Everyone knows that Boris Karloff played Frankenstein’s monster. Most horror fans remember the late, great Christopher Lee, as well. Benedict Cumberbatch has played the creature. Heck, even Oscar winner Robert DeNiro has played the monster.
But did you know about the New Zealand wrestler who once played Baron Frankenstein’s horrific creation?
Ernie “Kiwi” Kingston’s turn as the monster in 1964’s The Evil Of Frankensteinby Hammer Films earned him a small but notable place in horror history, but the wrestler’s acting turn is shrouded in obscurity, nearly 60 years on. It was pretty much the only film he performed in.
The Hammer Frankenstein cycle of movies from 1957-1974 still hold up well as a colourful Gothic series of chilling tales about man’s desire to play God, led by the inimitable Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein. Unlike the earlier Universal Frankenstein films, the focus on these was squarely on the evil doctor himself and his mad obsessions as he creates monster after monster in his quest to unlock the secrets of life and death.
Evil of Frankenstein was the third of six films Cushing starred in, and a kind of weird outlier – the story didn’t seem connected to the two previous movies, and it’s the only one of the series not directed by Hammer maestro Terence Fisher.
A professional wrestler, 6 foot, 5 inch “Kiwi” Kingston, as he was credited, played a hulking, grotesque version of the monster, freed from frozen ice and abused by a rogue hypnotist (as you do).
“As a person to work with, quite timid, gentle, quite reserved,” costar Katy Wild, who played a mute girl that befriended the monster, in a documentary on the Evil of Frankenstein blu-ray.
Unfortunately for Kingston, his turn as the monster is hampered by what is probably the worst makeup in any major Frankenstein movie I’ve seen. Inspired by Karloff’s iconic look, it’s a sloppy, blocky mask that looks a bit like a grocery bag soaked in papier-mâché. The too-huge brow and lack of mobility prevents much in the way of facial expression. You can just barely see Kingston’s eyes poking out from under all the goop.
It’s a shame because it’s possible less oppressive makeup might have given Kingston more to work with other than lurching around a lot … although he wasn’t exactly a trained actor.
“Kiwi Kingston was actually cast for his hulking frame and not his acting ability,” the documentary on the movie notes.
While he was indeed a Kiwi, he seems to have spent most of his life overseas.
A Christchurch history page says he was “born in 1914, to Ernest John Kingston and Edith Emily (nee) Hammond. As an amateur boxer in New Zealand Ernie had been runner-up in the heavyweight division at the N.Z. champs in 1938. He was also a top rugby player and general all round sportsman.”
He made a name for himself in NZ sport, as seen in a very fit photo from 1940 in the national archives. Like a lot of kiwis, Kingston went on a big OE (overseas experience) but in his case, it sounds like he never really returned. A wrestling blog from 2005 tells a little of his background:
“… Towards the end of the 30’s, a big strong rugby player, boxer, and wrestler, did some service in the air force and ended up in Britain. He was a (wrestler) Anton Koolman pupil in Wellington in the late 30’s, and it is sad that he was almost unknown in his own country. I refer to big Ernie Kingston, who ended up a huge name in Britain and all over Europe. He became known as ‘Kiwi’ Kingston, a big rough diamond from Banks Peninsula.”
He loved horses – “he had a pony field where he collected ponies that had been discarded and looked after them until they died,” his Evil co-star Caron Gardner remembered.
Evil of Frankenstein was just about it in terms of movie stardom for Kingston, who only appeared in a tiny role in another Hammer film, Hysteria. He did apparently later wrestle under the stage name “The Great Karloff” which is a kind of awesome tip of the hat to his Franken-forefather, though.
Ernie Kingston died in 1992, and there’s not much out there on the internet about his life in later years I could find.
But there’s only a handful of people out there who can say they played Frankenstein’s monster in a major Hollywood movie over a century or so of films. Kiwi Kingston’s turn as the monster long before Peter Jackson helped put New Zealand horror movies on the global map is a small but fascinating little piece of film history. Not bad for a lad from the bottom of the world.
I used to see this guy occasionally when I returned to visit America from New Zealand, and every single time he saw me, he’d unleash a stream of lame dad jokes about hobbits and orcs.
…Because that’s all some Americans know when they think of New Zealand, you see, is Peter Jackson’s admittedly excellent Lord of the Rings movies (and the rather less excellent Hobbit follow-ups).
New Zealand movies are so much more than that, of course, from Oscar-winning director Jane Campion or the askew comedy of Taika Waititi to the awesome talents of Bruno Lawrence, Karl Urban and Sam Neill to some brilliant Māori filmmaking. The now-New Zealand-based James Cameron films his gazillion-dollar Avatar movies here and Wēta Digital’s special effects are all over screens from Marvel superheroes to Cocaine Bear.
But also, New Zealanders are really good at scaring the crap out of you.
A pre-hobbit Peter Jackson made some of the first NZ horror movies to gain notice worldwide with the splatter-horror/comedy low-fi genius of Bad Taste, Brain Deadand Meet The Feebles. Many other great NZ horror movies have followed ever since, including Black Sheep, Deathgasm and Housebound.
But in the last year or so, even more New Zealand-made horror has kind of taken over the world, with four well regarded scare-fests topping the box office or winning critical acclaim – M3GAN, Evil Dead Rise and Ti West’s XandPearl.
