Continuing our series of classic horror posts launched here, today we survey Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein franchise. As we know there have been countless reboots of the Frankenstein saga, right up to the present day. Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, dates from 1818, much earlier than most other horror source material. There had been stage versions. And there had been a cool silent version in 1910 made by the Edison Company.
This post will concentrate only on Universal’s Frankenstein cycle. As you will see, it is a much more robust series than than the Dracula one, with a greater number of films, greater participation by its original star Boris Karloff, and two of the films directed by the great James Whale, both of them Hollywood masterpieces. Later this month we will take a look at the Hammer re-incarnation as part of the series, and MUCH of Boris Karloff’s related work, but modern versions (post 1960s) of the Frankenstein legend will be outside our scope.
James Whale’s exquisite reimagining of the Shelley novel, mixing the Gothic (a castle, and an apparently Medieval village, trapped in time) with some very contemporary elements…namely that electric radiation apparatus which was very much cutting edge technology when this film was made….radio, x-rays, and so forth were all recent inventions — as was modern surgery for that matter. It is mixed with the horrors inspired by Galvani, who chopped up dead animals and sent electricity through dead bodies and severed limbs. If Shelly hand’t made horror out of that, someone would have.
For the film, Whale assembled something like a stock company. From his previous film Waterloo Bridge , he brought the charming, demure Mae Clarke as Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s worried fiance; as Frankenstein’s father, he cast the hilarious Frederick Kerr, doing almost the same schtick he did in Waterloo Bridge. For the crucial role of Dr. Frankenstein he cast his old colleague Colin Clive, with whom he had worked in the theatre. From Universal’s previous horror hit Dracula (and the Broadway production) came Edward Van Sloan. The cast also includes John Boles, then mostly associated with musicals, as the mad doctor’s fairweather friend who seems mostly bent on stealing his fiance. Who can blame him?
When Bela Lugosi backed out of playing the monster, the role went to bit player Boris Karloff. His work in the role, essentially a thoughtful pantomime, was inspired. Especially powerful was the awkward gait he adopted for when the creature is first animated, as though his various body parts don’t go together. His face, somehow, truly evokes the face of a corpse.
The story I’m sure you know! The Doctor’s friends and family are worried by his seclusion and the sparsity of his communications. They show up just as he is about to take his greatest experiment. Protesting at first, when he is successful they oddly shut up and seem to support the research. But then the first in a line of several hunchbacked assistants, Fritz (Dwight Fry) tortures the beast until it goes berzerk and kills him. Dr.Frankenstein eventually collapses and quits, and prepares to marry his bride. Van Sloan as Frankenstein’s scientific mentor is going to put the beast to sleep but it attacks and kills him and goes on a rampage, killing a small girl in the famous drowning scene (the beast runs out of flowers to throw in the water so he throws the child). Frankenstein’s wedding is interrupted by a manhunt to kill the beast. Eventually the villagers corner him inside a windmill. Dr Frankenstein falls, bouncing off one of the windmill blades, but manages to survive. The windmill is burned to the ground, and apparently the monster with it. But it’s never QUITE the end, is it?
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Much water under the bridge between the original Frankenstein and James Whale’s 1935 sequel. Karloff, who had been uncredited in the first film, was now a big star. The tropes of Gothic horror were now well established; by now there had been many classics in the genre. Whale now had the luxury of playing with the form a bit. He made his Frankenstein sequel very funny, campy, hip and ahead of its time in its self awareness. In this, Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive again) is visited by one Dr. Praetorius (Ernest Thesiger, a hilariously flamboyant proto-queen), who insists that he resume his unnatural experiments. In a bizarre scene, Praetorius shows Frankenstein some of his own handiwork…several tiny costumed manikins in glass jars! Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff of course) turns out to be still alive, emerging from the water-filled basement of the old windmill, killing the parents of the little drowned girl, and then roaming the countryside wreaking havoc. He meets a blind man, the first human being who has ever treated him decently, who feeds him, teaches him how to speak and to smoke cigars. Their party is crashed by a couple of villagers (one of whom is John Carradine) who take the blind man away and try to burn the monster again. Eventually he meets Praetorius in a crypt, where the latter is laughing insanely to himself and hanging out with a skull. Praetorius enlists the monster as his strong-arm in convincing Dr. Frankenstein to build him a friend. He eventually does. Dwight Frye returns as another deformed assistant. (this one is “Karl”). Elsa Lanchester as the iconic bride (erroneously dubbed the Bride of Frankenstein, she’s really the bride of the Monster.) At any rate, upon awakening she is appropriately horrified by her new groom, recoils and screams, causing the monster to go on a rampage. He lets the doctor and his bride escape, then throws a switch blowing up the castle, himself, the bride and Praetorius. Thus endeth a love that dare not speak its name?
