Slashers & Serial Killers in Review: Texas Chainsaw Massacre/ The Hills Have Eyes Remake Double Feature!
Fresh from Fright Fest we’re resuming our annual In Review series with a special double slasher feature with the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. Yes. Okay. First off, I understand that reboots and remakes are typical fodder for heated debate. Often, i would agree with the naysayers and who much rather prefer new stories instead of rehashed ones. HOWEVER…sometimes a reboot or remake is just what the doctor ordered, no? Consider Cronenberg’s 1986 The Fly versus Kurt Neumann’s 1958 original staring Vincent Price. Or Don Siegel’s 1956 take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers versus Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version. While these originals were themselves fantastic films, the remakes added to the story for a new generation of moviegoers. Today’s double feature films are not necessarily better films than the originals nor are the above mentioned movies, but they weren’t totally unnecessary. Right? Let me explain myself. Continue Reading
Fright Fest 2018: Nosferatu (1922)
Silence is terrifying. Sure, screams and loud sounds will make you jump; there is something eerie about the silence. When moving pictures were first introduced in the late 19th and early 20th century: sound was absent.
For most movies this added little benefit and a lot to the imagination, what did the character sound like, were birds singing in the background? Sound is important for the very survival of creatures of all kinds; it allows for prey to hear the predators approaching from the distance. The lack of silence allows the predator to kill, unnoticed.
Vampires in all accounts are the perfect predator, they blend in among us, hunt from the shadows and use the noise of the metropolis to stay silent. At least, the modern interpretations, but what if we take a look back in cinematic history, where sound was absent and the darkness could only be cured by the grace of light. Continue Reading
Kong: Skull Island (2017) REVIEW
Okay, seriously…have you seen the new Kong? For starters though, i’ll admit it is kinda strange taking on a creature feature review outside of the Creature Features in Review series. However, as I had the gumption to finally watch the latest of Kong movies, Kong: Skull Island, I felt compelled to write down some of my thoughts regarding said movie. There are no spoilers here, per say. Kong holds not mystery that hasn’t already been shown in the many previews and trailers that came out prior to the movie’s release. So, I don’t feel bad talking about it. Continue Reading
Creature Features in Review: Godzilla (1954)
Godzilla is one of the best examples of how science fiction and horror can relate certain fears within society and that they (the movies) are not just kids movies or nonsensical. I mean, sure, there are plenty of nonsensical movies out there, especially within the genre of horror and science fiction, but if I could be so brash as to say that a majority actually do serve a purpose. Storytelling has always been our way of relating concern or passing on wisdom, teaching the new generation our fears and our struggles and what threats, missteps, whatever, to look out for. Watching the original televised trailer for Godzilla (1954), it definitely begs the question of what Godzilla really symbolizes. The very first screenshot shows audiences a “once peaceful city of Tokyo, now laid in ruins…,” but given the historical context, I had to ask myself just what city was I really looking at, a fictional Tokyo, or a literal Hiroshima or maybe a literal Nagasaki? What is it that Japan seems to be afraid of? Thankfully, our guest author is here to help explain some of these things in his review. Please welcome, Kurt Thingvold.
Two notable things stand out in World War II: the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Why should they stand out? Easy, they were the beginning and the end point in our conflict with the Japanese. Both conflicts ended in multiple deaths, a beginning, and an end to the horrors of war. Millions dead—countries in shambles. America recovered, Japan recovered, but not before having to surrender their military forces in order to prevent Japan from re-arming and starting another war. This marked the end of World War II, the world remained in peace.
When Japan surrendered their forces it made the country feel weak and they feared invasion, while the invasion would never come—the fear remained—only in the last twenty years, or so have the Japanese fought to regain a glimmer of military presence. A second horror remained in the eyes of the Japanese people. Two Atomic bombs had obliterated their fellow countrymen and woman. The horrors of the war had never escaped the small country. Even through the decade following the war—the fear of nuclear weapons haunted their dreams—who was to defend their country, now, that a small defense force was in charge of keeping the invaders out, what if, they had to deal with a situation that had never become the small country?
In the1950’s, a Japanese film company wanted to make a film about the horrors of war— the original idea never came to fruition (based on the invasion of Indonesia, the Japanese refused visas). When producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was flying back to Japan after failed negotiations with the Indonesian government to shoot the film, he looked out at the ocean, and thought about a monster that comes from the sea and attacks the mainland! While the idea seemed to be a ludicrous idea, it would serve the film company well. The film company was known as Toho Studios. The Film would come to be known as Gojira (Godzilla).
The movie starts out in the ocean, we see a boat, the crew seems to be having a grand old time, singing, dancing and joking around, suddenly, a flash of lights, the boat begins to sink in a fiery mess, slowly, sinking below the ocean floor. Shortly after the sinking, a second boat is sent to investigate, the same flashes are seen, and the second boat has a meeting with the ocean floor, with few survivors. A fishing boat from the nearby island is also destroyed, causing the residents of the nearby island to venture into Tokyo to seek aid and relief as the fishing near the island have plummeted down to near threatening levels. Once the locals arrive they describe a large creature destroying their villages, the Japanese concerned they decide to send renowned paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane to investigate the islander’s claims. Once he and his team arrive on the island– they discover the village in almost ruins—Dr.Yahmane discovers a giant footprint of the massive creature, with a trilobite embedded within the footprint, which turns out to be radioactive. The village bell rings out and the creature finally reveals itself—the villagers dub it Gojira (Godzilla). After this horrifying discovery Yamane returns back to Japan and presents his findings that “Gojira” is a remnant of dinosaurs slumbering beneath the waves and the testing of atomic bombs have disturbed his sleep. The Japanese government responds by sending a fleet of ships to deploy bombs and try to destroy Godzilla. Which, causes the creature to rise and head towards the mainland.
Dr. Yamane’s daughter Emiko, who is engaged to a colleague. Dr. Serizawa, she does not love the man as she loves a young trawler operator Hideto Ogata, a young reporter arrives to interview Serizawa and he refuses. He does show Emiko, a secret project he is working on. In which, the air is removed from the water, causing fish and sea life to disintegrate. This Horrifies Emiko. “Gojira” begins to attacks the mainland, after a few short minutes the attack is over and he returns to the ocean. After the attack, the government consults with the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JDSF) to build a 100 ft. electrical tower to kill the creature. Dr. Yamane is distraught that they plan to kill the creature rather than studying it. Emiko and Ogata are waiting for her father, so they may have permission to wed. Ogata and Dr. Yamane, engage in a fierce vocal battle about the fate of the creature and Yamane orders Ogata to leave. “Gojira” Emerges again in Tokyo bay and attacks the city a second time. Ripping through the trap the JDSF had set, breathing his radioactive, melting the steel like wax. Godzilla continues his rampage destroying and killing thousands of citizens. After, the attack, we are introduced to the horrors of the previous night. The dead and wounded overcrowd the hospitals. Emiko runs to Ogata and tells him of Serizawa’s weapon the “Oxygen Destroyer” Both go to Serizawa and plead with him to use the Oxygen Destroyer on Godzilla and stop him once and for all. Serizawa hesitant to use the weapon, he decides to use the weapon, but not before destroying the documents. Ogata and Serizawa travel to where Godzilla was last spotted, both of them dive to the bottom of the ocean. Once they spot Godzilla, Serizawa plants the bomb, he motions for Ogata to surface. Serizawa cutting his own oxygen supply detonates the bomb. Destroying Godzilla and the secrets to the weapon with him.
We catch a glimpse of Godzilla rising from the ocean as he melts away. We are left with a quote from Yamane, as they mourn for their friend, Serizawa.
“I can’t believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species… But if we continue conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.”
While the plot may seem silly, it portrays its dark tones rather well—Godzilla being an allegory for nuclear threat/invasion, the characters interact with the creature with either horror or admiration. And a key scene that plays into this is where Yamane is describing the creature and its possible origins, and why it is so intent on destroying Tokyo. While, other players in that scene want it destroyed with no question. We see people struggling in awe on how to deal with a threat that seems new, but now have to deal with it at half their normal strength. Another scene that shows a real struggle and emulates of the idea that something of this magnitude (using nuclear technology) is where Emiko tells her father she plans to marry Ogata, and he agrees that Godzilla should be destroyed. These two scenes show a man struggling to convince others that what he wants is for the best. Knowing the power of what has occurred and what could occur. A nuclear attack was still a possibility in the 1950’s—not by intention, of course. Americans were still close enough to the country to accidentally cause more damage, an incident did occur, The Lucky Dragon No.7 was close enough to Bikini Atoll during a test to receive fallout from the explosion, causing major concern for the Japanese. (The first boat attacked in the movie was based on Lucky Dragon No.7). Another scene, which, we should play close attention to is when Godzilla first starts attacking Tokyo, setting the buildings on fire, destroying everything in his path. The JDSF is useless in stopping him. This plays homage to the attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima; there is even a brief mention of the attacks. A mother holder her children and trying to comfort them tells them in sobbing words. “We will be with father soon.” Indicating he was one of the victims of the bomb. Godzilla is a powerful force that relentlessly attacks the people of Japan, and themselves feel useless in stopping him.
Two years after the first film was made—an Americanized version of the starring Raymond Burr was released. While this version of the film feels is not as dark as the Japanese version. It still shows the horror of the Atomic bombs through the view of an American reporter, while the plot is the same, this version is still rated highly. The American version is a great companion, for a different view of the film. Just two years ago, we released another American Godzilla film, dealing with a different nuclear threat, plants going into meltdowns—this version also plays into the social effect of how we as people are ignorant to the dilemmas and threats that happen across our globe on a single day.
The music also emulated the themes of the film. Heroic and dingy sounds to expand the scenes, and draw you into the moment. While most of the music is accompanied by the monster’s roar, and footsteps it has the rare ability to summon the emotions and fears of the viewer. (Akira Ifukube went on composing for the series up until the mid-90’s). The scores themselves are memorable and are a joy to listen to on their own.
Godzilla is a movie everyone should see, regardless if you’re a historian or film buff. The movie portrays a lot of themes dealing with the atomic age and war, in general. While Godzilla has spawned off from the original message and horror of the first film, it still portrays a message of anti-nuclear weapons. During the sixties and seventies, the Godzilla films took over as a protector of people. All Godzilla films portray a message whether it’s from one of the sillier movies, or the dark depressing atmosphere of the first: We need to find a way to protect ourselves, we need to take a look at what we do on a daily basis and think about how it is going to affect ourselves, or the land and people around us. Overall, Godzilla may have changed over the last sixty years, but the message itself still remains the same.
Kurt Thingvold, no stranger to Machine Mean, was born and raised in IL. He finds passion in writing, that helps calm his demons. He grew up in a tough household that encouraged reading and studying. He spends his time writing in multiple of genres. His published short story, Roulette, can be found on Amazon. When not writing he can be found playing games, reading, or attempting to slay the beast known as “Customer Service”, which, he fails at almost every day. As mentioned, Kurt is a frequent flyer here on Machine Mean, you can also check out his previous review on Ridley Scott’s legacy movie Alien here.
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Get Knocked Up!
Okay, maybe the title of this post is a little what kids call”clickbaity,” but hey…I make no excuses. The world is what it is. Filled with click baits…and fake news sites…and paranoia…and silent conversations over Thanksgiving dinner… (sighs) Well, now that I have you here, assuming you fell for my ingenious trap, I’m more than ecstatic to announce the release of my new book, Conceiving. Now available on Amazon, B&N, and iTunes. This book really does feel like a long time coming, especially when considering that Dwelling and Emerging released back in December 2015, almost a full year ago. Anyhow, if you’re new to the series and don’t want to spend time catching up by reading the first two books, no worries. Information regarding the first two books is included in this new one without being drab, but only generally. So you know what happens and are not lost in this new book. If you’ve read both Dwelling and Emerging and have been waiting for this new book to release, I bid you welcome home. The real benefit of reading the entire series is the intimacy of getting to know the characters and experiencing why and/or what they are in Conceiving.
Conceiving is a supernatural thriller of which I would humbly compare to the likes of a mashup between Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Old and new readers will follow the somber adventures of Bobby Weeks, one of the major carry overs from the series, and Luna and Ronna Blanche, minor characters in the series that now have larger roles. New characters include Boris and Neville Petry, and yes Neville is a girl.
The Petry’s are my new favorite. A young couple wanting what most young couples want, a family, a dream home, and dream jobs. I imagined Boris like this “cool” history professor if such a thing can exist. He loves his area of expertise and wants to move up the ranks of his profession and among his peers. Like most academics, he wants to be respected and revered for his work. Neville, on the other hand, I saw as this young college educated woman who doesn’t really believe women need to be “stay at home” moms or wives, but choices to take on that role. She often compares herself to her mother, but not always positively.
In the fashion of how I typically tell stories, these individuals and groups begin separated, facing their own troubles alone, but there are forces at work pulling them together, inching them toward some cataclysmic event that will shatter their perception of reality and perhaps take more than just their sanity.
Conceiving is available on Amazon kindle or kindle app. You can get your copy here for the low price of $3.99……..https://goo.gl/4EWzSU
Or if you’re a traditionalist and prefer paperback, you can get your copy here for $15.99…….https://goo.gl/5pTAQ4
My Top 5 Favorite William Henry Pratt (aka Boris Karloff) Movies
It has just occurred to me that I have never written a biographical piece on English-India born character actor William Henry Pratt, aka Boris Karloff. Never. Not once. Sure, I’ve had other writers on here talking about some of the movies he has been in, namely Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and even The Mummy, but never, not once have I stepped up to plate. That ends here. For those who are betrothed to the dark and unusual of filmage, that this, horror movies, the name Boris Karloff is not unfamiliar, it is, in fact, legendary. And for good reason. Even tempered natured folks who do not ordinarily dabble in nightmare landscapes know, rudimentary, who Boris is, that is, the Monster, that Frankenstein monster that is. And they wouldn’t be wrong. That’s his role, after all, no skirting the issue or sipping from your craft beer or wine, dressed in some flannel button up with a shaggy beard, pretending as if he never endured the makeup. Just because you saw him in The Black Cat (1934) or Targets (1968) doesn’t negate his crowning achievement. He was the Monster. Don’t walk through the past with blinders on. He will always be the Monster. And here and now, I’d like to correct my above-mentioned misstep and celebrate his career (his work), as it is, highlighting briefly my top 5 favorite Boris Karloff movies.
5. House of Frankenstein (1944). I’m not entirely sold on House of Frank, particularly concerning the Dracula character and how easily he was dispatched; however, I cannot negate Boris’s role as Dr. Niemann, a mad scientist who has supposedly discovered Frankenstein’s secret to immortality and the creation of a new human race of perfectly made people. His role here, obviously, is not the Creature. And as a tip of the hat, I would say he was very dark in this movie, uncaring of dispatching anyone who got in his way.
4. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). Say what you will, but I would feel horrible if I did not mention this classic film. Especially now that we’re shuffling towards the holiday season and Turkey Day tomorrow, I would be amiss to ignore one of my favorite Christmas movies. Even at the tender age of 79, Boris’s voice, his deep growls, and slight lisp is uncanny. His performance as the narrator is actually what draws me to the cartoon. If it had been anyone else, I’m not sure I’d enjoy it as much.
3. Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Seems like a total cop-out, but no, back to my above argument, we cannot ignore his masterpiece of horror cinematography. The Frankenstein monster was a role that was limited in dialogue, and so he had to manipulate audience reactions and emotions through gesture and skewed hardened facial expressions. Bride of Frankenstein showcases the evolution of the creature, from mute stumbler to an array of humanistic-like qualia. He was driven, not by fear, but by necessity, the most basic human desire, companionship, a mate.
