Monday, October 31, 2011

It's Alive! The 13 Essential Frankenstein Films

Frankenstein has long remained my favorite novel and my favorite subgenre of horror. Often considered the classic horror story, it is only rivalled by Bram Stoker's Dracula for sheer indelibility. The timeless theme of man playing God and creating artificial life and the consequences thereafter, have provided fodder for scores of fictional works. The cinema has seen, perhaps, the most electric output of Frankenstein adaptions, and certainly the most iconic. As powerful as Mary Shelley's novel is, most people still recall the images and plot of the Universal film from 1931, best. Boris Karloff's towering portrayal was one of the most iconic in Hollywood history and became one of the most recognizable cultural icons of the 20th century. Much in the last 100 years has contributed to the legend though, from Thomas Edison's primitive 1910 version, through the very faithful Hallmark version, yet all seem to try and distance themselves from the Universal series. A handful have attempted to remain faithful to the original source, but the current trend is to downplay the horror aspect and that's unfortunate, because Frankenstein is still a terrifying read today.
To celebrate Halloween, i've compiled my list of the 13 essential Frankenstein films from the last 100 years of cinema. There's a richness of diversity here, ranging from Karloff to Cushing and beyond. Hopefully, this will serve as a decent primer for those interested in the story and wish to see how Shelley's creation has prospered in the world of cinema.

1. The Bride of Frankenstein(1935)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger

Brilliant, moving piece of cinema that represents Hollywood horror at it's finest. Picking up where Frankenstein left off, this is actually better and extends itself from expressionist horror to epic gothic fantasy. Karloff is unforgettable as the Monster, who is even more sympathetic, as he learns speech and demands a mate. His classic scene with the blind hermit is the most moving in the genre. Equally good is Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pratorious, one of the best mad scientists the cinema has ever seen. Colin Clive returns as Henry Frankenstein, more neurotic and tortured than before, and is likewise brilliant.
Many classic scenes emerge, including a showstopper of a conclusion that contains the mother of all creation scenes. Whale deftly blends pathos and horror with a streak of black humor, to absolute perfection. Outside of King Kong(1933) and Psycho(1960), this is the very best horror film the cinema has ever produced.

2. Frankenstein(1931)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clark

The most famous monster movie of all-time and the one that set the standard for all Frankenstein and monster movies forever. Director James Whale fashions the ultimate expressionist movie, with an emphasis on dark and bleak settings, creating a gothic world that is unforgettable. Colin Clive is the ultimate mad scientist as Henry Frankenstein, playing with intensity and passion, sputing one of the movie's immortal lines with, "It's Alive!" Karloff in his star-making performance, delivers the most moving performance in the horror film as the mute Monster, grasping to find his place in the world. The scenes of hsi introduction to light and his drowning of a little girl are still emotionally powerful, even after all these years. A grim masterpiece, this classic hasn't aged a bit and is required viewing for all who dare call themselves film devotees.

3. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein(1948)
Director: Charles Barton
Cast: Abbott and Costello, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Glenn Strange

Definitive horror comedy is a last hurrah for the classic monsters, and a lovely send-off. Bud and Lou are Florida baggage clerks who have to deal with crates containing Count Dracula(Bela Lugosi, reprising his most famous role for the second and final time) and the Monster(Glenn Strange), while The Wolf Man(Lon Chaney Jr.) wants to stop them. The laughs meld seamlessly with the chills,as the monsters are afforded more dignity than in any of the previous mosnter rallies of the 40s. Strange's Monster became an icon in his own right, particularly for Baby Boomers, and ended up portraying the Monster on screen more times than any otehr actor. The real treat, though, is seeing Lugosi as the Count, one last time, looking great and in command. "What we need is young blood and brains." he says at one point.
Chaney Jr. is more terrifying here than he was in practically any other wolf man movie, especially when he rips that couch apart in the beginning. The climax is a hoot and Abbott and Costello were never funnier, in what has to be their best movie. And yes, that is Vincent Price at the end as the invisible man!

4. Young Frankenstein(1974)
Director: Mel Brooks
Cast: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman

Brilliant comedy that plays like a continuation of the Universal series! Gene Wilder is Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of the original(and most likely Donnie Dunnigan's character from Son of Frankenstein(1939) who continues his grandfather's research and creates a Monster(Peter Boyle). The film beautifully spoofs the original films, with awe-inspiring sets and sympathetic characters that are able to transcend the comedy, no little wonder it won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Boyle is the most memorable Monster after Karloff, earning a happiness that feels all so fitting the beloved Monster, in this case, marrying a hilariously sexy, Madeline Khan. Everyone is perfect, from Kenneth Mars aping Lionel Atwill in Son of Frankenstein to Gene Hackman's side-splitting take on the blind man from The Bride of Frankenstein, this is one of the finest(and funniest) comedies ever made. And the black and white is just gorgeous.

