Thursday, October 27, 2016

Film Review: Ghost Catchers

"Ghost Catchers"  ** (out of ****)

Olsen & Johnson prove they ain't 'fraid of no ghost in the comedy / horror picture "Ghost Catchers" (1944).

"Ghost Catchers" was the second to last movie the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson starred in and of all the comedies featuring the team this may, unfortunately, be the worst. That is saying quite a lot. Olsen & Johnson are not well remembered today. A majority of audiences may find their humor dated and corny. It isn't really a fair assessment of the team and their work should not be forgotten but it says something that the studio that released the team's last movies together, Universal, sees no market to release their comedies on DVD. Unlike other forgotten comedians and comedy teams, Olsen & Johnson have not yet been "rediscovered" by younger movie fans.

Watching a comedy like "The Ghost Catchers" isn't going to help matters. Olsen & Johnson were a comedy team that thrived on chaos. They achieved their greatest success on the stage and in nightclub appearances, where they were given more room to improvise and could "feed" off an audience. Think Martin & Lewis. Movies were too restrictive for them. "Ghost Catchers", like a few of their other comedies, attempts to present itself as a revue. There is comedy, romance, singing and dance and in the case of this movie, scares. The problem is Olsen & Johnson. Their comedy doesn't lend itself easily to a genre. As such it doesn't compliment the horror genre.

As I have written repeatedly in order for comedy / horror to work you must think of it as two movies in one. You must take the horror portion of your story serious and create a good background story, atmosphere and genuine scares. When you do that the humor should naturally come from the situations created. The characters should be placed in the well known, cliche horror movie scenarios and their reactions should make the audience laugh. It might sound difficult to some readers but prime examples include "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) and Bob Hope in "The Cat & the Canary" (1939).

None of that happens in "Ghost Catchers" because that's not what Olsen & Johnson do. The movie has the team appear as "themselves", nightclub performers who engage in wild antics centered on heavy audience participation. That makes "Ghost Catchers" half Olsen & Johnson revue and half comedy / horror instead of half comedy, half horror movie.

The plot is supposed to revolve around Colonel Marshall (Walter Catlett) and his two daughters; Melinda (Gloria Jean) and Susanna (Martha O' Driscoll) renting out a New York apartment, which may be haunted by a ghost from 1900. The two women are singers are are getting ready to make their debut at Carnegie Hall. This actually has nothing to do with the rest of the picture other than provide an explanation for more songs to be sung in the movie. The family is frightened and in their despair seek help at a next door nightclub where the headliners are Olsen & Johnson.

At first no one believes the family's story of a ghost haunting a house but, against their better judgement Olsen & Johnson decided to check on their neighbors. They immediately become scared themselves upon entering the house as soft-shoe tap dancing is heard and a horse galloping. The sequence is actually the best in the movie as it is the only time "Ghost Catchers" actually places the comedy team in the confines of the horror genre and builds laughs in the process.
As the two men begin to get ready for bed Mr. Johnson's clothes are being removed for him by a ghost. He is too involved in his conversation with Mr. Olsen to notice. The boys even mention how the set-up is similar to an Abbott & Costello movie, "Hold That Ghost" (1941), and reference a famous comedy routine where a candle moves by itself gliding side to side. As they say it, their candle begins to do it.

This gag, along with an opening credit animated sequence "borrowed" from "Hold That Ghost", does a few things. One, it makes us think of "Hold That Ghost", which is a far superior comedy. Two it makes for a comparison between the two comedy teams. Many have felt Olsen & Johnson were a low rent Abbott & Costello due to the physical characteristics shared by both teams; one short man, one tall man. One slender, one, rotund we'll say. And third, it brings into question what does "Ghost Catchers" hope to accomplish?

Ever since the team filmed their most popular screen comedy, "Hellzapoppin'" (1941), based on their successful Broadway show, practically every movie was the same, regardless of the "plot". They were all musical-comedy revues which often reduced Olsen & Johnson's screen time to allow for musical acts and sometimes spotlight other comedians. They are a bit more involved in this movie but as I say, it isn't really a comedy / horror movie. What then was the point of the movie?

Olsen & Johnson can be quite funny, in the right movie, "Hellzapoppin'" is an example, but when the team does do genre spoofs, that isn't their strength. Their strength is in allowing them to goof around and make wise-cracks and sexual innuendos. A specific genre will only constrict them. They can't play by the rules. Could "Ghost Catchers" have been a good comedy? Sure. It would require a lot of re-writing and casting a different comedy team though.

"Ghost Catchers" does have a laugh or two but this doesn't feel like a "complete" movie. Yes, we see the boys engage in their wild brand of humor but it doesn't compliment or advance the movie's plot. If you are interested in discovering the work of Olsen & Johnson, don't start here.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Film Review: The Cat O' Nine Tails

"The Cat O' Nine Tails"  **** (out of ****)

Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento was once referred to as "the Italian Hitchcock". The films of Alfred Hitchcock were a big influence on Mr. Argento but if I were to point you in the direction of some of his films, such as "Deep Red" (1975) or "Suspiria" (1977) you may not be able to see exactly how the two filmmakers are comparable. However "The Cat O' Nine Tails" (1971) does show glimpses of the Hitchcock influence.

The Hitchcock comparison came early in Mr. Argento's career and it was because of his first three pictures American critics made the reference. "The Cat O' Nine Tails" was Mr. Argento's second motion picture as a director, "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" (1970) was his debut but for me it all begins with "The Cat O' Nine Tails".

Following his third picture, "Four Flies on Grey Valvet" (1972), another exceptional film, Mr. Argento would take a distinctive turn in his career and gain a reputation as a filmmaker with an obsession for blood. His films would feature grisly, ultra-violent death scenes. His camera was like an animal going after its prey and would linger on the dead bodies and the images of blood. In the days of "The Cat O' Nine Tails" Mr. Argento keeps the violence either largely off-screen or non-gory. It is with this film however we see hints of what was to come.

Mr. Argento's influence in the history of Italian horror cannot be overstated. He may have had the greatest cross-over success, compared to his contemporaries, in reaching American movie fans. Some of his movies are considered prime examples of the horror sub-genre known as "giallo" (yellow in English) which combines supernatural plot elements with murder mystery. The genre received its name from the color of book covers that features such stories. For many American audiences giallo means Argento. The two go hand and hand. I would not be surprised to learn Mr. Argento's films are the only examples of giallo films some American audiences have seen. And if you like the watch a filmmaker's work at the beginning and see how they grow as an artist, "The Cat O' Nine Tails" is a good place to start.

Karl Malden stars as Franco Arno, a retired newspaper man, who due to an accident is now blind. One day, while walking home with his niece, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), the two overhear a suspicious conversation only to discover the next morning a break in occurred in the same location at a pharmaceutical company, that is doing top secret genetic research. Later that same day, one of the doctors at the company, Dr. Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), believes he has discovered the identity of the person responsible for the break in. He agrees to meet someone at a train station, only to be pushed onto the track as the train approaches and suffers a violent death (foreshadowing the Argento to come). These two incidents can't be a coincidence, can they? Franco doesn't believe so and decides to tell his story to a news reporter, Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus).

