The follow-on episodes to each of the primary monster movies vary in quality but the one given is that anything with a title that begins with “Abbott and Costello Meet …” isn’t going to be scary. It could be funny, but definitely not scary.
Sort of in a class by itself is the first sequel to Frankenstein, “The Bride of Frankenstein.” This movie has a lot of interesting things going on. The actors who portrayed Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster in the first film reprise their roles here (Colin Clive and Boris Karloff). The script is leavened with a little humor. Some scenes add some human interest to the Monster’s otherwise predictable behavior of grabbing people and things and tossing them about. One of the best known of these is the Blind Man Scene. The Monster escapes from his enemies. He’s been shot and is on the run. He wanders into the cottage of a blind man who welcomes him and treats him with kindness. The Monster is sheltered and his wounds treated. The blind man teaches him to speak and introduces him to bread and wine and even the pleasure of a good cigar. And he learns what music is and he calls the Blind Man friend. Of course, inevitably, reality strikes back and a couple of hunters show up at the Blind Man’s cottage and tell the blind man he’s living with a monster. And somehow, they manage to burn down the cottage before fleeing from the Monster.
Standouts performances in the movie are Dr. Praetorius and Minnie, Elizabeth Frankenstein’s Housekeeper. Dr. Praetorius is a competing mad scientist who has also dabbled in the creation of human life and wants to convince Dr. Frankenstein to create a woman. Minnie is an almost Shakespearean character who combines the qualities of busybody and wise fool with the ability shriek like an air raid siren.
The Monster meets Dr. Praetorius while he is selecting body parts for the Monster’s bride in the catacombs beneath the graveyard. The Dr. offers him wine and a cigar and they become quite chummy. So much so that the Monster becomes Praetorius’ henchman in a plan to kidnap Elizabeth to force Dr. Frankenstein to complete the Bride project.
Appended to the story is a foreword that portrays Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and the Frankenstein authoress (his wife Mary) discussing the story on a stormy night and segueing to the creation of a mate for the Monster. Interestingly, they cast the same actress, Elsa Lanchester, to play both Mary and the Monster’s mate.
The final scene where we see the meeting between the Monster and his prospective bride the atmosphere is bizarre and overwrought to say the least. Suffice it to say that Monster love does not conquer all. The spurned monster decides to blow up the laboratory taking himself, Dr. Praetorius and the Bride “to kingdom come.” But interestingly, he decides to spare Dr. and Mrs Frankenstein. So, once again, the producers decided that a non-literary happy ending was the way to go. Assuming that they realized they would need descendants of Dr. Frankenstein to allow for further sequels I guess you could say this decision was at least monetarily warranted. Artistically, maybe not. It is pretty much acknowledged that the quality of the Frankenstein sequels after the “The Bride” falls off almost asymptotically. The next installment “The Son of Frankenstein” has a few good moments that mostly don’t involve the Monster but otherwise is mediocre. After that the rest of the series is almost unwatchable.
And unwatchable is how I would describe the rest of the sequels and reboots that fill out the Universal Classic Monster movies. The later installments of the Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman and Mummy series are very poor indeed. The Mummy series was not continued after the original film but instead rebooted with the new Mummy character identified as Kharis played by our old friend the Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr. In these later movies, the Mummy is never given any personality but mutely wanders through each of the movies of this series wrapped in his bandages and chasing ponderously after the protagonists who are murdered one by one for possessing the Scroll of Thoth (or whatever they called it in the later series). I think in the last of the series I remember he is somehow or other running around the bayous of Louisiana hunting the scroll and its owners. In the last scene, he is seen plodding into the swamp until he is lost to sight under the muddy water, apparently ending his undead life far from the deserts of Egypt as a soggy meal for alligators and crawfish. A fitting end.
So, what’s the verdict? Is the Universal Classic Monster series a worthwhile cinematic collection or an embalmed thing that is only noteworthy as a museum piece to be fussed over by academics and fanatics? I vote worthwhile. Granted the movies are antique and the audience surely won’t be scared in the same way your great grandparents were. But the movies still provide the fantasy experience that they originally were designed for. In the same way, a nursery rhyme can still charm children who have never seen lambs and cows and ducks except on a screen so these movies give an archetypal experience of the dark fantasy world they are meant to represent. Dracula is the evil seducer of young innocents. Frankenstein’s Monster is the raging step-child of God. The Mummy is a Promethean character punished forever for attempting to preempt the prerogatives of the gods. Each of these movies is an outdated but enjoyable attempt to entertain an audience with a passion play of what happens when humans are juxtaposed with the darker side of the fantastic. And because of the gap in time since they were made I think that the best audience for enjoying these films are kids. I’d say 9 to 11 is about the optimal age group for maximum effect. That age is old enough not to be scared by the images but not old enough to be jaded by modern movie magic. And come to think of it, I think that’s how old I was when I thought these movies were great fun.