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Posts Tagged ‘Curt Siodmak’

Upcoming Conference: “Frankenstein and Popular Culture”

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

Mary Shelley’s creation is always with us – more so today, perhaps, than ever before.

I’ve been invited to deliver a paper at the upcoming conference “Frankenstein and Popular Culture,” celebrating the 200th anniversary of the creation and publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on October 27-29, 2017. I chose as my topic “The Ghost of Frankenstein: What To Do With The Monster in The Digital Age?” – which is a pressing issue not only for scholars, but also for those within the industry as well. As I write in my paper, in part:

“Aside from J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 version of Frankenstein for the Edison Company, and moving through James Whale’s 1931 interpretation which pretty much put the ’stamp’ on the monster, the years have not been kind to Frankenstein’s creation. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) have some value, especially since Boris Karloff returned to the role that made him famous, but this ‘golden period’ was short lived.

Universal soon relegated the monster to series of inferior sequels, and by 1943 was ‘teaming’ the monster with their creation The Wolf Man to generate flagging audience interest, only to dispose of the monster altogether in 1944’s House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula, to say nothing – literally nothing – of 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

With this rather witless burlesque, Universal had seemingly run out of ideas. Yes, in the late 1950s Hammer Films effectively re-imagined the monster with Terence Fisher’s 1957 production of The Curse of Frankenstein, precisely because they were barred by Universal from using any visual, narrative or thematic elements of their version of the monster’s exploits, yet after an initial run of success, the final entries in the Hammer series also fell victim to diminishing returns.

Subsequent interpretations, from numerous other filmmakers, have been even more threadbare. My paper takes its title from the 1942 film The Ghost of Frankenstein, one of the last credible films in the original Universal series, and asks the question, ‘What are we to do with, or make of, the Frankenstein monster in the 21st century?’

Tracing the monster in film from its beginnings to the present, we see a disturbing but not altogether unexpected trend. Newer iterations of the classic tale feature more special effects, but less real content. Universal is right now planning to reboot their classic monsters with yet another version of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, with new versions of Frankenstein and Dracula to follow. But will any of these versions have lasting impact, or value? [. . .]

Copying the Marvel and DC Universe method of churning out franchise films on a regular basis, Universal is plowing ahead with a similarly designed program of entries in the coming years, with Johnny Depp tentatively attached as the lead in a reboot of The Invisible Man; Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson potentially linked to a reboot of The Wolf Man; a remake of the 2004 film Van Helsing; Scarlett Johansson tagged for a remake of The Creature from The Black Lagoon; and Javier Bardem, perhaps, as the monster in a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, with Angelia Jolie considered for the role of the Bride, as part of a project to create the Universal Monster universe.

Noted Universal chairperson Donna Langley of this strategy, ‘we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.’

But I would argue that it’s not going to work; that it hasn’t worked thus far; and that it won’t work in the future. The Frankenstein legend, and with it The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula are not material for a ‘Bourne’ or ‘Mission: Impossible’ series – all this will do is degrade the material further. What is needed is a creative force like the Hammer team, which takes the material seriously, and treats each project with the utmost care and attention, placing the emphasis on character, setting, and thematic development, rather than relying on special effects and fleeting star power to put these forthcoming projects across in the marketplace.

Hammer understood Gothic horror; it’s an English tradition. Universal, in the 1930s, had a sort of second hand comprehension of the genre through the lens of German Expressionism and British stage versions of the source materials, as brought to life by British (James Whale) or German émigrés such as Curt Siodmak and Karl Freund. The new Universal films are strictly an attempt to artificially jump start creations that need a firm re-grounding in their source material. In these films and others, we will get only a simulacric vision of these mythic characters, especially Victor Frankenstein and his creation; in short, all we will get is the ghost of Frankenstein.”

So, that’s where this stands at the moment – a few days before Christmas, 2016.

Son of Dracula (1943)

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Louise Allbritton in Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (1943); click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for the film.

I’ve been meaning to blog on this film for quite some time, but something always came up; in any event, Son of Dracula, one of the last of the truly serious Universal horror films of the 1940s, is a remarkable film in many respects, not least of which is the fact that it’s the first horror film to combine distinct elements of film noir with the Dracula legend, transported here to America’s south for the first time, and directed by the gifted noir stylist Robert Siodmak (at a salary of just $150 per week), from a screenplay by his brother Curt, both refugees from Hitler’s Germany who wound up in Hollywood, and brought their Expressionist style of cinema with them.

Son of Dracula’s plot begins in a fairly straightforward manner; Count Alucard (try spelling it backwards; persuasively portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.) shows up at the Dark Oaks plantation in New Orleans, invited by Katherine “Kay” Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), a wealthy young heiress with a disturbingly deep interest in the supernatural. In short order, Alucard dispatches her father, Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), and marries Kay, who seemingly dismisses her long time fiancé Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) without a backward glance. Kay soon becomes one of the undead, and it seems as if Kay and Alucard are destined for a life of brutal immortality, scouring the countryside on a nightly basis for victims.

But — and here is the twist that makes the film unusual, and also constitutes a spoiler, so be warned — Kay has only one plan in her mind; after becoming a vampire, she infects Frank, hoping to turn him into a vampire, as well, so that Frank and Kay can live forever, as soon as Kay destroys Alucard by driving a stake through his heart. In short, Kay is a stylish 40s femme fatale, whose true motives can only be divined more than two-thirds of the way through the film, and who dares to double cross even the Prince of Darkness himself to obtain eternal life for herself and her beloved.

Siodmak thought the script was junk, but he’s wrong; it’s a smooth, solid piece of genre craftsmanship, and the film served as his “trial by fire” at Universal, as he soon moved up to more prestigious assignments, such as The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Killers (1946), based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story, and The Dark Mirror (1946), all certifiable noir classics. In addition, George Robinson’s atmospheric cinematography brings out every last nuance of the dark, decaying mise en scene of the film, and John P. Fulton’s masterful special effects — the first time Dracula transforms into a bat on screen, or a trail of vapor in another memorable instance — adds much to the film’s overall impact, to say nothing of Hans J. Salter’s suitably sinister music score, one of many for Universal’s classic horror cycle.

But in the end, it’s Louise Allbritton’s performance — alluring, sensual, willful — that serves as the centerpiece of the film, and balances nicely off Chaney’s masculine interpretation of Alucard. Son of Dracula is a one of a kind movie, made just as the Universal cycle was coming to an end — it would collapse entirely in 1944 and 1945, with House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, respectively, but here, for one last time, with a top flight director who would go on to much greater things, and a serviceable cast that responds intuitively to his authoritative direction, the Dracula legend is taken seriously one last time, and the results are well worth watching.

Incidentally, I’ll post in a few minutes on Film Forum’s tribute to Universal and Robert Siodmak, an event those of you who live in or around Manhattan absolutely should not miss.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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