Of Flickering Silver (Part 2)
This feature was originally published in Issue #16, March 2011. Words by Elton Townend Jones.
Last issue I began my crazy journey through the contents of my DVD cupboard, my mission to watch every movie I own – in chronological order. Not the best of, not the all-time greats – just the movies I own. Last issue I watched my two movies from the 1920s, and now we enter the 1930s (for a somewhat longer stay) by watching three horror pictures from Universal Studios.
Don’t be frightened now… Let’s travel back to 1931.
You may have never seen this movie, but its reach is long and it will almost certainly have entered your consciousness in some way or another. This is the first of Universal’s horror pictures, a cycle that would run on into the 1950s, taking in cadaverous monsters, mummies, invisible men, hunchbacks, mad scientists, werewolves, creatures from black lagoons and, finally, er, Abbott & Costello. This cycle of movies would make household names of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr, and filter down into our cultural consciousness to give us Twilight, True Blood and Being Human. It all starts here, with Tod Browning’s Dracula.
Despite popular belief, it’s not actually based on Bram Stoker’s original novel, but Stoker’s spin-off stage play, which is where Bela Lugosi made his debut as the Count. Consequently, the speed of this movie is somewhat slower than you might expect, even though you know it’s 70 years old. That said it’s delicious; full of enduring and iconic images that sit in the mind long after you’ve seen it. Early on, there is a stunning matte effect as a carriage races across a mountain road towards Castle Dracula. Similarly striking are both the Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey sets, both of which are vast stone constructions featuring three-storey staircases. I particularly loved the ruined castle’s frighteningly large spider’s web (and Dracula’s ability to pass harmlessly through it). Also worth noting is the delightfully 1930s setting, the gorgeous Deco Vampire women, the misty crypts, and the massacre on board ship, which is told mostly through shadow-play.
But for all of its spectacle, Dracula is easily distilled to one thing and one thing only: Bela Lugosi. Much has been said about his interpretation of the Count. Many dislike it, citing it as hammy or over the top, but Lugosi takes the role and plays it with an almost avuncular strangeness and charm. He may not be the eye candy we’ve come to expect from our vampires over the years, but his Dracula is a gentleman, urbane and well-mannered. Oh yes, he’s a blood-thirsty killer and when he arrives in Whitby he’s attired in a manner more befitting Jack the Ripper, but there are moments when it’s clear that his vampirism is a curse that pains him to the core. It’s never once alluded to in the dialogue, but just look at his face as it closes in on the camera-as-victim. Why is it contorted so? It lacks the menace we see in those other shots when his eyes are alight; what we are seeing here is the pain of eternal hunger. For that and all his other wonderful performance choices, Lugosi is, for me, the definitive screen Dracula. And not a fang in sight.
Or: One Wedding and Several Cadavers, Stitched Together and Brought Back to Life.
Made in the same year as Dracula, Frankenstein seems already to have learned from the shortcomings of its stable mate. Opening with a warning to the easily disturbed, it seems to share the same stage-play origins as its predecessor, but that really isn’t the case, because this film knows it’s been made for the cinema with a shock-hungry audience. This is a better film than Dracula, a grislier film, but, oddly enough, a more playful film – almost a black comedy at times.
The titles offer beautiful graphics of swirling eyes and a staring demonic face, mentioning a ‘Monster’ played by ‘?’. The action begins in a graveyard, with the mad scientist and his hunchbacked accomplice watching hungrily over the fence at a burial party. A grave robbery ensues, followed by the liberation of a corpse from a terrifyingly biblical gallows, and then a brain is dropped from a jar to an operating room floor. And it’s all happening in a strange, warped world, part-1930s and medieval Middle Europe (with rich location sequences full of vast, rustic crowds, all of which are impressive).
The production values match and improve upon those seen in Dracula, with director James Whale expressing the action in stylised, expressionistic terms. The whole film is rendered unreal and dream-like by twisted camera angles and long shadows; sets are built on slopes or shot on the skew. The camera gets up high and looks down upon the chaos, wrought by Colin Clive’s utterly barmy Dr Frankenstein. The ambient atmosphere is often one of violent weather, and beautifully dark clouds. Into this comes the ever-present electricity of the Monster’s activation, all spark generators and Flash Gordon-style apparatus, which almost puts us at the heart of a Tim Burton film – only 50 years too early. While the 1930s element of the production equates with the ‘now’ of the film’s contemporary audience, placing them at the heart of a futurist-gothic nightmare, 21st century audiences are able to delight in a wonderful re-imagining of the world as a dark, Deco fairy tale. It should keep on getting better with age (but I’ll warrant it won’t be too long before someone does a frame-by-frame remake for those who find black and white and the 1930s a bit too hard).
Which brings me to Boris Karloff’s ‘Monster’ – what a design classic that make-up is. We take it for granted these days, almost shying away from it for being clichéd or well-worn, but really in context, this is a wonderful interpretation of Mary Shelley’s creature. It’s not just that head and those electrodes, either. It’s those cheekbones, the huge feet, the far-too-short jacket sleeves. The Karloff incarnation is the most striking and perfectly designed cinema ‘Monster’ by a country mile – which is why it endures as an icon. And Karloff plays it with intricate, wordless brilliance. It’s an expressionistic performance, all hands and eyes and never more so in his reaching for the light or during the cold, simplistically-played murder of Little Maria.
Oh, and at the end, torch-bearing villagers set light to the Monster in a very impressive and skilfully realised windmill. What Dracula started, Frankenstein cemented, and a whole new kind of ‘gothic horror’ emerged.
Finally, this time, we move into 1932, taking ‘Karloff the Uncanny’ (as he was now known) with us…
This is bigger on atmosphere than the previous two pictures, but no less impressive in terms of production values. In fact, the whole paraphernalia of Egyptology sits happily alongside the Deco world of the protagonists.
More akin to Dracula than Frankenstein (and based on another Stoker story), The Mummy is an Occult Romance in more ways than one. Now that he has been resurrected (by magic, this time, not science), the title character’s aim is to be re-united with his forbidden love from 3,700 years ago, now that she has been reincarnated. Talk about baggage. Talk about doomed.
Karloff’s Mummy is only cadaverous at the outset of this film, wearing a rancid and desiccated make-up which looks so mouldering and rotten you can almost smell it. Thankfully, his ‘human’ form is equally scary – a mesmeric magician of a character, who benefits from frequent close ups of his hollow face and steely eyes. His presence is a brooding, dangerous one, which fills the screen beautifully, and his final disintegration is a triumph of make-up and early visual effects. Other notable effects in this picture include the manifestation of Isis within an animate (and beautifully designed) statue; the temple guards being speared to death (horrid, yes, but notable for the first use of gore in this film journey) and the scrying pool in which Karloff spies upon his enemies. This latter is used most effectively when recounting the events of 3,700 years before, as a crane shot takes us over the steaming pool and into it where the events are played out in a truly post-modern fashion: as a slightly cranked up silent movie that bears some resemblance to Cecil B DeMille’s original silent The Ten Commandments. This is Hollywood 1932, using the shorthand of its own recent history to emphasise the past to its loyal audience. Now that’s clever.