Tagged Universal Pictures

Isolated Paranoia: John Carpenter’s The Thing


John Carpenter’s The Thing. 1982. Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, from a story by John W. Campbell Jr.
Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Masur, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, and Donald Moffat. Universal Pictures/Turman-Foster Company. Rated R. 109 minutes.
Horror/Science Fiction

★★★★★
2uffzarIt’s hard to choose a favourite filmmaker. For me, and for many, there are tons of great directors out there. Especially when you consider the different genres. I often have a hard time saying I like one director – who happens to stick with a certain genre – over another, simply because I feel particular directors are best within certain genres. Still there are a handful of them I’d place at the top of my personal list.
One such filmmaker is John Carpenter.
Not only does Carpenter direct, he is a master of his craft. Something I’ve always admired about his style is that he likes to do his own scores, which is a big part of his overall aesthetic (funny enough – this movie isn’t scored by him: it’s the prolific Ennio Morricone, so fucking awesome regardless!). He pretty much has what I’d call an auteur style. Nobody does horror-thriller as good as him.
The Thing brings all of the best aspects of Carpenter together, alongside the solid performances of the likes of Kurt Russell and Keith David, as well as Morricone’s wonderfully suspenseful and effective score. This is not just one of the best horror movies from the 1980s, it’s one of the best horror movies. Ever. What starts out like a tense thriller evolves into a horrifically existential science fiction film, all based on John W. Campbell Jr’s short story “Who Goes There?” (also the basis of this 1951 film). I can never get enough of the dreadful, isolated horror Carpenter brings out in this movie. There’s a reason people always talk about this one. And a damn good reason Carpenter is a master of horror.
the-thing-ufoAt an American base in the Antarctic, a chopper chases a dog across the snowy mountains equipped with a man holding a high-powered rifle. When the American crew – including R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley), Childs (Keith David) +more – come out they discover two crazed Norwegians. One tries to throw a grenade but blows up their chopper. The other, aiming for the dog, shoots George Bennings (Peter Maloney), so one of the crew shoot him dead.
At first it seems as if the men simply went insane up in the wilderness. However, after the dog transforms into a hideously deformed creature, MacReady and the crew start to deal with a situation beyond their control. Some sort of virus seems to be spreading, but no one is able to tell who it’s infecting – moving from person to person, The Thing inhabits anyone’s skin it wishes.
Will any of them survive? And if they do, is it really them?
the-thing-1982-1080p-mkv_snapshot_00-33-19_2011-06-10_20-29-06Carpenter really sets up his atmosphere well, in every film. Almost none better than The Thing, as he starts out first with a long cinematic stare into space. From there we move to the Antarctic wilderness, vast landscapes of nearly nothing except for the white snow stretching on for miles and miles. It’s an appropriate way to give us that immediate sense of isolation. Once the exterior isolation is setup, Carpenter moves inside to where all the human elements of the story come into play. Then, furthermore, we start to get their sense of isolation – from the moment you see Mac drinking, playing around on the computer and then dumping a couple shots of J.B. into it, there’s an obvious idea of how sick this guy is with his lodgings up north. It only gets better from there, but I’ve always thought the film’s opening sequence really made the isolation sink it quickly, yet easily.
Not only the isolated feeling, either. With the Norwegians chasing the dog, the chopper exploding after a fumbled grenade toss, adrenaline is flowing hard. The tension is instantaneous and you’re already champing at the bit for what’s coming next. The music, the cinematography, the actors – all pistons are pumping. Carpenter is good for this usually. Again, though, I’m inclined to say one of his best instances is here in The Thing. Carpenter’s sense of atmosphere and tone is so important to what makes him great, as well as unique in the horror genre.
