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Friday, September 19, 2008

Frankenstein/Dracula Forever! --- Part Two

Dracula/Frankenstein was and remains a value pack you can keep on selling. Witness Universal’s continual repackaging of both on DVD. Fans have been special editioned to death seeking perfect delivery of these two. We’ll not reach that higher place for negatives worn to nubbins by those very reissues that kept these images alive for seventy-five plus years. Who dreamed of such commercial mileage, let alone boxoffice longevity, when virtually all films carried boxoffice expiration tags? Universal figured on having strip-mined Dracula and Frankenstein in revivals (1938 and 1947) spread far enough apart to exhaust whatever audience might be interested. By war’s end, the company sought bigger money markets as formulas tried and true were banished off studio rosters. Westerns, serials, "B" musicals --- all discontinued, as was identification with cheap monster movies Universal sought to expunge. Three million dollars from a startup distributor called Realart loosened ties on backlog going back to talkies’ beginning, with Universal signing an unprecedented deal to let the smaller company reissue its big studio wares for ten theatrical (but no television) years. Selling films is like selling anything else, for instance, sport shirts, said Paul Broder, who had bulked out such dry goods, and ran Detroit theatres besides, with enterprising brother Jack. These boys knew their onions for having handled bushels of discard product in houses too often marginalized by circuit competitors and peanut operating budgets. They also knew oldies were still goodies, especially when paired. With hundreds of Universal vaulties now socked away in Realart inventory, the modest distributor could declare itself unequivocally… the largest reissue company in the world, as if others vied for that distinction. Neighborhood houses  waiting a year or more for new releases realized better gains with Realart pics they could rent cheaper and sell harder. Many were using reissues to fill eighty percent of their schedules. Thematic combos became a Broder specialty. Jack tested these at leisure among five LA venues he still operated while serving as VP for Realart, and thirty-four Universals they (profitably) shipped for 1947-48 were bumped to forty-eight in 1948-49. The monster shows became, not unexpectedly, a Broder natural, as they were ideally suited for duallers. Two Mummies here, a couple of Invisible Men there, and before you knew it, towns were overrun with Universal, no, make that Realart, horrors. I had a friend who cut his teeth growing up in Columbus, Ohio during the late forties and early fifties, catching the bus Saturday mornings for a weekly Realart chase through grinders for miles around, scoring up five or six per weekend of what we now call classics. For our NC backwood drive-ins, there would be all-nighters with a quartet (at least) twixt dusk and dawn, ads for which cause latter day fan mouths to water still.

So what of Dracula and Frankenstein in such roving encore madhouses? To launch these specials (and they knew it), Realart waited until 1951. As before, D and F rented singly but scored best when teamed. New York’s Victory Theatre, a stone’s throw up 42nd Street from the legendary Rialto, harnessed lightening in April 1952 not unlike that which galvanized their rival back in 1938. Apparently, there is a brand new audience which has heard of these attractions but has never seen them, said Victory chief William Brandt. They are like nationally advertised brands of merchandise --- well known and accepted. His barn dated back to 1900 when it opened as a legit house, skidded down to burlesque in the thirties, then rose (not so far) out of ashes to become a sub-runner. These interior views of a more recently refurbished Victory Theatre provide rough estimate of the environment in which Dracula and Frankenstein wowed a house seating 982. Never mind DVD’s we now watch largely by ourselves. This was a stairway to paradise for any audience enjoying Dracula and Frankenstein. The Victory’s front saw the fiendish pair hovering from marquees and dressing entrance areas touted as well in newspaper ads that were little changed from ones appearing fourteen years earlier. Realart put fresh coats of paint on campaigns they inherited from Universal. Posters were new and sometimes more arresting than originals. The ones shown here greeted audiences at the Victory and other places where Frankenstein and Dracula bade enter via colorful displays that have since become Most Wanted objects of movie art from the fifties. A turning point, and after all, one had to come, was June 1957. That’s when Frankenstein was finally reinvented. Ground so fertile must be freshly tilled, and red-meat (preferably blood red) appetites could not be sated forever on subdued sensation oldsters (read parents) quaked over since 1931. The Curse Of Frankenstein threw out instruction manuals Universal wrote and added that most crucial of equalizers to combat old movies and TV sets that ran them, namely color. Floating eyeballs and blood spattered lab jackets led fashion parades for a new kind of explicit screen mayhem fans long anticipated via live spook shows far more direct than timidity so far projected on screens. The Curse Of Frankenstein showed for the first time horrific possibilities of monsters laid face up and genuinely repulsive. Here was science creating something like the aftermath of a car wreck you drove by coming to the theatre, a sort of full-color blast to top gross-out gymatorium showings of The Last Prom. It was the same with I Was A Teenage Frankenstein, only that monster began as a crash victim and pretty much entered his Hell through a windshield. The essential fright of both films was unmistakable if subliminal. Drag race or go chicken running and this may be your dead-end. No wonder kids got all shook up. Bally stunting old as the hills on one hand slammed home likely unintended (but hard-hitting) safety warnings on the other, thus girl plants would "faint" in the auditorium and cooperative ambulance services would roll up for showy rescues and siren accompanied pullouts (let’s hope real emergencies weren’t at the same time requiring their services). Victims would be driven around the corner and let out to repeat their stunt for next-arriving crowds. To showmen and most parents, increased gore quotients of a so-called "super deluxe model thriller" (The Curse Of Frankenstein’s merchandising tag) were at least palatable for being attached to a name comfortably familiar from their own youth. That accepted name brand again.

