creature features: son of frankenstein (rowland v. lee, 1939)

Universal's third Frankenstein movie is the last with Boris Karloff. Director Rowland V. Lee does a solid job, supposedly reworking the script as he shot the film to give more emphasis to Bela Lugosi's Ygor. The movie has the look of German expressionism, and it's effective. The novelty of the monster has worn off, but this is still a decent picture, arguably the last time the Frankenstein story is played mostly straight by Universal.

The absence of James Whale reduces the amount of obvious queer subtext, but the acting lends a definite feel of camp to the proceedings. Basil Rathbone as the titular son, Lionel Atwill as a one-armed police inspector, and Bela Lugosi as Ygor all overact outrageously ... Lugosi, who is used to such things, comes off best, and some consider this his finest performance. Meanwhile, Boris Karloff once again imbues the monster with pathos, but he isn't as central to the picture (and he has lost the ability to speak that he showed in Bride of Frankenstein). He is the best thing about the movie, avoiding the camp stylings of his co-stars.

Son of Frankenstein goes on too long ... it's more than 20 minutes longer than its predecessors ... it's good compared to what followed, but it is clearly the least of the three Karloff Frankenstein films.


creature features: dracula's daughter (lambert hillyer, 1936)

Although it came 5 years later, this was the actual sequel to Dracula, starting off with the deaths of Dracula and Renfield. It's slow moving, and not particularly interesting, but the subtext has fascinated analysts to this day. There were suggestions of lesbianism in the script, but by the time the film made the screen, the Code had taken care of that. So you have to look pretty hard to see it. But once you've seen it, you can't shake it. Dracula's daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), wants to be freed from the curse of being a vampire, but her impulses get the best of her time and time again. A couple of her victims are women, and the element of seduction which underlies so many vampire stories is here as well. It has also been argued that the isolation from society the Countess feels reflects the status of lesbians at the time.

All of this is enough to get us through the short running time, but don't exaggerate its greatness. Eventually, movies got more explicit, and subtext often moved to context. I saw 1970's The Vampire Lovers at a drive-in, and it was filled with nudity and horseplay among the women. But in fairness, it wasn't any better than Dracula's Daughter ... nudity didn't guarantee quality.

Here is a scene from Dracula's Daughter, where the Countess takes a woman off the street to pose for a painting:

And something from The Vampire Lovers:


creature features: werewolf of london (stuart walker, 1935)

Universal's first stab at the werewolf genre, six years before Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolfman. While movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man were based on literary sources, Werewolf of London was basically invented out of thin air (it was the first feature-length werewolf movie). Much of the lore we think of when werewolves come to mind was invented here.

Werewolf of London is one of the few early Universal monster movies I had never seen. Like the others, it's quick, wasting little time getting to the good stuff. The makeup wherein the doctor turns into a wolf is similar to what Chaney Jr. underwent for The Wolfman. It's OK "for its time", even if it seems old-fashioned now. Overall, it's an OK film but no classic, eventually replaced in our minds with the version Chaney Jr. gave us. Henry Hull, who plays the lead, had a long career, with his last movie coming in 1966 (one of my favorites, The Chase). Valerie Hobson, who was Frankenstein's wife in The Bride of Frankenstein, once again plays the scientist's wife (she was 18 years old, working opposite much older men). Warner Oland, a Swede who played Charlie Chan in many movies, is also in The Werewolf of London ... he died a few years later. And Spring Byington turns up (in the 1950s, she starred in the radio/TV series December Bride).


creature features: the invisible man (james whale, 1933)

James Whale once again lends his particular brand of horror to Universal, following Frankenstein and The Old Dark House with The Invisible Man. This latest film looks ahead to The Bride of Frankenstein, although to my taste Whale overdoes the humor here. The Bride is many things, funny being only one of them, while The Invisible Man is mostly special effects that still impress 90 years later and some over-the-top comedic acting.

Claude Rains makes what is effectively his screen debut. I don't think of him as having a particularly recognizable voice, yet from the moment the Invisible Man speaks, you know it's Rains. Una O'Connor is basically comic relief, and a little goes a long way, but she makes more sense ... when Rains is goofing, it makes the movie less horror than slapstick, while O'Connor is only there for the laughs.

