The Not-So-Versatile Predator: The Wolf Man

If the classic movies covered so far constitute Phase I of the Universal cinematic monster-verse, The Wolf Man kicks off Phase 2. Made in 1941, this film gave Universal a new monster who would go on to unite several of their franchises during subsequent crossover pictures. In true Hollywood fashion, it also relied on at least three distinct horror legacies to bolster its street cred while launching something new.

Pedigree and legacy aside, The Wolf Man’s title character is also a monster unlike any of the characters yet seen in Dracula, The Mummy, or either of the Frankenstein movies. This opens up new opportunities for story-telling, and the movie explores the most obvious ones in ways that future movies would go on to rehash in increasingly less interesting ways.

Without further ado, let’s head to the moors and talk about some spoilers!

[SPOILERS, SUCH AS THEY ARE, FOLLOW]

Continue reading “The Not-So-Versatile Predator: The Wolf Man”

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Sex, Monsters, and Today’s Frankenstein

Finding a companion film to The Bride of Frankenstein for this blog was a little tricky. While there have been plenty of Dracula, Frankenstein, mummy, and werewolf movies over the years, plus two different Guillermo del Toro takes on Black-Lagoon-esque gill-men, the pickings are slimmer when it comes to Bride.

Sure, there are homages to Elsa Lanchester’s hairstyle in the already-discussed Rocky Horror Picture Show and the to-be-discussed Young Frankenstein, to stick with just movies that are part of this blog’s work. There’s also an upcoming remake planned for Universal’s Dark Universe, assuming those plans are still on track. But the Bride’s story turns out to be rarely revisited in the context of monster movies.

The best place to look was outside of the horror genre. If I hadn’t already taken a trip to pre-Dracula Germany with Nosferatu, I might have written about Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction masterpiece Metropolis, which is chock full of tropes that would surface again and again in later horror and sci-fi movies, including that of the woman animated by technology. I considered going to the ‘80s and watching John Hughes’ Weird Science. Ultimately, though, I settled on a more recent movie about two men and the manmade woman in the lab: Alex Garland’s 2014 Ex Machina.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

Continue reading “Sex, Monsters, and Today’s Frankenstein”

Back to the Slab

Bride of Frankenstein Poster

Four years after Frankenstein was a runaway hit, Universal brought us the first major monster movie sequel. The Bride of Frankenstein is one of those rare sequels that’s better than its original (which was already damn good). It reunited Boris Karloff’s Creature with Colin Clive’s Dr. Henry Frankenstein under the skilled direction of James Whale. We also get a few new characters and some fascinating themes and motifs.

Gods and Devils

Of all the characters in The Bride of Frankenstein, the most monstrous is obvious: Dr. Pretorius. While Dr. Frankenstein regrets his past experiments, Pretorius revels in his. He delights in showing off his homunculi, explaining with glee the role he’s assigned to each. That he’s styled the one that resembles himself as the Devil is not the most subtle foreshadowing.

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The Art of Resurrection

The 1932 The Mummy is, by most metrics, the weakest of the iconic Universal pantheon of monster movies. There are certainly other Universal monster movies that are worse, but of The Big Ones – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf-Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon – it’s The Mummy that struggles the most. The structure is in many ways derivative of Dracula, the monster’s memorable appearance gets barely any screen time, and the movie’s strengths aren’t enough to outshine its problematic weaknesses.

In other words, of the core Universal canon, it’s the one most suited to a remake.

Continue reading “The Art of Resurrection”

Of Mummies, Other Monsters, and the Other

A poster for The Mummy (1932)
Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Mummy_1932_film_poster.jpg

OK, it’s time to talk about sex and race.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

We’ll do the recap bit in a hurry. The Mummy of 1932 rehashes several of the plot points (and a couple of the actors) of Dracula with an extra dose of exoticism. An unsuspecting Brit revives Imhotep, who spends all of a minute of screen time in bandage-wrapped mummy form before converting into an exotic mind controller. Add a time jump, and Imhotep – in full Karloff-ian glory and using the pseudonym Ardeth Bay – is leading the next generation of British archaeologists to the tomb of his beloved. Repeat the mind-controlled love interest plot of Dracula, with even more useless turns from the characters played by David Manners (Harker in Dracula and Frank Whemple here) and Edward Van Sloan (Dracula’s Van Helsing and The Mummy’s Doctor Muller), and end with the monster defeated at the last minute. The big difference at the end is that Manners and Van Sloan are totally incidental to the defeat of the monster; the heroine (Helen Grosvenor, played by Zita Johann) takes down Imhotep with an assist from the goddess Isis.

