Saturday, April 23, 2011

Franchises: Universal's Frankenstein Series. House of Frankenstein (1944)

Despite its faults, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was a big hit, so Universal naturally decided to up the ante and put more monsters together in one film. In this film, not only do Frankenstein's monster and the wolf man return, but Dracula is along for the ride (albeit briefly) along with a new mad scientist and his hunchback assistant. Sounds like a classic monster fan's dream, right? Well, speaking as one myself, I can tell you that when I first saw this film in my early teens, I was quite disappointed. The biggest disappointment? There's no fight between any of the monsters! Dracula, the wolf man, and Frankenstein's monster never interact with each in this entire film and the mad scientist and hunchback can hardly be counted as classic monsters themselves. Now I will admit that this film does have its good points but it's ultimately a low point in Universal's horror run.

Dr. Gustav Niemann, a cruel and vengeful scientist who was imprisoned for conducting experiments similar to those of Frankenstein, escapes when a storm causes his part of the prison to be destroyed. Along with his hunchback assistant Daniel, Niemann travels across the countryside to get revenge on those who imprisoned him. Along the way, he encounters Count Dracula and later comes across Frankenstein's monster and Larry Talbot, the wolf man. Niemann promises to give Daniel a new body as well as rid Talbot of his werewolfism but in reality, he really intends to resurrect the monster and continue his own experiments.

The very structure of this movie's narrative is unusual. It's episodic, feeling like Niemann's travel log as he journeys across Europe. When he and Daniel first escape the prison, they come across a traveling showman named Lampini, whom they murder and impersonate. They travel to a small town where Hussman, one of Niemann's enemies, is now the burgomaster and Niemann revives Count Dracula to kill Hussman. However, when Dracula tries to take Hussman's granddaughter-in-law along with them, Niemann betrays him by shoving his coffin out of the coach and Dracula is destroyed by the morning light before he can get inside of it. Niemann and Daniel then move on to the small village of Frankenstein, where they find the frozen bodies of the monster and the wolf man in the frozen caves beneath the old estate. After reviving both and picking up a young gypsy girl along the way, the group moves on to Vasaria, where Niemann's old laboratory is. From there, Niemann proceeds to try to revive the monster, Talbot once again becomes the wolf man and goes on a killing spree, and Daniel becomes jealous when Ilonka, the gypsy girl he loves, becomes close to Talbot. Yeah, this plot is a cluster-crap.

Not only is the plot very cluttered but it's full of continuity errors when dealing with previous films. When Niemann and Daniel enter the small village of Frankenstein, they're told that it's been peaceful ever since the dam broke and the Frankenstein monster and the wolf man were swept away. Ludwig Frankenstein's home was in Vasaria in the last couple of Frankenstein films, but Niemann says that they must travel from this place to Vasaria. Not only that, but the village where Henry Frankenstein's home was called Frankenstein. So, where is this place? When it comes to Count Dracula, who exactly is he? One would assume that he's either meant to be the classic Bela Lugosi Dracula played by a different actor or Lon Chaney Jr.'s character of Count Alucard in Son of Dracula. But Lampini, the showman who has Dracula's skeleton, says he found the skeleton in his castle in the Carpathian mountains. Lugosi's Dracula was destroyed in London and Chaney's Alucard in America. Did some decide to send one of those bodies home just out of proxy? Or is this Dracula a different member of the family altogether? Niemann also says that while he didn't know Frankenstein personally, his brother was his assistant and told him the good doctor's secrets before he died. Does that mean that Fritz was his brother? And if so, when did Fritz have time before he was killed to travel to Vasaria and tell Niemann all about it? This film is evidence that by this point, the heads at Universal were more interested in money than keeping continuity straight.

In my opinion, the best thing about this movie is Boris Karloff's portrayal of the evil Dr. Niemann. (Isn't it weird how he went from playing the monster to playing a mad doctor himself?) Niemann is a heartless bastard. He cruelly manipulates people and promises to help them but in reality, only cares about what they can do for him. He promises to build Daniel a new body but turns on him; he promises to serve Dracula is he'll kill Hussman for him but he leaves the vampire to die at the last minute; he promises to help Talbot overcome his werewolfism but once he gives him Frankenstein's records, does nothing of the sort. He's just a horrible character. And yet, even though he's playing someone who is despicable, Karloff has some way of keeping you from completely hating him. It may be just how charming he is when he isn't being evil. One of my favorite scenes is when Niemann has captured Ullman and Strauss, two men who testified against him, and tells them what he plans to do with them. When Ullman begs Niemann not to kill him, Niemann says, "Kill my trusted old assistant? Why, no. I'm going to repay you for betraying me. I'm going to give that brain of yours a new home: in the skull of the Frankenstein monster." He then turns to Strauss: "As for you, Strauss, I'm going to give you the brain of the wolf man so that all your waking hours will be spent in untold agony awaiting the full moon, which will change you into a werewolf." Really well played by Karloff. Unfortunately for Niemann, his constant betrayals eventually turn on him when Daniel tries to kill him and then, he and the monster sink to their doom in quicksand.

The most sympathetic character in the film, perhaps even more so than Larry Talbot, is Daniel, Niemann's hunchbacked assistant, played J. Carrol Naish. He obeys Niemann implicitly, even kills for him, simply because his master has promised to build him a perfect body. You get the impression that Daniel's not a bad person actually: he just got mixed up with the worst type of man imaginable. You actually feel bad for him when Niemann betrays him and snarls at him, "You think I'd wreck the work of a lifetime just because you're in love with a gypsy girl?" And unfortunately, right after that, he tries to turn his beloved Ilonka away from Talbot by warning her that he's a werewolf. But, not only does Ilonka disbelieve him, she tells him that she hates him, that he's mean and ugly. It's really heartbreaking when you remember their initial encounter, where she treated him with kindness. Sadly, when Ilonka is killed, Daniel finally turns on Niemann and tries to kill him but the Frankenstein monster throws him out the window to his death.

Lon Chaney Jr., of course, plays Larry Talbot but by this point, there's nothing new that Chaney can do with the character. All he does is mope around and act sorrowful, waiting hopelessly for when he turns into the wolf man. He's still sympathetic but it's a bit stale. Not only that but as the wolf man himself, Chaney is wasted. He only changes twice and both times are so brief that the monster might as well not be in the movie. He doesn't even get to howl or even snarl! Though, the first time that Talbot transforms is well done. He walks out into the woods and the camera follows his footprints in the dirt, which slowly morph into wolf footprints as he changes and then we see him in full blown werewolf form as he walks away. The music that plays in this scene is also well done and adds to it.

Elena Verdugo plays Ilonka, a gypsy girl whom Daniel saves from an abusive gypsy man. She's actually a very sweet, playful girl. She treats Daniel with kindness when they first meet but when she meets Larry, she becomes smitten with him. Also being a gypsy, she knows the sign of the werewolf and the legend associated with it. She initially refuses to believe Daniel when he tells her that Larry is a werewolf but eventually accepts it when Larry reveals the truth to her himself. She promises to try to help him overcome his curse and loves him enough to make a silver bullet to release him. The scene where she stands outside Larry's window and watches him as he looks at himself in the mirror, waiting to transform, is well filmed and again the music, which is tragic and sorrowful, adds to her eventual inability to shoot him. She finally does shoot the wolf man but he also kills her and in her dying moments, she crawls over to die beside him. It's poignant but I think it would have been more so if the entire movie had been about their relationship, instead of the last quarter of it.

John Carradine plays Count Dracula here and he would play the role quite a few others times, although this movie and House of Dracula would be the only ones worthy of any merit. As I said in my review of that latter film, Carradine is actually quite good. He's as seductive as Lugosi was and even a bit more romantic. The scene where Dracula seduces Rita Hussman in particular is well done. Carradine could also be intimidating when needed. In the scene where he walks in on Hussman, the stare that he gives is quite terrifying. His death scene is also memorable. Unfortunately, Carradine is only in the film for this brief period and even though he would have a chance to perfect the role in House of Dracula, he remains as one of the more underrated actors to ever play Dracula.

Glenn Strange plays the role of Frankenstein's monster but we've now entered the point in the series where I question why he's even present. He stays comatose for the entire length of the movie until the end, where he is quickly chased into the marshes with Niemann and they both drown in quicksand. What was the point of having him in the movie if they weren't going to use him? Strange was supposedly coached by Karloff about how to play the monster but he apparently didn't listen because his robotic movements feel more like Chaney and Lugosi's performances in the previous films. And of course, nothing of what the monster once was as a character remains at this point. As you know, Strange would play the monster even more briefly in House of Dracula but would get to play him the most in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I haven't seen that film in years but I do remember Strange being acceptable there.

The rest of the cast is adequate. Lionel Atwill has a small role in the Dracula section as Inspector Arnz, a friend of Hussman but he doesn't do much. Anne Gwynne and Peter Coe as Rita and Karl Hussman, are nice enough, and Sig Ruman as the old Burgomaster Hussman is quite amusing when he gets drunk later. Another underrated actor, George Zucco, best known for appearing in several of the Mummy films at the time, has a thankless role at the beginning as Lampini, the showman whom Niemann and Daniel murder. One actor of note is Philip Van Zandt, whose role is microscopic but his appearance is interesting because he appeared in a fair share of Three Stooges shorts.

As I said at the beginning, the movie's biggest problem is that it promises a monster mash but doesn't deliver. The trailer says, MONSTER FIGHTING MONSTER! NOW ALL TOGETHER IN HORRIFIC FILM! That first part is a total lie. Dracula is destroyed before the Frankenstein monster and the wolf man even come into the film and those two never interact. Even though this film was a low budget cash-in, they could have at least delivered what they promised. Not only that but the sets are not as well designed as in previous movies and some sound effects from previous movies are used. When Daniel is thrown out of the window by Frankenstein's monster, his scream is actually Karloff's scream as the monster from Son of Frankenstein. According to some sources, the monster's face in some scenes is actually a mask of Lon Chaney Jr.'s monster. I do, however, like that for the first time, there's no character related to the Frankenstein family because their need to clear the family name had run its course by this point. Ultimately, though, what's disappointing about House of Frankenstein is how much of a cash-in it really is and how the studio viewed their franchises at this time.

