Thursday, October 29, 2020

Frankenstein (1931 to 1942)


In 19th century Germany, the young scientist Henry Frankenstein has locked himself away in an old windmill for the last several months, desperately seeking to carry out his life's work-Bringing life to dead matter. Along with his demented manservant Fritz, he steals bodies for their parts, and attracts attention from his fiancee and friends. Elizabeth and college professor Waldman go to visit, just as Frankenstein succeeds in giving life to his creation. But at what cost?...

Along with Dracula, Frankenstein truly exemplifies the classic Gothic horror of the period. With its scant 70 minute runtime, this single film began so much, and created so much iconic imagery. Not many movies begin with the kind of introduction this did, with an actor actually addressing the audience about the film they're about to see, and it happening here really makes the movie stand out as something special, and it lives up to that impression.

Frankenstein is full of tropes that would become commonplace. Mad scientists babbling "IT'S ALIVE!", enormous machines, lightning crashing as they work, and angry torch-wielding mobs busting in to ruin everything, Frankenstein has got the lot! Obviously this is all super cliched now, but first of all, they are fun cliches! And secondly, the movie still feels just as fresh as the day it came out. After all, it doesn't necessarily matter how cliched you are, it's how you use them. Even if this film came out last year, when all these conventions were decades old, it would still be a roaring success.

The story is simpler than the book in many ways, which is immediately apparent from the runtime. At least half of the book is jettisoned, from most of the backstory, the monster's more intelligent character, some of the darker and more gruesome moments, etc. With some of these, it's a shame to not see their inclusion, while others are hardly missed. Some things wouldn't translate well to film, while other changes are simply more effective for the way this story is told. In a sense this is both a good and bad adaption, and the important thing is that it perfectly captures the spirit of Mary Shelley's novel.

Frankenstein gets off to a great start midway through the action, without ever confusing you or leaving you in the dust. The story progresses interestingly, with many what ifs. For example, what if Fritz hadn't broken the first brain jar and gotten the abnormal one, or what if he hadn't been such an abusive prick. Come to think of it, all these dilemmas could have been averted had Henry only employed a more stringent hiring policy. But the movie isn't totally dependent on fate either. either, a despite having a criminal brain, and despite being tormented by cruelty, the monster still has a childlike innocence in him, so despite facing hardships in his early life, he still could have been a well-adjusted monster, had he only been taught better, and the world not reacted with such fear and hate.

The main characters here are strong. The movie does a very good job portraying the doctor's obsession, and how it hasn't turned him one-dimensionally evil, but there's still an unhealthy drive governing him, that only bad can come of. Unfortunately this goes away a little too quickly. It's nice to see him throw off the addiction, though it perhaps comes a little too early and easily.

I also felt a bit put-off by how blameless everyone sees Frankenstein. Despite bearing the responsibility for all the bad things in the film, from the deaths of Dr. Waldman and little Maria (that asshole Fritz's death doesn't count), he is not only never punished, but the villagers never even find out he was the one who created the monster. They just go on throwing flowers at his wedding and cheering his family name, despite him being 100% to blame.

The monster is one of the more interesting characters of the film. He is mostly a lumbering beast with temper problems, but we also see him suffer at the hands of humans, and get a glimpse into his childlike mind in the famous scene where he plays with little Maria. He only wants to play, and she's the first one he meets who's not frightened or angry at him, but his incomplete understanding leads to a terrible accident, that only further turns the town against him. My only complaint is that we see Henry and the monster interact so little that we never get much of a relationship, father-son or otherwise.

As the rest of the characters, Elizabeth is a likeable enough lady, while his best friend Victor doesn't really contribute much. I figured he'd be inclined against Henry's research, purely because he wants to bang his fiancee, but there's not even that much character to him. Dr. Waldman is a good mentor, who isn't entirely dismissive of Henry's research, but also urges him to think twice lest it consume him. Fritz is a typically loony manservant, dispatched too quickly, but it's a treat when it comes. And last up is Henry's amusing old duffer of a dad, who gives a little bit of comic relief to the proceedings. Though we never really get much interaction between the two, making his inclusion a bit of a missed opportunity.

