Happy Birthday to Bram Stoker!

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Bram_Stoker_1906

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

Today is the 170th anniversary of Irish writer Bram Stoker’s birthday. As the author of Dracula, a book I consider one of the finest Gothic novels ever written, he has had enormous impact on the worlds of writing, theater, and film.

To commemorate this day, the wonderful librarians at Lehigh University’s Linderman Library organized a showing of the classic film Dracula (1931) and starring Bela Lugosi. I was asked to give a short presentation about the film, which I enjoyed doing.  Given the opportunity to talk about this book and film, I always grasp the chance.

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So I wish Bram Stoker a happy birthday!

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Science-Fiction Films of the 1930s: Frankenstein

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The movie that I will discuss in this installment is Frankenstein.  This 1931 film was directed by James Whale and produced by Carl Laemelle, Jr. Universal Studios was following up its huge success with Dracula earlier in the year, so this film seemed like a natural choice to make. I have posted on Frankenstein before in my series on horror films, but like its namesake novel, it can also been seen as early science-fiction.

While the title and characters come from the 1818 Mary Shelley novel, it is a loose adaptation of the text.  Interestingly, the sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, is a much more faithful treatment of the novel than this first film. This movie, one of the most important in horror film history, introduces Boris Karloff as the Creature. Karloff gives an impressive performance as the lost and lonely being who is unsure of who he is and his place in the world.  This sounds like so many teenagers and young people, and while frightening, Karloff also gathered empathy from viewers in his nuanced performance.

Bela Lugosi had been offered the part of the creature but apparently turned it down because of its lack of speaking lines.  Lugosi made a terrible career choice, because Karloff would supplant him after this film’s success as the top box office star and would continue to dominate Lugosi’s subsequent film career.

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The movie is powerful and atmospheric and is highly influenced by the artistic movement German Expressionism that had a stylistic impact on cinema especially in the 1920s and 1930s. Whale used large Gothic structures in the set and deep slashing shadows in creating the atmosphere of the film.

Jack Pierce designed the Creature’s distinctive makeup, which was an ordeal to apply and remove from Boris Karloff each day before and after filming. It is a work of design masterpiece, but it is completely different from the Creature’s appearance in the novel.

For those familiar with the novel, it is significant that not only the Creature’s appearance but also his personality and level of intelligence are vastly different from that of the character from the book. In Mary Shelley’s work, the creature is one of the narrators and is both intelligent and self-educated.  Both of those characteristics are missing from the inarticulate and not very bright film Creature. This kind of vastly different portrayal of characters and themes is something that is, unfortunately, typical of many horror films, or should I say, many film adaptations of books. That, however, should be the topic of another post.

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This movie incorporates the stuff of science-fiction, and we see Dr. Frankenstein and his then advanced technological equipment as he attempts to capture the essence of life. In fact, there is more such machinery in the film than exists in the book. So, is Frankenstein horror or science-fiction? I argue it is both.

The film was very successful financially for Universal Studios.  It is also considered by many cinema historians and critics to be one of the most important films made. It spawned numerous sequels and parodies, not limited to movies.  From Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to the character of Herman Munster in The Munsters to Young Frankenstein, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation have been fertile ground for satire and spoofing.

 

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Favorite Horror Films of the 1940s: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

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This film might seem like an unusual choice for my series on horror films, especially since it is primarily a comedy, but I do have a fond place for this movie in my heart for several reasons.

As a youngster, I loved the hosted horror films shows that often appeared on Saturday afternoon, and I saw most of the Universal Studios horror films on those shows.  Also, I heard several times from my parents that they saw this movie when they were on their honeymoon in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, it is an extremely funny movie.

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(https://commons.wikimedia.org)

This film, made in 1948, was the completion of the Universal classic horror movie cycle, and it included the big three monsters of the Universal pantheon: The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolfman.  One of the signals of the end of a film genre cycle is when it reaches parody, and this film qualifies.  Horror very often is a reflection of the concerns of the larger world, and with World War Two completed, the fears of the world had changed and would be seen more in new science fiction films. (I examine some of these movies in my series on Science-Fiction films.)

