Horror fans and classic film buffs are in for a treat Wednesday night as Turner Classic Movies is presenting Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in a double feature bill that also features commentary from film historian Robert Osbourne. Just in time for Halloween this is part of the year-long celebration of Universal Studio's 100th Anniversary.
Along with Dracula, also released in 1931, Frankenstien provided Universal with a powerful one-two punch at the box office (each made approximately $100,000 at the box office when the average ticket price was a dime!) and set them on a path in which they would be known as the "Horror Studio," a label they exploited with releases such as The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Old Dark House (1933), The Black Cat (1935) and The Wolfman (1941) among many others.
There are so many striking elements in Frankenstein and its sequel that it's hard to know where to begin in discussing them. The sets are soaring and magnificent as they mirror the horrors that are contained in them. You'll be hard pressed to find a straight line in the building where Dr. Frankenstein creates his creature. From the hump on his assistant Fritz's back to the bricks used to build the structure in a haphazard manner, this is an environment in which everything is skewed, out of joint, the perfect setting for the acts against nature that are being committed there.
Perhaps more impressive is the make-up created for the monster by Jack Pierce. Boris Karloff, who was 44 years old when he got the role that would change his life, would sit for up to six hours while Pierce worked his magic. The thinking behind this iconic image was practical in nature. Pierce reasoned that the easiest way for an amateur surgeon like Frankenstien to place a brain in the monster's skull was to simply chop off the top of the skull and insert the organ. Thus, the flat nature of the creature's head. What is often mistaken as electrical bolts on the monster's neck is in fact intended to be a bolt that runs all the way through in order to hold the head on, while the scar on the creature's head, which is seen as a lightning bolt, is meant to be a simple split in the dead skin. Karloff had a partial dental plate in the right side of his mouth that he would remove to give that side of the creature's face a sunken look, while he was outfitted with a pad around his chest to give the creature bulk as well as boots with six inch platforms, each weighing 15 pounds. The actor often complained that he would lose up to 20 pounds each time he played the role, a considerable amount as he only weighed about 180 to begin with.
What's intereseting is that while James Whale directed both films, they couldn't be more different. Frankenstein is a dark, bleak movie that could very well have been a silent, as it is without a musical score and contains little dialogue. The Bride of Frankenstein is as vibrant and cutting-edge as a horror film can be. It contains a soaring score, many moments of dark humor and a tragic love story that needs to be seen to be believed.
Of course, the make up of the Bride is iconic as well. Elsa Lancaster wore 18-inch stilts as well as a cone of chicken wire on the top of her head over which her own hair was combed and fastened. The streaks suggest that she is a child of lightning while the hiss she utters while frightened was taken from the actress' own experiences as she had been attacked by a swan while young. What's fascinating is that this character appears on screen for less than five minutes, yet has become such an iconic image that she still appears regularly in parodies of the film some 77 years after her debut.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the work of Karloff. In his hands, what could have been nothing but a hulking brute turns into a character who is nothing more than a lost child, lashing out at a world he does not understand. Watch Karloff's eyes throughout; he pulls off the astonishing trick of reminding us that within this creature composed of the dead is a lost human being striving to make a connection with us.
It's not often that we get to watch classic films on the big screen, so take advantage of this occasion. This is a great opportunity to introduce children 8 and up to the horror genre, as these films are plenty creepy but lack the gore of today's movies. This is not to be missed.
Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein will be screened at the Savoy 16, starting at 7:00 pm on Wednesday, October 24.