The sets here are beautiful. The windmill laboratory is a gothic marvel, with an almost unreal quality to it that makes it stand out perfectly. Equally impressive are the houses and wedding hall, which are normal in a way that contrasts well with the garish and otherworldly windmill, but also interesting in their own right, especially thanks to the sweeping direction, and seamless set design. The village looks great too, and you could swear it was shot on location in Germany.

The direction by James Whale is superb, with many fantastic shots, and well-orchestrated moments. Even small scenes that last only a few seconds still have hard work clearly put into them.

While not perfect, Frankenstein is still a timeless horror classic, and will live forever just as its monster...

Bride of Frankenstein

On a stormy night, Mary Shelley, her husband, and Lord Byron are discussing scary stories, and after prompting, she decides to tell the rest of her new story. Continuing after the monster's apparent death, we see its continued adventures, learning more of the world and meeting people both good and bad. Meanwhile, the sinister Dr. Pretorius visits his old pupil with a proposition-Make the monster a mate...

Often hailed as one of the greatest sequels of all time, and perhaps even an improvement over the first movie, Bride of Frankenstein is another classic, and one that's well and truly earned its reputation as one of the greatest films of all time.

The story here is a natural continuation of the first film, and also adapts many of the elements left out of the book, such as the monster's many attempts to get close to people, most notably his fateful encounter with the old blind man, his first true friend. That moment is effective and sad, though less heart-crushing than it is in the book, which is somewhat of a relief.

My only complaint is that some things happen a little too quickly. Like when the monster is captured, only to immediately escape from prison not 5 seconds after he's chained, without even so much as a different scene in-between!

Everything culminates in a truly iconic ending (if way too short). Originally it was to be more downbeat, but the test audience hated it, and for a change were correct! Test audiences have certainly have their drawbacks, as I've discussed, but in this particular case they had the right idea!

The monster is the true main character here, having the majority of the depth and character to him, as well as the fraught and complex journey. He is very likeable, and you really hope things work out for him.

Henry is a bit of a whinger this time round, facing zero consequences for his actions, and is actively dismissive of the beast. While he does sometimes make you want to slap him upside the head, his characterisation is well-handled, especially by the ending. His mental conflict is intelligently crafted too. We see him freely acknowledging how unhealthy his old desires and experiments were, but as he talks you see him slipping back on Ifs and Buts, and slowly talking like an obsessive again, about how it could work, if only...

Pretorius is a fascinating figure, and really provides a dramatic flair, and a perfect foil for Frankenstein. My only real complaint is that for all the movie's efforts at making him appear evil, he doesn't actually do anything bad! He wants to build a female monster, and that's it! Sure, he may have a shitty hiring policy in employing murderers, but so does the Baron, and he gets off scot free. Pretorius is almost certainly an assshole, but I wish the movie had've made him do more overt acts of evil.

Then come the two henchmen Pretorius has. They come so out of nowhere, solely to meet a deformed lunatic quota the producers were trying to meet, and feel unnecessary as a result. They perhaps would have had a better time fitting in were it not for the fact that there's only 14 minutes left.

Lastly, there is the Bride herself. A fascinating and eerie character, she is instantly memorable, but gets sadly little to do, only appearing in the climax. Despite this, every moment with her is a powerful one.

The acting in Bride of Frankenstein is masterful. Since the monster is already established now, Karloff gets even more to chew on, especially since he can now speak (in a move that may divide some, Karloff himself, even though it is in the book, to a bizarre degree). Colin Clive delivers another neat performance as the Doctor, being stable enough to be sympathetic, yet mad enough to cause interest.  Ernest Thesiger is delightfully evil as Dr. Pretorius, and camp without ever becoming obnoxiously so. Elsa Lanchester is a cute button in her role as Mary Shelley, and an iconic and creepy monster as the Bride. It's criminal that she doesn't appear more, but it really speaks of her talent that she is so instantly iconic despite only appearing for two minutes at the very end.

Some of the acting is hilariously over-the-top at times, like with Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth. It's so bad that in one scene I honestly couldn't tell if she was wailing, or if she was laughing and the whole monologue was actually a piss-take by Elizabeth. Una O'Connor is a mixed bag. While not as shrill as her turn in The Invisible Man, she still delivers a somewhat divisive performance. Loud and annoying at times, but better in others. O.P. Heggie delivers a soulful performance as the blind man, while Dwight Frye returns to play another mad deformed assistant, along with Ted Billings. Meanwhile, the accents range from vaguely European, to English, Scottish, and American.

