Archive for September, 2010

It’s Alive! The Transforming Genre of Horror

Horror is a perfect genre to begin a genre study course, first because it is simple to track its progression over time and secondly because it is a reliable cultural thermometer. Based on the nearly hundred or so horror films I’ve seen and approximately the half-dozen I’ve carefully selected and re-viewed or visited for the first time I feel I have a strong sampling to discuss the genre. My early films will be The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, my classical films will be Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931) and my revisionist films will be Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby, with frequent movement around the last four decades of horror (and maybe science fiction, I make no promises).

Horror has been a quickly evolved and developed film genre. From its story-telling devices and film-making techniques has arrived a style and theme of movie that still entertains and frightens.

In its early days the genre was permanently forged into movie history with the German art movement, Expressionism. One film in particular helped in the “crystallization of the horror film as a genre” (Langford 2005, pg. 161) that film is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Cabinet used heavily painted sets, extreme makeup and over-the-top acting to exaggerate and dramatize the supernatural and paranormal. This destruction and recreation of reality into the bizarre became the standard of horror films.

But as Langford writes (and I paraphrase) the world didn’t need Cabinet to teach it how to use low-key lighting, angles and shadows, the value and lasting influence of these early films like Nosferatu and Cabinet is in the story-line content they presented—the centralization of a message and theme of the creepy and paranormal. These early movies started speaking in a language the world hadn’t heard before, but proved very eager to learn.

This early influence can be clearly seen just over ten years later in the two enormously successful films Frankenstein and Dracula. Frankenstein garnered from the early films a firm belief in the presentation of the impossible in a melodramatic style. Colin Clive screaming “It’s alive!” again and again would be humorous if audiences hadn’t previously understood that such performance are expected.

Frankenstein also showcases a similar monster to Cabinet in that of a person in heavy make-up grown with technology to include prosthetics. The same could be said of Dracula whose monster is engrossed in the same make-up driven effects. Early horror films made no attempt to hide that they were just movies. The effects and costumes were the point, similar to George Méliès science fiction films and his trick shots and editing trademarks of the 1910’s.

The next step in the evolution of the horror genre was to take both this implausibility and the exaggerated worlds and to force them into the confines of the everyday person, essentially to make the outlandish believable. It took considerable time to turn into the modern-day horror film. But everything I read from Langford to Ebert refers to the same turning-point in film history. Psycho.

Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece Psycho extinguished the separation of the audience and their fears. Psycho was not only plausible, but it felt authentic and while it kept some devices (like the human, or humanoid, monster) it discarded others like the melodramatic acting and flashy set pieces to replace them with honest behavior from actors and convincing settings and environments. Psycho is generally regarded as the most influential horror film in history (Schneider 2008).

Roman Polanski’s 1968 nightmarish horror, Rosemary’s Baby, followed quickly into the safe-zone rubble created by Psycho, playing still on the everyday mixed with the supernatural and the evil. It was especially enlightening to watch this progression so closely together. Watching all these horror films over three weeks reveals each proceeding one as a cinematic child of the past. Indeed the language of the alarming that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari spoke was being echoed in the films I watched.

The other amazing feature of horror films is their incredible accuracy as gauges of a culture. It is hard not to notice the gradual increase in the sexuality of the genre. Cesare’s love in Dr. Caligari becomes Dracula’s fascination in Dracula which turns into Norman Bates abasement of life and especially women in Psycho which turns into blatant sexuality and nudity in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

Compared to the decades in which these films were released it shows an ever-growing willingness to expose and display the obscene for the sake of shock. Alfred Hitchcock’s famous shower-stabbing scene is void of nudity because he considered it inappropriate for audiences to see Janet Leigh’s body. Just eight years later we see full nudity in a rape scene involving Satan in Rosemary’s Baby. There is no doubt a connection between this and the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

Film is both a cause and an effect of societal changes. (Thompson, Bordwell 2003) It reflects and it creates ideas and thoughts. That’s part of its wonderful power, but also when dealing with a genre like horror part of its inherent threat.