There's nothing really noteworthy about the movie in the end, beyond those special effects. Gloria Stuart has the female lead, and she had a fascinating career (no, a fascinating life ... among other things, she lived to be 100), culminating when she played old Kate Winslet in Titanic and got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. The Invisible Man is worth a watch if you haven't seen it, nothing more. It does have a surprisingly large kill count, if that matters to you.


creature features: revisiting the mummy (karl freund, 1932)

Sometime in the past, I wrote of The Mummy:

This is appropriately moody, and Boris Karloff is typically excellent. The problem is that the Mummy isn’t the most fascinating monster Universal came up with in their glory years. He’s not a vampire, he’s not a man-made creature, he’s not a werewolf, he’s just a guy in a tattered outfit with a jones for his lady love of 3700 years ago. It’s probably true that this is the best Mummy movie ever made. That’s just not as big a compliment as it sounds.

Watching it again, I'd say I understated the interest the Mummy evokes in us. Truthfully, he's at least as fascinating as Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. But he's not very scary.

Director Karl Freund is a legendary figure in film history, although not for his directing. Freund was a cinematographer, one of the most innovative of his time. Later in his career, he was the cinematographer for I Love Lucy, also innovative in its day. Apparently, being nice to Zita Johann was not one of his finer points ... Johann, who played the reincarnation of the Mummy's love (or something like that), did not get along with Freund (or vice versa). There are numerous stories that Freund mistreated her during the filming of the movie. It doesn't show up on the screen, for what it's worth.


creature features: frankenstein (james whale, 1931)

After the success of Dracula, Universal went to the well a second time for Frankenstein, based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Like Dracula, it had been a stage play, but while the movie Dracula was itself stage bound, James Whale and company moved away from that, immediately making Frankenstein a more interesting movie. The concept of a man creating a man clearly fascinates ... there had already been three film adaptations before James Whale came along, and since then, it's been a non-stop procession of Monsters on film. There were the literal sequels, of which Bride of Frankenstein is to my mind the best of all Frankenstein movies. There was Universal's crossover, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, another favorite of mine. In the 1950s, Hammer Films gave us Peter Cushing as the doctor and Christopher Lee as the monster. (There are at least 7 Hammer Frankenstein films.) There was Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter in 1966, the Mel Brooks' comedy Young Frankenstein, versions with Randy Quaid and later Robert De Niro as the monster, all leading up to to 2023's Oscar-bait film Poor Things.

The number one reason the 1931 version still resonates is the performance of Boris Karloff. He didn't do it all by himself ... the script was tailored to make the monster more sympathetic. But Karloff is brilliant, setting up a long career in horror (he was already in his 40s when the film was made). Despite Bela Lugosi's iconic presence in Dracula, Frankenstein is a huge step up in quality, the first real classic of the Universal Monsters series. It's #646 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

As you can imagine, even for a pre-Code film, there was some outrage and some censorship. The end of this scene was edited in many showings:

What was the moment that stepped over the line? When Frankenstein says, "Now I know what it feels like to be Gods!"

James Whale wasn't done. Still to come was The Bride of Frankenstein, one of the greatest sequels in film history.


creature features: dracula (tod browning, 1931)

Universal Pictures had made horror films before Dracula, such as the Lon Chaney versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. But various home-video repackagings of old Universal horror starting in 1991 have eventually resulted in what is called the "Universal Classic Monsters" series. This "universe" is similar to what companies like Marvel and DC Comics have done with their characters. According to the Universal "canon", Dracula is the first film in the series.

It remains the most iconic of all Dracula films, thanks to the performance of Bela Lugosi. And rightly so ... even in 2024, someone doing an impression of Dracula is likely to use a Lugosi accent. The problem is that Lugosi's performance is iconic, but poor, much like the movie itself. It's not just Lugosi's fault ... all of the characters seem to have instructed to read their lines with slow, pause-filled excess. Combined with the stagey production (the film is based more on a play based on the novel than on the novel itself), this 1931 Dracula is a disappointment, important historically but not particularly good in the end. Karl Freund's cinematography is impressive (and Freund's work overall was important enough that he was essentially an uncredited co-director), and some of the sets are properly atmospheric. But again the stage roots show through ... too much of the film takes place in small rooms, filled with awkwardly-delivered dialogue. It wasn't until Frankenstein, released later the same year, that Universal got it right.


geezer cinema: godzilla minus one (takashi yamazaki, 2023)

Depending on who's counting, there are close to 40 Godzilla movies at this point. I've now seen 11 or 12 of them. Before Minus One, I considered the 2014 version directed by Gareth Edwards to be the best. Now, I can't decide. So I'll break it down and say that Godzilla Minus One is the best Japanese Godzilla movie ever.

