We’ve come to a classic of the horror genre: Frankenstein (1931), starring Boris Karloff as the monster – who is not, as it happens, named Frankenstein. That’s the doctor’s name, here played by Colin Clive. The monster is just the monster, or more technically, Frankenstein’s monster. Based, as anyone really should know, on the novel by Mary Shelley, and rather loosely at that, the story follows Dr. Frankenstein as he labors to create life from death, stitching together parts and then zapping the creation with juice from lightning. Having created this life, he finds that his creation is not what he anticipated: the monster is violent, nonverbal, and incapable of being human in the sense we know it. After the monster kills Frankenstein’s assistant, he and another doctor devise a plan to rid the world of it. The monster escapes, roaming about the countryside as the two doctors work to capture and destroy it. Under the steady directorial hand of James Whale, the film is terrific at creating the ominous aura that permeates the movie, lending it a creepiness that still stands up all these decades later. Karloff is brilliant as the monster, even able to convey a smidgen of a sympathetic character under the iconic makeup and in contrast to the raw, soulless nature of the creation brought to life by Frankenstein. Everyone should see it at least once. On a scale of 5, this classic rates a 5.
Up next on our movie tour: The Body Snatcher (1945) starring Boris Karloff. The film also has Bela Lugosi in a lesser role, and this film would mark the last time the two worked together. The movie references Burke, Hare, and Knox, actual historical figures who engaged in murders to provide cadavers for medical study, and is very loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of the same name, which is based on those foul deeds. There’s an element of that here as well, as Karloff plays Gray, a bad driver who dabbles on the side in “resurrections” – i.e., grave robbing to provide cadavers to Dr. MacFarlane so he can teach his students about anatomy. Gray and MacFarlane are two sides of the same self-loathing, with MacFarlane wanting to be free of Gray, but Gray telling him he never will be. The film is as much a psychological tussle between the two as it is a telling of the difficulties that medical schools had in getting enough cadavers to teach future doctors their trade. The final fight scene between Gray and MacFarlane really does represent everything that both binds the men together and demonstrate their equivalent hatred of one another, each knowing the other could not survive without the other half. Karloff is superb at inhabiting his Gray with a malevolence that comes through whether he speaks or not, but also shows a deadpan humor that may be overlooked. Lugosi is such a minor presence and clearly is sleepwalking through his few scenes, which is a shame . On a scale of 5, I’d rate this one a 3.5.
And we continue with Halloween 2012 Moviepalooza with White Zombie (1932) starring Bela Lugosi. This is evil Lugosi, as “Murder” Legendre, and really he doesn’t have to act very much, just do a quasi Dracula act, complete with the piercing stare and Transylvania-like accent. Short version: Beaumont is in love with Madeline, who is set to marry Neil at Beaumont’s sugar plantation in Haiti. The plantation is worked by zombified locals, and in one rather amusing scene, one zombie stumbles into the cane crusher and gets chewed up therein. Beaumont wants to kidnap Madeline and then force her to love him, but Legendre has a better idea, and Madeline winds up zombified, then spirited away by Beaumont. He realizes she now has no soul and isn’t nearly as much fun or energetic as she used to be, and wants Legendre to turn her back. Instead, he slips Beaumont some zombie powder. Meanwhile, Neil has found his way to the castle to get Madeline, who somehow wakes up for a moment from zombie-ness. A plague of zombies arrives and surrounds them on a cliff, and another character punches Legendre, thus distracting the zombies, and off they go like lemmings over the edge. As Madeline wakes up fully, Legendre tries to escape, but zombie Beaumont bearhugs him and goes over the edge. Neil and Madeline embrace, and the end credits roll. This is another of the pre Night of the Living Dead movies, and while it isn’t a completely horrible movie, it’s one that most people these days would not be able to sit through from start to finish. On a scale of 5, I’d give this one a 2.
