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Bride of Frankenstein

Dullsville

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

     Over the next couple days I will be reviewing movies I saw last weekend at a horror movie marathon, which I am proud to say, I survived from beginning to end (with a several hour break for a trip home and nap in the middle). Nevertheless, a handful of older fright films were shown, including the splendid Cabinet of Dr. Caligari complete with keyboardist’s accompaniment. I will start with the oldest in the lot, Bride of Frankenstein, which despite Boris Karloff‘s magnificent image of the monster is full of flaws.

     The film opens with a dialogue among author Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron about Mary’s yet-published manuscript, “Frankenstein”, during which the writer explains the moral of that story –the hazards of playing god– and says the plot is not yet finished. Her next story, as she describes, begins where the prior one ended, with the burning down of a mill with the monster inside. Both Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and the monster survive this event and while the doctor and his wife-to-be Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) mull the moral lesson he has learned, the monster escapes into the woods.

     The monster is at one point captured by a mob of townsfolk who jail him only to have the beast easily escape and return to the wilderness. There he meets a blind man who is unafraid of his horrific facade and befriends him, teaching him of wine, smoking and the English language. Eventually some seeing people come along, however, and in the chaos that ensues, the blind man’s home is burned and the monster runs away.

     Meanwhile, a colleague of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), has shown the monster’s creator that he seeks to create a female version of the monster to allow for the beginning of a race derived from the reanimated creatures. Dr. Frankenstein sticks to his guns given the horrible tragedy that came from his original venture but is persuaded when, working in tandem with Pretorious, the monster kidnaps Elizabeth. The monster looks forward to his new “friend” but once brought to life, the woman merely hisses at her predetermined mate. The monster therefore pulls the self-destruct lever of the castle where the work is being done and ends the monsters’ lives, sparing Dr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth.

     Besides the notion that a castle would have a lever designed to blow up the premises (you know, the ancient version of today’s self-destruct button), most of the monster’s activities in the movie are cause for laughter rather than fright. His many utterances of “drink gooood” and “smoke gooood” are absurd and show how harmless alcohol and cigarettes were considered in this bygone era. The monster picks up the English language all too easily and moves from infantile assemblages of words to coherent sentences complete with verbs. Although it is fun to hear the monster more than grunt, such as with the word “friend”, his growing intelligence is less amusing. The mate, who is also played by Lanchester, also makes one laugh during her short duration on the screen. She jerks her head about like a bird and is more fascinating by her physical appearance than by anything she does or any noise she makes. The only thing Bride of Frankenstein has going for it is that makeup work on Lanchester and Karloff. Perhaps it is because he was first monster in a sound picture, but I hold Karloff’s image as Frankenstein’s beast as perfect.

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Murder by Death

Gasser

Murder by Death (1976)

     Murder by Death has all the makings of a great comedy spoof on murder mysteries, but unfortunately it felt only so-so to me. For those who are more familiar with the 1985 film Clue, one can easily see where the later film found its inspiration, besides the board game, of course. Murder by Death puts a cast of unrelated characters in a country mansion where they have been invited for “dinner and a murder”. Unlike Clue, however, this movie fills the house with the world’s best detectives who have been engaged so the host can prove he is a better sleuth than them all.

     The greatest joke of the flick is that the detective characters are spoofs of movie and literature-based private dicks popular in American cinema. David Niven and Maggie Smith play Dick and Dora Charleston, a take off on Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man movies. Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang, or Charlie Chan. Peter Falk is Sam Diamond, hailing back to Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. James Coco portrays Milo Perrier, and Elsa Lanchester plays Jessica Marbles, a reference to Agatha Christie characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, respectively.

     Truman Capote makes a rare screen appearance as the dinner’s host, Lionel Twain. He does an adequate acting job leading the story through its various twists. Dinner guests are told a murder will occur at midnight and they must endeavor to solve the crime. Convinced if they all remain in the same room at the time of the crime, the detecties assert there will be guaranteed witnesses and the deduction will be a snap. That plan is interrupted by the “screaming” of a mute, deaf cook who leads a few cast members to find the blind butler (Alec Guinness) dead in the kitchen. When other characters return to the kitchen later they find only his suit of clothes. The next batch finds a naked corpse. Further complicating things is that a duplicate, yet empty dining room is accessed every other time the door to such room is opened. Ultimately, Mr. Twain is the midnight victim and one who is not in the dining room with all the guests who hoped to witness the crime.

     We learn hilarious and ridiculous reasons why all guests have motive to kill the man, but the end of the film sums up an even more ludicrous actual story as each detective shares his hypothesis. Ultimately, it does not matter who the murderer is or who the victim is, for that matter, because the story is an absurd farce. As you should plainly tell, the story does have all the makings of a roaring good time, but tragically the comedy falls flat. The most amusement I gained was from seeing the actors mock the characters they were impersonating. Niven and Falk gave the best show to that end. I have not seen a Charlie Chan film, but Sellers was quite amusing also, even without that reference point. My best advice to Murder by Death‘s end is to watch Clue instead. Although equally hair-brained, it’s much more fun.

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