Jim Nicholson was formerly with Realart and knew packaging. He’d grown up loving genre pics and especially monstrous ones. Having teamed with Sam Arkoff to form American-International Pictures, Jim felt teenagers needed a Frankenstein to call their own, and a Dracula too for that matter. The old tag team was good for a new match-up on heels of summer 1957 grosses The Curse Of Frankenstein scored ($1.418 million in domestic rentals), thus I Was A Teenage Frankenstein went out with Blood Of Dracula for Autumn playdates. AIP’s two-for-one policy supplied theatres with black-and-white programs totaling two and a half (or so) hours, enough to keep audiences turning over and make them feel they were getting value for admissions paid. Ninety-five percent of our bookings are for double-bills, but the pictures can later be bought singly, said Nicholson, whose product he road-tested at a Broder-inspired trio of venues in San Diego (two were drive-ins). These helped finalize selling strategies for the wider pitch. Teens were targeted and if critics didn’t like it (and those who noticed razzed in unison) … well, they could just get over it. Was AIP straining credulity so much to imagine vampires in a girl’s reformatory, as in Blood Of Dracula? … and why not Frankenstein’s creation so inflamed by recently installed hormones as to tear off heads at Lover’s Lane? These were new faces for old monsters and kids were grooving with them. AIP got five to seven thousand bookings for such combos and often on percentage. Total domestic rentals for the Teenage/Blood package was $686,000, admittedly under half of what Warners realized on The Curse Of Frankenstein, but remarkable withal for ultra-cheapies that cost less combined than most anyone else’s "B". AIP’s junior varsity Frankenstein and Dracula helped usher Realart’s vintage combination off theatre schedules (besides, their lease term had expired), but in the cases of Karloff and Lugosi’s originals, it was merely a matter of relocating to smaller screens. A "Shock" package of fifty-two Universal thrillers went into syndication for 1957-58, and being they were free on television, seized viewing numbers beyond the wildest dreams of showmen hustling retooled monsters at drive-ins and struggling hard-tops. The real Dracula and Frankenstein reasserted dominance on late shows in 142 broadcast markets as the Shocks took off like few other feature groups so far made available. With many more kids seeing Karloff’s visage repeated over horror hosted weekends, his remained the definitive image, Christopher Lee’s scrambled egg complexion trailing a distant second. It would be the same with Lugosi’s Dracula, despite Lee’s forceful debut with fangs-a-dripping in Universal’s Summer 1958 steamroller, Horror Of Dracula. As both characters resided in the public domain, anyone could sully their names with merchandise unworthy of either, thus there was Frankenstein’s Daughter and Frankenstein – 1970, as well as bush-league vampires reflecting badly upon Dracula. Teens went for these primarily to get out of the house (... for their kicks, said Jim Nicholson) and make mischief with peers, but that took money, and for smaller fry or those with less jangle in their pockets, bonds were closer maintained with vintage monsters at home. That access, which needed not a driver’s license or older sibling to deliver one to monsters beloved, was the ultimate victory of the original Dracula and Frankenstein for a new generation. As theatre attendance continued dwindling into the sixties, homegrown enthusiasm for the golden-agers led to another boom as spectacular as it was unexpected.

