Thursday, October 19, 2017

Revenge of the Creature

Year 9, Day 292 - 10/19/17 - Movie #2,757               

BEFORE: Come on, did you really think that would be the end of the Creature, disappearing into the murky depths?  Of course, he came back.  You can't join the pantheon of Universal Monsters if you only appear in one movie, and get taken down by a simple harpoon gun!  Nestor Paiva carries over from "The Creature From the Black Lagoon", and so does Ricou Browning, who played the Gill-Man in the underwater scenes.


THE PLOT: Men capture the creature from the Black Lagoon and make him an attraction at an aquarium, from which he escapes.

AFTER: Captain Lucas's boat steams back to the notorious Black Lagoon, and a new exposition expedition is on board to have conversations that remind us all what took place in the previous film.  Thankfully these guys all come from the Institute of Marine Biology and Mansplaining.  Seriously, they over-narrate everything that they do, whether it's playing cards or raising things with winches or fishing with dynamite.

Jesus, last time the "scientists" poisoned the whole lagoon just to force the Gill-Man to come out of the water - now they're using dynamite?  How many species of rare fish have to die just to catch one prehistoric anomaly?  And can blowing up the lagoon really count as science?  It certainly doesn't seem sporting, but it does get the job done - Old Gill floats to the surface, unconscious, and is soon netted up and brought to the Ocean Harbor Aquarium (sorry, "Oceanarium" just isn't a word).  Because why study him at a research center when you can make him an attraction like the dolphin show?  Step right up and see the underwater freak, right this way...

What little "science" is involved at this point consists of striking Gilly with an underwater electric prod to try to teach him basic commands like "Stop".  Because that could be helpful later, if he were somehow able to break out of his chains and walk among the public.  Wouldn't ya know, that's exactly what happens?  But I've gotta side with the Gill-meister here, considering what he's been through.  You can't put a beautiful 1950's dame like Helen in the tank with him and then expect him to not fall in love with her, right?  I mean, it just doesn't make any sense, they took the creature out of the ONE lagoon in the entire world where his species still survives, so if there's a potential mate left on the planet for him, she's BACK THERE in freakin' Brazil!

Or maybe he's not lovelorn, maybe he's just pissed that he's a freshwater creature from the Amazon River, and he's been placed in a SALT-water tank near the ocean in Florida.  Jesus, isn't that the first thing people should learn in marine biology class?  What a bunch of incompetent dopes.

So Gill breaks free and tracks down Helen in her bungalow, and I think he kills her dog.  (Not cool, Gill, that's not how to win a gal's heart...)  NITPICK POINT: Earlier in the film, Helen had called the dog her "boyfriend" - what did she mean by this?  Nah, she couldn't have meant that...  NITPICK POINT #2: When Helen can't find her dog, she still goes off on a sailing trip with Clete Ferguson.  That doesn't seem like any dog-owner I've ever known.  What about, "Sorry, Clete, I can't go sailing with you because my DOG IS MISSING!"

Gill-Man then tracks down Clete and Helen at a party, which is being held at a seafood restaurant. (Awkward...!)  Old Gill grabs Helen and jumps into the ocean with her - there you go, Gill, keep chasing the dream, maybe this time your sweetie will learn how to breathe underwater!  But the cops and the coast guard come together to track down the creature to where he's just chilling on the beach with Helen's unconscious body, and once again, any chance for a little inter-species romance is foiled again.  Maybe it's for the best, Gill-Man seems a little Cosby-esque in his practice of grabbing women, drowning them until they're unconscious, and then (presumably) making out with them.

NITPICK POINT #3: The marine biology institute is seen performing an experiment with a cat sharing a cage with a number of white rats.  Umm, they do know that cats and rats are not sea creatures, right?  Plus, what the hell could this experiment possibly be testing?  I guess this is in the film as something of a joke, or to allow for the first screen appearance of a VERY famous actor, as a lab assistant who finds the missing mouse in the pocket of his lab-coat.  Again, how is this possible - how could you have a white rat in your pocket and NOT know it?  It's patently absurd.

