My horror marathon continued this week. I made it through all the classic Universal Frankenstein films and moved on to Dracula. But first I took a pit stop to an early '80s werewolf picture and a couple of Mario Bava films I’d never seen before.
Let’s get to it.
The Ghost of Frankenstein / House of Frankenstein
By 1942, some 11 years after James Whale’s original adaptation of Frankenstein, the wind was beginning to slip out of the monster’s sails. But like all franchises, if there is still money to be made, there will still be people willing to make sequels. By the time they made The Ghost of Frankenstein, pretty much all of the original people involved were gone. Bela Lugosi did stick around as Ygor but he had only come on board with the previous film, Son of Frankenstein. He’s the best part of that film which finds him trying to convince Ludwig Frankenstein (Henry’s heretofore unheard of second son) to put his brain into the Monster’s body. The only other good thing I can say about it is that at 67 minutes it is mercifully short.
It did well enough that they made one more sequel, House of Frankenstein, but you can tell they were getting desperate as it adds in other monsters including Dracula, Wolf Man, a hunchback (probably not from Notre Dame but no doubt banking on that familiarity), and a new mad scientist. Despite that, it's still pretty terrible with a meandering plot that fails to use any of the characters in an interesting way and some confusing casting choices.
Lon Chaney Jr played the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein but here he plays the Wolf Man (a role he played in several other Wolf Man films including Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, where Bela Lugosi played Frankenstein’s Monster). Boris Karloff is back, but not as the Monster, rather he plays the Mad Scientist (with Glenn Strange starring as the Monster) - the Monster is a minor character in this film (even if it is named for him!) so it makes sense Karloff would want something meatier but it sure doesn’t make things any easier to understand. Not that any of it matters; the plot boils down to - Hey, look. Cool monsters! - and gone are all the great sets and lighting design, so what’s left is kind of a chore to get through.
Sorry if my first cool thing is not actually that cool, but I felt I just had to talk about the other Frankenstein movies as they are worth watching once for completists like myself.
Overshadowed by the other werewolf movie that also came out in 1981, An American Werewolf in London, Joe Dante’s The Howling is nevertheless well worth watching. With a self aware script by John Sayles that throws in all sorts of references to other werewolf movies, it is more comedic than thrilling which works for me. The effects are good, though again you can’t help but compare it to American Werewolf, and again The Howling comes up short. This werewolf stands on two legs which looks both super creepy and a little silly. Where An American Werewolf took place in the dark fog of England, The Howling lives in sunny California amongst a kooky hippy cult which is exactly what you would expect from a guy like Joe Dante. It's the perfect palate cleanser after the darker, scarier horror films you might be watching this month.
Though I am a fan of horror in general and Italian horror in specific, I’ve never seen a single movie by Mario Bava, considered the godfather of both the slasher and giallo genres. Since it is October and I’m knee deep in horror, I figured there is no time like right now to start watching his movies and now I wonder why I waited so long.
Made in 1960, Black Sunday was the first full-length feature directed by Bava and it is fantastic. It is about a witch who was viciously murdered by having a spike-covered mask hammered onto her face in the 1600s who returns two centuries later to destroy her killer’s ancestors. Bava fills it with beautiful gothic imagery using an artist's eye for camera angles and lighting. Barbara Steele gives a star-making turn as the witch who is sexy and creepy in equal measure.
I loved Black Sunday so much I immediately watched another film from Bava. Though no doubt cashing in on the success of Black Sunday, this film has nothing to do with that film other than having a similar name. It is an anthology film sporting three shorts. Like a lot of anthologies, the results are mixed. The best one is the first one, "The Telephone" is something of a prototypical giallo, with a woman being stalked by an unseen killer who taunts her with a series of phone calls. The second story, "The Wurdalak," featuring Boris Karloff is the worst of the bunch. It's about 19th Century vampires in Russia but it neither chills nor thrills. "The Drop of Water" has a classic horror twist ending and features one of the creepiest-looking corpses around.
There are some good visuals in all the stories, but anthologies always tend to be problematic as they don’t have enough time to really be developed and always feel rushed to me. There is enough to enjoy here to make it recommended, but if you are gonna start with Bava start with Black Sunday instead.
The big daddy. The great grandfather of horror. There were horror films before this one. There were vampire films before this one. Heck, there were films based on Bram Stoker’s novel before this one. In fact, this film was based on a stage play which was based on the novel. But Tod Browning’s film starring Bela Lugosi kicked off the Universal Monster cycle of horror films, jump started the genre into the mainstream, and influenced countless other horror films and vampire stories for decades to come.
All of this is true, and yet I can’t say it is a great film. Made in 1931, the film looks and sounds rough with some pretty choppy editing. Lugosi looks great but his accent is thick and his English is hard to understand. His classic stare made more compelling by use of pin lights shone directly in his eyes is fantastic, yet over used. The story isn’t exactly fleshed out and while it is short, I found myself a bit bored in parts. It is a classic and influential and absolutely should be seen by film lovers off all stripes and especially horror hounds. It is by no means a bad film and it does have some striking imagery. It's just that its influence reaches so far and wide it's hard not to be a little disappointed the origin story isn’t grander.
The Curse of La Llorona
Produced by James Wan and starring Linda Cardellini, The Curse of La Llorona might be total crap as a film but this teaser trailer is terrifying. I’m not a huge fan of jump scares but they are used quite effectively in the two minutes presented here.