Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)

It’s always at least a little frustrating when all a movie does is affirm things you already know. For instance, I already knew from the first film in William Beaudine’s career-concluding Weird West double bill, Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, that I wasn’t likely to enjoy its marquee mate Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Indeed, my second trip to that well was even less rewarding than the first and I had to question exactly why I even do these things to myself, especially since I already knew going in that its title was bound to be its best attribute. That wasn’t my most depressing reaffirmation watching Frankenstein’s Daughter, however. What really got to me was once again facing a truth about myself as an audience that never goes away: I will greedily gobble up any scraps of horror genre schlock put in front of me, but most Westerns put me to sleep, regardless of quality.

Of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, I wrote that the Western end of the film’s horror-Western divide felt like a Halloween-themed episode of Gunsmoke or Bonanza. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter similarly mirrors the lifeless, going-through-the-motions tedium of televised Western serials whenever its titular horror villain is offscreen. It also makes the problem worse by stretching out these gun-slinging adventures to much longer extremes than Beaudine’s other Weird West picture. At the opening of the film I was foolishly excited that it may be an improvement from Billy the Kid Versus Dracula because it begins in Lady Frankenstein’s lab as she experiments on a dead body using her grandfather’s ancient recipe. That excitement soon faded as I realized this is more so a picture about Jesse James’s travels as a pistol-shootin’ romantic.

Two scientists from Vienna, including the titular Lady Frankenstein, set up shop in a small Mexican village to take advantage of two of their most precious resources: electrical storms & disposable laborers (you know, human children). Lady Frankenstein’s experiments in the old abandoned mission she converts to a lab packed with sciency bleep bloop machines have no concern for conquering death, but rather create a strong, mind-controlled slave out of the local undead. Unfortunately, the cruelty in her preposterous form of sci-fi colonialism is abandoned for most of the film’s (very short) runtime to follow the American man who eventually does her in: Jesse James. James’s story is split between planning a bank robbery and getting stuck between the romantic intentions of a local Mexican woman & Lady Frankenstein herself. Neither end of that divide is half as interesting as Lady Frankenstein’s experiments, cheap thrills that have been better pulled off in countless films that are far more entertaining than this one.

If there’s any delight to be found in Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, it’s in the film’s disinterest in maintaining its own sense of world-building. Just like how the vampire in Billy the Kid Versus Dracula is never once referred to as Dracula, Frankenstein’s “daughter” in the film is actually the mad scientist’s granddaughter. Also, when Lady Frankenstein finally creates a successful undead mind-slave out of Jesse James’s hunky buddy, she names the monster Igor for some unknown reason. I guess the production design or the line delivery or a classic “Why? Why?! WHY?!!!!!” reaction made stray moments of the movie humorous, but it never lived up to the potential of its real life outlaw meets supernatural threat premise. I suppose my familiarity with its sister film should’ve meant I already knew that it wouldn’t. I got tricked, once again, into thinking the delights of its schlocky horror elements or its ridiculous title could outweigh the tedium of watching a tedious mid-60s Western. I sorta already knew better, but I watched it anyway and learned nothing in the process.

-Brandon Ledet

The Colossus of New York (1958)

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fourstar

Written by hoaxter parapsychologist Thelma Moss & released on a double bill with something called The Space Children, you’d be forgiven for assuming that The Colossus of New York was an unworthy throwaway sci-fi picture only notable because it somehow wasn’t featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’d be wrong, though. Although the film is only a breezy 70min long, pads itself out with a little airport stock footage and is undeniably goofy in some of its special effects details, The Colossus of New York deserves way more respect than you might expect from its drive-in schlock pedigree. Unexpectedly serving as a bridge between Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein & Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, I found the film far more inventive & thematically well-considered than I would have initially assumed. It looks from the outside to be just one of many cheap 1950s Frankenstein bastardizations, but the film pushes way past a simple brain transplant horror story into something that feels anachronistically forward-thinking. A lot of The Colossus of New York‘s initial appeal rests in its drive-in era charm & unique creature design, but it somehow amounts to far more than the sum of its parts.

The film starts with two sibling scientists watching footage of automated assembly line technology that the far more successful of the pair is pioneering. His jealous brother, tired of competing for their father’s praise, jokes that the invention will “put the human race out of business.” After hearing his father brag to the press that his son is one of the all-time great human minds, comparable to the likes of Einstein & Darwin, we watch the scientist die in a horrific car accident while retrieving his child’s toy airplane. The father is driven mad by this “foolish, wasteful” death and starts raving about the shame of the human body’s inferiority to the power of the mind and some slippery slope philosophy about the brain vs the soul. Long story short, the father resurrects his favorite son by implanting his brain in a more durable cyborg body, while the lesser, more alive brother starts making moves on the scientist’s widow. The experiment works at first, with the scientist’s new cyborg body finally matching the immense power of his mind. He’s essentially a gigantic, metal version of Frankenstein’s monster, with the added bonus of light-up eyes that shoot deadly lasers. Of course, the father’s meddling with the laws of God & Nature means that the creation’s temporary success doesn’t last forever. Eventually, the titular cyborg colossus uses his newfound strength to exact his brutal revenge, first on his wife-stealing brother and then on the world at large.

What’s most striking about The Colossus of New York is what happens when it ventures into the uncanny. Most drive-in schlock would’ve stopped at the Metal Frankenstein aspect of the premise, but this film pushes itself into much stranger, more adventurous territory. When the colossus is first switched on, we see the world through his POV, a television static-inspired technique that recalls the similarly shot birth of RoboCop. When he first sees himself in the mirror as a cyborg he squeals in horror, pleading to his father, “You want to help me? Then destroy me,” in a pathetic mechanical voice. He curses his “flesh that cannot feel,” pines to reconnect with his wife (who the father initially reports to be dead), and repeatedly visits the grave for his old human body. Things get even stranger from there as the scientist’s mind begins to push beyond normal human capacity. He’s tortured by “meaningless images,” visions that are later revealed to be premonitions of future events. He also becomes more erratic in his thoughts by the day, even discovering a new talent for hypnotism, which he immediately employs for evil. This escalates to the once great, humanitarian mind declaring the poor & hungry to be “human trash” and deciding to wage a one-cyborg war on world peace, starting with a massacre at a UN conference. What was once a standard black & white horror cheapie starts to feel much stranger, much more special, and by the end The Colossus of New York starts to feel like a long buried gem.

Even if my praise of the film’s adventurous sci-fi themes sounds a little hyperbolic, I believe it’s a work that could easily be enjoyed for the simple pleasures of its sights & sounds. Lack of facial expressiveness is usually not a plus in a monster movie mask, but the cyborg colossus uses that awkward stoicism quite well as an essential part of his self-tortured inhumanity. The movie also pulls a lot of great visual play out of terrified victims being lit solely by the monster’s light-up brain & eyes in the moment before he zaps them to death. Besides boasting a cool-looking monster who eats up a lot of screentime in a refreshing change from the genre’s status quo, the film also employs a minimalist piano score from frequent Twilight Zone musician Van Cleave that affords it a classic silent horror vibe in its simplicity. If you’re ever in the mood for a Universal Monster-type classic, but you’re feeling exhausted with endless rewatches of Frankenstein or The Black Cat, I highly recommend giving The Colossus of New York a shot. It just might surprise you.

-Brandon Ledet

How to Make a Monster (1958)

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fourstar

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I had previously complained in a recent review that the film I Was a Teenage Frankenstein had moved away so far from the original formula of its predecessor I Was a Teenage Werewolf that the two films had almost no reason to share a title at all (except, of course, for the former to make a quick dollar off the latter’s notoriety). I Was a Teenage Werewolf was a huge financial & cultural success largely due to its first-ever depiction of a teenager transforming into a murderous monster, a basic concept it’s near-impossible to imagine modern horror without. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein was then rushed out within five months of that film’s release and, although it boasted an impressively cruel villain & killer monster design, the film featured no actual teenagers to speak of, completely missing the point of its predecessor’s success. The bridge that actually connects these two disparate works wasn’t to come until a year later.

1958’s How to Make a Monster combines the monsters from I Was a Teenage Werewolf & I Was a Teenage Frankenstein into a single picture, but not in the way that you’d expect. Much like how the second film in the series moved away from the Teenage Werewolf original’s formula for success & originality, How to Make a Monster ventured even further out to sea and somehow found its own legs to stand on as a unique work of meta horror. Instead of staging a logical physical altercation of the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein from the previous pictures, How to Make a Monster instead depicts a movie production of that altercation. Set on the American International Pictures movie lot, the film centers on the make-up artist who created the look of the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein and his mental unraveling during the production of a film where the two monsters meet onscreen. It’s the exact kind of meta horror weirdness I was a huge sucker for in Wes Craven films like New Nightmare (except maybe a little cheaper & a little goofier) and it works like gangbusters.

