DAY 2 OF 31: FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Published October 2, 2022 by Philip Ivory

 

After Universal Studio’s success with DRACULA in early 1931, what could be more natural for a followup than to turn to Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic? 

The novel is about a young Swiss scientist who bestows life upon a body he created by appropriating parts from rifled graves and other sources, only to have his creation turn against him and destroy all the scientist holds dear. A couple of silent film adaptations had been done, most notably one produced by Thomas Edison in 1910.

That Universal’s blood and thunder sound version of ’31 was released in November of seems appropriate, since that is the month of the monster’s creation in the novel:

“It was  on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

But what would the filmic monster look like? How would he be brought to life? (Shelley’s narrative provides few details on the procedure.) Director James Whale and electrical effects artist Kenneth Strickfaden contrived to stage an exciting creation sequence, with the table-bound monster being raised to the roof to receive the lightning’s gift of the mysterious life-giving ray that the scientist has discovered. The sequence is a cinematic triumph, its dazzling pyrotechnics effectively “selling” us on the unholy miracle of the monster’s birth.

Meanwhile, makeup artist Jack Pierce, also in consultation with director Whale, created a monster visage that audiences would fear and pity for generations to come. The genius of the makeup was to allow as much as possible for an actor’s expressive face to remain exposed. Struggling actor Boris Karloff won the role of the monster, partly on the basis of the unusual bone structure in his face and his large liquid eyes.

“Karloff’s eyes mirrored the suffering we needed,” said Universal exec Carl Laemmle.

Colin Clive, an actor who specialized in sensitive, high-strung roles, was a perfect fit for the scientist, Henry Frankenstein. (The name is inexplicably changed from the novel’s “Victor.”) His frenzied performance in the creation scene, accompanied by terrifying peals of thunder and an orgy of electrical sparks and buzzes, is unforgettable. (Note: as in DRACULA and other examples of early sound cinema, there is no musical score. These films breathe with eerie stretches of silence, helped by sound effects.)

“It’s moving! It’s alive!”

HIGH POINTS

The creation scene remains a knockout to this day, as does the haunting vignette in which Karloff’s newly born creation reaches above his head for the light descending  from a skylight as if he could grip it in his hands.

Karloff’s monster, quick, agile, clearly not sound of mind, immensely strong and unpredictable, with heavily lidded dead man’s eyes, is instantly frightening, making us feel we are looking upon a thing that should not be alive, but unaccountably is.

And yet the creature is immensely sympathetic, an unwanted child abandoned by his only parent, hated and feared by everyone else based on his grotesque appearance. In his ill fitting black, funereal suit , he carries with him the aura of the grave, evoking a universal dread. With his spasmodic movements, shuffling gate and pathetic, pleading hand gestures, he is one of horror’s supreme characterizations, simultaneously frightening and poignant. Other actors, including Christopher Lee, Michael Sarrazin, and Robert DeNiro have made sincere attempts to portray the monster. With respect, no one even comes close.

The film is a tragedy. Frankenstein, reduced to a nervous wreck by the shattering of his great dream, becomes  a shell of the confident visionary we see in the early scenes. The monster is hounded to a horrifying death, caught in the inferno of a blazing mill.

Clive and Karloff are ably assisted by two holdovers from DRACULA, Edward Van Sloan as Professor Waldman and Dwight Frye as Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant, Fritz. Also helping out are Mae Clarke as Frankenstein’s fiance, Elizabeth, John Boles as his friend, Victor, and Frederick Kerr as his father, the harrumphing old Baron.

The monster of course remains mute throughout the film. Most of the best dialogue belongs to the scientist:

(caressing the coffin of a stolen body) “He’s Just Resting, Waiting For A New Life To Come.”

“The brain you stole, Fritz. Think of it. The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands!”

“Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if no one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have your never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.

