It’s classic movie monster time! I was going to wait until Christmas to talk about this, but now seemed like a more appropriate time. We are going to compare the original black and white movie monsters (and the actors who brought them to life), against more modern versions and actors to see who comes out on top.

I know there are dozens of classic monsters, including the Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Fly, giant robots, aliens, and over-sized insects/animals, but I’m going to focus on the more famous literary monsters : Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolf Man, Dracula and The Mummy.

Let’s start with my favorite character, Frankenstein’s monster. Most people incorrectly refer to the monster AS Frankenstein – but actually, author Mary Shelley never gave the creature a name. In the 1818 novel, Shelley writes about mad scientist Dr. Victor Frankenstein and how he learns to create life. Even two hundred years ago, people were apparently concerned about man trying to play God, because her novel has some uncanny similarities to modern ethical questions about cloning. Difference is, the town’s folk aren’t storming the castle with pitch forks and torches nowadays, but rather storming the politician offices with blogs and protests (Zing!).

Frankenstein 1931 (Boris Karloff) vs. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1994 (Robert De Niro)

The Frankenstein monster has been in dozens of films, even getting a bride, a son and a ghost – but none were as good as director James Whale’s original 1931 Frankenstein. The classic image of Frankenstein’s monster that we are all most familiar with comes directly from the make-up genius of Jack Pierce, while the monster himself was brilliantly portrayed by Boris Karloff.  Close your eyes and think of the Frankenstein monster – see what I mean? The film focused its story more on the creature and the town’s reaction to it and left behind the gothic romance of the novel.

In 1994, director Kenneth Branagh (Thor) changed that cinematic trend by focusing on the complicated relationship of what amounts to a father (Dr. Frankenstein) a son (The Monster) and a step-mom (Elizabeth), in his adaptation Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Branagh chose to remain faithful to the novel in his adaptation and after Dr. Frankenstein rejects his creation for the woman he loves, the monster focuses his rage and revenge in hurting Dr. Frankenstein by killing that woman. This version is by far the deepest and most emotional of all Frankenstein movies and Robert De Niro gives an incredible performance as the monster.

As time progressed, so too did the visual interpretation of Frankenstein’s monster (I particularly enjoyed Stephen Sommers’ version in Van Helsing), but they all got their inspiration from the godfather of monster movies – Boris Karloff.  For that reason alone, 1931 Frankenstein wins hands down.

The Wolf Man 1941 (Lon Chaney Jr.) vs. Wolf 1994 (Jack Nicholson)

Just like Frankenstein, the Wolf Man has been in dozens of films, either as the titular icon or its many, many, cinematic progeny like An American Werewolf in London. However, make-up designer Jack Pierce proved once again that he is king of the monsters by giving us the classic image of the Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man.  In fact, because the original 1941 Wolf Man is based solely on old European folklore, rumor has it that many of the things we have come to know as true – changing during a full moon, vulnerable to silver and carrying the mark of the pentagram – were actually made up for the movie.

In original werewolf folklore, once an unfortunate soul was bitten, scratched or cursed, they would turn into a full-fledged wolf and not the two-legged human hybrid creature we call “Wolf Man.” It’s true that some films – such as The Howling, American Werewolf in London and Underworld – can “better” depict the full transformation from man to wolf because of modern-day advancements in SFX; however, all new wolf men take their cue from Lon Chaney Jr. and director George Waggner’s 1941 film.

Currently, there is a Wolf Man remake about to release in February 2010, The Wolfman (why they wouldn’t wait until Halloween is beyond me) and because I haven’t seen it yet, I can’t use it for a comparison. Instead, I’ll use Jack Nicholson’s 1994 interpretation, Wolf. The story is completely different: Nicholson is a writer who is bitten by a wolf and slowly turns into one himself. Chaney was a man attacked by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi) and turns into one as well. Although Nicholson was in better shape back then and looked great during the transformation scenes (at one point I thought he would make a great Wolverine based solely on his look in Wolf), the movie had too many flaws to ignore.

This is not really a great contest, because although I liked Wolf, it just doesn’t hold a candle to The Wolf Man in terms of its leading monster. This may change if next year’s Wolfman is as good as the SFX look (see above on the right), but for now, Lon Chaney Jr. and The Wolf Man are the clear winners.