Obvious is the excessive gore and sexuality in the genre from the last decade. It seems that thanks to gore-horror movies the perversion will never end. Many of the most successful horror films of today’s Hollywood have little if anything to do with ingenuity, design, suspense and art. The current shift in focus is directed at nudity, violence and shock.

I will quickly plot a few movies on a timeline to back this up. Beginning in 1973 with The Exorcist containing intense violence, gore, language and anti-religious messages; The Shining (1980) again language, violence and nudity are frequent; Saw-Saw VII-3D (2004-2010) all featuring increasingly disturbing content including nudity, sexuality, torture, violence and gore. Cabin Fever (2002), The Devil’s Rejects and The Descent (both 2005), Teeth (2007), Bitten (2008) or Sorority Row (2009) (dates courtesy are all progressively targeted at the teenage boy’s mind. A film like Saw would have been completely abhorrent to society in the 1930’s, and I’d bet that even the directors of our great horror classics would be appalled at the “monstrous” styles and content now common-place in their genre. Perhaps an improvement in the content of horror films will be an indicator that Hollywood is beginning to see its part in the repercussions in degrading American lifestyles.

Horror is an amazing genre and a historically important movement. I am amazed by what I learned and saw in the constant changing and elaboration of themes and characters and devices used by the film-makers. And I found that I actually enjoy many of the more artistic behind-the-scenes aspects of horror. Like wondering how they make the monster or costume or make-up look the way they did? Or where did they get the idea for this or that spray of blood or eerie glow?

Horror is a genre of these things—of effects, acting and lighting. It is a world of costumes and myths and entertainment that has moved from significant and patient thrillers to mindless, stomach-lurching gore festivals without missing anything in between. But we must always be careful when watching horror films not to confuse our entertainment with the dark content they often depict.

If this one genre can be used as a thermometer of our society’s ethics and values then we must regulate our participation. Our film-going experience must always remember to not hack and slash its way into our spirits. Sometimes the films we watch get so scary we have to remind ourselves, “It’s just a movie.” So let’s not forget that and in doing so allow what is “just a movie” to permeate our world and minds.


Rosemary’s Baby (4 of 4)

Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror Rosemary’s Baby is the fifth movie in my genre study of horror. Polanski, who desperately wanted to do a skiing film, came on board to do Rosemary’s Baby through William Castle and Paramount, who told him he could do his “ski” film afterward. RB ended up turning into one of Polanski’s greatest career achievements.

Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of a young couple, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes), who are in a relationship going two different directions. Rosemary wants a family, wants children, wants attention from her husband. But Guy is an actor, and being an actor he is “naturally self-absorbed” and cares much more about his career than his wife.

The unassuming pair moves into the apartment next door to an elderly couple, Roman and Minnie. Minnie and Roman are no ordinary senior citizens they are in fact witches. Witches who are looking for blood to use in satanic rituals. Roman becomes fast friends with Guy as they begin to talk about show-biz. Guy is convinced off-screen to join their neighbors’ evil coven and to give them Rosemary as a vessel to birth Satan’s baby! Can you believe this guy (no pun intended)! His wife and baby and soul to Satan in exchange for success in Hollywood, what a dope.

Minnie drugs Rosemary with chocolate mousse and kidnaps her with the entire coven, some 10-20 people all elderly, well, besides Guy. In a half-asleep drug induced coma Satan rapes Rosemary. It’s a graphic scene, much worse for what it implies in the shadows than is actually shown, but grizzly nonetheless. She is impregnated with Satan’s child and begins a terribly painful nine months.

Minnie and Roman and Guy all work together to keep her from seeing or communicating with anyone outside of the coven. Even her obstetrician is part of the coven. The wicked three all go to incredible lengths even casting spells on people outside the coven to keep Rosemary secluded and drugged. When Rosemary gives birth to the devil’s child she is forced to mother it under the supervision of the Satanist witches.

