By Francis Friel, The Projectionist
Part Two: The Fangs Come Out
A while back a friend of mine had the chance to go see Patti Smith give a talk, or read from a book or whatever it is that she does these days. Maybe she played music? Maybe it was on Easter and she played that song about Easter? I forget, but the most important part (for me anyway) was when he said she gave the following advice: Take care of your teeth. Take care of your teeth! You go see Patti Smith. Your hero. This person with a lifetime of experience and wisdom and trials and this and that and what’s her grand take on everything? Take care of your teeth. FUCK.
I can’t take care of my teeth, folks. My grandmother had all her teeth pulled when she was a teenager and had dentures put in, her teeth were so messed up. Others on that side of the family have awful jacked-up jaws, green and gross and crooked and ohhhhh, lord. I wanted braces as a teenager but it just never happened for whatever reason. And I couldn’t get some cool high-tech futuristic Jetsons shit like Invisalign or whatever cause my teeth are so weird that they didn’t really have the capacity to make me a mold that would fit. For one thing, I have fangs. Huge, long, pointed canines that come just from above and in front of my actual normal upper row of teeth and come down, making my smile kind of weird and wobbly. And I have a gap in my front teeth, which further complicates things like retainers and fitted things that are meant to correct such things. The gap, I actually don’t mind it. I’m used to, but now it’s just sort of there and I don’t think about it so much. But it took decades of life experience before I found more important reasons to hate myself than my teeth. Besides, I have friends with gaps and they’re all doing just fine. I even think it’s a cool look on people who aren’t me.
But so anyway, I can’t take care of my teeth. I just have no money. I have never had any money. It’s fucked. Ten years ago I had my wisdom teeth pulled. This came up after I was at work one night, just chillin’ in the projection booth at my theater in Old City when from out of absolutely fucking nowhere I had this nightmarish shooting pain blast through my mouth and I realized it was my back wisdom tooth. I was with a co-worker when it happened and he sent me home right away. I went to the emergency 24-hour dentist (they had those in Philly in those days, do they still have those?) and he reached in my mouth, no gloves, reeking of…something. Cough syrup? I’m choosing to believe it was cough syrup. He was breathing right in my goddam face and I was losing my mind with fear and pain and he said I had to get those fuckers out ASAP. So I made an appointment, had it done a week or so later, and that was that. All better. No more mouth pain.
Haha! Just kidding! No, the bitter fucking reality was that, because I was way older than you’re supposed to be when you get your giant wisdom teeth out, two of mine had grown or twisted or whatever it is wisdom teeth do and hooked on to a thing in my jaw called a “nerver.” I’d never heard of a nerver before, but apparently it’s this thing that wraps around your jaw and controls muscles or something? Anyway, because my teeth had taken root or whatever all over this thing, I was at serious risk of paralysis as a result of my upcoming dental surgery. So they had to be super careful and it cost a shitload of money. Luckily, at that time I had insurance through work, so this was - for once in my life - not the apocalyptic financial situation it otherwise would have been. So I got it done. But the thing was that my recovery was gonna be some total bullshit. I was out of work for a month! The risk or paralysis was so real that I was stuck in bed (well, on the couch, watching Comcast On Demand) for five freakin’ weeks! I remember watching all kinds of cool stuff for the first time during that couch month. And I watched a lot of late night talk shows. And Game Show Network. Wow. So much Game Show Network. And I had to wear this goofy wraparound thing on my face to keep the swelling down. It looked kind of like a bra. It had these microwavable gel packs on each side that would stay hot and I’d lie around with these things on my face. I think I even have pictures of me wearing this thing which I’d share if I was in the habit of ever sharing pictures of myself (fuck that). And I lost a ton of weight! Which is also in keeping with my luck in general, because I was probably in the best shape of my life before that point and then all of a sudden I just withered away since I couldn’t eat solid food or really anything at all for weeks and weeks. Whatever. Gee whiz.
