Film Review: The Indestructible Man (1956)

Release Date: March 25th, 1956
Directed by: Jack Pollexfen
Written by: Vy Russell, Sue Dwiggins
Music by: Albert Glasser
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Max Showalter, Marian Carr

C.G.K. Productions, Allied Artists Pictures, 72 Minutes

Review:

“Remember what I said. I’m gonna kill ya. All three of ya.” – Charles ‘Butcher’ Benton

Released theatrically in 1956, as part of a double bill with World Without End, this picture was the shitty half of that pairing. Really, it’s probably the shitty half of anything you could pair it with.

It stars Lon Chaney Jr. which used to mean something a decade and a half before this came out. By the time the younger Chaney got into the ’50s, he was mostly relegated to starring in complete schlock. Sometimes there was a good role for him, like Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace alongside Vincent Price in 1963. Most of the time, however, this was the shit that Chaney was stuck doing. I probably would have turned into a fat, cranky alcoholic too.

The story is about a killer that is experimented on because that always works out well. His skin becomes indestructible and he can’t be killed. Well, he can be burned and get disfigured from fire, as we see towards the end. He can also die of electrocution, as he takes his life that way in the chilling climax. But yeah, other than that, he’s indestructible.

This is a short, shitty motion picture with terrible acting, abysmal directing, no artistry in anyway whatsoever and is about as entertaining as watching some old guy in front of you in the Golden Corral line confused about whether he prefers vanilla pudding or banana.

But luckily for us, the film was lampooned by Joel and the ‘Bots on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you have to watch this film, you probably need to talk to a therapist. But if you insist, watch it via MST3K and at least laugh along with how mundane and awful it is.

Rating: 3/10
Pairs well with: World Without End, and then a long list of 1950s horror/sci-fi MST3K featured films.

Film Review: The Haunted Palace (1963)

Release Date: August 28th, 1963 (Cincinnati)
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles Beaumont
Based on: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft, The Haunted Palace poem by Edgar Allan Poe
Music by: Ronald Stein
Cast: Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr., Elisha Cook Jr., Leo Gordon

American International Pictures, 87 Minutes 

Review:

“You do not know the extent of my appetite, Simon. I’ll not have my fill of revenge until this village is a graveyard. Until they have felt, as I did, the kiss of fire on their soft bare flesh. All of them. Have patience my friends. Surely, after all these years, I’m entitled to a few small amusements.” – Charles Dexter Ward

Out of all the Roger Corman and Vincent Price collaborations based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, my favorite is this film, The Haunted Palace. There are several reasons for this, as it may seem like an unorthodox choice. For one, despite the title being taken from an Edgar Allan Poe work, the story is actually based off of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Also, this was the first Vincent Price film I ever saw. Additionally, as much as I love the work of Poe, I am a bigger fan of H.P. Lovecraft, who gave us a rich and exciting mythos all his own along with a touch of insanity.

Roger Corman wanted to try something different after the success of his Poe films and he chose this H.P. Lovecraft tale. Against his wishes however, American International branded it with the name of a Poe poem in order to capitalize off of the success of the earlier films. They also ended the movie with Price narrating an excerpt from Poe.

The Lovecraft story gives this film a slightly different vibe than the other films in the massive Corman-Price-Poe series. Frankly, I think that the cinematography is the best in the series and the music is absolutely stellar. It relies less on some of Corman’s trippy effects, except for when a monster shows up in a pit, and it actually showcases Corman and his team’s talent in making the most out of their limited resources.

For one, the sets of the film, especially the village, were quite small. Corman shot a lot of these scenes using the trick of forced perspective but it comes across pretty flawlessly. Also, the matte paintings were fabulous and set the tone of the film. The haunted palace on the cliff in the background of the village was absolutely spectacular and emitted a feeling of cold dread.

The palace set seemed pretty grandiose. The scene where Debra Pagent and Frank Maxwell walk from the front door, through the hall and into the great living space of the old castle was a brilliantly done tracking shot that also used force perspective to make the set feel massive.