DEFICITS

FRANKENSTEIN might not seem shocking today. Its monster makeup and Gothic trappings have been absorbed into the culture, its iconography made comfortable by parodies, pop songs and use in Saturday morning cartoons and breakfast cereals. But Whale’s Gothic extravaganza was considered unfamiliar, strong meat when first issued, with its corpse like monster, graveyard scenes, multiple murders and grim, fairy tale like setting.

Some cuts made at the preview stage, designed to protect delicate sensibilities, hurt the film for decades. For many of us who grew up watching it on television, the fabulous creation scene was marred by a jump cut at its climax, where a crucial but potentially blasphemous bit of the scientist’s dialogue — “Oh, in the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” — was crudely excised. (Hey, it only expressed a major theme of the film.)

Similarly, the famous (or infamous) scene in which Karloff’s monster befriends a little girl, but ends up unintentionally drowning her, was truncated, cutting abruptly as Karloff reaches for her, which allowed for even worse implications than what was intended.  The scene, fully restored a few decades ago along with Clive’s censored line and a few other bits and pieces, remains a touching, heartbreaking episode in the monster’s lonely existence, one tranquil moment of friendship and peace before tragedy and horror reassert themselves.

Despite one or two stuffy performances, including some weak comic relief from the Baron, and a few bits of unexplained plot construction (How does the monster know where Frankenstein lives?), the film remains a powerful experience, maybe not as shocking as it once was, but largely undiminished in its impact.

INTERESTING FACTS

  • Karloff suffered severe back pains the rest of his life that may have resulted from the rigors of his performance, particularly the scenes in which he has to carry Clive on his back through the mountainous countryside.
  • DRACULA star Bela Lugosi was originally assigned the monster role, even trying out his own makeup, before Karloff was (wisely) brought in.
  • Karloff, protective of the monster, played him in two sequels but stopped when he thought the character was being cheapened. He called the monster “my best friend.”

UP NEXT:

“My analysis of this soul , the human psyche, leads me to believe that man is not truly one – but, truly two. One of him strives for the nobilities of life. This we call his good self. The other, seeks an expression of impulses that bind him to some dim animal relation with the earth.”

 

DAY 1 OF 31: DRACULA (1931)

Published October 1, 2022 by Philip Ivory

 

The first supernatural drama of the sound era, DRACULA was unleashed by Universal on Valentine’s Day 1931 with the tag line “The Strangest Love Story Ever Told,” perhaps signalling the studio’s unease at peddling such a bloodcurdling tale to a nation in the grips of the great depression. They need not have worried. The film provided a kind of rich Gothic escapism, paving the way for a whole cycle of 30s atmospheric chillers made with artistry and care that drew healthy box office and crowned Universal the king of horror. 

An adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1887 classic, DRACULA also had its roots in a successful stage version, from which the play’s star, Bela Lugosi, was recruited to play the lead. The familiar tale tells of the vampire king’s migration from his native Transylvania … an exotic locale seen to great effect in one of the most eerie opening sequences of any horror film … to London’s teeming metropolis.

The cast of DRACULA: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan and Helen Chandler.

The Count insinuates himself into the company of a group of unsuspecting Londoners, including the wise and virtuous Mina and her perhaps less wise best friend Lucy, who thrills to Dracula’s grand manner and exotic accent.

Lucy is attacked, dies and is resurrected as a vampire herself only to end up on the fatal end of a stake driven into her heart by intrepid and learned expert on the supernatural, Dr. Van Helsing, in a sequence that should have been a horror highlight but takes place off screen. (The film is too reticent in many places, conveying important plot points second hand through dialogue, when we would much rather have seen them directly.) 

Dracula sets his sites on Mina, who is defended by her boyish fiance, Jonathan, sanitarium director Dr. Seward, and Van Helsing, who warns his friends, “The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.” In the end, Van Helsing and Co. track Dracula to his London hideout and good prevails.

