The Wolfman (1941)

The Wolfman – 1941

Director – George Waggner

Starring – Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Bela Lugosi

When mention is made of the “Classic Universal Monster” films, inevitably the first ones that spring to mind are Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman.  Given enough time to consider the category of film you might eventually think up The Mummy, or The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but these are just monsters whereas all of the other three are more fully realized characters.  It just so happens that these characters also happen to be monsters.

The Wolfman in particular, is the most similar to the audience.  He is an everyman, someone who, unlike Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, we get to know before he becomes a monster.  He is every bit a human being, someone who is scared of what is happening to him, and remorseful of the crimes he has committed because of his affliction.  But does this humanity, this pathos make the Wolf Man story better than that of Dracula, or Dr. Frankenstein?  Not quite.

The story is simple enough and fairly well-known, a man bitten by a strange wolf while out during a full moon, finds himself turning into a wolf himself and roaming around killing for pleasure.  Ultimately he must either find a cure or he must be hunted down and killed before the killing will stop.

While a lot of the same elements are in place as they are in Dracula and Frankenstein (Count Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi even makes an appearance as a Gypsy afflicted with the werewolf’s curse), Lon Chaney, Jr. isn’t quite up to the challenge of acting opposite someone like Boris Karloff, and the imagery doesn’t hold as much terrific horror as the gothic imagery put forth in Dracula.  The film didn’t seem like that much of a surprise.  Instead I felt like I knew the entire time what was going to happen.

The imagery, set design, and music all seemed much more formulaic to me than in either of the other two, on top of the less convincing story and powerful acting, The Wolf Man was just unable to get from under the weight of its big brothers.  Where it did succeed admirably, was it’s ability to draw the audience in through its main character.  In each of the other two monster films, the showpieces were the monsters.  These inhuman, alien beings, lacking much in the way of recognizable human characteristics, served to menace the villagers, despite their best efforts (frankenstein) or because of them (dracula).

We were introduced to the Wolf Man, however, while he was still a man.  We are given insight to his somewhat troubled relationship with his father, and his competitive relationship with his dead brother.  We see him pining away after the local girl, and the awkward situation he is put in when he’s introduced to her fiance.  So right away, we can relate to him.  He is a man, first and foremost.  A man who eventually has one more problem thrust upon him, the whole turning into a wolf against his will and killing, thing.  The unfortunate part is, this history we’ve built up never plays a part in the story beyond the introductions.  We are able to sympathize with him at first, but eventually he just becomes “another guy” that we don’t really care all that much about.

Despite it’s not being as good as some of the other Classic Monster films, The Wolf Man is still definitely worth a watch, although I would contend with its position on this list if only because it seems like a “well we can’t leave The Wolf Man out” type of pick.

“Always listen to your neighborhood gypsy” – Ashley

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Young Frankenstein (1974)

Young Frankenstein – 1974

Director – Mel Brooks

Starring – Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, and Madeline Kahn

I grew up on Spaceballs.  Not only that, I co-grew up on History of the World, Part 1.  It would seem to be a no-brainer that anything Mel Brooks would do should appeal to my basest movie watching self, right?  Then, along came Blazing Saddles.  Everyone that I ever talked to about Blazing Saddles loved it.  It was the summit of comedy for a 10-year-old kid (not to mention a lot of 30 year olds that I know now), so why did I think it to be so, blah?  Was I wrong about Mel Brooks?  Are his other movies even funny?  Long story short, my so-so opinion of Blazing Saddles had managed to color my opinion of Brooks’ other films, such as Young Frankenstein, long before I ever even saw them.  It’s really too bad, because Young Frankenstein was a great piece of fond nostalgia.

The story is simple, it is essentially a campy, comedic, re-telling of the story of Frankenstein.  Gene Wilder plays the grandson of the famous Victor von Frankenstein, Frederick.  Embarrassed by the legacy his disgraced grandfather left behind, Frederick goes so far as to alter the pronunciation of his telltale last name to “Fronkunschteen”.  But after receiving the diary of his grandfather, he makes his way to the castle in which the original monster was created to put some of his theories to the test.

