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Universal Monsters in Review: Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

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As we enter into the sophomore era of the Information Age, which began its infantilism back in the 1970s and slowly grew, finally exploding in the early 2000’s, ushering humanity into a new echelon, what is commonly referred to as the New Media Age, it has become incredibly easy to get lost in the heartbreak and horror the world has to offer. Be it a mass shooting at a nightclub. The murder of children. A flood destroying an entire town. And probably the worst, the constant flow of personal opinion and prejudiced. Its easy to get lost in all the chatter. In all the turmoil. These were my thoughts while I was screening Universal’s last of the slap-stick dynamite comedic duo, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. My own fears of where our country is going politically, why it seems no one is willing to meet on solid ground, and contemplating when the death moderates and compromise happened. To tell you the truth, I’m not a huuuge fan of the A&C act. Sure, I love the historic quality of vaudeville. I used to watch The Three Stooges religiously. And Charlie Chaplin…well, a legend, to be sure. But my mood wasn’t willing. It took some struggle to throw in the DVD instead of watching something else a little more nihilistic. I believed it would be boring. I’m glad to have been wrong. As soon was the film started, with that over-the-top circus performance, and Bud and Lou came on screen wearing those ridiculous safari hats, looking more like Dark Helmet, my disposition softened. My fears abated, at least for the time being. Sure, the movie played out way longer than needed. The plot, if there was one, could have been finished within 45 mins, and that’s being generous. Regardless, it was fun and lighthearted and perhaps that’s something we all need more of in our lives. Not to forget or ignore the tragedy, but to cope, to put things back in perspective. Anyhow, I shall delay no longer. We have a very special guest with us today, co-host of The Last Knock, Jon Weidler.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

By: Jon Weidler

[80 minutes. Unrated. Director: Charles Lamont]

Tom Servo: “Joel, what are ‘boobs’?”

Joel Robinson: “You know, like Jethro Bodine.”

  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 (“Pod People”)

My experience with the comedic oeuvre of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello is very limited; in fact, the closest I had ever gotten to experiencing their routines were the impersonations done by the comedians of the UK incarnation of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and descendants of the duo riffing on the “who’s on first” routine. I watched “The Three Stooges” as a child, and found humor in their brand of easily-accessible, over-the-top slapstick – Abbott and Costello simply eluded my radar. Even in the VHS era, when Universal was reissuing all of their classic monsters in fancy new packaging, Abbott & Costello seemed to have a lower profile than the more straightforward horror efforts (for what it’s worth, though, Amazon is still selling new VHS tapes of A & C’s various cinematic adventures).

In any case: my crash course in their brand of black-and-white comedy-horror begins with Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.

The second-to-last collaboration of the duo, the film comes late in the Universal Monsters cycle, and it shows (for a bit of perspective, Hammer would debut their own stylish, serious-minded, and colorized incarnation of The Mummy 4 years later): the production values have a stripped-down quality that conveys studio disinterest, the screenplay alternates between our bumbling buffoons and stilted scenes of dull exposition, and the synthesis of the comedic and horrific elements is lackluster at best.

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I have conflicted feelings toward the ensembles of successful film series (comedy or otherwise). For a recent example, consider the first sequel to Todd Phillips’ The Hangover, wherein the guys who laid waste (and wasted) to Vegas brought their culture-wrecking shenanigans to Bangkok. As with so many sequels, the result was an uninspired, watered-down retread of a far more endearing original, its formula poised to rake in easy box office dollars and line the pockets of its stars. Where I sympathize is in the expectations that the reprisal of such roles (and character types) instills in the actors, becoming typecast as smug douchebags (Bradley Cooper), mentally deficient man-children (Zach Galifianakis), or passive punching bags (Ed Helms). The complicity of the actors in these Xeroxed efforts is a point I sympathize far less with, especially when they know they could be doing so much more with their talents.

The same can be said for Abbott and Costello: perhaps the most successful of the comedic duos/trios of the early twentieth century, they bested their peers (The Three Stooges; Laurel and Hardy) with a presence in both television and high-profile films (indeed, they were the only comedians given access to the financially lucrative Universal Monsters vault). Their shtick subsisted on a mix of physical humor and bouts of wordplay that ostensibly appealed to a broader audience, but by the 1950s, had run its course as cinema in general moved toward Cold War-inspired horrors. Traditional monsters with a more romantic, literary sensibility gave way to everything that could be doused in radiation – for the most part, bigger didn’t equal better, but provided an evolution of the “spectacle” that filmgoers were seeking at the time.