Will the Creature return?  Will he ever find love?  Should he be allowed to?  Will the aquarium commissary ever stop serving tuna fish sandwiches?  Perhaps these questions were answered in the next sequel, "The Creature Walks Among Us", but I kind of doubt it.

Also starring John Agar, Lori Nelson, John Bromfield, Grandon Rhodes (last seen in "Them!"), Dave Willock, Robert Williams (last seen in "North by Northwest"), Charles Cane (last seen in "The Big Heat"), Sydney Mason (also carrying over from "Revenge of the Creature"), Brett Halsey (last seen in "The Man from the Alamo"), Don C. Harvey, Tom Hennesy, Bob Hoy, Bob Wehling, with a cameo from Clint Eastwood (last seen in "True Crime").

RATING: 4 out of 10 flare guns

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Year 9, Day 291 - 10/18/17 - Movie #2,756          

BEFORE: This is another film like the original "Dracula" that's considered a classic, and I'm not sure how it slipped through the cracks over the years.  Why have I never gotten around to this one before? I guess I just had bigger fish to fry, so to speak.  These 1950's horror films aren't exactly great dramas, the early creature films just have an air of camp about them, unlike today's horror films that are all about serial killers and people being forced to escape from torture devices and holidays where all crime is legal for 24 hours.  Hmm, maybe the 1950's films weren't so bad.

Whit Bissell, who played Dr. Hill in the framing sequences in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", carries over to play Dr. Thompson tonight - talk about typecasting, right?

THE PLOT: A strange prehistoric beast lurks in the depths of the Amazonian jungle. A group of scientists try to capture the animal and bring it back to civilization for study.

AFTER: This is another instance where you don't really see the full creature for the first half of the film - but at least here there are about a dozen shots of a webbed hand reaching dramatically out of the water, coming close to somebody's ankle (or in some cases nothing at all) before the camera cuts away.  I mean, they really tried to wring as much suspense as possible out of that webbed hand.

The mystery here starts with a webbed hand, too, or at least the remains of one.  An archaeologist in the Amazon jungle finds a hand buried in some limestone - and it's a hand like nothing he's ever seen before.  He immediately realizes he's got to take this hand to the institute for analysis - because why bother looking for the rest of the body?  There's just no chance that any further digging will reveal anything else, I think that's the first thing you learn when you study archaeology - if you find something good, you should stop digging in that spot right away, because chances are you'll never find anything else in the same place.

His fellow scientists at the Institute for Stating the Obvious are all impressed by the find, especially since they all have definitely never seen anything like it before, which is the technical definition of a discovery, so they feel that an expedition should be mounted AT ONCE to return to that very spot that the guy was just at.  Again, don't even think that it would have made sense for the guy to just stay there and keep digging, if you think like that you'll never become an archaeologist yourself.  Then the scientists realize, "Hey, there are 6 of us here in this very room!  We could go on an expedition together!"  Note that most of the conversations at the Institute for Stating the Obvious are centered around how many people are in the room involved in conversation at the time.

The scientists believe that the Amazon jungle is a magical place, where somehow evolution has not taken place, so many of the jungle creatures are the same as they were millions of years ago, or represent nature's failed attempts to get sea creatures up on land.  And thus we have "The Creature", also called "The Gill-Man" who represents some sort of evolutionary dead-end and is definitely not just a man in a rubber suit, despite the fact that he looks exactly like that.  The Creature acts much like your average Frankenstein Monster or zombie, in that he approaches humans in a lumbering sort of fashion, with arms outstretched - either menacingly or not, depending on your own personal rate of speed.

But the Creature has one advantage over those other monsters - he SWIMS.  Perhaps he is the last one of his race, because he seems to have a propensity for capturing females in his arms, then diving down to the depths of the ocean with them, bringing them to his underwater cavern.  Which raises the question about how many women he's brought down there, only to wonder why none of them seem to survive the trip to get there.  Why, it's almost like they can't breathe underwater or something.

