Skip to main content

I have discovered the great ray that first brought life into the world.

Frankenstein
(1931)

(SPOILERS) To what extent do Universal’s horror classics deserved to be labelled classics? They’re from the classical Hollywood period, certainly, but they aren’t unassailable titans that can’t be bettered – well unless you were Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan trying to fashion a Dark Universe with zero ingenuity. And except maybe for the sequel to the second feature in their lexicon. Frankenstein is revered for several classic scenes, boasts two mesmerising performances, and looks terrific thanks to Arthur Edeson’s cinematography, but there’s also sizeable streak of stodginess within its seventy minutes.

For a picture in which Edward Van Sloan (Dr Waldman and Van Helsing in the earlier Dracula) considerately comes on to offer a “friendly warning” of the terror to come, it’s curious how unguarded the screenplay is in setting out its store of what is going on, why and how the characters happen upon it, as if it’s in a hurry to get all that ungainly exposition out of the way. We’re located in the Bavarian Alps, courtesy of a soundstage, except when clearly sunny Californian exteriors – with added lederhosen – are doubling for it, and the supporting characters are already fully aware that Henry Frankenstein – the name Victor is reserved for the not-actually hero played by John Boles, even though he comes on as if he’s destined to be – is unhinged and doing something untoward. And when they rock up at his abandoned watchtower, it takes very little for Henry to confess all (and then somehow persuade Waldman to hang around).

If the story construction is on the sloppy side, though, this is leaps and bounds ahead of Dracula as a production. It also helps that the central casting is so vital, Colin Clive bringing a twitchy theatrical zeal to Henry that’s entirely appropriate to the tone and atmosphere (he’d played Stanhope in director James Whale’s stage and film productions of Journey’s End). His “He’s alive!” is justly iconic, possibly more so than the creature itself (okay, maybe not that), and he’s only lessened ultimately by the strictures of the script in corralling him into a nominal hero role for the final act, during which he heads out to put an end to the creature with an entourage of villagers. Before that, when he announces “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” he’s exactly the kind of maniacal genius you want to spend time with.

Then there’s Karloff, (or “?” as the credits fail to announce), now the indelible vision of the monster and at once crazed and violent and sympathetically innocent. Enough of the picture has been so closely spoofed by Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein (the abnormal brain of a typical criminal most redundantly, as it already plays like farce here) or homaged (the scene with the little girl is still kind of shocking, but gave rise to The Monster Squad’s less downbeat version) that it can be difficult to see this with unspoiled eyes, but this monster still feels entirely afflicted and tormented in a genuine way. At times very literally, courtesy of Dwight Frye’s Fritz (Frye being another fugitive from Dracula, and much more impactful there; here he’s little more than a stooge sadist).

Mae Clarke as Henry’s fiancé is less than fully engaging, however, while Frederick Kerr’s Baron Frankenstein is so bizarrely out of his element – in a bumbling duffer, Nigel Bruce sense – that he’s in danger of bringing the entire edifice down around our ears, in much the same manner as the villagers bring down the monster at the climax, setting alight a windmill (a hugely impressive sequence). The Baron ends up with the last word, and it feels rather like a sop to send viewers home without a trace of terror in their hearts.

And yet, even though the confluence of events, such that the monster’s on the loose (having killed Waldman) on the same night as Henry’s nuptials, becomes progressively more ungainly, the picture retains a sporadic power. Waldman being on the verge of dissecting the monster when it strangles him is strong stuff, as is the creature throwing the little girl into the lake, expecting her to float, and she singularly failing to do so. Whale brings a twisted, pre-Hayes Code poetry to the material that’s still potent.

Generally, I wonder if it’s deceptively difficult to make a good Frankenstein film. Whale managed to improved on himself with his follow up, but the likes of Hammer and Sir Ken haven’t come close. The best is probably Brooks’ spoof, and that’s so indebted to Whale that he’s still, almost ninety years on, the last word in the making of the monster.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So long, sky trash!

Star Wars The Saga Ranked
This is an update of my 2018 ranking, with the addition of highly-acclaimed The Rise of Skywalker along with revisits to the two preceding parts of the trilogy. If you want to be generous and call it that, since the term it makes it sound a whole lot more coherent than it plays.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

Play to them, then! Fickle, brainless idiots.

Waltzes from Vienna  aka Strauss’ Great Waltz (1934)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock was dismissive of this adaptation of the stage musical of the same name, ironically minus the musical element. Waltzes from Vienna is a rather low-watt picture, with a rote romance/jealousy plotline running through it (Johann Strauss is offering his services to Countess Helga, much to the dismay of intended Resi). The film comes alive only intermittently with bits of comedy, Strauss’ rivalry with dad, and the central composition.