For Reel


Frankenstein (1931)
November 6, 2016, 9:55 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: James Whale
4.5 Stars
frankensteinAlthough Dracula was shot by Karl Freund, a key figure in establishing the aesthetic of German expressionism in the 1920s, it is actually James Whale’s Frankenstein that bears more obvious resemblances to the form. From the opening scene in which Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchback assistant (Dwight Frye) scour a cemetery for fresh corpses, Whale’s predilection for the theatrical and cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s harsh, diagonal lines creates an uncanny atmosphere driven by a darkness in tone—if the cemetery is blatantly a soundstage, its very falseness amplifies the Gothic atmosphere, with the crooked tombstones and lurching figure of Death signifying that the unholy is being done. Frankenstein makes a good argument for being the film that popularized the German expressionist aesthetic in Hollywood, and just as significantly it is undoubtedly the first horror film as the genre became to be known. While Dracula left more to mystery (any act of violence happened only after the screen had faded to black), Frankenstein is blatant with its shocks. Boris Karloff’s monster is justifiably the iconic takeaway from the film, but Clive’s mad scientist both has the right mad fury and a level of humanity to him—when the scientist is aware of the horrors his creature is capable of, it’s something special that Clive can convincingly transition the mad scientist persona into a man who is mournful and genuinely sorry for the hell that he has wrought.

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The Invisible Man (1933)
November 6, 2016, 9:49 pm
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Director: James Whale
4 Stars
the-invisible-manThe fact that Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) is only a physical presence on screen when wrapped in surgical bandages suggests an unknowability that is echoed by the refusal of the film to delve into the motivations of the once promising assistant. If Universal horror films either go at lengths to render their villains as sympathetic (Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolf Man) or simply evil incarnate (Dracula), The Invisible Man defies similar categorization—although his early pranks seem to be done in relatively good fun, the act of knocking over a baby’s carriage provides a window into his increasing power-hungry madness. In fact, his acts in the latter half of the picture become so horrific that it is a wonder the film ends with a sentimental deathbed scene in which one is meant to consider Griffin’s rise and fall. This concluding elegy is given power by the fact that director James Whale never shows us flashbacks to reveal Griffin’s rise, rather allows the audience to fill in the blanks. As with all of the Universal horror pictures, The Invisible Man moves briskly with a terrific sense of urgency, and Rains’ vocal performance is memorably spiteful and cruel—whereas Rains often played a calculated, debonair villain, his Griffin becomes increasingly barbaric.



The Great Garrick (1937)
February 6, 2012, 6:44 pm
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Director: James Whale

After director James Whale had a fall out with the post-Laemmle management at Universal in 1936, he temporarily divorced himself from the studio that he had helped brand in the thirties with his horror pictures. The Great Garrick, a comedy produced for Warner Brothers, was a box office flop, despite critical respect and admirable charm. Brian Aherne plays David Garrick, a real-life English actor widely regarded as one of the best to ever take the stage, who is invited to work at the Comédie-Française in Paris. A rumor spreads that Garrick condescendingly suggested that he would teach the Parisians how to act, and therefore the proud French actors begin an elaborate stunt that involves them taking over the inn that Garrick will be staying at with the intentions of startling and embarrassing him. Garrick figures out the game, although he wrongfully assumes that a beautiful wayward countess, played by Olivia de Havilland, is part of the rouse. The film has its share of laughs – many of them from the great Edward Everett Horton, most known for his character work in the Astaire and Rogers musicals – and, while it would be excessive to call a picture as safe as this edgy, Whale does bring a level of sexuality that was nearly absent from, for example, his 1934 effort One More River. In one romantic scene, Aherne and de Havilland exchange dialogue while a bed is framed between them in the background.



One More River (1934)
February 4, 2012, 2:06 am
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Director: James Whale

Just before going into production on his masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein, director James Whale adapted John Galsworthy’s novel One More River into a feature tailor-made for the British market. Diana Wynyard, coming off of an Academy Award nomination for her performance in 1934’s Best Picture winner Cavalcade, plays a victim of domestic abuse who falls in love with a boyish charmer on a cruise back to England. Though the film would seem to have little in common with Frankenstein, Whale’s use of shadow and space is very similar. Like Tod Browning, a fellow horror director at Universal, he seems overwhelmed by the sheer scale of his sets – when Wynyard returns home to greet her mother, he doesn’t cut to a close up, but instead lets the mother and daughter embrace in a long shot that frames them within the windows of the cavernous residence. Just as Whale enlivens the material with his visual sense, each scene with Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who plays Wynyard’s aunt, is delightful. A predecessor of Edith Evans in The Importance of Being Earnest, she pompously barks such absurdities as, “I don’t know whether it’s flatulence or the hand of God!”