Summer of Horror, Part 2: Universal Classics

In the early 1930’s Universal Pictures turned to a number of classic horror novels involving monsters to adapt into films. Many of these ended up becoming iconic – and forever establishing the cultural status and image of our most famous horror characters. Dracula’s cape, slicked back hair, and Hungarian accent; Frankenstein’s neck bolts, flat head, and boxy clothes; The Mummy’s priest robe and fez cap….¬†

Definitely what everyone thinks of when you say "mummy"
Definitely what everyone thinks of when you say “mummy”

Well that one didn’t really stick.

At any rate, the Universal classic monster movies are the cream of the crop when it comes to “important” horror movies, and yet before this project I hadn’t seen any of them, save Dracula. I am including Dracula in this review however, because it seems wrong to leave it out.

Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein

I was pretty excited to watch this one. Horror buffs tend to put Frankenstein on a pedestal and many will claim it’s their favorite horror film of all time. I was particularly intrigued by it because I had not only not seen the original film, but hadn’t ever seen any other adaptations of this story, unless you count Young Frankenstein (a surprisingly faithful adaptation as it turns out).

How do I put this? Frankenstein….

Hmm.

Frankenstein didn’t really do it for me. I know, I’m sort of killing the sacred cow by saying that, but part of this project is that I give my honest and unbiased reaction to these movies.

I completely understand why this is a classic. I also understand that movies like this didn’t really exist in 1931. I’m sure the reveal of the monster (which I’ll expound upon soon) was pretty shocking to audiences of that era. But Frankenstein to modern eyes is plagued by every problem that old, old movies tend to have, and particularly the ones from Universal. As it turns out, there’s a bit of a formula to the Universal classic monster movies – they toggle back and forth between scenes of the main character/monster doing their whole monster bit, and scenes of good looking, well-dressed people in old-fashioned Victorian mansions talking about it. After each iconic scene of Dr. Frankenstein and his hunchback assistant Igo- um, “Fritz”, there is a scene of the people in Frankenstein’s life back home talking about his unusual behavior. These scenes tend to be pretty flat and uninteresting, plus on a technical level, they are a bit hard to follow due to the audio quality of that era and the mannerisms of the actors.

The almost total lack of music is also pretty off-putting. Scenes meant to land with a lot of dramatic weight seem hollow because of this. The aforementioned reveal of the monster really suffers from this – he walks through the door backwards (inexplicably), then slowly turns around. As this happens the camera makes a couple of jump cuts into a closeup of the monster’s face. It would have been spectacular – except the entire affair is utterly silent. There is nothing to punctuate the horror.

I’m sure more film-literate horror fans than myself would defend this as minimalistic. Or perhaps I’ve just been conditioned by decades of modern movies, and am unable to feel the intended emotional impact of scenes without the soundtrack telling me how to respond, but it definitely feels awkward. The same problem goes for the monster’s murders later in the film.

Despite this there was much to appreciate, particularly on an academic level. Most people are familiar with the “picking flowers” scene in which the monster accidentally drowns a little girl he’s befriended. While the moment itself came off as abrupt and inappropriately comical to me, the scene following it was powerful – the girl’s father, carrying her limp body through the main street of the town with a numb, confused expression on his face, demands answers from the authorities on what is to be done. This leads to another iconic scene – the old “torches and pitchforks” mob attack.

The ending was fittingly tragic, and pretty well-done overall, but it did seem a little rushed and of course, suffered from a lack of musical score. As you’ll soon read however, it was heads and shoulders above some of the other Universal endings.

Dracula (1931)

Dracula

I actually watched the 1931 Dracula last year for the first time. I wasn’t yet prepared for the whole “1930’s-ness” of it – all the factors mentioned above that make it tough for a modern viewer to get through aged films. It suffers from exactly the same problems (if you want to call them that) that Frankenstein does, as well as The Mummy, but to a lesser extent. Due to the slow pace and stretches of almost total silence, I found my eyelids drooping from time to time, but pushed through in the end.

What Dracula really has going for it are the sets and atmosphere. It all started here – the castle on the mountaintop, the crashing lighting, and cobwebs, bats, fog, moonlight…. it’s like a greatest hits of Halloween imagery. And just like in Frankenstein, the depiction of the monster (Bela Lugosi as the Count) became a cultural staple of not only Count Dracula but of vampires in general for decades.

There is no greater honor than being turned into a Muppet.
There is no greater honor than being turned into a Muppet.

Now having seen Dracula and Nosferatu pretty close together, and finally understanding exactly how literal¬†a Dracula adaptation the latter really is, I have to say that I slightly prefer Nosferatu out of the two. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula may be more iconic, but Nosferatu is far creepier. Count Orlock is a figure that makes you recoil at the sight, even today, whereas Lugosi’s Dracula is charming and genteel.