These films aren’t generally entirely made by New Zealand directors, actors and writers or explicitly even about New Zealand, but by simply being filmed down here and using a hefty amount of local cast, crew, and behind-the-scenes personnel, they’ve got a heavy kiwi sensibility packed into their DNA – a little alienation, a little finding horror in everyday objects, a little wry black humour.
Scary robot doll movie M3GAN is deeply silly but fun spin on the whole “evil technology fears” trope, and while its generic America suburbia and offices setting doesn’t scream New Zealand, big chunks of it were filmed here and NZ director Gerard Johnstone gives the material a nice, creepy edge and added in the viral dance scene that helped make the movie a surprise hit.
I haven’t seen the intensely gory brand new Evil Dead Rise as it looks a little too much for me, to be honest, but I love that a blood-soaked elevator scene prominent in the trailers was filmed near the mall I used to go to all the time. The whole Evil Dead franchise has many ties to New Zealand – producer Rob Tapert has been with Sam Raimi’s goopy undead franchise since the very beginning, co-created ‘90s kiwi TV sensation Xena: Warrior Princess and is married to its star Lucy Lawless, and the excellent Ash Vs. Evil Dead TV series was all filmed down here.
But the best of the lot of recent NZ-shot terror for me are the psychosexual horrors of Ti West’s X and its prequel Pearl, which after many delays is finally being shown in NZ cinemas. Both films were filmed at a spooky Whanganui farm, and feature many familiar NZ acting faces.
X is a proudly sleazy movie about a 1970s porn movie being filmed at a sinister farm that plunges into unexpected depths of emotion amidst its gore and sweat, while the prequel Pearl shifts back in time to tell the story of the elderly woman at the centre of X as a young, hopeful girl with dreams of escaping her stifling family farm. Both movies star Mia Goth, one of the most unique presences on screen in quite a while (without spoilers, she plays multiple roles across the two films).
I think Pearl is the first great movie I’ve seen to take on the COVID pandemic and all the uneasy, awkward feelings of fear and anxiety churned up by it. Set during the 1918 flu pandemic, it’s a world of recovering trauma where young Pearl (Goth) fears she’ll never fulfil her dreams. Much of Pearl was written while West and Goth were in quarantine here in New Zealand, and the script richly evokes how uncertain the world felt in those early pandemic days.
An awful lot of movies are shot in New Zealand these days – we’re a hip, cool place, we’re cheap, got a lot of great screen talent built up here, but really, enough with the hobbit jokes, already.
It’s OK if you want to start thinking of New Zealand as the place you go to get scared, too.
Mummy monster movies have always fascinated me, even if there’s never been a truly great mummy movie like there have been for Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula. The very visual idea of a corpse wrapped in bandages touches on some kind of universal terror. They’re not zombies – they’re something kind of worse, caught forever in a sort of half-life. I dressed up as a mummy one year for Halloween wearing yellow pajamas that were draped in toilet paper. The paper unraveled after a few blocks, but I didn’t care. Mummies are cool, man.
Universal Pictures brought the first mummy movies to the cinema, not too many years after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb created a kind of Egypt-mania. But while Universal churned out five Mummy movies in the ’30s and ‘40s, they’ve never quite been regarded as classics like Bride of Frankenstein or The Invisible Man. Still, the first time I saw these movies years ago, there was something about them I liked.
As a “character,” the Mummy in the Universal movies is generally lacking, especially after the first Boris Karloff film. He’s mute, he shambles and lurches and somehow still manages to kill a lot of people despite only having one working arm and leg. But darn it, he just LOOKS great, with the iconic makeup by Frankenstein’s monster magician Jack Pierce, and there’s something I like about the idea of an ancient horror coming to life in modern America. While the Mummy is a somewhat blank canvas compared to flashier movie monsters, you can see a lot of his relentless stalking and silent menace in later killers like Halloween’s Michael Myers and Friday The 13th’s Jason Voorhees.
Most of the 1940s Mummy series is formulaic to a fault, and increasingly cheap, each one barely over an hour long. Yet I still enjoy them for what they are – pulpy monster stories that don’t demand too much of you, but you’ll be guaranteed to see some murderin’ mummy action and just enough moments to remind you of why the very idea of a mummy still creeps us out.
The Mummy (1932)
The one that started it all, but if you’ve never seen it, it’s very different than you might think. On a high from Frankenstein, Boris Karloff stars as Egyptian high priest Imhotep, the “mummy” of the title, but he only actually appears wrapped up in linen for one brief scene. For the rest of the movie, the revived Imhotep is an eccentric yet apparently ordinary man, working as an Egyptian historian. Imhotep’s secret is that he’s searching for the reincarnation of his lost love, and hatching a millennia-old plot of revenge and lust. The Mummy is far more of a kind of Gothic horror than a monster movie, a gorgeously filmed slow burn with Karloff delivering one of his best performances as the creepy stalker Imhotep. It’s more of a ghost story, really. There’s only that brief proper mummy scene but throughout the film makeup mastermind Pierce gives Karloff a withered, haunting look. The Mummy is not quite scary, but genuinely disturbing and bitterly sad, the story of an eternal lost love. Karloff’s haunting eyes tell a story better than even the best makeup could, really.
