Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part I – The Frankenstein Series (1931-1944)

I decided to rewatch all of the old Universal Monsters films. I wanted to rank them all for a list (which I already posted) but while I was watching them, I figured that I’d review them too.

The Frankenstein series is the first one I have watched this go around and it starts with two films that are arguably the best out of all the Universal Monsters films.

Well, let me just get into the reviews.

Frankenstein (1931):

Release Date: November 21st, 1931
Directed by: James Whale
Written by: Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, Peggy Webling, John L. Balderston, Robert Florey, John Russell
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Bernard Kaun
Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye

Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes 

frankenstein-1931Review:

Frankenstein is pretty damned close to a masterpiece. It was directed by James Whale, who was a legend most known for this film and its first sequel but had a catalog that reached outside of horror and encompassed many styles and genres. Unfortunately, most of his work is unknown today and has fallen into obscurity, but I was lucky enough to have a friend that showed me some of his other work.

This film also introduced us to Boris Karloff and his interpretation of the monster, which has gone on to become the definitive version of the character, as people today are still most familiar with Karloff’s makeup and overall visual style and behavior.

The film sets the tone that would be well represented and maintained throughout the other Frankenstein films. It borrows heavily in style from the silent German Expressionist films of the early 1920s – most notably F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) as well as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Granted, this was a bit of a modernization and a more realistic interpretation of that style, but it does carry that same sort of German Expressionist vibe into a new decade and presents it to a new audience on another continent.

The acting by Boris Karloff as the monster is spectacular. The real gems of this film however are Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his sidekick Fritz played by horror icon Dwight Frye (who also played Renfield in Universal’s 1931 Dracula film).

This film is perfection for its time but it was eclipsed by its first sequel, which I will review now.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935):

Release Date: April 22nd, 1935 (Los Angeles Premiere)
Directed by: James Whale
Written by: William Hurlbut, John L. Balderston
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, Ernest Thesiger

Universal Pictures, 75 Minutes 

bride_of_frankensteinReview:

How do you take a legendary film, which was already legendary just four years after its release, and attempt to top it? Well, you stick to the formula and style that made the original successful and you up the ante without compromising the original vision. Bride of Frankenstein is a great answer to the popular question, “Name one sequel better than the original.”

First of all, Boris Karloff and Colin Clive are back. The film is missing Dwight Frye as Fritz (he plays a less dynamic character in this one) but it gains much more with the additions of Ernest Thesiger as the villainous Dr. Pretorious and Elsa Lanchester as the title character of the film. Lanchester does double duty however, as she also portrays original Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in the opening scene of the film.

This movie takes the tone and style of the original and magnifies it. James Whale created a beautiful world in his original film and expands on its magnificence in this chapter. Bride of Frankenstein should be required viewing for any film studies class, as well as any real art class (in addition to some of the German Expressionist films it is certainly an homage to).

This film is unique, especially for its time, in that it is a true sequel that goes beyond just the material it is based on. It revisits Shelley’s concept in a new way and expands on it. While purists may not consider it true to the nature, tone and overall point of Shelley’s original Frankenstein novel, it explores uncharted territory nonetheless and does so with gusto and style and although being limited in scope and the production value of the era it was created in, it is a near flawless companion piece to the ideas of the original tale – one of the greatest novels ever written.

Son of Frankenstein (1939):

Release Date: January 13th, 1939
Directed by: Rowland V. Lee
Written by: Wyllis Cooper
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi

Universal Pictures, 99 Minutes 

son_of_frankensteinReview:

So what do you do when you lose Colin Clive, Dwight Frye and the awesome additions of Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester? Well, you bring back Boris Karloff as the monster and you bring in horror legends Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. And being frank, this is one of my favorite Basil Rathbone performances of all-time.

