Madness is Genetic

Son of Frankenstein is a well produced step backwards for the franchise. After the failure of Dracula’s Daughter, Universal monster movies took a 2 year break. The success of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein made a third installment the best possible comeback. I was such a big fan that my parents got me a 5 movie Frankenstein box set when I was kid. My brother and I made the mistake of watching beyond the first 2 classics. Son of Frankenstein isn’t a bad sequel, but it did hurt my perception of the Monster I sympathized with. As the title suggests, the legendary Basil Rathbone plays Henry’s son Baron Wolf von Frankenstein.

Wolf moves his family to Frankenstein’s castle where the village immediately shuns them. Josephine Hutchinson plays his concerned wife Elsa and pre-Bambi Donnie Dunagan plays their precocious son Peter. Like the real world, the name Frankenstein has become synonymous with horror. The only person who befriends the family is an inspector played by Lionel Atwill whose arm was torn off by the Monster. Frankenstein’s quest for acceptance is intriguing, but the movie is an hour and 39 minutes too long for 1939. Boris Karloff’s final time as the Monster is severely reduced in comparison. Wolf shows some of his father’s madness when Ygor convinces him to bring his father’s creation out of a coma.

The first official appearance of Ygor sees an unrecognizable Bela Lugosi steal the show as a hairy criminal with a broken neck caused by an unsuccessful hanging. The Monster loses all of his character development from Bride of Frankenstein. Now he’s a grunting killing machine with a furry vest that does Ygor’s bidding. His innocence comes out when sparing Peter’s life, but he still dies a monster. Apart from the good performances, it’s the massive production value that saves the movie. James Whale may not have directed, but at least it retains the black & white atmosphere that came before. Son of Frankenstein gave the Monster some dignity before the quality suffered.

12. Son of Frankenstein

Frankenstein’s Monster approaches

Preceded by: Bride of Frankenstein & Followed by: The Ghost of Frankenstein

Her Eternal Thirst

Dracula’s Daughter is the original lesbian vampire movie. After the success of Bride of Frankenstein, Universal intended to give Dracula the same high quality sequel treatment. Although its rushed production was out of their control due to MGM attempting to purchase the rights to a potential sequel. Dracula’s Daughter is based on Bram Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest.” Even though it has more in common with an early 1872 lesbian vampire novel titled Carmilla. I never attempted to watch Dracula’s Daughter before since it’s not the classic it hoped to be. The only similarity to Bride of Frankenstein is taking place immediately after Dracula.

Edward Van Sloan returns as a renamed Professor Von Helsing who just finished driving a stake through Dracula’s heart. Renfield’s body is discovered by the police, but John or Mina Harker are nowhere to be seen. Most of Von Helsing’s time is spent being questioned for murder by Scotland Yard. Otto Kruger takes over as psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth who makes the movie very talk heavy with his slightly comedic relationship with Janet played by Marguerite Churchill. Most of the gothic atmosphere is seen with Countess Marya Zaleska’s sudden appearance.

As the first female Universal monster given a central role, Dracula’s daughter can’t compare to her father. She initially wears a black burca and a hypnotic ring, but most of the time her appearance is ordinary. Gloria Holden plays more of a reluctant vampire who seeks a cure, yet cannot deny her urges. Irving Pichel also stands out as a loyal human assistant who finds fresh victims. The lesbian undertones are undenyable and kind of shocking for 1936. Zaleska having a woman undress before biting her is surprisingly risque. Zaleska takes Janet back home to Transylvania where she hovers over her lips for a long time. But it’s still Garth that she wants in the end. Though she meets the same fate as her father, Dracula’s Daughter can only go so far without the original Count Dracula.

11. Dracula's Daughter

Countess Marya Zaleska lays Dracula to rest

Preceded by: Dracula & Followed by: Son of Dracula

Half Human-Half Beast

Werewolf of London is Universal’s forgotten first attempt at werewolves. Making it the first werewolf movie ever made in Hollywood. Although it predates The Wolf Man by 6 years, Werewolf of London is something I never knew existed. Not until I saw it featured in a Universal monsters box set. An American Werewolf in London isn’t a remake, but it was inspired by the 1935 film. Unlike The Wolf Man, Werewolf of London feels too complicated by a large cast and less tragic with an unlikeable werewolf victim as the lead.