The fear in Rosemary’s Baby comes from two things. One a religious or spiritual aspect, since we are dealing with Satanic worship and the occult, and two from the familiarity of the neighbors and the general peacefulness of the set. RB takes the people and things that we feel we can trust and slowly turns them against the heroine. She can’t trust her husband, she can’t trust her neighbors, she can’t even trust her doctors! Betrayal and deception are huge themes in Rosemary’s Baby to look past them, I think, is to miss the point of the film entirely.  What happens when not some things but everything you have faith in gets undermined?

As a horror film, I didn’t find the film altogether that frightening. It drives almost like a drama for the first hour, and then shifts into a horror/mystery hybrid. Polanski, despite his personal life, is an extremely intelligent director and guided a near perfectly acted and shot movie.

To defend that a little I’ll give two examples. The first being the tight and deliberate framing. The rape scene is actually the best example of the thought and precision put into the film. The angles of the cameras, the close-ups on the blood being painted over her body and of Satan scratching her shoulder are the only thing you leave the scene with clearly. Everything else gets blurred and smeared and color-balanced away from clarity. This is a carefully worked scene.

When she wakes up the next morning with scratches under her arm, you understand it with a satisfaction that poorly directed and written films don’t have.  You realize that what you’ve seen was there for a reason, when it’s brought up again.

The second is the acting. Farrow is unreal, her innocence and spunk at the beginning of the film and the quick and dramatic subversion of her energy and spirit feel authentic. As a man, I can say I’ve never so well sympathized with a pregnant woman. In the last third of the film when she makes an escape and pieces together the clues my heart is in my throat. Farrow is perfect.

Ruth Gordon who plays Minnie is just as good. Rosemary’s door never more than cracked open but Minnie somehow flooded through. Gordon won a well-deserved Supporting Actress Oscar for the role. She is incessant, hospitable and impossible to ignore.

Cassavetes plays overpowering so well it should be studied in acting classes, the feeling his presence in the film generates is tangible through the screen. The easiest way to spot a great villainous performance is to test whether you care where and what that villain is doing when they aren’t on-screen for you to observe. Cassavetes makes you wonder constantly.

Rosemary’s Baby was an extremely enjoyable film to watch. It is perfectly paced (even as a long film, 2 hours 16 min), and it knows its next move way in advance. It is a little dated (I desperately wanted someone to google some answers, in fact an iPhone might make this movie impossible), but it is more than what I anticipated. Certainly my fifth movie was “horrific” in its content but not in its quality.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2 of 4)

Netflix Instant Play

In 1920s Fritz Lang turned down directing this twisted film, and it was put into the hangs of Robert Wiene (pronounced with a German accent). What it became was an expressionist masterpiece of jagged set pieces and oblique shadows painted on everything in sight. It is a crooked, spatially challenged movie of impossible shapes and constructions. After The Cabinet was released, Expressionism fully adopted the belief that the peak should be larger than the base.

To me The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a perfection collision of what I know is historically great film and what is currently the most boring thing I can remember watching. Cabinet is short, it’s only an hour and ten minutes long, but silent films don’t age the same way as sound films. Even a “movie buff” will likely struggle through this early genre film. But let’s be honest most people watching Cabinet anyway must be movie buffs.

Quickly, the story opens on our hero Francis, who is in the woods with an older man. He begins telling a story from his past. The story is an outlandish flashback that takes up the meat of the entire movie. As Francis explains he was part of an investigation to uncover the murderous intentions of Dr. Caligari, an evil psychiatrist who studied somnambulism (a somnambulist is a person who never awakes). According to Francis, Dr. Caligari enslaves the somnambulist known as Cesare and through some mystical magic is able to control him and force the poor somnambulist to do things that he would find abhorrent if he were awake. Like murder innocent people.