Rating: Four and a half pyramids (out of five)
The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
The idea of movie “reboots” didn’t exist in 1940, really, but for all intents and purposes, Mummy’s Hand starts an entire new series of Mummy movies, introducing the ancient Kharis (Tom Tyler). The shuffling “mummy stereotype” that most of us first think of when we think of mummies begins here, in a gaudy B-movie that, while inferior to the arty drama of The Mummy, was actually lot more influential on the mummy image over the years. Thousands of years ago, Kharis attempted to bring his dead lover Princess Ananka back to life, but was caught by the temple priests and mummified alive for his crimes. Centuries later, a group of adventurers discover his tomb in Egypt and accidentally free him, and thus the murdery hijinks ensue. Much of the plot that animates the entire series starts here – an ancient order of cultish priests have guarded the mummy’s secrets for centuries and Kharis is kept alive by “tanna leaves” that rejuvenate him from his hibernation. Unfortunately the cool ideas at the heart of Mummy’s Hand are buried in sloppy execution, a slow plot, dated racial condescension towards the Egyptian people and far too much lame Abbott-and-Costello style comic relief with the highly annoying sidekick “Babe” (Wallace Ford). I rarely wanted a supporting character to be strangled by a mummy as much as I did “Babe.” While this one sets the template for the franchise, with an ever-returning Kharis wreaking vengeance in various ways, it’s a pretty dull monster movie, with sub-par Indiana Jones-style antics and no mummy action until well over halfway through. While Tyler’s reptilian Mummy is very creepy – with vivid blacked-out eyes, he’s a lot scarier than his successor Lon Chaney Jr would be – he gets very little screen time.
Rating: Three pyramids
The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
Arguably, the best of the movies after the Karloff original, once you get past the pointlessly long 10-minute recap of the last movie at the beginning. For one thing, annoying Babe returns and is quickly killed off by the Mummy, who goes on a major revenge murder spree here. The story picks up 30 years after Mummy’s Hand, with the returned Mummy and his Egyptian sidekick (an excellent, feline Turhan Bey) now in America. They’re hanging out in a New England college town hunting down members of the expedition from Mummy’s Hand and wiping them out without mercy. I actually quite like them bringing the Mummy to America, where his old-world menace seems somehow more terrifying and disorienting. Having the Mummy stalk suburban streets is highly creepy. Nobody escapes the Mummy’s curse, these movies constantly remind us, and they actually live up to that claim by wiping out any survivors from previous movies quickly. It’s Lon Chaney Jr’s debut as the Mummy he would go on to play for three movies, but it’s hard to imagine a less thankless role for an actor. He’s mostly played as an unthinking weapon. Even Frankenstein’s monster could emote more, and Chaney reportedly hated the job (fun fact – the alcoholic Chaney reportedly gimmicked the mummy costume up so he could sip vodka all the day long). Despite its flaws, this feels like the platonic ideal of a Universal Mummy movie, and it’s got far more Mummy action than the first two in the series, and a spectacular fiery climax which is probably the best “boss battle” we get in these Mummy movies.
Rating: Four pyramids
The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)
By Mummy No. 4, Universal’s mummy-mania started to unravel a bit. The by-now mandatory “ancient Egyptian priest passes on his duties” features the priest who died at the beginning of The Mummy’s Tomb! The best and most interesting bit is the idea of Kharis’ doomed lover Princess Ananka being reincarnated into the modern day, an idea first introduced in the Karloff Mummy and later used in the Hammer and Brendan Fraser Mummy franchises. Ever since The Mummy’s Ghost resurrected (sorry) the idea, if you’re doing a mummy story, you’ll probably fit reincarnation in there somewhere. Unfortunately, that plot is introduced in a movie that feels almost like a step-by-step remake of Mummy’s Tomb, with Kharis once again murdering his way around New England. The cast are uniformly forgettable except for John Carradine (in a bit of unfortunate brown-face) as the latest sinister Egyptian cult handler for Kharis, but Lon Chaney gets to emote a little bit more in the stifling Mummy makeup than usual. Also, there’s a cute dog. What lifts Ghost from total mediocrity is the bleakest ending of the entire series, where for once, the monster basically wins. The Mummy movies are all pulpy silliness, but the final scene where the monster and his doomed reincarnated love sink into quicksand always haunted me a little. Unfortunately, dead never means dead when you’re a mummy and there was one more to go…
Rating: Three and a half pyramids
The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
Churned out less than six months after Ghost, which has to be some kind of record. The Mummy’s Curse immediately gets off on the wrong foot by picking up 25 years after the last movie with the Mummy still lost in a swamp, except for some inexplicable reason instead of New England the setting is now a hackneyed cajun Louisiana filled with cringeworthy Black stereotypes. (A character actually says, twice, “The devil’s on the loose and he’s dancing with the mummy!”) A kind of hacky laziness dominates Curse, which with the slippery flexible timelines of the series should logically be set sometime around the year 1995. In addition to Kharis coming back, the reincarnated Princess Ananka also gets to rise from the dead in this one as an amnesiac – the best scene in the movie is when she rises, eerily, from the swamps. It’s one way the otherwise rote Curse breaks a bit from the formula. The leading man here is so colourless he’s almost transparent, and the entire movie feels like a rerun – once again, we get a lengthy exposition scene and flashback by those pesky inept Egyptian priests and once again we hear about the magic of tanna leaves, and for the third movie in a row a priest betrays the Mummy because he gets the hots for a girl. Poor Lon Chaney doesn’t even get to appear unmasked as Kharis in the flashback scene, because as part of the general cheapness old Tom Tyler footage from Mummy’s Hand is used again. Universal’s Mummy series was never Shakespeare, but by instalment number five all the life had been squeezed out of the premise, which actually ended pretty definitively in Mummy’s Ghost. It’s amazing how this one-armed, one-legged slow Mummy managed to strangle quite so many people during his run, though.
