Views & Reviews From Writer Steve Miller
Formerly Reviews and Stuff at Rotten Tomatoes, 2005 - 2009.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Whoever green-lit 'Deck the Halls' should be decked

Deck the Halls (2006)
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Danny DeVito, Kristen Davis, and Kristen Chenoweth
Director: John Whitesell
Rating: One of Ten Stars

"Deck the Halls" revolves around a pair of fathers feuding over who's going to have the best Christmas decorations in town... and the supposed hilariaty that ensues when the feud gets out of hand. I say "supposed" because this film is over-long, unfunny--even the slapstick is more groan-inducing than chuckle-inspiring--and populated by characters that are so badly written that, struggle as they may, the actors simply can't imbue them with life, let along the Christmas Spirit.

Oh... and you can add to the fact that most of what happes in the movie feels like it was cribbed from "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." So, if you want to see a whacky, somewhat uncouth Christmas comedy, why not stick with the film "Deck the Halls" was copied from?

(All that said, it's been pointed out to me that the movie did redeem itself ever-so-slightly at the end. But, as nice an ending as it is, with a little bit of good cheer creeping in, it is far too little to make up for the rest of the film.)

If anyone starts a class-action suit so the poor souls who saw this film on its opening day, please keep me in the loop. I want my money back AND something for my pain and suffering. Meanwhile, though, you out there who are reading this should take my warning and NOT see this movie. (Although recommending it to relatives you'd rather not have to spend the Holidays with would be a sure-fire way to get out of it. It'll be Guy Faulkes Day (or later) before they'll be wiling to speak to you again.)

Underrated holiday film

Jingle All the Way
Starring: Arnold Schwartzenegger, Phil Hartman, Sindbad, Rita Wilson, Robert Conrad, Jake Lloyd, and Jim Belushi
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Howard (Schwartzenegger) feels guilty for having neglected his son, Jamie(Lloyd), in favor of work. In an attempt to make it up to him, he vows to get any gift Jamie wants for Christmas... and Jamie asks for a Turbo Man action figure. On Christmas Eve, Howard goes in search of the toy, only to discover that it's the hottest gift of the season, and EVERY parent in town seems to be looking for one, and no stores have any in stock. What follows is a quest that makes Frodo's trip to Mordor look like a walk on the beach.

As a film mocking the obsession we have in American with making up for our shortcomings in our relationships by going overboard on gift-giving during Christmas, this film succeeds admirably. It also serves as a nice bit of commentary on the rampant commercialism during the Christmas season.

It's a little less successful as a comedy. I love the way the movie keeps escalating and the way the situaitons Howard finds himself in trying to get a Turbo Man doll get more and more absurd, but I find virtually every character in the film more annoying than amusing. The exception is Wilson, who is funny and sympathetic as Howard's wife who has to fend off advances from her sleazy neighbor (Hartman) while Howard searches to the toy.

The film's lead, Schwartzenegger, is passable in the part of the ever-increasingly crazed Howard, but he did a far better job in "Kindergarten Cop" and even "Twins" than he does here.

Still, the film offers some nice chuckles. It may not be the best of Christmas movies, but it's passable. (Oh, and make sure sure you watch all the way to the end of the final credits. There's a bit more of the film after them.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Man-Baby is Back!

Seems like lawyers are still ripping off a Man-Baby whose sensitive soul has been wounded by the existence of "Tintin in The Congo." Here's the latest on a world-class dimwit from the Telegraph.

Tintin 'to be sued' for Congo book

By Henry Samuel in Paris
Published: 10:01PM BST 01 Sep 2009

A Congolese accountant is to launch a lawsuit in France against Tintin for racism, accusing judges in the cartoon hero's native Belgium of trying to bury his case to protect a "national symbol".

Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, 41, is taking legal action claiming Hergé's controversial Tintin In The Congo is propaganda for colonialism and amounts to "racism and xenophobia".

"Tintin's little (black) helper is seen as stupid and without qualities. It makes people think that blacks have not evolved," he said.

Mr. Mbutu Mondondo launched a case in Belgium two years ago for symbolic damages of one euro from Tintin's Belgian publishers Moulinsart, and demanded the book be withdrawn from the market.

But since then his lawyer, Claude Ndjakanyi, said there had been no response from Belgian justice. "Our request to access the dossier was judged premature even though the investigation has been running for two years," he said.

Mr Ndjakanyi claimed the silence was politically motivated: "It's the symbol of Belgium that is under attack." The lawyer said he would launch parallel proceedings in France and go "all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary".

In 2007, British race watchdogs pulled the book from children's shelves and attacked the Tintin cartoons for making black Africans "look like monkeys and talk like imbeciles".

Two weeks ago the work was removed from the shelves of Brooklyn's municipal library following a complaint from a reader that it "had illustrations that were racially offensive and inappropriate for children".

Tintin and his dog Snowy are a rare unifying symbol in Belgium – a divided nation where postcolonial guilt over Belgian's record in the Congo still runs high.

The Congo remained a Belgian colony until 1960 and between 1885 and 1908 millions of Congolese are thought to have died under the brutal rule of Belgium's King Leopold II.

Georges Remi, the Tintin cartoonist who worked under the Hergé pen-name, reworked the book in 1946 to remove references to Congo as Belgian colony.

But it still contained images such as a black woman bowing to Tintin and saying: "White man very great White mister is big juju man!" Moulinsart, Tintin's publishers, argued that the whole row was "silly" and that book must be seen in its historical context: "To read in the 21st century a Tintin album dating back to 1931 requires a minimum of intellectual honesty," it said. "If one applied the 'politically correct' filter to great artists or writers, we could no longer publish certain novels of Balzac, Jules Verne, or even some Shakespeare plays."

Mr Ndjakanyi said this argument did not wash. "When the album was written there was no legal disposition incriminating racism. In 2009 there is. This isn't about history but the law."

And it's probably also about the big fat bank account that Ndjakanyi is building up by exploiting the Man-Baby's mental defects.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

'Bruno' was surprisingly boring

Bruno (2009)
Starring: Sasha Baron Cohen and Gustaf Hammerstein
Director: Larry Charles
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

I went to see "Bruno" expecting it to be stupid and gross. I did not expect it to be boring.

The problem with the movie is exactly what I feared: The central character, the cartoonishly flaboyantly and obnoxiously homosexual fashion reporter Bruno, is simply too much of a cartoon to support a full movie. Like the worst of the movies based on successful Saturday Night Live bits, "Bruno" is an illustration that sketch comedy should generally speaking remain short-form. However, the filmmakers did realize this and they attempted to mitigate the problem by making a movie that is, essentially, an unconnected series of vinettes organzied around a storyline that sees a disgraced Bruno trying to hang onto what little media spotlight he has by trying to become a celebrity who is famous for being famous.

There are some genuinely funny bits in the film, but they are too few and too far between. Plus, you've already seen the punchlines for most of them if you've seen any "Bruno" commercials.

The "adopt-a-baby and use it for media attention" storyline and surrounding bits are funny, as is Bruno's attempts to "go straight" and the end credits sequence, but most of the rest of the film feels forced.

Worse, Bruno is a repulsive character, not just because he is sexually obsessed to a demented degree, but because he is mean-spirited and stupid. Borat at least had the saving grace of not being a vicious jackass. I spent most of my time watching this movie, wincing with embarrassment on behalf of Bruno because of his antics and meanness.

I recommend skipping this film, or at least waiting for the DVD release so you can rent it for cheap. It simply isn't good enough to pay even matinee prices for.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Karl Malden dead at 97

Karl Malden, the Academy Award-winning actor whose intelligent characterizations on stage and screen made him a star despite his plain looks, died Wednesday, his family said. He was 97.

Malden died of natural causes surrounded by his family at his Brentwood home, they told the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. He served as the academy's president from 1989-92.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson dead at 50

Pop star Michael Jackson has died after suffering a heart attack, it has been reported. Los Angeles Fire Department paramedics had rushed to the singer's home near Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA, after receiving a 911 call. He was rushed to a hospital, but he had already passed away.

The cause of Jackson's death was reportedly an overdose of prescription drugs, which he had obtained legally from his doctor.

Jackson was living in Los Angeles while rehearsing a series of 50 sold-out shows in London, the LA Times has reported. The tour was to have been his comeback following his acquittal on charges of child sexual abuse.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

'Death Race' is mediocre reincarnation of sci-fi classic

Death Race (2008)
Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Natalie Martinez, Ian McShane, and Tyrese Gibson
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A disgraced racecar driver (Statham) is framed for muder so a corrupt prison warden (Allen) can force him to take part in the Death Race, a contest where convicted killers drive heavily armed cars to earn freedom or death.