Director Erle C. Kenton did what he could with the jumbled script for House of Frankenstein and while he did manage to pull some great stuff out of it, the film is ultimately a letdown for fans. It doesn't deliver on the promised monster battle, the actors are mostly good but there are so many characters introduced throughout that it's hard to find some to care about, and the ending is abrupt and disappointing. I would recommend it for fans of Universal horror but you'd better set your expectations low.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Franchises: Universal's Frankenstein Series. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

This movie is one of my earliest movie memories. When I was very young, my grandmother often took care of me and would leave in her living room to watch TV. I often happened upon Sci-Fi channel (remember back when it was cool and didn't call itself SyFy?) and one day, I saw the majority of this film. (Interestingly enough, it was right after an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea that featured a werewolf.) I remembered seeing the first transformation from Larry Talbot to the wolf man in the hospital room, the wolf man attacking a policeman, Talbot discovering the Frankenstein monster, and the monster stumbling through the village. However, I missed the final battle between the two. (I can't remember how. I think I turned the channel accidentally and couldn't find it again.) That was a shame because I would have gotten a kick out of that as a little kid. Throughout the years, I would often check out an old Crestwood House book about the movie but I didn't see it again until I was about eleven to twelve or so.

Graverobbers break into the Talbot crypt and when they open the coffin of Larry Talbot, the moonlight resurrects him and he kills one of them. Talbot is found unconscious on the street in a town far from his home in Lanwelly village and is put in the hospital. He soon realizes that he's still a werewolf and eventually escapes from the hospital. He finds Maleva, the gypsy woman who helped him in The Wolf Man, and she takes him to Vasaria to find Ludwig Frankenstein. Of course, he's dead but Talbot, through one of his spells as the wolf man, comes across the monster in the frozen caves beneath the old Frankenstein estate, who eventually leads Talbot to contact Elsa Frankenstein, the late doctor's daughter, who can give him Frankenstein's notes.

As you can guess from the title, this was the start of Universal's series of monster mash pictures. (Although, this is the only one up until Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein where the monsters actually fight.) Even though I put this in the Frankenstein series, this is much more a sequel to The Wolf Man and just barely one to The Ghost of Frankenstein. Larry Talbot is definitely the main character. The film starts with him being resurrected, once again trying to find a way to cure his werewolfism, and journeying to do so. It's not until over thirty minutes in that the Frankenstein monster is introduced and even then, he's secondary to the plot.

This movie has a really good title sequence and opening scene. The title sequence shows somebody pour an elixir into a beaker and then smoke comes out. The title then appears and slowly floats down into place, with the other credits following suit. It's quite an imaginative title sequence, much more so than previous Universal horror films. The opening scene is even better. It's one of the most atmospheric openings I've ever seen. Two graverobbers sneak into a cemetery, which is exactly what you think of when you think of creepy, windswept graveyards at night. There's a full moon, the wind is making the tree limbs sway back and forth, and at one point, a crow caws at them and I swear it sounds like it's laughing. Once they break into the Talbot crypt, the read the inscription on Larry Talbot's coffin, with the theme of The Wolf Man playing softly in the background. That's another thing about the scene: the music. It's suitably eerie and fits the scene very well. Anyway, when they broke open the coffin, the moonlight shines on Talbot's body, and his hand (which has claws now, I might add), grabs one of the robbers' arms. The other robber chickens out and runs, leaving his friend to die. The subtlety of the attack by the wolf man, whom we don't know is completely transformed because we don't see his face, is what makes it so eerie.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot for the second time. His characterization in this film is quite different. He's not the happy-go-lucky guy he was before. Not only has he been brought back to life by some supernatural means, he's still a werewolf, doomed to kill every full moon. He now seeks a way to die and that's problematic because he can't die through normal means. He goes to Maleva, the only one who knows and understands the truth, and they journey to find Frankenstein. Also due to his hopeless situation, Talbot is much more prone to anguished outbursts. One is when the grouchy inn-keeper throws them out after telling them that Frankenstein is dead and he grabs Larry's hand. Larry violently yanks his arm out, yelling, "Keep your hands off of me!" Over the top but understandable, given that it seems his only hope for release has been taken away. However, one thing that he does that I've always felt was a bit extreme, was during this festival where this guy is singing a rather upbeat song about living life to its fullest. Unfortunately, he sings to Larry and Elsa Frankenstein about living eternally. Larry loses it, grabs the guy, and screams him, yelling, "I don't want to live eternally! Why did you say that to me?" The singer and everybody else backs away, clearly thinking the guy is psycho. God, man, calm down! You act like he knows you're a werewolf and said it just to be an asshole! I know Talbot is a tortured soul but damn!

The wolf man himself is still the iconic werewolf we all know and love. His first transformation is a great one, where Talbot is lying in a hospital bed and sees the full moon. I love that, even before he starts changing, he puts his hands on his head and even smacks it in frustration, realizing what's about to happen. We then see the classic lap-dissolve on his face, which we never see in the original Wolf Man except when he changes back after being killed. I remember so vividly as a little youngster watching him slowly changing. I didn't understand what was happening until he was fully changed and even at that young age, I knew what it was: he's a werewolf! I also remembered the wolf man prowling around the streets of the town and then killing a policeman. Quite something for somebody who couldn't have been more than four to see! I also remembered his second transformation, with him standing behind a tree. That's actually a classic image in its own right. One thing I wonder about the wolf man's outfit: does that just come with the change? When he changed in the hospital, he was wearing a hospital gown and when he's prowling around as the wolf man, he's wearing his usual button shirt and dark pants. You probably figure that was underneath the gown and he tore it off when he changed, which is a fair assumption. But when he's back to normal in the hospital the next morning, he's wearing the gown again. Does he have enough intelligence as a werewolf to think to change into preferable clothes so he can prowl and kill in comfort? Obviously, I'm just having fun with nitpicking but it does make you wonder.

Ilona Massey plays Elsa Frankenstein, replacing Evelyn Ankers from The Ghost of Frankenstein. From what I can gather, the reason for the change was because Ankers played Gwen Conliffe, Talbot's love interest in the original Wolf Man, and it was decided that the character probably shouldn't have another leading lady played by the same actor. That wouldn't have mattered anyway because Elsa never becomes a love interest for Larry. She does have dinner with him during a festival but that's as far as it ever goes. Later, when Larry is going on to Dr. Mannering about wanting to be released from his werewolfism, she even thinks he's nuts. Massey's thick European accent is a little hard to get used to at first when you remember Ankers, who had a very slight English one but other than that, the characterization is basically the same. As with her father, grandfather, and uncle, she's haunted by the memories of the monster and the events of the previous film. She's eager to sell the burnt-out ruins of her father's house and that's how she meets Larry, whom pretends to be someone who wants to buy the house. She refuses to give him her father's records and says she will never go near the house ever again. But in the ensuing chaos, she ultimately leads Dr. Mannering and Maleva to the ruins and reveals her father's diary. She begs Mannering to clear the name of Frankenstein by destroying the monster... and this, of course, doesn't go as planned. It's a fairly deep characterization and is pulled off quite nicely.

Patric Knowles, who played Gwen Conliffe's fiance Frank Andrews in The Wolf Man, plays Dr. Frank Mannering, the doctor who treats Larry Talbot when he's brought to the hospital. (Isn't it odd that both of these characters' first names were Frank?) Like many, he initially doesn't believe Larry when he says he's a werewolf but does believe him to have lycanthropy, the mental disease that causes one to imagine that they're a werewolf. It's initially believed that Larry isn't who he says is, since it's known that he's been dead for years. Mannering and an inspector travel to Lanwelly village, inspect the tomb, and obviously don't find Larry's body but they do find the body of the graverobber he killed. When Mannering checks up on Larry, he discovers that he's escaped. Mannering disappears from the movie for a while but when he reappears much later, he reveals that's been following Larry due to the murders he's committed as the wolf man. He still doesn't believe that Larry is a werewolf but does think he's insane when the moon is full. (Which really does happen to people sometimes. But then again, since he heard that Larry bit through his straight-jacket in order to escape the hospital, you have to wonder if he questions whether he is a werewolf or not.) He eventually offers to help Larry as well as to destroy the Frankenstein monster. But, he as a scientist, he ultimately can't bring himself to destroy the monster and decides to charge him up to full power, which leads to the climactic final battle. Mannering isn't a mad scientist but, like the Frankensteins before him, his scientific curiosity ultimately leads to disaster.

Also returning from The Wolf Man is Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva, the old gypsy woman. Her character isn't changed much from the original film but as she was before, she's very understanding and motherly towards Larry, no doubt due to the guilt that it was her own son who passed the werewolf curse on to him and she is good enough to try to find Frankenstein for him. Since she spent so much time with him when they were traveling to Vasaria and he no doubt turned into the wolf man during those times, she must have some way to keep him from attacking her. (This is just my personal speculation though.) Curiously, after she tells Elsa at one point that Larry is not insane and simply wants to die, she disappears from the movie and is never seen again. She never appears in any subsequent films either. I've always wondered if she died or just ran off.

The ever loyal Lionel Atwill has a small role as the jolly mayor of Vasaria. Nothing to say really except that he does his usual good acting. Rex Evans plays a despicable role as Vazek, the grumpy innkeeper who becomes enraged when Larry and Maleva ask him about Frankenstein. That's fair enough but later, he becomes quite drunk and continues to accuse Elsa, Dr. Mannering and Maleva of being responsible for what's going on. He did lose his daughter to the wolf man but he's still acting like a douche. He's the one who blows up the dam and the ensuing flood interrupts the final fight between the Frankenstein monster and the wolf man just when it's getting good, so I've always really hated him for that. I don't why but I've always liked the character of Inspector Owen, played by Dennis Hoey, who investigates Talbot during the first fifteen or so minutes of the film. He's the typical blustering, rather pompous man but they never do much with him and he disappears after the first act. I always wanted to see more of him but whatever. And as before, Dwight Frye has an undignified tiny role as a villager named Rudi. He's at least credited here but he has one of the dumbest lines ever. When the villagers hear the wolf man howl in the distance, one villager says, "A wolf!" and he responds, "Yes, a wolf! That's his cry!" No, duh, Sherlock! This movie ended up being one of Frye's last films before he died from a heart attack late in 1943 at the age of 44.