Along the way he picks up a sidekick, Igor (pronounced Eye-gor for obvious reasons) played by British comedian Marty Feldman, and a sexy lab assistant played by Teri Garr.  It is by this point the spoofs, and loving jabs begin to fly. Young Frankestein’s success is not so much because of how it points out the ridiculous nature of the original, but because of how lovingly it treats its source material.  In fact, most of the props and set pieces in the castle are actually props from the original 1931 Frankenstein.

Gene Wilder is perfect as the pseudo-serious mad scientist with Garr and Feldman both playing well comedically against his strait act.  Peter Boyle as the monster is able to combine the original humanity of the character, pioneered by Boris Karloff, and twist it just slightly to the bizarre side of things in order to make it funny.  His bit with the “lonely blind man” played by a young Gene Hackman is a particularly stand out moment. And finally, what Mel Brooks movie would be complete without the fantastic Madeline Kahn, as Frederick’s fiancée swept off her feet by the appropriately endowed monster.

Based on the films that I have seen thus far in my life, did Young Frankenstein cross any lines, or break down any borders for me?  No.  It did however, make me remember why it was that I enjoyed movies like that in my youth…they are fun.  I’m looking forward to giving Blazing Saddles another try.  Big thanks to my buddy Mike for recommending and lending this to me, good lookin’ out!

“Madeline Khan, the funniest ever!” – Ashley

Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein

Frankenstein – 1931

Director – James Whale

Starring – Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye, and Boris Karloff

The original version of the movie Frankenstein shares a lot with the original version of the movie Dracula.  Aside from being released in the same year, featuring a number of the same actors (Van Sloan, and Frye were in both movies), and being flagship movies for Universal, they share quite a bit in terms of visual style and atmosphere.  Frankenstein is a bit less concerned with the rules and set up of it’s world than Dracula was, but it does have something over Dracula…Boris Karloff.

Bela Lugosi was really very good as the halting, stilted, seductive monster, but Boris Karloff seems, for lack of a better term, real.  Movies of this time period never seem to have very naturalistic acting.  Everything usually seems just a little off, like when you watch old Super 8 movies, they seem a little sped up and the physicality of the people seems off.  Boris Karloff on the other hand, displays very realistic acting.  When the Frankenstein monster is being accosted by fire, you can see how terrified of it he is.  Karloff manages to imbue this monster, this thing to be afraid of with a naturalism that isn’t even wasted on the main characters.  I don’t know if this was done on purpose to create an almost subconcious sympathy for the creature, but if it was, it works beautifully.  Where Lugosi’s performance was helped by the un-natural quality, strange timing of his delivery,  Karloff’s performance gives us a similar uneasiness thanks to his being the most natural in the entirety of the movie.  I see echoes of this juxtaposition in the work of David Lynch, put to equally good effect.

Dracula was also limited by it’s temporal setting.  While the characters were always safe the threat of the vampire during the day, in Frankenstein there is no safe time of day.  When the Frankenstein monster escapes his bonds at the strange castle (Frankenstein and Dracula both lead me to believe that evil is associated very closely with wealth), he runs rampant into the village in the middle of the day.  To see a monster in broad daylight would, you’d think, take away a lot of it’s power to scare, but not so.  In various discussions that I’ve had with friends and fellow fans of horror movies, we have talked numerous times about the creepy nature of a monster or other danger hiding in plain sight.  When everything else is normal, it amplifies the unsettling nature of whatever doesn’t fit (think, Michael Myers outside the window in Halloween, or that creepy man in a dog costume in the Shining).  Seeing the Frankenstein monster interact with the little girl near the lake, or creep just outside the Elizabeth’s window before the wedding ceremony, intensifies the tension in the scene.

Another thing that Frankenstein provides that Dracula didn’t, was the death scene of our monster.  Van Helsing took a stake to Count Dracula, and all the while we are watching the effects of his death on Mina, as she is being released from his spell.  In Frankenstein we see the monster trapped in the windmill with a burning beam pinning him to the floor.  He is confronted with death by fire, his worst fear, and his terror is palpable. 

What Frankenstein lacks in story (the story isn’t bad, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense) it more than makes up for in atmosphere.  It holds up well and is still suprisingly effective.