"Death Race" is a humorless remake of Roger Corman's classic "Death Race 2000". It's an okay movie with decent actors--Jason Statham seems to be making a career out of playing hardbitten characters who drive fast cars--and cool effects and exploding cars, but it's all pyrotechnics and postering without any soul... not even the ludicrous soul of the 1975 cheese-fest.

The film is entertaining, and it made me want to break out my old "Car Wars" game--but, alas, I don't even know anyone who I'd ask to play it with me anymore--but that's about it. (Come to think of it, the "Car Wars" games I played were more exciting than this movie, with characters and cars that were just as interesting as what's in this film.)

"Death Race" is a mediocre effort that will not stand the test of time. No one remember this movie in 30 years... or even in three years. Students of classic B-movies may still be talking about the original, though.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dropping even the pretense of an independent media

ABC is going to be broadcasting prime-time "news" from the White House, all about the Obama plan for health care. Supposedly, viewpoints other than those put forth by our Glorious Leader will provided by everyday citizens in attendence at a "town-hall style" event where Our Glorious Leader will take uncensored, unedited questions.

When the Republicans pointed out that a "news broadcast" in an environment dictated and controlled by Our Glorious Leader's press office and security staff, ABCNews' Senior Vice President Kerry Smith offered this very disingenious response:

"ABCNEWS alone will select those who will be in the audience asking questions of the president. Like any programs we broadcast, ABC News will have complete editorial control. To suggest otherwise is quite unfair to both our journalists and our audience."

Those out there who think for yourselves will be wondering HOW ABC is going to select who will be in the audience and who will ge to ask questions given that the Secret Service (or anyone really) can deny anyone access to the environment around our Glorious Leader by labeling them a security risk. ABC News has NO control over ANYTHING within the White House. To claim otherwise is an insult to the intelligence of the American people.

It's tragic that we no longer have a truly independent media in this country. One more half step, and we will have an oligarchical dictatorship.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection

Perhaps the very best entry in Universal's "Legacy Collection" of DVD multipacks compiling their classic monster movies in handsome, archive-quality packages, is the "Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection." In this post, I review the five films included in it and offer some brief commentary on the set in general.

"Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection" contains two of the great foundation stones of the horror movie genre--"Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein"--the two great classic movies directed by James Whale--the almost equally great sequels "Son of Frankenstein" and "Ghost of Frankenstein," and one the Wolf Man cross-overs, "House of Frankenstein." All five films are among the best of Universal's output from the 1930s and 1940s, and they're all films that lovers of classic horror films will want to have in their personal collections.

The Legacy Collection is even more worth having due to commentaries by film historians on the SAP tracks on "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein,"; two very excellent documentaries on the creation of the movies; the inclusion of the original theatrical previews of the films, the poster and still galleries; and the quirky little short film "Boo."

Frankenstein (1931)
Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, Dwight Frye, and John Boles
Director: James Whale
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Henry Frankenstein (Clive), a true madman with dreams of "knowing what God felt like" when he created life, successfully animates a monster made from parts taken from several corpses. Unfortunately, abuse heaped on his creation by an idiot assistant (Frye) and Frankenstein's own missteps causes the creature (Karloff) to go bezerk and flee into the countryside. Soon, Frankenstein's Monster comes back to haunt him and those he cares about.

"Frankenstein" is one of the great monster movies that started the horror genre, so I feel a bit awkward about not liking it more than I do. I feel like I should be giving it a rating of 8 or 9, but all I feel it deserves is a low 7.

That is not to say that the film doesn't have some great moments. Boris Karloff gives a great performance as the creature who is clearly yearning for the sort of comforts every human being wants, but receives nothing but abuse. It's truly the only film portrayal of the Monster that made me feel sorry for it. The sets are also spectacular, the lighting and camerawork fantastic, and all the actors give excellent performances (but Karloff truly excels).

Where the film doesn't work for me is on the level of script and character interaction. I find it impossible to believe that Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth (Clark) would want to go with a walk in the park with Frankenstein after the raw, total madness she witnessed when he brought his creature to life,and I find it even harder to believe that their mutual friend Victor (Boles) wouldn't be doing everything in his power to keep her from the marriage. I understand that horror movies Back In The Day tended to move rather swiftly along as far as characters go, but the lack of reaction to Henry's insanity really ruined the entire picture for me.

I think this movie is a must-see for anyone who considers themselves a film-buff or a fan of the horror genre, as it (along with "Dracula" and "White Zombie") set many of the ground-rules for horror films that persist to this day. However, as gorgeous a film as it to look at, as great as all the actors are, it suffers from some major story issues that may get in the way of your enjoyment.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, and Elsa Lanchester
Director: James Whale
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

As monster-maker Henry Frankenstein (Clive) is recovering from the near-fatal injuries he received at the hands of his monstrous creation, he is approached by the sinister Dr. Pretorius (Thesiger). Pretorius is a mad scientist, who, like Frankenstein, is obsessed with creating life. He has allied with Frankestein's creation (Karloff) in order to force Frankenstein to create a mate for it, so that Pretorius may learn Frankenstein's techniques. Frankenstein must create this other creature, or his own wife (Hobson) will be killed.

"Bride of Frankenstein" is presented as a direct sequel to the 1932 film "Frankenstein", but is somewhat divorced from that movie. First off, it's set up like a fictional story being told by Mary Shelley (Lanchester). Second, the film has a higher comedy element than the original. Third, a number of characters are somewhat different than they were in the first film, with Frankenstein being less of a complete lunatic, who actually wants to give up the whole monster-making gig until Pretorius and Frakenstein's Monster force him to make a mate for the original creation; and Frankenstein's Monster, who has grown in intellect while wandering injured in the wilderness.

What remains the same, however, is the tragic quality of the Frankenstein's monster. While the monster commits acts of genuine evil--where in "Frankenstein", he was mostly acting out of ignorance or self-defense--these are balanced by the presentation of the monster as a deeply lonely, unhappy creature who has no place in, purpose in, or connection with God's creation. The fundementally tragic nature of Frankenstein's creation, and the fact that the most evil players in the story are Frankenstein and Pretorius, has never been driven home in any other Frankestein film than in the final ten minutes of "Bride of Frankenstein." That final reel is one of the greatest horror sequences to ever appear on screen.

"Bride of Frankenstein" is also remarkable for the amazing sets and camera work. The fantastic use of lighting and quick cuts, and the twisted angles in the buildings serve to underscore both the horror and some of the scenes of absurd humor in the film.

Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Edgar Norton and Boris Karloff
Director: Rowland Lee
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone) returns with this family to his ancenstral home in the hopes of rehabilitating his father's name. His high hopes soon turn to bitter ashes as the villagers refuse to give him a chance--except for the police captain (Atwill) who has more cause to hate the Frankenstein name than any of the others--and he is soon drawn into a sinister scheme launched by psychopathic former assistant of his father (Lugosi) to restore the Frankenstein Monster (Karloff) to life.

"Son of Frankenstein" is one of the true classics among horror films. As good as "Frankenstein' and almost as good as "Bride of Frankenstein", it features a top-notch cast, great camera-work, fantastic sets, and a story that's actually better constructed than any other of the Universal Frankenstein movies.

Particularly noteworthy among thge actors are Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. Lugosi is gives one of the best performances of his career, and as I watched, I once again found myself lamenting that he didn't do more comedic roles than he did. He manages to portray the crippled Ygor as funny, pitiable, and frighteing, showing greater range in this role than just about any other he played. The funny bits show a fabulous degree of comedic timing that Lugosi only had the opportunity to show on few other occassions. Rathbone is also excellent, as the high-minded dreamer who is driven to the edge of madness by frustration, fear, and guilt. (He may be a bit too hammy at times, but he's generally very good.)

Lionel Atwill is also deserving of a praise. I think he is better here in his role as Krogh than in any other film I've seen him in. In some ways, "Son of Frankenstein" is as much Krogh's tale as that of Wolf von Frankenstein so pivotal is his character to the tale, and so impactful is Krogh's eventual confrontation with the monster that tore his arm off as a chld. Atwill also manages to portray a very intelligent and sensitive character--perhaps the most intelligent character in the entire movie.

One actor that I almost feel sorry for in this film is Boris Karloff. The monster has very little to do... except lay comatose and go on mindless rampages. ANYONE could have been in the clown-shoes and square-head makeup for this film, because none of the depth shown in the creature in the previous two movies is present here. (While the whole talk about "cosmic rays" and the true source of the creature's lifeforce is very interesting, the monster isn't a character in this film... he's just a beast.)