The most controversial casting choice in this film is that of the Frankenstein monster. Lon Chaney Jr. was supposed to play both the monster and the wolf man, with doubles used in shots with the both of them, but it proved to be difficult a task. Since Ygor's brain was sewn into the monster's skull at the end of the previous movie, it made sense that Bela Lugosi himself should play the monster. Ironically, this was twelve years after he was supposed to play the role in the original Frankenstein but for one reason or another, didn't do so. From what I can gather, Lugosi played the monster speaking in Ygor's voice but before the film was released, his dialogue was removed. The reason that's usually given for this was because audience members at a screening laughed at Lugosi's voice coming out of the monster's mouth but I find that hard to believe because Lugosi's voice came out of the monster's mouth at the end of The Ghost of Frankenstein and nobody seemed to laugh at that. The removal of his dialogue also left out the reminder that the monster was now blind, which explains his constant outstretched arms and static movement. If you didn't see the previous movie, you wouldn't know that the monster is blind and therefore, you would laugh at Lugosi's bizarre movements. This has led to Lugosi's performance being unjustly ridiculed. In fact, I found that Lugosi is actually not in the film that much. He was sixty years old by that point and in really bad health, so stunt doubles had to fill in for him most of the time. And they apparently imitated Lugosi's stance even more than was necessary, particularly at the end of the film where the monster's sight is restored after Mannering makes him strong again. It was a really sad situation for Lugosi. His performance may not have been all that good to begin with but all the interference just destroyed it. As a result, the monster is just a joke here.

The director this time around is Roy William Neill and he does a really good job for the most part. As I said, he's able to create really atmospheric scenes as well as pull a really good performance out of Chaney. Unfortunately, Curt Siodmak's script seems a bit confused as to the film's relationship with The Ghost of Frankenstein. The biggest continuity error comes when Larry tells Talbot says that he wants Elsa's father's records, "his experiments with life and death, the records of the creation of the monster." He's talking like her father, Ludwig Frankenstein, is Henry Frankenstein, the one who really created the monster. Mannering also refers to Ludwig as such. Later, Elsa herself tells Mannering that, "I saw my father become obsessed with his power." Uh, when did Ludwig ever become obsessed? All he tried to do is give the monster a benevolent brain. She mentions her grandfather, who is obviously Henry, but still talks like Ludwig is the creator. I would have said that Talbot and Mannering probably don't know about Henry by this point if it weren't for that confusing line. Not only that but when they finally find the diary purported to be Ludwig's, it's clearly Henry's because it refers to the monster as "my creation," yet they're treating it as Ludwig's. The villagers also tend to regard Ludwig as the creator but I'd chalk that up due to their not knowing about Henry as well. I don't know if Siodmark or the studio's interference is responsible but whatever the case, the relationship between the two films is a convoluted and confusing one.

There are other mild continuity errors, like when the monster can inexplicably see, further confusing viewers on Lugosi's performance. The biggest one for me is that Ludwig Frankenstein's house is now next to a flowing river with a dam at the top of it. That was definitely not there in the previous film. I also don't remember the house being a big, Gothic style castle. This is no doubt dramatic convenience put in by the writer and once again, I'm mainly just nitpicking.

The reason for this movie being made as well as for fans wanting to see it is the climactic fight between Frankenstein's monster and the wolf man. It's brief but it definitely satisfies the urge for a monster brawl. The monster in particular is restored to full strength by Mannering, which clearly restores his vision. Something odd happens before the fight actually starts. As Talbot changes into the wolf man, the monster knocks Mannering unconscious and then grabs Elsa. Just as he's about to carry her off, the wolf man breaks free of the leather straps holding him to the operating table and attacks the monster. Did he do that simply because the monster was the closest one to him or is a part of Larry still in the mind of the werewolf and he deliberately tried to save Elsa? Anyway, the fight is great. The two monsters struggle with each other, throw various laboratory equipment at each other, while Elsa and Mannering escape. (Again, what happened to Maleva?) My favorite part is when the wolf man climbs up onto a machine and the monster throws the machine, along with the wolf man, across the room. The music is also exciting throughout. Too bad that jerk Vazek had to blow up the dam, ending both the fight and the movie.

All in all, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is a fun film. While it does have its fair share of faults, Chaney's great performance, the atmospheric sets, and the exciting fight at the end make it a worthwhile film. It may not be the best followup to The Ghost of Frankenstein but as a sequel to The Wolf Man, it's done very well. I highly recommend it for monster fans.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Franchises: Universal's Frankenstein Series. The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

This is an interesting one for me personally. I saw the last bit of it when I was very little. I must have been only six years old or so. I remembered it vividly: the Frankenstein monster rampaging through the laboratory, speaking in a growling voice. I was disappointed that the movie ended right there with the monster apparently being killed in a burning house. I wanted more. But I never forgot that bit of it and for years, that was one of the only Frankenstein movie I'd seen any part of. I almost saw it again in my early teens. I say "almost" because I got it on VHS but the film inside the tape wasn't connected so it wouldn't play! I felt really ripped off and it wasn't until I was seventeen and got the Universal Legacy set that I finally saw The Ghost of Frankenstein for the first time since I was a kid.

The villagers of Frankenstein are still apparently cursed by that very name, with poverty abound and no tourists ever stopping by. The villagers finally decide to destroy the castle but unknown to them, Ygor, who is somehow still alive even though Wolf Frankenstein shot him several times, finds the monster in the dried sulfur pit and they escape. They travel to the village of Vasaria, where Ludwig Frankenstein, the other son of Henry Frankenstein, lives with his daughter. A well renowned physician, Ludwig is blackmailed by Ygor into taking the monster in and making him well. Ludwig ultimately decides to remove the criminal brain from the monster's skull and put in the brain of a recently killed doctor. However, Ygor wants his brain put into the monster's body and will do anything to make sure it happens. 

First thing that's noticeable is that this movie doesn't feel as big as the films that came before it, especially Son of Frankenstein, which was a big budget production. By this point, Universal had relegated its horror films to B-level status, with small budgets and reusing many of the same actors. In this film especially, the cast is made up of the usual people you would see in horror films at that time: Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, and Evelyn Ankers and Ralph Bellamy from The Wolf Man. But the most interesting aspect of this film is that it was the first Universal Frankenstein movie to have someone other than Boris Karloff as the monster. Lon Chaney Jr. was the studio's new big horror star, having just created his iconic role of Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man, so it was an obvious choice to have him play the monster. But Chaney's performance of the monster in this film has long been criticized. Does it deserve this criticism? Let's see.

Chaney had Boris Karloff beat physically. His enormous size made him much more imposing than Karloff ever was. Acting wise, however, Chaney is more than a little stiff and this is probably the film that started the image of the monster lumbering about in a robotic manner. He's also absolutely silent. He never grunts or growls throughout the entire film. He also seems to have his eyes shut or barely open throughout the film, which is odd. Attitude-wise, Chaney's monster is much different than the way Karloff was in the previous film. Whereas Ygor had complete control over him before, the monster begins to become much more defiant to him in this movie. He often shoves Ygor aside when he's bothering him and seems to be annoyed by Ygor's very presence, (although that's mostly from the face Chaney holds throughout the entire film). As before, the monster is sympathetic towards children and befriends a little girl. When the prospect of a new brain is given to him, the monster actually brings the girl to Ludwig Frankenstein and, using hand gestures, tells him that he wants her brain to be put in his head. Speaking of which, when Ygor tells him that his brain will be put in his skull, the monster clearly doesn't like that and ends up severely wounding Ygor in a rage. Also, the monster does appear to be able to understand human speech more than he did in the previous film. At one point, he is captured and chained in the courthouse. When Ludwig Frankenstein comes before him, the monster recognizes the similarity between him and his creator but becomes enraged when Ludwig denies knowing him and tries to kill him. Later, when Ygor describes to the monster that he will get a new brain, the monster clearly understands; he walks up to Ludwig and puts his hands on his shoulders as a gesture of gratitude. He seems to know that he will finally have peace of mind.

The most striking part concerning the monster is at the end of the film when Ygor's brain is switched for the brain of the intended doctor. Once he becomes conscious, Ygor's voice comes out of the monster's mouth, declaring that he is now invincible and will rule the world. I remembered that vividly because that was what I saw when I was young. I assumed that the monster always talked but, of course, I didn't understand it fully. I think Chaney clearly spoke the dialogue and Lugosi's voice was dubbed over it and from his mannerisms, Chaney really got into playing the monster with Ygor's brain! He's much more lively than he was before. So, ultimately Chaney's performance as the monster isn't as bad as many say it is. I think many have judged Chaney a bit too harshly simply because he was first person to play the monster after Karloff, which is unfair. But the truth is that, while he isn't horrible, he does ultimately pale in comparison to Karloff. Even though it's ostensibly the same character, it doesn't feel the same. That's unavoidable given a casting change but it's still there. Lon, I love you, but you're no Karloff.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays Ludwig Frankenstein, the second son of Henry Frankenstein, who was unmentioned in the previous film. He's a completely different character than his brother Wolf. While Wolf had the urge to clear his father's name even before he arrived at the estate, Ludwig was lived out the greater portion of his life without anybody knowing who he is. He's got a lovely daughter, is respected by the townspeople, and is determined not to let the monster ruin his life the way it did his father and brother (Wolf, despite the ending of Son of Frankenstein, was apparently driven into exile due to his family's name). But when Ygor blackmails him by threatening to expose him if he doesn't help cure the monster, Ludwig reluctantly agrees. But he manages to subdue the monster and Ygor and becomes more determined than ever to destroy his father's creation.

This leads to a curious scene, the one that the movie derives its name from. Ludwig is visited by the spirit of his father (played by Hardwicke as well, which made think, "You are so not Colin Clive!"), who urges him not to destroy the monster. It this spirit that suggest to Ludwig the idea of replacing the criminal brain with a benevolent one. It's never made clear whether this is really meant to be Henry Frankenstein's spirit or if Ludwig is either hallucinating or dreaming. Personally, seeing as Henry seemed to grow to despise the monster, I don't think he would have suggested sparing his life. On the other hand, Henry may have seen where his life's work could finally be corrected and that's what he's getting at. Inspired by this, Ludwig, like his brother, tries to clear his family's name by making the monster into something beneficial to mankind. But of course, his plan fails and he's ultimately killed by Ygor in the monster's body, his family's name even more soiled than it was before. By that token, his story is ultimately even sadder than that of his father and brother.

