Bats versus Bolts: Universal Horror

This review was requested by patron Mathom. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.

New Year, New Mouse, New Regular Feature!

This is Bats versus Bolts!

Someone ask me what Bats versus Bolts is.

“Sigh. What’s Bats versus…”

Glad you asked! Dracula and Frankenstein are two of the most famous and frequently adapted stories of all time. Hell, Dracula alone has been adapted…hang on let me just Google that…

Uh. No, Google. I’m pretty sure that’s not right.

Anyway, in every decade there are Dracula movies and Frankenstein movies that reflect the culture, trends and social forces that created them and I thought it would be cool to take two from each decade and pit them against each other in a no holds barred monster mash. So let’s start with the two most iconic versions, Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein from the nineteen thirties.

I say “Dracula”, and chances are that what springs to mind is Bela Lugosi saying “I vant to suck your blood”. I say “Frankenstein” and you immediately picture the flat head, the bolts and Colin Clive screaming “It’s alive! Alive!”. These adaptations, eighty odd years after they were first released, are still two of the most influential films ever made in terms of shaping the pop culture of the Western world. And if you haven’t seen them, you tend to assume, as I did, that they’re roughly equal in quality, right?

WRONG

There will, I assume, be close fought matches in this series. There will be near draws. There will be nail-biters. But this will not be one of them. Team Bolts is walking away with this one, I’m afraid. Frankenstein is a true classic, one of the best movies to come out of Holywood in the  thirties and a strong contender for the best horror film of all time if it weren’t for the fact that its sequel is somehow better still.

Whereas Dracula, appropriately enough, sucks.

But since this is the first installment in this series, let’s take a look at the source materials.

The Novels

The two novels of Frankenstein and Dracula had an inverted history. When Frankenstein was first released in 1814 it was a huge financial success but only a middling critical one, and when Shelley’s gender was publicly revealed (the first edition had been published anonymously) many critics simply dismissed it out of hand. As the British Critic noted “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.

“Damn. Tough note.”

Contrast that with Dracula, which was published in 1897 to numerous critical tonguebaths but with very few people actually reading the darn thing. FW Murnau’s unlicenced adaptation, Nosferatu (and the subsequent lawsuit by Stoker’s widow), raised the novel’s profile and by the time Dracula ’31 came out it was a full on cultural phenomenon and has never been out of print.

As decades went by, their positions in terms of critical approval more or less flipped. Frankenstein is now lauded as a masterpiece of Gothic and Romantic literature, a milestone in women’s literature, the original science fiction novel and a genuine work of art.

And Dracula is the one that’s actually enjoyable to read.

Sorry. Frankenstein is a classic but God it’s a slog at times. Particularly any time the monster is narrating.

Yes, yes. You’re an abomination abandoned by your creator forever denied the love and companionship of a humanity which is now rendered hateful to you by their fear and cruelty I GET IT.

The Adaptations

Both movies diverge pretty substantially from their source materials, but Dracula mostly streamlines whereas Frankenstein is telling its own story using Shelley’s novel as a vague outline.

Dracula, like all adaptations of this book, has to deal with what we will call the Too Many Dudes problem. The novel has a bad case of Too Many Dudes. You have Johnathan Harker, the upstanding British fiancée of Mina Murray, Lord Arthur Holmwood, the upstanding British fiancée of Lucy Westenra, Quincey Morris, the upstanding Texan suitor of Lucy Westenra and Doctor Jack Seward, suitor of Lucy Westenra and asylum runner, who is upstanding and British. That’s a lot of dudes, and there’s a lot of overlap, which is why virtually all film and stage adaptations smush the dudes, collapsing their characters into a more manageable number. Dracula manages this rather inventively by giving Renfield the role of Jonathan Harker, making Seward the father of Mina instead of her suitor, and having Lucy Westenra (renamed Weston) go from having three fianceés to having none.

Frances Dade

“Awwwww my dudes!”

As for Frankenstein, its similarities to the novel pretty much begin and end with the fact that they both have a dude named Frankenstein (Victor in the novel, Henry in the movie) who makes a monster out of body parts. Everything else (apart from a few scenes lifted from the novel) of the basic plot including the fates of both Frankenstein and the monster, and how the creature was actually created, are markedly different. It’s definitely not a faithful adaptation, but it’s by far the superior film.