Henry Hull plays the stiff aristocratic botanist Wilfred Glendon. He finds a special flower in Tibet where a werewolf bites him. Glendon is mostly unlikeable for mistreating his wife Lisa played by Valerie Hobson in her second role as a scientist’s love interest. Lester Matthews more often keeps her company as a former lover named Paul. Asian passing Swedish actor Warner Oland plays Dr. Yogami. A mysterious fellow botanist who tells Glendon the flower is the only known antidote for Lycanthropy.

Glendon’s werewolf transformation is well shot, but his simplistic wolf makeup isn’t enough to create an icon. London attacks sound gruesome even though the movie retains a sense of humor. It’s only after those attacks that Glendon feels a bit more sympathetic. He’s most remorseful when a bullet puts an end to his uncontrollable reign of terror. Werewolf of London is an acceptable early werewolf movie that walked so that The Wolf Man could run.

10. Werewolf of London

The Werewolf of London

She Hate Me

Bride of Frankenstein is the first sequel to be just as good, if not better than the original. It’s easily one of the greatest sequels ever made. I’d even go so far as to call it the best Universal monster movie. Bride of Frankenstein is the only sequel that belongs with the rest of the classics. A big reason being the returning director, cast, and creative team. The idea for a follow up came as early as before Frankenstein was even released. Despite his reservations, James Whale proved himself too capable as a director for scientific men meddling with nature.

Bride of Frankenstein is undoubtedly Whale’s magnum opus. Even compared to already perfect horror films like Frankenstein or The Invisible Man. The idea for Bride of Frankenstein actually originates from Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates, then destroys a mate for the Monster that he never brings to life. A lot of the sequel deals with unexplored aspects of the book that are reworked to create Universal’s first female monster. Bride of Frankenstein is another childhood favorite that made me appreciate the Monster even more…

8. The Bride of Frankenstein

Frankenstein’s Monster meets his Bride

Bride of Frankenstein does what any great sequel should do. It deepens the story, adds depth to established characters, does something new, and pays homage without repeating itself. Whale’s direction is pushed even further with haunting black & white cinematography that maintains the grand scale that came before. The first Frankenstein only credited author Mary Shelley as the wife of romantic poet Percy B. Shelley. Bride of Frankenstein gives Shelley far more appreciation with a dramatic recreation of the dark and stormy night where Mary, Percy, and Lord Byron held a competition to see who told the better scary story. Frankenstein is cleverly recapped with her fellow author’s recounting events, but Mary Shelley isn’t quite finished telling her story.

Frankenstein’s Monster is presumed to have died in the burning windmill. Henry Frankenstein is taken away, but some villagers aren’t entirely sure the Monster is dead. E. E. Clive and Una O’Connor essentially play the same high ranking authority figure and overly excitable woman they respectively played in The Invisible Man. Giving Bride of Frankenstein mild comic relief that thankfully doesn’t distract from the horror. The Monster kills the rest of Maria’s family in a fit of anger, but this is actually the most sympathetic he’ll ever be. The Monster’s child-like innocence is explored in great detail. All he wants is a friend, but the villagers continue to fear and chase after him until he’s captured. The sequel puts more emphasis on religious allegory that the newly established Hays Code heavily censored.

Despite worsening alcoholism that would soon claim his life, Colin Clive gives even more depth to Dr. Frankenstein. He becomes a Baron and chooses not to continue his work. Valerie Hobson replaces the original Elizabeth, but manages to give her more confidence when defending her fiancée. Ernest Thesiger plays new character Dr. Pretorius with a tinge of flamboyance that some believe is gay subtext. Pretorius is an even madder scientist who toasts to a new world of gods and monsters. Pretorius also meddles with nature by creating truly bizarre miniature humans in glass jars. Frankenstein refuses to create a Bride for his Monster until Pretorius gives him no other choice. The Monster makes his only real friend when drawn to the music of a blind hermit. It’s a beautiful sequence where the hermit thanks God for his new friend and helps the Monster to speak.