I’ll go ahead and ruin the plot, because it’s historically important and for the sake of this post I must do so. Francis is actually the insane character, and all of his rambling about the “somnambulist” is just part of his imagined and completely crazy world. Francis is revealed as a patient at the psychiatric hospital where Dr. Caligari, or at least the person he believes is Dr. Caligari, is simply a good-natured hospital director.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an extremely important movie. To the high-class of the 20’s it was a German art film that showcased over-dramatized acting and stylized sets and makeup to create a fantasy world that no one had seen before. It pushed the borders and never let the audience forget it was a movie, everyone knew they were observing “art” (similar to the magical worlds of Méliès’ science fiction silents).

To the public Cabinet was a horror movie complete with one of the very first “monsters” in the form of Cesare the Somnambulist! Shoot, it even had the climactic gimmick that many of the last few decades best and most popular horror films are known for! Think The Sixth Sense, The Descent, or Shutter Island.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is undeniably a door-opening film. It blew the hinges off expectations to make room for monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula in 1931 and even serial psychopath’s like Norman Bates in the 60’s. And most importantly and greatly understated: it set a criterion for horror films with shadows, make-up, melodramatic acting, and thorough hysteria.

Thankfully, however, we have improved past many of the time weakened devices of Cabinet and now our horror films use better ones. Let’s use sound as an example. I like sound. I joke around with friends that I have the wonderful ability to hear in the dark. Out of nowhere I just spit out, “I can hear in the dark.” I do this when I’m reminded of the power of sound. Try to imagine any frightening thing you’ve seen on a screen. Go ahead take a second and think of something scary. Got it? Okay, now eliminate the associated noise.

My point.

I can’t imagine Psycho‘s shower scene without that screeching, or Frankenstein without thunder booming and Colin Clive screaming: “It’s alive!” over the downpour. Even cheap visual scares and jump cuts are heavily audio devices. Watch the trailer for the new movie The Roommate and you’ll hear what I mean.

My crux is this, film has made wonderful advancements so that we don’t have to watch movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. We needed it, it got us places, but thank God we got there.

Psycho (4 of 4)

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 groundbreaking film Psycho is my third film selection in a genre study of horror. And it is an exceptional movie.

Psycho tells the story of Marion Crane the lover of a man caught in a high-priced annuity with his ex-wife. Marion is tired of meeting her man, Sam, in cheap motels during her hour lunch breaks and with flecks of even cheaper-morality she pleads with him to be married. Sam doesn’t want to be married. He likes the way things are, so he sends her back to the office further frustrated.

Back at work, her boss’s client hands her $40,000 cash to deposited in the bank–flashy and flirtatious payment for a new property. Her mind is reeling with ideas. In a flash of madness she steals the cash and makes off down the highway to the next town to meet Sam and give him the money. But when the sun goes down and the rain starts pouring she is forced off the road and into the parking lot of the Bates Motel. Vacancy. Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.

Suddenly the 40 minutes of movie you’ve watched is revealed as merely an extended opening scene. Psycho‘s screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, said of the film that “half-way through it changes from being about this beautiful gal, to being about him [Norman]”. And he’s right Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, steals the show.

Norman, after making a sandwich for Marion, begins his rambling explanation of one of the creepiest world-views in film history. Including the hauntingly delivered line: “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” When talking with Norman, Marion realizes the wrong she’s done and how crazy it was to have absconded with $40,000. She decides while back in her room that the forty thousand must be returned and feeling purified she steps into the shower for a scrub.

Norman didn’t leave their conversation with the same purified feeling. See, he liked Marion. He was attracted to her. He wanted her interested in him, but she simply judged him for being trapped by his mother when he realistically could have escaped her control. So while, Marion is showering and deciding to do the right thing with the money, Norman is moving picture frames and watching her undress through a peep-hole.

Marion didn’t realize that her purifying shower would be her last as Norman’s mother, jealous of the attention a new more attractive woman is getting from her son, stalks into the shower with a 12″ blade (and musical accompaniment)  to murder her in perhaps the entire genre’s most famous scene (and sound effects). 