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr, and Evelyn Ankers
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The evil Ygor (Lugosi) resurrects the Frankenstein Monster (Chaney) and forces the second son of Baron Frankenstein (Hardwicke) to "fix him." Frankenstein resolves to give the monster the mind of a decent man, but Ygor and Frankenstein's jealous collegue (Atwill) have other ideas.

"The Ghost of Frankenstein" is a good, workman's like horror flick. The sets are decent, the acting is good, and the script moves along briskly and makes sense (within the context of manmade monsters and full brain-transplant operations). However, the film lacks the style and atmosphere of the previous three films in the series. Gone are the sets with the disturbing angles and sharp shadows. We've also got more subdued, more realistic acting on the part of the cast--and this is a great shame as far as Lugosi's Ygor character goes. Virtually all the humor and quirkiness that made this such a great character in "Son of Frankenstein" is gone, although there is still plenty of menace here.

Speaking of menace, a strong point of this film is that the Monster is actually put to good use story-wise, and the demand he places on Frankenstein is truly monstrous. It's not the character we saw in either "Frankenstein" or "Bride of Frankenstein", but it is an evolution that makes sense; it's as if the Monster wants a fresh start, but that the evil influence of Ygor has leeched away even the slight decency he showed in "Bride."

This may not be the high point of classic horror, but it's a fun flick and one you'll be glad you saw.

House of Frankenstein (1944)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr, J. Carroll Naish, John Carradine and George Zucco
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After escaping from prison, mad scientist Gustav Niemann (Karloff) sets out to gain revenge on those who helped imprison him, and to find the notes of the legendary Dr. Frankenstein so he can perfect his research. Along the way, he accidentially awakens Dracula (Carradine) and recruits him to his cause, as well as uncovers the frozen bodies of Frankenstein's Monster and Larry Talbot, the unfortunate wolfman (Chaney) and and revives them. Cue the torch-wielding peasant mob.

"House of Frankenstein" is one of three movies released in the 1940s that featured the latest addition to Universal's monster pantheon, the Wolf Man, teaming up with/battling the studio's two monster greats, Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster. As such, it is a sequel not only to "Ghost of Frankenstein," but also to "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man."

So, if you're confused about how the Monster from the fiery pit at the end of "Ghost of Frankenstein" to the ice floe here, you didn't skip a movie--events transpired that aren't found in this set. (I'll have more to say about the editorial choices made by Universal in compling the packages that make up the Legacy Collection when I post about "The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection," but the bottom line is that I think "House of Frankenstein" should not have been included in this set as it's more of a Wolf Man movie than part of the Frankenstein's Monster series.)

"House of Frankenstein" unfolds in a very episodic way, with the part of the film involving Dracula feeling very disconnected from what comes before and what comes after. The main storyline sees Karloff's mad doctor questing for revenge while preparing to prove himself a better master of brain-transplanting techniques than Frankenstein, and the growing threat to his cause by his repeated snubbing of his murderous assistant (Naish). The whole bit with Dracula could easily be left out, and the film may have been stronger for it.

This is a very silly movie that is basically a parade of gothic horror cliches--I thought maybe I was having some sort of hallucinatory flashback to my days writing for the "Ravenloft" line--but it moves at a quick pace, and it features a great collection of actors, has a nifty musical score, and features great sets once the story moves to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein.

"House of Dracula" is one of the lesser Universal Monster movies--it's not rock-bottom like the mummy films with Lon Chaney, but it's almost there. The film is, to a large degree, elevated by the top-notch performers and it's almost too good for what they give it. (But it is interesting in a breaking-the-third-wall sort of way to see the actor who started the series as Frankentein's Monster come back to it in the role of a mad scientist.)

If you would like to add these films to your own collection, they are avaiable on DVD for reasonable prices at The best value is, naturally, the "Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection." Click on the cover images below for details.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Mummy Legacy Collection

Universal's 1932 "The Mummy" remains one of the best mummy movies ever made. If you're a film buff and haven't seen it--even if you're not a particuarly big fan of horror--you have a great experience in store.

The "sequels" from the 1940s go from mediocre to downright awful, but even they have a certain charm. I put "sequels" in qoutes, because they are a series of films that have nothing to do with the original mummy movie, plotwise or tone-wise. However, these four cheesy follow-ons had a lot more to do with shaping the popular image of mummies in horror movies than the original film ever did.

All five of Universal Pictures' original mummy movies can be had in the handsome and very well put-together "The Mummy: The Legacy Collection," part of a series of six archive-quality DVD collections Universal issued a few years back. In addition to featuring a very informative commentary track from film historian Paul M. Jensen on the "Mummy," the set includes an equally informative documentary on the making of the film. (The four sequels are treated as "bonus features" and are on a double-sided disc along with previews for the films, while "The Mummy" gets the deluxe treatment it deserves.)

The original "The Mummy" is a film you're going to watch over and over again; I pull it out at least once a year. At the bottom of this post, following my reviews of the films, there are links to several of the different editions it's been issued in, but the best value remains "The Legacy Collection."

The Mummy (1932)

Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners and Edward Van Sloan
Director: Karl Freund
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

After an archeologist accidentally restores him to life, a cursed ancient Egyptian high priest Imhotep (Karloff) sets about likewise reviving Princess Anckesen-Amon for whom he gave up everything so they can resume their forbidden love. Unfortunately, she has been reincarnated, and her spirit is currently residing within Helen Grosvenor (Johann), the daughter of a British diplomat. Imhotep hasn't let the natural order of things stop him in the past, and he's not about to let it get in his way now.

"The Mummy" is perhaps the best, most intelligent mummy movie ever made. It's more of a gothic romance story set in Egyptian surroundings than a monster movie, with Imphotep trying to recapture a love that he lost 3,700 years ago.

The actors in this film are all perfectly cast, and they are all at the top of their game.

Karloff is spectacular, conveying evil, alieness, majesty, and even a little bit of tragedy in his character with a minimum of physical movement. (Unlike most mummy movies, Imhotep isn't a bandage-wrapped, shambling creature, but instead appears like a normal human being; he is still dried-out and somewhat fragile physically, though, and Karloff does a fantastic job at conveying this.)

Johann likewise gives a spectacular performance, particularly toward the end of the movie as Imhotep is preparing to make her his eternal bride, and she has regained much of her memories from when she Anckesen-Amon. Johann is also just great to look at.

The two remaining stars, Manners and Van Sloan, are better here than anything else I've seen them in. Manners in particular gives a fine performance, rising well above the usual milquetoast, Generic Handsome Hero he usually seems to be. (Even in "Dracula" he comes across as dull. Not so here.)

The cinematography is excellent and the lighting is masterfully done in each scene. Karloff's character is twice as spooky in several scenes due to some almost subliminal effects caused by lighting changes from a medium shot of Manners to a close-up of Karloff... and the scene where Imhotep is going to forcibly turn Helen Grosvener into an undead like himself is made even more dramatic by the shadows playing on the wall behind the two characters.

There are some parts of the film that are muddled, partly due to scenes that were cut from the final release verson, or never filmed. Worst of these is when Imhotep is interrupted during his first attempt at reviving Anckesen-Amon, and he kills a security guard with magic during his escape. However, he leaves behind the spell scroll that he needs for the ritual. Why did he do that? It's a jarring, nonsensical part of the movie that seems to serve no purpose other than to bring Imhotep into direct confrontation with the heroes. (The commentary track sheds light on what the INTENTION was with that devolpment, but it just seems sloppy and badly conceived when watching the movie. And I'm knocking a full Star off because it is such a badly executed story element.)

While "The Mummy" may be a bit slow-moving for people who are used to Brandon Fraser dodging monsters, it is a film that every cinema buff should see.

The Mummy's Hand (1940)
Starring: Dick Foran, Wallace Ford, Peggy Moran, George Zucco, and Tim Tyler
Director: Christy Cabanne
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A pair of hard-luck Egyptologists (Foran and Ford) discover the location of the long lost tomb of Princess Ananka. Unfortunately for them, an evil cult leader (Zucco) controls the immortal, tomb-guarding, tanna leaf-tea slurping mummy Kharis, and he's hot afraid to use him to keep the secret of the tomb.

More of an adventure flick with a heavy dose of lowbrow comedy than a horror film, "The Mummy's Hand" isn't even a proper sequel to the classy 1932 "The Mummy."

This movie (and the three sequels that follow) are completely unrelated to the original film, despite the copious use of stock footage from it. The most obvious differences are that the mummy here is named Kharis, as opposed to Imhotep, and has a different backstory. Then, there's the fact he's a mindless creature who goes around strangling people at the bidding of a pagan priest where Imhotep was very much his own man and did his killing with dark magics without ever laying a hand on his victims.