The creature tries to take down the crew, one by one, presumably to get to the girl, but the crew fights back with a lantern (kill it with fire!) and then bullets and harpoons.  The creature blocks the boat in the lagoon by damming up the entrance with logs, but the crew of the boat has a winch.  So technology beats monster once again.

When TCM ran this last year, the evening's programming was hosted by Dennis Miller, who noted that two men played the Creature in this film, Ben Chapman in the above-water scenes, and Ricou Browning in the underwater scenes.  Miller snarkily noted that he could see why the "walking" actor might not be able to do the "swimming" scenes, but why couldn't the "swimming" actor do the "walking" scenes?  It's a funny joke, perhaps, but the real answer has everything to do with the process of filmmaking, and the fact that Chapman's scenes were filmed in California, while the underwater scenes were filmed by the second unit in Florida.  See, it's just logistics.

Also starring Richard Carlson (last seen in "Hold that Ghost"), Julie Adams (last seen in "The Man From the Alamo"), Richard Denning (last seen in "An Affair to Remember"), Antonio Moreno (last seen in "Notorious"), Nestor Paiva (also last seen in "Hold that Ghost"), Bernie Gozier (last seen in "Dream Wife"), Henry Escalante, Ricou Browning, Ben Chapman, Perry Lopez (last seen in "Bandolero!"), Sydney Mason, Rodd Redwing.

RATING: 5 out of 10 menacing music stings

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Year 9, Day 290 - 10/17/17 - Movie #2,755                             

BEFORE: I snuck out to see "Blade Runner 2049" last night - I'm still processing what I saw.  I'm going to need a few days to figure it all out, but since I'm right in the middle of the horror film chain, I'm not going to post my review now anyway.  I've got a Ryan Gosling chain coming up in the first part of November, but I think I need to save "Blade Runner" for later on in November, as it represents the link between another Harrison Ford film and another film with Robin Wright.  So that's the plan.

Richard Deacon carries over from "Them!", where he played a reporter, and if you don't know who Richard Deacon is, then you don't know your classic television.  He's most famous for playing TV producer Mel Cooley, Rob Petrie's boss on "The Dick Van Dyke Show", and he also played Lumpy's father on "Leave it to Beaver".  He had supporting roles in several Jerry Lewis films, too, like "The Patsy" and "The Disorderly Orderly", and I'm sure he had other acting roles too, but most people probably remember his work with Dick Van Dyke.

Tonight he plays a doctor or something, as the plant people try to take over once again - but this is the ORIGINAL version, so I suppose this was really the first time the plant people tried to take over.


FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978) (Movie #1,203), "Body Snatchers" (Movie #2,186), "The Invasion" (Movie #2,479)

THE PLOT: A small-town doctor learns that the population of his community is being replaced by emotionless alien duplicates.

AFTER: It took me a while to recognize where I'd seen the lead actor, Kevin McCarthy, before - sure, he had a cameo in the 1978 remake of "I.O.T.B.S.", but that wasn't it.  In his later years, he played the mean old rich TV station owner in the Weird Al Yankovic comedy "UHF".  That's probably why he seemed so familiar to me.  Like Richard Deacon, he probably had a lot of other acting roles, but we all have our own frames of reference for these things.

Finally, a film that's a metaphor for Communism, right?  People invading small town America with a different way of thinking, making everyone conform and work for the benefit of the collective, right? Trouble is, the film's director swore time and again that it wasn't about that, and he was just trying to make a scary movie.  But the idea behind this film caught on, and I think the zeitgeist of 1950's paranoia gave it an additional, if unintended, meaning.

Those three German horror films I watched at the start of the month gave great insight into the fears of the German people in the 1930's - the worst thing would be to have one's fate controlled by a demon ("Faust") or a vampire ("Nosferatu") and have no say in the matter.  To be a pawn in the game of life, subject to forces beyond one's control.  Ah, the bitter angst of existentialism.  But for Americans in the 1950's, perhaps the fear was quite different, that someone would come along with new ideas like Communism, or vegetarianism, or hippie Communist vegetarian, and change the minds of other people with the power of their ideas.  Then, suddenly, those with the great American values of capitalism and meat-and-potato dinners would find themselves in the minority - the horror!