Rating: Two pyramids
Was this the final blessed peace of the grave for the mummy? Well, Kharis was done, but mummies would return again and again, next in the rather daft Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy in 1955, and then with Hammer’s quite good Christopher Lee-starring The Mummy in 1959 and many other mummies in the years since. You can’t keep a good dead man down.
He was the last of the monsters, the creatures who stalked the screen in vivid black and white, the horror icons of an age before blood ran red on the screens. Ricou Browning, who died this week at age 93, was the last living person who played one of the classic Universal Movie Monsters.
The Universal monsters – Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman and more – lit up the screens in the 1930s through 1956 and helped define what we think of when we think of movie monsters. You think of Frankenstein’s monster, you think of Karloff’s looming golem, you think of Dracula, you probably think of Lugosi’s slick old-world menace. I fell in love with the Universal movies as a kid during afterschool TV marathons when I first watched flicks like Ghost of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand.
But my favourite was 1954’s The Creature From The Black Lagoon, which I taped on a battered VHS cassette that I watched over and over periodically for years. It’s still a succinct, chilling little fable about man meddling with nature and the uncanny allure of how beauty killed the beast. The monster was one of the best movie designs of the era – perhaps only second to Jack Pierce’s Frankenstein makeup – and recently Mallory O’Meara’s book The Lady From The Black Lagoon delves into the fascinating, contentious story of how it came to be.
Browning played the Gill-Man in the underwater scenes in the first Creature and the sequels Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us, a role which technically didn’t require a lot of acting – I’d imagine most of his attention was taken up by actually trying to swim in that monster gear. Yet, those scenes in the first movie particularly where the Gill-Man drifts, ominously, beneath the grey waters and stalks the gorgeous Julie Adams are indelible landmarks in creepy horror. Adams, the object of the Creature’s affections, died herself a couple years back.
The few minutes where the Gill Man and Adams do a kind of underwater duet, the monster mirroring his unaware obsession, are among the finest in Universal Horror history.
The silent way the Creature stalks Adams, nearly touching her drifting toes, made an impression on Young Nik watching on TV reruns, and the influence of a scene like that – where horror is implied, rather than splashed and splattered – can be seen everywhere from Jaws to John Carpenter’s original Halloween all the way on up to the modern day in your better horror movies.
Browning, who was just a kid when he first donned that gill man suit 70 years ago, outlived his fellow Universal monster actors by more than 50 years – Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney Jr. were all gone by 1973 – and for years he enjoyed his peculiar fame on the convention circuit among the still quite active world of classic horror fans. Unlike Chaney Jr and Lugosi, who died neglected addicts, he lived a long, fulfilling life (among his other movie underwater credits were Flipper and James Bond’s Thunderball).
Still, Ricou Browning was the last of his kind – the unforgettable monster from the deep who swam beneath your feet, always in black and white, terrifying and yet slightly sympathetic like the best of monsters. Universal’s Classic Monster greats are all gone now, but they still lurk on, flickering away every time I rewatch one of the classic scares.
It’s the spooky season, and Halloween is nearly upon us! What better way to celebrate than lining up a handful of horror movies – since I outgrew trick-or-treat, my favourite way to mark the holiday.
Vampires are a Halloween mainstay, and for my Halloween post, here’s my Top 13 Movie Vampires (many more could have made the list, but I decided to stop with the spooky 13).
Where it all began
Nosferatu (Max Schreck) Nosferatu, 1922:One hundred years old this year, the first major screen vampire in this not-quite adaptation of Dracula is still horrifying. Apparently some people even thought Schreck was a real vampire! The movie is brisk and terrifying even after a century, and features several shots that are among the greatest in horror history. Sure, you could argue this Nosferatu doesn’t really have a character, but who cares when he’s this scary?
Dracula (Bela Lugosi), Dracula, 1931: The ultimate interpretation of Dracula, so iconic that Lugosi spent the rest of his life both chasing and running away from it. It’s hard to look at a role like this that’s passed into legend with fresh eyes, but watch it again sometime and see how Lugosi sinks his teeth (sorry) into his sexy, strange vampire. Everyone from Anne Rice to Twilight owes him a debt.
Dracula (Christopher Lee) Lots of Dracula movies, 1958-1973: The thing about Christopher Lee is he looked great as Dracula in a whole series of Hammer Films vampire flicks even when the movies themselves were rather sloppy and stilted and had titles like Taste The Blood of Dracula. They even made the mistake of having Lee – one of the best horror voices of all time – nearly mute in several of the movies and his character and competence seemed to change from film to film. None of that really matters, because besides Lugosi, Lee is the finest dark prince ever to play the role.
Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) Dracula’s Daughter, 1936: It seems weird in these days of never-ending franchises, but Lugosi did not return for a proper Dracula sequel. Instead, this ‘sidequel’ introduces his supposed daughter, the gloriously goth Holden. It’s one of the many bashed-out Universal Horror cheapies that barely run over an hour, but Holden’s sultry Zaleska is a striking, strong and modern creation – witness the barely concealed lesbian subtext in one famous scene.
Lestat (Tom Cruise) Interview With A Vampire, 1994: Man, there was an outrage back in the day about Tom Cruise playing Anne Rice’s bratty vampire, but every time I watch this, he seems a little bit better – preening and smug, he blows a sleepy Brad Pitt off the screen. I still haven’t seen the new TV reboot yet, but for my money this flick captures the lush absurdity of Rice’s prose very well.
Blacula (William Marshall) Blacula, Scream, Blacula Scream!, 1972-73: William Marshall was better than the material in the Blacula movies, which are a silly blaxploitation hoot with few moments of real terror. But boy, did Marshall act the heck out of Blacula, giving a wounded dignity and majesty to his cursed African prince that lifts the movies themselves. His grand booming voice alone ensures a place on this list.
Totally ‘80s Vampires
David (Kiefer Sutherland), The Lost Boys, 1987: Come on, who didn’t want to be a Lost Boy after watching the hooligan vampire gang led by Sutherland’s David storming around Santa Cruz, where weightlifting saxophonists wail away the night? Flashier, sexier vampires became a big thing in the ‘80s, and the hair-sprayed, sultry crew led by David were among the vanguard.
Jerry Dandridge (Christopher Sarandon), Fright Night, 1985: As this list shows, the ‘80s were a terrific time for vampire reinventions. Here’s the yuppie vampire, smooth scarf-wearing Jerry Dandridge, played with memorable charm and snark by Sarandon. The meddling teenager next door is sure Dandridge is a vampire – needless to say, the kids are always right.
Severen (Bill Paxton) Near Dark, 1987: The white trash dark reflection of that same year’s Lost Boys, Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire western is a magnificently tense and gorgeously filmed story of a band of roaming vampires and the young cowboy who falls in with them, but the whole dang movie is nearly stolen by the late great Bill Paxton’s swaggering, sleazy Severen, a member of the vamp gang who honestly does not give a damn and storms through every situation like a pure creature of the id. He’s terrifying, and hilarious.
Darned weird vampires
‘Space girl’ (Mathilda May) Lifeforce, 1985: She’s a kind of space vampire, and she spends about 95% of her screen time utterly naked in Tobe Hooper’s bizarrely grandiose sci-fi/horror epic. It’s a trashy movie but it’s also so determined to be weird, from an overacting Patrick Stewart to its swirling, cosmic climax. It’s not a very coherent film, but May’s stoic, creepy otherness makes her nude dark creature fascinating.
Jiangshi, Mr. Vampire, 1985: Chinese vampires are weird. This insane Sammo Hung comedy horror introduced mass audiences to the Chinese folklore “jiangshi,” hopping corpses who are somewhere between zombies, vampires and leapfrogs. The vampires in this movie are creepy because they’re so far from what Bela Lugosi made us think of, more animal-like than anything, and its success led to an explosion of wild, weird films.
Not quite vampires
Blade (Wesley Snipes) Blade, Blade II and Blade III, 1998-2004: Wesley Snipes’ attitude-filled vampire killer who’s also a reluctant vampire himself was the first Marvel comics character to actually star in a hit film, and the blood-splattered, over-the-top Blade series is still a heck of a lot of fun, combining action movie energy with gory horror.
Peter Loew (Nicolas Cage) Vampire’s Kiss, 1989: Cage is well known for going over the top. In Vampire’s Kiss he not only goes over the top, he launches himself into outer space. In this unhinged, extremely black comedy, he’s a yuppie sleazebag who apparently is bitten by a vampire. Cage goes “full Cage” as his character gradually loses his mind, eating cockroaches and screaming through the streets of Manhattan. It’s hilarious, but it’s also one heck of a piece of method acting. You’ll never forget it.
Honourable Mention: The vampires from What We Do In The Shadows; The Hunger; Let The Right One In; Nosferatu (Herzog remake); Only Lovers Left Alive; Count Yorga; Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
The thing about Mary Shelley’s Frankensteinis it’s not the story you think it is.
Mary Shelley was only a teenager when she wrote the book that has led some to call her “the inventor of science fiction.” At the very least, she certainly helped create some foundations for it. However, if you’ve binged on old Boris Karloff movies and are expecting Frankenstein the novel to be the same animal, you’re likely to be a bit befuddled.
The book has a rather average 3.8-star rating on GoodReads, with critics saying it’s “like watching paint dry” and “tedious.” Published in 1818, it does get off to a somewhat slow start, with a series of nesting first-person narratives from an Arctic ship captain, then Victor Frankenstein, and then finally the monster itself. There’s not a lot of what we jaded 2022 folk would call “action” and a lot of flowery romantic language.
But once you abandon expectations of a silent Karloff-ian zombie lurking in the shadows and Colin Clive shrieking “It’s alive!”, Frankenstein is still a pretty remarkable book which I return to every few years. It turned 200 years old just a few years back, so keep in mind its voice is almost closer to the era of Shakespeare than it is 2022. It is a novel of ideas and debate, rather than straight horror, although god knows plenty of horrible things happen to Victor Frankenstein and his creation.
The first time I “read” Frankenstein was in one of those adapted great works of literature children’s books, which stripped the story down to the essentials and ran some evocative illustrations to go with it. These days, my go-to version of Frankenstein is one with utterly gorgeous macabre drawings by the late, great Bernie Wrightson to go with Shelley’s text. More than some classic novels, I’ve always felt like Frankenstein cries out for a little art to complement the wordy text.
Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s another classic horror book that is quite different in tone than its many adaptations. So much of our image of what “Frankenstein” is comes from James Whale’s 1931 film – which I utterly adore, don’t get me wrong. Even the idea that the monster itself is somehow actually called “Frankenstein” emerged from those old Universal films. (In the books, he refers to himself as Adam at least once.)