Then two years ago I discovered that on top of everything else wrong with my mouth, I have an actual gum disease! An inherited gum disease! How GREAT is that?!! So I was wracked with a new bout of head-splitting, mind-blursting PAIN. Amazing. It’s like nothing else. And this time, ha!, I definitely did not have insurance, since I was working for a much smaller theater at that time and insurance wasn’t really in the cards back then. So I went to several dentists, surgeons, walk-in clinics, whoever would see me wherever I could afford it. Only this time, the answers were much more dire. I needed to get ALL my teeth removed and get dentures, just like dear ol’ grandmom. Because what you might not know about gum disease (at least the horrific variety that I find myself stuck with) is that it can cause all KINDS of fun stuff, like, the infection can spread to your blood, which can spread to your organs, which can lead to cool fun wacky stuff like organ failure and blood poisoning and DEATH! Actual, Bardo-pond-hopping DEATH! The great beyond! The dirt nap! The COFFIN.
So I set up a GoFundMe thing and asked friends on Facebook to give me some money to get these new chompers. And the motherfucker of this situation was that, since my mouth was so fucked, I’d need to get everything done in stages. What I figured I could afford was going to the local walk-in clinic here in Asheville, which actually is incredible. But what they’d do was this: you pay a flat fee, like forty five bucks or something, and for that money, you had an appointment, and during that appointment they’d pull as many teeth as you could stand. But since they knew I needed them ALL removed, they only agreed to pull like four or five at a time and they set me up on a plan on how to do it. They pull the bottom front teeth. Then I’d need at least three weeks recovery time before I’d then get the top row pulled. Another three weeks, then the bottom back, three weeks later the top back. That’s a lot of weeks! Too many, if you ask me! And that recovery time would mean DRUGS. It would mean I wouldn’t be able to work. Now, this theater where I was working at the time, they probably would’ve worked with me on this. They probably would’ve even let me work while on the drugs. They probably would’ve just thought it was really funny, and they’d have been right. Plus, they were personally sympathetic to the perils of tooth pain, because back then it seemed like everyone who worked there had just the worst, most fucked-up teeth imaginable.
But what eventually happened with all this was that I knew I could never go through with all that was gonna come with taking months to get all my teeth pulled before then getting fitted for dentures and then finally getting the dentures back later, however long that would take. I’d just be walking around with no teeth. For, like, a very very very long time. Please understand, this went beyond any ego-based thing, or vanity or anything like that. What it really was that that, in my head, I was convinced that in the time it would take to finally get the dentures put in, something even worse would happen, like I’d break a limb, or be blinded, or get some infection or have a heart attack or just any number of improbable (no, very probable) situations. And then I’d be stuck with no teeth and whatever the fuck else. I just really have terrible luck with everything. You have no idea. OR, even more likely, I’d get hit with a major depressive episode, which happens frequently. Then I’d end up in a psych ward (also happens more frequently than I’d like to admit) with no teeth, which would only add to my stupid petty nonsense depression, and blah blah blah whatever right? So I didn’t want to do that.
What I decided I’d do instead was figure out how to raise enough money to get one of those new-fangled procedures where they yank your teeth out and get you set up with dentures within like 48 hours. But, know what you need to do shit like that? Money. An astronomical amount of money. So I set up the GoFundMe. And people came through! A local critic friend even gave me the number of a friend of his who’s a dental surgeon. But it wasn’t meant to be. I ended up spending the amount of money I actually ended up making from that little endeavor on several smaller, more immediately necessary appointments and prescriptions and procedures. So I still don’t have the dentures, the gum disease remains, for the most part, unaddressed, and I will die from a random silly-ass poisoned blood clot moving from my mouth to my shoulder or something stupid like that.
Which leads me all the way up to today, and a week ago when it all (of course) happened again. Out of the blue. The pain. The FUCKING PAIN. It hit me and I was down. Calling out of work. Going to the emergency room, where I know there’s nothing they can do for me but give me antibiotics. Spending more and more money on my useless, idiot mouth. And like everything else in life, it makes me think about movies. It makes me think about that scene in The Matrix where Mr. Anderson gets his mouth silly-putty’d shut. It makes me think of The Three Stooges and how I once wanted to tie each of my teeth to a different doorknob in a gigantic round room and have everyone slam dozens of doors at the same time, pulling all my teeth out at once in a spectacular wreck of blood and tooth roots. Or horses! I’d draw and quarter my teeth! Each tooth tied to a different horse! YES! And, of course, it makes me think of Dracula.
