Halloween Double Feature: Orphan and Frankenstein

Orphan (2009). 123 minutes, Warner Bros. Pictures. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
Frankenstein (1931). 70 minutes, Universal Pictures. Directed by James Whale.

Last night was Halloween. Back in the days when we lived in Los Angeles, Frank and I would have either been at a party, or at the West Hollywood Halloween Parade. Or both. We would be in some sort of adult-apropriate costume, hanging around with other adults engaged in Halloween fun.

But now I live in suburban Miami-Fort Lauderdale, within a gated McMansion community, and the closest thing to a costumed Halloween parade is the little gathering in the cul-de-sac for the neighbor kids. Not exactly my idea of fun. So, after a couple of hours handing out candy to the trick-or-treaters, we retired to the theater room to watch a horror film. We figured we had to show the day some respect.

We decided to watch Orphan, a recent horror film about a family who adopts a nine-year-old girl. And it turns out the girl is Not What She Seems. The little girl, an orphan from Russia, appears to have it in for every member of the family except for Daddy. She also takes revenge on any schoolmates who make fun of her. The film is pretty much a modern take on The Bad Seed . Except with a very silly twist near the end.

I won’t spoil the twist. Even though, honestly, the film isn’t worth keeping a secret for. This is not exactly The Sixth Sense we’re talking about here. I actually figured out the surprise twist about half an hour before it was revealed. Sadly, after The Big Twist, the movie keeps going for about another half hour, getting sillier and sillier. I love a good gore fest / slasher film as much as the next guy, but come on. Give me some credit. The end ties things up in pretty much the same way as the Friday the 13th movies always did – which means I fully expect to see “Orphan 2” showing in theaters next summer, if not sooner.

The nature of the twist is such that, once revealed, I actually felt kind of icky realizing that an actual ten-year-old girl had to go through that performance. I had hoped that perhaps the actress was really a young-looking adult just playing a child, but I looked it up, and little Isabelle Fuhrman really was ten years old when this film was made. If you ever felt that Linda Blair was being pushed a bit too far in her performance in The Exorcist… then by all means do not see this movie.

Unfortunately, Orphan didn’t scare me in the slightest. It did gross me out in a few scenes, and I certainly felt a bit of stomach-churn after one or two scenes, but that’s it. The one thing that really stood out for me was the use of music. I don’t recall any horror film that pulls the “dun-dun-DUN!” trick as much as this one does. No kidding, almost every single door opening, draw slide, footstep, turning of the corner, you name it – every single visual transition in the entire movie is punctuated by a “Mickey Mouse”: a loud, shrieking, syncopated music cue that tries to fool you into thinking that every single second of this film is shocking.

Which it definitely isn’t.

The film left a bad taste in my mouth. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t scary, and it wasn’t so bad that it was “funny-bad”. It was just… not good. So, even though Frank fell asleep the second the movie was over, I decided that this Halloween I needed a double feature.

I saw that the original Universal Pictures version of Frankenstein was available in high-def on iTunes. Curious to see if an HD transfer of such an old film would look better than my DVD copy, I went ahead and rented it. I guess not many people were bogging down the internet on Halloween, because the film downloaded almost immediately, and I started watching.

As it turns out, the HD version appears no different at all from the DVD version I already had. I guess the film is so old, there just isn’t any more resolution to be gained… or maybe the iTunes folks were cheating me, and this was just a “fake” HD upgrade to justify the extra $1.00 in rental. But it was still the same film, and I watched the whole thing.

Other than being in the same “Horror” genre, the two films in my double feature could not have been more different. This is the original Frankenstein – the film version that started it all. This was Boris Karloff in his breakthrough role, as the square-headed, bolt-necked lumbering monster who tosses a little girl into a lake and grasps at sunbeams in the air.

I had forgotten the little introduction at the beginning of the film – in which a man in a suit steps out from behind a curtain, and warns the audience that this film will be shocking and horrifying, and if you can’t take it, you’d better leave the theater now. To a modern audience, it seems ridiculous. There’s all of about two drops of chocolate blood in the entire movie, not a single curse word, not a single hint of sex of any kind. I’m almost positive it would get a G rating if it came out today.

It is, of course, in glorious black and white. Frankenstein was made during the heyday of black and white filmmaking, and the sets and lighting make full use of it. It has a look that is impossible to duplicate these days, a theatrical quality that is mesmerizing at the same time it is nostalgic. This is a supremely visual movie. All of the horror here is visual: the angles on the monster, the reveals of his face for the first time as he turns around in a doorway, the closeups of the anguished faces of the characters.

Being made in 1931, it’s still one of the very early talking motion pictures. Sound technology did not yet allow for mixing music and voice together on a soundtrack, and so the only music heard is during the beginning and ending credits. Not a single music underscore appears anywhere else in the movie (Check out the 1933 King Kong for the first dynamic use of a full orchestral score intermixed with dialog).

And that’s what struck me as supremely different about Orphan and Frankenstein. These two movies are separated by almost eighty years. Orphan, a not very scary horror movie, lays on a thick soundtrack of dubbed music, auditory cues, and surround sound effects that try to make you scream and jump to what is, after all, just a ten-year-old little girl in a dress walking down a hallway. Frankenstein, also not very scary to jaded modern senses, accomplishes its shocks solely in the visual medium.

When I was a kid, the Universal horror pictures were “thrill-scary”. Of course I didn’t actually worry about the Frankenstein monster or the Wolfman or the Mummy or the Creature from the Black Lagoon coming to get me in the middle of the night. Well. Not most of the time, anyway. But they were – and are – thrilling to watch. And although Frankenstein isn’t the best of them (I’d vote for Bride of Frankenstein in that spot), it still holds up pretty well.

I expect to still be around in 2031, when Frankenstein will be 100 years old. I will be willing to bet that there will be a commemorative version re-issued then, maybe looking better than my current DVD if they can find a decent print to restore. And I bet it will still be somewhat thrilling, and still visually interesting, and still give new viewers a bit of a shiver.

So, if you’re looking from some chilling fun, forget Orphan and Saw 2 through 6 or whatever they’re up to now. Go back in time and watch horror films from a time when they weren’t really scary… but they sure as hell were a lot of fun.

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