Naturally the suspense comes from the fact Franco is blind, and therefore may not be able to tell when danger is nearby or if the killer knows his identity. If we chose to continue the Hitchcock comparison, this would be one of those movies with ordinary people acting like would-be detectives a la "Rear Window" (1954). In that movie the lead character is confined to one area, due to a leg injury, but can see everything and may have witnessed a murder. In this movie the character has mobility but can't see.

"The Cat O' Nine Tails" also has moments of humor, often found in Mr. Hitchcock's movies. In this picture there is a police officer repeatedly talking about his wife's cooking recipes. Alfred Hitchcock may have seen this movie because the following year in his "Frenzy" (1972) there is a detective character who hates his wife's cooking. There is also a high speed chase scene which cuts to two elderly people wanting to cross the street. As they begin walking one car zooms by and the couple takes a step back. Quickly the second car passes and the couple gives up on the idea of crossing the street.

Another sequence involves Franco and Carlo going to a cemetery to steal some jewelry off a dead body which may have a hidden note with the killer's identity. The sequence walks a delicate line and balances suspense with humor. The two men are afraid to be in the cemetery at night and each is afraid to walk in a family crept where the body is. However the killer may be watching them and attacks Franco on the far right frame of the screen, which locks Carlo inside the crept.

The distinctive visual trait of the movie is it takes a first person approach to keeping the identity of the killer a secret whereby the camera becomes the killer as the audience sees everything from their point of view as the murders pile up of each character that may have been able to solve the case. The victims are usually strangled, again a deliberate attempt by Mr. Argento to keep away from excessive violence on-screen.

Also interesting about the violence is the gender of the victims. Horror movies have been considered by many as misogynist. The movies generally feature young pretty women being killed by a male, which for some is meant to be interrupted as sexual. But, the majority of victims in "The Cat O' Nine Tails" are men.

The strength of the movie lies in its story and the interaction between the characters. Visually this is not a striking movie. For those who come to this movie later in their Argento film going experience, may consider this a letdown because of that. But again, I must point out this was Mr. Argento's second directorial picture. He was still developing a style. As such we see the work of someone with talent. The acting is also a little stronger than usual for an Argento movie. Perhaps because of the genre Mr. Argento is working in, major stars never really appeared in his movies. There were some distinguished actors that did like Max Von Sydow, in one of Mr. Argento's later pictures and Anthony Franciosa. Having Mr. Malden in the movie definitely gives it some weight. Mr. Malden was an Academy Award winning actor, nominated twice in his career. "The Cat O' Nine Tails" was the first movie Mr. Malden appeared in after "Patton" (1970), the best picture Oscar winner.

The movie works best when Franco and Carlo are on-screen together and falters a bit when Franco disappears from the story for a while. At nearly two hours the movie also lags a bit and could have been edited down. The final revelation of the killer feels a bit anti-climax. A love scene between Carlo and a beautiful woman, who is the adopted daughter of the pharmaceutical company's owner comes out of left field and feels forced. It also brings up themes of incest which are completely unnecessary and aren't properly explored.

"The Cat O' Nine Tails" also touches on the theme of is violence genetic. It may be an interesting theme, which was better explored in "The Bad Seed" (1958) but here the movie seems to use this information as a MacGuffin (another Hitchcock reference).

Yet I fully recommend "The Cat O' Nine Tails". On the scale of Mr. Argento's films it is one of his most accomplished, despite his supposed negative feelings of the movie. The acting is among some of the most accomplished to be found in one of his movies with Mr. Malden coming out looking the best. Mr. Franciscus also does a good job in the leading man role.

You can't guarantee any movie will please everyone but "The Cat O' Nine Tails" certainly has qualities worth recommending and should please a majority of fans even with its flaws. Here we see the beginning of a breakthrough for Mr. Argento as he seems more confident in his material and developing a distinctive style.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Film Review: Equinox

** 1\2 (out of ****)

The battle between good and evil is astronomical in the science-fiction horror movie "Equinox" (1970).

There is a somewhat good chance you have heard of "Equinox" if you like "B" midnight movies (is there any other kind?). "Equinox" has gained a reputation over the years as a clever student film, made on a budget of $6,500, and makes pretty good use of stop-motion special effects, recalling the work of Ray Harryhausen and films like "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958), with its other worldly creatures.

As as student film, you have to give filmmakers Dennis Muren and Jack Woods credit. But as an actual motion picture, to be seen by a wide audience, in which people must pay to see this, there is no denying the movie lacks in writing, directing, acting and production values. The student filmmaker in me (I studied film in college) admires what was done here but the movie critic in me can't turn a blind eye to the movie's flaws. The movie was not ready for prime time so to speak. However, I would rather watch this again than the original "Blair Witch Project" (1999).

The plot follows four college students; David (Edward Connell), Susan (Barbara Hewitt), Jim (Frank Bonner Jr.) and Vicki (Robin Christopher) who travel to the woods to find a professor, Dr. Waterman (Fritz Leiber). When they arrive they notice Dr. Waterman's cabin has been destroyed and the doctor is missing. A strangle castle appears and disappears, noises are heard coming from a cave, and a weird cop (Jack Woods) turns up at the oddest moments, checking in on the kids. Where did Dr. Waterman go? What is causing the noise in the cave? What destroyed the cabin? The answers may be found in a book the students discover about the occult. Is there a demonic spirit nearby?

"Equinox" (what a terrible title. Equinox is an astronomic term) has good intentions and means to be a movie to be taken serious yet the poor writing, which leads to lackluster performances, borderlines on campy with its awkward 1970s gender stereotypes, making it more of a time capsule.

At the same time you'd hate to be too critical of the movie, given the circumstances concerning the budget and the fact it was made outside the Hollywood system. However, no matter how generous I'd like to be the movie doesn't quite succeed as either complete science-fiction or horror. There are not enough scares in the movie to qualify as a true horror film.

Acting, screenplay and directing aside, the real star of "Equinox" is the special effects. That is what the majority of movie goers will be responding to after they have seen this movie and what will remain the most memorable. Many may say the effects look cheap and unrealistic. That may be true but it may also be missing the point. What does a monster realistically look like? The creatures seen hear will make viewers either think of Ray Harryhausen or if they don't recognize the name it will make them think of "King Kong" (1933). While it may not look realistic it adds to the fantasy quality of the movie.

But the effects may not be enough to save the movie. The human performances lack in emotion and sometimes motive. These aren't believable characters. We have an acting style here that I have always referred to as "normal people pretending to act normal in a way they believe other normal people think is normal". At least that is the technical term. Translation - the actors want to behave in a naturalistic way, retaining a sense of realism to their performances, yet, the characters don't speak or behave like anyone I know. All I see when watching the movie are actors giving a performance not a slice of life.

There was plenty of potential for "Equinox" and forgive me for saying this, but a Hollywood remake wouldn't entirely be a bad idea. I wouldn't care if they left the special effects as they were but better actors and better dialogue would greatly improve the movie.

"Equinox" may please fan movie fans but I can't imagine it would be a large majority. The rest may notice a few good points but come away feeling the movie feels more like a draft than a completed project.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Film Review: Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy

"Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy"
** (out of ****)

"Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy" (1955) breaks the cardinal rule of comedy / horror, it doesn't take its horror half serious and as such the movie ultimately fails.