Much like with the first two films, the only narrative through-line How to Make a Monster holds with its loosely-connected franchise is the idea of a mad scientist exploiting innocent teenagers in their experimental medicine.  Instead of trying to save the world through treacherous experimentation like in the first two pictures, however, this mad scientist is a make-up artist trying to save the monster movie as a genre. Once he discovers that he’s been laid off by the studio due to the decline in monster movie popularity, our dastardly mastermind applies hypnosis through homemade experimental make-up to turn his two latest creations, Teenage Frankenstein & Teenage Werewolf, into literal monsters that “scare” studio heads into changing their minds . . . by murdering them. There’s a lot of industry talk in How to Make a Monster about the artistry of monster movie make-up, the cycles of genre films’ popularity, typecasting among horror actors, and the “therapeutic” qualities of horror films for audiences that all make the movie feel like a love letter to the industry. A lot of the movie works like a pretty standard monster movie genre piece, but the rest holds such a high reverence for cheap horror as a finely-crafted artistry that its reliance on the genre’s basic tropes actually serve the film well.

If you’re going to watch just one film in this franchise I highly recommend sticking with I Was a Teenage Werewolf. It’s a rare example of a cheap drive-in monster flick that actually finds high art in its genre trappings & taps into the subconscious fears that spring from puberty in an oddly authentic way. However, How to Make a Monster does a great job of molding that past success in horror filmmaking into an entirely new format. It’s a standard monster movie in terms of its monstrous thrills, but it repurposes those tropes into a meta, self-reflective work that genuinely surprised me in its genre innovation. The film functions nicely as a connector between the Teenage Werewolf & Teenage Frankenstein flicks that came before it, but it also stands firmly on its own as a unique work in the 50s drive-in horror genre, especially in the way it reflects on what that genre is & what it means to the American movie-going public.

-Brandon Ledet

I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957)

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three star

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If there’s any doubt of my contention that the 50s drive-in creature feature I Was a Teenage Werewolf was a zeitgeist shift in its first-ever depiction of a teenager-turned-monster as its central threat, just look to the fact that the film’s wild cultural success lead to an immediate onslaught of imitators. There are countless movies that have followed in the cult classic’s wake that all turned the horrors of puberty into literal monstrous transformations, far too many to list here. There are even enough teen werewolf movies that followed that the plot device can be considered its own genre: Teen Wolf, Ginger Snaps, Cursed, Twilight, and, from the very same year as the original, Teenage Monster all fit snugly under its umbrella.

More often than not, though, Hollywood producers will learn the exact wrong lessons from a film’s success. So, when Sam Arkoff & AIP decided to strike while the iron was hot with a follow-up to their surprise hit I Was a Teenage Werewolf, they ended making a film that was nothing like the wild idiosyncrasy of the original. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein completely missed the point of why I Was a Teenage Werewolf struck it big with drive-in audiences. In the werewolf picture teens watched their peers talk hip slang (or at least what adult screenwriters assumed was hip slang), rough house, make-out, and transform into hideous beasts at the cruel hands of puberty. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, by contrast, shows almost no teens at all during its entire runtime. Even the titular teenage Frankenstein monster appears to be a man well into his 20s (not that you ever get a good enough look at the actor to really make a judgement call on that).

The one thing I Was a Teenage Frankenstein did keep from I Was a Teenage Werewolf‘s formula was the idea of a mad scientist experimenting on teen subjects. In the original a rogue scientist plots to “save” the world by bringing man back to a primitive state through hypnosis-aided de-evolution. In the Frankenstein version of this story, an equally ambitious man of science (and direct descendant of the more infamous Dr. Frankenstein, of course) wants to save the world by creating some kind of superbeing out of disposed body parts. His exact goals are a lot fuzzier than his werewolf-creating predecessor’s, but they have something to do with experimental eugenics & bodily reconstruction due to a belief that the world is in danger because morons keep breeding morons. He believes he can do a better job of constructing the human body than God & Nature. Gathering the pieces-parts of his teenage specimens from a head-on car crash, the doctor creates a modern Frankenstein monster in total secrecy, even keeping his lab assistant & nosy fiancee in the dark. Inevitably the experiment gets out of his control & the monster ends up killing a few unsuspecting victims, both by accident & through coercion, despite having a genuinely kind teenage heart resting in his undead body.

You pretty much can guess how this film winds up, which is largely what holds I Was a Teenage Frankenstein back from achieving the glorious heights of its predecessor. Rushed to theaters less than five months after the release of I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the film feels like it was made without any real knowledge of what even happened in its source material, let alone what made it popular. The only teens I can recall seeing in the picture arrive in the final third during a brief trip to a Lovers’ Lane parking lot in the monster’s search for a new face, which separates the film so far from its lycanthrope counterpart that it’s a wonder they even share a title the way they do. Still, as a standard drive-in era monster movie the film is a surprisingly decent watch. The teen Frankenstein’s monster make-up is downright grotesque in its hamburger meat visage, the doctor’s fiancee has a sincerely great gravitas to her performance, and the doctor’s disposal method for unused body parts is to feed them to a stock footage alligator, which is something of my schlock-loving dreams. I also really appreciated the doctor’s relentless cruelty, which was surprising in its viciousness even for a villain in a monster movie. For instance, when he first brings his creation to life, the teen freak immediately weeps at the crushing weight of its own existence & the doctor exclaims, “It appears even its tear ducts function!” That’s pretty cold. I Was a Teenage Frankenstein may have missed the point of its more teen-oriented predecessor’s success, but it stands well enough on its own as a straight-forward genre exercise with a heartless villain & a truly horrific monster design.

-Brandon Ledet

Victor Frankenstein (2015)

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fourstar

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“You know their story . . .”

In the press/apology tour for Victor Frankenstein (critics have not been kind), director Paul McGuigan has been quoted as saying that Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is “dull as dishwater“, not a surprising sentiment in light of how his film approaches its source material. Victor Frankenstein has the same reverence for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has for its Brothers Grimm origins. It’s so distanced from the novel, in fact, that I didn’t spot a single mention given to Mary Shelly in the final credits. Not even a “characters by” shout-out. Oddly enough, I think it’s that exact flippant approach to the now classic horror tale that makes the film an enjoyable (and mostly intentional) camp fest. Well, that & over-the-top performances from James McAvoy as the mad scientist Frankenstein, Daniel Radcliffe as the groveling Igor, and Andrew Scott as a soft spoken police inspector on a mission from God.

At first, it seems as though Victor Frankenstein doesn’t bring any new ideas to the table for a property that’s been already adapted for the screen roughly 50,000 times (including last year’s dismal I, Frankenstein). McAvoy’s feverish, spit-flinging performance is inspired in terms of camp value, but the movie’s early declarations like, “Life is temporary, so why should death be any different?” and “The world remembers the monster, but not the man . . , But sometimes the monster is the man,” aren’t particularly fresh, but rather a stitched-together homunculus made of old leftover movie parts. Eventually, however, a clear narrative appears. As the God-fearing police investigator starts butting heads with Frankenstein, it becomes clear that the film is a campy battle between Atheism vs. Christianity, Science vs. Faith. The policeman is incensed that the mad scientist is on a mission “to create life in direct, violent action against God,” claiming that he’s “in allegiance with Satan.” Frankenstein snaps back, “There is no Satan, no God, no me.” This aspect of the film is obsessively explored to the point that is plays as 100% sincere, but ultimately feels just as ridiculous as any of its outright horror comedy gags.

Half-cooked philosophy aside, there’s plenty of goofy charms that make the film surprisingly enjoyable as a camp fest. An early origin story for Igor that features Harry Potter crouched over in heavy clown make-up works as literal bread & circuses. Moving the narrative from a remote castle to the inner city gives it a distinct Tim Burton tone, particularly the movie Sweeney Todd. The film’s costume design is gorgeous (especially in the love interest & Downton Abbey vet Jessica Brown Findlay’s dresses & McAvoy’s vests), but the rest of the imagery is absurdly nasty. Grotesque practical effects surrounding bodily horror like eyes & other organs suspended in jars, steam punk medical tools, abscess fluid, and an early Frankenstein monster prototype (a chimp-esque “meat sculpture” homunculus made of dead animal parts) are all pitch perfect in their absurdity. The actual Frankenstein monster almost feels like a last-minute afterthought, but is ultimately satisfying in its design, looking like a mutant pro wrestler or Goro, the big boss character from Mortal Kombat, except with extra internal organs instead of extra limbs. Ultimately, though, it’s the over-the-top acting of its three heads that sell the movie as an absurdist slice of mindless entertainment.