Hearing the Monster speak is another reason to love the sequel, but Boris Karloff was initially against it. After his brief turn as the Mummy, Karloff returned to the bolts and flat top that made him famous. The Monster continues to grunt, but he’s also given the limited vocabulary of a child. The hermit teaches him the difference between good and bad. He even learns to embrace fire when the hermit tells him smoking is good. Unfortunately this brief moment of happiness is short-lived when villagers discover the Monster. The Monster seeks comfort in a crypt where he ends up crossing paths with Pretorius. He manipulates the Monster by promising him a friend and having him kidnap Elizabeth to force Frankenstein’s assistance. Dr. Frankenstein is joined by Dwight Frye as another hunched over assistant who isn’t Igor. Pretorius crosses the line by having Karl kill a young woman to give the Monster’s mate a fresh heart.

The laboratory is much more elaborate with greater detail given to the scientific process for creating life. The Bride of Frankenstein makes her debut at the very end, but her limited screen time is worth the wait. The lovely Elsa Lanchester plays Mary Shelley and the Bride in order to bring things full circle. The Bride is just as iconic with bandaged arms, a large white dress, and tall black hair with a white lightning streak. She’s the original female monster if you don’t count Dracula’s unnamed brides. The Monster thinks he finally found someone like him, but all she does is scream in terror. Her rejection is the final nail in the coffin that forces the Monster to accept that they’re better off dead. Concluding with the destruction of Frankenstein’s laboratory that should’ve been the perfect ending. Bride of Frankenstein brings much needed humanity to horror.

9. The Bride of Frankenstein

The Monster fears the fire of the blind man

Preceded by: Frankenstein & Followed by: Son of Frankenstein

Nobody Will See Him Coming

The Invisible Man (1933) is the greatest science fiction horror movie I’ve never seen. I literally didn’t see the original Invisible Man until the remake was announced. Even though it was always part of the official lineup of classic Universal monsters. The Invisible Man has black & white cinematography and an easily identifiable monster, but it’s very different compared to Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Mummy. H. G. Wells established himself as a true science fiction master when he wrote The Invisible Man in 1897. Frankenstein director James Whale lent his vision to a mostly faithful adaptation, but Boris Karloff never fully committed to the unseen title role. Newcomer Claude Rains makes an impression by only using his voice.

Dr. Jack Griffin is an ordinary scientist who experimented with chemicals and turned himself invisible. Though he can’t be seen, a pair of dark goggles and a face wrapped in bandages make him iconic. Griffin attempts to finish his work in an English Inn, but constant interruptions cause him to snap. An Invisible Man is a terrifying thought, because he really can rule the world if he was as insane as Griffin. The Invisible Man is groundbreaking thanks to early 30’s special effects that are still convincing today. Griffin’s invisibility was achieved through the impressive use of compositing shots filmed against black velvet. Objects are moved and clothing can walk on its own.

The Invisible Man is also unique for its dark comedy. Griffin has a silly laugh and plays harmless pranks on English villagers. Then he becomes a genuinely sinister threat who murders a lot more people than you might expect. Henry Travers plays Dr. Cranley, the scientist who realizes Griffin’s madness is linked to a chemical he used to become invisible. A very young Gloria Stewart plays Jack’s concerned fiancée Flora. Since every monster movie needs a love story. William Harrigan plays Dr. Kemp, the unwilling visible partner of the Invisible Man. Staying totally invisible is a lot more complicated than it seems. A manhunt is placed on Griffin, but he’s too smart to make mistakes. Griffin’s face is only seen at the end when the police finally manage to outsmart him. The Invisible Man is a boundary pushing ghost story with a science fiction twist.

7. The Invisible Man

Jack Griffin, the Invisible Man

Followed by: The Invisible Man Returns

The Scroll of Thoth

The Mummy (1932) is the original slow moving terror. Universal monster movies had a perfect winning streak that started with Dracula followed by Frankenstein. Mummies were never my all time favorite monster, but it’s hard to deny their impact on horror. Universal chose to center their next film around Ancient Egypt even though there wasn’t a book to work with. The movie was inspired by Cagliostro, Egyptian gods, and myths. Like the monster itself, The Mummy (1932) isn’t the fast paced adventure my generation grew up with. Although I was still young at the time, I saw The Mummy (1932) many years after the 1999 remake from my childhood. It’s difficult to compare a classic to something you have a personal attachment to.

