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DVD Review: Frankenstein – The Legacy Collection (Part 1 of 2)

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Of English Accents, Lightning Storms, and Monsters

Shadows were everywhere. Ominously large shadows mingled with mysteriously short ones. As I tripped and groped my way through them, the dank, dust-laden air irritated my nose and throat. Lightning flickered occasionally, revealing the shadows for what they were–briefly–then gone in an instant, leaving a faint mental snapshot behind.

“Did you find it yet?” squawked the petulant voice in the darkness.

Startled, I dropped the two-way radio and banged my head on the sloping attic roof. Rubbing my head, I tapped my foot along the dark floor, hoping to find Zombos’ blasted new toy. I found it and pressed the talk button. “No, I’m still looking,” I whispered.

“What? Why are you whispering?” he asked.

I cleared my throat. “The dust. I’m still looking. The lights are out and I can’t see a damn thing. Are you sure you left it up here?”

Yes. Of course I’m sure. I definitely remember I put it–what? Oh? But I thought I–oh, never mind, Zimba found it.” He clicked off his radio.

Lightning flashed through the dormer window as I stood in the darkness of the west attic, ruing the day I became valet to Zombos, the once renowned horror actor, now only known by his few remaining and decaying fans.

Thunder rumbled in the distance. I sighed and turned to begin the arduous journey back through the clutter of shadows that towered and tilted across the attic floor. Suddenly, there came a tapping, then a frantic rapping on the dormer window. At first I thought it was a tree branch blowing in the wind, but immediately realized no trees were high enough or close enough to reach the mansion’s attic. I went to the window to see what was causing the racket. A lightning sprite lit up a large, dark, flittering shape outside. Thunder rumbled, shaking the bent latch open. A spray of water blew in, along with a fluttering wet ball that rolled onto the floor. Startled, I tripped over something and fell
backwards. The ball unfurled into the largest bat I had ever seen.

“Damn, it’s a night only Frankenstein could love,” said the bat, shaking his wet wings. “Hey, can ya hand me that?”

I stood there. My lower lip hung an inch lower than my upper one. I reached into my pocket to see if I had left the two-way radio on. Nope. I then felt my head to see if I was bleeding, or had a bump the size suitable for hallucination. Nope.

“I say, if ya could, I’d appreciate it.” The bat pointed the tip of his wing at my feet. I looked down and saw a small cigar. I used the tip of my shoe to roll it to him.

“Ah, thanks,” he said. “You don’t happen to have a match, do ya?” The bat picked up the cigar and stuck it in his mouth. I checked the two-way radio and felt my head again. Still nope.

“I’m Wally,” he said.

“Wally…the bat,” I mouthed without a sound. I stood looking at him. He looked up at me. “We don’t allow smoking in the mansion,” I finally said.

“Yeah, it’s wet anyway, and you stepped on it.” He folded his wings, then flicked them open, sending droplets of water everywhere. “Sorry. Say, this is the most cluttered attic I’ve ever been in.”

We stood looking at each other for a little while.

“Is that an English accent?” I asked. I never had bat hallucinations speaking with English accents before.

“Must have come from my hanging out at Oxford.” He flicked his wings again, then folded them and puckered his lips as if he were whistling.

My mind began to wander as we stood in silence; I, understandably, at a
loss for words, and Wally the bat looking at his wet, flat cigar. Yes, indeed, it was a night for Frankenstein. My thoughts meandered to English accents, lightning storms, and monsters and their brides… 

 

While our dull yellow eyes may no longer be shocked or horrified by James Whale’s Frankenstein, we are still thrilled by it. Perhaps it’s the Gothic-expressionism in its scenes alternating between light and dark, or perhaps it’s the funereal sounds, the crackling electrical arcs from infernal machines, and the thundering stormy nights that keep us coming back for more? Then again, perhaps it’s the scintillating, fast-paced story, filled with luridly atmospheric, yet poetic imagery, and vivid, archetypal characters skillfully caught in the camera’s eye? Whatever the reasons, one thing is certain: Frankenstein solidified Universal Studios’ unique look of horror that began with Dracula, and threw open theater doors everywhere to more monsters and madmen than you could shake a flaming torch at.

Frankenstein_legacy02Mischief and madness are afoot in the little sleepy town of Goldstadt, somewhere in Europe. Or is it Europe? Both locale and time period are unclear. English accents mix with American ones, and architectural styles mingle haphazardly. But one thing is certain, or should we say two? During a late-night funeral service, two odd-looking men patiently wait behind a wrought iron fence, just out of sight. Like little school boys ready to play a nasty prank, they can barely contain their impatience until the last clump of earth is tossed with a heavy thud onto the coffin-lid. As the gravedigger leaves, they rush to the newly turned earth to retrieve the fresh corpse. Under the watchful eye of the Grim Reaper statue tilting behind them, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Fritz (Dwight Frye), his hunch-backed, wild-eyed and unkempt assistant, gleefully cart their prize away.

