Thursday, October 31, 2013

UNIVERSAL MONSTER CLASSICS, Pt. 8 - Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) - We are at the end. Here is the final entry in the Universal monster Classics series, released eleven years after Phantom of the Opera. I have always greatly enjoyed the technical mastery at work in Creature from the Black Lagoon, a film which benefits from being released in 1954, 23 years down the road and that much more advanced when it comes to special effects. This and The Invisible Man are the best effects pictures of the series, with The Wolf Man close behind. Creature from the Black Lagoon relies greatly on a realistic look for its complex creature, a gill man who is a mixture of man and sea monster. I also see this film as a sort of transitional film between the classic horror monsters of the 30s and 40s and the science fiction, post war films that were wildly successful in the 50s. Not that this film deals with extraterrestrials, but the look and feel of the film is brighter, more adventurous and, in a sense, more American than any of the other entries.

Creature from the Black Lagoon begins with lofty aspirations as a voiceover discusses the creation of the universe and, ultimately, the planet earth. We travel from this moment of life beginning, to the oceans, then to the shores where evolution becomes the focal point of the story. This is a fascinating angle for a film released in 1954, when the discussion of evolution was still somewhat taboo. But science was making advancements after World War II, and this film is a direct offshoot of these new studies. The creature itself is a mixture of man and marine animal, with two arms and legs, a body covered in gills and a mouth like a sea urchin.

The story in the film revolves around a group of scientists, American scientists, who uncover a skeletal claw of a gill man. The claw is unearthed along the Amazon River, so the explorers decide to lead an expedition down the Amazon to see if they can find any living examples of this mysterious creature whose hand has the structure of a human hand but is webbed and scaly. The crew consists of some wonderfully familiar 50s adventures, robust and arrogant men and an intelligent but alluring female, Kay, played by Julie Adams. Kay is a strong female personality in the film, stronger than any of the previous damsels in distress, and her dark features are a nice change of pace form the dreamy blondes of the past. OF course, it isn’t long before the expedition run into the creature, a menacing monster that stalks and kills unsuspecting members of the team.

The underwater scenes of the creature are fantastic, even by today’s standards. This is because the creatures suit was fluid and its flaws hidden beneath the water, but the camera work is effectively threatening as the creature reaches out for Kay’s feet in the water. When the creature surfaces and attacks the crew his effectiveness is marginalized only slightly. What we get to see when he is on land is a pair of dead, fishlike eyes and his gills contracting and expanding on the side of his head. The costume is truly iconic in the canon, and as a young child the creature was always the most thrilling to see in action.

Creature from the Black Lagoon will never stand toe to toe with the earlier Universal Horror Classics, but on its own it is a wonderfully thrilling and tense adventure picture. The canvas is expanded beyond indoor sets and castles and labs, and the river sequences give the film a sense of broad adventure when compared to the earlier films. It is also decidedly more American, with all of the main players being American and the look and feel of the film being comparable to the sci-fi matinee features of the 50s. IT has been a fun ride, revisiting the Universal Horror Classics, some for the first time in twenty years.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Universal Monster Classics, Pt. 7 - Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Several things stand out about Universal’s 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera when comparing it to the other films in the canon. First off, it is a remake of the classic silent version starring Lon Chaney, both films being adapted from the novel by Gaston Leroux. It is also the only picture in the Universal Classics collection that is in color, in this case a brilliant and vibrant Technicolor. This version of Phantom of the Opera also operates on a level of realism where the other Universal pictures do not. Of course, man cannot transform into beast, there are no vampires or monsters created from mad scientists, but the anger and insanity of a man who has been wronged and subsequently disfigured does exist on some level of the real world. The Phantom is not a supernatural being, but a man seeking vengeance.

Eighteen years after Lon Chaney frightened audiences with his beastly phantom, director Arthur Lubin brought Phantom of the opera to the screen from a different angle. We are given a lengthy origin story of this phantom, a violinist in the Paris Opera named Erique Claudin played by the great Claude Rains. Erique is a man who garners no great deal of respect from his peers, but he is a passionate man. He is in love with Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster), an up and coming singer in the opera house. He also has a concerto he would like to have played in an opera. When he hands over his concerto to the maestro, he is rejected, only to hear his music being played later, behind closed doors. This sends Erique into a blind rage, and in a confrontation acid is thrown into his face. He flees the room, never to be seen again in his current form.

From here, the story takes its familiar footing. Erique becomes the phantom, a mysterious figure haunting the opera house causing all sorts of chaos. He manipulates the cast of an upcoming Opera so that Christine may get her starring role. He also, in the most famous scene of both pictures, sabotages the opening night of an opera by cutting the chandelier loose from the ceiling. It falls and kills several audience members. Advancements in technology between the two films make this chandelier sequence tenser and ultimately more believable.