 Winner: BOLTS

The Monsters

There’s a reason Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the count is still the character’s default setting, he’s hugely watchable in the role and has immense charisma. But that’s not always the same thing as giving a good performance. Lugosi had already played Dracula in a hugely successful stage version and his performance is very big, like he’s making sure the peanut gallery is getting its nickel’s worth. The movie was actually heavily based on the stage play which is its second biggest problem, it looks more like a filmed play than a movie and it drags like hell. It’s first biggest problem is that director Tod Browning was in an alcoholic depression throughout the entire production and the movie was essentially directed by cinematographer Karl Freund. And while I’m grateful to Lugosi’s camp theatrics for enlivening an otherwise appallingly boring movie, there’s really no comparison between him and Karloff. Let me put it this way. This is Lugosi:

And this is Karloff.

Boris Karloff as the monster is just phenomenal. Arresting. Magnetic. Absolutely masterful. Unfortunately, while Lugosi got to play the monster in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, we never got to see Karloff’s take on Dracula. However, if you want an idea of what that would have been like, check out 1932s The Mummy. It’s basically an Egyptian-themed remake of Dracula with Karloff in the lead role and is far, far better.

Winner: BOLTS

Supporting Characters

I don’t have the space here to go into each and every actor in these two full length movies. They’re Hollywood stars from the thirties so just take it as read that they were all married an average of five times and died terribly young due to either tuberculosis or the demon drink.

“Ah, but we had fun, darling.”

A stand out in both casts is Dwight Frye, who plays both Renfield in Dracula and Fritz the proto-Igor in Frankenstein. In Dracula, there’s no contest, Frye just blows everyone else out of the water. If Dracula retains even a shred of genuine menace if the modern era its down to Frye’s hissing, maniacal Renfield. He’s also a standout in Frankenstein but there he’s up against much stiffer competition, not only from Karloff but from Colin Clive’s mesmerising performance as Henry Frankenstein. Yes, the “It’s alive! Alive!” scene has been memed and parodied far beyond the point of being able to take it seriously but he gives a wonderfully intense and sympathetic performance of a man made a slave by his own obsession.

Winner: BOLTS

Are either of these movies actually, y’know, scary?

Alright, let’s be honest. It’s a rare pre-sixties horror movie that can still scare a modern audience (Nosferatu being a personal exception) and neither Frankenstein nor Dracula are going to keep anyone over seven years old up at night. Surprisingly, I think this is one category where Bats comes out on top and that’s all entirely due to Dwight Frye. There’s one moment I do find genuinely chilling. As the English port workers search the Demeter, which is now a coffin ship, they find one living soul aboard. They open the hatch and Renfield stands bathed in light, grinning madly up at them.

And he looks so happy.

 

For scariest moment in Frankenstein I’ll go with the first proper look we get at the monster. Karloff’s performance is so compelling you could almost believe you’re looking at something half dead and half alive.

WINNER: BATS

Best dialogue:

Bats squeaks out a narrow win here again, with Dracula having a slightly more quotable screenplay than Frankenstein. I do love the “I never drink. Wine.” line, but instead I’m going with:

A red mist spread over the lawn, coming on like a flame of fire! And then he parted it, and I could see that there were thousands of rats, with their eyes blazing red, like his, only smaller. Then he held up his hand, and they all stopped, and I thought he seemed to be saying: “Rats! Rats! Rats! Thousands! Millions of them! All red-blood! All these will I give you! If you will obey me!”

For Frankenstein, (because “IT’S ALIVE” would make me the most basic bitch imaginable) I choose:

Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to BE God!

WINNER: BATS

Hmmm, that leaves Bolts with a 3/2 victory over Bats, which really does not reflect the relative quality of these two films. Looks like I’m going to have to invent a new category on the fly.

Which inspired the best Mel Brooks parody?:

Young Frankenstein versus Dracula: Dead and Loving It? Jesus, talk about a bloodbath.

WINNER: BOLTS BY A FRICKIN’ MILE

FINAL SCORE: BOLTS 4, BATS 2

77 comments

  1. Thanks for the… er, contrastive review? Old movie contest? I don’t know, it was cool. 😁

    Oh, and when I saw “Bats vs Bolts” my first thought was that it was a feature about Batman and Captain Marvel, demonstrating just how nerd-centric my mind can be. 😋

  2. JOY! I remember you commenting that you might do this a while back, and I cannot be happier. I love horror movies (I watch and review 50 every year for Halloween), I love both of the books these were based on, I love classic cinema, and I love Unshaved Mouse reviews, so boy do I have a lot to say.

    I shall begin with heresy.