You still see it today, I don't have to draw much of a line to connect this fear of "the other" to today's apparent fears of immigrants and people of color, or men's fear of women's reproductive rights, or even fears of gay marriage or trans people serving in the military.  It all comes from people fearing the things they don't understand - what if someone woke up one day and found their town full of people of a different race or sexual orientation, what would happen then?  Well, probably nothing, but the fact is that white people are on their way to becoming the minority in the U.S., and deep down that probably scares the crap out of the more conservative ones.  And I think we've all seen how certain people have been able to play upon those fears to get themselves elected, which almost doesn't seem fair.

A worse fear might be knowing, deep down, that something is very wrong with one's town, or country, then going out and sounding the alarm, only to have no one believe you, or to find out that you acted too late.  That's what happens here to our main character, after he's called back from a medical convention to his home in Santa Mira.  But when he returns, all seems well, and the people who were demanding to see him just a few days ago are suddenly feeling much better.  Or are they?  Certain people in town are swearing that not only is Uncle Ira not acting like himself, they feel like he might not really BE himself.  And just as our hero starts to put the pieces together, finding a body here and a seed pod there, people try to convince him that everything's fine, it's just an outbreak of a little mass hysteria.

In the framing sequences, our everyman narrator is telling his story to the doctors in a mental hospital, and boy, I sure have seen my share of those this October!  From the asylum run by Count Orlok in "Nosferatu" to the many incarnations of Renfield, always seen in the asylum run by Dr. Seward and/or Prof. Van Helsing, to the asylums frequented by Dr. Victor Frankenstein as he harvested body parts from their inmates...

The special effects here are also quite laughable, as with "The Thing From Another World", if you're looking for scary visuals you're better off watching the more modern remakes.  And the music is horribly annoying as well, as my wife pointed out.  She joined me for the latter half of this film, and I really should watch more movies with her, because she has a way of cutting to the quick when something seems ridiculous.  She picked up on the 1950's vibe right away, since the man here made all the decisions, and his girlfriend was really just along for the ride.  Outside of making a sandwich for him now and then, she really didn't serve much purpose - and in "The Thing From Another World", the two women on the Arctic base don't seem to do anything but make coffee for the men.  Ah, good old sexism, going strong in 1956.

Also starring Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter (last seen in "Airport"), Larry Gates (last seen in "Some Came Running"), King Donovan (last seen in "The Caddy"), Carolyn Jones (last seen in "The Tender Trap"), Jean Willes, Ralph Dumke (last seen in "Artists and Models"), Virginia Christine, Tom Fadden, Kenneth Patterson (last seen in "Being There"), Guy Way (last seen in "How Sweet It Is!"), Eileen Stevens, Everett Glass (last seen in "The Thing From Another World"), Dabbs Greer (last seen in "Julius Caesar"), Sam Peckinpah, Whit Bissell (last seen in "Destination Tokyo"), Robert Osterloh (last seen in "The Wild One").

RATING: 5 out of 10 farm trucks

Monday, October 16, 2017

Them!

Year 9, Day 289 - 10/16/17 - Movie #2,754                                          

BEFORE: James Arness carries over from "The Thing From Another World", where he played the title villain, and today he plays a human, the male lead in this invasion story.  But the invasion this time is home-grown, it's giant ants attacking humans...


THE PLOT: The earliest atomic tests in New Mexico cause common ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters that threaten civilization.

AFTER:  I guess I should have realized by setting up a week of 1950's films that I'd have to suffer through some very fakey special effects.  These are obviously some kind of puppet ants, large-scale models that were made to rock back and forth to simulate life-like movement.  As opposed to using close-up footage of real ants and superimposing it against the live-action footage of people, which would have been another way to go.  Something tells me that neither method would have looked realistic, but maybe the use of real ant footage might have worked a little better, but I guess we'll never know.

