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Five Days of Frankenstein: #1 | The Bleat.

This being Halloween week, we might as well enjoy some of the founding documents of the great cinematic monsters. I’m watching all the originals – the “canon” of Universal films, not including the 426 sequels. We begin with a very fine film:

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I don’t know why a balding man with eye-beams and vampire hands is used, but perhaps they didn’t want to give away the sight of the monster too early. Aside from all the posters, that is.

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The fellow who played the Monster would later to go on to front the Mysterians, of course. Hard to believe the movie was made almost 80 years ago, and even more impressive to consider how stagey and stilted so many movies were in the early morning hours of the 30s. Credit James Whale, the director who gave us all the basics of the genre, fully-formed. From the beginning it’s full of dread and death:

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The film’s so well-known I won’t bother you with a blow-by-blow, because we all know the tale. The Mad Scientist, who lives in a world that’s simultaneously medieval and modern enough to have sparking electrical props, brings a creature to life, and learns about the concept of unintended consequences. Right. We know that. We know the creation scene is masterfully shot:

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And we know Karloff was a very scary monster, none better. He has one of the greatest reveals in movies up to that time, and for decades afterwards: he walks backwards into the room, turns halfway in the shadows -

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As wary of us as we are of him, perhaps. Then two close-ups, this being the last:

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It’s held just a few beats. People hadn’t seen anything like it. The sets are wild, too – the German Expressionism would be ramped up to surreal levels soon enough, but this mad hellhole of a jail looks like it’s from a nightmare. Or the work of very bad masons:

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The obligatory hunchbacked assistant, or OHA, is whipping the tar out of the Monster, one of the early moments that builds your sympathy for the creature. Karloff evokes pity through mime, and even though he does some killin’ here and there, they’re not intentional. Those big mitts of his! His incomplete knowledge of buoyancy! He’s not bad, he just as faulty software.

Of course, the villagers convene with the usual pitchfork-and-torches gala parade:

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They’ll get a lot of practice at that in the next 37 films. The monster perishes in a windmill bonfire – which would make a good progressive rock group band name, of course – and we get this stark long-shot. Model? Long shot? No one was asking that then.

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Love the end card:

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Yes, nothing says “universal” like a specific, isolated planetary body. We’re still a few years away from the glittering 30s intro with the plane, but we’ll see it soon – in the installment of Five Days of Frankenstein!

Yes, I know, it’s not much to start with, but had to get it out of the way.

The Trailer:

 

22 Responses to Five Days of Frankenstein: #1

  1. lanczos says:

    Re: The trailer = “…to shock women into uncontrolled hysteria…”

    Okay, show of hands now. How many thought that the trailer’s “e-e-e-e-e-agh” should be, “e-a-a-a-Ah, Sweet Mystery Of Life At Last I’ve Found You…”

  2. Mark E says:

    Why bother having the cast list giving The Monster played by ?, if the trailer says “see KARLOFF in his most terrifying performance as the fiendish monster”? And how many other times had he played the fiendish monster?

  3. Ed Flinn says:

    the usual pitchfork-and-torches gala parade

    Was it usual yet, or innovative and widely-copied?

  4. Bridey says:

    Colin Clive was considered one of the most beautiful men on the screen in the early ’30s, but, though he’s only about 30 years old here, he looks rather haggard to modern eyes. Clive died before he was 40, but of course Karloff lived to a fine old age.

  5. Pam-EL says:

    When I saw the movie as a kid, I found it moderately scary. When I saw it as an adult I found it horrifying. The real horror of the movie is the monster’s existential semi-awareness. It comes in spurts and is painful to watch. He is aware of, but cannot explain, his own wrongness. It’s not a film to be taken lightly.

    Having said that, I pondered having a soprano sing “O Sweet Mystery of Life” at my wedding, but I chickened out.

  6. Jano says:

    The moment with the child has always bothered me the most. I watched the film many times when I was younger, and I always had a litany of “no, no, no, no, no…” going through my head. As an adult and parent, that scene leaves me more emphatically disturbed. It is a masterful exploitation of a child’s innocence as well as parental fears.

