A successful horror movie is almost always going to be followed by a sequel; it’s been that way since the 1930s. And a successful sequel, more often than not, is just the first step in the making of a series. The movies we get then tend to be pretty hit-or-miss. Sticking too close to a successful formula can breed redundancy (for instance, A Nightmare on Elm Street parts 4-6 are mostly just attempts to re-create the appeal of part 3, with substantially diminished returns), but change for its own sake is often just pointless contrivance (Dracula A.D. 1972 springs to mind).
It’s easy to discuss whether an individual movie is good or bad. But rating a series as a whole is a trickier business. How does one weigh the strengths of the best entries against the weaknesses of the worst? Which is worth more, a series’ high water mark, or its consistency over the years? Are there more points to be given for repeating a formula successfully, or for trying something bold and new but falling short? Which is more damaging, a moderate drop in quality early on, or a massive drop at a later stage?
There are so many factors to consider, one wishes that there were at least one horror series that produced multiple undisputed classics and never sank to the point of a truly bad movie. One horror series that remained comfortingly familiar while periodically breaking new ground. One horror series that navigated changes in tone and style yet never felt jarringly inconsistent.
Actually, I can think of one. Maybe not the only one, and I encourage you to comment with your own suggestions for a horror series that never went sour (in fact, I’d love a little lively debate on the topic), but to me, the answer came quickly: Universal’s Frankenstein series (1931-1948). Eight movies, produced across 17 years, surviving two major eras in the history of horror, from the dawn of the Golden Age past the end of the Silver Age.
Now I know what it feels like to be God!
Both of the entries directed by James Whale, Frankenstein (1931) and its first sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), are enshrined as more-or-less the supreme exemplars of what the Golden Age of Hollywood horror could produce. These two movies are rich in both style and substance, beloved by mainstream critics as much as by horror fanatics.
The first film’s atmosphere and iconography can still send chills down the spines of modern viewers, while Boris Karloff’s star-making performance might bring tears to the eyes of the same audience. Colin Clive’s portrayal of Henry Frankenstein and Dwight Frye’s turn as the hunchbacked assistant Fritz are, likewise, definitive pieces of genre history. The photography and the editing are not only wholly effective, but also quite advanced for their moment in the early sound era.
The second is one of most well rounded stories ever made, equally successful as horror, comedy, melodrama, and fantasy. It is a movie that lives in the realm of histrionics, raving, and breakdowns, yet the broad performances are always anchored in real emotion, in a sense of faithfulness to character and mood. Karloff and Clive are at times almost outshone by Ernest Thesiger’s archetypically devilish Dr. Pretorius. The script explores the story and themes of the first film from a range of new angles, while the direction heightens the style and energy to irresistible, thrilling effect. If ever there has been a perfect sequel, this is it.
To call Son of Frankenstein (1939) a step down from its predecessors is really just to praise with faint damnation. It’s a clever, tightly-plotted story, populated with compelling characters played by some of the finest actors associated with genre, all having a delightful, scenery-chewing good time. Bela Lugosi’s scheming, spiteful Ygor is quite possibly the actor’s finest performance; it is matched by Lionel Atwill’s portrayal of the noble, tragic and charmingly antagonistic wooden-armed Inspector Krogh. The scenes between Krogh and Basil Rathbone – as the titular second-generation Dr. Frankenstein – rank among the finest moments of Silver Age horror.
Heinrich Frankenstein was your father, too!
Things do get a little rockier with The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), an uninspired follow-up with a lot less zest and a disappointing performance from Lon Chaney Jr. as the Monster. But Chaney is balanced out by a supporting cast that knows how to play broad, melodramatic parts without ever going too far over the top, while a couple of new story ideas keep this from being just a re-tread. Never before had the series given us a supernatural moment to accompany its science fiction, and the idea of putting a new brain into the monster’s body seems so natural and so ripe with potential that in retrospect it’s hard to believe it took them four movies to think of it.
I’ve got to see it at its full power!
While Chaney may not have given much life to the role of the monster, he was always willing to commit entirely to the role of Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, and he is the back-bone of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), a movie which entertains from beginning to end. Much has been written about the damage done to Bela Lugosi’s performance as the Monster by the removal in editing of all of his dialogue – and, along with it, all references to the character’s blindness. But, even robbed of his words and much of the context for his behavior, Lugosi comes across as both sympathetic and dangerous as the story requires. This is the progenitor of all monster vs. monster mash-up flicks, and its one of the few that feels both natural and balanced in the way it brings the two characters together.
Contrivance begins to rear its ugly head a little more obviously in House of Frankenstein (1944). In trying to tie together the stories of a vengeful mad scientist (Boris Karloff), a murderous but none-the-less sympathetic hunchback (J. Carrol Naish), the Wolf Man (Chaney), Dracula (John Carradine) and the Monster (Glenn Strange), the narrative threads don’t all tie together very gracefully. Dracula’s storyline feels cut off from the rest of the plot, while the Monster is kept inert until the climax and is never given more importance than as a pawn in Karloff’s quest for revenge. But the story runs on an engine of pulpy excess, bolstered by committed performances from all parties and moments of well-staged action and peril. It’s silly stuff, but it’s fun.
House of Dracula (1935) basically recycles the previous movie’s line-up: mad scientist (Onslow Stevens), sympathetic hunchback (Jane Adams), Wolf Man (Chaney), Dracula (Carradine) and Monster (Strange). But this time, instead of the stories branching away from each other and never tying together, all of the threads are woven together into a satisfying tapestry of monstrosity. Carradine, largely wasted in his previous outing as Dracula, here gets the chance to sink his teeth into the role; Chaney, meanwhile, is given the opportunity to approach Larry Talbot from a fresh perspective. But it is Stevens as the Jekyll-and-Hyd-ish Dr. Edelmann who really steals the show.
The next time I tell you that I saw something when I saw it, you believe me that I saw it!
The series ends on a surprising high note with Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), one of the all-time great horror comedies. Chaney and Strange are both back (as the Wolf Man and the Monster, respectively), and Bela Lugosi graces the screen with his Dracula for the first time in 17 years. As wild and wacky as Bud and Lou’s antics are, the monster actors keep their performances very straight, to the point that some scenes manage the rare balancing act of being funny and scary at the same time. Chaney, in fact, gives one of his most effective performances in his signature role; Strange is given more to do as the Monster than in either of his previous outings, and proves an intimidating presence; and Lugosi may actually be better here than he was in the original Dracula (1931).
Two movies that approach perfection and six more that occasionally achieve excellence and never sink below the level of satisfying entertainment add up to a collectively outstanding series.
Puttin’ on the ritz!
A tip of the hat should also go out to Young Frankenstein (1974), another of the best horror comedies ever made. Although produced decades after the end of the series proper, and for a different studio, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s take on the classic Frankenstein movies shows a stunning appreciation for and understanding of the series, incorporating all of the major tropes and themes, and it could quite easily fit into that continuity (at least as well as any of the previous movies really fit together under close inspection).
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