What ungodly sorcery is this? Is this lunatic blogger attempting to create some mockery of man by welding together two preceding films seasons into one scientific monstrosity? What kind of mind, plagued with delusions of cackling grandeur could possibly hope to amalgamate his year-long Universal Monster movie season with the BFI’s spooky Gothic celebration? Well, this deranged mind that’s who, as with the arrival of the November programme I saw my opportunity to stitch together two competing priorities with the shriek scorched screening of one film forming in Asmodian alignment – The Bride Of Frankenstein. It is an oft used phrase but the film is a corpse cold classic, it’s not often that a sequel can be considered the superior to the original but a strong case can be made in this instance, as the lumbering Karloff returns as the iconic creation of the gibbering maniac Dr. Frankenstein, locked in a nebulous nexus of mortality and madness, malevolence and murder. I’m not entirely sure why but the BFI flew over Karloff’s daughter Sara to introduce the picture, it was quite humbling to see the film with second tier Tinseltown royalty in attendance, and she quite disarmingly opened her remarks by asking ‘What the hell are you all doing here? Don’t you have anything better to do?’….
Screening as a gleaming new digital abjuration the film opens on a curious beat, a framing technique of a storm-swept Chateau housing the literary romantics Lord Byron, Percey Shelley and Mary Wollenscroft Shelly (Elsa Lancaster who makes a dual appearance in this film), she continues her story of man tampering in god’s domain of creation with a tale that immediately follows the explosive conclusion of 1931’s Frankenstein. The hulking monster has survived the pitch-fork wielding mob by hiding in the basement of the ruined windmill, awaiting his chance he clambers back to civilisation and ostracised by humanity he roams the gloomy countryside in search of a sympathetic companion or friend, another wretched soul who will not judge his horrific appearance. Meanwhile the apparently slain Dr. Frankenstein (a loon eyed Colin Clive) quite fortunately isn’t, as he sparks back into life with no apparent explanation – don’t ask, don’t tell I guess – after being sequestered back with his fiancée Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) at the family castle. Vowing never to interfere in the infernal arts again his vow is shattered approximately 30 seconds later with the arrival of the blackmailing Doctor Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, director James Whale’s eccentric theatre mentor) a professor who urges Frankenstein to continue his experiments with his support or he will reveal to the authorities his colleagues satanic meddling with creation, and soon the twin tyrants decide that perhaps the abominable beast can be tamed and controlled with a female companion…..
The first illustrative word that struck me when I mulling over this film is hysteria. I’m not just talking about the frequent screams and faints that many of the films characters emit when confronted with the hulking homunculus but also hysterical in its comedic sense, as the The Bride of Frankenstein is so obviously a sly satire on the printed tale with a performance style so ridiculously high that even Navajo construction veterans would suffer from vertigo. It’s shrieking blast of a film, a howl of sly obscenity and chaotic intellectual inquiry, with a necrotic beating heart at its centre which frames the monster as the poor persecuted soul who just wants what we all want from (un)life – a little friendship, a smidgen of affection, a tolerant respect. It’s so very difficult to take this scene seriously given just how effectively Mel Brooks demolished its metaphors in Young Frankenstein, but once these memories are quelled it does retain a quiet solemnity, cruelly punctuated by the interference of foolish hu-mans. Karloff wasn’t keen on the project as they made the monster talk – quite ironic just as the movies were finding their voice and shifting from silent to sound – and it was Whale you impugned his wicked imagination on the picture, including Lancaster’s dual parts as the Bride and her creator Mary Shelley, the bizarro world miniature sequence, crafting in celluloid clay a sequel which which was an enormous success the equal of a Jaws or Avatar of its day. Some of that success is due to the retention of his primary henchmen from the first movie including Jack Pierce’s groundbreaking make-up designs, by proliferating the film with cold tombstones protruding from the ground like rotten teeth framed in expressionistic lighting, and Franz Waxman’s key throbbing score (one of the unimpeachable best scroes of the 1930’s) which herald impish Wagnerian character beats for the principal puppets in this lunatic shadow-play.
The initial cut of the film was considered deeply subversive by the newly enshrined Breen Office, those moral charlatans curtailing the blasphemous religious iconography and subtextual teasing of society, forcing Whale to cut the film by a couple of reels down to a modest 75 minutes and incurring the loss of an entire child murder subplot which is erroneously blamed on the creature. As previously revealed I’ve been reading The Genius of the System which deserves its own detailed blog posting, nevertheless it grazes over the film in terms of the industrial infrastructure of Universal in the 1930’s and their production methodologies which drove the entire horror cycle, its fascinating stuff in comparison to todays package deals and modern production techniques as the picture went a generous ten days over schedule and cost a creepy $397,000, a relative bargain for an A list picture of the period when you compare that with a $250 million risk for something equivalent like the The Dark Knight Rises some ninety years later. Some of much of this is cliché now but if you push aside its firm infection of popular culture then there is so much to enjoy, the production design and ghoulish atmosphere is second to none, even as its plot veers from the ridiculous to the sublime in a stuttering heartbeat. Why give the monster a bride? Well, just because we can seems to be the imperative, as the kidnap of Frankenstein’s fiancée by the monster forces him to reprise his bubbling beaker and storm charged experiments they all lead to a hair curling conclusion which is amongst the best in the genre.