5. Frankenstein-The True Story(1973)
Director: Jack Smight
Cast: James Mason, Leonard Whiting, Michael Sarrazin

Epic re-telling of the story that is far from being the true story, but nonetheless creates a brilliant new vision that ranks among the most emotional of horror films. In this version, Frankenstein(Leonard Whiting) is driven to reanimation after his brother drowns. He finds aid in Dr. Henry Clerval(David McCallum) who has perfected the proccess of reanimation, or so he thinks. Henry passes away and his brain is placed into the Monster(Michael Sarrazin) who is handsome and polite, but starts to decay as he suffers through tissue rejection. Episodes from Shelley's novel are retained, including a conclusion in the arctic. The acting is exceptional, including James Mason in one of his best villain roles as Dr. Polidori and Jane Seymour in an early role as Polidori's female creation, who has none of the kindness of the earlier monster. Perhaps, the most impressive made-for-television horror film ever attempted.

6. The Revenge of Frankenstein(1958)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Michael Gwynne, Francis Matthews

Direct sequel to the classic, The Curse of Frankenstein(1957), is more grand guignol this time around with an emphasis on grotesque black humor and an ending right out of a Tod Browning film! Cushing gives his best performance as Baron Frankenstein in this one, now focusing on brain transplants, which he gives to crippled assistant Karl into the body of Michael Gwynne. All seems well, but of course, things go terrible wrong, as Gwynne becomes unhinged and begins to revert back to his twisted form and develops a taste for human flesh! Gwynne is excellent, giving the most sympathetic portrayal of a monster in a Hammer Frankenstein, and it's interesting that his physical appearance appears to be based on the 1929 stage play that influenced the James Whale version. The ending is a great shocker and one that the rest of the series never topped. A particularly memorable Hammer horror.

7. Son of Frankenstein(1939)
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Cast: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill

Karloff's third and final time as the undying Monster, is also the first of the second wave of classic chillers, after a two-year hiatus and a change in the Laemmle regime at Universal. Originally to be produced in color, the film instead was shot in stark black and white, resembling german expressionism. Basil Rathbone portrays the Son of Frankenstein, who returns to his ancestral home and discovers his father's creation(Boris Karloff) and his keeper, Ygor(Bela Lugosi), a former assistant of his father. Ygor wants the Monster's power restored to him, so he can use him against the men who hanged him, as Ygor survived being hanged for graverobbing! Son of Frankenstein is a great horror film and may contain the best cast ever assembled for a horror film, with everyone in top form, especially Lugosi, who is virtually devoid of all Lugosisms as Ygor, bringing much humor to the role. This is Bela's finest hour. He should have been nominated.
Karloff knew the role was going downhill, but he brings much to so little and has a few powerful moments, especially when he discovers his friend dead and screams in pain, after discovering his blood on his hands.
Rathbone and Lionel Atwill's verbal duels throughout, are terrific, as is Atwill's monlouge about losing his arm to the Monster as a child. Creepy and essential in every way, Son of Frankenstein is a worthy addition to the venerable series.

8. The Curse of Frankenstein(1957)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Robert Urquhart

Groundbreaking horror film that put Hammer studios on the map and made stars out of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, while redefining the genre for all-time. This first Frankenstein film in color, creates a much more brutal story than what was depicted at Universal, opting to focus on the Baron and his mounting insanity, rather than the Monster. Peter Cushing brings an ice cold ruthlessness to the character that makes him genuinely frightening, as he has no moral grounds, whatsoever. Christopher Lee is genuinely nightmarish as the Creature, acting like a twisted marionette, with his mismatched parts and damaged brain. The use of gore and a subtle sexual angle, indicated that the genre was growing up and if one were to trace the origin of modern horror, look no further than here.

9. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed!(1969)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones

Darkest of the Hammer Frankensteins, is the leanest and meanest of all Hammer horrors. Cushing returns as the Baron, more ruthless and devious than ever before, with an opening scene that clearly states who the monster really was by this point. Frankenstein blackmails a young couple(Veronica Carlson and Simon Ward) to steal supplies from a local hospital and to get a patient that had been a collaborator of Frankenstein's, an whom the Baron wishes to transplant his brain. Freddie Jones portrays the unfortunate recipient with much sympathy and sorrow and makes the most of the part, especially in the scene wher ehe has to convince his wife who he is, despite being in a new body! It's dark tone, including Cushing raping Carlson, which the gentlemanly actor objected to, and a very Hitchcockian scene involving a buried body and a burst water pipe, make this not for all tastes. However, if you enjoy the heavier horror classics, than this is one of the finest Hammer has to offer.