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And perhaps that is why the musty aroma of antiquity seems to permeate each frame of Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. I went into the film with an open mind – even a slight optimism – as the Mummy is one of my favorite monsters of all time (Christopher Lee’s rendition, especially, supplied considerable nightmare fuel for my childhood).

The film overall feels like one of those direct-to-DVD ventures wherein a top-billed “name” actor shows up for a few minutes before disappearing altogether. Despite a more pronounced presence, Abbott and Costello seem shoehorned into the plot. Our duo is wrongfully implicated in the death of Dr. Gustav Zoomer (Kurt Katch), who had recently excavated the Mummy of Klaris (Edwin Parker), who is subsequently stolen by a sect of followers to be resurrected and walk once more as their ruler…or something (extended scenes of ritual dance are involved). In the meantime, there are hijinks involving a priceless medallion belonging to Klaris, as Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) looks to pay our bumbling pair for said medallion, and Lou crashing into closets, through walls, and stumbling into secret passageways. Some of the gags elicit polite laughter, but none are genuinely hilarious because the setup is so labored.

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For example, there is a routine where Bud and Lou, upon having learned of the “death curse” of Klaris’s medallion, spend a couple minutes sneaking it to each other in a restaurant; while this sequence shines as an example of old-school comic timing, it culminates in a protracted punchline wherein Lou is left to chew on the medallion for a couple minutes, well past the point of it being funny. And while it’s interesting to see the origin of certain bits that have wormed themselves into more recent films – including a scene that precludes Macaulay Culkin’s use of a tough-talking gangster movie to intimidate the burglars in Home Alone – earlier doesn’t necessarily mean better in this case. The voice-over narration that begins the film uses a lame pun to get things rolling (“a boy’s best friend is his mummy”), and the late-occurring “pick and shovel” debate comes off as an uninspired gloss on “who’s on first?” Though, when Bud explains to Lou that “some mummies are men, some are women” to his partner’s exasperation and surprise, one can admire screenwriters Lee Loeb and John Grant for bringing LGBT awareness to light (though I’m guessing that was unintentional).

Much like our less-than-dynamic duo’s routine, the main plot also feels tired. Populated by a stiff supporting cast whose lines are uttered as though at gunpoint, the exposition-heavy dialog scenes are dull at best, and painful at worst. The main problem with the film is that it’s never creative enough to be truly interesting, and its pantsuit-wearing depiction of the Mummy as a growling, twitching – and sometimes running – beast is a far cry from the subtleties that Boris Karloff originally brought to the role.

4 out of 10 stars

jonW

Jon Weidler works for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by day, but is a podcast superhero by night. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast under the moniker “Jonny Numb,” and is a regular contributor to the Crash Palace Productions and Loud Green Bird websites. His archived movie reviews can be found at numbviews.livejournal.com, and his social media handle is @JonnyNumb (Twitter & Letterboxd).

 

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Universal Monsters in Review: Abbot & Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

LewisDuncan

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: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Lock your gates. Shut the doors. The monster has returned!!! And I’ll keep my little intro here brief as our esteemed guest writer today has given us a magnificent opus on what many consider to be James Whale’s masterpiece, The Bride of Frankenstein. The Bride certainly has it all, social satire, horror, wit, comedy, and perhaps even a nuance of sexuality (homosexuality, to be bold). While Whale’s private may have private, not surprising considering how homosexuality was believed to be a mental disorder by the majority of Americans up until the 1970s, in Bride we get a little glimpse of satire to his hidden persona. Many symbolism’s I’m surprised survived the sharp blade of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship goons, now known as the MPAA, especially the scene in which the Monster is hoisted up in a near crucifixion pose.  However, I do not wish go too deeply into this topic, as there have been tons of scholarly paper written in its regard. If you are curious to dig deeper into what I’ve mentioned above, feel free to check out the following site I found, the research I found to be quite interesting, here. So, without further delay, let us see what our guest has in store for us today!

Would You Like To Hear What Happened After That?

By: Kit Power

 

So basically, this’ll be the ‘ignoramus’ portion of this blog series.

You see, I know nothing about the Universal monster series. Absolutely bugger all. Never one to let ignorance stop me writing (as those familiar with my work will no doubt attest), when Thomas S. Flowers approached me to take part, I lept at the chance – it felt like an opportunity to make a long-overdue correction, and fill one of the many many embarrassing gaps in my cultural knowledge.

Having been advised that the ‘marquee’ debut pictures were all already spoken for (The Mummy, The Wolf Man, Dracula etc) I was given a choice of over fifty titles. Scanning that list, Bride Of Frankenstein lept out at me immediately.