It’s difficult to say if this was an intentional element to the movie’s  Max Landis screenplay, but the film also has an interesting level of homosexual subtext in the relationship between Igor & his master, which manifests both in subtle moments of body language & romantic jealousy as well as more obvious moments like when Frankenstein shouts about sperm in the only scene where he’s shown conversing with women. Again, it’s difficult to tell if this was Landis’ screenplay or McAvoy & Radcliffe’s performances in action, but it’s just another element in play to a surprisingly enjoyable film with an already-negative reputation due to its indifference for its source material & flights of ugly frivolity. Victor Frankenstein‘s latent homosexuality (which really does stretch just beyond the bounds of bromance), laughable atheism, and grotesque body humor all play like they were written in a late-night, whiskey-fuelled stupor, the same way the film’s monster was constructed by the titular mad scientist drunk & his perpetually terrified consort.  I know I’m alone here, but my only complaint about this film is that it could’ve pushed its more  ridiculous territory even further from Mary Shelly’s original vision, with Victor planting wet kisses on Igor’s cheeks & Rocky Horror‘s “In just seven days, I can make you a man . . .” blaring on the soundtrack.

-Brandon Ledet

Lugosi Vs. Karloff: A Critical Guide to Old Hollywood’s Spookiest Rivalry

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Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff were incredibly gifted actors from the Old Hollywood studio system era. They possessed a natural, unteachable screen presence that would literally haunt audiences well after they left the cinema, inspiring many a nightmare over the past century through mere body language & subtle vocal manipulation. Unfortunately, the pair’s natural knack for horror did them wonders in the Universal Pictures “famous monsters” series, but in the longterm left them pigeonholed in a genre that relies mostly on fads. It’s rare that an actor gets the opportunity to embody a role as iconic as Lugosi’s Count Dracula or Karloff’s turn as the Frankenstein monster, but perfectly nailing that type of character can unfortunately lead to decades of typecasting if you don’t play your cards right (or if you are contractually obligated to play whatever role your studio hands you). Lugosi & Karloff’s time as famous monsters left a huge mark on cinema & the public consciousness echoed years down the line in films as disparate as Tim Burton’s arguably perfect Ed Wood & weirdo, abstract art films like The Spirit of the Beehive. They also left the actors very little to stand on in terms of career growth.

Cursed to toil away in horror pictures of varying quality for the remainder of their careers after the decline of the famous monsters series, Lugosi & Karloff’s success & choice of projects largely depended on the ebb & flow of the horror genre’s profitability. When times were dire, the two often would have to fight over the scraps tossed their way, which lead to a not-so-secret professional rivalry between the actors. It surprised me, then, to recently discover that Lugosi & Karloff were frequently paired in unlikely collaborations, sharing screentime in no less than eight feature films. This rivalrous union lasted for a little over a decade, on & off again, as their personal tension grew increasingly malignant. The best thing about the Lugosi-Karloff collaborations is how the pair’s offscreen rivalry was echoed in the majority of their characters’ onscreen clashes in personality, adding a meta level of fascination to a handful of (sometimes impressive, mostly minor) horror pictures.

Here’s a complete list of the eight Lugosi-Karloff collaborations, each ranked & reviewed and arranged in chronological order. For a more complete/academic history of the spooky duo’s onscreen collaborations & offscreen clashes, you might want to track down the massive book Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff: The Expanded History of a Haunting Collaboration by Gregory William Mank, which details the overlap in their careers in an extensive 700 page study. The piece you’re reading now is instead intended more as a quick & dirty critical guide to what Old Hollyood’s most haunting rivalry & most unlikely collaboration has to offer to audiences (both modern & otherwise) in terms of entertainment.

The Black Cat (1934)

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“Suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic” (to borrow the title card’s language) that inspired later adaptations by none other than Roger Corman in the Tales of Terror anthology film & Dario Argento in his segment of Two Evil Eyes, 1934’s The Black Cat is about as loose as a literary adaptation can get. The only element the film shares in common with Poe’s short story is the appearance of a black cat that is murdered in a fearful rage, then reappears unharmed. If you’re looking for a (slightly) more faithful cinematic adaptation of the story, I’d suggest looking to Corman’s Tales of Terror (which also features versions of Poe’s “Morella” & “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”). 1934’s Unversial Pictures production of The Black Cat is fascinating not because it’s a loose, full-length adaptation of a Poe short story, but because it features the first collaboration between Lugosi & Karloff. It’s an alarmingly violent film that allows the two actors to stray from their usual typecast roles as Count Dracula & the Frankenstein monster, playing more recognizably human characters, however just as horrific.. Even though The Black Cat stands as the first collaboration of eight, it would eventually prove itself superior to all of the films to follow. No other Lugosi-Karloff collaboration could possibly match the delicious old school horror aesthetic achieved in The Black Cat. It’s an incredible work.

The Black Cat begins with a young couple meeting a recently imprisoned psychiatrist, Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Lugosi), while honeymooning in Hungary, In a scene typical to the film’s unnerving violence, the trio suddenly find their plans derailed in a gruesome bus crash. Lugosi’s Verdergast lays on the creep factor early, gently stroking the hair of the sleeping female passenger because she reminds him of his deceased wife. After the bus crash, he leads the unsuspecting couple to recover at the spooky mansion of his bitter rival, the mentally unhinged architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). As the situation gradually sours, it becomes apparent that Poelzig is, in fact, the true villain of the story. He traps Vendergast & the newlyweds in his (gorgeous Art Deco) home, planning to include them in an elaborate Satanic ceremony at an celestial event dubbed “The Dark of the Moon”. Karloff’s Poelzig is an intense dude. Among other strange traits, he’s known to brood in a darkened dungeon stocked with the bodies of deceased women he keeps pristinely preserved in glass cases, all the while stroking his titular black cat (who curiously appears alive in the film even after Lugosi’s Verdergast kills it in a frightened rage). When Poelzig’s plans of a Satanic ritual finally come to fruition (after being thoroughly researched in a book helpfully titled The Rites of Lucifer), he brings to a head a decades old rivalry he’s enjoyed with Verdergast, ending it once & for all in an alarmingly dark, violent display that threatens the lives of all four parties involved.

Although, as I said, Lugosi & Karloff are allowed to stray from their infamous roles as Dracula & the Frankenstein monster here, there are of course slight nods to those hallmarks of their careers in the film. Lugosi’s psychiatrist is for the most part a sympathetic, broken man, but before this gentleness is revealed his early actions towards his wife’s young dead ringer recall Dracula’s modes of hypnosis & seduction. Karloff’s architect also shows shades of the Frankenstein monster in his earliest scenes, especially when he’s introduced as a gigantic, lumbering silhouette. Otherwise, they’re spooky in a way that’s divorced almost entirely from the “famous monsters” they were asked to play time & time again. One of the best aspects of the film is watching Karloff & Lugosi trade ominous spooky phrasings back & forth, like “Death is in the air,” “We shall play a little game, a little game of death,” and – in response to the accusation “Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me” – “Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.” Both their onscreen & offscreen rivalries are intensely palpable throughout the film, even represented in the heavily-acknowledged metaphor of a longterm game of chess, delicious meta treat for fans.

Perhaps what’s so surprisingly enjoyable about The Black Cat is that it has a lot more to offer beyond the obvious pleasures of Lugosi & Karloff spookiness & rivalry. The Art Deco set design is not quite Metropolis-sized in its opulence, but it is still a sight to behold. The way the camera glides throughout its crisp, cramped corridors reminded me of the simple visual effectiveness of this year’s Ex Machina. This is not a half-assed horror film Universal Pictures slapped together on a quick shooting schedule. It’s an elaborate production that proved to be the studio’s biggest box office hit of 1934, one that was boldly violent & sacrilegious for its time. The Black Cat is a short, simple film with only a few moving parts to work with, but it still makes room for stabbings, car crashes, torture, shootings, a murdered pet, a robed Satanic ceremony, a gigantic special effects explosion, and one of the two main players being skinned alive (!!!!!). All of this mayhem is set to a constant old school horror soundtrack that gets deeply satisfying once it devolves into relentless onslaught of heavy organs. To wrap it up at The Black Cat‘s conclusion, a character reads a movie review in the newspaper about how a (fictional) director should stay away from horror as a genre & stick to things that could actually happen, perhaps allowing the film to preemptively scoff at potential critics. It’s hard to imagine critics either now or 80 years ago brushing The Black Cat off so easily, anyway. Considering the time of its release as well as the strength & rarity of its Lugosi & Karloff performances, the film is near perfect,. faithfulness to Poe be damned.