But here’s the thing I always forget: Dracula doesn’t have fangs! He never did! You’re thinking of Hammer, not Universal! Isn’t that weird?? Nothing in these movies or in the mythos they’re working from ever indicates there’s anything up with Dracula’s teeth. That’s annoying!
Now, I’m gonna turn some of you off with this next line of thinking, but don’t worry, cause I’ll bring it back around to The Light in just a sec. But…I don’t really like Dracula. All those modern takes on the film that call it boring, lightweight, and not at all scary, I mean...I agree. It’s dull. It’s emotionless. Except for one huge, very important element, the film actually doesn’t work for me at all, and never has.
But that element is Bela Lugosi. As Count Dracula, he never once indicates that he is anything other than just a straight-up wild as fuck space alien nightmare here to buy up real estate and rip people’s throats out. He’s a total creep! And in every scene he’s in, no matter who he’s talking to, he absolutely doesn’t give even a tiny shit who knows it. Sure, he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s a vampire since that could (maybe) give anyone who knows anything about vampires some leverage over him, but everything about his character up until the minute he meets Van Helsing is built upon him not really considering this an option. He’s been going about his gory throat-ripping business for about five hundred years by the time we catch up with him at the start of the movie. Humans are no threat. Humans are what’s for dinner.
But other than Bela’s wacked-out performance, I’ve never been especially into Dracula as a movie. Part of that is the somewhat clumsy transitioning-level filmmaking on the part of Tod Browning, straddling the silent and sound eras in a way that often comes off as more amateurish than anything else. I’m gonna say the robotic, toy-bird-drinking-water screwiness of Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing is the thing that takes me out of the movie the most.
It’s like he doesn’t belong in the movie. Or in any movie. The rest of the cast is just sort of there. Even the mostly celebrated take on Renfield by Dwight Frye just looks silly, a miscalculated attempt to bring the over-acting that went hand in hand with silent cinema to the world of sound. In a silent movie, though, you don’t think of it that way. With everything conveyed physically, you’re looking for that, you want the characters to indicate a little more broadly. Even the exceptions that prove the rule, such as Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, bring the gravity of their performances fully into the fabric of the filmmaking, that movie being told almost exclusively in tight, uncomfortable close-ups so we can see every sneer and wink of disgust on the faces of the men while watching Joan breaking down and completely giving herself to her god all at once. We feel her. We want to see into her mind and understand. And it all works because, for one thing, it’s not what we’re used to seeing. We’re used to the deep space lenses and wild gestures of silent film acting. So Frye’s wild-eyed descent into the obsessive, mind-controlled creature he becomes looks kind of ridiculous to me. And it’s not fair, I know, to compare these two, but I’m just trying to say that there was a period when filmmakers and actors were still learning how to use all the new tools of their evolving trade, and Dracula fell right on the line where some goofiness was to be expected. And it’s there.
With stilted camerawork to match the performances, it looks always like a filmed version of the stage production it’s based on, and while it’s certainly possible that much of that was due to the technical and spatial limitations of things like lights, mics, and the enormous sets that were used in the production, it still has the feeling of something that would’ve benefited from a more adventurous director behind the wheel. If only they’d had a filmmaker who worked with that script, those sets, and the rest of the considerable production elements at their disposal to make a movie that works despite the relatively low-tech limitations rather than struggle in the face of them.
Turns out, they did just that! AS YOU KNOW, while Dracula was shooting on the stages in the day, another production was shooting at night (or at least that’s the story; it might’ve been on off-days, early mornings, but it was shooting simultaneously). George Melford’s Dracula benefited greatly from the fact that, while it shot at the same time, it must have also had access to separate sets than were being used for the daytime shoots, since the crew was allowed to watch footage from the Browning version to see what was expected of them. But either they misunderstood or were smarter than anyone gave them credit for, because they used that advantage to improve upon everything they saw. Melford knew that he had a limited time to shoot his version, so he would probably have used any spare time in the production to flesh out the script and devise ways to build upon the story, as shows in his runtime exceeding Browning’s by a good thirty minutes (and none of it wasted).