Now this film is the start of the decline in the series but it doesn’t mean that this film and the ones after it were crap. Quite the contrary, these films are still great and play well today as classic horror masterpieces. The problem is that after the James Whale films, it was hard for Universal to replicate his quality and ability to weave a timeless tale visually – conveying emotion through the sets, the lighting, the make-up and the subtle nuances he brought forth in directing such an elite group of talent in those first two films.

Basil Rathbone owns the screen in this film as the very likable son of Henry Frankenstein named Baron Wolf von Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi is beyond fantastic as the now iconic Ygor, who wants nothing more than to control the monster in an effort to exact revenge on the townsfolk who wronged him.

I really loved the set design in this film. The use of lights and shadow brought me back to the old German Expressionist vibe even more so than James Whale’s application of the style. The style was done in a more primal and straightforward way here, which lost the lushness and complexity of Whale’s films but gained in the more obscure and supernatural atmosphere that they created. The Frankenstein house, through lighting techniques on the set was able to be inviting and haunting all at the same time. The strange non-symmetrical architecture inside, especially the staircase and its ominous shadows, were a sight to behold. You never feel quite safe or comfortable with these sets. While I prefer Whale’s refined style, this film is visually more unsettling.

Ultimately, this film is also another gem in Universal’s Monster catalog. Then again, this is from an era where they had to try really hard to produce a bad film.

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942):

Release Date: March 13th, 1942
Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
Written by: Scott Darling, Eric Taylor
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers

Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes 

ghost_of_frankensteinReview:

Boris Karloff sat this one out. So who did Universal get to play the monster? Well, they went to Lon Chaney Jr., son of Lon Chaney – the man who starred in several classic Universal horror films of the 1920s. Chaney Jr. had also already played the title character in Universal’s The Wolf Man, which was released just before this film. This movie also reunited Chaney Jr. with Bela Lugosi, who also had a part in The Wolf Man. Lugosi again played Ygor, whose streak of sinister villainy was not yet over.

This film introduces us to another Frankenstein son, this time Ludwig Frankenstein – played by Cedric Hardwicke. This film also gives us the uber-talented Ralph Bellamy.

I find this film to be the weakest of the series. I still love it but it seems to be more of a rehash of the previous film with a few minor changes. The most interesting thing really is that Ygor controls the monster with a special horn he plays.

The style is still consistent but at this point it is also becoming a bit of a caricature to itself and maybe a detriment. Either that or the formula and this franchise has ran its course regardless of this still being an enjoyable piece of film history. You definitely get the vibe that this is where the franchise was just being used to milk money from pockets instead of being more concentrated on making great films like the ones that preceded it.

House of Frankenstein (1944):

Release Date: December 15th, 1944 (New York City Premiere)
Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
Written by: Edward T. Lowe Jr., Curt Siodmak
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: Hans J. Salter, Paul Dessau
Cast: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, J. Carrol Naish

Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes 

house_of_frankensteinReview:

How does one jump the shark before that was even a term Hollywood knew anything about? Well, you jam pack as many monsters and stars into one film as you possibly can because if you own the rights to a bunch of monsters, why not have them duke it out in a free-for-all? And honestly, at this point in the Universal Monsters timeline, across all their multiple horror franchises, this pretty much had to happen in order to keep things fresh and interesting.

Boris Karloff returns but this time he is a mad scientist with a hunchback assistant played by J. Carrol Naish, who is brilliant in this film, as you really pull for him and then find yourself somewhat distraught after he goes over the edge in the end.

Lon Chaney Jr. shows up as the Wolf Man, John Carradine shows up as Count Dracula (a role he would also play in House of Dracula a year later).

This film plays like an anthology piece, where the first half of the film follows the Dracula story and the second half follows the Wolf Man story while Frankenstein is mostly on a table the whole film and doesn’t do much. It isn’t as epic as the Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man confrontation between the two characters, which was released the year prior to this (and will be reviewed when I cover The Wolf Man series of films in an upcoming post).

I like this film, even though this is where things just got silly.

More Universal Monsters reviews are coming. Next up will be the Dracula series.

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