What The Mummy gives us that we didn’t get in Dracula is backstory. Perhaps because there is no source for the story other than Western stereotypes about Near Eastern curses, the movie uses magically-aided flashbacks to explain why an ancient Egyptian burial practice has led to the movie’s plot. Midway through the movie, we see Imhotep in his original life falling in love with his pharaoh’s daughter, who oh-so-coincidentally is identical to the beautiful Miss Grosvenor (of the half-Egyptian heritage). The present-day storyline in 1932 is all about him using mind control on Helen to draw her to him so that he can engage in some vague rituals that will kill and resurrect her to join him in eternal life. It is only her resistance at the very end that drives her to appeal to Isis, who provides the final help necessary to end Imhotep.

Even in its most literal reading, the movie doesn’t exactly portray white dudes in the best light. It’s a brazen British imperialist-slash-plunderer who revives Imhotep, and the rest of the Euro-coded male characters prove completely ineffectual in stopping the mummy. In its way, the movie is a condemnation of white-knightdom, with the various “nice” men who condescendingly try to help a woman winding up totally ineffectual. Helen, even deluded into somewhat thinking she is the Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, fights for life and appeals to Isis before Whemple and Muller even arrive on the scene.

Possibly unintentional feminism aside, the movie still has some pretty deep issues.

Continue reading “Of Mummies, Other Monsters, and the Other”

That Transgressive Quiver

Rocky Horror Poster
Picture from http://rockyhorror.wikia.com/wiki/File:The_rocky_horror_picture_show_poster.jpg

Where does one even begin with The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

My first memory associated with Rocky Horror is of the cover on the case of the movie at Hollywood Video when I was growing up. I wouldn’t actually see the movie until years later, towards the end of high school, but that image of Tim Curry in corset and fishnets reclining on those lips sure stood out.

The first time I saw the movie was, if I remember correctly, on someone else’s computer one night when a group of us were at the state science fair in eleventh grade. Having little to no idea what to expect while watching with someone else who’s already been to live showings is, from what I understand, one of the more common ways of being introduced to the movie. As a still fairly sheltered teen who’d spent most of my life in Catholic school before being exposed to all these wild public school kids, I didn’t quite know what to make of it all.

And yet…

Something about the movie resonated. I wouldn’t have the experiences necessary to understand why until later, but there was definitely a quality to the thing that stuck with me.

Relatively early in college, I pulled together a few other acquaintances in my new dorm to go to my first live showing (and their first experience with the movie in any form). I wound up going a few more times in college, although I never became a devotee of the experience like some do.

To this day, The Rocky Horror Picture Show holds a certain attraction, even as many parts of it are intellectually problematic. In a way that is similar to the Universal monsters and the broader panoply of fringe-y “dark geekdom,” the movie continues to have an appeal that is part aesthetic and part something else. (Before I go any further, I strongly recommend reading this analysis by Vrai Kaiser, either before or after reading this post.)

So what’s up with Rocky Horror?

Continue reading “That Transgressive Quiver”

Creeping Horrors

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)For quite some time now, vampires have been high on The List of Sexy Monsters. Before Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, we had Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Before those we had Anne Rice’s sexy vamps, and so on all the way back to Bela Lugosi’s belief in Dracula’s sex appeal. And yet, nothing about blood-sucking monsters requires sexiness.