Enter the bride herself who makes the irrevocable impression, I’m struggling to think of any other female horror monster with an equal historical presence (the Alien Queen maybe, although that’s really not the same thing?) as she is on-screen for a maximum of 60, or maybe 90 seconds but her bird-like twitching physicality is firmly stained into cinema history, indeed no less than authority as legendary critic Leslie Halliwell cites the sequence as the ‘most bizarre and incredible six minutes in Hollywood history’. I’m not sure I’d go that far but it is a wonderful creature wracked moment which is arresting and heartbreaking at the same time, the poor beast dooming them all to a second plunge into the abyss as his abhorrent form is rejected by the living and dead alike. Some of these confusions around creation have led to readings of the movie as a gay film and I guess that’s one reading of it, the notion of an outcast from society seeking affection among persecution, or the scheming Pretorious enamoured of Frankenstein’s skills pulling him away ‘from his bride on their wedding night to engage in the unnatural act of creating non-procreative life’. Well, I guess it’s a notion which gains a meta-momentum given Elsa Lancaster’s status as the wife of the secretly gay Charles Laughton in what was obviously a marriage of mutual career convenience, of Whale’s admitted and open and Thesiger’s presumed sexual orientation, in any case it’s an example of a richly thematic film which hums with many potent symbols and charges, concluding on a satisfying emotional climax which reasserts the hetronormal status quo as Frankenstein is reunited with his wife. In terms of context the film Gods & Monsters charts Whale’s career in Hollywood and recreates the scene with amusing affection, Bride is one of Del Toro’s all time favourites and you can see his affection and affinity with the monstrous throughout his work, but hark is that a distant howling I hear that echoes eeriely from the moors? Be swift Igor, fetch my blunderbuss and silver shot, it’s a full moon tonight so we must hunt and slay that lethal lycanthrope and finally expunge that scourge of our kinfolk;
Ladies & Gentlemen, one of the worst and most amusing trailers I’ve seen for quite some time;
‘From the Producers of Underworld‘ bellows the marketing, which says it all really. Speaking of monstrosities, hands up if you’ve seen the super secret Godzilla teaser which is hulking around certain sites? I’ll post it when it goes official, I can’t quite decide if its ridiculously portentous or pretty darn cool…
I’m having a bit of a fractious time with the BFI these days. Whilst it’s been plain sailing getting tickets to the likes of Superman II and tonight’s entertainment I have lost out on a few other events, namely an imminent Q&A with current box office maestro Joss Whedon, Edgar Wright recently introducing a screening of An American Werewolf In London and there’s also an upcoming screening of Psycho and Q&A with James Franco whom has selected it as one of his favourite movies. Now I’m not frustrated at the lack of tickets from any sort of fanboy perspective you understand, it would just be nice to cover these events for the sake of the blog, but it appears that these events sell-out during the roughly 5 minutes between the time the email / twitter notification is circulated into the screaming void and the time it takes to make a call into the South Bank Box-Office – welcome to the world of social media I guess. Still we do have quite a programme ahead of us over the next couple of months as I get my teeth into the Werner Herzog season, alas there doesn’t seem to be an appearance scheduled from the great man himself which seems like an oversight unless he’s shooting of course, in any case to whet your appetite here’s a pretty good write up of the Teutonic tyrants life and work to date. On a much more of a genre themed front I attended a special screening at the BFI last week, as Hammer films unleashed a fully restored and renewed digital print of 1974’s Frankenstein & The Monster from Hell, a world premiere which was commissioned as part of the centenary celebrations of the titanic Peter Cushing’s birth. Never let us forget that he is one of the unknown all time badasses of cinema given that he single-handedly dispatched Dracula numerous times as well as being the only creature to bitchslap the nebulous Darth Vader and live to tell the tale, but enough of that overexposed franchise, as a ridiculously attired MC once said it’s Hammer time;
The plot is thinner that the beasts clearly cardboard manacles, as in the dying dregs of the 19th century an arrogant and elitist Dr. Simon Helder (Shane Briant) is sentenced to a spell in the local insane asylum after he is discovered experimenting upon the dead. Ensconced amongst the sanity deprived Helder stumbles across the suspicious Dr. Carl Victor (Peter Cushing, magnetic), a certain Dr. Frankenstein whom is hiding behind this alias in order to continue his perversions of science unmolested, Victor soon takes the promising student under his wing and soon the pair are gleefully carving through cadavers of the institutes unfortunate wretches quicker than you can say god complex’. When one of the inmates with a genius level intellect is found hanged in his cell under suspicious circumstances Frankenstein embarks on his most ambitious affront to decency, to transplant the still warm brain into the jigsawed husk of numerous other victims, in an effort to see if a marriage of intellect and mortal flesh may yield his scientific immortality. As the wardens mute daughter Angel (Madeline Smith) looks on in silent despair the foul experiment is afoot, but will the monster react to his new life with a acquiescent piety or pummeling brutality?
