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Franchise Spotlight: Frankenstein

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Hey Guys, I hope all are well during these interesting times.  In my boredom I have been compiling a list of ranking franchises based on the RT averages.  In the middle of that, I decided to go a little further and write my first article on a specific franchise.  Hope you enjoy and comment.


Today’s Highlight: Universal's Frankenstein Franchise (1931-1948) 8 Films 73.6% Fresh


Frankenstein (1931) 100%

A monster movie at first glance, the film itself couldn't have been released at a more appropriate time. Amidst The Great depression, the film deals with daring ambitions and monstrous failings that are meticulously hidden below its popcorn intentions. While the series would continue to dive further and further away from influential storytelling, it remains the prototype that any studio looking to dip its feet into the complex "Universe" pool needs to carefully look at.  And those who have failed have learned, it all starts with the beginning. And much like their successors, they had their ups and downs.  Starting with the first film's release in November 1932, it was, however, not the first Universal horror movie to be released.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera, starring Horror Icon Lon Chaney aka "The Man of a Thousand Faces" during the silent era, showed Universal's early potential in the genre. But with huge budgets and middling success at the time, they still had a little more hammering out to do (those films have since been reevaluated and also now receive praise.) That all changed with the release of Dracula in early 1931, and it helped save Universal from financial turmoil and became a huge success. While a sequel to that film proved difficult, Universal fast tracked horror properties and within 2 years, they had the beginnings of four popular franchises: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man.  Frankenstein, originally supposed to star Dracula's Bela Lugosi, laughed at the idea of playing a muted killer (as originally scripted, though it's also heavily documented he was not favored once the character required more acting, and would eventually star in four Frankenstein films, once as the monster himself.) It was released with Boris Karloff in the title role, and became a smash hit, despite being massively edited at the time.  There are even reports that Kansas only released a 36 minute version of the film at the time.  While Dracula is great and definitely showed they meant business, Frankenstein hurdled Universal into a three decade long monopoly of the genre. Haunting, beautifully shot and anchored with an iconic performance from Karloff, Frankenstein excels well past its source material it is based on and into a breakthrough in cinematic horror.  My Grade: A+


Bride of Frankenstein (1935) 100%

Frankenstein remains a huge hit critically and was a massive success, and sequels to early films were all in the mix.  But while sequels to Dracula, The Mummy, and Invisible Man had creative difficulties moving on: (Lugosi not wanting to reprise his role, and the other two having a more one-off feel to them.) Frankenstein had plans even before the first film was released.  But that was still a long process. With James Whale back in the director's chair and Karloff back in the role, it would take roughly 3 1/2 years until Bride was released because the story was looking more and more like simple retread. Finally the last writer that came on board crafted the idea of Dr. Frankenstein building a mate to hopefully have the monster ride off into obscurity. What becomes the arranged marriage from hell, comes an equally chilling tale that builds on the horror mechanics of the original, but also adds considerable emotion to the even more sympathetic monster, once again powerfully played by Karloff. Considered by many to be superior in many ways to the first film, it is often regarded as one of the rare instances where the sequel is better than the original. It too became a massive hit. My Grade A+


Son of Frankenstein (1939) 91%

People often tend to forget the 2nd and final sequel starring Boris Karloff in the title role.  By 1936, Universal's path had changed. The Lugosi-less Dracula sequel and Werewolf of London did not revive the genre. Soon after Horror movies were not being produced as result of foreign embargoes on horror films, meaning less output. The head of Universal who favored them, was bought out. And James Whale, director of the first two chose not to return.  However plans were still in motion for a big release, and with the horror genre struggling, Universal snagged both Boris Karloff as The Monster and Bela Lugosi as the now popular "Ygor."  Hoping to be filmed in color to increase sales (Some stills and videos exist) the format proved too expensive and caused too many issues that the idea was ultimately scrapped, Karloff's farewell to the role was released in 1939.  Though not as highly regarded as the first two, it still is an impressive horror film in its own right and a fitting conclusion to the original trilogy.  Many of the defining traits and sources of parody are often found in this film, most notably Mel Brook's horror comedy masterpiece, Young Frankenstein.  Like the others, Son of Frankenstein was a massive success that once again literally pulled Universal into the green. The film ultimately suffers from the lack of Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein, who unfortunately died in 1937 is missed as the main protagonist, though Basil Rathbone does well, but lacks the torment the earlier two characters caused on each other.  Also had the film had a real thought out conclusion, I think this may have gone down as one of the best trilogies ever made.  My Grade: A-


Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) 75%

By the early 1940s.  A resurgence for Universal horror films thanks to the war, popular re-releases of past horror films, and lower budgets made sequels pop up more frequently.  Universal would make 17 horror films during the 40s. Thanks to the massive rise in popularity of Lon Chaney Jr, and his massive success in The Wolf Man (1941) Lon Chaney Jr would become the face of this decade's Universal Cinematic Universe.  Hard not to put a Robert Downey Jr. joke in there!  Chaney would not only play the Wolf Man in five films, but he also played Dracula once, The Mummy three times, and Frankenstein three times (twice just because of issues on set requiring the actor to fill in)  Which brings us to Ghost of Frankenstein.  The last of the standalone Frankenstein films bring Lugosi's Ygor into a more central role, with a shocking end twist that would shape the character's joke persona for next 80 years.  Simply, if effectively written and produced (less than half the budget of Son's from 3 years prior) Ghost is a simple "what you see is what you get" B movie sequel that showed the well was apparently dry at this point.  Still despite being mostly throwaway, it's still an interesting piece to view, especially for those that love to look at a franchise. It's RT score is questionably favorable (but it's what you get when you're talking about a pretty much forgotten sequel from the 40s, but it was hugely popular at the time) My Grade: C


Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) 25%

Ah, the beginning of the Universal Monster Universe.  I'd be hard pressed if I wasn't disappointed by the Rotten Tomatoes score of this one.  Growing up, I can honestly say this film by age 5 was probably my favorite movie of all time.  I absolutely loved the Wolf Man, and didn't even know there were other films of him before I wore out my taped TCM VHS tape of this movie.  As I've grown and learned as much as I can over the years, I still have love for this film despite me knowing how much of a mess it is.  Serving as both a sequel to Ghost of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, great effects for the time, and another slam dunk performance by LCJ, there's really not much there after the stronger more Wolf Man centric first half, the film races to finish its crossover. Despite massive production values, the highly touted "end battle"  that lasts about four minutes, leaves a lot to be desired, especially for those older watching these movies for the first time, without the benefit of stumbling upon them at an early age to look past the flaws. Perhaps engaging for the time, I have a hard time envisioning audiences of the 40s relating to this epic showdown similarly to the Hulk vs. Iron Man fight in Age of Ultron or even the awesome fight in Freddy vs. Jason that did deliver.  The bulk of problems lies in the Frankenstein portion.  Outside of them being monsters, they really don't fit together. And Talbot has amnesia and goes to find Frankenstein's notes to be able to kill himself because.....?  He works with death?  Also filming a direct sequel to Ghost of Frankenstein led to many problems, and major continuity issues.  The monster was badly played by Bela Lugosi, but it's not all his fault.  At the end of Ghost of Frankenstein, Lugosi's character's brain is transplanted into the monster, having the monster talk like Lugosi, and is blinded before being "killed" in that entry.  So it made sense to cast Lugosi in the role, giving Lon Chaney Jr. the freedom to focus on The Wolf Man/ Lawrence Talbot.  However when Lugosi's accent proved horrible in tests, all of his dialogue and reference to his blindness were removed in the final edit, and we are left with the brooding, grunting, walking with two hands in front of himself, nonsense most recognize the role with. The complex, haunted creature we started with had literally become a walking punchline here.  Lugosi's age also made filming him impossible and being replaced with stunt doubles not just in motion scenes, but even in Close-ups, making the monster a mess all around. Despite all this, I still love the film, and Chaney's so great that you do wish he did get another chance at a stand alone film. With high production values and the first crossover of franchises makes this an absolute must see. Oh and the towns people are at their apex of ridiculousness, from shady characters to ridiculously overproduced musical numbers that have no business being in a made up 7th world country during WWII era Europe. My Grade: B (Young me still gives it an A+)


House of Frankenstein (1944) 55%

It took me a long time to actually find this film.  I Don't think I actually got to watch this and the next film until my college years when I had better access to older films, only seeing clips before that.  The first Avengers of the Universal Monster Universe saw 5 baddies come together for the first time on screen.  Dracula, now played by John Carradine, LCJ as The Wolf Man, Glenn Strange, who would take over for the role in the last three films, and BORIS KARLOFF! returning to the series as the mad scientist who lures them in for his own intentions, equipped with his own escaped mental patient who is hunchbacked, with the desire to be loved and given a new body, and if he doesn't, well, look out!  Despite a big drop in budget, the Monster Mashup movie gets a lot right and is a solid effort and step up from the last two entries.  This mostly works to the film knowing the mechanics of the characters involved and giving them simple but effective arcs, about as much as you can ask for from a 71 minute run time.  The Frankenstein Monster mostly becomes more of an afterthought (The original Doomsday) now to getting it's power back for the final fight (A trend that would last for the remainder of the films) It boils down to monsters don't get along, have their problems, fight, and villagers blow them all up in some capacity in the end.  And it works overall.  Karloff, Chaney, and Carradine in his first role as the Count bring clout and do the most they can with their characters, and the Frankenstein monster works much better here in his limited capacity, Strange brings the most consistent and restrained performance since Karloff, though he really has little to do other than look the part. Add in a European damsel, the always indestructible Castle Frankenstein, and villagers itching for the yearly burning, you have a can't miss film that favors Universal's unquenchable lust for money over continuity. My Grade: B


House of Dracula (1945) 54%

Calling All Monsters! Part 2.  House of Frankenstein with a better/ stranger story.  The hottest hunchback in the history of film.  Karloff is replaced this time by well intentioned doctor hoping to cure both Dracula and The Wolf Man, and destroy the Frankenstein Monster. What could go wrong? Carradine and Strange are fine, and it's nice to see Chaney finally get cured, the staple protagonist of the series remains compelling despite his motivations not really changing over the course of the films. Being exposed to Dracula's blood, the good Doctor transcends into a Dr. Jekyll type role that gives the films brisk time another middle of the rode entry. Again, It unfortunately doesn't boast the gravitas that a finale should have and thus gives us more of what we've seen before. And despite Dracula being in the title, I always found Carradine's portrayal rather weak in comparison to Lugosi, and the character himself has limited screen time. Despite the expected box office successes of these later films, the stand alone films of each individual character would remain the highlights of the series, and unfortunately the last three films featuring the Frankenstein monster have really ruined his legacy as the driving force of the franchise.  My Grade C+ That is of course until...


Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) 89%

Ok, not really for Frankenstein, but despite his last few outings he still managed his name in the title. This film really came out of nowhere and blew past expectations.  In one last ditch effort to squeeze money out, Universal decided to combine their two greatest commodities: The Universal Monster catalogue, and box office stars Abbott and Costello.  The final product:  The standard for horror comedy. A genre that is always a tough sell as the genres take tremendous skill to find the right balance.  And they did it near perfect here by playing the monsters straight and using the comedic duo's peak level chops to play more as foils to keep the feel as grounded with immense charm and top notch performances in the roles most were born to play. Despite their contracts expired, Universal brought back Lon Chaney Jr in another great final performance as the Wolf Man, and most importantly Bela Lugosi reprises his Dracula role for the first time since the launch of the era movies 17 years earlier. Despite his time away, he sinks back into the role with ease and is a strong presence and menacing villain.  His plan is simple, correct Frankenstein's original mistake by replacing his polluted brain with that of simple but lovable Wilbur's (played by Costello.) The only thing that would have made this film any better would be the addition of Karloff as the monster, but he was never approached or chose to decline, because he didn't want to parody the monster.  A decision he later regretted, no knowing the respect the monsters got in the film, and became one of the film's promoters and himself starring in two more Abbott and Costello films.  Instead we get Strange one more time in the role. He gets the most to do in this sequel and even brings some of the subtle positive traits back to the role. He's actually pretty good, and too many sequels have ignored it, that unless you did follow all the films, you don't really know why he needs a new brain, rather a couple shots of espresso.  And in a "cover your ears and you'll miss it" cameo, Vincent Price reprises his role from one of the Invisible Man sequels for the last scene. I loved this film as a child, and love it even more today.  It is a true joy to watch from start to finish combining everything I loved about both franchises.  My Grade A+


And with that film's critical and box office success, the Universal Monster franchise rode off into the sunset, or in the case of our characters at the end, fell into the dark, murky lagoon.  The popularity of that film lasted a few more times with more Abbott and Costello meet.... movies, but their popularity waned as well and the group broke up in the mid 50s. Universal opted to finish the era of the 50s with a more science fiction centric drive with the Creature From the Black Lagoon Trilogy.  By the mid 50s, Universal's Golden Age of Horror: thirty films spanning over three decades, Frankenstein appeared in eight of them, The most of the monsters.  Dracula and The Invisible man appeared in seven, The Mummy six times, and The Wolf man five times.  While the Universal Era was over, the films like their characters would not stay dead for long.  Hammer's Horror was around the corner, and repeated attempts from Universal to bring back the series have continuously failed.  Notable exceptions have been The Mummy franchise and this year with The Invisible Man, but all efforts to bridge the universe back together have failed, and they range from Bad to worse.  Yet despite how many films like Van Helsing, Wolf Man, Dracula Untold, and even the Mummy's Dark Universe attempt come along rinse my nostalgic mouth out with soap, I still have hope that one day we will get a proper addition that brings our popular monsters together once more.  And most of all that The Frankenstein monster finds his way back to the blueprint Whale and Karloff put together for him.

Edited by Thegun
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I'd make a comment about how I, Frankenstein and Victor Frankenstein were both omitted from the list, but... welll... Do they exist?


Edit: Oh, I see... It's about Universal's franchise from the 30s and 40s. Young Frankenstein isn't here, either.

Edited by SLAM!
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This was fun, any suggestions.  Any thoughts on where I could go next.  Unless no one gives a shit of course.  I've literally been writing up a storm since I've been in my seclusion.  1 book, 1 play, 4 shorts, rewriting an old screenplay, and treatments on two new ones.  


Some would say I'm jumbled.  But honestly if I switch gears and turn to another project it actually keeps things more fresh.

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I love the original Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein! I haven't seen Bride of since I was a little kid! I also love the second Hammer Frankenstein film, I need to see the others! And I love Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, very underrated! And Victor Frankenstein as well!!

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The original




-Wold Man

-Invisible Man

-Creature from the Black Lagoon


were all badass. Quality remakes of them would no doubt find an audience, too. 

Edited by excel1
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Well combined they are only 146 minutes so they are definitely manageable.  Also films like Young Frankenstein merged them also with the third film so I can see that people often confuse parts of the first 3 as the original.  Like said, Ygor didn't even appear until the third film, and the common misconception that Frankenstein is the monster, when in fact it is it's creator.

Edited by Thegun
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19 minutes ago, Thegun said:

Well combined they are only 146 minutes so they are definitely manageable.  Also films like Young Frankenstein merged them also with the third film so I can see that people often confuse parts of the first 3 as the original.  Like said, Ygor didn't even appear until the third film, and the common misconception that Frankenstein is the monster, when in fact it is it's creator.

In terms of adapting the novel, the first two movies are each loosely based on different parts of it, which is why I think they work better as a single film. Just cut out the Mary Shelley part at the beginning of Bride. 

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