Bela Lugosi returns as the sinister Ygor. While no explanation is given for how he survived his apparent death in the previous film, remember the guy survived a hanging so he must simply be hard to kill. Lugosi's performance here is a bit different than it was before. Ygor seems to genuinely regard the monster as a friend here, rather than a tool as he seemed to in Son of Frankenstein. The first thing he says when he discovers the monster in the dried sulfur is, "My friend!" And when he hears that the monster's brain is going to be replaced, he says, "You can't take my friend away from me! He's all I have in the world!" That's when he suggests that his brain be put into the monster's skull, saying that they would be together forever. Ludwig of course refuses but Ygor decides to coerce Ludwig's friend, Dr. Bohmer, to make the switch, saying that he would be able to rule the country in the monster's body and that Bohmer would have everything he wanted. This makes one wonder if Ygor really does regard the monster as his friend or if he still thinks of him as a weapon. Perhaps it's a bit of both, since Ygor seems sincere both times. Ygor is power hungry anyway so maybe he sees his friend as a means to end in this case.

Ygor is also as manipulative as he was before. Like I said, he blackmails Ludwig into helping the monster, threatening to reveal his family's identity to the community. Ludwig also seems to know Ygor when he first sees him. Wolf probably talked to his brother and described him. Ygor may be able to blackmail Ludwig but he can't convince to put his brain in the monster's body. So, Ygor uses his slick talking to coerce Dr. Bohmer, who has been rejected in the scientific field, to do so. Ygor knows Bohmer's unfavorable history and uses that to his advantage. That's the worst part about Ygor: he's not stupid and, like Hannibal Lecter decades later, knows how to use your personal problems to manipulate you. But, Ygor's power inside the monster is short-lived when he suddenly goes blind. It's revealed that because Ygor's blood type and the monster's blood type aren't the same, the blood won't feed the sensory nerves. (I would accept that except Ygor could clearly see when he first becomes conscious after the operation. How is that explained?) Realizing his power has been taken from him, Ygor brings about his own demise, causing a fire that burns down the house.

Lionel Atwill plays Dr. Bohmer, a brilliant scientist who was Ludwig's professor and well-regarded at one time. But when one of his surgeries went wrong, he was relegated to being Ludwig's assistant, which he still hates to this day. From his introduction, that fact is made clear and ultimately, that's what Ygor uses to manipulate him. Ygor promises to help him if Bohmer makes the brain switch for him. Bohmer, ultimately, can't resist the chance and does so. He does seem to have some moments of regret when Ludwig thanks him for helping in the operation and that it may restore his reputation. However, that disappears when Ygor as the monster runs rampant and it seems like his dream will be fulfilled. But when Ygor loses his sight, he turns on Bohmer and throws him into a machine, electrocuting him to death. In the end, Bohmer's jealousy was his downfall.

None of the other actors are that striking. Ralph Bellamy does a respectable job as Erik Ernst, the town prosecutor who loves Ludwig's daughter, Elsa. Not really much else to say about him. Evelyn Ankers plays the aforementioned Elsa. Her role isn't nearly as meaty as her role of Gwen in The Wolf Man and she does little more than scream at the monster and worry about her father. Dwight Frye has a small, uncredited role the beginning of the movie as one of the angry villagers who destroy the Frankenstein castle. Really said that such a great actor was relegated to bit parts by this point.

The Ghost of Frankenstein is a much smaller film than the others in many respects. As I said, it's clearly a low budget B-picture, with none of the grandiosity of its predecessors. The look and art direction is pretty basic and a lot of the music is borrowed from other films. A new lumbering theme for the monster is present but it sounds cartoony when compared to the ones before. They even reuse footage from the original Frankenstein during a sequence where Elsa reads her grandfather's diary and learns the history of the monster. Later, as budgets on these movies would get tighter, footage from this movie would pop up in other movies. This film's director is Erle C. Kenton, who would go on to direct House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. So, it's obvious from his other credentials that Kenton wasn't the best at directing actors but the acting here is still fairly good, if ultimately still B-level.

The movie, despite its faults, is an easy watch. For one thing, it's very short: merely an hour and seven minutes. And it moves at a brisk pace. It begins with an exciting sequence of the villagers dynamiting the Frankenstein estate, leads on to a scene where the monster is struck by lightning in a thunderstorm and gets stronger (which doesn't make sense considering it put him into a coma before the events of the last film), then, after some short dialogue, the scene between the monster and the little girl occurs, which leads to the scene in the courthouse and so on. Very fast-paced, exciting film and one of the more enjoyable to watch.

All in all, The Ghost of Frankenstein is a fun film but when put into context, its marks the beginning of the downward slide of the monster's character. This would be the last film where the monster was on his own. In the rest of his film appearances, he would be one of an ensemble cast of monsters and his importance would diminish to the point where he might as well not be present. Lon Chaney Jr. would never play the monster again after this film. He was supposed to play him again in the next film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, as well as his role of the wolf man but it proved too difficult to do so. So who played the monster in the next film? Ironically, it would be the actor that was originally offered the role at the very beginning but his performance would ultimately prove to be lackluster due to an unintentional sabotage. But that's next time. All in all, I do recommend this film for Universal monster fans. It may not be the best but it's still really enjoyable.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Franchises: Universal's Frankenstein Series. Son of Frankenstein (1939)

After Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, I didn't see Son of Frankenstein until many years later when I was 17, although I had seen some of the later films by that time. This movie is an important film in the pantheons of Universal's classic horror films for several reasons. First, it was the start of the second cycle of Universal's horror films after Dracula's Daughter ended the first one in 1936 and was made due to the enormous success of a re-release of both Dracula and Frankenstein. Second, it's Boris Karloff's final performance as the monster. It also introduces Bela Lugosi in one of his best non-Dracula characters, that of the broke-necked Ygor. It's probably the longest Universal horror film as well, at one hour and thirty-nine minutes.

The story takes place many years after the events of The Bride of Frankenstein. Wolf von Frankenstein, the adult son of Henry Frankenstein and Elizabeth, moves to his father's old estate with his wife and their young son. The people of the nearby village are immediately hostile towards them, angry over the ruin the very name of Frankenstein has brought to the village. As Wolf and his family settle in, he meets Ygor, a broke-necked criminal who lives on the estate and is keeping the still living monster in a crypt under the old laboratory. Wolf eventually manages to bring the monster out of a coma brought on by being struck by lightning but Ygor uses him to exact revenge on the men that hanged him. Now, Wolf must defend his family from not only Ygor and the monster but from the increasingly angry villagers.

Basil Rathbone, best known for playing Sherlock Holmes in many films at the time, plays Wolf von Frankenstein. From the moment he's introduced, it's shown that he doesn't believe all the legends about his father's creation and feels that the hate spewed on his family is unwarranted. It turns out he doesn't remember his father, suggesting that he died when he was quite young but his mother told him all about him and his work. When he arrives at his father's estate, he is given two boxes, one of which is filled with all of his father's research and a note from him personally, encouraging his son to try to succeed in the experiments and clear the family's name. From then on, Wolf is determined to redeem his father, bolstered even more so by the villagers' hatred. When Ygor shows him the monster, Wolf believes that if he can make him well and then fix his abnormal brain, that would be the ultimate redemption. Unfortunately, Ygor has his own sinister plans for the monster.

Wolf is also a dedicated family man. He clearly adores his wife and young son but his desire to succeed where his father failed clouds his judgment by the middle of the film. It leads him to lie to his wife about the monster's existence but he is good enough to think to send her and their son away while he tries to finish his work. Unfortunately, the villagers' aggression over new murders committed by the monster keep him from doing so and up until the film's climax, he's so full of rage that he begins to act very irrationally. He goes as far as to kill Ygor when the latter refuses to leave well enough alone but when he hears that the monster has taken his son, he comes to the rescue and ultimately destroys the monster. He leaves the estate to the villagers to do with what they wish and they've apparently lightened up towards him by the end of the movie.

As I said, Bela Lugosi's role as Ygor is one of his best alongside Dracula. Ygor's broken neck is due to his being hanged for grave-robbery but after he was pronounced dead, he somehow came back to life. They can't hang him again so he was thrown onto the Frankenstein estate, where he's lived with the monster. How he got control of the monster is never explained but he must have found him in the rubble of the laboratory after the explosive ending of the second film. He used the monster to kill the men who sentenced him to be hanged but when the monster became ill after being struck by lightning, Ygor had to get Wolf to restore him to life. Once the monster is made well, Ygor no longer needs Wolf and disobeys him at every turn to finish his revenge. He makes it clear towards Wolf that he's not going anywhere as long as he has the monster to protect him.

Lugosi plays Ygor as rotten and conniving a character as you can get. As I said, he tricks Wolf into reviving the monster so he can finish killing the men that sentenced Ygor to be hanged. Just the way he talks, you know that he's an untrustworthy character. When he first meets Wolf, he says this about the monster: "He's my friend. He... he does things for me." Yeah, murder! Whenever he sends the monster out to kill someone, he plays a sinister tune on a shepherd-like horn he has. He at first lies to Wolf about having those men killed but when he realizes that Wolf can't touch him, he admits that he did so and refuses to leave. He also apparently threatens to sic the monster on him if he interferes again. But, Ygor's overconfidence gets the best of him and is apparently shot dead by Wolf. (I say apparently because Ygor reappears in the next film.) A memorable and sinister character, that Ygor. It's interesting how his name has been mistaken over the years to be the name of Frankenstein's hunchback assistant.

In this film, the monster himself is a curiosity piece. For one, he's back to the way he was in Frankenstein, only able to grunt and growl, even though he learned to talk in the last film. It's never explained in the context of the film why but you could argue that the explosion at the end of The Bride of Frankenstein may have damaged his brain, reverting him back to his childlike mindset. (Karloff himself stated he didn't like that the monster talked and maybe they reversed that in order to get him to play the role again.) That could also be the reason why Ygor is able to control him so easily. Second, he wears a fur vest, which never appeared before and never reappears in any of the subsequent films. Maybe Ygor put it on him because it got cold but that doesn't explain its disappearance after this film but whatever. Another interesting note about the monster is that on their way to the village, Wolf says that the name Frankenstein has become associated by many with the monster and some even call him by that name. As you probably know, that's still a controversy today that Frankenstein is the name of the doctor and not the monster but apparently, that was starting to occur even as early as the 1930's and they wrote it into the script of this film.