10. Terror of Frankenstein(1977)
Director: Calvin Floyd
Cast: Leon Vitalli, Per Oscarsson, Nicholas Clay

The most faithful Frankenstein adaption that mananges to capture both the plot of Shelley's original novel and the terror! A Swedish/Irish co-production, utilizing many real locations, this has an atmosphere and creepiness that no other version has been able to duplicate. It contains a gritty, real world quality that make the film feel more disturbing and nightmarish, emphasized by early scenes where Victor Frankenstein(Leon Vitalli) is assembling his creation from some of the more grotesque(and realistic) charnel houses seen on the screen. Vitalli is very good in this film, bringing intensity and sadness, appropiate to the role, while Oscarsson as the Monster is just perfect, his childish rage and melencholy befitting the role as written by Shelley. A dark and unsettling film, this has unfortunately been forgotten and is the least seen of all the films on this list. For those seeking a more faithful version, that retains the dread and horror of the novel, this is the one to see.

11. Frankenstein(2004)
Director: Kevin Connor
Cast: Luke Goss, Alec Newman, Donald Sutherland

The other most faithful adaption, captures the scope of the novel, if not the majority of dramatic events that occur within the novel. The framework of the arctic is retained, with an excellent Donald Sutherland as Robert Walton, the ambitious explorer whom Frankenstein(Alec Newman) relates his tale to. Very little deviates from the book and the locations utilized(mainly in eastern europe) are gorgeous and make the film feel huge, justifying the three hour(!) running time. However, if any faults are to be found, it's in the suppression of the horror of the novel. Luke Goss is effective as the Monster, with fairly creepy and subtle makeup, but the menace is downplayed, which was foolish, since that sort of misses the point of what the Monster eventually becomes through humanity's mistreatment of him, hence his name. Even the always fascinating section where Victor builds the Monster, is virtually sidestepped. Hallmark, known for very religious and peaceful films, which this one is to a degree, must have gotten cold feet about approaching this with the appropiate amount of darkness required, and thus downplayed the terror. In the film's defense, it is well directed and acted, with a good amount of characterization and enough attention to detail to make this absolutely essential for devotees of the novel.

12. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein(1994)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Robert Deniro, Helena Bonham Carter

Hugely dissapointing version of the novel, purported to be the most accurate, is far from approaching the Shelley narrative. Not nearly as engaging as Bram Stoker's Dracula(1992), this is still a fascinating misfire with gorgeous sets and a decent first half, complete with a truly wacky creation scene that combines galvanism, accupuncture and electric eels! It begins to lag somewhat when the Monster is born and makes too many erroneous decisions, deviating from the novel and sadly, leaving out some of the best material. It is particulary sad to see that the climatic race across the continents was deleted, considering it was practically the best writing in the book, or the haunting moment where Victor swears vengeance on the Creature, at the graves of his loved ones. Instead, scenes like the reanimation of Elizabeth(Helena Bonham Carter) are inserted, which add very little to the picture, even if the intentions were certainly good. The romantic angle bettwen Carter and Branagh just dosen't work and it makes the scene appear pointless and silly.
Branagh's film is energetic to a fault, but lacks the passion required for the story and the film suffers as a result. His Victor isn't terrible, but also not overly convincing either. It was also a mistake to cast Deniro as the Monster, who alternates between being effective and veering into the routine with his thuggish schtick(it's that accent of his). Plus his makeup, while interesting and plausible to a certain degree, fails to capture the sort of horror that was apparent in the novel. I almost feel that had this film been caused anything other than Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, this wouldn't be seen as such a failure, but man, this just dosen't live up to the brand. It's definitely a great curio-piece, but could have been a hell of alot more than what it was.