2. The Black Cat (1934). One of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in a string of Poe-inspired films, among such as The Raven (both 1935 and 1963), House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, etc etc, The Black Cat wins the prize, for me at least. The story is adapted for the 1930s era and is based just after The Great War, which ended in 1918. Dr. Vitus Werdegast is on a quest for revenge against the man who took his beloved wife and daughter, an old friend and comrade in arms, Hjalmar Poelzig. Poelzig is harboring a few dark secrets, most of which he shares openly, all but for his insidious religion. Caught in the middle is a young American couple on their honeymoon. The Black Cat is not action oriented, but rather, filled with an overwhelming sense of dread and some of the best dialogue I’ve heard in a long time. If you’ve been holding out, you need to see this movie. This 82-year-old movie may shock you.
1. The Mummy (1932). Without a shadow of a doubt, unashamedly, The Mummy is my all time favorite movie starring Boris Karloff. Why? Sure, we know and love and celebrate him for his role as Frankenstein’s monster, however, for me, his total sum of charisma and stage performance is defined in his role as Ardath Bey, aka Imhotep, priest of Pharaoh Amenophis, mummified for attempting to resurrect his forbidden lover, the princess Ankh-es-en-amon. regarding the other Mummy movies, though Lon Chaney Jr. did his best with what he had to work with, they did not, however, capture the tragedy that is Imhotep. Is he the villain? Perhaps. He certainly has his own agenda in mind. But there’s more. He’s a romantic. Deeply so. All he wants is his beloved princess. Not power or gold or influence, nothing political. He manipulates those he must. And strikes down those who get in his way. Love is not all puppy dogs and rainbows, it’s brutal at its core. Violent even. A man desperate enough to do whatever he must so he can attain that which he desires the most. True love. And Karloff, he plays the role wonderfully.
And there you have it folks, my top 5 Boris Karloff movies. I’m sure you’ve got a few in mind. What are some of your favorite Boris Karloff movies? Comment below in the comment box to enter for your chance to win a signed copy of my latest book, Conceiving (Subdue Book 3), scheduled to release next week on November 29, 2016. Now available for preorder on Amazon (wink wink), you can get your copy here. And if you are curious about my other books, you can find them on the altar of Amazon by following this link here. As always, you can stay connected with me on Facebook, where I post reviews, new book info, and other horror related topics. Thanks for reading everyone!
The Sultan of Splatter
If the title of this post doesn’t give away what we’ll be talking about, well…shit. We’ve got some work ahead of us. As any fan of horror, the one thing that we deranged nerds tend to appreciate, even more than the actors themselves, are the special effects guys (and gals). To be frank, why do we watch horror? To be entertained, fundamentally, correct? We’re not here to find enlightenment, though if it happens then all the better. No, much like the poor bloodthirsty souls crammed into Rome’s gladiatorial colosseum, we cry out for escape from the realities of our plight. And what brings the greatest escape, the tastiest of entertainment? Gore. And all the horrible ways characters get done in by the monster, the serial killer, the freak in the castle, the alien invaders, the thing hiding the ice, whatever, we expect gore and lots of it and not just quantity but quality as well. For horror fans, special effects take front row. We critique effects just as harshly as we look at the screenwriters and even more so maybe than the directors. Who hasn’t sat through a terribly written and directed horror movie walking away loving it simply because it had awesome effects? It’s often the first thing we look at.
And with every decade, every generation, there are particular styles of special effects. In the 1940s and leading through the early 60s, it was what wasn’t seen that was supposed to scare you, and blood came from a bottle of Hersheys Chocolate. But starting in the late 1960s, following the advancement of technicolor, under the direction of guys like Alfred Hitchcock and Herschell Gordon Lewis, filmmakers began pushing those on-screen limitations and inventing new ways to entertain with effects. Dick Smith is rightfully the real pioneer of realism in special effects. His crowning achievement, realistic gore in movies such as The Exorcist, The Godfather, Scanners, and more. And Dick did more than pioneer the industry, he set the table for the rise of a new generation who would bring us even better work to the history cinematography.
Tom Savini was inspired, not by Dick Smith or Herschell or even Frankenstein’s maker Jack Pierce, though no doubt they each impacted him in some way. No. Tom credits his inspiration to legendary early silent film star, Lon Chaney Sr, aka, the Man of a Thousand Faces. Chaney had a reputation in Hollywood for coming up and developing his own props and makeup, most of it often extremely uncomfortable, for the characters he played on screen, some of the most notable ones being The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Norte Dame, and London After Midnight. In 1957, Universal released the biopic of Lon Chaney Sr., and young Tom fell in love and began experimenting with special effects makeup, first on himself and later his friends. Eventually, Tom attended Point Park University and later Carnegie-Mellon University (following his tour of duty in Vietnam). After enlisting in the U.S. Army, Tom served as a combat photographer in the Vietnam War. It is during this service Tom most credits his development of special effects, taking the harsh realities of war and applying it to his later work.
The true birth of practical effects, or the surge of gore, really started in the 1970s, in such movies as Dawn of the Dead, I Drink Your Blood, and The Incredible Melting Man, among others. And it was during this era Tom Savini started his career which would eventually award him such titles as The Sultan of Splatter and The Godfather of Gore (though to be fair, I think this title ought to go to Dick Smith, don’t you think?). In 1974, Savini worked on Bob Clark’s masterpiece (but oddly forgotten) Deathdream, the story of a Vietnam soldier who comes home after being killed in action. I’ve often wondered what Tom thought about this flick, having served in Vietnam himself. Deathdream doesn’t present itself as being either pro or anti war, though we can certainly guess. What it does present is an overwhelming sense of questioning of our individual involvement in the affairs of the nation, beautifully told from the simplicity of a small town family unit. I’ll stop myself there. I can go on for a tangent with Deathdream, in fact, I’ve got a review of the movie…if you’re interested, you can read it here.
Next, Tom worked again with Bob Clark in the movie Deranged. Later, he worked with fellow Pitsburg allium, George A. Romero, in the underappreciated fright flick, Martin. Let’s slow down here before moving on with Tom’s other work. Whenever I think of George A. Romero I first think of…zombies, yes, it’s true, shocker, right? But I also tend to think of Tom Savini after thinking about zombies. While Tom was in Vietnam, Romero was making Night of the Living Dead, but thanks to their relationship developed in Martin, they were able to collaborate in Romero’s second of his Dead Trilogy, Dawn of the Dead in 1978. If you know me, you know I’m a huge fan. Dawn of the Dead is without a doubt one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Not only was the screenwriting, the direction, the acting totally above par, but the practical effects also shined. Even today, though the blood is certainly not realistic, it is still effective. When the zombie-fro dude takes a chunk out of that lady’s shoulder, it still gives me the creeps. That’s a 38-year shelf-life, and it’s still aging, still perfecting like a fine wine.
Dawn of the Dead also opened new doors for Savini. In a slew of films, he would eventually be invited by Sean S. Cunningham to work on a new project titled Friday the 13th. Clearly, I’m picking all of my favorite movies Tom was involved in, and why sudden I? I’m the one writing this dang article! That being said, I’m sure there are other horror nerds who tend to lean in other directions regarding the Sultan’s work. Some may prefer Maniac or Eyes of the Stranger or The Burning or The Prowler, all are fine films worth considering. But for me, one of his crowning achievements was Friday the 13th. It’s because of this movie I question why Savini hasn’t been given the nickname The Father of Jason Voorhees. It was Tom’s creation that would spawn into a long lasting and fruitful franchise. Loved by many; despised by some. And as any tragic greek tale, Tom would eventually be asked to destroy his creation in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.
And his career continues. In 1985, Tom was given the Saturn Award for Best Make-Up Effects in Geroge A. Romero’s third “dead” installment, Day of the Dead (1985). And he moved on to contribute to too many movies and television shows to mention here, working as not only a special effects guru but also as a director and an actor/stuntman. Without a doubt, his love for horror movies is very evident. He even started his own school for special effects by opening Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Effects Program at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen, Pennsylvania and authored several books, including but not limited to Grande Illusions I and II and Horror F/X. For fans of the late 70s and 80s horror, it’s difficult not knowing his work and the work of other legendary special effects artists. It’s what we wanted most, the gore. Today, though, I have to wonder, are the makeup artist and gore masters even thought of. If I asked your typical The Walking Dead fan who did the practical effects for the show, would they know? I seriously doubt it. The answer is Greg Nicotero, BTW, who also worked on The Evil Dead 2 and Day of the Dead, and who is also from Pitsburg, which makes me seriously question what exactly does Pitsburg put in their drinking water. Maybe this is something we should start doing. No, not the drinking water, the “other” people who make movies possible. Even I do not know all the names of the effects or prop masters and all the other behind the scenes people working tirelessly to bring us our horrific entertainment. This is especially worse for TV as the credits flash by to make time for more commercials. So, if you’re a fan of horror, if you indulge to be entertained by the grotesque, after the show, after the movie, look up the effects team, the writers, the props, the composers, and read their names. you may be surprised to find a lot of these people have been involved in a lot of work you happen to be a fan of.
Born November 3rd, 1946, today marks Tom Savini’s 70th birthday. And I wish him many more birthdays to come. Thank you, Tom, for your work and bringing not just me but countless others hours and hours of wonderfully sadistic entertainment. Cheers!
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Universal Monsters in Review: a monstrous survey
For the past nine months, my weekends have had the added benefit of screening a new Universal Monster movie on Saturday or sometimes Sunday nights, from Frankenstein to The Wolf Man and all the lesser known sequels and House specials. The majority of which I had not previously seen. They were new and largely unknown to me. And of those unknowns, yes a few were just god-awful, but for the most part, the majority were intriguing, a few breathtakingly mesmerizing, and fewer still, though odd and unusual, they held a certain charm about them. When watching movies with 86 years of separation between then and now, you’re bound to find conflicts with storytelling and filmmaking that go against how you understand them. Things were done differently then. People held different beliefs and ideology than today. Different cultures and even customs. Some of those things are pleasant reminders of a simpler time, the way dialogue was crafted with care and chivalry, poetic in its own right. And there were also aspects that were uncomfortable to watch, such as sexism and discrimination towards women and those of African or even Asian descent. Remembering the historical context of the films can help relieve some of the conflicts we feel with those nostalgic glitches.
When Dracula released in February of 1931, the world was in a state of flux. The economic depression (known as The Great Depression) was setting root in not just America, but all over the world. In Germany, the first pangs of the rise of Nazism was felt. Though defeated by a majority win, in just two years time the elected German president, Hindenburg, will elect Adolf Hitler as chancellor . Eugenics was a pop science in which the sterilization of unfit parents and the “euthanasia” of “the defective” and “useless eaters” is making the rounds, not just in Nazi Germany, but also on the shores of the United States. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws are passed (the first major steps in annihilation and extermination of European Jewry, ie, The Final Solution). In 1936, the Spanish Civil War begins. In 1937, the Rape of Nanjing, which is basically the systematic rape, torture, and murder of more than 300,000 Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers as they invade China. 1939, Germany invades Poland, and by December 7th, 1941, the Day that will Live in Infamy, the once “civilized” world is thrown back into global conflict. These were uncertain times, to say the least. And we have to keep in mind that this was the backdrop during the production of the majority of the Universal Monster movies. Intentional or not, history shapes and continues to do so.
Every decade, every generation has had a take on the original Universal monsters. Thru the 1950s, into the 60s, 70s, 1980s, 90s, 2000s, and even today, those pillar stories are still being told. And that is a part of what we’ll discuss here today. Those movies we call remakes, the hits of those and the blunders, as well as what waits in store for those of, let’s say, my daughter’s generation. What will the monsters look like tomorrow? This is roughly about 60 years of film history, so we will not tackle each and every monster movie, but rather a survey of each decade. Savvy? Let us begin.
When the last of the Universal monsters, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), aired, a new generation of monsters was born. The 1950s was a strange era, filled with mutated creatures and aliens from other worlds. Big hits during this decade included Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, Godzilla, Forbidden Planet, and Them! (just to name a few). The classic Universal monsters faded into obscurity in America, becoming cult-B movies for those brave enough to venture into the movie theaters with duel Herman Cohen produced flicks, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and the return of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970, a mashup of classic Universal and atomic age science. While the monsters went B in America, they seem to thrive across the pond in the UK as major productions. Universal monsters were reborn in Hammer Production films and a great majority of these are still some of the best monster movies on the market, even by today’s standards. Movies, such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy captivated a new generation of monster lovers. The Mummy (1959) starring both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, I found was especially good and horrific compared to the original Universal films which were not beloved by many.
Trends from the 1950s continue on into the 1960s. The majority of monsters are the creations of mad science or invaders from other worlds. Godzilla and Mothra being some of the most popular monsters during this era, and other very unique monster created by a couple of rogue filmmakers in Pittsburg, Night of the Living Dead (1968). But that doesn’t mean the classics Universal monsters had died away, there some… Hammer Productions continued with The Evil of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Brides of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, and The Mummy’s Shroud, and NOT FORGETTING the best of the best, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In the United States, two classic Universal monsters were melded with the new age craze with the release of Atomic Age Vampire (1960) and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965) and super low-budget flick Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). Leaving only one major production, a made for children stop-motion animated musical comedy titled Mad Monster Party? (1967) starring Boris Karloff in his last appearance in any of the classic Universal Monster movies as the voice of Victor Frankenstein.
Hammer Productions continued to flourish with classic monster films such as The Horror of Frankenstein, Frankenstein, and the Monster from Hell, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. During this decade we’re introduced to a few well known B-Italian (and German and French included) classic monster movies with Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (starring Lon Chaney in his last reprisal in a “Universal” monster film), The Werewolf Versus The Vampire Women, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, and the very strange Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein). Now, for classic Universal monsters in the United States, the 1970s gave birth to a very interesting phase called Blaxploitation. In 1972, on the eve of Blaxploitation, we’re blessed with the likes of Blacula, the tale of an African prince (William Marshall) is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula (Charles McCauley). Sealed in a coffin for several lifetimes, “Blacula” reawakens in 1970’s Los Angeles. Leaving a trail of bloodless victims in his wake. And Blacula returns in 1973 with Scream Blacula Scream. Some other noteworthy Blaxploitation-classic-Universal-monster films include 1974’s Blackenstein and Ganja & Hess.
BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!!!
In 1974, Mel Brooks produced and directed one of the greats spoofs set within the classic Universal monsters lexicon…Young Frankenstein, starring the late great Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Teri Gar, and Marty Feldman (to name a few). Though I am a rabid fan of both Hammer and Blaxploitation films, my love for this era falls directly on Young Frankenstein. The film was absolutely respectful of the roots of Frankenstein and even used what remained of the original set. Not to mention was wonderfully written, directed, and acted. Less not forgetting a few other honorable mentions, Werewolves on Wheels, The Boy who Cried Werewolf, Werewolf Woman, and Legend of the Werewolf are all wonderfully gritty and fun to watch.
It’s really hard to hate the 1980s, especially regarding the volumes of horror movies produced during this VHS era. So many monster films and the birth of a new sub-genre, The Slasher, and the reclassification of Universal tropes, whereas the Gillman from the Creature from the Black Lagoon, became Swamp Thing and Toxic Avenger. One of the more obvious “Universal” carry-overs would be Jerry Warren’s Frankenstein Island, starring John Carradine, one of the last surviving members from the original Universal Monster films. But what made this era really great were three films that took the concepts developed by the traditional Universal tropes and created something new from the old.The Howling, An American Werewolf in London and Silver Bullet took what The Wolf Man did in 1941 and set it in a more reality-toned story if you can believe that. The rules of werewolfism became more complex and reminded audiences how fun these kinds of movies can be if done properly. Now…I’d be a horrible film historian/fan if I failed to mention the one single most recognizable “Universal” heavy monster movie from the 1980s. That’s right folks, I’m talking The Monster Squad (1987). This movie took every 80s cliche and every classic Universal Monster cliche, boiled it in a stew and served it with nard pudding. You either love it or you hate, and if you hate you’re probably too terrified to say so, considering how many damn people love this movie!