Karloff was tired of playing the monster by this point and that comes through in his performance here in my opinion. He doesn't play him with nearly as much feeling and zeal as he did in the first two films. His movements are more lackluster and his grunts don't have the intensity that they use to have. However, Karloff does still manage to have some great moments in this film. One is actually related to a moment in Bride. In that film, the monster is drinking from a mountain stream when he sees his reflection in the water. He hates what he sees and smashes his hand into the water. In this film, when the monster first comes across Wolf, he sees himself in the mirror and is once again repulsed by his image. However, he begins to put together the pieces by seeing how that image copies his movements. He finally grabs Wolf and holds him beside him as he looks in the mirror. He realizes that the hideous creature he sees is himself and he simply lurches away and moans in depression, perhaps finally understanding why so many are afraid of him. Another great moments is when the monster finds Ygor's body after he's been shot and, realizing that he's lost his only friend, gives a mournful scream. Later, he tears up the laboratory and gets the idea to kill Wolf's son as revenge. But, just as he's about to throw Peter into the sulfur pit below the lab, he apparently has a change of heart. However, that doesn't stop him from holding the boy hostage when Inspector Krogh battles him. Wolf, ultimately, pushes the monster into the sulfur pit. Pretty memorable way for Karloff to make his exit as the monster. Too bad a lot of his performance before didn't live up to it.

Lionel Atwill makes his first appearance in a Universal horror film as Inspector Krogh. He's a memorable character, due mainly to his false right arm that he has to move with his other one. His arm was torn by the roots when he was a child by the monster, making him seem much more sinister than he was ever portrayed as being before. He sort of befriends Wolf but there's always a detectable tension between the two, especially when evidence begins to mount that the monster is still alive. He takes it upon himself to protect the family, especially Wolf's wife Elsa and son Peter. He could just let the villagers kill them because they're part of the Frankenstein family but as a policeman, he can't let his feeling get in the way of his duty. He does threaten to arrest Wolf, believing that he is the one controlling the monster but the matter is cleared up after the brief final battle with the monster. Ironically, the monster tears Krogh's artificial arm off just as he'd done to him as a child. My favorite thing that Krogh does is when Wolf tensely invites him to play darts and Krogh jams the darts into his fake arm to hold them while he tosses them. James Karen said on the documentary Universal Horror that he used to imitate Krogh when he was a kid and did so with a piece of cardboard hidden in his shirt sleeve and watch people's shocked reactions! Maybe you should try it if you want to prank somebody!

The other characters are fairly done. There's not much to say about Josephine Hutchinson's role of Elsa, Wolf's wife, although her simultaneous devotion to her husband and fear of what's going on does remind me of Elizabeth in the first two movies. There's Edgar Norton as Benson, Wolf's old friend who is ultimately killed off-camera by the monster. Nothing to say about him honestly. Of all the secondary characters, the one I can't stand is Peter, Wolf and Elsa's young son played by Donnie Dunagan. Thankfully, he's not in the film much but his voice is indescribably annoying. He sounds like he's from the American South, which really hurts my belief that he's Wolf's son but Elsa does seem to be American, so who knows? He tends to enter a room and say, "Well, hello!" God, I want to strangle him! He's about as annoying as little Danny in The Blob.

Rowland V. Lee directed this film. The same year, he happened to direct a historical epic called The Tower of London, which also featured Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. He brings a big, grand feel to the film with his large sets. It's obvious this film had a large budget behind it. Apparently, everyone had fun making this movie from what I can gather and it does show. The set of the laboratory is well designed with the sulfur pit, secret passageway with the Frankenstein crypt, and old equipment. However, it is a bit out of continuity with the previous films because Henry Frankenstein did his experiments in an old watchtower, not in a lab by his house. The biggest downside of Lee's direction is that he cannot match the richness and quirky genius of James Whale. This film is as straight a horror film as you can get, even more so than Frankenstein. The time period is also clearly that of the time it was made know, seeing as how there are cars present. These aren't bad in and of themselves but do show that Lee was a very different director and not quite up to Whale's caliber.

The music score by Frank Skinner is a very memorable one because it would be recycled not only in future films of this series but in others as well. The main title music especially would be heard in many other films. It is very good music though. I like the theme given to the monster because it does fit his brute-like character, especially the way he's portrayed here. The music that plays in the lead-up to the climax is also very well orchestrated.

For its faults, Son of Frankenstein is an enjoyable film. It's well acted, well designed, and well-paced, never seeming to drag despite its longer than average running time. I highly recommend it for Universal horror fans. It's one of the best for sure. However, the departure of Karloff from the role of the monster would begin the downward spiral for the character, as we'll see in the movies that followed.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Franchises: Universal's Frankenstein Series. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Right after Frankenstein was shown that Saturday in October 1998, they played The Bride of Frankenstein to make it a bit of a double feature. Of course, I knew about the bride herself and what she looked like (she's as iconic as her mate) and I knew about this film but going into it, I had no idea that it is as loved as it is. For many, this is the greatest of the Universal horror classics and James Whale's best by far. While Frankenstein is still my favorite, there's no denying that The Bride of Frankenstein goes above and beyond any horror film of that time or any time. This is one of the greatest movies ever along with its predecessor and a testament to James Whale's quirky genius.

It's a very unusual sequel when compared to the original because it's the exact opposite in every sense of the word. Whereas the original was a fairly straight but still brilliant horror film, this movie has a quirky sense of humor about it and while the original had undertones, this one has some that reflect its director's sensibilities much more than the first film ever did. Interestingly, this movie's very plot comes from a subplot in the original novel's last half where the monster demands that Frankenstein create a mate for him. But Whale goes much farther than merely adapting the second half of the novel that he originally left out. In the film's prologue, he blurs the line between the movies and the original novel, between the fiction world of the story and its real-life creator. The prologue features Mary Shelly, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelly, and their outrageous friend Lord Byron talking about Mrs. Shelly's story of Frankenstein while a storm rages outside. This scene is quite similar to the real account of the stormy weekend the three spent were spending when Mrs. Shelly came up with the story. It's interesting because Byron recounts the plot of the original film as if it were the plot of the novel, which, as you should know by now, it's far from. After talking about how abrupt the ending of the story is, Mrs. Shelly then decides to tell them the rest of the story that she's come up with and that's where the film really begins.

I love how big a character Byron is in terms of the way he acts. Every single word  that comes out of his mouth is spoken like he's on a stage and trying to be as outrageous as he possibly can, saying that the storm is probably due to God trying to strike him down because he is, as he himself describes, England's greatest sinner. And he then describes how astonishing a person Mary Shelly is, in that she has written such a frightening story and she herself is a very timid person. He rolls every single "r" on his tongue in the most hotty, snooty English way imaginable. He's a sight. Mary Shelly herself is interesting because she's played by Elsa Lanchester (who is much more beautiful than the real Mary Shelly was; look at paintings of her if you don't believe me), who plays the bride as well. I'm not sure if Whale is trying to draw some sort of parallel between the two characters but knowing him, that was probably the intent.

The plot of this film is thus: taking place after the end of Frankenstein, the monster survives the fire in the windmill and runs loose in the countryside. Meanwhile, Henry Frankenstein's decision to give up his experiments and marry Elizabeth is tempered when Dr. Pretorius, an old college professor of his, asks him to help create a mate for the monster. Frankenstein initially refuses but when Pretorius and the monster kidnap Elizabeth, he has not choice but to agree.

Whereas Boris Karloff was billed fourth in the ending credits of the original film, here he is suitably given top billing and he was so famous by this point, that they just bill him as Karloff. He plays the monster just as sympathetically as ever, perhaps even more so than the original film, even though his first act in this movie is killing two people in a row but again, that was probably due to the criminal brain in his skull. Once again, he means no harm and even saves a shepherdess from drowning but, of course, she screams at him when she sees him. It does seem like every time he meets a person, he tries to be friendly but they run in fear. This, no doubt, alienates him from people more and makes him distrust them.

One of the most famous scenes in the film is when the monster encounters a lonely blind hermit who takes him in. To me, this is a wonderful part of the movie because it never seems forced or trying to be sappy. It is truly touching, especially when the hermit thanks God for sending him a friend and cries in happiness and the monster is so touched that he sheds a tear as well. I like how the monster is at first understandably distrustful of the hermit but when it becomes clear that he won't hurt him, allows him to touch. Even though the monster still can't speak at this point, he clearly understands English. One little touch I love is when the hermit is reaching to give him some soup and when he gets his hand close to the fire, the monster briefly panics because he thinks he'll burn himself. That just makes the monster seem more like a good guy to me. While we're on the subject, I think O.P. Heggie, the actor who plays the hermit, does an excellent job. He's as sympathetic as Karloff is and actually similar: he's an outcast who merely wants a friend. When they're torn apart from each other by the two hunters (one of whom is a young John Carradine), it's heartbreaking, especially for the monster, who stumbles out of the burning hut and, temporarily blinded by the smoke, is reaching his arms out and shouting, "Friend!"

Of course, the hermit teaches the monster how to speak. Granted, it's not very sophisticated and is quite childlike in fact, (especially when compared to the philosophical monster of the original novel), but he is articulate enough that when he encounters Pretorius in the crypt and is asked if he knows who he is, he gives a wise answer. He knows he's an abomination made out of dead body parts and says, "I love dead. Hate living." That's why when Pretorius offers to make a woman like him, the monster enthusiastically accepts, knowing he won't be alone anymore. Which, again, leads to the heartbreak when the bride is repulsed by him like everybody else he's encountered and he decides to kill her, Pretorius, and himself. He gives one last sad tear when the bride hisses at him hatefully. Alive or dead, it seems like he will always despised.

Few female monsters are as iconic as the bride. She only appears in the film for the last ten or so minutes and yet she was so striking that most people know her simply by her appearance: that nutty hairstyle, the white gown, the completely bandaged arms, the birdlike movements, and the hiss, which Lanchester based on the hisses of a swan. Her creation scene is even more amazing than the iconic one of the monster in Frankenstein in my opinion, due to the even more abundant sparking, the crackling lightning, and Franz Waxman's amazing theme for the bride playing so spectacularly. Interesting thing about her: she seems instantly attracted to Henry Frankenstein when she first sees him. In fact, when she rejects her mate, she instantly goes to him for comfort. Never does seem to go the way it was intended in these movies, does it?