the-thing-1982-screenshot-5While most Carpenter movies have stellar effects, The Thing boasts such an innovative and terrifying creature. It’s truly epic (a word that is overused improperly; I used it in seriousness). Honestly, after the dog becomes that hulking, massive monster, the first time I witnessed it I was awestruck for a minute or two. I still am, really. Such good effects, plus it’s unexpected. Even as I watch it again now, for the who-knows-how-many-times, there is an aspect to that scene I always find reels me in. Plus, afterwards there’s the scene with Dr. Blair (Brimley) dissecting The Thing; even the look on Brimley’s face, his disgust, it makes you almost smell the nasty reek of this alien creature’s insides. Downright incredible, these special effects. From start to finish this movie has such carefully crafted practical effects, you can’t help but admire the work put in.
The entire film isn’t built on effects, nor is it solely leaning on horrific elements to make its mark. Only other stuff Bill Lancaster wrote was Bad News Bears-related. With The Thing, adapted from Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” (great read by the way – check it out), Lancaster did some solid work. The screenplay is tight, it’s mysterious and has a ton of suspense, which the master Carpenter draws out perfectly with his style. There are genuinely creepy aspects I find unsettling. Such as when the crew starts watching the grainy videos, then they make their way out to the crater where the ship is sunk down, I find that entire portion so impressive! Morricone’s score is beyond perfectly fitting, it has that classic horror movie feel to it and at the same time there’s stuff you could call very archetypal Morricone (a.k.a dig it). So I’m actually amazed Lancaster did so well with this script, considering he’s never done anything else science fiction or horror. Hats off. Put into the hands of Carpenter this story soars to a new level of terror.
the-thing-original-1There a few performances in The Thing which help it greatly. Kurt Russell, obviously, is one of the reasons this movie kicks ass. They could’ve put a lot of actors in this role and it would’ve been all right. But with Russell there’s that little extra charisma, he’s tough and yet there isn’t some kind of superhero-ness about him. He gets afraid like anyone else in the same situation. Russell and Carpenter work well together, this may be the pinnacle; I dig Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, but there’s something so perfect about this movie I can’t help single it out as their best collaboration. Then on top of Russell’s skill, Keith David does a nice job – he also did They Live 6 years later with Carpenter, wish he’d been in more of his films. And as much as Brimley gets shit for the “diabeetus” kick, he is spot on here; that scene when he flips and everyone tries to bear down on him, I always thought it was a great moment and shows how well Brimley can play a good character when he wants. Plus his fit lends to some more of the isolated, desolate feeling happening from there on in. All around excellent cast.
Vlcsnap-2011-12-30-07h42m32s88The Thing is a 5 star film. Without any shadow of a doubt. There’s so much happening. Above anything else, there’s a supremely existential terror flowing throughout almost every scene. Once The Thing takes hold, nobody knows who is who, who to trust, and it moves from one person to the next, some times even to animals. So there’s this incredibly dreadful horror at play. Then you throw in John Carpenter’s tense style, Ennio Morricone and his suspense-filled score, a well written screenplay with good actors to play it all out. What a mix!
If you’ve never seen this, my god, get out and watch it soon. Not only that, read the original short story by Campbell, as well as see the 1951 adaptation The Thing from Another World, which was a huge influence on Carpenter overall but especially for this film (obviously). I can never forget this movie, and it’s one I’ll put in any time I need a real creep.