But the night’s work is not yet done. Coming across a gibbet at the crossroads, Fritz reluctantly climbs the shaking hangman’s post and cuts the body loose. Henry is disappointed, however, because the neck is broken (go figure), thus ruining any chance for a useful brain. No problem; he sends Fritz off to snatch one from the local Goldstadt medical school.

Dwight Frye played Renfield in Dracula so well he became typecast in the role of the manic, misfit assistant to monster or mad scientist. His masterful portrayal of Fritz in Frankenstein sealed his fate, but what a performance it is. With his stubby cane, woefully too short to do much good, his crippling hunchback and skittering walk, and his tremulous elocution, he’s pitiable and contemptible at the same time.

Frankenstein_legacy03At the medical school, he hurries to fetch a good brain for Henry Frankenstein, but startled by a sudden loud noise, he drops it. The only other brain conveniently pickled close by is the one from a psychotic killer, conveniently labeled “ABNORMAL”. Oh, well, what’s a hunch-backed demented assistant to do? Hopefully, Henry won’t notice the difference.

Meanwhile, Henry’s fiancée, Elizabeth, is becoming worried. In one of Whale’s signature close-up compositions, he introduces her and Victor (a rival for her affections), taking an ordinarily static scene and charging it with energy and movement, keeping the pace of the film moving through dynamic use of the camera. Elizabeth decides they must both see Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), Henry’s former professor, to find out why Henry is acting so strangely.

Dr. Waldman informs them of Henry’s unhealthy, heretical habits, like trying to create life out of dead bodies, so they convince the morally solid and sure doctor to accompany them to the watchtower, where Henry engages in his immoral behavior. Dr. Waldman is Henry’s moral and societal conscience, the polar opposite of Henry’s other teacher, the amoral–but fun-loving–Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein. Like Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan became typecast, too. He was the perfectly knowledgeable, morally upright, and strong-willed man of reason and science for any occasion, no matter what his other acting credits said.

There’s a wonderfully quirky embellishment made by Frye as the trio of Waldman, Elizabeth and Victor knock on the front door to the watchtower as rain pours down. Both Fritz and Henry are busily preparing for the storm’s full electrical fury, and they can’t be bothered with visitors at such a critical time. Hobbling down the long, steep flight of stairs framed by the tower’s walls, sloping in odd, off-plumb angles high up into shadows, he rushes to the door, dismisses them brusquely, and then hurries back up the stairs, pausing ever so briefly in his frenzy to pull up a drooping sock while juggling a lantern and his useless cane. The nonchalant, ordinary move by this bizarre character is sheer genius.

Eventually Henry realizes who’s at the front door and comes down to let them in. In another signature use of his dynamic lens, Whale follows Henry, passing the camera’s view across–and seemingly through–the wall separating the lab from the stairway in one fluid motion. He invites them in to view the creation of the monster; and what a creation it is! Kenneth Strickfaden’s awesome electrical apparatus sparks and arcs and crackles with brilliance as the body, stitched together from dead tissue, is raised to the heavens during the height of the storm. In a crescendo of lightning flashes, electrical discharges, crashing thunder, and anxious faces, the body is brought back down. Slowly, the lifeless hand is lifeless no more, and Henry utters the formerly censored words, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” The monster is born.

Frankenstein_legacy06But is Frankenstein’s monster really a monster, or is he just misunderstood? Henry and Dr. Waldman argue this point, and whether to keep the monster (Boris Karloff) alive, but before you can say “going to hell in a hand basket” everything goes quickly wrong when the monster makes his first onscreen appearance. First you hear his clumping footsteps ascending the stairs, then the door slowly opens as he enters facing backwards. Slowly he turns around, and two zooming close-ups reveal Jack Pierce’s creepy cotton and collodion makeup that surely must have made non-jaded hearts skip a beat in 1931. Directing the monster to sit down, Henry opens the skylight to let sunlight in. The monster reaches upward, attracted by the sudden brightness, trying to touch it. When Henry closes the skylight, making it dark again, the mute monster again expresses want with its hands. Karloff’s pantomime performance is poignant. Perhaps Dr. Waldman is wrong and–damn, what’s Fritz doing with that torch? As the composure of the monster turns from fear to rage, so does Henry’s reason begin to shatter and Waldman presses his argument.

Frankenstein_legacy05Fritz really shouldn’t have mistreated the poor thing, though. Fire, whips, chains, such abuse is bound to make any monster inordinately angry. Henry should have fired Fritz on the spot, but he didn’t, and so the monster starts acting monstrously. A long scream of terror later, Fritz is found hanging by his own whip, courtesy of one really annoyed and fed-up monster. Making matters worse, Dr. Waldman gets all choked up over his work, permanently, before he can euthanize Henry’s once cherished creation.

