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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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).
- “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.
- 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.)
- 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:
- 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.
- I really want to see “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” I think that will be next for a sleepless night.
So I finally watched “The Wolf Man” (1941) for the first time a few nights ago, and I indeed had a lot of fun with it. Sure, it’s tame by today’s standards, and bit corny too, but it was interesting watching Lon Chaney, Jr. for the first time and seeing the granddaddy of all werewolf films.
Here are a few things that jumped out at me while watching the film and reading a bit about it afterward (and, yes, I do realize that most people already knew these things):
- I knew I recognized the senior Talbot — it’s actor Claude Rains, who was none other than Louis in the following year’s “Casablanca.”
- Chaney was a big man. He is almost always both the tallest and broadest character on screen, and for some reason that surprised me. Maybe it’s because that in the posters and other media I’ve seen, the Wolf Man always seems smaller in comparison to Dracula, Frankenstein or the Phantom of the Opera. I half expected the diminutive Rains to become the Wolf Man, while Chaney’s character would become the hero who has to protect the girl, etc.
- This is weird … but Chaney bears has a strong resemblance to my best friend from early childhood, Shawn — who also grew up to be a big guy like the actor. It’s uncanny. It’d be nuts if Shawn were his great grandson, and we just never knew it.
- It was a little odd seeing Rains cast as Chaney’s character’s father, as he didn’t seem much older. Rains was only 17 years older than Chaney.
- The old gypsy man is played by Bela Lugosi.
- Rains is easily the best actor here, followed by Maria Ouspenskaya as the old gypsy woman.
- This seminal film was not the first Universal Pictures werewolf movie. That would be “Werewolf of London,” which preceded it by six years. That movie is the one that inspired the 1978 “Werewolves of London” song by Warren Zevon, as well as John Landis’ 1981 masterpiece, “An American Werewolf in London.”
- The Wolf Man monster was made famous for a certain onscreen transformation that represented groundbreaking special effects for its time — the gradual transformation of the monster’s face on camera. But that key effects sequence didn’t appear here in the 1941 original — only in its several sequels.
- The movie was released on December 9, 1941, just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
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.
Here’s what looks like a publicity still for “The Wolf Man” (1941); this is part of my efforts to monster up the blogosphere a bit this Halloween.
For some reason, it seems weird to me that the classic Universal monster movies came out before America entered World War II. They really ARE old movies.
I had a children’s book about the making of the Universal classics when I was a kid. I remember reading how Lon Chaney, Jr.’s makeup had to be applied — each hair was apparently placed there strand by strand. And audiences back then were quite thrilled with the result.