If one recognizes that this film shares nothing in common with the Boris Karloff film (except that they were both released by the same studio), "The Mummy's Hand" is a rather nice bit of fluff. It's also the first film to feature the real Universal Studios mummy, as Imhotep was an intelligent, scheming, and more-or-less natural looking man, not a mute, mind-addled, bandaged-wrapped, cripple like Kharis.

The Mummy's Tomb (1942)
Starring: Wallace Ford, Turhan Bey, John Hubbard, George Zucco, Dick Foran, Isobel Evans and Lon Chaney Jr.
Director: Harold Young
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Thirty years after the events of "The Mummy's Hand, the High Priest of Karnak from the last film (Zucco), who, despite being shot four times and pointblank range and tumbling down a very long flight of stairs, survived to be an old man. He passes the mantle onto a younger man (Bey) and dispatches him to America with Kharis the Mummy (Chaney), who survived getting burned to a crisp at the end of the last movie, to slay those who dared loot the tomb of Princess Anankha. (Better late than never, eh?)

Take the plot of "The Mummy's Hand" (complete with a villain who has the exact same foibles as the one from the first movie), remove any sense of humor and adventure, toss in about ten minutes of recap to pad it up to about 70 minutes in length, add a climax complete with torch-weilding villagers and a mummy who is just too damn dumb to continue his undead existence, and you've got "The Mummy's Tomb."

Made with no concern for consistency (Ford's character changes names from Jenson to Hanson, the fashions worn in "The Mummy's Hand" implid it took place in the late 30s, or even in the year it was filmed, and yet "thirty years later" is clearly during World War II... and let's not even talk about how the mummy and Zucco's character survived) or orginality (why write a whole new script when we can just have the bad guys do the exact same things they did last movie?), this film made with less care than the majority of B-movies.

Turhan Bey and Wallace Ford have a couple of good moments in this film, but they are surrounded by canned hash and complete junk.

The Mummy's Ghost (1944)
Starring: John Carradine, Ramsey Ames, Robert Lowery, George Zucco, and Lon Chaney Jr
Director: Reginald Le Borg
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Modern day priests of ancient Egyptian gods (Zucco and Carradine) undertake a mission to retrieve the cursed mummy of Princess Ananka from the American museum where she's been kept for the past 30 years. Unfortunately, they discover that the archeologists who stole her away from Egypt broke the spell that kept her soul trapped in the mummy and that she has been reincarnated in America as the beautiful Amina (Ames).

"The Mummy's Ghost" starts out strong. In fact, it starts so strong that, despite the fact that the priests who must be laughing stock of evil cult set were back with pretty much the exact same scheme for the third time (go to America and send Kharis the Mummy stumbling around to do stuff, that it looked like the filmmakers may have found their way back to the qualities that made "The Mummy" such a cool picture.

Despite a really obnoxious love interest for Amina (played with nails-on-a-chalkboard-level of obnoxiousness by Robert Lowery) and a complete ressurection of Kharis (boiling tannith leaves now apparently reconstitutes AND summons a mummy that was burned to ashes in a house-fire during "The Mummy's Tomb"), and a number of glaring continuity errors with the preceeding films (the cult devoted to Ananka and Kharis has changed their name... perhaps because they HAD become the laughing stock among the other evil cults), the film is actually pretty good for about half its running time. The plight of and growing threat toward Amina lays a great foundation.

And then it takes a sharp nosedive into crappiness where it keeps burrowing downward in search of the bottom.

The cool idea that the film started with (Ananka's cursed soul has escaped into the body of a living person... and that person must now be destroyed to maintain the curse of the gods) withers away with yet another replay of the evil priest deciding he wants to do the horizontal mambo for all enternity with the lovely female lead. The idea is further demolished by a nonsensical ending where the curses of Egypt's ancient gods lash out in the modern world, at a very badly chosen target. I can't go into details without spoiling that ending, but it left such a bad taste in my mouth, and it's such a complete destruction of the cool set-up that started the film, that the final minute costs "The Mummy's Ghost" a full Star all by itself.

The Mummy's Curse (1944)
Starring: Peter Coe, Lon Chaney Jr, Kay Harding, Dennis Moore, Virginia Christine and Kurt Katch
Director: Leslie Goodwins
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A contruction project in Louisiana's bayou uncovers not only the mummy Kharis (Chaney), but also the cursed princess Ananka (Christine). Pagan priests from Egypt arrive to take control of both. Mummy-induced violence and mayhem in Cajun Country follow.

What happens when you make a direct sequel where no one involved cares one whit about keeping continuity with previous films? You get "The Mummy's Curse"!

For the previous entries in this series, Kharis was shambling around a New England college town, yet he's dug up in Lousiana. (He DID sink into a swamp at the end of "The Mummy's Ghost", but that swamp was hundreds of miles north of where he's found in this film.)

He also supposedly has been in the swamp for 25 years. For those keeping score, that would make this a futuristic sci-fi film with a setting of 1967, because the two previous films took place in 1942. (And that's being generous. I'm assuming "The Mummy's Hand" took place in 1912, despite the fact that all clothing and other signifiers imply late 30s early 40s.) Yet, there's nothing in the film to indicate that the filmmakers intended to make a sci-fi movie.

And then there's Ananka. Why is she back, given her fate in "The Mummy's Ghost"? There's absolutely no logical reason for it. Her ressurection scene is very creepy, as is the whole "solar battery" aspect of the character here, but it is completely inconsistant with anything that's gone before. And she's being played by a different actress--but I suppose 25 years buried in a swamp will change anyone.

There's little doubt that if anyone even bothered to glance at previous films for the series, no one cared.

Some things the film does right: It doesn't have the Egyptian priests replay exactly the same stuff they've done in previous films for the fourth time (although they are still utter idiots about how they execute their mission), it manages for the first time to actually bring some real horror to the table--Kharis manages to be scary in this film, and I've already mentioned Ananka's creep-factor--and they bring back the "mummy shuffling" music from "The Mummy's Ghost" which is actually a pretty good little theme. But the utter disregard for everything that's happened in other installments of the series overwhelm and cancel out the good parts.

"The Mummy's Curse" should not have been slapped into the "Kharis" series. If it had been made as a stand-alone horror film, it could have been a Six-Star movie. As it is, this just comes across as a shoddy bit of movie making where I can only assume that anything decent is more by accident than design.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Dracula: The Legacy Collection

I've long held the opinion that the original Universal Studio's "Dracula" film, one of the very important first building blocks of the cinematic horror genre is overrated.

Watching it in close promixity to the sequels from the 1930s and 1940s and, more importantly, to the Spanish-language "Dracula" that was filmed simulaniously to the English-language version and on the same sets but with a different cast and crew, I am more convinced than ever.

Without "Dracula," the horror film industry as we know it would never have come to be. However, the movie is inferior to "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein" and even the independently produced, Bela Lugosi-starring, low budget chiller "White Zombie" are far better movies. It's not even as good as the Spanish-language "Dracula."

Both of Universal's 1931 versions of "Dracula" and immediate sequels are available in a very affordable, very well put together package that includes not only five horror movie classics, but all sorts of extras that are actually worthwhile. (My only complaint is that they included "House of Dracula" in this set instead of saving it for the Wolf Man Legacy Collection... but more on that when I post my reviews of the movies included in that set.)

Dracula (1931)

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, David Manners, and Charles K. Gerrard
Director: Tod Browning
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Count Dracula (Lugosi) travels to England where he sates his bloodlust on young women, including the lovely Mina (Chandler).

Universal's 1931 "Dracula" was the first horror talkie and is one of the three most influential horror films ever made. It's a film that's truly a significant milestone not only in film history, but in pop culture as well, and, even though its age is showing, it's a genuiine classic.

Mina (Helen Chandler) as she is about to receive the kiss of undeath from Dracula (Bela Lugosi)
I don't think anything quite as subtly creepy and startling as Dracula passing through a mass of cobwebs without breaking them has ever been put on film. It's a perfect film moment, because the feeling of "waitaminnit... did that just happen?" that Renfield (Frye) has is shared by the audience, and we're sitting there with a chill that goes right down to our very bones.

Because this film is such a classic milestone, I feel a bit awkward about not liking it more than I do. Like "Frankenstein" (also made by Universal in 1931), this movie has nearly as many flaws as it has elements of perfection.

The biggest problem with "Dracula" is the haphazard way the film unfolds, particuarly in its second half. The vampiric Lucy and her preying on little children is dealt with a throw-away fashion, and the climactic encounter at Carfax Abby, which is so weakly and disjointedly handled that it is barely a climax at all. (It's particuarly dissapointing that Dracula's death happens entirely off-screen, except for a very effective reaction from the psychically bonded Mina.)