The bones of Shelley’s story still stick with me years later. When I first read it, I was obsessed by the image of Frankenstein chasing his monster across the Arctic wastes that frames Shelley’s story, the idea of monster and creator pursuing each other into the frozen wastelands throughout eternity. I love Shelley’s questing monologues for the Creature, who is the polar opposite of Karloff’s silent, mournful monster. The Creature is violently angry at the world that scorned him but also gorgeously descriptive about his cursed place in it: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.”
One of the most notable things about reading Frankenstein the novel is how all the scientific explanations for the monster’s creation we are so used to don’t appear at all. There’s no Igor, no labs filled with lightning, only a hint of grave-robbing. Shelley is almost coy about how the monster came to be, dismissing the technical details within a sentence or two. She is more interested in the question of duality – are monsters made, or are they created by the world’s reaction to them? The spark her book lit has fuelled a thousand other interpretations and expansions of her dark tragedy.
Hollywood has taken many, many swings at the Frankenstein story in the past century but never quite captures the book. Kenneth Branagh’s overwrought 1994 film has its moments of fidelity, but still piles on laboratories sparking and its campy excess misses the book’s haunted, spartan tone.
But I’m happy with that. There’s many great Frankenstein movies out there, but the novel that birthed all these monsters is very much its own animal, two centuries old now and still filled with wonder and horror and mystery about the world around us.
What is it: Today, of all days, you know who this guy is. He’s the hockey mask-wearing serial killer who starred in about a jillion gory movies between 1980 and 2003 or so (to be precise, 10 Friday the 13th movies, one reboot, and one “team-up” with Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger). The sixth instalment, Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, is the charmingly low-key story of a boy with a dream … a dream which involves killing lots of teenagers.
Why I never saw it: To be blunt, Jason scared me. I was an ‘80s horror movie buff – I loved Nightmare On Elm Street, even the awful ones, and it’s not unfair to say that David Cronenberg’s The Flychanged my life. I grooved on The Lost Boysand The Thing.Yet, for years, I was repelled and a little freaked out by the Jason movies, which were culturally everywhere in the ‘80s – parodied in Mad magazine, homaged by other movies, et cetera. Jason was of course a bit of a rip-off of John Carpenter’s Halloween and its own stalking silent killer Michael Myers, but there was something even more bleak and disturbing about his hockey-masked visage – a blank white canvas with staring eye-holes where a soul might be. He lacked the elegance of a Dracula or the pathos of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. All he did was kill. I even remember seeing the paperback adaptation of Jason Lives sitting on the racks in our local Kmart as a kid, where I’d flip through the pages each time I saw it – figuring it was less horrifying than seeing the movies themselves. These movies seemed more terror than horror to me – I like my horror movies with a dollop of wit in there, and sight unseen, the reputation of the Jason movies is that they were brutal, nihilistic gore-fests without the cheesy parody that made Freddy Krueger or Evil Dead II a bit more, well, loveable.
Does it measure up to its rep? Do the Friday the 13th movies have a rep, outside of horror aficionados? It turns out, years later, some of them aren’t really all that bad, although I’ve still only seen a handful of them – and I’m fond of the weirder later entries like the insanely over-the-top Freddy Vs Jason monster mash, or the absurdist “let’s just send the serial killer into space in the future, then” comedy of Jason X. But to see Jason in his pure, summer camp ghoul element, you’ve got to go back a bit. The Friday The 13th series has a weird chronology – Jason himself barely appears in the first one and doesn’t don that iconic hockey mask until Part III. For the next several sequels, the pattern was set – Jason returns, kills a lot, is defeated by some spunky teenager. By the time Part VI rolled around in ’86, the series was evolving from a creepy, somewhat human knife killer and the rather unstoppable demonic figure that Jason became by Jason X. If you’re imagining what a Friday the 13th movie might be like, then starting with Part VI isn’t actually a bad place to go.
Worth seeing? “Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment,” the town drunk mutters at one point, just before he gets murdered. Jason Lives is the platonic ideal of the ‘80s slasher horror movie in its mainstream moment – lifting from everything from Frankenstein to James Bond to Rambo, with beloved period cliches like the perpetually angry cops, ripped-jean and pastel fashions, synth-driven pop music, the teenagers who run around rutting every chance they get. The movie starts with a thoroughly dead Jason being accidentally resurrected by one of his teenager enemies and given new superhuman endurance, and escalates from there. You can’t expect part six of a series to bring much new to the table, but with Jason Lives the execution is glossily polished to a Tupperware shine. It’s schlock, but in the right mood it’s massively entertaining schlock, really, and less sadistic than one might expect (sure, teens die, but nobody is really tortured here – Jason is quite efficient). There’s a fair bit of humour and in-jokes here, but not enough to push it into Scream meta territory. It’s simply an effective scare-fest which isn’t trying to be clever. Sometimes, on a Friday the 13th, that’s all you really want. “It’s over. It’s finally over,” we’re told at the end. Spoiler warning: It wasn’t over.
One of the greatest horror movies of all time debuted 90 years ago today. In its honour, here’s a post I originally wrote in 2010 about the enduring power of Frankenstein:
It’s a little late for Halloween, but I’ve been in a monster movie frame of mind. The classic monster movies, that is, which to me have always been the Universal Pictures horror of the 1930s to 1950s — Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, et cetera. I loved ’em as a kid in the 1980s and lately have been on a jag watching some of these classic black and white flicks for the first time in 25 years or so. What’s amazing is how well many of them still hold up, particularly those starring the man who I’d say was the king of monster movies — the original and best Frankenstein’s Monster, Boris Karloff.