The monster blithely walks out the front door and goes wandering the countryside looking for understanding, but getting none. Each peaceful moment he finds is ruined by skittish villagers, or his own innocent, but deadly, blundering, or his uncontrollable anger. In one scene lost to the censors, but eventually restored, his happy moment of play with little Maria is cut short when he runs out of flowers to float on the water. He tosses her in to see if she will float instead, but not being a water lily, she doesn’t. He panics and runs away when he realizes he’s drowned the poor kid.

Frankenstein_legacy07Henry, nursed by Elizabeth and his father, has returned to health by this time. Finally ready to marry Elizabeth, their wedding day is marred by little Maria’s death and the monster’s sudden attack on Elizabeth. Say, how’d he know where Frankenstein lived? Beginning with Maria’s father’s solemn walk through the singing and dancing villagers carrying her little limp body, leading to the hasty assemblage of torch-wielding mobs to hunt down the monster, and finally ending with Henry’s confrontation with his now loathed creation, the film moves to its incendiary climax at the old windmill in a lively fashion. Henry and his creation have a dad and son reunion that leaves both apparently dead, but never say die when boffo box-office receipts are involved.

It took four years and lots of coaxing to get the reluctant Whale to direct the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Karloff, who acted in over eighty films before finally hitting stardom in Frankenstein, in spite of sustaining severe back injuries manhandling Henry in the first film, was eager to reprise his star role. Dwight Frye, whom Whale liked very much, definitely dead after the first film, was given a new role–sort of. He will now play Karl, the murdering, club-footed assistant to Dr. Pretorius. Colin Clive is back, too, as the even more morose and unbalanced Henry Frankenstein, still looking for peace of mind after his near fatal fall from the windmill. Clive unluckily broke his leg before filming began, forcing him to be seated in his scenes. It’s Ernest Thesiger as the effete, nefarious Dr. Pretorius who steals the show this time around, though.

Frankenstein_legacy08Originally intended for Claude Rains, Whale preferred the melodramatic Thesiger in the role of the malevolent doctor, and his choice has stood the test of time. Thesiger’s Pretorius is a flamboyant, superficially whimsical yet deeply sinister gentleman dabbling in dark alchemical arts. He knows he’s naughty and he likes it!

Whale was practically given carte blanche to do the film his way, and boy did he want to shake conventional things up a bit and add his eccentric wit to the mix. Bride of Frankenstein, under his keen direction, is part parody, part satire, and all quintessential spook show theatrics, providing him with a lucrative opportunity to poke fun at domestic relationships and his highly successful first horror film.

His decision to have the monster speak, albeit rudimentarily, did not sit well with Karloff, who felt a speaking monster would lose the audience’s sympathy; but again, time appears to have settled that point also. Karloff’s guttural growls and halting speech bring greater depth to the monster as he reveals his feelings of disgust with the living and his need for a friend.

Adding to this heady mix, Franz Waxman’s music audibly evokes the different moods of scenes and characters; a masterpiece of melodic and harmonic accompaniment just when talkies had come into their own. From the whimsical yet ghoulish bone-tinkle of the dance macabre, heard while Dr. Pretorius is in the crypt, to the monster’s entrance, Waxman’s notes cheekily play across the spectrum from unattainable beauty to inescapable charnel horror.

The film begins with a flashback sequence recounting the key events of the first film, artfully framed by saucy drawing room chit-chat between Byron, Percy, and Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), whose ample bosom and double entendres caused much concern with the Production Code censors. Prompted by Byron for more (story, that is), she tells how the monster survived the burning windmill, and how Henry and Elizabeth were reunited. As Byron and Percy listen intently, the camera moves quickly back and out of the drawing room, and brings us back to the burning windmill.

As little Maria’s parents find out why it’s a bad idea to hang around old burning windmills when everyone else has gone home, Elizabeth and Henry are lounging about their incredibly large bedroom. Elizabeth, always the strong and resolute one, is distraught and tells Henry she keeps seeing Death waiting in the dark corners. Henry, ignoring her fears, tells her how his meddling in life and death must be part of some divine plan. Understandably overcome with worry, she swoons just as Dr. Pretorius makes his bold entrance, ingratiating himself between her and Henry. The gaunt, badly-in-need-of-a-comb, doctor has been experimenting with creating life also, and wants to show Henry his accomplishments. Over Elizabeth’s objections, Henry is soon sitting in the doctor’s flat.