This version of Phantom of the Opera has always felt like a stepchild in the Universal Monsters canon. The original is an indelible classic, with one of the most memorable performances in cinema from Lon Chaney. There is something slight about this picture when it is held up next to the others, perhaps because it is a remake of a classic. But I enjoy this version on a different level. The Technicolor is a wildly vibrant transfer on the screen, and it adds to the melodrama in the story. And of course there is the notion that a film about an opera house is served well by sound. The original is a haunting masterwork of silent cinema, but with the advent of sound the power of the opera jumps off the screen.

Claude Rains was a staple of Universal horrors at this point, having starred in both The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man before taking over as the phantom. This is a meatier role, where he is the center of the action. He was most certainly the focus of The Invisible Man, but he was unseen until the end. Rains has a burning intensity and a voice that outweighs his small stature as Claudin. The 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera will forever be mentioned second to the Chaney classic; however, there are certain elements that work better here than they did in 1925.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Counselor

THE COUNSELOR: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, directed by Ridley Scott (111 min.)

Movies like The Counselor are the reason I don’t gamble on sports. 

If you tell me Ridley Scott is directing a crime drama starring Michael Fassbender, that may be all I need to be sold.  If you continue, telling me the film is about the drug trade at the Texas border and stars Javier Bardem as a wild and colorful drug kingpin, I may begin to salivate a little.  If you carry on even further and tell me this film is not only directed by Ridley Scott, but written by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy, the same man responsible for transcendent Texas crime novels like No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian, I would say there is no more of a sure thing in cinema this year.  I would place all bets on this very film being one of the best of 2013.  But when it’s a sure thing, as it is in sports, there’s always the outside possibility it may wind up being a horrible, abject failure. 

The Counselor is a baffling misfire on just about every level from not only some of the finest actors working today, but a legendary director and one of the greatest living American authors.  This fails in three artistic disciplines, but at least the costume designer was able to show off a little.  The Counselor takes one of the simplest stories, about a lawyer in over his head trying to pull off a drug deal, and turns it into one of the most convoluted, confusing, aimless narrative calamities I can remember.  Not to mention the fact that it’s just terribly boring. 

Michael Fassbender, one of my favorite actors, plays the counselor himself.  That is his only name throughout the film.  This El Paso lawyer, who has enough money to drive a Bentley, wear designer clothing, and fly all the way to Amsterdam to buy a diamond for his fiancée (Penelope Cruz, aloof and sparely used), wants to pull off a one-time drug deal with his… friend?... old client?... Reiner, played by Javier Bardem.  Even though the counselor appears to be a millionaire?  But how did he get to be so wealthy being a criminal lawyer in El Paso if we are to believe he is unfamiliar with the criminal underworld?  That doesn’t fit together, but this illogical characterization becomes par for the course as we meander through this murky tale.  We never know much about the counselor, even though there are opportunities to learn things along the way.  Instead, those opportunities are quickly shut down so we can move on to the next muddled plot point.

Bardem plays Reiner with spiky hair, loud clothes, an orange face, and very little tangible personality.  His girlfriend, Malkina, is played by Cameron Diaz and she appears to be enjoying her seedy character at least.  Oh and she has pet cheetahs for no real reason.  Anyway, let’s move on.  Reiner warns the counselor that getting in on a deal is a bad idea, but he ignores the warning.  He also ignores the warning of money man Westray, played by Brad Pitt who apparently just wants to wear antique Western attire and act goofy.  Everyone warns the counselor against this business venture, but he goes through with it anyway and, wouldn’t you know it, everything goes awry.  What exactly goes awry is a little confusing, because nameless people with no interesting traits steal the drugs from these other people who we don’t really know by decapitating this biker kid whose mom (Rosie Perez) is in prison and… oh forget it.

There is a lot of talking in The Counselor.  A lot.  Dialogue goes on and on, but what is so baffling is the fact that nobody is saying anything to move any part of the film forward.  There are countless conversations about sex.  Characters talk about sex, talk about the other sex and their sex drives, talk about talking about sex, have sex, and have sex with a car.  And none of it is very sexy.  It’s as if McCarthy’s idea of adding eroticism and mystery into the story is to have characters discuss it for no good reason.  And the sex with the car bit is, just, dumb.  Even Bardem’s Reiner doesn’t care for it in the film, so why should we?  And the rest of the dialogue is just as aimless as all the juvenile sex talk.  The film drags on and on with more characters talking and saying nothing until we are mercifully let go in the end.

A misfire on this level is arguably more impressive than if The Counselor would have been some great crime drama.  With talent this deep on all sides of the camera, making a great film seems too easy.  I am almost more impressed with the ineptitude on display here.  If this film is anything, it is proof that there are no sure things in Hollywood.  Even the most infallible film on paper can transform itself into a mess of epic proportions.

But wait, I want to point out the giant rolling metaphor that is the drug transport.  This McGuffin in the picture, the barrels of heroin or whatever, is being transported in a sewage truck filled to the brim with fecal matter.  The focus of the film is basically rolling around in a bunch of shit.  That is about the only clever thing going for The Counselor.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Universal Monster Classics, Pt. 6 - The Wolf Man (1941)

“Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night, can become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms… and the autumn moon is bright.”

