Trillion dollar debacle. Baldwin case. Vaccine mandate blowback. Ranking classic horror.
By Gary Abernathy
From masks to new spending plan to Baldwin case & more
Some quick in-and-out observations about items in the news…
WEARING A MASK IS SUSPICIOUS? A story this week about a Cincinnati-area car theft ring struck me as funny and ironic, based on this line: “New security video from neighbors in a Miami Township subdivision showed two people, one possibly masked, walking around properties in the area early Tuesday morning.” One possibly masked? Maybe he was just being responsible, right? In this covid age, where Americans are pushed to wear masks, how could someone wearing one be suspicious? The fact is, we should return to the days when wearing a mask would draw scrutiny in most cases. Covid mask mandates are a criminal’s dream — just blend into the crowd.
NEW SPENDING PACKAGE: Reports say that President Biden and the Democrats have whittled down the $3.5 trillion spending package (which, itself, was whittled from the $6 trillion that Bernie Sanders wanted to spend) to $1.75 trillion or so. No one should forget how massive this package remains. It blows away anything that came before. Despite how some will complain about the “cuts” from the package, it’s still a progressive wish list of government expansions, moving America further from capitalism into socialism. As of this writing, though, Democrats still can’t come together on it — but our luck won’t hold.
BIDEN POLICIES AREN’T WORKING: The New York Times reports, “Economic growth slowed sharply over the summer as supply-chain bottlenecks and the resurgent pandemic restrained activity at stores, factories and restaurants.” Many in the media are going to great lengths to blame the lousy economy on covid rather than on Biden administration policies. Voters will likely see it differently when they get a chance to weigh in.
ALEC BALDWIN SHOOTING CASE: Alec Baldwin has spent years reveling in his insulting and rude behavior toward anyone who disagrees with him politically. His terribly crude impersonation of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live could only be enjoyed by those who shared Baldwin’s hatred of Trump. Unlike Darrell Hammond’s Trump mimickry which, in SNL tradition, provided something for everyone to enjoy, Baldwin did his best to portray Trump in the worst possible light. His Hollywood friends loved it, and awarded him with an Emmy. So, for many, it’s easy to pile on Baldwin over the tragic incident in which he fired a gun during the making of a movie, killing one and injuring another. But everyone should wait until the official investigation is complete before making judgments. The memes, t-shirts, etc. that have sprung up are in pretty bad taste, and don’t just disrespect Baldwin, but they insult the victims and their families, too. Meanwhile, though, my friend Mark Weaver, a longtime prosecutor, has written a compelling piece arguing that Baldwin should probably be charged, based on New Mexico law. Check it out here.
VACCINE MANDATE BLOWBACK: This today from the Washington Post:
Up to 12,000 Air Force personnel have rejected orders to get fully vaccinated against the coronavirus despite a Pentagon mandate, and officials say it is too late for them to do so by the Tuesday deadline, posing the first major test for military leaders whose August directive has been met with defiance among a segment of the force… officials have warned that, barring an approved medical or religious exemption, those who defy lawful orders to be fully immunized are subject to punishment, including possible dismissal from the service, or they could be charged in the military justice system.
The blowback and resistance to vaccine mandates is just beginning, as deadlines — mostly in November and December — arrive for workers in various sectors, public and private. There will be a major problem in this country regarding Americans who simply refuse to let the government require them to undergo a medical procedure they don’t believe in and feel is unconstitutionally being forced upon them.
Again, I’m fully vaccinated, and I encourage people to seriously consider becoming vaccinated. I think it saves lives. But in most cases, mandating it is wrong, whether by governments or private employers. The problems such mandates bring are just beginning to become evident, as the story above indicates.
Ranking the best of Universal’s classic horror films
To bring our look at classic horror to close during Halloween month, let’s take a crack at ranking the Universal classic horror films from one to 20. Certainly there were great RKO horror films of the period, including “Cat People” and the ones Boris Karloff made for RKO producer Val Lewton in the 1940s, but Universal basically owned the market and created the stars and characters that have been most lasting. Additionally, a separate ranking of Hammer films would be fun, so that’s something for next year.
