Tonight on TCM: Frankenstein and Friends

TCM is wasting no time getting into the Halloween spirit this season — only the second of the month and here they are with a program of three classic Universal Frankenstein films plus some related oddments. On the menu:


8:00pm (EST): Frankenstein (1931)

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

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?


9:30pm (EST): 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?


11:00pm (EST): 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 picturesBrooks 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!


1:00am (EST): The Wizard of Oz (1925)

Let the buyer beware! This is not the better known 1939 MGM musical version, but the silent 1925 Larry Semon version. Technically not a horror film, it offers plenty that will disturb. Read my full description of the film in this earlier blogpost. 


4:45am (EST) Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Val Lewton’s sequel to his already unsatisfying Cat People is a veritable orgy of audience betrayal and false advertising. Lewton wanted to call it Amy and her Friend—and it is clearly a very personal film, having more personal meaning for him than the audience let me make abundantly clear. It has almost nothing to do with the first movie. Except…well. The couple from the first movie are now married and have an imaginative daughter, whom the rather Fascistic parents try to control and convert into something more like themselves, i.e.,  a boring automaton. She makes friends with an insane next door neighbor, an actress whom, apropos of nothing germane to the film, tells the entire story of The Headless Horseman. And the girl becomes friends with the ghost of the original Cat Woman, who doesn’t really seem to do much, although at one point the girl is lured out into the chill night air. Audiences promised a horror movie would have every legitimate right to consummate riots at their local cinema.


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