You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Movie monsters know that more than anybody. Much of the genre is built upon the suspenseful build-up to the first full revelation of exactly what it is that we the viewers have paid to see and shiver over. Often, that revelation takes the form of a shock-cut and a scream – a shark with a mouthful of teeth lurching from beneath the waters, a masked killer with a knife lurching out of the shadows – but there are other, more subtle introductions as well, times when the monster ingratiates himself into our presence and even our good graces, maintaining the outward forms of civility, much as the satanic narrator of the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil,” who sings:
Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a mans soul and faith
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste
The shock-form of introduction has its benefits (jump-scares are one of the reasons we go to horror movies), but the more subtle introduction has its place as well, allowing the villain to get into our head and under our skin. Consider, for example, the courtly self-introduction made by the Count in DRACULA (1931). There have been quite a few memorable introductions in the history of horror movies, none more so than this marvelous entrance by Bela Lugosi in his most famous role, as the regal Transylvanian vampire. The early sound film has a slightly static quality that (perhaps inadvertently) captures the tempo of an ageless immortal who has learned to move at his own pace over the centuries of his undead existence – a facet of his personality that shines like a dark gem in the moonlight as he advances down the stairs, past cobwebs and spiders, and greets his guest Renfield (Dwight Frye) with three simple words, enunciating each individual syllable and pausing dramatically before delivering up his name:
“I am … Dra-cu-la.”
You can see the line reading in the embedded video (a clever, fan-made montage) or see the intact sequence by clicking here (embedding disabled, unfortunately). I think you will agree that there is something eerie and unnerving about the way that Dracula refuses to fall into a natural conversational rhythm with Renfield, while simultaneously exuding such formal charm that Renfield is forced to act as if the situation were normal. It is the first hint of the vampire’s ability to dominate mere mortals, even without a display of overt supernatural power – and also the first sign of the vampire seductive nature, presenting an attractive persona that hides the evil nature lurking beneath the skin.
There have been many other great movie monster introductions. I won’t say that none have surpassed Lugosi’s opening salvo, but as someone who saw the film on television at an impressionable age, this is the scene that set the standard by which all others must be judged.
Let’s consider this the first salvo in an on-going, on-again off-again series of memorable opening remarks from movie madmen and monsters. Shall we call it … Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself: Movie Monsters Making a First Impression.
Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies present a double bill of black-and-white films from the Golden Age of Classic Horror: FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), both directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the monster. Though many old horror films do not hold up so well today, Whale’s work – with its shadings of humor and camp, mixed with precise craftsmanship – truly live up to their classic reputation.
The screenings will take place at various theatres nationwide on October 24 at 7pm, with some matinees at 2pm. The films will be preceded by exclusive interviews conducted at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, including conversations with Karloff’s daughter Sara Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Jr. (son of the classic “Dracula” star), and Academy Award®-winning make-up artist Rick Baker. All three will discuss classic horror movies, how legendary icons like Karloff and Lugosi helped define the genre, and how today’s horror films measure up to the classics.
FRANKENSTEIN and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN are screening as part of the “TCM Event Series,” presented using new digital cinema projection systems in select movie theaters around the country. The series continues on Nov. 15 with a special 50th Anniversary screening of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” based on Harper Lee’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning book. Oscar® winner Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch, a lawyer in a racially divided Alabama town in the 1930s. The event will feature a special TCM-produced introduction and historical commentary featuring Osborne.
Tickets to the series are available at presenting theater box offices and online at www.FathomEvents.com. Click here for a complete list of presenting theater locations and prices.
The press release informs us:
As part of Universal’s 100th Anniversary this year, a commemorative 50th Anniversary release of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is currently available on Blu-ray™/DVD. Coming to Blu-ray™ for the first time, “The Birds” will be released as part of the “Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection” on Sept. 25. Also premiering on Blu-ray™, “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” will be included in the “Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection” available Oct. 2.
It’s the rare film that comes along and totally redefines the medium, but such a film is BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR. From its striking visual style to its Oscar-worthy performances to its dazzling special effects to its powerful, environmental subtext, this tale of a small, California town enduring the wrath of a vengeful Mother Nature — in the form of merciless attacks by flocks of deadly birds — is no mere light entertainment, but a truly life-changing experience, as immersive as AVATAR, as revolutionary as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
Andrea Lipinski and Kevin Lauderdale join Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons in a sober, critical analysis of this landmark film, analyzing how director James Nguyen has taken the lessons learned from his spiritual mentor — Alfred Hitchcock — and exceeded the master in every regard. Click on the player to hear the podcast, and discover how the pantheon of cinema greats — from Griffith to Scorsese; from Eisenstein to Kubrick — will soon have a new name added to its ranks.
The fourth installment of the Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast focuses its attention on the 1961 classic THE INNOCENTS. This ambiguous and haunting ghost story was produced and directed by Jack Clayton, based on Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw and William Archibald’s stage adaptation, The Innocents. Oscar-winner Freddie Francis supplied the atmospheric black-and-white photography, and Oscar-nominee Deborah Kerr starred as governess Miss Giddens, put in charge of two apparently innocent children who may – or may not – be in league with ghosts. Lawrence French, Arbogast (of Arbogast on Film), and Steve Biodrowski struggle to penetrate the miasma of secrets surrounding this intriguing film, one of the great achievements in the horror genre.
Consider this the first installment in this year’s 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films of 1961. As we did in 2010, Cinefantastique will offer periodic posts and/or podcasts throughout the year, looking back at the great genre achievements of five decades ago.
