Film Review: People On Sunday (1930)

Also known as: Menschen am Sonntag (Germany)
Release Date: February 4th, 1930 (Germany)
Directed by: Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak
Music by: Otto Stenzeel, Elena Kaets-Chernin (2000 version)
Cast:  Erwin Splettstößer, Brigitte Borchert, Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Christl Ehlers, Annie Schreyer

Filmstudio, Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek/Berlin, 73 Minutes

Review:

I was delving into the deep recesses of film-noir throughout the entire month of November, as I was celebrating Noirvember and dedicated to covering just the noir style for a month here at Cinespiria.

While delving deep, I came across this picture, which isn’t noir but was created by four people who would become prominent contributors to the film-noir movement after they left Germany in the 1930s.

Those four men are:

Robert Siodmak – the director of The KillersCriss CrossThe Phantom Lady and others.

Curt Siodmak – Robert’s brother and a screenwriter who worked in film-noir and often times with his brother.

Edgar G. Ulmer – the director of DetourThe Strange WomanMurder Is My Beat and others.

Billy Wilder – one of the most accomplished directors in history, who gave us the film-noirs Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, as well as other classics such as, The ApartmentSome Like It HotSabrina and so many others.

The film is notable for its historical importance, as it displays everyday life for Berliners just before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in Germany. Their rise to power is also why the men behind this film escaped to Hollywood.

People On Sunday starts by telling you that none of the people depicted in the film are professional actors and that they are indeed real people whose jobs in the film are their jobs in real life. The film also states that these people have already returned to their day jobs by the time of this film’s release. The movie was filmed on Sundays in Berlin, when the people in the film had time to do it around the hustle and bustle of their lives.

Critics that were around Berlin back in 1930, have said that the film feels like a true and authentic experience of what life was like at that time in Berlin. The film initially gives you hope that these people will always be able to enjoy their lazy carefree Sundays but in modern times, we know that there is no happy ending with the evil powers that will soon overtake much of Europe.

People On Sunday is a fairly short and sweet film but it is impossible to watch it and not think of what is on the horizon for the people in the movie, all of whom are real and not fictional characters. It has a similar effect on me as Fritz Lang’s M, a German film from 1931, that also showcases urban life just before Hitler changed the world forever.

Film Review: I Walked With A Zombie (1943)

Release Date: April 21st, 1943 (New York City)
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray
Based on: I Walked With A Zombie by Inez Wallace
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway

RKO Radio Pictures, 69 Minutes

Review:

“I thought voodoo was something everyone was frightened of?” – Betsy Connell, “I’m afraid it’s not very frightening. They sing and dance and carry on. And then, as I understand it, one of the gods comes down and speaks through one of the people.” – Paul Holland

Hollywood producer Val Lewton had a pretty good stint at RKO, a studio that was instrumental in the development of film-noir. After Citizen Kane proved to be a financial dud for them, at least initially, RKO wanted to have a branch that focused on B-movies in the same way that Universal had done with their hugely successful monster franchises.

In came Lewton, a man that created some great horror pictures for RKO but unlike Universal, Lewton’s were more adult and more serious films. They were initially just viewed as B-horror pictures in the same vein as Universal’s work but over the years, the Lewton produced horror films at RKO started to get the recognition they deserve as something greater than just makeup and fur slapped on Lon Chaney Jr.

I Walked With A Zombie is the film that Lewton supposedly loved the most out of his horror work for RKO. The quality of this picture also has a lot to do with Lewton picking the right men for the job.

Jacques Tourneur was selected as the director and he did a few other pictures with Lewton for RKO: The Cat People and The Leopard Man, both of which were also really solid films. He would go on to do the film-noir classic Out of the Past and get back into horror with the underrated Night of the Demon and a couple Vincent Price pictures in the 1960s for American International.

The script was penned by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray. Siodmak had already written a bunch of scripts that got turned into monster movies by Universal. So Lewton grabbing him was probably a good way to try and emulate Universal’s success for RKO. Plus, Siodmak could write more mature horror features that were smarter than his work in the Universal Monsters franchise.