Here, too, the lead performance of the Count makes the movie. All other technical considerations aside, Carlos Villarías is giving a much more nuanced take with his Dracula. He’s aware at all times of how weird he is and makes efforts to blend into everyday society. He fails, for the most part, and ends up looking sort of dorky in the process, but overall still makes for a more intimidating villain, barely holding it together in some scenes, as if he could fall apart and just start ripping people’s faces off at any moment. But while Lugosi plays this more on the surface, it’s that little level of desperation to Villarías’s style that makes his the more persuasive onscreen vampire. Lugosi might be more classically scary. Villarías is menacing.
Laemmle and Universal had been trying to bring the Dracula story to the screen for years. And while it was common enough at the time for studios to shoot multiple versions of their features for foreign language markets, it’s clear that Dracula was something more. It was a labor of love. Laemmle poured everything he had into the productions, and it’s a testament to their attention to detail that these are the two versions that are among the most well-known today. Certainly, Nosferatu (and, indeed, even the Herzog remake) has its influence felt as well, influencing modern filmmaking to the point where even What We Do in the Shadows gives it a shout-out. It got its own Kaufman-esque treatment (before Kaufman) with E. Elias Merhige’s brilliant and still criminally underseen Shadow of the Vampire. But it’s the one-two punch of the Lugosi/Villarías jawns that are the go-to for Dracula representation. No question about it. Don’t question it. Stop.
1931 was a huge year for Universal. Only nine months after the release of Dracula, Frankenstein appeared in theaters and was an even bigger hit. James Whale never really wanted to be a horror director, but it’s certainly his Universal monster films that made his career. Along with Karloff (billed as “?” in the opening credits of the film itself), Whale became a big name pretty much overnight. Frankenstein continued to build on what was becoming the gothic house style for the studio’s big budget horror output, with castles, spider webs, dungeons, laboratories and enormous looming shadows from enormous looming candles just all over the goddam place.
The film kept up the spirit of the studio just kinda playing pretty willy-nilly with the details of the plot and characters, mixing up situations, names, timelines, and even the original thematics of the story itself to make what’s still one of the strongest films of all the original monster movies. It also announced several actors as officially being in the Universal horror “stable” of players, with Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan and a few bit players all returning from Dracula to help tell the story of Frankenstein. This after even Lugosi was originally scheduled to play the part of the Monster but walked it back, assuming it wasn’t worth his trouble. Arguably, he still got the last laugh on his rival Karloff, stealing the show in the couple features they’d eventually appear in together, including later entries in the Frankenstein series.
Frye returns here as Fritz, hunchbacked assistant to Dr. Frankenstein. His weird, raving performance is more organic here, and gets one of the film’s most famous scenes all to himself as he breaks into the lecture room to steal the (wrong) brain for the Doctor’s monster. Colin Clive, as Frankenstein, brings a tragic, necessarily over the top performance to the film, starting out as an obsessive crank who eventually takes a turn into full-blown maniacal ecstasy once his creature comes to life, declaring himself God. It’s fucking amazing. So amazing, in fact, that that shit was shut down and censored for years before Universal took back control of the film and restored his “blasphemous” raving to the final (original) cut of the film.
As the monster, Karloff is every bit as iconic as his and the film’s reputation. Though most people say it took Bride of Frankenstein to bring some humanity to the character, it’s all there from this first film. He’s confused, angry, frustrated, and horrified by his own existence. And in the scene where he meets and quickly kills Little Maria, his relief at finally finding a friend and shame and torment in the aftermath of her death led him towards his final confrontation with the torch-waving townspeople who want him dead for the crime. It’s a performance full of heart that is probably still the best and darkest depiction of loneliness to come from Universal at the time. And all in service of a monster movie. Not bad, Karloff.
