Two years ago, Cineplex Odeon played a pair of Universal horror classics, Tod Browning’s DRACULA and James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, as part of its Classic Film Series. While I can watch Whale’s film (and the rest of his horror output) countless times without exhaustion, Browning’s version of the Bram Stoker novel had always been for me and many others quite a chore to watch. Made while the film industry was still undergoing growing pains in the transition to sound, it always seemed too slow and static, and with much of the action offscreen, is reminiscent at times of a filmed stage play (which it in essence actually was) or even a radio play, if you close your eyes. Not even a special score added years later by Phillip Glass and The Kronos Quartet did anything to alleviate things; it now kept me awake, but it was more out of annoyance over the endless ringing and repetitive screeching, a textbook example of what my friend David Sindelar has called an “elevator score,” a musical soundtrack that sounds the same no matter what the actual action on screen is.
But something miraculous happened during this particular viewing. Not only did I stay awake and find myself actually drawn into the action, but the movie actually scared me. No, there were none of the sudden shocks that has come to characterize modern horror, but I still felt genuinely afraid. Browning’s DRACULA is still a flawed film, with stodgy direction (Browning would fare much better with the later FREAKS, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE and THE DEVIL DOLL, all of which successfully recaptured the style of his macabre silent classics), and inconsistent acting, but Bela Lugosi’s performance is revealed to be an excellent characterization, no longer seeming hammy when projected on the big screen instead of being viewed on a relatively small TV and the opening fifteen minutes have such an incredible power when seen under the right conditions, that this time, instead of being letdown by the remainder of the movie, they lingered so deeply that they succeeded in elevating subsequent scenes. Obviously, the problem wasn’t with the movie itself, but the shoddy conditions I had seen it under initially. When watching it as it was intended to be shown, with a fully restored image and projected on an appropriately-sized big screen, it worked just as intended.
If DRACULA was greatly improved by being shown on the big screen, how would FRANKENSTEIN, a much more visually audacious and fluid film, brilliantly directed by James Whale and superbly acted by Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, fare under the same conditions? I’ve always loved this film and appreciated its genius and artistry even more this time. Not only was it genuinely frightening (with one actual, famous jump scare that made the audience gasp even as they knew it was coming), but the entire film has a pervasive feeling of evil and corruption which grows and develops, the same sort of sensation of encroaching horror and menace that the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT would successfully exploit as well. It became very obvious to me why this movie frightened and moved so many people on its initial release, and why it has continued to do so even as more graphic and extreme horror films became the norm. Karloff’s performance was all the more powerful this time around, his expressions in close-up having even greater impact when blown up to proper size. It was also much easier to appreciate Whale’s superb compositions and visuals now that I could truly see them in full, but for the first time, I was aware of just how effectively he uses sound to convey horror (something Browning forgot to do), in such scenes as the one where the villager carries his daughter’s body, with the incessant ringing of the church bells contributing greatly to its effectiveness. Karloff and Whale were not the only artists who had their work properly rewarded by the restored theatrical print; make-up artist Jack Pierce’s work on Karloff also looked even better than ever, as fine details that were not obvious on earlier viewings suddenly became apparent, and I became aware of just how meticulous and well-conceived Pierce’s handiwork was. For instance, I had noticed for the first time the outlines of veins and and sinew, and that Pierce had placed bolts not just on Karloff’s arms but under the Monster’s skin as well.
Last year, Cineplex-Odeon played a Barbra Streisand film for Halloween (which is scary in its own right, but not the same thing), but this year, it’s playing a double bill of THE MUMMY and THE WOLFMAN at select theaters, on Sunday October 26 and Wednesday October 29. Both films are classics in their own right and among my own personal favorite horror films of all time; needless to say, I am eagerly looking forward to seeing them in fully restored theatrical prints. If you have never seen either of them before, this is your chance to see them for the first time under the best possible conditions, and I envy you for the experience.