The next hour of the film follows Sam, Marion’s sister Lila and a private detective named Arbogast as they try to solve the disappearance of Marion. Arbogast is killed along the way and that sets Sam and Lila off to the motel to see for themselves “what’s going on out there.” Sam and Lila sneak around the motel and it’s grounds uncovering clues and solving the mystery of Marion’s murder and the psychotic world of Norman Bates and his mother.

This is such a wonderful film that I hate to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen it. So my synopsis will skip and end. If you haven’t seen Psycho, it really is an incredible movie and a must see. Frightening in a few scenes, but leaning toward what we would consider pure thriller more than “horror” as understood in the new millennium.

But there is still plenty to talk about. Psycho did great things cinematically and simultaneously had horrendous repercussions on culture through Hollywood–let me explain. Horror must come from one of two places, the external (monsters and aliens etcetera) or the internal (psychopathy). Psycho is the first masterpiece combination of these two devices. What we have is a murderer (external) and a raving-maniac (internal). This is scary because the external the “monster” side of Norman is hidden by an exterior that is not only normal but physically appealing. We aren’t able to pinpoint the deformity or paranormal or extraterrestrial aspects of the external fear. This was a wonderful thing for a film in the hands of genius director. But…

What it led to is a film-making world that simply saw an opening for further depravity. We no longer needed monsters or aliens or mutated beasts to scare us. We simply needed an excuse. And a madman would work just fine.

Psycho also instilled in cinematographers and directors a first-person perspective for their murderers. We are put “behind the knife” if you will in Psycho‘s killings. I think it’s also important to note that this first-person violence of horror films (nearly solidified by the end of the 1960’s) has been almost completely focused on women, and continues in the same trend of today’s common horror flicks. Horror from the 80’s on is commonly known as the most sexually explicit genre (outside of porn, which I won’t ever be reviewing). It’s such an overused device today that even spoofs will give screen time to the hot-girl getting chased/stabbed/raped or otherwise being horrified or maltreated. Think House of Wax or Jennifer’s Body for more serious, recent horror and Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show for spoofs. What does this say about our culture or it’s devolution? Hitchcock worked endlessly and even argued with cinematographer and screenwriter to keep nudity out of the film. It was careful camera placement and carefully directed movements that made Psycho what it was. Horror of today uses that same nudity as it’s selling point and then kills the character’s in more violent and disturbed ways for its shock value. The sex-violence intermingling of the horror genre has been steadily growing since the 1920’s.

There is an undeniable connection between Psycho and the slasher films of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s. Movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, American Psycho, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and all the sequels they produced. Movies where the monsters tend to be more like perverted killers and less “monstrous”.

The sexual aspect of Norman Bates character in regard to the the history of the genre is important. If we think back about classical horror monsters, like Dracula, we see a sexual appetite connected to their destruction. The same is true of Norman Bates. Before the murders he wants to flirt with and spy on his female victims. The mother side of the murders comes from a jealously of those victims. It’s sick and twisted and horrible I know, but the genre is called horror is it not?

Psycho is a masterful thriller and mystery. It’s villain–iconic. It’s director–legendary. It’s writing–near flawless. It’s precision–endless. But don’t forget that even artful depiction of the macabre is still macabre.

I feel like this could open up some discussion so please feel free to comment. (Even if this post is old at time of reading!)


Dracula (2 of 4)

Netflix Instant Play

The horror genre’s second movie for me is Tod Browning’s 1931 movie Dracula, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s vampire novel, Dracula. The story of Count Dracula is a familiar one to all audiences. A salesman Renfield, played by Dwight Frye, travels to Count Dracula’s castle to have lease papers signed. Of course Dracula is creepy at first meeting, all of his cooing about the wolves howling, but he’s still cordial enough to entice Renfield. Dracula signs the papers, and then after poisoning Renfield (and shoo-shooing off his three, blood-thirsty–literally!–vampire brides) he bites Renfield. The bite of a vampire, as all vampire rules state, turns the victim into a vampire. And so, Renfield becomes an undead servant to Dracula.

