Of the four, James Whale's "Frankenstein" (1931) is the best -- a weepie wrapped in a father-son melodrama inside a horror film. The great Boris Karloff stars as Frankenstein’s monster, a square-headed brute made of freshly deceased body parts, and jolted “aliiiiiive” by a lightning-fueled experiment. Neither grave-robbing scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) nor the inventor’s demented assistant Fritz can provide proper parenting for the hulk who awakens in their laboratory.
Unprepared and fearful of their creation, the doctor and Fritz resort to acts of abuse, imprisoning and tormenting the creature in wrongheaded attempts at discipline. Like an unhappy child, the monster runs away from home and heads for the hills. There he discovers a friend, loses her, and seals his fate as a tragic hero. Whale's direction nods to German Expressionism -- the Escher-like dimensions of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, the off-kilter camera angles, the long-armed shadows that extend over characters' faces. Yet something softer anchors the film: sorrow. The bitterly ironic last line says it all: "Here's to a son… to the House of Frankenstein!"
Three years later, Whale and Karloff re-teamed for the equally excellent "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), a sequel that exceeds the original in both goofiness and sentimentality. There are of course religious parallels to the story of a pariah son who dies and then is resurrected, and "Bride" zones in on these Christian undertones. The film opens with the monster, previously thought dead, rising out of the sunken rubble, disposing of a few shrieking civilians, and on the run again. He is taken in by a blind man, and experiences happiness for a day or two. In an an unabashedly moving scene, the blind man thanks God for having finally sent him a friend, and the monster weeps. Meanwhile, Henry Frankenstein gets mixed up with the looney Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), who's been pillaging tombs and designing a female companion for Frankenstein's monster. This companion is Elsa Lanchester, onscreen for only a few minutes but unforgettable in the role of the hissing, livewire bride-to-be. Her creation scene is pure monster movie magic, edited to the beat of a freshly stolen heart that is the bride's finishing touch.
Universal contract player Dwight Frye, who plays Fritz in "Frankenstein" and has a humorously similar role in "Bride," had a knack for being cast as the ghoulish assistant. But in no film is this so brilliantly evident as in Tod Browning's "Dracula" (1931). As Renfield, Frye nimbly transforms from a naive, effete solicitor to Dracula's cowering, mouth-breathing sidekick. Of course Bela Lugosi is iconic as the well-coiffed vampire, but it is Frye who steals the show with his manic desperation for insect blood. The film is masterfully economic, moving from the desolate crossroads in the Carpathian Mountains to Dracula's lair and back to England within the opening fifteen minutes. The rest plays out like a chamber piece, with most of the action happening over a couple of days in one household.
Browning, who hailed from the silent era, shows his flare for visual minimalism: a recurring shot of Dracula's face, obscured in shadow except for his glowing eyes, is chilling. The absence of score only reaffirms the creeping power of the images.
"Creature from the Black Lagoon" emerged many years later, in 1954. Though it suffers from a campy script and only serviceable performances, it's a fascinating artifact of space-race era ambitions, and a marvel of underwater photography (originally filmed and projected in anaglyphic 3-D, no less). Watching "Creature" one is struck by how it paved the way for another Universal classic of aquatic horror, "Jaws." The famous sequence in which explorer Kay Lawrence (a foxy Julie Adams) goes for an ill-advised dip into the Amazonian lagoon is so much like the opening scene in Spielberg's masterpiece: the POV underwater shot of a lithe young woman doing the crawl, another POV shot of her legs treading water, a shot above water of her agitated face as she discovers she's not alone. The scene doesn't end in violence -- luckily for Kay, the Gill Man wants her as his love and not as his lunch. And unlike Spielberg's shark, the Gill Man makes his onscreen appearance early. A suit like that has to be shown off.
The transfers of the films are decent, though not noticeably improved from Universal's Legacy series DVDs from a few years ago. Each title has its own accompanying documentary in the special features, though based on the production values, these docs weren't newly made for the 100th anniversary. (Something about "Universal Home Video Presents" doesn't scream 2012.) However the historical information is interesting, and it's fun to see director Joe Dante or eccentric film historian David J. Skal give us some background on the monsters. Another perk is the inclusion of Universal's Spanish version of "Dracula," made simultaneously with Tod Browning's version, and an impressively scary work in its own right.
Check out Universal's rather hard-to-navigate 100th anniversary website here.