My Week in Movies: Oct. 14-20

Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) I’m surprised to find myself saying this after viewing both films repeatedly for decades, but here’s the thing: the more I watch Frankenstein, the more I appreciate and adore it… but the more I watch Bride of Frankenstein, the more I’m irked by its broad attempts at comedy. And it’s pretty much a comedy start to finish, or at least that’s how James Whale saw it, and all that camp builds up and eventually undercuts some otherwise incredibly powerful moments. How can we be asked to be moved by the monster’s cry of “We belong dead!” after sitting through so much winking snark where the monster’s quest for a soul is played for laughs? (And yes, that run-in with the hermit is played entirely as a joke.) Compare such carefree silliness as Pretorius’ “jar people,” an inessential comic aside, with the brutality and sobriety of the first film. There’s little comic relief and no (mercifully) Una O’Connor, while its highest melodrama teases at camp without giving into it, and that makes all the difference. Frankenstein asks us to confront the horror of life and death; Bride asks us to giggle the horror away.

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2002) and The Lost Skeleton Returns Again (2010) It’s been a few years since I watched Larry Blamire’s cult classic, and it was a relief to discover it’s still as funny and as inventive as ever. The sequel also holds up well enough, although it’s certainly a lesser film. Returns Again works best when it moves away from the familiar and delves into new territory – the new characters get the better jokes, and the final half hour goes full throttle into jungle adventure silliness that pays off nicely.

Dark and Stormy Night (2010) And then there’s Blamire’s best movie. He’s traded in sci-fi schlock for a loving riff on the old dark house genre, and the magic’s all in the wordplay. This is genius-level comic writing built on wordplay and anarchy, delivered by a crackerjack cast who are obviously relishing the Hawksian machine gun pacing. We also get Bob Burns in a gorilla costume, because why not?

The Ape (1940) Speaking of guys in gorilla costumes, here’s a spectacularly odd cheapie from Monogram Pictures. Boris Karloff is a mild-mannered scientist working on a polio cure, and also there’s a circus gorilla on the loose, because of course. Oh, and soon Karloff is dressing up as the gorilla and killing his neighbors to get spinal fluid for his secret formula. Even at a mere 62 minutes, none of the plot elements ever manage to click as a whole. The sheer loopiness of it all keeps things watchable in its own way (not every poverty row thriller opens with circus music), and Karloff delivers some pretty darn fine moments, especially in the final scene. That guy could save anything.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) The last of Disney’s “eff it, let’s just slap some shorts together and call it a movie” period. I have fond memories of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow sequence (which I’ve always seen separate from this feature; this is my first go with the movie as a whole), and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to discover it’s not as frightening as I thought it was when I was eight. Both it and the Wind and the Willows piece have some splendid animation and nice comic moments, and the comedy in Sleepy Hollow is especially welcome, keeping the Headless Horseman finale from overwhelming young viewers. But that half also feels rather slight in terms of both character and plot, a victim, perhaps, of a run time that’s too short to fully develop the story but too long to be effectively paced as a short. That shot of the flaming pumpkin flying at the screen, though, that’s still solid stuff.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) It hit me, as I sat down to watch the original Monster Mash, that I’d only actually seen this movie twice before, and actually remembered almost none of it. (Turns out I was thinking of scenes from its sequels most of my adult life.) I vaguely remembered the first act, with Lon Chaney, Jr. coming back to life, but I didn’t recognize anything after that. I didn’t remember the secondary characters, I didn’t remember the bulk of the plot, and I sure as hell didn’t remember the musical number (oh lord the musical number). Turns out it was decent enough, with a great performance from Chaney and a bland-but-great-for-trivia performance from Lugosi as the Monster, but I can now solidly say I prefer the follow-ups, which amp up the crazy and the all-star creature goodness. Oh, and naming the scientist Frank? Nice touch, movie.

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