Wes Craven & Ronald Reagan: Socioeconomic Horror in The People Under the Stairs

The People Under the Stairs. 1991. Directed & Written by Wes Craven.
Starring Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J Langer, and Ving Rhames. Universal Pictures. Rated R. 102 minutes.
Comedy/Horror/Mystery.

★★★★ (Film)
★1/2 (Blu ray release)

I really have a thing for Wes Craven. Do you think he knows?
He’s written and directed some incredibly disturbing, unsettling, and wild horror films. Let’s count the great ones, shall we? The Last House on the LeftThe Hills Have EyesSwamp ThingA Nightmare on Elm StreetThe Hills Have Eyes Part II (maybe I’ll draw some ire by planting that one in here, but I love it, and think it’s unfairly maligned by a lot of critics and horror fans), The Serpent and the Rainbow (directing credit only), Wes Craven’s New NightmareScream (directing again only).
This is not to mention the bunch of other fun horror films he’s had a had in producing, such as FeastWishmaster, and the fantastic remake of his own The Hills Have Eyes. I mean, for A Nightmare on Elm Street alone Craven gets a spot on the top horror masters of all time. Brilliance. But there are a few of his films (such as the aforementioned sequel to his The Hills Have Eyes) which don’t get the credit they deserve.

Cue: The People Under the Stairs.

peopleunderthestairsAt first the film could appear to be a crime thriller about some robbers, but (aside from having Craven’s name on it) you can quickly tell it isn’t going to be the same old story. The film starts off with “Fool” Williams living in a ghetto in L.A. His family is soon to be evicted. Luckily, or realistically unfortunately, for Fool, he knows Leroy who is a lifetime criminal. They quickly decide to rob The Robesons, who lovingly call themselves Mommy & Daddy (played fabulously by former onscreen husband & wife in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Wendy Robie and Everett McGill), who live in a big, old house with only their daughter Alice. Once they get inside the house, hoping to find all the supposed riches the Robesons have hidden away, they discover, to their horrible surprise, it isn’t any treasure Mommy & Daddy have been hiding; the secrets in the house are far worse.

I really love the trailers for The People Under the Stairs because it has such a creepy, dreadful feeling. It starts with the ominous “in every neighbourhoodthere is a house that even the adults talk about“, or something similar. Just superbly disturbing. Once you get into the film, past the bits of ham, there are some wild bits that really creeped me out. In particular, Everett McGill puts on a suit at one point that turned me away, by pure fright, from leather – long before I ever enjoyed the devilishly fun first season of American Horror Story, and the Rubber Man.
gimpsuitOne thing I love is how hard Craven attacks the Reagan era. Particularly, you can see how he is really skewed in the Mommy and Daddy naming of the two crazy people who own the house. It’s known that Ronald often called his wife Nancy Reagan “Mommy”. While Nancy called the Commander-in-chief “Ronnie”, you can still see, along with the rest of the film skewing his era of presidency, how the names Mommy and Daddy were certainly meant to really poke at the political & social commentary of The People Under the Stairs. Even at one point when Fool is looking around the house, he comes across a television set, which is clearly blaring graphic news reports of armed forces conflict (most likely they’re videos from the Gulf War which ended the same year this film was released). I mean, Daddy even stalks Fool and Leroy around the house, eventually shooting Lero, using a high-powered pistol with a red dot sight on it. The artillery Daddy is packing in that house is beyond simple home protection. I think there’s a little message about guns, or at least the military, under Reagan floating around here.

It all lines up, with the plot itself of course, to be very clear Craven doesn’t only intend this as a sometimes campy other times disturbing little horror flick. There’s more than meets the eye.
xDP7rThe acting here is generally pretty good. Rhames is decent in his small part. Really it’s McGill and Robie who shine here. They’re perfect for the role. Of course, they were also perfect on Twin Peaks, so I didn’t doubt they’d do a great job here. Everyone else fills out the cast just fine for the most part.

The People Under the Stairs is mainly all about the plot and story. I liked where it all went. It was disturbing and creepy. Plus, there are some fun and camp-ish moments that really fit well with the overall film. I really do think this movie works as a social metaphor. I’ve seen a few good theories. One in particular talked about how there was, especially around that time in the late 80’s and going into the 90’s, a big divide between those being oppressed and those who were aware of the oppression. Maybe even not so much the times, it’s something that always happens. Generally, until a situation completely boils over (such as it would in 1991 after the Gulf War ended and then Rodney was beaten a month later, one of the many, continuing brutalities committed by police against black men), there are pockets of society unaware of how serious a particular group is being oppressed, and often times eradicated. Here, we see a couple black people break into a home only to discover there are white people literally trapped in the walls. The divide between these two groups being held down are Mommy and Daddy, perfectly representative of Ronald Reagan and his administration in the White House.
I don’t know – maybe it’s nonsense. But I happen to agree with the person who was giving out the theory. Others seem to agree. I don’t mean it’s a perfectly and amazingly profound film, it’s still a weird and wild horror, but there is definitely something else behind it. Craven intended The People Under the Stairs to speak both to horror fans, as well as those looking for a bit of social commentary in their movie-going experience.
thepeopleunderthestairsparents-600x325As a film, I’d absolutely have no problem saying this is worth 4 out of 5 stars. I think Craven has taken a few missteps in his career, but this is not one of them. Some don’t particularly put this at the top of his filmography. Me, however, I believe it’s one of the better written horrors Craven has done simply because there is bit more meat to it; it isn’t all blood and guts and scares. There is a little dark comedy, some hammy acting, and disturbing moments, all wrapped into one package. I dig it.