Continue reading for our comparisons of Dracula and The Mummy…

Dracula 1931 (Bela Lugosi) vsBraham Stoker’s Dracula 1992 (Gary Oldman)

Vampires have a deep history dating back hundreds of years (although Twilight tweens would swear they’ve only been sparkling in the sunlight for a couple of years now) and they have been featured in more films than I can count. In modern days, vampires are known to fly without becoming bats, have superhuman strength and are very gory with their feeding. Originally though, vampires were nothing more than blood-sucking, neck-biting versions of Wayne Newton; they liked to seduce their prey, focusing mainly on women while they slept, and would only attack men if they were cornered. Somewhere along the way filmmakers forgot about that, because now it’s all about the blood, wherever it flows from.

However, in 1931, Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi and make-up artist Jack Pierce brought the world what is arguably the most famous monster in history, Count Dracula, in their original 1931 version of Dracula. Based on Braham Stoker’s classic 1897 tale, the 1931 film follows a couple visiting the Count in his castle in Romania, as he begins to prey on the woman Mina Harker (Helen Chandler). Focusing more on the gothic and morbid romance between Dracula and Harker, the 1931 movie leaves out all of the gory blood-sucking that audiences have come to expect. Necks are bitten and a slight corniness fills the screen but yet there is something that oddly compels you to continue watching. Maybe it is Dracula’s hypnotic stare? (Bet you forgot that is one of a vampire’s powers.)

In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola, like Branagh, took a more literary adaptation of Braham’s Stoker’s novel and made it more of a horror film (and not just because Keanu Reeves is in it). In Coppola’s adaptation of Braham Stoker’s Dracula, there were times where I was actually scared or creeped out by what Gary Oldman was doing on-screen as Count Dracula. There may not have been any throat ripping or devouring of entrails, but the blood-sucking scenes were just as strong visually and the focus was returned to the seductive lure of the vampire and not the bloodletting – on that front, Coppola succeeded. To date, I still consider it to be Gary Oldman’s best performance.

Even though Bela Lugosi’s name became, and still is, synonymous with Count Dracula, I can’t look past the incredible work Coppola and Oldman did in the remake. For that reason 1992 Braham Stoker’s Dracula and Gary Oldman win this contest.

The Mummy 1932 (Boris Karloff) vs. The Mummy 1999 (Arnold Vosloo)

Rounding out the quartet of classic movie monsters, we have The Mummy. There were very few novels and stories to go off when director Karl Freund went to make the 1932 Boris Karloff original, so the script was mostly original material. The filmmakers actually used the (then) recent discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb as the source material and did a “what if” based on that real-life discovery. And it worked.

Karloff transformed from the iconic slow moving, bandage covered mummy of Imhotep, into the human archaeologist Ardath Bey, all the while searching for his lost love Ankh-es-en-amon. Many deaths followed in The Mummy’s wake as he discovers a lookalike for his lost love in Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) and decides that she’ll do just fine. Eventually, the Mummy is dispatched and all is right in the world…that is until the numerous sequels came out. None, however, would ever be as good as the original Mummy.

In 1999, Stephen Sommers decided to give the The Mummy story another try, this time using modern SFX. Even though the sequels The Mummy Returns and The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor were far below adequate, The Mummy remake was – for the most part – a satisfying adventure. The story was kept basically the same as the original, with only the discovery of the mummy being changed. However, Sommers decided to focus more on the hero and heroines, giving them much more screen time and making the mummy’s story more of a secondary sub-plot. Arnold Vosloo was great for his part as Imhotep, but instead of transforming from a rotting mummy into human archaeologist, he just became a sorcerer. I never understood that part. Vosloo isn’t given many lines of actual dialog in the film but his performance is nonetheless great. I do realize that CGI is a big factor in all of Sommers’ movies but I would have preferred to see the original mummy still wrapped in bandages instead of as a rotting, decaying corpse.

So who wins in this showdown? Well, even though the remake had way more action and better SFX, the actual monster in the 1932 original is just too iconic to ignore. Boris Karloff and his Mummy win.

Anyway you look at it, there are plenty of classic horror films from the 30’s and 40’s for you to go out and rent this Halloween season. Expanded your mind and enjoy films from an era when the focus was simply on the monster. One of the (only) good things about Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing is that when you bought the DVD in 2004, you got the original Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man all on one DVD.  I’ve talked my wife into a triple feature this weekend because she has never seen any of them.

What classic monster films do you enjoy and have they been remade? Which do you prefer and why?