I’m drinking. I drink sometimes. Or…a lot. Fucking sue me. Sitting in this bar, The Lazy Diamond in Asheville, North Carolina, all decked out in beautiful colorful lights and weird art and skulls everywhere, it’s putting me more in the mood than ever to be writing about this stuff. It’s early September. It’s hot out. It’s fucking bullshit. I’m ready for it to be fall. Finally. I’m ready to be surrounded by people who are all in the same mood. The Universal Horror Mood. Ready for everyone to catch up. For everyone to post their Bride of Frankenstein memes on Instagram. Ready for people to talk about their Halloween costumes. I never wear a costume. I can’t do it. I try. Every year, I swear this will be the year I wear a costume but, realistically, there’s just no fucking way. To me, it’s like being invited to a nude beach. I’d either be embarrassed to be naked in public or embarrassed by people asking why I wasn’t naked. It’s horrifying to imagine. And also, I’m brown. They don’t make cheap Halloween Superstore makeup for brown faces. And I have a weird face and a lanky, misshapen body, so costumes don’t fit me. Fuck that shit.
I have seldom dressed up for Halloween in my adult life (that I can recall right now). Once, as a high school freshman at a new school, Archbishop Ryan in Philly (The Great Northeast, to be more precise), I went full Eric Draven (it was 1994, fuck you). I walked all the way to the high school dance, about a mile and a half, wearing this shit. Showed up, didn’t know anyone, stood in the back of the auditorium while everyone there, who all probably had known each other since kindergarten, danced and partied and had the time of their stupid fucking idiot lives. Then I went home and realized I had no idea how to get that fucking makeup off of me. God fucking dammit!
The next few times were no less embarrassing but were mercifully less lonely. I went as part of a group Twin Peaks costume with my housemates around 2001 or 2002. I was Cooper. And whatever year Elliot Smith killed himself, my friend Neil and I went as Knifed Elliot Smith. Those were easy ones. A couple years earlier I had made myself a full Edward Scissorhands costume, complete with huge, elaborate homemade scissor hands. It was great! My friend Carissa helped me with my wig (and maybe my makeup, but I can’t recall that). We hung out in the upstairs in the break room at work, the General Cinema in Allentown, PA. Carissa adjusted and probably fought with my shitty wig until it looked sufficiently Edward (or close enough, given the resources available). I even entered that year’s Midnight Costume Contest at work as part of the Halloween Rocky Horror Party. Like I said: It was great! I still hate myself for appearing in public like that! Shame has no finite shelf-life, sadly.
But the best costume I’ve ever seen in public, out in the wild, was the Bride of Frankenstein. It was around 8:15 am on November 1st, 2013, only weeks before I moved out of Philly forever. I had just finished an overnight shift at the mobbed-up cab stand where I worked in South Philly. I was walking home, it was cold and foggy and hazy and sunny, and as I turned the corner from the long-hidden alleyway out of the cab stand office, I saw her. She was floating towards me. She was tall, beautiful, and I swear looked exactly like Elsa Lanchester. Her gown was white and silver, her reddish-brown hair tall and confident, still straight up in the air from the night before. Her lightning bolt streaks were amazing. She had bandages covering her arms and hands and fingertips and she was holding a cigarette that she kept bringing up to her lips then pulling back down again, but not smoking. She had on blue lipstick. I remember. She must’ve lived in my neighborhood, but I didn’t recognize her, had never seen her before that moment. As she approached me, she looked a little nervous, and as I got closer she asked “Hey man, you got a light?” I did. I lit a cigarette for the Bride of Frankenstein. Two nights later I saw another Bride on the Broad Street line and she kinda looked like shit, her costume half-assed with a bad streak in her hair. I’ve seen little kid Brides, punk Brides, you name it. Everybody thinks they have a shot at the crown. Few can pull it off. But that’s okay. It’s hard. I’m the worst at costumes. I’m not judging. Just sayin’. Not everyone can be ELSA.
Bride of Frankenstein is, rightly, still considered the best of the 30s bunch. As would be the custom from here on out, Universal was serializing these things within an inch of their lives. It only really pays off here, as the rest of the films that would come later in their various sequels and offshoots take a more 1980s approach to this concept, such as when Ghost of Frankenstein, the direct sequel to Son of Frankenstein, opens with “Hey! We found Frankenstein’s OTHER son!” Christ. Nightmare. We’ll get there in a minute, but first, let’s just sit and think about the fact that Elsa Lanchester completely changed the face of modern horror with a total of about seven minutes of screen time, six of those during the prologue where she played Mary Shelley. The Bride herself doesn’t even show up until the final scene, where she does this weird, creepy darting thing with her head before screaming in terror and immediately being fucking murdered as the entire lab is detonated in an onscreen explosion that might be my Favorite Cinematic Blow-Up Of All Time. It’s fucking BONKERS.