HIGH POINTS

The film offers a classic performance by Lugosi himself, whose authentic accent, strange bearing and bizarre, halting cadences (“I never drink … wine.”) contribute to an unforgettable portrait of evil. I remember being particularly perturbed at the disembodied way Dracula drifts through a London street scene, before settling on a poor flower girl for an evening bite. He conveys the aspect of someone controlled from afar, perhaps an expression of how Dracula is held in thrall to a greater infernal power.  I’ve never seen any other actor in the part hint at this particularly eerie quality.

And while no more than a drop of blood is scene in the film, Lugosi achieves a heightened sense of horror through body language — he’s like a stylized vulture in a bedroom scene as he descends upon his victim –and facial expression. His striking mix of bestial hunger and a kind of pained self-revulsion while in the predatory moment is unforgettable.

Also memorable are Van Sloan as the anti vampire crusader Van Helsing, and Dwight Frye (like Lugosi and Van Sloan, repeating his performance from the stage) as the pathetic fly-eating mental patient who has fallen under Dracula’s sway. Frye in particular has some wonderful moments, including his eerie demented laughter issuing from the hold of a deathship full of Dracula’s victims, and his “Rats, rats, rats” monologue in which he describes the vision of teeming life offered to him in return for faithful service to his master.

“A red mist spread over the lawn, coming on like a flame of fire … Rat, rats, rats. Thousand of them. Millions of them. All red blood.”

DRACULA is memorable for its elegant dialogue, these three tidbits all coming from the Count himself:

(hearing the howling of wolves) “Listen to them. The children of the night. What music they make.”

“I never drink … wine.”

“To die, to be really dead. That must be glorious … There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”

DEFICITS

The film is justly slated for being stagey, not taking advantage of the adventurous sweep of Stoker’s saga, which ends in a desperate race back to Dracula’s castle, a sequence which held great filmic possibilities but wasn’t used. And while I think Helen Chandler is fine as Mina, particularly in a scene in which her eyes light up with bloodlust as she battles to restrain herself from attacking her fiance’s handsome throat, I think David Manners is stiff and awkward as her reliable lover. Comic relief provided by a cockney sanitarium attendant mostly falls flat today.

Director Todd Browning seems a bit sloppy in places, as when those little spotlights for Lugosi’s eyes don’t quite find their mark:

And if you’re really into the minutiae of classic films, check out this ten minute youtube exploration of why an ugly, jagged piece of cardboard can repeatedly be spotted in some of the bedroom scenes:

Caveats and technical deficiencies aside, DRACULA still has wonderful moments of poetic dread and horror, and remains a classic and standard bearer for all monster movies that followed in its wake.

UP NEXT:

“You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”

 

COMING IN SEPTEMBER: Writing About Childhood

Published July 13, 2022 by Philip Ivory

This September, I’ll be teaching another session of my special 6-week class, Writing About Childhood. Once again, the class is offered through The Writers Studio and will be conducted online, this time taking place on Saturday and using a video interface.

So what’s the class about?

Childhood from the perspective of an adult writer can seem like “another country,” a strange land where our powers, responsibilities and perceptions were vastly different. And yet it is the place we all come from. And while the lens through which we viewed the world as children may have seemed innocent and magical, our sensibilities were always vulnerable to the hard truths of encroaching adulthood.

In this class, we will examine techniques and voices crafted by celebrated writers of poetry and prose such as Sandra Cisneros, Seamus Heaney, and Ray Bradbury. How did they use imagination and memory to regain a foothold in childhood’s not-so-distant realm, conjuring its wonder, joy, and pain? Whether working in poetry, prose, or creative nonfiction, can we apply similar voices and techniques to our own unique material?

Let’s bring the world and experience of childhood to vibrant life again through our creative work.

This class is open to all writers of poetry and prose, including new and returning Writers Studio students. Each week, students write a two-page exercise based on the week’s model. Then, during a two-hour, live Google Meet session, students present their work and receive feedback from their fellow classmates and from the teacher. The last fifteen minutes of the class are spent reading and discussing the following week’s model, using the Writers Studio method of analyzing persona and narrative technique. The Google Meet sessions are not recorded.

CLICK HERE to register and for further information.

FINAL ROUND: NYC Midnight Short Story Contest

Published June 24, 2022 by Philip Ivory

On and off over the past few years I’ve participated in writing contests held by NYC Midnight. What’s unique about these competitions is that writers receive parameters — genre, locations, objects, and etc. — and tight deadlines within which to incorporate these parameters into a successful piece of writing.

Each contest has multiple rounds that writers proceed through if advanced by the judges. I’ve never made it to the final round … before now.

This week I learned that my third round entry in the NYC 2022 Short Story contest has earned me advancement to the final round.

Sure, I’m excited, but the looming reality is that the final round begins (gulp!) at midnight NY time this evening. That’s 9 pm for me here in Tucson, less than four hours away. That’s when I’ll receive a new prompt for a 1250 word story that needs to be completed and uploaded in 24 hours.

Whatever happens, I’m grateful for NYC Midnight for its sometimes maddening but always stimulating prompts, which bedevil a poor writer by informing him that, for instance, he has 48 hours to write a short story in the romance genre featuring localism and an evening student. (That was round three. Romance not being my favorite, I tore my hair out for a while but finally set down to write a passable piece, which got me to tonight’s final round.)

In fact, while I haven’t yet come close to winning the contest, I’ve greatly benefited from the prompts, which helped me arrive at some published stories I would never otherwise have written. Here are two of them:

The Swamp Rat

Miss Brompton Falls 1938

Wish me luck tonight! I’m grateful to friends in The Writers Studio, especially including Rene Bibby and Betsy Mahaffey (Happy Birthday, Betsy!), who provided feedback and encouragement to help me survive earlier rounds.



Learning Writing Lessons from Sgt. Pepper

Published June 1, 2022 by Philip Ivory

This morning, I woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head … and remembered that on this date in 1967, the Beatles released the album that would dominate the charts and airwaves for much of the rest of the year, becoming the soundtrack of the “Summer of Love.” That album carried the peculiar title of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

A few years back, I wrote an essay pointing out insights about good writing that can be gleaned from this landmark of popular music. The folks at Bookends Review were kind enough to publish it. Take a look!

Sgt. Pepper at 50: What Can Writers Learn?

Thanks for reading.

What Would Orwell Say About Tucker Carlson?

Published May 18, 2022 by Philip Ivory

Reading George Orwell as a young person taught me the value of precision in language, and how language itself can fall victim to insincere communicators who twist and torture words in order to obscure truth for their own political purposes.

Tucker Carlson’s use of his phrase “Legacy Americans” to describe those he designates as the victims of the great Replacement Theory is an interesting linguistic gambit, one that I wish Orwell were here to help explain for us.

Tucker has advocated fiercely for Replacement Theory, although since the horrific racist gun massacre in Buffalo, NY on May 14, he’s made some fumbling attempts to walk back his position.

But who are “Legacy Americans”? He uses the phrase without defining it, which is a good trick used by shifty folks who wish to say what they want to say while evading responsibility.  

I think we know. Legacy Americans are white folks who have held power for a long time, who now fear losing that power to demographic changes. Those changes are happening, and not because, as the Theory tells us,  Jews and liberals are masterminding those changes in order to enjoy political windfalls.

I mean, Replacement Theory is just white supremacy with a fancy new suit on. But if you go around saying you’re defending the interests of white supremacists, people give you funny looks at parties.

What other phrase can you use? “Original Americans?” That doesn’t work, because it makes you reflect upon the inconvenient insight that the first great replacement in this country was white folks replacing (by eradicating and marginilizing) the indigenous peoples who were here for thousands of years.

You could say “Non-Jewish, non-Hispanic, non-Black citizens.” But that … well, it just makes you sound like a Negative Nancy.

It doesn’t leave you much, which is why Tucker has invented the phrase “Legacy Americans,” which he will continue to use but never define, even though the phrase vaguely makes me think of commemorative Presidential plates.

So all credit to Tucker for inventiveness. And for being a smug trust fund dingus who should have just gone for it and traded in his bow tie for the requisite white robes and conical hat.

And to paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel: “Where have you gone, George Orwell? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

THE SWAMP RAT: New fiction published

Published November 19, 2021 by Philip Ivory

“Man towers above the rest of creation so long as he realizes his own nature, and when he forgets it, he sinks lower than the beasts.”
— Boethius

It’s been a while since I had any short fiction published, since I’ve been devoting myself to finishing a novel. But here’s a story I wrote about three years ago which has finally found a home. It’s called The Swamp Rat.

The story arose from a flash fiction contest I participated in through NYC Midnight in 2018. While the story didn’t win, I thought it was worth developing, and expanded it from 1000 words to a fully-fleshed 7000 word story.

It’s set in Paris during the 1930s, and is a bit of homage to the style of early spy/mystery stories by such writers as W. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene.

I’m excited that the story has found a home at The Chamber, an online journal of dark fiction. My thanks to the publishers.

READ IT HERE. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying the whole issue.

My thanks also to friends who helped me in the development of this story, including Reneé Bibby, Alice Hatcher, Frances Lynch and my fellow students in the Tucson Writers Studio Master Class, who gave me excellent feedback.

I hope you’ll let me know what you thought of the story by leaving a comment, either here or on The Chamber site. Thanks!

New Online Course: Writing About Childhood

Published June 13, 2021 by Philip Ivory
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Through The Writers Studio, I’ll be teaching a new special 6-week class starting next month, Writing About Childhood.

Childhood from the perspective of an adult writer can seem like “another country,” a strange land where our powers, responsibilities and perceptions were vastly different. And yet it is the place we all come from. And while the lens through which we viewed the world as children may have seemed innocent and magical, our sensibilities were always vulnerable to the hard truths of encroaching adulthood. In this class, we will examine techniques and voices crafted by celebrated writers of poetry and prose such as Sandra Cisneros, Seamus Heaney, and Ray Bradbury. How did they use imagination and memory to regain a foothold in childhood’s not-so-distant realm, conjuring its wonder, joy, and pain? Whether working in poetry, prose, or creative nonfiction, can we apply similar voices and techniques to our own unique material? Let’s bring the world and experience of childhood to vibrant life again through our creative work.

This class is open to all writers of poetry and prose, including those who are new to The Writers Studio as well as those who have already taken classes. Students will respond to weekly exercises, posting their assignments to an online class space where feedback will also be posted by other students and the teacher. Our class will then meet for a one-hour online video discussion focusing on the technique described in the exercise using the Google Meet. No special software needed, and no transcript will be available for those who miss the discussion.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER.

Too Late To Be Outraged By Trump

Published January 7, 2021 by Philip Ivory

 

 

It’s TOO LATE to walk away from the 45th president.

It’s TOO LATE to be outraged, if you haven’t been outraged yet.

It’s TOO LATE, if you stood by him after he …

Smugly boasted about committing sexual assault

Insulted a grieving Gold Star family

Proclaimed there were “good people on both sides” at Charlottesville, when one side included white supremacists who had just committed murder

Tried to ban a people based on their religion, in a country founded on principles of religious freedom

Denigrated the service and suffering of John McCain, and by extension all prisoners of war

Humiliated the United States at Helsinki by taking the Russian dictator’s word over our own intelligence agencies

Tried to strong arm Ukraine into damaging the family of his political opponent prior to the 2020 election

Turned the attorney general into his own personal mob lawyer

Called African nations “shithole countries”

Attacked and defamed our electoral process as “rigged” even before the 2020 election took place … and continued to spread this damaging claim even after being rebuked by the Supreme Court …

Let’s not even talk about his heartbreaking mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.

You can’t walk away now, even though you are outraged that he incited a terrorist attack on our nation’s Capitol building that has resulted in four deaths

It’s too late. If you stood by him after all those other things …

                                                You will ALWAYS be standing alongside him.