I Walked With A Zombie is a pretty great film for what it is. It has a sort of film-noir visual allure to it while being in a lush Caribbean setting. Also, it is a zombie movie, albeit not of the modern style, this is a subtle suspense thriller that has voodoo zombies (my favorite kind of zombie, actually) and is more of a tale about the religious island culture of the West Indies.

This is a rather short film but that was the norm with these Lewton produced horror flicks. Regardless, the story is solid, well paced and the actors do a good job with the material. Frances Dee feels like a real person in a real situation in a time when acting tended to be overly dramatic, especially in the horror genre.

I like this film a lot and it was cool discovering it now, as I got to see it without nostalgia playing a factor. Lewton, Tourneur and Siodmak turned out a very good picture that unfortunately, not a lot of people know about. But that’s probably because it doesn’t feature famous monsters and it isn’t overtly horror, despite the catchy title.

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part V – The Wolf Man Series (1935-1946)

I’ve now gotten up to the Wolf Man’s series of films. Only two films here actually feature that character: The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. So in addition to that, I am also reviewing the two other werewolf films put out by Universal during this era. Plus, they are also included in the Wolf Man collection of my Universal Monsters DVD box set.

The Wolf Man character was a late bloomer in the Universal Monsters franchise. Granted, he beat the Gillman of Creature From the Black Lagoon by more than a decade but unlike the Gillman, at least the Wolf Man got to mix it up with Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula a couple of times.

The Wolf Man (1941):

Release Date: December 12th, 1941
Directed by: George Waggner
Written by: Curt Siodmak
Music by: Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers

Universal Pictures, 70 Minutes

the-wolfmanReview: 

In The Wolf Man we are introduced to Larry Talbot, played by the great Lon Chaney Jr. Chaney’s interpretation of this character is almost heartbreaking at times, as he really connects with the audience and conveys real genuine emotion as the tragic title character of this film. In fact, the Wolf Man is probably one of the top five most tragic figures in film history. And without Chaney in the role, chances are that the Wolf Man would’ve been just a pretty one-dimensional monster.

In quality, this film really could rival the James Whale films Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, as well as the first Dracula film under the Universal Monsters banner. The Wolf Man like every other first film in each of Universal’s classic horror series was the pinnacle and a great kickoff to what would become a reoccurring character in the larger shared mythos.

This film also gives us two other horror icons: Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi. Rains plays Larry Talbot’s father, Sir John. Bela Lugosi plays the gypsy man who is the werewolf that infects Talbot. Lugosi was awesome in this role and it is my favorite thing that he did for Universal after Dracula.

There isn’t a lot that anyone can criticize this film for. It is a classic horror gem and still plays well today, over 70 years later.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943):

Release Date: March 5th, 1943
Directed by: Roy William Neill
Written by: Curt Siodmak
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Ilona Massey, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Dwight Frye

Universal Pictures, 74 Minutes

frankenstein_meets_the_wolf_manReview: 

This is my favorite of the Universal Monsters team-up or versus movies.

It truly is a Wolf Man movie that Frankenstein’s monster just happens to appear in but isn’t much of a focal point, as Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Larry Talbot takes over this film.

The film follows Talbot, who comes to life in his tomb after being disturbed by grave robbers. Coming to the realization that he cannot die, he seeks out the legendary Dr. Frankenstein in hopes that he can find a way to euthanize him by scientific means.

Dwight Frye from Frankenstein and Dracula shows up in this film in a minor role. Bela Lugosi returns again but this time as Frankenstein’s monster.

This film is awesome and it feels like a true sequel to The Wolf Man, as opposed to just a crossover film. It is much less of a sideshow attraction than the films that followed it: House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.

Werewolf of London (1935):

Release Date: May 13th, 1935
Directed by: Stuart Walker
Written by: Robert Harris, John Colton
Music by: Karl Hajos
Cast: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson, Lester Matthews, Spring Byington, Clark Williams, Lawrence Grant

Universal Pictures, 75 Minutes

werewolfoflondonReview: 

This is not part of The Wolf Man storyline and is its own film. In fact, it came out before the Lon Chaney Jr. masterpiece. The Wolf Man’s adventures continue in the films House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, which I already reviewed in my pieces about the Frankenstein and Dracula series of films.

