Also known as: Ratman’s Notebooks (working title) Release Date: February 26th, 1971 (Scranton, Pennsylvania) Directed by: Daniel Mann Written by: Gilbert Ralston Based on:Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert Music by: Alex North Cast: Bruce Davison, Elsa Lanchester, Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke
Back in 2003, a remake of Willard came out. I had never known about the original film but the remake intrigued me so much that I had always wanted to see its predecessor.
I was glad to discover that from a story standpoint, the two films are almost identical, minus a few tweaks that made the remake darker and slightly more unhinged.
While this isn’t a comedy film, it almost has an innocent charm about it with a few comedic moments thrown in, specifically in how this incarnation of Willard Stiles deals with certain people in his life.
Bruce Davison plays the title character and while he’s not as amazing as Crispin Glover was in the 2003 version, he’s much more likable and you sympathize with him on a deeper level.
Davison is also surrounded by an interesting cast with Elsa Lanchester, the original Bride of Frankenstein, as his overbearing mother and the great Ernest Borgnine as his shithead, borderline evil boss. We also get a very young Sondra Locke as a love interest for Willard.
For those unfamiliar with these movies, the story follows a sort of weak mama’s boy that is bossed around by everyone in his life, all of whom tell him to be more of a man and to be more assertive. He ends up resenting just about everyone and all the while, he befriends some rats that he learns to train to essentially do his bidding. One thing leads to another, the plot and the tension escalates and this turns into a real horror movie.
Ultimately, it’s a cool flick and probably deserving of its cult status but from memory, I actually liked how much darker the remake was. Granted, it’s also the first version of the story that I saw and I could be affected by that. But it’s hard to top what Crispin Glover brought to the table in that picture, notwithstanding how much I also enjoyed Davison, here.
Rating: 7/10 Pairs well with: it’s sequel Ben, as well as the 2003 Willard remake with Crispin Glover.
Release Date: March 18th, 1948 (Detroit premiere) Directed by: John Farrow Written by: Jonathan Latimer Based on:The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing Music by: Victor Young Cast: Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester
Paramount Pictures, 95 Minutes
“White clocks, yellow clocks, brown clocks, blue clocks. Oh, Miss York, where are the green clocks of yesteryear?” – George Stroud
This is one of those noir films that many consider to be one of the top. I hadn’t seen it until now but I’m using the month of Noirvember to work through a lot of the films I’ve missed in the noir style.
Being that this stars Ray Milland also made me bump this one up on my list.
For the most part, this was pretty standard fare as far as noir pictures go. Milland gave it a little extra flourish, as did Elsa Lanchester in the few bits she was in.
I also thought that the setting was unique, especially how they used the big clock within the film itself. But this also used clocks as a motif throughout the entire picture. Which makes sense, as it was a race against time and it featured big business where time is money.
The story was decent but there wasn’t much in it that I found surprising. In fact, there really isn’t a mystery to solve or any shocking plot twists. The audience knows what’s happening and it is really just a journey about a man trying to clear his name and finger the true villain.
I thought that most of the film was just okay. The minutes before the big finale is where it actually kind of picks up. The story’s villain does end up dying a pretty terrible but fitting death and I did find that satisfying.
The Big Clock was solid and quite competent on nearly every level. It just didn’t tap into that dark, noir part of my brain as much as I would’ve liked.
Rating: 7/10 Pairs well with: other classic noir pictures like Nocturne, This Gun for Hire, Thieves’ Highway, Criss Cross, Trapped and Clash by Night.
Also known as: Murder at Harvard (working title) Release Date: June 23rd, 1950 (Denver & Detroit premieres) Directed by: John Sturges Written by: Sydney Boehm, Richard Brooks, Leonard Spigelgass Music by: Rudolph G. Kopp Cast: Ricardo Montalban, Sally Forrest, Bruce Bennett, Elsa Lanchester
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 93 Minutes
“Know her? Sure, I knew her. I was never close enough to smell her perfume, but I knew her!” – Jim Black, tattooist
If you’re a classic Star Trek fan, it’s hard not to have a love for Ricardo Montalban. So since I also have a love of old school film-noir, I’d definitely want to check one out that starred the man who would later become the most famous Trek villain of all-time, Khan Noonien Singh.
Also, this film features one of my favorite ladies of her day, Elsa Lanchester. She will always be most known for playing the Bride in The Bride of Frankenstein. Here she plays a sort of kooky but fun character.
While this picture is considered film-noir and very much is, it is more of a police procedural in a time when the genre was really in its infancy. Procedurals were born out of film-noir and this isn’t the first but it helped to popularize the style.
Like other early procedurals, this was filmed in a semi-documentary style. It had some good location shooting throughout Boston that added a strong sense of realism to a film that was made when Hollywood still preferred shooting in their studios and on lots.
The film boasts striking cinematography that adds to the sense of realism and enhances the picture’s organic grittiness. John Alton handled the cinematography work, which was fitting as he also worked on T-Men, a similar film in style, as well as other noirs Raw Deal, Border Incident and The Crooked Way.
Mystery Street is a motion picture that showcases real cinematic craftsmanship in the way that it was directed, shot and in how well the performers handled the material. While not Montalban’s greatest role, it did show that he was a star in the making, on the verge of greater heights. It’s also nice to travel back this far in time and see him as a more capable actor than a stereotypical Latin heartthrob or as a blockbuster villain.
This is a solid picture, through and through. It’s far from the best noir I’ve ever seen but it is much better than average and helped pave the way for a new form of storytelling on the big and small screens.
Rating: 7.25/10 Pairs well with: Other film-noir police procedurals: The Naked City, T-Men and He Walked by Night.
Also known as: Silence of Helen McCord (working title), Some Must Watch (working title) Release Date: February 7th, 1946 (New York City premiere) Directed by: Robert Siodmak Written by: Mel Dinelli Based on:Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White Music by: Roy Webb Cast: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Elsa Lanchester
Vanguard Films, RKO Radio Pictures, 83 Minutes
“The only thing that keeps me from cracking you in the jaw is the almost certain possibility that it would break your neck.” – Dr. Parry
The Spiral Staircase isn’t specifically categorized as horror. It is categorized as a thriller but it is definitely horror in its subject matter and in its ability to build suspense and give you a real sense of terror. Plus, the opening moments of a woman dressing, as the camera closes in on an eye watching her from a hidden position is chilling and nightmare inducing by 1940s standards.
The story follows a mute girl (Dorothy McGuire) who is targeted by a serial killer that picks off young women with disabilities. She lives in a mansion, taking care of a wealthy bedridden woman (Ethel Barrymore). The woman, as well as the girl’s doctor, urge her to leave the house. The doctor knows the cause of the girl’s muteness and wants to cure her.
The film really has similar notes to a slasher or giallo movie without the violence. It also predates giallo by several decades.
The film is dark and moody but it is just as beautiful as it is haunting. It has great cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, who did amazing work in the horror/noir hybrids Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, The Seventh Victim, Bedlam and The Ghost Ship. He also did the beloved noir classic Out of the Past. With the direction of Robert Siodmak, this film was helmed by two artists who were masters of creating atmosphere and visual suspense.
This is a solid psychological thriller and an atmospheric gem. The acting is better than average and the music is also really good, adding to the slow build of dread in this film.
I actually find it surprising that this RKO horror/noir creation was not produced by Val Lewton, who was the mastermind behind most of these pictures for the studio. It was produced by Dore Schary, who would eventually go on to be the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
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.
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 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
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
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
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, Glenn Strange
Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes
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.