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Sleep Tight, a Monstrous Season Approaches : Movies: Those perennial masters of the dark, Frankenstein's monster and Count Dracula, return in a pair of new films. As always, they keep changing with the times.

October 31, 1994|JACK MATHEWS | NEWSDAY

It is a cool fall evening, only minutes after the last glow of an afternoon sunset has faded behind the cloak of night, and as you sit in the darkness waiting, you hear them coming.

Leaves that were clinging to life just days ago now lay dead beneath the skeletal branches, crying out involuntarily as they are smashed under the feet of the approaching creatures. Soon, the leaves grow silent, and you know that the monsters are there, right there, outside your door, and that they will not go away until you have looked into their ghastly faces, and satisfactorily answered the eternal question:

"Trick or treat?"

Oh, yeah, it's Freddy Krueger, or Jason, the Mummy or the Werewolf, maybe even the devil himself. If the entrepreneurial ghouls have their way, and parents in your neighborhood are tacky enough to let their kids wear them, it could be the mask of O.J. staring back at you. But if this Oct. 31 is like most others during the past six decades, ever since Hollywood got its voice and put the scream in Halloween, you are sure to be visited by the perennial masters of the dark, the id and the ego of the Living Dead, Frankenstein's monster and Count Dracula.

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If you're really paying attention, the faces stamped out in latex are those of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, whose performances in Universal's seminal 1931 talking horror movies, "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," set the images of the characters forever.

In the 63 years since "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" were released, there have been countless remakes, knockoffs, spoofs and parodies. There are 32 movies with Dracula in the title available right now on video, 29 with Frankenstein, and scores more featuring either those characters or monsters sporting similar MOs.

Frankenstein's monster and the vampire who inspired Count Dracula were conceived in novels, illustrated in magazines, given life on stage, transported to the silver screen and broadcast over the airwaves. Their stories have been told and retold, their powers and personalities subjected to a thousand whims of reinvention. They flourished during the Great Depression, survived World War II (and Abbott and Costello), saw aliens from outer space, psycho-killers, and devils of every denomination come in and out of vogue. They have even survived face-to-face confrontations with each other, and, at the end of the day, remain the dominant figures of modern horror fiction.

And they are about to go after each other again, at least at the box office.

On Friday, TriStar opens "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Robert De Niro as the monster. A week later, Warner Bros. trots out Neil Jordan's "Interview With the Vampire," with Tom Cruise playing the vampire Lestat.

As this is being written, there is no advance word on the comparative quality of the two films, but the smart money says the vampire movie will win the 1994 monster-off. Not just because Cruise is a bigger box-office star than De Niro, but because the prevailing social environment is more suited to the seductive wiles of vampires, and to the pleasures and dangers of sex, than to the raw terror of the walking dead and the theme of science run amok.

Let's face it, Frankenstein's monster, as we have come to know him in film, is an NFL lineman, a lumbering ox who is all scar tissue and brute force, trudging along without any supernatural, social or intellectual skills. Even though Shelley had him pining for a sweetheart, it's hard to imagine what he'd have done with her.

In contrast, Dracula and his literary variants have been depicted as suave, sensual, alluring figures who move with the grace of the wind, and though they become petulant over the presence of garlic, crucifixes and mirrors, they remain relatively free of the constraints of nature.

As monsters, they seem to make strange bedfellows, yet they have sort of marched two abreast throughout 19th- and 20th-Century culture. They were, if legend has it right, even conceived on the same weekend in 1816, under the same roof, perhaps under the influence of the same drugs, in a villa near Lake Geneva, where Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and a Dr. Polidori got together to exchange ghost stories.

During that decadent house party, Shelley reportedly saw the image of a scientist reanimating a corpse in a dream, while Dr. Polidori began a story that would produce his 1819 novella, "The Vampyre."

Shelley's monster and Dr. Polidori's vampire were conceived as sort of freakish peers, products of their own excessive environment. Though feminist writers have suggested that Shelley's story was an allegory about the male desire to procreate without having to put up with women, she gave the more reasonable explanation that she was stimulated by theories of how electricity might be used to raise the dead.

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