Monday, May 31, 2010

Saturday, November 22, 1969: Son Of Frankenstein (1939)

Synopsis: Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) travels from America with his wife and young son to take possession of his late father's estate. He is met at the train station by the citizens of Frankenstein village, only to find that his ancestral name is hated by all who live there. Wolf, believing that his father's work was unjustly maligned by superstitious yokels, tries to convince the people that his intentions are good, but to no avail.

At the family estate he is visited by the local chief of police (Lionel Atwill), who warns him to lay low, since the locals are convinced that no good can come from another scientist named Frankenstein carrying out more weird experiments during raging thunderstorms. Frankenstein opines that over time the locals no doubt exaggerated the stories of his father's "monster"; but the chief politely disagrees. The stories, he says, are all true. He points out his own wooden arm, saying that when he was a boy, the rampaging monster tore his arm out by the roots.

Later, Frankenstein is inspecting his estate when he discovers an odd character skulking near the ruins of his father's laboratory. This, we learn, was the late doctor's assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi). Ygor had been hanged for a number of crimes including grave robbing, but survived; his neck did not heal properly and his head is tilted at an odd angle. He tells Frankenstein that the monster had been his friend and that he wants to see it restored to life. He takes Wolf to a chamber where the monster still reposes in a kind of suspended animation. Excited by this discovery, Wolf is determined to vindicate his father's work by bringing the creature back to life...

Comments: This was the third entry in Universal's Frankenstein series of films, and the last to feature Boris Karloff as the monster. It essentially plays as Young Frankenstein without the jokes. Basil Rathbone brings a haughty authority to Frankenstein that Colin Clive couldn't manage; and we get the impression that the motivating factor for Wolf is an obsession with restoring his family's good name, a somewhat healthier motivation than Henry's twisted desire for god-like power.

That "Frankenstein" is now shown to be the name of the town as well as a particular family isn't a trivial detail. Wolf sees the people of the village as his people, sees his role as that of a feudal lord who must help the peasants to appreciate his father's genius. Of course, in later films various members of the Frankenstein clan would be lured into the monster-building trade for the flimsiest of excuses, but on this occasion it makes at least some kind of sense.

Part of the problem in making a Frankenstein movie is that the very presence of the creature limits your story options. The monster isn't going to enroll in Oxford. He isn't going to get married. He isn't going to solve a murder that has baffled Scotland Yard.

Nope, he is really only going to do one thing, and that is stumble around and smash things. The truth is, the Frankenstein films had already established their formula, and the only interest from here on out would have to be sustained by the secondary and tertiary characters.

On that score, Son of Frankenstein doesn't disappoint. Lionel Atwill is classy and charming as Krogh. Bela Lugosi, never a particularly talented actor, is unexpectedly engaging here as Ygor. His frequent cackles and growls of "Frahn-ken-shtien!" are funny and memorable, and the production as a whole still carries some of the fine craftsmanship that was evident in the first two films.

Son of Frankenstein was made in 1939, near the end of Universal's so-called "Golden Age" of horror films. The coming war would draw a lot of talent away from the Universal lot, and the overall quality of their output would suffer as a result. But this one was a respectable effort, a reminder of a time when studios produced workmanlike B-pictures built around solid, well-crafted scripts.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Saturday, November 15, 1969: Frankenstein (1931)

Synopsis: Brilliant young scientist Henry Frankenstein is determined to unlock the secrets of life and death. He secures cadavers for his experiments by stealing the bodies of executed criminals and by robbing graveyards. In these ghoulish activities he is aided by his hunchbacked lab assistant Fritz.

We learn that Henry hopes to give life to a body stitched together from human corpses, and he inexplicably delegates the crucial job of securing a brain to the brainless Fritz, who ends up with the brain of a criminal.

Meanwhile, Henry's fiancée Elizabeth is troubled that her man has written a rambling letter to her, asking her to stay away, that his work must come first. Sensing trouble, she and Henry's friend Victor go to see Professor Waldman, Henry's former mentor at the University. Waldman tells them that Henry's experiments had crossed all the boundaries of ethical behavior and reason. His demands for a limitless supply of human cadavers were too much for the University to provide; for this reason Henry decamped to a new location where he could make his own rules.

Elizabeth convinces Waldman to join her and Victor in trying to convince Henry to come home. The trio happen to arrive at Frankenstein's lab just as Henry is using lightning to imbue his stitched-together corpse with the spark of life. They are fascinated, though horrified, when Henry succeeds.

