The 1930s continued onward, with each film bringing more nuanced characters and plot-lines into the mix and, with them, some of the most striking performances on film.
If Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had not given the public enough God-defying mad science, Hollywood was hot to make sure we would have our fill with two science fiction classics from the mind of H.G. Wells. The first of these employed Charles Laughton as a charming and devilishly evil Dr. Moreau, whose experiments with animals on his secluded island have produced a breed of animal-people. He has one other great question to answer, however. Can one of these creatures mate with a human? The arrival of stranded travelers on the island provides him with an opportunity to test his sinister hypothesis. Laughton infuses the role with highly discomforting undertones, and the film as a whole carries layers of social and ethical commentary. Perhaps the most potent and chilling sequence is the climax, when the beast-people, led by their cantor, Bela Lugosi, realize that Moreau has broken the “law” he forced upon them, and they intend to turn the experiments on him.
Laughton is used brilliantly, and Lugosi is underused, but is still brilliant. The film thrives on the nuance of specific lines, looks, and hints of meaning under the surface. In a sea of horror films, this one sticks with you.
James Whale, who could do no wrong after his enormous success with Frankenstein, was presented a challenge in adapting H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, yet he rose to the occasion. Starring then-unknown Claude Rains as the titular character, the film is best known for its remarkable special effects, in which the Invisible Man is partially or fully unseen, often undressing himself in pieces in front of the camera to reveal nothing. Not to disregard this… it was a triumphant feat for its day, much in the same way as the transformation in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I think the real gems here lie in the script and the performance of it. The dialog of the film has an uncanny wit about it, and Rains delivers that wit using largely his voice (though seeing what we can of him skipping along, singing “Nuts in May” still brings a smile). Una O’Connor is the major comic relief as an inkeeper’s wife, and Whale was so impressed with her overblown antics that he used here again as a similar character in Bride of Frankenstein. Don’t missed Gloria Stuart, who in later life would play Old Rose in Titanic, as the sympathetic love interest. The bare bones of this work have been played out again and again, including the 2000 film Hollow Man, but all have been pale imitations at best.
Here we are. This is not-so-secretly one of my favorite films of all time. The aesthetic, the script, the tempo, and the performances are all masterful. I could seriously write a whole page on what this movie has going for it, but I will abstain… for now. Lugosi and Karloff may pull off the best roles of their career. Later more often cast against each other with Karloff as a more noble character and Lugosi the villain, this film ingeniously goes against that formula. Lugosi is a sympathetic middle-aged man, Dr. Vitus Werdegast, freed from a prison camp after 15 years. He is returning to confront a former friend, architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), who he believes betrayed not only him by stealing his wife, but also the armies of Hungary by betraying their fort to the Russians. A young couple find themselves in the midst of this two decade feud after being involved in an accident with Werdegast, and see the mind-games (and a very real game of chess) play out between the embittered Werdegast and the Satan-worshipping villain Poelzig (whose character is based on real-life occultist Aleister Crowley). The two have potent dialog, filled with remarkably intelligent wit. “Did you hear that, Vitus? The phone is dead,” Karloff’s Poelzig remarks, slyly, “Even the phone is dead.” The film turns at the end, revealing that, deep down, the sympathetic Werdegast might really be as mad and sadistic as Poelzig, climaxing in a scene that is still one of the most cringe-worthy in film history.
The visuals are a great departure from the others in the early Universal catalog. There is no gothic castle here. The setting is an extremely modern compound, built on top of old dungeons. The film is also one of the first to use a complete score of music, classical compositions compiled by Heinz Roemheld, and the films use of the Alegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is still possibly the best use of the piece I have ever seen. Overall, the true genius of the film lies in the direction of Edgar G. Ulmer, who pulled these performances and this unique audio-visual aesthetic together. It is unfortunate that he never made another great horror classic for the studio. Don’t confuse this film with Universal’s 1941 film The Black Cat, also starring Lugosi. The story is unrelated, and that film does not match the masterwork displayed here.
Rarely is a sequel better than its predecessor. One exception to the rule is The Bride of Frankenstein. This film has everything that a good film should have: remarkable cinematography, a witty script filled with humor and pathos, and incredible performances from a true ensemble cast. Karloff and Clive are back as creature and creator, but Whale’s old friend Ernest Thesiger is the real star turn as the scheming Dr. Pretorius, who convinces Frankenstein, apparently his former pupil, to create a bride for the creature. The creature himself, who Pretorius teaches to speak, remains a wholly sympathetic character, and some of his scenes become true tear-jerkers, from his brief friendship with an old blind hermit to his repeated persecution by a mob (by which he is, in once scene, tied upon a large pole, not-so-subtly appearing like a crucified Christ). A hallmark of Whale’s work is the intrinsic humor lurking in the darkest of films, and from the outrageous antics of Una O’Connor to the sinister and camp undertones of Pretorius, there are surprising laughs and even more knowing grins to be found. Whale wins the game without ever showing his full hand. Lastly, one has to note Elsa Lanchester in the dual role of both Mary Shelley and the Bride, making a monumental impact in two very short moments of the film, and establishing the Bride character as we still think of her today.
Some will find it surprising that I would put such an often-overlooked film as Dracula’s Daughter on this list. A direct follow-up to Dracula (the story starts practically the minute after the first film ends), few have given the film the credit it is due. The Count’s daughter, Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), desperately wants to escape her lineage. She does not want to be a vampire, a creature of evil and darkness. Claiming the body of her father, she turns her face away as she holds a cross over his burning remains, attempting an exorcism of his evil with a hope of freeing herself from the curse, too. She seeks the help of a psychiatrist to rid her of her bloodlust, but her unholy instincts, encouraged by her ever-present dark assistant Sandor, are too strong. These desires fully surface in a dramatic scene where she has brought a young girl to model for a painting, and she cannot resist the urge to attack her. The tension of the scene, with definite homoerotic undercurrents, is tense, dark, and utterly chilling.
The film has gained in appreciation in later years, particularly because of Holden’s nuanced portrayal of the reluctant vampire countess and a handful of brilliant scenes expressing her battle between moral and dark instinct. Many may not know it, but many a tormented vampire, including many later adaptations of Dracula and Ann Rice’s characters, owes part of their existence to Countess Marya Zaleska’s tortured soul.
(Cover image: a still from The Bride of Frankenstein)