In fact, in many ways, it's almost as if someone forgot the movie needed a script, and it was made up as the crew went along. The film is worth seeing for spectacular performances from Bela Lugosi (it's easy to see why he solidified vampires as suave, sharp-dresserrs as opposed to fugly scarecrows like the one featured in "Nosferatu"), Dwight Frye (who, as Renfield, is as much a star of the film as Lugosi, and who does some great acting when he vascilates from raving madman to apparently sane and back again), and Helen Chandler (who, as Mina, conveys more with her eyes, body language, and facial expressions than one would thinks possible, and who has the only decent moment during the film's climax as she shares in Dracula's pain as Van Helsin stakes him). The film's impressive sets and creative camera work also bring about some genuinely creepy moments, such as when Dracula and his vampire brides emerge from their coffins under his Transylvanian castle, and then when they later close on an unconcious Renfield; the discovery of Renfield in the hold of the death ship after it runs aground; Dracula's feeding upon the flower girl in London; Renfield crawling across the floor toward an unconcious maid with a look of madness and bloodlust on his face; Mina's transformation as she urges John Harker to get rid of Van Helsing and his cruxifixes; and Dracula and Mina's arrival at Carfax Abby.

But, for every great moment or spectacular performance, there's a boring one, or one where opportunities that should have been obvious to filmmakes even in 1931 are completely missed. Edward Van Sloan (as Van Helsing) and David Manners (as a particularly milquetoasty Harker) are completely dead spots in the film, giving weak performances that almost manage to drag down those excellent ones from Chandler, Frye, and Lugosi. (In fact, Van Sloan and Manners are so weak here that it's surprising to me that they;'re the same actors who do so well in "The Mummy" just one years later. (Perhaps the better script and a different director made all the difference for them.)

By the way, the new score that Phillip Glass composed for the restored version of the film included in the "Dracula Legacy Collection" (and which can be toggled on and off) is actually a fine reflection of the movie itself: Glass has some good moments and some supremely weak moments in his score. For the most part, it is just muazak that doesn't seem to have a whole lot to do with enhancing the mood on the scrreen, but every so often, it is spot-on and it makes the film that much more impressive. (Glass's music ALMOST gives the film's climax some impact, for example.)

Although far from perfect, the 1931 "Dracula" is a must-see for anyone with an interest in examining the origins of horror as a seperate and unique genre. While I'll take "White Zombie" or "The Mummy" over this film any day, I think the 75 minutes it takes to watch this film, is time well spent.

Dracula (1931 Spanish version)
Starring: Carlos Villar, Pablo Alvarez Rubio, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton, Eduardo Arozamana and Carmen Guerrero
Director: George Melford
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Count Dracula (Villar) travels to London--where everyone suddenly has taken to speaking Spanish and being Catholic--and sets his undead sights on the sexy Lucia (Guerrero) and the beautfiul, virginal Eva (Tovar). Will occult expert Dr. Van Helsing (Arozamana) and Eva's fiance Juan (Norton) save her from the fiend's embrace of death?

Lupita Tovar and Carlos Villar star in
The 1931 Spanish-language version of "Dracula" was shot simulateously with the more famous Tod Browning version, using the same sets at Universal Studios but its actors and crew shot at night after production wrapped for the day on the other film.

Although treated as a secondary venture by Universal at the time, this film is actually superior to Browning's "Dracula" in many ways. Although it is about half an hour longer, the film seems to move faster due to superior story cohesion, better staging of many scenes, some of the best cinematography I've seen in any of the early talkies, and better acting on the part of many of the principles. For example, the famous scene where Van Helsing suprises Dracula with a mirror while the Count is visiting the Seward house is clearer and far more dramatic due to better placement of the camera and more efficient blocking of the scene in general; and the scene with the near-sexual assault that the Dracula-corrupted and suddenly very horny Eva (Mina renamed for the Spanish version, played with great effectiveness by Lupita Tovar) on Juan (the renamed Jonathan Harker, played by Barry Norton) is both far sexier and far scarier than the one featured in Browning's version.

Not everything here is better than in the Browning version, however. My favorite scene--where Dracula passes through a spiderweb without breaking it--is completely in this version, and the actor they have playing Dracula is more funny than scary or mysterious. Carlos Villar was apparently a big star in his day, but the reason for that is not evident in this film. He has one acting mode--over-acting--and he has two facial expressions, and they both look like he just smelled something that makes the stench from a baby's dirty diaper seem like a sweet-smelling rose. In fact, Villar's performance seems almost like he belongs in a spoof of "Dracula" instead of a serious movie, and he is so bad that if the Dracula character had gotten any more screen time, his presence would have destroyed the movie.

The Spanish-language "Dracula" is a film that anyone who loves the old Universal horror pictures should check out. While it suffers because of Carlos Villar's unintentionally comic performance, this is an excellent film, one deserving to be recognized and honored as a classic cinematic work.

Dracula's Daughter (1936)
Starring: Gloria Holden Otto Kruger, Edward Van Sloan, Marguerite Churchill, Irving Pichel, and Nan Grey
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Steve's Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Dracula may be dead, but his vampire brides live on. While Van Helsing (Van Sloan) languishes in jail for murder, Countess Zaleska (Holden) steals Dracula's body from the police, blesses and cremates it in the hope that she will finally be free of her vampire curse. But, she finds she stll cannot resist the lure of human blood, so she seeks the help of a noted psychiatrist (Kruger) to assist her in finding a way to a peaceful life.

"Dracula's Daughter" is a far better movie than the film it is a sequel to. It has a coherent, engaging story (even if the ultimate climax has a of a rushed feel to it), its got an active and engaging hero (Dr. Garth, a psychiatrist who doesn't believe in vampires, even after one seeks his help), and a villain who wants desperately to be the story's protaganist, Countess Zaleska. What's more, the film has a steady tone and look to it--all classic Universal Horror--unlike :"Dracula", which vasilated between creepy, atmospheric scenes and boring, stale drawing-room scenes. (Of course, one can't be too hard on "Dracula", because it was treading new ground and was made on a sparse budget. By the time 1936 rolled around, and this film was released, not only was the horror genre well-established, but Universal was doing very, very well.)

Now, there are some plot holes that a swarm of bats could fly through if one considers it in the light of the original "Dracula"--like where are John Harker and Mina Seward, both of whom could help clear Van Helsing of the murder charge, just to mention the biggest one--and a couple of developments that feel just a little too convienient... but these are flaws that can be forgiven when one considers what a rare sequen this is. Not only is it better than its predecessor, but it has an identity all its own; it doesn't bring Dracula back so it can retreat the same basic plot all over again, but instead follows a new and unique path.

My favorite thing about the movie is the character of Countess Valeska. It's a character that oozes mystery from her first appearance through to the very end--she's the ultimate femme fatale in every way. She's also a character that, despite being a blood-drinking fiend, she's a character the audience gains sympathy for early on. Unlike the Dracula character, Valeska doesn't want to be evil, doesn't want to be a spreader of death and misery... she wants to live and let live. But, she can't shake the taint of Dracula, and she can't resist the call of vampirism. (It doesn't help any that she's got an evil bastard for a manservant, Sandor. One has to wonder how Valeska might have fared if she's just gone ahead and sucked him dry in celebration of Dracula's demise. Further, while the "recultant vampire" has been done over and over in movies and TV shows, Valeska, despite being the first, remains among the most enjoyable... because while she may lament her fate, she doesn't whine.

In fact, as I'm thinking about it, Countess Valeska is probably one of the best-presented, tragically romantic vampires in any movie I've seen, tying Jack Palance's portrayal in the 1973 Dan Curtis-directed "Dracula" adaptation starring Jack Palance. In both films, the audience can't help but root for the "bad guy" and can't help but feel sorry when their inevitable demise comes about.

One thing that I've often seen made reference to in reviews of "Dracula's Daughter" is lesbianism. I've seen it commented upon as "subtext" and I've seen it stated that it's there, blatant and wide-open. And I simply don't see it; it looks like it's a case of critics reading too much into the film as it unfolds. The scene they tend to point to is the one involving Valeska and a young woman Sandor picks up for her. Maybe I'm just too innocent (or my mind just isn't deep enough in the gutter), but I see nothing sexual about that scene... or any other scene in this film for that matter.

"Dracula's Daughter" is a film that, like "Dracula" is a landmark of cinematic history. It may not be the most famous of films, but it can be found in the DNA of many vampire movies that have been made since. It's worth seeing by anyone who is a serious student of the development of the horror genre, as well as those out there who enjoys classic cinema.