The Blu ray is not great. Aside from the picture, there is nothing worth talking about. Literally nothing. You can put on subtitles, pause the film, or look through its chapters. Other than that? Don’t count on wiling away the hours on special features. There are none at all. Too bad. I wouldn’t have minded a bit of behind-the-scenes stuff, a featurette or two. Nothing here.
It’s still worth it to own this fun horror on Blu ray. The picture quality is fabulous. Makes a great 1990’s horror classic look pristine. If you haven’t yet experienced The People Under the Stairs do yourself a favour and watch it soon. Especially if you’re a fan of Craven; this one deserves more attention and less ridicule. I think it’s a solid horror, a little different from most. There are even some pretty gory bits just before the hour mark hits. This definitely stands out among a lot of shitty 1990’s horror.

Stretch Tries But Stretches Too Thin

Stretch. 2014.  Dir. Joe Carnahan. Screenplay by Carnahan from a story by himself, Jerry Corley & Rob Rose.
Starring Patrick Wilson, Chris Pine, Brooklyn Decker, Ed Helms, Jessica Alba, and James Badge Dale. Universal Pictures.
Rated R. 94 minutes.
Action/Comedy/Thriller

★★★

When Stretch opens up, you see Patrick Wilson, playing the titular character Stretch (get it? – he drives a limo), come flying out of a car window. He does a bit of a flip and comes skidding down the pavement. When he rolls upright Stretch is still smoking a cigarette. He gets up, has a puff, and walks away. Right off the bat, Joe Carnahan is letting you know this is another adrenaline fest already with a similar feel to his 2006 bad ass action flick Smokin’ Aces. That’s nothing bad because I personally loved that film.

And things only get wilder from that opening moment on.

stretch-posterStretch isn’t having a particularly great day. After he catches us up on life as he knows it, a bad year or two really, we see him try to carry on and get through the day.
See, Stretch gambles. He owes about $6,000 to some fairly tough looking dudes. And he owes it by midnight. Luckily, a friend at the limo agency where he drives for a living, Charlie (Alba), agrees to send big business his way to help him seal off the debt. A big fish lands in his lap: Roger Karos (played hilariously and wildly by Chris Pine). This is where things really get interesting.

Stretch feels similar to Smokin’ Aces mainly in how it has a lot of interesting characters. Not only that, the characters are outrageous. For instance, the first time we meet Karos he lands on top of Stretch’s car. Then he slides down onto the hood. For those who’d like to be prepared, you get a nice view of Pine’s scrotum. I laughed so damn hard. Karos continues to entertain – over and over.
Then, of course, there’s Ed Helms who plays Karl (with a K), another limo driver. He literally haunts Stretch, after previously having taken his own life. He shows up at just the right time, every time. My favourite is at one point when Stretch’s limo gets commandeered for a quick little joyride; Karl shows up just to have a nice hearty laugh at his still-living buddy. Dig it.
stretchThere is a lot to enjoy about Stretch as a film. The action, no surprise as this is a Carnahan joint, is really exciting. A lot of it feels really spontaneous, which I love. And the same thing goes for the comedy. There were times I wasn’t expecting it, then all of a sudden a string of great joke comes out of the woodwork, and I’m killing myself laughing. Even just some great little throwaway lines end up coming off as real comedy gold. Wilson alone has about a baker’s dozen worth of one-off lines that really did me in. Absolutely hilarious writing, and great delivery on the part of several of the actors.

