Category Archives: James Whale

The Invisible Man (1933)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. A stunning early sound era masterpiece from the genius of James Whale.

“We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction.”

Let’s make no bones about it. This is a James Whale film through and through. Produced at a time when he had complete autonomy at Universal courtesy of production head Carl Laemmle Jr., Whale chose to reject the stupid proposed drafts and merely enhance H. G. Well’s classic novel with his own trademark brand of black humor and chills.

The Invisible Man is the stepping stone between Whale’s earlier Frankenstein (1931) and the supreme masterpiece that unquestionably one of the greatest films of all time: Bride of Frankenstein (1935). While extraordinarily developed from Dracula (1931) and for being such an early sound film, Frankenstein does have its problems and pitfalls like any other production. All of these are primarily from a lack of hale being involved fully in every capacity and are thus gone in The Invisible Man. Man is not only a classic, a stunning early sound film, but a surprisingly British film made here on American shores.

It is also an absolute gem and along with The Mummy (1932) the most underrated of all the Universal horrors. Whale fills the film with his favored use of offbeat secondary characters including the wonderfully shrieking Una O’Connor and even a bit for Dwight Frye. This helps immensely to fill out to scope of the story’s universe and fills in the gaps that the more limited production values of the time could not. Of course these are all supplanted by the first American screen role of one of cinema’s finest actors, a man so good at his craft that he typically slips into the background as invisible as his character here. The genius of Whale in casting Claude Rains is that he sought a voice and not a performer since who would be seeing the performer as an invisible man?? This allowed the casting of someone thought to be terrible all due to a poor screentest. But Whale heard that one of a kind voice that projects such extreme vulnerability and mortality along with a underlying conviction that could be construed into strength. And that was all it took.

Rains is a wonder as the Invisible Man, running the gamut from weak and terrified to kind and loving to paranoiac and power-mad to vengeful and murderous to finally poetic and elegiac. It is truly a stupendous performance, proving the adage once again of the strength that can come only from the best of radio and voice acting performances. The other roles are filled out accordingly with some of Whale’s favorite actors as mention above along with Gloria Stuart from The Old Dark House (1932) and even a part for our favorite guardian angel Henry Travers.

The special effects still hold up today and despite having a few things visible actually are more effective with the passage of time due to their antique quality, much like King Kong (1933). They seem so archaic from today’s technology we are oversaturated with that they seem downright off-putting and creepy in places. By using black velvet coverings and separately filmed backgrounds, John P. Fulton painstakingly produced scenes that still to this day drive home the idea of an invisible man.

Instead of Frankenstein‘s Gothic atmosphere, Whale opts for a different atmosphere this time and presents snowy villages of England which to be perfectly honest allows for a much more varied and rich atmosphere than the simple trappings of Germany did two years earlier. The setting is so well implemented that one can almost feel the cold charm of the snowy taverns and the cozy atmosphere of an empty rocking chair in front of the fire rocking almost as if its own accord. The black humor maintained throughout enhances this to such a degree that the film becomes for many, myself included, an old and very cherished friend to revisit at least once every October.

Of course remove Whale and the entire thing would fall apart, as the four later sequels proved. Of these only the first has any semblance of the original’s charm due to the plotting of Curt Siodmak (much like the Mummy sequels, only The Mummy’s Hand (1940) is of any merit) and casts another charming actor invisible, Vincent Price. Fulton remained for all of these and only bettered his already outstanding work despite the increasing pointlessness of the films.

Whale abounds in using black humor to round out the story, and thus makes The Invisible Man an absolute delight to return to frequently. By using offbeat characters and enhanced plotting from the novel that makes this the most deadly of the Universal monsters it is a film that is simultaneously thrilling, suspenseful, comic and endearing nearly 70 years on. It betters the novel and Whale’s own Frankenstein, and points he way towards the pinnacle of the entire cycle. A wonderful movie to behold.

Put a warm rug in the car. It’s cold outside when you have to go about naked.”