James Whale once again directs, and does an even better job this time round, delivering some striking imagery. Not necessarily subtle, but fantastic all the same, and a sight to behold.

Bride of Frankenstein is a near-flawless movie. Short, yet meaningful and enthralling...

Son of Frankenstein

Henry Frankenstein's adult son Wolf is returning to their old village, with his family in tow. They are met with a frosty reception, and only the policeman Inspector Krogh shows any sympathy. Life seems normal at first, until Wolf is met by the sinister Ygor, a half-dead lunatic with a connection with the very-much alive monster...

Setting its action decades after the first two entries, Son of Frankenstein tries to begin the series off on a fresh start, with an all new Doctor, but same old monster. This is a shame in a way, as it totally negates the monster's hard-earned conclusion at the end of Bride, and his personality is completely gone at this point. Perhaps better to have a new monster! But as it is, this does continue the story in a satisfactory enough way.

This is where the villagers really start to become mistrustful and hostile, which feels weird. On one hand it is entirely warranted, and it would have been nice seeing this attitude bandied about when old Henry was causing direct harm. But on the other hand, 3 movies in is a little late for this, especially when they were hunky dory about the Frankensteins before, and these events were probably 40 years ago anyway! I can't see how a monster knocking some heads half a century ago makes your village a desolate wasteland. I'm willing to bet they just have a really shitty tourist program.

It's sad to see these rotten little assholes have still not learned the lesson that they were the real monsters, and they gladly pelt a family with dirt and more. After all, not one of the villagers finally destroyed the monster in Bride. Who did? The monster! He destroyed himself to rid the world of their existence, and yet these villagers still spit on his name.

Wolf Frankenstein is a decent successor. He's a little too quick to be obbsessive, but at least his ultimate motives are pure, in that he wants to clear his father's name. He got on my bad side at the start by calling the monster, well, a monster! He wasn't very fair at all. As the movie goes on he gets better, though as a character he annoyed me. For a great scientist he is a bit of a dope, like his inability to come up with a good cover story with Inspector Krogh. He's so laughably unconvincing with how calm he tries to play, despite being so on edge. He actually acts like Gene Wilder! Even with the sudden fake laughter! He becomes pretty unlikeable in this last act, with his constant raving and blustering, mainly at the friendly inspector, but thankfully his wife does call him out on this.

Ygor is the film's highlight. Rivalling even Dwight Frye, he is the most evil assistant so far, becoming the true main villain. Using the monster to exact revenge on the jurors who had him hung, he is surprisingly domineering. At no point does he even put up a pretense of following Wolf's orders, and he just assumes he'll someday get the man under his thumb, which you know isn't gonna happen when this maniac is gladly insinuating Wolf's murder.

The least interesting character is the monster itself, almost feeling like an afterthought. There's so much focus on Wolf and Ygor that the monster takes half an hour to show up, then another 25 before actually waking. Even when he does finally appear, he's only Ygor's instrument of murder, rather than getting any character or story of his own. There are a few dramatic moments here and there, but they're pretty minimal.

Inspector Krogh is a good due, and a kind understanding friend who has a healthy level of suspicion, while also not being an asshole. He's visually interesting, with his prosthetic arm that he spins and whips all over the place. The continuity is a little off though with how he got it, compared to the old movies. He suffered the tragedy as a mere child, even though they were the one group who the monster never deliberately harmed.

The acting here is a high point! Basil Rathbone delivers a good performance, if a bit manic at times. Bela Lugosi is a fantastic breath of fresh (or should I say rotten) air as the evil Ygor. Boris Karloff has a bit of a thankless role, mostly just lying around, or occasionally waving his arms and going "RAHHHH", but he still delivers a good performance as the monster, one last time. As for weaker performances, there is the Baron's son. It feels a little mean to rag on such a young child's performance, buttt...good god, he is SO annoying!