I thought that most 1950's Hollywood horror films were symbolically about the spread of Communism, but I guess not, I'm hard pressed to find a connection to politics here.  Maybe they're Red ants, but that's hard to tell in a black-and-white movie.  They're green on the poster, which is weird because I've never seen green ants in nature.  And these are supposed to be real ants that were enlarged somehow with radiation, even though we know now that excessive radiation doesn't make things bigger, it just kills them.  But I guess in the 1950's filmmakers didn't worry too much about science, because that would just get in the way of the premise that they wanted.

Anyway, a child is found wandering in the desert by some New Mexico policemen, and they then discover a couple of forced-entry break-ins where the residents or shopkeepers are found dead, but nothing is stolen, although they do find a pile of loose sugar at each crime scene, along with a mysteriously shaped footprint.  Naturally, it's a long time before they're able to put the pieces together and come up with "giant ants", because who the hell knows what shape an ant's leg is?  The FBI is called in, and so is the country's leading ant expert, whose knowledge of ant society becomes instrumental in determining whether there might be queens spreading to new nests in order to lay more eggs.

Oh, and the ants are super-strong, of course, and have suddenly developed a taste for human flesh, because that means they're a threat to society and must be eliminated, despite the fact that our radiation created them in the first place, so the ants aren't really at fault here.  It's the human invention of atomic weapons, and the desert testing that created the giant ants, so that means they're connected to the American guilt for dropping the atomic bombs in World War II.  We did feel guilty about that, right?  Just checking.

A task force is quickly formed, and though everyone present is briefed on the social habits of ants and their likely behavior, what does all that matter when the proposed solution for dealing with them is "Kill Them With Fire"?  In fact, this is the third film in a row where that solution comes in handy - burning the villain down in his lair is starting to feel like a huge cop-out for when the screenwriter can't think up an original ending and needs to wrap things up so he can move on to the next screenplay.

Also starring James Whitmore (last seen in "Who Was That Lady?"), Edmund Gwenn (last seen in "The Trouble With Harry"), Joan Weldon, Onslow Stevens (last seen in "The Three Musketeers" (1935)), Sean McClory (last seen in "Bandolero!"), Chris Drake, Sandy Descher, Mary Alan Hokanson, Don Shelton (last seen in "Somebody Up There Likes Me"), Fess Parker (last heard in "Harvey"), Olin Howland, Richard Deacon (last seen in "Kiss Them For Me"), Ann Doran (last seen in "You Can't Take It With You"), with cameos from Dub Taylor (also last seen in "You Can't Take It With You"), Leonard Nimoy (last seen in "For the Love of Spock"), Dick York.

RATING: 4 out of 10 Wilhelm screams

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Thing From Another World

Year 9, Day 288 - 10/15/17 - Movie #2,753                                      

BEFORE: A word about the linking, since "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" is a dead-end for me - it wasn't always that way, since when I set up this chain I was planning to have Peter Copley carry over into "Five Million Years to Earth", a 1967 film that I'm fairly sure I saw as a child, but I was going to watch it again in the chain for the first time as an adult.  And that film was going to link to another film with a similar name that I haven't seen, which is "20 Million Miles to Earth".  And they both were going to be part of this 10-film chain that's all about invading creatures, whether they're aliens or giant insects or whatever.

But then I wanted to add one more Chris Hemsworth film to November's chain, and that meant I had to drop something from the last 60 films on the year's schedule - the easiest thing to drop was the film that I had seen before, but this eliminated the connection between the films in the first half of October with those in the second half.  In fact, this film and the next seven films, all made in the 1950's, form an interconnected loop, so I could basically start it anywhere, and consider it complete within itself.  So now I'm moving "20 Million Miles to Earth" to further down in the chain, to be next to the 1956 film "Godzilla", which it seems to share some DNA with.  And I may watch "Five Million Years to Earth" right after that, but I'm not going to count it, because as I said, I've seen it before.