Recollections from the late actress on working with director James Whale on THE OLD DARK HOUSE and THE INVISIBLE MAN
Today’s mainstream audiences remember the late Gloria Stuart, who died on September 26, 2010, for the box office blockbuster TITANIC, but for cult fanatic and horror buffs the actress holds a special place in film history, having worked with FRANKENSTEIN-director James Whale on two of his classic horror pictures, THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) and THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933). In these films – more than in FRANKENSTEIN and, perhaps, even its sequel BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN – Whale indulged his penchant for sly humour, using the conventions of the horror genre as a springboard for satire and black comedy. In both cases, Stuart had the possibly thankless task of’ playing the leading lady – that is, one of the normal characters whose lot on screen is to act as the equivalent of a straight man in a comedy team, while the eccentrics or the mad scientist gets all the good lines. Nevertheless, she managed to inject a little personality into her roles, and even garnered some of the laughs in THE OLD DARK HOUSE when her character, Margaret Waverton, alone and unprotected in the titular manse, notices the spooky shadows cast by the firelight – and instead of reacting in fear, proceeds to make a series of hand-shadows on the wall.
Gloria Stuart started her film career in the early 1930s as a contract player at Universal Pictures, the studio where Whale had made FRANKENSTEIN. Her third picture was THE OLD DARK HOUSE, which is one of the earliest examples from the sound era of the now-familiar archetypal horror film plot: a group of innocent travelers is forced to take shelter in a scary house filled with strange characters, in this case the Femms, a family ranging from the eccentric (Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore as brother and sister Horace and Rebecca) to the threatening (Boris Karloff as their butler) to the outright homicidal (Brember Wills as Said).
Rather like her character in TITANIC, Stuart had vivid memory of events from decades past. Of her stint on THE OLD DARK HOUSE, she recalled:
“It was wonderful working with James. He was brilliant. He came on the set every morning with the script, and on the blank side he had all the setups that he’d pencilled in the night before. It was very precise. He knew exactly what he wanted, which in those days for film directors was not usual, because most of them had been silent directors. They weren’t used to dialogue, and they weren’t used to directing dialogue; they were used to directing silent action. So it was refreshing working with him, particularly because I wanted to be a stage actress, and I was very snobbish about film. I felt I was slumming, but I need the money, and the money was in film.”
Although Stuart respected Whale as a director, she did not always understand the method to his madness. For example, when she and her compatriots first take shelter in the Femm household, Margaret Waverton changes from her wet clothes into a fancy evening dress, not at all suited to her gloomy surroundings. “The gown was bias-cut, very pale pink silk-velvet,” she explained. “I said to James, ‘We come in out of the rain; we’re muddy; we’re tired. It’s late. And I change into this pale pink dress with jewellery. Why?’ He said, ‘Because, Gloria, when Boris chases you through the house, I want you to appear like a white flame.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’m a white flame, but I still don’t understand it.’ That’s how precise he was. When I change and get down to my chemise,” she adds with a laugh, “I had a big audience on the set.”
Stuart credited Whale for adding humour to the film, a sort of tongue-in-cheek comic relief that plays off the awkward social tension in the scenario – for instance, Horace Femm’s forced civility at the dinner table, when he practically demands that each guest eat a potato.
“Ernest Thesiger was one of the great character actors,” said Stuart. “When he says, ‘Have a po-ta-to,’ and when he throws the bouquet of flowers into the fireplace, that’s all James. All those very sardonic, witty points of view and presentations – all James, not in the script. He was a wonderful man to work for.”
Stuart also credited the film with inspiring the creation of the Screen Actors Guild of America. She and Melvyn Douglas were the only US citizens in the cast; Karloff, Thesiger, Moore, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey and Lillian Bond were English, and during production the Americans got a glimpse at how actors were treated outside Hollywood.
“THE OLD DARK HOUSE is the reason that you have SAG, with almost a million members,” Stuart claimed. “It was a wonderful happenstance. James imported all the English actors, with the exception of Melvyn Douglas, who had just come from the New York Theatre, and me.”
Stuart and Douglas noted that the English cast broke for tea at eleven and four each day – an option not offered to the two Americans.
“James joined all the English actors,” Stuart recalled. “So on one side of the set they had their ‘elevensies’ and `foursies,’ and Melvyn and I would be sitting together, not invited. One day, Melvyn said to me, `Are you interested in forming a union together?’ I said, ‘What’s a union?’ He said, ‘Like in New York – Actor’s Equity. The actors get together and work for better working conditions.’ I said, ‘Oh wonderful,’ because I was getting up at five every morning; in makeup at seven, in hair at eight, wardrobe at quarter of nine, and then sometimes if production wanted you to, you worked until four or five the next morning. There was no overtime. They fed us when they felt like it, when it was convenient for production. It was really very, very hard work. He said, `We’ll have a meeting, and we’ll try to get overtime, eight hour days, eight hours in between for ourselves.’ So I started working as an organizer for SAG. Actually, my union number is 183, because I was so busy canvassing and getting others to join, that I forgot to join myself. Anyway, I’m one of the few remaining founders of the Guild. That’s one reason I’m very grateful to THE OLD DARK HOUSE. I thank that English cast for having their elevensies and foursies.”
Afterward, Stuart appeared in several non-horror films at Universal, including one directed by Whale called KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR, which, according to Stuart “was considered very sexy in those days, but believe me, it wasn’t!”