The painting of the sinister necromancer Joseph Curwen, which loomed above the large fireplace, was a beautiful and effective piece of artwork that was mesmerizing and helped to foreshadow his hold on the palace.

Vincent Price was at his very best. He played the evil Curwen and also his decedent, the nice and logical Charles Dexter Ward, a man who would become possessed by his ancestor. The speech that Price gives as Curwen, in the beginning before his first demise, was one of the greatest moments in Price’s storied career. The words, the execution, all of it was chilling and set the stage for what was to come.

Lon Chaney Jr. also appears in this and it is the only time he ever worked with Roger Corman. He had worked on a film with Price once before but the two did not share any scenes and Price only provided voiceover work. That film was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This film is the first and only time that horror legends Vincent Price and Lon Chaney Jr. got to share the screen. However, Chaney’s role was originally intended to be for Boris Karloff but he got sick while filming Black Sabbath for Mario Bava in Italy.

The Haunted Palace is perfectly paced and more interesting than the other Corman-Price-Poe films, in my opinion. It builds suspense and is well acted, even by the lesser-known actors who make up the villagers.

The only real weakness in the film is the Lovecraftian monster in the pit. It is literally a slimy looking statue of a beast under vibrant lighting and trippy LSD-like effects. Thankfully, the creature only appears very briefly and the real monster of the picture is Price’s Joseph Curwen.

The film is also full of several villagers with odd mutations. Only one of them is actually dangerous but they are used pretty effectively to frighten Price and Pagent as they walk through the quiet village at night.

The opening credits sequence features a spider spinning a web and catching a butterfly, only to eat it. It is scored by Ronald Stein and paints the perfect tone, as this film starts. The Haunted Palace features the best score of the Corman-Price-Poe pictures.

To me, The Haunted Palace is the perfect Vincent Price film. It employs some of his best acting moments, it showcases his great work with Roger Corman and it has a strong Victorian horror vibe that reflects the horror trends of its era.

While I know that this isn’t most people’s favorite of the Corman-Price-Poe film series but, for me, it just resonates in a way that the others don’t. I love all these pictures but it is The Haunted Palace that takes the cake for me. I only wish we could’ve gotten more Lovecraft movies with Price on screen and Corman behind the camera.

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 III – The Mummy Series (1932-1944)

Continuing on with my quest to rewatch and review all the classic Universal Monsters franchises, I have now gotten to the Mummy series.

The Mummy (1932):

Release Date: December 22nd, 1932
Directed by: Karl Freund
Written by: John L. Balderston, Nina Wilcox Putnam, Richard Schayer
Music by: James Dietrich
Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward van Sloan, Arthur Byron

Universal Pictures, 73 Minutes 

the_mummy_1932Review:

Immediately following the success of 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein films, Universal went with the next monster needing to scare the crap out of theatergoers: the Mummy. And who did they get to portray the now iconic character of Imhotep a.k.a the Mummy? Well, they went to Frankenstein’s monster himself, Boris Karloff.

This film was directed by Karl Freund and it was his official directorial debut. For a rookie director behind the camera, Freund had a great eye for capturing intense dread and a very visual gothic style of storytelling. The film was consistent with the vibe of Universal’s other early monster films. While not exactly on the level of what James Whale created in the first two Frankenstein films, this movie does deserve to be applauded as a feat of cinematography and lighting.

Karloff was as amazing as he always is and that should be no surprise. He gave us a much more organic Imhotep than what was given to audiences in the bad 1999 remake of this film. Karloff’s face, especially his eyes, during the waking of Imhotep from his 2,000 year slumber was pretty enchanting and frightening.

I think that this film is overlooked in comparison to the other franchises under the Universal Monsters banner and looking back at it now, I am not sure as to why. It is just as chilling and just as effective as their other early films.