My last-minute second-hand link, however, is that Victor Harrington from "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" was also in "The Diamond Wizard" with Margaret Sheridan.  I know it's lame, but at least it's something.


FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Thing" (2011) (Movie #2,181) & "The Thing" (1982) (Movie #2,182)

THE PLOT: Scientists and American Air Force officials fend off a bloodthirsty alien organism while at a remote arctic outpost.

AFTER: Having seen two more recent versions of this same story before, both with much better special effects, what else can I learn from watching the original?  First off, I've probably got a bunch of laughable not-so-special special effects in the days to come, so I'd better get used to that.  The alien here never really looks like anything other than a big man in a suit with a mask - isn't a little weird that the alien is supposedly plant-based, but also humanoid?  It seems like an awful coincidence that a plant creature would evolve on another world, but instead of roots and leaves, it would have two legs and two arms.

Of course, the original story this was based on ("Who Goes There?", written by John W. Campbell) featured a shape-shifting alien, something featured in the 1982 and 2011 remakes, but not in this 1951 version.  That's a shame, because it removes much of the suspense here - thanks to a Geiger counter, the men at the Arctic base always know when the alien is approaching, but in the remakes, the alien could already be among the men, disguised as one of them.  So that little fact really upped the paranoia factor - there's much less reason for the men to distrust each other here.

Or is there?  One scientist in particular seems keen on keeping the alien alive, no doubt for the chance to study a plant-based humanoid that apparently drinks blood - he even keeps a bunch of seed pods drinking from a vial of plasma, without telling the other men at the base.  So this is basically a primer on what NOT to do if you discover a flying saucer.  Don't use explosives to free the saucer from the ice, don't bring the alien pilot back to your base in a big block of ice, but if you have to do that, be sure to stow the block of ice in a very cold place, or else it could thaw out...

This one's generally regarded as a horror classic, despite the fact that it was made so cheaply that you never really see the alien in close-up, because the make-up was so poorly done.  As a result people felt a heightened sense of mystery and suspense, due to hardly ever seeing the creature, but this seems like a dodge to me.  The audience shouldn't be required to adjust their reactions to the film presented to them, especially if shoddy filmmaking was involved.  This sort of reminds me of the movie "Jaws", which had trouble with the mechanical shark.  "Oh, it's brilliant and suspenseful, because you hardly ever see the shark!"  Umm, no, that was due to technical difficulties, not as a conscious method of heightening tension.

Starring Margaret Sheridan, Kenneth Tobey (last seen in "Marlowe"), Robert Cornthwaite (last seen in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"), Douglas Spencer, James Young, Dewey Martin, Robert Nichols (last seen in "The Out of Towners"), William Self, Eduard Franz (last seen in "Dream Wife"), Sally Creighton, James Arness, Paul Frees (last heard in "Bells Are Ringing"), John Dierkes (last seen in "Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"), George Fenneman, Everett Glass (last seen in "Pal Joey"), Edmund Breon (last seen in "Gaslight"), David McMahon, Robert Stevenson.

RATING: 4 out of 10 thermite charges

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed

Year 9, Day 287 - 10/14/17 - Movie #2,752                              

BEFORE: Peter Cushing carries over again from "Frankenstein Created Woman", and this will be my last Frankenstein-based film for the year.  I've got to move on to other creature-based films, I'm on a tight schedule if I want to both keep the list from expanding out of control and finish this year's films in time for my vacation.


THE PLOT: Together with a young doctor and his fiancée, Baron Frankenstein tries a brain transplant to save an associate, the mentally ill Dr. Brandt.

AFTER: Well, it's about time someone took Dr. Frankenstein down - and make no mistake, the titles of the Hammer Films series clearly and correctly refer to the DOCTOR when they say "Frankenstein", not any creature that he may have created.  So, points for that - the original novel is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus", and Prometheus was the Greek god who gave humans fire and life and knowledge, so even in the original story's title, it's the doctor, not the creature being discussed.  The creature should always be nameless, or if that's too weird, then "Frankenstein's Monster" will suffice.

But even in this Hammer Films series, at some point they reached the point of ridiculousness - I realize now that each film is meant to be taken individually, the story doesn't really carry over from one film to the next to form one larger story.  None of the films make references to events from a previous film, or Dr. Frankenstein can be working anonymously in one film, then openly in the next, as the story requires.  He can even appear to die in one film, only to be miraculously revived for the next one.

But what really stretches the bounds of credulity is his stubbornness in continuing to conduct brain transplant experiments, when none of them ever really turn out well.  I guess if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail, and Dr. Frankenstein's "hammer" is brain transplants, because we're back on that bus tonight.  "But, Dr. Frankenstein, the patient has a sore foot!" "Tut, tut, a brain transplant will fix that problem, just wait and see!"  So what if he becomes a raging beast with a giant scar around his scalp, he's in a new body with a perfectly fine foot!

Which leads to a few questions, like if Dr. Frankenstein can fix his former associate's mental illness, why does he have to put it in a new body to do so?  Why can't he open the skull, fix the brain, and keep the brain where it is?  OK, so the first body "died", but doesn't the second body also die when you take its brain out?  And if he can bring that second body back to life, why couldn't he just bring the first one back instead, without scooping out the brain?  I may not be a doctor, but I think I can tell when a medical process is not being implemented in an efficient manner.  Like if you brought your car to the auto shop with a bad spark plug, would you let the mechanic transfer the whole engine to a different car just so he could replace that plug?  It would be little consolation if you came in with a 2016 Ford Mustang and left with a 1975 Ford Pinto that had the other car's engine in it.

But I digress.  The first time we see Dr. Frankenstein here he's robbing labs for equipment, but wearing a disturbing mask while doing so.  Because if he's arrested, there's no chance that the police will remove that mask and identify him.  He soon moves to a boarding house, and he learns that the woman who runs it is engaged to a doctor who works at an insane asylum, who's stealing narcotics to help pay for his fiancées mother medical expenses.  Dr. F. leaps at the opportunity to blackmail them both into working for him, raiding more labs for equipment and supplies.  All so he can "help" out his old associate, Dr. Brandt, who's an inmate at the asylum.

If there was any doubt about Dr. Frankenstein sociopathic nature, this film confirmed that he would do anything - lie, cheat or steal - in order to keep his experiments funded.  He uses all kinds of blackmail and manipulation to keep his assistants in line, and in this film, that even includes rape, in a very controversial scene that was added late in the production process.  Cushing said repeatedly that he hated the scene, because he didn't want Dr. F. to be seen as a sex fiend - but I guess being a thief, murderer and a doctor performing illegal brain transplants was better by comparison?  I don't know where one draws the line, I guess.

It seems like a shame that TCM didn't run two of the Hammer Films Frankenstein films, especially since the final one, 1974's "Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell" featured Dave Prowse as the new Creature, and that's an interesting pre-cursor to the first "Star Wars" film, with Cushing and Prowse later appearing on screen together as Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader - I'll have to try to track that one down someday, but I just don't have a slot for it now.

Also starring Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones (last seen in "The Elephant Man"), Simon Ward, Thorley Walters (also carrying over from "Frankenstein Created Woman"), Maxine Audley (last seen in "The Prince and the Showgirl"), George Pravda (last seen in "Anastasia"), Geoffrey Bayldon (last seen in "To Sir, With Love"), Colette O'Neil, Peter Copley (last seen in "Oliver Twist"), Jim Collier, Windsor Davies, Allan Surtees.

RATING: 4 out of 10 scalpels

Friday, October 13, 2017

Frankenstein Created Woman

Year 9, Day 286 - 10/13/17 - Movie #2,751                        

BEFORE: I can't believe it, but after last night there are just 50 more movies to watch in 2017.  But I feel good about the fact that I know exactly what those 50 films are going to be.  All of those are in my possession on DVD except for 10 of them - of those 10, 4 will be released on the big screen this fall, another 4 I'll have to buy in a DVD set from Amazon, 1 is screening on Netflix, and the 10th I will be taping off cable very soon.  So it's all kind of coming together as I'd hoped.  (And I now have a ticket for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" on December 15, so I've got that going for me...)