Because of the pinball table.

No, really.

See, of the many, many displacement activities I have to distract me when I really should be writing, pinball is one of the most consistent. The Pinball Arcade, a company dedicated to digitizing real world pinball tables to produce painstakingly realistic simulations pretty much owns a portion of my soul. Fortunately, all this play happens on the PS3 – if I was a Steam gamer and could readily see how many hours of my life have been sunk into the quintessentially pointless activity of using (digital) flippers to propel a (digital) steel ball around a (digital) table to make (digital) lights flash and bells ring, I suspect there’d be very little reason not to just end it all.

Anyhow, one of my favorite tables is ‘Monster Bash’, a 1997 table from Williams that features the Universal monster menagerie – specifically, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, The Creature From the Black Lagoon… and The Bride. If I tell you that ‘The Bride’ mini game consists of hitting a series of ramps, causing her digital counterpart to whack Frankenstein’s monster over the head with a frying pan while ‘Here comes the bride’ plays on a heavy metal guitar, you’ll perhaps get a flavour of how seriously the source material is being treated. That said, it’s a genuinely fun and well designed pinball table. My high score is in the 800 million range (more on this story later in the series).

So ‘Bride…’ felt like an obvious choice. A quick Amazon search to confirm that it was available in the UK (it was, as part of a BluRay set of 8 Universal monster movies for under £20 – sold!) and I was in.

I watched Frankenstein first, just to try and get some context, before settling down to Bride. I noted that Boris Karloff didn’t get a named credit in the original movie, but is absolutely star billing in the sequel. And I mean, fair enough, because he was fairly awe inspiring in the first movie, but it’s still interesting the degree to which this has become the Boris Karloff show.

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The opening five minutes didn’t inspire me with a huge amount of confidence, I have to say. The actor playing Byron is operating like we’re on the back row of a 1,000 seater auditorium, and at least to a modern eye, he’s camp as ninepence. It’s not a serious problem, but I did find myself trying to frantically readjust my sensibilities to 1935 settings.

And then the movie proper started, and none of that mattered.

I found this film to be so thunderingly good I watched it twice, and I’m still not sure I’m going to be able to do full justice to it. After all, there’s a ton of elements that go into making a good movie. When a film is actually great – as I think this one is – each of those elements could fill an essay in their own right. I’m going to try and talk about most of the elements in the order they occur in the film, but that won’t always be possible. I will also talk spoilers, for both this movie and it’s predecessor, Frankenstein, so  please, please, if you haven’t seen these movies yet, go away and come back when you have, okay? On the other hand, if you’re an aficionado, apologies in advance for my no doubt shocking stupidity and ignorance.

The first thing to note is that it’s an immediate sequel, in the style of Halloween 2 or Hellraiser 2, beginning where the drama of the first movie ended, with the burning mill. And it looks brilliant. I mean, there’s a gorgeous effects shot of the outside of the mansion that the prologue is held in – crashing thunder, torrential rain – which logic dictates has to be a model shot, but… well, I guess back then they knew how to sell a model shot. The burning mill is similarly spectacular, the black smoke against a grey sky, the roaring timber frame collapsing.

And there’s a weird thing about the acting. Because on one level, for many of the performers (cf. Byron, above) there’s a clear sense that these are stage actors who simply don’t get how film acting is different. So there’s a lot of what we might charitably call broad performances, especially from some of the bit players, like the burgermaster, and the maid. And you can absolutely chalk that up to the fact that it’s 1935, and ‘talkies’ have only been a thing for 8 years, especially with the older performers.

Except then, there’s Karloff.

And I mean, sure, the makeup does at least some of the heavy lifting. It’s absolutely iconic. It’s so good that I’ve seen it a million times, from Halloween masks to coasters to T-Shirts to  pinball tables to, shit, everywhere, same as you. And still, the moment that he stands out of the water and that face fills the frame is genuinely chilling. And that’s not all the makeup.

There’s something in his eyes.

There’s this terrifying blankness, with just a hint of… something. Some spark.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesinger, 1935

The movie wastes no time in reestablishing the monstrosity of the creature, with him committing a swift double murder of the parents of the child he killed in the last movie. There, of course, it was out of a tragically misguided sense of play. Here… well, he’s a wounded, terrified animal, cornered and burned, and righteously pissed off. And it’s not like he knows who he’s fighting with, or why.

Still, it’s uncomfortable – a genuinely grizzly fate for a blameless couple that have already suffered more than anyone should. It was an interesting decision to link the beginning of the movie so explicitly to the most horrific sequence of the original. It’s a clear statement of intent, but also reminds us how dangerous the monster really is.