Getting into this film, it is well done and the special effects are great. This was Universal’s first werewolf film and this was a good early version of the effects they would employ in later werewolf films.

This film works all on its own and in fact, is considered a classic in its own right, regardless of The Wolf Man being more popular and launching its own mini-franchise.

I love this movie. It is real good classic Victorian horror and it has a lycanthrope in it. What’s not to love?

She-Wolf of London (1946):

Release Date: May 17th, 1946
Directed by: Jean Yarbrough
Written by: George Bricker
Music by: William Lava
Cast: June Lockhart, Don Porter

Universal Pictures, 61 Minutes

shewolfoflondonReview: 

As a stand alone film, this thing is pretty good. As a horror film, it is pretty bad.

The marketing for this film was all wrong. With the title of this film, it was trying to tap into the previously released Werewolf of London. However, don’t watch this expecting some werewolf action. What you get is a mystery film with some suspense and a not so ingenious plot.

The acting of June Lockhart and Don Porter was top notch but it didn’t save this film from being poorly marketed and being represented as something it is not. I say all this so that if someone is to watch it, they don’t go into it expecting the Universal Monster supernatural horror formula.

One more Universal Monsters review is coming. Next up will be the Creature From the Black Lagoon series.

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part IV – The Invisible Man Series (1933-1944)

The next branch of the Universal Monsters tree that I have rewatched is the Invisible Man series of films.

This character and the other invisible characters in this series, were like the Mummy in that they never really got to crossover with the other monsters of their era. I would’ve loved to have seen how Claude Rains’ Dr. Jack Griffin a.k.a. the original Invisible Man would have fared against Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man.

Like other characters in the Universal Monsters mythos, this one was milked to death. It also spawned a total of five films.

The Invisible Man (1933):

Release Date: November 13th, 1933
Directed by: James Whale
Written by: R.C. Sherriff
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart

Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes 

the-invisible-manReview:

Directed by James Whale, who gave us Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, this film is another classic gem in the catalog of his stellar work. Whale, once again, gave us some amazing cinematography even though this was an insanely difficult film to shoot for its time. The tone, the humor, the dread, all of it worked to a tee and came together like a perfectly woven tapestry.

Claude Rains is one of those actors that I cannot praise enough. He was a genius and between this film and his Phantom of the Opera adaptation, he proved that he was not just a master of horror but a master thespian able to perform at a level far exceeding many of the well-known dramatic actors of his era. There are few things in life that I prefer watching to Rains playing Dr. Jack Griffin in this film. His voice work, his body work, all of it was perfection.

This is the best film in the series and a solid, if not still the best, interpretation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, The Invisible Man. This is a great example of James Whale’s supremacy as a director, especially in the horror genre, as well as one of the very best films put out by Universal – not just in their classic monster series and not just in that time period but of all-time.

The Invisible Man Returns (1940):

Release Date: January 12th, 1940
Directed by: Joe May
Written by: Joe May, Kurt Siodmak, Lester Cole
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner
Cast: Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, Nan Grey, Alan Napier

Universal Pictures, 81 Minutes 

the_invisible_man_returnsReview:

The title is somewhat misleading, as this is a different character entirely. Although Dr. Jack Griffin’s brother Frank is a new character in this film and weirdly, Jack is referred to as “John” in this movie.

The film stars Vincent Price, a legendary horror icon in his first ever horror role. Price would gain more fame and legendary status several years later after starring in House of Wax. Regardless of that, Price played a likable and not so horrific character as this film’s incarnation of the Invisible Man. His character, Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe is sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. Knowing that he is innocent, the brother of the original Invisible Man injects himself with the invisible serum so that he can escape and clear his name.

One thing leads to another and we get the happy ending.

Alan Napier who played Alfred in the 1960s Batman TV series has a big role in this film. Vincent Price would later go on to star as the villain Egghead in that same series.

This was a solid sequel and I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t a rehash of the original film, it was a pretty original idea and it was executed greatly.

