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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(https://pixabay.com/)

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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(https://pixabay.com/)

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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A&cfrank

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

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.

Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)

(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.)

Bela_Lugosi_as_Dracula,_anonymous_photograph_from_1931,_Universal_Studios

(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.

wolfman

(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 1940s: Cat People

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Cat_People_poster

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

In 1942, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Torneur, advanced the making of horror films by expanding the possible topics and boundaries. This extraordinary film is not one that relies on a standard “monster”; instead, Torneur employs psychological suspense and subtle development of terror.

This film offers a sophisticated and understated treatment of sexuality and its impact on people. The main character, Irena, a fashion designer, born in Serbia, and played by Simone Simon combines the modern world of high fashion in New York City with the old world beliefs that she is descended from people who are shape-shifters and who turn into big cats when sexually enticed and aroused. Torneur builds a new variation on the established theme of lycanthropy, in which a male changes into a wolf. Additionally, the film demonstrates the tension between science and superstition, the modern era versus the medieval times, and religion versus secularism.

While to a contemporary audience, this movie might seem dated and subdued, I believe it still carries great impact in its study of horror that is felt rather than seen, slowly created rather than visceral, and suggestive rather overt.

Cat People did very well at the box office, but it received a mixed range of reviews at the time. Since the 1940s, it has come to be seen as one of the more important horror films of the 20th Century.  If you have the opportunity, I recommend watching Cat People.

Jaguar

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

 

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 1920s Continued: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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In this post, I will continue my series on favorite horror films, specifically of the 1920s.

Another  brilliant horror movie of the 1920s is Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — The German title is Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari — (1920). The plot of the film centers on a mad scientist, Dr. Caligari, a hypnotist, played by Werner Krauss, who exploits a sleepwalker, Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt, to commit murder. It is one of the earliest horror movies and ushers in a decade of greatness in film-making, especially in German cinema.

nightmare

(http://cinewiki.wikispaces.com)

The true power of the film is in its cinematic style, that of German Expressionism, which is based on the artistic movement of the same name. German Expressionism uses sharp angles, deep shadows, heavy use of darks and lights, and distorted forms to explore the psychological impact of visual images. In this art, the world is often not as it seems to be, and the artists explore distortions that lurk under the surface of apparent normalcy. What is perceived is often deeply disturbing and challenging.

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“The Prophet” Woodcut by Emil Nolde: 1912

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

Weine employs these revolutionary cinematic techniques to disorient, frighten, and interrogate the audience. Cesare is a common man, forced by an arrogant authority to become a murderer, which is clearly a commentary on the dark forces at play in Europe in the early parts of the 20th Century, some suggested by contemporary writers. As Weine suggests, the mass of people in Europe would, in the coming decades, be manipulated into creating the horror of Nazism and the Holocaust. I am not claiming that Weine somehow could see into the future, but that he perceived the traumas occurring in Europe, and those distortions appear in his film. Like Weine, other writers, such as Franz Kafka, also saw such coming disturbances.

franz-kafka

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

While only some of Franz Kafka’s brilliant and disturbing literary works had been published at this point–“Metamorphosis” (1915)– is the best example, Kafka’s treatment of the darkness and alienation in society could be an influence on this movie. While it is not certain, I believe it is the case. Regardless of if this is true or not, Weine creates a deeply disturbing movie, one that maintains its power to this day, one that I recommend for all lovers of film.

 

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Favorite Horror Movies of the 1920s–revisited

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I will be teaching a course this summer at the Wescoe School of Muhlenberg College on Literature and Film. I have used this post before, but I wanted to put it up again, and I plan to expand the treatment of my favorite horror films.

So, to begin . . .

I have been a fan of horror movies since I was a child. I grew up watching Universal movies from the 1930s and 1940s being shown on various themed TV shows with horror hosts. As an adult, my love for these films has not waned; in fact, it has grown and helped to feed my scholarly interest in film. I use these films in some of the classes I teach in college.

For this series, I will try to limit my choices of film to 2-4 representative examples.  Two films, in particular, stand out to me from the 1920s.  They both starred Lon Chaney Sr., the Man of a Thousand Faces, and were made by Universal Studios.

Hunchback_of_Notre_Dame

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

The first film is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, (1923) based on the Victor Hugo novel, and it is an extraordinary piece of cinema that stands up today. It was a very expensive production at the time.  Estimates range in the $1,250,000 to $1,500,000 range.  Given the year, that is a huge sum of money. The movie accurately reflects Hugo’s examination of the capacity of human beings to be intensely cruel to each other and of the abuse of power by those in positions of authority.  Wallace Worsley directed the film, and Lon Chaney Sr. gave a magnificent performance as Quasimodo.  It is also important to remember that Mr. Chaney created all of his own makeups.  If all you know of this story is the Disney version, you need to see this production.  I would consider it one of the best and most important films ever made.

phantomoftheopera

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) starring Lon Chaney Sr. is based on Gaston Leroux’s novel and was a huge success. Chaney played the deformed writer who falls in love with a singer and who becomes her kidnapper. This tale of horror and love has been redone numerous times, including the well known stage musical, but none of those productions have reached the sterling height of this extraordinary film.  As with the Hunchback, Chaney created this makeup, and his performance is sublime.  Again, if you have not seen this film,  I recommend it highly.

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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.

petercushing

(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.

Byron_1813_by_Phillips

(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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