Released in the dying twilight of the Hammer cycle I have to say that the film really isn’t that good, it is deeply hamstrung by stodgy plotting and a distinct lack of production values. The special effects are especially waning, at the very least you can usually enjoy Hammer films for their bloody British carnivorous charm, but even this is sorely lacking in Monster From Hell with an especially egregious sighting of exterior shots of the asylum which look like they’ve escaped from a Blue Peter toilet roll and sticky back plastic Halloween Special. The digital scrub however is a treat as the aging and distress have been incrementally washed away, with extra gory footage inserted for completests to devour in all their rabid fury, as they are really the key audience for this ripening resurrection. It’s a shame that house director Terence Fisher couldn’t have exited his career and left the iconic studio with a legacy on more of a high, he was after all the man responsible for the original 1958 Dracula which effectively established the studio and its subsequent beloved twenty year cycle of chills and carnage, critics look at the film, as a kind of final statement on the studio and the final position of its cycle of films – tired, overexposed, budgetary lamentable and needing to put out of its misery. Nevertheless Fisher is unquestionably one of the great UK horror figures along with Hitchcock and arguably Val Guest, I’m particularly fond of his mist-drenched, gothic take on The Hound Of The Baskervilles from 1959 which alongside The Devil Rides Out, Countess Dracula (Ingrid Pitt had quite the pulsing effect on a prepubescent Mint) the 1958 Dracula and To The Devil A Daughter are probably my favourite Hammer atrocities.
Cushing in his sixth incarnation as the mad scientist as usual gets all the good lines, and to the films credit they try to lurch out from the Universal iconography of the monster to try something different in terms of creature design and temperament, even if the end result looks like a particularly mangy George from Rainbow rather than an accursed behemoth from beyond the borders of sanity. Prowse tries to invest the monster with a sense of pathetic pathos and for the most part he succeeds, and the film has a smattering of a theme with an intellect versus bestiality dichotomy occasionally gnawing on the narrative , but it hardly electrifies the screen as Frankenstein roars his cackling intonations, so this is one for horror hacks and abominable aficionados only – the skull sawing and brain splattering scene was quite funny though.
Still it was fun to see a rather frail Dave Prowse take to the stage, that’s another Kubrick survivor down in terms of my own obsessions with the departed, I must get cracking on those Stephen Berkoff and Adrienne Corri sightings as they’re both still knocking around London, in fact I think Berkof lives in Limehouse which is our mutual manor. The brief Q&A highlighted the now blatantly obvious fact that this was Cushing’s and Prowse’s first appearance together, and they would both eventually go on to star together in a rather successful SF movie that was also shot in London a mere four years later which you may have heard of which I think they’re remaking or something. It was also great to see Madeline Smith on stage which some of you Hammerhounds will recognise from The Vampire Lovers and Taste The Blood Of Dracula, not to mention a small part in Moore’s debut Bond Live & Let Die, they were all very respectful and in awe of just how caring and wonderful Peter Cushing was, as is always the way these murderous and lunatic screen presences seem to be genuinely gentle and sensitive souls off-screen. Cushing was renowned for investing great stock in getting his costumes and accents historically accurate, which seems a little pointless considering the alleged quality and source matter of th lowly insignificant horror movies, however you cut it he is one of the iconic faces of the horror genre alongside Lee and Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney;
Strike when the 300kw Klieg lights are hot is a Hollywood mantra, and following the resounding financial and critical success of 1931’s Dracula Universal Studies wasted no time rushing another gothic chiller into production, even managing to terrify audiences a second time before the year had elapsed. Wishing to bank on the lofty profile of their malevolent new star the studio offered the role of the monster in the adaptation of Mary Shelley’s cadaverous gothic grimorie to Bela Lugosi who arrogantly declined the ‘demeaning’ part, thus the role was won by lumbering British character actor Boris Karloff and Frankenstein was accursedly born. Having laboured in Hollywood since the early silents this was Lugosi’s 81st film, a testament to the early days of cinema’s relentless production line practices, his interpretation of the novels unholy hulk now firmly electrocuted into popular culture as the elevator booted, monolithic forehearded and screwbolt neck impaled, lazy-eyed, lumbering lunkhead, a vision quite unlike the patchwork assembled affront to god seen in Shelly’s classic of literature. Like Dracula the film has spawned a teeming mausoleum of sequels, prequels, and thinly veiled allusions, and also like Dracula it has its own little known earlier cinema incarnation, the celluloid graverobbers excavated that decaying corpse back in the 1970’s, much to the glee of horror hell-hound such as yours truly. But let’s move on to fresher fare, now who can forget this indelibly haunting entrance;