Looking back on the 90s is like looking through a kaleidoscope. There were so much realism and so much snark the 90s is often really hard to separate diamonds from the squares regarding monster flicks. The 90s gave us more creature features, not necessarily mutated or atomic…just…creatures. And as far as the use of classic “Universal” monster tropes, we have two different extremes. On one end, we get Frankenhooker (1990), a raunchy B-movie where a New Jersey mad doctor (James Lorinz) rebuilds his girlfriend (Patty Mullen) with body parts from exploded hookers. And not forgetting (though I wish I could) Mel Brooks directed Dracula: Dead and Loving It. But on the other extreme, we get these melodrama films such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), both of which did their best to follow the source material that inspired the original Universal Monsters. In the middle of all this dueling complexity, we have at least one movie that keeps to both melodramatic and B-ish action, one of my person favorites from this decade, NO, not Monster Mash, I’m talking 1998’s comic to film flick, Blade starring Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristoffer, and Stephen Dorff.
And I guess I’d be amiss if I did not mention one of the first more modern remakes directly linked to the Universal Monster classics. In 1999, The Mummy released starring (then loved now somewhat shunned) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Oded Fehr, and America’s favorite weirdo Kevin J. O’Connor. The remake followed most of the basic tenets of the original Mummy while kicking up the action. I remember actually being really impressed with the film and truth be told…I had seen this one before screening the original. Unfortunately, it suffers from what most 1990s movies suffer from, the crappy use of CGI. But overall, The Mummy is still a fun romp on a late night.
(Shhhh…if we’re quiet and don’t make any sudden movements, no one will mention 1997’s An American Werewolf in Paris…)
The 2000s were not entirely unkind to Universal Monster tropes. Strange…but not unkind. Universal Studios themselves had put out a what should have been a return or at least a nod to the classic hey-day with Van Helsing (2004)…and while they did capture the feeling of watching a Universal Monster flick, the story itself and odd choices with effects and the horribly outdated CGI dropped the bottom out on this movie. It’s amazing how much of a turd Van Helsing is, and it could have been so much more, a virtual House of Dracula, giving audiences werewolves and vampires and hunchbacks and even Frankenstein’s creature but instead filmmakers ignored the lore and added strange new rules that didn’t make sense, making a complete mess of a movie.
The decade was not without some gems. I thought Dog Soldiers (2002) was both brilliant and horrifying. There was also Ginger Snaps (2000) and Ginger Snaps II which were both smart. And, though not a lot of folks liked this one, I thought it was fun and an awesome throwback to the classic vibe of Universal Monsters, 2004’s Wes Craven directed Cursed starring Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, and Joshua Jackson. Another fan favorite during this decade was action-thriller Underworld (2003), starring the very leather-clad Kate Beckinsale and the always magnetic Bill Nighy. Underworld has developed into a series franchise, putting audiences into a world of vampires versus werewolves. The sequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans released back in 2009. All of which all fun and entertaining, though very obviously films in a post-Matrix world with all that leather and gun-play. Another vampire hit, for me at least, was 30 Days of Night (2007) which shed the “it’s fun to be a vampire” motif and actually allowed them to be monsters. And while sequels are not always a favorite subject matter, we cannot discount Blade II (2002), this round being directed by then up and coming monster director Guillermo del Toro… And be honest here, who doesn’t love a movie with Ron Pearlman in it? But let’s stop there. No need mentioning Blade: Trinity…ugh!
And as for the best of the 2000s decade, my hat goes off to Let the Right One In (2008), a Swedish “romantic” horror film directed by Tomas Alfredson, based on the 2004 novel of the same title by John Ajvide Lindqvist about a bullied 12-year-old boy named “Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) living with his mother in suburban Sweden, meets his new neighbor, the mysterious and moody Eli (Lina Leandersson), they strike up a friendship. Initially reserved they slowly form a close bond, but it soon becomes apparent that she is no ordinary young girl. Eventually, Eli shares her dark, macabre secret with Oskar, revealing her connection to a string of bloody local murders.” Let the Right One In was one of those “unknowns,” coming right out of left field. It was a slow burn, but so atmospheric and moody and dark…it gives me the chills just thinking about the movie.
Here we are…roughly 70 years of film history. And with just six (nearly 7) years into the new decade, it seems as if those classic Universal monster tropes are making an epic comeback. Or at least, that’s the vibe I’m getting. Let’s start things off here with my favorite, the 2010 direct remake of the original 1941 The Wolf Man, with a star-studded cast including Benicio del Toro, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, and David Schofield to name a few. Now, I’m not saying the movie didn’t have some flaws. The fight scene between Hopkins and Toro is…well…a little odd, but for the majority of the film, the effects and even added CGI wasn’t too shabby. Considering the original is my preferred archetype regarding werewolf stories, I pretty much fell head over heels for this one. And wait, there’s more! Not only did we get a directly linked werewolf movie, but it looks as if the indie film community was filling in where Hollywood failed to capitalize. Consider this fan-favourite and truly underrated horror flick, Late Phases (2014), about a secluded retirement community plagued by mysterious and deadly attacks until a grizzled blind war veteran moves in, rallies the residents, and discovers a beast is behind the killings. Another unrated flick and extremely well done, Stake Land (2010) gives the classic vampire trope a plague-like treatment.
2013’s Wer was another surprise, giving lycanism a hereditary twist and 2012’s Werewolf: The Beast Among Us wasn’t too shabby for a largely unknown action thriller. And 2013’s Frankenstein’s Army was just bizarre enough to be entertaining. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) was a smart and surprise hit among monster fans, where residents of a worn-down Iranian city encounter a skateboarding vampire (Sheila Vand) who preys on men who disrespect women. And I thought Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) was good for a late night screening.
Now…because I’m a dad (totally using this as an excuse), I have to mention one of my top favorites thus far for this decade before moving on to anything else. Hotel Transylvania (2012) was absolutely brilliant. Fun. Funny. And full of classic monster tropes. The story goes, “When monsters want to get away from it all, they go to Count Dracula’s (Adam Sandler) Hotel Transylvania, a lavish resort where they can be themselves without humans around to bother them. On one special weekend, Dracula invites creatures like the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and others to celebrate the 118th birthday of his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). However, an unforeseen complication unfolds when an ordinary human unwittingly crashes the party and falls in love with Mavis.” Say what you will, but I love this movie!
As for the duds…though I still haven’t screened this one, I’ve heard that the steady-cam take on the Mummy monster trope The Pyramid (2014) was not very good. The concept sounded interesting…maybe I’ll give this one a go before passing final judgment. The same for Dracula: Untold (2014), I just haven’t gotten around to watching it, but I’ve heard that it was decently entertaining. And I still haven’t caught up with We Are The Night (2010) or Byzantium (2012), both of which follow a more feminine-centric story trope. One dud that I did actually watch was comic-book based I, Frankenstein (2014). “Two centuries after Dr. Frankenstein assembles and reanimates his creature, Adam (Aaron Eckhart) is still living. He becomes embroiled in a war between two immortal races: gargoyles, the traditional protectors of mankind, and evil demons. Since Adam is neither human nor demon, gargoyle Queen Leonore (Miranda Otto) and demon Prince Naberius (Bill Nighy) each want him for their own purposes. It is up to Adam to discover his inner humanity and the reason for his continued existence.” The movie could have been so much more but casting pretty-boy Eckhart as the monster…well…it seemed to reek of trying too much to be like Underworld to have any real chance of being its own movie. The concept was fun and the addition to the Frankenstein lore…so, at least it had that going for it.
Also on my to watch list: What We Do in the Shadows (2015), and Freaks of Nature (2015). It just seems, part of my problem is that there are so many classic films to choice from my tastes typically shy away back to the 1970s or 80s. That’s not to say the 2010s have nothing to offer, just look at the list above and you’ll find more than one blockbuster worthy of your time. And the year is not even over yet. A think, largely, everyone has their own tastes for horror, and this is especially true for those of the classic Universal Monster breed. My biggest disappointment is the lackluster treatment of my favorite Universal Monster, The Mummy. While the 1999 remake did a rather bang-up job, that’s been…what, 17 years now? I have to wonder what the aversion is. I’m assuming it’s because the Mummy is not a “fan favorite.” Vampires and werewolves sell movie tickets, is that it? You put a screenwriter who loves the trope, some solid practical effects, and a director who knows what they’re doing, and I guarantee you a great film will be made.
And now…a peek into the FUTURE….
As you’ve no doubt heard, Universal Studios will be reviving from their vaults, the return of the classic Universal Monsters in a new series that will eventually tie together all our beloved baddies. This news has been generating for about two years now and it looks as if they’re finally getting the ball rolling. The first monster up for theatric return will be The Mummy, with a June 2017 release date, and starring none other than Tom “Top Gun” Cruise. It feels fortuitous that my favorite Universal monster will be up first in this new rival. The Wolf Man is said to be next, with a 2018 release date and rumors of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson taking on the lead role. Scarlett Johansson is rumored to be on Universal’s radar for the led in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Angelina Jolie for Bride of Frankenstein. Johnny Depp for The Invisible Man. And supposedly, Dracula: Untold‘s end sequence opens the door for what all these remakes will be leading towards. At first, I had my reservations. Some of the descriptions for what the producers wanted sounded un-horror and un-betrothed to what the originals were. But it seems those rumors were just that, rumors. As more information has released, the more excited and cautiously optimistic I’ve become. If you’ve tuned into any of the reviews in this series, you’ve no doubt noted how much of a fan I am of the classic Universal Monster. And by-Geroge, I’m glad they’ve finally decided to bring them back to their full glory.
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new paranormal series, The Subdue Books, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs here at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.
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Universal Monsters in Review: Drácula (1931)
Swooping down from the Carpathian Mountains comes…Senior Drácula…. HOLD UP! You may be wondering, “But Thomas, haven’t you already published a review on Dracula?” Oh yes. I certainly have. If you’re brave enough to search the catacombs of Machine Mean, you’d be likely to stumble across a few. From memory, I’m fairly certain I’ve written a review on the Roxy Theater initial release of Dracula. I’ve written a post on Dwight Frye who played Renfield. And I’m pretty sure I’ve written a post celebrating Bela Lugosi, who we all know and was in fact buried as Dracula. But now comes the time, my friends, when we finally get to review the Spanish version of Dracula. According to film historians and most of everyone else in the biz, it was not uncommon for Universal Studios and most of Hollywood to produce Spanish or French or even German adaptations of their films. The unique thing about Drácula is that the Spanish version was filmed during the night on the same set and during the same time as the one we’ve all come to love and adore. That’s right folks, Dracula and Drácula were filmed at the same time, the American Todd Browning directed version during the day, and the Spanish George Melford during the night. The only real difference being the director, the cast, and subtle differences in wardrobe. In fact, according to Lupita Tovar, the Mexican-American actress who played Eva (love interest of both Harkin and Drácula), in the new introduction offered in the Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection, said that because the Spanish film was done on the same set as the American version, the actors used the same markings on the floor that directed them where to stand while being filmed. In this way, Drácula is a near perfect shot-for-shot version of the original.
Now, given the near perfect similarities between the two films, there’s been a rumor among horror fanatics and run-of-the-mill fans alike. The rumor is that the Spanish directed Dracula is better than the American shot version. There is no secret of the troubles Todd Browning’s version faced. Watching the movie even now, one can see how it seems pieced together with more than a few mishaps on stage. The one saving grace was the powerful magnetism of the cast of actors, mostly Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye (if you ask me). In transparency, I must confess, last night as I inserted the DVD, my thoughts went back to those rumors, of how the Spanish version was superior to the original. And after watching the wonderful Lupita Tovar give the introduction, one would think certainly the rumors were true. Well…I’m sure you’re asking by now, “Was it? Was the Spanish version better than the American?” Before we get into that, let’s back things up for a moment and fill in some gaps for those readers who have not yet watched Dracula or even read the Bram Stroker novelisation (poor souls).
Here is a synopsis of the American film:
The dashing, mysterious Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), after hypnotizing clerk Renfield (Dwight Frye) into his mindless slave, travels to London and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon Dracula begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires. When he sets his sights on Mina (Helen Chandler), the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is enlisted to put a stop to the count’s never-ending bloodlust.
And here is the synopsis of the Spanish film:
Soon after beginning work for Conde Dracula (Carlos Villarias), the clerk Renfield (Pablo Alvarez Rubio) learns that his employer is, in fact, a vampire who lives on human blood. Now under Dracula’s spell, Renfield helps his master travel to London, where the vampire takes another victim (Carmen Guerrero). Dracula also has eyes on the lovely Eva (Lupita Tovar), but her fiancé, Juan Harker (Barry Norton), and a wise professor named Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) seek to stop him.
Some slight differences but otherwise pretty much the same. As it should be, given they’re both working with the same script. One of the biggest differences that I noticed right away was how much more easily it was to follow along with the plot of the Spanish version of Dracula. If that was more of my familiarity with the subject or not, I cannot say for certain, but I did find it easier this time around. And even though the Spanish crew was using the same sets as the American one, those sets seemed to have better lighting, maybe this has to do with them filming at night rather than during the day, but the mountains and rooms and villages looked brighter and I enjoyed getting another perspective of the uniqueness and craftsmanship of those designs. The costumes looked mirror image to those of the American version of the film, the one difference (that I noticed) was the design of dresses Eva and her friend wore, which is to say, a little more low cut in the breast region. Lupita Tovar comments on the same during her introduction of the film, quoting that the director had told her the dresses made them look sexy. Watching the film today, the design feels on point to what we normally see in more classy movies, however, I can imagine watching this back in 1931 during a more conservative film era.
The real nitty-gritty for me boils down, not to stages or costumes or scripts or lighting, but the actors themselves. Did the Spanish-American actors outdo the originals? Perhaps I’m bias, seeing how I’m a huge fan of the original…that being said, I had some qualms with some of the performances in the Spanish version. The biggest star of Dracula will inevitably be Dracula. In the original, we were introduced to Bela Lugosi, a very exotic actor (at the time). With Drácula we were introduced to Carlos Villarias. Both actors were largely unknown, and both were recent immigrants to California, Lugosi hailing from Belguim and Carlos from Spain. Despite Carlos’s advantage of being able to act while speaking his native tongue, Bela to me was the better of the two Draculas. It is even more amazing when we consider how Bela was not yet proficient with the English language during the time when Dracula was being filmed and recited the script phonetically from memory. Now, I’m not saying Carlos was a bad actor. He was good, it just…his portrayal as Dracula felt very comedic to me. His facial expressions were, to be frank, hilarious, and thus it was hard to take him seriously.
Secondly, both versions of the lawyer/clerk Renfield were played marvelously by both Dwight Frye and Pablo Alvaerez Rubio. They both felt very empathetic and loathsome…however, again perhaps due to my bias as a fan of the original, Dwight Frye gave the role the extra added creepiness that brought the movie to a whole other level. I was completely fine with Pablo as Renfield until the boat scene with the dock crews searching for survivors and discover the poor clerk below deck. That image of Fyre looking up from the staircase and his maniacal giggle still gives me chills. All Pablo offered was laugh like some loon. And there were a few other scenes, like when Renfield crawled on the ground toward the fainted nurse, Dwight seemed to me like a spider, Pablo…well, I don’t know what he was doing.
Third, the only other really important character to get right would be Professor Van Helsing. In the American version, we are treated to the likes of Edward Van Sloan. In the Spanish version, we get Eduardo Arozamena. Both performances were pretty much the same, in fact, both actors even looked a lot alike. The only difference being the subtle charismatic acting of Van Sloan versus a more pragmatic acting by Arozamena. For me, personally, again perhaps due to my bias, I prefer the American version of Van Helsing. As for the damsel, a truism for most Universal Monster movies during this era, again both Mina (Helen Chandler) and Eva (Lupita Tovar) were very well done. But, looking closer, a think I prefer Lupita Tovar’s performance over Helen Chandler’s. She was not only more exotic, but she was also more sympathetic, in my opinion.