Later, Waldman warns Henry that no good can come of this creation, and we see the creature for the first time. It is huge and ungainly, but seems strangely innocent. Fritz whips the creature and torments it with fire. Eventually the creature strikes back and Fritz is killed.

Convinced now that the monster must be destroyed, Henry allows himself to be taken back to his ancestral home, and leaves it to Dr. Waldman to dispose of the creature.

Back at his family's estate, Elizabeth and Henry prepare for their wedding. But what they don't know is that the monster has killed Dr. Waldman and is now on the loose...

Comments: For all the similarities between Dracula and Frankenstein -- two smash horror hits released months apart by the same studio, sharing some of the same cast -- the two movies are quite different. For most of its running time Dracula comes off like the stage play it was based upon. Frankenstein, by contrast, seems altogether more lively and innovative.

The camera work and set design recall the German expressionist films of the 1920s, and the production as a whole seems unhindered by the clumsy sound-recording devices of the time.

The performances here, too, rise above those of Dracula, though they are still uneven; Colin Clive is simply dreadful as Henry, all tremulous shouts and broad stagey mannerisms; Dwight Frye's Fritz is a bit one-dimensional, though that is more the fault of the script than Frye's performance (though seeing it this time I'm struck by how young the guy looks). Mae Clarke brings some badly-needed charm as Elizabeth, thinly-written as her part is. And my advice to anyone who remembers Boris Karloff's performance as a lot of stumbling around and grunting ought to see this movie again. Through a lot of make-up and prosthetics Karloff somehow manages to project a combination of child-like vulnerability and feral savagery. It's really an extremely subtle and well thought-out performance.

Much is made of the fact that Frankenstein departed greatly from Mary Shelley's novel, and this is true. But the central theme of the novel -- responsibility for one's actions -- remains intact. Henry builds his monster without a thought as to the consequences for Elizabeth, the creature, or the community at large. Thus he brags about his great accomplishment while it is being abused in the cellar by Fritz; when he consents to destroy the creature, he does not do it himself, instead leaving the task to Dr. Waldman.

If I have any complaint about the movie it is that the screenwriters let Henry off too easily; we see him being nursed back to health by Elizabeth in the final scene, and it is made clear that a wedding will be taking place soon, after which we can only assume that Henry and Elizabeth will get busy making new life the old-fashioned way.

That, as the kids used to say, is a cop-out. Elizabeth should probably think twice about marrying a nutty recluse who likes to sew together corpses that he just dug up in the graveyard.

Come on, Elizabeth. You're a knockout, honey. You can do better.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Saturday, November 8, 1969: Dracula (1931)

What It's About: Renfield, a young attorney from London, arrives at a small Carpathian village. His fellow travelers are staying in the village overnight but he insists on continuing on to the castle of a local nobleman, Count Dracula.

The natives turn pale at the very mention of the name, and beg him not to go. But Renfield is there on business, and insists on completing his journey.

After an unnerving trip to the castle, Renfield finally meets the count, who signs documents to complete his purchase of Carfax Abbey in England. It is to England, Dracula says, that he will go the very next morning.

Later, a ship drifts into an English harbor, all aboard her dead -- save for Renfield, who is now a stark, raving lunatic.

Several boxes from the ship are delivered to Carfax Abbey.

From one of these boxes emerges Count Dracula, who insinuates himself into London society, befriending Dr. Seward, owner of the Seward Asylum where Renfield is confined. The asylum is, we learn, next door to Carfax Abbey. Dracula meets Dr. Seward's daughter, Mina; her fiancee Jonathan Harker, and their friend Lucy.

Meanwhile, a string of bizarre murders has caught the interest of Dr. Van Helsing, an unorthodox scientist and student of the occult. Two small puncture wounds, he finds, were on the necks of each victim, including young Lucy.

When Mina relates a dream of a man coming into her bedroom and biting her neck, Seward is surprised to see that Mina has been hiding two small puncture wounds herself. But Van Helsing is not surprised. He insists that a vampire is attempting to make Mina its slave by visiting her over a series of subsequent nights.

Mina can only be protected, he says, by locking her in her room, and sealing the windows with wolfbane and crucifixes, which vampires find repellent.

Meanwhile, Count Dracula pays a visit to the Seward home, and Van Helsing quickly realizes that Dracula himself is the vampire they seek. A battle of wits ensues, with Van Helsing battling Count Dracula for Mina's very soul.

Comments: Every time I see Tod Browning's Dracula, I try my best to get into the mindset of the moviegoer of 1931.