Gift of Gab (1934)

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Although it was pretty apparent from the get-go that The Black Cat would be the Lugosi & Karloff’s best & most significant work together, it was not so apparent that their very next picture would be of no significance at all. A vague comedy about a slick-talking radio announcer, Gift of Gab has the everything but the kitchen sink, vaudeville style of yuck-it-up humor of the Old Hollywood studio system on comedic autopilot. True to oldschool major studio comedy form, the film is more like a variety show than a work with any consistent tone or purpose. At various times it aims for romance, humor, death-defying action, intrigue, musical performances, and (the reason why I tuned in) a little bit of spookiness to boot, all with no attempts to connect with one another. In trying to be everything to everyone, Gift of Gab ended up being nothing to anyone at all, a trifle of no consequence.

Should I even bother you with the plot to this movie? I’ll at least try to keep it quick. A fast-talking snake oil salesman named Phillip “Gift of Gab” Gabney cons his way off the streets & into “the radio racket” as the successful host of a kind of variety show meant to promote a rich drunk’s failing brand of chicken livers. Gabney also cons his way into the heart of the radio station’s “working girl” program director. And somewhere in there we’re treated to an obnoxiously long sequence about sneaking radio equipment into a football game for a pirate broadcast. There’s also some antics involving someone parachuting out of an airplane. None of it matters. The film’s plot is mostly a vague pretense meant to provide a structure for the film’s musical performances & painfully stale vaudeville routines. My favorite synopsis of Gift of Gab is this concise, one-sentence take on IMDb: “Conceited radio announcer irritates everyone else at the station.” That about sums it up.

As for Bela Lugosi’s & Boris Karloff’s contribution to this forgotten “treasure”, the two horror giants are relegated to the roles of bit players in the film’s long list of on-air radio performers. In a four minute radio sketch (which is for some reason staged like a play), Lugosi & Karloff appear as threatening, ghoulish rogues in a goofy short-form murder mystery. Lugosi’s entire contribution in this scene is to appear from behind a closet door, hold a gun, and ask “What time is it?” (which I’m sure played great on the radio) and Karloff tops him merely by having two lines, taking time to light a cigarette, and laughing maniacally upon his exit. There are some cute touches to the sketch, especially in the way that murderous, knife-wielding arms appear from offscreen (again, on the radio) to threaten the goofball detectives who can’t quite solve the murder, despite Karloff announcing himself as The Phantom & donning a Jack the Ripper-like costume of a cape & a top hat. The whole thing more or less amounts to one of those Saturday Night Live sketches where a politician pops in for a quick cameo as themselves to get a cheap pop from the audience.

The story goes that The Three Stooges were originally scheduled to appear in Gift of Gab & I assume that they were going to play the bonehead detectives in this scene, a sort of a short-form precursor to Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.  Alas, that didn’t happen and what’s left isn’t much to speak of. If you’re morbidly curious about watching Karloff & Lugosi appear in a brief bout of broad comedy, do yourself a favor & skip the other 66 minutes of Gift of Gab. Instead, just watch the most easily accessible, low-quality YouTube clip of their contribution to the shoddy variety show comedy. It’s for time savers like these that YouTube was launched in the first place.

The Raven (1935)

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fourstar

Although it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect collaboration between between spooky superstars Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff than their first film together, The Black Cat, their next tribute to the work of Edgar Allan Poe at least comes close to matching it. After making a brief appearance in the vaudevillian trifle of a romantic comedy Gift of Gab, Lugosi & Karloff returned to what they do best: being generally creepy & making meta references to their offscreen professional rivalry. The Raven doesn’t alter much of the pair’s The Black Cat dynamic. They merely switch roles as victim & villain, this time with Lugosi taking the reins as the film’s murderous creep with a spooky mansion & Karloff talking a backseat as the bitter, broken prey. Otherwise, it’s essentially just more of the same. When then “the same” is as great of a benchmark as The Black Cat, though, that’s not exactly a problem.

Much like with The Black Cat, The Raven starts with a car crash that leaves a young woman in Lugosi’s medical care. This time Lugosi plays a surgeon, Dr. Richard Vollin, instead of a psychiatrist, but the dynamic is still remarkably similar. In The Black Cat, Lugosi’s doctor falls for his patient because of her resemblance to his deceased wife. In The Raven, he falls for his patient because she portrays the (deceased wife) character Lenore in a staged performance of Poe’s “The Raven” (an especially beautiful one that looks like a sequined masquerade). Vollin is a Poe collector & enthusiast to an obsessive degree, something he calls “more than a hobby”, so the possibility of seducing a real life Lenore is too tempting to pass up. He lures his faux Lenore, along with her father & her beau, to his spooky mansion as part of a plan to not only live out the tragic love story of Poe’s “The Raven”, but also the torture chamber antics of the Poe story “The Pit & The Pendulum.” To help him with this dastardly plan, Vollin volunteers to perform plastic surgery on an escaped convict (played by Boris Karloff, of course) only to physically maim the poor lout & turn him into a monster. Lugosi intones to Karloff, “Monstrous ugliness brings monstrous hate. Good! I could use your hate,” and essentially turns the mangled convict into his own personal Igor (perhaps as a nod to Karloff’s long history of playing Frankenstein’s monster).

Although Karloff receives top billing for The Raven, something he was also awarded in The Black Cat, this is unmistakably Bela Lugosi’s show. Watching the horror legend recite Poe’s “The Raven” in front of an exaggerated raven’s shadow, don surgical gear to apply a knockout gas to the camera lens, gleefully give tours of his torture chamber, and recite lines like “Death is my talisman, Mr Chapman. The one indestructible force, the one certain thing in an uncertain universe. Death!” are all priceless moments for oldschool horror fans. I like to think that Vincent Price was a fan of this specific Lugosi performance & modeled his own effete murderers in Roger Corman’s Poe productions, particularly in The Pit & The Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death, after the horror icon.

As for the film itself, it didn’t do so well financially & seemed to ruffle a few feathers with its playfully morbid atmosphere, despite it being very much toned down from what was delivered in The Black Cat. This reception reportedly lead to a temporary ban on the horror genre in England & just a general slump in production of major studio horror films for a long time to come, much to the detriment of Lugosi’s & Karloff’s careers. This shift in attitude is even detectable in the film’s press kit which asks, “Was Edgar Allan Poe a mental derelict?” and goes on to suggest that Poe’s characters were “but a reflection of himself.” It’s a shame that the film mostly fell flat with audiences, since another success like The Black Cat could’ve lead to more work for Lugosi & Karloff where they didn’t have to play Count Dracula & the Frankenstein monster every damn film. The Raven is a pretty great alternative to that overwhelming portion of their work, one that continues the meta-rivalry of the chess game in The Black Cat in yet another great, loose tribute to Poe. I’d say that even though Karloff had the upper hand this round in receiving top billing, it was Lugosi who scored the victory. He’s just so much fun to watch here & all of the movie’s best moments are dependent upon his performance.

The Invisible Ray (1936)

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three star

One great thing about these Lugos-Karloff collaborations was, of course, that they allowed two actors to stray from their legendary roles as the Frankenstein monster & Count Dracula. Unfortunately for Lugosi, the 1936 picture The Invisible Ray only allowed him to stray as far as the role of a mad scientist, something he had played almost as often as he portrayed the world’s most famous vampire. Fortunately for the audience, the film made enough room for two mad scientists, so Karloff & Lugosi could continue living their offscreen professional rivalry in meta, fictional contests. Karloff always gets top billing in these pictures, which I’m sure drove Lugosi mad, but in their first few movies together they typically traded the narrative spotlight back & forth. In The Black Cat they shared it. In The Raven Lugosi stole the show. In The Invisible Ray Karloff actually earns his top billing, playing the more interesting, omnipresent mad scientist of the pair.