So…who was better? Dracula or Drácula. Were the rumors true? No, and yes. There were many aspects of the Spanish version that I enjoyed. The sets. The more developed story structure. Even some of the acting. But, I think, there is more to love with the original Dracula. Bela and Frye, for starters. And despite the issues with filming, Todd Browning brought a sort of stylization and his own strange vision to the quality of direction in Dracula that George Melford did not have. That’s not saying Drácula is not good. It certainly is and ought to be screened by any fan of horror or fan of the Universal monsters. I’m actually really happy the creators of the 30-movie boxset included this version. Otherwise, I may have never given the movie a chance. But when compared to the Dracula filmed during the day, there just are no substitutes.
My review: 3.5/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new Subdue Series, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.
Did you like what you read here? Be sure to subscribe to our SPAM FREE newsletter. Keep in the loop with new book releases, sales, giveaways, future articles, guest posts, and of course…a free eBook copy of Strange Authors, an anthology that includes some of the weirdest and vilest writers in the horror community. (click below).
Universal Monsters in Review: The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
And thus we have arrived. Sadly, I must say, The Mummy’s Curse will be the last of the Mummy movies to be reviewed here on this series. It is very sad. The mummy character has been one of my favorites during Universal Monsters in Review, starting of course with Boris Karloff as the original Mum in The Mummy (1932). The Mummy’s Curse (1944) is certainly not the last we’ll see of the cursed Egyptian priest. Lest we not forget, there was a resurgence of classic monsters back in the 1960s and 70s with those darling UK Hammer productions staring, typically, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Marvelous films those were. On today’s agenda, of course, we look back to the last time Lon Chaney will be forced through hours of prosthetic makeup and wardrobe. As with The Mummy’s Ghost, also released in 1944, the performances were kicked up a notch, as was the storytelling. The Mummy’s Curse was set upon a simple and easy to follow trajectory. No lazy appearances this time around, the mummy is actually unearthed from the swamp in which he fled at the end of The Mummy’s Ghost. Along of course with damsel the stereotypical damsel in distress Amina Mansouri, played by the beautiful Ramsay Ames in the last film, now replaced by Virginia Christine, in which he took with him into a watery grave. If you remember, at the end of The Mummy’s Ghost, Amina was kidnapped by the mummy and used to resurrect the soul of Princess Ananka, or she was a reincarnation of her, its hard to say exactly. Here we find the same tragedy, Amina is not quite herself, nor is she quite Ananka either. And for this, I applaud The Mummy’s Curse, for the curse is not really so much about the mummy Kharis, but rather, about Amina Mansouri and Princess Ananka, an innocent bystander who is thrust into this nightmarish world, and with Ananka, a princess who died naturally. There are some other elements with The Mummy’s Curse that I have not seen, or have seen rarely, in other Universal films during this era. What I’m referring to is Napoleon Simpson playing the role of Goobie (ugh), a very stereotypical “massa” and “sho’ ’nuff” style African American. His character was not comedic, nor was he useful in carrying the plot. Only in so much as screaming and running around crying for help. But again, we have to remember the era in which this film was made. Segregation was still the law, aka Jim Crow. And women could not vote. Homosexuality was also considered a crime. It doesnt make it right, but we also cannot expect to take a 1940s American film and judge it by modern standards. When looking at a historic film, one must remain (as much as possible) objective. Okay…I’ve seemed to ramble on quite a bit here. Let us venture forth and see what our esteemed guest has to say regarding The Mummy’s Curse.
The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
By Pembroke Sinclair
I’ve been struggling with where to start this review. It’s not that the movie was terrible, but it wasn’t exactly stellar, either. This film was pretty short, coming in at 1 hour long. Not a whole heck of a lot happened in that time, except that the mummy rose from the dead, killed a few people, then was defeated. There wasn’t much time for characters to be fleshed out, so I didn’t really feel for any of them.
Racial stereotypes ran rampant throughout the film, although my first impression was that I was impressed that several different cultures were portrayed. The film takes place in the swamps of Louisiana. Of course, the white man has come in and is planning to drain it for irrigation purposes, and when the workers refuse to work because of rumors about the mummy, he takes on an I-know-best attitude to get them to finish. As you can imagine, this leads to death and murder.
From a surficial viewing of this film, it wasn’t anything special. There weren’t any jump scares, and the storyline actually confused me just a bit. Kharis (the mummy) was punished in his previous life (thousands of years ago in Egypt) because he was trying to raise his love (Princess Anaka) from the dead. I couldn’t really follow the story of his punishment, but some slaves were killed and he was buried alive and forced to be the guardian of the princess’s tomb.
There was something about special leaves that could bring the dead back to life, and that was what Kharis stole from the gods to bring Anaka back. After he was caught, they buried him with those leaves—and I’m not really sure why. I mean, if they have that power, why make it readily available to someone who might have inclinations to raise the dead? But when does horror always make sense?
Anyway, this story takes place 25 years after Kharis sunk in some quicksand (I’m assuming this happens in a previous movie, but I didn’t see it, so I don’t know). Kharis is raised from the dead from some priests so that he can find his princess, who also happens to be buried somewhere in the swamp. (She’s unearthed later by a bulldozer.)
So, in addition to the workers who are trying to drain the swamps, there are also archaeologists who are looking for the sarcophagi so that they can go to a museum. But one of these scientists (Ragheb) is looking for them so he can send them back to Egypt so that the dead can rest in peace. He’s the one who raises Kharis so that he can find Anaka. It sounds noble, for sure, but t becomes violent because Ragheb tells Kharis that he can kill whoever gets in his way while looking for Anaka. And, as you can imagine, people do, so they get strangled.
I became confused about a couple things. 1) Why did Princess Anaka retain her beauty after bathing in the river? Why didn’t she looked like hammered hell like Kharis? 2) If she was Kharis’s true love, why was she so afraid of him? There were indications that she was looking for him also—she would fall into a trance and repeat his name over and over—but when he showed up, she would freak out and run. 3) The love story between Dr. Ilzor Zandaab and Betty felt tacked on. I get that it needed to be there as a juxtaposition between Kharis and Anaka, but it needed to be developed.
This also might play into the point about the film, however. The title is The Mummy’s Curse, and he was punished because he was trying to reunite with his true love. In this film, he can’t resurrect himself, and humans have to intervene by giving him his potion of leaves. In a sense, he becomes a pawn to be used by whoever resurrects him. And perhaps Anaka not recognizing him and running away in fear is also part of his curse. He’s forever trying to possess something he can’t have.
Sure, he kills and is a walking corpse, but is he really that bad? Would he kill if he wasn’t instructed to? Is he truly the monster in the film or is it the others around him?
There were a few things that surprised me: the women in the film had some stereotypical roles (fainting and needing to be rescued), but they also had some powerful roles. For example, Betty on multiple occasions talks back to her uncle and lets him know how she feels about things. Anaka is shown using a microscope and expresses her knowledge about ancient Egyptian culture—mainly because she had lived through it, but she doesn’t remember that at the time.
While this film isn’t something I’d watch again for pure entertainment, I believe that there are some deeper meanings hidden within the text. Like all horror films, there is social commentary buried beneath the surface, and I’d watch it again to find these commentaries and figure out what they are saying.
Pembroke Sinclair is a literary jack of all trades, playing her hand at multiple genres. She has written an eclectic mix of fiction ranging from horror to sci-fi and even some westerns. Born in Rock Springs, Wyoming–the home of 56 nationalities–it is no wonder Pembroke ended up so creatively diverse. Her fascination with the notions of good and evil, demons and angels, and how the lines blur have inspired her writing. Pembroke lives in Laramie, Wyoming, with her husband, two spirited boys, a black lab named Ryder, and a rescue kitty named Alia, who happens to be the sweetest, most adorable kitty in the world! She cannot say no to dessert, orange soda, or cinnamon. She loves rats and tatts and rock and roll and wants to be an alien queen when she grows up. You can learn more about Pembroke Sinclair by visiting her at pembrokesinclair.blogspot.com. You can follow the very talented Pembroke on Facebook Amazon Twitter Or at her blog.
Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)
From the span of 1989 thru 1996, Tales from the Crypt sent delightful chills down the spines of millions of viewers as they tuned in to HBO and whatever mad macabre story was about to be unleashed for the next twenty plus minutes. The Danny Elfman theme and horn blasts and the creaking gate ushering us into a decapitated mansion, lightening crashes, and still the camera and the song moves us past the foyer and into the lower regions. Cobwebs and dust cover everything. This place looks abandoned. Buts its not. Just as we reach the bottom, from an aged and rustic coffin, as if conjured by an ellipses of manic cowling, jumps the Crypt Keeper, nearly devoid of flesh, howling with his cankerous jittering laughter, “Welcome, to Tales from the Crypt.” And we watch, popcorn resting in our laps, feet dancing as the title screen comes on and the green ooze comes down in driblets.
If you’re like me than you no doubt have plenty of nostalgic memories of this show. Starting with “The Man Who Was Death,” staring the underrated William Sadler, and ending, seven seasons later, with “The Third Pig,” (the only animated episode) staring the cuddly Bobcat Goldthwait as the Big Bad Wolf. Not forgetting three movies, Demon Knight, Bordello of Blood, and Ritual (the made for TV movie with Tim Curry). Looking at the movies, my favorite has to be Demon Knight, not only was it the first, but it was also one of the best written and directed of the movies, staring again William Sadler and Billy Zane (back when Zane was actually still considered a good actor). Bordello was okay…my biggest qualm was Dennis Miller, the dude can do a hell-of-a monologue, but acting…ugh! Ritual was decent enough to spend an evening. I’m a big fan of voodoo horror and this had the dark arts in spades. Plus, Tim Curry…need I say more?
As for the regularly aired episodes, its hard to say which one was the best. Every season brought on a new collection of guest appearances from some of the most recognizable names during the 1990s. From Adam West to Amanda Plummer to Andrew McMarthy and Anna Friel and even Arnold Schwarzenegger, not forgetting the late great Bob Hoskins and Burt Yong, there was also Carol Kane and Brooke Shields and Ghostbuster alums Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson, Cheers alum George Wendt starred in The Reluctant Vampire, and everyone’s favorite Jedi Master Ewan McGregor guest stared in Cold War, and there was also Hector Elizondo and James Remar, even gangsta extraordinaire “you think I’m funny” Joe Pesci, and the lovable Indian Jones co-star John Rhys-Davies, Full House fellow John Stamos was on the show as well as Kathleen York, and our favorite FBI agent in the piney woods Kyle MacLachlan turned bad guy in one of the more twisted of episodes, “Carrion of Death.” Bill “game over man” Paxton and the always creepy Brad Dourif made an appearance in Season 5. And there were many more celebrities that found their way onto one or more Tales from the Crypt episodes, each one seemingly trying to out-do the last.
Now, deciding which one is “the best of the best,” well…lets see what other horror nerds have to say. Ranking in as their number one, Bloody Disgusting named “The New Arrival” as their personal favorite. Fangoria listed “Cutting Cards” staring both Kevin Tighe and Lance Henriksen as their number one pick. Cinema Slasher has Season 3’s “Undertaking Parlor” as their be-all episode, starring Jonathan Ke Quan, Jason Marsden, Aron Eisenberg, and Scott Fults, “a group of young, wannabe filmmakers that, while spying on an undertaker, discover some creepy and immoral actions being taken.” iHorror lists holiday special “All Through the House” as their numero uno and Den of Geek lists “Fitting Punishment,” among others, as one of the most terrifying episodes to air on TV.
Which episode is my favorite?
How about instead of one, I give you five?
Sounds fair, right?
Sorry. I cannot name just one with a show that spanned nearly a decade.
Not in any particular order, I’ll start my first top pick for Tales from the Crypt episodes with “The Man Who Was Death.” Okay. Sure. Given. This was the first episode of the show, and ought be honored as such, but least we not forget, the story was actually really scary, and socially pointed. My next pick will be, obviously, “Death of Some Salesman.” Of all the shows that’ve aired on Tales from the Crypt, this particular one nearly won the show an Emmy…and it was all because of Tim Curry. If you’re not a fan of infamous voice and stage actor and one of the best drag mad scientists ever to grace cinema, I challenge you to watch this episode and tell me he’s no good. My next favorite also comes out of Season 1 with “Collection Completed.” An elderly man is forced into retirement and soon begins to butt heads with his loony tunes wife. Driven insane by all the pets his wife brings into the house, Walsh decides to taxidermy all her furry companions. To say she is not happy would be an understatement, and the end will leave you chilled to the bone. “Carrion Death” is my next favorite, mostly due to Twin Peaks good guy turned bad guy in Tales from the Crypt, Kyle MacLachlan, but also because of the pacing of the episode, the slow build of terror, even though you can pretty much guess what’ll happen in the end, its still horrifying to watch! My last on this favorites list will have to be “Yellow,” from Season 3. Not only am I a pretentious nerd when it comes to period pieces, but the episode is also wonderfully filmed, almost ornate in feeling, and it boasts a 40 mins run time (the longest episode in TFTC history).
Despite being off the air for twenty years now (feeling old?), a majority of the episodes still carry quite a punch and are actually very relevant. Tales from the Crypt harnessed the best of what those 1950s EC Comics and Twilight Zone and other pillars of twisted anthologies had to offer, giving us some of the most wonderful forewarning of being careful what we wish for, treating others as we’d like to be treated, and other stories of campfire morality. Tales from the Crypt showcased the best of what horror can be and inspired (and still is) countless generations of future filmmakers and storytellers. If you’re a fan of the show, what were some of your favorite episodes or moments? Mention them in the comments below.
Thomas S. Flowers creates character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest writers who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
Revenge is a dish best served with BBQ!
Universal Monsters in Review: Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Looking back on the start of this series, I’m wishing we’d done these reviews in chronological order instead of random selections. Tracking the progression of certain characters now that we’re in our twilight hours of Universal Monsters in Review, it is becoming quite difficult. Considering especially Frankenstein’s monster, which has already appeared on film four times since the original 1931 fright flick. AND, ole Frank-in-monster has also changed hands twice already, from the granddaddy, Boris Karloff (who defined the role as Monster), to Lon Chaney Jr. (who played the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein) and now with Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, and the more questionable of choices for Universal Studios, Bela Lugosi. Later on, Glenn Strange will also don the endless hours of makeup and prosthetics in future Frankenstein movies. As for the Wolf Man, his progression is much easier to follow. In fact, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is considered to be a direct sequel from the original 1941 The Wolf Man. It ALL can get rather confusing. Oh well. What is done is done. Perhaps moving forward in our discussion here, we should consider Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man has not a direct sequel from Ghost of Frankenstein, but rather, a sequel for The Wolf Man. And besides, most of these movies are basically stories in and of themselves, holding only quasi connections to the originals. As I will be your host for the evening, shall we begin our review?
Here’s a synopsis so that we’re all on the same page:
Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney Jr.) grave is being robbed, but strangely, despite the passing of four years since the events of The Wolf Man, his body is remarkably preserved. And covered with blooms of Wolfs Bane. The grave robbers soon realize that perhaps Mr. Talbot is not as dead as they originally believed. The next scene, we find Larry in an asylum, recovering from an operation performed by good natured yet strictly scientific Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles). Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey) finds him there, too, wanting to question him about a recent spate of murders. Talbot escapes and finds Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the old gypsy woman who knows his secret: that when the moon is full, he changes to a uncontrollable werewolf. She travels with him to locate the one man who can help him to die – Dr. Frankenstein. The brilliant doctor proves to be dead himself, but they do find Frankenstein’s daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey). Talbot begs her for her father’s papers containing the secrets of life and death. She doesn’t have them, so he goes to the ruins of the Frankenstein castle to find them himself. There he finds the Monster (Bela Lugosi), whom he chips out of a block of ice. Dr. Mannering eventually catches up with him only to become tempted to to use Frankenstein’s old equipment to fully power the monster.