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The wild thing about this one is that THIS is the model for Mel Brooks’ parody Young Frankenstein, NOT the two earlier Frankenstein pictures. Brooks and Gene Wilder lifted not just the entire plot, but many of the details and gags—unchanged.
Basil Rathbone plays Dr. Frankenstein’s son. He returns to the ancestral village with his wife, butler and young son (a sort of Shirley Temple rip-off), and finds a castle and lab looking very much like sets from Dr. Caligari. The entire village is suspicious of him from the get-go. The monacle-wearing, mechanical-armed police constable, played by Lionel Atwill, keeps close tabs on him at all times. They have a great relationship, he and Frankenstein, cordial, but wary and watchful.
Meanwhile, one Ygor (Bela Lugosi) a local deformed criminal who has been unsuccessfully hanged, encourages Frankenstein to revive the monster, who had been his only friend. (We soon learn why—Ygor employed him to kill 6 of the 8 people on the committee who hanged him). (Ygor was hanged for grave robbing. How convenient!) Frankenstein uses his father’s diary to bring the creature back to life. (The make up is not as good in this film, and it seems to me the the role of the monster is pretty thankless—probably why this is the last time Karloff did it).
Right away Ygor gets the monster to kill the two remaining committee members and also Frankenstein’s butler (he somehow controls him by playing a strange looking little alpenhorn). An angry mob forms. Frankenstein shoots Ygor, and eventually pushes the monster into a bubbling sulfur pit conveniently located underneath his laboratory. He donates his castle and everyone cheers. All in all this is a surprisingly strong movies. It stands up pretty good on its own—which is more than you can say about what comes afterward!
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Oh yes, the ghost of Dr Frankenstein does appear in this film, although it is a little hard to tell if he is just a figment of his son (Cedric Hardwicke)’s imagination. This is Frankenstein’s second son, a psychiatrist in a village fairly distant from the one where all the havoc happened in the previous films, thus making it possible for all sorts of familiar things to happen.
In the prologue, back in the old village we see that Ygor (still Lugosi) not only somehow didn’t die from his gunshot wounds in the last picture, but he even looks a little better. The villagers are having tough economic times. They blame even THIS on the “Curse of Frankenstein” and so blow up the old castle. This of course fulfills the curse, by releasing the monster (Lon Chaney Jr) from the hardened sulfur mud from the last film. He and Ygor go to a nearby village, cause a disruption and then wind up being tried in a local court as madmen. The monster escapes, but Frankenstein fils has him locked up in his asylum.
Egged on by Ygor and the Ghost of the original Dr Frankenstein, they decide the thing to do is replace the monster’s brain with a better one. (“They” is Hardwicke and his colleague Lionel Atwill—it is very nearly impossible in this film to tell them apart). The plan is to use the brain of their other colleague whom the monster has killed. But Ygor, who has suddenly become a criminal mastermind who wants to take over the country (instead of the deformed halfwit he was in the previous film) convinces Atwill to switch HIS brain. Meanwhile a young child the monster had demonstrated a fondness for has dispappeared and now a mob is after the monster. (Somehow in the middle of all this are the obligatory romantic couple, Frankenstein’s daughter and her beau, local prosecutor Ralph Bellamy).
