Tag Archives: Dracula

Nolan’s Insomnia Theater Presents: “Frankenstein” (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:

  1. If the story here feels static and dialogue heavy, there’s a reason for that.  Like “Dracula” (which Universal Pictures released the same year), “Frankenstein” was adapted from a stage play, which itself had been adapted from its classic novel source material.
  2. The makeup effects for Boris Karloff’s monster might seem simple by today’s standards, but people went nuts for them in 1931.  I can’t imagine what a Depression-era filmgoer might think of a modern tv  show like “The Walking Dead.”
  3. If you think Hollywood relies too heavily on cheesy sequels today, take a look at the B-list stuff that followed this classic movie: “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), “Son of Frankenstein” (1939), “The Ghost of Frankenstein” (1942), “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” in 1943 (which was also a sequel to 1941’s “The Wolf Man”), “House of Frankenstein” (1944), and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948).  Dr. Frankenstein’s monster also showed up in “House of Dracula” (1945).
  4. “Frankenstein” has something else in common with “Dracula” — the talented, hyperactive character actor, Dwight Frye.  Here he is the scene-stealing assistant to the doctor — he is Dracula’s minion, Renfield, in the other film.
  5. Frye’s character is not named “Igor,” as countless homages and references to this movie might lead you to believe.  His name is “Fritz.”  There is a deformed, graverobbing henchman named “Ygor” in the later “Son of Frankenstein,” and I am guessing the two movies are just easily conflated in popular memory.  Also … the mob of townspeople never storm Frankenstein’s castle with torches and pitchforks.  They instead chase the monster to an abandoned windmill at the top of a mountain, and destroy him there.  (I am guessing that the denouement I thought I’d see also comes from a sequel.)
  6. I … might have noticed a major plot hole for the movie.  (Yes, I realize that it is almost certainly absent from Mary Shelley’s 1918 novel, which I have not read).  The townspeople want to hunt down the monster for his accidental drowning of  little girl.  But … how did they know the monster was even involved?  We are shown nobody witnessing the tragedy.  In fact, how do the townspeople even know that the monster exists — and that it was loose from the laboratory if its birth?  Granted, I might have missed something — it was a sleepless night for me, after all.

Let me close with two observations:

  1.  The castle housing Frankenstein’s laboratory would be a wicked cool place to live if it were properly renovated.  Think about it.  You’d need to wire it everywhere with reliable heat and electricity, and then somehow keep it dry — no small feat for an abandoned castle.   But could you imagine how amazing it would be to have a home office there?  A library?  A home theater?  A dining room?  You could have a whole Victor von Doom thing going on.
  2. I really want to see “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”  I think that will be next for a sleepless night.


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A review of “Dracula” (1931)

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.


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Tis’ the season.

Isn’t this the coolest Halloween card ever?  The little skeleton guy dances.

Hope you guys have something scary planned for the month ahead.  I’ve got a short list of movies I’d love to make time for: “Dracula” (1939), “House of the Devil” (2009),  “Annabelle Creation” (2017) and “Mr. Mercedes” Season 3 (2019).  Yeah, I know that last one isn’t a feature film, but it’s a program of truly cinematic quality.  “Mr. Mercedes” has been the best kept secret in Stephen King fandom — no, its antagonist isn’t as flashy as Pennywise the Clown or The Gunslinger’s various nemeses.  But it’s a gorgeous adaptation of a King novel that might even be better than its source material.  Check it out, seriously — skip “American Horror Story” if you have to.

There are two movies I need to get to that have been recommended to me with a lot of enthusiasm.  The first is “In the Mouth of Madness,” 1994’s H.P. Lovecraft adaptation starring Sam Neill.  (I actually started it a few years ago after a friend in New York urged me to, but it just didn’t hold my interest.)  The second is 2001’s “Shadow of the Vampire,” which features Willem Dafoe doing Nosferatu.  (I only discovered just now writing this that John Malkovich portrays F.W. Murnau.)

I’ll tell you something else, too — I’ve checked out one or two short films on the free ALTER channel and they’ve been terrific.  Maybe I’m due for another visit there.

 

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Getting into the spirit of things …

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.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Vampire Blood!!!

