Monday, October 24, 2016

The Elephant Man

Year 8, Day 298 - 10/24/16 - Movie #2,476       

BEFORE: I originally had this scheduled for a few days ago, but adding those Frankenstein films at the last minute had an unexpected effect on my linking - so this got rescheduled, and now I have to link from Marlon Brando.  Simple enough, Brando was in the 1953 version of "Julius Caesar" with John Gielgud.  I should know, I watched it.  

This is a David Lynch film, and I'm approaching this with caution, because I've been burned by him before, at least three times now.  "Eraserhead" last October, and both "Mulholland Dr." and "Lost Highway" earlier this year all turned out to be maddening, confusing pieces of non-linear narrative, and they drove me bonkers.  I mean, I love the guy for "Twin Peaks", but his movies just leave me scratching my head.

THE PLOT:  A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man who is mistreated while scraping a living as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous facade, there is revealed a person of intelligence and sensitivity.

AFTER: I started this Halloween chain with haunting ghosts and seductive vampires, but this second half of the month has turned out to be more about mad doctors (Frankenstein, Moreau) and their disfigured subjects (and assistants).  So this film should fit in rather nicely here, though the doctor here isn't such a mad scientist, he's much more compassionate.  Still, he struggles with the notion that his actions may not be completely good, as he puts John Merrick on display and starts to feel a bit like a sideshow barker. (And the circus sideshow has also popped up again and again this year, go figure...there's something of an echo here from "Victor Frankenstein", with the doctor finding Igor at the circus.)

But this story just sort of left me cold.  And I am sympathetic to the plight of John Merrick as a character, this horribly disfigured man, but I just don't know if his story works well as a movie.  And I wonder if Lynch had a similar crisis of conscience as Dr. Treves did - it's impossible to tell this man's story without putting him on display, and isn't the movie just an updated version of the circus sideshow?  Doesn't this exploit him again, decades after the fact?  And after the big reveal (his face is kept covered for the first 30 minutes or so of the film) what more can the movie tell us?  Really, there's just one shock when you first see what he looks like, and then after that, it's the same point, over and over.  We get it, he doesn't look normal...

And why is he called "Elephant Man"?  I don't think he looked that much like an elephant, he didn't have a trunk or even a particularly long nose, for example, or gray rough skin like an elephant's hide, so why an elephant?  If he had elephantitis in his feet I could even understand it, but as it is, it seems like there would be simpler ways to refer to him than to cite a creature that he simply does not resemble.  

I must say, this is the most linear narrative I've ever seen in a David Lynch film, except for maybe "Blue Velvet".  There's a bit at the end that seems like a little montage-y, where what's happening on screen is not exactly stated but only hinted at - but there's no tiny person living in the radiator, or any character that turns into another character inexplicably.  So that means he CAN tell a straight story when he wants to, he just chooses not to. (Ironically, after tonight "A Straight Story" is now perhaps the only major Lynch film I haven't seen yet.)  

Any black-and-white film made in the modern age seems to develop a repuation for being "arty", but whether this film deserves this classification is somewhat subjective to me.  The truth seems to be that the prosthetic make-up used on Merrick's character didn't look very realistic in color, so shooting in black and white had the effect of making it more believable.  To me, that's a clear case of putting the cart before the horse, making the whole thing appear more classy, almost by accident.

Also starring Anthony Hopkins (last seen in "A Bridge Too Far"), John Hurt (last seen in "Snowpiercer"), Anne Bancroft (last seen in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue"), Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones (last seen in "The Count of Monte Cristo"), Michael Elphick (last seen in "Quadrophenia"), Hannah Gordon, Helen Ryan, John Standing (last seen in "Scoop"), Dexter Fletcher (last seen in "Layer Cake"), Kenny Baker (last seen in "24 Hour Party People").

RATING: 4 out of 10 tea parties

Listen to Me Marlon

Year 8, Day 297 - 10/23/16 - Movie #2,475

 BEFORE: I had a birthday weekend that essentially amounted to an eating tour.  Cake at the office on Friday, out for a giant deli sandwich that night with a friend, and then the German restaurant in Queens on Sunday.  It's not really my birthday until I make the rounds and eat all the things. 

