Saturday, October 3, 2015

31 Days of Halloween: Franken-ranking

Universal Studios made seven films featuring Frankenstein's Monster, whose celluloid version as a mindless violent brute was very different from Mary Shelley's tragic genius. But still, these films form what is undoubtedly the popular conception of what Frankenstein's Monster (often erroneously referred to as "Frankenstein") is. Here are my thoughts on the various portrayals of the Monster in those original Universal films...

7: Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948). Ugh. Let's get this one out of the way first. This was the last of the classic Universal Frankenstein films, and it shows, a last grasp at some money by moving from parody into straight-out mockery. The monster craze was over, as was the war, and people wanted something lighter. Fun when you're eight, I suppose, but painful as a root canal when you're older and appreciate what is being decimated.

6. House of Frankenstein (1944). People complain that superhero films today are crammed full of too many villains, but this one has the Monster, Wolfman, and Dracula, as well as a mad scientist and his hunchbacked assistant. So it's stuffed to the gills, and while Glenn Strange does a passable job as the Monster, one wonders why Boris Karloff was here in a different role (Niemann, the mad scientist). This was the last of the "serious" Universal Frankenstein films, and it is rather listless. And Dracula seems to be here as an afterthought; he has no real connection with the rest of the plot, and is killed off in the first 15 minutes of the film.

5. The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). This is the last of the series that is a direct sequel to its predecessor, and sees Lon Chaney Jr. take over the role of the Monster from Karloff. The doctor here is Ludwig Frankenstein, second son of the original Baron, who thinks he can cure the Monster's violent nature, but ends up putting the evil Ygor's brain in the Monster's powerful body instead. It's not a bad film all around, but it does seem like something of a rehash of earlier themes.

4. Son of Frankenstein (1939). A direct descendant of Bride of Frankenstein, this sees the original Baron's older son, Wolf (played by Basil Rathbone), trying to set right what his father got wrong. This was the last film what had Karloff playing the monster, and he's able to fill the role with the pathos and warmth that later actors simply couldn't match. There's even another scene of the Monster showing mercy for a child (Wolf's son). This, incidentally, is the first appearance of Ygor, the deformed laboratory assistant (played very sinisterly by Bela Lugosi).

3. Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943). Bela Lugosi plays the monster, and Lon Chaney Jr. is back as Talbott, the wolfman. This was the first time Universal tried doing team-ups of their popular monster characters, and the trend would continue to its ultimate kitchen-sink conclusion (House of Frankenstein, above). The fact that this film seems somewhat bifurcated by modern standards makes it stronger, in my opinion. We're able to get a thorough introduction into Talbott's nature and motivation, and the anguish that causes him to seek out Dr. Frankenstein's notes to try to find a cure for himself. Lon Chaney Jr. makes what would otherwise be a mediocre film into a very good one.

2. Frankenstein (1931). The original Universal portrayal (although not the first film adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel), and it still retains its power. Henry Frankenstein's obsession is brilliantly portrayed by Colin Clive, and Karloff steals the show under all that makeup, with a portrayal that is at once menacing and child-like. One cannot help but assume that if the hunchback Fritz hadn't tormented the monster straight out of the gate (out of jealously?), then its life might have taken a different course. Regularly appearing on "Best films of all time" lists, and rightfully so.

1. Bride of Frankenstein (1935). After the enormous hit that the original Frankenstein was at the box office, Universal knew they needed a sequel. And this is one of the rare instances where the sequel overtakes the original in terms of quality. The story itself flows naturally from the previous film, and it takes but little nudging from the wonderful Doctor Pretorious (played by Ernest Thesiger) to set Henry back into obsessed-creator mode. But there's machinations behind the scenes, and Pretorious wastes no time in turning the Monster to his side, as a guarantee of Henry's cooperation. The film is also enormously helped by the deft bits of humor here and there, which lighten the mood just enough for the tension and horror to have fullest effect. Truly a wonderful movie.

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