THE WOLF MAN – It was six years after Bride of Frankenstein before Universal created a new monster classic.  They had been thriving in the silly sequels of their initial successful fright franchises, but in 1941 they finally opted to try a new story.  The Wolf Man was the first original Universal Classic created completely out of thin air.  Well, thin air and a little help from legend and lore.  This was the one I watched the most, and while it remains my favorite in a very nostalgic sense it is clear the dip in quality from the Whale productions of the Frankenstein pictures and The Invisible Man.  That being said, I don’t believe The Wolf Man or those involved ever set out to make a grandiose picture on the level of the Whale thrillers.  This film and this character had a more everyman feel, something less celestial and more human at its core than the bloodthirsty undeads or the mad scientists of the past. 

The film tells the story of a doomed man, Larry Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr. in a career-defining role.  As the film opens, Talbot is returning to the country home of his prestigious father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains, making a return to the canon) , and it is made clear their relationship has been strained of late.  Nevertheless, the prodigal son has returned, and Larry enjoys being back home; he fixes his father’s telescope and just so happens to spot a local beauty, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) in town.  He presses for a date and Gwen agrees, but she brings a friend along for the ride.

The trio head out to a gypsy camp site to have their fortunes read, and this is where things turn.  The gypsy fortune teller, Bela, played by who else but Lugosi himself, urges them to flee the camp site as the moon is rising.  But it is too late; Bela, who has transformed into a werewolf, attacks Gwen’s friend and as Larry tries to save her from certain death he too is attacked and bitten.  We all know the story from here, as Larry transforms into a werewolf at night and attacks unsuspecting victims along the countryside.  The story is straightforward, though any number of metaphors could fit into the narrative.  I have seen anything from allegories of schizophrenia to comparisons Nazism.  Some, as you can see, are natural comparisons, others quite the stretch.

All mood, atmosphere, and makeup effects, The Wolf Man doesn’t carry the sort of prestige of its predecessors, but it is a great deal of fun and a nice suspense thriller that must have been quite a dark and brooding experience coming out mere days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  What is the real star of the film, aside from the great Lon Chaney Jr., is the makeup work by Jack Pierce, the legend behind all of the transcendent Universal creatures.  The process of Chaney’s transformation on screen took anywhere from ten to fifteen hours to set up and execute, and the result is impressive given the time period. 

Screenwriter Curt Siodmak may not be a household name, but many of the legends surrounding werewolves came from his script here.  Silver bullets, full moons, all of these small details of the now familiar monsters came from Siodnak’s creation on the page.  Director George Waggner was an outsider to the Universal Monster Club (or Monster Squad for those 80s horror kids), having directed only The Wolf Man.  However, he had an eye for mood and certain chills, and no matter how slight it may seem up next to those earlier Universal films, The Wolf Man is good fun and a wonderful transition from old guard to new thrills.   

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Universal Monster Classics, Pt. 5 - Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

“It’s a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters!”

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN - Those words are spoken by none other than Mary Shelley herself, the author of Frankenstein, in yet another inventive and masterful meta-introduction form director James Whale. Much like the introduction of Edward Van Sloane which ominously opens Whale’s version of Frankenstein, it is Mary Shelley and her friends discussing the madness of her novel on a dark and stormy night. They theorize what must have happened once the monster was left for dead in the rubble of the windmill, once Henry Frankenstein was taken away badly injured after his fall. This macabre curiosity sets the course for Bride of Frankenstein, the first direct sequel to a Universal Horror Classic, and easily the finest of all the Universal Horror films.

What is so perfect, so utterly succinct about Bride of Frankenstein is the tone. James Whale, an openly gay filmmaker in a time when being openly gay was frowned upon, manages to add flair and panache to this sequel, supplanting the morose dread and doom of the original picture with irony, satire, and just a splash more madness. And the homosexual subtext is brilliant, obviously overlooked by audiences in 1935 but clear to see here in 2013. Every frame of the picture is meticulous in its art direction, and beyond the laughs and the fun scattered throughout, there are touching and poignant moments of sadness and longing.

We pick up immediately where we left off in the original Frankenstein in 1931. Henry Frankenstein has been taken to the hospital to recover while the angry mob returns to town. But the father and mother of the drowned girl from the first film desire to see the body of the beast. The father’s discovery leads him down to what must be a watery grave, only to find the monster (played once again by Boris Karloff), badly burned, but quite angry with the whole situation. Once he kills the father and escapes the pit, he is quite literally roaming the countryside looking for food and shelter. In an interesting twist on the original, the monster tries to save a woman from drowning but is, of course, misunderstood as being her attacker. The monster is drawn to the sounds of a violin, and an old blind man who is so desperate for companionship he takes the monster in and begins to teach him to speak. He also teaches him about a few of the finer things in life, like cigars and music.