Another little bit about Carnahan’s style in this film I really enjoyed were the onscreen visuals he added in like the timer on the watch, the massive Arab’s (if he isn’t Arab I apologize – I’m only guessing) speech while he screams at Stretch, the text conversation between Stretch and the woman he met trying out online dating. These tiny pieces just add a lot of flavour to Stretch, making it something really fun.
75All in all, I have to say Stretch is a fantastic and thrilling ride of a film. It isn’t often an action comedy-style film really gets me. I’m more a horror-thriller type, though I enjoy all style and genres. But it’s not regularly I see something in the same category as Stretch that really prompts me to get excited, laugh out loud, and enjoy myself thoroughly.
That being said, the ending stinks in this one. I was actually crossing my fingers, praying out loud, that the end wouldn’t finish on the note I’d been predicting. Then the last few minutes played out, it was exactly what I’d predicted, and it automatically took things down a notch. Really, really did not like that ending. Totally shifts gears and breaks the tone of the film. Things go from crazy to feeling like a sappy romantic comedy in the final moments.

For that reason, I’m only giving this 3 out of 5 stars. I really wanted to give it about 4, maybe even 4.5, but the ending plants it firmly at 3. If Carnahan opted for another way to finish it off, I would’ve really been happy. However, this end took the wind out of a truly solid action thriller with tons of comedy and a really unique, adrenaline-filled tone. Regardless, I say check it out! The ending doesn’t totally ruin the film or anything, I’m just not a fan. The rest of the film? Absolutely worth seeing.
Patrick-Wilson-in-STRETCH-e1412723988173Stretch is now available on VOD, as well as through iTunes & Amazon, and now on Blu ray/DVD. Get a copy and have some fun.

The Bride of Frankenstein is a Horror Sequel Classic

The Bride of Frankenstein.  1935. Dir. James Whale. Screenplay by William Hurlbut.
Starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Gavin Gordon, Douglas Walton, and Una O’Connor. Universal Pictures.
Rated G.  75 minutes.
Comedy/Drama/Horror

★★★★ (Film)
★★★★ (Blu ray release)

For my earlier Blu ray review of James Whale’s original Frankenstein click here.

I can tell you one thing off the bat – I really could have done without Gavin Gordon’s eloquently rolling speech as Lord Byron in the opening scene. Really love how the film starts, I just cannot handle his dialogue. It nearly prompted me to fast forward, but I rarely ever do that.
Plus, if I did that I would’ve missed a beautiful shot I love: as the present day gives way to the story’s plot, starting after The Monster has apparently died and fire burns, the camera pulls away from Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley while they all talk about her story Frankenstein. This shot slays me. It is as beautiful as anything you could ever see. The camera hauls back, transitioning to the story, and while it does we see the room grow larger and larger, looming around Byron and the Shelleys. There’s a haunting quality to it.

The Bride of Frankenstein - Poster - American - 1935The Bride of Frankenstein for me is almost better than its predecessor. It has to do with the fact I didn’t particularly care for a lot of the changes the first film made to Shelley’s original novel. Where The Bride of Frankenstein is itself a new story, inspired by parts of the original novel and of course the film before, it thrilled me more because it was James Whale taking on fresh material; essentially, building on his vision of Frankenstein further.

