, Victor gets his Dr Frankenstein on, and brings Sparky back to life with a little help from a lightning storm. The plot follows this reanimated dog and the effect that it has on the community where they live. Things get especially interesting when Victor’s classmates discover the secret of his success and try and replicate it for school science fair glory.
There is a beautiful, and you would have to suspect autobiographical moment early in this film. Victor proudly sits down with his mother and father and shows them his latest home movie – starring none other than Sparky of course. It is a great little moment, showing the love of film that Burton no doubt has and the love and obsession that kids devote to cinema. The narrative takes place in a strange little town populated by a cavalcade of rather strange folk. There is some quite black comedy throughout, especially involving the death of Sparky. Thematically, there is a real focus here on the role of science in society and especially the reception that science receives in some communities. The small town folk recoil at some the scientific ideas being taught to their children. It is clear which side of this ideological schism Burton sits, and whilst some of this is amusingly done, more is a little heavy-handed.
If Frankenweenie falls a little flat at times, and I think it does, I think it can be attributed predominately to an undercooked script. There is nothing particularly bad about it, but a lot of it is missing the shot of spirit to really jump out and grab the audience. The film also moves at a relatively slow pace for a kids film, meandering along for large chunks of its running time. In addition there are some massive logical inconsistencies in what occurs. It is strange that I notice this, because typically I am happy for this kind of film not to have to worry about any of that. There are some great moments though. One is when the film shifts gear toward the end to an unveiling of various monsters. This plays out like a B movie mash-up, taking inspiration from Gremlins, Godzilla and numerous others.
Overall Frankenweenie was a pretty satisfying experience, though it does not soar too high I don’t think. Having said that, it is one of the best looking animated films I have ever seen and any fan of old school horror should check this out for the delightful pastiche throughout.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
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