From there we are acquainted with Dr. Henry Frankenstein, and his suspiciously young bride –  and I can’t tell if it’s comforting or depressing to know that even 80 years ago, actresses would get swapped out from one movie to another, but there it is. It’s also interesting to me to note that the technique of having the characters explicitly talk about the themes of the story via argument/dialogue, which has really been in vogue in a lot of TV writing of the last few years (I’m thinking particularly of Moffat era Doctor Who, here, but I’m sure you will have your own examples) was, again, clearly standard practice in 1935. In once sense, of course, that’s really a happy accident – likely if I’d seen this movie ten or fifteen years ago, there’s every chance this scene would have felt far more clunky and old fashioned that it does now. On the other hand, I found it surprising to find that modes of storytelling like this can apparently be both fashionable and cyclical, such that a film from 80 years ago can feel almost anachronistically modern.

And I guess this is a good time to talk about Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein. I mean, the headline is, he’s brilliant, but it’s worth unpacking why, I think.

For starters, there’s a real range to his character. In this scene alone, he goes from romantic lead, to remorseful, to wistful dreamer, to a hint of the manic driven scientist from the first movie, then back again. In a single short monologue. The way Clive plays it is really clever, fluid, transitioning from one to the other smoothly, generating real unease in the process. Given the title of the film, and the tagline on the poster (‘The Monster demands a bride!’), there’s no real suspense about where the story is actually going. Nonetheless, the conflict evident in the character serves well to re-establish him as sympathetic, as well as laying the groundwork for the inevitable tragedy of his temptation and fall.

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And then of course, there is the agent of temptation himself – Dr Pretorious himself, played by Ernest Thesiger.

Again, you really could do a whole essay just on this guy. Possibly even a book. He really is that good, the performance that deep. There’s elements of Peter Cushing, for me, albeit camper and less restrained. It’s a fascinating performance – I mean, morally speaking, he’s unambiguously the villain of the piece, the snake in the garden tempting Henry back to the forbidden fruit of even more forbidden knowledge. He compares himself to the devil at one point, so you couldn’t fairly call it subtle. At the same time though, it’s not quite the flamboyant villain of, say Rickman in Robin Hood, (or, for that matter, the cold calculated villainy of Die Hard). He occupies a strange space, suave, but not too suave, persuasive yet sinister. It’s a fine line to walk, and for my money he walks it to perfection. It also reinforces my point earlier about stage vs. screen actors, because this guy has absolutely gotten the memo – so much of his performance is in his face, his eyes.

As befitting the Devil, he also gets all the best lines – ‘A new world of Gods and monsters’, of course, but even more striking to me, perhaps because I hadn’t heard it before, ‘Science, like love, has her little surprises’. The scenes with the two doctors talking, one by turns pleading and manipulating, the other drawn in against his will reminded me strongly of the classic ‘Doctor vs Davros’ conversations from Doctor Who (if you don’t know what I’m talking about get out. No, really. Get. Out). While the power dynamic is of course quite different, there’s still that tension of intellects being attracted even as the divergent morality creates repulsion. it’s potent stuff.

I’m conscious that I haven’t talked much about one of the absolute crown jewels of the movie yet; namely, the direction. In this regard, it’s instructive to watch this movie back to back with the 1931 original, because one of the things you realise is just how much technique improved in just four years. Not that the direction for Frankenstein is bad – quite the reverse. But here, less than half a decade later, director James Whale has improved his already considerable skills dramatically.

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I mean, you can take your pick, really. As in, put the movie in and scene select at random, I guarantee you’ll see something within five minutes that, if you know anything about film making and what it must have been like in the ‘30’s, will just blow your mind. There’s an effects shot involving little people in jars at one point, during one of Dr. Pretorius’ seduction attempts, and I just flat out do not know how it was done. I mean, I know how you’d do it now, in 2016 – piece of piss. But 1935?!? It’s insane.

But in some ways, it’s the things you don’t notice that are the most powerful. Like just how amazingly well lit Dr. Pretorious face is, especially in a few pivotal dialogue free scenes. Or how – and this I only spotted second time through – almost all the shots it the lab have the camera at a slight angle, creating a subtle sense of disorientation, dislocation – an unease that you can’t even quite put your finger on. It’s powerful enough that they’re still using techniques like this today.