The best The Invisible Ray has to offer is in the spooky mad scientist sci-fi horror in the the two segments that bookend the duller half of the film. The promise of this antiquated sci-fi horror glory is apparent as soon as the film’s “Forward”: “Every science fact accepted today once burned as a fantastic fire in the mind of someone called mad. Who are we on this youngest of planets to say that the INVISIBLE RAY is impossible to science? That which you are now to see is a theory whispered in the cloisters of science. Tomorrow these theories may startle the universe as a fact.” So what “science fact” are we to look forward to in the future? Apparently an alien element known as Radium X, delivered to Earth via a “few thousand millions of years” old asteroid crash has been discovered by Karloff’s maddest-of-all scientist. Karloff has a million & ten different uses for Radium X that range from curing blindness to the creation of a sort of death ray. Too bad exposure to the element causes his skin to glow in the dark & the gentlest of his touches to kill on contact. Lugosi’s less-mad scientist wants to use Radium X to help prove his vague theories about how “the Sun is the mother of us all,” and although the two men work together on the element’s discovery & procurement, they disagree on its practical applications, something that gives Lugosi’s dissenter the moral high ground once Karloff’s touch becomes luminous & deadly. Again, this conflict reflects their real life professional rivalry, seeing how they both had a distaste for one another, but worked on eight feature films together anyway.

I’ve skipped over a lot of the film’s second act shenanigans, which involve a lengthy expedition to Africa in the quest to harvest Radium X from the asteroid crash site. This being a 1930’s film, there’s a lot of unseemly representation of black characters in these scenes as subservient, easily frightened native tribesmen, but if nothing else this is the first instance I’ve seen of a non-white character having a speaking role in any Karloff-Lugosi collaboration to that poing. There’s also some thought given to how women’s contributions to the scientific community, represented here in Karloff’s much-suffering wife & mother, are often attributed to men. Of course, these instances of non-white, non-male representation are a little thin & undercooked. At best, it’s a modest start & not much more.

As I said before, the best The Invisible Ray has to offer is in its mad scientist spookiness. Early scenes featuring a Frankenstein-esque castle being repurposed as a planetarium provide some great, oldschool outer space weirdness, which combined with Karloff’s transformation into The Very Visible Man supplies The Invisible Ray with its most memorable elements. Karloff is particularly captivating in the film, whether he’s donning a stunning welding mask & cape combo (complete with rubber gloves), glowing like a nightlight, or dispensing of his enemies with the simple act of a genteel handshake. By comparison, Lugosi’s presence is far more understated, distinguished only by a goatee that makes him look like a mid-90s alt bro. The Invisible Ray was far from the pair’s best collaboration (that would be The Black Cat), but it’s also far from their nadir. In short, it’ll do.

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

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twohalfstar

Both the break from Lugosi & Karloff’s famous monsters work & the peculiarity of the duo’s ongoing, onscreen meta-rivalry are unfortunately missing from Son of Frankenstein. The final film in Karloff’s trilogy of Universal Pictures Frankenstein productions, Son of Frankenstein is a dreary, by-the-numbers affair. The first Frankenstein film had a strange, otherworldly magic to it already dubbed on this site The Spirit of The Spirit of the Beehive. Its followup, The Bride of Frankenstein, is remarkable for its prowess as an early example of the horror comedy. The third film has, what, Bela Lugosi’s first performance as Igor? A replacement Dr. Frankenstin Jr. with a John Waters mustache? The first appearance of the Frankenstein monster’s fur vest? These might be interesting images in isolation, but they hardly amount to justification for a 100 minute feature, by far the lengthiest of the Lugosi-Karloff collaborations.

This spirit of creative bankruptcy is apparent in Son of Frankenstein as soon as Franken-junior is introduced with the line, “This one’s probably just as bad as his father!” Franken-junior also laments early on that people often get his father mixed up with his monstrous creation, upset that his family name is synonymous with horror & monsters. That pretty much sums up the entirety of the film’s interesting dialogue. Franken-junior is, of course, met with a cold reception when he moves into his deceased mad scientist father’s spooky castle and, of course, becomes obsessed with recreating Franken-senior’s work. Through a little bit of revisionist cheating, it’s revealed that the Frankenstein monster (played by Karloff, of course) & Igor (played by Bela Lugosi, as mentioned), are still for the most part physically intact, despite certainly being destroyed in the earlier films. Somewhere along the way Franken-junior’s little moppet offspring, Franken-junior Jr., “adorably” gives his dad away to the cops in a high-pitched squeak that pretty much made me want to watch the little bastard drown in a fire. That’s the most I felt of the film’s conflict. The only element of interest, really, is that Karloff’s monster & Lugosi’s Igor are good buddies, forming a sweet sort of symbiotic relationship in a world that wasn’t made for them, to say the least.

Although Karloff’s reign as the top-billed performer continues here & you’d think that Lugosi’s secondary role as Igor would push him to the side,  Son of Frankenstein actually stands as a victory for Lugosi in terms of the actors’ longterm struggle to hog the spotlight. It’s not the best of their joint efforts, but at least Lugosi got more lines? He’s oddly captivating as Igor, especially in his Wolfman-like make-up (why did Lugosi never play the Wolfman?!) complete with a broken neck from a past lynching, while Karloff is remarkably dull as the monster he’s played so well in the past. In a completely non-verbal performance, his sole moment of interest is a scene in which he smashes Franken-junior’s very sciency science lab in a blind rage, an image that’s begging for an “open up this pit” meme. The rest of the film is just Karloff going through the motions while Lugosi tries to make the most of his role as a hairy, deformed Igor.

Son of Frankenstein arrived in the midst of a career slump for both Lugosi & Karloff. The decline of monster films that followed The Raven had limited the amount of roles the spooky duo were offered, but a successful double bill re-release of the original Dracula & Frankenstein films renewed interest in the Universal Pictures “famous monsters” brand, which lead to Son of Frankenstein‘s production. Although the film was a financial success for the studio, it’s a creatively weak endeavor at best, amounting to not much more than a collection of “what if?”s. What if, as originally planned, horror icon Peter Lorre had played the role of Franken-junior? What if Bela Lugosi had played the Wolfman instead of Igor & battled Karloff’s monster in a continuation of their meta rivalry? What if Franken-Junior Jr died a slow, agonizing death in a fire, putting an end to his annoying little squeaks forever? Alas, nothing so satisfying is delivered in Son of Frankenstein. That didn’t stop the studio, however, from returning to the well at least one more time in Ghost of Frankenstein. Karloff smartly declined to reprise his role for that trifle, obviously growing tired of the limitations of his most famous character. Unfortunately, Lugosi’s escape from the franchise was not so easy, as he returned as Igor in the Lon Cheney film. Poor Bela.

Black Friday (1940)

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twostar

After the last gasp for air in Universal Pictures’ famous monsters brand in the creatively bankrupt Son of Frankenstein, there wasn’t much work to go around for actors Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi. The drought that followed for the eternally typecast horror movie heavyweights is perhaps what turned up the heat on their professional rivalry & turned their next collaboration, 1940’s Black Friday, into such a disastrous bore. A bland gangster film with only the slightest hints of horror or sci-fi in its formula, Black Friday is a shameful what-could’ve-been experience, one made dull by Lugosi & Karloff’s refusal to play nice & share the scraps that Hollywood had left for them to fight over.

In Black Friday, Boris Karloff plays a brilliant neurosurgeon who saves his close friend’s life by replacing his brain with that of an infamous mobster. Once a meek college professor, Karloff’s buddy starts to show personality traits of the gangster his surgeon-savior-friend effectively murdered to extend his life. The split-personality professor now has the hots for the deceased gangster’s showgirl girlfriend, drinks & smokes with the same mannerisms, threatens violence in a way far outside his normal character, and (much to Karloff’s surgeon’s piqued interest) talks of a hidden fortune stashed before his death. Rival gangsters & the showgirl dame rush to uncover the fortune before the surgeon can beat them to it, while he’s not fighting off suspicion about what happened to his once genteel friend. It’s even less exciting to watch this all unfold than it sounds, exhausting even for a feature barely more than an hour in length.

If you’re asking where Bela Lugosi fits into all of this, you’re not alone. The original script cast Lugosi as the troubled neurosurgeon & Karloff as the split personality professor-gangster. That formula might’ve actually been interesting. Alas, Karloff insisted on playing the surgeon & instead of taking the role of the professor-gangster Karloff had left vacant, Lugosi was relegated to the much smaller part of a rival gangster. Perhaps the reason they didn’t switch roles outright was that playing the rival gangster allowed Lugosi to avoid ever filming a scene with Karlof? It also allowed him to continue their onscreen meta rivalry that dated all the way back to the actors’ first collaboration, The Black Cat. As a result, although Lugosi is second billed he only has a bit role in the film and does not appear in a single scene with his rival.