Summer 1964 was when it exploded, but a new era of monster madness had been percolating at store and newsstand counters for a long time. Universal awoke to exploitation possibilities in its protected images and licensed Karloff/Lugosi renditions to Frankenstein/Dracula models, billfolds, toys … I can’t remember them all now, but I sure kept tallies then. Aurora had boxes more compelling (as here) than plastic likenesses I built (badly) from contents inside, but hours of struggle with glue and labyrinthine instructions merely reinforced my absolute embrace of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as the only legitimate incarnations of favorite monsters. LOOK magazine analyzed us in its September 8, 1964 issue (above), but could as easily have reprinted The New York Times’ coverage of Universal’s 1938 reissues and put the establishment’s condescending message across. Kids deep into the life combed backs of monster magazines and dreamed of owning 8mm highlights of Dracula, released by Castle Films in 1963 (their Frankenstein reel was strangely absent until late in the day 1971). I joined with a cousin and another neighbor boy to invest in Dracula plus Official Film’s A Lost World, the latter made up of scenes culled from the 1925 dinosaur classic. We put on basement shows for a dime’s admission and even made lobby cards from Lugosi photos (unforgivably) cut out of Famous Monsters. Castle abridgements were the only way you’d play host to Frankenstein or Dracula at your own discretion. Who born of home video convenience could imagine the novelty, if not joy, of threading up favorites at will, let alone projecting same on bedroom walls at a time when possessing movies was a near unheard of concept? Seven Arts’ equivalent of Universal’s parlay was a Summer 1964 reissued The Curse Of Frankenstein with Horror Of Dracula, both negatives having reverted to that company. These saturated marquees, together and apart, right into the seventies, as Horror Of Dracula wouldn’t be syndicated to television until 1966 and The Curse Of Frankenstein showed up finally on June 28, 1974 when CBS played it as a weeknight late movie. Put an aerial on your roof in those days and soon enough you’d be tripping over broadcasts of the originals, so much so as to make likelihood of their appearing again in theatres remote at best. Few exhibitors were so adventurous as to book features now decades old and likely broadcast in homes that very night. My ad search yielded Frankenstein playing our local Starlite Drive-In as late as 1959, while a more distant ozoner rounded out its 1967 dusk-to-dawn offering of Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster and Planet Of The Vampires with "original classics" Dracula and Frankenstein. A Charlotte theatre tried the vintage combo around 1970, though it’s unlikely lines formed as in years past. How might these "Monster Boys" perform in revival situations today? I tried them for a University run and that audience was responsive. Universal horror carries a certain mystique among younger viewers, maybe owing to an increasing sense of unearthliness these films personify as they retreat further toward antiquity. For whatever outmoded technique modern audiences detect, the essential creep factor in play since 1931 has been, at the least, enhanced by their ripening vintage.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

And how about the Spanish language version of DRACULA?

Praised by many... the film was a commercial and critical disaster that marked the end of Universal's foreign language versions.

Yet, if you don't really know Spanish, and don't pay attention to the totally different accents of the actors, the film is much better than the English version.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Uncle Gustav said...

John, I'll meet you at the 6pm "Elbow Bender's Premiere" of Curse of Frankenstein!

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Over at the Home Theater Forum awhile back, there was discussion about a new lavender fine grain on DRACULA that has been discovered in the Library of Congress and turned over to Universal. Not much more is known, but preservationist Robert Harris confirmed some basic facts: it dates from 1930 and is full frame; not pristine, as it was used to service prints, but in good shape; and no deleted footage. Still and all, given how shabby poor DRACULA has looked for so long, I think it's exciting that we might eventually get to see better looking prints of it.

9:25 PM  
Blogger onlyanirishboy said...

Some years back, Bill Cosby wrote a piece for, IIRC, Ebony, about "Frankenstein" playing at his local theatre in Philadelphia, with a personal appearance by
Frankenstein, i.e. The Monster. As soon as the movie ended, a voice over the loudspeaker announced that Frankenstein would be coming out. This announcement alone sent a big part of the crowd scurrying out of the theatre. Many more followed as soon as strange sounds, like chains rattling, were heard coming from offstage area by the screen. When Frankenstein shuffled out, still more people fled. When Frankenstein started moving towards the audience, making menacing gestures, almost all of the remaining brave souls could take it no more and ran to the exits. Just two or three guys remained, and they stayed put while the guy in the Frankenstein costume did his best to scare them. Finally, one of these guys stood up, walked onstage, and decked Frankenstein.

Of course, Cosby may have made up this entire incident. But if not, I'd be curious if a person appearance by "Frankenstein" was a common part of the promotional arsenal for these re-releases.

4:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last night I watched the trailer for John Brahm's "Undying Monster" (from Fox's recent first volume of horror flicks--all by Brahm, all very enjoyable!). It was interesting that the trailer compared the film to both Dracula and Frankenstein -- and those films were made by a different studio! I guess the producers hoped that double-pairing them in the trailer would help promote this film (which wasn't nearly up the standards of those earlier ones).


4:10 PM  
Blogger David said...

These two films are ones I always go back and watch. They are so timeless and the fact that they started it all makes them of considerable importance. The Spanish verison of Dracula is in better shape overall, but that's because it hasn't seen the reissues and tv broadcasts that the Lugosi film has. Frankenstein, from the first time I saw it on tv, has always been special to me. I hope the younger generations coming up check these out, I think they might enjoy them.

11:57 AM  

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