Before this series, in the long ago, before I had ever dreamed of becoming a published author and creating my own tales of fright, Frankenstein meets the Wolfman was the first Universal Monster movie I had seen. I’d watched bits and pieces of the other movies before, scenes made infamous and those that became direct inspirations for other movies that I had watched. But this one, this was the first. Gathered together with a group of buds for a “guys movie night.” The host’s dogs, Bear and Willie, begging at our feet and scheming for morsels of popcorn. Displayed on the big screen of some monstrous TV birthed from the late 90s, my eyes beheld for the first time, in its completion, a Universal Monster movie. Later on, inspired by this film, would go on to watch The Wolf Man, and then later Dracula and Frankenstein, and so on and so on. There is not much that I remember from that first screening, only that it did ignited a desire to see the others, to return to the past of cinematography. And my History in Film classes in college certainly helped with that desire too. Going back and watching the movie again, for this review, after consuming most of the others, all of the originals, the story played out a little more defined in my mind. And at bottom, I have to say, this is not a Frankenstein movie, at all. This is a Wolf Man movie. And it is a movie about certain ideals and the dangers of obsessive behavior and mob mentality.
The story focuses almost/nay exclusively on Larry Talbot’s quest for an end to his life. The movie opens at the Talbot crypt four years after the events of the original Wolf Man film. And Larry is still somehow alive, though seriously injured. The place on his skull where his father had struck him with the silver cane is fractured. Next, we see Larry’s collapsed body being discovered by police and ushered quickly to the hospital. The doctor, a very scientific minded Dr. Mannering, is shocked at how fast Larry recovers from his surgery. Its all very supernatural. Keep that word in mind while watching this movie. Screen writer, Curt Siodmak, the creator of The Wolf Man character, is taking us on a journey in which the ideals of supernaturalism and science (logic) will clash, head to head. I found it somewhat thought provoking that Larry is completely obsessed with ending his life and that the monster, representing science, is a misunderstood creature…well, until the end in which he becomes an unstoppable machine. There’s a quote from Siodmak that I used in my debut novel, Reinheit, it goes, “You’ll find superstition a contagious thing. Some people let it get the better of them.” And while watching Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, you get a sense of what he’s saying. The villagers on the stage of this idyllic Germanic town, full of song, wine, and good cheer, also harbor anger and resentment, not just to the Frankenstein name, but also strangers and gypsies, mostly fueled by antagonists who insight the rage of the community by reminding them of the injustices that had transpired in the past. Is all this starting to sound familiar? Considering Curt Siodmak was a Jew escaping the growing threat of Nazi Germany, it ought to sound familiar.
The deeper meaning in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is commendable, but there are still some unresolved issues with the movie itself. I felt like the entire movie was brilliantly set up and had a wonderful progression as we followed Larry on his quest toward suicide. The end felt tacked on. Dr. Mannering’s character did not feel fully vetted nor relatable. His motivation seemed very sudden. From wanting to take Larry back to the hospital to becoming obsessed with seeing how powerful he could make the monster. Everything until then was golden. And like with most Universal films of this era, the final scene was very abrupt. With the manic villager blowing up the dam, releasing the river, destroying Castle Frankenstein, along with the Wolf Man and monster, and the town itself, presumably, all happens within a span of 60 seconds. Boom. Boom. The End.
Judging the film as a whole, yes,while Mannering’s character did feel very unbelievable regarding “re-charging” the monster, and with the ending being rushed to its final conclusion, the other meanings are hard to dismiss, how our obsessions, be it science or superstition, will ultimately destroy us in the end. Its a powerful message, especially when considering the history of the screen writer and the decade in which the film was made. Looking at the film as a direct sequel to The Wolf Man, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man was an excellent continuation in the story, introducing new branches to the werewolf mythos. The casting couldn’t have been more perfect. Except for perhaps Bela Lugosi as the monster. To me, despite trying very hard to be a dim witted creature, he still sounded too suave. Watching Bela as Frankenstein’s monster was too disconnecting and his mannerisms seemed desperate to separate himself from his more iconic role as Dracula. Honestly, some actors just aren’t built to play certain roles. One could surmise the same about Chaney and how he should never have played the Mummy. My favorites for the film were Maria Ouspenskaya, who was was once again wonderful, as was Lon Chaney, likewise at his best as the very tragic and sad Larry Talbot, both utterly magnetizing and wonderfully depressing.
My rating: 4/5
Universal Monsters in Review: Abbot & Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951)
Vaudeville comedy has a certain kind of charm. An allure that brings in audiences for a quick laugh. An appeal developed by legendary talents, such as The Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, to name a few of the pillars that made up the vaudeville slap-stick house. For Abbot & Costello, their era of fame started in 1940, with One Night in the Tropics, and ended with Dance with Me, Henry, in 1956. Lou Costello, the bumbling “dim-wit” of the duo, would eventually pass away in 1959, leaving Bud Abbot, the “straight man” of the pair, searching for a new partner in Candy Candido, but eventually calling it quits because, “No one could ever live up to Lou.” Bud passed away in 1974. For me, I think the 1940s is really when the duo shinned the brightest. It was an era of heighten stress due to the war in the Pacific and in Europe. War time audiences were looking for distractions from the woes of loved ones deployed and of uncertain outcomes in the development of world powers. Our featured film for this review is Lou and Buds second to last Universal Monster flick, released in 1951, and you can begin to see the struggle of defining their roles in a new era. The movie itself plays out as part mad science, part detective/noir, part boxing, and part loony tunes. As our honor guest reviewer has pointed out in his review below, there moments of genuine entertainment, but for the most part, the film was dragged out and ultimately boring. Well, I shall not delay any longer, lets see what our guest writer has to say.
Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
By: Lewis Duncan
I have to admit, the Abbot and Costello films were never something I went out of my way to watch or indeed find copies of in recent years. They linger in my memory, part of my childhood, part of growing up and watching whatever the grown-ups were watching. In our house, it was either Westerns or War films, both which I hated until I discovered Clint Eastwood. Black and white films were to be snubbed as old and boring. It wasn’t until I discovered the genius of the Marx Brothers that I gave black and white a chance. I think it was my Granny’s fault. She used to eat them up. I remember her doing the ironing in the living room with the television blaring on a wet Saturday afternoon. I would be on the sofa reading a Beano or playing with Star Wars figure and these great brays of laughter would echo around the room. It was the television. Something on there had got her going. I was intrigued.
The Marx brothers made me laugh out loud and although it wasn’t until my teens that I appreciated the genius timing of Groucho’s gags and the on-screen chemistry between the brothers, I still needed to see everything they had done. Thankfully my uncle had just purchased a VHS video recorder and would rent various video tapes at the weekend. One of those tapes was ‘Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein’. I can remember enjoying it without knowing what I know now and how it featured some of the greatest names in cinematic history. Looking back, I really enjoyed watching it but don’t ask me to tell you the plot. Kids don’t do plot. They do slapstick and action and Bud Abbot and Lou Costello did it perfectly.
Having been asked to write a review of a film I was given a list of possibles. I chose ‘Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man’ for one reason and one reason only. I had never seen the film. I had heard of it but I had never actually watched the thing. Also, I’ve never reviewed a damn thing in my life apart from a few lines here and there on Amazon about books I’ve read so bare with me.
The title itself suggests horror but we know it’s not going to be an all-out horror flick is it? No, of course not and to be honest there isn’t any horror in the film whatsoever. It’s a comedy, it’s a vehicle for Lou Costello and Bud Abbot to showcase their vaudeville skills and put them on the big screen and they do it perfectly. Don’t they always?
Since agreeing to review this, I’ve sat down with the laptop, loaded up the film and ate some crisps and drank some soft drinks, clear head required and I must say each time I’ve watched the movie it has been as enjoyable as the first. Even that Universal music during the opening credits gets me going. Big old Earth spinning around is a definite cue to go grab some nibbles because you know you’re in for a treat, you’re in for a quality hour and a half’s entertainment. They just do it right.
So here we go, Lou Costello, or Lou Francis as he is called in the movie, is skipping, tripping and dancing up to graduate from Detective School, misses the chair and falls on his arse. The start of it. Lou is informed by his partner, the very brilliant straight guy of the duo, Bud Abbot, that he slipped them twenty bucks to let him graduate. I think this is the first time of many that Lou looks directly at the camera. I have my doubts about that though. It’s a fun thing to do in a film and an fourth wall effect I love but I sometimes wonder if Lou actually relies on prompts from off-screen. I guess we’ll never really know.
Anyway, the unlikely detective duo are in their office when the boxer, Tommy Nelson walks in, all cagey like and makes a phone call. It’s Lou that recognizes who he is. Bud is still in the dark. That old straight guy/fun guy thing really working full speed.
Tommy needs to go to the Doc’s place and ends up getting injected with invisibility serum. He needs the comedy duo to help find out who murdered his manager, a murder in which he has been convicted of. They agree and drive him to meet Dr. Phillip Gray, the posh doc played brilliantly by Gavin Muir. His accent is just sublime. I just wish he was in the film more.
The Doc refuses, the cops arrive, and Tommy takes the serum on his own. It doesn’t work straight away but it eventually does when he is alone with Lou and the handshake scene is priceless. It’s the first glimpse of how the invisibility effects are going to pan out. They work, there is no denying that. I don’t think there is one moment throughout the film that features the invisible man that you think, yeah, I know how they did that or I can see the strings. It doesn’t happen. I won’t list them here but each invisible man sequence is perfectly done and when you watch it you will agree. Be it spaghetti or playing cards.
A character that has to be mentioned is the detective played by William Frawley. His lines are sharp, delivered well and his frustration with Lou is just class. He sends him to a psychiatrist and Lou ends up hypnotizing everyone he comes across in a scene which includes a reference to a nursery rhyme about mice running up a clock. Again, I don’t want to give much away but it’s funny as hell.
This is where the film falls into two segments, the build-up to the big fight and the fight itself. We find Lou and Bud in a fancy restaurant with Tommy (invisible) at the table. They order food and the food scenes are the funniest and best scenes in the whole film. It is also the first time we see that Tommy might be starting to lose his mind a little. He gets this huge ego thing going and Lou and Bud try to keep him cool. It doesn’t work and all hell breaks loose in the restaurant, resulting in Tommy getting knocked out by some revolving doors. They get him back to the Doctors. Tommy is full of remorse, well acted by Arthur Franz who is a constant star throughout the film. A straight talking guy that compliments Lou and Buds slapstick brilliance.
Here we go then, fight night. You know what’s going to happen. Fight scenes will ensue, Lou Costello will camp it up and bounce about the ring like a fool but it will entertain you, it will make you smirk, maybe not laugh, but smirk and the bad guys will get their just reward. I can’t be bothered detailing all the scenes and quotes that matter, there’s no point. If you want to watch it then do so. I recommend that you do.
I’d like to say one final thing about this film, Abbot and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, this is not a horror movie, it’s not even a comedy. It does entertain, it has those old moments, those, ‘Why, I outta…’ moments, but that’s standard with an Abbot and Costello film. You know what to expect. Did I enjoy it? Yeah, of course, I did but I’m not going out of my way to talk it up like a lot of folks do. It is what it is. I’m a fan but if I had the choice of spending my Saturday afternoons watching this or a Marx brothers film, I would go all out Groucho. That’s just me. I like horror and this isn’t. I like comedy and this is dated. Worth a watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon if you have nothing else to be doing but don’t go out of your way to check it out. It is what it is. Too much film on a really slim plot.
My rating: 3/5
Lewis Duncan is an up and coming writer and graphic artist. You can find his work on numerous book covers recently released this year, including books by Dawn Cano, Duncan Ralston, and myself (Thomas S. Flowers). He also has upcoming projects with the likes of Kit Power and Rich Hawkins. Some of Lewis’s publishing work includes Violent Delights, in which he co-wrote with Dawn Cano. He is an avid reader and supporter of fellow indie writers. His artwork is stylized in a retro, space-age grunge, 70s grindhouse. You can follow Lewis on Facebook to keep up with all his latest work.
Universal Monsters in Review: House of Frankenstein (1944)
I have a bad habit of assuming how movies will turn out. Show me a cast of characters and maybe a movie poster and chances are you’re going to get what you get. With a title like, “House of Frankenstein,” one ought to be able to safely assume the movie is going to be something similar to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello and the great insurgence of American vaudeville. Goofy. Slap-stick. Silly. However, that is not the case with House of Frankenstein. The cast was wonderfully selected, with Boris Karloff returning not as the stumbling monster, but as the mad scientist. The story, though not without blemish, is interestingly layered. The pace holds steady, clocking in a traditional 70-80 mins. While Karloff holds your attention whenever he’s on screen, the character who impressed me the most is unknown character actor J. Carrol Naish who played the hunchback Daniel. Yes, he uttered the expected “Yes, Master,” whenever addressing Karloff’s character (Dr. Niemann). But there were other moments, especially concerning love interest Rita Hussman (Anne Gwynne) in which he truly shines. This is the second Frankenstein movie in which I found myself more in awe with the hunchback than with the monster. Names have changed, but motives remain the same. The pursuit of life after death, the creation of life, and the improvement of the human form. The latter was played up more with this movie than the others, as both Daniel and Larry Talbot desire new improved bodies, free of their respective so-called flaws. Oh yes, the Wolfman is in this picture, as is Dracula, played by a new actor, John Carradine. I’m not sure why they didn’t just hire Bela Lugosi, who is known to work for cheap. But look at me blabbing on. Before I chase another rabbit, lets see what our special guest has to say about House of Frankenstein.
House of Frankenstein (1944)
horror, fantasy, science fiction
By: Channy Dreadful
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Screenplay Writer: Edward T. Lowe Jr. (billed as Edward T. Lowe)
Story Writer: Curt Siodmak
Main Cast: Boris Karloff as Doctor Gustav Niemann, J. Carrol Naish as Daniel the hunchbacked assistant, John Carradine as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot (AKA the Wolf Man), and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster
Detailed plot summary:
may contain minor plot spoilers!
The movie begins on a dark and stormy night in the jail cell of Doctor Niemann and his evil hunchbacked assistant Daniel. Lightning crashes and the wall separating Niemann and Daniel crumbles down and the two men escape from the prison that once contained them. The duo embarks on a journey to search for Doctor Frankenstein’s research so Niemann can also reanimate the dead.
While running through the trees, they arrive on a dirt road and see the travelling horror show owned by the great Professor Lampini stuck in the ditch. Niemann and Daniel help pull him out and request that he take them with him to repay their act of kindness. He reluctantly agrees, and the three men begin their journey.
Lampini tells the men about his most popular attraction, which he claims is the real skeleton of the late great Dracula himself — stake through what-used-to-be-his-heart and all. He then continues on with the folklore of the vampire, and how if anyone ever removes the stake from where it stands Dracula himself will return and will cause havoc throughout the world. Niemann laughs at his accusations and doubts the man’s stories. The carriage comes to a fork in the road and Niemann requests that they go to Reigelberg so they can talk to the burgomaster there – who, unbeknownst to Lampini, was the man who had had Niemann arrested. Lampini argues and said that is not where his next show will be taking place, so with a nod of approval from Niemann Daniel then kills Lampini and the man driving the horse-drawn carriage.
The scene then cuts to Burgomaster Hussman of Reigelberg, his grandson Carl, and his fiancée Rita discussing whether or not to attend the traveling horror show that is set up on display in town for tonight only. With much convincing from Rita, they decide to attend.