Dracula also has one of the more anti-climactic endings I’ve yet to see in horror. I’ve come to understand that this was mainly a result of censorship and standards of the era, but Dracula is rather unceremoniously staked, off-screen, with only a pitiful moan to inform the audience of his death. And when the film was originally released, that moan was censored!

It’s hard to put myself in the mind frame of what society found indecent 80 years ago.

The Mummy (1932)

 

Mummy

Ahhh, The Mummy. What can I say about this one? I know it seems like I’m being totally blasphemous about these Universal Classics, but on an intellectual level I’m completely capable of appreciating the impact they had in their day, along with the massive cultural influence they had, but I just can’t figure out The Mummy.

I suppose it should have been a clue that, even without having seen the original Dracula or Frankenstein movies, I was already familiar with most of their iconic scenes, but I had nothing when it came to The Mummy. The only image I had in my mind looked like this figurine I have on my desk at work:

He protects my stapler with the threat of eternal curse.
He protects my stapler with the threat of eternal curse.

If any of the hardcore horror buffs are still reading, and haven’t covered their monitors in vomit by now, maybe one of them can tell me where this version of the Mummy appears? Because it’s not in the original film. I’m thinking he may look like this in the sequels somewhere.

At any rate, I found The Mummy to be entirely lacking in suspense, atmosphere, and scares. The monster looks like a normal human, albeit with more wrinkly skin, and his goals don’t involve killing or even really harming anybody. He is trying to resurrect his bride (also a mummy), by pilfering artifacts from an Egyptian museum. The patented Universal Monster Movie Formula is in place here – toggling back and forth between scenes of the Mummy preparing for his ritual, and scenes of people we don’t care about talking about…. stuff. I honestly don’t remember what the conversations were about. The closest anybody ever comes to danger in this film is the female lead, who, as it turns out, is the Mummy’s bride reincarnated and her sacrifice is necessary for the resurrection. However, the Mummy is far too polite to simply kill her – he actually tries to talk her into going through with it. The film’s bland hero arrives at the proper moment to save her, and watch the Mummy get crumbled to dust by a magic beam of light in another anti-climactic Universal monster death.

Sheesh. I know that sounded harsh, but apart from the distinction of being the first “mummy” movie (I think), I can’t imagine how this came to be considered a classic.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

 

Bride of Frankenstein

Now we’re talkin’. What a difference four years can make!

Bride of Frankenstein, for lack of a better phrase, kicks ass. After Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy, I fully expected more of the same – slow pace, no music, awkward rhythms, anti-climax. But Bride of Frankenstein corrects nearly every issue I had with previous Universal monster movies and then some. It’s faster-paced, it has a great musical score, it’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s unpredictable… and no scenes of interchangeable 30’s movie stars chatting in old houses! (Well, besides the prologue)

Interestingly enough, this film is more faithful to Mary Shelly’s original novel than the first Frankenstein movie was. The story goes: The monster has survived the attempted murder by the angry townsfolk and now wanders around the area searching for some sort of reason for existence. In the meantime, Dr. Frankenstein is traumatized by his failure in creating the monster and is attempting to put his normal life back together, when an even madder scientist, Dr. Pretorius, tries to goad him into collaborating on another creation – a female monster.

Dr. Pretorius is such a perfect mad scientist, he actually overshadows Frankenstein easily. His dialogue is great, and he has a line so wonderful I had to rewind and watch it again: “You like gin? I’m afraid it’s my only weakness….. To a new world, of gods and monsters!”

White lab coat? Check. Crazy hair? Check. Tomb, wine, and skull? Check check and check.
White lab coat? Check. Crazy hair? Check. Tomb, wine, and skull? Check check and check.

Obviously, we all know Frankenstein gives in and creates a “bride of Frankenstein” (which doesn’t make sense but whatever) with Pretorius, and what really surprised me here was that the Bride doesn’t come into play until near the end of the film, and doesn’t actually do much. She has an iconic look that goths still emulate every Halloween, but is, all told, a very minor character considering the film is titled after her.

I feel silly saying this for a 1935 film, but I don’t want to spoil the ending. It’s excellent. If you take anything away from this mega-review – it ought to be my recommendation to watch Bride of Frankenstein. It’s what I always imagined classic horror would be like.

 

Next time around: Sci-Fi.

 

 

2 comments

  1. You’d never watched any of these? Holy crap, Jon. You need to step up. Here in Phoenix, they used to air these movies every Saturday morning, so I was able to watch pretty much all of them. I’m interested to see what you write about SF movies.

  2. The Bride of Frankenstein “kick’s ass”?

    While the movie starts off fine and progresses as one might expect, the ending is certainly anticlimactic. They bring her to life and shortly after she is blown up? Ridiculous!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *