The Frankenstein Monster: Boris Karloff And His Incredible Portrayal

by Paul Batters

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Of all the monsters in the pantheon of the ‘children of the night’, perhaps none have had such an impact on the sympathies of an audience as the Frankenstein Monster. Many films have been made where Shelly’s Gothic tale is told or at least appropriated. Yet none have ever been able to match Boris Karloff’s performance as Dr. Frankenstein’s near-immortal creation.

This discussion does not aim to focus on the mechanics of the film-making process of the first three films nor their storylines; insomuch that if they are brought up, it’s done so as a reflection of Karloff’s performance. Indeed, a great deal of discussion and discourse has already covered the making of the three films I would like to focus on. If anything, this is a celebration of Karloff’s portrayal.

In popular culture, the Frankenstein Monster has become reduced to a mindless brute – a near-indestructible automaton whose brain can be as interchangeable as a car-battery and is easily identified by his stiff walk and arms stretched out in front of him. With respect to Universal Studios, who played just as important a role as Dr. Frankenstein in bringing him to life, they are greatly responsible in creating this image. Indeed, mention the name ‘Frankenstein’ and the vast majority of people will identify the name as that being of the Monster and not the family name of its’ creator. Even in the Universal world, three other actors other than Karloff (Lon Chaney Jnr, Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange) all portrayed the Monster to varying degrees of success yet adding to the demotion of the Monster from the brilliant portrayal borne of Karloff to the aforementioned description. If ever a creature from the dark went through a more incredible array of change in character, none were marked than the Frankenstein Monster.

What audiences need to be reminded of is the pathos and touching humanity that truly embodied Frankenstein’s creation, reflected so beautifully by Boris Karloff. As a result, I will speak of the Frankenstein ‘trilogy’ because they feature the great man and are without a doubt the best of the Universal films, after which admittedly they would later denigrate into exploitation, particularly after Karloff left the role.

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Frankenstein (1931) deserves its’ place as one of the most important films in cinema, let alone its’ position as one of the greatest horror films of all time. Unlike its’ equally important predecessor Dracula (1931), it has held up well and has some of the most memorable cinematic moments in film history. As important as James Whales’ direction was, his pick of a 44-year old bit part actor was far more important and fortuitous. Whale could see there was something about Karloff’s face and personality that he couldn’t quite put his finger but knew intuitively would work. If the film and of course the Monster belongs to anyone, it’s Karloff.

The birth of the Monster is without doubt one of the greatest moments in film. The mad machinery will galvanise the Monster, the moving of the hand and the hysterical rantings of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive), who is in the incredible heights of rapture as he ‘knows what it feels like to be God’, all remain as iconic moments in classic horror. Even here, without seeing Karloff’s face, he is able to act with one hand to convey life coming to what had moments before been a dead cadaver.

But out first view of the Monster’s face is that moment when Karloff became the star. Whale built the tension even further by having Karloff walk in backwards to be followed by that slow turn and the close cutting to that horrific face. Lurching forward at his creator, he shuffles forward following Frankenstein’s commands to sit in a chair. The stiffened movements are like that of a child learning to walk but the doctor’s creation is not a child. He’s a reanimated human jigsaw, complete with a ‘criminal brain’ – a plot device non-existent in the novel, which would forever be associated with the Monster. Initially there appears to be no emotion, and Karloff’s heavy-lidded eyes and sunken cheeks evoke in the audience a dread and horror that will soon turn to empathy and understanding. And it’s all a result of Karloff’s mastery. Again, without any words, his pleading eyes and desperate need for warmth and light, breaks the dread  we feel but he is soon faced with not only being ignored but then completely rejected and treated horrifically at the hands of his creator, his former mentor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) and his cruel and sadistic assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye). By the time we see the Monster in chains in the bowels of the place where he was born, the audience begins to wonder who the real monsters are, with Karloff beautifully portraying a poor and confused being who did not ask to be born and surrounded by hostility from his first interactions with humans.

But murder will follow; Fritz will pay for torturing the Monster once too often and then Dr Waldman before he is about to dissect and examine the drugged Monster. Karloff portrays the Monster with a hungered and desperate confusion, but he is also far more complex than it may appear; a far cry from the mindless shell that stomps around in later films. Karloff’s Monster is the abandoned child who knows nothing of the world and when he finally does find a human connection with a small child (Mildred Harris), it will end in tragedy. As an aside, the re-edited version that was re-released in 1938 and would show on TV screens for decades, was un-intentionally far more suggestive of the Monster doing something far more horrifc to Maria. 

When both creator and creation finally do face each other again, Karloff exudes menace and anger at the God-parent who has rejected him. Dragging Frankenstein to the top of an old windmill whilst being pursued by the enraged villagers, Karloff’s Monster is again surrounded by hostility and violence. His end comes as he is consumed by the flames that he so fears and does not understand, panicked and screaming in terror (a far cry from the final Universal film of the classic horror monsters which shows him walking stupidly into burning flames). It is a terrible end for a being that did not ask to be created, abandoned to the cruelty of a world he does not understand, all beautifully conveyed by the mastery of Boris Karloff.

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But of course it is not the end. Universal realised that the real star of the film was not Colin Clive but Karloff and the resulting Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), is a far better produced film, with a beautiful musical score by Franz Waxman (which was notably absent from the first film) and far greater liberties taken by Whale as director in terms of themes. The film, thus, is a masterpiece with the story continuing where the last film left off. There are some cast changes and the inclusion of Una O’Connor as Minnie, a servant in the Frankenstein household, reflects Whale’s eccentric humour. (As an aside, I find O’Connor’s screeching an almighty annoyance and her being in the film is superfluous). As the audience discovers, the Monster has survived but burnt and injured, fleeing into the woods for refuge. But not after committing two more murders.

Again, Karloff’s portrayal transcends the make-up and indeed his work from the first film. Wracked with hunger and desperate for basic human connection, his struggles seem to be over when he meets a blind hermit (O.P Heggie). The kindness and genuine humanity of the scenes that follow are touching and beautiful, and Karloff shines as he hears the prayer of gratitude given by the blind hermit, seemingly amazed by the beauty of words he has never heard before. As the hermit cries, a tear also runs down the Monster’s cheek and he comforts the weeping old man. Here Karloff shows that his portrayal is not of a Monster but a lost soul, who seeks only friendship and love. Much has been said and disputed about the scene; regardless it is as the Hermit states ‘two lonely souls who have found each other’.

Another first for the Monster is that he learns to talk. It appears he has been living with the Hermit for some time, as wounds have healed and he has learned to speak. The words, of course, are basic and the word ‘friend’ is closest to the Monster’s heart. Karloff was against the Monster speaking, feeling that it meant something was lost. With the greatest of respect to the man, this reviewer feels it does not detract from the portrayal and indeed holds firm textual integrity with the original novel, where the Monster not only speaks but is articulate. His desperate need for expression starts to grow and after losing his friend and sanctuary in the Hermit, he is again pursued and abused.

Despite being captured and briefly shown in the now famous ‘crucifixion’ pose (hence highlighting his treatment as an outcast and misfit outside the sensibilities of society to be persecuted), he breaks out, using his incredible strength and thus also planting a seed to another important trope. Karloff again shapes a menacing figure as he makes his way through a graveyard, only to enter a crypt and marvel at the face of a corpse. Despite the necrophiliac-like suggestion, the Monster finally has someone who will not reject him. But during this fateful moment, he will meet and make a new ‘friend’ in the form of the notorious Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) whom the audience knows is planning to create life from the dead with Frankenstein. It is also an important moment of consciousness for the Monster as he verbally acknowledges that he knows Frankenstein made him from the dead, after which the Monster intones: ‘I like dead’. Pretorious responds, ‘You’re wise in your generation’. But here the Monster will be manipulated (or allow himself to be) in order to achieve his deepest desire, a friend – or more to the point, a ‘wife’.

Karloff presents a cruel side to the Monster as he joins Pretorius in forcing and bullying Frankenstein into creating a friend for him. But his brutal menace melts when he first sees his ‘bride’ (Elsa Lanchester). His happiness turns to depression and resignation, noting that his rejection by the world is now complete. Deciding to end it all, he tells Frankenstein and his wife to ‘Go! You Live!’ but warns Pretorius to stay and as he declares ‘We belong dead’, the lever is pulled and the whole laboratory with the Monster is blown to atoms. Again, we see the Monster shed a tear as he looks longingly at his ‘wife’, still desperate for love.

Karloff’s expression of the Monster transcended the first film, not only because he actually spoke but because Karloff was given greater screen time and there was the recognition that he was the real star. If empathy with the Monster was felt by the audience, it is most evident in Bride Of Frankenstein. The damaged Monster is not only physically hurt but wounded deep within, so much that he wants to end his life. Karloff is superb and whilst the film could not have existed without the first, it is an outstanding film. Again, as he did in the 1931 production, Karloff surpasses the make-up with a powerful range of emotion conveyed through his incredible skills and the intuitive powers he held as an actor.

Bride Of Frankenstein was the high point of chiller genius at Universal, and whilst there were solid and successful films in the horror cycle which followed, it is difficult to place them on the same pedestal. The amount of horror films began to dwindle afterwards and the few that were released did not have the level of quality that had first enthralled audiences. But other changes had occurred as well; the new Breen Code, the banning of horror films in Britain and even changes at Universal Studios itself would all have a major impact. However, in 1938, the double billing of Dracula and Frankensteinwas a huge hit and Universal decided to start a second cycle of horror, starting with the production of Son Of Frankenstein (1939).

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The casting of Basil Rathbone as the late Baron’s son, Wolf, was quite a coup and the focus of the film does move to him. Without the direction of James Whale (who had lost the desire to direct), the appointment was given to Rowland V. Lee, who whilst competent and interesting in his vision, cannot bring to the screen the magic touch of Whale. It also didn’t help that the script was incomplete and changes were consistently coming in each day. More importantly for this discussion, the former looming presence of the Monster was reduced to a haunting spectre at least until later in the film. After the heights of the first two films, Karloff’s portrayal becomes somewhat muted, explained in the plot as the result of the psychological and physical traumas that he has endured. Whilst in the previous films, the Monster was a figure of fear, menace and horror, he would be now reduced to one of curiosity. Indeed when the audience first sees the Monster, he is weak, barely alive and in a coma. But the inherent scientific curiosity of Wolf demands that he bring the Monster back to consciousness. 

The sets are fantastic and Rathbone’s performance is memorable, as well as that of Lionel Atwill as the Police Chief. But ironically, the one man who steals the film from everyone, even Karloff,  is Bela Lugosi as the evil and twisted Ygor. It is perhaps the meatiest and most interesting role since his star turn as Dracula, and if ever there was the ‘sideman’s revenge’ for Lugosi, than this was it.

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There ARE moments where the Monster’s humanity shines through; his anger at seeing himself in the mirror and the depths of his self-consciousness emerging, the relationship with Peter, the Baron’s son and the howl he gives when he find Ygor’s body, perhaps reminiscent of his role in The Old Dark House as Morgan, the brutal butler weeping over the body of Saul. But sadly, there is the foreshadowing of the tropes that will soon take hold in the mind of the public when it comes to the Monster. He follows the commands of Ygor without question, and whilst this emerges to some degree in Bride Of Frankenstein, there is a sinister motive to the Monster’s relationship with Pretorius. Now, he is nothing more than a mindless slave being used for Ygor’s mad schemes. This will be repeated ad nauseum in future films. Gone is the desperate and futile search by the Monster for his sense of self and an answer to his creation. The range of emotions once present are missing and we see a Monster that is flat and limited in scope.

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Additionally, the concept of the Monster being almost ‘super-human’ and indestructible emerges, particularly when Wolf states: Two bullets in his heart but he still lives! And even when he is pushed into a boiling pit of sulphur at the end, the audience has already been trained that it’s not really the end. Karloff is still imposing as the Monster particularly in the final scenes but he could see the writing on the wall. He would never play the Monster again in a major film and lamented the direction in which his beloved Monster was headed. Son Of Frankenstein is still a lot of fun and deserves applause for its’ strong cast and exceptional photography. It’s a tight film and the direction holds it together, with an eerie atmosphere on an outstanding designed set. But something seems to be amiss.

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Karloff would never pour scorn on those actors who followed him in the role, for he was too kind and humble to do so. He did, however, feel that the make-up was doing all the work, even during the filming of Son Of Frankenstein. He felt that the character ‘no longer had any potentialities’ but added that ‘anyone who can take that make-up every morning deserves respect’. Karloff adored the Monster and would forever state that he owed it everything, giving credit to everyone from Whale to make-up artist Jack Pierce, characteristically excluding himself. It must have deeply affected this true gentleman when the Monster became the butt of jokes, which he had always hoped would never happen. When asked to assist in the promotion of Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), he reportedly stated that he was happy to do so ‘as long as he didn’t have to see the picture’. Indeed, as much ‘fun’ as the Universal Pictures of the 1940s are, the menace of the Monster from the early 1930s means that the films initially were not meant to be fun and the dark fairy-tale essence of the first horror cycle is missing.

Sadly, to a public long trained to accept popular culture’s depiction of the Monster (now named Frankenstein), the brilliant portrayal of Karloff seems distant. Yet if one truly wishes to discover the origins of the cinematic Monster, they need only need turn to the original trilogy and watch a master at work. Karloff always praised others, such as Jack Pierce for the make-up. But Karloff did what no-one else has been able to do – he transcended the make-up and costume and blended it into his own fascinating and deeply motivated portrayal. Karloff claims he owed his career to the Monster but the Monster owed everything to Karloff as well.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

The Top Five Great Performances Of Bela Lugosi

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by Paul Batters

‘To die, to be really dead…that must be glorious’ Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931)

Halloween is upon us! And without a doubt, film fans are finalising their viewing lists for the evening. I’m always interested in the carefully chosen lists of film buffs – lists that often stay thematic (or within a sub-genre) or offer a smorgasbord of horror delights or are even look quite eclectic.

For fans of classic film, the horror genre is rich with great films to enjoy, particularly during Halloween. And of course there are countless B-features and horror schlock quickies that are guilty pleasures, as well as the great classic films that broke ground and established two of horror’s greatest stars in the early 1930s – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Of these two, Karloff’s career was perhaps the more successful and long lasting. While typecast in the horror genre, Karloff was able to eventually embrace it. Lugosi was not so fortunate and perhaps did not manage his career as well as Karloff did. Despite starring in some successful film, Lugosi would sadly find a career relegated to Poverty Row films, which would dwindle in his final years to films remembered for the wrong reasons.

Despite Lugosi’s less than glamorous final years, he is immortal amongst classic horror film fans. Yes there may have been some clunkers in which he starred but Lugosi alone often pulled the film out of the doldrums simply due to his presence.

So when considering your Halloween viewing lists, consider the following performances, which I feel are his best.

Just for the record, the aim here is not to critique the films per se but Lugosi’s performances. Even a bad film can have an interesting and/or fantastic performance.

  1. Murder Legendre – White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie was an independent production by the Halperin brothers, which was not kindly received by critics at the time. Despite harsh criticism of the film’s ‘woeful acting’, most critics were positive about Lugosi’s performance and it is still the best thing about White Zombie. Since its’ initial release, it has seen in a different light and revived to some degree. At best, White Zombie is interesting with its’ creepy atmosphere and strange storyline. If it has any life in it, it’s due to the Bela Lugosi’s commanding charisma.

Looking Satanic in his goatee, with wild eyes and imposing stature, Lugosi plays the master of his domain to the hilt. The camera attempts to exploit Lugosi’s hand gestures, emphasising the use of his power over others with close-ups. Lugosi’s voice is also commanding, delivering with intimidation as his eyes burn into those upon whom he fixes his gaze. Sean Axmaker in his Jan. 2013 review of the Kino Blu-ray release of White Zombie for Parallax View makes the following observation of Lugosi:

‘…a languorous hypnotist and voodoo master who dominates the film with his assured bearing and cruel control. Not just menacing, he is ferociously vindictive, supplying the local mills with an army of zombie laborers and turning his enemies into his personal zombie servants…’

The fact that Kino has gone to the trouble of releasing a Blu-ray version of White Zombie is testament to its’ lasting success as a cult film and the fact that it still stands as one of Lugosi’s best performances.

  1. Armand Tesla – The Return Of The Vampire (1943)

 Directed by Lew Landers and released by Columbia Pictures, The Return Of The Vampire was made during a period where Columbia dabbled in a number of supernatural/horror releases. Most critics make it clear that Lugosi is obviously playing Dracula but for legal reasons (namely Universal owning the rights) the character was re-named Armand Tesla.

The Return Of The Vampire feels stranded between an A and B-feature and it is the last time Lugosi would work in such a quality picture for a major studio, not counting his last turn as Dracula for Universal in 1948’s comedy/horror Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein. The plot, set in London, tells of Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort), who is being pursued by a vampire named Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi). After wreaking havoc on her household, he is eventually pursued and a stake driven into his heart by Lady Jane and Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery). However, during World War Two, the cemetery is disturbed by air raids and gravediggers who have been ordered to re-bury the disturbed bodies find Tesla’s body and remove the stake. Tesla is revived and aided by his werewolf servant Andreas (Matt Willis), seeks out Lady Jane and the daughter of Saunders, Nikki (Nina Foch).

Despite a fairly run of the mill vampire story and, I feel, some unfair criticism, the film has some effective scenes and fairly solid production value. True, Tesla is no Dracula but Lugosi is forever the effective vampire and convincing in the role. Lugosi presents a vampire hell-bent on survival, impatient and raw in emotion, unlike the smooth, measured count of his greatest role. Better dialogue is found wanting but Lugosi makes the most with what he has and gives a strong performance.

Lugosi had always hoped for a follow-up to Dracula. There was disappointment for him with Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and though he played his famous role in Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Lugosi’s best days were behind him. The Return Of The Vampire was the closest he was ever going to get to a follow-up.

The final scene showing Tesla’s final demise exhibits some gruesome horror, befitting the last starring role, which Lugosi would hold for a top line studio.

  1. Dr. Vitus Werdegast – The Black Cat (1934)

When Karloff and Lugosi became stars in the early 1930s, it made sense that Universal would cash in on their success and bring the two stars together. In total, Karloff and Lugosi would work together in seven films. However, the first film they made stands as their best. Both would later add that the film stands as a personal favourite for each man.

The Black Cat (1934) is a masterpiece of the macabre. As a piece of dark poetry, it delves into the realm of perversion far more than the cornerstones of the Universal horror cycle ever did. It descends down a long staircase into the bowels of the bizarre, further darkened by themes which would not be tampered with again for many years in cinema, such as Satanism, torture, human sacrifice and necrophilia (just to name a few).

True, the film has some plot holes an ocean liner could sail through and many critics have stated how little the film resembles Edgar Allen Poe’s original story, despite the advertising using Poe’s name in promotions. But don’t let that distract you. The incredible art deco set alone is an attention-grabber and director Edgar G Ulmer creates an eerie and trance-like atmosphere, in which the young honeymooning couple Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop) find themselves entangled. But they become a plot device for the duel between archenemies Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) and Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), meeting again after 15 years.

Werdegast (Lugosi) is ostensibly the hero of the film, returning to seek revenge on the diabolical Poelzig (Karloff) for his terrible crimes of the past. What follows becomes a game of chess where the two pit their wits against each other, with a horrific climax to the duel that still shocks today.

Lugosi is commanding, showing the perfect balance between restraint and zeal as the revenge-seeking doctor. His channelling of Wedegast’s inner torment is well balanced by his ability to gain our sympathy, whilst his rage bubbles underneath. His first moments in the film are impressive, as Lugosi carries himself with class and charm as he meets the young couple. Early in the film, Wedegast says little in terms of his experiences as a former P.O.W but the weighting that Lugosi carefully places on each word combined with his anguished eyes is enough for the audience to understand what horrors he has survived. Not long afterwards, as the young couple and Wedegast travel on the bus from the station, the driver tells the story of the place they are heading to:

‘All of this country was one of the greatest battlefields of the war. Tens of thousands of men died here. The ravine down there was piled twelve deep with dead and wounded men. The little river below was swollen red, a raging torrent of blood. And that high hill yonder where Engineer Poelzig now lives, was the site of Fort Marmorus. He built his home on its very foundations. Marmorus, the greatest graveyard in the world!’

As the driver tells his story, Wedegast re-lives the horror of war and the personal tragedies faced, which Lugosi expresses by simply closing his eyes. Wedegast is a man who has suffered terribly and Lugosi brilliantly conveys that anguish, particularly in the final scenes of the film, where his rage bursts through and the time for masks is over. His glee is unconfined and Lugosi holds nothing back. Whilst there are moments that are disturbing, such as his caressing of Jane as she sleeps and of course the film’s climax, the audience cannot help but feel for Wedegast and the horrors he has endured.

