Tag Archives: Universal Pictures

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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