Ranking the best of Universal’s classic horror films of the 1930s and ‘40s…
BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935): As discussed in an earlier post, fans and critics alike agree that James Whale’s 1935 classic, the first sequel to the 1931 original, stands alone in the annals of macabre filmmaking, particularly for this period, and ranks among the best films ever made regardless of genre. Boris Karloff carries the film, but the contributions from Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Valerie Hobson, Elsa Lanchester (in a dual role with a twist) and O.P. Heggie as the blind hermit are letter perfect. Una O’Connor and E.E. Clive provide well-timed comic relief. It’s all topped off by first-rate direction, plot, sound, music and sets. It’s a fun movie for fans and non-fans of horror films, and has a convenient ending to wrap things up in a hurry: “Get away from that lever! You’ll blow us all to atoms!”
THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933): Another classic by director James Whale, this one featured groundbreaking special effects for its day by effects wizard, John P. Fulton, who later did the impressive visual work (like the parting of the Red Sea) for “The Ten Commandments” more than 20 years later. Claude Rains, in his first Hollywood film, must carry the movie with his voice alone, and he pulls it off. The film includes a mix of horror and wry humor that Whale used so effectively in other films, including the top one on this list.
THE MUMMY (1932): After the runaway success of 1931’s “Frankenstein,” Universal was eager to promote its new “King of Horror,” and this vehicle was ideal. Whereas “Frankenstein” (and its immediate follow-up, “The Old Dark House,” featured later in this list) required Karloff to pantomime and emote his way through the role, “The Mummy” provided pages of dialogue, allowing moviegoers to learn what a rich and sonorous voice Karloff possessed, evil lisp and all. Karloff’s voice is so unique (as is Bela Lugosi’s, for that matter) that it’s immediately recognizable when anyone imitates it, as is still often done for parodies, music (The Monster Mash) and product advertisements. “The Mummy” includes an opening scene featuring the title character’s awakening that still sends chills nearly a century later.
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939): This underrated gem was the third in the Frankenstein series, the last to feature Karloff as the Monster and the first not directed by Whale. But as noted in an earlier post, director Rowland V. Lee carries on the best of Whale, and standout performances by Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi provide Karloff a fitting finale to the part that made him a major star. For more on this, check out an earlier post.
FRANKENSTEIN (1931): Yes, it’s taken five spots to get to this classic, but that’s because both this film and the next on the list are handicapped by being among the very early talking pictures. Nevertheless, “Frankenstein” includes a creation sequence still unrivaled in subsequent films (with the possible exception of “Bride of Frankenstein”), and Karloff’s first appearance is spellbinding. But directors and technicians soon learned how to do many things — sound recording, background music — in more effective ways compared to the primitive methods employed in 1931.
DRACULA (1931): The granddaddy of Universal horror (at least since the advent of “talking pictures”) this film features Bela Lugosi, who had first played the part on Broadway, forever imprinting the Transylvania vampire with an indelible image: slicked-back hair, formal wear, long cape, hypnotic eyes and a thick Hungarian accent that to this day is often invoked when someone is challenged to “talk like Dracula.” “Dracula” does not hold up as well as “Frankenstein” — after the action leaves Dracula’s castle and moves to London, it’s basically a filming of the rather stodgy stage play. But its standing in movie history demands a lofty placement on any list of classic horror. As Lugosi himself said, Dracula was both a blessing and a curse for the tragic actor. Dwight Frye as the cursed, fly-eating “Renfield” is memorable, but he was typecast into madmen roles for the remainder of his short life.
THE BLACK CAT (1934): After creating two new horror stars, Universal decided that pairing them would be box office gold. This was the first of several co-starring vehicles. Regardless of the importance of their respective parts, Karloff always received top billing — often by his last name alone, to indicate his importance on a par with Greta Garbo — in part because Universal never forgave Lugosi for refusing “Frankenstein.” This is the best of the films the two made together. Karloff is evil incarnate as a devil worshiper and master of a fortress built upon graves of dead soldiers, while Lugosi is the avenger out to destroy him — because Karloff stole and then killed his wife, and then married his daughter. Yep. Plot lines like that pretty much disappeared after enforcement of the Hays Code — guidelines for filmmaking that were ushered into practice by the outrages and excesses of movies like this one.