EDITIONS: The initial DVD and the Legacy Collection version are largely identical. These are missing a music cue found on the Laserdisc, which has been substituted for legal clearance reasons. The film is the most worn of the films, with wear, tears, scratches running throughout the opening reels, but these largely clear up for the most part during the remainder of the feature. The image is an overall nice looking 1.33 Academy ratio SD transfer with good contrast levels and balance. The audio is relatively clear with less hiss than the earlier films, but of course not as well recorded as the later films were. The film has undergone an intensive restoration courtesy of Technicolor and the discovery of an almost complete dupe held at the British Film Institute. This was painstakingly redone to create a new HD master for theatrical exhibition and for the new Blu-ray found in the Universal box set. The BD has some DNR and edge enhancement and this processing while completely unnecessary does not detract terribly from the film and I hope it gains a greater audience in it’s sparkling new HD incarnation.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films, James Whale, Universal Horror

The Old Dark House (1932)

4 stars out of 4. A timeless gem nearly lost to us.

 

Here is a film where five travelers wind up in the titular old dark house on a dark and stormy night. We can already see where this is going. Despite being the inspiration behind so many of these cliched old house plotlines, The Old Dark House is a charming delight of a film in no small thanks to its director, James Whale.

Whale’s films, especially his horrors for Universal, contain a trademark charm and black humor that permeate even the most serious of narratives. his fondness for oddball characters reaches a high point with this film as every single one is so full of vitality that the weirder that events become onscreen, the more we as an audience anticipates with absolute delight.

In this house we find the hulking mute of a butler known as Morgan (Boris Karloff), whose emre appearance should tell anyone daring to enter that it probably isn’t the best of ideas. We are then introduced to the masters of the house, the odd siblings Horace and Rebecca Femm. Rebecca is an old crone of a woman, driven by religious fervor and an endearing bad sense of hearing. Horace is played by Ernest Thesiger which should tell you everything about his character. All right I’ll admit it, I can only think of him as Dr. Pretorious so his appearance in this film as beyond welcome. They live in a semi state of fear of their surroundings and in a sort of power vacuum for some as yet unknown reason.

This quickly becomes resolved as the fact that they have a mad older brother who is kept locked away upstairs, and can only be controlled by Morgan who just happens to have hit the bottle. This quickly turns badly for all in the house, and I will say little to spoil the plot here because the real fun of the film is in the detail. The explicit reveal and pulling back of detail as if to tantalize the audience like a cat with a ball of string.

The cast is first rate, and with a notable early appearance of Charles Laughton, perfectly serves the swift little story so that everything is wrapped up in a neat package at the end of 72 minutes. In fact the relative briefness of the narrative is perhaps the film’s only flaw. We want it to last all night.

The Old Dark House never struck a chord with audiences and was quickly shelved by Universal as a failure. Whale had made a film that was partly a tribute to the great silent films that blended horror, suspense and a drawing room charm and not a runaway hit more along the lines of Frankenstein (1931). Because of this, it was another mark against the director and designated to sit on shelves until either junked or destroyed by time. Thanks to filmmaker and friend to Whale, Curtis Harrington, the negative was saved in the 1960’s despite having to replace one reel.

To understand the basic appeal of the horror film, one must go back to the beginning. The silent horrors have their power still, but once you reach the golden age of Universal horror and feel the power of their sheer imagination, you can never return to what is today considered a “horror film”.

EDITIONS: the only available edition of the film is Kino’s 1998 DVD, which appears to be mastered for the most part from the source used for their Laserdisc release. The source seems to be a battered reduction print, perhaps even 16mm. The image is extremely grainy, with some occasional compression artifacts. There is frame wobble and all sorts of wear and tear. Audio is set in the accurate format of 1.0 mono but in a lossy Dolby Digital track that is filled with hiss and pops. Damage is very prevalent throughout and overall is not worthy of the film. Without detailed intervention the negative would have been lost and as it was only one reel had to be salvaged elsewhere. The fact that the film has never been given the proper treatment is appalling, especially for such an important early American release. I recommend the film, but the disc is quite poor. Highly in need of a new transfer if not the full blown Criterion treatment. Keep in mind, this is like watching a video copy of a battered 16mm reduction copy of a great film. Oh wait, that’s what you’re doing.

 

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Frankenstein (1931)

Why I Love James Whale Part One:

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film.

The yin to Dracula‘s yang, Universal’s 1931 horror follow-up builds the better beast. James Whale uses the idea of a horror film to build upon everything that had gone before on Tod Browning’s Dracula. While Dracula is notoriously bound to the stage play and deeply lacks in ingenuity, Whale pushed Frankenstein to be something a bit different.

The amount of story action crammed into the terse 71 minutes is a marvel. Especially considering that the majority of scenes therein are so publicly identified with Frankenstein that they have entered our collective consciousness.

The film comes alive in a way Dracula  never does. From the opening scenes of Henry Frankenstein and the hunchbacked Fritz (No, not Igor.) stealing a body from a graveyard, cutting down another body from its hanging post the Gothic atmosphere is fully present and bears down heavily on the people within its influence. These people are immediately noticeable because they seem more like real people than the usual stock cardboard figures typically present in Universal horror. This is all James Whale, because every single one of his films has this remarkable sense of liveliness, even in the draggy bits where the script decrees what must be said. Even the most little of character seems like a real person complete with their own set of wants and desires.

This goes without saying for Henry Frankenstein. In a film that made the Monster a star, it is Colin Clive’s passionate portrayal the overzealous Doctor that really makes the film pulsate with energy. Whenever he utters a single line, it is bristling with authoritative energy and frustration just as if being said by a rich young schoolboy only eager to get on with his experiments. Science has become more than his life’s work, it is his life. By attempting to give his creation life, he will in fact give it back to himself in the process. Clive drives every moment he appears on screen with this insatiable desire to create and pursue his quest of knowledge.  This even comes across in the little moments. For instance look in the opening when Frankenstein and Fritz have to dig up the just buried body. Frankenstein gets a shovel and starts digging furiously right alongside Fritz like an impatient child. It’s this that helps us to keep him in favor with ourselves. Unlike Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein in the later Hammer films of the 50’s and 60’s, Clive’s scientist is more misguided than obsessed with his mad dream. He is not an evil man, but will not be crossed by anyone..or anything for that matter. Instead, he simply wants to make his dream a reality in order to improve the state of mankind and somehow prove himself worth something. That’s not all too bad now is it?

Unfortunately, Fritz steals the wrong brain from the medical university. This criminal brain is put into the Creature and then the operating table is prepared to be lifted into the rafters of the crumbling windmill. In this, the first of the stereotypical mad scientist laboratories it is surprising to see just how sparse the lab is. Sure it may be filled with the bits of fantastic electrical gizmos that became synonymous with Frankenstein, but it is clearly the lair of a former medical student who went off to do his own work in secret. It is also a practical workshop completely befitting of the man working away in it for months.

Henry’s fiancee Elizabeth has grown worried at her lover’s long seclusion to work on his vague “experiment”. She confers with her friend Victor who just also happens to be in love with her. (Why does this always happen in the Universal films? These love triangles only complicate matters because they are never fleshed out.) She asks Victor to consult with Henry’s old university teacher Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan again, playing essentially the same character as in Dracula and The Mummy) to see just what he may be up to. Waldman tells of Henry’s desire to create new life out of the parts of corpses. The three set off to convince Henry to cease his work and come back home.

Of course this just happens to be during the midst of a brewing storm as Henry is preparing to give live to his creation. He allows in his friends and has them sit down in an arrangement that recalls a theater audience watching a performance. And a performance it is. The table is raised and the machines are activated. Lights flash, thunder crashes, electrodes sizzle, and lightning strikes the receptors to lower the table with the covered Creature. All this is mostly done off-screen allowing the audience to create a much more vivid vision of what happens than what is presented. (This reaches a fever pitch when Whale made Bride of Frankenstein four years later.) Everyone gathers around, and Henry sees a hand moving. “It’s alive!” Even more telling and perhaps the truest line in the film, Henry then says in a moment of extreme exhaustion and triumph: “In the name of God, now I know what feels like to be God!” (Which was cut from the initial release and not restored until 1999.)