Son of Dracula (1943)
Starring: Robert Paige, Frank Craven, Louise Allbritton, Lon Chaney, Jr., Evelyn Ankers, and J. Edward Bromberg
Director: Robert Siodmak
Steve's Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Eccentric sothern belle Katherine Caldwell (Allbritton) apparently falls under the sway of a mysterious Transylvanian nobleman, Alucard (Chaney), while traveling in Europe. When he arrives in the United States, strange deaths start happening, and isolates himself and Katherine in her manorhouse on Darkwood Plantation. But after she is accidentially shot to death by her fiance (Paige), the true horror of what Katherine's plans start to emerge.

"Son of Dracula" is a surprisingly effective and mature horror film. I had very low hopes for it when Dracula shows up in Louisiana with the clever aka of "Alucard"--gosh, no one's going to figure that one out!

But fortunately, that's the one bit of childish idiocy in this exceptionally creepy movie.

From Dracula's takeover of Darkwood, to the first time we see Dracula emerge from his swampbound coffin, to Frank going insane from gunning down Katherine... and to the twists and turns the film takes as it moves through its second and third acts. (To reveal that Katherine dies at the hand of Frank is NOT a spoiler for this film. Her death is where the story starts to truly unfold.)

Every scene in this film drips with atmosphere. Despite dating from the mid-1940s where Universal horror films seemed to be targeted primarily at kids, this is a movie with a story that compares nicely to "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein". It may even be a little superior to those two, as far as the story goes, because it's got some twists that I guarentee you will not see coming.

The film is also blessed with a score that is surprisingly effective for a Universal horror picture--I tend to find them overblown for the most part, but here the music perfectly compliments what unfolds on the screen--and with a cast that is mostly superb in their roles.

I say mostly, because Lon Chaney Jr. is does not make a good Dracula at all. He comes across like a dockworker who's borrowed someone's tuxedo for the evening (or who maybe took it off the owner after beating him into unconsciousness). There simply is nothing menacing about Chaney's Dracula... he's brutish and, as the film builds to its climax, desperate, but never menacing or frightening. He is quite possibly the worst Dracula I've ever come across.

Aside from a weak "Dracula", everything else in this film is top-notch, resulting in a horror movie that's surprisingly effective and high quality when compared to the rest of Universal's horror output of the time. In fact, it's a movie that may even have been ahead of its time, as the pacing, style, and overall look of the film reminded me more of the British horror movies that would emerge from Hammer Films starting a little more than a decade after "Son of Dracula" was first released.

In fact, whether you prefer the Hammer Dracula films (as I do) or the Universal ones, this is a film that will appeal to you.

House of Dracula (aka "The Wolf Man's Cure")
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Onslow Stevens, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill, Martha O'Driscoll, Jane Adams, and Glenn Strange
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Unwilling, immortal werewolf Larry Talbot (Chaney) seeks out Dr. Edelman (Stevens), hoping the doctor's cutting edge therapies will cure his affliction. Unfortunately, the doctor's other patient, Count Dracula (Carradine), endangers this hope when he out of pure malice afflicts Edelman with a condition that causes him to become a violent madman at night. It is during one of these fits that Edelman revives Frankenstein's Monster (Strange), which has been dormant in his lab since it was recovered from mud-floes under Edelman's castle.

"House of Dracula" was the third sequel to "The Wolf Man" and "Dracula" and the fifth sequel to "Frankenstein"... and it was the next-to-last stop for all three of the characters as Universal's decade-and-half long horror ride came to an end. nearly the last stop for Universal's original monsters, and it is something of a high note when compared to other Universal horror films from around the same time, even the one to which this is a sequel, "House of Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff.

The script in "House of Dracula" is stronger and more coherent than "House of Frankenstein". The effort at maintaining continuity with other films featuring the character of the Wolf Man are in evidence here, and they are greatly appreciated by this continuity geek. Also, all the various monster characters each get their moment to shine--unlike in "House of Frankenstein" where Dracula was completely superflous to the storyline and whose presense was little more than a marquee-grabbing cameo.

In this film, Dracula is the well-spring of evil from which the plot flows. Although he supposedly comes to Dr. Edelman seeking release from vampirism and his eternal life, he is either too evil or too stupid to control his desires for Edelman's beautfiful nurse (O'Driscoll). He gets his just desserts, but not before he guarentees that every brave and goodhearted character in the film is set on a path of destruction.

The climactic scenes of this film, as the insane Dr. Edelman and Frankenstein's Monster go on homicidal rampages, feature some very, sudden, casual, and matter-of-fact brutality. (I can't go into details without spoiling the plot, but two main characters are dispatched with such swift and surprisingly brutal fashion that modern-day horror filmmakers should take a look at the final minutes of "House of Dracula" and attempt to learn some lessons from them.)

And then there's Larry Talbot. The role of the wolf man in this story is the meatiest since the character's debut in "The Wolf Man". Although he still doesn't get to have the stage to himself, and he is once again a secondary character--the main character of "House of Dracula" is the unfortunate Dr. Edelman--he has some great moments... like his suicide attempt and his discovery of the dormant Frankenstein's Monster.

Acting-wise, this is also one of the better than many other Universal horror films of the period. This is partly due to a superior script that features a story that actually flows with some degree of logic and where the actors have some fairly decent lines to deliever.

Lon Chaney Jr. does his usual excellent job as Larry Talbot, but Onslow also shines as a scientific genius who's a little less mad than the standard in a movie like this (well, at least until Dracula is done with him).

John Carradine performs decently, but I simply can't buy him as Dracula. Even in his younger years, he had the look of a burned-out, alcoholic bum, and the lighting and make-up in this feature strengthen that look as far as I'm concerned. While miscast, he does a decent job.

Lionel Atwill is also on hand for another fine supporting role. The part is similar to the one he played in "Son of Frankenstein", but the role is even more interesting, as he's the voice of reason in a town that is otherwise inhabited by villagers whose favorite pastime seems to be grabbing torches and storming the castle.

When all things are taken into account, this is the best "serious" Universal "Monster Mash" movies. It's second only in quality to "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" and I think it's a film that is worth seeing by modern horror fans... particularly if they also have asperations of being filmmakers.

Titles by Poe, Everything Else by Universal

Bela Lugosi appeared in a trio of very loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for Universal in the wake of his success in "Dracula". They're interesting films, but I wouldn't recommend them as shortcuts when writing that report for English class.

(For that, you click here to visit the Poe section of my Fiction Archive. There you'll find the story that "Muders in the Rue Morgue" is supposedly based on, along with many other of my favorite works by Poe.)

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Leon Ames and Sidney Fox
Director: Robert Florey
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Pierre Dupin (Ames) and his gorgeous girlfriend, Camille (Fox), visit a traveling carnival, they attract the attention of the insane Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi). Mirakle is attempting to prove that man evolved from apes by injecting beautiful women with blood drawn from his strange pet ape, Erik. Will Pierre manage to protect the love of his life from Erik, Mirakle, and Mirakle's menacing unibrow?!

"Murders in Rue Morgue" is a VERY loose adaptation of the Poe mystery tale that is goofy from beginning to end. Although well-filmed, the way the film uses close-ups of a cimpanzee to supposedly represent Erik, who in long and medium shots is a guy in a gorilla suit, is giggle-inspiring, and the silent-movie-esque acting and make-up used thoughout the movie is also excessively stylized for the modern viewer. (I found myself wondering at times if this film started out as a silent movie, and was then converted to a "talkie" ala what Hitchcock did with "Murder.")

On the upside, however, there are a several chilling moments in this brief horror film, foremost among them being when the audience is first exposed to the nature of Mirakle's "experiments"; and when Mirakle and Erik later invade the home of Camille and her mother.

One of the most worthwhile reasons to watch "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is that this movie is a great example of Lugosi's acting talent. During the 40s, it seemed almost as if he fell into a rut, and every character he portrayed seemed to be flat and identical to every other... but here, he displays a range of emotions and can convey a wide range of emotions with just facial expressions and gestures. He even manages to be supremely menacing, despite a rather amuing hairdo and the unibrow that he sports.

I'm not sure this film is all that suitable for most modern viewers, but I think that if you've liked Lugosi in other movies, you owe it to yourself (and to his memory) to view him in this short film. I think you'll be amazed at the range he displayed early in his film career.

The Black Cat (aka "The House of Doom" and "The Vanishing Body") (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Boris Karloff, and Jacqueline Wells
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Honeymooners Peter and Joan Allison (Manners and Wells) are stranded in an isolated house in a Hungarian backwater. Here, they become drawn into the evil Satanist Hjaldmar Poelzig (Karloff) and the revenge-plans of his one-time friend Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). As the story unfolds, the depth of Poelzig's evil and perversion is revealed in its fullest, and it seems there will be no escape for anyone.