In order for any comedy / horror movie to work you must understand you basically have two movies in one. The horror portion of the movie must be dealth with as you would any horror movie. Create atmosphere and give audiences the usual cliches one expects watching any horror movie. You then have your comedy, which serves as a direct result of the horror. The jokes should come naturally from the situations created and not be forced  comedy sequences.

The comedy team of Abbott & Costello, thanks to working at Universal Pictures, appeared in several comedies where they "meet" the classic monsters of the Universal vault. The best example would be "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), where the boys meet Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's Monster. That movie took its time setting up the story involving the monsters, especially the Wolf Man. Of course the one monster missing from that movie was the Mummy. Instead the Mummy gets his own movie, in this, the second to last comedy Abbott & Costello appeared in together as a team.

Not so much a spoof of the Boris Karloff 1932 version, "Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy" instead feels like a comedy version of Universal's reboot of the Mummy franchise, "The Mummy's Hand" (1940), which itself had too much comedy, which hurt it as a horror movie.

For those that think Abbott & Costello were the originators of comedy / horror, you'll be surprised to know this comedy concept of finding humor in a mummy story, had already been done, nearly twenty years prior, in the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Mummy's Boys" (1936), which is also a second-rate comedy. I suppose if you like to watch bad comedies, both of these movies would make a nice double-bill.

In a sign of just how far off the track "Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy" goes, the screenwriters actually incorporate the Mummy (Eddie Parker) into comedy routines. You don't do that! You want to keep the Mummy as a frightening figure, scaring Abbott & Costello. The laughs come from the boys being scared to death. Once you make the Mummy part of the comedy act, what's the point? Where do you take the character from there? Astonishingly the movie's screenwriter was John Grant, who wrote all of the team's Universal monster comedies, including "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein".

"Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy" is essentially an Abbott & Costello comedy first, horror spoof last. The movie does have some good comedy routines for the team to engage in. So good that we've seen them perform the same routine in other movies. One has both men trying to pass a cursed medallion secretly to each other into their hamburgers. As each tries to distract the other long enough to make the switch, the sound of their plates hitting the table, alerts the other to what has happened. Another routine deals with Bud explaining to Lou what a "mummy" is. It gives the boys a chance to have some fun with word play, that they are best known for. Lou thinks Bud is talking about a "mommy". When Bud plays "some mummies are men and some are women", well, you can imagine Lou's response.

But ultimately the movie doesn't have the big laughs we expect from the team. As I mentioned, this was the second to last movie the team made together, could their hearts just not have been in this? Was it time to close shop? Did the boys simply lose some of the magic that made them so special in the 1940s, when they appeared in multiple movies in the same year. Maybe.

Abbott & Costello have always had a hit or miss track record with me, moreso than any of their contemporaries whose work has lived on, You can always find something funny in any of their pictures but some work better than others. "Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy" is on the lower end of their scale. It is not recommended anyone see this movie as their introduction into the work of this comedy team, who really were quite the sensation a decade earlier.

This time around Bud & Lou play two Americans stuck in Egypt, looking for a way back home. They learn of an opportunity to assist a scientist in bringing the mummy Klaris back to the states. Unfortunately, the scientist is murdered when members of a cult, headed by Semu (Richard Deacon, best known for his role on the television show, "The Dick Van Dyke Show") want to protect the mummy and keep it in Egypt. Soon however, the boys are suspected of the death of the scientist, while Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) is after the treasure of Princess Ara, whom legend has it, Klaris protects.

The movie does nothing to create suspense of the mummy storyline and instead spends a lot of time on Abbott & Costello. In another movie that would be fine, however, as already explained, that's not how you make a proper comedy / horror movie. The viewer gets no sense of danger from the mummy or see the cult seen as sinister. The movie is brightly shot, killing any chance of creating an eerie mood.

The movie was directed by Charles Lamont, who had directed a few Abbott & Costello comedies ranging in quality from "Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man" (1951) and "Hit the Ice" (1943) to "Abbott & Costello Go To Mars" (1953). Mr. Lamont also directed Ma & Pa Kettle comedies.

You may be able to do worst than "Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy" but why try? Comedy / horror is very difficult to pull off correctly. Luckily you have better options than this Abbott & Costello comedy. In fact, some of the better comedy / horror movies star the team, such as "Hold That Ghost" (1941) and "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein".

Monday, October 10, 2016

Film Review: Kill, Baby, Kill

"Kill, Baby, Kill"
*** (out of ****)

Italian filmmaking maestro Mario Bava was a key figure in the giallo sub-genre of horror films along with Dario Argento. With the passing years Mr. Bava's name hasn't lived on as well. Only adventurous film goers, with an appetite for a little blood and gore and "B" level production values, may be familiar with the work of Mr. Bava. That is too bad.

Mr. Bava may be best known for titles such as "Blood and Black Lace" (1964) and "Black Sunday" (1960) but for some film buffs and historians it is "Kill, Baby, Kill" (1966) that just might be his crowning achievement with its giallo story elements and Gothic inspired visuals. It is a good contender, though I do remember enjoying "Black Sunday" quite a bit, which also has Gothic elements to it.

Over the years I have always wanted to review some of Mr. Bava's movies in the month of October, as I celebrate Halloween. I would watch some of his movies and then decide against it, because I simply didn't know what I could add to the conversation (that is actually my ultimate determination on which classic films I review). Instead I would review the films of Mr. Argento, who is still with us today, making movies. Mr. Bava died in 1980.

I am not sure what I can add to the national conversation regarding "Kill, Baby, Kill" however, I couldn't let another year go by and not review something by this filmmaker. While I may not offer any new insights into Mr. Bava's work, at the very least I hope someone who reads my reviews, may not have heard of this director or this film, and I, in some small part, can help introduce people to it.

For American audiences "giallo" generally refers to horror movies that have supernatural elements to them as well as murder mystery. Giallo was originally a genre in literature, the covers would usually be yellow, hence why they were called giallo (yellow in Italian). The films, in particular, usually feature very gruesome death sequences and in the case of Mr. Argento, an almost fetish for blood.

"Kill, Baby, Kill" nicely fits into this genre, although I believe the violence is tame. The camera doesn't linger on dead bodies and blood. The death sequences are not as elaborate as I have seen in other movies. What makes "Kill, Baby, Kill" work for me is the atmosphere. I find this to be the number one reason why so many horror movies don't work. There is no atmosphere. No sense of dread. Too many of today's movies rely on serial killers cutting up their victims and wanting to gross out the audience. That isn't scary to me. It is simply disgusting. I like a movie to play around with lighting, camera angles and effective music. You may not find the Universal monster movies of the 1930s scary but what great production values they had. There was real craft which went into those movies. That is what I like. "Kill, Baby, Kill" has a touch of that to it.

Plot descriptions I have read over the Internet claim the movie's setting is either in the Carpathians or Transylvania (Romania is in the Eastern and Southern part of the Carpathians). However, I do not recall anyone stating a location nor do I remember a caption appearing on-screen stating a setting. Regardless, the movie begins with Dr. Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) arriving in a small town via horse and carriage. The driver will not take Dr. Eswai any further and makes the doctor walk to the town's inn, where he is expected. The set-up immediately recalls "Dracula" when Reinfeld arrives to a Transylvanian town and is told of various superstitions by the villagers, encouraging him not to continue any further. Which may explain why some believe "Kill, Baby, Kill" also takes place in Transylvania.