The Invisible Woman (1940):

Release Date: December 27th, 1940
Directed by: A. Edward Sutherland
Written by: Kurt Siodmak, Joe May
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charlie Ruggles, Oscar Homolka

Universal Pictures, 72 Minutes 

inviswomanReview:

With Universal pumping out an insane amount of sequels to their horror franchises, they wasted no time in releasing The Invisible Woman the same year they released The Invisible Man Returns. Sequel-mania was running rampant at Universal!

This was the first film in the series to really take a plunge. There was nothing really “horror” about it and in fact, it was a comedy.

The plot sees a recently fired department store model get revenge on her boss after she is made invisible by a loony scientist. It was basically like the plot from 9-to-5 starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. Except it was about one woman and she was invisible.

This is a pretty forgettable film and had it not been wedged into this series – ending up in box sets like the one I own, it would’ve been lost in the sands of time.

The Invisible Agent(1942):

Release Date: July 31st, 1942
Directed by: Edwin L. Marin
Written by: Curtis Siodmak
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Ilona Massey, Jon Hall, Peter Lorre

Universal Pictures, 81 Minutes 

invisibleagentReview:

This film takes The Invisible Man formula and gives us something pretty awesome: an invisible agent fighting the Nazis and a Japanese associate during World War II. Additionally, Peter Lorre is in this as the Japanese villain, which is intriguing, bizarre and just totally awesome! Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays the villainous Nazi, making his second appearance in this series, as he also played the villain in The Invisible Man Returns.

This is my favorite sequel in the series, as the plot is awesome and it was well-executed.

Coming out at the height of World War II, this must have been an exciting film to watch. The special effects are once again top notch and the acting was good from all parties involved.

The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944):

Release Date: June 9th, 1944
Directed by: Ford Beebe
Written by: Bertram Millhauser
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Jon Hall, John Carradine, Evelyn Ankers

Universal Pictures, 78 Minutes 

invisiblemansrevengeReview:

The final film in the series gives us John Carradine as a scientist who is another new character with the power of invisibility.

New character wants to harness the power, new character gets the power, new character seeks revenge against those who wronged him. Sound familiar?

Well, at this point the traditional formula of this series has run its course and unfortunately, we didn’t get something as original and new as the previous film in the series.

This film isn’t a complete waste and it is okay but you’ll watch it swearing that you’ve seen it already. Plus, I really love John Carradine.

More Universal Monsters reviews are coming as soon as I rewatch them. Next up will be the Wolf Man series.

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part II – The Dracula Series (1931-1945)

I recently reviewed the classic Frankenstein film series by Universal and am continuing on in my quest to cover all their old school horror franchises. This round, I am reviewing the Dracula series.

Dracula (1931):

Release Date: February 12th, 1931 (New York Premiere)
Directed by: Tod Browning, Karl Freund (uncredited)
Written by: Garrett Fort
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan

Universal Pictures, 85 Minutes 

dracula1931Review:

Dracula was released the same year as Frankenstein and both of these films started what became the Universal Monsters franchise, which also encompassed a film series for The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man and The Creature From the Black Lagoon. By the end of the franchise’s run, these monsters started crossing over into each other’s films. In the beginning however, they were focused on one monster and on creating a terrifying piece of film art. Dracula in many ways is a masterpiece.

Starring the iconic and legendary Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, the first film in the series was eerie, chilling and an incredibly fantastic adaptation for the resources of the time. It was directed by Tod Browning and Karl Freud (who was uncredited). Browning was also known for directing the infamous film Freaks, a year later. Regardless of which director was responsible for what, the end result was a film that still holds a place in the upper echelon of great horror films. Historically, it is still one of the top five Dracula films ever made.

This movie made Bela Lugosi a household name. He is still the most recognized version of Dracula in human history. In fact, just about every Dracula since has tried to emulate what Lugosi did in this film. He made the role his and this is one of the most iconic performances in cinema history.

Apart from the mesmerizing performance of Bela Lugosi, I have to point to Dwight Frye. Frye gave us the best version of Renfield that has ever appeared on film, even to this day – 83 years later.

Additionally, Dracula is gothic horror perfection, visually speaking. There are very few films that have been able to emulate the ambiance of this picture. Although, hundreds have tried.

If you are ever going to give a course on the history of horror movies, this, along with Universal’s Frankenstein, must be showcased.