And now I'm embarking on another long-term project, I'm determined to replace all the music I have on cassettes with either CD or downloaded files, because I have a ton of music that I bought over the years that I simply can't listen to on my phone.  So I have boxes of music that I can't enjoy, what's the point of that.  Sure, it burns me that I have to pay TWICE to listen to the same music, and that's been a sticking point for years, and why I haven't started the process. I've heard about these devices that will pay cassettes and transfer the songs into MP3 files, but it seems like a lot of work to figure out if the device will work with my Mac, then comes the tedious process of playing all those cassettes to make the files, when I'm not even sure that will work right.  

Instead, I'm going to start at "A" and buy two albums on iTunes each week, which will get expensive over time, but hey, I just cancelled home phone service, so that's $65 or $70 bucks I'm saving each month now that I can throw at this project.  Plus I'll get an incentive to come into the office each Monday, with a couple of CDs in my pack and the name of two albums to download, and I'll get new (old) music on my phone each week!  It could take me two or three years to go from Aerosmith to ZZ Top, but hey, by week 2 I'll have Badfinger songs on my phone, so that's something to look forward to.   

Meanwhile, I'm reaching the home stretch on this year's films, 25 movies to go - that's four more Halloween films, then 12 movies in November and 9 in December.  No problem, I can more or less coast to the finish from here.  Marlon Brando carries over from "The Island of Dr. Moreau" and...what's that you say?  This documentary about Brando's career seems out of place in a horror chain?  Well, I heard that the film is narrated by a digitized scan of Brando's floating head, and if that isn't spooky, I don't know what is.  

THE PLOT:  A documentary that utilizes hundreds of hours of audio that Marlon Brando recorded over the course of his life to tell the screen legend's story.

AFTER: Speaking of audio cassettes, he attempt here is to give some insight into the mind and acting style of Brando, via the tapes he recorded, sort of a cross between an auto-biography and a form of self-hypnosis.  Frequently he imagines himself on a tropical beach, bathing in the sun, or sneaking out of the house as a child in the morning to go sit under a favorite elm tree.  The danger, of course, is that the calming nature of Brando's messages to himself could easily put viewers to sleep.  

Of course, what everyone wants to know is about method acting, the style that got him nominated for Academy Awards eight times, winning twice, for "On the Waterfront" and "The Godfather" (the latter of which he shockingly declined, due to Hollywood's portrayal of Native Americans as villains in Westerns.  He wasn't wrong, just ahead of his time in this way of thinking.)  Regarding acting, Brando singles out Clark Gable, James Cagney and other actors of the previous generation as being safe, predictable, and delivering whatever the directors feel the audiences wanted out of their performances. By contrast, Brando studied with Stella Adler so that he could breakthrough this wall of fakery, and try to deliver something more real, something with feeling.  Because the theory states that if he's feeling an emotion, he should be better able to convey that on film, even if the physical action involved equates to doing nothing.  The "method" goes back to Stanislavski, and his three pupils, Adler, Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner.  I bet they were a fun bunch when they all got together.   

To put it another way, when performing "A Streetcar Named Desire" on stage, any actor could have come out and read the lines as written, and pretended to experience the emotions connected to them, but Brando would get out on stage, scream, cry, break dishes, punch the walls, and experience the emotions for real, all in the name of giving a more honest performance.  I wish Brando (and this film) could have touched more on what this meant to him, and how it affected him years down the road. 

For that matter, based on what I read last night, I would have loved to have seen more of the disputes on films late in Brando's career - I think someone made a whole documentary about the difficulties involved in making "The Island of Dr. Moreau", with writers and actors quitting and being fired in a constant stream.  Compared with, say, Coppola's experiences working with Brando on "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now".  Even there, it seems there was a world of difference between those two films, you don't really hear many complaints about directing Marlon in the 1972 "Godfather", but then by 1979's "Apocalypse Now", Coppola complained about how difficult he was to manage, demanding script rewrites and showing up greatly overweight. 

If I'm a little skeptical about the earnestness of Brando's insights into his own career, it's only because I'm aware of how editing down so much material could easily skew it, merely by deciding what to leave in and what to leave out.  It makes me wonder what the agenda was, whether to humanize a mythical acting figure by pointing out his feet of clay, or to lionize him by only focusing on his most iconic roles: Don Corleone, Marc Anthony, Colonel Kurtz, Terry Malloy, Fletcher Christian and Stanley.  Even when reference is made to his portrayal of Jor-El in the first "Superman" movie, his $14 million paycheck for a few days work is spun as Brando getting one over on the film's producers, not being greedy, for example. 