Meanwhile, Henry Frankenstein is recovering both physically and mentally, wanting nothing more than to reconcile with and live a long happy life with his bride, Elizabeth. But before he can go away to live happily ever after, his plans are interrupted by one Doctor Pretorius, played with zany camp and pitch-perfect insanity by Ernest Thesiger. Dr. Pretorius has a plan to continue Henry’s work, and shows off his own life creations in the most peculiar scene in the film; he pulls out tiny people living in their own individual jars. Of course, Henry doesn’t want to continue his work but is drawn in by the madness of Pretorius at first. It isn’t long before Pretorius and the monster cross paths and, now that the monster has been educated, devise a plan to force Henry into creating a mate for the sad and lonely creature. They kidnap Elizabeth in order to force Henry’s hand.

It’s easy to forget that the bride has only moments on screen, but her appearance is so iconic it stands out above the rest of the film. Henry and Dr. Pretorius work in a lab that is not only the model for mad scientist laboratories, but it is a set that is re-used in later films (including Mel Brooks’ brilliant Young Frankenstein). Once the bride is brought to life and unwrapped, her shock wig and lightning-bolt streaks traveling skyward is even more iconic than any of the other Universal monsters. The bride is played by Elsa Lanchester, who also plays Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue. Where the monster’s movements are slow and lumbering, the bride’s are quick, nervous twitches. Her sight of the monster elicits a blood-curdling scream that immediately discourages the monster. He realizes this idea has failed, and takes matters into his own hands.

Bride of Frankenstein represents the height of James Whale as a director, of Carl Laemmle Jr’s producing, and of all the Universal Monsters Classics. Whale would not direct another picture in the Universal Horror canon, and the pictures would take a slightly different turn after an extended break between original creature features. The films coming up in this anthology have their own merits, and are legendary in their own individual way. But as a film, full of humor and pathos and macabre thrills, nothing beats the power of Bride of Frankenstein.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Captain Phillips

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, directed by Paul Greengrass (134 min.)

In April of 2009, the US-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama was taken over and the ship's crew held at gunpoint by four Somali pirates off the coast of Africa.  Captain Phillips, the new high seas action thriller from Paul Greengrass, tells the story of the Maersk Alabama and of its Captain, Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage on a lifeboat for days by the pirates.  The film, mostly accurate in its retelling of the harrowing events, is one of the better films of 2013, anchored by some of the best work from Tom Hanks in a decade.  But let's not overlook the other important players in this cast, some with small roles, others with roles that stand toe to toe with Hanks.

Captain Rich Phillips (Hanks) is a New England family man who, as we see him in the opening scene with his wife (Katherine Keener), is on the verge of an empty nest at home.  But that doesn't stop him from relaying sound life advice to his children through his wife.  Phillips seems like a loving man, but one who respects hard work more than most.  As the Captain of the Maersk Alabama, Phillips doesn't take the time to relate to his crew of twenty men.  He only wants the job done and done right, and seems to the crew to be preoccupied with safety measures.  Perhaps it is the memo he received warning him that his cargo ship would be traveling through high-traffic areas for Somali pirates.  Right about the time Phillips and his crew are running through a safety drill focusing on pirate defense, two bogeys appear on the radar.  After one failed attempt, the pirates finally get it together and one boat manages to fight through the fire hoses and attach its ladder and board the ship.

The pirates are led by Muse, a gangly, disheveled Somalian played by newcomer Barkhad Adbi.  I
don't know what sort of acting career Adbi might have in his future, but here, as Muse, he works in absolute harmony with Hanks.  One of the things I appreciate about the picture is the time it takes to develop the villains with a backstory that adds a level of sympathy regarding these pirates, with these young men and teenagers who don't have many more options in their village or their country.  A film like this one can only benefit from making the antagonist a three-dimensional character.  Through his actions, and in his words to Phillips, you can begin to understand Muse and his desperate comrades.

The taking of the Maersk Alabama is only the first half of Captain Phillips.  Eventually, the crew of the Alabama get the upper hand on the pirates and force them off the ship via the escape lifeboat, an orange pod.  But the pirates flip the tables back in their favor when they capture Phillips in the boat and take off towards the Somali coast.  The remainder of the film develops into a standoff between the lifeboat and the Navy who corner the pirates in an attempt to save Phillips.  As the ship pushes along towards land, the heat and the lack of food and water drive tensions through the roof.  The pirates begins quarreling.  Phillips tries to escape but is recaptured, and the film circles to a conclusion that made me forget to take a breath sometimes.  All of this tense action is heightened of course by Hanks, but also by the performance from Adbi, who never shows his full hand but lets us into his character enough to feel for his plight and the actions on board the lifeboat.