There is a little bit more hamming in regards to acting. You can’t let that take away from this film. In 1935 there was still, naturally, a lot of reference to the stage. Film was not exactly an old medium. Many actors no doubt relied on their training as stage actors in plays or musicals, whatever, to guide their performances on film. The one performance which I really can’t stand (aside from the irritating portrayal of Lord Byron in the opening scene, which I can forgive as it isn’t long) is that of Una O’Connor who plays Minnie. She was apparently a favourite of Whale’s, and supposed to be comic relief from what I gather. However, this film could have, and would have, worked just as well with no overbearing comedy, which is exactly what O’Connor provides. Her shrieking and wailing does nothing for me. I hated every minute of it. I particularly hate her overreaction to meeting The Monster, just moments after he has grimly dispatched a couple people (that part is actually crazy for the time). O’Connor’s reaction to The Monster is so over the top it pains me to watch. It could’ve been a really frightening moment. Instead they go for a real gag almost. May as well have been Curly, Larry, or Moe instead of Minnie.
Aside from O’Connor, however, I really enjoy a lot of the other performances. Clive, again, is a good Frankenstein, albeit still named Henry of course. Ernest Thesiger comes as a great addition to this sequel. He plays the part of Doctor Septimus Pretorius, who is the former mentor of Henry Frankenstein. His performance is more than adequately creepy and quirky.
MBDBROF EC119Not only that but the inclusion of the character provides a particularly memorable scene for The Bride of Frankenstein when Pretorius shows his protege a bunch of miniature people he has created, homunculi, such as a king and queen, and more. For the time, especially, this one scene was incredibly innovative. Today we take those things for granted. In 1935, showing a doctor displaying a bunch of tiny people in snowglobe-like encasements, moving around and talking, et cetera, was incredible. It looks flawless. On Blu ray this scene looks really incredible, the picture is beautiful and it would be hard to imagine someone not being able to appreciate it.

One of my other favourite scenes from The Bride of Frankenstein is the meeting of The Monster and the blind hermit. The Monster wanders into his home because the man is playing the violin; he does a beautiful rendition of “Ave Maria”. This scene looks wonderful, as does most of the film, but it’s also emotional. The two meet and become friends. The blind man identifies with the grunting man-monster; neither of them are working with their full faculties. Of course it doesn’t last long. While it does, though, it is spectacular. Karloff again does a great job of subtly portraying The Monster as a misunderstood and confused character. He truly was one of the greatest actors. In the first film he did a magnificent job, here he is able to expand upon that characterization, and really makes The Monster a good tribute to what I believe were Shelley’s intentions for him in the original novel. They fit very well together. Also, this pairs well with Elsa Lanchester’s portrayal of The Monster’s eventual life partner, which is a sight to behold.
1935-bride-of-frankenstein-5
Though The Bride of Frankenstein Blu ray doesn’t have as many features as the first film’s release by Universal Pictures, there is still a great featurette (featuring the ever-knowledgeable Joe Dante) called “She’s Alive! Creating The Bride of Frankenstein“, which examines all sorts of aspects related to the film. This includes interviews with a bunch of people, such as Bill Condon and  and great narration by Dante. I really enjoyed this small documentary.  The focus honed in on James Whale in particular. Everyone discusses The Bride of Frankenstein, but touches on his other horror films, and the incredible visionary outlook he had. Also included on the Blu ray release is some nice commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen, as well as “The Bride of Frankenstein archives” which is a lot of production stills from the film set, posters, artwork, and so on.
1935-bride-of-frankensteinAs a film, I would have to give The Bride of Frankenstein a 4 out of 5 stars. I really wish some of the outright comedy didn’t find its way in here. They say Whale is known for his playfulness in that sense, and in other films I can totally jive with it, but here it feels out of place to me. Or maybe it’s only out of place for my taste, and that could be because of O’Connor’s performance. Regardless, there is a still a ham-ish quality to The Bride of Frankenstein which I don’t feel totally belongs. I know the concept is a bit out there, and perhaps due to that the slight bit of comedy in here works for some. I just don’t necessarily believe that in a horror film an out there concept needs to be treated with any sense of comedy. It’s not as if the laughs are dripping out of every scene, not even many really, but it is there, and if the whole film were played with an even more deadly serious tone it would have worked. It works as is, but that’s just my opinion on something it may have lacked.

The Blu ray release also gets a 4 out of 5 stars. I really did like the special features included, but I feel like for a Universal Pictures film, one that is so adored according to most sources, there’s a lack of extras. The featurette narrated by Joe Dante is awesome, but really – they couldn’t find anything else except a slideshow of pictures over music and a film history’s commentary? I just find it strange. The Blu ray restoration of Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein has a lot of great stuff, and this just seems like they didn’t have much. Maybe there wasn’t much, but still – I find it hard to believe. Enjoyable features included nonetheless, though not as much as I would’ve liked.
The picture itself is unbelievable. Whale’s film uses setting and atmosphere, as well as makeup and lighting, to really make its story work. There are beautiful and horrifying moments, sometimes all wrapped into one, throughout the film. The mood is set completely through how Whale makes everything so grim and gloomy. The Blu ray definition makes this classic truly worthwhile. Especially if you have never seen the film, you will be blown away at how gorgeous the picture quality looks here in this release. You’re able to capture all the shadows and the creepy lighting and the terrifying makeup in such beauty here. Really an incredible job.