Like its lecherous predecessor the film was shot on the Universal lot with the same moody chiaroscuro aplomb, the house style of the genre fully established as the film moans through a travelogue of mist shrouded moors, ivy choked ruins, squat and inhospitable alpine villages, putrefying and cinereal graveyards. As the second major film in the cycle we can also detect the early strains of cross-pollination, the same actors rising from the mists to appear in supporting and lead roles across the shrieking codex, a quarter century before Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing battled each other at the behest of Hammer studios Lugosi and Karloff were also locked in an eternal bloody ballet, with the likes of Edward van Sloan, Colin Clive and the original Igor, Dwight Frye providing the requisite theatrical support. The indelible visual iconography is also compounded with Frankenstein, with mad scientists toying with elemental forces to the hum of pulsating Tesla coils, the shrieking electricity arcing between bubbling and mist vomiting beakers, all hid as an affront to god in the murky depths of an abandoned citadel……
English Theatre director James Whale was enlisted to bring Shelley’s ‘modern Prometheus’ to the screen, his carefully shielded homosexuality has naturally birthed speculation on how he may have identified with the persecuted, banished and shunned creature, and if memory serves the film does betray a more sympathetic attitude to the monster than the novel, but I did read this years ago so I could be mistaken. Whilst we’re on the subject if you are a fan of horror movies then you really should read this source text along with Dracula, you might be surprised at just how much was the authors original intention and how much sheer invention by a cabal of screenwriters has altered the ars, an incremental accrual of myths and powers which were never considered in the original dark flourish of imagination. The other thing that struck me with the revisit was yes this is another animated and magical restoration, and also given that I’ve recently migrated to the Economic Regeneration sectors of Local Government I must be cultivating a entrepreneurial frame of mind, as all I thought when watching these movies is that any ambitious merchant just needs to open up a flaming brazier, sharpened pitchfork and braying rent-a-mob retail operation and he’d quite literally make a killing.
Perhaps the invisible hand of genius has graced the film, it’s not the first name on anyones lips when these movies are discussed but make-up legend Jack Pierce really outdid himself this time, it was he whom invented the dimensions of that haunted, gloomy face and he was the man who inserted those now iconic bolts through Karlofff’s neck. I recently read a terrific aside in a Sight & Sound review of another transition to sound era movie recently, I can’t recall the movie it was referencing but the author made the fantastic point that academically we shouldn’t be moaning about or lamenting this hesitant period between live accompaniment in the theatres and full movie scores overwhelming the images and instructing the audience how to emotionally react to the on-screen antics, perhaps it would be more rewarding and instructive to accept this transitional period as another form of film grammar which is specific to the period. This is a fantastic point, when you rewatch these Universal films that spluttering and slightly hissing track undoubtedly provides the films with a coldly uncanny, pregnant and pensive momentum in certain scenes, the lack of non-diagetic instructions (and in Frankenstein’s case only the opening and closing titles have music under them) in scenes like this for example are all the carnal and effective, with just the crashing thunder and piledriving rain glimpsed between the howls and growls.
For me the film shambles around remarkably well given its venerable viscosity, although it takes a while to get the monster reanimated there is much amusement to be enjoyed with Colin Clive’s lunatic performance, he chews the scenery with the spirit of a devilish dervish as he challenges gods miraculous creation, all ably assisted by his lurching hunchback assistant Fritz which begs the question when did the name Igor become associated with this genre trope? One of the (by 1931) cruellest and most shocking scenes in cinema was when an innocent young girl spies through the creatures hideous visage and encourages it to play with her, a childs innocence negating the forces of prejudice and suspicion, but of course it’s a foolish mistake and her dispatch is frankly hilarious. This scene was immediately banned and excised from the master negative after the MPCC begin enforcing its prurient code in 1934, and the harmless scene was not restored by the studio to commercial prints of the film until 1986. This is a crucial scene of the film which sets in motion the explosive finale, I guess for some of you the unfortunate drowning of an infant might not be a cause of mirthful hilarity, but c’mon now when the simple-minded brute gets a little excited and hurls the little angel into the drink who can’t fail to crack a smile?
Many argue that Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first true Science Fiction story, before H.G. Wells or Edgar Rice Burroughs a fey and delicate lady from Somers Town in London predated both their vivid 19th century Martian derived visions, it’s an assertion which is often eclipsed by Frankenstein’s status as an undeniable and unimpeachable gothic and horror classic. Horror and SF often intersect in the movies as tampering with the latter can often envision the former, when man plays god horrific forces are unleashed, conjuring a biblical vengeance for us lowly mortals as we dare to challenge the almighty’s eternal purview. The use and abuse of science pulses at the core of the story of course, the channeling of the power of storms which electrify the body and medical advances which stitch together the unholy carcass, a looming hulk which encapsulates all sorts of questions on the soul and mortality, on whether evil is a learnt or inherent trait.
