Friday, October 17, 2008

Beautiful Monsters

I love Universal horror movies of the early thirties. Absolutely love them. And my wife and I (who also loves them - and me) have passed that love on to the youngest in our family, my wife's daughter of seven, who adores The Bride of Frankenstein. She loves horror and mystery overall but her favorites are The Bride and Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple movies from the sixties. My God, I must've seen each one of those ten times by now, in their entirety or just in parts here and there. The youngest wishes they had made more than four, and given how much I love Margeret Rutherford myself, despite the mediocrity of the films, I wish they had made more too. But Universal did make more horror movies, one after another, in the thirties and forties, and it was their early forays into the genre that have become personal favorites over the years.

Even though I don't particularly care for the play version of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which the 1931 movie was based on, and Tod Browning's static direction leaves much to be desired, I do love Bela Lugosi in the lead. It gives me great pleasure to watch him in those early scenes in the castle with Renfield, played by the wonderfully over the top Dwight Frye. And I enjoy his famous scene with Van Helsing later ("For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you're a wise man, Van Helsing."). The movie's a bit on the creaky side but still a pleasure to sit down to and watch Lugosi work his magic.

Then there's James Whale. Now that man could direct. His movies are beautiful to behold and the two Frankenstein films for which he is most famous are masterpieces of Gothic mood and design. His camera flows through the landscape and settles itself into perfectly framed paintings of light and shadow. I could watch them over and over and have, especially The Bride of Frankenstein if only because the youngest won't let me avoid it. But he also did The Old Dark House, another personal favorite to be written up a little later this month, and The Invisible Man, a movie of a madman scientist played by Claude Rains that stands as one of my favorite movies ever.

Then there's Boris Karloff, one of the great English actors, who should have several Oscar nominations listed on his bio but does not. Richard Dix received a nomination for Cimarron in the same year that Frankenstein was eligible, and it's unfortunate that the voting members of the Academy couldn't recognize how masterly Karloff was in his portrayal of the monster, and how ham-fisted Dix was in Cimarron. But playing a murmuring monster wasn't something the Academy was ready to notice. Karloff was magnificent as the monster but also terrific in his portrayal of Ardath Bey in The Mummy, directed by Karl Freund, in 1932. The Mummy is another personal favorite of mine that I watch every October.

Finally, there is Elsa Lanchester, responsible for so many wonderful and eccentric performances in the movies for decades (my personal favorite of hers is in The Big Clock) but forever branded onto the minds of the movie going public as the re-animated, iconic Bride. Her performance occupies but minutes of screen time and yet I can't imagine anyone else ever properly tackling the role like she did. In just a few minutes she covers an amazing array of facial expressions that convey fear, disgust, confusion and even satisfaction as in those last moments when the monster decides everyone but the good doctor Frankenstein and his wife will die and Elsa gives a delightfully and demonically satisfied sneer.

In tribute to those early Universal favorites, here is a short and sweet montage of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester in their four most famous roles (Dracula, the monster, the bride of the monster and Ardath Bey/Im-ho-tep). This is the last montage until the Kill Fest finale on the 31st. Enjoy.


Available on YouTube here.