But wait wait wait wait WAIT. Back up. First, we need to talk about something else. Elsa, she’s great. She makes the movie. She’s perfect. I have a crush on her. I’d kill or die for her. But no. First. First, the rest. Clive returns as the fucked-up doofus Dr. Frankenstein. And one day, into his life strolls his old mentor, the Completely Mad Scientist and Completely Bananas Dr. Pretorius. Played by Whale’s own real-life mentor, Ernest Thesinger brings the movie more than a hint of campy wackiness and steals the movie when he shows off his “creations” to Frankenstein, miniature human beings he “grew” in his lab, rather than the boorish and brutish style of Frankenstein, who created monsters from rotting corpses. This sequence is my favorite in the entire film. Pretorius just radiates borderline satanic glee at his bizarre offspring, calling the audience to attention, reminding us exactly what kind of movie we’re watching.
Recently I was talking to someone about Bride of Frankenstein, someone who fancies themselves pretty film literate. They called it a movie for children, “stupid” and “dull” where nothing much happens. They said it was “offensive” that this film is held up to such a lofty place in the annals of cinematic horror. I was flabbergasted. What an idiotic reading of the film. I can only really counter by quoting Truffaut, from his review of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, which had come out at a time when American audiences just weren’t ready for anything more from their westerns than John Wayne mumbling his way through some horseshit or other about bravery and patriotism or whatever – “Anyone who rejects it should never go to see movies again, such people will never recognize inspiration, a shot, an idea, a good film, or even cinema itself.” In other words: Fuck you, maniac. Bride of Frankenstein is one of the best movies ever made. Period. You think otherwise, you need to go back to brain school.
Lambert Hillyer is the weirdo responsible for a bunch of go-nowhere studio mini-movies that no one even remembers today (but that are, to their credit, all pretty watchable). But in retrospect, he was perfect to helm the next installment in the Dracula series, Dracula’s Daughter, which strays immediately from gothic horror to psychological family melodrama. Opening in the immediate aftermath of Dracula, his daughter, Marya, comes to claim his body from the morgue. Hypnotizing the night watchman, she steals the corpse and burns it in the swamp, both absorbing his power and finally freeing herself from his influence. See, Marya has wanted nothing but to escape the terrible fate of her family name. She hates being a vampire. She even hates the word, preferring “undead.” I mean, sure, she LOVES it, who wouldn’t? But more than the enormity of an undead life, more than the pressure to kill to live, she just wants a normal life. It seems to be a roundabout callback to the first film, when Dracula muses aloud - to his soon-to-be victims, no less - how fucking great it’s gonna be to finally be dead. Weird.
It’s goofy. REAL goofy. But it’s also strangely beautiful. Dracula’s Daughter tells the story of a family in disarray. Marya was an unwilling participant in her father’s mayhem, going along for the ride - and enjoying it, sure - but it’s a life she never asked for. She wants to play her own music, love the men she truly wants, walk among the living, and not live in fear of daylight. The day her father died was a day she’d hoped for all her life and when it came, she felt the ultimate relief. She was finally ALIVE.
Gloria Holden embodies Marya as royalty, learning to accept herself as part of a rare breed of creature. Once she figures out that her curse is deeper than any power her father might have held over her, she blows right past any notions of right or wrong and becomes the vampire she always knew she could be. She evolves. She’s pure evil. And she LOVES it. But for all the accidental greatness of the film, it was about to spell the end of the Laemmle run of Universal Horror.
Junior Laemmle, as he was called by insiders, took over the studio shortly after the studio went through a series of growing pains, starting with the ousting of original Big Boss Carl. And while Junior knew how to make a movie, it wasn’t always clear whether or not his taste was up to the task. After Dracula’s Daughter, which ended up being one of the studio’s biggest productions of the era, Junior dropped the ball and just sort of kicked it around for a while. Shit was about to get real stupid, at least for these two landmark series.
Son of Frankenstein, from 1939, is promising enough. Building more on the established mythology of the Village of Frankenstein, this one finds Henry’s son as a successful small-town doctor far removed from the family name. But he’s nonetheless drawn into the machinations of the Monster and his new sidekick, Ygor.
Ygor is a fixture in the overall pop culture world of Frankenstein, but only now does he finally turn up. Played by Lugosi, he pretty much steals the movie from Karloff, here reduced back to his pre-Bride characterization of a grunting beast. And while he still manages to squeeze some broader emotion from the thin script, it plays more like an early entry in the Hammer series than anything else. It plays on the serialized nature of what’s come before only up to the point where it needs to, but otherwise does its own thing with little regard to what it all means to the larger story.
Ygor, hanged for murder years ago by eight men who declared him dead, now hunts them down one by one with help from the Monster. And he’s smart! He has the perfect alibi! Whenever a new Monster Murder takes place, he’s up in his tower playing his weird awful horn, annoying the ever-loving fucking shit out of the townspeople but making it clear that he’s up THERE while the murders are all happening down HERE. Smart! Good thinking, Ygor!
And then came Lon Chaney, Jr.
Lon Chaney, Jr. SUCKS. Sorry! Imagine if you cast Wallace Shawn as Batman and you can almost approximate what it’s like to see this fucker headlining the second wave of Universal Horror. Chaney’s got the charisma of a stuffed gecko. I really can’t believe they let this guy be in movies! It’s unreal! He’s so bad. No, like, really, he is REALLY bad. Every acting choice feels like it’s from fucking Pluto, every eyebrow, every line reading, all completely backward and awkward. It makes no sense to me! Why is he in these movies???
Son of Dracula has some cool visual effects and even an early, innovative use of what would become the Spike Lee Special, with Chaney locked onto the dolly to make him float across and above the swamp. Likewise, Ghost of Frankenstein, with Chaney as the Monster and again starring Lugosi as Ygor, shows off some impressive shots and all, but is mostly cash-grab sequel from a studio not knowing which way was up for a little bit. They aren’t bad movies, but as they fit into the larger worlds of their respective Monsters, they’re uneven at best.
Worse is that, for all the loopy nonsense that goes on in Son of Dracula, it has a great ending. The famous burning of the coffin is well-done and makes up for the way the plot starts to drag toward the end of the film, with everyone constantly re-explaining to everyone else what exactly a vampire is and how you stop them. We get it, movie. We’ve been here before. These productions tended to just sort of abruptly end after killing the Monster, and these are no different. But both Son of Dracula and Ghost of Frankenstein aren’t the films they started out as being. Production delays, scheduling shifts and other behind the scenes setbacks meant these were never going to be the highest quality films of their eras. But both also feel like missed opportunities compared to where the previous entries in their series left off.
Ghost of Frankenstein goes out on an amazing finale, where Ygor’s brain is put into the Monster’s body so he can live forever. The plan had been to let Lugosi overdub the Monster in future films using his Ygor voice, but they pulled the plug on that shit right away. Just a little too weird, probably, but god I still want to see those movies. Likewise, Son of Dracula (I’ve heard) was to open with Dracula having drawn hundreds of followers to his castle, sending them out into the night to bring him blood. Instead, we get yet another convoluted real estate melodrama. But, again, all the stuff with the coffins in the swamp is great. It’s dark and atmospheric. And the animated mist and bat effects work well, too, inspiring much of El Vampiro and Coffin of the Vampire.
Dracula and the Monster would return to the screen a few times over the course of Universal’s run, showing up in the Monster Rally films, teaming up and fighting other monsters, and even meeting Abbott and Costello. They would never be as great as they were in the beginning, but each new iteration added to their individual and collective mythologies and stories. It’s still impressive that Universal chose to serialize these stories at all, when they just as easily could have slapped these together and just said “Okay, Dracula goes to Mars in this one” or some such bullshit. They tried.
In Part III, we’ll catch up with the non-Monster films of Universal’s early period and enter the Old Dark House. Until then, Watch More Movies. I’ll be reading Monster! Digest Zine. I just discovered these folks and have subscribed and ordered some back issues. They put out a quarterly zine (hey! Just like us!) and write almost exclusively about horror and MONSTER MOVIES. It’s cool, it’s weird, and you should order the latest copy of the zine (and check them out on Facebook - follow Monster! Digest).