His creation is held back from us a bit longer. The reveal of Karloff’s Monster is simple: he walks backwards through a door. But his presence is such that you simply have no idea what he will do. Will he attack? Growl? Kill? No, he sits down and tries to reach for the beauty of the sun’s rays.

Karloff does so much with so little. With no dialogue he completely creates this being as a sympathetic creature who never wished to be in existence. What he wants exactly is unknown, but we sense his agonizing frustration at being attacked by everything. When Fritz enters the lab carrying a torch, the Monster is frightened by the fire and is this  mistaken for attack. Waldman, Henry and Fritz manhandle it down into the locked storeroom below and consider what is to be done with it.

Meanwhile, Fritz tortures the Monster with a whip and torch. the Monster is chained and unable to escape the leering hunchback weaving the terrorizing flame. It is of no surprise then when Frankenstein and Waldman hear a terrible scream coming from below. Fritz has been killed by the Monster, and the two scientists decide that it must now be destroyed. Frankenstein prepares a shot that puts the creature to sleep. He then leaves to prepare his wedding, leaving Waldman to dissect and destroy the Creature.

Of course, the monster rises and dispatches Waldman with little resistance. He then begins to roam the countryside in search of nothing in particular. Then in the most controversial moment of the film, the Monster encounters little Maria playing with flowers in the lake…

As they are about to be married, Victor informs Henry that Waldman was found murdered. Henry then realizes that the Monster has escaped and is roaming the countryside. After screams are heard, they realize the Monster is in the house. Henry locks Elizabeth in her room for safety but she is attacked by the Monster who then hastily departs. Maria’s father brings her corpse into the festive village (the way he carries her body makes the arms and legs swing as if she is still joyfully playing in death.)

Everyone is rounded up by Henry and the Burgomaster to go off in search of the Monster with burning torches and pitchforks. Henry and the Monster have their final struggle in an old windmill with the onlooking villagers surrounding the ramshackle structure.

The degree to which Frankenstein trumps the stagy Dracula has to be seen to believe. A mere few months separated the two productions, but Whale’s film is so much more modern in every sense of the word that Dracula seems a good 20 years older.  Heavily influenced by German Expressionism, Whale readily enhances his camera setups with heavy shadow and moody lighting all while embracing the Gothic setting and eschewing ideas to modernize things. Add in his mastery of theater direction, and you have a fully working bond between characters and setting that creates a fully realized world for audiences. Whale always in some way infused his own personal stamp on his films. This blend of thought, idea, creativity, dark humor, folksy charm is readily apparent in his best works and helps elevate them over the works of his contemporaries. Bride of Frankenstein is essentially this personality in cinematic form.

The film was cleaned up and restored for its initial 1999 DVD release under the “Classic Monsters Collection” banner. Unfortunately, the audio was overscrubbed and lacks in detail and fidelity. This was the first time that the Henry’s line “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” was presented since the original 1931 release. Also restored are a few quick shots, such as the needle being shoved into the Creature’s back.

The 2004 Legacy collection fixed the audio detailing and has the same restored video transfer. Included in this set is a fixed Bride of Frankenstein transfer, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein and House of Frankenstein.

The 75th Anniversary release has a few nice extras and a slightly better looking transfer, but it seems to be from the same element. It may be like the 75th Anniversary edition of Dracula where the original transfer was merely digitally manipulated. Overall, it’s really not recommendable for the slight increase in detail. However, there are some new extras and commentaries plus the end credits fade to black as they were intended. (Previous editions have them freeze and then end.)

Try the Legacy Collection, for you not only get the best versions of Frankenstein and Bride, but also the great and very underrated Son of Frankenstein.

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