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20 Horror Faves

Way back when, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl requested that all the horror-loving folks out in blogland send her their 20 favorite horror movies. They responded en masse. I was part of that masse! Well, I figured, why not milk that list for some actual content? Thus, here it is: my list, in its chronological, 20-entries-long glory. It was a painful list to come up with, and I’m missing some of my other special favorites, but it’s decent, I think.

  • The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927): So macabre, so weird, so Freudian, so fucked-up. Also, probably Lon Chaney’s best surviving performance. (I mean, Burt Lancaster loved it!)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932): The best version of Stevenson’s tale, no matter what the Victor Fleming partisans tell you. Also, Miriam Hopkins’ sexy leg [courtesy of Lolita’s Classics]:

  • Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932): Um, duh! More about this forthcoming later in the month.
  • Maniac (Dwain Esper, 1934): “DARTS OF FIRE IN MY BRAIN!” Looniest, wackiest, most maniacal exploitation movie of all time.
  • Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935): Whale at his gleefully perverse best. I wish Dr. Pretorious was my boyfriend!
  • Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935): Peter Lorre is a creepy fucker, plus obsession and grand guignol! I adore this movie.
  • Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942): One of the seminal Hollywood horror movies, at once erotic, repressed, and scary as hell.
  • The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943): And another Val Lewton masterpiece! Unbelievably morbid and moodily poetic.
  • Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti et al., 1945): The segments are uneven, but Michael Redgrave vs. a ventriloquist dummy, together with the nightmare finale, is more than worth it. Ealing should’ve made more horror.
  • Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1959): Franju tells his really icky mad scientist story with a delightful sense of humor. Valli makes a great (evil) lab assistant, and the design of the mask is so simple as to be nightmare-inducing.
  • Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962): This is easily in the top 5 on this list. Independently made with an unblinking vision of existential horror, it also has one-time actress Candace Hilligoss giving the performance of a lifetime. “WHY CAN’T ANYBODY HEAR ME?”
  • The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963): I fucking love Julie Harris here; she leads a pretty much perfect cast as they navigate the recesses of a very angry house.
  • Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964): I talked about this recently, but to recap: it’s a brutal tale of two women and a man in the wilderness, with a big hole in the middle. So greasy and desperate, I love it.

  • Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968): It’s a pretty canonical choice. Romero was a true original, resourcefully squeezing all the metaphorical value he could out of a solid cast, a boarded-up house, and some brain-craving zombies.
  • Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1973): SO DEPRESSING. Watching this movie is like masturbating with a shard of broken glass. OK, I’m done drawing analogies now. But seriously, Bergman turns family drama into ultra-visceral horror.
  • The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976): The underrated third member of Polanski’s Apartment trilogy, it’s really stuck with me. I don’t know if it’s Trelkovsky’s miserably kafkaesque relationship with his neighbors, or him wearing a dress and whispering, “I think I’m pregnant!”
  • The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982): When Poe wrote the words “desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted,” I think he was anticipating the lingering dread and scary-as-shit special effects of Carpenter’s masterpiece.

  • Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988): I wish Jeremy Irons were my drug-addicted gynecologist brother. But then I’d have to be Jeremy Irons. Also, mutant vaginas. What’s not to love?
  • 28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2003): I wasn’t expecting it, but Boyle’s neo-zombie odyssey across postapocalyptic England has insinuated itself into my bloodstream like a particularly pernicious virus.
  • Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008): Aren’t those kids cute? And isn’t that movie startlingly beautiful and well-written?

Are you shocked by my bad taste? Or shocked by my good taste? Comment below.

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An Invisible Man Could Rule the World!

[Note: This is just a whiff of the horror awesomeness that’s going to consume this blog as Halloween gets closer. Keep your eyes peeled and your wits about you!]

I recently revisited a less-appreciated member of the Universal horror canon: James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933). Based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name, the film tracks the invisible exploits of Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), who slowly turns from disgruntled scientist to rampaging, psychotic mass murderer. That’s basically all there is to the story, too, and it’s pretty much a one-man show – or should I say, a one-voice show, since Rains’ snarling, cackling, bodyless performance steals the whole movie. His intensity, coupled with Whale’s very British brand of black comedy, make this a damn enjoyable 70 minutes.

This movie’s first act takes place at the Lion’s Head, a small inn located in the wintry countryside. There, a gauze-wrapped Griffin tries to set up an improvised laboratory and develop an antidote for his condition. But alas, he must reckon with small-minded townsfolk… including the shrillest of all small-minded townsfolk, the innkeeper’s wife as played by Una O’Connor. O’Connor would later star in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, and in both films, she’s a hyperactive, thick-brogued scream queen. She’s bitchy, nosy, gossipy, inane, infuriating, and gives a great performance. You’d have to be a great actress to play such a deeply intolerable character.

With her as their matriarch, the denizens of the Lion’s Head form a tight-knit community of fools – usually inebriated, easily frightened, and suspicious of strangers. When Griffin becomes physically abusive toward the innkeeper and his wife, a gang of the pub’s patrons and a local constable charge up to his room, only for him to remove his goggles and bandages and reveal his true face. This prompts one of the film’s great lines, from the incredulous constable: ” ‘E’s all eaten away!

The movie’s big joke is that we’re solidly on Griffin’s side. He’s the lone, rugged intellectual face to face with a mob of drunken yokels; of course we want him to win out. But then he moves in with his old coworker Dr. Kemp and starts going on long, megalomaniacal rants, and it becomes clear that Whale is playing with us (in the best possible sense). Just as in Bride of Frankenstein, where the gloriously evil Dr. Pretorious is the most compelling character, Griffin attracts our interest through just through his abundant charisma. Whale’s horror movies are gleefully amoral, and this is a great example: even if Griffin is a monstrous, deranged psychopath, that’s no reason he can’t also be our favorite character.

Speaking of “gleefully amoral,” one of the reasons we enjoy Griffin’s reign of terror is because he’s having so much fun. While tricking dozens of police officers, he manages to steal a pair of pants and skips off down the road (pictured above), singing, “Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May…” (Later, he robs a bank to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”) This is leagues away from film noir images of scowling, pessimistic career criminals; in Whale’s world, crime does pay, at least in terms of raw joy.

In the end, sure, Griffin insists that he “meddled in things which man must leave alone,” but this moral is savagely undercut by all of the film’s delightfully perverse moments earlier on. Sure, The Invisible Man has a token love story between Griffin and Flora, played by a none-too-convincing Gloria Stuart, but it stays mostly in the background. The real story here is the passionate affair between Griffin and his own limitless power. These two lovers are separated by death in the end, but we get plenty of steamy love scenes in the meantime – like when Griffin convinces Kemp that he’s always watching. This is genuinely terrifying: Griffin is more or less a one-man panopticon.

Overall, The Invisible Man is a somewhat weaker film than Bride of Frankenstein or The Old Dark House; it lacks Bride‘s ultra-snappy script or House‘s unbeatable ensemble. What it does have, however, is Rains’ voiceover, which reminds me of Lionel Stander’s in Blast of Silence with its relentless aggression. His words are like daggers, and when he threatens violence – against the townsfolk, Kemp, or the entire world – he means it. Even while he’s sleeping, he maintains his single-handed grip of terror on the whole countryside.

That’s what makes this a horror classic: Rains’ performance as Griffin is fierce, alive, and overflowing with energy, yet also dangerous and truly frightening. In short, he’s exactly what a monster should be. Consumed by obsession and madness, he’s exactly the kind of extraordinary man who could alter the course of history. Final note: The Invisible Man was released in 1933, the same year that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany…

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