There's also insight into Brando's personal life, thanks to news footage and interviews that focus on his short marriage to Anna Kashfi, the mother of his son Christian, and his later marriage to a Tahitian actress, the mother of his daughter Cheyenne.  But a little research on Wikipedia tells me that Brando had 16 or 17 children (some adopted), so why does the film focus on just these two?  Well, that's easy, because of the incident where Christian shot Cheyenne's boyfriend, but I think that mentioning this without the context of Brando's other kids does him something of a disservice. 

Also starring (in archive footage) Stella Adler, Dick Cavett (last seen in "Bobby Fischer Against the World"), Bernardo Bertolucci, Bette Davis (last seen in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"), Francis Ford Coppola, Sacheen Littlefeather, Karl Malden (last seen in "The Cincinnati Kid"), Martin Sheen (last seen in "Catch-22"), Kim Hunter, Trevor Howard, Al Pacino (last seen in "Two For the Money"), Robert Duvall (last seen in "The Judge")

RATING: 4 out of 10 wind chimes

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

Year 8, Day 296 - 10/22/16 - Movie #2,474

BEFORE: I'm shuffling things around a bit, moving this one up a few days in the schedule so I can keep the whole mad scientist theme going.  Sometimes I don't see these thematic connections until I'm deep into the chain - but since we had unscrupulous doctors in "The Body Snatcher", preceded by Dr. Jekyll, and then one Dr. Frankenstein after another, it makes sense to add Dr. Moreau to that list.

Linking from "House of Frankenstein", John Carradine was also in "The Trouble With Girls" with Frank Welker, who did some uncredited work here, presumably on the animal noises.  I did a whole Frank Welker chain a month or two ago, where he voiced Curious George, a parrot and Gargamel's cat, so sometimes it pays to keep an eye on the filmographies of voice actors, because they do a lot of work, which makes my linking easier.  (If that seems like a cheat, then John Carradine was also in "The Ice Pirates" with Ron Perlman, but that's a movie that I think I'd rather forget...)

THE PLOT:  After being rescued and brought to an island, a man discovers that its inhabitants are experimental animals being turned into strange-looking humans, all of it the work of a visionary doctor.

AFTER: This is based on a novel by H.G. Wells, but it's one I never read.  (At the end of the year, I'll have to total up how many movies I watched this year based on classic books, I have a feeling it's a high number.)  But like the later "Frankenstein" films, someone made an attempt to update the story, since there are references to things like the United Nations and velcro.  This sort of raises the question about when the story is intended to take place, but as we've seen, a great story can be set any time, and should be able to withstand a few added topical references.

This is a story that should have gained more respect over time, because Wells apparently wrote about genetically modified animals long before science gained knowledge of DNA or gene splicing.  The hybrid creatures on the titular island were once animals, but with human DNA introduced into their bodies, they've become something in-between animals and humans.  And Dr. Moreau calls all of the creatures his "children", though it's a bit unclear if he's being literal or figurative.  Either way, some funky stuff has been going down on this island.  

We see this all through the eyes of Edward Douglas, our everyman who gets rescued from a life-raft, only to find himself in a world of Moreau's making, without any rational explanation at first for what the hybrids are, or how this strange society works.  Or, ultimately, fails to.  It's kind of like "Animal Farm" meets "Lord of the Flies" - the only thing that keeps the beasts in check is a system of laws and punishments, but when the law breaks down, their true natures are revealed, and all bets are off.

Dr. Moreau's got a Nobel prize on the wall (big deal, they're even giving them out to rock stars these days...) but seems to have been drummed out of society for his experiments on animals.  The goal appears to have been to make animals into men, and therefore men into gods.  There may be a flaw in that logic somewhere, or perhaps this is all some allegory that I can't quite grasp.  I'll read up on the original Wells novel, Wiki-Cliff Notes style, and see what it's all supposed to mean.

My best guess would be that this highlights what a thin difference there is between man and beasts, and the hybrids highlight the fact that it wouldn't take much to turn men into animals (and vice versa, apparently).  Moreau's control over the beast-men is somewhat illusory, as granting them the ability to reason also gave them the power to think of a way to subvert his control.  There's a "garden of Eden" metaphor in there somewhere.  It seems that Wells wrote the original novel to speak out against animal experimentation, and also explore the new theories of evolution, but I think he accidentally landed on something that's even more relevant today.