Her face lights up upon their arrival and they see many freakshow-esque horrors on display. Niemann, acting as Professor Lampini, arrives on stage and begins introducing the main act, the skeleton of Dracula. The crowd heckles and claims the man to be a fraud, but the burgomaster says to Carl that he recognizes that man from somewhere. Once the show is over and the curtains close, Niemann idly removes the stake from the skeleton’s heart and Dracula begins to reform and appear right before their very eyes. Niemann tells Dracula that if he does what he requests of him he will not stake him, and will have his coffin ready and prepared for him before the dawn of each day for when he returns.
The burgomaster, Carl and Rita all start to walk home when they get picked up by a carriage. Unknowingly by the group, Dracula, who introduces himself as Baron Latos, is also on that same carriage. After some conversation the burgomaster invites Latos to his home for a few drinks. He accepts the invitation, and once they arrive Dracula is left in the room alone with Rita. Rita gazes into his eyes and becomes entranced as she stares upon the ring he’s wearing. Dracula asks the woman what she sees and she claims to see a strange world, a world of people who are dead but are alive. Dracula states that it is the place he just returned from, and Rita says it frightens her and that she is scared of it. He comforts and informs her that if she wears his ring it will drive away her fears. He then slides the ring on to her finger and she begins to see the world as Dracula does and is instantly under his spell. He tells his that he will come for her before down and he bids the burgomaster farewell and leaves his abode.
The burgomaster begins work in his office, and finally comes to the realization as to where he recognizes Lampini from, and that he is actually Dr. Gustav Neiman. He begins to call the authorities as Dracula returns to his home and transforms into a bat. He flies to the burgomaster and begins to kill him and drink his blood.
During the murder of the burgomaster, Rita is upstairs along with Carl and she begins speaking in a very strange way and he begins to get frightened. He then notices that she is wearing a ring that he had not seen her wearing before and recognizes it, coming to the conclusion that it once belonged to Dracula. In a panic, Carl rushes downstairs only to find his grandfather dead with two bite-wounds exposed on his neck. Carl calls the police informing them of what happened. While Carl is talking to the police Rita leaves with Dracula in a horse-drawn carriage. Just as they are leaving, the policemen on horses arrive and chase after them. The carriage crashes as the sun starts to rise. Dracula scrambles to get to his coffin (which had fallen out of the carriage) but does not make it in before his turn back into a skeleton. The ring slides off of Rita’s finger and she is now free from Dracula’s spell.
Niemann and Daniel witness all that happens and leave Dracula behind and continue on their way in search of any and all research that Doctor Frankenstein may have left behind. Eventually the two make it to the village of Frankenstein’s, and discover the ruins that were once his castle. Within the ruins they discover an ice cave, in which they find frozen in solid ice the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster. Niemann and Daniel build a fire and are able to free the two creatures from the ice. The Wolf Man wakes up and begins to turn into his human form Larry Talbot, who asks the men why they would free him and the monster that lives within.
Niemann offers Talbot help and says that if he can help him find Frankenstein’s research that he will be able to build him a new brain which will be free from the Wolf Man, and that he can live the life he had always wanted. Talbot agrees and the men start searching and tearing down walls and removing bricks until they finally discover a book written by Henry Frankenstein titled “Experiments in Life and Death”.
Now that they have finally found what they were searching for, Niemann, Daniel, Talbot and the monster return back to Niemann’s lab to begin working on the monster and returning him to the world of the living. Talbot begins to panic and requesting that the Doctor begin work on him first, seeing as that evening there will be a full moon. Niemann shoos him off, saying he must work on the monster first, but to begin his work he will first need to find his two nemeses who helped put him in jail, Herr Strauss and Herr Ullman.
With the help of Daniel he finds the men, kidnaps them and takes them back to his lab. He explains that he needs Ullman’s brain for the monster to be able to come back to life and that he wants to put Talbot’s brain into Strauss’s body so that Strauss will be the one who has to carry the curse of the Wolf Man.
Will he succeed? Will Talbot get the life he always dreamed of? What will happen to Niemann and Daniel if the monster is resurrected from the dead? For answers to all of these questions and more you will just have to watch House of Frankenstein.
Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., and John Carradine’s acting is nothing but of the highest quality as per usual. The group put on an amazing performance, giving you the feel of true classic horror and provided the stepping stones to many horror movies that we see in more recent years.
The reveal of Dracula was well played out, starting with being a skeleton in a horror freak show and having the stake still in his heart. It was dark and mysterious and you are left wondering if the skeleton was just a set up to make Lampini money or if he somehow got his hands on the real skeleton of Count Dracula. His transformation scenes, turning from skeleton to vampire and from vampire to bat as well as bat to vampire, were amazingly done for the time and looked more realistic than many things that I see today. A lot of directors and special effects crew can really take a few pointers and learn how to properly achieve a fun but effective transformation scene by watching this film.
I absolutely loved the death of Dracula in this film. It was dramatic and the setting was brilliant. In a way, the audience kind of feels bad for him because he is trying so hard to crawl to his coffin and make it in before the sun rises, and he gets so close to doing so before the first beam of light hits his skin and all that is left of him is the bones that we see at the very start of the film.
Later in the film, the discovery of the monster and the Wolf Man was done in such a creative and different way that really drew in my attention. It’s definitely possible that this is the logical progression from the events of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), where the monster and Wolf Man get swept in a flood at Frankenstein’s castle, starring the same actors. The hidden ice cave below Frankenstein’s castle in a way was very reminiscent of the Thing (1982) for myself, which did not come out before this film but it is a movie that I have seen long before this one. It was creepy, damp and cold and I was unsure of what to expect. Although it was completely unrealistic or possible, it made for an exciting scene to watch. Keep in mind, this is a monster movie, so how realistic do the locations really have to be as long as they keep the audience interested?
My favourite part of this film is the inclusion of three of the most famous universal monsters, Dracula, the Wolf Man and the monster. It is one of the main reasons why I chose this movie to review in the first place — well, that and Boris Karloff. I have always been a fan of his work and this was one of his movies that I had not had the pleasure of viewing before. All in all, whether we see them come back from the dead or not, it was great seeing all three in this film with different goals and wanting different outcomes for themselves, which only would be made possible by the doctor.
My cons for this film are very minimal and for the most part situational. Although I loved the transformations scenes, there was a time where Dracula turned into a bat and it was very obviously not real and was controlled by strings. I can hardly take any points off due to this seeing the film came out in 1944 and they used all of the technology available to them at the time.
My only other complaint would be the possible universe continuity error being the fact that Boris Karloff plays Doctor Niemann in this film, but in previous Universal Monster movies he plays Frankenstein’s monster. A little bit confusing, but something that you can easily look past seeing as he looks much different in this film then he does playing the monster in Frankenstein (1931.) Glenn Strange has also played the monster in previous films as wells. I am assuming Karloff would have reprised his role as the monster, but the screen time the monster gets in House of Frankenstein is so minimal that it would be a waste of an amazing performance that he could provide.
When Thomas S. Flowers reached out to me and offered me a chance to write a blog post for his website, I was absolutely thrilled. He continued and explained the project to me and sent me a list of movie titles from the Universal Monster series that were still left to choose from. There were a few, including this one, that I still hadn’t seen yet so I did a bit of research and decided to choose this one because of the monsters that were in it. I was not wrong to choose this movie. It was absolutely brilliant from start to finish with hardly a complaint that was relevant to the year that this film came out. The transformation scenes, even nowadays, were brilliantly executed and were even better than a lot of others that we see today in more recent films. Although there were a few minor continuity errors (which is one of the very few reasons I didn’t give a perfect score,) it did not take me out of this film and it was still really enjoyable to watch. Overall I rate this movie a solid 9/10 and recommend that you add this one to your horror movie collection.
Chantel Feszczyn — also known as Channy Dreadful — is one creepy ghoul hailing from a small city in Saskatchewan, Canada. She is a regular podcast voice frequenting on the podcasts, with the first being Dead as Hell Horror Podcast, and as well the likes of The Resurrection of Zombie 7, Land of the Creeps and Whedonverse Podcast. For the last three years she has brought her focus towards written reviews, posting occasionally on her Tumblr blog and recently moving to her new website dreadfulreviews.com — where she posts weekly reviews discussing movies, comic books and horror-themed merchandise.
Universal Monsters in Review: Invisible Agent (1942)
OUT OF THE SKY…DROPS…AN INVISIBLE INVADER…TO TERRORIZE AN ENTIRE NATION..ONE MAN AGAINST A NATION ..SPYING.. FIGHTING.. DESTROYING.. STRIKING AT THE VERY HEART OF THE ENEMY! My apologies for writing in “all caps,” but I couldn’t help my enthusiasm. Just watching the trailer alone, my spirit feels jazzed enough to sock ole Hitler in the jaw. Yes. As it would seem, Invisible Agent came to Universal’s lexicon at a very precarious/interesting place in history. The world was once again at war. Pearl Harbor happened less than a year before (December 1941) the release of the film. And perhaps this makes Invisible Agent (July 1942) one of the more interesting footnotes in the Universal Monsters vault as the monster was no longer who we assume; but rather, the “enemy,” which in this instance was Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. Invisible Agent is nothing more than a propaganda film, aimed to boost moral of the 1942 wartime audience, and it is hard to ignore some of the starch xenophobia concurrent throughout the movie. BUT we must also remember, Invisible Agent is a product of its time. When looking at historical pieces, we must consider the thoughts and motivations of the era in which the movie was made. For me, I was intrigued, not only because of the historical footnote, but also getting to watch Peter Lorre on screen. Ignoring (for now) the fact that Universal Studios cast an eastern European to play the role of Baron Ikito (a Japanese character), it was still worthwhile being able to watch Mr. Lorre act. He was cool and chilling. And an absolute pleasure. Well, I think I’ve yammered on long enough. Let’s welcome today’s special guest and allow him to bring on that sweet sweet propaganda!
By: Duncan P. Bradshaw
I must confess, that when Mr Flowers provided a list of the films he had left to review, I did the typical thing, and plumped for something I’d never seen before. It was only afterwards, when I read a bit of the background about it, and then, eventually, got my hands on a copy of it, did I wish that I’d taken the blue pill.
Where the previous iterations in the Invisible Man franchise were stories of horror and science fiction, Invisible Agent is a wholly different proposition. It bears H.G. Wells name solely as it was based on his eponymous novel. This film though, is purely a WW2 propaganda film, made to entertain those stuck at home, and to an audience now part of the global war.
Released at the end of July, 1942, it is a mere seven months since the US were attacked at Pearl Harbour. With the need to demonise the Axis powers, in an age which didn’t have 24 hour news channels, or instantaneous reports from the other side of the world, films like this were churned out. Invisible Agent is a rote, by the numbers film, which lacks any real story or plot. Choosing to borrow elements of the mad scientist formula which so many films of that era subscribed to, there are few redeeming features to it.
First off, Jon Hall, who plays the titular character, must’ve been laughing his way to the bank, as he’s on screen for next to no time at all. After being threatened by a Nazi and a Japanese agent, he legs it, with the secret formula in his possession. Naturally, the US government asks, politely, and with no sense of menace at all, if he would share it. This is refused. You blink and literally, the scene fade out has barely finished, when he’s back again, in front of important looking blokes and generals, saying that Pearl Harbour has changed his mind. He’ll do it, damn your eyes, but with one condition, that he is to be the one to be injected.
Right…at no point do they say that he’s a soldier, or some kind of badass, and these people, with national security on the line, are quite happy for him to go behind enemy lines and discover when the Germans are going to attack America. Yeah…that sounds…yeah…
What follows is a paper thin plot, where the Nazi’s are borderline incompetent. They’re only out to usurp their superiors and are easy victims to ridiculous slapstick routines, and chain smoking. Cedric Hardwicke, who plays the main bad dude, Stauffer, has barely finished a cigarette, when he’s using it to light another.
The effects though, given that we’re now rotund on a diet of CGI, is actually pretty good, with one exception. The plane models are awful, you’d have thought that there would be a shedload of stock footage they could have used. Instead you have wobbly wooden planes juddering all over the shop, it’s just odd given the lengths they go to on the invisibility side of things.
Speaking of which, the invisible effects are decent, if a bit predictable. He rocks up in Germany to meet his contact, but hey…how do we know where he is? He’s invisible after all. That’s okay, here have some coffee.
WOOOOOOOOHHHHH, the glass is floating in the air. Wait a minute, he’s drinking the coffee! But it’s not falling onto the floor, it’s magic! Say…I fancy a cigarette, WOOOOOOOHHHH, look a floating cigarette and flaming match. Coupled with chair springs being depressed as he ‘sits’ down, it doesn’t veer too far from the tried and trusted. You can only see the wires a few times, but that is me being picky, overall I thought it was done pretty well, and easily the best thing about the film.
What did annoy me though, was the routine when he meets the female double agent played by Ilona Massey. He’s sweet-talking the pants off her, well, he was watching her get undressed until he wolf-whistled (Worst. Stalker. Ever.), but comedy Nazi number one turns up.
Eager to show the cinema goers what ruthless sods these Germans are, he starts showering her with gifts, plundered from occupied Europe. Though a diet of cheese, chicken, lobster and champagne is going to cause a blockage or two, downstairs, if you get what I’m saying. Cue five minutes of stuff being moved about, chicken being eaten, INVISIBLY, WOOOOOOOOOOOHHHH, and food and drink being tipped over the bearer of gifts.
There is nothing really appealing about any of it to be honest. You’ve got the legendary Peter Lorre completely wasted as Baron Ikito, a Japanese agent. Which, let’s face it, given the backlash against Scarlet Johansen appearing in Ghost In The Shell, would probably create a right storm nowadays. There’s just none of the scares or intrigue that you get from any of the other Invisible Man films, they’ve literally used H.G. Wells good name, slapped it onto an identikit propaganda film, and sent it out into the wild.
He gets plans. People get captured and slapped about a bit, I’m beginning to nod off now, thinking about it. In fact, it would be the equivalent of me telling you how to suck an egg, explaining what happens. Suffice to say, they save the day, escape and get back to blighty. If this film was food, it would be a piece of plain white bread. What’s that? You want some peanut butter on it? NO! Have it dry, I don’t care if you would quite like to have some cheese in there.
So yeah, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed watching it, but…given that my knowledge to date of the franchise stopped with Invisible Man Returns, I can at least say I’ve watched it. Though I can categorically state that I’d not waste eighty more minutes watching it again, I’ll stick to the original thank you very much.
Duncan P. Bradshaw lives in MIGHTY Wiltshire, with his wife Debbie and their two cats, Rafa and Pepe. Their barbershop quartet days may be behind them now, but they can still belt out a mean version of ‘Deepy Dippy’ by Right Said Fred when the mood catches them right. Duncan’s debut novel, zom-com, “Class Three,” was released in November 2014. The first book in the follow-up trilogy, “Class Four: Those Who Survive,” shambled into life in July 2015. Both have received glowing reviews. In early 2016, he released his debut Bizarro novella, “Celebrity Culture”, which has been well received, despite its oddness. Not content with resting on his laurels, Prime Directive blasts off in May 2016, a sci-fi/horror novella which pleased fellow founder J.R. Park. Before the main attraction…Duncan finished writing “Hexagram” in late 2015, a novel set over five hundred years, which follows an ancient ritual and how people throughout the years twist the original purpose to their own end.This is released on July 25th, hold onto your hats for that one.
