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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

In any event, the original monster that her Dr. Victor Frankenstein assembled from spare parts found in graveyards and morgues was an intelligent creature who, though he looked a fright, could function within society. He could speak several languages, and was driven not by some quest for spiritual light, like that big lug Boris Karloff played, but by anger and revenge, a desire to smash the godhead science that made him.

Dr. Polidori's vampire was also a product of the author's cultural background, a suave rake whose nocturnal lifestyle and perverse pleasures seem only a few degrees removed from the lives of some early 19th-Century aristocrats.

Bram Stoker, a product of the Victorian Era, scruffed up the vampire's image and buried Polidori's sexual imagery in his 1897 novel, "Dracula," making the count a pasty, decrepit old man. He is about as seductive as a mosquito, a thief in the night, slipping into the boudoirs of sweet-blooded maidens, and feasting as they sleep.

The vampire became even more ghastly in F. W. Murnau's 1922 silent movie, "Nosferatu," an unauthorized adaptation of "Dracula," featuring a rat-faced, long-eared Count Orlock.

Shortly after that, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi combined some of the aristocratic bearing of Dr. Polidori's vampire with the Transylvanian mystery of Stoker's Dracula in a hugely successful stage production, then reprised it in Tod Browning's 1931 movie, and the character, as he is most commonly known, was born.

That same year, Frankenstein's monster underwent a personality change. Shelley's story was too horrific for movie audiences trying to get used to the shock of people talking in movies, let alone screaming. And by then, mad scientists trying to play god seemed a realistic threat to rational people. So Universal turned the monster into a pure victim of science, the confused creation of a mad grave robber, who killed only by accident, or when threatened.

"Dracula" and "Frankenstein" launched a decade of horror movies in Hollywood, and spawned sequels--"Dracula's Daughter" and "The Bride of Frankenstein"--considered today to be better than the originals. But the onslaught of competitive monsters, plus the advent of the atomic age, shunted the classics aside, or turned them into comic relief in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," or into gentle suburbanites in "The Addams Family" and "The Munsters."

England's Hammer Films made a series of blood-soaked but fairly faithful Frankenstein and Dracula movies in the '50s and '60s, and with the 1974 "Young Frankenstein," Mel Brooks made what may be the best and most affectionate genre spoof in Hollywood history. But the monsters' images could use some sprucing up, which is what they may be about to get.

Branagh's version of the Frankenstein story hews closely to Shelley's original story line, which has the monster murdering the doctor's brother and wife and chasing him halfway around the world. And Jordan's adaptation of "Interview With the Vampire" will be a major disappointment if it doesn't capture the seductive atmosphere of Rice's novel.

The oddity of the two subjects is that while "Frankenstein" began life as the philosophical work--a cautionary tale about man going against nature--and the vampire stories as pure horror entertainment, they have temporarily switched positions in the '90s. Even though man is tinkering with nature as he never has before, society is less panicked by what science might accomplish than by what it cannot.

The vampire stories, with their inherent linking of sexuality, blood and death, the mystery and power of the combination, make them seem as if they are allegories foretold. As ridiculous as things got in Francis Ford Coppola's over-the-top 1992 "Bram Stoker's Dracula," it was impossible to watch the count's infecting of Mina with his blood and not see it as a sign of the times.

There may come a time when the mad scientist reclaims his ranking as a fearsome menace--there are people out there we don't want to see cloned, for instance--but for now, Dr. Frankenstein seems a benign threat, and his monster goes comparatively gentle into the night.

HALLOWEEN TREATS: Celebrate tonight with two horror classics. Please see Screening Room. F2

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