    Dracula the book is indeed a better read than Frankenstein the book (though the latter earns bonus kudos for helping to pioneer science fiction). But Dracula isn’t even the best frequently-adapted Victorian era gothic vampire story written by an Irishman. That honor goes to Carmilla, which came first, was heavily influential on Dracula, and feels so much more modern.

    Dracula had the more influential plot certainly, but Carmilla had the style. Every vampire story since that features the bloodsucker as tormented about their monsterhood, developing feelings for their victim, being sexually and romantically appealing, and just generally not 100% evil at all times, that’s from Carmilla. Throw in the surprisingly sympathetically portrayed (for the era) LGBT themes and the fact that you can read it in an afternoon, and it really needs more attention.

    Carmilla rant over!

    You nailed it in comparing the movies. Dracula feels very much like a stage play; whenever he transforms it’s offscreen (you never see the wolf, the bat looks fake as hell, and of course Renfield’s encounter with the horde of rats is just described), people tend to stand around talking at each other a lot, and there’s not a lot of action. Also, what the hell, are they ever going to deal with Lucy? Guess she’s just somebody else’s problem now, even the direct sequel didn’t follow up on that. But both Lugosi and Frye are killing it, and there are some beautiful sets; I’d love to just walk around Dracula’s Castle and Carfax Abbey and soak them in.

    Frankenstein on the other hand is a MOVIE. The pacing and dialog are way more cinematic, there’s some legit action (Frankenstein falling off the windmill is still unpleasant to watch), and both Colin Clive and Boris Karloff are giving absolutely brilliant performances, the latter while buried under makeup and with not a line of dialog. Stronger cast overall too, though I feel like both Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan were a lot better in Dracula.

    Looking forward to more of these! Can this mean there is a Peter Cushing / Christopher Lee Double Feature in our future (glee!)?

      1. Sorta? I read that one (probably the abridged version) like 15 years ago, and don’t remember too much of it. Brushing up on it with Wikipedia however seems to back up my feeling that it was…wildly inconsistent.

        Like, apparently he wasn’t even a real vampire at first and more like a Scooby Doo villain? But then got retconned into being one for real? And he was as surprised by this as everyone else?

        And sometimes he wanted to be cured, and other times he wanted to be dead, but other times he just wanted money or to be a supervillain?

        The one thing I can say for sure is that leaping into Mt. Vesuvius is the most metal way for a vampire to go out ever.

    1. Lupin VIII, I just wanted to agree that CARMILLA definitely feels more modern in style than DRACULA – probably helped by the fact it’s a novella, rather than a full length novel – and also that it’s well worth reading in its own right (personally I LOATHE the “Vampire Romance” genre, but that’s purely because I’ve always wanted to be Van Helsing rather than a Dracula).

      In fact one would be interested in seeing a few more adaptations of CARMILLA – put me in charge of one and I’d probably emphasise the vexing question of whether Countess Karnstein is faking passion to get close to her latest victim, genuinely feels something more than bloodlust for all her victims or usually falsifies her affection but finds herself peculiarly moved by Miss Laura (possibly due to the close proximity of the place she spent her living days and the fact that Miss Laura may well be her last living blood relation).

      Basically a film that leans a bit more towards Horror – the Horror of realising that your First Love might well be USING you, rather than sincerely Romancing you and the Horror of having inadvertently let a monster into your Home – than to Supernatural Romance (Lesbian vampires there will be, though preferably understated rather than overblown).

      1. By “understated” I mean “Classy, as opposed to soft-core erotica” rather than “invisible.”

      2. Well put. I’ve seen a couple of adaptations, but never one that really did it justice (I hear that web series is pretty good, but also pretty far removed).

        I recently watched a Hammer version called The Vampire Lovers that was very…Hammer. I like Hammer films a lot, but they’ve never been big on plot, so Carmilla was basically just 100% evil. At least she got killed by Peter Cushing, which is the right of every great vampire.

      1. Tartakovsky can’t make the Popeye movie that he wants to make, but Hotel Transylvania will keep on making money. At least the dude’s getting paid…

  3. On the book discussion, I fear I am firmly in favour of Frankenstein. Because it is one coherent story. Dracula is taking the whole “let’s pretend this really happened” concept to another level, but that renders the story often incoherent. And at the end of the day, it isn’t just one story, it is three smashed together. Meaning I really like the horror story about Harker being a prisoner of Dracula, but don’t really care about the melodrama of three friends trying to rescue the woman they all want to marry, though I am getting interested again when the book decides that it is now a detective story, at least until the hasty wrap up in the ned.

    It’s interesting though that Mina is treated with more respect than any of the female characters in Frankenstein are, considering the identity of the respective authors.

    In addition, while Frankenstein is borrowing some aspects of Greek mythology – and being pretty open about it – at the end of the day it becomes an entirely original story with a lot of interesting thoughts in it. Dracula on the other hand borrowed heavily from other stories and doesn’t really add that much new to the concept – that was more on Nosferatu.

    The movies I agree. Frankenstein makes the monster less complex, but it still manages to pretty much hit the themes of the book (though not as well as the sequel does). And Dracula naturally has the disadvantage of having to rival Nosferatu…and it really, really doesn’t.

    1. And it seems there is actually a successful Blacula film according to that link, will be fun to read that comparison!

  4. This new series makes me dissapointed for the first time that the Monster Univerde isn’t happening so you can’t review Angelina Jolie as bride of Frankenstain and whatever else they were planning.

    Personally I feel that films which have plenty of characters are usually more enjoyable, expecially on rewatches so I can’t help but judge films which are lazy and compose characters (unless it’s a ridiculous number).

    As someone who has red the books but not seen the films I would have appreciated a tad more recap of the plot.

  5. Thanks, man.

    It’s always so weird watching horror movies from forever ago, because you have to reverse-engineer a reaction to figure out whether or not it was actually effective or not.

    Karloff’s performance definitely makes that monster. You look at most derivative depictions of ol’ Boltneck and you can’t help but wonder how people found this goofy-looking thing scary. But you see Karloff and just the way he MOVES, all jittery and jerky, as though the doctor didn’t quite connect the nerve endings right…that’s something else.

    And, to touch, on the sequel, it was pretty telling that even though Karloff disagreed with the decision to have the monster talk, he played the hell out of it, because he’s that kind of dude.

  6. Mr. Mouse you are singing my song. Between Disney, Marvel, and now this, this blog really has become my one stop shop for snarky reviews of all the things I love.
    I’m interested to see your take on some of the later Dracula adaptations. It’s one of my favorite novels but I’ve been solidly disappointed with every adaptation’s treatment of Johnathan and Mina Harker (I have a regular rant that my friends get subjected to any time I’m reminded of Copala’s Dracula).
    I think, in addition to Renfield, Ed Van Sloan as Van Helsing is one of this film’s saving graces and his confrontation with Dracula with the musical score they added (I think in the 90s) I think is legitimately badass.
    Okay, kinda started rambling there, I’m gonna have to curb that impulse if this is gonna be a regular feature. Can’t wait to see the next installment.

    1. God Bless You, my dear Two-bit, for being a voice of sense when it comes to appalling travesty of Stoker that is Mina/Dracula! (Which is a truly appalling distortion of the original novel, given Madam Mina is bad— enough to extract from her comrades the promise that, if she turns into a Vampire, they will hunt down and Destroy her).

      As for your disappointment with DRACULA adaptations, may one ask if you’ve ever seen COUNT DRACULA, a production from 1977 created by the BBC? While not faultless, it has to be one of the strongest across-the-board adaptations I’ve yet seen (and has an especially likeable Van Helsing, along with a memorably cold-blooded Dracula and an impeccable Renfield).

      You can find it on YouTube this very day – Fair Warning though, it does feature a peculiar travesty of a Texas accent and the occasional irruption of some very 70s special effects!

      1. I keep hearing about that version, but I didn’t know it was on YouTube. I’m gonna have to make some time for that. Thanks for the tip.

  7. I’m liking this new series.

    I actually enjoy both the books of Frankenstein and Dracula, so I can’t really jump into the comments fight over this. Although, I suppose I could just end up fighting everyone.

  8. ” numerous critical tonguebaths but with very few people actually reading the darn thing”

    Sounds like your basic Oscar-bait film.

    Young Frankenstein versus Dracula: Dead and Loving It, I enjoyed both, Leslie Nielsen and Peter MacNicol made for a pretty good comedy duo but it’s definitely inferior to Young Frankenstein. Especially with the “Life! Life do you hear me?! Give my creation… LIIIIIIIFE!!!” line that goes right past parody and straight into iconic.

    I just hope Dracula can accept this defeat with quiet dignity and grace.

      1. By the way, have you ever watched the old Hammer Horror films? Cheesy in their own right, but Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are just so enjoyable.