Colin Clive returns to the role of Henry Frankenstein in this film. Sadly, he was a very broken person by this point in his life, ravaged by alcoholism and unable to come to terms with his own personal demons. He would die two years at the age of 37. His inner turmoil seeps into the role of Frankenstein, who seems brought to his knees by the horrific results of his experiments and by Pretorius' meddling in his life. At first, he seems excited by the prospect that he did create a living creature, even though it went wrong, and he speculates that he may be intended to know the secret of life. But when Pretorius approaches him to continue his experiments, he says he's through with it, even though he is excited when he's told by Pretorius that he has created his own man-made creatures. Frankenstein is torn: he knows he did something horrible but the scientist in him still can't help but be excited by it. He even seems to return to the way he was at the beginning of the original when he's working with Pretorius. Ultimately, though, he knows what's happening is wrong and at the end, apparently goes off to live with his new wife, Elizabeth. As I said, too bad Clive's life didn't end up so well.

A lot of the film's quirky humor comes from the bizarre role of Dr. Pretorius, played by Ernest Thesiger, who was apparently just as weird as his character in real life. From the moment Pretorius appears at the door of the Frankenstein house, you know there's something odd about him. He's very snooty towards Elizabeth, with the raised nose look he gives to her when he says he must talk with Frankenstein in private. The weirdest scene involving Pretorius is when he shows Frankenstein a bunch of miniature people he's managed to create and holds them in bottles. Pretorius even admits that he's probably mad but that doesn't deter him from wanting to go forward with the experiment: unlike Frankenstein, he has no scruples whatsoever. But there's a lot more to Pretorius than initially meets the eye, as we'll discuss in a moment.

Valerie Hobson replaces Mae Clarke as Elizabeth and she does have a bit more life to her than she did originally. She spends most of the movie crying for Frankenstein, at one point even becoming hysterical and claims to see Death coming for her husband. She's also kidnapped by Pretorius and the monster to ensure Frankenstein's cooperation in the experiment. Like Mae Clarke before her, Hobson does play Elizabeth as being very loving towards her husband and trying to steer him away from something that is clearly very blasphemous. As hysterical as she gets, it never annoyed and she's still a likable character in the end.

Dwight Frye returns, this time playing Karl, an assistant to Pretorius. Unlike Fritz, he's not a hunchback and is much more sinister because when Frankenstein sends him out to get a new body for the bride, he resorts to killing a woman. Not much else to say about his character as he's not in the film much but he's memorable nonetheless and, like Fritz, he meets his end at the hands of the monster.

There are two very funny characters in this film. The funniest is Frankenstein's maid Minnie, played by Una O'Connor, who played a similar character in The Invisible Man, another James Whale film, a couple of years before. She's a hilarious character with her over the top screaming and running like a frightened chicken. One hilarious moment is when she has to get up in the middle of the night to answer the door and screams at whoever is out there to knock it off. Her encounter with the monster at the beginning is also really funny because she just takes off screaming. Also funny is the burgomaster, who's a completely different character than he was in the original. This time, he's played by E.E. Clive, who, like O'Connor, played a similar character in The Invisible Man. He comes across as full of hot air, ordering people what to do and seems to believe that the monster is merely an escaped lunatic. His best moment is when the mob captured the monster and he's ordering them how to tie him up. When he realizes they're not listening, he complains, "I get no cooperation! None at all!"

This movie is filled to the brim with Christian allegory and a lot of it is hardly subtext. Besides the obvious crucifix on the hermit's wall or the statue of Jesus in the background of the cemetery, the monster himself is depicted as a Christ-like figure. Not only in that he was resurrected from death in the original film, but when he's captured by the mob, they tie him to a cross-like structure and hold him up. It's so obviously meant to make him look like a crucified Jesus Christ. Some have interpreted this as James Whale, who was not religious, making a mockery of the divine, in that the monster is crucified after the resurrection rather than the other way around. Another parallel between the monster and Christ is his last meal with the hermit before they're torn apart. What are they eating? Bread and wine. In fact, there was a deleted scene involving the monster mistaking that statue of Christ I mentioned earlier for a suffering creature like himself and trying to pry him loose from the cross.

Besides Christ, there are also parallels with Satan and the character of Dr. Pretorius. When Pretorius shows Frankenstein his miniature people, he calls one of them the devil and even suggests that he has a likeness to Pretorius, then saying, "Or do I flatter myself?" Those who know the story of Faust can obviously see Pretorius as Mephistopheles and Frankenstein as Faust, as he tries to draw Frankenstein away from the road of the divine and back to the wicked world of his experiments. Pretorius even mocks Christianity, telling Frankenstein to follow the lead of nature or of God, "if you like your bible stories." And he says that last part with a sneer. He also toasts to, "A new world of gods and monsters!" Yeah, Pretorius is a pretty un-PC character even by today's standards. In fact, his direct link with Satan is corroborated from his first appearance. Right before his introduction, Elizabeth has that hysterical fit, claiming to see a Death-like figure coming for Frankenstein. And then Pretorius appears at their door. Coincidence?

There's also a perceived homosexual subtext to the film. As I said, James Whale was openly gay and it's also believed that Ernest Thesiger and even Colin Clive may have been gay or bisexual. As such, many have interpreted the Faust-like relationship between Pretorius and Frankenstein as being a gay one, with Pretorius trying to lure Frankenstein away from his life to go about creating life in an unnatural way. Apparently, an English novelization of the film made it very clear that Pretorius is gay. Even in the film, he acts more than a little fruity. Also, the relationship between the monster and the hermit is seen as a gay marriage and the two hunters represent society's inability to accept it and need to destroy this unnatural alliance. And since the monster refers to both the hermit and his future bride as "friend," some see this as the monster being sexually confused. Honestly, I think some people are reading a little too much into this. I think the monster is simply childlike and naive when he refers to them as friend, not bisexual. He even says, "Woman. Friend. Wife." He knows. And think he sees the hermit as just a companion, nothing more. Pretorius, on the other hand... he's so weird, that I do admit that I wonder sometimes. Even Minnie called him a, "queer old gentleman"!

Whereas the original film had no music except for the opening and closing titles, this movie has a lot of music, composed by Franz Waxman. It's an awesome score and Waxman, like Max Steiner in King Kong, attaches themes to various characters, something that was still rare at that time. The bride has a very exotic, beautiful theme, which is also used as a love theme between Frankenstein and Elizabeth at the very end of the film. The monster has a rather brutish theme, which does suit his manner despite his good heart. Dr. Pretorius has a quirky theme as well as a very menacing theme. The music that plays in the scene between the monster and the hermit is also very memorable. It's a terrific score.

There are some bizarre inconsistencies between the sequel and its predecessor. As I said in my review of Frankenstein, Ludwig, the father of Maria, now has his name changed to Hans for some reason and is played by a different actor. No mention is made of the old Baron Frankenstein and since Henry Frankenstein himself is referred to as Baron, it's implied that his father inexplicably died. As I said, the burgomaster is a completely different character both in actor and portrayal than he was originally. Minnie comes out of nowhere, having not been present originally. Whereas the time period in Frankenstein was a vague mixture of the 19th century and the 1930's, the period is a bit more solidly the late 1800's due to the clothing and a bit more crudeness to the science and technology. So, yeah, The Bride of Frankenstein may be a great film but its relationship to the film that spawned it is a curious one.

While Frankenstein is my personal favorite, The Bride of Frankenstein is the one I go to when I want an even richer film experience. This is one of those few instances where everything just clicked and worked. James Whale, sadly, would never experience a more personally creative filmmaking experience. After the Laemmles lost the studio, Whale found himself unable to have complete creative control under the new management. He retired from filmmaking in 1941 and by the late 1950's, ill health led him to take his own life in 1957. It was a sad end to what was once a great film career. If you want to know how great a director James Whale was, look no further than this movie and the others I've mentioned but especially this one because, among them all, it's truly his film.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Franchises: Universal's Frankenstein Series. Frankenstein (1931)

Back in my review of Tod Browning's Dracula, I said it was one of the two most important early talking horror films. The other one, released at the end of 1931, was Frankenstein, directed by James Whale. If Dracula was the real start of Hollywood's first horror run in the 1930's, Frankenstein was the logical next step that defined it and made it a mainstay. This was another film that I saw on that life-changing weekend in October of 1998 when I was eleven years old. Along with The Wolf Man, Frankenstein became the Universal horror film that I saw the most and because of this, it's my favorite of the bunch and furthermore, one of my favorite movies of all time.

Like Dracula, this is without a doubt one of the most influential movies ever made, perhaps even more so than that film. Many people know the story of Frankenstein solely from this film, not from Mary Shelly's novel. Whenever you think of the mad scientist creating the monster in a laboratory, with all sorts of electrical devices, Tesla coils sparking, loud, humming generators, and the monster lying on a gurney with a sheet over him, you're thinking of the pivotal scene from this film. That scene is the prototypical laboratory that we've seen in countless other films, TV shows, and cartoons. Also, the idea of the monster having a brain put into his head and then being brought to life by lightning is straight from this film, not from the novel, which left the monster's creation very vague. To be quite honest, this film was based mainly on a loose 1920's stage version of the novel rather than the book itself. Some purists may find this disconcerting but I think it shows the material's ability to transcend generations and adaptations throughout the years.

Of course, the biggest influence this film has more than anything else is the look of the monster, played by the great Boris Karloff and whose iconic design was the work of makeup legend Jack Pierce. Even if you're never seen the movies, it's unlikely you can hear the name Frankenstein and think of the tall, flat-headed monster with bolts in his neck, stitches on various parts of his body, wearing dark clothing with big boots and grunting and growling. I know I knew that was what the monster looked like long before I saw the film. But what makes the monster a really great character and not just memorable due solely to his look is Karloff's performance. From the moment you first see him when he walks into the room where Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman are, he's apparently confused about where he is or maybe even what he is but he doesn't come across as threatening. He obeys Frankenstein like a young child would his father and this entire scene is a great example of Karloff's prowess at silent acting. The part where Frankenstein opens the shutter on the ceiling and the monster notices the light and tries to touch it shows his childlike innocence. When the light is shut out, the monster then turns to Frankenstein and makes a motion with his hand, like he wants his "father" to embrace him. When Frankenstein simply tells him to sit back down, he does so but continues to make those hand movements. Even if you're not sure exactly what he wants, you can see that the monster wants affection.