Bela Lugosi‘s immortal Dracula seems to get more ink today, and Lon Chaney Jr‘s tragic self-loathing Wolf Man was also great, but Boris Karloff created a monster who defines horror. Try not to imagine Frankenstein’s Monster as the cliched star of everything from breakfast cereals to video games to really bad Hugh Jackman movies. Instead picture the Monster as he first appeared in 1931, looming from the darkened screens. An abomination against life, a morality tale about man’s desire to play god, a creature cursed for the way he looks.
The very first scene when we see the Monster in “Frankenstein” is remarkable. The Monster walks eerily backwards into a dark and gloomy room, almost unnoticed for a fraction of a second — then the camera abruptly quick-cuts inward, two beats, to an extreme, silent close-up of Karloff’s heavy-lidded, haunting eyes. It’s still chilling 80 years after it was filmed.
Karloff’s portrayal is a marvel of economic emotion, terror and innocence all bundled together. The physicality Karloff brought to the Monster defines it; the locked-kneed, lurching walk, flailing hand movements, the monosyllabic grunts and groans.
The famous “monster meets the blind hermit” sequence in “Bride of Frankenstein” is a bit hard to watch without bias today because Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” did such a glorious job of sending it up, but try to picture it as it seemed in 1933. It’s an amazing little character arc, as the Monster learns and grows an astounding amount in just a short time, from guttural grunts to emotion-packed short sentences. Treated with brief kindness, we see his potential, which makes what happens next that much more stinging.
The naked emotional need of the blind man and the Monster is startling. But what we’re seeing here is a real attempt at human connection between two utter outcasts, a connection that is of course shattered by the outside world’s cruelty. “Alone: bad. Friend: good.” That line could have sounded awful done wrong, but Karloff puts just the right spin of hope and sadness on it. The genius of Karloff is in full flight in this scene, as he’s alternately savage, needy and rocked with childlike glee. He helped form the whole “monster you feel kind of sorry for” motif we’ve seen everywhere from “King Kong” to “Twilight.”
Karloff’s skill is more notable when you compare his portrayal to that of other actors who’ve played the Monster — in the many sequels to the 1931 movie we saw actors like Glenn Strange and Lon Chaney Jr. take on the role, but they lacked that almost-sweet innocence Karloff brought. What was a character of real tragic depth became the more familiar lumbering monster we now know, still cool, but not quite as shocking and strange as the half-human Monster Karloff created in the first three films. And Frankenstein’s Monster on film since has never quite managed the power of the Karloff years.
What is it: The mother of all Satanic panic possession stories, and widely considered one of the best psychological horror tales of all time. Mia Farrow is Rosemary, who seems to live a perfect life with her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes). But when they move into a new apartment, they become close to their mysterious neighbours, and when Rosemary becomes pregnant, she discovers she’s caught in an evil web she can’t escape. The “Satanic horror boom” that ran through the 1970s from The Exorcist to The Omen starts here.
Why I never saw it: I’ve been rather tardy to a lot of the truly iconic horror films of the 1970s, as this occasional serieshas shown onseveral occasions. I think the horror movies you hear rumours about as a kid can haunt you even more if you haven’t gotten around to seeing them as an adult. I mean, I checked out Cronenberg’s The Fly when I was like 16 and became a fan of its goopy glory for life, but I didn’t see The Exorcist until I was in deep into my 40s because it sounded a wee bit too scary. I’m funny that way.
Does it measure up to its rep? Some movies are so famous you know the broad strokes of their plot without even seeing them. It’s a sign of a classic when you finally watch it and still be sucked right into the story. Roman Polanski may be a deeply problematic human, but his skill as a director is hard to cancel entirely. In movies like Chinatown, Repulsion and The Pianist, he’s always in control no matter how chaotic the situation he puts his characters in. He sets a foreboding tone for Rosemary from the start, where everything appears normal, but has an oddly menacing vibe. Nothing much truly scary happens in this movie, but it leaves you feeling unmoored and shaken, just like Rosemary herself is. Brief surreal glimpses of Rosemary’s dreams or a horrifying seduction sequence stand out sharply from the carefully ordered world. It’s that juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrifying that makes Rosemary’s Baby work more than 50 years on.
Farrow, who I mostly know from her days making Woody Allen movies, is terrific, going from wide-eyed ingenue to a truly haunted figure over the course of the movie. And it’s a real trip to see Ruth Gordon, whom I will forever associate with the classic Harold and Maude, hamming it up as the gossipy sinister neighbour (she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as a result). There’s also a firm subtext about Rosemary’s marginalisation as a pregnant woman – her agency is usurped constantly by her husband, friends and authority figures, and it’s hard not to see the picture itself as a bigger metaphor for the claustrophobic traps too many women were – and are – put in by society. Rosemary’s Baby implies far more than it shows, which in my mind at least almost always makes for a better horror movie. Polanski’s general restraint makes the shocking final 10 minutes of the movie hit that much harder. You’ll never think of “Hail Satan!” in the same way again.
Worth seeing? The idea of Satan sneaking his way into your life has been done to death in movies and horror, but the devil is in the details here. Polanski’s keen eye for how the ordinary moments in life can be hiding something else make Rosemary’s Baby a vision of hell far scarier than some guy in red with horns.
