Sunday, October 21, 2018

Frankenstein and Other Literary Horrors

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at literary horror films. 2018 is the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein and so the program examined a few adaptations of Mary Shelley’s novel as well as other horror movies derived from literary sources.  What follows are the movies discussed on today’s show.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
 Frankenstein was originally published in 1818 and written by Mary Shelley. The title refers to a scientist who stitches together the remains of corpses and brings the being to life. The doctor is repulsed by his creation and rejects him. After a time, the monster returns to terrorize Frankenstein and his family. The book has been the source of numerous adaptations for screen and stage as well as the inspiration for a lot of mad scientist tales.

Although film adaptations of Frankenstein trace back to the silent era, the defining Frankenstein films were produced by Universal in the 1930s and 40s. The series began with 1931’s Frankenstein, directed by James Whale with Colin Clive cast as the doctor and Boris Karloff as the monster. Karloff’s makeup had little to do with the descriptions in Mary Shelley’s novel and are largely the work of make-up artist Jack Pierce who came up with the flat head and the bolts in the neck. This design became iconic and inspired countless Halloween decorations. The monster terrified audiences of 1931 but Karloff imbued the character with a childlike innocence that made him sympathetic. The popular image of Frankenstein’s monster is now inextricable from the 1931 film and the ongoing popularity of the story probably owes as much to Karloff, Whale, and Pierce as it does to Mary Shelley.

Karloff, Whale, and Pierce reunited for Bride of Frankenstein which is often cited as the high point of Universal’s classic monster series. The studio continued to make Frankenstein films—seven entries in all—including crossover titles like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, making Universal’s monster series the original cinematic universe. After Bride, the Frankenstein films became inconsistent. The monster acquired the ability to speak, something Karloff was unhappy about, and he played the character just once more in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. The role of the monster would go to other actors including Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and Glenn Strange but Karloff would return to Universal’s monster series as Doctor Gustav Niemann in 1944’s House of Frankenstein.

Thirty years later, Mel Brooks sent up the Universal films with Young Frankenstein. Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy was both a parody and a loving homage to the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 40s. Brooks tracked down Ken Strickfaden who had been the production designer on the Universal Frankenstein films and Strickfaden still possessed many of the props which he loaned to the filmmakers. Young Frankenstein was as much the product of Mel Brooks as it was Gene Wilder who co-wrote the script and played the lead as the grandson of the infamous scientist. Brooks has said he considers Young Frankenstein to be his best work as a director.

In the 1950s and 60s, the horror genre was dominated by Britain’s Hammer studio. The company remade many of the classic monster stories that Universal had found success with a couple of decades earlier. In 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, Peter Cushing played the doctor and Christopher Lee was cast as the monster. (Cushing and Lee would subsequently be cast as Doctor Van Helsing and Count Dracula in Hammer’s The Horror of Dracula.) Lee’s monster was a stumbling idiot who was dispatched in the climax of the first movie and Hammer’s subsequent Frankenstein series was unique in that the stories focused on the doctor. In each movie, Baron Frankenstein would try new experiments that toyed with the boundaries between life and death and unleashed horrors on the nineteenth century British countryside.

One of the most unusual Frankenstein films was Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound. All versions of Frankenstein are science fiction but this gave the premise a contemporary twist. Channeling a bit of Star Trek, a scientist (John Hurt) is transported from 2031to 1817 where he meets Doctor Frankenstein and his monster (Raul Julia and Nick Brimble) and is flung into the events of the novel. But the scientist also meets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) who is working on her book. It’s a bizarre film that delivers the Frankenstein story while taking a self-aware angle. It is also one of the first films that attempted to be faithful to the original material.

The 1994 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel was directed by Kenneth Branagh who also starred as Doctor Frankenstein. Throughout the 1990s, Branagh directed some well received adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, making them feel cinematic and contemporary. He did the same with Frankenstein and the film had tremendous energy and impressive production design. With a few minor deviations, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein lived up to its title as the most faithful adaptation of the novel. 

Frankenstein continues to find its way on screen with filmmakers taking passes at Mary Shelley’s novel or using it as inspiration for new stories. I, Frankenstein offered a dumb but fun superhero take on the monster while Frankenstein’s Army revisited the themes of the original story in the context of a war movie. There are also cult titles like Frankenhooker and Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (aka Flesh for Frankenstein) which gave the material a necrophilic twist. And Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie adapted the story in a way that was accessible to family audiences.

Dracula by Bram Stoker
Dracula originated as a book by Bram Stoker published in 1897. The book was not a major financial success although it was successfully adapted to the stage. The first film version was 1922’s Nosferatu but this adaptation was unauthorized and Stoker’s estate waged a legal battle against it with the court eventually ruling that all prints of Nosferatu were to be destroyed. But some copies survived and Nosferatu is now regarded as one of the definitive titles of German Expressionist cinema. Ironically, the success of Nosferatu reignited interest in Stoker’s novel and it’s now one of the most popular books of its era.

Dracula had many screen adaptations and the title character has appeared in over 270 films. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, that makes Count Dracula the most portrayed literary character in film. The two most renowned portrayals are Bela Lugosi’s turn in Universal’s 1931 film and Christopher Lee’s many portrayals of the Count for Hammer. What is notable about Lugosi and Lee is that they portrayed Dracula as a suave and sophisticated aristocrat where the vampire of Stoker’s novel was not so attractive. Lugosi and Lee set the tone for subsequent cinematic vampires especially other versions of Dracula and other actors to don the cape include Jack Palance, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, and Gerard Butler.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is the story of paranormal researchers who spend the night in a haunted mansion. It was the basis for two feature films. 1963’s The Haunting was directed by Robert Wise (who also helmed The Sound of Music and The Day the Earth Stood Still) and it is widely regarded as one of the best haunted house pictures. The film is so scary because of what it doesn’t show. The haunting might be real or it might be all in the characters’ heads. The suggestion allows for mystery but also psychological complexity.  A remake of The Haunting helmed by Jan DeBont (director of Speed and Twister) was a released in 1999. It was the stylistic opposite of the 1963 movie. The remake was a big budget special effects show that was entertaining but had none of the depth of the 1963 picture. The Haunting of Hill House was recently made into a series for Netflix.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde told the story of a scientist who concocts a serum that turns him into a belligerent monster. The concept is so ubiquitous that the title of the book has become shorthand to describe a two-faced or unpredictable person. Film adaptations of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde trace back all the way to the silent era. Notable actors to play the dual roles include John Barrymore, Fredric March, Spencer Tracy, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and John Malkovich.

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells 1896 book The Island of Dr. Moreau is the story of a mad vivisectionist who creates a race of creatures on a remote island. The book has been adapted to film several times. The best regarded version is 1932’s The Island of Lost Souls. The book was subsequently adapted in 1977 in a film starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York and a 1996 version starring Marlon Brando and David Thewlis.

Various works by Edgar Allan Poe
Throughout the 1960s, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe were adapted to the screen in productions often starring Vincent Price. These include The Bat, House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, and The Tomb of Ligea, among others. Price got Poe in a way that was very special. The best evidence of that is 1970’s An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe which was simply a recording of Price reciting the stories aloud. Poe’s work was also the basis for Extraordinary Tales, an animated anthology with narration by Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, and Guillermo del Toro, among others.

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