Anyone who has yet to see this film, do check it out as soon as possible. It is no doubt a classic. However, don’t feel like it’s untouchable. Classics aren’t perfect just because they’re classics. No matter, The Bride of Frankenstein is a beautiful horror film worth watching, and will always remain a classic.

Frankenstein: Fun But Less Penetrating Shelley

Frankenstein. 1931. Dir.  James Whale. Screenplay by Garrett Fort & Francis Edward Faragoh.
Starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, and Boris Karloff. Universal Pictures.
Unrated. 70 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Sci-Fi

★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Blu ray release)

For my review of the excellent sequel, 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, click here.

I won’t bore anyone by recounting the plot of Frankenstein because, not to sound snobbish or anything, if you haven’t seen it by now then that’s ridiculous. This really is one of the classic horrors of the film world. Regardless, everyone knows the story of Frankenstein because it’s one of those tales that really stood the test of time; in fact when Mary Shelley wrote the book it was ahead of its time. And if you haven’t seen it you’ve probably seen some other work which had its primary influence developed due to Shelley’s novel.
Poster - Frankenstein_01That being said the film is excellent. My personal problem with this version of Frankenstein is mainly a subjective thing. I try not to negatively judge the film adaptation of a novel of which I’m a fan. It isn’t fair. Film and novels are two entirely separate universes. While reading a novel you have no choice but to use your imagination, guided by the words of an author. However, while watching a film you’re essentially subjected to the imagination of the filmmakers. You have no choice but to shut off your imagination, for the most part (depending on what sort of film you’re watching – avant garde film, for instance, usually requires the imagination to be in full gear). Either way, I can’t help but feel as if James Whale’s adaptation of the Shelly novel missed out on some spectacular opportunities.
Clive, Colin (Frankenstein)_01Now, of course, this was made in 1931. Though at the time I’m sure it was a lot of money, the film only cost a little over $250,000 to make (it would go on to make $12-million in domestic box office and who knows how much in video sales, and continues to make). I can forgive them to a certain extent for not fully going along with the entire story. There’s also the fact portions of Shelley’s novel are written in epistolary pieces, which frame the story; letters to and from characters. These, which occur right at the beginning of Frankenstein, are set on an expedition near the North Pole. My first thought as to why the screenwriters (the credits for the writing are actually a mess, as far as I’m concerned) decided not to start the film the way in which the novel begins is because maybe they felt audiences at the time might not respond to Henry Frankenstein (another change I just didn’t like) the same way. In the novel, we meet Victor Frankenstein through the eyes of Captain Robert Walton (who is writing the letters); he is near the North Pole, in the freezing cold, disturbed, lost, all sorts of a mess. Before he recounts the story of his terror-filled life, we already know he has suffered the consequences of whatever he’s done. I just feel as if the novel’s opening works perfectly for the characters. But of course, Henry Frankenstein is quite a different sort than Victor.