For a majority of the film, Hanks personification of Phillips is very much in the moment.  He is being acted upon, and he must think fast and Hanks is forced into some intensely physical acting.  It is at the end where Hanks absolutely puts his stamp on the picture.  There is a moment of catharsis from Phillips that is as emotionally devastating as anything I have seen from Hanks since Wilson floated away in the open water thirteen years ago.  And as I mentioned, Barkhad Adbi goes fifteen rounds with Hanks and is deserving of a supporting nomination himself.  All of the peripheral characters capture the perfect musical notes of their performances to create a fantastic symphony of thrills.  

NOTE: The true story of Rich Phillips' ordeal can be found of course, and most accounts match up with the story told on screen more accurately than most of these type of films .  That is if that's important to you.  I always take these true stories as embellishments for cinematic purposes, though it is interesting and a little more impactful when one gets this many things accurate.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Universal Monster Classics, Pt. 4 - The Invisible Man (1933)

THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) - Watching these films so close together, it is easy to tell the quality fluctuation between the Universal Monster Classics not directed by James Whale, and those with Whale behind the camera. To this point Frankenstein, also directed by Whale, is the best of the early three entries in the pantheon. And now we have Whale’s second horror feature, The Invisible Man. Full of life, vigor, and a little more off kilter than the previous three films, The Invisible Man has always been, and remains, one of my absolute favorites. As mad as its protagonist, the film manages to squeeze in a little zaniness to the proceedings, perhaps understanding the ludicrous science at the core. It may not always be mentioned in the same breath as the first three features, but make no mistake, this Universal Monster Classic is among the absolute finest.

Much like Dracula and Frankenstein, The Invisible Man is an adaptation of a famous novel. The H.G. Wells tale of the same name is quite similar to Whale’s film, more similar than the adaptations of either Stoker’s Dracula or Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you were to split these first four pictures into pairs, I would argue that The Invisible Man belongs with Frankenstein. Both deal with defining the “mad scientist” in cinema, both deal with man’s obsession with playing God, and both have a colorful approach to the townsfolk in the periphery.

Claude Rains stars in one of his earliest film roles, an odd one for sure given the fact that he is seen only in the end. He is the mysterious man who appears at the door of a local inn and pub, The Lion’s Head, one snowy evening. His head is wrapped in bandages, his eyes concealed by black goggles, donning a fake nose, his entire look an iconic masterpiece. The man demands a room where he hides away working on strange science experiments and shouting anyone out of the room who might dare bother him. This is where the local color creates a tone altogether more aloof and breezy than the serious horror elements in the first three films; the innkeeper’s wife and her shrill scream is especially memorable, as is the patrolmen and his guttural, stuffy British drawl. These locals’ growing curiosity about this bandaged man builds and builds until he lashes out at their intrusions and the police are brought to the Inn. The mysterious man finally loses grip on his sanity and begins disrobing to reveal that he is, in fact, invisible.

The idea that these special effects could be accomplished in 1933 is still astounding to me. While they show some obvious age, the disrobing and reveal of the invisible man is masterfully effective. Rains was filmed all in black velvet, against a black velvet background, to appear invisible. Laughing maniacally as he disrobes, the man escapes the masses and terrorizes innocents on his way out of town. This allows Whale to have some great fun with an invisible central character as he steals bikes, throws hats into the pond, and brushes unsuspecting folks aside.

The man returns to his hometown, where we find out he is Jack Griffin, a scientist whose experiments made him both invisible and murderously insane. Griffin forces his former colleague, Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan) to assist him in a rampage of murder and mayhem which will ultimately lead to some vague sort of world domination. There is also a love interest of Griffin prior to his insanity, Flora, played by none other than a young and striking Gloria Stuart. Most of us these days will remember Stuart as the older Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic. The remainder of the film involves friends and colleagues of Griffin, as well as the police from the town he terrorized, trying to stop Griffin’s rampaging madness.

As I have mentioned, the presence of James Whale on the set keeps the energy and the tone consistent throughout. Where Dracula and The Mummy fade after their opening moments, The Invisible Man – like Frankenstein – is uniformly enthralling and exciting. The overt seriousness from the earlier pictures is abandoned as well, which is a good move for a film about a man who makes himself invisible. The premise lends itself to a more lighthearted thrill ride, and accompanied by the wonderful special effects, The Invisible Man remains one of the finest early entries into the Universal Monster Classics series.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Universal Monster Classics, Pt. 3 - The Mummy (1932)

THE MUMMY (1932) - I blamed my apathy towards Karl Freund’s The Mummy on my youth. As a youngster, pouring through the catalogue of Universal Monster Classics, I could never make it all the way through The Mummy. And by all the way I mean after the opening scenes set in 1921, my attention waned every second thereafter. So I went into the film apprehensive, but with an open, older mind. The result was just about the same. The Mummy never connected with me, and is still the slightest, most forgettable of the Universal Classics. It begins with some moments of brilliance, but the story begins treading water until it drowns under the weight of melodrama and stiff dialogue. No matter the performance of Boris Karloff, the picture never gains any dramatic traction.