Waiting for Dr. Eswai is police inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), who would like the doctor to perform an autopsy on the body of a young woman found dead the night before. Was it murder? Suicide? The villagers believe recent deaths are the cause of a curse placed on the town by the Graps family, after one of Baroness Graps' (Giana Vivaldi) childern, a daughter, was killed, when a horse and carriage rode over the girl and no one would come to the girl's aide. Since then sightings have been reported of the girl. Who ever sees the child is usually found dead. Is the ghost of the child getting revenge on the town? That's what the villagers believe.

The set-up is not unlike several classic horror movies centered around a character presented as a man of science who must either fight an evil force or prove to the town a conspiracy is at hand and there is a perfectly good explanation for the supernatural activities the villagers encounter. "Kill, Baby, Kill" is a bit of much with a mystery element thrown in.

Although the plot may be predictable or at a minimum familiar, there are some good moments of suspense. The acting is far from memorable, as some performances are barely better than amateurish, the visuals are the real star of the movie and make "Kill, Baby, Kill" a watchable, which is arguably the reason why the movie enjoys such a positive reputation among both movie goers and critics. One memorable sequence involves a spiral staircase as one character chases after another. Some have compared the color scheme to another giallo movie, Dario Argento's "Suspiria" (1977), suggesting Mr. Argento may have been influenced by this movie. Many have commented on the heavy use of the color red (disclosure, I am color blind and did not notice this) as another common element found in both movies, although, since giallo movies are known for graphic violence, the use of red (meaning blood) is quite common.

Another star of the movie is the Graps' mansion, with hanging cobwebs, dark hallways and ghostly sightings. An entire movie could have easily been made exclusively in the mansion alone, as these sequences borrow from the haunted house genre.

Those not familiar with Mr. Bavo's movies may want to start here as those not familiar with giallo may as well. The title suggest sensationalism but the movie has, for the most part, a classic structure. It has its flaws, weak acting and clumsy dialogue, but the visuals and overall atmosphere make this one worth watching.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Film Review: Mark of the Vampire

"Mark of the Vampire"  *** (out of ****)

"Mark of the Vampire" (1935) has the characteristics associated with a good-to-great Hollywood horror movie. It stars Bela Lugosi as a vampire and it is directed by Tod Browning, the man behind "Dracula" (1931), "Freaks" (1932) and the movie which "Mark of the Vampire" is based on, the silent Lon Chaney vehicle, "London After Midnight" (1927), which unfortunately is considered a "lost film".

But, something about "Mark of the Vampire" is a bit off. Movie lovers debate its quality because of a general agreement that the ending comes out of left field and discredits much of what was seen prior. I used to belong to that camp. I thoroughly enjoyed "Mark of the Vampire" right up until the final few minutes, which sets the movie in a different direction. Watching the movie again, I changed my mind. It is not that the ending doesn't bother me but, I simply enjoy so much of what it does before hand to not recommend it.

If you haven't seen "Mark of the Vampire" before, you are most likely wondering what the heck am I talking about. What is this ending? I cannot reveal it. It is one of those twist endings that only a bad friend would spoil. Yet, for movie lovers, its reputation proceeds it and its ending is well known.

The setting would seem to be Prague (the original suggested title of the movie was "Vampires of Prague") though a city is never mention however anywhere in Eastern Europe would do. The movie begins much the same way "Dracula" does. We learn the town is superstitious and afraid to go out after dark. Vampires are believed to have been cited. The local doctor, Dr. Doskil (Donald Meek) won't admit it, since he is a man of science, but he too is a believer. The villagers hang bat thorn (the equivalent of wolfsbane) on their windows to protect themselves.

On this night, Sir. Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) is found dead. Nearly all are under the impression it was a vampire that killed him, as two marks were found on his neck and the body was drained of blood. The only person who refuses to believe this is Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwil). He decides to bring Professor Zelan (Lionel Barrymore) on the case, because of his knowledge of the occult and to help prevent another murder, as Borotyn's daughter, Irena (Elizabeth Allan) may be in danger as well. Zelan immediately confirms the suspicion of all, as it was a vampire that killed Borotyn. The vampires are suspected to be Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter, Luna (Carroll Borland). Now it is up to all, including Irena's guardian, Baron Otto von Zinden (Jean Hersholt) to protect her from the vampires, while trying to find a way to kill them.

As I had mentioned, much of the movie will resemble "Dracula" and the appearance of Mr. Lugosi as a vampire will only further cement that opinion. However this time around the vampires does not speak. Count Mora and Luna are only seen as threatening figures, seen walking down hallways or peeking through windows.

Mr. Browning and "Mark of the Vampire" do a lot to keep up the suspense and create a good amount of atmosphere. The vampires enter frame out of nowhere, the visual aesthetic of the old castle and fog that fills the air, all help to keep us involved in the movie. Which is what makes the ending a bit if a disappointment, shifting in its tone. Mr. Barrymore's exaggerated performance doesn't help much either, as these two things combine give the viewer the impression "Mark of the Vampire" is a comedy, lampooning the horror genre and vampire movies in particular. The movie didn't need humor. As a vampire movie it worked well and one could forgive Mr. Barrymore's performance if not for the ending, If you have ever seen "Dracula" you'll know the Van Helsing character, which is essentially what the Prof. Zelan character is, was played serious. Mr. Barrymore, or Mr. Browning, for some reason saw fit to add humor to the character, which is in direct contrast to the other actors, who mostly play their roles in more dramatic fashion.

Still it is difficult to say who gives the best performance in the movie. Mr. Lugosi's role doesn't require an emotional range, and as such, it doesn't feel like much of a character. The same would go go for Ms. Borland. Ms. Allan is your typical damsel in distress, playing a role similar to Mina, in "Dracula". It is an average performance that in another movie may not have stood out but here becomes somewhat memorable. Mr. Atwill is his usual stiff self playing a role not unlike the many he would go on to play in various other horror movies, several at Universal as part of the Frankenstein franchise. Mr. Hersholt may be playing the most "complete" character.

But it is not the acting that would make me come back to this movie. It would be for the suspense and atmosphere. Though I hate to keep comparing it to "Dracula", which is a much better movie, it is along the same lines and must have been some sort of inspiration. Mr. Browning uses many of the same techniques for both pictures in the way he fills a frame and camera angles.

"Mark of the Vampire" may be difficult for some viewers to accept on first viewing but the movie does have its defenders, many stronger than me. If you are able to give the movie a chance and go in with an open mind, the movie will be enjoyable. Even if the logic of the ending doesn't make much sense to you, you have to admit the movie does so many things right. For me, not one of the great vampire movies but a good effort. If you've never seen "Dracula" I would start their first and then see this one.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Film Review: The Bad Seed

"The Bad Seed"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

There's something peculiar about eight year old Rhoda (Patty McCormack, making her film debut). Oh, she's well behaved, says please and thank you. Always has a smile on her face. Never gives her mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly) and father, Colonel Kenneth Penmark (William Hopper) any trouble. But, could Rhoda be just a bit too perfect?

"The Bad Seed" (1956) is an interesting examination concerning what is evil? More specifically, what makes a person evil? Is evil the result of environment or is it genetics? It is a question which strikes at the very nature of mankind. Are people inherently good or evil? Can a person simply be a "bad seed"? Someone that is just no good, nonredeemable. They were born that way.

