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Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein Monster, an appreciation

There’s Frankenstein and there’s Frankenstein. There is a difference. There’s the classic Frankenstein movies of Universal Pictures, made between 1931 and 1948, and there’s all the rest. The classic Frankenstein monster, as played by Boris Karloff—with squarish head and electrodes protruding from his neck—is instantly recognizable. The Monster’s image has become so ingrained in the American culture that Universal Pictures had it copyrighted. Which means that should another studio decide to make a Frankenstein movie, like the series filmed by London’s Hammer Studios in the 1950s, the monster can’t look anything like Universal Pictures’ famed Monster. As a result, the Frankenstein Monsters of rival studios look like, well, monsters—grotesque, repulsive, forgettable.

The Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein Monster, on the other hand, was relatively tame. Much to Universal’s dismay—and delight—movie goers identified with their Monster. They viewed him as a kind of scary but very cool friend. In the movie, the Monster threatened superstitious villagers and wary constables, while children saw past the scary image and beheld the child within the awkward presence. To them, he was not a monster but a playmate and friend.

In the minds of movie-goers, the Monster was merely someone who was misunderstood. In fact, the Monster was arguably Hollywood’s first antihero—sullen, frustrated, and angry with society’s demand for conformity. However unpredictable and dangerous, the Frankenstein Monster merely wanted to be loved, something movie-goers could identify with.

Once Universal Pictures realized what they had, they began making monster movies with regularity—The Bride of Frankenstein, The Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, etc., until 1948. By then, the poor Monster had become a parody of himself, hapless and utterly non-threatening. The final movie in the series, "Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein", was a comedy. After that, Universal Pictures had nothing left in the tank. The series expired not with cries of anguish but with peals of laughter. Still, Universal was taking no chances. Before closing the books on what had been a most profitable franchise, they copyrighted the Monster’s image. It amounted to a curse on all future efforts by rival studies. Scores of Frankenstein movies have been made since but none have stirred the public’s imagination in quite the same way as Universal Pictures' Frankenstein. In the 1990s, the face of Universal’s iconic monster appeared on postage stamps issued by the United States Postal Service. One memorable Halloween season McDonald’s offered a Frankenstein action figure with their Happy Meals. Yes, Universal’s famed Monster has become as familiar as Coca Cola and as American as apple pie.

As Halloween approaches and these movies make their annual showing on cable TV once again, a few pointers are warranted. The best Frankenstein movies produced by Universal Pictures are the first three, all starring Boris Karloff as the legendary monster. These are the movies with the best scripts, the best directors, and the best cast. The other five are decidedly B-movies that have their grisly charm. The following is a review of the series:

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) — The story is age old. Acting out the role of God, man creates a man that he cannot control and ultimately must destroy. Mary Shelley wrote the novel, and Universal Pictures ran with it, creating a gothic castle filled with a shocking array of electronic gadgets that crackled and sparked and give life to a hulking being stitched together from body parts exhumed from the local graveyard—and unwittingly fitted with the brain of a criminal. All credit to director James Whale who despite a shoestring budget saw the possibilities and let his imagination run wild, and to the ingenious makeup artist who modeled the monster’s squarish head after a robot’s. Another inspired decision was casting Colin Clive as the urbane and tormented scientist, Doctor Henry Frankenstein, and Boris Karloff as the equally tormented Monster. Four stars (all ratings courtesy of movie critic Leonard Martin).

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) — With success came a bigger budget, and lovely-quirky Elsa Lanchester as both author Mary Shelley and as the monster’s made-to-order bride—with electro-shock hair. Returning director James Whale scuttled the original script and produced a movie that exceeded the original and has since been hailed as among Hollywood’s finest monster movies ever made. Colin Clive returns as the tormented scientist, Boris Karloff as the tormented Monster, and actor Ernest Thesigner debuts as bizarre Doctor Septimus Pretorius. It turns out Doctor Pretorius was Henry Frankenstein’s former teacher and mentor, who, after interrupting Henry's wedding to his beautiful young bride (played by Valerie Hobson), pressures the beleaguered scientist into creating a bride for the Monster to marry. The boys in the special effects department had a field day, creating an even more elaborate laboratory, with a dazzling array of electronic gizmos to delight the seriously deranged, including the "Cosmic Ray Diffuser" and the “Nebularium.” The special effects lightning storm that feeds electricity into the laboratory, would become a stock feature of horror films in years to come. Four stars.