After all, we also have Guillermo Del Toro’s vampires in The Strain (and before that, his chin-splitting additions to Blade II), and a mishmash of vampire elders from Buffy or the Underworld series. If the Cullens of Twilight and the Salvatore brothers of The Vampire Diaries are the modern-day descendants of Lugosi’s Dracula, their more obviously creepy cousins can trace their lineage back to Nosferatu.

F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film was originally intended as an adaptation of the novel Dracula, which had been published 25 years earlier. However, Murnau and his fellow German filmmakers could not secure the rights from Bram Stoker’s family. They went to the extraordinary length of changing all the characters’ names, but otherwise charged ahead with their production. Thus, instead of portraying Count Dracula, actor Max Schreck gave us Count Orlok. The Harkers became the Hutters, Van Helsing became Bulmer, and Renfield became Knock. Instead of London, the count moved to the made-up German town of Wisborg.

Shockingly, this renaming did not satisfy the Stoker estate, who ended up winning a court battle that led to nearly all prints of the fim being destroyed. A few managed to escape destruction, however, meaning we’re still able to enjoy this alternative vision of vampirism.

The basic outlines of the story are similar to Universal’s Dracula nine years later, with both movies’ plots deviating from Stoker’s novel to roughly similar degrees, but the differences in pacing and production stand out. (And, of course, Nosferatu is silent while Dracula was a relatively early talkie.)

Nosferatu manages to move both faster and slower than Universal’s Dracula. Where the Universal movie uses fairly lengthy takes in each scene, Nosferatu uses cuts more frequently, with the effect of making scenes feel like they’re moving faster than the scenes in Dracula. However, the pacing of the story itself is much slower in Nosferatu. It takes the movie longer to get to Orlok’s castle and to get back to the city, leaving the characters much less time between the count’s arrival in the city and the final confrontation. By contrast, Universal’s movie got to Lugosi announcing, “I am Dracula” by about six minutes into the movie, and most of its time is spent with the characters in London trying to figure out what’s going on.

The German film also spends more time building up parallels between Orlok and other threats from the natural world. We get meditations on Venus flytraps and microscopically vampiric organisms. Schreck’s makeup is also decidedly more animalistic than Lugosi’s. Orlok’s mouth is ratlike, his ears are pointed, and his fingernails are so long they evoke claws. He looks and acts far less human than Lugosi’s Dracula, who is at least able to put on a façade of charm and manners when it suits his purposes.

In other words, Orlok’s predatory nature is less social and more biological than Dracula’s. If both vampires were diseases, Dracula would be an STD and Orlok would be a plague carried by rats. Orlok falls into an uncanny valley where he is almost-but-not-quite human in his appearance and behavior. If he ever was human, he clearly isn’t anymore.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)In fact, Schreck’s appearance and performance were so uncanny, they spawned an urban legend that he actually was a vampire. That provided the inspiration for 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, which tells a fictionalized version of the production of Nosferatu where the star is in fact a vampire who has cut a deal with Murnau. The film stars John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck, with supporting work from Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Udo Kier, and Catherine McCormack.

The two main draws (to me) of Shadow of the Vampire are Dafoe’s truly creepy performance and the depictions of the movie-making process. Dafoe’s performance is better seen than described, but he does a fantastic job of recreating Schreck’s movements and general aura. On the process side, the movie recreates some of the iconic moments of Nosferatu and shows some of how they were done. Watching men crank cameras while Murnau delivers real-time instructions to the actors (with no concern about competing with sounds or dialogue since this is a silent movie), and hearing Cary Elwes as a replacement photographer describe how slow-motion effects can be created, reinforce some points from my earlier post on sound in the movies. At the time these people were creating this film, they were engaging in what was essentially an enormous experiment in storytelling using a new form of photography.

Ultimately, Nosferatu has had less impact on the way we think about vampires than Universal’s Dracula did, but it did quite a bit to advance the horror movie as a general concept. From unearthly special effects – including Orlok’s straight-backed pivot up from his casket and his eventual fade-away when exposed to sunlight – to the way locations, lighting, and shot composisition created a mood, Nosferatu showed us a monster in a way that hadn’t ever been possible before.

(Images from the Internet Movie Database.)