There are only a few isolated moments of interest in Black Friday. The film’s opening credits play over a calendar reading Friday the 13th & are followed by an intense death row march that promises a much more horrific vibe than what follows. The film’s sole moments of outright horror are a brutal car crash stunt & an onscreen brain surgery, both motifs echoed from earlier Karloff-Lugosi collabs The Black Cat & The Raven. Watching Lugosi play gangster & Karloff don surgical gear are fantastic images, but aren’t put to much use. The only line of dialogue that really stuck with me was when Karloff’s daughter pesters him about his professor friend’s sudden change in personality & he snaps, “Haven’t you guessed?! The operation I performed was a brain transplantation,” as if that were the most obvious explanation for the change. The rest of Black Friday is a forgettable slog made hopelessly dull by two great actors who were visibly tired of working with each other on occasional projects & fighting over the scraps of the rest.

You’ll Find Out (1940)

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three star

I was pretty harsh on the concept of the ensemble cast radio play comedy as it was presented in The Gift of Gab, the single Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff collaboration that brought me absolutely no joy. Perhaps it was the fact that Lugosi & Karloff were only two of thirty featured Universal Pictures stars fleshing out the vaudevillian vignettes meant to support the Phillip “Gift of Gab” Gabney vehicle. Perhaps I was just too high coming off the glorious heights of the pair’s first & best collaboration, 1934’s The Black Cat, and Gift of Gab was a letdown of a follow-up. Maybe it’s just a terrible movie. Either way, after less awe-inspiring titles like Son of Frankenstein & Black Friday, another Lugosi-Karloff ensemble comedy doesn’t play nearly as disappointingly. You’ll Find Out is far from the most exciting project Karloff & Lugosi worked on together, but since it came from a time after the decline in popularity of Universal’s famous monsters brand that made their careers, it’s about all you can ask for in terms of Karloff-Lugosi content. You’ll Find Out exceeds Gift of Gab both in quality & quantity; what was essentially minuscule cameos in Gab are fleshed out into featured parts as antagonists here. They also threw in a role for Peter Lorre, making this the only instance that he & Lugosi appeared together onscreen despite their shared Hungarian origins & similar career paths. A nice piece of lagniappe, that.

Unfortunately, You’ll Find Out isn’t exactly a Karloff-Lugosi vehicle like The Black Cat or The Raven. Instead, the film was meant to capitalize on the popularity of real-life radio personality Kay Kyser. Kyser was famous for hosting a music quiz called Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge (oh God, don’t focus on the first three letters of that acronym). On the program, Kyser, often dubbed “The Ol’ Professor” & dressed in a scholar’s cap & gown, asked live audience members for bits of musical trivia and followed up their answers with obnoxious, “humorous” questions like “What’s the difference between a weasel, a measel, and an easel?” (in tandem with a rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel, of course), much to the delight of an easily-pleased public. Har har. As this was during the height of big band music’s peak popularity, Kyser & his live orchestra rode the success of the craze for all it was worth, including just as many feature films that Lugosi had managed to film together in their unlikely, rivalrous collaboration – eight.

Kyser & his wacky crew are a little shrill & old-fashioned in the outdated comedy shenanigans that threaten to sink You’ll Find Out. If it weren’t for Lorre, Karloff, and Lugosi, the film would be a total wash. In a flimsy plot involving the Kyser clan entertaining an heiress during a part she’s throwing at a spooky castle (“What a beautiful spot for a murder!”) the band ends up saving her life from three oldschool horror creeps (guess who) conspiring to take hold of her inheritance. Karloff plays a seemingly congenial judge & friend of the family who pretends, poorly, that he has the heiress’ best interests in mind, despite being an obvious creep. Lugosi has the much more entertaining role of a turban-wearing mystic named Prince Saliano. Saliano insists that he communicates with the dead & that “The spirits are strongly displeased with the skeptical,” a sentiment that gives him free reign to torture the party guests. Lorre, for his part, plays a supposed “psychic expert”, brought in by Karloff’s corrupt judge to “expose” Saliano as a phoney to the unsuspecting heiress. Lorre is obviously not who he says he is & the three creeps are obviously in creepy cahoots.

The best moments of You’ll Find Out are the mere pleasure of seeing Karloff, Lorre, and Lugosi share a single frame. This happens exactly twice in the film: once when they’re quietly conspiring in a study & again at the climax when they’re holding the entire party hostage at gunpoint. In that second instance, Karloff & Lorre are brandishing pistols while Lugosi, again establishing himself as the ultimate horror movie badass, is sporting a fistful of dynamite. Although Lorre & Karloff are billed before Lugosi, Lugosi delivers what is by far the most interesting performance of the trio. As the same fate also befell him in The Raven, Son of Frankenstein and, arguably, even The Black Cat (although that last one is easily the most well-balanced of his Karloff collaborations in terms of sharing the spotlight), that distinction seemed to be his curse. Not only does Lugosi’s Prince Saliano get his own secret dungeon packed with high-tech gadgetry in You’ll Find Out; he also gets to put all the gadgets to use in the film’s centerpiece – an over-the-top séance in which he plays with Tesla coils, shows the heiress a vision of her dead father, and tries to kill her with a falling chandelier. During this séance, Lugosi delivers the film’s best line: “Presently I shall assume a state of trance in which the outer mind merges with the astral portion of the human ego. The Spirit of Evil is trying to enter this room, but the Fires of Death will guard us.” There’s also a great moment in the climactic scuffle where all of his séance equipment goes off at once, making the mansion look like an automated haunted house on the fritz.

You’d be forgiven for believing that You’ll Find Out is a trfile of an antiquated studio comedy. It most certainly is, especially in early scenes that focus on Kay Kyser’s hokey big band shenanigans. Any oldschool horror fan with a little bit of patience will have plenty of fun with the Lorre-Karloff-Lugosi trio’s dastardly villainy, though. It’s true that Lugosi steals the show in You’ll Find Out (doesn’t he always?), but the image of the three horror greats working together is the rarest of treats, something well worth putting up with a failed vaudeville gag or two depending on how much you love Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and -the most loveable of them all- Bela Lugosi.

The Body Snatcher (1945)

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fourstar

Thankfully, Lugosi & Karloff’s eighth & final collaboration was somewhat of a return to form after a drought in proper horror films that lead the duo to costarring in less-than-exciting fare like the gangster brain-swap picture Black Friday & the radio play comedy You’ll Find Out. The Body Snatcher was the first of the spooky duo’s films together to aim for a true horror aesthetic since their earliest collaborations The Black Cat & The Raven. Although it would sadly be Lugosi & Karloff’s final joint effort, it would also prove to be one of their best.

In the film, Karloff plays Captain Gray, a boisterous grave robber who sells stolen corpses to a medical facility for a small profit. Decked out in Jack the Ripper garb very similar to his costume in Gift of Gab, Karloff is deliciously cruel in his role as the titular body snatcher. He’s particularly heartless in the way he embarrasses the doctor who serves as his reluctant business partner, throwing his weight around & parading his dealings with the well-respected man of medicine in a way that recalls Michael Gambon’s performance in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Gray even blackmails the doctor into performing an experimental spinal surgery on a paralysed little girl simply because he can, creating an immediate need for fresh subjects that drives Gray to cold-blooded murder. All this is told from the perspective of a young medical student eager to learn “the poetry of medicine.” Instead, his mentor teaches him that “a real man & a good doctor” deals in grave robbing & murder in the name of medical research.

Directed by Robert White (who later helmed the classics The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, Star Trek: The Movie, and Sound of Music, among others), The Body Snatcher has a distinctly well crafted look to it, particularly in the production design of its external settings. Especially spooky is a sort of one-woman Greek chorus, the angelic singing of a street performer who haunts dark alleys in hopes of spare change. When her voice is suddenly silenced the effect is deeply chilling. Gray’s evil lair where he conducts his grave-robbing business & strokes a cat like Dr. Claw in Inspector Gadget (or like Karloff’s former role in The Black Cat, come to think of it) is a beautifully uncomfortable vision of squalor. White brings a quality of production & a cinematic eye to The Body Snatcher that had largely been missing from Karloff & Lugosi’s collaborations since The Black Cat more than a decade before.

As for Lugosi’s contribution to The Body Snatcher, he’s once again relegated to playing Karloff’s second fiddle, but he’s at least afforded a featured part in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. After eavesdropping on the doctor & discovering the exact nature of his partnership with Gray, Lugosi’s lowly assistant foolishly confronts Gray alone & unarmed in the graverobber’s home. He says, “I know you kill people to sell bodies. Give me money or I tell police you murder the subjects,” in a line that has to consist of at least half of Lugosi’s total dialogue in the film. Gray pays the assistant the requested blackmail money, but then gets him drunk & murders him with his bare hands. As far as the ongoing, onscreen meta rivalry between Lugos & Karloff’s characters over the years goes, this display of violence easily ranks among the most brutal & extensive, topped only by Lugosi skinning Karloff alive at the climax of The Black Cat. The Black Cat may surpass the quality & novelty of The Body Snatcher in a few ways, but that’s unfair ideal for a film to have to live up to. The Body Snatcher is surely one of the best of Karloff & Lugosi’s collaborations and a fitting note for the pair to end their work together on. The film’s promotional material promises The Body Snatcher to be, “The screen’s last word in shock sensation!” which might not be true for cinema at large, but is at least literally true in the context of Lugosi & Karloff’s appearances together on film. It was the final word.