But I’m getting a bit self conscious, to be honest, because I have no doubt that a real film buff will see a hell of a lot more than I did, so I guess I’ll attempt to quit while I’m ahead on the direction, and just say that if you want to know more, I’m sure there will, again, have been many books written.

Getting back to the story, there’s an interesting runaround where the monster is found, captured, then escapes again into the woods. In a modern film, you’d cut between these scenes and those of Dr. F and his old friend having their ‘will they/won’t they’ chats, but it doesn’t detract from the storytelling that they don’t do that – indeed, it’s a pleasure to spend such an unbroken amount of time in the presence of Karloff’s monster, because it’s an amazing performance.

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Especially in this sequence. Because, after a bit of good old fashioned growly rampage, we get to one of my favorite sequences in this exceptional film – the blind hermit. It’s lifted straight from Shelley’s novel – the blind old man in the woods who befriends the monster because he cannot see his monstrosity. And again, as ideas go, not exactly subtle, right? But what sells it is the performances from both players. The old man is superb – ernest, yes, but with a drive to kindness born of desperate loneliness and desire for companionship. And of course, the monster responds to that kindness (after some initial understandable suspicion) with a joy that’s just heartbreaking.

One of the reasons it’s so powerful is because it highlights again one of the core traits of the monster, which is that he is innocent. Not good – he kills from rage, and indeed killed a child, albeit from a misguided spirit of play – but innocent nonetheless. And innocence is a term we normally associate with either goodness (as in children) or blamelessness (as in victim). To have an innocent murderer, an innocent monster… I mean, never mind 1935, that’s a sophisticated and difficult idea in 2016 to put out there. There’s echos of it in other movies – King Kong, most obviously (I can’t be the only one who cries at the end of that picture), and even The Incredible Hulk, to a lesser degree, but I can’t think of a purer expression of it than the ten minutes or so of screen time where the blind man teaches the monster to talk, to smoke (!). When the monster grins and yells ‘Friend!’ while grabbing the woodsman’s hand and shaking it, your heart creaks a little. When the woodsman tucks him in, and the camera fills the frame with Karloff’s scared, discoloured face, and the tears start to flow from the monster, overwhelmed by simple kindness… I mean, that’s pathos.

Because, of course, it can’t possibly end well, and when a couple of hunters inevitably turn up and attack the monster, he’s left in a burning house as his blind friend is dragged away.

There’s an incredible effects shot here as a ball of fire rolls out the window of the burning cottage, and I’m no expert, but it looks bloody dangerous to me.

The circumstance that brings Dr. Pretorious and the monster into contact does seem suspiciously convenient in retrospect, but I have to say it’s not something that jumped out on either of my viewings. I think the performances are a big part of why – Thesiger is on fire in this scene, moving from imperious and overbearing with his hapless graverobber flunkies, to drunken revelry when he thinks he’s alone, to the look on his face when he realises he isn’t. From there, his interaction with the monster is just superb – you can almost hear the gears in his mind turning as he reacts to the creatures’ newfound ability to talk (which he later casually takes credit for as he confronts Henry Frankenstein, in a deliciously subtle character moment).

And of course, on the other end of that equation is Karloff. It feels dumb, if not outright surreal, to be talking about the emotional arc of a creature in a 30’s monster movie, but what the hell, we’ve come this far, right?

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Because this is where the tragedy of the monsters innocence plays out, in the process again highlighting the difference between innocence and goodness, and the inherent exploitability and danger of innocence wedded to strength. The monster here is traumatised, desolate even – having unexpectedly been given, all too briefly, something that had been outside of his realm of experience – kindness, friendship – only to have it inevitably snatched away again. His desire to rekindle that is as palpable as it is desperate, and the way both Karloff and Thesiger play it establishes the true depth of Pretorius’s callousness in a far more profound way than his causal pronouncements about the nature of good, evil, and science ever could. His manipulation of this innocent creature reveals him to be by far the darker and more evil monster. Similarly, the desperation of Karloff’s repetition of the word wife, the awful hunger in his voice, manages to elicit sympathy and fear in equal measure.

From there, the inevitable dragging of Henry Frankenstein back to his ‘extreme stitching’ antics (aided and abetted by the monster kidnapping his wife, of course) is handled with commendable pace – though the scene where Henry is confronted by the monster, and the Doctor’s reaction to his creation having rudimentary language skills, is wonderfully played by all concerned. Similarly, Clive’s performance as he returns to his laboratory is superb – the manic, driven scientist of the first movie is there, but more haunted, desperate… and, when he remembers, guilty and remorseful. A more pitiful and accurate portrayal of a regretful addict, succumbing to their demons despite the voices of his better nature crying out, you will not find. I’ve generally avoided metatextual knowledge here, but I can’t help but note that this was a struggle Clive was all too familiar with, as by the time of making this picture, he was already deep in the throes of the alcoholism that would kill him just five years later. I didn’t know that when I watched his performance, of course, but it surely makes sense of just how well he nails that desperate energy.

