Film Review: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Also known as: The Brain of Frankenstein (working title)
Release Date: June 15th, 1948
Directed by: Charles Barton
Written by: John Grant, Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo
Based on: characters by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Curt Siodmak, H.G. Wells
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, Lenore Aubert, Jane Randolph, Frank Ferguson, Charles Bradstreet, Vincent Price (voice, uncredited cameo)

Universal International Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

“Young people making the most of life – while it lasts.” – Dr. Lejos/Dracula

I’m actually surprised that I hadn’t yet reviewed any of the Universal Monsters pictures with Abbot and Costello in them. I have an immense love of both things and having them come together, which they did a handful of times, was really cool.

Overall, this one was always my favorite but I like all of them.

In this one, we don’t just get Frankenstein’s Monster, we also get Dracula, the Wolf Man and a little cameo by the Invisible Man. With that, we also got Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and a voice cameo by the legendary Vincent Price.

Unfortunately, Boris Karloff didn’t come back to play Frankenstein’s Monster but we did get Glenn Strange, who had already played the monster twice before this and who is really underappreciated in that role.

The only problem with this is one that doesn’t actually effect the film itself but instead, effects the ones that followed. You see, they blew their nut really early by cramming a ton of monsters into this one, so the following movies felt a bit underwhelming after the precedent this one set. But honestly, it’s why this particular one is the best of the lot.

Abbot and Costello are both hilarious per usual and their camaraderie was so solid by this point that they could’ve entertained in their sleep.

All in all, this was a really good horror comedy that took the best parts of two very different things and merged them together very well, not diminishing the performances of the two comedic legends or the coolness of the classic monsters and the legends who played them.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: the other Abbot and Costello monster movies.

Film Serial Review: Flash Gordon (1936)

Release Date: April 6th, 1936 (first chapter)
Directed by: Frederick Stephani, Ray Taylor (uncredited)
Written by: Basil Dickey, Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Frederick Stephani
Based on: Flash Gordon comic strip by Alex Raymond
Music by: Clifford Vaughan
Cast: Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Charles B. Middleton, Priscilla Lawson, Frank Shannon, Glenn Strange (uncredited)

Universal Pictures, 245 Minutes total (13 chapters)

Review:

Flash Gordon is a character that has lived on in American culture for decades. This 1936 serial by Universal Pictures is the first time that the famous comic strip hero was presented in a live-action format. Needless to say, it was a hugely popular serial for Universal and spawned a franchise that still has life all these years later.

The serial stars Buster Crabbe, who is the only actor to play the top three syndicated comic strip heroes of the 1930s: Tarzan (Tarzan the Fearless), Buck Rogers (Buck Rogers) and Flash Gordon (Flash GordonFlash Gordon’s Trip to Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe).

Having dark hair, Crabbe had to bleach his hair blonde to play Flash Gordon, which he was very self-conscious about. He’d actually wear a hat whenever he wasn’t filming.

Co-star Jean Rogers, who played Dale Arden, also went blonde even though her character was a brunette. This was supposedly done to capitalize on the popularity of “platinum blonde” Jean Harlow, another actress.

Charles B. Middleton played the infamous villain Ming the Merciless. This was also where Ming got the look of a Fu Manchu type character.

There was a claim that Flash Gordon had a budget of over a million dollars, which was absurd for the time. Supposedly, the real budget was $350,000 and Universal Pictures recycled a lot of their elements and props from other films. Most notably the use of the watchtower sets from 1931’s Frankenstein, a statue from 1932’s The Mummy, lab equipment from 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein and other sci-fi and horror classics. The serial also recycles musical scores from The Bride of FrankensteinThe Invisible Man and other productions.

From a style standpoint, it should be obvious that this had a similar vibe to the classic Universal Monsters franchise of films.

Overall, Flash Gordon is fairly exciting with decent cliffhangers and twists. It has better acting than most serials and the action is top notch for this style of production.

The serial ended up being Universal’s second highest grossing release of 1936, behind the film Three Smart Girls. Some people were critical of the “revealing” costumes of the woman characters and future Flash Gordon serials had to dress women more modestly.

This is one of my favorite serials and my favorite of the Flash Gordon series. Crabbe would play Gordon two more times.

Rating: 7.75/10

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.

Rating: 10/10

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.

Rating: 10/10

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.

Rating: 7/10

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.

Rating: 8/10

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, Glenn Strange

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.

Rating: 7/10

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.

Rating: 10/10

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.

Rating: 10/10

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.

Rating: 9/10

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.

Rating: 7/10

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 

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.

Rating: 6/10

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