I’ve got a shelf in the spare bedroom that’s overloaded with musty vintage Stephen King paperbacks, stacked up high. I like to think of the man as our modern Charles Dickens, a spinner of ripping yarns who’s managed to be insanely popular and yet also, kind of great at what he does.
In his nearly 50-year-career, he’s written an astonishing 80 or so books – novels, story collections, rare limited editions and pulpy crime novels that use horror to get at the truths of the human heart. Some are better than others, but his batting average is pretty darned good. Everyone loves The Stand, but how about a good ol’ creepy underrated tale like From A Buick 8?
Many years ago now, I set off on the insane task to do a complete brief review of every Stephen King book (leaving out the oddities like limited editions and children’s books). I began this all the way the hell back in 2009 on my old blog, and as King keeps on scribbling, I keep on updating it. It’s been two years since my last round-up and there’s still more King to examine! Long may the King reign. Here’s the sixth and latest Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, from 2015’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams to 2021’s Later.
Bazaar of Bad Dreams: A Stephen King short story collection is like grabbing a big ol’ pile of vintage EC Comics and diving into an assortment of creepy, haunting little gems. In some ways, the short story is King’s best showcase, because if an idea hasn’t quite worked, there’s another dozen within to grab you. So it’s a mixed bag by nature – the (mildly dated) e-reader-themed piece “Ur” is a grabber, but the poems here, um, aren’t really King’s forte. But I automatically knock up a big thick story collection a half-grade for its sheer bountiful pleasures, and this one’s got many to offer. Grade: A-
End of Watch: The climax of King’s “Detective Hodges” trilogy, with one of his more enduring groups of characters – ageing ex-cop private detective Bill Hodges, autistic savant Holly Gibney and psycho killer Brady Hartsfield. The down-to-earth duo of Bill and Holly have made for some of King’s best and most humane writing in recent years, and while this final book of Bill’s adventures gets a little over-the-top – turning Hartsfield into some kind of evil supervillain rather than the slightly more believable lone madman of Mr. Mercedes – it’s still an enjoyably twisted tale and a fine capper to the series. Grade: B+
Gwendy’s Button Box: A short novella co-written with Richard Chizmar, this tale of an unloved young girl is a kind of spin on “The Monkey’s Paw,” where a mysterious stranger gives a random person an incredibly powerful strange box. Aimed a bit more at the “Harry Potter” crowd than King’s typical work, it’s a quick read that feels more like a sampler aimed at fans who haven’t tried the hardcore King yet. In a collection it might feel a little less puffed-up, but as a slim novella it’s a little forgettable. There’s apparently a sequel by Chizmar I haven’t read and a third book by King and Chizmar on the way, so I might need to revisit this one soon and see how it holds up. Grade: Probationary B, incomplete.
Sleeping Beauties: This one has a good hook but fails to meet its potential. All of the women in the world suddenly disappear, leaving a world of men behind in chaos. Where have they gone, and why? The tone in this one – a collaboration between King and his son Owen – feels curiously inert. While there’s some good ideas about men and women here, they’re delivered in a ham-handed fashion, and the story heavily relies on some fantasy storytelling which doesn’t quite work. I hate to blame it on the younger King, but this just doesn’t feel quite like a Stephen King book. Sleeping Beauties is overlong, but worse, unlike some of King’s other brick-sized books, it’s often boring. Grade: C-
The Outsider: A grim, satisfying murder mystery. A young boy is murdered and all the evidence points to an amiable little league coach even though he is convinced of his innocence. Is there an “outsider” somewhere who’s able to mimic him and commit the most horrible of crimes unpunished? While it gets a little bogged down in one of King’s trademark kind of enigmatic magical climaxes, for the most part this is a terrific read about a man who’s sure of his innocence despite all the evidence, and the devils that lurk inside us all. Grade: A
Elevation: This brisk novella about a man who keeps losing weight might sound like a remake of the far more gruesome Thinner, but it’s more of a fable about a person trying to make peace with his life in an imperfect world. It’s a quick read with some good heart, but a little clumsy in its moralising, so it falls somewhere squarely in the middle of just adequate King-land. Grade: B-
The Institute: It’s inevitable you start to repeat yourself a bit after 50+ books. The Institute has heavy Firestarter vibes with a dash of The Shining, all about young children with mysterious powers taken away to a secret institution. It’s a paranoid, chilling book and you’re left rooting for the young victims of the “Institute.” But while it’s a compulsively readable tale, it doesn’t quite linger in the mind as strongly as King’s similar works. Grade: B
If It Bleeds: Some of my absolute favourite King books have been his collections of hefty themed novellas like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight. This one is a more oddball grouping of odds ’n’ ends – the “Detective Hodges” trilogy coda “If It Bleeds,” a good ol’ fashioned scary morality play in “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” a rather goofy monster tale in “Rat,” and the best of the lot, the highly experimental “The Life of Chuck,” a man’s life told backwards. It all averages out to a decent bunch of yarns. Grade: B+
Later: I do love the “Hard Case Crime” imprint King has lent some of his pulpier work to in more recent years. It’s a chance for King to be short, sharp and mean, and Later is one of his better pulp efforts, the story of a kid who can “see dead people.” Being King, this is a lot gnarlier than The Sixth Sense. A tale of twisted obsession that calls back to It and King’s recurring theme of young people with special abilities being manipulated and abused, it’s not deep, but it’s solidly entertaining, and ends on a resonant, bittersweet note. Grade: B+
And let’s not forget, the rest of the Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King series: