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Universal Monsters in Review: Revenge of the Creature (1955)

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The safe word today is, science runs amok! A familiar theme with Universal Monsters. And come to think about it, nearly all of the monsters, at one point or another, have been tethered to mad science. Even Dracula, who in Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein, ole Draco mixes himself up in some strange business with bolts and laboratories, in an attempt to resurrect the infamous monster in his own image. And lets not forget the amazing Werewolf of London, to which the werewolf curse is passed on to a botanist who then attempts to use science to cure himself. The main theme people typically walk away with is that science never solves anything, but that doesnt sound right, does it? No, science in itself is not the enemy, nor is nature singularly the enemy either. Maybe we can look from the perspective of the characters, and with those characters, sure, nothing ever seems to go right. Considering, if science is by definition man’s way of understanding nature and the world around him, mankind sure seems to always blunder any attempt to understand his world. The more these characters force to understand nature, the more we get the impression that maybe there are some things we shouldn’t know. Last night, during my first screening of Revenge of the Creature, the running thought in head during the duration of the film was basically the idea of man attempting to concur nature, and failing, because nature is something that cannot be tamed or easily categorized (yup, borrowed that one from Fox Mulder). And perhaps there are some things mankind should not know, or perhaps is not ready to know. The Gill-Man returns in form with some excellent script writing for this round-about sequel to Creature of the Black Lagoon. I found myself routing for the monster, especially due to its mistreatment and shameful exposure for paying customers of the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium, which became, for a time, the new Freak Show. Well, I think we’ve all had enough of my own ramblings, lets see what our esteemed guest has to say regarding, Revenge of the Creature.

Revenge of the Creature

By: Jeffery X. Martin

It’s not easy being the missing link. People keep trying to capture you for research, and there’s no Anti-Vivisectionists League for bizarre aquatic creatures. If they can’t capture you, then they just try to shoot you. Tranquilizers, bullets, anything that can be fired out of a gun, humans will shoot it at you, just because you’re different. Oh, and forget dating. It’s one thing to have psoriasis or contact dermatitis, but full-on scales and gills? No woman puts that on her list of likes.

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The end of The Creature from the Black Lagoon shows our old buddy, the Gill-Man, in precisely that situation. He’s been dynamited, shot, and after eons of hunting for a nice girl, he finds one. But as soon as he tries to take her home, the humans get all twitchy. They take the girl back, and they shoot the Gill-Man a few times for good measure. That’s a bad day, y’all, and if I were he, I would want revenge, too.

In 1955, the Gill-Man returned in Revenge of the Creature. There’s not much actual revenge in the movie, but the story of the Creature does take an interesting turn. Although we were led to believe the creature died in a hail of bullets at the end of the first film, that’s not the case. He is captured with ease back at the Black Lagoon and taken to the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium, a waterpark much like Sea-World. Scientists there hope to study the Gill-Man and find out what makes him tick.

This goes exactly as well as you think it will.

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Revenge of the Creature is a low-budget production. It stars John Agar, and that makes it feel even more low-budget than it actually is. He’s not an actor normally associated with high-quality work. He’s handsome, all right, but what did it get him? In this movie, he’s nothing more than a giant chin and hormones, as he tries to get into the pants of the “lady doctor,” played by Lori Nelson.

Nelson’s character finds herself in one corner of a love square between John Agar, the Creature’s caretaker, Joe Hayes (John Bromfield), and the Creature himself. Every main male character in the movie (including the Creature) is a sexist schmuck, attempting to mold Nelson into some kind of precious doll that needs to be protected. Never mind that she’s a brilliant student of ichthyology, perfectly capable of taking care of herself. There are so many “step aside, little lady” moments in this film, she may as well be doing the Electric Slide instead of walking.

Joe and John Agar fight over her. The Creature and Joe fight over her. John Agar and the Creature fight over her.  No one wants to fight alongside her, or get to know her as a human being because that would make their testicles fall off.

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The main point of the film involves the scientists’ attempt to communicate with the Creature. I’m not sure why this is important. It’s not like the Gill-Man has read any good books lately and would love to discuss them. Their big idea for communication is teaching the Creature involves shocking him when he does something wrong. This kind of Pavlovian conditioning elicits responses, but that’s no more communication than someone grunting when they stub their toe.