Then in 1933 she played the fiancee of Jack Griffin, the ambitious scientist whose experiments turned him into THE INVISIBLE MAN. The titular role was essayed by Claude Rains; it marked his first “appearance” in film, although his face was not seen unti the final fadeout. THE INVISIBLE MAN also featured Una O’Connor in a supporting role; her over-the-top hysterical reactions to the strange happenings play like a preview of her similar role in Whale’s THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
Stuart characterized the shooting as “an extraordinary experience,” adding that “we werent’ allowed on the set when Claude became invisible, and it was a very big thing on the Universal lot. There’s a reat deal of wit in ths picture, especially O’Connor.”
Despite the invisibility of his character, Rains did work with Stuart, during scenes in which Griffin is clothed, with his head wrapped in surgical bandage and his eyes covered with dark glasses.
“Claude had not made any films up until this time; he came from the New York stage,” said Stuart. “He was what we call ‘an actor’s actor.’ He was completely involved in being an actor, which doesn’t make for fun and games on the set. Besides,” she laughed, “he was shorter than I was, so either he was on a platform, or I was in a trough.”
Stuart found that Rains employed a few tricks he had learned on stage ot keep audience attention focused on himself, but thanks to the medium of film she managed to hold her own.
“On the stage, whatever happens goes that night, and you don’t go back and do it over again,” she explained. “The first day of shooting on the film, Claude and I had a scene together, and he would upstage me. He would take me [by the arm] and all of a sudden he’s with his full face to the camera, and I had my back to the camera. I stopped in the middle of filming – you don’t do that with Whale; he was a very strict disciplinarian – and I said, ‘James, look what he’s doing to me’ He said, ‘This is movies, not the theatre, and if we don’t get it right the first time, we can do it over again and again.’ Rains said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Oh, Miss Stuart, please forgive me.’ I said, ‘It’s all right, Mr. Rains.’ The next take he was upstaging me again. I didn’t have to stop; James stopped it.
The final take features Stuart and Rains evenly blanace din the shot. “So our relationship during the – I guess it was normal between an actor’s actor and – well, I hope I’m not an actor’s actress,” laughed Stuart.
THE INVISIBLE MAN turned out to be Stuart’s last picture with Whale. Shortly thereafter, Universal sold her contract to Columbia Pictures, and she went onto appear in such films as Busby Berkeley’s GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 (sort of the MOULIN ROUGE of its day) before retiring in the mid-1940s. During the decades that followed, she tried her hand at painting, and even learned to work a printing press in order to publish her artwork in coffee table books. Then – the mid-1970s, she started acting again, mostly in made-for-television movies like THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN and TWO WORLDS OF JENNIE LOGAN, although she did appear in some theatrical films (including MY FAVORITE YEAR). Finally. in 1997, she gave an Oscar-nominated performance in TITANIC.
“For thirty-three years I’d been in the past, you might say, and Cameron brought me back,” Stuart recounted. “It changed my life completely. I was so reclusive, working hard with painting and printing. What happens to an Academy nominee is unbelievable. One day in my patio and on my front yard, there must have been four companies with cameras and lights setting up to interview me about ‘How does it feel to be an Academy nominee.’ After that. I’ve done so much in the last six years that I feel like I’m back in the business; I’ve become more active in the Screen Actors Guild, too. In my old age, I feel that anything I can do to help. I would like to.”
Looking back on her films, Gloria Stuart considered her two favorites to be THE OLD DARK HOUSE and TITANIC (“naturally”), but she seemed prouder of her work in the 1997 Oscar-winner. As for the older film, she gave all credit to the director.
“James Whale is a cult figure in England, and I think he should be here in the United States, too,” she said. “All of his films have great individuality; all of his films are imaginative and witty. He was an actor and a cartoonist, and a newspaper man. He brought all of his talent and his taste to film. I think that of all the directors I’ve worked for – with the exception of James Cameroa, who is a writer, a director, a producer, everything – James was the most wonderful man that I’ve worked with. He knew exactly what he wanted, having been an actor – which none of the other directors that I worked with had been. It’s very difficult, as an actor; if the director can’t tell you what he wants.”
This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in 2003. Copyright by Steve Biodrowski.
Gloria Stuart, who earned an Oscar nomination at the age of 87 for TITANIC, died Sunday night, September 26. The 100-year-old actress had been diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago, according to the Los Angeles Times. Although Stuart is most well known to modern audiences for appearing as the older version of Rose (played in flashback by Kate Winslet) in James Cameron’s blockbuster about the ill-fated ocean liner, fans of cinefantastique remember her for starring roles in two classic black-and-white horror movies from the Golden Age of Universal Studios in the 1930s: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) and THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), both directed by the great James Whale.
Blond and beautiful, Stuart played the leading lady/romantic interest in both movies – typical roles for the period. However, being James Whale productions, both films have their share of tongue in cheek humor, in which Stuart was occasionally allowed to take part. In what looks like an improv, when her character Margaret Waverton is left alone in the titular spooky abode of THE OLD DARK HOUSE, instead of cowering in fear, she starts flashing hand-shadows on the wall, illuminated by the flickering fireplace In a personal appearance at the Egyptian Theatre early in the 2000s, Stuart recalled that all of the campy humor in both films derived not from the scripts but from Whale (who liked to poke fun at the horror genre in which Universal had typecast him). Stuart also recalled that Claude Rains, with whom she starred in THE INVISIBLE MAN, was a bit of a scene-stealer. When performing dialogue together, Rains would grasper Stuart by the shoulders and subtly maneuver her so that her back was to the camera, leaving himself as the dominant figure in the shot.
After her early stint at Universal, Stuart continued working into the 1940s, appearing in such films as BELOVED (1934) and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 (1935). After that, there is a 30-year gap in her filmography. She returned to acting in the mid-1970s, appearing in small roles in films and television. After another gap, this time of eight years, she returned to the big screen in TITANIC,which catapulted her back into the spotlight. She worked steadily until 2004, with more movie and television credits, including a guest stint, ironically, on THE INVISIBLE MAN series.