Then we hit a sequence where it just all comes together – the direction, the acting, the lighting, the sound, the set design, the effects – In a set piece that, 80 years on, is still thrilling and mesmerizing – the awakening of The Bride. I mentioned earlier the slightly off-kilter camera angles, but it’s something I only noticed second time around, because there’s so much else going on, and none of it remotely that subtle. There’s the enormous crashing and booming of the storm, for starters, and maybe it’s just my BluRay remaster, but it’s a glorious cacophony, especially mixed with the static bursts from the machinery in the lab. The lab set itself is enormous, and tall – the gurney that lifts the Bride up into the storm must be 70 or 80 feet, maybe more, and it’s amazing watching it go up, with all the thunder and lightning crashing around, under the fixed stares of the two Doctors, their faces underlit to perfection.

And so, at last, we reach the portion of my notes labelled simply The Bride.

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There’s a genius cut, first of all, where they start with the bandages, and reveal the feminine eyes, before jumping to her fully unwrapped and robed. It means we as the audience have no time at all to get introduced to her gently, instead being given the full-on impact of a full length shot of her awesome weirdness with basically no chance to prepare.

And, I mean, bloody hell, it’s an amazing piece of costume/makeup/effect work. The Bride in on screen, all told, surely no more than ten minutes (I suspect less) but that initial shot alone is enough to understand why this creature is so utterly iconic. To the extent that there’s an excellent chance, bordering on near certainty, that you already know exactly what I am talking about – can picture her clearly in your mind’s eye right now. And in the unlikely event that you can’t – firstly, I’m envious, but secondly, go watch the damn movie, okay?

It’s possible what you may not be as familiar with is how she moves – and here, Elsa Lanchester earns her stripes with a truly remarkable performance. There’s a fragility, utterly at odds with the solidity of Karloff’s monster, but at the same time, underneath is that same blank innocence, that same animal fear. She is uneasy on her feet. Her head snaps about, eyes flitting, like a bird about to take flight. The score swells with wedding bells as Praetoris declares ‘The Bride of Frankenstein!”, but they are discordant, cacophonous, eerie.

A fade cut, and the monster is introduced to his bride. Karloff’s desperate hunger here is palpable, his instant infatuation heartbreaking. And I mean look, there’s something about this scene and how it plays out that I think connects to a fundamental element (of at least the majority of) the hetrosexual male pyche, so I’m just going to lay it out here: I think most straight men, when we are around a woman we desire, kind of feel like the monster. We feel clumsy, inarticulate, ugly, undesirable. Inadequate. This is irrespective of how the lady in question feels about us, incidentally – this is about especially the moments before first contact, when we’re torn between our desire to reach out and our abject terror at being rejected. We are all, in that moment, the monster. And Karloff just nails it. Agian. His dopey grin as he lurches towards her is – there’s that word again – heartbreaking.

As is her reaction.

Because she’s an innocent too. Everything that applies to the monster applies to her. Moreso for her, in fact, since at this stage it the story she’s effectively maybe an hour old. And it’s fascinating, because there’s a moment in the story, right here, where the whole structure, the type of story being told, is hanging by a thread. If this is ultimately a comedy, in the classical sense (and the film is not devoid of humor, making this genuinely plausible)  it will end in a wedding, after all.

“Friend?” The monster asks, hopefully. Her reply is a sharp short noise, a maybe-laugh, and a maybe-grin. The monsters’ smile wavers, grows. he staggers towards her, as she lurches on the spot, uncertain, her actions unclear. He reaches for her arm.

Then she screams.

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It’s a powerful moment. Heartbreaking, of course, for the monster, but perhaps even more chilling for what it tells you about the Bride. All at once, it is clear that, despite all the callous assumptions of the arrogant men around her, she is a creature of independent thought and mind. And she does not like what she sees. In some ways, it’s an inversion of the blind man sequence; there, a man with no sight could, with mindfulness, find the innocent inside the monster, and speak to him. Here, an innocent has only her eyes to guide her, and her response is as predictable as it is chilling.

Chilling, because it brings home the horror of what the doctors have done, in their arrogance and the kind of stupidity that only very intelligent men can manage.

