So, it is that time of the year again, when ghosts, ghouls, and assorted goblins make an appearance. In spooky tales told in front of an open fire, on TV, or darkening your footstep with the time-honoured incantation “Trick or tree-heat!” Yup, you guessed it by now, Halloween season (though I, of all people, should really call it Samhain). And while the shelves are full of slasher movies and cheap thrills, I always come back to the spooky classics that have provided reliable thrills over the decades. Plus some more modern offerings. And some movies that play classic themes for a laugh.
I invite you to join me for a round-up of four monster movie classics, more modern takes on the same story, and even the inevitable spoofs (or at least light-hearted treatments) they spawned.
Fangs for the Memories – Dracula
Written by Irishman Bram Stoker, the story of Dracula is not a Gaelic fantasy, but a dark tale of Transylvanian terror. Jonathan Harker operates as an international estate agent for a mysterious Count Dracula from the bank of beyond, enabling the latter to relocate to Merry Old England and doing what certain xenophobes still expect from foreigners … bringing ruin and defiling virgins. Only a plucky band of vampire fighters can stop them, including the academic van Helsing. Cue crucifixes, holy water, and pointy sticks.
Bela Lugosi was not the first man donning Dracula’s cape, but his appearance in the role was genre-defining. In costume as well as in some mannerisms. While the monochrome movie is nothing but dated these days, and the acting is just short of atrocious, it still can evoke a pleasurable shiver down the spine. Or just play it for laughs, comparing Lugosi to Count Count. You can get Bela Lugosi’s classic Dracula at Amazon.com.
Now Gary Oldman’s Dracula was a very different cattle of undead fish – here the classic tale was played with a definite erotic subplot (witness Monica Belluci seducing Keanu Reaves, so memorably re-filmed in Meat Loaf video), as Stoker intended (though probably never would have admitted). The star-studded cast and keeping near to the book make it a memorable offering. You can get Bram Stoker’s Dracula at Amazon.com.
And then there is Leslie Nielsen, who became Dracula in an attempt to cash in on his Naked Gun fame, and in keeping with the then revived tradition of offering movie spoofs. Not for the faint-hearted, as some of the humour can be a bit heavy-handed, but if you have enjoyed “serious” Dracula movies, his take on the genre will at least elicit a wry smile from you. You can get Dracula – Dead and Loving It at Amazon.com.
Creating a Monster – Frankenstein
While on a holiday with her husband, visiting Lord Byron, young Mary Shelley accepted the challenge to write a Gothic horror story – and this ultimately became known as Frankenstein, Or The New Prometheus. Dr. Victor Frankenstein is obsessed with challenging the boundaries of modern medicine, and defeating death. So he cobbles together a humanoid from body parts, applies electricity, and unleashes a monster. Which, in the book, is actually more of a vehicle to discuss medical ethics, than a homicidal giant. Though it still kills.
What Lugosi was for Dracula, Boris Karloff was for Frankenstein’s monster (often confused in name with his creator). Since his first appearance on the silver screen, his portrayal has more or less defined the classical look. Complete with thick brow and vertical forehead, a shambling walk, and those bolts in the neck. The movie can still be enjoyed, and some scenes are full of tragedy, so do not dismiss it. You can get the Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie at Amazon.com.
Kenneth Branagh, British actor and director, has been nothing but ambitious in his career … so taking on the role of Dr. Frankenstein, and making a very true visual version of Shelley’s book, was not the big surprise here. The casting of Robert de Niro as the monster was. And he really lives the role, from philosophical depth to raging, homicidal madness. Expect long passages without action scenes, though. You can get Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at Amazon.com.
On the other end of the scale we have Gene Wilder as Young Frankenstein, a Mel Brooks offering that casts swivel-eyed Marty Feldman as the bumbling assistant Igor, goes back to monochrome visuals, and packs more clichés than the real, non-spoof versions of the story. There’s subtle humour as well as laugh-out-loud slapstick, so the film is worth more than one viewing. You can get Young Frankenstein at Amazon.com.
Super Furry Animal – The Wolf Man
Now whereas the stories of the vampire count and the re-animated corpse(s) are based on classic books, the wolfman is a product of classic legend, the stuff of dark fairy tales, the fear of peasants hearing something scratch and sniff at the outside door. Werebeasts are, generally speaking, a worldwide myth … humans who can shapeshift, and wreak havoc in their non-human disguise. And wolves were the Central European predators of choice. It is an old tale of duality, Jekyll and Hyde with fur and fangs. The beast in every man.
Lon Chaney jr. lived up to the family tradition in his portrayal of The Wolf Man, in the film of the same name. It is a more straightforward monster movie than Dracula or Frankenstein could ever have yielded, mainly because there is no convoluted back-story to be taken care of. Chaney becomes a murderous beast at night, end of. Though some scenes hint at a far deeper psychological sub-stream. You can get Lon Chaney jr. as The Wolf Man at Amazon.com.
Hollywood’s main choice for really wacky characters with depth, Jack Nicholson, also dabbled in lycanthropy, together with Michelle Pfeiffer (who portrayed a were-hawk in another movie). The movie Wolf resurrects the werewolf genre by taking the old stories, but adding a few more modern twists, effectively creating a spine-chiller that will have you driving extra careful. You can get Wolf at Amazon.com.
And for a totally different kind of werewolf, Michael J. Fox’s Teen Wolf must be the spoof of all spoofs – what would happen if you are a typical all-American kid and suddenly find out that the full moon isn’t the best time to hit lovers’ lane with your girlfriend? And can you use this to your advantage, too? The movie also has one of the best “Dad knocking on the bathroom door” scenes ever. You can get Teen Wolf at Amazon.com.
Walk Like an Egyptian – The Mummy
It may surprise some readers, but the story of the resurrected mummy of Imhotep is not Egyptian legend, but British fantasy … at least the exotic plot is remarkably similar to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Ring of Thoth. Basically an ancient tomb is opened, a curse is activated, and a corpse re-animated. Add loads of pseudo-Pharaohnic mumbo-jumbo, some British (or American) archaeologists, and you are set for a scream-fest. Often including scantily dressed European maidens, and many a leering Egyptian eye.
For the genre-defining portrayal of Imhotep (or any other mummy ever resurrected, we again have to look at Boris Karloff – who goes from a shambling wreck to a mesmerising mystic. Though the early movie is deeply xenophobic (monsters often were a mere cipher for anything foreign), it still can be enjoyed both as a classic and as a reasonably spooky tale of love, hate, and revenge served very cold. You can get Boris Karloff as The Mummy at Amazon.com.
Arnold Vosloo, who played Imhotep in a confrontation with Brendan Fraser the double love-interest Rachel Weisz, was much more the man of action. In the Mummy franchise his role was defined by some stunning CGI work, and by an opportunity to show his body off. Making Imhotep much more of a natural ladies’ man than Karloff could ever hope to be. Though, overall, the movies tended to veer towards the spoof already. You can get the first movie in The Mummy franchise at Amazon.com
For mummy spoofs, Abbot and Costello were the go-to-guys for a long time. But the theme of ancient curses and resurrected mummies is much more cleverly done in Night at the Museum, where Ben Stiller as a hapless museum guard faces the risen Pharaoh, but also a trainable Tyrannosaurus Rex, Teddy Roosevelt, pyromaniac cavemen, and miniature cowboys and Romans. Don’t ask, just watch. You can get Night at the Museum at Amazon.com.