Only when Fritz, the hunchbacked assistant, bursts in with a torch does the monster turn violent but it's out of fear of the torch, not malevolence. He gets up and backs away, swiping at the air and moaning in fear but even though Frankenstein tells Fritz to get away, he gets too close and the monster attacks because he's afraid. They're forced to lock in the dungeon and now the monster doesn't trust anyone because he's been threatened, punched in the back by Waldman, and now chained. That's the only reason why he kills Fritz and tries to do so to Frankenstein and Waldman. Of course, we can assume that another reason why the monster is violent is due to the abnormal brain that was mistakenly sewn into his skull. Which brings up something else: is the soul and personality of that criminal coming through the monster and if so, does that mean that he wasn't really a bad man but just a frightened and confused one who only knew how to react with violence? Or does the monster have his own soul and doesn't want to hurt anyone but can't keep these violent thoughts from coming through when he's frightened or angry? Something to ponder.

Other than the creation scene, the movie's most iconic scene is the one between the monster and little Maria, the young girl he encounters by the lake. He's fascinated by her the moment he sees her and she's the first person who hasn't treated him with revulsion, contempt, or fear other than Frankenstein initially. When she hands him one of the flowers, the smile that comes across his face is pure happiness and his childlike laughs of delight when they throw the flowers into the lake and watch them float can't help but make you feel happy for him. But, unfortunately, he naively throws the girl into the lake, expecting her to float, and when she drowns, the look on his face is proof that he knows he's done something wrong. He may not completely understand it but he no doubt probably feels horrible that he has accidentally killed the only person who was nice to him. (Ironically, when the censors cut the part where the monster throws Maria into the lake, they ended up making him seem sinister. By cutting just as he's reaching for her, it caused many to wonder what he did to her.)

Equally as iconic as the monster is Colin Clive's performance as Dr. Henry Frankenstein. Who can forget his classic line, :"It's alive! It's alive!", or his appearance in the white laboratory suit? James Whale and Clive undoubtedly had no idea at the time that this would become THE mad scientist performance. However, I don't think Frankenstein is insane in this film and I've heard that both Whale and Clive didn't think so either. He's just overambitious and wants to prove that he can go beyond God. Sure, he resorts to grave-robbery to gather the body parts necessary and becomes so excited when the monster comes to life that he yells, "Now I know what it feels like to be God!", (a line that was deemed so blasphemous at the time that it was cut and not restored until the 1990's), but his demeanor changes when things start to go wrong. When Waldman informs him that Fritz accidentally stole the brain of a criminal, the look on Frankenstein's face and the way he glances at the door (probably thinking of the monster) does show some concern for the ramifications and that despite his efforts to make sure the experiment was as safe and perfect as possible, he's failed. He, of course, brushes it off, no doubt in the delusional thinking we all do in that if you don't think about the problem, it'll go away. Of course, once the monster is locked downstairs in the dungeon and Frankenstein finally sees what he's created, his demeanor changes to shame as he tells Fritz to just leave it alone. And when Fritz is killed by the monster, he feels regret. He didn't want anybody to be harmed and that no doubt leads him to hunt down his own creation when what he's done is revealed.

Frankenstein also clearly loves his fiance Elizabeth, played by Mae Clarke, but doesn't have his priorities straight at the beginning when his letter tells her that his work must come first even before her. But once his family gets him away from his work, he realizes how much he loves her again and vows to marry. That's no doubt another reason why he decides to destroy the monster: to keep his loved one safe. As for Clarke's performance, she may not be very deep but she's very loving and devoted to Frankenstein, even though he does seem mad. She's worried about his health when he's preoccupied with his work and knows that there's something not right about it. She cares about HIM, not his work and knows when it's taking its toll on him. She also apparently has enough sense (call it woman's intuition or what have you) to know even after Frankenstein leaves his work that something still isn't right and their life together may be threatened by some outside force she can't put her finger on (i.e. the monster). All in all, Clarke may not have been the best actor but she does pull it off rather well.

The other cast members range from iconic in their own right to pretty forgettable. John Boles probably has the most thankless role in the film as Victor, Elizabeth's friend and passive rival towards Frankenstein for her affections. (Victor, ironically, was Frankenstein's first name in the novel and most other adaptations of the story.) He honestly doesn't have much to do except support both Elizabeth and Frankenstein, even though he clearly has feelings for Elizabeth himself. The only real thing of substance he says is at the beginning when he meets Elizabeth and they discuss Frankenstein's erratic behavior lately. Afterward, when Elizabeth says she's fond of him, he says, :"I wish you were." Elizabeth doesn't like the implication and Victor immediately drops it, which does seem to suggest that even though he does love her, he knows his bounds and makes him seem like a decent guy if nothing else. As I said, Boles doesn't have much to do other than that and I don't know if he was a good actor or not. Hell, after Frankenstein tells him to keep Elizabeth company while he searches for the monster, he disappears and is never mentioned again, not even in the sequel.

Edward Van Sloan, back from Dracula, plays Dr. Waldman, Frankenstein's former college mentor. Unlike Prof. Van Helsing, Van Sloan as Waldman as a rather cynical character. When Elizabeth and Victor question him about Frankenstein, there's some contempt present as he talks about his pupil's aspirations and the kind of man he eventually became. He only goes with them to the laboratory because Elizabeth asked him to, not because he cares about his former student. Before the monster is brought to life, Frankenstein informs Waldman that he has gone beyond what he taught him at school and Waldman's reactions are smug disbelief, not believing in the slightest that Frankenstein has done so. But once the monster is brought to life, Waldman becomes convinced that it can only lead to disaster and tries to warn Frankenstein. As soon as the monster begins to react violently, he presses Frankenstein even further to destroy him. Waldman is good enough to tell Frankenstein that the records of the experiment will be preserved and that he will painlessly kill the monster. Unfortunately for Waldman, the monster wakes up right before he can dissect him and strangles him. I don't think Van Sloan's performance here is as good as Van Helsing but as always with him, it is still done quite well.

Dwight Frye follows up his character of Renfield in Dracula with an equally memorable and unusual character as Fritz, the hunchbacked assistant. Like many other things in this film, Frye's performance would set the standard for all misshapen assistants in mad doctor movies. Many people call him Igor, which has become standard for hunchback assistants, but a character named "Ygor" wouldn't appear until The Son of Frankenstein, the third film in this franchise. In this film, Frye's character may not be the most complex character but he does what he can with it and it is brilliant. Fritz is quite loyal to Frankenstein, even seeming to share his master's enthusiasm for the experiment. One wonders if Frankenstein pays him well or if he just likes having something to do. Of course, it's Fritz's fault that the wrong brain made it into the monster's skull. Some sources have said it's because he can't read but I think it's more due to him panicking after he drops the good brain and grabs whatever he can. Fritz is quite funny when he walks down the stairs to answer the door for Elizabeth, Victor, and Waldman, muttering under his breath, single-mindedly telling them to leave even when they say who it is, and even stopping to pull up his sock on his way back up. However, Fritz is also revealed to have a sadistic side when he continues to torment the monster with a torch and even strikes a whip at him at one point. But, Fritz ultimately pays for his cruelty with his life. The death scream that Frye gives off is really horrific.

Frederic Kerr as Baron Frankenstein, the father, comes across as a blowhard bully who wants his son to live up to his standards and not mess with all that scientific nonsense. He finds science so uninteresting that he feels that Frankenstein has have to found another woman rather than spending all his time in a laboratory. He acts like a major douchebag towards the poor burgomaster, who's only doing his job when he comes to ask when the wedding between Frankenstein and Elizabeth will take place. When the burgomaster says that Henry Frankenstein is the very image of his father, the Baron grumbles, "Heaven forbid," which says he doesn't want any comparison to his son when he's doing his experiments. And yet, as jerky as he acts in his first scene, I don't hate the Baron. In fact, I think he's funny in how he acts so full of hot air. The way he acts when he can't open the door to the watchtower where the laboratory is always cracks me up and I like the story he tells about his grandmother not letting his grandfather drink the vintage wine. However, he's still a snob because he tells a butler to give the servants some champagne instead of the wine because he says it's wasted on them. But when he finds his son fainted in his room in the watchtower, he quickly rushes to his aid, which I do think shows that he really does care about his son.

The only other character that stands out to be me is one that isn't even listed: Ludwig, Maria's father, played by Francis Ford (whose name was changed to Hans for some reason in The Bride of Frankenstein). His role is brief but his interactions with Maria before he goes off and leaves her alone (which isn't very good parenting, if you think about it) shows love. And when he carries his daughter's limp body to the burgomaster, his heartbroken way of talking is touching. That leads to me Herr Vogel, the burgomaster, whose role is also small but I like the way he calls Ludwig a poor man when he sees his dead child. His energy when the mob is formed to hunt the monster is another touch I like.

The director of Frankenstein, James Whale, was a guy who was years ahead of his time, even in his very lifestyle, being openly gay in Hollywood in the 1930's. Whereas Tod Browning in Dracula, as much as I praised his direction for that film, didn't seem to know how to work in sound, Whale stretched the medium to its limits at the time. The crackling thunder, the sounds of the machines, the pounding of the dirt as it's pushed onto the coffin at the beginning, the monster's grunting, etc. Whale wasn't afraid to let his film literally speak for itself. Also, Whale employs a lot of camera movement, some of which is quite unique for the time. The most striking one is the four closeups at the beginning of one scene before an establishing shot. Another is the very long tracking shot that follows Ludwig carrying Maria's body throughout the village and you can see each villager stop celebrating when they see him. At some points, Whale pushes the camera past the edge of the wall. This may not seem like a smart thing to do but Whale came from the theater so it's more than likely just his inability to shake his old love. Whale also wasn't afraid to expose audiences to things they hadn't experienced yet like the aforementioned pounding dirt, the closeups of the feet of a cadaver, the closeup of a shoot needle being jammed into the monster's back and so forth. This is stuff you wouldn't even think about nowadays but in 1931, this made a lot of people really uncomfortable. The only trademark of Whale's that is missing is his dark sense of humor, which he would develop in his next horror film, The Old Dark House. This film is fairly straight in that respect, probably due to Whale having not found his footing in making these types of movies at the time.

