Monster Rally: Watching the Classics of Halloween Cinema

Frankenstein and the Wolf Man Crop

Just as any seasoned trick-or-treater knows that the accumulation of a range of candies is most desirable come the close of the evening’s efforts, so it goes with horror buffs and their preferred fare. If you go from door to door, you likely admire both the sculpted layers of a Snickers bar and the classic, touching simplicity of a bag of candy corn, and if you pull out a stack of films, you’re apt to go for both a Grand Guignol chiller and a low-rent bloodbath.

The Halloween season is reaping time for fans of terror cinema, when the hopes nurtured throughout the year, as to what might come out on DVD and Blu-ray, are harvested. There are always surprises, and there are always old films to be seen anew, and underappreciated works to be marveled over.

This year’s bumper crop is led by Criterion’s Blu-ray release of 1942’s Cat People, a Val Lewton production that possesses qualities of German Expressionism, noir, and a Middle American haunted house tour, where the simplest sounds become a symphony of the crypt.

Lewton worked with a regular group of film studs — like director Jacques Tourneur, who performs that role here — dubbed the Snake Pit. The studio, RKO, had been hit hard by the aftermath of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, two Orson Welles−helmed pictures that Americans found over-arty. The new promise was that genius was out and showmanship was in, but this was a left-handed compliment for Lewton, who had his own make of genius.

This hinged on subtlety, and if you want to be scared out of your mind – sans fake blood, elaborate costumes, or modern special effects — watch Cat People and marvel over what can be done with a street, an overpass, and a bus, and then later just a plain old YMCA-type swimming pool. Nothing else, save sounds, shadows, and what has been put in the characters’ heads, and in yours.

For Lewton’s pictures to work at their best, he needed either the big screen, or high-def. You must have the full play of shadows, of the primary tonal color of black being crisscrossed, flecked, played against by whiteness. In that regard, this Criterion cleanup job is akin to de-griming a public domain print of Doré. But it speaks to the devotion of the companies that put out these old horror films so lovingly that the same can be said of KINO’s Blu-ray of 1932’s Chandu the Magician.

There was a Chandu serial on the radio that was massive in its time, and it’s something to see such a rangy character arc condensed to seventy-one minutes, but it works largely because of two factors. This is prime-career Bela Lugosi, for starters, in the year after his performance in Dracula, the horror picture that started modern cinematic horror in America. Then we have the cinematography of James Wong Howe. He did for terror cinema what Gregg Toland did for John Ford and Welles, adding a level of artistry that could turn movie stills into works that could hang on museum walls.

Lugosi, who plays the mad scientist villain Roxor — beware the palindrome! — is obsessed with taking over the world with a death ray, because that’s just what mad scientists in the thirties were about. But Lugosi is no standard-issue bad guy: just look into his eyes, which have their own depth of field to them, all the more so in this pristine print. Lugosi would toil away chunks of his career in low-budget affairs where we can freeze the frame and laugh over the string that so clearly has a bat swinging from it, but Chandu was no poverty-row effort. It’s top-grade Lugosi, one of those quirky, underappreciated relics of horror that deserves the renewed attention this edition will hopefully bring.

Starting with Dracula and continuing into the same year’s Frankenstein, Universal proved itself the pacesetter studio for terror. Bride of Frankenstein followed as a masterpiece in 1935, high camp that was also high-grade fear-generating. The Wolf Man, another genius creation, followed in 1941, but it was in the decade of the forties that Universal became interested in the monster mash-style of filmmaking, where they packed a bunch of their ghoulies together and turned them loose on moviegoers.

The Complete Legacy Collection sets of Frankenstein and Wolf Man films have a lot of overlap, but if you are ever jonesing for this kind of stuff, you need both, and if you’re a serious horror student, you certainly do. Both boxes feature House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, two monster rallies with decent budgets that are somewhat short on soul but nevertheless provide a few chills, a few more laughs, and plenty of popcorn chomping to go along with the scene-chomping.

There are a lot of films spread across the four discs of each package, but you really only need to focus on two, unless you’re a true neophyte, in which case it will be one new terror delight after another. Horror honchos will rejoice over the Blu-ray presentation of 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, the last Frankenstein film to feature Boris Karloff as the monster. It has never rated as high critically as its two epochal predecessors in the series, but it deserves consideration alongside them as a work of similar value. It is high-toned and baroque, maximalist where those earlier films are not, and a work that repays multiple viewings. If you go by the critical history books, you’ve perhaps been waved off of this one, but embrace your inner Linus and hunker down in the pumpkin patch that is your Halloween living room, and let Son rise from the cinematic catacombs.

In a somewhat less obviously artful spirit we also have 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. For many genre fans this was at the top of the list of films that they wished to see on Blu-ray, and now they finally have it. This is the original monster rally film, the picture you can thank, or lambaste, every time you watch a trailer for some superhero meeting up with some other superhero at your local multiplex. (And it’s also the moment in pop culture history when the name Frankenstein was permanently transplanted from scientist to monster.) But give this one some love, as it is a flat-out barnburner (or watchtower burner, if you really wish to get into the spirit of things), pure joy, pure large-hearted scarefest, and if you know these films you know that’s not an oxymoron.

Lugosi is the Frankenstein monster, while Lon Chaney, Jr., of course, is his hirsute adversary. Roy William Neil, an underappreciated director who did the bulk of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, oversees all. Consider the early sequence in the crypt. It’s as perfectly paced, as sculptural — with light and shadow — as anything by Lewton or anything in German Expressionist films like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for that matter. You will be knocked against the sides of your chair, which will come to feel oddly mausoleum-like in their solidity, and you will wish to remain in that mausoleum after the scene hits its climax and we really get going. So commandeer those undistributed treats you saved for yourself and get to it, lest you miss out on the very best kind of tricks.

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