This version of the story, even though updated, was regarded as a box-office bomb, and was parodied several times in "South Park", with the characters of Man-bear-pig and Dr. Mephesto, along with his weird miniature clone, obviously based on Brando's portrayal of Moreau.  The "Austin Powers" films also clearly drew inspiration for Dr. Evil's "Mini-Me".  One can also draw a connection between Moreau and Brando's Col. Kurtz from "Apocalypse Now", as they were both mad men living apart from society, acting as benevolent dictators and wearing funky hats.

But it's hard to tell what the point of all this is.  What's the message, what's the take-away?  Don't mess around with animal genes?  It's tempting to draw an analogy to the current election, since it seems that each new leader of the tribe that gets a chance to hold the talking stick is just as bad as the last.  Perhaps I'm projecting, because I'm more inclined to believe that the filmmakers forgot to include a moral or meaning.  It feels more cobbled together than anything else.

Also starring Marlon Brando (last seen in "The Chase"), Val Kilmer (last seen in "Masked and Anonymous"), David Thewlis (last seen in "The Theory of Everything"), Fairuza Balk (last seen in "American History X"), Temuera Morrison (last seen in "Six Days Seven Nights"), Ron Perlman (last seen in "Enemy at the Gates"), Mark Dacascos, Daniel Rigney, Peter Elliott, Nelson de la Rosa, William Hootkins (last seen in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace").  

RATING: 4 out of 10 dead rabbits

Friday, October 21, 2016

House of Frankenstein

Year 8, Day 295 - 10/21/16 - Movie #2,473  

BEFORE: I told my office-mates that yesterday was my birthday, but if they wanted to do something on Friday, get a cake, some doughnuts, whatever, or nothing at all, it was fine by me - on one condition, that there would be no singing of the "Happy Birthday" song.  Why?  Well, for starters, I'm not a child.  I think when you're 5 or 10 years old, you really look forward to the song, because all eyes are on you, and it's official when you hear the song, you're a year older.  (Even though, technically, you're just one day older than you were yesterday, each day you get 1/365th of a year older, but I digress.)  When you get to your late forties, however, you may dread hearing the song, because you're forced to realize that you're one year closer to the end of things.  

Also, it's awkward to have to stand there for what, 30 seconds?  While everyone else in the room sings, and you can't do anything but be confronted by your own mortality.  So, no singing.  Cake? Sure.  Candles?  If you must, but why can't people just say "Happy Birthday" out loud, like reasonable adults?  Or "1, 2, 3, Happy Birthday!" if proper timing is your thing.  I can't take a stand against Daylight Savings Time, but I can take a stand against this damn song.  

And really, can't someone write a better song that can catch on?  We've been stuck with the same birthday song for over a hundred years, and just because it's "popular", it doesn't mean we can't improve on it.  People write songs every day, and there's always a new song taking over the top of the Billboard chart.  Get Sondheim working on this, or Tim Rice or Jim Steinman - how come people can right #1 hits but they can't improve on what we sing to people having birthdays?  I mean, really, as a society we can invent the cell phone and thousands of apps, we can land a module on Mars, but oh, no, writing a catchier birthday song is just too HARD!  It feels like we're just not trying, and that's sad.  

Also, somebody needs to invent a better thing than the umbrella to keep us dry in the rain.  Just saying. Umbrellas are horrible, they break, people are always losing them, and you get wet ANYWAY when you use them, just on the parts of your body that are closest to where the rain falls off the edge.  I feel like I'm drier on the rainy days when I forget my umbrella, and the rain that hits me gets dispersed all over, instead of concentrated on my sleeve and back.  Again, there's room for improvement, but it seems we've collectively given up. 

Wrapping up the Frankenstein chain tonight, and Lon Chaney Jr. carries over again, playing the Wolf Man.  No more vampires after tonight, either - but TCM's still running Frankenstein and Dracula films next week, so it's about to seem like I've made little progress - next year I'll have at least four films with each character to cover.  

THE PLOT: An evil scientist and his hunchbacked assistant escape from prison and encounter Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's Monster.

AFTER: It's a literal Monster Mash-Up tonight, with three of Universal's top monsters in the same film.  Come on, you couldn't get the mummy in there somehow?  And Boris Karloff is back, only he's not playing a monster, he sort of aged out of the program, and in this one he plays the mad scientist, because completely rational scientists just aren't as much fun, trust me.  But why does Larry Talbot seek out a brain transplant doctor to cure his lycanthropy?  That's like taking your sick dog to your auto mechanic.  His solution is always going to be "let's take your brain out and put it in another body" and that's not always the best solution. 