The Mummy tells the tale of Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian who is brought back to life and seeks the love, or the possession, of a woman whom he believes to be his lover from thousands of years ago. As the film opens eleven years in the past, an archeological expedition has uncovered the tomb of Imhotep, wrapped in mummified garb, his arms crossed, resting up against the wall. Along with the discovery of the body, the archeologists also find a box containing an ancient scroll, the Scroll of Thoth. Against better judgment, a young man at the dig reads from the scroll and brings Imhotep to life. This opening sequence is wickedly ominous, and the resurrection of the mummy is still chilling. Imhotep takes the scroll from the young man before limping his way out the door, leaving the man stark raving mad, laughing wildly in disbelief. I can still here his shrill, insane laugh.

Fast forward to 1932, the present day for the film, and a new dig brings about new discoveries. Boris Karloff appears, this time as Ardath Bey. Karloff’s heavy makeup is effective in black and white, giving him the appearance of an ancient relic walking amongst the living. Bey tells the archeologists he has uncovered the tomb of an Egyptian woman, and the men confirm. Once the body of the princess is exhumed and taken to a museum, Imhotep reads from the scroll to try and resurrect his long lost love. But something else happens; a young woman named Helen (Zita Johann) bears a striking resemblance to his fallen princess. Imhotep’s obsession directs itself towards Helen, as he tries to seduce her and control her to become his. Of course, there are a few strapping men in the way, and Dr. Muller, who is on to Imhotep early. Dr. Muller is played by Edward Van Sloan, who is perfect as the voice of reason in Dracula, Frankenstein, and here again in The Mummy.

Alas, the picture crumbles from the melodramatic story. Karl Freudn, the cinematographer for Dracula, is the director here, and he films a stylish and moody film, but the story surrounding the visuals is, frankly, an incredible bore. The character of the mummy is at a disadvantage if you ask me. There is nothing terribly interesting about his story. Whereas Dracula carried heavy themes regarding the pitfalls of sexuality and Frankenstein dealt with the notion of playing God, of creation, and of the nature of man, The Mummy is just a straight story with a villain who is not frightening. He is just an old, bothersome man.

I was hoping to have a different outlook this time around watching The Mummy, but it was not to be. It is still, by leaps and bounds, my least favorite of the Universal Monster Classics. It has its moments, but all in all I remain as disappointed as I was in my youth. Frankly, I am glad to be past this film and on my way to more exciting Universal entries.

Friday, October 4, 2013


GRAVITY - Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, directed by Alfonso Cuaron (91 min.)

As beautiful as it may be, I don't think I would ever want to be in space.  At least, not exposed to the treacherous nothingness of space with only a suit keeping me from death or being lost into infinity.  The view has to be life changing; to look at Earth from the outside must be surreal and overwhelming.  But is there a more dangerous place?  No air, no gravity, no sound, nothing.  So much nothing it is hard to comprehend.  Life in space, as we are told in the opening title cards to Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, is impossible.  This is where we spend ninety harrowing minutes, lost in space, lost in desperation, reaching for something, anything, to hold on to for fear of drifting out into the darkness forever.  Gravity is the closest I will ever come to spending time beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as Dr. Ryan Stone and Astronaut Matt Kowalski.  Bullock's Dr. Stone is a medical engineer who, through the assistance of Kowalski and his small crew, is installing some sort of medical technology upgrade on the Hubble Telescope.  All is well as Cuaron's camera drifts in and out of mundane procedural duties and encompasses the screen with wonderful scenes of the Earth in the background.  Kowalski is on his last mission and is enjoying his time floating around on a jet pack like a satellite around the telescope.  Stone is a bit more nervous as this is her first trip to the stars.  Before long, Houston warns the crew of a debris field that is heading their way at bullet speed.  They must abort and get out of harms way, but it is too late.

The debris crashes into the telescope and the shuttle, breaking apart the ship and sending even more debris into orbit.  The collisions are brutal and fast and appropriately soundless, accented only by a magnificent, pulsating score from Steven Price.  Price's work is the unsung hero in all this technical work, adding a layer of thrilling tension.  As pieces fly apart and explosions erupt and dissipate just as quickly with no oxygen, Stone must detach herself from the vessel and is sent hurtling into space, spinning end over end with nothing to grab hold of.  This first debris attack is a nerve jangling, stunning display of technical mastery by Cuaron.  As Stone floats helplessly into the nothingness, it is only the voice of Kowalski serving as any contact between her and certain death.

Without giving away much, I will say Stone is rescued initially and must hop from station to station to try and get back to Earth.  The initial debris is trapped in the planet's orbit and Kowalski deducts that at its rapid rate of speed it will be back to wreak more havoc every ninety minutes.  This is a brilliant set up for more violent collisions throughout the picture.  One setback follows another, more debris attacks hinder progress, creating an air of desperation in a place with no air to go around.  The world created by Cuaron here is like nothing I have ever seen.  Space has never been more accurately depicted as it is in Gravity.  The action is simply breathtaking.