THE SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) — Director James Whale had moved on but Boris Karloff was back as the Monster, with dapper Basil Rathbone as the late Doctor’s son, Wolf Frankenstein. He returns from school in America to clear the family name by making the Monster “good.” Bela Lugosi of Dracula fame shows up as the crazed shepherd, Ygor, the Monster’s keeper. Lionel Atwill, who will appear in four more Frankenstein movies, is memorable as Inspector Krogh, with an artificial arm in place of the limb the Monster ripped from his shoulder years before. The movie builds to a suitably climatic scene but lacks the suspense of the earlier films. This was Boris Karloff’s last appearance as the Monster. Basil Rathbone is heroic as the misguided son with much to learn about monsters, angry villagers, and crazed shepherds named Ygor. His next starring role would be as Sherlock Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Three stars.

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) — The first of the B-movies, with Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Monster, and Bela Lugosi reprising his role as Ygor. This time Sir Cedric Hardwick plays Wolf's brother, the misguided scientist, Ludvig Frankenstein. And like his brother, he wants to make the Monster “good”—by way of a brain transplant. Won’t those Frankensteins ever learn? Lionel Atwill returns, this time as Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Dr. Theodore Bohmer. One thing leads to another, and, wouldn't you know? Ygor’s tortured brain gets mistakenly transplanted into the Monster’s skull, with predictable results. Hardwick doubles as the ghost of Henry Frankenstein, the Monster’s deceased creator, who appears with words of wisdom that—surprise, surprise—aren’t so wise after all. Two and a half stars.

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943) — The best of the Frankenstein B-movies. Bela Lugosi is back, this time as the Monster; Lon Chaney, Jr. is back, as well, as the Wolfman; and Lionel Atwil returns, too, (surely wondering who at Universal he had ticked off to be cast in yet another Frankenstein movie), this time as the village mayor. The Frankenstein clan is represented by a woman, Ludvig’s lovely, blonde daughter, Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey). She’s the sensible one in the family. She knows where Ludvig’s diary is kept, the one containing the secrets of creating life, but she’s not telling—until coerced. The diary ends up in the hands of a yet another misguided scientist who thinks he can make the monster “good.” The climatic scene features a light show of electronic machinery gone awry, torch-carrying villagers seeking revenge, and a knock-down, drag-out fight between the Monster and the Wolfman. Three stars.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) — Boris Karloff returns, not as the Monster, but as demented Dr. Gustav Nieman. And poor Lionel Atwill is back, too, as Inspector Arnz. Cowboy star Glenn Strange plays the Monster. Lon Chaney, Jr. reprises his role as the Wolfman. And John Carradine plays an elegant and charming Count Dracula. Too bad he doesn’t survive the first reel. As in the previous two pictures, Lon Chaney, Jr., as Larry Talbot, is trying to find a doctor who can cure his regrettable habit of turning into a werewolf every full moon. He finds the cure—a silver bullet through the heart that kills him—not quite what he had in mind. The Monster’s strength is revived in the laboratory with an infusion of electricity, the villagers arrive bearing torches, and the movie ends with the Monster dragging Karloff into the woods, where both perish in a quicksand grave. Two and a half stars.

HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) — Those Universal Monsters just won’t stay dead. Lon Chaney, Jr., Glenn Strange, and John Carradine are back, reprising their roles as the Wolfman, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Vampire. Lionel Atwill is back too, this time as Inspector Holtz. The plot revolves around yet another misguided scientist, Dr. Franz Edelman (Onslow Stevens) who is called upon to cure both Larry Talbot (the Wolfman), and Count Dracula (the vampire). He succeeds with the Wolfman, but goes mad from a blood transfusion with the Vampire. The Vampire is killed from exposure to sunlight. Meanwhile, the Monster is found in the cave beneath the Doctor’s castle. He’s brought up to the laboratory, strapped to a gurney, and revived with a surge of electricity. He breaks free for the climatic confrontation with the mad Doctor. As the villagers arrive bearing torches, the pair are destroyed in a cataclysmic fire. Two and a half stars.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) — Yet one last gathering of Universal’s famed Monsters: Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, and Lon Chaney, Jr. and Glenn Strange are back, too, as the Wolfman and the Frankenstein Monster, respectively. The movie works mainly because the monsters play it straight, leaving the comedy to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The film naturally concludes in a climatic laboratory scene in which the three monsters perish and Abbott and Costello escape only to encounter yet another mad Universal character, the invisible man. Three and a half stars.

Happy Halloween!

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