  7. NeeNee says:

    Do you think “Lionel Belmore” ever got a casting-callback from a novice director who was thinking “Lionel Barrymore”???

  8. grs says:

    I have always been struck by just how far the Hollywood movie departed from Mary Shelley’s novel. I can remember checking the front cover to make sure I had the right book, since it opened with a sea voyage to the Arctic. Also, like everybody else here, I think my memory of the movie has been corrupted by Mel Brooks’s too-perfect parody.

  9. That’s ‘I – Gor’.

    Still the best out of the volume of follow ups.

  10. Larry says:

    Ahhh..Universal monsters at their best. Great film.

  11. Margaret says:

    I thought the same thing grs when I finally got around to reading the book. The whole point of the Monster was that his hideousness came from the fact that he was like a human but not quite human. A lot more subtle than flattop with bolts sticking out of his neck. Still, I prefer Karloff as monster to Kenneth Branagh’s histrionic, if truer to the book Victor Frankenstein.

  12. bkd69 says:

    Required ancillary viewing is, of course, The Golem:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0011237/

  13. Lulu says:

    Mark E :
    Why bother having the cast list giving The Monster played by ?, if the trailer says “see KARLOFF in his most terrifying performance as the fiendish monster”? And how many other times had he played the fiendish monster?

    The trailer is for a re-issue. I’m guessing from the 1950s or possibly late ’40s, judging from the style, which is why they tell you it’s Karloff in his most terrifying performance. By the time this trailer was making the rounds, everyone knew who played the monster and he’d played the part numerous times, but I think when Frankenstein came out originally, Universal tried to maintain some “mystery” as to who played the monster (despite the fact that Karloff had been in films for years prior to doing Frankenstein).

  14. Tim Hamilton says:

    If you look at the associated video links that come up at the end of that YouTube trailer, one of them is a 1910 Thomas Edison film of Frankenstein. The whole thing’s there–it’s only 12 minutes long. It has redone intertitle cards (they look a little modern and out of place), but it’s fascinating to watch. Just think–this was over twenty years before the 1931 classic.

  15. willis says:

    “As an adult and parent, that scene leaves me more emphatically disturbed. It is a masterful exploitation of a child’s innocence as well as parental fears.”

    I get the same reaction when watching Obama address the nation.

  16. Pinny the Ziphead says:

    @juanito – John Davey

    “But, where’s your-”

    Never with a tux!”

    I have to agree. I’m grateful to my dad for introducing me to the originals (courtesy of Dr. Shock and also the Million Dollar Movie), but I can’t watch this without thinking of Brooks.

  17. Calvin Dodge says:

    Errr … “he just as faulty” shoudl be “he just has faulty”

  18. Holly says:

    You neglected to mention another interesting fact. There was no musical score with this film. Seemed to increase the dread IMO.

  19. Shawn Robare says:

    I get the joke, but I think the intent of showing the planet juxtaposed by the Universal logo is more about their films’ world-wide appeal. Just a thought.

  20. Ross says:

    “…The Mad Scientist, who lives in a world that’s simultaneously medieval and modern enough to have sparking electrical props, brings a creature to life, and learns about the concept of unintended consequences…”

    That’s partly due to movie conventions of the time and partly to the original source of the legend(Mary Shelley, contrary to current Grrlpower wisdom, did not, in fact, invent this story out of whole cloth: she & the gang of artistic layabouts she hung out with in Europe would have heard the stories about the unpopular & rather odd early experiments in electricity being done, not that long before, by a young “scientist”[his name escapes me--all I remember is that it was one of those very unfortunate German surnames, like Dumperflingen] living in what had been the castle of an extinct noble family by the name of Frankenstein. It’s precisely the sort of localcolor/gossip that would appeal to the Romantic types in that circle, as they visited every castle they tripped over on the Grand Tour. Mix in her own science professor, Lind, as the character model for Victor and you have a ready-made hook to hang your story on).

  21. Ryan W. Mead says:

    The joke about the Universal logo reminds me of a line from the “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ movie about the period the company was known as Universal-International: “Doesn’t the fact that it’s universal MAKE it international?”

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