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Posts Tagged ‘Bela Lugosi’

Most people, if shown a movie, could probably take a pretty good stab at guessing when it was produced. Even without the obvious clues – well-known dialogue, famous stars – there are all manner of subtle little technical and stylistic things that can tip one off to the time a film was made. Most of the time the evolution of cinema as a visual art form seems quite gradual, with only tiny incremental changes – but then, to stick with the evolutionary analogy, there are occasional moments of punctuated equilibrium, when things change quickly and drastically: the arrival of sound, and then colour; the introduction of a format like cinemascope; the arrival of the modern blockbuster around the time of a revolution in special effects technology; the rise of CGI.

All of these are obviously huge changes, but sometimes you look back at an old film – or, strictly speaking, a couple of old films – and you are struck by the fact even during those apparently static periods of slow and gradual change, progress was still taking place.

By the time that George Waggner directed The Wolf Man in 1941, Universal Picture’s initial cycle of monster and horror movies had been underway from a decade: as well as the initial versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, the studio had also made The Invisible Man and various follow-ups like The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand. They’d also had a go at a werewolf movie, Werewolf of London, without much success (consensus is that it was a bit too similar to a recently-released Jekyll and Hyde movie).

This second take on the theme of lycanthropy is done more in the style of Frankenstein and Dracula, by which I mean it occurs in what feels almost like the borderland between the real world and something out of a fairy tale. This sense is only heightened by the decision to set it in Wales – presumably as distant, exotic and romantic a land as central Europe, as far as most Universal executives were concerned. Certainly, in terms of authentic Welshness, the film is about one percent convincing.

There’s something very odd about the near-total refusal of American horror movies in the first half of the 1940s to engage with real world events of the period, but there we go: it’s practically a genre convention at this point not to mention the war then raging. Certainly nobody mentions it in and around the country estate of Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), where much of the film takes place. Tragedy has recently struck the family with the death of his eldest son and heir, occasioning the return from America (naturally) of his estranged younger son, Larry (Lon Chaney Jr.). (The age gap between Rains and Chaney is, if we’re going to be exact, about seventeen years, or, to put it another way, not quite big enough to convince). Larry initially seems like an amiable, well-meaning guy, which is what the plot requires, although events soon take a rather odd turn.

Sir John’s pride and joy is a big telescope, which he appears to use to spy on the local village as much as for astronomical research, and Larry avails himself of this too: and soon he is peering at the most beautiful girl in the village (Evelyn Ankers) in her bedroom. What can I say – autres temps, autres moeurs. Soon he is beetling down to the village to chat her up properly, apparently not having clocked that it’s a bad idea to admit to ogling someone through a long lens when asking them out.

Still, it’s Wales, and they do things differently there. Having bought a cane with a silver wolf on its pommel (yes, all kinds of plot is brazenly being laid in here) from young Gwen’s shop, Larry ends up taking her and her friend Jenny to the local gypsy camp for what must constitute some very cheap and not very thrilling thrills. The other two go off for an evening walk while Jenny gets her palm read by a gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately, all Bela can read in her palm is a pentagram, which translates as ‘imminent death’.

Yes, Bela Lugosi is a werewolf in this one, though he is let off having to put on the makeup: he turns into an actual wolf. Bela attacks Jenny and Larry has a go at saving her, bashing Bela on the head with his silver cane and getting nipped in the process. Needless to say this kind of incident causes a stir, even in Wales. The natives get ugly and dark imprecations are muttered, blaming Larry for the whole thing.

Needless to say Larry has problems of his own, as Bela’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) fills him in on the details of being a werewolf. (The age gap between Lugosi and Ouspenskaya is only six years, which I suppose makes the Rains-Chaney gap seem a bit more reasonable.) Soon Larry finds his toes getting hairier and hairier, and he is gripped by savage primal urges…

(In an odd deviation from what you might expect, the film never provides the full man-into-monster transformation sequence, beyond a shot of Chaney’s bare feet gradually turning into something more like paws. There’s also obviously something rum about the fact that it seems like the very first thing the wolf man does after changing into a savage, inhuman beast is put his shirt back on – I mean, there were obviously very good reasons for not wanting to have to make up Chaney’s arms and shoulders, it’s just a weird bit of continuity.)

What’s obviously missing from all of this is any real mention of the full moon as the trigger for the wolf man’s appearances, and what’s unexpectedly present is a sort-of association between werewolves and Satanism (the pentagram which both Bela and Talbot are marked with, and see on their victims). So we are still in a kind of half-way house between the folkloric werewolf (very much akin to a vampire) and the Hollywood breed, which this film did the most to inaugurate.