The rest of the courtship is brief, and excruciating. When the monster reaches out to embrace the Bride, and she screams again, Karloff’s face moves from fragile hope, to despair, and then to blank resignation.

From there, the end is swift.

And really, I kind of know how he feels. I’m sure, without checking Amazon, that books will have been written about this movie – at a guess, a lot of them. To come in as a green observer in 2016 and try and find anything original to say about it was always going to be an act of  folly, doomed to failure. Nonetheless, it’s been a privilege to take the journey. I hope this inspires people to rewatch this movie, because it’s a film the deserves to continue be seen and talked about.

Thanks for the opportunity, Thomas. Hope I didn’t stink the place up too bad.

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Kit Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as front man (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo. He is the published author of such works as, GodBomb!, Lifeline, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts, Widowmakers, and upcoming Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers.

 


Top Christmas Movies Spectacular!!!

We are well into the Christmas season, past it perhaps if we are to measure the span in which Hobby-Lobby set out this years decorations. Besides seeing Ho ho ho signs and Jolly Saint Nick animatronic statues several months in advance, what really gets me excited about this time of year are the movies. Yes, time with family is also important. Get together parties and work functions, as well. The music is also good, though come mid December you may be ready to rip out your car stereo. Much like Halloween, Christmas movies are my thing during this time of year. However, the big difference between Halloween movies and Christmas movies is that I can watch Halloween movies everyday of every second of the year, whereas Christmas movies only feel appropriate one month of the year, December. So, in a way, Christmas movies have a special reverence. There are only but a few on this list that you could watch outside of Christmas, especially the more action induced flicks. But still, the argument holds. And FYI, most of these movies are currently on Netflix instant streaming! So, without further adieu, here is my top Christmas movie list spectacular!!

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1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992):

Kicking things off right, I want to start with one of my most favorite Christmas movies!! I’ve loved this one since I was a kid, in fact, I’m fairly positive my parents still have the VHS copy somewhere in their basement. What’s not to love? Micheal Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge is fantastic, and Miss. Piggy, Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Rizzo the Rat and the gang are also superb in this classic retelling of Charles Dickson’s short story, “A Christmas Carol.” The comedy is on par and, despite being a children’s movie, the horror-esk aspect remains somewhat intact.

2. Ernest Saves Christmas (1988):

Kids today have somehow lost an appreciation for Ernest P. Worrell style comedy. I know, sad, right? This 1980’s classic comes on the same stock as “Ernest Scared Stupid,” or “Ernest Goes to Camp.” I bet kids nowadays don’t even know the name… Anyways, enough lamenting. This holiday CLASSIC (that’s right you damn kids!) is a heart warming story about Santa passing on the torch (or magic if you will) to the new select Santa. Its a movie about self-discovery, family, doing the right thing, selflessness, and how even rich cooperate CEO’s can get what they want on Christmas, even snow. And as always, the late great Jim Varney is especially on par!

3. Bad Santa (2003):

Changing gears here to the more adult themed Christmas movies, Bad Santa is one of my favorite “raunchy” holiday flicks. Billy Bob Thornton plays such a great deplorable character. And Tony Cox is as usual witty and hilarious. There are a number of late great actors in this movies as well, including both: John Ritter and Bernie Mac. Bad Santa is a fun dark comedy about a pair of poorly teamed con-artists who, once a year, reunite to rob outlet malls on, you guessed it, Christmas Eve. Billy seems like a natural drunk, his performance looked very genuine! This one may be better suited to watch after the kids go to bed and the beers come out.

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4. Scrooged (1988):

Yet another take on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” What makes this one highly watchable is because it has the ever supreme Bill Murray as the leading role as Frank Cross (Ebenezer) who apparently in this retelling is a wildly successful television executive with cold ambition. Scruffy voiced Bobcat Goldthwait makes an wild shotgun toting appearance in this classic movie. As well as a full cast of late greats who help Murray re-evaluate his actions and right the wrongs of his past. Another dark comedy, def. worth your time to watch after the kids go to bed!

5. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989):

I couldn’t possible conduct a list of top Christmas movies and not include one of Chevy Chases’ best hits in the National Lampoon archive, could I? No! This family friendly comedy is probably on the shelf of every red-blooded American, right beside those creepy nightmare Elf on the shelf’s….eek! Christmas Vacation is classic story about a family man trying to do everything he can to pull off a perfect Christmas. But in most, if not all, Chevy Chase flicks, nothing ever goes according to plan, yet somehow everything eventually finds it way back to some kind of warmhearted object morality. “Awe, kidnapping and assault is okay, kids. I learned the real meaning of Christmas!”

