Book Talk: Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, Dracula, and David Lynch
This time around we have a bit of an eclectic set of books to cover. First DVDTalk writer Casey Burchby has a review of a collection of David Lynch interviews that will sure to please fans of the fascinating director. Then John Sinnott covers a pair of books about monsters. The Wolf Man vs. Dracula is a script that was written in 1944 at Universal for a Technicolor film, but never made it past the preliminary planning stage. Next he reviews Edison's Frankenstein, a comprehensive look at the long thought missing silent film.
David Lynch: Interviews, edited by Richard A. Barney
For years, David Lynch was the opaque madman of cinema - reluctant in interviews to give any kind of substantive insight into his views or creative process. Intensely private and willfully obscure, Lynch's public persona (such as it was) stayed deeply shadowed for about two decades. More recently, he has become as loquacious as drunken Irishman, giving interviews right and left, gabbing on his website, and gaining notoriety for his assessments of product placement ("Bullshit. Total fucking bullshit.") and mobile devices like the iPhone ("...you think you've seen a film on your fucking telephone? Get real."). Through The David Lynch Foundation For Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace, he has become a figurehead for both charitable work and Transcendental Meditation, which he has practiced for nearly forty years. This monumental shift from enigmatic cinema genius to colorful, outspoken public figure is difficult to attribute. Through all of this, however, Lynch has maintained an unchallenged position as one of the most singular and influential filmmakers of our time.
Richard A. Barney of SUNY Albany has assembled a representative selection of Lynch interviews, spanning from 1977 up to the present. In them, we see Lynch evolve markedly as an interviewee. It's difficult to tell exactly how much Lynch's thinking has changed over time - but it's abundantly clear that he has learned a lot about how to talk about himself, his craft, and his ideas about art in general.
The interviews are generally fascinating. Lynch thinks and speaks in a unique, engaging, and often very funny way. From his initial discomfort with words in the earliest interviews, Lynch grows into a unique verbal stylist, using language as a conceptual artist might. He handles words in a way that suggests a range of shaded meanings and significance - somewhat the way his films lead audiences through experiences that add up to something that's both profound and impossible to describe. As a filmmaker and as a talker, Lynch often illuminates when he seems to obscure, and vice-versa. An example of this comes during an interview with Kathrin Spohr for Form magazine, when he says that certain kinds of tables "cause unpleasant mental activity." This kind of remark can either be dismissed as idiosyncratic or it can serve as a jumping off point for an oddly interesting conversation about furniture design.
This volume contains a good selection of material that will engage and enlighten Lynch's fans. It is also remarkably informative from a technical perspective, as Lynch gets into a fairly deep level of detail discussing how particular photographic effects were achieved in his films. I have one criticism of the book: In the most recent material, Lynch sounds strange and sort of disembodied as he effuses about TM. Although I don't doubt his sincerity, he sounds weirdly aloof talking about meditation and what he claims, in very generic terms, are its immeasurable benefits. He says that TM has been a major boon to his creativity, but the guru-like platitudes he uses to describe it are not convincing. It's an off-putting conclusion to a book that contains much of value.
The Wolf Man vs. Dracula
In the 30's and 40's Universal made a series of classic horror movies that are still highly regarded today. With movies like Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy's Tomb, House of Dracula, and The Wolf Man vs. Dracula they crafted a mythos around the... wait a minute. The Wolf Man vs. Dracula? That wasn't a Universal horror film. That's right, it wasn't, but it almost was. In 1944 Screen writer Bernard L. Schumann, who had was the scribe behind The Mummy's Curse, was tapped to write a new monster movie to be filmed in Technicolor. It was to start Lon Chaney Jr. reprising his role as the cursed Larry Talbot, and Bela Lugosi as the world's most famous vampire. Unfortunately the film was never made, but Schumann did finish the script which he put in a box where it sat for 40 years.
Now thanks to Philip J Riley and Bear Manor Publishing, fans of the old Universal monster flicks can read Schumann's script (reproduced directly from the original manuscript with typos intact) and see what might have been. A nicely done first draft, there would certainly have been minor changes made to the script, the story has everything fans would want: action, eerie night scenes, and two great monsters. Though the battle at the end is a bit anticlimactic, it still would have made a good movie.
