Ninety plus years later and these films continue to work. Sure they are a little creaky around the edges and the story telling and acting feels like it is from a different time, but there is still horror to be had and fantastic moments to revel in.
The Universal Monsters are the classic horror films that so many fans of scary movies were initiated with. As a seven year old you maybe hid your face under a blanket as you peeked out at Bela Lugosi in the TV screen, or maybe you had a nightmare featuring Frankenstein’s Monster tossing you into the lake. The iconic images of those films are the default icons of horror fans, even more that Ghostface and Jason.
The first film on the program was “The Mummy” from 1932. Boris Karloff had become a star the year before with the original “Frankenstein” and as a result, he was top billed and promoted as the feature attraction ion this film. Imhotep is not the image of the Mummy that most people will remember. Later films featured the fully bandaged leg dragging mummy strangling people, but in this movie, that incarnation of the creature is only briefly viewed, never walking and we don’t see it do anything more than drive a man mad. When Karloff shows up late as Ardeth Bay, his make up is more subtle but no less creepy. Even 90 years later, the light effects on his eyes work at creating a sense of evil and power, despite being a primitive special effect.
Production design on the film sets was pretty effective, conveying a sense of being in an Egyptian Museum or Tomb. while it is really just the back lot. The pool that reflects the history of Imhotep looks great when the foggy clouds roll over it but once the scene begins, it looks like a TV set, twenty years before TV sets became widely available. The plot however is nicely visualized and we get some great exposition with only a slight amount of narration by Karloff.
During the five minute break between the films, we got a countdown clock and a slide show of lobby cards, posters and Behind the Scene photographs of the film. It was a nice little treat.
The second feature on this Special Halloween screening is the beloved “Bride of Frankenstein”. This is the James Whale Masterpiece that made the creature the most sympathetic character on the screen. There is some effective editing of material from the original into the flashback exposition and that reminds us just enough of what had happened in the previous film. The most delightful part of the opening however is the imagined conversation between Lord Byron, Shelly and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly. Elsa Lancaster gets to appear in the film without the bride make-up in this sequence, and her story is the one that casts the spell for us. The flourish that Lord Byron provides is amusing and it frames the story as a real moment of theatricality.
The character actors in the movie steal every scene they are in, Uno O’Conner screams her way to immortality, Dwight Frye is creepy and funny as Karl, the murderer who supplies the body parts for the experiment, and of course, Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius outshines the two romantic leads who we never get a chance to care much about.
Karloff is the star, and even under the heavy make-up he gives a performance for the ages. Although the monster does speak a few words, the performance is largely silent and Karloff conveys fright, anger and pathos with his whole body, and he is never relying on the iconic voice that would make him an actor in demand for his whole life. You lovers of Dr. Seuss will know what I am talking about. The sequence that was parodied by Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein, with the blind man making friend with the monster is a master class in acting by Karloff. Everyone in the audience is going to sympathize with the creature after this sequence in spite of all the murder that came before.
If there is a co-star the equal of Karloff in this film it is the production designers. They make miniature castles and mansions so appealing on screen. The laboratory is filled with equipment that is invented for this film and some items that did exist in the real world are adapted to the moment. The photography uses shadows and light to make each moment visually special. The sparks fly and the wind blows and the faces gleam in the carefully placed lighting. The whole creation scene is just spectacular. It is a shame that the title character has so little screen time, but as story efficiency goes, the climax of the movie does not draw things out and it is incredibly satisfying.