It is one of the questions asked and answered in "The Bad Seed". But it is its subject matter which makes the movie frightening and for my money, one of the underappreciated horror films. Can an eight year old girl be a murderer?

Horror movies generally focus on deranged adult serial killers or evil spirits but to think of a child as evil sets us up for an entirely different psychological and emotional experience. Children are sweet and innocent, not capable for such violence, right? No mother or father would ever accuse their child of killing someone. And yet "The Bad Seed" presents us with such a dilemma for one mother. Can she bring herself to believe her child is evil? And, if so, how did she get that way? Was the child not loved and nurtured enough? Or was it bad genes? And whose genes at that?

"The Bad Seed" was based on a novel, of the same title, written by William March (his last novel), published in 1954 (the year of Mr. March's death) and was turned into a play that same year by the great playwright, Maxwell Anderson. The film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, a successful studio director at Warner Brothers, whose worked crossed over many different genres. He received an Academy Award nomination for "Random Harvest" (1943). The film also starred many of the original stage cast including Ms. Kelly, who won a Tony Award for her performance, and Ms. McCormack, who was nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award, one of the movie's four nominations.

The movie deals with psychoanalysis, philosophy and paranoia. Though the main theme of the movie is nature versus nurture. Part of me can't help but think there is some political undertone to the movie, commenting on the Cold War. You can never tell who the enemy is or what they will look like. Though supposedly the movie was inspired by a rise in "troubled youths". It is interesting to note "The Bad Seed" was released one year after "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955) and three years after "The Wild One" (1953).

The main focus of the movie revolves around Rhoda, who is upset she did not win a class prize for best penmanship. Instead a boy named Claude won. Rhoda firmly believes she should have won and as a result resents Claude. Why did he have to win? On this day there will be a school picnic which ends tragically as Claude will be found dead, with his special prize missing. How did the boy die? Where did the prize go? Was Rhoda involved? She was seen with Claude and her teacher knew of her disappointment in not winning the penmanship prize. Slowly Christine learns more and more from others about the events leading up to the boy's death and about Rhoda's reputation in school.

Besides school we see how Rhoda interacts with those that live in her apartment building. Rhoda plays innocent with the landlady (Evelyn Varden), who thinks of Rhoda as her own child, but is much more harsh with the groundskeeper (Henry Jones), who antagonizes the girl, but is the only character that really understands who she is.

As I watched "The Bad Seed" again I paid more attention to Rhoda and the performance given by Patty McCormack than I normally have. There is something fascinating about Ms. McCormack. Listen to her voice and the emphasis she places on certain words. It is meant to sound sweet yet there is something phony about it. She says all the right words but they lack sincerity. And pay attention to her eyes. She's thinking. Always trying to stay one step ahead of everyone. Yet, there is a simplistic nature to her. Is she a child after all. But, we know all isn't what it seems. Because of the insincerity in her voice, some viewers may believe Ms. McCormack is giving a bad performance. It's not. That phoniness is deliberate. The character couldn't be too shrewd and cunning. That would frighten the audience a bit too much. Rhoda needed to be overtly diabolical, so parents wouldn't fear their own children. You have to give Ms. McCormack her due credit. Her Oscar nomination was well deserved.

I suppose though it is the Christine character we are meant to pay more attention to and side with as we watch the movie. Christine is facing the dilemma. Her turmoil is the stuff of great drama but at times the character appears repetitive in her struggle. Constantly debating the same points with herself but never taking a step forward. The character is too weak in numerous scenes. Between the two characters, I find Rhoda to be far more interesting and better written.

Because it was based on a play, much of the movie feels theatrical, primarily taking place in one setting, Christine's apartment. The movie doesn't do much with lighting or various camera angles. It is all shot rather conventionally. What carries the movie is the weight of the story and the performances given by all of the actors. This is truly an acting ensemble piece. Every character serves a purpose. Each line of dialogue is necessary.

However that leaves filmmaker, Mr. LeRoy off the hook. The actors knew the material, after playing the characters on stage. Mr. LeRoy wouldn't need to start from scratch, his actors were comfortable with the characters. His main job would be to make this story "filmable". And he does that, without taking many chances. Mr. LeRoy didn't have much experience directing horror films. It is the one genre lacking in his resume. It may be the only flaw with the movie in that visually there is not much here.

But, one cannot allow that to stop them from seeing this movie. "The Bad Seed" is largely successful thanks to the wonderful performances given by Ms. Kelly and Ms. McCormack. Each lady received an Academy Award nomination and it was well deserved, a rarity for the Academy, they made two good choices.

"The Bad Seed" may not keep you up at night but you'll never look at children the same way again.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Film Reviews: The Mummy's Hand & The Mummy's Tomb

"The Mummy's Hand"  ** (out of ****)

Before Universal Pictures destroyed its Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolf Man franchise the studio, once known for its horror films, got its hands on the Mummy in "The Mummy's Hand" (1940).

I enjoy watching the classic monster movies from the 1930s & 40s. They don't scare me but compared to the blood & guts slasher movies we get today, I really appreciate the craft that went into the classics. Unfortunately Universal didn't care much for craft as the years went on and began to lose interest in the horror genre they did so much to create. As a result Universal reduced its horror movies to "B" movies. Believing there may have still been a market for Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Mummy, Universal continued to release countless sequels as an attempt to make as much money possible off these characters. They even started to combine all these classic characters in the same movie for sensationalism. However, the one character not included in these monster sleepovers was the Mummy, but don't worry. Universal would kill this franchise as well.

Case in point, we have what some call a sequel to Universal's "The Mummy" (1932) starring Boris Karloff. However, the movie is not really a sequel as it does not continue the story where that movie left off and introduces a brand new set of characters. What "The Mummy's Hand" is, is actually a remake, taking much of the plot from the 1932 movie and repackaging it for a perhaps originally intended series of movies. In fact three more mummy movies would follow.

"The Mummy's Hand" centers on two Americans in Egypt, one an archaeologist, Steve (Dick Foran) and the other, his best friend, Babe (Wallace Ford). They are supposed to be your "typical" Americans, always ready with the wise-cracks and loud and obnoxious. Babe is a kind of comic relief sidekick, the "funny best friend". It is the Babe character which hurts the movie more than anything else.

While shopping at a bazaar, in the streets of Cairo, Steve finds what he believes is a valuable ancient vase which may hold clues to the whereabouts of the Egyptian Princess Ananka's tomb and her treasures. Now all Steve and Babe need to do is find someone to finance their expedition. They hope fellow archaeologist Andoheb (George Zucco), who works at the Cairo Museum, will but he declines, citing the vase is an imitation and it is far too dangerous to go on an expedition. Two teams were sent out to the same region Steve believes the tomb is and were never heard from again.

The warnings and opinion of Andoheb do not deter Steve. He is convinced his hunch is correct and will begin his expedition without the help of Andoheb. The Egyptian God's smile at Steve when he meets another American in Egypt, a magician, Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) who agrees to finance the expedition. However Solvani's daughter, Marta (Peggy Moran) is fearful the two men have taken advantage of her father, as she doesn't believe in mummies and buried treasure (what is there not to believe?). Perhaps the Marta character was meant to be a romantic interest for Steve, however little to nothing is developed, outside of remarks they both find each other attractive.