-Brandon Ledet

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

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twohalfstar

One of the most satisfying things about watching the Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff collaborations The Black Cat, The Raven, and The Invisible Ray is that it’s been nice to see the two horror legends play characters outside of their usual roles as Count Dracula & the Frankenstein monster. It’s been even more of an unexpected treat to watch their offscreen professional rivalry reflected in their antagonistic onscreeen dynamic, adding an interesting meta context to their work together. Both of those elements are missing from Son of Frankenstein. The final film in Karloff’s trilogy of Universal Pictures Frankenstein productions, Son of Frankenstein is a dreary, by-the-numbers affair. The first Frankenstein film had a strange, otherworldly magic to it already dubbed on this site The Spirit of The Spirit of the Beehive. Its followup, The Bride of Frankenstein, is remarkable for its prowess as an early example of the horror comedy. The third film has, what, Bela Lugosi’s first performance as Igor? A replacement Dr. Frankenstin Jr. with a John Waters mustache? The first appearance of the Frankenstein monster’s fur vest? These might be interesting images in isolation, but they hardly amount to justification for a 100 minute feature, the lengthiest of the Lugosi-Karloff collaborations at the time of its release.

This spirit of creative bankruptcy is apparent in Son of Frankenstein as soon as Franken-junior is introduced with the line, “This one’s probably just as bad as his father!” Franken-junior also laments early on that people often get his father mixed up with his monstrous creation, upset that his family name is synonymous with horror & monsters. That pretty much sums up the entirety of the film’s interesting dialogue. Franken-junior is, of course, met with a cold reception when he moves into his deceased mad scientist father’s spooky castle and, of course, becomes obsessed with recreating Franken-senior’s work. Through a little bit of revisionist cheating, it’s revealed that the Frankenstein monster (played by Karloff, of course) & Igor (played by Bela Lugosi, as mentioned), are still for the most part physically intact, despite certainly being destroyed in the earlier films. Somewhere along the way Franken-junior’s little moppet offspring, Franken-junior Jr., “adorably” gives his dad away to the cops in a high-pitched squeak that pretty much made me want to watch the little bastard drown in a fire. That’s the most I felt of the film’s conflict. The only element of interest, really, is that Karloff’s monster & Lugosi’s Igor are good buddies, forming a sweet sort of symbiotic relationship in a world that wasn’t made for them, to say the least.

Although Karloff’s reign as the top-billed performer continues here & you’d think that Lugosi’s secondary role as Igor would push him to the side,  Son of Frankenstein actually stands as a victory for Lugosi in terms of the actors’ longtime struggle to hog the spotlight. It’s not the best of their joint efforts, but at least Lugosi got more lines? He’s oddly captivating as Igor, especially in his Wolfman-like make-up (why did Lugosi never play the Wolfman?!) complete with a broken neck from a past lynching, while Karloff is remarkably dull as the monster he’s played so well in the past. In a completely non-verbal performance, his sole moment of interest is a scene in which he smashes Franken-junior’s very sciency science lab in a blind rage, an image that’s begging for an “open up this pit” meme. The rest of the film is just Karloff going through the motions while Lugosi tries to make the most of his role as a hairy, deformed Igor.

Son of Frankenstein arrived in the midst of a career slump for both Lugosi & Karloff. The decline of monster films that followed The Raven had limited the amount of roles the spooky duo were offered, but a successful double bill re-release of the original Dracula & Frankenstein films renewed interest in the Universal Pictures “famous monsters” brand, which lead to Son of Frankenstein‘s production. Although the film was a financial success for the studio, it’s a creatively weak endeavor at best, amounting to not much more than a collection of “what if?”s. What if, as originally planned, horror icon Peter Lorre had played the role of Franken-junior? What if Bela Lugosi had played the Wolfman instead of Igor & battled Karloff’s monster in a continuation of their meta rivalry? What if Franken-Junior Jr died a slow, agonizing death in a fire, putting an end to his annoying little squeaks forever? Alas, nothing so satisfying is delivered in Son of Frankenstein. That didn’t stop the studio, however, from returning to the well at least one more time in Ghost of Frankenstein. Karloff smartly declined to reprise his role for that trifle, obviously growing tired of the limitations of his most famous character. Unfortunately, Lugosi’s escape from the franchise was not so easy, as he returned as Igor in the Lon Cheney film. Poor Bela.

-Brandon Ledet

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965)

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fourstar

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Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is of the rare breed of old school shlock that lives up to the promise in its ridiculous title & premise. That’s no small feat. As I noted in my review of the similarly surprising in quality camp fest The Brainiac, “Like with all art forms, it’s difficult to find a great ‘bad movie’. For every transcendently awful Plan 9 or Troll 2 you have to sift through a hundred mind-numbingly dull Hobgoblins”, but on the other hand “When a B movie is firing on all cylinders, enthusiastically exploring every weird idea it has to their full potential, there’s really nothing like it.” Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, (which is also known by the titles Frankenstein Meets the Space Men, Mars Attacks Puerto Rico, Mars Invades Puerto Rico, and Operation San Juan) is firing on all its batshit crazy cylinders, squeezing a surprising amount of camp value out of its limited premise & budget.

Let’s get the film’s most peculiar detail out of the way: neither Dr. Frankenstein nor his monster appear in the flesh. The “Frankenstein” in the title is instead a government-created bionic astronaut that is horrifically scarred in a botched space launch. As his circuitry goes awry, he turns from ideal soldier to confused monster and haunts the coast of California, murdering its inhabitants indiscreetly. Although the interpretation of “a Frankenstein” is loose here, the practical effects in the gore surrounding the monster are pretty chilling. In an early scene his scalp is peeled back so scientists can tweak his malfunctioning circuitry. Later, the make-up on his disfiguring facial scars are a lot more horrifying than you’d expect based on the precedent of, say, Lobo in Bride of the Atom or the astronaut gorilla in Robot Monster. The other monsters in the film are only slightly less terrifying, including the titular “Space Monster” (who looks like a member of GWAR) and the space alien Dr. Nadir (who looks an awful lot like Bat Boy all growed up). Dr. Nadir may not be as physically threatening as his fellow monsters, but he steals the show with his effete love of his own cruelty, like a dime store Vincent Price.

The film is surprisingly technically proficient considering its circumstances. It boasts a similar premise and overreliance on stock footage as the camp classic Plan 9 from Outer Space, but thoroughly succeeds on both fronts, as opposed to Plan 9’s thorough failures. When the evil space princess that commands Dr. Nadir announces that they are to proceed with “Phase 2 of our Plan: capture of the Earth women” (a.k.a. “bikini babes”) it’s more amusing than embarrassing. You can feel the crew having a fun time making this thing, which is reflected in its music cues, among other things. Almost all of its outer space scenes are accompanied by a spooky theremin score, but its Earth scenes (whether a dance party, a murder, or an alien abduction) are almost all accompanied by a surf rock soundtrack, which gives the film a beach party vibe. The title of the film itself sounds like a ready-made name for a surf rock song and I’m surprised no one’s jumped on that opportunity in the 50 years since the film’s release.

I could go on, but describing what makes the movie work on a technical level is somewhat futile. I doubt I can mount a sales pitch that match the just-the-facts plot summary from the film’s Wikipedia page, so here it is in full: “All of the women on the planet Mars have died in an atomic war, except for Martian Princess Marcuzan. Marcuzan and her right-hand man, Dr. Nadir, decide they will travel to Earth and steal all of the women on the planet in order to continue the Martian race. The Martians shoot down a space capsule manned by the android Colonel Frank Saunders, causing it to crash in Puerto Rico. Frank’s electronic brain and the left half of his face are damaged after encountering a trigger-happy Martian and his ray gun. Frank, now ‘Frankenstein’, described by his creator as an ‘astro-robot without a control system’ proceeds to terrorize the island. A subplot involves the Martians abducting bikini clad women.” If that description alone doesn’t sell you on watching an ancient, goofy sci-fi horror I’m not sure what will. Also we are very different people.