The direction here by Rowland V. Lee is equal to James Whale, with a greater emphasis on German expressionism, giving an almost surreal vibe to the sets. They look great, even if you do sometimes wonder about the floor plan.

One interesting thing of note here is the legacy the movie left. The comedy classic Young Frankenstein draws inspiration from various entries, with the majority coming from Son. It can be unintentionally amusing now watching some scenes or characters when you have those funny versions in mind the whole time, but on the upside, seeing this does bring into even greater perspective what a fantastic and respectful parody Young Frankenstein is.

Son of Frankenstein isn't as good as the classics that came before, but it's almost an equal, and responsible for its own share of iconic imagery. A little long, but well worth a watch...

Ghost of Frankenstein

In the sleepy village of Visaria, Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein is operating his practice  when he's visited by the surviving Ygor and monster,

Ghost of Frankenstein is a good movie in places, but feels largely unnecessary. About a whole third of the movie is dedicated to rewriting the ending to the last, and when it does finally get going, there's only 40 or so minutes left! If Son was too long, this is too short. Ordinarily I don't complain about hour long runtimes, but here it was a problem, not aided by the script.

While the plot here is beyond basic, there's a fair bit to discuss with the characters

The film starts out in the same location as the last three. The villagers are one-note dipshits, who bleat on endlessly about their village being cursed by Frankenstein, the fields are barren, and the birds no longer sing, etc. It sounds to me like you dopes are just shitty farmers! When some minor oddities happen, their immediate and only response is to assume the monster and Ygor are alive with zero evidence, and blow up the castle, ironically freeing the monster.

The setting for the majority of the movie is the new village of Visaria, populated by people so trusting and casual that they see nothing wrong with the creature shambling about in broad daylight. They do get concerned when it starts carrying off a little girl, but it turns out he was just helping the girl get her lost ball! Ahhh, then no harm no foul...Well, except for the people he killed along the way, but oh well.

Ludwig Frankenstein is a nice enough guy, and comes across like a natural successor to the fmaily legacy. Though I question his intelligence when it comes to lying low, as all he does is move to the next village over, and not even bother changing his name. It's so close that a cripple with a broken neck and 6 bullet wounds was able to do it in a day's walk!

Despite the somewhat inconvenient disability of being killed in the last movie, Ygor is back, as conniving as ever. While it is hopelessly convenient that he just so happened to survive, I'm glad he's back, as the direction taken with his character is interesting! Plus, it's more Bela, so what is there to complain about?

Rounding out the cast is the shifty Dr. Bohm. Formerly the teacher, he was demoted to assistant after a mistake on the operating table cost him his reputation. He puts up only the slightest pretense of helping Ludwig, harbouring extreme resentment which Ygor is able to manipulate. He's an interesting character, though loses points when he trusts Ygor, when doing what Ludwig wanted would've benefited him way more.

The monster really gets the shaft here. His appearances early on are fairly strong, such as his interactions with the little girl, and his innocent yet macabre wishes later on when he wants a new brain. But that aside he doesn't really do much, then 'dies' with little fanfare after his original brain is removed altogether

Cedric Hardwicke makes for a pretty good Frankenstein here. Lugosi once again turns in a fine performance as Ygor, though he's a little less evil, and really loves saying the name Frankenstein! Lionel Atwill returns to the series again, this time playing Dr. Bohm. He's fine, though it's weird seeing him as another new character, especially since he and Hardwicke blend together a lot.

While the plot can be a bit listless and basic, and lacks many important things (like any kind of justification for the title, or an explanation for where the little girl just vanished to), the climax makes up for a lot! The feeling of hubris comes together really well, culminating in a legitimately creepy finale! The moment the monster starts speaking is bound to cause chills.

Ghost of Frankenstein has it's issues, but as the last main entry in the Frankenstein series before it turned into monster crossover shenanigans, it's a decent enough watch...


With only four movies encompassing the main branch of the series, Frankenstein is one of the shorter franchises Universal had. The first two are seamless classics, while the other two veer more into b-movie territory. Still A-pictures of course, and by no means bad, but they did signal where the series was headed after the inspired first two outings.

Despite these rocky patches, this is still an amazing series all these years later, and well worth checking out for fans of horror, and cinema in general. They are some of the best!...

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