We learn nearly 3,000 years ago of a man named Kharis (Tom Tyler) loved Princess Ananka. After learning about her death he steals tana leaves, hoping this will bring her back to life. He is discovered and buried alive. Legend has it there is a curse placed on anyone who dares enter the tomb of Princess Ananka, as Kharis will seek revenge. Kharis, is it discovered, never really died as a secret cult, headed by Andoheb, has been preserving his life with tana leaves.

Much of this plot was directly taken from the 1932 movie, minus name changes. In that movie Karloff was also buried alive for attempting to bring his lover back to life. However, he believes she will be reincarnated in modern day. It was very similar to Dracula.

"The Mummy's Hand" (the title doesn't make sense) at times seems to be a comedy / horror movie "thanks" to the Babe character, who does card tricks and everything! What purpose does this character serve? Why was it written into the story? The movie is not so intense and scary that there are moments we need comic relief, so the audience can catch their breath. The "comedy" ruins the picture. If Universal couldn't take this story serious, how can we?

Universal does little to create atmosphere, although for a "B" movie, I must admit it doesn't look so bad. I might have been able to buy into the movie if it wasn't for the comedy. If you want to watch a bad mummy comedy see the Wheeler & Woolsey movie "Mummy's Boys" (1936).

"The Mummy's Tomb"  *** (out of ****)

"The Mummy's Tomb" (1942) was the second installment of a four movie series involving the Mummy. The first was "The Mummy's Hand" (1940).

Some of the prominent characters from the previous movie return for this sequel but the biggest change is the mummy, Kharis, will now be played by Lon Chaney Jr. Making Mr. Chaney one of the few actors to have played The Wolf Man, Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula's son and a mummy. He is unrecognizable in the role however.

Running a brisk 60 minutes, many may consider "The Mummy's Tomb" an equally inadequate sequel to "The Mummy's Hand" however there is one big difference between the two movies. "The Mummy's Tomb" cuts out a lot of the cornball humor and focuses its story on the mummy's revenge for the events of the first movie. Because of this, the movie actually creates some nice moments of suspense and gives us something to cheer for and root against.

Granted the movie is not perfect. The movie begins with an elderly Steve (Dick Foran again) telling stories of his adventures from the first movie to his son John (John Hubbard), Isobel (Elyse Knox), John's girfriend and Steve's sister, Jane (Mary Gordon). This set-up takes approximately 12 minutes of screentime as a nearly complete recap of "The Mummy's Hand" is given, showing clips of the movie as well. That leaves us with roughly 45 minutes of story left to tell for "The Mummy's Tomb", not really enough time to go into details and develop scenarios and characters.

"The Mummy's Tomb" also gives us a near repeat of events as Andoheb (George Zucco) selects his successor as the new high priest of their cult, Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), who must leave Egypt with Kharis and head to America in order to seek revenge on Steve, Babe (Wallace Ford) and his family.

The movie still has a touch of the ridiculous to it as we see scenes with Kharis sluggishly making his way down streets through a small American town on the hunt for his next victim. However the movie works more as a monster / serial killer movie than a mummy movie as we see Kharis kill one character after another. We even see a group of angry townspeople on the hunt for Kharis with burning torches and all. This time they aren't roaming the countryside looking for a scary castle but a nice suburban home.

Because of the running time, not much is done with the Mehemet Bey character to make him a credible threat. The movie simply goes to the heart of its story, trying to cram as much as it could into 45 minutes.

Still, compared to "The Mummy's Hand" this is an improvement. It could have been a much better movie if the running time were expanded at least 30 minutes more to play out dramatic events and develop characters a bit more to create more character motivation. "The Mummy's Tomb" is worth watching if you are a fan of Universal monster movies. If not, it would be strongly recommended you watch the 1932 movie starring Boris Karloff instead.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Film Review: House of Frankenstein

"House of Frankenstein"  ** (out of ****)

The lights are on but you'd wish no one was home in the Universal Pictures monster movie "House of Frankenstein" (1944).

"House of Frankenstein" was the sixth film in the Frankenstein franchise and an immediate sequel to "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" (1943), which was a sequel to the "Wolf Man" (1941) as well. But, it is hard to say why the movie was made in the first place.

Serious movie lovers often question the existence of sequels. They are rarely better or as good as originals because by their very nature they are retreads of original stories and offer nothing new, usually repeating scenarios. And, on a more cynical note, sequels are often viewed as nothing more then the result of greedy producers and film studios that want to cash in on a popular product and squeeze as much money out of it as they can.

After "Son of Frankenstein" (1939) I firmly believe there was no reason to continue making Frankenstein movies. In fact one could argue there really wasn't any need for any of the sequels. The first "Frankenstein" (1931) told a complete story. Everything felt resolved. To continue to make Frankenstein movies would surely be for the exclusive purpose of cashing in. Universal Pictures would even downgrade these horror movies to their "B" division after "Son of Frankenstein". If Universal lost interest in these movies, why did they think the public would want to see them? I believe by continuing to make these movies they actually hurt the franchise. If you are going to make movies this bad, don't even bother.

Although I didn't recommend it, "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" seems to have been the last somewhat effective movie in the classic Universal horror collection, mostly due in part to the screenwriter taking the story serious and providing the viewer with a strong background of events. This is the ultimate reason why "House of Frankenstein" fails as miserably as it does. No one took the time to tell an effective story. Everything was built on sensationalism. Oh look! We have all the monsters together! There's Dracula (John Carradine), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and the Monster (Glenn Strange, playing the character for the first time) and there is even a part for the man who first played the Monster, Boris Karloff, who walked away from the character after playing it for a third time in "Son of Frankenstein".

The bible tells us the love of money is the root of evil, it is also the root of all bad movies. This time around we meet another mad scientist, Dr. Niemann (Karloff) who has been in prison for 15 years, which is approximately how much time as passed since the events of "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man", which is directly mentioned. One day, during a terrible thunderstorm, Dr. Niemann and another prisoner, a hunchback named Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) escape when lightening strikes the prison. The two men murder a traveling showman with a freak show, who claims to have the skeletal remains of Count Dracula. Dr. Niemann has two agendas, he would like revenge on those who put him in prison and he would like to continue the work of Dr. Frankenstein, by traveling to his home and finding his notes.

Along the way Dr. Niemann and Daniel discover the Wolf Man and Frankenstein frozen in the basement of the Frankenstein mansion. The doctor thaws them out and promises to help cure the Wolf Man by taking his brain and putting it in another man. Meanwhile, he will take the Monster's brain and put it in the Wolf Man, without him knowing. There is also an attempted romantic subplot involving Daniel falling in love with a gypsy girl (Elena Verdugo) a la the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The movie runs approximately 73 minutes. The doctor doesn't meet the Wolf Man and Frankenstein until roughly 40 minutes into the movie. The first 40 minutes has Dr. Niemann use Dracula to kill the man responsible for his imprisonment, Hussman (Sig Ruman). It is a waste of time as Dracula is never seen again and never meets the Wolf Man or Frankenstein. Not to mention Mr. Carradine is terrible in the role of Dracula. Not simply because he is not Bela Lugosi but because he lacks a suave demeanor and is not scary, striking fear in us. Mr. Carradine is almost playing the part for laughs. Plus, because of the budget, his transformation into a bat is equally laughable. However, I am happy to say the Wolf Man's transformation is much better, despite a noticeable error (once we see the final transformation of the Wolf Man you will notice his hands do not have fur on them, yet in the next scene they do).

