“View from Copenhagen,” Harald Rudyard Engman, 1931
I watched “Frankenstein” (1931) last night, as it was one of those immeasurably frustrating nights when I couldn’t sleep. No, this movie obviously can’t be considered frightening by modern standards — but I still had fun finally seeing a Universal Pictures monster movie I’ve heard about all my life.
Here are a few fun Frankenfacts, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Let me close with two observations:
So I finally saw the entirety of “Dracula” (1931) last night, after being alive on this planet for nearly half a century. The iconic image of Bela Lugosi was something I’d grown up with in the 1980’s … most boys back then hadn’t actually seen the original Universal Pictures movie from 50 years’ prior (and of course we hadn’t read Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel), but everyone knew who Dracula was. The character still saturated popular culture via everything from toys to comic books to cartoons to breakfast cereals to countless emulations in contemporary movies. You weren’t a boy in the 1980’s if you didn’t dress proudly as Dracula at least once for Halloween.
But … despite it being such a cultural touchstone, this 1931 film might have been overhyped. That’s just my humble opinion, and I do realize it might get me in trouble with horror fans — or even just film buffs in general. I personally found Lugosi’s performance underwhelming. Look — I understand that he looked and sounded the part, especially with his height of 6’1, and his unique and intimidating stare. But he was a pretty staid and even low-energy actor, at least here, I think. For me, he was quickly overshadowed by the wide-eyed Dwight Frye, in his supporting role as the manic, psychopathic Renfield. Frye was an expressive physical actor, and he looked and sounded absolutely nuts. That man could be genuinely scary, if this story was presented in a more natural fashion.
Which brings me to my overall concern about the movie — it has a slow pace and a stationary feel to it that are unfortunately derived from its immediate source material — the film was adapted from a 1924 stage play adaptation of Stoker’s book. The book, in contrast, was actually an epic journey, with imperiled characters with lots of agency who reacted quite energetically against its title antagonist.
The difference here is most painfully obvious with a clipped, seemingly bowdlerized anti-climax, where Dracula is killed offscreen. When he’s finally (SPOILER WARNING) staked through the heart, we don’t see it. Instead, we’re treated to a clumsy reaction shot by David Manners, in his milquetoast turn as Jonathan Harker. It’s awkwardly staged. It even feels as though the scene could have been added in post-production, after Van Helsing’s dispatch of the monster was deemed too much for audiences. (Van Helsing himself is played with admirable gravitas by Edward Van Sloan.) It’s weird that so little thought appears to have gone into this denouement, given the detail that seems to have gone into things like the movie’s great sets.
If you want to see a truly impressive antique Dracula movie, I’d recommend the unauthorized (but far superior) adaptation of the famous book — F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu: ein Symphonie des Grauens” (1922). Even that historic film can be divisive, though. People like me find it delightfully creepy, while others describe it as flat-out boring.
Oh, well. I still enjoyed “Dracula.” It’s moody and lavish to look at, even in black and white. You can tell that the filmmakers took it seriously — it’s nicely atmospheric, when it isn’t being pulled down by ham-handed comic relief or (sigh) terrible bat puppetry. (They should have known even in 1931 to omit the effect altogether). Sloan’s performance kind of redeems it as a serious horror film, and Frye really shines. (Among other things, he’d go on to become an even more infamous horror henchman later that same year. He was none other than Fritz, the doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, in Universal’s “Frankenstein.”)
“Dracula” can be a lot of fun. It will help you enjoy it if you watch it after dark, if your hopes aren’t too high for being scared, and if you’re curious about what Depression-era audiences might have found frightening. You might really find it interesting if you’re a serious fan of the genre. What I’d suggest is a double-feature, with this movie followed by a no-holds-barred modern vampire movie like “30 Days of Night” (2007) for a point of comparison. That could be an interesting vibe for the night.
I actually misspelled the name of the movie in the headline as “Frankensatin” at first, and that sounds like the most ill-advised sexy movie ever.
I just need a Halloween horror playlist, though. I’ve already seen this year’s “Castle Rock” and (of course) the second season of “Mr. Mercedes.”
“Vampire” (1979) and “The Last Broadcast” (1998) both come highly recommended by some horror-fan friends that I truly trust. I also believe that I have never seen any of the classic Universal Studios monster movies in their entirety. I’ve watched bits and pieces of a couple of them on television when I was a young kid, including “Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954) and “The Invisible Man” (1933). When I was a tot in the very late 70’s, the studio’s Gothic monsters were still very much a part of the zeitgeist … my older brother even had the Aurora model kits. I finally enjoyed F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” for the first time a couple of years ago, but of course the 1921 German film preceded the Universal movies, which re-imagined Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” entirely in 1931.
I’ll probably start first by trying to hunt down a copy of “The Wolf Man” (1941). That’s the one that other everyone always recommends.
The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay.
Dabbling in old time radio inevitably brought me to “The Shadow” — a character I’d heard about periodically when I was growing up. My Dad had been a fan of the radio program and film serials when he was a kid, and he was fond of rattling off that tagline you see in this blog post’s headline. (The radio shows were broadcast in to the mid-1950’s, long after they started in 1937.) I also remember the character from the truly unfortunate 1994 feature film with Alec Baldwin, which I actually saw in the theater with my college girlfriend. (The less said, the better. About the movie, I mean.) The Shadow is also cited periodically as an influence in the creation of my own favorite iconic dark detective, Batman.
The Shadow has a loooooooong, varied and occasionally confusing history – spanning radio, pulp magazines, comic books, television and film. He’s still being portrayed in comics. DC Comics released a crossover with Batman last year that looks interesting, and the incomparable Matt Wagner produced a couple of books in 2015 and 2016 that I’d love to get my hands on. (He fights Grendel!!!)
The radio shows are a lot if fun, just like the antique horror and mystery programs that I’ve linked to here at the blog. And, just like those, they’re easily found on Internet. (How my Dad might have marveled at that!) They’re definitely more campy. And I suppose that makes sense, as they seem aimed at children, whereas the horror shows seem intended for general audiences or just adults. The period commercials for Blue Coal are a weird glimpse into the past, too. If I had to name one thing that I found annoying about all of the old time radio shows I’ve found, it’s the omnipresence of that damned organ music. (Was it just a cultural staple of the time?)
If “The Shadow’s” stories are a bit hokey, the show’s voice acting and production are just terrific. I particularly like the actor performing The Shadow for the episode in the first link below — “Death is a Colored Dream” (1948). I believe it is Bret Morrison. (And I was surprised to learn that the famous Orson Welles only voiced the character for a year or so a decade earlier.)
But what’s most interesting is the character’s inception. He didn’t start out as a character in a story at all … “The Shadow” was simply the name of the generic host for a series of unrelated mystery stories comprising “The Detective Story Hour” in 1930. After a surprising fanbase developed around the creepy-sounding host (voiced at the time by Frank Readick, Jr.), people started asking for stories featuring “The Shadow” at the news stand. Street & Smith commissioned writer Walter B. Gibson to write up some tales featuring a supernatural detective; the first came out in 1931. The iconic character was just sort of made-to-order for confused customers who might have thought he already existed. That “Shadow” later arrived at the airwaves in 1937, with Welles voicing him.
Seriously, though, I totally need to get my hands on “Grendel vs. The Shadow.”
Merry Christmas, All!