Universal Monsters in Review: The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the last of Universal’s classic monsters. The Creature Walks Among Us, released in 1956 in 3D, was the final movie showcasing one of the original pillars of horror and the end to a rather lengthy franchise. All things considered, it is a very sad farewell. To say goodbye to an era of film now entombed in cinematic history, discussed only by historians and the most dedicated of film noir nerdom. But sometimes its okay to say goodbye. There’s a famous saying, stop me if you’ve heard this before, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” In many respects, for whatever dollar bill reason, producers keep certain franchises going, long past their prime. I think the classic Universal Monsters could have probably ended with The Creature from the Black Lagoon back in 1954, but as it would seem, there was still a little life left in the series. The 1950s, the Atomic Age, the Red Scare Days, were breeding a different type of monster. For horror in America, there was either radiated beasts and scientific blunders OR invaders from space. There was no fear for the gothic tales of old anymore. Mythology wasn’t scary anymore, not knowing who your neighbors might be, not knowing if someone was going to invade your town, or not knowing if some mutated creature created from mankind’s atomic mistakes was going to come and bite them on the ass, that was scary. Times were changing, and The Creature Walks Among Us debuted at the curtain call, giving the long loved characters of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and The Mummy a somewhat provocative end. There is some interesting dualities at play in this film. Man verses nature. Regression verses progression (symbolized in this movie with the return to the jungle verses the coming space age). And of course, domestication and women’s suffrage (represented here between Dr. Barton and his wife, Marcia). All seemingly packed in tight inside an 80 min movie. Did it work? Was The Creature Walks Among Us a proper goodbye to a franchise spanning three decades? Lets see what our esteemed guest has to say.
THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US
By Daniel Marc Chant
Today franchise film making is in vogue, no studio likes to just release a standalone solo film but rather pin their hopes on each installment being part of a wider cinematic universe. It’s therefore easy to grow weary of sequel after sequel and remakes of films barely a decade old. But way back in the 1950’s it was a much different story, horror films didn’t really get directly connected sequels.
While the Universal Monsters films were all painted on the same loose tapestry they didn’t really share any meaningful connections and the studio’s need for more meat for the grinder meant the later films suffered in terms of quality and consistency. Indeed in 1954, when The Creature From the Black Lagoon first crawled from the depths, Universal’s fortunes were already in decline and had been for many years. So when the titular Creature struck box office gold the studio wasted no time in green lighting a sequel – Revenge of the Creature (Clint Eastwood’s first film!). The film was a success for Universal’s coffers and so, once again, they craved more meat for the grinder. And so, in 1956, The Creature Walks Among Us hit multiplexes in the hopes of scaring cinema-goers out of their hard earned dollars.
As with Revenge, little to no explanation is given why the Creature is once again among us. In Revenge the monster is mercilessly gunned down by Policeman on a beach but reports of its death is (of course) greatly exaggerated so a team of scientists pursue the Creature from the Florida aquarium where it was captured in the prior film to the swampy Everglades. So douchebag scientist William Barton (Jeff Morrow) and his beautiful wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden) head out with professional hunter Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer), geneticist Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason), and biologists Borg (Maurice Manson) and Johnson (James Rawley). The relationship between Marcia (presumably here as bait given the Creature’s predilection for hot women in swimsuits), William and Jed is an overwrought love triangle that even has Jed attempting to rape Marcia not once but twice. Add to the mix her asshole of a husband and the rest of the cookie cutter cast soon become annoying distractions leading you to actually root for the Creature. In fact for the majority of the film’s run time the Creature is arguably the most human character and does little to live up to his monstrous reputation until the film’s climactic ending.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The group track the monster down in the Everglades, recycling a lot of the underwater footage from the first film in the process, and during a clumsy fight the Creature inadvertently sets itself on fire and is hit by two shots of Grant’s tranquilizer gun causing it to collapse and be captured. When aboard the ship surgery on the monster’s body reveals that the fire has damaged the skin of the Creature and, as they investigate further, they soon realize that the outer layer of skin hid a layer of human-like skin beneath the surface, and as a result of this discovery the creature morphs and loses its gills and begins to breathe using humanoid lungs.
It’s here that Barton goes full mad scientist and in the grounds of his mansion begins to experiment with the Creature’s mind as well as his body, but the Creature has become rather enamoured with Barton’s wife (as you’d expect) and soon becomes the patsy for Barton’s jealous rage. Barton catches Marcia and Grant swimming, and attempts to throw the hunter out but in a heated exchange Barton pistol-whips the hunter to death. He drags the body to the pen where the Creature lies captive in an attempt to shift the blame to the aquatic beast, but he has switch off the power to the pen’s electrified fence, and in a moment of predictable stupidity doesn’t have time to turn it back on. This gives the Creature an opportunity to escape and he storms after Barton, giving him his comeuppance when he catches up before lumbering off to the seaside, wading into the water. What’s important to note about this sequence is that the creature can no longer breathe underwater so, effectively, the monster is committing suicide. You can draw some deep meaning out of this sequence if you so wish, and indeed again the Creature is the most sympathetic character within the whole film. The whole ‘man is the real monster’ concept is something that litters genre media today but this film was one of the first to have a completely unlikable cast other than the monster, whether that was intentional on the part of the filmmakers or not is unclear but I like to think this subtext is there on purpose.
I’m sad to say that the creature FX is sorely lacking in this installment, the prosthetics and make-up look distinctly cheap and the lithe athletic beast from the first film is, after it’s skin shedding, a distinctly larger and hulking behemoth by comparison. Giving some of the complexity mentioned above it’s a shame that the FX can’t equally match the opportunity for emotion a few story beats provide.
While the film has a lot of interesting ideas none are fully developed and are thrown out in preference of script brevity and cheap production values. Universal had an opportunity with this third chapter to broaden the mythology, expand and develop the world in which the beloved Creature inhabits but due to their desperate longing for their golden age with Dracula and Frankenstein they didn’t give the Creature adequate room to breathe.
Indeed there’s a metaphorical comparison with the Creature and Universal’s fortunes at the time, both formerly larger than life but now struggling to find their place in a world they no longer understand and therefore having to react quickly, and aggressively, at their change in circumstances. This misguided passion unfortunately means The Creature Walks Among Us falls significantly short of its lofty forebear but remains an important stepping stone in the journey of Universal’s hallowed monster canon.
Daniel Marc Chant is the published author of several terrifying tales, including: Maldicion, Burning House, and his newest venture, Mr. Robespierre. Daniel is also one of the founders of The Sinister Horror Company, the publishing team that brought us such frights as, The Black Room Manuscripts and God Bomb!. You can follow Daniel on his blog, here.
Universal Monsters in review: The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
On today’s agenda, we bring you, The Mummy’s Hand (1940), directed by Christy Cabanne and produced by Ben Pivar. Another first screening for me on this journey through the classic Universal Monster pictures. Thus far, we’ve seen the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Wolfman, and even one of the famed Abbott and Costello flicks, as well as some of the lesser knowns, the sequels to the great pillars of horror. Last week, we had Dracula’s Daughter, which turned out to be a direct sequel from the original film. On this episode, we’ll take a closer look at a movie I doubt many have seen, unless they count themselves among the shuffling, perhaps even undead, prolific Universal aficionados. If you have, bravo. And I hope you enjoy the review. If you haven’t, well, read on and decide for yourself if this of many Universal Monster movies would be something you fancy yourself watching on a dark night during a thunder storm. The Mummy’s Hand was one of my personal picks when contacting fellow writers and bloggers to help with this monumental task of reviewing Universal’s macabre lexicon. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. It is strange for me to say, the Mummy is one of my favorite monsters, especially considering how most of my published work thus far has focused on creating my own Wolfman’s and Frankenstein’s (though as a side-note and shameless self promotion, stay tuned for later this year when one my stories with my very own version on the Mummy gets published, wink wink). Regardless, the story of the Mummy is fascinating, to me at least. And I’m thinking on the boundaries of the Boris Karloff version, the brooding Imhotep willing to suffer live burial and a cursed death for his betrothed Anck-su-namun. With today’s adaptation, The Mummy’s Hand shares many similar attributes equally as it likewise differs wildly.
Here’s a quick fire synopsis to get us all on the same page.
In Cairo, amateur wannabe archaeologist Steve Banning (played by the very stoic but still fantastic Dick Foran) discovers a vase at a local market with his good pal Babe (played by funny man Wallace Ford), which he believes could lead them to the ancient tomb of Princess Ananka. Steve contacts his colleague Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) who believes, like Steve, the vase is a map to the tomb of Ananka. However, unknown to Steve and Dr. Petrie, fellow professor of Cairo Museum Andoheb (played by the steely eyed George Zucco), who happens to also be the High Priest of Karnac, a cult order of priests who hold the secrets of Karas, a mummy (played by future spaghetti western star Tom Tyler) who guards Ananka’s tomb. He attempts to persuade them the vase is a fake. When that fails, throughout the movie, he does everything he can to thwart the excavation of the ancient crypt. However, upon receiving funds from magician Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) and his daughter, Marta (the famous Peggy Moran), Steve, his sidekick Babe, and the Solvanis, embark on an expedition to the grave site, where Karas awaits slumbering. Andoheb is then forced to summon the shambling corpse to keep the Hills of the Seven Jackals (or some such nonsense) and the Temple of Ananka safe from outside encroachment, because, as every fan of Mummy movies knows, while science may reveal some secrets, there are other truths which must forever remain unknown.
I’m not going to sugar coat my review here, and up front I want to be honest that I had some wild expectations when walking into this movie. Mostly because of my love for the Karloff version, and secondly because of my fascination with the mythos itself, and third, I’d heard or read somewhere the film was actually quite horrifying. And while I will not argue there are some rather dark and terrifying scenes, especially during close-ups of the Mummy when it looks as if the creature has hollowed out eyes, I’d say The Mummy’s Hand was far from being a true horror movie. If I had to categorize the film, it’d be right next to the Abbott and Costello pictures that would eventually release in the mid thru late 40s. The comedy, while at times actually humorous and well blended, did not seem to mesh well with the entire scope of the film. The relationship between Steve and Babe felt as if I was indeed watching an infant version of Bud and Lou. Perhaps, in retrospect, maybe my critique is due to my expectations, after all, the Karloff version had absolutely zero comedy and was altogether serious, due more or less to the decade of depression than anything else. Still, I found more things jarring then I did entertaining. Here are a few of my least favorite things about The Mummy’s Hand:
- Reboot. Yup, pretty much is. Sure, they changed the names, but the first scene backstory is pretty much a shot-for-shot of the story of Imhotep attempting to bring to life Anck-su-namun. Getting caught. And being buried alive. They simply replaced Karloff with Tyler. Some of the scenes actually look identical to the original. To me, this is lazy story telling.
- Full moon? What is the deal with everything involving a full moon with this movie? If I wanted a werewolf I’d watch something with Lon Chaney Jr. in it. This is the Mummy for crying out loud! And the moon is never really fully fleshed out, just given random references from the supporting cast, something about an elixir given to the “sleeping” mummy every full moon or something like that to keep him alive, or rather, undead. And then there was something about Jackals or whatever. And of course, who can forgive the Bela ripoff as the former high priest paraphrases Dracula with a “children of the night” quote. Ugh!
- Motivation. When writing characters, one must make them believable, the reader or audience must understand the motivation of the characters. They don’t have to agree with them, but the motivations must be plausible. I was actually able to follow along with The Mummy’s Hand through half of the movie. Yes, I get it. Steve got canned from the university and is looking prove himself as an budding archaeologist. Andoheb wants to protect the tomb in which the greedy men and woman are attempting to “steal the secrets,” and after watching them sledgehammer and manhandle their way into the tomb, I don’t blame the guy, seriously! Regardless, when the mummy starts taking them out, one by one, and we can certainty cheer during these brief moments of horror, the motivation of the mummy seems dull. The mummy obeys because it wants the elixir? Really, that’s what you’re going with? And what the heck is going on when the mummy kidnaps Marta, aka Peggy Moran? Okay, we can probably chock it up to a classic monster trope, but why, oh why is Andoheb suddenly attracted to her? He plans on making them both immortal, because, as he says, she is so beautiful. While the Elixir of Immortality is an interesting concept, it was very really played up enough in the movie for it to become a prime motivation for the story. It made zero sense.
- Babe straight up murderers an unarmed Andoheb and nothing is said about it or comes about.
- Category. I’m really not sure how to categorize this film. Is it a black comedy, is it horror, or is it something of a noir film as it seemed most of everyone was costumed in those sleek fedoras. Or maybe the film was a hybrid horror, comedy, spaghetti-western (the ending will explain this for you, six-shooters and all, and noting how pretty much the entire cast went on to make a dozen of those grainy wagon wheel movies).
Certainly, there was plenty wrong with The Mummy’s Hand. I had expected serious horror and got instead a strange brew (no pun intended) of dark comedy and noir-western. However, we cannot discredit the film as being both moderately entertaining and a member of the Universal Monster classics. Watching the film for a second time, I did everything I could to remove all expectation and truly found myself enjoying the movie more than during my first screening. Some of the issues cannot be ignored, but altogether The Mummy’s Hand was still a monster movie, and in of itself had inspired later monster pictures, including a very reminiscent 1959 Hammer film titled simple, The Mummy starring both Peter Crushing and Christopher Lee (but in all honesty, Hammer did it waaaaaay better). The comedy of Wallace Ford (also marvelous in Tod Browning’s Freaks) playing the part of Babe was fantastic, in its own right. Dick Foran as our leading man was…okay, he did seem to be a bit stoic, and as I understand it he returned to the Mummy lexicon for one more picture in The Mummy’s Tomb with Lon Chaney Jr. taking on the role as Mummy. Peggy Moran was, to be blunt, kind of a prune, yet surprisingly strong and willful, until the end of course when her character Marta falls into the inevitable monster movie trope for women, which sadly still seems to go on into modern horror movies today. What can we say about Tom Tyler, who donned the bandages of the Mummy? His actions were certainly creepy, but the character in itself was mute, in more ways than one—sort of betrothed just as the movie was.
My Rating: 2/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of terror. He grew up in the small town of Vinton, Virginia, but in 2001, left home to enlist in the U.S. Army. Following his third tour in Iraq, Thomas moved to Houston, Texas where he now lives with his beautiful bride and amazing daughter. Thomas attended night school, with a focus on creative writing and history. In 2014, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History from UHCL. Thomas blogs at machinemean[dot]org where he reviews movies, books, and other horror related topics.
Universal Monsters in review: Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Another first for me. Fresh from a late night screening of Dracula’s Daughter, expecting perhaps something humdrum or worse, mediocre. However, the most sublime thing happened. Dracula’s Daughter turned out to be an actually wonderfully fantastic film. With beautiful cinematography and superb acting, its a wonder why folks don’t talk about this film more. It is astounding how the general consensus on movie review sites, such as Rotten Tomato, is nothing more than a snore, between critic and everyday reviewers alike. I suppose walking the line between boring and atmospheric is a very narrow path. Personally, I felt Dracula’s Daughter was very atmospheric and I can see now where more recent vampire adaptations picked certain images. When I first glimpsed Countess Marya Zaleska (played by the enchanting Gloria Holden), with her face hidden behind a black hijab, she reminded me of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Of course, one the significant differences the between two, Countess Marya Zaleska seems to prefer to prey on women than men, which also gives us some rather homoerotic vibes, especially concerning a certain scene between the Countess and a woman her man servant Sandor brings in off the street under the guise of needing model for a painting. Thankfully, we’ve got a special guest with us today to help us sort through this film. Teacher, screen writer, film maker, author, podcaster, and all around great guy, William D. Prystauk has graciously agreed to take on this Universal classic. Lets see what he has to say!
Dracula’s Daughter (Universal, 1936)
by William D. Prystauk
This is the official sequel to 1931’s iconic Dracula, this tale takes place a few months after the count’s death at the hands of Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). Dracula’s Daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), with the help of her right-hand man, Sandor (Irving Pichel) steals the body of her “dead” father, and burns Dracula to a crisp in order to rid herself of the desire to consume blood that possesses her – except it doesn’t work. As Van Helsing remains in court defending himself against murder charges because he rid the world of a vampire, the countess takes victims by mesmerizing them with a jeweled ring. Even so, she meets up with psychiatrist Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger), and undergoes therapy while trying to use sheer force of will to keep her bloodthirsty cravings at bay. Seeking a distraction, Sandor brings the countess model Lili (Nan Grey) to paint. In the beginning, Zaleska resists her urge to attack Lili, but ultimately fails. Though Lili survives the assault, she soon dies when Dr. Garth tries to hypnotize her. Realizing a cure is impossible at the same time Dr. Garth realizes she’s a true blue vampire, Zaleska kidnaps the doctor’s lover, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), and whisks her off to solemn Transylvania. In order to save Janet, Dr. Garth must allow himself to be bitten by Zaleska so he can become her partner – forever. However, the countess had promised Sandor eternal life. And before her fangs can penetrate her soon to be enslaved beau, Sandor, pent on revenge for the snub, destroys her with an arrow.
