Speaking of Svengoolie, when he showed House of Dracula recently, he noticed that the hunchbacked nurse's hunch was rather strange looking, and cracked "Hey, here's a tip. When you get implants, make sure they install them on the correct side." I laughed for hours about that, because I remember even as a kid wondering why her hunch was so pointy.
|Super 8mm packaging|
"What's Doom of Dracula?" you may ask. Well, these films are all "condensations" — seven-to-17-minute excerpts of the features themselves, and Doom is the title of an excerpt which focuses on the Dracula segment in House of Frankenstein.
If you think these films would merely be a jumpy assortment of unrelated clips, you'd be sadly mistaken. Universal 8 (and its predecessor, Castle Films) put together really nice reels that stand on their own as entertainment. Sometimes they just focus on one segment (as in Doom), but others telescope the entire film into a comprehensible short subject, with all the famous scenes included. The quality was usually terrific, with the prints having better contrast than the later releases on videotape!
|The Cat and the Canary|
Even before the onset of sound, Paul Leni, one of the founders of the movement, directed two striking motion pictures: The Cat and the Canary (1927), an "old dark house" prototype; and The Man Who Laughs (1928), more of a period piece with nasty detail than a pure horror. This chiaroscuro look became the house style and made for some really beautiful filmmaking.
Other studios made horror films around this time, but they all seemed to be trying to jump on the Universal bandwagon. Paramount contributed a strong pre-Code Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Fredric March, and its Island of Lost Souls (1932), starring Lugosi, is as close to a Universal film as it can be. Meanwhile, MGM nabbed Universal director Tod Browning for Freaks. With its sordid story and use of real circus "freaks," it was rejected by the studio and doomed to travel the exploitation roadshow circuit until it was rediscovered in the 1960s.
Only Warner Bros., which represented the fast-talking, urban milieu of Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, injected its own house style into its horror output, and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, Michael Curtiz) uses contemporary New York locales to full advantage. Shot in the primitive two-strip Technicolor process, it is also the first film with a modern setting.
Its lack of a musical score (a snippet of "Swan Lake" is heard over the opening titles and that's it) makes one realize how important a role music plays in genre pictures. George Melford directed a simultaneous Spanish-language version with different actors, a common practice at the time, and it's considered to be more lively and sexy than the Lugosi film.
Freund directed a few movies himself, including The Mummy (1932), which certainly drips with atmosphere but I find boring. Sure, the make-up is good, but you only see it in the first few minutes. After that, it's just Karloff in a fez trying to reunite with his long-lost Egyptian lover (Zita Johann). There is one great scene, though, and of course it's at the beginning. When Egyptologist Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) is interrupted by the mummy coming to life and taking the ancient scroll he'd been translating, he reacts by bursting into hysterical laughter and exclaiming, "He went for a little walk!"
|The Black Cat|
The sets are a trip and still feel avant-garde today. It had nothing to do with the Edgar Allen Poe story, of course. It's one of many, many films that have Poe titles but nothing else content-wise.
The epoch-making Frankenstein (1932) and its tongue-in-cheek sequel, 1935's Bride of Frankenstein, established the mittel-European look that would carry through the 1940s with the monster rallies. It's hard to believe that these two films were made by the same director. The first is grim and serious, while its sequel is one of the gayest horror films ever made.
The director, James Whale, was out and proud when such a thing was still considered an aberration. Dr. Pretorius was played by the effete, skinny and bizarre (and flamboyantly homosexual) Ernest Thesiger. Karloff's bride, Elsa Lanchester, was married to another flamboyantly gay actor, Charles Laughton. And it's said that Henry Frankenstein himself, Colin Clive, was closeted and tormented by his sexuality, resulting in his descent into alcoholism and a tragic death at age 37.
Keeping all this in mind while watching Bride makes it even more amusing. As the maid, the hysterical, birdlike Una O'Connor (also in Whale's magnificent The Invisible Man) reluctantly admits Pretorius into the Frankenstein home, she looks him up and down suspiciously and you can just hear her saying, "What's up with this old queen?"
|Uhhh...what's going on here?|
Film scholars consider Frankenstein and Pretorius to be a couple, with Henry drawn to the older man in a Greek love sort of way. And who did the Bride's styling? As Arthur Dignam, the actor playing Thesiger said in Bill Condon's wonderful Whale biopic, Gods and Monsters (1998), "I gather we not only did her hair but dressed her. What a couple of queens we are, Colin!" Even the monster's happiest relationship is with the hermit, whom he is willing to set up house with before the trouble starts.
|The Werewolf of London|
And this is such a civilized werewolf! He puts on his hat, coat and scarf before he goes out for the evening. Unfortunately, the lack of star power (it was originally intended for Karloff and Lugosi) and similarity to the earlier Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde caused it to flop at the box office, but it has quietly generated a cult following over the years. And actress Valerie Hobson played two important brides that year — the werewolf's and Henry Frankenstein's.
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