You can't have a good Godzilla movie without a well-made monster, and Minus One pulls that off and then some. Many (most?) Godzilla movies include other monsters with whom Godzilla fights or, occasionally, teams up with. Minus One returns to the 1954 original: there are no other monsters. I would argue that there are two keys that make Minus One such a fine movie (not just a fine Godzilla movie). One is that Yamazaki takes us back in time. Minus One begins in 1945, at the end of World War II. This returns us to the concept of Godzilla as a manifestation of the horrors of post-atomic bomb Japan. There is no explicit connection between Godzilla and Hiroshima/Nagasaki, but later in the film, Godzilla mutates to a much larger size because of U.S. nuclear tests. Also, when Japan asks for help, the Americans decline, saying they don't want to upset the tenuous relations with the Soviet Union.

The second key is the human characters. You don't realize until you see Minus One just how unimportant humans are in most monster movies. They are there to further the plot or to speechify explanations of what is happening. But Yamazaki gives us characters of depth, gives them arcs that are believable and that we care about. It's not that this part of Minus One is great ... good, sure, but this is still Godzilla we're talking about. But good character arcs are so rare in a movie like this that we get involved in their actions. When the character drama takes center stage, you don't wonder what Godzilla is doing ... you want to know how those characters are doing.

This results in perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire movie. When Godzilla Minus One comes to an end, there's not a dry eye in the house. And it's not because we feel sorry for the big fella ... there is nothing likable about this Godzilla. No, it's the people who elicit an emotional reaction that is earned, not cheap. That as much as anything is why I place Godzilla Minus One at the top of the Godzilla list.


geezer cinema: godzilla, mothra and king ghidorah: giant monsters all-out attack (shusuke kaneko, 2001)

The first Geezer movie in a month, and we had to deal with a few holdups. It was my turn to pick, and I got tickets for Black Adam, but I wasn't feeling too good, so I exchanged them for tickets the next day. But we didn't feel much better, so we opted to stay home. I read that November 3 is Godzilla Day, so I hunted down a Godzilla movie for us to watch. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack got some good reviews, so I chose that one.

I've seen a lot of Godzilla movies, although not as many as the real fans. I saw the original from 1954, saw Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), and many more, right up to last year's Godzilla vs. Kong (my favorite is the 2014 Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla). I looked up some info about this new-to-me movie ... fans were looking forward to it because director Shusuke Kaneko had done good things with a Gamera reboot (three films in the late 90s). GMK (as it is known to fans) is something of a reboot itself, existing in a universe where only the original happened (although there's a brief dig at the 1998 American crapfest). It's 50 years later, and Godzilla hasn't been seen since 1954. But he turns up, and in this one, he is a pure bad guy. The other titular giant monsters rise to fight him, along with Baragon, who for some reason doesn't make it into the title. There is some humor that I couldn't tell whether it was intentional, acting that was reasonably good (especially from Chiharu Niiyama), and excellent special effects beyond the guys in monster suits (not just guys ... Rie Ōta was Baragon, and she was the first female suit actor to be a kaiju in a Godzilla movie). It's entirely possible this is a better movie than Black Adam ... maybe we made out in the end.


the mysterians (ishirō honda, 1957)

Anything I watch while on vacation will be driven by devices. If I'm going to watch a movie on my Kindle, I'm not picking a big-screen classic. Criterion is streaming lots of horror movies this October, including a bunch of Japanese movies from Ishirō Honda that were staples of my TV watching as a kid. The Mysterians came fairly early in his monster-movie career, and before he died, Honda said it was his favorite.

These posts will mostly be quickies... I'm typing this on my phone, for instance, which encourages brevity. The Mysterians is more science-fiction than monster movie, as an alien race from a destroyed planet comes to Earth ("in peace") looking for a place to relocate. No one takes them seriously... All they want is a small piece of land. They also want to teach the Earth people about the dangers of nuclear war (the reason their planet was destroyed). Like I say, sounds OK to me, but the reactions by the humans are completely hostile, with first the Japanese and then the entire Earth increasing their military response (and failing against the superior technology of the aliens). 

Oh, there's one more thing: the aliens are largely radioactive, they have trouble making healthy babies, so they want to take a few female humans for mating purposes. 

It's all predictably loony. It's fun watching these movies with subtitles. It's as if they quit being Saturday afternoon junk and become art films. The effects are good in The Mysterians. But I think it's a stretch to call it a clear classic outside of its genre.