Lugosi’s performance was in need of some tempering by Ulmer. Indeed, the moments when Lugosi encounters the black cat are hammy. According to Bret Wood in his review on TCM:

Ulmer cleverly moderated Lugosi’s performance by limiting his screen time, focusing more on reaction shots of other characters. “You had to cut away from Lugosi continuously,” Ulmer said, “to cut him down.”

I would add that if that is the case, it speaks more for Lugosi who gave Ulmer plenty to work with.

  1. Ygor – Son Of Frankenstein (1939)

Son Of Frankenstein (1939) was the last time Karloff would take on the role of the Monster and whilst an interesting and still entertaining film, it does not have the quality of the prior two and pales in comparison to James Whale’s 1935 classic The Bride Of Frankenstein. Whilst there is no doubt of its’ A-film status, there are hints of the B-films to come in the early 1940s, particularly evident in moments which show the Monster as a mindless brute following Ygor’s orders.

But for all intents and purposes, it’s a valued member of the original Frankenstein trilogy. The premise is simple enough. Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), son of Henry Frankenstein returns to his ancestral home with his wife and son and finds the village haunted by the past and still living in fear. The Baron, also a scientist, seeks to rehabilitate his father’s memory and prove his father was correct. Exploring the castle, he discovers the evil Ygor who leads him to the Monster’s body, in a coma in the family crypt. The Baron is ecstatic but as his father before him discovered, things will not go well!

Other than his most iconic role, Lugosi as Ygor is perhaps his best. Lugosi is creepy and unsettling in his portrayal of the demented blacksmith who has survived a hanging. Our first encounter with him eerily playing his flute and then re-telling the story of his escaped execution is thoroughly memorable and off-putting. The audience’s lack of trust in Ygor is confirmed when we finally see his intentions in bringing the Monster back.

Ygor’s plan is to take revenge on those who sentenced him to death by hanging. As demented as Ygor is, he is not foolish enough to execute his plan without careful planning. He bides his time and finds the perfect tool in the Monster. In one particular scene, inflected with a touch of humour, Ygor fakes a coughing fit in order to spit in the eye of one of his accusers. It is an ominous moment, as he will enact revenge on the same man in a far more horrific way.

It is no wonder that Ygor and the Monster form a connection. Both are outcasts and like the Monster, Ygor has cheated death and hates the people of the village. Lugosi’s hideous smile barely hides his evil intentions, leaving the audience feeling uncomfortable. For all the charges made about Lugosi’s heavy accent and lack of versatility, here he uses his voice exceptionally well. Harsh, gruff and menacing in tone, Lugosi makes Ygor a fuller and meatier villain in great part due to the effective use of his voice.

Son Of Frankenstein is a high point in Lugosi’s career and arguably he would never again have such a strong role in an A-film production. J. Hoberman in the Village Voice makes the valid claim that Lugosi ‘steals the movie in his last really juicy role’.

  1. Title Role – Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931) is the film that truly started it all. Not only would it make Lugosi a star but it would also begin the classic horror cycle and take audiences into the world of the supernatural.

Today, Dracula feels dated and even stagey, due to its’ script being based on the stage version, as well as the clunky directing by Tod Browning. The oft-repeated criticism is that it is crying out for a soundtrack and is often stilted. The climax of the film is particularly disappointing and Browning blew a great opportunity for an exciting finish.

The cast has its’ strengths. Edward Van Sloan projects authority and wisdom as the brilliant Dr Van Helsing and I would challenge anyone to find a more disturbing Renfield than the one created here by Dwight Frye, who is exceptional and haunting as the deranged slave to the vampire.

But the true strength of the film is none other than Bela Lugosi. He is supreme with authority as the commanding vampire and uses his gaze to full effect. The supposed weaknesses of his voice are at full advantage when he speaks, with the deliberation and control of one who need not rush for anyone.

The first scenes of the film are amongst its’ best. From the first appearance of Dracula himself in the decrepit bowels of his castle, as he emerges from his coffin along with his vampire wives, the audience is transported into a dark fairy tale where time seems immaterial. When Renfield arrives, he is met by the aristocratic count descending the broken staircase and speaking the cinematically immortal words, ‘I am Dracula…I bid you welcome’. Measuring Renfield carefully like a ‘spider spinning his web for the unwary fly’, Lugosi exudes menace and power as speaks of the ‘children of the night’. Every phrase spoken by Lugosi is just as measured and though he speaks seldom, Lugosi does so with purpose and he is arresting at every word.