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

The premise is silly and features Dracula attempting to revive the Frankenstein Creature, and Larry Talbot, the wolfman, trying to find a cure for his lycanthropic infection. I should add that this is one of the finest performances by Lon Chaney Jr. despite the comedic tone of the movie.  Of course, Abbott and Costello are brilliant in their comedic routines. This movie never fails to make me laugh, no matter how many times I have seen it. Bela Lugosi plays Dracula for the last time, and Glenn Strange takes his turn as the Creature.

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(https://ils.unc.edu/dpr/path/horrorfilms)

If you have not seen this movie and you enjoy the classic Universal Studios horror films and you love slapstick 1940s comedy, then you should watch it! I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

 

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Favorite Horror Films of the 1930s: A Series Revisited: Dracula

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When I first considered doing an examination of my favorite horror movies, I thought that going decade by decade would be sufficient, but I realized that some periods have far more excellent films than others.  A simple examination of 2-4 movies from the 1930s will not work, so I am going to look at one film at a time for that decade. I will begin with Dracula, a film I love, and which I have taught in college classes such as Literature and Film and Gothic and Horror.  I also hold the novel to be an excellent and very important book.

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

Dracula, made in 1931, and released for Valentine’s Day–a nice touch–was a huge success and established Bela Lugosi as a top box office star. This production was itself based on the very successful theatrical play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and James Balderston. Stoker’s novel did not see great success during his life, but after his death and the success of the play, it became one of the best selling novels of the 20th Century–worldwide.

Carl Laemmle Jr, capitalized on the story’s growing popularity and produced the movie.  Tod Browning, who had directed Lon Chaney Sr. in several movies, directed this piece. This film is highly atmospheric with a Gothic set and influenced by German Expressionism. Lugosi was brilliant with his authentic Hungarian accent and menacing presence. His performance and voice set the standard for the image of Dracula and vampires for decades to come. Dracula was a sensation and terrified people; today’s audience would probably find it slow and not at all frightening, but that reflects our jaded views that have been glutted with gore as the staple ingredient of contemporary horror.  This film depended on story telling, atmosphere, and acting. The film’s success created an era of classic horror films through the 1930s and part of the 1940s with Universal studios leading the way.

Additionally, Dracula is generally accepted by most film critics as one of the best horror films made.  I certainly consider it to be one of the best and most important.

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

It is an interesting and little known detail of film history that in addition to the English language version, Universal also made a Spanish language film at the same time.  The  two films shared the same sets, and the same basic scripts, but with different actors and a different director: George Melford directed, and Carlos Villarías stared as Dracula.  While not as well known, an argument can be made that this is a better film than the more established English language version.  If you ever have the opportunity to see it, I recommend that you do.

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Favorite Horror Films of the 1960s: The Brides of Dracula

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A tsunami of horror films cascaded into movie theaters in the 1960s, some by the larger studios and an abundance of grade B-Z films from smaller companies. Following the success of Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy, Hammer created a plethora of sequels as well as new horror films. Frankenstein and Dracula would serve as the basis for the most sequels, thereby creating a seemingly non-ending money source for the studio, even as the films often became bad imitations of the original productions.

Oddly, the first sequel to The Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, (1960) does not feature Dracula as a character. Instead, the movie features a Baron Meinster, as the opening voice-over narration says is a disciple of the ongoing cult of vampirism led by the now destroyed Dracula. While Dracula does not appear, the renowned vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing does as played once more by Peter Cushing. Along with Baron Frankenstein, this role would establish Cushing as a major horror film star of the 1950s-1970s.

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

The characters are indirectly based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, the foundation for most vampire films, until Anne Rice’s revolutionary treatment of the undead in Interview With The Vampire.

The plot involves a young teacher who is “wooed” by a Baron Meinster. He proposes to her, while intending to make her his vampire bride. The tone of the film is clearly Gothic, with an architectural focus on a castle, the threatened young maiden, and a Bryonic Hero–the Baron.  These are standard, but not all inclusive, elements of a Gothic tale, and the Byronic Hero is typically a sexually attractive and threatening person, but more importantly, someone who lives according to his or her own rules, ignoring  the dictates of society.