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6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946):

Moving into the more classic of holiday traditions, this legendary black and white Frank Capra movie has been in the queue of the last three generations, no doubt passed down from great-grandparent to grandparent to parents to the kids of today. How could you not fall in love with this one? It’s a classic suicide tale with George Bailey (played by the late great James Stewart) having wished he had never been born, when an angel is sent to earth to make his wish come true. But soon after, George starts to realize how many lives he has changed and impacted, and how they would be different if not worse off had he never been there. I’ve seen so many renditions of this story, the best are usually in short skits or collection movies like “Beavis and Butt-head do Christmas.” This is most certainly a classic you’ll want to watch with your kids. They might grumble at first, but when they get older and can (hopefully) appreciate the classics, they will appreciate your effort and cherish the movie as it properly should be!

7. Die Hard (1988):

Time for the violence!!! Die Hard is a masterpiece that can be enjoyed year round, but during Christmas it holds a significant meaning for the children of the 1980’s! Bruce Willis proved with this action flick that he could hold his own as one of the great pillars of 1980’s action heroes. Die Hard is a classic story of a New York City policeman by the name of John McClane who just so happens to be visiting his estranged wife and daughters on Christmas Eve in LA, cause everyone knows LA is full of weird-o’s. He joins wifey at a holiday corporate Christmas party where she works. But the festivities are interrupted by a group of hodgepodge terrorists who take over the exclusive high-rise. Not only does Die Hard have one of our nations greatest fictionalized heroes, but also our top fictionalized villains, Hans Gruber, played by the ever talented Alan Rickman. 

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8. Black Christmas (1974):

And now for the horror!!! Some may be surprised, but Christmas isn’t without its freights! There are plenty of horror themed yuletide mayhem for those with a taste for something a little darker than “A Christmas Carol.” Black Christmas is my pick for horror during the month of December. Its a tale following a group of sorority sisters, who begin to receive anonymous, lascivious phone calls. Initially, the girls egg the caller on, but stop when he responds threateningly. Soon, one goes missing from the sorority house, and a local adolescent girl is found murdered, leading the girls to suspect a serial killer is on the loose and it may just be the killer on the phone! Cue dramatic music (Da-Da-Daaaaa!). Black Christmas, in its own right, is a classic slasher, maybe even borderline exploitation, following the great sorority house murder movies during this era. You can find this gem free on YouTube! Enjoy!   

9. And everyone else!!!

As this list has progressed, I’ve noticed just how many great seasonal flicks there are to watch! Its just too numerous to list them all. So, in the object of saving some time, lets go through the honorable mentions waiting in my Christmas Queue:

Lethal Weapon (1987) classic action!

Trading Places (1983) classic racial comedy!

Batman Return (1992) classic awesomeness!

Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) another old school 1970’s horror!

Gremlins (1984) everyone’s favorite don’t feed your pet after midnight movies!

Fred Claus (2007) Hey, no judgments!! I thought it was funny!

The Santa Clause (1994) still no judgments, I saw this when I was a kid, and I still love it!!! And I love Tim Allen!!!

Well, here is my list. What are some of your favorite Christmas movies?


Weekend at the Movies: White House Down

Pacific Rim? Nah. World War Z? Nope. The Conjuring? PSH! If your heading out to the movies this weekend, chances are you might be seeing one of these usual suspects. Me? Not a chance! For us, my lovely bride and I, we went to check out White House Down. Why go see bad boy Tatum instead of awesome giant robots duking it out with Lovecraftian monsters? Because sometimes its nice avoiding the crowd and to just unwind in an easy, non complicated story.

If you happen to be like my wife and I, go check out White House Down. From the two movies coming out this summer regarding bad things happening to the President, White House Down is one of the more light hearted ones. With a PG-13 rating, the film feels like a down played Die Hard movie, with cheesy lines a plenty. The characters are likeable and Jamie Foxx as President Sawyer is the stuff of legend. My only hang up with the cast is Tatum. Nothing major, its just hard taking him seriously. And the political undercurrents are a tad annoying as well, but again, forgiveable.

White House Down is your ticket for a fun action-comedy adventure. If you are looking to avoid the muss and fuss of the crowds that is. Sure, the campy feel good ending should be expected, but hey, its got Jamie Foxx, you’re bound to laugh at some point.

The bottom line? White House Down does a decent job for entertainment. The action is Die Hard level without a ton of blood and broken necks. The comedy is great. And the campy ending mentioned above will make you want to puke. All in all, not a bad movie spending 20 bucks on two tickets to go see.

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