Would that even help him?  Like, is werewolf-ness a disease of the body or the brain?  If you get it from being bitten by another werewolf, doesn't that make it a blood disease or a virus?  The mad scientist, Doctor Niemann, says "I'll build you a better brain" and Talbot just says, "OK!" as if that's the answer to his prayers.  Why doesn't he say, "Umm, I'm kind of fond of the brain I have now, I was thinking more along the lines of stopping my werewolf disease and murderous impulses, not KILLING ME and putting someone else's brain in my body!"  

But first, there's a tangent storyline with Dracula (no longer played by Bela Lugosi).  Niemann gets out of jail, along with the traditional hunchbacked assistant (this one's called Daniel, not Igor), and they encounter a traveling sideshow that claims to have the skeleton of Dracula.  Niemann takes over the sideshow and the identity of the show's owner, just to pull out the stake to see if Dracula will come back to life.  He does, and Niemann blackmails him into getting revenge on the people who jailed him years ago.  But in a following chase scene, Niemann drops Drac's coffin out of his carriage, and Drac can't get to it before the sun comes up.  Too slow.  

Moving on, Niemann and Daniel go back to the dreaded Frankenstein castle, and find both the Monster and the Wolf Man frozen in the catacombs.  And yup, they find yet ANOTHER copy of the old Doctor's journal.  This is where Niemann's plans get a little complicated, there are still two associates he wants to get revenge on, so he's going to put one's brain inside the Monster, and the other's brain inside the Wolf Man's body.  Because when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  

Frankenstein's Monster was really starting to look like Herman Munster at this point, and the ending that features the demise (yet again) of the main monster characters feels really rushed.  It feels like they were running out of film (or ideas), so let's just wrap things up.

Also starring Boris Karloff (last seen in "The Body Snatcher"), John Carradine (last seen in "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex"), Anne Gwynne, J. Carrol Naish (last seen in "Captain Blood"), Glenn Strange, Lionel Atwill (also carrying over from "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man"), George Zucco, Elena Verdugo, Sig Ruman (last seen in "Way...Way Out"), Philip Van Zandt.  

RATING: 3 out of 10 flaming torches

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

Year 8, Day 294 - 10/20/16 - Movie #2,472

BEFORE: The Universal Frankenstein franchise continues, and both Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. carry over from "The Ghost of Frankenstein", but both play different roles here.  Chaney played the monster in last night's film, but he was also famous for playing the Wolfman a few years before (1941).  The original plan was for him to play BOTH monster roles here, but then Bela Lugosi took over the role of Frankenstein's Monster, having played Ygor in the previous film.  Confusing, to say the least.

THE PLOT: After being awakened, Larry Talbot chips Frankenstein's Monster out of a block of ice. When Talbot changes to the Wolfman, the two creatures battle each other.

AFTER: This is a really thin premise, since both monster characters were believed dead in their last appearances - Frankenstein's Monster was last seen in the burning wreckage of the Frankenstein estate, and the Wolf Man was beaten to death by his own father at the end of his film.  So some aspiring writer had to find some loopholes to bring them back to life.  So we get some grave robbers who open up Larry Talbot's crypt, allowing some moonlight to fall upon his body, and that does the trick.  Hey, comic book writers do this all the time now, they'll kill off a character when they don't know what to do with him, and then the next writer who wants to use that character just needs to write him back to life.  Sometimes they don't even bother to explain how, the character just appears back on the scene and has to figure out how he was brought back to life.  At this point, does it even matter?  The characters will go on forever, as long as people keep buying movie tickets and comic books.

The latest was the Incredible Hulk, who was killed by Hawkeye in an issue of the current series "Civil War II", because the Avengers got a tip from a precog that even though Bruce Banner seemed to be cured of his hulks curse, pretty soon he'd go all gamma-crazy again and kill several bystanders.  So, by all means, it's best to put an arrow through his brain while he's human, just to be on the safe side.  But no joke, in a follow-up story about three weeks later, the Japanese ninja outfit known as the Hand dug up the body, and they've got a great track record for bringing people back to life (Elektra, Bullseye, etc.)  So I'm sure we'll be seeing Banner's Hulk again, really soon, but in the meantime, enjoy the adventures of the new, teenage Hulk (Amadeus Cho).

