Universal Horror: The Bride of Frankenstein

brideThe Bride of Frankenstein is a fascinating entry in the Universal Horror universe. Released in 1935, it stands as one of the most iconic films in the Universal Horror library and is one of the rare cases where the sequel is considered a superior film to the original (Frankenstein); each of these films is so ingrained into our pop culture that it is difficult to critique them.

The Bride of Frankenstein starts with a prologue featuring Mary Shelly (Elsa Lancaster) being praised for writing Frankenstein. The story proper begins just moments after the supposed death of the creature (Boris Karloff) in the first film. Its creator, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), has barely survived the encounter. After being nursed back to health by his fiancé, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), he is visited by his former mentor Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger); Pretorius has been experimenting with creating life himself, but feels Henry’s work shows more promise. He strong-arms Henry into creating a female body to house an artificial brain of his creation.

While this is going on, the creature is trying to find its way in the world, each encounter with humanity ending in disaster. His only respite comes when he is befriended by a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) who teaches him to speak. Even that ends badly when some hunters come to the hermit’s hut and see the creature. Eventually, the creature is found by Pretorius and convinced to help him force Henry to complete the experiment, with the promise of making him a mate.

The climax of the movie is the creation of the Bride (also played by Elsa Lancaster). The creature tries to woo her, but she is repulsed and rejects him. The creature makes Henry and Elizabeth flee the laboratory, but forces Pretorius and the Bride to stay, saying of the three of them “we belong dead”, after which he destroys the lab.

The Bride of Frankenstein works on many levels. While the movie may not seem as scary to modern audiences, it still retains a great deal of the dramatic tension that is the hallmark of Director James Whale. Unlike the first film, much more of the story is spent following the creature; this time around he is very much the main character and we see him trying to find his place in a world that will never accept him. Karloff brings the pain and longing of the creature to life brilliantly. Colin Clive has much less to do this time as Henry Frankenstein, but still exhibits the mood swings that led me to believe he is bi-polar from the first film. Ernest Thesiger chews the scenery as Pretorius and, unlike the creature, he is very much a pure villain.

Elsa Lancaster’s performance as The Bride is what makes this film truly remarkable. This characters unforgettable image is completely ingrained in our pop culture, yet the character is on screen for less than five minutes. In that short span of time, Lancaster creates a vivid and memorable performance, making The Bride come off as cruel and vicious, while never really doing much more than reacting to what happens around her.

For trivia buffs, it should be noted that The Bride is the only Universal Monster not directly responsible for a death. It should also be noted that during a showing I attended in the last year, when Henry says “She’s alive, Alive!”, three of us sung “Weird Science” under our breath.

I give The Bride of Frankenstein a grade of A+. It is a true classic horror film, and fans of classic horror will love it, and non-fans will still be entertained by it.


Universal Horror: The Wolf Man


The Wolf Man is a 1941 horror film from Universal Pictures. Even though it came out a decade after the releases of Dracula and Frankenstein, it stands with them as one of the all-time horror classic films and the three characters form that iconic trinity of horror icons.

The Wolf Man stands apart from the other two films in that it is not based on any pre-existing work; it is, instead, an original screen play by Curt Siodmak.

The Wolf Man was Universal’s second attempt at a werewolf movie. Six years earlier, they had produced The Werewolf of London. While that film was a moderate success, it was considered a knock-off of Dr. Jeykll and Mr Hyde, which hampered it at the box office.

As with any review of classic Universal Horror, the challenge is to try and review it separately from the pop culture it helped create.

The plot revolves around Lawrence Talbot, the son of Sir John Talbot. After the death of his older brother, Lawrence returns to the family home in Wales, after spending the last 18 years in America. Lawrence and Sir John have a slightly strained relationship, due to Lawrence being the second son, and thus not heir to the title and estate. With his brother is dead, things have changed and both men mean to make amends with one another.

Lawrence becomes smitten with Gwen, a shop girl in the local village. He convinces her to join him at a carnival being put on by a tribe of Romani (the movie uses the term gypsy through-out, but since that is often considered a slur, for the purposes of this review I am going to use the term Romani).

At the carnival Gwen’s friend Jenny is attacked by a wolf that Lawrence kills with the silver headed cane he bought earlier from Gwen’s shop. Bitten during the fight with the wolf, Lawrence comes to realize that what he fought was actually a werewolf and that he has now had the curse passed on to him.

To a modern audience, this movie is not going to seem frightening on a jump scare level, but what does stand the test of time is the mental toll the curse takes on Lawrence as he comes to accept what has happened to him, and tries to find a way to deal with it.  The movie also plays with psychological horror, as most people believe that Lawrence is losing his mind and merely hallucinating that he is a werewolf.

Director George Wagner creates a suitably moody atmosphere, by 1941’s standards, including several shots that would come to be considered iconic, including several of the misty Welsh moors. He also put together an excellent cast. It is clear that Universal wanted a hit.

