October 2022: Old School Monster Madness

No excuses here. There are reasons that I hadn’t watched any of the Universal Monster movies prior to October 2022, but I’m not going to delve into that. Any time I look up a recipe online, I have to scroll through countless paragraphs to get to what I’m ultimately there to read about, and I’m not going to do the equivalent here.

Getting right down to business, I saw all of these movies for the first time in October 2022. They had surprising uniqueness to them, even the ones filmed by the same company around the same time. Here’s what I thought of each of them, in the order I watched them:

Dracula [1931]

Having watched the BBC series DRACULA about 5 weeks before watching this, I was a bit doomed by the comparison between the two, which shared a considerable amount of their respective plots. I didn’t find this film to be particularly endearing, but I did think certain aspects of the film were well done, particularly the hypnosis Dracula uses multiple times. It’s a fairly dark and serious film, and Bela Lugosi is certainly intimidating in the role. I really liked the characterization of Van Helsing, and how he went about making the determination that the Count was a villain. My rating: 76

Frankenstein [1931]

Earlier this year, my first time ever reading the classic novel FRANKENSTEIN left me quite disappointed. The book glosses over aspects of the story that deserve more consideration, but the movie dives right in. We come along for the late night grave robbery and taking bodies down from the gallows. We get the excitement from Dr. Frankenstein as he first animates The Monster. These are moments I had seen clips of throughout the years and had expected to read in the book, to no avail. The film truly showed the depravity of the doctor and gave a considerably more satisfying conclusion than the book. It wasn’t great, but it was a marked improvement from the source material, which isn’t typically the case with adaptations. My rating: 76

The Wolf Man [1941]

In the first half of this movie, I was shocked by just how good the writing was, and how much I was enjoying the story. If someone had told me that I was going to enjoy The Wolf Man far more than either of the predecessor classics Dracula or Frankenstein, I wouldn’t believe it. I really liked how things unfolded, how the mythology was presented, and how things weren’t nearly as straightforward as they could’ve been (especially when compared to other films on this list. Significantly (and pleasantly) surprised. My rating: 86

The Invisible Man [1933]

A couple things pleasantly surprised me in this one. As it was made in the early 1930s, I wasn’t expecting much from the special effects, but the scene of The Invisible Man unwrapping the bandages from his head and being invisible was far more realistic than I thought possible of that point in special effects work. The other thing that was a pleasant surprise for me was the character’s depiction, because it wasn’t as straightforward as I initially thought it would be. I liked the idea that part of the cause of his invisibility also caused some mental instability. There were times where I thought it got a bit too campy, however, and that’s why it didn’t score higher. My rating: 76

Horror of Dracula [1958]

It felt like only appropriate to see the first installment of the Christopher Lee characterization of Dracula this month to help round out the experience of having watched the 1931 film. Oddly enough I found the character more horrifying but also a bit less intimidating, as if the danger was greater, but only for those who didn’t fight back. Near the end of the scene, when Peter Cushing chases Christopher Lee up through the castle, it made Dracula look cowardly, and the resulting “fight” between the two didn’t help, either. That only set it back to level playing field with the 1931 film, as it was stronger in multiple other areas, like the cinematography and depiction of the castle. It also had a stronger sexuality to it, which I’d argue is an essential aspect of the character.

The highlight of this film, though, was the inclusion of two other actors. The first is Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, whom I was only previously familiar with from his work in the original Star Wars film. The second was Michael Gough, whom I am fond of due to his role as Alfred from the four Batman movies starting in 1989. Those, too, are the roles that helped give more depth to this film, and it would have scored higher than its predecessor were it not for a mostly underwhelming conclusion. My rating: 76

The Mummy [1959] and The Mummy [1932]