THE WOLF MAN (1941): While they weren’t finished with the Frankenstein Monster or Dracula quite yet, Universal realized it needed to develop new characters to keep milking their cash cow of horror. Lon Chaney Jr. was the quintessential tortured soul, fighting the curse of lycanthropy. Throughout his life, Chaney called the Wolf Man “my baby,” and was proud of the part, which he repeated four times (not counting a fifth werewolf role years later in an unrelated low-budget Mexican production). The film was a big hit, and writer Curt Siodmak created a new and lasting mythos, from silver bullets to the full moon effect (not introduced until the next Wolf Man film, also written by Siodmak) to the famous ditty, “Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” The last line became “and the moon is full and bright” in future films.
DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936): It took five years for Universal to finally produce a sequel to its first sound horror film but, strangely enough, they took a pass on Bela Lugosi and Dracula, focusing instead on his daughter. The original plan had Lugosi involved, and there are pictures of him on the set. In the end, they used only a dummy of Lugosi for a scene involving his burning corpse (Lugosi was paid a few hundred dollars for his likeness). The film was excellent, with Gloria Holden as the cursed offspring. There are definite intonations of lesbianism — again, the Hays Code was being enforced in sketchy fashion at the time — in Holden’s seduction of a young female victim. The acting by Holden, Otto Kruger, Irving Pichel, Nan Grey and Edward Van Sloan, repeating his Van Helsing role from “Dracula,” is all outstanding, and the script is well presented, one of the first to use the theme of the loneliness and despair of someone cursed with vampirism.
SON OF DRACULA (1943): Bela Lugosi was once again shunned in favor of the up and coming Lon Chaney Jr., who plays either Dracula or his son — it’s not made entirely clear by the script despite the title. Either way, it’s an underrated film with an interesting plot and a moody atmosphere. Chaney is very good as an intimidating and violent vampire, downplaying Lugosi’s suave count while foreshadowing Christopher Lee’s animalistic touches. Evelyn Ankers is on hand as she was quickly becoming Universal’s “scream queen,” but it’s Louise Allbritton as Dracula’s bride and Robert Paige as her scorned human lover who deliver effective counterparts to Chaney. J. Edward Bromberg is a Van Helsing-style vampire expert, and Frank Craven is cast again in a familiar homespun everyman role.
THE RAVEN (1935): Not to be confused with the 1963 AIP film of the same name starring Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, this second pairing of Karloff and Bela Lugosi is a wild ride, and the only one where Lugosi clearly has the dominant part and steals the show (although his “Ygor” in “Son of Frankenstein” might come close). Lugosi plays a brilliant surgeon who is an Edgar Allan Poe fanatic, and has a house filled with Poe-themed torture devices. You can guess the rest. Given a chance to go completely over the top and chew every piece of scenery in sight, Lugosi offers his wildest and most exuberant performance, and it’s fun to watch. Karloff takes his paycheck and watches along with the rest of us — at least through one good eye (you have to see it to understand).
THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932): Boris Karloff immediately followed “Frankenstein” with this film, also directed by James Whale. He’s a mute, murderous butler in a spooky old mansion that set the stage for many such films that followed. Although top-billed, Karloff’s role is secondary, and the movie is carried by a diverse and impressive lot including Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, Raymond Massey, Eva Moore, Lilian Bond, Elspeth Dudgeon (a woman who played a male role and was credited as “John Dudgeon”), Brember Wills and Gloria Stuart — who, more than six decades later, played the older “Rose” in the 1997 blockbuster, “Titanic.” Whale infuses much English humor into the film, some of which is lost on American audiences, but it’s a fun movie that was feared lost for several years until a deteriorating print was discovered in 1968. The film was eventually restored and made available again by the 1980s.
THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936): The third Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi pairing has Karloff back in the driver’s seat in a film that is more science fiction than horror. Karloff invents a device that heals people of various afflictions, but his own exposure to its key element leads to madness (naturally). He goes out in a burst of glory (literally) while Lugosi holds his coat (figuratively).
THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940): This is a well done sequel to the 1933 classic, this time featuring Vincent Price as the transparent protagonist. Price was many years from being considered a horror star, but, like Claude Rains before him, his distinctive voice carries the film, along with John P. Fulton’s special effects, which manage to improve slightly on the first film’s excellent magic visuals.
FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943): By this time, Universal’s horror films were most often targeted to the teen crowd, and that’s true here. But the movie is fast-paced and lots of fun, and its standing as the first “let’s put famous monsters together and see what happens” vehicle makes it unique and historic, and demanding of inclusion here.
GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942): This represents the last effort at making a serious film about the Monster. Lon Chaney Jr. takes over from Boris Karloff, and while he lacks Karloff’s skills, he does fine at playing a scary and imposing creature. Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Lionel Atwill, Evelyn Ankers and Ralph Bellamy offer excellent support, but Bela Lugosi carries the day reprising his “Ygor” from “Son of Frankenstein.”
TOWER OF LONDON (1939): Made on the heels of “Son of Frankenstein,” many of the same cast members, along with director Rowland V. Lee, return for this historic melodrama based on King Richard III’s nefarious rise to power. Boris Karloff shines as “Mord,” a club-footed executioner with a bald head, crooked nose and eye mask when conducting business (note: not an eye patch as mistakenly posted originally). Basil Rathbone is excellent as Richard, and Vincent Price has his first encounter with a horror film in a small but significant role as the Duke of Clarence, Richard’s younger brother. For years to follow, Karloff and Rathbone ribbed Price about the scene where they drown him in a vat; they held the lid in place for a few seconds after the director yelled “cut,” striking fear into Price that he might actually drown.
THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942): The inclusion of this film is not based on its actual merit so much as on the fact it was the first of three times that Lon Chaney Jr. played the part of the bandaged, foot-dragging mummy that became part of pop culture. The 1940s Mummy films have only a slight connection with the original Boris Karloff classic of 1932, but they’ve stuck in the public’s mind due to repeated television showings, especially from the 1950s through the 1970s when the old horror films were popular on TV. Chaney hated the role; the suit of bandages and facial makeup (or mask for long shots) left him sweaty, itchy and ill-tempered (especially after a few drinks, as was his custom).
WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935): Universal’s first werewolf effort came six years before “The Wolf Man,” and featured Henry Hull as a scientist cursed by lycanthropy. It has an entirely different storyline (and werewolf makeup) than the more famous Lon Chaney Jr. series, but it’s made with the high quality of most Universal horror films of the 1930s, and stands on its own merit as a classic of tragedy and horror.
HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944): Like “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,” this film is again produced mostly for younger moviegoers, but it’s done well, grouping the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man and Dracula (played by John Carradine) into the same movie. They don’t all share scenes, however; Carradine’s vampire is dispatched before we even encounter the other monsters. Boris Karloff gets top billing as a mad doctor intent on reviving Frankenstein’s Monster. Lon Chaney Jr. affectionately reprises his role as Lawrence Talbot, the cursed werewolf, and Glenn Strange puts on Karloff’s old boots as the Monster. The best that can be said of Strange’s performance — which he repeated in the similar follow-up, 1945’s “House of Dracula,” and 1948’s comedic sendup “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” — is that he was by all accounts a very nice guy.
Note: While the critique of these films is my own, the background information and trivia comes from many sources collected through the years, the most valuable of which is the excellent and definitive reference book, Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946 by Michael Brunas, John Brunas and Tom Weaver (McFarland & Company, Inc. 1990). A revised edition (2017) is also available.
In 2005, I conducted my own interviews with Sara Karloff (Boris’ daughter), Bela Lugosi Jr. and Ron Chaney (grandson of Lon Chaney Jr.), three very gracious people.
Happy Halloween everyone.
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