The body of Larry Talbot is found in a forest. (This takes place after the events in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.) Though it's obvious that he has been dead for years, his body has not deteriorated. A scientist takes the cadaver back to his lab where he discovers that a silver bullet is just grazing the dead man's heart. When it is removed the body comes back to life, miraculously.
Equally miraculous is what happens while the scientist is giving a press conference: the light of the full moon hits the man, now revealed to be Larry Talbot, and he turns into a werewolf, killing the scientist's assistant, breaking the bars on the window, and escaping into the night.
In a nearby town the local lord, Count Dracula, is paying a visit to a peasant, Anatole, and his lovely daughter Yvonne. Dracula has moved into the old castle in the area, his ancestral home, where it is rumored a vampire once lived. He's very interested in Yvonne and wants to marry her. Anatole isn't sure about the match, there's something odd about the count, and Yvonne knows she wants to have nothing to do with him.
Cornering Yvonne in a barn one evening, the Count tries to get her to take off the crucifix she wears around her neck by giving the young lady a pearl necklace, when a disheveled Larry Talbot enters. He's looking for Anatole because he thinks the old man can put him out of his misery once and for all. After only spending a short amount of time in the household however, Talbot becomes enamored with Yvonne, making him Dracula's foe. The Count isn't going to take a rival for Yvonne's affections lightly and sets about to destroy the man.
This was a good script that works in more places than it doesn't. Like many of the Universal horror films, it does drag a bit in the middle, and the big battle that the movie builds to is a bit too short and feels a bit anticlimactic. Even with these minor flaws, it would have made a good film and having this script is the next best thing. My only complaint is that script writer Bernard L. Schumann is not credited on the cover (or title page) for his work. Highly Recommended for Universal monster fans.
Edison's Frankenstein by Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr.
The first time I heard of the one reel 1910 version of Frankenstein that Edison Studios released, it was discussed as a lost film. For decades it was assumed that there weren't any copies at all; that it suffered the fate of an estimated 85% of all silent films and was gone. Then there were rumblings that one copy did exist in the collection of an eccentric film collector who wouldn't show it to anyone, and wanted $1,000,000 for his single reel. I dismissed these reports as nothing more than wishful thinking or a prank, but I was wrong. The film did exist in the collection of Alois Dettlaff a film buff who, as the rumors suggested, was very protective of his treasure and became more than a bit greedy in his later years.
Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr. has written a very thorough history of the Edison film (which he has seen, more on that later), as well as an interesting overview of other versions of the Frankenstein tale. He starts out with a synopsis of the story as told by Mary Shelley in her famous book and a brief history of Edison's movie studio. The book then proceeds to document, as best as can be done at this late date, the filming of the Edison version of Frankenstein and profiling the cast and crew.
The book goes on the recount stage adaptations of the story, and other pre-Universal movie versions including the 1915 (now lost) Life Without Soul and a 1920 four-reel version of the story filmed in Italy (also considered lost). There are some interesting comparisons between the Edison film and later film and stage versions of the tale and Wiebel does a great job covering all of the bases.
The most interesting part of this book however is the concluding chapters on the fate of the reel of film itself. Wiebel recounts his search to track the film down after seeing a short clip in a movie on the history of horror films. He eventually makes contact with Alois Dettlaff who owns the only known copy of the film, which starts a multi-year saga of trying to get the film released. Wiebel states that Dettlaff started collecting films years and years ago so that he'd be able to share his favorite cinematic moments with friends and family. It's interesting to see how greed changed the man, from wanting to share his love of movies to becoming someone obsessed that people were trying to steal copies of the movie. It's recounted how Wiebel had arranged for Dettlaff to present his film several times at various conventions and film festivals, only to have the man cancel out at the last moment. He also relates how it was finally shown at a convention and Dettlaff's death.
It's a good read, especially the final chapters. As an added bonus, Wiebel is giving copies away of Edison's Frankenstein on DVD (presumably DVD-R) to purchasers of the book for only the cost of postage and manufacturing, a very reasonable $6. Go out and pick up a copy.
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