The Mummy’s Hand (1940):

Release Date: September 20th, 1940
Directed by: Christy Cabanne
Written by: Griffin Jay, Maxwell Shane
Cast: Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Wallace Ford, Cecil Kellaway, Eduardo Ciannelli, George Zucco, Tom Tyler

Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes 

the_mummys_handReview:

After an eight year hiatus, the Mummy returned! Except this mummy was a new character.

The mummy in this film is named Kharis and although his origin story is very similar to Imhotep in the first film, there are some differences. Additionally, this is almost the start of a new series itself, as Kharis continues on as the series antagonist leaving Imhotep behind. In this film, Kharis is played by Tom Tyler, who was best known for starring in low-budget westerns and as Captain Marvel in the serial Adventures of Captain Marvel.

This film uses some pretty awesome sets and that was the biggest takeaway for me in the realm of design and art direction.

This film also introduces the concept of the mummy needing tanna leaves to survive and to be controlled. It is a fictitious plant, so there is no need to worry about people actually using tanna leaves to animate mummified corpses.

This film is generally forgettable and the weakest in the series other than its set design.

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942):

Release Date: October 23rd, 1942
Directed by: Harold Young
Written by: Neil P. Varnick
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Dick Foran, John Hubbard

Universal Pictures, 61 Minutes 

the_mummys_tombReview:

In this film, we get Lon Chaney Jr. playing Kharis the mummy. This is actually the first of three films where Chaney takes over as the undead monster. So Chaney has played the Mummy, Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster. He’s been four out of the six monsters from the Universal Monsters franchises. If only he were the Gillman and the Invisible Man and he would’ve done a clean sweep.

I liked this film better than the previous one. Chaney brought a level of credibility and emotion to Kharis and he made him more relatable.

The problem with this and this branch of the Universal Monsters’ tree is that these films almost blend together too much. There isn’t a lot that sets each one apart and they feel like a retelling over and over again. It is hard to make the Mummy character as compelling as the other Monsters as it is really just a slow moving guy in bandages that wobbles around and moans. Yes, it is a scary concept, especially at the time it came out but it is the most one-dimensional of the Universal Monsters.

Lon Chaney Jr. did a good job and he owned the role probably more so than Boris Karloff did. Besides, Karloff was barely in bandages and spent most of his film playing an Egyptian dude in disguise.

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944):

Release Date: July 7th, 1944
Directed by: Reginald Le Borg
Written by: Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Robert Lowery, Ramsay Ames

Universal Pictures, 61 Minutes 

mummysghostReview:

Here we go again, another Mummy film.

At this point, I am growing tired of the formula and I am a pretty big old school horror aficionado. This is where I realized, that this is probably the weakest of the Universal Monsters sub-franchises.

Lon Chaney Jr. returns but even he can’t make this as interesting as I hoped it would be. I also don’t understand why Universal made the poor mummy walk up and down a steep sloped roller coaster track that led to his hideout. Why wouldn’t the evil jerk who is controlling the mummy pick easier terrain for his tortoise-like assassin?

But at least when it comes to style and cinematography, it is consistent.

The Mummy’s Curse (1944):

Release Date: December 22nd, 1944
Directed by: Leslie Goodwins
Written by: Leon Abrams, Dwight V. Babcock
Music by: William Lava, Paul Sawtell
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Coe, Virginia Christine

Universal Pictures, 62 Minutes 

themummyscurseReview:

Two Mummy films in the same year? Man, wasn’t Universal getting burnt out on the most mediocre of their Monsters series? And wasn’t Lon Chaney Jr. in desperate need of a break between these movies and all the others he was pumping out?

The mummy wants his bride and that is the plot of this one. Well, that and the fact that some bad guy has nine tanna leaves once again and can therefore control Kharis to do his evil bidding.

At five deep, these films just keep blending together more and more. There is nothing to really set this film apart. Plus, these movies are so short, that it was like watching five different pilots for the same show.

But, the series is over.

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