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

While much of the film does not break new earth in exploring the vampire story, it does feature one very unusual twist. In one sequence, Dr. Van Helsing is attacked by a vampire and bitten. He passes out, and when he awakens, he is able to remove the curse of the vampire bite. He heats an iron in glowing coals, then uses it to cauterize the bite and finally pours holy water onto the wound. It works and suggest that the vampire attacks are not merely demonic but also infections. This motif is one that will be greatly developed in many later vampire novels, TV shows, and films.

Van Helsing is successful in destroying the vampire and saving the young woman. The motif of the holy symbols are repeated: Van Helsing throws holy water onto the face of the Vampire, repelling and burning him, and then he is able to catch the Baron in the shadow of a giant cross, which destroys him.

Terence Fisher directed, and the film did well enough at the box office to justify a chain of sequels. Even though Christopher Lee did not appear in this movie, he would soon return to reprise the role of Count Dracula in the near future.

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Favorite Horror Films of the 1950s: The Curse of Frankenstein

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First I want to begin with a mea culpa. I made an error in my last post about horror films in the 1950s. I wrote that Horror of Dracula was the initial film in Hammer Studio’s emergence as a major production house of horror films; it was not the first.  The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 was their first horror movie.  I apologize for the mistake.

Curseoffrankenstein

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

Terence Fisher directed The Curse of Frankenstein for Hammer, and Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Hazel Court starred. The result was an innovative, fast paced, and  vivid colored.  It was, like so many others, loosely based on the great work of Gothic English Literature by Mary Shelley: Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus (1818). Yes, that is the accurate subtitle, although it is usually omitted in most printings of the book.

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This movie was highly successful, both financially and critically.  And like Horror of Dracula would, it spawned a long series of sequels. A major difference between the direction of the following films was the focus: the monster Dracula was the recurring character in the vampire movies, while Dr. Frankenstein, and not his creature was the repeating protagonist/antagonist of the Frankenstein movies. This is also an  important distinction between the Hammer and the earlier Universal movies in which the Creature was the primary recurring character.

The Creature was also a mindless killing machine in this film, and none of the Creature’s humanity was kept from the novel, which is the film’s major flaw. It is, nevertheless, an important film from this era, and if you enjoy or are interested in horror films, then I recommend it.

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Favorite Horror Films of the 1950s: Horror of Dracula

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I am returning to my series of examinations of horror movies through various decades.  After the great horror  cycle of movies from Universal Studios in the 1930s and 1940s culminating in the Abbott and Costello spoofs, serious horror movies vanished for a period. They were replaced by the spate of giant critter movies spawned by the fears of nuclear fallout post World War Two and the ominous threat of nuclear armageddon of the Cold War.

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

In 1958, Hammer Studios, a British film company initiated a new cycle of horror films with the release of Horror of Dracula (the American title) or Dracula (the British title).  This film not only allowed this film studio to emerge as a major force in horror films, but also it spawned a new cycle in horror that would span nearly two decades. The film starred Sir Christopher Lee as Dracula, Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing, and Michael Gough as  Arthur Holmwood and was directed by Terence Fisher.

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

This film dramatically changed the course of horror films.  Prior to Horror Of Dracula, most horror movies, especially  the classic Universal films were shot in black and white; this film was in vivid color. Also changed noticeably from the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi was the pacing and the level of over sexuality and violence. This movie moved at a very rapid pace with condensed action and compression of characters from the book.  A very lively film score added to the tension and feeling of almost constant movement.

 

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(https://fr.wikipedia.org)

Christopher Lee brought an imposing physicality to the role and played the count with a noble British accent. He showed great strength and mobility in his performance. And this film introduced  the vampire with fangs and blood.  When he emerges in full fury after the vampire girl has attacked Jonathan Harker, he is a demonic image.  This was a representation of the vampire that was entirely new and very powerful.

In Britain, this movie received an X rating because of its, what was for the time, overt sexuality and violence. The women sometimes wore low cut gowns, and Dracula’s attacks carried a not too subtle sexuality, although by today’s standards, this shocking sensuality certainly would be tame or almost quaint.

Horror Of Dracula was a success both financially and critically. Hammer studios would make numerous sequels to this film and would also base the release of other movies, principally on Dr. Frankenstein , on their good fortune. If you enjoy horror films and have not seen this particular movie, I recommend it.

 

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