"The Black Cat" is a stylish, incredibly creepy B-movie. It takes place almost entirely within a house built upon the site of a ruined WWI fortress, with the lower levels being the decaying remains of the original structure and the upper floors consisting of a sleek, ultra-modern home. Both sections of the structure lend to the tone of dread that permeates the entire film--with the well-lit, clean rooms of the upper levels of Poelzig's home being even creepier than that the shadow-haunted lower levels thanks to some fine camera work--although the revelation of Poelzig's "exhibit" of beautiful women below has got to be the most terrifying moment of the film. (In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a more evil and perverted character present anywhere in these classic horror films than Poelzig: Satanism, treachery, mass-murder, pedophelia... you name it, Poelzig's done it/is into it. (Karloff doesn't have a lot to do acting-wise, other than to just be sinister... but, boy, does he do that in spades here!)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is Lugosi. First, those who watch "The Black Cat" will get to see that he was, in fact, a great actor at one time. The pain Dr. Werdegast feels when he is told his wife and daughter died while he languished in a Russian prison is conveyed with incredible strength, as is the mixture of pain and rage when he later learns the truth about their fates, as he and the Allisons manage to seize the initiative from Poelzig and his cultists. Second, it's interesting to see Lugosi playing a hero for once, even if a deeply flawed hero.

On a quirky note, I often complain that horror movies from 30s through the 60s and early 70s often just end: The story resolves and the credits roll without providing the audience with the nicety of a denoument. "The Black Cat" DOES provide what I wish more films would, yet here I almost wish that last minute or so hadn't been included. This is a film that probably should have ended while still in darkness.

While "The Black Cat" has absolutely nothing to do with the Poe tale that "suggested" it--it's got more in common with "The Fall of the House of Usher", I'd say--I think it represents a high point of the horror films that Universal was making in the 30s. I don't see it mentioned often, and I think it's a shame. It's a film that's worth seeing.

The Raven (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Irene Ware
Director: Lew Landers
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After saving young dancer Jean Thatcher (Ware) from certain death through a miraculous feat of neurosurgery, the mentally unstable Dr. Vollin (Lugosi) becomes obsessed with her. When her powerful father makes it clear that Vollin is to stay away from her, Vollin forces a wanted murderer (Karloff) into assisting him in eliminating Jean, her fiance, and her father in hideous death-traps modeled after gruesome scenes from the writing of Edgar Allan Poe.

"The Raven" isn't really an adaptation of the Poe work by that name, but is instead the tale of a thoroughly evil and utterly insane man so rich and so obssessed that he's built a house full of secret doors, secret basements, and entire rooms that serve as elevators... all so he can reinact scenes from Poe's writings.

There is plenty of potential in this B-movie, but tepid direction and mostly uninspired lighting and set design leave most of it unrealized. Lugosi is completely over the top in this film, taking center stage as the perfect image of a raving madman. He is ably supported by co-star Karloff who plays the role of the tortured, remorse-filled murderer trapped into serving Vollin with the promise of a new life in the exact opposite direction of Lugosi--remaining subdued as he slinks through each scene he's in. Ware is very attractive in the scenes she's in, but that's about all she is. In fact, the only actors in the film who aren't just so much set decoration are Lugosi and Karloff.

The "torture room" is nifty, and the climax where Dr. Vollin has houseguests trapped in a Poe-world of his making is excellent. All in all, an entertaining film, but it would have been much better with a more inspired supporting cast and more creativity on the technical side of the camera.

Style by Hammer, Distribution by Universal...

A handful of films made by British production company Hammer Films were distributed by Universal. These have been released on DVD as part of the Franchise Collection in the Hammer Horror Series 8-movie set. In this post, I discuss the films in the set that were directed by the very underappreciated Terence Fisher. (I'll cover the others later.)

Brides of Dracula (1960)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Monlaur, Martia Hunt and David Peel
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Dracula has been destroyed by Van Helsing, but his cult of vampiric corruption lives on. Van Helsign (Cushing) must save a young teacher (Monclaur) from the vile attenbtions of one of Dracula's deciples (Peel).

This is a curious "Dracula" movie, because while he is invoked in the title, Dracula is very much a pile of ash back in his castle, having been dispatched at the end of "Horror of Dracula."

And, despite the lack of an actual appearance by Dracula, this is one of my very favorite Hammer Dracula/vampire movies. It's even superior to “Horror of Dracula” in several ways, making it among the rarest of sequels.

First, the Baron’s castle from the first part of the movie features some spectacular sets; the sequence in the vampire's castle when the innocent Marianne comes to realize that she is trapped in a house of madness and evil, is quite possibly one ofthe most effectively creepy things in any Hammer movie, period.

Second, Cushing is at the top of his game here. His performance is full of zeal and it is the best he gave in any of the Hammer Films he was featured in. The mixture of horror and steely determination that he gives Dr. Van Helsing as he confronts the vampires and their twisted human servants is very well acted. He is also served well by a plot that allows the Van Helsing character to shine, fantastic sets, and excellent lighting and camera work that constantly reinforces the film’s gothic horror tone.

Finally, the climax is one of the most thrilling of any of Hammer’s vampire movies, and Baron Meinster’s doom provides the best death of any vampire in their productions.

All in all, “Brides of Dracula” may be the best film director Terence Fisher ever made. It is certainly the best of all Hammer’s Dracula movies. (And it’s quite possibly made stronger by the fact that Dracula is nowhere in it. I think Peel’s evil, bug-eyed Baron Meinster comes across as far more sinister and evil that Lee’s staid and distant Count Dracula ever did.)

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
Starring: Oliver Reed, Clifford Evans, Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller and Josephine Llewellyn
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

This film chronicles the background and tragic life of a werewolf (Reed) and the kindly adoptive father (Evans) who tries to save him.

The film is well-acted and beautifully shot (as is the case with almost every film that Fisher helmed), but it is deadly dull. It was a struggle to get through it, and I probably wouldn't have bothered finishing the movie if I hadn't intended to post comments here. There aren't even any werewolf transformation scenes to liven up the plodding procedings, as they all happen off-screen.

"The Curse of the Werewolf", despite its excellent cast and spectacular look, is not a film for you to waste your time on. Reportedly, it didn't do well for Hammer at its release, and I'm not surprised.

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
Starring: Edward DeSouza, Heather Sears, Herbert Lom, Thorley Walters and Michael Gough
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Harry (DeSouza), a young director and producer struggles to mount an opera for its wealthy (Gough), but as if dealing with the backer/creator's massive ego, and his savory designs upon the young, virginal diva (Sears) wasn't bad enough, the production is plagued with mysterious disasters. He soon begins to uncover dark secrets surrounding the production, but will he manage to placate the Phantom of the Opera (Lom) before it is too late?!

The Hammer version of "The Phantom of the Opera" is the fastest moving, most-visually interesting adaptation of the tale that I've seen. The watery lair of the Phantom is very cool, Heather Sears is a hotty and she also plays nicely off Lom., Michael Gough is the perfect upper-class slime and wanna-be musical genius who only acheives that status when he steals the life-work of another man. All in all, the cast here is great, and it's another Terrence Fisher-helmed movie that's absolutely gorgeous to behold.

The Invisble Man Legacy Collection

Over the past few years, Universal has been releasing some fantastic DVD collections, prime among these have been the "Legacy Collection" series. While I can quibble with some of the choices of what was included in a couple of the sets, there is no question that they have been dreams come true for fans of classic horror cinema.

One of these sets presented all five of the original "Invisible Man" movies from the 1930s and 1940s, some appearing here for the very first time on DVD.

The main attraction of the set is the original 1933 "Invisible Man" starring Claude Rains--which features an informative running commentary of historical facts about the film and its stars on the SAP track--but the "bonus features" are for the most part also films that any move buff will be delighted to see. (None of the four sequels from the 1940s rise to the level of greatness of the original film, but they also don't sink to the level of crapitude that the so-called sequels to "The Mummy" did.)

I review all five movies in the set in this post. You can get more information (as well as purchase information at by clicking on the cover images at the very bottom of the post.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Starring: Claude Rains, William Harrigan, Una O'Connor, Gloria Stuart, Forrester Harvey and Henry Travers
Director: James Whale
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Chemist Frank Griffin (Rains) developes a formula that turned him invisible. He goes on a homicidal rampage in rural Britain after it also drives him insane.

Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart in a scene from
"The Invisible Man" is another true classic from the formative years of the horror genre. It's quite possibly the first horror comedy and it's black humor holds up nicely even today--arrogant scientists, simple country bumpkins and incompetent cops never go out of style!

The film's special effects also hold up surprisingly well, with simple techniques employed here that were used over and over until CGI came fully into its own but rarely used as well as they were here. (Yes, there are a few places where one can see the matting, but the "invisible action" here is depicted better than it was in a film made 60 years later, "Invisible: The Chronicles of Benjamin Knight".)