Naturally the movie rests squarely on the shoulders of Lon Chaney Jr. While not his first major role (having played Lennie two years earlier in Of Mice and Men) starring in The Wolf Man was significant, as he was firmly stepping into the horror genre that had made his father a star. The part calls for him to start as a jovial ladies man, but end as a character that would be at home in a Greek tragedy.

Claude Rains was already a Universal Horror star, thanks to his lead performance in The Invisible Man. As Sir John Talbot he conveys a man who hopes to mend fences with his son, only to see that hope dashed as he believes Lawrence is succumbing to madness, and later has to make a tragic choice when the grim truth is made clear. It would have been easy for this part to have been played as disapproving father, but Rains elevates it by making Sir John aloof, yet loving.

Oscar winning actress and revered Hollywood acting coach Maria Ouspenskaya plays  Malva, the Romani woman whose son inadvertently passes the curse on to Lawrence. It would have been easy to have Malva be a sinister figure, but between the script and Ouspenskaya’s performance she is one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie, and the only person to truly try and help Lawrence.

Bela Lugosi appears as Malva’s son, also named Bela, whose bite infects our hero. He plays the part well, but it seems like an oddly small part for such a big name making it seem like a case of stunt casting.

Evelyn Ankers plays Gwen, the shop girl Lawrence becomes enamored with. She conveys her affection for Lawrence well and her concerns for him as his troubles mount. I find this notable, as Ankers and Chaney very famously did not get along. Despite this, they ended up starring, opposite each other, in four movies.

No review of this film would be complete without making note of the Wolf Man makeup, created by legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce.  The iconic look of the Wolf Man would serve as the model  for werewolves, in film, for years to come.

But the real legacy of this film is the werewolf lore it created. Almost everything we take for granted in werewolf mythology was actually created from scratch in the script by Curt Siodmak. The curse being transmitted by a bite, the vulnerability to silver, the involuntary transformation, the mark of the pentagram, and iconic poem are all creations specific for this movie. Interestingly the transformation under the full moon was not from this movie, but came in the Siodmak’s script for the sequel Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man. In fact the moon is never seen in the film at all.

The other horror trope codified in this film is the misty moors. In fact, the back drop of the moors used in the opening credits was reused by several other Universal Horror films, as it conveyed the mood so well.

Overall, I give The Wolf Man a solid B. It is a superior film for its era, and any classic horror film fan should make a point of seeing it.


Universal Horror: Spanish Dracula Review


Carlos Villarias as Dracula

As I stated in my review of Dracula, a common practice in Hollywood during the early days of talking pictures was to film a second version of a movie using the same sets and shooting script in a foreign language. At the time, dubbing was not a very refined art, and many considered it cheating anyway. Sadly, most of these films have been lost as they were considered secondary to the English language version and less effort was made to preserve them.

Fortunately, one of the few to survive was the Spanish language version of Dracula.

There is no real reason to go over a synopsis of the film’s plot. It is identical to the English language version that I reviewed last week. Go back and reread that if needed, I’ll wait.

A lot of interest has been given to this version over the years, as many people feel it is in fact superior to the Bela Lugosi classic. Are they right? Let’s find out.

The film was directed by George Melford who was already famous for having directed Rudolph Valentino’s silent classic The Sheik. Working for Universal, Melford directed four Spanish language films. Melford did not speak a word of Spanish and had to use a translator.

Melford also had a competitive streak, at least when it came to Tod Browning and Dracula. Melford and his crew would come in at night after Browning’s crew had wrapped for the day. He would get to look at the dailies with the idea that he would mimic what was shot. Instead Melford decided he could do better and chose to try and improve on what Browning had shot.

Watching this version can be jarring if you are familiar with the English version. Many scenes are identical in look and feel. However, as the movie progresses differences start to become more apparent.

First of all is the pacing. The Spanish version is much better paced, shrugging off the theatrical roots of the material. While the camera work is not as fluid at times as the English version, it makes up for it with grander sweeps and faster movement. There are two scenes in the Browning version that go on a bit long, a battle of wills between Dracula and Van Helsing, and a vampiric seduction of Harker by Mina. Melford improves the pacing by having them happen simultaneously and cutting between them.

Another very clear change is on the close ups of Dracula. In the Browning version, it is always a tight shot of his face with a band of light across his eyes. In Melford’s version, it is a tight close up of just the eyes, or a tight close up of the face and then a jump cut to the close up of the eyes.

Of course we also have to look at the performances by the actors as this is the chief difference between the two.

Carlos Villarias plays Dracula. Of the cast he was the only one allowed to look at the dailies, as the studio wanted him to mimic Lugosi. While there are similarities between the two performances, they are still very different.  Villarias plays Dracula more energetically than Lugosi did, and due to less stringent standards for the Spanish audience was able to make the seductive elements of the character more overt. In many ways this is a better performance than Lugosi’s. However, the difference is that Villarias did not have the same commanding presence as Lugosi. So while it might be a better performance technically, it was in no way matching the iconic one given by Lugosi.