13. The Monster Squad(1987)
Director: Fred Dekker
Cast: Andre Gower, Robby Kiger, Stephen Macht

Perhaps a curious choice for the list, The Monster Squad is not just a wonderful throwback to the classic Monster rallies of the 40s, but also one of the most sentimental takes on the Frankenstein Monster on film. The story involves a group of kids who have a monster club, probably like many of us did as kids, who unlike most of us, encounter real monsters in their small town! Duncan Regher leads the monsters as a particularly frightening Dracula, and is involved with a wonderful opening scene where he encounters ancient enemy, Van Helsing. The Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Creature from the Black Lagoon are also along for the ride, and Stan Winston's makeup designs work both as homages and their own unique and cool designs. Tom Noonan's Frankenstein Monster evokes the spirit of Karloff and ends up befriending the kids, as sort of a Universal Monsters-version of E.T. He's excellent and many a monster kid will find themselves misty-eyed by film's conclusion, when the group must bid farewell to the beloved monster. A box-office failure when initially released, this has since to go on to become a major cult classic and an excellent starter for young horror fans.

Frankenstein will turn 200 years old in a few years and yet, the story still retains it's power all these years later. The timeless theme of man playing God and creating life, is a moral issue that we still contend with today. Frankenstein was a perfect choice for cinema, a medium all about creation and artificial life. The image of Karloff as the Monster is still one of the most recognizeable cultural images, provoking both fear and sympathy in millions of filmgoers. There's many other adaptions that are certainly worth your time, if not to see how others around the world have interpreted the story, yet the theme never gets old. The story will continue to be told and the films will continue to inspire future generations. There's something poignant about ending this list with The Monster Squad, as if the Monster's journey had come full circle. The eternal outcast has found a home, finally accepted and loved, by the same misfits who helped immortalize him into the lexicon of our modern culture. As Shelley had predicted in her introduction to her 1830 revision of her novel, her "hideous progency" has indeed, prospered well over the centuries.

A Reel Curiosities Amusement!

Created by Rex Schneider, Chris Buchman and Steve Stanchfield

If you are looking for something unique and spooky for Halloween, than this DVD comes highly reccomended. Grotesqueries is a ghoulish compilation of very vintage short subjects from the dawn of cinema through the 1930s. Many  of the films presented are rare and real delights for the dyed in the wool film fan, like myself, who has a taste for the macabre. The usual assortment of cartoons litter the compilation, including those starring Felix the Cat and Tom and Jerry(not that Tom and Jerry) and are appropiately bizarre. However, the best stuff are the real rarities like Le Spectre Rouge(1907), which has a skeleton/devil magician who keeps homunculi in a jar, like Dr. Pratorious in The Bride of Frankenstein(1935).

The DVD is divided into three parts, the first focusing on cartoons and an abridged version of The Fall of the House of Usher(1928), that very atmospheric arthouse film from the silent era. The second part takes place in a graveyard that doubles as a drive-in theater(!) where various comical previews are played(including a trailer for Maniac(1934), that is pretty funny) and an abridged live orchestral version of Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera(1925), which I could only wish was full length.

The final part focuses on some lovely obscurities such as a really cool expressionist cartoon of A Night on Bald Mountain(1933) and a wonderful send-off with a section from the opera, Ruddigore, and the great spooky song, The Ghosts' High Noon, which is actually very addictive and fun to sing!
Everything on this DVD is exceptional and it's refreshing to look into the past and explore a holiday that's cornerstone was always old-fashioned fun and innocent charm. Even the special features are cute, including items from Halloween's past and humorous epitaphs on real gravestones! Unfortunately, this was an independent release and is not as widely available as it should be, though it is on Amazon, this is the kind of DVD that ought to be a seasonal perennial. What really makes the entire thing so special is that is clearly a labor of love for those involved and it makes for an excellent diversion for the curious, morbid or otherwise.

The Night HE Came Home!

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Nancy Loomis

Enormously successful independent film from director John Carpenter, set a standard for the genre that is still being felt to this day, for better or worse. Halloween is a legitimately effective film, practically a how-to guide in how to make a scary picture. Despite it's reputation as being very bloody and violent, like Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974), the horror is suggested rather than shown, a reason why this film still retains the power to terrify today.

Several films helped invent the slasher film, including the work of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and certainly Bob Clark's Black Christmas(1974), but this one had the most far-reaching impact. It led to numerous sequels and rip-offs, almost all of them terrible and inferior versions of Carpenter's original. The difference in Carpenter's initial vision is taste and intelligence, which many of the future films could have profited by.

The film opens to one of the most unforgettable and chilling horror themes ever, as composed by director Carpenter. It's amazing how simple and effective those opening credits are, complete with grotesque grinning pumpkin. As a child, I found this very unsettling, mainly due to the score and the fact that all that was on the screen was that damn pumpkin. What follows is one of the great opening scenes in a horror movie as a killer lurks through a house, and we the audience, see his perspective. He murders a beautiful woman and goes outside, where he is unmasked, and he turns out to be a six year old child!