The Frankenstein Monster is sadly not developed at all, as would be the case in all subsequent Frankenstein movies starting with "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942). The character is merely used as a figure of power, adding nothing new to the character's development.

If "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" did anything right, it gave Larry Talbot (Wolf Man) a full background story and took the time to tell it. Mr. Chaney gave a strong performance in that movie and in my opinion carries the movie. In "House of Frankenstein" Talbot is simply an after thought. Some my argue, what more could you possibly say about these characters. My feelings exactly. Why make more movies if you have nothing to add!

And what about the horror? What in "House of Frankenstein" is suppose to scare us? I don't mean because of the age of the movie it is dated and the horror doesn't translate, I mean nothing in this movie attempts to be scary. The movie doesn't create atmosphere. The most original thing it does is show the shadow of Dracula as it kills someone. But there is no suspense created. No feeling of dread. The musical score doesn't give us those high notes we expect in horror films. Nothing is done to scare the audience.

Finally there is the question of the ending. It ends too abruptly. Nothing feels resolved. I felt the same way after watching "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man". Was this done to keep thing ambiguous so another movie could be made?

The script was written by Edward T. Lowe, who wrote the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) with Lon Chaney, "The Vampire Bat" (1933), which also had a character named Dr. Niemann and another monster get-together bash "House of Dracula" (1945). The director was Erle C. Kenton, who interesting enough had a career directing comedies and horror movies. He directed a few Abbott & Costello comedies as well as "House of Dracula", "The Ghost of Frankenstein" and "Island of Lost Souls" (1932).

I suppose there was some potential for "House of Frankenstein" but that would have required better production values, a better cinematographer, interesting use of lighting, a better musical score, better actors (Carradine has to go) and a better script. The basic idea on paper may have sound interesting but the concept wasn't fully developed. Instead what we are left with is a dismal horror film which never should have been made in the first place.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Film Review: The Monster

"The Monster"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Haunted house movies may be the most popular sub-genre of horror films currently made. Popular examples of the genre include "The Haunting" (1963), "House on Haunted Hill" (1959), "The Amityville Horror" (1979) and "The Shining". In recent years we have seen "The Conjuring" (2013), "Paranormal Activity" (2009) and "The Innkeepers" (2011). Many of these movies owe a lot to some of the great films made during the silent era like "The Monster" (1925) starring Lon Chaney.

Haunted house movies are probably the most scary to us because they take place somewhere we generally feel the safest, our homes. Ghost and goblins may roam on the outside but inside our homes would be a sanctuary from all the evil on the outside. But, what happens when your home is haunted? Now where can you seek safety?

"The Monster", based on a stage play by Crane Wilbur, is a combination of the haunted house genre, mad scientist movie and comedy / horror. It easily belongs in a class of the most influential haunted house movies made during the silent era and early talkies. I would place it alongside "The Cat & the Canary" (1927) and "The Old Dark House" (1932).

The "hero" in "The Monster" is Johnny Goodlittle (Johnny Arthur), a shy, socially awkward young man who works as a clerk in a local general store. Johnny dreams of becoming a detective and is currently enrolled is a mail corespondent class. He keeps his trusted "how to become a detective" book with him at all times and believes the disappearance of a wealthy farmer may be his opportunity to prove himself as a serious detective.

Johnny is also in love with Betty (Gertrude Olmstead) but she seems to pay more attention to Johnny's boss, Amos (Hallam Cooley). Perhaps if Johnny could solve the disappearance he will get Betty to pay more attention to him.

Much of this may remind some viewer of the Buster Keaton classic comedy "Sherlock, Jr" (1924). But the movie also hits on one of the oldest themes found in American comedies of the 1920s through the 1940s - masculinity. There is always a shy, timid man who loves a pretty girl who doesn't notice him and instead loves a more popular, wealthier more muscular man, who doesn't treat her as kindly as the timid man would. We can clearly see this theme played out with the Johnny character and his relationship with Betty.

The haunted house aspect of the movie occurs when Johnny suspects the missing farmer may have been taken to a sanatorium, which has been closed for months. Johnny found a piece of paper with the name of the sanatorium written on it near the crime scene. The local constable (Charles Sellon) believes Johnny should mind his own business, since he knows nothing about police work. One way or another Johnny is going to investigate the sanatorium.

This leads us to our mad scientist, Dr. Ziska (Chaney), who is in charge of the sanatorium, who may or may not be conducting strange experiments and seems as strange as some of the patients, one of whom walks around smoking invisible cigarettes and is always asking for a match.  

What makes "The Monster" so enjoyable to watch is how easily it combines these different genres. The comedy naturally blends with the haunted house aspects of the movie and provides a lot of opportunities for humor. Johnny, for example, is presented as being afraid of his shadow but must prove himself as a heroic figure in front of Betty before Amos does. The humor, as a result, never feels forced or out of place. It naturally arises from the situations created. The movie also takes its time establishing characters, setting up their personalities, so the audience can anticipate how each character will react in a given situation. The viewer may be able to predict certain moments in the movie because of this and know where everything is headed but that is only because the movie influenced so many following movies, the formula has become well known to us.

Although Lon Chaney is billed first it is Johnny Arthur whom I feel gives the best performance. Mr. Arthur carries the movie and is unquestionably the character whom the audience is meant to sympathize with most. All of his comedic touches work. A majority of the humor found in the movie is a result of Mr. Arthur's performance. It is the kind of role one might see Bob Hope play. Mr. Hope was in a pair of comedy / horror movies himself; "The Cat & the Canary" (1939) and "Ghost Breakers" (1940).

The casting of Mr. Chaney I believe was done to add respectability to the movie, especially since his name was associated with horror and the creative work he would do with make-up. By the time "The Monster" was made Mr. Chaney had already appeared in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) and in the same year would be seen in "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) and "The Unholy Three" (1925). In "The Monster" he isn't really playing a "character". The performance is over-the-top. I wouldn't call it funny, in the same way Mr. Arthur's performance is, but some might say it is exaggerated for comedic effective. I personally didn't find it funny but wouldn't say Mr. Chaney delivers a bad performance.

Like the best comedy / horror movies, "The Monster" correctly splits the movie in half. It does an effective job creating an eerie atmosphere in the sanatorium and creates a story which could have worked on its own as a horror movie, But, "The Monster" also gets the comedy right. So many comedy / horror movies aren't able to do that as they often focus on the comedy and spoofing the genre while not blending the two genres together.

Strangely though it is the humor though that keeps this from being something truly great. Compared to the silent version of "The Cat & the Canary", "The Monster" falls slightly short. "The Cat & the Canary" had some imaginative visuals, which did much to create atmosphere and go for scares. "The Monster" feels like if it had the choice between comedy and scares it would rather go for comedy.

Still, one can't deny "The Monster" is a well made movie and influential. The humor in the movie works and it creates an eerie atmosphere. The performances are effective as well and hit all the right notes. This is a movie audiences should see.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Film Review: Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man

"Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

It's a monster mash in the Universal horror film "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" (1943).