Still, the film’s innovations came to be ‘how werewolves are’, in terms of popular culture, in the same way that the Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein likewise define their subjects. Not bad going, considering that Lon Chaney Jr isn’t quite in the same league as Karloff or Lugosi (I always find him to be a stolid, doughy sort of performer), and the wolf man make-up also leaves something to be desired: if the film was called The Boar Man it would probably be better, but I can understand that was never going to fly.

Here we come to an odd thing: for while The Wolf Man is appreciably not up to the same standard as the first Universal monster movies and lacks some of their iconic power, it is – by almost any rubric – an appreciably slicker, more competent, more modern production. Tod Browning’s film in particular betrays its stage origins in countless ways; this is much more genuinely cinematic, and more entertaining as a result. We’re talking increments rather than a quantum leap – both films retain the ‘rude mechanical’ comedy relief characters, in this film a policeman called Twiddle – but the use of a much more modern visual grammar is immediately apparent.

Are we stumbling towards the suggestion that The Wolf Man is in some sense a triumph of style over substance? I’m not sure I would honestly go that far, not least because I would call it a decent example of a foundational horror movie rather than a particularly great film in its own right. But it’s true that the way in which the story is told complements the premise in a way that wasn’t always the case with the earlier films, and this goes a long way towards making up for the fact that the premise itself is only a pretty good one on this occasion. An engaging bit of horror history, anyway.

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There have been many notable and occasionally great one-and-done Draculas in screen history: Klaus Kinski, Denholm Elliott, Gary Oldman, Frank Langella. The list is extensive. What’s perhaps a surprising is how close Bela Lugosi comes to appearing on it. But it’s true: while the actor racked up a long list of genre and horror movie roles (including playing Frankenstein’s creature, one of Dr Moreau’s creations, several other lookalike vampires and appearing in a very early picture from Hammer Films), he only played Dracula twice – and one of those films was a spoof (1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). And yet he remains Christopher Lee’s only credible rival for the title of One True Dracula (Lee played the character in nine movies).

Maybe it’s because he originated the role – or perhaps the original 1931 Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, is just that good? Certainly it establishes the ground rules for anglophone versions of Bram Stoker’s novel, mainly by taking a very flexible approach to the text. Several characters are dropped entirely, others have their roles switched around, and the end result is that in this film it’s Renfield (Dwight Frye) who’s on his way to Castle Dracula to finalise the sale of a house.

It almost feels a bit redundant to summarise the plot of Dracula, but I suppose every version is a little bit different and – in any case – it’s just possible some people may not be familiar with it. The locals are appalled to learn Renfield will be visiting Dracula, giving him a crucifix for protection. Renfield, poor sod, wanders up to the gloomy old pile anyway, finding it to be oddly infested with what look like possums and armadillos (some very odd choices from the art department here). Dracula (Lugosi) issues his usual warm welcome and they conclude the sale of a ruined abbey near London before the brides of Dracula descend on Renfield. (As usual, the film doesn’t address the real question of why Dracula has decided to up stakes – ho, ho – and relocate to England. He hardly fits the usual profile of an economic migrant.)

After a brief interlude depicting the not-exactly-untroubled voyage of the ship Dracula takes from Romania to England – the crazed Renfield has now become his servant – we’re into the main part of the film. After a brief but strikingly effective interlude of a top-hatted Dracula stalking through the metropolis’ fog, pausing only to snack on the occasional match girl, this primarily concerns Dracula’s dealings with Dr Seward (Herbert Bunston), owner of the asylum next door to the ruined abbey, and his nearest and dearest: his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners), and her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade).

Best not to get too attached to Lucy, for she is soon no more: her plot function is basically to be a sort of demonstrative victim of Dracula’s M.O. (The subplot from the novel about Lucy rising as a vampire and preying on children is mentioned, but not really developed.) From this point on the film is about the battle to stop Mina from going the same way – luckily, Dr Seward is able to call in his old friend and expert on all things peculiar, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who very quickly realises just what’s going on here.

The status of Dracula as an important and iconic film is indisputable by anyone with a passing knowledge of and interest in modern culture, but in recent years a sort of critical push-back against it has developed, suggesting it is simply not a very good movie (and the Spanish-language version made on the same sets at the same time, starring Carlos Villarias, is often cited to be a much more effective take on the story).