The Mummy (1932) has more black & white horror atmosphere thanks to cinematographer turned director Karl Freund. Although taking place in Egypt, more time is spent in the confined Cairo Museum. Boris Karloff became the first actor to play multiple monsters. Imhotep is very different from Frankenstein’s Monster. The Mummy’s trademark bandages and decomposed skin are only seen once in the entire movie. Archeologists Sir Joseph Whemple and Dr. Muller played by Arthur Byron and Edward Van Sloan respectively, unearth the cursed body of Imhotep. They make the mistake of reading the “Scroll of Thoth” and a third member of their party dies laughing when the Mummy walks off.

10 years later, Imhotep has become the sophisticated, yet mysterious Ardeth Bay. Although it’s the bandages that are iconic, Imhotep’s sunken face is creepy enough on its own. Imhotep is a less hands on monster who uses ancient spells to control or kill those who cross him. The Mummy (1932) is a love story between Imhotep and his forbidden lover Anck-su-namun. Imhotep seeks to find his mummy bride in order to make her immortal. Exotic beauty Zita Johann plays the half Egyptian object of Imhotep and Frank Whemple’s affection (this would be the second concerned lover that David Manners plays). Helen Grosvenor is the reincarnated Princess Anck-su-namun whom Imhotep manipulates in order to sacrifice her. Only the outlandish power of Isis is enough to stop him. The Mummy (1932) may have put me to sleep the first time, but it’s that same restraint that made it impactful.

6. The Mummy

The Mummy Imhotep

Followed by: The Mummy’s Hand

It’s Alive!

Frankenstein (1931) is the definitive take on the man who created a monster. Based on Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 novel has been called the earliest science fiction story ever written. Although she didn’t always get the credit she deserved, Shelley proved women could horrorify just as well as men. Shelley was inspired by themes of renewed life. One of the most common misconceptions is that Frankenstein refers to the Monster. It actually refers to his creator Dr. Frankenstein.

The Modern Prometheus refers to the Greek Titan who created man. Unlike his fellow monsters, the unnamed creature isn’t a stock monster. Every portrayal needs a mad scientist who brings life to a reanimated corpse. Frankenstein has been adapted and parodied a countless number of times. After the success of Dracula, Universal released Frankenstein the same year. It has been my favorite Universal monster movie since childhood. The story was easy to follow and I really connected with the misunderstood monster. Frankenstein is an enduring classic that’s just as scary now as it was back then…

4. Frankenstein

Frankenstein’s Monster

Frankenstein (1931) took just as many creative liberties as Dracula (1931). Mary Shelley’s original book is quite different than the story we’re used to. Dr. Victor Frankenstein uses ambiguous scientific methods to bring life to a body that he constructs himself. Frankenstein shuns the hideous creature and he wanders the land until a blind man teaches him to act more human. Despite his well-meaning nature, the creature swears revenge on all those who wronged him. A 1927 play and other early adaptations maintain the original narrative. Really it’s the 1931 film that made Frankenstein what it is today. The story is so shocking that Edward Van Sloan warns the audience about what they’re about to witness.

The first change is renaming Dr. Frankenstein Henry instead of Victor. I’m not sure why since the name Victor is simply given to a close friend. Another more iconic change is Frankenstein fashioning a body out of corpses that he steals from graveyards. Colin Clive perfectly captures Dr. Frankenstein as a mad scientist who tows the line between brilliance and insanity. After proving himself as Renfield, Dwight Frye became the earliest depiction of a hunchback assistant. This character is named Fritz since Igor wasn’t fully developed until much later. Fritz accidentally steals an abnormal brain from Frankenstein’s former professor Dr. Waldman. After taking on Dracula as Van Helsing, Van Sloan inadvertently gave life to another monster.

Dr. Waldman, Victor, and Henry’s lovely fiancée Elizabeth Lavenza bear witness to his creation over concern for his sanity. Castle Frankenstein is just as iconic as Castle Dracula. Frankenstein’s laboratory is filled with tesla coils hooked up to a body given life when it’s struck by lightning. With the faintest movement, Dr. Frankenstein shouts one of the most iconic lines in movie history, “It’s alive!” Followed by another declaration that I always found a little blasphemous. Frankenstein will always be the most famous example of man meddling with nature. Bela Lugosi initially wanted the role of Dr. Frankenstein, but he was originally cast as the monster instead. Until he was replaced by an initially uncredited Boris Karloff.

