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Steven D. Greydanus shares his haunted favorites for Halloween.
BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
Dracula: 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.
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.