Anyway, back to "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man", which was a successful film from 1943 - it was received much better than "Dracula and the Mummy Get Formally Introduced" or even "Dr. Jekyll and the Creature From the Black Lagoon Go Out for Brunch" (Spoiler alert, Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde so he can communicate better with the Creature, but then does something very evil and doesn't leave a tip.)

I think the main problem with the ineffective title here is the word "meets" - it makes me conjure up a scene where the two monsters are shaking hands, with the Frankenstein Monster saying "Gaarggghh!" and the Wolf Man answering, "Snarl, Growl!" OK, good meeting, everyone, I think we broke some new ground and settled a few outstanding issues, now let's get started on maximizing our core competency to attain new corporate synergy.  Jeez, couldn't they at least have called it "Frankenstein vs. the Wolf Man", that's a little more exciting, at least.

On the run from the 5-0, Talbot meets up with the Gypsy Maleva and together they travel to Frankenstein's castle, where they find the Monster preserved in the frozen catacombs.  Again, how convenient.  As I mentioned before, the Monster looks different now, because he's played by Bela Lugosi, so did the filmmakers think that by putting Ygor's brain inside the Monster, the Monster would then come to resemble Ygor?  Or is this just a coincidence of the storyline?  But as in the previous film, the Monster doesn't seem to open his eyes during the whole film, so this leads to a lot of questions about just how alive he is, or whether he's blind, and if so, is he just stumbling around?  And why isn't he talking and (relatively) smart, like he was at the end of "Ghost of Frankenstein"?  What happened to Ygor's brain inside its new container?  Or were we supposed to forget about that little plot point?

EDIT: Ah, the trivia section on the film's IMDB page does shed some light on these matters.  The editors ended up removing all references to the Monster being blind (for fear that people might not remember this plot point from the previous film, and to help this film stand on its own.  They also removed all of the Monster's dialogue, because Ygor's brain did re-state his desire to conquer the world, but Universal executives felt he sounded a little too much like Adolf Hitler.

Chaney plays Talbot like a real sad-sack, desperately seeking a cure for his lycanthropy, even though Dr. Frankenstein's work was in a completely different monster-based arena (bringing dead flesh back to life) he tracks down yet ANOTHER Frankenstein descendant, this one female.

There are a lot of strange reversals in the plot, probably because if Talbot did get cured, then we wouldn't have a plot any more.  So this leads to some very confusing dialogue, such as the following:
Talbot: "Would you help me find a cure?"
Baroness: "Sure, I'll do whatever I can."
Talbot: "Oh, why won't anyone HELP me?"

Even though she's not a scientist in any way, Elsa's just a baroness, at least she knows how to find yet ANOTHER copy of Dr. Frank's journal.  I think he must have also invented the xerox machine, because these journals just keep popping up every time somebody needs one.  But then after this film's mad scientist reviews the journal, and says some random scientific-sounding things like "Reverse the charge" and "Connect negative to negative, got it!" - well, it makes me think that instead of finding Dr. Frankenstein's journal on creating life from dead flesh, instead they found the instructions for jump-starting his 1941 Pontiac.

And then, just when our resident mad scientist has wrapped his brain around this whole life/death conundrum, he breaks down.  "I can't do it, I just can't destroy Frankenstein's creation!"  OK, yet another reversal.  You do know that's why you were hired, right?  And that if you don't kill the monster, he's probably going to break free and strangle you, right?  OK, your loss.

The pieces all go back into the box at the end, ready for the next game.  And the famous castle gets destroyed again, only this time by a flood and not a fire.  What's the point of even rebuilding the castle at this point?  And why are villagers cheering, when the dam flooded the valley, probably destroying all of their crops as well?

Also starring Ilona Massey, Patric Knowles (last seen in "Another Thin Man"), Lionel Atwill (also carrying over from "The Ghost of Frankenstein"), Maria Ouspenskaya (last seen in "The Wolf Man"), Dennis Hoey, Don Barclay, Rex Evans, Dwight Frye, Harry Stubbs (last seen in "The Invisible Man"), with a cameo from Jeff Corey (last seen in "The Cincinnati Kid")

RATING: 3 out of 10 folk songs

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Ghost of Frankenstein

Year 8, Day 293 - 10/19/16 - Movie #2,471

 BEFORE: Sure, it might have made sense to follow up "The Body Snatcher" with the original "Dracula" film from 1931, with Bela Lugosi carrying over.  I've never seen that one.  But TCM will be showing it this year, only next week, too late for me to work it in here.  So I'll have to watch that one next October, along with "Nosferatu".  In addition to running most of the old Universal Frankenstein films, TCM's going to hit the vampires hard next week, with most of the old Hammer Films made in the late 1950's and early 1960's.  