-Brandon Ledet

The Spirit of The Spirit of the Beehive (1973): Horror in Ambiguity & Obscuration

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Watching The Spirit of the Beehive for the first time recently, I was struck by how contemporary & effective the film still felt 40 years after its release. Its refusal to tell a complete, lucid story was reminiscent of so many recent art films that I love. What was even more striking was the horror the film found in its obscuration. There was an overwhelming sense of dread that something terrible was sure to happen at every turn, a dread that’s more unsettling than the scariest movie monster or serial slasher, because it could not be seen or completely understood. It’s somehow worse when something catastrophic doesn’t happen in the film, because the dread lives on to the next scene. To help myself better understand the film’s horrific use of ambiguity, I looked back to the film it heavily references: James Whale’s classic Frankenstein, a film 40 years its senior. I also looked to a film 40 years its junior: last year’s Under the Skin, within which director Jonathan Glazer finds his own ambiguous horror, bringing the spirt of The Spirit of the Beehive into his own fresh, unnerving territory.

As an essential part of the classic Universal Monsters era, the 1931 film Frankenstein is a touchstone for horror in cinema. The image of Boris Karloff lumbering around as a pile of sentient dead flesh is beyond iconic. So many of horror’s sub-genres, (with their gross-out creature effects & slow-moving, super strong killers), owe their worlds to the bolted-neck lug. What’s most surprising to me is what influence the film has had on atmospheric horror, particularly The Spirit of the Beehive. Having grown up with the Frankenstein monster’s ugly visage on rubber masks, morning cartoons, a Mel Brooks comedy and Halloween candy, I find that familiarity with the abomination has softened his horrific effect. In fact, I think he’s kinda cute. The film that surrounds him, however, still finds other ways to terrify. The movie’s opening graveyard scene, for instance, is a work of otherworldly terror, mostly due to the effective set design. The sparse set, open sky, and thick, clinging fog feels more akin to Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires than it does to Earth. The fact that mysterious men are there to rob graves is only icing on the cake for an already terrifying image. Without familiarity with the source material the reasons why they’re digging up corpses makes the moment even more mysterious. There’s an alien atmosphere at work in images like this graveyard set & the doctor’s laboratory that make the film enduringly unsettling.

Of course, most of Frankenstein is far from the detached ambiguity of 1973’s The Spirit of the Beehive. The doctor’s father, Baron Frankenstein, is the antithesis of ambiguity, stating clearly & loudly what is going on in every moment and providing what I suppose was meant as comic relief & “good sense”. Beehive has no such ambitions of clarity. Instead of being a direct spiritual descendent of Frankenstein, Beehive stretches the uncertainty & terror of the opening graveyard scene across its entire run time. It communicates its unease through its imagery, some of which is borrowed directly from Frankenstein. The film opens with children watching the horror classic in awe & discussing fantasies about the monster’s “spirit” afterwards. There’s also a very similar search party scene shared between both films, both feature characters left mute by trauma, and Karloff’s monster himself makes a cameo during one of Beehive’s more bizarre moments. The most significant aspect Beehive borrows from Frankenstein, however, is the foreboding sense of children in danger. In Frankenstein, there’s a scene where the monster picks flowers with a little girl at the side of a lake, only to mistakenly drown her. The two young female protagonists of The Spirit of the Beehive obsess over this scene afterwards, and discuss the monster & his “spirit” at length. Mimicking this moment almost endlessly, it feels as if there’s a constant threat on the children’s lives (whether they’ll be hit by a train, murdered by a stranger, drowned in a well, etc.) that’s communicated solely through the film’s tense imagery. It turns out that something awful already had happened to the girls: they had been uprooted & displaced by a civil war that stresses & complicates their home life, but is never referred to directly. All of the film’s conflicts are conveyed silently and it’s a silence that tyrannizes the central family & distresses the audience.

Silence & ambiguity are also the channels through which Under the Skin terrifies. Obfuscating the narrative of its source material, Glazer’s sci-fi horror leaves the identity, intentions, and even species of its protagonist up for question as she flirts with Scottish men and lures them back to her apartment. Unlike with Beehive, the violence suggested in Under the Skin’s overwhelming dread is delivered on screen. The unnamed protagonist, played by Scarlett Johansson, is more like Frankenstein’s monster in this way, as opposed to the civil war & familial unrest that plagues The Spirit of the Beehive. Instead of drowning & strangling, however, she lures her victims into a mysterious black liquid that somehow dissolves their bodies in a frightening, confounding spectacle. Under the Skin’s inclination for on-screen horror, no matter how alien, distances the film from being a direct spiritual descendent of Beehive, the same way Beehive’s brand of horror is distanced from Frankenstein’s. It does, however, employ a similar mystique & cryptic atmosphere that makes the film all the more terrifying than if Glazer had made a more literal adaptation of the novel by the same name.

Both Under the Skin & The Spirit of the Beehive reach beyond the typical ways a movie can terrify, beyond the methods pioneered by classic monster movies like Frankenstein. They achieve a transcendental beauty in images like Beehive’s honeycomb lighting & endless doorways and Under The Skin’s liquid void & free-floating flesh. It’s a terrifying beauty, though, as it is a beauty of the unknown. Both films are transfixing, yet horrifying, because they cannot be truly, completely understood, like the graveyard landscape at the beginning of Frankenstein. For the more than 80 years since mysterious men were curiously robbing graves on that foggy, otherworldly set, ambiguity and obscuration have been used to terrify audiences in countless films. The three mentioned here are mere steppingstones in the evolution of cryptic, atmospheric horror, perhaps only loosely connected to one another in terms of genre, but connected all the same in a hauntingly vague, undead spirit.

-Brandon Ledet

I, Frankenstein (2014)

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Reading over Wikipedia’s plot synopsis of I, Frankenstien makes me feel like a cinematic amnesiac. All the talk of “Gargoyle Order” weapons wielded to “ascend” and “descend” demons & gargoyles sounds vaguely familiar, but the particulars of what Bill Nighy, Dr. Frankenstein’s book or the supermodel scientist were up to are fuzzy at best. Mostly I remember Aaron Eckhart testing out his gruff Batman voice as if his former role as Harvey Dent was a consolation prize. There was some fun to be had in the climactic good versus evil fight scene (especially in the detail of costuming the evil demons in business suits) but for the most part the whole affair felt grim & indistinct.

I, Frankenstein is definitive proof that this post-Dark Knight era of sad sack superhero movies is reaching its nadir. Reinventing the monster movie by fusing it with the superhero genre is an idea loaded with fun potential, so (to quote a popular, hideous dorm room poster & t-shirt) why so serious? After all of I, Frankenstein’s ridiculous trailers & nominations for Worst Film of 2014, it at least gave the impression that it could’ve been amusing. Outside of minor details like the business suit demons, I get the sense that I was promised more goofy antics than were delivered.

I haven’t seen a single entry in the Underworld series, which shares writers & producers with I, Frankenstein, but from what I understand they’re just as bleak. To an outsider, the most bewildering aspect of the vampires/werewolves “action horror” series is that there are four of the damn things. Despite the lackluster critical response and general sense of drudgery, Underworld found enough of an audience to justify 7 hours of celluloid. Building off that hubris, I, Frankenstein all but offers an “Until Next Time” promise after the credits in its conspicuous aspirations of launching a new franchise. The problem (besides its uninspiring box office performance)? It’s not the only self-serious “action horror” Frankenstein product in the works.

2014 also saw the release of Universal Studios’ first entry in the planned Shared Universe® for its classic monsters characters: Dracula Untold. For the most part the movie was Dracula Unremarkable, but there were some (underutilized) bright spots: the vampire deaths were surprisingly gruesome considering the PG-13 rating (a heap of melted flesh instead of I, Frankenstein’s more symbolic “descending”) and Charles “The Man” Dance made the most out of his limited role as the head vampire. Just as I, Frankenstein felt like little more than dull goth superhero franchise kindling, Dracula Untold was mostly a “this is just the beginning” letdown of a story. One of the other goth superheroes on the Universal docket, waiting to join Dracula’s ranks: Frankenstein’s monster.

Given the unlikely longevity of the Underworld series it’s possible that Lionsgate will ignore the Universal Studios famous monsters universe and we’ll live in a world with two dueling Gritty Reboot® Super Frankenstein franchises nobody asked for. Hopefully an I, Frankenstein, II would ditch the self-serious tone and work in more business-suit-demons humor, but I wouldn’t hold your undead, crime-fighting breath. Seriously, don’t hold it. It’s criminal for movies this ridiculous in premise to be so severe, but they’re unlikely to change their ways as long as they’re making money. Or in I, Frankenstein‘s case, at least breaking even.

I, Frankenstein is currently streaming on Netflix & Amazon Prime.

-Brandon Ledet