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The film starts to slide away when the setting steps into modern London but Lugosi still dominates and his commanding presence is fitting as a count who has lived through the ages. His psychological dual with Van Helsing still impresses and whilst his seduction of his victims is assuaged to some degree, Lugosi still brings controlled energy to each scene.

The love/hate relationship with the character would remain for Lugosi throughout his life. It would typecast him and yet it gave Lugosi his fame. It launched yet also destroy his career, although Lugosi’s choice of roles would certainly play its’ role in impacting on his career.

As wonderful as Christopher Lee and others have been in playing the infamous vampire, they are always measured against the still-haunting and mesmerising performance of Bela Lugosi.

There are quite a number of B-films, serials and even worse that Lugosi made for Poverty Row studios and independent producers. Many of them lack the production value that Lugosi was more deserving of and in some cases the films are outright terrible. Yet many of them still entertain and deserve a little more respect than what is often afforded them. In all the productions Bela Lugosi was involved with, he was the consummate professional. Most of all, he was the first true horror star, sparking off the classic horror cycle and remaining long after his passing as the Dark Prince haunting the broken battlements of his castle.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history

Patron Saint Of The Mad Scientist: A Look At ‘The Island of Lost Souls’ (1932)

by Paul Batters

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‘Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?’ Dr Moreau

The early 1930s saw the beginnings of the classic horror cycle, spawned by the incredible success of Universal’s two big releases, Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1932). Both films would put Universal on the map as the home of horror and other studios also sought to cash in on Universal’s success. Even M.G.M did with Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Paramount faired a little better with the brilliant remake of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1932) and in the same year made another film that, like Freaks, would be banned in the U.K. Based on the story ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’, its’ author H.G Wells would also denounce the film. Despite Paramount’s huge advertising campaign, it was a commercial failure as well.

It would be forgotten until revived when interest in classic horror films grew during the 1960s, thanks to television re-runs and monster movie magazines like Famous Monsters Of Filmland.

As a result, The Island of Lost Souls (1932) has become a curiosity, as much as a deserved addition in the pantheon of the mad scientist genre.

So what makes it interesting?

The story itself has all the hallmarks of the horror film with the mad scientist at its’ core. On an isolated island, Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton) is obsessed with turning different animals into humans, delving into the possibilities of speeding up the process of evolution. This is itself reflects the aberration that other mad scientists find themselves involved with. However, unlike Dr. Frankenstein who seeks to create life from dead human tissue, Moreau aims to transform already living animals into humans. However, the aberration does not end there, as he also aims to mate his ‘creations’. It is into this world that our heroes, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) and Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) are thrown, with Moreau’s intent to make them part of his experiments. At first, Moreau shows them his successes but also his ‘less successful experiments’ with a casual wave. Horrific enough – but there is more horror to come! Needless to say, the reviewer will attempt to avoid any further plot developments in order to spare the reader any spoilers. But of course no guarantees can be given.

Thematically, The Island Of Lost Souls does explore the classic features of the mad scientist. Dr Moreau is a man who has isolated himself from the world in his pursuits and forgone the methodology of his discipline. Like Victor Frankenstein, he sneers at the mainstream scientific world and seeks answers in the same sacrilegious way. But of course such isolation creates a greater disconnect from a moral centre which questions his actions, as well as the fundamental aspect of science – peer assessment and the challenging of theories. Moreau, as a result, becomes a man who sees himself beyond reproach and thus the danger has long set in for Moreau. His sense of himself as a ‘god’ mirrors what Frankenstein initially feels. At one point, Moreau literally plagiarises Frankenstein and states “Do you know what it feels like to be God?’ However, Frankenstein’s ‘God moment’ will not last, as he is repelled by his creation and regrets his mistakes. Moreau, however, is undeterred and like the true mad scientist, continues ‘working ‘, not merely intoxicated by his ‘Godliness’ but is completely immersed in it.