You wouldn't think a movie called "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" could possibly be a good movie. The title sounds like the punchline to a bad joke. My own memories played tricks on me. I have seen this movie three times in my life. The first time was as a young boy with my father. It scared me greatly (I didn't like horror movies as a child and scared easily). The second time I saw it was a few years ago. I wasn't scared by the movie but I remember having the impression I found it all rather boring. Watching the movie again I don't find it boring or scary yet I'm reluctant to criticize the movie too harshly.

"Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" is unique in the cannon of horror films released by Universal Pictures. This is the first time the studio took two of its great monster characters and featured them in the same movie. It would become a formula Universal would continue to use, later adding Dracula to the mix.

The movie was released two years after the original "Wolf Man" (1941) was made and works primarily as a sequel to that film with Lon Chaney Jr. reprising his role as Larry Talbot, a man who was bitten by a werewolf and now whenever the moon is full transforms into a beast himself. We discover fours years have passed since the first movie and Talbot has died. The movie begins with grave robbers sneaking into a cemetery to steal from Talbot's grave. Legend has it Talbot was buried with money and wears a gold ring. However, when the grave robbers open Talbot's casket, he is awaken, since the moon is full and kills one of the men. Talbot escapes the cemetery and is found sleeping on the street, bleeding.

Taken to a hospital Talbot ends up in the care of Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles). Talbot prevails upon the doctor to call the police and confesses to killing a man, revealing to the doctor that he is in fact a werewolf. The doctor however believes Talbot to be a mental patient. Feeling misunderstood and isolated, Talbot escapes the hospital to look for a old gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya), whose son was a werewolf and bite Talbot. He believes she will have answers for him and can inform him how he can kill himself, so he may know peace through death. Unfortunately the woman is not able to help him but insist she knows a doctor who can and together they travel.

The doctor the woman had in mind was Dr. Frankenstein, whom it is discovered has died along with a monster he created. Discouraged Talbot decides he must find Dr. Frankenstein's notes, so he may find out Dr. Frankenstein's secrets of life and death. In doing so Talbot finds the Monster (Bela Lugosi) and meets Dr. Frankenstein's granddaughter, Elsa (the beautiful Hungarian actress Ilona Massey).

By the time "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" was made Universal lost interest in its horror movies. As a result these movies were downgraded to "B" movies and made on "B" movie production values. Sadly it shows, though again, it is not entirely bad. The original "Frankenstein" (1931) was visually inspired by German Expressionism and the original "Wolf Man" had hints of film noir. "Son of Frankenstein" (1939) had a Gothic, minimalist design. "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" lacks any inspirational production design. The movie doesn't even do much to create atmosphere. At RKO producer Val Lewton was also making "B" horror movies but those movies dripped with atmosphere, since they didn't have a budget for special effects, and so they would play around with lighting and shadows, different camera angles. "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" is a "dark" movie and every scene looks the same, nothing visually is done to create suspense or horror.

There are some good moments though like when the grave robbers discover Talbot is still alive. After the robbers remove some wolfsbane buried with Talbot, he comes to life and we see his hand reach out and grab one of the robber's arm. The viewer knows the fate of the man as the robber pleads to his friend to help him.

I also like a sequence with the villagers celebrating a wine festival as we see a group of musicians and a singer (Adia Kuznetzoff, whom Laurel & Hardy fans will remember from "Swiss Miss" (1938) where he played a mean chef) perform an old folk song about life and death, which upsets Talbot and is when Elsa discovers what is wrong with him.

And finally the transformation sequences with Talbot turning into the wolf are very well done. It is still effective all these years later. Just as good as in the original movie.

Still there are too many things the movie does wrong to fully recommend it even though I have a slight fondness for it. The most obvious complaint would be the delayed confrontation between Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. In its current form the movie runs 73 minutes. Frankenstein does not battle the Wolf Man until the final few minutes of the movie. Additionally the movie ends a bit abruptly for my taste and I feel there is no resolution for many of the characters.

Some characters are poorly defined or not defined at all. Ms. Massey for example is not given much to work with. She is not seen until approximately 40 minutes into the movie and even then her dialogue and involvement is limited. Her only purpose in the movie it would seem is to look pretty, which I can report she accomplishes. The Dr. Mannering character starts off nicely and late into the movie, after reading Dr. Frankenstein's notes, quickly becomes a "mad doctor" himself and wants to restore the Monster to its full strength. Why? Where did this desire come from? Nothing proceeding this event led to Dr. Mannering slowly becoming invested in Dr. Frankenstein's work. It is merely a quick line of dialogue and poof, he has gone mad.

Of all the characters it is Talbot that is the best defined and the most relatable. The appeal of the movie lies on Mr. Chaney's shoulders. As in the "Wolf Man" Mr. Chaney captures the essence of a man struggling with his fate. It is what makes the Wolf Man the most interesting of all the Universal monsters. Talbot was an innocent man that through a great misfortune evil was thrust upon him. Dracula is the undead. Frankenstein a creation. But Talbot isn't an evil vampire or murderous creation. The character speaks to the duality of man; sinner and saint. The good and evil in us all. I believe Mr. Chaney's performance this time around carries a greater sense of sadness than in the original movie.

The movie's screenplay was written by Curt Siodmak, who also wrote the original "Wolf Man" as well as the classic Val Lewton horror film, "I Walked With  A Zombie" (1943). Much of his career was spent working in the horror genre. Roy William Neill became the fourth director brought into the Frankenstein franchise and spent a good portion of his career directing Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone, who starred in "Son of Frankenstein".

Of all the later monster movies released by Universal, it seems "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" may have been the last effective and best looking one. I consider it superior to "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942) which preceded it as well of "House of Frankenstein" (1944) which proceeded it.

Some tidbits about "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" is Bela Lugosi was first considered the play the role of Frankenstein's Monster in the original film but turned the part down since the character did not speak. Eventually Lugosi would play Dracula, a character he played on stage but was not the first choice for the movie role. This time around the Monster was supposed to speak, as he had done in prior movies, however, all of the character's dialogue was removed after shooting. At one point Mr. Chaney was considered to play both the Wolf Man and the Monster but because of the demands of make-up, the idea was scrapped. It has been said because of this movie we first see the Monster walk with his arms stretched out in front of him, in what has become known as "the Frankenstein walk". This was due to the Monster being blind, a result of an operation in "The Ghost of Frankenstein" but since all of the Monster's lines were removed from this movie, the audience doesn't know that, hence why his walk may not make sense to some. Finally you will see actors from other Frankenstein movies appear here. Dwight Frye has a small role as a villager. He was Dr. Frankenstein's assistant, Fritz, in the original movie. Also, Lionel Atwill plays the part of Mayor of the village. He was in "Son of Frankenstein" and "The Ghost of Frankenstein". And Patric Knowles was in "The Wolf Man".

"Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" is a half decent horror film which has some elements of the great horror films made at Universal. Don't think this is a campy film because of its title. Everything is played as serious as it can be with Lon Chaney Jr. coming out looking the best. Worth watching if you are familiar with the Universal monster movies otherwise I'd recommend only watching the original "Frankenstein" and "Wolf Man" and skip this one entirely. You can also see the influence this concept had on comic book movies made today like "Batman v Superman" (2016) and the creation of a Marvel Universe.