Dr. Pretorius disappears into another room and quickly returns carrying a large chest. Dressed in clothes that could be mistaken for those of an alchemist or a cleric, he pulls glass containers from the chest. In a display of special effects that are still impressive today, each one is shown to contain a miniature person he’s grown “from seed.” Over gin, the two argue, but Pretorius insists that Henry make a female. While his seed process is good for creating pocket-sized people, he doesn’t possess Henry’s knack for creating the seven-foot tall variety.

Meanwhile, the monster, trying to befriend a shepherdess, has the usual bad luck and winds up getting chased, once again, through a forest of starkly barren tree trunks by the exasperated villagers. They corner him and truss him up in crucifixion fashion, then cart him off to town and a dungeon cell.

Without skipping a beat, he breaks free of his massive chains and the dungeon, and goes about making his hurt feelings known by trashing the villagers. Hungry, he stumbles onto a gypsy campsite with the usual catastrophic results. Now more tired and hungry, he makes his way through the woods until he hears serene music and follows it to a small cabin. Looking through the window like a curious little boy, he sees an old man playing a violin. Not using the best of tact to introduce himself he barges in, but this time there’s no fear. The old man is blind, and as lonely as the monster. Finally, the monster has found a home.

In a touching scene that almost becomes maudlin–but doesn’t, both afflicted men tearfully rejoice at their good fortune. Rembrandt lighting suffuses the faces of the old man and the monster, and flickering shadows cast by the fireplace light play about the cabin. The scene is a meticulous composition of light, darkness, music and precise motion. In the days that follow, the monster learns to speak, enjoys wine and a good cigar, though his first energetic puffs on it make him greener than he usually is.

Frankenstein_legacy09Hunters spoil this brief respite from calamity, and the monster is once again running away from more exasperated, torch-wielding villagers. He finds shelter in a cemetery crypt, and sees Dr. Pretorius having a grand old time among the bones. Over drink they hatch a plan to force Henry to make the monster a mate. Karloff has his most introspective lines here, and delivers them perfectly. Between his studied pantomime and simple, carefully spoken words, Karloff shows us more of the monster’s personality, eliciting even more sympathy for his ill-fortune.

According to Dr. Pretorius’ plan, the monster kidnaps Elizabeth, forcing Henry to acquiesce. After finding a suitable heart, the kites are prepared as the storm approaches to harness the cosmic energy of life. The eye of the camera quickly alternates between close-ups and far shots, keeping everything lively while taking in the non-stop laboratory and roof activity.

The laboratory once again fills with frantic electrical flashes, smoky sparks, and zapping, buzzing noises. Only this time there’s much more intensity. Slanted close-ups show Henry and Dr. Pretorius–lighted from below, causing part of their faces to be buried in shadow–intently cranking levers and twirling dials as the body is raised to the storm. Of course, Karl is killed by the impatient monster after he…you guessed it! sticks a flaming torch in the monster’s face; a horrible death is a job requirement for deformed, demented lab assistants, you know.

Frankenstein_legacy10With eager anticipation, the body is lowered. They raise the cosmic diffuser and begin to unravel the bandages. “She’s alive!” cries Henry as Waxman’s lyrical bride music is heard. As Dr. Pretorius preens and says “the bride of Frankenstein,” wedding bells start ringing, too.

Elsa Lanchester’s wild hairdo, flowing white “wedding” gown, and hissing response when the monster comes closer saying “friend?” is a campy hoot. She turns to Henry for support. The monster presses his intentions, but clearly this is not a match made in heaven. Realizing she hates him, too, he gets angry again. Stumbling upon a lever the size of a baseball bat that can blow up the laboratory–who the hell puts a lever the size of a baseball bat like that in plain site, anyway?–he tells Henry and Elizabeth, who now show up, to skedaddle. Dr. Pretorius isn’t so lucky. Frankenstein’s monster pulls the lever and blows himself, Dr. Pretorius, and his lamentable bride to atoms. Guess which one returns in Son of Frankenstein?

“Hey, your pants are talking,” Wally the bat said.

“What…oh.” I reached into my pocket for the two-way radio.

“Zoc? Zoc? Where are you?” It was Zombos’ voice. He sounded frantic.

“Yes, what is it? I still–“ I looked at Wally. “I’m still in the attic.”

“I’ve been trying to reach you,” Zombos said. “It’s your–“

A bolt of lightning flashed close to the mansion, and thunder boomed, rattling the dormer window open again.

“What’s that? I didn’t here you,” I said.

The west door to the attic slammed open. The tall, slim silhouette of a woman stood defiantly in the feeble light from the hall.

“It’s your sister. I tried to stop her. She’s on the way up!”

“Iloz! Where the hell are you?” she yelled.

Wally the bat let out a startled squeak and unfurled his wings. “Time to go! It’s been real!” He flew like a shot through the window.

As I closed it behind him I wished I had wings, too. My sister Trixie was coming closer.

To be continued…

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