Halloween Scene: Dracula (1931)

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.

Halloween Scene: Freaks (1932)

2008-10-02
4:30:25 am

Freaks is one of those movies that I’ve been hearing about ever since I really got into horror movies, but haven’t seen. Thank goodness for Blockbuster then, as I put this on my queue over a year ago and finally moved it to the top (along with all my other horror movies on the list) recently. And wow, is it crazy.

Even with everything I’d heard, I still had my doubts that a movie made in 1932 could really get to me, but Freaks did a better job of it than most of the other movies I’ve seen. The film, directed by Dracula’s Tod Browning, features a group of circus performers, many of whom are called freaks due to their physical deformities, the kinds of people that made up freak shows back in the day. But there’s also a few “regular” people around too including a floozy named Cleopatra, a jerky strong man called Hercules, a nice clown man by the name of Phroso and a beautiful young animal trainer named Venus. There’s also a little person named Hans and his one-time fellow little person love interest Frieda.

The basic plot is pretty simple, Cleo finds out that Hans is rich so she marries him (thus ruining his engagement to Frieda) and then tries to poison him. She’s in cahoots with Herc this whole time. Now, the funny thing is that we don’t really get to that point in the movie until maybe halfway through the 66 minute movie. There’s another storyline about Phroso and Venus falling in love despite Phroso’s near obsession with comedy (he’s a clown). But inbetween all that we get scenes with the freaks themselves. We see the pinheads playing in a field, acting like children instead of outcasts under the watchful eye of the circus owner until some jerk comes in and gives her a hard time. We also get to see a dude by the name of Prince Randian who had neither arms nor legs, get a match out of a box, light it and then light his cigarette all unaided. I also like Johnny Eck the “Half Boy” who lacked legs, but walked around on his hands instead.

The one thing I always heard over and over was that Browning wanted to use real circus freaks in the movie which is what truly adds to the creepiness of the scene. Jeez, that sounds kind of bad. I’m not really sure how to say this in a PC way, but what I mean is that, in the last scene, when these people are crawling through the mud to stab/mutilate/kill Cleo and Herc it’s all the more scary because you know there’s no special effects being used. It’s all real, which makes it more real in your mind which makes it more likely to happen. All of which is not to say that Freaks paints these people in a negative light. In the end, they’re protecting their own and not letting somebody who thinks she’s better than them come in, insult them and push them around. And boy did those two deserve what they got. SPOILER Cleo get her legs removed and her face messed up and turned into the Duck Lady. Herc’s not shown in the final scene, but in an interview on the DVD they said that the freaks castrated him, which you know because the once deep-voiced man is singing soprano.

There’s a great featurette on the DVD about the casting of the movie, which I highly recommend you check out. I found out that the dude who played Hans was also one of the Lollipop Guild Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. While I’m on the subject, I have to say that I’ve never seen a little person that age who looked so much like a little kid. It was really strange to see someone who (and maybe this is because of the black and white) looked like a young child. The same can be said for Frieda (they’re brother and sister in real life) who looked like a child-like version of an English prof I knew in college.

Anyway, if you’re a horror fan, you definitely need to check this flick out, even if you think that nothing made before Hitchcock is worth your time. Hey, it’s only a little over an hour, so even if you don’t like it, it’s not a huge investment of your time. But I think you’ll dig it.