And finally, the film has a literate, finely honed script with loads of tension that effectively translates the mood of H.G. Wells' original novel to the screen. The characters seem well-rounded and believeable, and this, even more than the special effects, make the movie such a pleasure to watch even now. The film even manages to capture the point about loss of identity resulting in loss of connection with the world around you and ultimatley insanity (even if the movie attributes Griffin's madness first and foremost to the chemical concoction he's created.)

Lovers of classy horror and sci-fi films owe it to themselves to check this one out. The same is true if you have an appreciation for dark comedies.

The Invisible Woman (1940)
Starring: Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charles Ruggles, Charles Lane, Donald McBride, Oskar Homolka and Shemp Howard
Director: A. Edward Sutherland
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A runway model (Bruce) volunteers to test an invisibility machine so she can get back at her abusive boss. Things get complicated when gangsters decide they want the machine for their own purposes.

Just because she's invisible, doesn't mean a girl can't show off her greatest assests in this scene from The Invisible Woman.
"The Invisible Woman" was touted as a sequal to "The Invisible Man", but it has nothing in common with that movie... other than the word "invisible" in the title.

This film is a light comedy with some screwball elements and slight romantic touches. Everything is played for laughs and the film is perhaps even funnier now because of some of the outdated social attitudes on display in the film. (At the time, the solution to dealing with the problem of having to pick up a passed out naked woman was the source of humor, but today it's the fact that both John Barrymore and John Howard's characters were too gentlemanly to touch her bare skin is the funny part.)

"The Invisible Woman" is a charming piece of fluff featuring a fast-paced script and a cast of fine comedic actors. It's the odd (wo)man out in Universal's "The Invisible Man Legacy Collection", but it still adds value to the set.

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Starring: Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke, Nan Grey, Cecil Kellaway, John Sutton and Alan Napier
Director: Joe May
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A wrongly convicted man (Price) uses an invisibility serum to escape execution and find the murderer who framed him. But, even with the help of his loving fiance (Grey) and his loyal best friend (Sutton), can he track the killer before he is driven mad by the subtance that renders him invisible?

John Sutton (left), Nan Grey and Vincent Price in a scene from The Invisible Man Returns
"The Return of the Invisible Man" is a well-conceived sequel. It's got significant ties to the original, retains some of the same basic themes, but presents a completely different and unique story. Too often, sequels either shoehorn connections to the film into the story in an artificial manner or have so little to do with the original that one wonders why a connection was even drawn (well, aside from naked greedy attempts to ride on the coat-tails of another film's success).

A well-scripted mystery is added to the invisible man shenanigans... and although it's a bit slow in getting started, it is a gripping tale once it gets going. The mystery isn't terribly hard to solve for those who like playing along--there really is only one suspect and the film never launches any serious attempt to divert the audience's attention from that villain. However, plenty of suspense arises from watching the invisible man start to lose his mind even as he indentifies his prey.

The great cast of the film is also to be credited with its success. Most noteworthy among the actors are Vicent Price lends his distinctive voice to the film's unseen protagonist, and Cecil Kellaway who appears in a rare dramatic role as the inscrutible Inspector Sampson of Scotland Yard.

The only complaint I have with the film are the invisiblity effects. Whether due to a lack of budget or creativity on the part of the director and special effects crew, there is nothing here as impressive as the cinematic tricks used to sell the presense of an invisible character on screen as was found in the original "Invisible Man" nor in the "Invisible Woman", a comedy dating from the same year yet featuring far more impressive effects. (Nothing in "The Invisible Man Returns" comes close to the bicycle stunt in "The Invisible Man" or the stockings scene in "The Invisible Woman".)

However, the solid story and excellent cast make up for the shortcomings in the special effects department.

Invisible Agent (1942)

Starring: Jon Hall, Cedric Hardwicke, Ilona Massey, Peter Lorre and J. Edward Bomberg
Director: Edwin L.Marin
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After he is threatened by Axis agents, Frank (Hall) decides to put the invisibility formula invented by his grandfather to use in the War Effort. He parachutes into Germany, teams up with a beautiful allied spy (Massey) and sets about destroying the organizers of a Fifth Column operation in the United States (Hardwicke and Lorre).

The sexy deep-cover agent for the Allies (Ilona Massey) looks on as the Invisible Agent makes himself visible
"Invisible Agent" is the second real sequel to "The Invisible Man". It's also an average WW2 propaganda film that shows the the Axis to be as foolish, evil and treacherous as can be imagined, while the Allies are brilliant and right-minded. Sort of.

While the Nazis are as nefarious as possible--decietful, backstabbing Hitler-worshipping sycophantic cowards every last one of them--our hero is also a bit hard to root for. Frank, as the invisible super-spy, is either dumb as a post or the invisibility forumula has a different effect on him than it had on those how used it in "The Invisible Man" and "The Invisible Man Returns". Instead of turning into the sort of megalomaniac who would try to get to Hitler and replace him as the leader of the Riech (which Griffin from the original film would almost certainly have done), Frank instead plays pranks on the Nazis at inopportune times--endangering both himself and deep-cover double-agent Massey--and falls into deep, coma-like sleeps at even worse times. Is it the invisibility formula at work, is Frank a moron, or is it just bad writing? Whatever the explanation, the Invisible Agent isn't much of a hero to root for... unless you're a 13 year old (who are probably the target audience for the film).

The target audience might also be the reason why it feels like a couple of punches were being pulled in this movie. While the Nazis are definately decadent scum in this movie, their evil doesn't even come close to approaching that displayed in indepdent productions from the time like "Hitler, Dead or Alive" or "Beast of Berlin", films that share many thematic and propaganda-content elements to this movie. Either, the fantastic elements of an invisible spy led Universal to choose to target it at a younger audience--and thus toned down some of the more unpleasant aspects of the Nazis--or maybe the very fact that Universal was a major film studio and corporation with international interests even in the 1940s and the two other films I mentioned were made by small operations limited the studio's desire to make a film that savaged the Axis as fully as it deserved.

The film is fun enough and the invisible man effects are decent--as is the idea that the invisible man here chooses to make himself visible using cold cream and a towel draped over his head instead of somehow finding yards worth of bandages everywhere he goes. The actors also give good performances, with only Peter Lorre failing to convince; he plays a Japanese intelligence agent and he is about as unconvincing as I would be if cast in the part of a Somali pirate captain. I can only imagine how bad the "Mr. Moto" films must be....

The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944)
Starring: Jon Hall, Leon Erroll, John Carradine, Lester Matthews, Alan Curtis and Evelyn Ankers
Director: Ford Beebe
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A psychopath (Hall) is made invisible by an eccentric scientist (Carradine) and he sets out to get revenge on those he believes have wronged him.

From right to left: Alan Curtis, Evelyn Ankers and the outline of Jon Hall in a publicity still for The Invisible Man's Revenge.
Here's a film with decent special effects (or its time, and which are actually undermined a bit by the crystal clarity of the DVD transfer because you can see how some of them were done), with a good cast all giving decent performances, and a competent technical crew from the lighting, to the photography, editing, and musical score. Unfortunately, all these quality elements can't make up for the fact that the script is awful.

It might be that the kids in the matinee audience for whom this film must have been made wouldn't notice or care, but it bothered me that none of the principal characters were people you could root for or even care about--Robert Griffin (Jon Hall), the invisible man, is a crazy murderer from the outset, but whether his perception of old slights is true or not, when he does appear his old friend Sir Jasper Herrick (Lester Matthews) does everything short of killing him to get him out of the way, so this gives him a true grevience. With Griffin and Herrick both being scumbags, the audience has no one to be on the side of.

We might have found our heroes in tabloid reporter Mark Foster (Alan Curtis) and his girlfriend Julie (Evelyn Ankers), the daughter of Sir Jasper. but they have such limited screentime and arer so woefully underdeveloped that their presense in the film feel almost perfuctory and like items on a check list that were included just because they were on the list. ("We've got a maniac, so we need to have an intrepid journalist and a potential damsel in distress. Yeah, they don't do much in the story, but the forumla says they need to be there." (The irrelevancy of Ankers character is driven home completely by the fact that she doesn't even end up a damsel in distress... Griffin targets Foster in the films climactic scenes during the one time when the film manages to muster some real suspense and concern for a character in it.)

"The Invisible Man's Revenge" was the last of the inivisble man movies to be made in the 1940s, and it shows the studio probably should have called it quits after "The Invisible Agent". It's the weakest of the five movies included in the "Invisible Man Legacy Collection," but it's also the weakest. It also has no connection to 1933's "The Invisible Man," but instead goes an entirely different direction like "The Invisible Woman" did.