Let us draw a funeral shroud over proceedings and close with some ephemera, firstly I can strongly recommend Gods & Monsters which serves as an effective biography of Whale with Ian McKellen in an Oscar nominated role as the weary tyrant. For my sins I revisited Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 flop Frankenstein with Bobby De Niro as the creature, some strangely expressionist set designs aside it isn’t a particularly effective translation, although it does cleave much closer to the original text which makes it quite different to the dozens of other films inspired by Shelley’s scripture. I’d loved to have seen Danny Boyle’s stage version of the text with Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller which played here in London a couple of years ago, but tickets for that were rarer than a healthy, freshly warm brain, here’s some footage which may whet your damned appetite. But when we think of Frankenstein we think of those comatose, catatonic and haunted eyes, of Karloff’s beseeching, vertical arm thrusts upward as he hopelessly reaches for god to cleanse his diseased and wretched existence, a solemn psalm from a putrid Prometheus who won’t just die, with another version destined to lurch into multiplexes this year it’s an eternal myth which simply won’t rest;
So then my accursed minions, let’s dust off the cobwebs, stagger nervously through mist drenched marshes, summon up a posse of pitchfork and brasier wielding peasants and give 2013’s first programme a resurrecting blast of cobalt electricity, *distant booming spectral laugh* yes you hunchbacked fools it is time to exhume the Universal Monster movies of yore. Having received the glorious Blu-Ray package for Christmas, officially the best horror themed release of 2012 according to numerous genre specialists and aficionados I knew that this could form the spine of another ambitious season of reviews and articles, and this time my insane plans may have just gone too far, or at least that’s what the superstitious fools down in the village would have you believe. Although there are eight core movies in the box-set the entire Universal cycle encompasses no less than 27 pictures, or 30 if you include Abbott & Costello meeting Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, or the Mummy. So my inhuman experiment is this – to compose capsule reviews for the 27 ancillary movies, and fully fleshed articles for the central octave of monstrous darkness, a programme that should eclipse my expansive Hitchcock season and should give me enough to chew/gnaw/feast upon for the next twelve months. I already have some other strands planned so fret not if you sacrilegious cretins have no interest in this moody material, I’m making my inaugural 2013 visit to the BFI this afternoon and a very interesting screening has cropped up at the Stratford Picturehouse next week. But let’s stay on subject so here’s a reminder, ‘the abyss gazes also’ and all that eh;
First things first, I realise that the Wikipedia article cites something in the region of 40 films belonging to the cycle, these things are always open to debate (is The Hunchback of Notre Dame really a horror film?) so my 27 is culled from the list inscribed in the box-sets supporting booklet, even I won’t have the time for 40+ plus reviews if a few plans come together in the next couple of weeks. Anyway, you have to admire Universal’s commitment to their heritage in this their centenary year, these creatures and their movies are no doubt the studios biggest licensed money spinners over the decades when you consider their iconic status and the copyright fees they must accrue when reproduced in media around the world, but nevertheless it is good to see a studio devoted to maintaining their legacy which stands in contrast to the approach of some of the other major studios who landfilled or simply sold off their memorabilia due to a succession of corporate mergers and philistine executives – and who’s heard the recent scurrilous rumor that Warner Brothers have accidentally destroyed the original camera negative of Days Of Heaven? That’s scary stuff. Anyway let’s get started with the first strand of the cycle, the 1925 first silver screen iteration of The Phantom Of The Opera, this terrified audiences way before some rich Tory munchkin got his grubby paws on it and made some bloody awful West End musical out of the original Gaston Leroux novel;
Starring the near forgotten Lon Chaney this horrific tale in the mould of contemporaries Edgar Allen Poe concerns a deformed ghoul who haunts the gothic chambers, concealed infrastructure and Seine soaked catacombs of the Opéra de Paris. After falling in love with Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) whom he has secretly coached from the cloaked shadows from understudy to prima donna he kidnaps his muse, setting his will against Christine’s tenacious lover Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry). During a masked ball which echoes The Masque of The Red Death the Phantom ignites his wicked plan to despatch his adversary and win Christine’s love.