I don't think I can possibly record them all next week, especially since that will make my list balloon up again, so I may have to limit myself to the original Bela Lugosi "Dracula", the 1970 "Count Dracula" with Christopher Lee and Herbert Lom, and the 1979 "Dracula" with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier.  At least that's a nice cross-section of genres and time periods. 

In the meantime, I want to finish off the Universal "Frankenstein" films, and Bela Lugosi does carry over from "The Body Snatcher", only he plays the deformed lab assistant, Ygor.  

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Son of Frankenstein" (Movie #288)

THE PLOT:  When Ygor brings the Monster to Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein for care, Ludwig gets the idea of replacing the Monster's current criminal brain with a normal one.

AFTER: The other night, I got all political and compared Donald Trump to Mr. Hyde - tonight it would be so easy to do that again, since I'm back on the Frankenstein beat.  But Trump and Frankenstein's Monster are very different - one is an enormous, mindless beast who's oddly colored and makes guttural, growling sounds as he roams the countryside, grabbing and molesting young girls.  The other one, of course, is Frankenstein's Monster...

The Frankenstein movies are a great example of Hollywood's early obsession with sequels, which of course continues to this day - it seems like nearly everything this year that really landed was a sequel, a remake or a reboot.  It will be a challenge at the end of my 2016 chain just to list them all.  But let's focus on the Frankenstein films.  It's a little surprising that Boris Karloff ceded the role of the Monster, but according to the introduction on TCM, he was busy appearing on Broadway in the long-running play "Arsenic and Old Lace".  So Lon Chaney Jr. stepped in to fill his monster-sized shoes.  

And of course, the Monster was believed dead at the end of "Son of Frankenstein", where he fell into a sulfur pit.  A couple of years later, all a screenwriter had to say was "Well, the sulfur formed a shell around him and kept him alive, duh!"  Even though that's not how sulfur works, it doesn't explain how the monster could go for months without eating or breathing.  I mean, is he alive or not alive?  He still needs to eat, right?  Geez, this is more unbelievable than even a comic-book death.

At that point, all a screenwriter needs to do is to make up another Frankenstein brother (Ludwig, in this case) and say that the original Doctor's journals were sent to him after the passing of his older brother.  So what if the new brother is a psychiatrist, not a brain surgeon - he can learn, can't he?  So Ygor and the Monster walk for (presumably) hundreds of miles from Bavaria to wherever Ludwig's asylum/brain surgery facility is.  

The title is confusing at first - how can a soulless monster have a ghost?  Also, wouldn't he have to be dead to have a ghost, and I thought you just said he was still alive.  Ah, but remember, "Frankenstein" is the doctor, not the monster.  The ghost of Dr. Henry F. (the 1931 film changed his name from "Victor" to "Henry", for some reason) does make an appearance here, very briefly, to egg on the scientists in their lab.  

Ludwig has two assistants, Dr. Bohmer and Dr. Kettering - but when the Monster kills Kettering, it makes sense to Ludwig to put Kettering's brain inside the monster, thereby making up for the murder by bringing Kettering's brain back to life, while simultaneously giving the monster a better brain, that of a scientist, to put a stop to his murderous rampages.  That's the theory, anyway, only Ygor figures that if he can get his own brain inside the monster's head, he could become more powerful, and maybe even live forever. 

It's silly now to watch a film from the 1940's, when the writers knew nothing about organ transplants or brain surgery, and they just assumed that one day soon, doctors would be moving brains from one body to another, in a way that would somehow not kill both parties involved.   I don't think the monster ever really opens his eyes after coming out of the pit, so that makes me question how he was able to walk around.  It's a good thing that when he scared a woman, she then (stupidly) would run right TOWARD him, which then gave him a chance to grab her.

Also starring Lon Chaney, Jr. (last seen in "The Defiant Ones"), Cedric Hardwicke (last seen in "Rope"), Ralph Bellamy (last seen in "The Awful Truth"), Evelyn Ankers (last seen in "Hold That Ghost!"), Lionel Atwill, Barton Yarborough.