As soon as he makes his silent introduction, the world forever associated Frankenstein’s Monster with a flat top, prominent brow, stitched together skin, and bolts in his neck. Karloff is also made to look enormous with large boots and a loose fitting black coat. His green skin didn’t become part of the look until later adaptations. Replacement director James Whale uses black & white to great effect. The cinematography is both haunting and spectacular. The Monster only grunts when confronted with fire. His biggest fear and the closest thing he has to a weakness. Dr. Waldman presents Frankenstein with the notion that the abnormal brain of a criminal can only create a monster. Even though the Monster only kills when Fritz torments him. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Monster as he cries out while chained up. Elizabeth and Frankenstein’s father talk sense into Henry who orders Waldman to destroy his creation. When he breaks free, the Monster wanders the wilderness as his creator prepares to be married.

Frankenstein is another classic horror movie that was censored upon release. The biggest reason being the infamous scene with Maria. The Monster innocently plays with the little girl by tossing flowers into the water. When they run out, he unintentionally drowns her. The scene is just as disturbing as when I saw it as a kid. More traumatizing is Maria’s father carrying her lifeless body through a joyful celebration. When the village learns about the Monster, they form an angry mob armed with torches. Henry goes searching for the Monster who confronts his bride Elizabeth. Mae Clarke is excellent as both a concerned fiancée and a genuinely terrified damsel. The Monster is chased by the mob until he comes face to face with his creator. They fight at an abandoned windmill that catches on fire. In the end, the Monster’s fate is left unknown, but Dr. Frankenstein survives. Frankenstein gave the Monster life better than any film since.

5. Frankenstein

Dr. Frankenstein confronts his creation

Followed by: Bride of Frankenstein

I Bid You Welcome

Dracula (1931) is the definitive take on the most famous vampire ever made. Created by Irish author Bram Stoker as far back as 1897, Dracula is one of the most famous books ever written. It has been terrifying readers for generations, but the printed word couldn’t contain the bloodthirsty monster. Count Dracula has appeared in every form of media there is. Books, movies, TV, video games, stage plays, and even breakfast cereal. I’m actually eating Count Chocula cereal as I write this review. I consider myself a vampire expert since they’ve had more exposure than any other monster.

Dracula is practically vampire royalty. Most people believe Vlad the Impaler to be his primary inspiration. Stoker mostly drew from Transylvanian folklore and vampire legend. His story inspired the famously unauthorized silent film Nosferatu. Universal monsters all began when the studio properly obtained the rights to the character. Although I never knew a Spanish film was also made by Universal in 1931. The English version of Dracula was a major step forward as a Hollywood horror movie that was consistently scary throughout. Although I admired Dracula when I watched it as a child, I never appreciated it as much as I do as an adult…

2. Dracula

“I am Dracula”

Dracula (1931) is the definitive portrayal, but it isn’t the most faithful. The movie is actually inspired by both the Bram Stoker novel and a 1924 play. Dracula is the first depiction of the vampire as anything other than a hideous monster. Even Nosferatu maintained a mostly accurate book description. The image of Dracula was forever changed with the casting of Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. Turning Count Dracula into a handsome and charming vampire with dark slicked back hair who could more convincingly manipulate his victims. Dracula notably wears a suit with a theatrical high collar cape. Although black & white, the color red is very much implied.

Unlike the book, Renfield is the solicitor traveling to Transylvania instead of Jonathan Harker. Much like the village in the movie, Transylvania has forever been associated with vampires. Ignoring all warnings, Renfield heads to Dracula’s castle driven by the Count himself. Vampires are known for there many strengths and weaknesses. The film uses any method it can to portray them. Everyone knows Dracula can turn into a bat, but only true experts know he can become a wolf or even mist. The latter two are implied, while the former is only done off-screen. Bats are achieved with crude puppetry. Count Dracula makes his iconic introduction when he awakens from a coffin. He’s joined by his beautiful unnamed brides who have a very small part in the movie.