You really do get a sense of the changes in the art form when revisiting the Silents, the pacing and static camera, the way that scenes are covered in mid-shot with few edits, the exaggerated figure movement and Intertitles supplanting dialogue, and if you peer closely the lavish production design, set dressing and costumes can be discerned through the boxed ratio focused, murky and malodorous, shuddering images. The Grand Guignol stylings are appropriately macabre, I’m going out on a limb in terms of my knowledge but I’m also sure that a 1 hour, 47 minute run-time would have been quite lavish for the period, thus this was probably quite a prestige production for the infant studio under the dominion of the now legendary Carl Laemmle. This is certainly less moribund and languidly paced that many Silents of the era I have seen, it dances along with a grotesque grace, and some of the Phantom’s moral traps could even be discerned in more modern fare almost a century later – I think you know what texts I’m talking about. I distinctly remember that chilling skull visage of Chaney as the Phantom from the photo captures in many of the Horror handbooks I accrued as a child, it’s still a little unsettling today so I can only imagine the swooning and fainting it provoked amongst the more refined punters back in 1925;
Lon Chaney is a criminally overlooked figure in early horror cinema, whilst fans dote on the films of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, James Whale and Tod Browning we tend to overlook one of the pioneer physical performers and make-up geniuses who established some early parameters of the genre, and I shamefully include myself in that estimation. Fascinating article here on his techniques, a pioneer of make-up artistry that paved the way for Jack Pierce through to the modern grotesques of Greg Nicotero and Tom Savini, maybe one day his sorely missed London After Midnight will finally surface, just like the full version of Metropolis and recent rumors of Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle there is hope. Next up we tackle the ‘Listen to them, children of the night. What music they make…’, but before that on the horror front look what else is slowly materialising out in the twisted woods…..
After watching and throughly enjoying the amusingly swift The Ghost Of Frankenstein this morning I then turned to my newly arrived copy of Sight & Sound, only to see a glowing review of this;
Igor Want Pretty Box Of Friend Movies Bad. Still, Christmas is coming so I think I know what Santa might be clutching in his ancient, shrivelled claws. I’d updated my Lovefilm account with a positively diabolical collection of all the sequels that I haven’t seen recently of the Universal Frankenstein, Wolf-Man and Dracula franchises, that should keep me busy don’t you think? More horror is on the way soon (cue distant cackling spectral laugh)…..
After all that Disney nonsense for the last post it’s time for a change of pace and tone don’t you think? I’ve been mulling over some clever methods to celebrate the occasion of my 300th post then came to my senses and realised a more conventional idea would be easier to construct, especially since I could incorporate coverage on two pictures I’ve caught recently that I don’t have the time to craft full blown reviews for. Hopefully this will all make sense as you read through. So here we go, a traditional top ten of a particular genre and I’ve decided to kick off with my beloved horror as one of the ten actually got a very limited re-release this week and I caught it at my local cinema last night – the divination is clear. These are my personal favourites, they are not necessarily the best films in the genre, the most influential, the most popular – they are my favourites for a variety of reasons that I will attempt to eviscerate. So draw the shades, light the candles, clutch your holy symbol to your heart pounding chests and let’s begin….
You have to have a Bela Lugosi on your list or you simply don’t know what you’re talking about right? This was has it all, the original cliches, the over-acting, the gothic atmosphere and architecture, the sense of cinema history being made – can you imagine that people actually fainted during this chillers original run back in 1931? I like the absences, the lack of a church choir or other ominous musical mood on the scratchy soundtrack with the Counts reveal, a sign of its 1930’s pedigree as film hesitantly embraced the recent advent of sound.
Likewise a Karloff is mandatory. The original of course is a close run thing but it’s the pathos in this one, the 1935 sequel that appeals more to my sensibilities. That’s Elsa Lancaster as the bride, she was married to Charles Laughton dontchaknow…
So, it was a digital projection of ‘The Thing‘ that I saw last night and it was magnificent. I’ve never seen on the big screen, in full scope and with the new colour palette it was like seeing it for the first time. The visuals shimmer and glistened quite unlike even the Blu Ray copy I have sitting on my shelf, I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of watching this movie. Most of the effects stand up although the Albert Whitlock mattes of the alien ship don’t pass muster and the crab/spider head moment did generate a few laughs from the audience. No matter, it has that Morricone score, the paranoia, terrific pacing that slowly turns the thumbscrews until that ending. It was this movie that got Dean Cundey the DP job on ‘Jurassic Park’ by the way, demonstrating his ability to meld live action with SFX and photograph imaginary creatures so convincingly. Apocalyptic crimson bliss.
Do I have to repeat myself? I should hope not. I’ll just add a recent observation I picked up that the steadicam shots of Danny riding his tricycle from behind are counterpoised with the steadicam shots of Jack coming toward the camera and it almost recoiling away from him in the film. Or maybe someone’s over thinking things again.
Hmm, I do wonder if the next one will actually come to fruition with Ridley at the helm. The original remains the textbook SF/horror mash-up which remains unsurpassed on a panoply of levels, the feminist subtexts, the corporate machinations, the use of ‘alien’ as metaphor, the blend of genre with the old dark house motif transported to some star system several hundreds of years hence. Or maybe mere decades. ‘I admire its purity’ indeed…
The film’s not up so you’ll have to make do with this extended trailer which has its own cultural value. ‘Psycho‘ is the ultimate ‘entry’ film – hear me out – in that any fledgling horror fan will inevitably stumble across it in some way in any horror film compilation book worth reading. Intrigued after years of watching badly made, exploitation driven trash the fledgling cineaste takes a look at ‘Psycho‘ and for want of a better word gets an education on how exactly how a proper film is constructed, how expectations are manipulated, twisted and feigned. Once you’ve had that realisation you never go back and you start looking at and admiring other films, not just horror and genre films, for their craftsmanship or lack thereof. The next thing you know you’re shelling out over £500 a year on going to the cinema and at least equal that on film related paraphernalia. Welcome to my world. The shower scene is obviously one of the all time great montages in cinema and it ushered in a whole sub-genre – its effect on subsequent movies is incalculable. It’s an over used word but there is no other to match it – masterpiece.