Dracula – The Spanish Version (1931):

Release Date: March 11th, 1931 (Havana Premiere)
Directed by: George Melford
Written by: Baltasar Fernández Cué, Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Cast: Carlos Villarías, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton, Pablo Álvarez Rubio, Eduardo Arozamena

Universal Pictures, 104 Minutes 

draculaspanishReview:

The Spanish language version of Dracula is pretty unique. It was filmed alongside the Bela Lugosi film using the same sets. The English version filmed during the day and the Spanish version filmed at night. Both movies had two entirely different casts and the Spanish cast and crew had the benefit of watching the English version being made, which gave them an edge when they went on to film the same scenes. The Spanish cast and crew wanted to make the superior version and according to many historians and critics, they did.

Conde Dracula was played by the very talented Carlos Villarías, who may not have been as iconic as Bela Lugosi in the role but wasn’t too far behind him either. Villarías was legitimately scary and acted with his facial expressions much more than Lugosi.

A notable difference with this film is that the girls were able to show a bit more skin. The dresses were different even though the wardrobe for the male stars was generally the same.

Also, some of the scenes played out longer, giving the film a slower pace. Actually, the film is about a half hour longer than the English version.

While I prefer the English version, the Spanish film is a solid piece of work and worth a watch by classic horror aficionados.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936):

Release Date: May 11th, 1936
Directed by: Lambert Hillyer
Written by: Garrett Fort
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by:
 Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Otto Kruger, Gloria Holden, Marguerite Churchill

Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes 

draculas_daughterReview:

Dracula’s Daughter was the first sequel to the Bela Lugosi classic. Unfortunately, Lugosi would never reprise the role of Dracula (for fear of being typecast) but Universal wanted to capitalize on the character after the success of Bride of Frankenstein.

This film follows a completely new character, Countess Marya Zaleska played by Gloria Holden. Zaleska is the daughter of Dracula and she shows up after her father’s death to properly dispose of his corpse in an effort to free herself from vampiric urges. One thing leads to another and eventually, the urges take over.

Holden’s performance as Zaleska was pretty enthralling and the premise was interesting enough but I feel like this film was a pretty weak sequel, especially after how well Bride of Frankenstein followed Frankenstein.

This film wasn’t as huge of a hit as Dracula but it did go on to spawn more sequels in the franchise.

Son of Dracula (1943):

Release Date: November 5th, 1943
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Curtis Siodmak, Eric Taylor
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by:
 Hans J. Salter
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Robert Paige, Louise Allbritton, Evelyn Ankers

Universal Pictures, 80 Minutes 

son-of-draculaReview:

How do you get things rolling again after a seven year hiatus in the Dracula series? Well, you hire Lon Chaney Jr. to play the son of Dracula. In this film, Dracula’s offspring uses the name Count Alucard (Dracula spelled in reverse). While that has been done in other Dracula tales, I believe that this was where it originated.

This chapter is also unique in that it takes place in and around New Orleans, which is a place that would become synonymous with vampire-lore after Anne Rice penned Interview With A Vampire decades later.

I prefer this film to the previous one and it is the best of the Dracula sequels. Chaney does a great job as the antagonist and even if he is villainous, he feels like a tragic character in the same fashion that he does when he plays the Wolf Man.

House of Dracula (1945):

Release Date: December 7th, 1945
Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
Written by: Edward T. Lowe Jr., Dwight V. Babcock, George Bricker
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: William Lava (uncredited)
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Martha O’Driscoll, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill

Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes 

house-of-draculaReview:

This is the film where all of the classic monsters ended their run. There was one other film that featured them Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein but that was more of a parody than anything.

Like House of Frankenstein, the year before it, this film featured Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man. It also had a mad scientist and a hunchback character – this time a female. I’m not quite sure why they never threw the Mummy or the Invisible Man into these crossover pictures and the Gillman from The Creature From the Black Lagoon is excluded because his first film actually came out nine years later.

This film features John Carradine returning as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. returning as the Wolf Man and Glenn Strange returning as Frankenstein’s monster. This film would’ve benefited from the inclusion of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone but that much star power may have caused the Earth’s magnetic poles to reverse.