While Bullock does a magnificent job as Dr. Stone, and is certainly in line for another Oscar nomination, the screenplay feels slight.  We learn bits and pieces about Stone, about her child who passed away and the origin of her masculine first name, enough to care about her situation, but nothing about the writing seems to balance the intense action and unmatched visual spectacle.  George Clooney is just playing a version of himself, George Clooney in a space suit.  Kowalski is your typical old school astronaut, a bit of a drinker with a few wives throughout his past, the life of the party who is full of stories.  Basically he is version of Jack Nicholson's character in Terms of Endearment, but his portrayal is decidedly flat and one dimensional.

Screenplay aside, Gravity is a technical and visual masterpiece, a film that absolutely must be seen on the big screen to be believed.  I don't even know if I could watch it on my TV at home after seeing it in the theater.  And I have never been an advocate for 3D as most of the conversions feel muddled and seem to shrink the action and distract; Gravity should absolutely be seen in 3D.  The canvas of this film transcends any explanation that would do it justice.  This is the film 3D technology has been waiting on, and it helped me see space in a more fully realized way than I ever will in my life.


Universal Monster Classics, Pt. 2 - Frankenstein (1931)

“How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We’re about to unfold the sotry of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation: life and death. I think it will thrill you… It may shock you… It might even horrify you… So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now is your chance to, uh… Well, we’ve warned you.”

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) - These are the words of Edward Van Sloane, spoken directly to the audience in front of a curtain as a prologue, or a warning, regarding Frankenstein. The James Whale film will forever be linked with Dracula, as both films were released in 1931 and both are the most influential of all horror films. But the differences between the two pictures could not be any more drastic. Dracula was a seductive, sexualized film surrounding its theatrical lead, Bela Lugosi. Frankenstein, on the other hand, is a film of corrupt science, of God and creationism, and is ultimately a far superior film. Much of the credit for Frankenstein’s superiority belongs with James Whale, whose attention to detail and immersive directing style added layers and emotion to the film, something Dracula was sorely lacking.

The introduction by Edward Van Sloane, on behalf of legendary Universal producer Carl Laemmle (whose son, Carl Jr., is primarily responsible for this surge of horror films), is perhaps my favorite aspect of the entire film. It adds theatricality and dread, and Van Sloane’s delivery is perfect. With a sly grin and a threatening wit, Van Sloane sets the stage for an intensely gothic tale. Where Dracula has grown dated and transformed into simply a study of film history, many images from Frankenstein still resonate and carry a certain chilling suspense and dramatic flair.

The road to this interpretation of the Mary Shelley novel had been paved through countless plays and adaptations throughout the years, beginning as soon as two years after Shelley’s novel was published. Many different personifications of the monster came before this one, but this one is iconic, influential some 80 years later. Once again, the story is familiar to just about everyone. Colin Clive plays Henry Frankenstein, a scientist who has grown consumed with the notion of creating life from death. His drive to defy God is not just curiosity, it is a megalomaniacal obsession to become God himself. He collects bodies of the recently dead with his assistant, Fritz (not Igor), played by Dwight Frye, who appeared in Dracula as the madman Renfield. Once the bodies are collected it is up to Fritz to steal a brain from the local college. This is where he mistakenly nabs the brain of a criminal, an abnormal brain.

Henry is so consumed with his experiment he alienates his friends and his bride-to-be, Elizabeth (Mae Clark). But their concern brings them to the castle, and the iconic laboratory, on the night Henry is to revive his creation. This leads us to the most famous scene in a film filled with famous scenes: Henry revives his creation using lightning, and when the hand trembles and rises on the gurney, Henry’s madness shines through as he screams “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!” Colin Clive is often overlooked in the film as it is the monster who takes center stage, but Clive is fantastically over the top. Many actors of this day were classically trained in silent film, so their actions and reactions leaned towards flamboyance. Clive’s “overacting” fits the role perfectly.

Whale masterfully keeps the creature hidden for the opening act, and when we finally see him, he backs into the room and turns to reveal the most iconic monster appearance of all time. In the credits, the monster is credited with simply a question mark, but of course it is played by Boris Karloff. Karloff had built a nice career to this point as a straight actor, but he would forever be linked – and gladly so on his behalf – to Frankenstein’s monster. What separates this creature from the soulless Dracula is the pathos Karloff brings to the creature. Along with fright, we feel pity for this misunderstood creation who never asked to be brought to life. Shuffling and grunting, Karloff manages to bring the monster to life with wonderful expressions and a true sadness in his sunken eyes.