I’m going to cheat and lump the first three of the dead trilogy into one, ‘Night‘, ‘Dawn‘ and for me the underrated ‘Day‘, they are all equally valid in my book. Why did I elect to use the above trailer? Because it is funny. It doesn’t sound like the new one ‘Survival Of The Dead‘ like ‘Land’ and ‘Diary’ is any good either which is a real shame, I think Romero really needs to think about doing something else. Horror cinema as political and social comment doesn’t come any more potent and they are just sheer, havoc strewn glee with plenty of quotable lines and moments. You know you’ll get along with someone just fine when you casually drop your zombie outbreak plans into conversation and they reply in the affirmative instead of looking at you like you’re insane. Me? Oh, I’ve got a short dash to the Thames then it’s off to Greenland in the first boat I can liberate.
You also have to have a Vincent Price in a dodgy B movie chiller don’t you? This is one of my guilty favourites I guess, I find that opening genuinely unsettling and immersive purely because of its guerilla, claustrophobic sheen, the trailer eleborates on this in a couple of moments. Knocked out in a few days? Sure. Cutting corners due to the miniscule budget? Naturally. Terrific fun? Absolutely. Like others the problem I find with most of the recent horror releases (by recent I mean in the past two decades) is that they are so polished, so professional and consequently so soulless. Have you seen the latest ‘Friday 13th’ movie yet? The catering budget could have probably been used to put together a couple of AIP films like this which are several hundred times more fun, warts and all. The best podcast on B-Movie shenanigans can be found here, it’s a regular favourite on itunes etc and as usual comes highly recommended.
Again I’m repeating myself from previous posts but there is no better embeddable clip out there although the whole film is up in HD on youtube. Nice. And finally a quiet little clip from Japan:
I mean just what the FUCK is going on here? Yes, I was shocked at the ending the first time I saw it just like everyone else – a perfect and wholly earned ending I have to add – but it was always this sequence that freaked me the fuck out. It’s the build up to that gruesome denouement which makes this not only Miike’s best film for dare I say it its maturity, the reigning in of his trademark shock tactics until the final reveal but also its sly dig at the continuing patriarcial oppression in the orient. It’s horrible but didn’t our hero, well, kind of deserve it? In the film world that is, not the real world of course. I’m not a psycho.
OK so I’m a psycho, what a charming trilogy of images…<sigh>…I’m going to hell. Of course I’ve missed some classics but that’s the nature of lists. I’d have loved to have included a Hammer, specifically this which is my favourite, ‘Salem’s Lot‘ will always have a place in my heart for scaring me as a kid even though its TV origins are a little laughable now and ‘Texas Chainsaw‘ is a shame but ten is ten, even when its, um, twelve. And of course this and the first sequel. OK, I hate lists now…
Tod Browning is not a name that is often uttered in the same breath as the elite horror filmmakers of yore, the Cronenbergs, the Carpenters, Whales, Cravens and Romeros. A quick scan through Browning’s CV however (Christ they really knocked ’em out in those days huh? Sixty films in twenty years) reveals a number of essential entries into the genre back in the fertile thirties . His career was effectively destroyed by a crippling alcoholism compounded with the release of one of cinema’s most controversial and daring movies – ‘Freaks‘ – which remained banned in a number of countries for decades and I think only getting its first VHS release in the early nineties. As I mentioned before I caught his film ‘The Devil Doll‘ in Paris in a newly restored print and as much as I’d love to divulge how this was a magnificent cinematic experience, a film text equal to the luxurious environs of central Paris, an undiscovered masterpiece worthy of illumination I cannot tell a lie – this was a bad movie. Taking into account its 73 year pedigree this was still extraordinarily clunky in dialogue, quite a shock given that it has the likes of Erich Von Stroheim on the writing chores not to mention the likes of Cedric Gibbons and Franz Waxman rounding off some of the behind the screen talent. It’s not a total loss, the vision of this transvestite killer is quite surreal to behold and certainly marks the film as somewhat unique for its period and the primitive mattes of the dolls going about their nefarious business has some attraction for the film connoisseur but that’s about it. The bolted on romance thread is terrible and seems to have been developed only to give the movie a 70 minute running time. By the way that’s Lionel Barrymore in the lead, brother of John and grand uncle of Drew, one of those Hollywood dynasties like the Fonda’s and Huston’s whose progeny continue to work in the film business. Certainly the best black and white transvestite telepathic dwarf revenge murder picture I’ve seen all year though.