Dracula is made even more eerie with the complete absence of a score. Director Tod Browning was more known for silent films, but the real reason is cost. Only in the late 90’s did composer Philip Glass score the movie. Dracula famously bids Reinfield welcome and poetically points out the music made by the “children of the night.” Reinfield helps Dracula move from Transylvania to London since vampires can’t survive in the sunlight. His thirst is first depicted when Reinfield cuts his finger, but the almighty cross compels him. Reinfield only becomes a mindless slave when he drinks the wine that Dracula gives him. Hypnotism is depicted with haunting closeups on Lugosi’s eyes.

Dwight Frye is the perfect raving lunatic who makes Reinfield just as creepy as the Count. Dracula drinks the blood of innocent women in London, but his fangs are never shown. He continues to manipulate Reinfield as he’s locked in a sanitarium for wanting to consume flies, spiders, and rats. Other primary characters are altered with the renamed John Harker being given a less central role. Though David Manners does a fine job as the concerned fiancée of Mina Harker. Another change is making Mina the daughter of asylum owner Dr. Seward. Dracula creepily preys on Lucy Weston as she sleeps and she becomes a vampire off-screen.

Edward Van Sloan confidently takes on the role of famous vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. As Dracula’s archenemy, Van Helsing is a professor who figures out the vampire’s secret and prepares himself with all necessary weapons. Wolfsbane replaces garlic as a repellent, but holy objects like a cross will always work best. Van Helsing also uses a small mirror, shot to look like Dracula has no reflection. None of it is enough to keep Dracula away from Mina. Helen Chandler is excellent at portraying Mina’s innocence as a human and her uncontrollable thirst as a vampire. John and Van Helsing track Dracula to his London castle where they drive a stake through his heart. Ending the curse on Mina since you have to kill the head vampire. Although Bela Lugosi hated being typecast, his depiction of Dracula is a cinematic icon. Dracula is a sophisticated horror movie legend.

3. Dracula

Van Helsing fends off Dracula

Followed by: Dracula’s Daughter

Kong’s Kid

Son of Kong is one of the earliest sequels ever made. King Kong was such a big hit that RKO Pictures didn’t even wait a year to make it. Son of Kong was released a mere 9 months into 1933. Despite its close proximity, audiences didn’t embrace it the way they did with the original. Although the runtime is only 1 hour and 9 minutes, I never felt the need to watch Son of Kong until now. Only Ernest B. Schoedsack returns as director, but the production feels almost exactly the same with Willis H. O’Brien continuing to do stop-motion.

A lot of props were carried over from King Kong, but the primary difference is tone. Little Kong is an albino gorilla who is a lot more comedic than his father. His roars are childish and he makes silly expressions. I wouldn’t label Son of Kong a comedy since it does seriously attempt to follow the aftermath of Kong’s rampage through New York. Carl Denham is genuinely remorseful as he faces several lawsuits. Robert Armstrong becomes the new heroic lead as one of a few returning cast members.

Frank Reicher also returns as Venture Captain Englewood who takes Denham on a new voyage. They run into new beautiful woman Hilda in a performing monkey show. She stows away when they foolishly return to Skull Island in search of treasure. Since Little Kong is friendly, the untrustworthy Helstrom is the human villain. Denham finds closure by saving Little Kong’s life. So Little Kong fights off a new batch of man eating dinosaurs in return. Including a not as intimidating giant bear. Still it’s hard to believe the special effects look this good after only 9 months. Little Kong isn’t an endearing icon, but his watery fate is just as tragic. Son of Kong is the original unnecessary sequel.

3. Son of Kong

Little Kong in the jungle

Preceded by: King Kong

Eighth Wonder of the World

King Kong is the greatest giant monster movie ever made in Hollywood. Nothing feels more cinematic than a 24 foot tall gorilla scaling the Empire State Building. Decades before Godzilla, King Kong became one of the most iconic characters in film history. Since jungle movies were all the rage back then, directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack developed their own picture. Their simple, but ambitious idea was to follow a giant ape from a prehistoric island and into the modern world.