Like Frankenstein, Moreau does not wish to be at the mercy of nature. Indeed, his goal is to control it, again reflecting the perception of himself as God. His desire to mate his creations with the at-first unsuspecting heroes of the story, expands on this desire for control. Yet here runs a deeper thematic concern that Moreau is as much a prisoner of this as are his creations. His desire to be God will be his downfall, as is the lot of any mad scientist. Trapped on his own island, Moreau is also trapped by his obsession and unable to look beyond it. Strangely, the concept of reason, which is a fundamental principle of science, eludes him completely. Admittedly, Parker’s attempt to play wiser head to Moreau is not only poorly done but also futile as well as beyond the reach of Parker. Moreau has developed his own logic to suit his schemes and experiments – as any mad scientist who knows his or her business would do.

Moreau is not ‘mad’ in the deranged sense of the world, nor is he a sadist fulfilled by the infliction of pain. Indeed, he is indifferent to the pain, which he inflicts, especially when examining his creations. The scene where he is examining Lota the Panther woman is particularly horrific, not only because of the pain and disgust that it draws from the audience but more so due to Moreau’s complete disconnection from Lota’s pain and the clinical method in which he examines her. As Randy Rasmussen points out in “Children Of The Night’, Moreau is enraged at Lota’s bestial flesh regaining its’ dominance but rejoices at her tears, as they betray her humanity – the aim of his experiments.

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But Moreau as God cannot only be sustained by his own self-image. It needs to be fed and endorsed by followers – hence the congregation being his own creations. Like any god, Moreau sets the laws to be lived by, partially so that he can control them but also because it feeds his god-like status and illustrated his control over nature. The laws are spoken as ritual by the creatures and they are further controlled by the fear of the House Of Pain, the place of punishment where the breakers of the law are sent. Moreau’s whip and gun are but extensions of his will, both of which represent law and order rather than any sadistic quality.

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The greatest strength of the film is the characterisation of Dr Moreau by the irrepressible Charles Laughton. I would venture to say that his performance is beyond the film and one of the key features that lifts it out of mediocrity. The display of arrogance as an all-knowing scientist with a powerful God complex becomes apparent from the smallest gesture in the way he casually wields his whip to the use of his voice when he commands his creations. The goatee adds a satanic element, contrasting with his white suit, making for a stark appearance. But this is accentuated by the almost relaxed manner in which Laughton strides and the supreme confidence is more than apparent, particularly when he reveals his abhorrent experiments and mad scheme to Parker. Laughton dominates every scene, leaving his fellow cast members looking wooden and staid.

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However, in fairness, there is another performance, which deserves mention. It easy to miss Bela Lugosi in his extremely hirsute role as the Sayer Of The Law. Under the layers of hair, Lugosi emanates the tortured soul of Moreau’s creation, repeating the mantra of his creator’s law, “Are we not men?” It is the question, which reflects one of the great questions regarding what makes us human – is it enough to have that consciousness? For Moreau’s experiments, this is the key aspect to what it means to be human. The very asking of the question suggests that human consciousness is present. The ending of the film will suggest even more, with quite the allegory about who makes laws to govern – God or humans?

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Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman played a roll which was central to the marketing campaign for the film’s release. Beautiful and sensual, Burke is also effective in the role. Lota is the prize creation for the mad scientist and Burke successfully portrays the duality of the role.

In the end, Moreau will face the terrible and awful dilemma that seems to be the lot of the mad scientist. As tempting as it is, this reviewer will not give away that ending. Needless, to say the audience will recognize the irony for the mad scientist who becomes undone by his own devices. Despite the genius of the mad scientist, being doomed to failure seems to be his or her lot in the genre. Perhaps the mad scientist’s greatest sin is that he commits the greatest sacrilege not necessarily against God but against science itself and the laws of nature.

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The Island Of Lost Souls feels like a journey into darkness – one that is disturbing and at times repellent, particularly in view of the cruelty of the key character. The greatest irony is that the mad scientist, believing they are bringing enlightenment into the world, has created that darkness. Instead of improving the world, the mad scientist has inflicted pain, trauma and death. Moreau is the very symbol of the mad scientist and that ultimately the very person that he has fooled most of all – is himself.

The Island Of Lost Souls is available through the Criterion Collection and is a must for not only fans of horror film but also those who are captivated by the mad dreams of the mad scientist.

This review was part of the 2017 Movie Scientist Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner – https://christinawehner.wordpress.com/2017/06/17/great-scott-the-movie-scientist-blogathon-is-back/

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.