I’m not even sure that this should be a Throwback Thursday post, as I’m pretty sure it’s still being sold in stores before Halloween.  In the 1980’s, this was indispensable every October to aspiring Draculas everywhere.  You could also order it from the Johnson Smith & Company catalog — which was sort of a Bible to little boys who loved pranks and monsters.

We just called it “Dracula blood.”  You didn’t put it on your fingers, like the kid in the illustration — you applied it on your face to make it look like blood was running out of the corners of your mouth.  Maybe once in a while, you’d get a tubeful derived from an inferior batch of the stuff, and it would be orangeish.  But it was always fun.

 

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Nolanferatu’s tip for a trippy vintage horror double feature!

Well there’s one thing I can cross off my bucket list.  (There’s a lot on there, and some of it’s weird.)  I finally saw F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu: ein Symphonie des Grauens” (1922).

And am I damn glad I did!  I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would.  I love plenty of classic movies; “The 39 Steps” (1939) and “To Have and Have Not” (1944) are among my all-time favorites.  But I’m accustomed to modern horror — my tastes generally extend only as far back as “The Birds” (1963) and “Night of the Living Dead” (1968).

I waited until I was in just the right mood.  (This is the first silent film I’ve ever seen from start to finish — the only exception being Mel Brooks’ 1976 parody, “Silent Movie.”)  Then I began it shortly before midnight.

The movie just worked for me. It was sublimely creepy.

I think it helped that the grainy, flickering, black-and-white period footage made this expressionist movie utterly atmospheric for a modern viewer.  These, combined with the shots of Max Schreck superbly made up as “Count Orlok,” were damned unsettling.  Schreck also appeared to be a great physical actor, with his gaunt stance and stilted, inhuman movements.  (Was he unusually tall too?)

The vintage footage also enhanced my enjoyment of the movie in a way that Murnau probably couldn’t have expected.  I know this is strange, but … nearly a century later, the thought that occurred to me several times during this movie was this: “Everyone involved in this production is long dead by now.”  Yes, I know that is a morbid thought — I’ve never done that before!  I think it was just the film itself that did that to me — it’s about undeath and immortality, after all.

It also helped that I’d read Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1897), of which this film is an unauthorized adaptation.  The resulting lawsuit by Stoker’s estate is interesting reading: supposedly all copies of the movie were ordered by the courts to be destroyed, bankrupting Prana, the production company.  But a permanent cult following developed for the few surviving prints.

Anyway, I followed this up with the palate-cleansing “Night on Bald Mountain,” the final segment of Disney’s “Fantasia” (1944).  That combination, too, totally worked for me — I followed up the black-and-white nightmare-fuel of the seminal vampire film with some vivid, incongruously hellish Disney nightmare-fuel.

“Nosferatu” is in the public domain.  You can view the entire film on Youtube at the link below.

 

 

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Throwback Thursday: Universal Monsters action figures.

Tonight’s Throwback Thursday is a quick one, but a fun little ghost of Christmas past — Remco’s Universal Monsters action figures in 1980.

I received Dracula, Wolfman and the Phantom of the Opera unexpectedly under the Christmas tree.  As you can see from the photo below, they were well crafted toys, and damn fun.  I wonder how well they sold, though … How many kids in the 1980’s would excitedly ask their parents for toys featuring movie monsters from a half century earlier?  I could understand Dracula being timeless enough to attract a child — he was still a perennial favorite for boys on Halloween.  But … the original Wolf Man?  And did most kids even know who the Phantom of the Opera was?

I did.  But that’s only because I had a children’s book about the Universal Monsters.  Because I was way too into monster movies even in the second grade.

 

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“It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles.”

“It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles. And yet when King Laugh come, he make them all dance to the tune he play. Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burn as they fall, all dance together to the music that he make with that smileless mouth of him. Ah, we men and women are like ropes drawn tight with strain that pull us different ways. Then tears come, and like the rain on the ropes, they brace us up, until perhaps the strain become too great, and we break. But King Laugh he come like the sunshine, and he ease off the strain again, and we bear to go on with our labor, what it may be.”

— from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” 1897

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