After her appearance at the Egyptian, Stuart was overheard answering a question about one of her co-stars in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935. Her response was, “He’s dead, honey; they’re all dead.” Now at last Gloria Stuart has gone to join her co-stars in the great cinema in the sky. But as The Kinks’ Ray Davies said, “Celluloid Heroes never really die…”
Walt Disney Pictures has announced that FRANKENWEENIE, previously scheduled for a 2011 debut, will instead make its bow on March 9, 2012. Based on Tim Burton’s live-action short subject, the feature-length remake is in stop-motion and 3-D. Obviously inspired by the classic horror films that Universal Pictures released in the 1930s (most notably FRANKENSTEIN and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN), the story has the titular dog brought back to life after being run over by a car; in keeping with the old-fashioned tone, FRANKENWEENIE is in black and white. The original film, a half-hour in length, was shot back in 1984.
Release date: March 9, 2012
The very title of the new computer-animated film IGOR represents a sort of final proof – as if any were needed – that the most mysterious example of mistaken identity in the history of horror cinema is firmly embedded in the public consciousness beyond any hope of repair. The mystery: How did the name “Igor” come to be the generic designation for a mad scientist’s hump-backed assistant? In fact, how did mad scientists come to have assistants at all?
The famous scientists and semi-scientists of fiction tended to be loners. Dr. Moreau had Montgomery, but Dr. Jekyll, Frankenstein, and Griffin (the Invisible Man) worked in isolation. It is really the movies that established the concept of the deformed, grave-robbing assistant, thanks to 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. But that character was called Fritz – not Igor. How did he come to be, and how did he his name come to be replaced?
Looking for literary antecedents, one might cite Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (more popularly known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Quasimodo does not serve a scientist, but he is a second banana to a villainous character, Claude Frollo, a religious man corrupted by his lust for the gypsy girl Esmerelda. IN 1925, Universal Pictures, the company that later made FRANKENSTEIN, turned The Hunchback of Notre Dame into a film starring the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney. Although not actually a horror film, the elaborate Gothic sets and the makeup for the misshapen title character served as an influence on Universal’s horror classics of the 1930s, and one cannot help suspecting that a bit of Quasimodo found his way into Fritz.
When Universal made FRANKENSTEIN, little of Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel remained; the film was heavily influenced by intervening stage productions, some of which included an assistant. The dramatic reasons for this were obvious: in the book, Frankenstein could tell us his story directly, revealing what was going on in his mind; on stage and on film, Frankenstein’s character could be better revealed to the audience by giving him another character with whom to interact.
Another influence on Fritz was undoubtedly Renfield, the vampire’s obsessed acolyte in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The film version had been a hit for Universal in 1931, directly leading to the production of FRANKENSTEIN later that year. In the earlier film, Count Dracula is served by a dangerous lunatic, played by Dwight Frye; attempting to recapture DRACULA’s successful formula, Universal cast Frye as Fritz. Frye brought along the nervous qualities of his Renfield performance, playing Fritz, like Renfield, as a character who is subservient in the presence of his master but eager to dominate when on his own. In fact, the sadistic hunchback inadvertently causes his own death, torturing Frankenstein’s creation until the artificially created man lashes out in self-defense.
It is safe to say that the popular image of the mad scientist’s assistant derives almost entirely from Fritz: unpleasant, uncouth, ugly, possibly dangerous but for the most part loyal to his master. Frye played a slightly cleaner variation on the character in the 1935 sequel BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but the next big step in the evolution from Fritz to Igor was 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. In that film, Bela Lugosi co-starred as a broken-necked shepherd who used to steal bodies for Frankenstein.
Lugosi’s character is named Ygor (with a “Y”), but he is not quite the assistant as we commonly know him. For one thing, he has his own agenda: using the monster to kill off the people who sentenced him to be hanged. He works with Frankenstein’s son, not out of loyalty but only out of a desire to restore the monster to full power. Nevertheless, in other regards, he fits the mold: he’s a lower-class peasant whose shaggy appearance and unkempt clothing visually distinguish him from the upper-class scientist he serves.
How the name “Ygor” (respelled “Igor”) came to replace “Fritz” in the public consciousness is a bit of a puzzle. Subsequent Universal FRANKENSTEIN film featured assistants and/or hunchbacks, but none of them were named either “Ygor” or “Igor.” Over a decade latter, when England’s Hammer Films made THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) – and, later, its sequels – they avoided the cliche of the deformed assistant. The Italian horror film BLACK SUNDAY (1960, originally La Maschera Del Demonia [“The Mask of the Demon”]) featured a character named Igor Yavutich, but he served at the leisure of a vampire-witch, not a mad doctor; in any case, his name was shorted to simply Yavuto in the Americanized release prints, omiting his first name, so he had little influence on American perception that “Igor” equates with sinister servant. Eventually, the stop-motion kid-flick MAD MONSTER PARTY (1969) featured a creepy assistant named “Yetch,” which seems to be almost a conflation of “Ygor” and “Fritz.” (This film also popularized the notion of the assistant speaking in a nasal voice reminiscent of actor Peter Lorre.)
However it happened, the name Igor (if not the precise identity) seems to have been embedded in the public consciousness by the late 1950s, by which time it was appearing in pop culture spin-offs. The 1958 novelty record “Dinner with Drac” – by the “Cool Ghoul,” John Zacherle – has the narrator admonishing a waiter, “Igor, the scalpels go on the left, with the pitchforks!” The line suggests a bumbling assistant but not a mad scientist’s assistant, since Frankenstein is never mentioned.