The thirties was a rich period in horror film history, possibly superior to the 1970’s renaissance with the likes of ‘White Zombie‘, ‘Mark Of The Vampire‘, ‘Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde‘, ‘The Mystery Of The Wax Museum‘, ‘The Old Dark House‘ all terrorising audiences not to mention the original ‘Frankenstein‘, ‘The Mummy‘, ‘Dracula‘ and ‘The Wolf Man‘ (which gets yet another remake early next year) establishing the tropes and traditions that have embedded themselves in popular culture for the past eighty years. I’m not sure why that era released such a crop of movies, a prelude to the horrors of the Second World War perhaps? Who knows? I do know that if these movies hadn’t scared the bejesus out of the likes of Ray Bradbury, John Landis, Joe Dante, Spielberg, Lucas and others the world would be a duller place.
I think I’m going to have a quiet word with the UK’s film exhibitors. Halloween evening and the only horror film on at the flicks is ‘Saw V‘ which I refuse to spend my hard earned cash on given its execrable reviews and the fact that the franchise’s premise was essentially exhausted after the first installment. So, what’s a boy to do? Given that I was not in the right frame of mind for anything challenging or worthy my choice of cinema visit was essentially relegated to the latest Bond picture, ‘The Quantum Of Solace‘.
First things first, I am not the world’s biggest Bond fan. Heresy I know but even as a kid I found the Connery installments boring, the Moore era tacky (which I understand is part of their charm for some people but it just doesn’t fit with my idiom although I will confess to loving the end of ‘Live & Let Die‘ when I was a ankle-biter) and whilst I enjoyed Brosnan’s first effort ‘Goldeneye’ they swiftly degenerated into absurdity. I mean invisible fucking cars? Gimme a break. Again, I know its kind of the point of the franchise that they are simply stuffed with exotic locales, cunning gadgets, cartoon villains and fit birds but my taste in espionage material leans more to the cerebral, dark and gritty double crossing type of stuff. There were elements of that nature in Daniel Craig’s first donning of the tuxedo in the pleasantly entertaining ‘Casino Royale‘ re-boot which I thought quite effectively reinvented the series for the 21st century so I thought ‘Solace‘ was worth a look at the flicks.
The plot, for what its worth, is all over the place but I didn’t really care as what also drew me to the film was to see some big mindless action sequences, a salivating prospect given the stunt and design teams are the same dudes that made the Bourne trilogy so exhilarating. Continuing almost immediately after the events of ‘Casino Royale’ the film opens with a superbly choreographed car chase which was a very promising opening, Bond is hot on the trail of a shadowy secret organisation that is destabilising third world governments in order to profit from the subsequent exploitation of their natural resources. How very contemporary. For Bond it’s personal as the sinister puppet-masters are the same as those responsible for the death of his true love Vesper Lynd in ‘Royale’ which gives impetus to his somewhat predicable going over the edge, violating instructions, ignoring the orders of his superiors (for me a somewhat unconvincing Judi Dench again as ‘M‘), using unorthodox methods to get results…well, you get the idea.
I do like Craig as Bond, he exudes a genuine aura of psychopathic coldness that I’m told is in the novels (I’ve not read any of Fleming’s work) and the best moment of the film for me was an early sequence where after ruthlessly dispatching a knife wielding goon Bond nonchalantly adjusts his clothing, distractedly mops away blood from his injuries and calmly exits a Tunisian hotel. On the plus side they throw everything in to the mix, there’s a car chase, a boat chase, a plane battle, some gnarly hand to hand combat and some ludicrous but fun computer GPS tracking super secret special agent nonsense to luxuriate in but overall I was a little bored I have to say. Even a mindless action film I think needs some sort of vaguely coherent connecting structure to keep you engaged. The film culminates in a final set piece that I’m afraid was woefully inadequate and left me exiting the cinema with a palpable sense of ‘meh’. Still, Gemma Arterton as the amusingly monikered ‘Strawberry Fields’ was pleasing on the eye and her (skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers) ‘Goldfinger’ referenced fate was a vaguely clever contemporary update.
SPOILERS ALERT – You have been warned. Anyway, I can’t bring myself to let ‘Halloween‘ pass without some reference to the chilling and macabre so here are some scenes from some of my favourite all time ghost, mystery and horror films. I suspect my warning was not enough.
Seriously NSFW links here – Further gruesome warnings for these links. When I think of how many great looking and widely praised genre films are on the way including ‘Let The Right One In‘, the controversial ‘Martyrs‘, ‘À l’intérieur‘ and ‘Midnight Meat Train‘ (which I concur has been slated but given that it’s directed by Japan’s answer to Sam Raimi it will certainly be on my viewing list) I despair at current release patterns. I shall be drafting a very strongly worded letter of complaint to the UK film council. That should rectify matters. Final warning – here is real horror, or failing that there’s always Bruce……