Over the last week or so, I've been indulging in some wonderful classic horror films from the 1930s. Every one of them I've seen so far has been a total gem and are all miles above the majority of schlocky shit they deem "horror" today. These had actual storylines, character development, and weren’t totally reliant on the number of kills or volume of bloodletting. There is something romantic about these older films that gives them a wonderful charm, with just a hint of kitsch.
Frankenstein (1931) - I LOVED this film! Based loosely on the classic Mary Shelley novel, Colin Clive plays Victor Frankenstein, a man determined to bring the dead to life by creating a man with his own hands…or is it a monster? Clive was perfect as the deliciously mad and unstably wonderful Dr. Frankenstein. He was the original mad scientist and played his role to its hilt. I realize now Mr. Clive's brilliant performance was blatantly ripped off by a few overactors in the 80s. Ahem. Boris Karloff was wonderful as the monster - so full of pathos. You feel so much for him as he struggles to understand the world – a child inside the body of a man. A totally unrecognizable Dwight Frye rounded out this powerhouse cast as Fritz, Dr. F.'s willing, yet dimwitted assistant. Great, great film. It's on Netflix InstantWatch, so you have no excuse!
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - Amazingly, Bride is the more popular of the two Frankenstein films starring Colin Clive, but I didn't like it quite as much as the original. Elsa Lanchester's performance as the bride was absolutely superb, but the film's plot fell a tiny bit flat for me. Karloff & Clive were brilliant again, but they didn't give Clive quite enough to do in this one, focusing more on Karloff, which disappointed me a little. I know he’s the iconic monster figure, but mad scientists need love, too! Still worth a watch.
By the by, there is a terrific lack of Colin Clive as Frankenstein merchandise, which disappoints me greatly. After watching the films, I was hoping to own a figure/dolly/somesuch thing to solidify my newfound passion, but almost nothing exists! There are these brilliant models, but one must actually be somewhat of an artist to make them look half-decent. Come on, toy manufacturers - you have five million Frankenstein's monster goodies, but barely any love for the guy who created him. Get on it!
The Invisible Man (1933) - I LOVED this film, too. Claude Rains plays Dr. Jack Griffin, a man who dares to dabble in the unknown realms of science, and in the process, makes himself invisible. Little does he know, the drug he ingested (ominously named “monocane”) to complete the transformation has psychological side effects, but the drug’s power soon becomes apparent to everyone around him. Rains, although in bandages for the majority of the film, had such a fantastic voice and presence that you didn't need to see his face to appreciate his performance. I loved his maniacal laugh and total madness. There's also something sort of kinky about the fact that the good (mad) doc has to run around totally naked to remain unseen. The special effects in this film were brilliant and still hold up today.
The three aforementioned films were all directed by the brilliant James Whale, whose fictionalized biography, Gods and Monsters (a quote from Bride of Frankenstein) starring Sir Ian McKellan and Brendan Fraser is on Netflix InstantWatch. Although it’s a little slow-moving, the story is interesting, albeit tragic.
Dracula (1931) - Another brilliant film starring the man of the piercing stare, Bela Legosi as the lord of the undead, luring (un)willing women into his fold of blood-thirsty brides, and Van Helsing the only man who can stop him! Personally, although Legosi was great, I only had eyes for his fly-eating slave, Renfield, played brilliantly by Dwight Frye. Frye, who also appeared in Frankenstein as the ever-faithful Fritz, did an amazing job portraying another crazed assistant in this film. He ate up the screen with his wild eyes and manic tics.
Check out this scene for a great example of Frye’s amazing ability.
After these brilliant turns, poor Dwight became typecast as the crazed assistant for most of his brief career, but check out this youtube channel to see more of his great range. Dracula director Tod Browning also helmed the bizarre, yet awesome Freaks, which I first saw as part of a midnight film fest at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) - Again, another brilliant film. Fredric March stars as both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in an Academy Award-winning performance that deals with a man who strives to release himself from the bad or “base/id” nature of man and only keep the good and “higher” intellectual aspects. He believes the best way to achieve this is to become two separate people, thus physically severing any negative part of himself. Obviously, this leads to disaster.
March really knows how to work the camera and his little facial nuances and body language had me rewinding to watch his scenes again, and catch even more of his brilliant performance. He added these little flairs like the nervous tic of combing his unkempt hair back when he was on the verge of losing control and becoming Hyde that gave the audience a cue disaster was imminent. Great stuff. March’s career was bright in both the screen and stage realms, and he has this wonderful presence onscreen that makes me wish I could travel back in time and watch him for myself in a theatrical performance or onset. For anyone wanting to see March in another, non-horror role where he really shows his range, another film I absolutely loved was A Star is Born (1937).
Also, just for interest factor, check out these two clips:
This clip is from the first transformation scene in J&H:
And this is a scene from one of my absolute favorite films, Jean Cocteau's Orphée from 1949 with the delicious Jean Marais:
Notice the similarity between scenes? One wonders if it’s coincidental or Cocteau’s small homage to the earlier film.
A brilliant “double” motif that ran throughout J&H, echoed in physical aspects (mirrors, the use of repetitive images), dialogue (actors repeating brief lines for dramatic effect), and characters (Jekyll’s love being a brunette and Hyde’s mistress a blonde). The special effects of Jekyll’s transformation into the simian Hyde were also amazing, and reiterated the fact that practical effects accomplished a lot before the advent of CGI went and made a lot of SFX lazy and tacky. Wonderfully filmed and a definite must-watch.
I would love to get a letter like this…but that’s just me. *blush*
This was a fantastic set of films, especially for someone like myself who is so enamored by mad scientists. (Oh, for one of my very own to love!) There’s just something so endearing about a man who is determined to challenge the boundaries of science and nature itself, and make his unconventional ideas a (albeit sometimes strange!) reality. And if he goes a little crazy in the process, all the better. It’s all in the name of science, my dears.
I know I’ve only scratched the surface of the myriad of horror films made in this early golden era, so if anyone can give me any recommendations, it’s much appreciated!