Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: Horror Shorts

Film: Frankenstein (1910); Thriller; The Skeleton Dance
Format: Internet video on Fire!

In the early days of film, almost everything was an experiment. When you look at the earliest of the silents, they start by showing essentially real life to the audience. We slowly start to develop the idea of stories and doing something more than just showing people walking or dancing or trains pulling into stations. Frankenstein, very loosely based on the Mary Shelley novel, was produced by the Edison company, is a film that tried to advance the language of film. How successful it is, however, is not as easy to determine.

There’s honestly not a lot here that connects to the actual story. Oh, we’re going to have a guy named Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) who is engaged to be married to a woman named Elizabeth (Mary Fuller), a ceremony threatened by Frankenstein’s creation of a monster (Charles Ogle). But that’s where the similarities end.

You have to expect that that’s going to be the case with a movie that has a running time of about 14 minutes. We’re not going to get into the nuances of Frankenstein’s desire to create life and play God nor his terrible regrets when he creates something that proves to be far less than what he had intended. We don’t have the time to dig into the creature’s existential crisis, born into a world unloved and unable to be loved, not asking for existence but forced to exist nonetheless. No, this is basically about showing the monster on the screen for a quick scare and then getting to the end as quickly as possible.

Essentially, in this version, Frankenstein creates his creature not by sewing together body parts and charging them with electricity but with what looks like chemicals and magic potions. The creature arises and scares its creator. Frankenstein seeks solace in the arms of his fiancée, the creature shows up and scares everyone, sees its own reflection in a mirror and…vanishes? The end. Yes, I realize that that’s a spoiler, but this is a 14-minute movie that is more than a century old.

The truth is that Frankenstein isn’t really that good. It’s important for the genre because of when it was made and what it tried to do, but because it’s a very early attempt, it’s also one of the worst early attempts. See it for the history, not for the story.

From there, let’s move on to talking about something that was a literal game changer in many different areas. If you’re a younger Boomer, Gen-X, or an older Millennial, you remember the days of MTV really just being music television, showing the new short-form music videos, interviews with musicians, and the like. There are a few videos that changed everything—A-ha’s “Take on Me,” Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” and Dire Straits’s “Money for Nothing” to name a few. But no one ever changed the game as often as Michael Jackson did, and nothing Jackson ever did changed the game as much as Thriller.

Thriller is both a music video and a short horror film. We see a young Michael Jackson and his girlfriend (Ola Ray) on a date from what looks like the ‘50s, when, true to form, the car runs out of gas. They get out and walk, and pledge to be boyfriend and girlfriend, and then Michael admits to not being like other guys—and he transforms into something like a werewolf. The transformation is very reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London, which makes sense, since this was directed by John Landis and has creature effects done by Rick Baker. And then we realize that it’s actually Michael and his girlfriend watching a movie, and she’s too scared to stay. They walk off, he sings to her, and suddenly they are surrounded by the walking dead while Vincent Price performs something like a rap (kinda—it’s actually really good). And then Michael turns into a zombie and there’s a dance number.

I realize this sounds kind of dumb, but I cannot stress how cool it actually is. Thriller became a “thing” worldwide. People memorized the choreography and performed it when the song played.

I’m not going to pull punches here: Thriller is arguably the greatest music video ever made, both subjectively and objectively. The whole look is fantastic, the movie within the movie works completely, and the song is an absolute banger. And, the dance number is as good as anything you’re going to find. A number of years ago, I suggested that Thriller belongs as one of the rare short films that should be gracing the 1001 Movies list, and I stand by that, and having just watched it again, I think it even more strongly. Non-horror fans should watch this. Non-Michael Jackson fans should watch this. It’s as good a short film as you’ll ever see, and after 40 years, the damn thing holds up like the day it was made. Nothing about it has aged and that red jacket is iconic.

Finally, let’s talk about Disney’s The Skeleton Dance, a harmless little piece of animation that is about as scary as a hangnail, which is exactly what was intended. Not scary to anyone but the smallest of children, this is a plotless little 6-minute cartoon that is more or less an animated dance number of skeletons in a graveyard, just perfect for Halloween.

When I say that this is plotless, I really mean it—we get a hooting owl, a couple of black cats fighting in a graveyard and a dog howling at the moon, all of which leads to a quartet of skeletons dancing in that graveyard, using each other as musical instruments, and combining their bones in various ways to create various different skeletal structures. This is entirely about the music, the animation, and the craft of Ub Iwerks’s skeletal charmers. You can expect that if a skeleton does a particular set of steps in one direction that they’re going to do it in the other direction immediately following. After all, why waste a good piece of animation on something that only happens once?

The Skeleton Dance is cute, and it expects and tries to be nothing more than that. This is the sort of cartoon that would play before (or after) a newsreel in the theater way back when—despite what it may seem like, I’m not old enough to know for sure where the cartoons fell in the list of features. Since this is from 1929, we’re looking at one of the earliest talkie cartoons. Ultimately, that’s the purpose behind The Skeleton Dance. This is a way to demonstrate that sound can be mated with animation just like it could be done with live actors.

Honestly, it’s hard not to like this on some level. It’s harmless and it’s fluff, but it’s historical and important harmless fluff.

Why to watch Frankenstein (1910): One of the first horror movies ever made, and one of the first adaptations of a story.
Why not to watch: It’s not at all close to the story.

Why to watch Thriller: It’s the definition of a game changer.
Why not to watch: Seriously? There’s literally no reason to not watch this.

Why to watch The Skeleton Dance: Classic early Disney animation.
Why not to watch: If you don’t like cartoons, there’s nothing for you here.


  1. Thriller, that video scared the shit out of me as a young kid. I wouldn't watch it for years. Now, I just love it though I don't think my 4 year old nephew and 2 year old niece are ready for it. Still one of the greatest music videos ever made.

    "I'm gonna make love! Even when I'm dead! My body might be cold but it's always hot in my bed! Make love! Don't be afraid! Just because my heart ain't beatin' don't mean you won't get laid! Ee-he!!!" Let's get out of here! "OH!!!"

    I saw The Skeleton Dance earlier this year but I saw it again this month. This time with the kids as they liked it.

    I do need to see that 1910 version of Frankenstein for historical reasons.

    1. Thriller hasn't lost a step (pun intended) as a film or as a musical piece. It's pretty near perfection.

      The Skeleton Dance might be a good way to judge kids' ability to handle a little horror. It's not scary, but the mere presence of skeletons might be too much for little kids.

      History, honestly, is the only reason to see Frankenstein.

  2. I agree with your assessment of all three of these.

    By and large most early silents because of their brevity are something to watch from an evolutionary standpoint than for real entertainment value (with the possible exception of George Melies's output), especially something like this which attempted to tackle a classic story in under 15 minutes.

    Cute is a perfect description for The Skeleton Dance and really once seen there is no need to return to it.

    Thriller is far from my favorite Michael Jackson tune but I do remember the innovation wave it created when it debuted on MTV and including Vincent Price in the production is a perfect touch.

    1. I agree with you on the silents, with Melies actually doing something more than just playing around. Important to see for the evolution, not so much for anything else until we start hitting the real meat and potatoes of the era.

      I haven't really thought about what Michael Jackson song fits where in my ranking--I was never what anyone would call a fan, but it's impossble to deny the man's talent. Thriller changed the industry, though. That's true of the album and the video.