RATING: 3 out of 10 rioting villagers

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Body Snatcher

Year 8, Day 292 - 10/18/16 - Movie #2,470

BEFORE: Boris Karloff carries over from "Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde", and I think you can see where I'm going with this, I'm going to link to the remaining Universal Frankenstein films, which TCM ran a couple weeks ago.  Their "Star of the Month" is Frankenstein (or perhaps more accurately, Frankenstein's Monster - shame on you, TCM) and in addition to the Universal films, they've also recently acquired the rights to the Hammer Films movies.  But I can't get to those this year, with only a few Halloween slots left.  

I do have a birthday coming up this week, so it's a perfect time to confront not only getting older, but my own mortality.  Last week I finally disconnected my home phone service, as it's no longer needed, but I had that sinking feeling when I realized I wasn't going to be listed in the phone book any more.  On some small level, a part of me ceased to exist, and that doesn't feel comforting.  One day I won't exist any more, and I guess I'll be too dead to care about it, but that doesn't feel comforting, either. 

THE PLOT: A ruthless doctor and his young prize student find themselves continually harassed by their murderous supplier of illegal cadavers.

AFTER: Turns out this film has nothing to do with "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", which was first released 11 years later, in 1956.  That film is about aliens, and this one is more literal, about a man who robs graves.  And like "Dr. Jekyll & Mister Hyde", this one's based on a short story from Robert Louis Stevenson.  

When I was a young boy, I thought I might grow up to be a veterinarian, and if my life had taken a different series of turns, perhaps that was a possibility at some point.  But dissecting frogs and pigs in biology class led me to believe that I probably didn't have the stomach for it, and anyway, I liked cats and dogs too much to ever cut one open, even in a medical way, or worse, have to put one down, even it that were for the best.  (I don't know that I'd even have the courage to kill animals for food to stay alive, I'm a child of the modern world and enjoy food most when it's delivered to my door, and someone else did the dirty work.)

As a result, what I know about modern medicine is largely theoretical - but we've only had real doctors for a few hundred years, and even discoveries about germs and how to prevent infections are relatively recent developments.  So imagine the state of medicine in the Victorian age, just a few decades shy of believing in things like bloodletting and balancing the body's humours.  Most people at the time wouldn't even dream of donating their bodies to science, because most Churches were against it - so what were the medical doctors supposed to practice on?  A lack of cadavers certainly didn't help the advancement of medical science, so enter the go-between, the "Resurrection Man", aka the grave robber.

If the morality seems a little bit questionable, the film tries to justify it by showing us a darling little girl who's in a wheelchair.  The physician who can help her walk again finally agrees to perform the operation that could help her walk again, but he won't do it unless he can practice the surgery first on a cadaver.  I mean, come on, what's he expected to do, crack open a book and read someone else's notes about a similar surgery?  That's hardly the same thing, since they only have illustrations and not photos!  That's practically barbaric?  Nope, it's better to get a freshly-dead person and cut him or her open and do the same surgery as practice.  And if the dead person gets up and walks, well, then he knows he's done it right.

Here's the only problem, though - this grave robber doesn't seem willing to wait until the next funeral to get the body the doctor needs, he'd rather collect his fee right away, and that means making the next corpse happen.  Hey, gots to get paid, right?  There's such balance in life, this person has to die so that one can live.  Er, walk.  But you know what I mean.  What I can't accept, however, is the fact that he had to kill the dog that was guarding a young boy's grave.  I mean, it's a DOG, man, it never did anything wrong to anyone.

The grave robber, Gray, also has some dirt on the good doctor, and not the kind you get buried in.  It seems that when he was arrested before for stealing bodies (go figure), he refused to name the party that hired him.  Because snitches get stitches - and nobody likes a rat.  Gray kept quiet, and he never let "Toddy" forget about it.  But that guilt is a funny thing, it will follow you around and consume you.  The last act of this film seems to incorporate parts of Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart", as the doctor takes to a little grave-robbing of his own.  The movie also makes reference to Burke and Hare, and a little wiki research tells me they were famous murders in Edinburgh who sold their victims' bodies to a doctor for use in his anatomy lectures.  At the very least, it's an efficient way to dispose of evidence.

Also starring Henry Daniell (last seen in "Lust For Life"), Bela Lugosi (last seen in "The Wolf Man"), Edith Atwater (last seen in "Family Plot"), Russell Wade, Rita Corday, Sharon Moffett (last seen in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House").

RATING: 4 out of 10 carriage rides