Like Dracula, Frankenstein has no music except for the opening title sequence and the closing cast list. But unlike Dracula, there's hardly a quiet moment. As I said, there's sound everywhere. One that's very apparent is at the beginning when you can hear the church-bell chiming in the distance during and after the burial. I've listed all the other groundbreaking sounds that are present in the film but like I said, it shows how far ahead of the time Whale was.

There are some curious continuity errors within the film. One is when Victor tells Frankenstein that Dr. Waldman has been murdered. The question is who found his body? Nobody seems to go up to that watchtower. During the first scene with Baron Frankenstein, he calls the building Frankenstein does his experiments in a windmill instead of a watchtower. I think this is due to a change in the script because the building that the monster meets his "demise" in is clearly a windmill. Undoubtedly, some settings were switched. Also, Ludwig says that Maria was murdered. How does he know that since he didn't see it? Again, this is due to a change from an earlier script where Maria's mother was in the house and saw everything happen from the window. Maria's mother doesn't appear at all in this movie although she does appear briefly in the sequel. Honestly, I never thought about any of these until someone pointed them out but they don't hurt the film for me because that would just be nitpicking.

This leads to me a scene that while it still doesn't bother me, it does make me think a bit more. After hearing of Waldman's death, Frankenstein locks Elizabeth in her room to keep her safe. (Why didn't he just tell her to stay in the room rather than lock her in, which ultimately ends up harming her?) Anyway, he and the others hear the monster growling and search every corner of the house but can't find him. I've never understood this scene. No matter where they search, the monster's growls never become more faint or get louder. Is he able to throw his voice or do they just suck at trying to find him? It's just odd. Anyway, the monster sneaks into Elizabeth's room through the window and attacks her. Why would he just sneak into one random room, having no idea who's in there? Furthermore, he acts rather threateningly towards Elizabeth and seems to hurt her, which makes him seem a lot more wantonly violent and sinister than he has been up to this point. Still, that could be the criminal brain talking. And we don't see what happened so maybe he didn't hurt her and Elizabeth just fainted and knocked something over, causing the crashing sound we hear before Frankenstein and the others can get into the room. Again, this doesn't hurt the movie for me but it is something I ponder.

One thing that is often regarded as continuity errors are the mix of 18th century and 1930's style culture, clothing, and technology and the vagueness as to where in Europe this is taking place. At first glance, this may seem like a goof but James Whale did this intentionally to make the movie timeless. He didn't want it to feel of any particular time or country. While later versions of the story like the Hammer films would give it a more solid time period, this one is kind of in a fantasy world but I think that is in it's favor. In fact, many of Universal's horror films did so. It helps to make them feel more storybook, which I feel really helps them in their context.

Plotholes and continuity errors aside, Frankenstein is definitely one of the best horror movies of the 20th century. Its influence is unquestionable but it's also simply a really good, well made movie. Boris Karloff's stardom, despite his not even being credited at the beginning or even being invited to the film's premiere(!), began with this film and throughout his life, he never forgot that. The sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, would not come for another four years but it would prove to be well worth the wait and  would not only become a classic in its own right but would become to many, one of the few sequels that not only measures up to the original but tops it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bill Cosby: Himself (1983)

I'll just start off by saying I love Bill Cosby. I think he's one of the greatest comedians that ever lived. Despite what was said about him later in his life (the infidelity, his acting like a blow hard about certain subjects, etc.), I still think he's one of the greats. Despite what he does or what happens to him, no one will ever be able to take his amazing comedy career away from him. I think The Cosby Show is one of America's best sitcoms. This comedy special, made the year before he began making his famous sitcom, is a great showcase of his talent. In my late teens, I really began to appreciate The Cosby Show but I didn't see this all the way through until I was almost twenty-one. When I finally sat down and watched it, I was laughing like crazy. Along with Eddie Murphy's comedy specials Raw and Delirious, this has to be one of the best stand-up films ever.

There are many reasons why this film (and Cosby's comedy overall) works. First of all, even though this was filmed in the early 80's, none of the stuff Cosby talks about are dated. Instead of discussing issues of the time, he talks about timeless topics like dealing with dentists, raising children, and so forth. Because of that, people who weren't even alive when this was made, one of which I am, can laugh at it. Second, it's relatable. Each segment of this has something the average person can identify with. I identify the most with the section about dentists because I have a dentist who means well but he often gets on my nerves and puts me through most of the crap Cosby talks about here. (He wants to talk to you when he's got his tools jammed in your mouth and actually has the gall to get irritated when you won't answer.) Anybody who's had to raise kids can understand the stuff Cosby describes about children seeming to be brain-damaged and the stuff they put you through. And don't even pretend like you haven't done some of the stuff he talks about happening between you and an annoying child.

I also like how Cosby is very observant about certain things that most people would probably overlook and he discusses them. As I said before, the stuff you have to put with at the dentist is a good example but I think the best is the very first section where he ponders how somebody can be having a good time when they're either taking drugs that make them act nuts or getting so drunk that they make themselves sick. I love the part where he's acting like he's drunk and leaning against a toilet, moaning in agony. He sums it up at the beginning by saying he has people who work for him and even though he works them hard during the week, it's the weekend when they almost kill themselves and they come back to work on Monday feeling worse than they did at the end of Friday. And, although he only talks about it briefly, he understands if it's a young person who has never experienced it before but adults constantly do it even though they know what's coming. In the same section, I like Cosby's descriptions of the various walks of different types of drunken people: winos, gin and vodka drinkers, your typical beer drinkers, etc. It's funny stuff.

And that leads to another thing about Cosby. Even though he sits down through a good chunk of the film, he uses his body language to get his points across. His facial expressions are the best. His facial examples of a person who's stoned and is now paranoid, the differences between the faces of mothers and fathers, the look on a child's face, they're all funny as crap. I already talked about the funny walks he uses to illustrate the various ways different drunks move. Besides that, he moves legs and arms all over the place; standing in his chair at one to get across how his wife literally stood up when she was in labor, showing how his baby daughter reacted when he did baby talk to her, imitating his wife wielding a yardstick to whip their naughty children. He uses every part of his body. He's also real adept at making various sounds. The guy from those Police Academy movies may be the best at it but Cosby is a close runner-up. He gets so into it at some points during this film that he nearly sticks the entire microphone in his mouth (it's a miracle he didn't get shocked!). His imitations of people (nobody famous, just the people in his stories) are also really well done. Even the background in this film helps to illustrate some things. It's constantly changing colors from deep blue to red to orange. At one point when he's describing when the first real labor pains hit his wife, he makes a loud sound and the background suddenly turns bright orange, as if whoever is doing that did it to help Cosby emphasize what he's talking about. I don't think I've ever seen anything like that before or since.
As many have noted, Bill Cosby is not only a great comedian but also a great story-teller. And that's what most of his comedy acts are: him sitting down and telling funny anecdotes (although, whether they're real or true are anyone's guess). I've heard that when he first started doing stand-up, it was unique and I think I understand why. When you watch his stuff, you don't feel like you're watching a comedian but more like you're visiting your funny uncle or grandpa and asking, "Tell me a funny story," and he does it. This is just me but I think that, coupled with his relatable and timeless subjects of discussion, is what enables you to become closer to Cosby than most other comedians.

Which leads me to my next point: this is a pretty family friendly comedy special. Cosby does swear here and there (the strongest thing he said was "asshole") but for the most part, it's his usual clean, family fun style. Honestly, the part about drugs and childbirth would probably go over most kids' heads so I don't there would be any harm in having children watch this with you. Also, this (along with a good portion of Cosby's comedy) never once touches on race. If you've watched a lot of The Cosby Show, you'll notice that show hardly ever makes any mention of race. Anybody (black, white, Asian, etc.) can watch this and identify with what's being said. Cosby has been criticized for this in the past but hey, if the guy doesn't care about making an issue of it, why force him to? I think it's a smart move because it even further ensures a broad audience.

I don't have many complaints about this special. If I was going to come up with some, the main one would be that I kind of wish Cosby didn't stand the vast majority of it talking about the trials and tribulations of parenthood. Don't get me wrong, just about everything he talks about is out of the park funny (I have a little niece who acts "brain-damaged" like some of the kids he describes) but I wish he would have broadened the scope a little bit. I would have liked to hear him comment on other typical stuff like an annoying experience at a restaurant, trouble at the grocery store, irritating people you run into on the road, stuff like that. That's not a knock against the special as just some things I personally wish Cosby would have included in this but whatever. One real criticism I do have is that some parts of the act don't feel that well structured. At some points, Cosby is about to tell one story but he goes off on a tangent about something and it takes him a little while to get back to that. Then again, the guy's brain seems to be going at breakneck speed here so it's probably just that. Also, it seemed like he was running out of things to say at the end and was just trying to fill up time. His final stuff about his parents' relationship with his children and their relationship with him when he was a kid seemed disjointed and didn't feel as uniform as everything that came before. But this is just nitpicking.

I have to admit that certain parts of this movie that make me cringe in retrospect are the instances when Cosby mentions his only son Ennis, who was murdered in 1997. At one point, Cosby says that he doesn't think his son is going to live much longer because his sisters are conspiring to kill him. It's a joke, of course, but you can't help but wince a bit at that nowadays. Also, Cosby describes how his son often left his fly open and says something along the lines that it can make one seem unintelligent. Again, that may have been just a joke, but if I'm not mistaken, Ennis was diagnosed with dyslexia at one point. I wonder if Cosby ever watched this back and kind of wished he hadn't made that comment. Now, I am in no way saying that Cosby did this to insult his son. I know he really loved his son and was devastated when he was killed. I don't think he's been the same since and that's why you don't see Cosby much nowadays because it may have killed some life in him. Still, it is sad to see of that stuff today, knowing what would happen years later.

This ended up being me raving about Bill Cosby himself instead of about, well... Bill Cosby, Himself. It's kind of hard for me to talk about just one of a comedian's acts without talking about them as a performer as a whole. But, in any case, I stick with what I said at the beginning about this being an awesome special and just a great example of Bill Cosby's humor, warm-hearted feelings, and talent. It's too bad he's getting up there in age and probably doesn't have many more performances like this left in him. But we'll always have his legacy to remember. If you're a Bill Cosby fan and haven't seen this, I would highly advise checking it out. It's just sheer comedy brilliance from top to bottom.