Next up in our Moviepalooza: The Devil Bat (1941), starring Bela Lugosi. Where to begin? I suppose at the beginning: Lugosi plays Dr. Carruthers, some kind of fragrance genius who invents a killer (ha!) fragrance for a company and then accepts $5000 for his part instead of a share in the company, which becomes very successful. Convinced that the generic company owners screwed him, he develops an aftershave that attracts the giant devil bats he’s grown by zapping regular bats with lost of electricity. And them in true evil mad scientist fashion, he starts offing the guys he thinks have wronged him, by getting them to try the aftershave and then loosing his devil bat on them. A reporter and his photog sidekick show up to report on and solve the murders. Routine stuff follows and eventually Carruthers is suspected of and held to the murders. It isn’t a very good movie, and although the bat effects are not as atrocious as, say, the spaceships in Plan 9 from Outer Space, this probably would not have scared any adult back then (and possibly not even many children). It’s a straightforward telling, without any real twists to speak of, and is suitable for killing (ha!) some time waiting for the real classics to show up on the screen as dusk begins to fall on this spooky night. On a scale of 5, I’d give this a 1.
Moviepalooza continues: The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. This film, like Omega Man and I am Legend after it, is based on the story “I am Legend” by Richard Matheson, and (in my opinion) is vastly superior to both of those later films. This movie does have its drawbacks, of course: it is compressed from the story itself, and the zombie vampires are more zombie than vampire – George Romero credits this film as part of the inspiration for his “Night of the Living Dead” masterpiece – and the middle part is a bit muddled. Still, Price as Robert Morgan, the eponymous last man, gives a credible performance. The first third of the movie shows Morgan going about his daily routine as he has every day for three years since a plague wiped out the world’s population. The plague first sickens, then kills people, and then reanimates them as zombie vampires, shuffling around at night, looking to feast. Morgan goes out during the day when the vampires are sleeping, staking them through the heart and tossing them into a burning pit. The middle of the film is flashback material, showing his wife and child dying, and is the weakest link. The last of the film shows Morgan’s realization that at least some of the people he’s been staking are actually partially immune, rebuilding a world of sorts in which he is the ultimate monster. The ending I’ll save, as this really is a film you should watch. No one does creepy quite as well as Price, but he’s the Good Guy here instead of the baddie. Well worth the time to watch. On a scale of 5, this one rates a 4.
Next up on Halloween 2012 Moviepalooza: Dementia 13, an ultra low-budget affair directed by none other than Francis (Ford) Coppolla. This is a real B-grade horror flick: homicidal axe-wielder at an Irish castle. The newest entry to the Haloran clan (Louise) is married to one of the Haloran brothers, and will only inherit any of Mother Haloran’s fortune if her husband survives his mother. Alas, on a late night rowboat outing, he suffers a heart attack, and Louise tosses him into the pond, claiming that he’s been called back out of town. The Haloran sister drowned years ago in the pond, and once hubby’s body is in the drink, people start getting their heads whacked off by someone with an axe. It’s a very weird, moody film, with glimpses of what will make Coppolla great later, but it is not a very good film in any aspect. Fun fact: the film is in the public domain and can be downloaded and watched for free if you’re into creepy black and white slasher flick precursors with jangly soundtracks. On a scale of 5, I’d give it a 1.5.
One of the best things about Halloween is the wall to wall oldie horror flicks on TMC. First up: Repulsion, with Catherine Deneuve playing a young woman with obvious mental issues that everyone around her blithely ignores. It’s a Roman Polanski film – the first one of his films that most English-speaking audiences had seen. Deneuve’s character slowly goes completely batshiat insane after her sister leaves her alone in favor of a vacation with her (married) lover. A young man who meets Deneuve’s character and, for whatever reason, thinks he’s attracted to her despite her almost zombified state, should have rethought that after he tracks her down and is bludgeoned to death by her while she’s suffering from hallucinations. There’s other blood and gore as well, but the movie is so slowly paced that it can be hard to sit through to the end. If you’re not a fan of Polanski in general or of psychological thrillers specifically, you probably won’t like this one. If you don’t mind the slow buildup of story and emotion that is the hallmark of almost any Polanski film, and can watch someone’s slow descent into a more hellish existence than she already inhabits, it isn’t a bad way to pass some time. On a scale of 5, I’d give it a 3.5.