Well, I can see where critics of Dracula are coming from, because nine decades on this iconic piece of cinema often feels barely cinematic at all. The reason for this is, in a sense, very straightforward: it’s not quite a direct adaptation of the novel, but rather a filmed version of the 1924 stage version (with occasional moments lifted from Murnau’s unauthorised adaptation, which genuinely is a classic movie). This explains the talky and largely static nature of the piece, although given the film is only about 75 minutes long, probably not its sluggish pace – I get a sense that the stage play may have been a gruelling ordeal, just not in the way that its makers may have intended. Certainly, as a horror movie this film is seriously restricted by the censorship of the period: this is a wholly bloodless vampire movie, some might say in more senses than one.

Then again, neither sensationalist spectacle nor studied naturalism were really in the toolbox of American cinema in the 1930s; many films were basically just filmed theatre, with an accordingly theatrical and camp air to them. There’s something very theatrical, and indeed practically Shakespearean, about the way most of the major roles are played dead straight, while the supporting parts are often comic grotesques (apart from Frye’s wildly over-the-top turn as Renfield, I’m thinking of Charles Gerrard as the asylum attendant, who seems fond of telling his charges they are ‘loonies’).

On the other hand, there is Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Again, this is a very theatrical performance, with a lot of rather studied posing going on, not to mention some stilted line readings. But there’s something else here too – particularly in close-up, where he brings a real intensity and charisma to the part. It’s just a shame that Tod Browning elects to shoot most of the movie in rather static long- and medium-shot. You can perceive, perhaps, why this performance effectively set the template for screen Draculas – virtually every other take on the character is a reaction to it, either an emulation or a modulation.

You can say the same about the movie as a whole: it may hardly be a great Dracula movie itself, but you can sense it incubating the seeds of many other Draculas and vampire movies to come. For every scene which is a bit of a dud, there is another which either really lands, or is at least brimming with potential. Perhaps that’s the kindest thing one can say about this movie – it’s almost like an extended sizzle reel for Dracula and the vampire movie genre as a whole. Perhaps the movies weren’t quite ready for Dracula in 1931, but this movie did a fine job of giving them plenty of motivation to revisit this story time and time again.

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Something curious and historically interesting happened to popular culture in the late 1930s and early 1940s, not that most people would have noticed it at the time: the idea of the shared fictional universe came into existence, where events in one story could have consequences in others that weren’t simply sequels, where characters didn’t just spin off but converged as well. Given that this concept underpins the business plans of a number of major film studios nowadays, we should probably remember that it was rather a derided one for many decades – although even today we’re still talking about the kind of films which aim to make money rather than win awards. The key players, Marvel and DC, are heavily rooted in making superhero movies, although also reputedly having a bash are Universal, with their stable of horror characters.

This seems entirely appropriate given that capes and monsters were where the first fictional universes started to crystallise: the mythos created by Lovecraft, and the DC comics universe kick-started by All Star Comics #3 in 1940, for instance. Both of those were probably happening under most people’s radar – a little more visible, perhaps, was the appearance of Universal’s original shared movie universe, which was inaugurated with Roy William Neill’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, released in 1943.

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This was the fourth sequel to the iconic Karloff-Clive version of Frankenstein, but to begin with it seems much more strongly linked to The Wolf Man, to which it is the first follow-up (apparently writer Curt Siodmak only suggested the movie as a joke, but didn’t object to being paid to produce an actual script). It opens in that notorious hotbed of lycanthropic savagery, the Welsh countryside, where a couple of unwise locals in unfortunate hats break into the family vault of local big-shots the Talbots, intent on plundering the corpse of prematurely-deceased heir Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr).

However, it turns out that all that ‘shot with a silver bullet’ stuff is not strictly accurate, for four years after his interment Talbot is still alive – apparently being a werewolf makes you immortal! The shock of finding himself not dead means that Talbot ends up in hospital in Cardiff, although quite what happens is a little obscure. Here he meets Dr Mannering (Patric Knowles), who eventually proves to be a rather remarkable individual, and local copper Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey).

Never mind the Universal Monsters shared-world, for a moment it looks as if another crossover is on the cards, as Dennis Hoey is perhaps best known to modern audiences for his role as the impenetrably thick Inspector Lestrade in half a dozen Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, also for Universal. Hoey gives exactly the same performance as Owen as he does as Lestrade, in an identical costume – it’s enough to make you speculate about Lestrade being sent on an undercover mission to the principality, and imagine Rathbone’s Holmes facing off against the various monsters. Not to be, unfortunately.

Anyway, Talbot fangs his way out of his straitjacket and goes on the run in search of a way out of his predicament, eventually catching up with the gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the mum of the guy who originally bit him. We’re now quite a long way into the movie and I suspect most viewers will be quite relieved when her only suggestion is that they look up a notorious scientist with an unparallelled knowledge of the secrets of life and death, Dr Frankenstein!

Unfortunately, all the various members of the Frankenstein dynasty with medical diplomas have died by the time the duo arrive in Frankenstein’s home village, mostly as a result of the family’s most famous creation going off on one. Talbot and Maleva are thus somewhat stumped, until Talbot stumbles across Frankenstein’s Monster (Bela Lugosi), frozen in ice. This happens quite by chance, by the way: I suppose this is the sort of thing which happens when you are a werewolf who spends most of his time being chased around by mobs of angry villagers.

Once defrosted, the Monster proves extraordinarily helpful in trying to find Frankenstein’s original notes (especially so when you consider that he is supposedly blind at this point and also had his brain replaced in the previous film in the series), but Talbot still has to call upon the help of Frankenstein’s granddaughter (Ilona Massey), a woman who really knows the value of plaits, in order to find what he wants.

At this point Mannering turns up, having tracked Talbot across Europe, and having proven himself to be not just a top doctor but also a remarkable sleuth, reveals he is also a bit of a Frankenstein fanboy. He agrees to rebuild Frankenstein’s lab and use the machinery there to drain the vital energy from both Talbot and the Monster, thus ending the threat of the two monsters forever. What can possibly go wrong…?

You would, I suspect, have to be a particularly sensitive and delicate individual to actually find Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man frightening or horrific by modern standards. Perhaps the most alarming thing in the film is the obligatory musical number (not performed by either of the title characters, alas), which features startling numbers of fiercely cheerful gypsies and villagers in lederhosen going ‘tra la la’ more than you might imagine possible.

Or perhaps not. Actually frightening, this film is not, but it still possesses a weird, morbid atmosphere, primarily because this is really a film about suicide: the chief motor of the plot is Lawrence Talbot’s desire to die. The film in general and Chaney in particular are not remotely subtle enough for this to be quite as affecting as it could be, but a modern film with this kind of theme would have the potentially to be truly disturbing and unusual.

But then this is obviously the product of another era, when a horror film was still second cousin to a fairy tale, mostly set in ruined castles and graveyards in quasi-mythical lands far across the sea, populated by superstitious villagers and enigmatic gypsies. Good and evil are still almost palpably real, in the world of the film at least. The genre has changed so much as to be almost unrecognisable.

Is it really any good, though? Or – was it any good when it was made, by the standards of the 1930s and 1940s? Perhaps I’m not the best person to ask, for I tend to find the original Universal horror movies painfully slow and lacking in incident, certainly compared to those made by Hammer a generation later. Even The Bride of Frankenstein, the film generally held up to be the zenith of the series, seems to me to be awkwardly self-conscious and twee. Well, anyway: the story is odd enough to be watchable, even if the plotting is rather melodramatic and some of the characterisation highly peculiar – Mannering variously functions as an expository tool, the romantic lead, and the de facto villain, depending on what point in the film we have reached. He briefly goes bad simply to facilitate the climactic battle.

Yup, before Batman Vs Superman, before Alien Vs Predator, before Freddy Vs Jason, before King Kong Vs Godzilla, there was the concluding barney of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. Again, by modern standards the battle is energetic but ultimately quite tame, and it’s pretty brief too. You can see they’re making kind of an attempt to make the two combatants fight in different ways, but it really just boils down to the kind of rasslin’ you might see outside a pub in the small hours of any weekend night. One of the prime rules of the all-star death match is established even this early on – in that the clash is not fought to its natural conclusion with a real winner emerging. In this case, a convenient collapsing dam washes away the venue of the struggle while events are still in progress, the Baroness and Mannering (back to being a mildly heroic figure at this point) having discreetly scarpered by this point.

Then again, the makers of this kind of series always eventually figure out that by killing your monsters off too permanently you’re only making trouble for yourself when it comes to writing the next movie, so I suppose we can’t be too critical on that score. I find it quite hard to be especially critical of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man on any grounds – it’s not high art, of course, and it’s just as much a weird collection of disparate bits as Lugosi’s character, but its very oddness gives it a strange charm I find very hard to resist.

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