AWESOME-tober-fest 2009: Watching the Boris Karloff Frankenstein movies
Welcome to Day 2 of Frankenstein movie week. Yesterday we discussed the 1910 Edison Frankenstein movie. Today, I look at the Universal Frankenstein movies, which have shaped much of what we know about the Frankenstein myths.
Universal would make several Frankenstein movies, but the first three would be the most iconic. Let’s look at the first three movies staring the legendary Boris Karloff as The Monster.
Frankenstein (1931) –Since I read all those books last week about Frankenstein, I had to go back and watch Universal’s original 1931 Frankenstein movie directed by James Whale and staring Boris Karloff. I vaguely remember the movie, and while reading the book I was constantly surprised about how different the novel and the movie are. Several of the main characters are pretty much all the two have in common. While watching this movie I realized the events in this movie encompass most of what people associate with the tale of the creation of the Frankenstein monster. The movie character of Dr Frankenstein (Victor in the novel but renamed Henry for the movie) is more a “mad scientist” than the “curious genius” portrayed in the book.
My thoughts after watching are that this movie is pretty good. I was surprised that a movie in the ’30s began with two guys digging for corpses in a graveyard. It was a nice, macabre beginning to the movie. The monster looks good and so do a lot of the sets. The story drags a bit here and there but when it gets going the action is surprisingly good. And, obviously, the end leaves you hanging (as there are, not surprisingly, like 6 sequels to this movie). It’s exactly what one thinks of when you remember Frankenstein and his monster. I see why this is a classic monster movie. The Frankenstein makeup in this movie (by Jack Pierce) is iconic. I didn’t remember how emaciated the monster looked. Apparently Karloff took out some temporary bridge work to give the monster this sunken cheek look. That along with the lighting created a very dramatic effect. I was very much looking forward to Bride of Frankenstein when this movie was over.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) — Like I said, I was looking forward to this first sequel to Frankenstein because it was made using the same actors as well as the same director, James Whale. It was a serious sequel that many believe is as good (if not better) than the original. I’m torn, I like both…A LOT. Overall, this movie’s script seems a bit tighter. Karloff’s Frankenstein is wonderful as always. The sunken cheeks are gone because Karloff was asked not to remove the bridge work this time out. The sets are even grander this time around. It’s definitely more of the same, but in a really good way. My only beef, and I didn’t know this going in, the title monster, The Bride, only appears in the final 5-8 minutes of the movie. I kept waiting for her to show up, but she doesn’t until the end. Very disappointing, which is probably why I can’t put this movie above the original Frankenstein, even though it’s a fantastic horror movie.
Oh, another thing, the character of Minnie, the housekeeper, was BEYOND annoying. Every little thing, scary or not, would cause her to scream this Banshee-like wail throughout the scene. I wanted to tear her vocal cords out and stomp them into the ground. SO. F’N. IRRITATING. I believe this is where Cloris Leachman’s character came from in Young Frankenstein.
Son of Frankenstein (1939) — This was the third and final Universal Frankenstein movie to feature Boris Karloff as the Monster (although not the last Universal Frankenstein movie to star Boris Karloff). In a way, I almost enjoyed this movie more than the original or Bride. Henry Frankenstein’s son (Basil Rathbone) has the greatest name EVER; Baron Wolf von Frankenstein. How BAD ASS is that? Am I right? Anyway, so Wolf (awesome!) returns to his father’s castle (in a town now called Frankenstein for some reason) to collect his father’s belongings and deal with his estate. The town’s people however are worried he’ll continue his infamous father’s work. After arriving, Wolf meets the outcast blacksmith, Ygor (Dracula’s Bela Lugosi) who shows Wolf that the monster is alive, but sick and dying. Ygor sees the monster as a friend and wants the Baron to fix him. The Baron reluctantly agrees and all types of shenanigans ensue. That’s the gist of the story. It’s simple and it works. But what really makes it work are the actors.
Karloff is his usual awesome Monster self (even in a weirdly ’70s furry vest). I also really enjoyed Basil Rathbone as Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (that name is still awesome). Basil really amps it up every scene he is in. I can see that Gene Wilder really took a lot from Basil for his role in Young Frankenstein. Very entertaining every time he’s on screen. Also good is Bela Lugosi as the swarthy blacksmith Ygor. He looks like Quasimodo and acts like a shady car dealer. Taking over the super irritating character role from Minnie the housekeeper (in Bride of Frankenstein) is Wolf’s little boy, Peter. That kid was like an even more annoying version of Spanky from the Little Rascals. Drove me up the f’n WALL. I fully expected him to start and end every sentence with “Aw shucks”. Maddening.
Story-wise, this was much more entertaining than the previous movies. The performances really made the movie for me. Definitely worth a viewing. All three of these Karloff Frankenstein movies can be found on the Universal Frankenstein Legacy Collection DVDs. Or from Netflix which is where I got them.
After these three Karloff Frankenstein movies, Universal would release three more Frankenstein-centric movies; Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and House of Frankenstein. Glenn Strange would star as The Monster in Ghost and House, Bela Lugosi would play The Monster in Meets The Wolf Man.
Boris Karloff did star in one more Universal Frankenstein movie, House of Frankenstein. However, I’m saving that one for next month’s Boris Karloff birthday celebration.
Check back tomorrow for more Frankenstein movie reviews!!
Also, check out the blog Countdown to Halloween for more Halloween-y, bloggy AWESOMEness.