This film is entertaining and it is a proper goodbye to these beloved characters. While I have no problem with Carradine as Dracula and Strange as Frankenstein’s monster, it would have been nice to see these characters go out with the original actors back in these parts. The amazing believably that Lon Chaney Jr. can bring to any role actually propelled this film forward and once again showed how talented he was as he stole the scene every time he walked on screen.

More Universal Monsters reviews are coming as soon as I rewatch them. Next up will be the Mummy series.

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part I – The Frankenstein Series (1931-1944)

I decided to rewatch all of the old Universal Monsters films. I wanted to rank them all for a list (which I already posted) but while I was watching them, I figured that I’d review them too.

The Frankenstein series is the first one I have watched this go around and it starts with two films that are arguably the best out of all the Universal Monsters films.

Well, let me just get into the reviews.

Frankenstein (1931):

Release Date: November 21st, 1931
Directed by: James Whale
Written by: Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, Peggy Webling, John L. Balderston, Robert Florey, John Russell
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Bernard Kaun
Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye

Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes 

frankenstein-1931Review:

Frankenstein is pretty damned close to a masterpiece. It was directed by James Whale, who was a legend most known for this film and its first sequel but had a catalog that reached outside of horror and encompassed many styles and genres. Unfortunately, most of his work is unknown today and has fallen into obscurity, but I was lucky enough to have a friend that showed me some of his other work.

This film also introduced us to Boris Karloff and his interpretation of the monster, which has gone on to become the definitive version of the character, as people today are still most familiar with Karloff’s makeup and overall visual style and behavior.

The film sets the tone that would be well represented and maintained throughout the other Frankenstein films. It borrows heavily in style from the silent German Expressionist films of the early 1920s – most notably F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) as well as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Granted, this was a bit of a modernization and a more realistic interpretation of that style, but it does carry that same sort of German Expressionist vibe into a new decade and presents it to a new audience on another continent.

The acting by Boris Karloff as the monster is spectacular. The real gems of this film however are Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his sidekick Fritz played by horror icon Dwight Frye (who also played Renfield in Universal’s 1931 Dracula film).

This film is perfection for its time but it was eclipsed by its first sequel, which I will review now.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935):

Release Date: April 22nd, 1935 (Los Angeles Premiere)
Directed by: James Whale
Written by: William Hurlbut, John L. Balderston
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, Ernest Thesiger

Universal Pictures, 75 Minutes 

bride_of_frankensteinReview:

How do you take a legendary film, which was already legendary just four years after its release, and attempt to top it? Well, you stick to the formula and style that made the original successful and you up the ante without compromising the original vision. Bride of Frankenstein is a great answer to the popular question, “Name one sequel better than the original.”

First of all, Boris Karloff and Colin Clive are back. The film is missing Dwight Frye as Fritz (he plays a less dynamic character in this one) but it gains much more with the additions of Ernest Thesiger as the villainous Dr. Pretorious and Elsa Lanchester as the title character of the film. Lanchester does double duty however, as she also portrays original Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in the opening scene of the film.

This movie takes the tone and style of the original and magnifies it. James Whale created a beautiful world in his original film and expands on its magnificence in this chapter. Bride of Frankenstein should be required viewing for any film studies class, as well as any real art class (in addition to some of the German Expressionist films it is certainly an homage to).

This film is unique, especially for its time, in that it is a true sequel that goes beyond just the material it is based on. It revisits Shelley’s concept in a new way and expands on it. While purists may not consider it true to the nature, tone and overall point of Shelley’s original Frankenstein novel, it explores uncharted territory nonetheless and does so with gusto and style and although being limited in scope and the production value of the era it was created in, it is a near flawless companion piece to the ideas of the original tale – one of the greatest novels ever written.

Son of Frankenstein (1939):

Release Date: January 13th, 1939
Directed by: Rowland V. Lee
Written by: Wyllis Cooper
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi

Universal Pictures, 99 Minutes 

son_of_frankensteinReview:

So what do you do when you lose Colin Clive, Dwight Frye and the awesome additions of Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester? Well, you bring back Boris Karloff as the monster and you bring in horror legends Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. And being frank, this is one of my favorite Basil Rathbone performances of all-time.