Pablo Alvarez Rubio played Renfield. Here I feel that while his performance was equal to Dwight Frye’s, it was different. Manic Frye was menacing, where Rubio was just over-the-top raving. Calm Frye was sympathetic where Rubio became sinister.

Eduardo Arozamena played Van Helsing. Here I feel the performance was flatter compared to the one given by Edward Von Sloan.

The biggest difference was in the female lead. When I reviewed the other version I glossed over the performance of Helen Chandler as Mina. I felt it was just serviceable and did not really stand out. In the Spanish version, Lupita Tovar played the renamed Eva. Her performance was much more dynamic, especially when under Dracula’s thrall. It should be noted that Chandler’s career did not extend beyond the 1930s, whereas Tovar was working through the mid-1940s.

So in the end, I can say that yes, the Spanish version of Dracula is the superior film. Its biggest down fall is that it lacks the iconic performance of Lugosi.

I give it a grade of B-

Hopefully it will not take a year to get back to the Universal Horror movies again. When we do return, we will look at the final member of the Horror trinity, the Wolf Man.

Universal Horror: Dracula Review


Bela Lugosi as Dracula

After nearly a year, I am getting back to my review of Universal Horror classics. So let’s take a look at the 1931 Universal production of Dracula.

Before I get into the review I want to cover an interesting topic.

In the early days of talking pictures, it was common for a version of a Hollywood production to have a second version of a film made using the same script and sets, but in another language. Apparently overdubbing was not that refined a process and many considered it cheating anyway.

Dracula had a Spanish version that was filmed at night using the same script and sets. Most of these foreign versions have been lost, but Dracula is one of the few they were able to recover.

I have watched both. While this review is going to just cover the English language version, next time I will go over the Spanish version, as it deserves its own article.

On to the review.

For years Universal had wanted to make Dracula. Specifically Carl Laemmle Jr., son of Universal founder Carl Laemmle Sr., wanted to make Dracula. Originally as a silent picture with Lon Chaney as the Count. Several factors delayed production. First was just securing the rights, as author Bram Stoker’s widow had sued the producers of Nosferatu for not having secured the rights, and won. Then there was Chaney himself who developed throat cancer and died. Finally, you had the great depression which resulted in the movie having a smaller budget. Originally Laemmle had envisioned a grand film on the scale of the Hunchback of Notre Dame that adhered very closely to Stoker’s novel. Now he needed to tone it down and eventually the film more closely adhered to the Broadway stage version.

The other challenge was casting. Most of the cast came together fairly quickly, except for Dracula himself. At first, Conrad Veidt was considered. He had been successful in horror, both as the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and lead in The Man who Laughed. Unfortuantely Veidt had to return to Europe, so he was out.

Interestingly, the studio was against casting Bela Lugosi, who had played the part to much acclaim on Broadway. Lugosi himself lobbied hard for the part and with choices dwindling the studio decided to give him a shot.

The director of the film was Tod Browning. Browning was a successful silent film director, including having worked on the vampire-themed London After Midnight with Lon Chaney.

The story begins in Transylvania with a real estate agent named Renfield traveling to meet with Count Dracula to finalize his purchase of Carfax Abby in London. After securing the deal, Renfield is put under Dracula’s thrall. Traveling to London, Renfield is institutionalized at the Sanitarium next to the Abby run by Dr. Seward.  The count begins preying on London, with focus on Seward’s daughter Mina. Seward brings in Dr. Van Helsing to look into a rash of anemic deaths which Van Helsing correct deduces are the result of vampire attacks.  Van Helsing suspects the Count, and once confirmed, begins a hunt for the vampire’s resting place in order to bring an end to the menace.

Let’s take a look at what does not work.

Pacing is the number one problem with the film. You can clearly tell this is an adaptation of a play, as that is how it is paced. One striking thing is that the Count almost never moves quickly, preferring to stalk towards his victims.

I suspect that Browning added to this as he was used to silent film and did not know how to adapt the pacing for the inclusion of sound. One reason this is glaring is the lack of background music. This was not the fault of the production, however. In the first few years of sound, the only time music was added was if there were musicians visible. It was assumed that music would confuse the audience as to where it was coming from.

Another oddity is some of the editing choices. There are several times when Dracula is onscreen that it will cut to a close up of his face with a band of light across his eyes. This is an iconic image and I would think perhaps creepy to a 1931 audience, but seems jarring by today’s standards.

On the cast, sadly many of them just don’t stand out. Several of the cast did not have long careers in Hollywood, and you can see why here.

However, moving on to more positive aspects, there were some exceptional performances; otherwise I doubt this movie would have become a classic.