The monster looks great for 1931. Not to mention Boris Karloff does an incredible job of acting as Frankenstein’s monster. The performance isn’t overdone. Some of the subtleties in Karloff’s Monster are amazing. The first time we actually see him it’s brilliance. Everything moves so slow. And of course there’s the famous scene of the Monster befriending a little girl; you almost well up with fear beforehand, wondering exactly what will happen, and the Monster goes right ahead subverting our expectations. Until things go a little bit too far. It’s a really wonderful moment.
However, all that being said, I still prefer the descriptions of the monster in Shelley’s novel to the visualization in film. You can’t simply pass that off as this being done in 1931, either. It’s not the problem. They simply toned it down. Yes, that has to do with audiences in 1931, but that didn’t totally limit them. The make-up effects didn’t have to be terribly gruesome. I just imagine Frankenstein’s monster looking less like a man in a lot of regards. Karloff looks great, and actually does appear creepy a lot of times, mostly in his facial expressions. But the Monster in the novel is far more terrifying. I know, again, this is a very subjective line of critiquing. Whale’s film did a fine job enough with the horror, but that there were a lot of other opportunities he could have mined to really horrify audiences. I can only imagine seeing this at the time – I would’ve shit myself. Still, this movie does a great job even today of being highly creepy. There are just a lot of missed chances I wish Whale had taken.
Annex - Karloff, Boris (Frankenstein)_04Aside from my problems with the translation into film, it’s still a classic, as I mentioned in the beginning. The iconic status of Frankenstein’s Monster is unparalleled. He is parodied in countless other films and television shows (I think of, more recently, a skit on Chappelle’s Show involving African-Americanized versions of Frankenstein’s monster, as well as the Mummy and the Wolf-Man). The core of the story about Frankenstein and his Monster has been used in various other novels, films, and so on; the idea of playing god, making a man, et cetera. It is something that endures on and on. It’ll continue to do so, as every Halloween you no doubt see at least one kid walking around with a Frankenstein’s Monster costume on (although everybody mistakenly calls the Monster Frankenstein when really he has no name, and is Frankenstein’s Monster… but whatever). It’s one of those tales we cannot forget. And film adaptations help these novels extend their lives further into new generations.
Annex - Karloff, Boris (Frankenstein)_NRFPT_04The Blu ray release by Universal Pictures is absolutely magnificent. The picture was digitally restored, and it’s shocking how great the film looks in such beautiful high definition. I’d seen Frankenstein countless times before. Once I watched this I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not only is the picture worth the price, but there are a bunch of really interesting special features. One such extra is a short film called Boo! which is a comedy lampooning Universal’s own horrors such as The Cat Creeps and Frankenstein, as well as their own Dracula; however, instead of using footage from their own version they used the German Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. It’s actually a riot. You can imagine this being done today, honestly. A few jokes about cosmetic surgery and congress, a couple more using quick reverse-fast forward sequences, and hilarity ensues.

Other extras include a fun little bit called Monster Tracks: basically at various points throughout the film bits of trivia will pop up on the screen. For instance, there are some fun pieces concerning the scene where Frankenstein ‘plays’ with the girl by the lake (such as how Whale wanted Karloff to throw the girl in insisting “You see it’s all part of the ritual”). Furthermore, you’ve got some little documentaries & featurettes like “Karloff: The Gentle Monster” (including interviews with everyone from several Karloff biographers to the likes of Joe Dante, Ramsey Campbell and Richard Gordon) and “The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster”. These are some awesome little bits to fill in the release. We got a lot of great insight behind the film itself, as well as its star, the Monster himself Boris Karloff.

As a film, I give Whale’s Frankenstein a 4 out of 5. It’s classic, it’s amazing, yes, but I really do feel they missed opportunities here. If they were able to adapt Shelley’s actual novel they should have used some of the best bits, which unfortunately they did not. It doesn’t ruin the film at all. Look at this as a much more subjective review than I would normally do. I only do it this way because the novel is an absolute masterpiece. Some say different, that it’s overrated. So wrong. It’s near perfect as a horror novel can be.
The Blu ray release gets a flawless 5 out of 5 star rating. How can it not? The picture alone is enough to justify buying the Blu ray. I can’t get over it. Everything looks so wonderful for a film that was done over 80 years ago now. Plus, all the features included on Universal’s restored version are a blast. You can spend hours going through this disc just to get through all the wonderful material they’ve added.
Annex - Karloff, Boris (Frankenstein)_06I highly recommend anyone who hasn’t seen this film, please, go do it. Especially if you’re a horror fan, or consider yourself a horror buff. Your viewing isn’t done until you’ve seen this. And also, if you have yet to read the novel, go get a copy. Shelley is an absolute master. A really wonderful read. And just like a film, it will grip you, and shock you at times. One of my all-time favourites.