Now this film is the start of the decline in the series but it doesn’t mean that this film and the ones after it were crap. Quite the contrary, these films are still great and play well today as classic horror masterpieces. The problem is that after the James Whale films, it was hard for Universal to replicate his quality and ability to weave a timeless tale visually – conveying emotion through the sets, the lighting, the make-up and the subtle nuances he brought forth in directing such an elite group of talent in those first two films.

Basil Rathbone owns the screen in this film as the very likable son of Henry Frankenstein named Baron Wolf von Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi is beyond fantastic as the now iconic Ygor, who wants nothing more than to control the monster in an effort to exact revenge on the townsfolk who wronged him.

I really loved the set design in this film. The use of lights and shadow brought me back to the old German Expressionist vibe even more so than James Whale’s application of the style. The style was done in a more primal and straightforward way here, which lost the lushness and complexity of Whale’s films but gained in the more obscure and supernatural atmosphere that they created. The Frankenstein house, through lighting techniques on the set was able to be inviting and haunting all at the same time. The strange non-symmetrical architecture inside, especially the staircase and its ominous shadows, were a sight to behold. You never feel quite safe or comfortable with these sets. While I prefer Whale’s refined style, this film is visually more unsettling.

Ultimately, this film is also another gem in Universal’s Monster catalog. Then again, this is from an era where they had to try really hard to produce a bad film.

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942):

Release Date: March 13th, 1942
Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
Written by: Scott Darling, Eric Taylor
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers

Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes 

ghost_of_frankensteinReview:

Boris Karloff sat this one out. So who did Universal get to play the monster? Well, they went to Lon Chaney Jr., son of Lon Chaney – the man who starred in several classic Universal horror films of the 1920s. Chaney Jr. had also already played the title character in Universal’s The Wolf Man, which was released just before this film. This movie also reunited Chaney Jr. with Bela Lugosi, who also had a part in The Wolf Man. Lugosi again played Ygor, whose streak of sinister villainy was not yet over.

This film introduces us to another Frankenstein son, this time Ludwig Frankenstein – played by Cedric Hardwicke. This film also gives us the uber-talented Ralph Bellamy.

I find this film to be the weakest of the series. I still love it but it seems to be more of a rehash of the previous film with a few minor changes. The most interesting thing really is that Ygor controls the monster with a special horn he plays.

The style is still consistent but at this point it is also becoming a bit of a caricature to itself and maybe a detriment. Either that or the formula and this franchise has ran its course regardless of this still being an enjoyable piece of film history. You definitely get the vibe that this is where the franchise was just being used to milk money from pockets instead of being more concentrated on making great films like the ones that preceded it.

House of Frankenstein (1944):

Release Date: December 15th, 1944 (New York City Premiere)
Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
Written by: Edward T. Lowe Jr., Curt Siodmak
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: Hans J. Salter, Paul Dessau
Cast: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, J. Carrol Naish

Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes 

house_of_frankensteinReview:

How does one jump the shark before that was even a term Hollywood knew anything about? Well, you jam pack as many monsters and stars into one film as you possibly can because if you own the rights to a bunch of monsters, why not have them duke it out in a free-for-all? And honestly, at this point in the Universal Monsters timeline, across all their multiple horror franchises, this pretty much had to happen in order to keep things fresh and interesting.

Boris Karloff returns but this time he is a mad scientist with a hunchback assistant played by J. Carrol Naish, who is brilliant in this film, as you really pull for him and then find yourself somewhat distraught after he goes over the edge in the end.

Lon Chaney Jr. shows up as the Wolf Man, John Carradine shows up as Count Dracula (a role he would also play in House of Dracula a year later).

This film plays like an anthology piece, where the first half of the film follows the Dracula story and the second half follows the Wolf Man story while Frankenstein is mostly on a table the whole film and doesn’t do much. It isn’t as epic as the Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man confrontation between the two characters, which was released the year prior to this (and will be reviewed when I cover The Wolf Man series of films in an upcoming post).

I like this film, even though this is where things just got silly.

More Universal Monsters reviews are coming. Next up will be the Dracula series.