It almost should go without saying that Bela Lugosi dominates the film. He brings, charm, mystery, and menace to the role.

Next to Lugosi is Dwight Frye as Renfield. He starts the movie as a normal, if dull businessman, but as soon as he is under Dracula’s control he is a raving madman. Frye makes him stand out as a man who wants to be free, but cannot escape Dracula’s grasp.

Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing rounds out the good performances as Van Helsing, conveying the man’s will and determination to defeat the vampire.

Of interest is that later in 1931 both Frye and Van Sloan would be part of the cast of Frankenstein, securing their place in horror history.

Another bright spot for Dracula was cinematography. The film was lucky to have gotten ground breaking cinematographer Karl Freund. Thanks to his work, the film looks wonderful even today, and many of his tracking shots were considered ground breaking at the time.

Finally we have to look at the legacy of this movie. It solidified the image of the vampire in the public mind. Even today, the stereotype of the vampire is based on Lugosi’s performance.  It also gave us the image of the haunted castle, with crumbling walls and cobwebs. The tropes associated with a vampire’s minion were set in stone by Frye, just like he would later in the year with the mad scientist’s hunchbacked assistant. And the vampire hunter in the mold of Van Helsing would also be influenced by this film.

It is also worth noting that Dracula was the first film made in Hollywood that was overtly supernatural. Until then all Hollywood horror involved the deformed, the deranged, or someone using trickery. Europe had some supernatural elements in their films, but this was the first for Hollywood, and opened the doors for all horror that would follow.

In the end you can see why this made such an impact.

However, I do not feel that it has held up as well as Frankenstein.


I give the 1931 Dracula a grade of C+.


Join us next week when we see how well the Spanish language version holds up.




Frankenweenie Review

Since we are now into the Halloween season, what better way to kick it off then with Tim Burton’s new film Frankenweenie? This is the full length stop-motion remake of Burton’s 1984 live action short about a boy who brings his dead dog back to life.

I’m not going to cover the differences between the two here. I’m going to focus on the new film as it is its own entity and there are enough differences between the two.

The film is a parody and homage to the horror film genre that Burton so clearly loves. It obviously references old Universal Horror, but also touches on Hammer Horror, Japanese kaiju, and a smart nod to Gremlins. There is also tribute to horror stars with characters based on Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorrie, and a clip of Christopher Lee as Dracula.

At the heart of the film however is the simple tale of a boy and his dog. The main character Victor Frankenstein (Yes there is a lot of naming like that in the film) is a boy who doesn’t go out and make friends, but rather spends his time with his dog Sparky making homemade movies. When his father’s efforts to get Victor involved in sports inadvertently leads to Sparky’s death, Victor is inspired to bring him back based on a lesson from the schools eccentric science teacher.

After his success several of his classmates learn what Victor has done, leading them to try themselves. Chaos ensues.

Burton has taken some heat in recent years over some not so great films, like Alice in Wonderland or Dark Shadows. With Frankenweenie Burton is clearly back on form. The large part of that is that this is a movie with heart. Victor is a character you can relate to, especially if you have ever had a pet that you loved.

One of the things I really liked about Frankenweenie was that the movie avoids a lot of clichés that normally plague a story like this. Victor is a loner, but not because the other children shun him or bully him. I was bracing myself early in the film for a scene showing Victor being bullied that never happened. From all appearances Victor could make friends but was just content being a loner. I like that the film showed that basically this was alright, even if it did worry his father.

From a technical side I was amazed at how well the stop-motion figures were able to convey the characters emotions. I watched The Nightmare Before Christmas right before seeing Frankenweenie and I could see how much the craft has evolved in the last two decades.

The voice work was also top notch. Defying expectations this is the first Burton movie since Big Fish to feature neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter. Other past Burton collaborators do make an appearance though. Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short both voice multiple characters including Victor’s parents. Winona Ryder voices Elsa van Helsing, Victor’s neighbor and love interest. Martin Landau steals the show as Victor’s science teacher Mr Rzykruski who is clearly based on Burton’s childhood hero Vincent Price. Charlie Tahan is the voice of Victor and his voice helps carry the emotional core of the film. Special notice also needs to go to Atticus Shaffer as Victor’s classmate Edgar “E” Gore, who is of course based on the classic Igor character.

Frankenweenie is a Burton getting back to what he does best, telling a heartwarming story as filter through an Addams Family sensibility.

I give Frankenweenie an A+.


Halloween Horror Nights

This weekend marks the start of Halloween Horror Nights, which I count as the official kick off of the Halloween season.

For those not in the know Halloween Horror Nights is an annual event held at Universal Studios at their Florida, Hollywood, and Singapore locations. Basically afterhours during the five weeks leading up to Halloween the parks convert over to a Halloween event.