Jump ahead fourteen years and we find the child grown up, still a resident of an insane asylum. He is to be transported to another institution by his doctor(Donald Pleasance), who believes that he is pure evil. The maniac escapes and comandeers his car and drives off into the night, en route to his old hometown. There we are introduced to a group of high school girls, including Jamie Lee Curtis in her first role as Laurie Strode. Unlike later slasher films, the young women here are realistically depicted and likeable, which bears more on the plot. Carpenter builds the tension subtly with Laurie claiming to see a strange figure staring at her(the killer is called, "The Shape" in the credits for a reason), but she's not sure if he's for real. She has to babysit some children on Halloween, who proceed to watch The Thing(1951) and Forbidden Planet(1956)! As the girls go off on dates, the killer stalks them and begins to murder them one by one. The Doctor arrives in town and tries to warn the Sheriff(Charles Cyphers), but is afraid of a panic. Pleasance is great in this, but is real perfection when he has that monlouge about the killer, known as Michael Myers, and his supposed evil intent. He also has the film's finest moment when he scares a bunch of kids that are spying in on Michael's old house.

The body count tallies up and soon the children(who have mentioned a fear of the boogeyman earlier) tell Laurie that the boogeyman is outside. She goes to investigate and finds her friends dead and runs into the killer who stalks her outside and into her home. Despite being stabbed and beaten, he proves unkillable and continues to return in several tense moments, particularly when Laurie is stuck in a closet. In the final struggle, Laurie unmasks the killer, who reveals his "bland, pale, emotionless face" before the Doctor arrives and empties a 357. magnum into the fiend and sends him flying out of a second story window. In a great ending, Curtis asks Pleasance, "Was that the boogeyman?" and Pleasance answers, "As a matter of fact, that was", before looking over the ledge and finding the killer gone.

Halloween is a masterful horror picture, Carpenter in complete control of creating a truly frightening cinematic experience. Despite the low budget, Halloween remains a professional and well-made film that begs repeat viewings. Unlike other contemporary horrors that have become over-anthologized to the point of tedium, ultimately lessening their impact, Halloween is still effective and deserving of such critical praise. The largely amateur cast are all excellent and sympathetic, a soon to be rare quality in the modern horror film. Curtis' strong willed heroine set a standard for the horror film heroine, while also proving her worth as an actress. Her character gains the audience's sympathy almost instantly and she never resorts to being either a bimbo or an action hero, like in today's films. She gives a credible performance and part of the reason why the film terrifies is because we care for her character. Her friends, played by P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis, are likewise very good, bringing a warmth and charm to their roles that remind one eerily of High School days long past.

The anchor to the film's dramatic power is veteran actor Donald Pleasance who makes the role of Dr. Loomis, his own. Originally offered to both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, but subsequently turned down, Loomis plays like a modern day Van Helsing, determined to erradicate evil, even if no one really believes him. That's the power of his role that we the audience are not so sure, either and think that Michael Myers may be nothing more than a run of the mill lunatic. That's the reason why that ending is so bonechilling, as Loomis looks over the balcony and we realize that he was right and that Michael Myers really is the boogeyman! It's just plain unforgettable and remains long in the memory, like good horror should.

Several memorable vignettes occur throughout the picture, the most effective being the most subtle. Images of Myers appearing from behind a bush and stalking a young boy on his way from school are really unnerving, and of course, that entire "haunted house" segment at the end, when Laurie discovers her friends and the killer are very frightening. Later films imitated much of this, but none failed to recapture what was done here. The film was a massive global success and led to several sequels, which got increasingly sillier and more pointless. Initially the concept was to have the series be about different stories for each Halloween, but the failure of the third film saw an end to this concept. The film was remade in 2007, none too effectively either, in what has to be one of the all-time worst genre remakes. Rob Zombie directed in typical hack fashion, with little logic or subtlety, emphasizing the backstory of Michael Myers, a truly poor plot device. This completely missed the point of Carpenter's vision where the killer was seen as a force of nature and did not need motive or explanation. He just was and explaining his murderous actions lessened the impact considerably.

Halloween is a landmark film, uneffected by the years of imitation, carving a niche for itself as a classic horror film in the tradition of the original masterpieces of old. Carpenter would make many fine horror films throughout his career, but this early work remains the pinnacle. One of the twenty greatest films in the genre's history, this is an essential viewing for Halloween, it's also an essential for any time of the year when you need a good scare. So, when Michael comes home October 31st, invite him in and enjoy the atmosphere. Just remember that if you get to close to that Myers house, get your ass away from there.