    1. Given that he’s a cursed supernatural creature able to turn into a wolf, doesn’t Dracula count as a werewolf? (He even has the monobrow and hairy palms!).

  9. Dear Mouse, I am Delighted by this new feature – having just read FRANKENSTEIN for the first time last year and having gone on a DRACULA kick so intense that I had to commission illustrations of the main characters (no, not just the ones everyone has heard of – I commissioned illustrations of ALL THREE of Miss Lucy’s suitors) – and disappointed, but not surprised or outraged to see Karloff take the first match in a terrifying shamble for Team Bolts.

    Having said that, my heart is most definitely with Mr Stoker’s opus because quite frankly I like the characters more – Abraham Van Helsing, brilliantly eccentric ginger bad— is a Personal Favourite, but quite frankly DRACULA is an ensemble where FRANKENSTEIN is more of a double-header with the focus almost exclusively on Victor Frankenstein and his “Daemon.”

    Also, DRACULA is just more FUN when it isn’t busy being Creepy (let me put it this way, does FRANKENSTEIN have a bat-murdering Texas cowboy? Is there an adorably stuffy English solicitor who makes no fewer than three separate attempts to destroy Count Dracula and actually decapitates that Evil Sucker at last? Is there a brilliantly eccentric University professor casually adding “Vampire Hunter” to a resume worth of any Renaissance Man?).

    So GOOD LUCK with your new project, Good Mouse, and Hallelujah! Now we are come to a feast of that juicy Hammer Horror melodrama …

  10. By the way Mouse, if you’re looking for a “reaction shot” to some peculiar distortion of Stoker’s novel you could do worse than to borrow this one:-

    I’d really love to imagine that they’ve just come to the bit in the book about The Count having hairy palms, to be greeted with the immortal response “Nobody loves Dracula like Dracula!” (-;

      1. You might want to look up some of the other publicity stills for 1931 DRACULA as well – not necessarily to use if future articles but because quite a few of them are hilarious (there’s at least one shot of Van Helsing & Dracula side-by-side where dear old Abraham is almost definitely wearing “Blue Steel” and The Count is warning him “Time to stop posing, Professor”).

        I especially recommend what appears to be a series of vignettes with Dracula, Renfield and Mina (which, when brought together, almost serves as a Comic short in its own right).

        Just input “Dracula 1931 publicity photo” into a search engine; hopefully you’ll find the results as amusing as I did!

  11. Wow, I have the exact opposite opinion on the Universal Frankenstein and Dracula movies. The first Frankenstein was an okay dud saved by it’s Sequel, Dracula as basically a filmed play was exactly what I look for in early talkies.

    I also really love Dead and Loving it.

  12. Prey chance Mouse, have you heard or seen the Spanish version of Dracula, which was filmed with the exact same sets as the Lugosi version?

  13. From what I’ve heard of the DRÁCULA (aka “Spanish Dracula 1931”) is the superior film in almost every technical aspect, but suffers from a painful lack of Bela Lugosi in the title role – comparison is odious, I know, but it has to be said that an onscreen Dracula equal to Mr Lugosi is a Dracula Indeed and few enough have proved themselves his peer.

    By the way, as a man who has reread DRACULA more than some, though less than others, I can safely say that Melodrama comes with the cape & castle – remember that his reaction to finding Miss Lucy Westenra warded against him was to “borrow” a zoo wolf and use the poor creature as a battering ram* – while his reaction to finding himself right under the gaze of his Hunters, after a narrow escape from disembowelment in his London HQ, was to pull himself up and describe just how DOOMED these mere mortals were.

    THIS is why Count Dracula is so much more FUN than Frankenstein (Creator or Created).

    (*The wolf, it should be said, took one look at the other side of the window and departed without doing harm to a living soul – being received very much as the prodigal son by his keepers, who were quite distressed to see those flesh wounds the poor animal had suffered in his misadventures).

  14. I’m loving this. I don’t know how much you can keep up with in terms of Drac vs Frank, but there are other “vs” you could go for too, like various ripoffs and pastiches

      1. Would that be KENNETH BRANAGH’S FRANKENSTEIN Vs FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA’S DRACULA? (In which case one would say that they’re both somewhat flawed, but frequently enjoyable, films in their own right – DRACULA is a rather stunning feast for the eyes and I have a terribly soft spot for Sir Ken’s delightful servings of Traditional Irish Ham – but in this case one would tend to give the cup to FRANKENSTEIN since I Loathe Mina/Dracula with an inveterately passionate zeal worthy of a Lord High Inquisitor).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s