Four years later, Bobby “Boris” Picket vamped a line or two during the fade-out of his hit single “The Monster Mash,” using the name “Igor” to refer not to a hunch-backed helper but to Frankenstein’s Monster. However, the follow-up album, The Original Monster Mash, contains several tracks identifying Igor as a lowly assistant, including “Irresistible Igor,” which specifically mentions the grave-robbing activities associated with the character in the old Universal Frankenstein films. Igor himself is even heard grunting, “Master!” once or twice – a line borrowed from Dwight Frye’s Renfield, but which has since become thoroughly associated with Igor and his ilk.
Perhaps what really sealed the deal was the kids’ lunchbox that Universal Studios licensed in the 1960s, featuring images of their classic movie monsters. Beside Frankenstein’s creation stood a very Fritz-like hunchback – identified as Igor! Presumably, Universal had decided that “Fritz” was too prosaic; let’s face it, “Igor” is a better name for a sinister servant. Or perhaps the then-current Universal brass simply did not recall that the character had originally been called “Fitz.”
Whatever the reason, the name was so firmly established that, by the time Mel Brooks got around to spoofing the genre with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), Mary Feldman’s character (clearly modeled on Frye’s Fritz, not Lugosi’s Ygor) is named “Igor,” and the name itself becomes the subject of a joke, when the character insists on pronouncing it “Eye-gore.”
Since then, the humpbacked assistant has been a bit of a joke; his very familiarity evokes laughter rather than fear, as when one wanders briefly into TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, huffing (in a Peter Lorre voice), “Master! The plans, the plans!” By the time Hollywood got around to making a film specifically about the mad doctor’s servant, it was inevitable that the title would be IGOR; nobody would know what the film was about if it were named “Fritz.” While IGOR turns the concept of the loyal assistant on its head (the title character wants to be an inventor, nore a mere helper), it is interesting to note that the film’s very title represents the culminating step in a similar inversion, the rechristening of a classic horror movie character with a name not originally his own. This article was updated on May 6, 2014, to include mention of “Dinner with Drac” and “The Monster Mash.”
This 1941 film is widely considered to be one of the classics of the horror genre, because it introduced the world to one of the most famous movie monsters of all time: Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), an innocent man bitten by a wolf, who then succumbs to the curse of lycanthropy. After Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein, THE WOLF MAN probably ranks third in the pantheon of Universal Pictures’ famous movie monsters. Unfortunately, the film itself is a classic without being an actual masterpiece. It is glossy and atmospheric, but it lacks the imaginative impact and artistic sensibilities of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN (both made ten years earlier), relying on solid studio production values (sets and photography), plus its fine cast, to compensate for director George Waggner’s competent but not necessarily inspired handling of the material.
The story follows Talbot (Chaney) as he returns to his ancestral home after a stay in America. He escorts two ladies to a gypsy camp where they have the fortunes read, but the fortune teller, Bela (played by DRACULA’s Bela Lugosi) is disturbed when he sees a pentagram in the hand of one of the girls – a sign that she will be the werewolf’s next victim. On the way home, the trio are attacked by a wolf, which Talbot kills with his silver-headed cane; however, Talbot (who was bitten in the struggle) is found next to the body of Bela.
An old gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) informs Talbot that Bela was a werewolf and his bite has passed the curse on to Talbot. Now he will transform into a wolf and kill against his will; the only way to end his cursed existence is with silver. The gypsy woman’s prediction comes true, when Talbot changes and kills a gravedigger. He tries to convince his friends and father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), but of course no one believes him. Finally, late at night, he attacks Gwen (Evenlyn Ankers), but Sir John manages to kill him with his silver-headed cane, ending the curse.
Though fans of old movies sometimes think of horror films from the 1930s and 1940s as being equally classic, the later decade was actually an era marked mostly by rehashing old material. THE WOLF MAN is no exception, being basically a re-thinking of 1935’s somewhat overlooked THE WERE-WOLF OF LONDON. THE WOLF MAN, however, seems relatively fresh, because it is not a sequel but a new take on the subject matter. The studio’s earlier attempt at lycanthropy introduced the notion that a werewolf is not a man who transforms into a wolf but a monstrous hybrid who undergoes an involuntary transformation during the full moon and passes his affliction to others, with a bite. THE WOLF MAN incorporated and expanded upon this mythology, dropping the full moon and adding the idea that a werewolf is immortal and invulnerable – except to silver. Additionally, the werewolf became a less human, more beastly creature.
Chaney is not a sinister presence in the manner of horror stars Lugosi or Boris Karloff, but he is perfect casting for as Talbot – an initially easy-going fellow who gradually transforms into a guilt-ridden, tortured man as he becomes convinced that he is a monster. Also impressive is the makeup by Jack Pierce and the transformation special effects by John P. Fulton (a series of lap dissolves that show fur gradually appearing or disappearing). Apparently, a similar make up by Pierce had been intended for WERE-WOLF OF LONDON, but actor Henry Hull had refused to have his face completely covered with fur. Lon Chaney Jr was a better sport about the whole thing, with the result that he achieved cinematic immortality in the role that caught on in the public imagination, turning him into a horror star (the “New Lon Chaney,” as Universal called him, after his famous father, who had starred in Universal’s 1925 version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA).
Nevertheless, THE WOLF MAN is riddled with flaws, the most obvious being that the filmmakers are inconsistent about whether or not a lycanthrope turns completely into a wolf or into a man-wolf hybrid. We are left to ponder why Bela Lugosi (the old generation passing on the curse of typecasting to the next generation?) is replaced by a real wolf when the full moon rises, instead of putting the actor in a werewolf makeup like Chaney’s. Also, Siodmak’s poetic speeches (“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night/May become a Wolf when the Wolfbane blooms, and the Autumn Moon is bright”) wear out through repetition.