Now a lot of theme parks do this. As you get closer to Halloween the parks will have events that range from a very kid friendly one at Disneyland to very well respected event at Knott’s Berry Farm. But this is Universal Studios, who created most of the horror images that are now an integral part of Halloween. So in 1991 at their park in Florida they decided to do the event, which was called Fright Nights during its first year. The next year it was renamed Halloween Horror Nights and expanded to both Florida and Hollywood.

It’s worth mentioning that while Halloween Horror Nights happens at all Universal sites, Florida is usually considered the bigger one, with Hollywood being a little brother and Singapore only having just started doing it last year.  All three sites have their own development team and while they may have similar themed houses and scarezones they are not usually developed in tandem.

Originally the event was mostly Halloween themed shows and a traditional haunted house maze. Then performers called scarectors were added who wandered selected areas of the park called scarezones.  The number of houses increased, each with its own theme.  These would grow to Florida having 8 houses and 6 to 8 scarezones. Hollywood now has 6 houses, 4 to 5 scarezones, and a scary tram ride.

One noticeable difference in the houses and scarezones between sites is that Hollywood is more likely to have them themed based on an existing movie franchise, where Florida is more prone to creating original house themes and stories.

In 2000 a feature was added the really made Halloween Horror Nights stand out, the creation of the event icons. Really this was started a few years earlier when the event was hosted by the Crypt Keeper from HBO’s Tales from the Crypt. In 2000 however an original character was created to be the events host in Florida, Jack the Clown. Jack was not only created visually but was given a fairly detailed back story. Basically Jack was developed enough that he could have been the main character of a horror movie. But instead he was used as the main character of the event with a house and scarezone both themed after him. Since then every year except two in Florida has had an Icon.  Hollywood will also use Icons, but has never developed an original one, either using one of Florida’s or an existing character from a film franchise such as Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

To date Halloween Horror Nights has created the following Icons:

Jack Schmidt aka Jack the Clown (Yes they did his last name on purpose): A murderous clown who leads the demented Carnival of Carnage. Jack is the most popular icon and has been used more than any of the others. In 2001 a new Icon, Eddie was supposed to be introduced, but after the 9/11 attacks he was deemed not appropriate and Jack was brought back and a toned down Eddie was made his little brother and minion. As Jack is partly inspired by the Joker he has another sidekick, Chance, who is reminiscent of Harley Quinn.

Albert Cain aka The Caretaker: Cain was a former surgeon turned mortician who would capture people and experiment on them. Originally Albert was meant to be a background character to the events original Icon, his disturbed daughter Cindy. However a string of child abductions in the Florida area led to Cindy being pushed back and Albert being developed as the main Icon.

Paulo Ravinski aka The Director: An Eastern European film maker who would actually kill actors on film in order to capture the realism of their deaths.

Elsa Strict aka The Storyteller: An old woman who would tell stories of horror from an ancient time, known as Terra Curentas. Originally the Terra Queen was meant to be the Icon, but there were development issues with her and the Storyteller was created for promotional materials and commercials. Her lack of a backstory is unique amongst the Icons and has been played up in subsequent appearances.

Dr. Mary Agana aka Bloody Mary: A psychiatrist who through her research into fear transformed herself into the Bloody Mary of folklore. Mary had an extensive history developed, second only to Jack’s. The Halloween Horror Nights’ website had a multimedia game set up prior to the event that would allow people to uncover her story.

Julian Browning aka the Usher:  A strict movie usher at a 1920’s movie theater. He was killed after a scuffle with a patron, and now haunts the theater and enforces his rules beyond the grave.

Fear: Literally the embodiment of fear, often called Fear Himself. He was the Icon for the 20th anniversary and brought Jack, the Caretaker, the Storyteller, the Director, and the Usher with him as his Heralds.

Lady Luck: The embodiment of bad luck. If you gamble with her and lose she will devour you. She is second only to the Storyteller in lack of back story.

Besides the Icons there are other story elements that have appeared repeatedly.


Legendary Truth: An organization formed in the 50’s to investigate the supernatural. An online game based on a hunt for Bloody Mary treated the players as Legendary Truth agents. A similar game was set up for the 20th anniversary to uncover the source of the monsters. There has also been a house that was themed as a Legendary Truth investigation gone horribly wrong.

Shady Brook Rest Home and Sanitarium: A mental hospital that briefly held Jack the Clown. It has been the setting for four houses and a part of the 20th anniversary online game.

Carey Ohio: Carey, a town in Wyandot County Ohio, is the hometown of one of the creative directors of Halloween Horror Nights. Both the town and the county have been the setting for several houses over the years, to the point that this year there is a house based around all the weird things that happen in Carey.

The Chainsaw drill team: Every year at least one of the scarezones is based around a group running around with chainsaws.


But all the great backstory in the world isn’t worth anything unless the houses are well executed. And this is where having a movie studio behind the theme park really comes into play. The craftsmanship behind the designs of the houses and the costumes and makeup on the scarectors is high. A lot of thought goes into Halloween Horror Nights with some park employees working year round to put the event together.

My wife and I attended the 20th Anniversary event in 2010. I’m picky about haunted houses as I use to work in what was at the time the leading haunted house in the Seattle area for a few years. I am also hard to impress because I am not a person who goes around nervous at a Halloween event because I know I am safe, so I am impressed when someone can get a jump scare out of me. At Halloween Horror Nights only one house failed to jump scare me, and even then I was impressed with how well the set, costumes, and sound was handled. Most other houses got me to jump scare at least once, and one got me five times. My wife had to remind me that I could not high five the people who got me to jump.

I was also impressed by a lot of technical details. In one house they used scarectors on wires behind a cheesecloth screen painted to look like a wall to create the effect of translucent ghosts flying by. Two of the houses used hanging items like strips of plastic or cloth in doorways and hallways to disorientate guest. You would have to reach up and brush them away and this gave scarectors a chance to sneak up. One house took advantage of the fact that your eyes would grow accustomed to the dark. A flame effect would go off when you entered a room, wreaking your night vision and distracting you so that you would not see the person hiding in the shadows.

For a break Halloween Horror Nights always has a Bill and Ted live show that makes fun of whatever was big in pop culture that year.I expect the Avengers to have a big part this year.

There is usually another show as well, but those rotate. The year we were there it was a magician that did gory tricks. This year it appears to be a circus geek show.

I did learn that there is one big difference between the Florida and Hollywood events. My sister went to the Hollywood event the same year I went to Florida. The difference is in refreshments. In Hollywood there is no alcohol available. In Florida not only are there places to buy alcohol but they had women dressed as nurses with IV bags containing Jell-O shots roaming the park.

Overall this is a fun event. If you like haunted houses you will love Halloween Horror Nights. So if you get the chance to go I would highly recommend it and I hope to go back one day myself.


Universal Horror: Frankenstein



Say it and an image immediately pops into people’s heads. The flat head, the electrodes in the neck (that everyone mistakenly calls bolts), the green skin, the heavily lidded eyes, and the lumbering movement.

And not one bit of that description appears anywhere in Mary Shelly’s original novel.

No, you can thank the 1931 motion picture for the popular image of the Frankenstein monster, and for cementing him as an icon of our culture.

To be fair the movie is also largely based on a stage play version, written by Peggy Webling.

One of the challenges in attempting to review this film is to separate it from the very pop culture it spawned.

The movie has an interesting opening. A well-dressed man steps out from behind a curtain. Speaking directly to the audience he warns them that what they are about to see may shock and horrify them.

Then we go to credits. I’ll be honest; I’m not sure what is up with the credits. Behind the title of the movie is the top half of someone’s head and beams are shooting from the eyes. The next part where the cast and crew credits are shown have a swirling kaleidoscope of eyes.

There are two interesting notes in the credits. First is that the monster gets fourth billing and is billed as being played by “?”. These credits are given again at the end and “?” is replace by Boris Karloff.

The other odd credit is “Based on the Novel by Mrs. Percy B. Shelly”. I have not found any reason that Mary Shelly was referred to this way. I have to assume it was just the casual sexism of the 1930s.

I’m not going to do a scene-by-scene break down, so here is the summary:

The first part of the film details Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s efforts to create life by building a body from recent corpses and animating it by way of a new wave length of energy he has discovered. Once he succeeds, the film details the struggle of the Doctor with this new life he has created, and his creation’s attempt to understand the world he has been born too.  This spirals out of control as the creature becomes violent due to abuse at the hands of Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz. Tragedy ensues leading to the monster’s demise and the Doctor nearly dying himself.

So let’s start with what works. And the first thing I want to point out is the performance of Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein. I think this role gets glossed over often, due to everyone focusing on Karloff’s performance as the monster. But the movie is as much about Henry as it is the creature. He is a man obsessed, but the foundation of what he is doing is sound. Clive has a great speech shortly after the creature is brought to life about scientific exploration and how its boundaries need to be pushed if anything is to be achieved. However, he has moments that show he is not as well hinged as he wants others to believe. He has bouts of mania and despair. A more modern film would probably come right out and say was suffering from bipolar disorder. While a little over the top for modern tastes, for the era it was a really good performance. His lines “It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive” and “Now I know what it feels like to be God” are classics, and often quoted. This performance set the precedent for all film mad scientists that would come after.

Another stand out is Dwight Frye as Fritz, Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant. If Clive set the mold of the Mad Scientist then Frye set the mold for deranged lab assistant. While the level of Henry’s obsession is a slow burn at first, that something is not right with Fritz is clear from the beginning and has nothing to do with his physical deformity. Frye portrays Fritz’s madness well, and walks a fine line in playing big yet never going over the top. Every Igor that followed owes Fritz a debt.

And of course you have Karloff as the monster. There is a reason that this role became an icon.  Aided by the amazing make up work of Jack Pierce, Karloff portrayed the creature to perfection. The creature is both innocent and menacing. Karloff wanted to make sure that there was more going on than just a lumbering beast and he succeeded. There is a reason the creature is often portrayed as the good guy in many of the stories and adaptations that followed, and it all goes back to Karloff.

You also have a fine performance from Edward Van Sloan as Henry’s mentor Dr. Walden (he also played the well-dressed man at the opening warning to the audience), who is horrified at what Henry has done, and yet can’t resist the fascination of the science, and a decent performance from Marilyn Harris as the little girl who befriends the monster only to be killed because the creature doesn’t know how strong it really is.

A lot of credit for the success of the movie has to go to director James Whale. His pacing keeps the audience’s attention even 80 years later.

But not everything holds up.

Mae Clarke as Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth is a throw-away part. Her whole purpose in the movie seems to be to worry about Henry and in turn to have him worry about her.  While the subplot of their wedding helps drive some of the action, she is not a compelling character.

But even worse is Frederick Kerr as Henry’s father Baron Frankenstein. He is basically a blustering old fool. He adds little to the plot, and at best seems to be comic relief.

The Baron also brings up another point that does work now.  Just where the hell is the movie set? In the original novel it was Switzerland, and the movie has hints of this, but it might also be Germany. That would be great but the various characters have a wide range of accents. I’m sure it comes down no one carrying about the accents that much. But if you think about it for a minute it is just weird.

The sets are another issue. Specifically several outdoor scenes are clearly filmed in-studio and you can see streaks on the back drop.

There was also the tacked-on happy ending. It is pretty clear that originally Frankenstein was going to die at the hands of his creation. The studio was not happy with that and had a final scene added that showed Henry convalescing with his father doddering about. In fairness, this scene left the door open for the sequel which many feel is a superior film.

The legacy of this film more than makes up for the short comings I have presented. As I said before, the image of the monster from this movie has become iconic.  Every Frankenstein’s monster that has come after is compared to Karloff’s. Also many of the trappings we associate with the story were started here. Nowhere in the Shelly novel is the means of the monster’s creation detailed. But the use of electricity has become common due to the films influence. The same is true of the lab assistant. In the novel, Frankenstein worked alone.

I would also argue that the misunderstood monster came from here. Early scenes with the creature show that it was not inherently aggressive, and that it even wanted a connection with its creator. It was abuse from Fritz and the revulsion of Dr. Walden that made it lash out. Even the death of the little girl was not intentional and clearly upset the creature greatly when he realized she was dead.

And again, Dwight Frye’s Fritz set the tone for the horror film henchman. You see this from Ygor in Son of Frankenstein to Willy Lomas in Dark Shadows and even Riff Raff in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The same is true of Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein. It’s not even worth listing them all. Look at a crazed or obsessed scientist in any move since and you will see echoes of Clive’s performance.

Another influence is in the torch-wielding mob. This has become as much a staple as the gothic castle. And speaking of gothic castles, while this movie did not originate that, it was the first use of the castle thunder effect, and that trope it did start.

I think it also needs credit for kicking off the career of Boris Karloff. His contribution to film and television is significant, and had James Whale not seen him in the Universal commissary, we would have never had him as the narrator of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Finally, this movie is what truly kicked off Universal Horror. Even though Dracula came first, it was Frankenstein’s success that proved to the studio that there was an ongoing audience for horror.

Speaking of Dracula, next time we delve into the Universal Horror vault, we will take a look at the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi.