Even as I write this, it’s hard to keep straight in my head which is which, because my expectations were turned upside-down. The 1959 version had a more basic and terrifying Mummy monster, wrapped and faceless, relentlessly seeking out its targets. The 1932 version was less terrifying, with the Mummy looking like an ordinary human. The story of the 1932 version was more in-depth, which I found surprising, but it lost points for not being as scary as the later version. I’m still not sure which version I would recommend seeing first, because the strong points of each (1932’s story; 1959’s unrelenting terror) make for slight disappointments in the other. My ratings:
1959 rating: 76
1932 rating: 73

Bride of Frankenstein [1935]

For everything that Frankenstein got right, the sequel got very wrong. The first few minutes of this film totally destroyed the ending of its predecessor, illogically reviving the prior film’s monster AND Dr. Frankenstein. The monster became a goofy killing machine, and somehow befriended a blind violinist. The worst part of the film might have been the miniature humans created by a rival scientist of Dr. Frankenstein. There’s considerable potential for an interesting story of what would happen if a “bride” was created to give Frankenstein’s monster a companion, but I was disappointed that she didn’t show up until the film’s final five minutes, and was of little consequence. If you view this film as a comedy, I’m sure there’s lots to love. As I tweeted about my frustrations and distaste for BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the notion of it being a comedy was suggested to me, but because the various movie sites list it as a horror / fantasy and don’t even mention that it might be a “comedy”, that’s how I’ll grade it, and honestly, were it not for others talking about how much they love it as a comedy, the score would be lower. My rating: 38

Creature from the Black Lagoon [1954]

As evidenced from how many other films I saw before it, I clearly wasn’t enthusiastic for my first viewing of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. So imagine my surprise when it turned out to be my favorite of the monster movies I’ve seen. There was a decent plot, with a fun little love triangle that seemed to become a square with the Creature trying to get involved. The acting was decent, and I was really surprised how much they actually filmed in the water with characters swimming around. If this were made in 2004 instead of fifty years prior, I probably wouldn’t be as impressed, but I enjoyed it. My rating: 86

Nosferatu [1922]

I think maybe I don’t have the patience for silent movies. Watching NOSFERATU was a chore, by which I mean I fell asleep a couple times and had to rewind a bit to make sure I was still following along. The plot was easy to follow, since it’s essentially the same plot that most older Dracula films follow, with some slight changes I didn’t much care for. It still follows a person helping the titular vampire buy real estate in his soon-to-be new hunting grounds, but in this “classic” adaptation, the vampire is named Orlock instead of Dracula, and he’s so grotesque that he’s clearly not human. All told, it just wasn’t a fun movie to watch, and it was over-dramatic to the point of almost being campy. My rating: 34

Werewolf of London [1935]

I’m not quite sure why I hadn’t realized that this was the first werewolf movie of the era, and I wish I had seen it first. It’s not that I prefer this to THE WOLF MAN, because I don’t, but it felt “larger” somehow. Where THE WOLF MAN was smaller in scale, following a man’s journey as he tried to figure out what was wrong with him and wanted to protect the woman he loved, WEREWOLF OF LONDON serves to help establish what it would mean for a city to have a werewolf among the populous and the terror caused each full moon. A strength of the film was in how they showed the desperation of not just one man battling with being so afflicted, but another man as well, and a police force not inclined to believe their city’s problem dealt with a supernatural element. At times, LONDON slows down a bit, which is the only reason its score is down a notch from the other. I look forward to showing both of these films to my son. My rating: 80

Phantom of the Opera [1943]

The last remaining of the Universal Monster movies I hadn’t seen was one I hadn’t even realized existed before I looked up what all was on the list. I’m vaguely familiar with the play, having seen a large scale, professional production (think Broadway, but not in New York) about fifteen years ago. I knew the basic plot but none of the character names, but the biggest thing I was interested in seeing was how it comes across without the famous soundtrack, or to what extent the Broadway musical paid homage to this film in any way with its songs. Best I could tell, it didn’t. At least not with any of the more memorable songs. But this was a decent movie regardless, with its more interesting scenes coming in the final 20 minutes with a strong ending that made up for a moderately boring first half. It wasn’t much of a “monster” movie, nor was it very thrilling or horrifying. My rating: 60

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