The film is also somewhat blunt and unsophisticated in its technique, showing its monster perhaps a bit too clearly, instead of using shadows and suggestion to work on the viewer’s imagination. This is a complete reversal of what was intended in Siodmak’s original script, which left the question open of whether Talbot really transformed into a wolf or only thought he did. Much of the material relating to this psychological interpretation remains in the script: there are constant references to psychology and the mind; even the term “lycanthropy” is defined not as turning into a werewolf but as a delusion of turning into a wolf. Consequently, the finished film seems ever so slightly schizophrenic, laying the groundwork for an ambiguous approach that is abandoned in favor of a full-blown monster movie.
The decision to show the Wolf Man clearly appears to have beena last minute one. There is little footage of the monster (which inevitably disappoints younger viewers), some of which is repeated. The monster scenes betray some continuity lapses (Talbot takes off his shirt during his first transformation, but he has it back on when he is seen in Wolf Man form, running through the woods), further indicating that the footage was hastily inserted without being properly thought through.
In spite of all this, THE WOLF MAN manages to survive because it lays out a mythology that seems like authentic, archetypal legend, when in fact it is mostly cinematic invention. Unlike his brethren, Dracula and Frankenstein, the werewolf has no literary classic to serve as the basis of film adaptations; although the lycanthrope, like the vampire, has a history in mythology and superstition, little of it remains in the screen incarnation. European tales of werewolves cast the creatures as voluntary shape-shifters, generally evil sorcerers and thus likely candidates to return from the grave as vampires.
Universal Pictures’ Wolf Man is an altogether different creature, a good but hapless mortal inflicted with a curse. In WERE-WOLF OF LONDON, Hull had played a scientist who was bitten in the line of work, placing him firmly in the tradition of mad scientists established by Robert Louis Stevenson in “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” By casting Chaney’s Talbot as an ordinary guy instead of a scientist (he’s no good with theory but enjoys working with his hands), THE WOLF MAN breaks any tenuous connection between the werewolf and Stevenson’s tale: Mr. Hyde, though cunning and evil, was a man, not a beast; even Hull’s hapless Wilfred Glendon was a combination of both. Chaney, on the other hand, plays a character cursed entirely “through no fault of his own,” and his bestial transformation leaves no remnants of his humanity intact.
This transformation perhaps helped the Wolf Man distinguish himself from the dualistic Jekyll and Hyde, allowing him to find his own niche in the public consciousness. Now, instead of a seemingly respectable scientist leading an extremely disreputable double life, the werewolf became a symbol not of Victorian hypocrisy but a more universal one of animal instincts and bestial drives, of hormones causing changes that left the mind incapable of controlling the body. In canine form, Lawrence Talbot had no human cunning; he was simply following an irresistible impulse. (It is tempting to read Freudian interpretations into this scenario, but little of THE WOLFMAN deals with sex on any kind of overt level. For that, audiences would have to wait for Hammer to film their version of the legend.)
THE WOLF MAN was such a hit with audiences that he reappeared in several subsequent films. Unfortunately, Universal was running out of ideas by this time, so Lawrence Talbot was doomed to co-star in a series of team-up movies that cast him alongside Universal’s other frightful fiends: FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). His last appearance was playing straight man in the 1948 comedy ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (which, like the two “House of” movies, teamed him with both Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster). None of these is a classic horror film, but FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN is good, brainless fun, especially for kids, and the Abbott and Costello movie is actually better than most of the “serious” horror films of the decade.
Thus, the Wolf Man became a classic monster without have a quite great horror film to call his own (rather like Pinhead in the HELLRAISER movies decades later). Still, Lawrence Talbot lives on in the imagination, indelibly etched for eternity, fearful eyes gazing out the window at the full moon, which brings on the inevitable transformation from man into beast: the growing fur, the snarling fangs, and then the howl… THE WOLF MAN (1941). Directed by George Waggner. Written by Curt Siodmak. Cast: Lon Chaney Jr, Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Patrick Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers. NOTE: Some of the material in this review originally appeared in Imagi-Movies magazine 1:4, copyright 1994. This article is copyright 2008 by Steve Biodrowski.
Victorian author Bram Stoker holds a prominent place in horror history, all of it due to the publication of a single novel, Dracula, which has remained continuously in print for more than a century, providing a bloody fountain of inspiration for an undying legion of film and television adaptations. When a writer’s work has achieved that kind of longevity, inevitably one wonders: What else did he write? In Stoker’s case, unfortunately, the answer is not a pretty one. As scholar Leonard Wolf (who considers Dracula a masterpiece) noted in Dracula: The Connoisseur’s Guide, Stoker’s other “novels are not distinguished in any literary sense”; they merely provide “intriguing glimpses into the nether reaches of Stoker’s mind.” Nowhere is this more true than in Stoker’s final novel, Lair of the White Worm – a work so bad that it come close to being the literary equivalent of an Ed Wood movie. It is no wonder that, when Ken Russell adapted the book to the screen in 1988, he treated the material with campy contempt, creating an off-the-wall parody of the horror genre.
It is hard to say exactly what Stoker was thinking when he conceived the story, which is loaded with superfluous characters who disappear and reappear, and with mis-matched plot threads that never tie together. What comes through the text loud and clear, however, is a fear of female sexuality that borders on loathsome disgust and renders the material absolutely fascinating – the book seems tailor made for psycho-analysis, but you don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to get a pretty healthy whiff of what lies beneath the surface.
The story follows the non-descript Adam Salton, an orphaned Englishman living in Australia, who is called back to the ancestral estate by his childless Uncle Richard. Salton’s return coincides with another expatriate Englishman returning home, the villainous Edgar Caswall, who does just about everything but twirl his mustache. In the first sign that Stoker has not thought through his plot very carefully, the reader distinctly suspects that Uncle Richard has called Adam home at least partly because he anticipates needing an ally against Caswall, but nothing every comes of this; the near simultaneous return of the two expatriates is just a coincidence.
Caswall is accompanied by a sinister servant, an African named Oolanga, and he is soon being courted by the widowed Lady Arabella Marsh, who hopes a rich husband will help her hold onto her late husband’s expensive property. Lady Arabella turns out to be something much worse than a mere gold-digger; she is actually an ancient, antediluvian monster, a sort of giant snake or worm (the etymology of the word “worm” has its roots in a term meaning “dragon”). In human form she is sinuous and seductive, her charms described in snake-like terms that induce more laughter than fear: her flexible hands wave gently to and fro; the sibilation of her voice suggests a hissing serpent.
Since she is clearly the “White Worm” of the title, you would think Stoker would focus on her, but Stoker refuses to give up on Caswall as the lead villain. Whole chapters are devoted to Caswall’s attempts to open an old chest that his late ancestor brought from France, where it used to belong to Dr. Mesmer (he of mesmerism). Caswall seeks to use mesmeric influence upon Lilla, a young local lady. Why is never explained; we simply assume he is trying to seduce her – which makes it all the more strange when, after his first effort is thwarted by Lilla’s companion Mimi, Lady Arabella offers to help Caswall in his next endeavor (presumably to earn his good favor?). The book descends into complete incredulity when the two young ladies allow Caswall back into the house even though they more or less know what he is up to – a foolish move that results in the Lilla’s death, presumably from exhausting her willpower in the confrontation with Caswall and Arabella.
Fortunatly for the reader, Caswall’s failed effort drives him around the bend and he more or less retreats to the turret of his castle, from which he flies a huge kite, night and day, over the surrounding territory; shaped like a hawk, it scares the local fauna away. (One suspects some kind of metaphor is intended, but what?)
With Caswall out of the way, Lady Arabella moves more toward center stage. In the meantime, Adam’s uncle (who has no other plot function that to get Adam back to England) has moved off stage after introducing his nephew to Sir Nathaniel, the book’s equivalent of Van Helsing, who explains to the young man everything he needs to know to defeat the giant snake. You don’t have to be a trained story analyst to wonder why Stoker did not simply combine Richard and Nathaniel into a single character.
Somewhere along the way, Oolanga mistakenly believes he has information that will enable him to blackmail Lady Arabella into marrying him. Although Arabella is a villain, Oolanga’s proposal is not portrayed as two like-minded schemers joining forces; instead, it is viewed through the prism of class consciousness, in which the upstart negro (well, the book uses the word nigger), is roundly mocked for having aspirations above his station. Stoker even titles the chapter “Oolanga’s Hallucinations,” emphasizing how out of touch with reality his love for Arabella is, and he drives the point home in this passage:
Lady Arabella was not usually a humorous person, but no man or woman of the white race could have checked the laughter which rose spontaneously to her lips. The circumstances were too grotesque, the contrast too violent, for subdued mirth. The man a debased specimen of one of the most primitive races of the earth, and of an ugliness which was simply devilish; the woman of high degree, beautiful, accomplished.
Lady Arabella rebuffs Oolanga, and when he refuses to give up, she drags him to his death in a deep well, the open mouth of which is hidden in the basement of her property. Adam witnesses this event – in fact, he also sees her tear his pet mongoose in half (the second such creature she kills in the story) – and he is properly horrified, yet somehow he manages to maintain cordial public relations with Lady Arabella for the rest of the novel, a development that takes British stiff-upper-lip resolve to ridiculous extremes, with the two characters in some kind of complicit cone of silence regarding the matter. Needless to say, it never occurs to anyone to alert the authorities about Oolanga; after all, who cares about a missing…ahem, negro?
In another inexplicable turn of events, Lady Arabella decides to sell her property to Adam. We suspect she is setting him up for some trap, which never materializes. In an apparently unintended bit of sexual innuendo, she even asks Adam to plum the depths of her well-hole, and he seems happy to comply (an exchange of dialogue that Leonard Wolf found particularly ridiculous). The sale turns out to be merely a lazy plot device to give Adam access to the well so that he can load it with dynamite. (He and Sir Nathaniel have decided that the well is the path Lady Arabella uses to come and go when she is in her giant snake form.)
As if this were not enough, Lady Arabella gets fed up with Caswall’s kite-flying activities, which involve experiments in electricity inspired by Ben Franklyn, so she decides unravel the spool of wire leading to the kite and lay it out in a trail leading back to her old house. Her theory is that Caswall’s obsession with the kite will eventually lead him to follow the wire to her, but as luck would have it, the kite is conveniently struck by lightening, and the electricity follows the wire down to Lady Arabella’s hole, where it ignites the dynamite.
In a scene that predates the ridiculously overblown explosive climaxes of bad action movies by several decades, the ensuing destruction goes on for over two pages, loaded with emphatically gory details:
The whole place looked as if a sea of blood had been beating against it. Each of the explosions from below had thrown out from the well-hole, as if it had been the mouth of a cannon, a mass of fine sand mixed with blood, and a horrible repulsive slime in which were great red masses of rent and torn flesh and fat.