A Fanboy guide to The Universal Horror Movies

Last weekend I finally scored DVDs of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman. These are the digitally remastered Universal 75th Anniversary series from 2004. I have wanted them for a while. I still need to get the Mummy, Invisible Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon to complete the set.
You see this is all part of a grand scheme.
I grew up a huge horror fan and this was a major part of my development into the fanboy I am today. I remember watching old horror movies, sometimes between my fingers or hiding behind the coach. The advantage of growing up before the cable network explosion, I could watch the classic on the old creature feature shows on the local TV stations.
And there was nothing better than the classic Universal Monsters.
So my plan is to start a periodic series of reviews of Classic Universal Horror.
For those not as familiar with what I am talking about, here is a primer.
The Universal Horror era is largely acknowledged to have started in 1923 with the release of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. When it ended is up to some debate, but I say it was 1958.
Universal Studios was a struggling company in the early 20’s. I won’t get into all the details here but one of the things that saved the studio was signing Lon Chaney. The legendary man of a thousand faces became a huge draw for the studio. His performance and make up design for the Hunchback of Notre Dame thrilled audiences who had never seen its like. He followed it up with other great horror films such as The Phantom of the Opera and London after Midnight.
Besides Chaney’s films Universal also had success with The Cat and the Canary and the Man who Laughs. The latter has added fanboy significance as its main character Gwynplaine served as Bill Finger’s chief visual inspiration for the Joker.
One point of interest is that during the silent era none of Universal’s horror films had any actual supernatural elements, in fact no film from Hollywood did. They either featured characters that were disfigured or someone that was employing trickery to appear supernatural.
That all changed in 1931 with the release of two films that changed film history, Dracula and Frankenstein. Now the supernatural and the inhuman were fair game.  Both films launched horror franchises and made stars out of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The next two years saw the release of the Mummy and the Invisible man.
The next great horror franchise did not come about until 1941 with the release of The Wolf Man Starring Lon Chaney Jr. With this the trinity of Universal horror was complete. To this day Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man are ingrained images as horror icons, forever associated with Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney.
Throughout the 30’s and 40’s Universal set the standard for the horror genre, creating many of the tropes that have come to be associated with it. Creaking staircases, Cobweb infested castles, fields filled with mists, the secret passage behind the bookcase and mobs with pitchforks and torches, all were introduced, or at least made popular, by Universal.
By the end of the 40’s Universal’s desire to milk every last drop out of their horror franchises seem to have spelled the end of them. The release of so-called Monster Mash movies where Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man all appeared, while still popular, seemed to be the final curtain for the classic monsters. With the release of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein the trinity of horror icons was retired.
But Universal Horror was not done yet.
In 1954 the last great Universal Monster was unleashed, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. A total of three Creature films were made in the 50’s. 
However even the coming of the gill-man could not keep the franchise going and with the release of Monster on Campus in 1958 the Universal Horror era ended.
But the influence did not.
Think about it, when someone says Frankenstein, what image comes to mind. I’ll bet it isn’t the creature design Christopher Lee wore in the Hammer Horror films, or Robert DeNiro’s version.
Our expectations of these iconic characters have been formed by Universal and are the widely accepted version.
And Universal has not forgotten this. They make periodic attempts to revive the Universal Horror franchises.  While none have been the restart the studio hopes for, one cannot help but figure it is just a matter of time.
Add to that the fact that every Halloween Universal Studio’s theme parks host their Halloween Horror Nights event where the parks are turned into massive haunted houses. My wife and I attended the 20th year of the event in Florida. It was one of our best vacations ever and proved why we are the perfect match (I’ll cover that adventure another time.)
Universal is still the name that will forever be associated with classic horror.
Going forward I will start the actual reviews of specific movies. In these reviews I will go over what makes the movie work, what are its flaws, how well they hold up over time, and what influences it has had on pop culture. These will be spaced out as I need time to review the movies and I don’t want them to dominate the blog. Also I need to track down copies of more of the Universal Horror catalog.
But I will leave you with this, first up will be Frankenstein.

My Fanboy New Year’s Resolutions.

I took time off from writing the blog for the holidays. This was needed as it was a crazy time for me and I needed the time.
However I did take time to reflect on where I want to go with this blog in the New Year. Let’s take a moment to look at my Fanboy News Network resolutions for the 2012.
First off my wife and I are rearranging our house. She is dedicated to make her home craft business Twisted Kitten Creations a success and I want to start making video entries. To facilitate this we are rearranging the house to give us more room for our creative activates. This will give her more room for making her products and give me a space to use as a recording studio.
This leads straight to my next resolution. Start making videos for the site. I have a plan now. Once the house is rearranged I will start making them. I may take a couple of tries at it before I release anything, but I will at least start recording. Once I start posting my goal will be a video port every two weeks. I’ve already invested in a more powerful computer to handle the editing.
And now I will make the statement that is sure to come back to haunt me. I vow that there will be a post on the blog every Saturday. This means that every Saturday I miss will bring me the burning shame of missing a deadline. If that doesn’t get me writing more nothing will.
I will do more posts that are reviews of material relevant to geek culture and not just editorials.
I will look at expanding beyond just a blog and work to make this a more legitimate site. I will look for advice from my sister as she is much more successful at this. (Assuming she buys my line about this being what family does for each other.)
I will start promoting the blog more. This is hard because despite doing this I hate going out and promoting myself because I fear that I will come off as an egotistical ass. I need to get over it if I actually plan on ever finding a larger audience. Again I will ask my sister for advice. 
And my wife.
 And Aron from the comic shop.
And my other friends
And those of you reading this.
Where was I?
I will make an honest effort to make a backlog of articles so that if life gets in my way I will still have something to post every Saturday.
I will create a catch phrase to end blog posts. I feel I just sort of end right now.
There it is, my goals
So with that here are some projects I am working on.
1.       An article on the power held by geek culture and that pros and cons that brings.
2.       A series of reviews cover Universal Horror, both written and eventually in video.
3.       A video series on what makes Seattle the Geek capital of the World.
4.       A new Alternate Interpretations.
5.       Tales from my days working at Wizards of the Coast.
6.       Tales from my days as one of the founding members of the Camarilla.
We will check in in on this list in July and see how well I did.
Have a happy New Year.