Although almost 100 years old, King Kong has aged surprisingly well. It wowed audiences with state of the art stop-motion special effects, a tragic monster, and a genuine build up. King Kong was a major hit that led to sequels, remakes, cartoons, video games, and several giant ape imitators. I have my mom to thank for introducing my brother and I to the 1933 classic. Unlike most remakes, our mom encouraged us to see the original first. No matter how many times I watch King Kong, it never fails to give me a chest pounding cinematic experience…

1. King Kong

King Kong vs. the airplanes

King Kong has a perfect three-act structure. It all begins with a 4 minute overture that I usually skip. Though Max Steiner’s score is wonderfully thrilling for the adventure ahead. The first act takes place in New York Harbor where director Carl Denham prepares a voyage on the ship Venture. Denham is a reckless director known for swell pictures filmed in exotic locations full of dangerous wildlife. Robert Armstrong manages to give Denham honest passion without him seeming like a bad person. He’s joined by a crew of rugged shipmates including first mate Jack Driscoll. Bruce Cabot fills the role of handsome action hero. Much like the movie itself, Denham knows the only way to sell his picture is with a beautiful woman at the center.

King Kong is in many ways a romance. Beauty and the Beast in its most primitive form. Ann Darrow is found on the streets by Denham and immediately cast with promises of adventure. Although her performance is at least 60% screaming, Fay Wray is truly the human face of King Kong. Her blonde hair was specifically chosen to stand out opposite her tall, dark, and handsome co-star. Despite initially objecting to dames aboard the Venture, Jack can’t help but fall in love with Ann. It may seem like a lot of time is spent on the boat, but it’s all worth it when they reach the ominous Skull Island. The second act sees the crew reach their exotic destination where Denham plans his shoot.

They’re first greeted by natives performing a mysterious ritual. Having black natives may suggest racial implications, but I don’t believe that was the intention. They’re a simple people that keep Kong out with a giant wall and sacrifice their women to him. When bargaining for Ann doesn’t work, the natives kidnap her instead. A screaming Ann tied to two pillars is one of several iconic moments that finally gives us Kong in glorious black & white. Although Kong’s design is modeled after a gorilla, he is given more upright positions. Willis H. O’Brien’s stop-motion animation is the true star of the show. O’Brien trained Ray Harryhausen himself, so you know he knows what he’s doing. Kong is fully expressive when he sees Ann. Drawn by her beauty, the beast takes her deep into Skull Island where the crew encounter a variety of prehistoric creatures.

There’s a definite divide when special effects start to take over. Schoedsack directed most scenes with dialogue and Cooper directed the miniature dinosaurs. Since King Kong is pre-Code, many violent or suggestive scenes were cut for many years. Denham, Jack, and the crew encounter a Stegosaurus and a particularly dangerous Brontosaurus in the water. Kong famously protects Ann in a fight against a Tyrannosaurus. Their fight only ends when Kong breaks the jaw of the T-Rex and performs his signature chest pound. Kong seemingly kills most of the crew when he sends them falling off a log. I say seemingly because a lost sequence would’ve seen them devoured by large insects. Denham survives along with Jack who tries to rescue Ann. After fighting off an Elasmosaurus snake creature in his lair, Kong undresses Ann. An innocent act that I mostly see as curiosity. Jack saves Ann when Kong is distracted by a Pterodactyl. It’s clear that Ann wants nothing to do with Kong, but he pursues her anyway. Kong breaks through the native wall and terrorizes their village. Denham gets particularly reckless when he gas bombs Kong and somehow takes him back to New York City with the moniker “Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!

The third act is in New York where patrons pay to see Kong tied up in chains. Another iconic moment that ends badly when flash photography causes him to break loose. Despite often being labeled a villain, Kong is a misunderstood creature who should never have been forced to leave his home. Though it is hard to excuse Kong eating people, stepping on villagers, attacking a train, and throwing an innocent woman out a building in an attempt to find Ann. When Kong does find Ann, he creates one of the greatest moments in movie history by climbing the Empire State Building. Airplanes are sent to gun down Kong at the very top of the building. Though he manages to destroy one, Kong protects Ann one last time before falling to his death. Ending with Denham’s famous final words that “It wasn’t the airplanes, It was Beauty killed the Beast.” Even though King Kong screams Hollywood, it wasn’t nominated for a single Academy Award. The only Oscar it got was a Special Achievement Award. Regardless of accolades, King Kong has left an undeniable impact on the movie industry.

2. King Kong

King Kong meets Ann Darrow

Followed by: Son of Kong