Frankenstein is the Universal Monster movie I’m most familiar with. When I first got into horror back in high school I remember asking for copies of some of the flicks on VHS for Christmas and wound up with this one and Dracula, though I didn’t exactly wear either tape out, only watching each a time or two. As you surely know, Frankenstein follows the name of the title scientist as he and his assistant Fritz (not Igor, as many assume) try to bring a man assembled from various body parts to life. Dr. Frankenstein doesn’t know that his helper grabbed a criminal’s brain, though, and a series of misunderstandings lead to Frankenstein deciding to end the monster. Understandably freaked out, the monster makes a break for it and accidentally kills a young girl named Marie who tried to befriend him. This leads to the usual UM mob attacking the monster and a very abrupt ending.
Also like the other Universal Monster movies I’ve watched recently (The Mummy, The Invisible Man and Phantom Of The Opera), there’s a lot of scenes of old white dudes standing around talking about things. I actually expected more of an accidental rampage from the monster and was surprised that that’s not really the case until the very end.
But whatever, the reason this movie is so awesome and still considered classic is because Boris Karloff is ridiculously great in the role of the monster. Even with a pretty limited ability to move his face, he does some amazing things that make you really feel for his character. He’s basically a scared child who doesn’t know his own strength. He just wants to be safe and find people who are nice to him, but doesn’t know how to actually act. He’s the classic misunderstood monster and he nails the role like an expert carpenter.
With a few of these other classic horror movies I’ve said that the proliferation of parodies, rip-offs and homages have diluted the originals. You know what’s happening in Dracula, so it might not be as fun to watch. And some people might feel the same way about Frankenstein, but I think there’s enough in Karloff’s performance to keep you interested even if you know most of the story beats. Oh, and I’m sure it’s because I’m a dad, but few things I’ve watched this October have been as chilling as Marie’s distraught father carrying her limp corpse through the town as their festival slowly turns into a violent mob. Top notch.
I’m starting to see the formula behind these Universal Monster movies. Show the audience the monster, so they know it’s real. Then introduce a new person into the monster’s circle. That person will start feeling crazy because people don’t really believe monsters exist. Bad things happen. People talk a lot about those bad things. An investigation begins. More people get in on the action and start believing. More talking about things. Good guys fight monster. Bad guy loses (mostly). At least that’s how the few I’ve seen recently are, which basically equal The Invisible Man and now Dracula.
As you probably know from being a human being on this earth for the past 100 years or so, this story of Dracula — which is based on the stage play which is based on the Bram Stoker book — follows the titular vampire as he makes his way from Transylvania to England only after putting the lackey Renfield under his spell. From there it’s some skulking around and looking creepy, hanging out with some vampire ladies and lots and lots of old white guys talking about what’s going on. Ultimately, it wasn’t a very thrilling viewing experience.
The biggest problem with watching Dracula is having seen so many Dracula adaptations and riffs over the years. Even if you’re not a horror fan, you probably know at least fifty to sixty percent of the story just from seeing sitcom or cartoon take-offs. Since I am a horror fan, I’ve seen all the more. As such, it’s kind of boring to watch this movie, specifically when Bela Lugosi’s not on screen as Drac.
However, I still enjoyed a specific part of this movie a lot: the beginning. Set in Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, there’s a real ephemeral quality to the proceedings that draws you way into the movie. Part of that is because the version I watched on Netflix still has scratches and some of the lightness that comes from old films, but part of it is because his castle looks SO FREAKING COOL. It’s gigantic and run down and has these giant cob webs all over the place. Fun fact: I read on the IMDb Trivia page that they were created “by shooting rubber cement from a rotary gun.” Isn’t that a hundred kinds of awesome? I love finding out all these old movie magic secrets from the old days when people really had to think about how things were done.
So, no, this isn’t the most exciting movie around and I’m a much bigger fan of Tod Browning’s next effort Freaks, but it is an important piece of horror fiction to check out. If you’re just getting into horror, I do recommend watching the Universal Monster flicks early on before everything else comes in and taints your view of the story.