What happens in the end? Lab blows up and mansion burns down with monster in it. By now we know not to consider that a conclusive ending. There is a sad new dip in quality with this picture. It’s a routine programmer, barely an hour long (and that padded with flashback footage from first film). It is more of a sequel to Son of Frankenstein than it is to Frankenstein. We are getting far from the wellspring.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
One of Universal’s All-Star monster team-ups of the mid 40s. Since the Wolf Man drives the story, we’ll save our capsule for our upcoming post on the Wolf Man cycle.
House of Frankenstein (1944)
Insanely entertaining and chock full of events! A suitable rebound from the dip in quality in Ghost of Frankenstein. Nearly every Universal horror star is in it. The title of the film is ironically fitting, as the house is nearly all that is left of Frankenstein and the original story thread.
Karloff plays a mad scientist, a former assistant of Frankenstein whom we first meet incarcerated in a dungeon. He instructs the hunchback in the cell next to him on how he can reanimate dead bodies (using hilariously simple chalk diagrams). Right on cue, they are freed when lightning strikes the castle that holds them, collapsing it. Outside they find a carnival wagon stuck conveniently in the mud . It contains Professor Lampini (George Zucco) and a show of horrors, notably the actual skeleton of Dracula. Karloff kills the professor, and steals his show, expertly impersonating a carnival barker when the need arises. They travel to a small town where he has an old score to settle. Zig Rugman is a local burgomaster, Lionel Atwill the police chief (sans mechanical arm), and there is a pair of obligatory, nondescript lovers.
Karloff revives Dracula (John Carradine) who goes and kills the burgomaster and attempts to steal the girl. Later Dracula is trapped by sunlight and the girl escapes. These characters now pass out of the story completely. Next Karloff and the hunchback meet up with a bunch of gypsies. Just like Quasimodo, the hunchback falls in love with a beautiful performing gypsy girl. They rescue her from a cruel gypsy king who whips her. Then they go to Frankenstein’s castle, finding a mysterious frozen land underneath. There, the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and the monster (Glenn Strange) are frozen. Karloff thaws them out for his experiments, planning to exchange their brains. Wolf Man wants to be cured of his lycanthropy. He begins to turn at the full moon, killing people. Meanwhile the gypsy girl has fallen in love with him. The jealous hunchback wants the Wolf Man’s body. Out of love, the girl shoots the werewolf with a silver bullet. Then the hunchback attacks Karloff. The Monster throws the hunchback off the roof. A mob comes after the Monster, carrying Karloff. Then they fall into quicksand and sink. THE END-?
House of Dracula (1945)
The genre dies a second death here, we’re getting near the end of classic Universal horror. This one concerns a certain doctor whom all the Universal Horror monsters visit in order to be cured of their maladies. First John Carradine shows up as Dracula, then Lon Chaney as the Wolfman arrives. The doctor has a pretty hunchbacked nurse—that should give us some indication of the trouble to arrive! Only MAD doctors have hunchbacked assistants! When the Wolfman turns and escapes, the doctor follows him to a cave…where they uncover the body of Frankenstein (Glenn Strange)! The doctor is tempted to revive the monster, but is convinced it would be evil. Meanwhile he appears to have cured the Wolfman. He is in the process of curing Dracula of vampirism with a transfusion…but the latter turns the tables and puts his own blood into the doctor. Later there is a struggle, and Dracula is exposed to sunlight and dies. Unfortunately now the doctor turns into a vampire. Now that he is evil, he instantly revives the Frankenstein Monster. Mayhem, and an all-consuming fire, ensue.
Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
This should have had a better title, because they also meet Dracula and the Wolf Man (Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney) and in the film’s closing gag, the Invisible Man (Vincent Price). This is the last film to use the original classic horror monsters, and their original actors (or, heh, their original replacements). Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are baggage handlers who have to deliver two crates to an amusement park House of Horrors. The crates turn out to contain Dracula and Frankenstein (Glenn Strange). The Wolf Man shows up to try to warn everybody. Costello’s girlfriend is a female mad scientist who wants to transplant his brain into the monsters. Several, tedious, endless scenes with Costello seeing the monsters, being scared, and trying to tell a disbelieving Abbott. Finally Abbott does believe him—when he gets abducted and he rescues him in the end. There is one inspired scene—a Halloween party, making for amusing confusion between real and costumed monsters. But most of it is pretty irritating.