by STEVEN D. GREYDANUS | Source:
Pervasive creepiness and menace; a number of offscreen deaths. Frankenstein:
Macabre themes including grave robbing and experimentation with dead bodies; some violence including the accidental death of a child. The Bride of Frankenstein:
Recurring menace and macabre themes.
In 1931, only a few years into the sound era, Universal Studios released what would become two of the most iconic and influential horror movies of all time. They starred actors who would forever personify the classic Hollywood monster movie tradition. The stars were Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and the films were Tod Browning’s Dracula
and James Whale’s Frankenstein
(both newly available in new DVD special editions).
Both films are loosely adapted from Victorian horror novels, though neither closely follows the plot of its source material or makes any effort to replicate their epistolary structure. Though somewhat primitive, both films have an almost irrational creepiness, with something of the dreamlike logic of the silent era still clinging to them.
Strong cinematography and memorable Gothic locations are an asset in both films; the architecture of Dracula’s castle and Frankenstein’s laboratory linger in the imagination long after the details of plot and dialogue have faded from memory.
Supporting roles are also a plus. In particular, Dwight Frye — who also plays the Igor character Fritz in Frankenstein
— makes Dracula
inexpressibly creepier with his unsettling performance as Renfield, who usurps Jonathan Harker’s early scenes in Transylvania before settling into his familiar role as Dracula’s thrall in a London asylum.
The most memorable element in either film, though, is the starring performances of Lugosi and Karloff. Lugosi, with his flamboyant Hungarian accent and intense, piercing gaze, creates a definitive vision of Bram Stoker’s vampire that not only holds its own against the equally iconic portrayal of the first great vampire film, Vatican list film Nosferatu
(1922), but has left an indelible mark on popular culture.
As enduring as Lugosi’s performance is, Karloff’s is possibly even more so. Though the brilliant makeup was responsible for much of the creature’s impact, Karloff’s presence and subtle expressiveness makes the creature not just horrifying but surprisingly touching. Lugosi gets such classic lines as “I never drink … wine” and “The children of the night … what music they make.” By contrast, Karloff brings the creature to life without a single line of dialogue.
Both films touch on religious themes. In contrast to Nosferatu, which omitted the religious trappings of the vampire mythos, Dracula prominently features the vampire’s aversion to crucifixes and crosses. Frankenstein casts its story as a morality tale of man putting himself in the place of God.
Karloff reprised the role in Whale’s sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein
, which added deliberate humor and camp to the monster-movie formula. The sequel develops the creature as a character, giving him the ability to talk, awareness of his origins and relationship to Frankenstein and — most crucially — desire for a companion.
The plot, which introduces a new character named Dr. Praetorius who seeks to prod the reluctant Dr. Frankenstein to continue his experiments, offers moments of overt goofiness. Yet the emotion is more heartfelt this time, most memorably in the scene, indelibly parodied in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein
, in which the creature is befriended by a blind hermit.
Elsa Lanchester, who plays Frankenstein author Mary Shelley herself in an unnecessary prologue, also plays the bride and, in just a few minutes of screen time, creates a character as unique as the creature himself, with birdlike jerking movements and hissing, shrieking sounds said to be inspired by angry swans.