These and more unappetizing details suggest that this is the only passage in the entire text over which Stoker labored with any diligence. The rest of the prose reeks of haste, with description and dialogue that reads as if dictated on the fly – speed-writing, rather than speed-reading – with little concern for establishing atmosphere or developing characters. In fact, the writing is so unadorned that Lair almost reads like first draft that was meant to be further elaborated. The comic-book-like simplicity suggests one of those old “Big-Little Books,” written for kids, which contained an illustration on every page to provide vivid details missing from the text.
What gives the climax its kick is the underlying symbolism permeating the book. Lady Arabella’s well-hole, which emits a noxious stench, is the Sarlac Pit long before there was STAR WARS, EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI – a blatantly obvious substitute for female genitalia. For Stoker, Lady Arabella’s “hole” reminds us that she is a nightmare embodiment of female sexuality – an aggressive seductress who appears beautiful but is revealed as an inhuman monster. In Dracula, Stoker had played a similar game with the vampire’s brides in an early chapter set in the Count’s castle, and he made a big deal out of portraying the transformation of an innocent English maiden into a lascivious vampire who is dispatched when her fiance drives a phallic stake through her body on what would have been their wedding night; Lair of the White Worm takes things a giant step forward, turning the fatal woman into a Godzilla-sized entity whose loathsome nature easily outweighs any seductive appeal, and the final destruction of her lair reads like a grotesque orgasm.
Like H. Rider Haggard’s She, Stoker’s Lair provides a vivid insight into the Victorian male mind’s conception of powerful women. The difference is that Haggard’s adventure tale mixes fear and fascination in regard to Ayesha, “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.” Much more simplistic, Stoker simply piles on the disgusting details meant to convince us that Lady Arabella deserves to be blown into a million pieces of slimy worm-flesh.
Just in case you miss the symbolism, the ending reminds us that Adam has secretly married Mimi somewhere along the way, but his monster-fighting activities have prevented him from enjoying a honeymoon. Now that Lady Arabella has been reduced to harmless worm-mush, Adam’s uncle reappears and reminds the newlyweds that they are overdue. With the evil female defeated, her dark, dank hole plugged, nothing stands in the way of Alan’s consummating his relationship with his safe, “normal” bride.
When filmmaker Ken Russell saw his attempt to remake DRACULA come to nothing, he turned to Lair of the White Worm as an alternative but found the text markedly inferior. Rather wisely, Russell decided to present the film as a hoot; equally wisely, he removed Caswell and his kite, along with Oolanga, putting the focus on Lady Arabella (renamed Sylvia Marsh and embodied by the wonderful Amanda Donohoe, whose forked-tongue-in-cheek performance rivals Vincent Price at his campiest).
Russell’s sly joke is that, although he set the story in contemporary times, he retained the ridiculous Victorian attitudes, contrasting the innocent English maidens with the seductive Roman snake-goddess. Russell pushes a theme that Stoker suggested but never developed, that the lair of the white worm is nestled in territory once occupied by Roman invaders. Russell imagines Lady Sylvia less as a prehistoric beast and more as a pagan priestess, offering virgin sacrifices to her god. (Although in this case Lady Sylvia and the giant worm are two separate entities, she retains her snake-like characteristics, including viper-like fangs and spitting poison). The location where the skull of an ancient worm is uncovered was once a Roman place of worship, but the territory has changed hands over the centuries, at one point being a monastary (providing a chance for Russell to include a flashback of Roman warriors raping nuns).
The Christian-versus-Pagan subtext sets up a nice vibe in the film, but Russell does not take it seriously, playing his symbolism for laughs. In a scene that seems deliberately lifted from CITY OF THE DEAD (a.k.a. HORROR HOTEL), Lady Arabella’s melodramatic invocation of the snake god, while she prepares to sacrifice a young virgin, is interrupted by the door bell, prompting her to exclaim, “Shit!” Later, a dream sequence shows one of the two male leads raising his pen into an erect position when Lady Arabella walks by – do I really need to explain that one?
Russell also undermines the genre conventions and plot expectations, to hilarious effect. When the “heroic” male lead (played by a very young Hugh Grant) confronts and kills a snake woman by slicing her in half with a sword, his momentum swings him around into a nearby drum set, where he goes crashing down amidst the clanging cymbals, looking like a complete idiot. (Russell probably got the idea from destroying drum kits from Keith Moon, whom he directed in the film adaptation of The Who’s TOMMY).
Lacking the budget to visualize Stoker’s multiple-explosion finale, Russell has to rely on a single blast, but he keeps the sexual symbolism forefront: the Scottish archaeologist who finishes off the worm (Peter Capaldi) reaches under his kilt to retrieve a grenade as if he were removing a giant testicle and dropping it down the feminine “hole,” where the resulting explosion (orgasm?) finishes off the icky female monster.
The film version of LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM has divided critical opinion (it ranks at 54% at Rotten Tomatoes). Those looking for a good horror film are inevitably disappointed – as indeed was I for the first half of my first screening. Once I realized I was watching a comedy, I laughed the rest of the way through and went back to see it again from the beginning so that I could enjoy the humor there, as well.
One can hardly blame audiences for missing the joke. It helps to be familiar with the original text – at least by reputation. Standing on its own, Russell’s LAIR is a typically delirious work from a director who specialized in excess. One might appreciate it as a generic genre parody, but the full effect comes through when you see the 20th century filmmaker deliberately undermining the 19th century author. In the case of Stoker’s Dracula, we can lament that no film has ever truly been faithful to the novel; in the case of Lair of the White Worm, we should be thankful that Russell gave the text the thorough de-construction job that it deserved.