The only one to reprise his role from the first film is Van Sloan. Hell, the studio didn’t try to get Tod Browning to direct again, and James Whale took a walk – and they didn’t even show Bela Lugosi in a coffin (even though he came cheap as stars go), but used a wax bust of him instead. Simply put, Universal wanted to cash in on the Dracula name one more time.
Dracula’s Daughter, although far from a perfect film, certainly has its moments. First, it distanced itself from the original movie to the point where the film can stand on its own because an entirely different mythos has been created. Where Lugosi’s count wanted control and power, Zaleska is a reluctant bloodsucker. She wants nothing more than to be a normal woman and experience the sun on her face. Thinking and talking about a world she cannot engage with her senses, she seeks out any means to make it happen. She burns her father’s body to dust as if she’s honoring some archaic folk remedy, and when that fails, she turns to modern science because it’s clear Zaleska thinks the problem’s in her head, thanks to psychiatrist Garth who thinks he can cure any “disease of the mind”. If she can find a way of quenching that thirst without unleashing her fangs, she can recapture her humanity. But don’t let this fool you because Zaleska keeps Lurch-like Sandor around. He’s a cold Vulcan wannabe who drops shade upon her fantasies to comedic splendor. Sandor sees death in her eyes, and when she imagines birds and dogs, he sees bats and wolves. Therefore, every smile she conjures he turns into a frown. In this case, he’s not just her servant, but her reality check. In addition, if Zaleska finds a cure for her curse, Sandor will never become the immortal badass he wishes to become. If the countess had chosen Sandor as her companion, there’s no doubt that once he became the immortal dead he’d either stake Zaleska or leave her behind. Beyond those two options, Sandor would have followed in Dracula’s bloody footsteps. However, I always wondered if Universal had made a third installment with the Return of Sandor and Irving Pichel reprising his role. This would have kept the franchise rolling, and could have altered Pichel’s career, which ultimately became waylaid by the truly horrific House Un-American Activities Committee who had him blacklisted as an actor and a director.
One thing that never escapes vampirism in all its forms is the homoerotic element: A villain with fanged teeth (phalluses) penetrating the flesh of men and women. Dracula may have wanted Mina Harker, but he takes her husband to be, Jonathan as a live-in slave, and who knows how he crawled into the mind of Renfield before going after Lucy Westenra. In Dracula’s Daughter, the much talked about scene between Zaleska and Lili makes one wonder if the countess craves the young woman out of hunger or something more. As the young woman stands half-naked before Zaleska, the countess hunger shines through, but one can argue either way if it’s bloodlust (looking at Lili as sustenance) or as a love interest. When Lili fades fast, Zaleska seems to revel in the fact that the woman is dying, because this demise is the countess’s dark creation thanks to her own fangs. This is where some of daddy Dracula’s darkness leaks through, and for a moment we wonder if Sandor wasn’t right all along about those bats, wolves, and notions of death. After all, he knows his mistress better than anyone else ever could.
Most important, unlike Dracula, we feel for Zaleska the monster. She’s in turmoil and seems serious-minded about becoming something better than her uncanny, human consuming self. This allows audiences to appreciate her struggle and have sympathy for the monster, the same as Lon Chaney Jr.’s wolfman, who had become a creature of the night against his will, and Boris Karloff’s poor monster thanks to Dr. Frankenstein. Granted, we don’t really know of Zaleska’s origin, but with her longing for sunlight, she most undoubtedly had been sired against her will.
Regardless, Gloria Holden was a reluctant actress. She did not care for horror and did not want to become typecast as she saw Lugosi becoming. This helped her in creating a “yearning for life” character, a reluctant vampire who had to feed like a human needed a bite out of a hamburger each day, and there was no non-blood alternative to sustain her. Holden maintained her stature and grace in the role, bringing an element of regality to the countess, which appeared as an older, domineering lesbian to some, or mommy dearest like mistress of the damned. One can see how she may have influenced the eyes of Lily Munster or Angelica Houston in the Addams’ Family films. We can only guess what the reaction would have been if scribe John L. Balderston’s original screenplay had been accepted by Universal, and the stifling censorship board (Production Code Administration) at the time. In Balderston’s version, Von Helsing would have returned to the castle to finish off the vampire brides, but we would have been introduced to a countess who enjoyed her role as queen destructive bee. Several scenes apparently implied that the countess had a desire for torturing men, which included paraphernalia equivalent to a 1930’s version of a dominatrix with whips and such. However, Zaleska did have a mental hold on Sandor, and she certainly tortured him with the dangling carrot of immortality.
Ultimately, in Dracula’s Daughter, the beast and her bodyguard butler only discovered death and destruction, while the arrogant cocksure psychiatrist and his love interest earned the chance to live another day. Yet oddly enough, with Garth’s education and prowess to hypnotize there is a subtle hint that he is the human equivalent of a vampire (sans Zaleska’s jeweled ring), though we never learn if he’ll use his mental skills to manipulate poor Janet. We only know that the vampire queen is dead and young women in London and in the valley of the castle’s shadow are safe for another day.
Rate: 3 stars out of 5
William D. Prystauk is an award-winning screenwriter, film producer, and teacher in higher education, as well as a published poet, and essayist. His crime thriller, BLOODLETTING, has been adapted from his script of the same name, and he is currently working on a horror series. William also co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK podcast as Billy Crash with his good buddy, Jonny Numb, and currently has thousands of listeners in 120 countries. You can find more about horror and William on his Crash Palace Productions site. As an Assistant Professor of English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, William teaches business writing, and public relations. You can find more about William at any of these fantastic sites: Amazon: http://amzn.to/1Fu9PHS Barnes and Noble: http://bit.ly/1GhclaJ Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23365977-bloodletting BLOODLETTING Book Trailer One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVNji_G-tSI BLOODLETTING Book Trailer Two: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glK9DiVIHT8 IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm5464477/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/william-d-prystauk/10/9a1/a55 Horror Podcast: THE LAST KNOCK on iTunes Twitter: @crashpalace
Creature Features in Review: King Kong (1933)
I am going to assume you’ve seen this film so spoilers will abound. If you haven’t, for the love of God, go. Go now.
Well, now. Here we are again.
Last time, it was Bride of Frankenstein (check out THAT review here). Sure, Thomas, I’ll cover Bride’, thinking quick watch through of Frankenstein and the sequel, then 1500 words, bish bash bosh, job done. Then that sinking feeling, as I realized how ludicrously good Bride was, how much I’d have to say, would want to say, just how big the world of existing essays, books and criticism must already be.
You might have thought I’d have learned something from that.
So, King Kong. In my defense, I had seen it before, and more in my defense, it had been well over a decade. So, my memory was simply that it was bloody brilliant, absurdly good for a movie made in 1933, a cracking, action packed monster movie with some bonus pathos and what have you.
And, you know, that wasn’t wrong, per se. Watching it again for this, I was forcibly struck by how sophisticated so much of the effects work was. The combination of stop frame and huge model work, for example, is incredibly impressive, as are the moments where the stop frame interacts with filmed actors at certain points (even if with modern eyes it’s painfully clear when the actor becomes a stop frame version of themselves, there’s still a certain not-quite-sure-how-they-did-that thrill to the transitions). Kong himself is glorious, especially in mid shot, fighting a T-Rex or giant snake. The giant model face isn’t quite as expressive or mobile as the stop frame equivalent, but it’s for the most part intelligently used for short close ups and is especially brilliant when he has some poor islander or explorer being used as a chew toy.
Similarly, Skull Island is as spectacular as I remembered. Bathed in the ethereal, slightly hazy black and white glow (my DVD copy of the movie was clearly a straight lift from the film stock, preserving even the cue marks signaling the need to swap reels), the island really does feel like a visitation to The Past. The giant wall, the extensive, gorgeous hand painted backgrounds, the cunning use of rear projection to show dinosaurs and explorers on camera together and the mighty, thunderous score, all combine to brilliant effect, creating a viewing experience that is utterly captivating. King Kong is a class act all the way.
Similarly, the acting is superb throughout, with special props going to the indefatigable Fay Wray, who has the absolutely thankless task of screaming in peril from basically the 30-minute mark to the close, with little pause for breath, but who nonetheless brings incredible depth, humanity, and interiority to her character. Her acting in her first big scene, when filmmaker Denham makes his pitch, is especially brilliant, her desperation and hunger warring with common sense and fear, her vulnerability genuinely heartbreaking. It packs an extra wallop when you consider that the Great Depression was both a current and ongoing event at the time the film was made, with many young actresses no doubt facing real world choices every bit as stark as Ann Darrow’s dilemma.
That’s a layer of sophistication the movie exhibits that had completely passed me by on prior viewings, actually. I’m so used to movie depictions of The Great Depression (The Sting being the example that immediately springs to mind, a movie I love unconditionally) that the contemporaneous nature of the film passed me by. And yet King Kong is, in part, a pretty pointed social commentary on the economics of that time – how people sought to escape from the crushing misery of the day to day by visiting movie theaters and getting blissed out on Hollywood. When you think about the essential amorality of filmmaker Carl Denham in King Kong, and the ultimate fate of the theatregoers eager to see the ‘8th wonder of the world’… well, let’s just say there was a to-me entirely unexpected level of anxiety and self-criticism from Hollywood that was both pointed and kind of thrilling. I mean, I was expecting – eagerly anticipating, even – the fifty-foot gorilla going ape. A movie displaying insecurity about the role of mass entertainment in the midsts of financial upheaval and social misery? That was a welcome and crunchy surprise.
There were other surprises that were less welcome. And here, I am going to wimp out by simply observing the painfully obvious; namely, that a movie that was made in the 1930’s and that depicts an island of ‘natives’ with brown skin contains racial politics that could charitably be described as ‘problematic’. I am both acknowledging and skipping that not because I don’t think it matters, or doesn’t deserve discussion, but because minds far superior to mine have already engaged with the subject with far more knowledge and insight than I could hope to bring, and you should go to Pop Matters and READ their article, and then read Angry Bitch Blog on the subject, and then Inverse’s take, and don’t forget this bit of commentary. All I will say here is obvious; it’s there, and it’s ugly. And if you feel a discussion of Kong that doesn’t engage with the racial politics of the movie is woefully incomplete, you’re right, and I’m sorry, but I also know when a subject is too big for me, both in terms of concepts and word counts.
I think it’s worth taking just a quick look at the Kong-as-boy thing, though.
And let’s just start by observing that Kong clearly is male. It’s not just the name – though there is that – but his performative chest-beating displays are lifted directly from the behavior of the male silverbacks he’s modeled on. And let us further observe that this fifty-foot ape is, therefore, genetically speaking, a very close relative indeed.
Again, in full awareness that I’m dislocating my hip in order to sidestep the huuuuuuuge racial implications and encoding of the giant ape falling for a white woman, having previously eaten all the brown women he was offered (because, fucking yuck, let’s not), what we have here, therefore, is a love story. A violent, inarticulate, hugely powerful male is drawn to kidnap, then preserve and protect a small, vulnerable beautiful female from a hostile world.
Now, the movie itself draws an explicit parallel here between this situation and the story of Beauty and the Beast – indeed, it makes what looks suspiciously like a post-modern joke to that effect on the boat, with Denham fully saying out loud, apparently to himself ‘Say! I’m developing a theme here!’. But the film that I found myself going back to was Bride Of Frankenstein.
Because Kong, like The Monster, is, well, a monster. Powerful. Inarticulate. Angry. Violence-prone. Strong, yet vulnerable. Lonely.
That’s the real kicker, for me – the factor that gives both such amazing cinematic power and resonance. The innocence. Kong is innocent. Not good, you understand: he kidnaps women, seems to enjoy a spot of mortal combat rather too much, and certainly chews people to death, even if he doesn’t eat them. Like the other Monster, his anger is swift to rise and terrible to behold.
At the same time, he’s still innocent. In Kong’s case, he’s unarguably a product of his environment. In an ecosystem as hostile and violent as Skull Island, only the most ruthless and strong can possibly survive. Kong’s aggression and violence may be terrifying, but they are also understandable necessary survival mechanisms. He may have that considerable ape intelligence, but he’s still, as we’d understand it, a ‘dumb animal’.
Like the monster, we are invited to both fear Kong, but also pity him – perhaps even love him. It’s fundamentally Not His Fault, after all – he’s taken from a place where he belongs to a world he cannot hope to understand. Again, sidestepping the imagery of the chains (not enough yuck in the world, there), we’ve got the same notion seen in ‘Bride..’ of ‘civilisation’ colliding with a more primal force.
And this is where, I think, things get fundamentally fucked up. Because Kong is a monster. He kills indiscriminately, his obsession with Ann Darrow is the worst kind of stalker/woman as object behavior, and he appears to enjoy destruction and violence for its own sake. These are monstrous behaviors. Add in the whole fifty feet tall thing, and, well…
None of us would remotely dig having Kong in our town, and if he was coming down the street, the vast majority of us wouldn’t want the RSPCA (or ASPCA for my transatlantic friends). No, we’d want the army and a fucking bazooka.
But he’s not on our street. He’s on the screen. And there, knowing what we know about his history, safe in the knowledge that we’re not going to become Kong popcorn, we can feel for him. We can empathize with his pain. We can rationalize his obsession, forgive his violence. He’s a dumb animal. He doesn’t know any better. He’s been hurt and he’s lashing out. It’s the only behavior he understands.
And when the planes finally take him down, some of us may even weep.
I usually do.
And, you know, that’s okay, because he is an animal. If we take the fiction seriously, it’s not surprising to feel that way. But it is, also, undeniably unsettling. Kong’s behavior, his effect, is terrible, terrifying, horrendous. Yet he is innocent. As with that other monster, it’s the tension between those two facts that elicits such strong emotions, such powerful pathos.
Still, I can’t help feel like there’s a parable here, albeit not the one intended by the filmmakers. Because looked at as a list of traits, Kong is pretty much textbook toxic masculinity (yes, I know he’s an ape). And you can feel the racist barely-subtext tugging again if you note that the message seems to be that these traits are innate, a product of environment, and that ‘civilisation’ is ultimately to blame for transforming the environment to such an extent that these natural instincts no longer have relevance, have become destructive.
And, you know, fuck that, basically.
I think by far the more interesting read is to note that, yes, Kong has these horrible traits, but we as an audience can see them and still empathize with him, still feel sadness at his treatment and his passing. In the same way as we do for the Universal Monster, and interestingly, in a way that far fewer of us can for the real life, human monsters that share these traits.
Because, of course, Kong is innocent.
That’s the aspect of the movie that still gnaws away at my mind, the dichotomy that elevates this from merely brilliant period popcorn to something… ah, hell, we’ve come this far. Let us just call it art, shall we?
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May 4, 2017 | Categories: History, Horror, Movies, Reviews | Tags: 1933, black and white, Bruce Cabot, classic monster movies, Classics, Creature Feature, creature features, Creature Features in Review, Ernest B. Schoedsack, Fay Wray, film, Frank Reicher, Gonzo, greatest movies, Guest author, Horror, horror reviews, King Kong, Kit Power, Merian C. Cooper, monster movies, monsters, movie reviews, Reviews, Robert Armstrong, social commentary, Top Ten | 4 Comments