As the story unfolds and Henry attempts to wash his hands of his monstrous creation, the creature escapes and roams the countryside. This is where he meets the young girl next to the lake. His confusion leads him to throwing her in the water where she drowns, in a scene that is still shocking to this day. The image of the little girl’s father carrying her lifeless body through town in the middle of a celebration is an emotionally gut wrenching scene that will never lose its impact. There are several moments like this in Frankenstein, where Whale’s soulful direction keeps the events relevant and chilling through decades of time. Frankenstein and its direct sequel, also directed by Whale, may be the pinnacle of the Universal Horror Classics. They deal with the heaviest themes in the pantheon, themes of God abandoning man, or man attempting to be God, of living and dying, and rebirth.

There is one thing that troubles me about Frankenstein, however, and it is the final scene. Once the windmill has been burned down and the monster allegedly destroyed, we return to the house of Frankenstein where Henry is nursing his wounds. His father makes a toast with a gaggle of maids, which doesn’t fit the morose tone of the scenes leading up to this finale. It’s a small quibble, though I do wish they would have scrapped this final salute.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Universal Monster Classic, Part 1 - Dracula (1931)

October is, for my money, the best month of the year for a myriad of reasons. The reason applicable here involves Halloween, and the urge to consume scary movies almost on a daily basis as the leaves and the weather change outside. There are great scary movies, some not so great, and then there are the classics. Universal’s monster movies may no longer be frightening to most, but they are the most important horror films in the history of cinema. The scares may have become outdated, but without the unmatched run of great classic monster movies Universal Studios released over twenty plus years, so many films would never have happened. It’s debatable where the Universal string began; some may site Lon Chaney’s silent masterwork, The Phanton of The Opera, as the kick off. I site Dracula as the official, unofficial, beginning of greatness for Universal and all those wonderful actors, directors, and filmmakers involved in creating unforgettable characters and pictures.

Rather than trying to cover all the classic films, I have decided to use Universal’s recently-released Blu-ray anthology of the heavy hitters in their catalogue. There have been countless sequels to Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and so on, and a great deal of side projects like White Zombie, Tower of London, etc. Some are fantastic fun, some not so much. All this being said, let’s stick to the monsters of the monster movies and work our way through these classics, admiring and dissecting their impact along the way…

DRACULA (1931) – This was not the first vampire film. That title belongs to F.W. Murneau’s Nosferatu, a silent chiller with a skeletal creature as its representation of the Bram Stoker creation. But Dracula was the first “talkie” to center around the Prince of Darkness, and the creation from director Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi, and cinematographer Karl Freund created an indelible world of visual, gothic gloom. The opening moments of Dracula are magnificent, but the picture as a whole tends to fizzle as we leave Castle Dracula and head back to London.

The story is so ingrained in our consciousness there is no real need for a plot synopsis. We know about the Real Estate agent, Renfield, driven mad upon his visit to do a deal with Lugosi’s Count Dracula. We know about the trip to London, the “Ghost Ship,” and the women, Lucy and Mina, in London. The opening scenes of the picture are easily the strongest and most memorable. Karl Freund utilizes German Expressionism in these early scenes to show the angles and shadows and impending doom of Castle Dracula. There are a few introductions of Lugosi’s character, the first being his sinewy fingers reaching out from a closed coffin. We see him again as the carriage driver who picks up Renfield outside of town before disappearing on the way to the castle. But the true introduction of Dracula is a classic movie moment, as he seemingly floats down the grand staircase and speaks for the first time.

Lugosi’s personification of the character is legendary, influencing just about every interpretation of Dracula for the foreseeable future. The slick, black hair, pale skin, and gothic attire is inseparable from the vampire in cinema. Lugosi had grasped the English language at this point in his life, but he plays with the prim and proper dialect of the upper crust at the time with long, drawn out words. Although this is considered a talking picture, most of the strength in Dracula lies within its look and mood. Lugosi’s eyes, lit up with pin lights and surrounded by darkness, must have generated scares in 1931.

Dracula slowly overtakes Renfield’s mind before they travel across the sea to Carfax Abbey in London. Once the ship arrives, the entire crew is dead, save for Renfield who has gone mad. Now in London, Dracula works his way into high society and seduces young Lucy (Frances Dade). Here, we are introduced into the vampire hunter, Van Helsing, who eventually gets the best of the Count in the climactic moments. These scenes in London are much less memorable than the opening moments, as the story ambles towards its finale. There are moments, like Dracula strolling down the foggy London streets in a top hat as people die in the alleys, and Van Helsing exposing Dracula’s inability to cast a reflection in a mirror, that push the story forward and strengthen the classic tale. But, all in all, the picture cannot sustain the power of the opening act.

Much of the credit is given to both Lugosi and Karl Freund, whose imagery trumps the language. Tod Browning would find success in later pictures, namely Freaks, but he is often overlooked as the director of Dracula. Regardless of who deserves the bulk of the credit, it is the picture as a whole that deserves the lion’s share of kicking off the classic barrage Universal horror films. The film has been tweaked and restored and, in the 90s, was given a new score to accentuate the horror. Both the original version with spare music and the restored version with the score from Philip Glass have their merits, but perhaps purists will point ot the original cut of the film to see the classic for what it was.