After increasing his undead family it’s time for Dracula to move of course. He needs a place with a higher population and more potential for feeding on blood, like London. So he moves to London, where everyone seems to walk alone at night. Seriously, what is wrong with those people? The screenwriter gave everyone impossible over-dosages of naïvety. I’ll come back to this point.

Once in London, Dracula begins killing and bloodsucking until he encounters his foe–the great Van Hellsing, played by Edward Van Sloan (who is now a familiar face to me after viewing Frankenstein). Van Hellsing exposes Dracula as a vampire when miracle of miracles Dracula’s reflection doesn’t appear in any mirrors! Using some cool shooting techniques they eliminate him from sight creating what might be the movie’s only startling moment.

Once exposed it becomes the job of Van Hellsing and side-character John Harker to kill the vampire before Harker’s beautiful fiancé Mina is transformed into another undead monster. Vampire rules are straight-forward and since Van Hellsing knows them all, he knows that Dracula must be sleeping in “the earth he was buried in” during the daytime. Hellsing and Harker raid his castle, find the coffin Dracula rests inside, and drive a stake through his cursed heart–shattering the spell he cast on Mina.

Movie ends abruptly.

I have many issues with Dracula. As I’ve already mentioned the low intelligence of most characters is astonishing. People simply aren’t that stupid and would never be so consistently gullible. I mean let’s be honest, Dracula is never acting like a normal dude. So why isn’t everyone at least a bit suspicious or show any hint of hesitation? I’m also profoundly perplexed at the sexual attraction that Dracula receives from the women he meets. They’re all goo-goo-eyed around him. Bela Lugosi isn’t exactly Brad Pitt or anything close. Actually, he’s a pretty ugly guy–my wife confirms. So does vampirism come with some innate sexual prowess?

Throughout the film Dracula stalks into different women’s bedrooms and moves “closer and closer,” as Mina describes, until she “felt his lips.” But as little sense as vampire sexuality makes to me it actually may give this movie a deeper meaning.

Dracula is a killer, perverter, con and sexual deviant, and his victim that finally fights back and resists his temptations of immortal life and power and sex happens to be an innocent, Christian virgin. I know, this is something that stems from the novel and not the film, but I didn’t read the novel. I watched the film. And nobody cared about the novel until 1931 after the movie was made anyway. The fact that Dracula is presumably slain in the films final minutes and Mina is recovered and healed is an assurance that righteousness triumphs over wickedness, even creepy wickedness that is supernatural beyond our understanding.

Further on the positive side, Dracula has framing and cinematography that most films only dream of. The lighting on Dracula’s face, the set and camera placement in his opening hall, the cob-web infested ruin of a castle all perfectly shadowed from every angle are unmatched (although attempts have been made in many horror films since). The films perspective is consistent even with the choppy editing of the 1930s, you are always sure where you are and what you’re looking at. The genre’s current films have strayed from this practice, in favor of “cheaper” techniques of invoking fear. Which is a shame, when you see such artful camerawork that’s almost 80 years old, and it can’t be duplicated.

Finally, but not least of importance is the impact of Lugosi and Frye’s acting. Not only remakes of Dracula but nearly all vampires of film have followed his example. Some do it even better than he did. He set the tone for a sleazy and suave combination of vampire acting that has become synonymous with the vampire sub-genre and horror in general. Frye stood out more than Fritz from Frankenstein because of a larger role and frankly better acting. But he helped cement the grovelling minion side-kick role that villains still seem to have today. Think of Pain and Panic from Disney’s Hercules or (and I know I just used Lord of the Rings in an example yesterday) Grima Wormtongue from The Two Towers. Think about how those characters are played and you’ll see the mad influence of Dwight Frye.