Most of the time I just can't do it. To my modern eyes the acting seems too stiff and hammy, the camera work too stagebound, the pacing too glacial, the vampire tropes too shopworn.

And yet....there are moments in Dracula that dazzle even the most jaded viewer. The early scenes in the village, where the fearful, superstitious folk live in perpetual terror of the sinister Count; the cavernous, moonlit ruins of Castle Dracula's main hall; Lugosi's creepy over-pronunciation, which seems to mock the very language his victims use; Dr. Van Helsing's calm insistence on supernatural causes in a country where only rational explanations are valued.

And for movie audiences of 1931, it was normal to have anything horrific or supernatural on-screen explained away in the final reel as a conjurer's trick, or an illusion, or a bad dream. Liz Kingsley, in her brillant analysis of Dracula, cites this "explained away" convention of horror films as one of the elements that made Dracula stand out at the time of its release,one that helped to make it the towering success it was. Even today, nearly eight decades after its release, this is still the definitive film version of Bram Stoker's novel.

In fact, every horror film that came after owed something to Dracula. Carl Laemmle had expressed some trepidation about making such tasteless entertainment, but its financial success couldn't be argued with. Soon cheap and profitable horror franchises would be a staple of Universal's output. Horror, Incorporated would lean heavily on these Universal flicks at the beginning, so we'll be seeing lots more in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Let's Start With The Basics

Back in the antediluvian era of broadcast television -- before cable and VCRs and DVDs allowed us to take movies for granted -- every city had its own locally-programmed creature feature show.

Most of them were on late at night, and many had ghoulish and comical hosts in the Vampira vein; these shows are meticulously documented on Corpse S. Chris' indispensible blog Horror Host Graveyard.

But this blog has a narrower focus. It's about only one late night creature feature: Minneapolis station KSTP's Horror, Incorporated.

For most of its run, this show had no host. It didn't need one. To me, the movie selections always seemed great, and as a Minnesota kid in the 1970s, it became a big part of my film education.

I was introduced to so many movies late at night on channel 5 -- the Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s, the Columbia sci-fi flicks Ray Harryhausen made with Charles Schneer in the 1950s, William Alland's Creature From the Black Lagoon series, the Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe, the poverty-row programmers that Lugosi made on his long slide down.

Consider this blog a love letter to that show, to that era of television, and, perhaps just a little, to that time in my life.

Of course we can't sit together until 4 am, you and I, and watch the old Horror, Inc. show together, and take in the movies one by one and talk about them.

So I've decided to embark on a strange project: I'm going to start right at the beginning of the show, from its first broadcast, and list the movies on the schedule and write about them. Assuming the show ran 10 years in its original incarnation, and was broadcast every week, that means we're talking about 520 installments. So I've got my work cut out for me.

This might take a while, and I'm not going to promise it won't hurt.

But before we dive in, let's find out where the show began, and learn about the show's fondly-remembered opening.

According to the delightful E-Gor's Chamber of TV Horror Hosts, here's what Steve Hammergren, director of KSTP studios, had to say about the origins of the show:

Horror Incorporated probably started in 1969. The first incarnation didn't have a host, but it featured the great voice-over talent of Mr. Jim Wise, who worked at KSTP radio. The person exiting the coffin at the beginning and returning to the grave at the end, was my late friend Warner Smithers, who was then a floor director. Other crew members included Forrest Stanford, who ran the fog machine.

The narrator would then read the following words:

"Lurking among the corpses are the body-snatchers, plotting their next venture into the graveyard.... the blood in your veins will run cold, your spine will tingle when you join us for an excursion through Horror Incorporated!"

This open and close ran for many a Saturday night in the early '70s.

For a couple of seasons in the mid to late 70's, Tom Hamper hosted the show on tape as "Graves." He was supposed to be a "vampire butler" or some such creature. He and a couple of pals acted out little skits between the movie segments. When that format ran out of gas, the station resumed the old "no host" format, until the series went off the air in the late 70's.

Hammergren missed some of the dialogue in the opening spiel -- you can hear it in the clip above -- but he is right on the money regarding the year it started. Channel 5 had long broadcast a generic late-late movie on Saturdays, but that ended after the November 2nd, 1969 broadcast of Golden Boy starring William Holden.

According to the microfilmed archives of the Minneapolis Tribune, Horror, Inc. premiered the following week, on November 8, 1969. Its first offering was Todd Browning's 1931 Dracula.

Graves was the first attempt to add a host to the show. In later iterations there would be other hosts, but we'll get to that, in time.

Until then, come along with me, into the chamber of horrors, for an excursion through....Horror, Incorporated!