At least the Creature still looks cool. In a movie filled with wonky science and terrible human relations, he’s the high point. He’s got those huge eyes, webbed hands, and the tendency to open his mouth wide, gasping for air, when he’s on land. He’s a scary monster, difficult to humanize, because you cannot tell his intentions from his face. He can’t raise an eyebrow, give a sly glance, or smirk. There’s no way to tell what he’s thinking, which may make the Gill-Man the scariest of all the Universal Monsters.

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It’s a shame this sequel isn’t better. It feels cheap and the script is shallow. If anything, it feels like Jaws 3-D was a remake of Revenge of the Creature. In a lot of ways, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen the other. While the shark is an eating machine, the Creature just wants to fertilize some eggs and go back home. Maybe, in that way, the Gill-Man is also the most human of all the Universal Monsters. The Frankenstein Monster and Dracula have their own particular pathos. It’s part of why we love them. The Creature from the Black Lagoon has no personal demons to be dealt with, no extended back story. He has aught but the instinct to survive.

This singularity of vision makes the Creature hard to love, but easy to fear. It certainly makes him worthy of a better sequel. This isn’t it.

jeffmisery

Jeffery X. Martin, or Mr. X to you, is the published author of several stories that are sure to shock, including those in the Elder’s Keep universe and Tarotsphere. He also published a fantastic tale in The Black Room Manuscripts. You can find his work on Amazon. When Mr. X is not writing creep mind-benders, he’s the host and/or contributor to several podcasts and blogs, including, but not limited to, Pop Shiftier and Kiss the Goat.


Universal Monsters in review: Werewolf of London (1935)

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Diving deeper into the chambers of Universal Classic Monsters, today we bring to you a strange and unusual tale of a botanist who, while researching a mysterious flower in Tibet, is bitten by a cursed and lowly creature. Coming from last weeks dreadful The Mummy’s Hand, I’m pleased to once again find myself pulled into a movie with directors, producers, and actors that’ve taken a story so fantastic as the Werewolf of London and created something phenomenal. Much as many of the Universal classics, and unlike the famed 1941 The Wolfman, we are torn into a battle between the supernatural and the discoveries of modern science. A reoccurring theme, I think, especially among these earlier films. Fears of the things man dabbles in, and the repercussions of progress and so-called modernity. I found Werewolf of London a wonderful film and wish I’d seen it sooner. I’m a fan of werewolf tales, as much as our guest writer I think. With Werewolf of London, its interesting to see a take on the lore set within the confines of science. Very interesting. But enough of that. Let us see what our esteemed guest has to say!

Werewolf Of London

A look back at a Universal Classic

By: JR Park

Werewolves have always held a fascination for me.  At the tender age of six I watched Michael Jackson scream “Go Away” to Ola Ray in the Thriller video as he transformed with excruciating detail into a monster.  It terrified and excited me.  Thirty years later and I have still not recovered.

Vampires, ghosts, zombies and undead serial killers have all provided me with horrific delights since I was bitten by the horror bug all those years ago, but no monster has held the same intrigue to me as the werewolf.  The development of cinematic lycanthropes have certainly been a rapid one in the hundred years since they’ve appeared on film, and as we look back to their origins we find a creature oh so similar, and yet very different from the beast that stalks the moonlit world of the modern era.

WEREWOLF OF LONDON, Warner Oland, Henry Hull, 1935, strangle

Werewolf of London was Universal’s first werewolf film, released in 1935, six years before the much more successful and remembered Wolf Man.  The critical reaction was unfavourable at the time, calling it out dated, and given unflattering comparatives to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a film that had been released only a few years before and became a hit.

The plot to Werewolf of London involves a British botanist venturing to Tibet in search of a flower that grows and blooms only under moonlight, known as the mariphasa.  Keeping to the horror film standard for which we all know well today, the good botanist, Wilfred Glendon and his companion are warned against his quest.  ‘Somethings are best not to bother with,’ is the vague caution they are offered, as they causally ignore the rumours of demons in the valley.  It’s not long into their descent down said valley before they encounter the strange bloom.  And it’s not long again after that that a snarling wolf-like beast attacks the doctor, leaving him wounded and scarred.

Back in London and Wilfred has managed to bring home a specimen of the plant, but is irritated that the fake moonlight he projects onto the bloom causes it no reaction.  Then it’s a cut to a party scene with laboriously long dialogue that doesn’t seem to go anywhere until we meet fellow botanist Dr Yogami who seems to know an awful lot about werewolves.

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From the knowledge of Dr Yogami, and Wilfred’s diligence research in text books, we encounter the mythos for this film’s lycanthrope sufferers, and the driving plot of the film: 1) a person bitten by a werewolf will turn into a werewolf themselves during the full moon, 2) the plant, mariphasa, is not a complete cure, but is an antidote to stop each transformation, 3) the werewolf must kill at least one person per night of the full moon or become permanently afflicted.

We got that so far?  To make matters worse we are left with the lingering words from Dr Yogami, ‘The werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves the best.’  Bummer.

Eventually the first transformation scene comes around, and let’s be honest, that’s the bit everyone’s waiting for in any werewolf movie.  The scene is handled well with Wilfred stumbling through his laboratory passing pillars as he goes.  Each pillar he passes, he comes out the other side more horrific.  It’s nicely handled and a good piece of drama that doesn’t disappoint.

But what of the monster itself?

This is a very different design to the snarling, furry faced Lon Chaney Jr of the Wolf Man.  Although both sets of makeup were created by the same man, Jack Pierce, his original design was toned down, the studio asking him to make it more human in appearance.

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But it’s not just its physical form that makes the creature in this film more human that its savage successor.  This monster has the decency to pick up its hat and coat before it begins prowling the dark streets of the city; and even manages to speak in the final act of its death throes.

The influence of Jekyll and Hyde is apparent in these scenes, and it’s interesting to think that this monster would only become popular when it shook free of the chains of another creation and fully relished in its own monstrous mythos.

But back to the plot:  Wilfred, now as a werewolf runs to the plant, knowing it will cure him, but as he stands over the strange flower a memory of his wife pops into his head.  The monster takes over, filling him with the desire to kill the thing he loves the most (remember the words from Dr Yogami?). This attack fails and so he satisfies his bloodlust with a random woman wondering the streets.

 

Ashamed of his actions, Wilfred rents a room in an Inn to hide away. This is the first time we get to see the wolf man as a tragic figure, something we’ll see a lot more of in the films that follow.  But the four walls provide no prison and he’s back out again, killing, this time in a zoo.  There’s a fun little twist in the movie that I won’t spoil, but ultimately the monster sets himself upon his wife before being shot.  Mortally wounded, Wilfred rolls to face the policeman holding the gun and thanks him for the bullet, before apologising to his wife (how very British of him).

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So is the film any good?  The werewolf make up is okay, and the transformations are pretty effective; the first one handled well and the rest being made of dissolving stills, which is something us modern viewers would expect from a Universal werewolf movie.  Its major problem is the long periods of dialogue, which in themselves would be okay if they were handled well, but sadly the acting is poor.  To begin with I blamed the time period, but a shining light in the film not only gave me some much needed entertainment, but it also highlighted as a comparative, how starch-like stiff the other actors were.

During the scene where Wilfred looks to rent a room he enters a pub and meets two ladies with whom to rent from.  These two characters had fast, snappy dialogue, were forever drunk or drinking, and played with a comic melodrama that stole the show.  In fact the performance of these two were so strong that I’d recommend watching the movie just for these two, despite how fleeting their appearances are.  Good acting is good acting, no matter which period the film is made; just as funny is always funny.

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So Werewolf of London helped birth the cinematic werewolf we know of today.  It had the changing by moonlight, the tragedy of the affliction and the fascination of the transformation.  And although it in itself is not a great movie, it helped pave the way for something far, far better.  To quote a line from the opening scenes of the film, ‘Without fools there would be no wisdom.’

And I got through the whole thing without mentioning Warren Zevon.  Almost.

jrpark

JR Park draws from the crazy worlds of exploitation cinema and pulp literature for his literary inspiration. His family are both equally proud and disturbed by his literary output, dragged from a mind they helped to cultivate. He resides on the outskirts of Bristol in the UK and hopes one day they’ll let him in. Mr. Park is the author of several twisted tales of morbid doom, includingUpon Waking and Terror Byte and Punch. He was also featured with a horrifyingly wonderful short in the horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. Besides giving his readers terrifying nightmares, Mr. Park is also one of the founding members of the up and coming UK Publishing team, The Sinister Horror Company, active in promoting other writers and attending numerous conventions.