So watch it for the camera framing and iconic performances, not to be scared, too many effects and props didn’t age well and are laughable now.

Frankenstein (3 of 4)

Netflix Instant Play

Long time no posts. Life is, well acting like itself. And that’s all there is to it. To the point at hand. I’m undertaking a four-month genre study project. I am viewing many movies from early/classic stages to more modern revisionist films. I’m excited to get started. And as you may have noticed the first genre I am tackling is horror.

To begin I chose James Whale’s 1931 movie Frankenstein. Staring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive and Mae Clarke. Interestingly to me the opening credits do not mention Karloff as “The Monster” but rather leave his name off in favor of a large question mark. I found this actually rather interesting. That a man who became so famous for his monster portrayals was originally introduced to the world as a ?.

Also I’d like to say now before going to deep, that I understand many of the films I’m reviewing and critiquing are indeed “classics” and most if not all probably deserve a 4 of 4 from anyone–especially obscure bloggers. However, to separate the films I relish from those I’d rather spit out I’ll rate them as I please.

Frankenstein begins wonderfully. Before the film even roles its title credits, a humble Edward Van Sloan walks in front of a curtain to issue a warning on behalf of all audience members that what they are about to see may “horrify” them. I was smiling ear to ear.

The movie is short, which I always like. (“Time is of the essence, seize the day boys. Seize the day!”) It quickly jumps into Dr. Frankenstein digging up graves with not Igor but Fritz, his deformed assistant. They must assemble pieces of bodies from graves and lynchings to create a body that was never alive. The last piece of flesh is a brain–which is, apparently,  hard to come by.

Fritz being the deformed imbecile that he is, steals a murders brain from a science lab instead of the “normal” brain he intended. The crazy Dr. installs the brain into his enormous hand-made specimen of a person add in a bit of “color beyond ultra-violet light” power beam and bing-botta-monster.

Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancé, her other boyfriend and the doctor’s mentor are all present at the moment of life. Wherein Dr. Frankenstein mutters and then screams the famous line: “It’s alive!” About eighty-hundred-million times. His mentor warns him about the dangers of doing such experiments and they are completely disregarded (Funny I ignored his warning not to watch the movie too…).

When Frankenstein’s monster kills Fritz everyone realizes, “Woops, we’ve gone too far!” Frankenstein goes back to town to get hitched everyone is happy. Except the boyfriend. The boyfriend is bummed. Also Frankenstein’s mentor Doctor Waldman stays behind at the tower-laboratory (LA-BORE-I-TOREE) to dissect the monster. The monster wakes up before the dissection can begin and Waldman is murdered as well.

Frankenstein’s monster escapes and chaos ensues. The finale is when Frankenstein and the father of a murdered child form a giant mob of torch-bearing citizens to kill the beast. The confrontation ends with the monster being killed and everyone being happy again.

Horror movies frustrate me. I struggle to see significance in them. To me horror films often entertain but don’t educate. Which is not a bad thing, but for a genre that has literally been around since the very beginnings of film (even thriving in the silent era) it makes me wonder if I’m missing something.

There is a real significance in this film found in what it gave cinema. Karloff famously offered his body to the role setting an example for many actors worldwide. Wearing all sorts of prosthetic pieces and even taking out dental bridges to get that iconic sour-puss look in his cheeks. This film has been recreated and picked apart in everything from Beauty and the Beast to Lord of the Rings. According to IMDB trivia John Carradine turned down the role because he was too “highly trained” to play monsters. Mistake.

Honestly, it’s an incredible film. The cinematography is indisputable. Close up screams and canted angles and claustrophobic mise en scène all combine with incredible sets, light and shadow work, acting and specific thoughtful direction to make this movie an honest classic as well as a defining style of movie making and genre.

My favorite moment is Dr. Frankenstein’s confession or brag about why he did it after having already said he knows now what it feels like to be God: “Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars or to know what causes the trees to bud and what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. But if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy!”