Of the remaining 50, 12 of them are horror films - and once I'm done with Frankenstein films, I'm going to transition to a mix of aliens and creatures - you'll see what I mean in a few days, and how the linking has dictated what's in this year, and what's being put off until next year.  And if nothing links together next year, which is possible, I'm prepared to accept that - at least I'll know I had the best possible Movie Year 9, and October of Movie Year 10 is for random follow-ups (ghosts, zombies, Dr. Jekyll and yeah, probably more vampires).

Peter Cushing carries over again from "The Revenge of Frankenstein".  Since TCM ran these films last year, I've learned that "Revenge" was the 2nd film from Hammer Studios in their Frankenstein series, and tonight's film is not the third, but the fourth.  So TCM kind of screwed me here, by not running ALL of the films in this series, just select ones.  And I usually trust them to be completists, like me - what gives, TCM?  Now I've got to watch an incomplete series, and even if I do catch up later, the other films will now be out of sequence.

Who knows, maybe the third film, "The Evil of Frankenstein" was really terrible, and they're doing me a favor.  For now, I'll have to proceed with the plan, I'm locked in to it now.

 

THE PLOT: Baron Frankenstein captures the soul of a recently executed young man and installs it in the dead body of a young maiden, Christina.  With the memories of the man still intact, she starts to kill the people whose false accusations led to the man's execution. 

AFTER: The Baron is back, after some other adventures not disclosed here, and he's back to doing medical experiments - because those have worked out SO well in the past...  And though this is still set back in the prehistoric age where science is concerned, this film was made in 1967, so what else can you expect from the swingin' sixties but a beautiful young Playboy model type playing the poor, crippled peasant barmaid?  And the doctor can't wait to put a man's soul into that body, because that's just so kinky, right?  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First off, we're presented with Hans, a noble peasant man who's been known to help Dr. Frankenstein (who's back to using his full last name now, so I guess the heat's died down...) and his new medical partner, Dr. Hertz (is his first name Dick?) around the lab.  When Hans was a boy, he watched his father get executed by guillotine (because Hammer Films paid good money for that guillotine, so they have to use it in EVERY film...) and that affected him deeply.  Hans loves Christina, the daughter of the local innkeeper, and the innkeeper isn't crazy about Hans dating his daughter.  But she's paralyzed on one side, so really, the innkeeper should just be happy that someone has taken an interest.

Then there are these three "dandies" - in modern times they'd be called "douchebags" - who frequent the inn and give Christina a hard time.  Hans gets into a scuffle with them to defend her honor, but they return late at night to steal some wine and end up killing the innkeeper and framing Hans for the crime.  As we've seen in previous Frankenstein films, there was no real forensic science back then, so all you had to do was leave someone else's article of clothing at the murder scene, and no worries.  Hans refuses to give up an alibi, I guess because if he said he was sleeping with Christina, that would destroy what little reputation she has left in that small German town.

Dr. Frankenstein appears at Hans' trial as a character witness, but that feels rather half-hearted, since the Baron probably can't wait to get a fresh dead body to try out his new "soul machine", which can somehow remove the soul from a dead body - even one with the head chopped off.  It's something of a leap in logic from one experiment - the Doctor has his own body frozen and revived, to prove that the soul does not leave the body after death - to the next, but it's really junk science that makes this whole franchise work, so you kind of just have to roll with it.  At least this is more elegant than cutting the brain out of one body and putting it in another - cheaper in terms of special effects, too.

So Hans dies and the Doctor vacuums out his soul, and then Christina is so distraught that she drowns herself, giving the Doctor the perfect (?) place to put Hans' soul.  But he kind of forgets to remove her own soul, so suddenly there are two souls fighting for control of that body.  Hans' spirit ends up acting like a voice in Christina's head, telling her to seduce and kill the men who framed him.  I can't quite tell if this is poetic justice or an evil spirit acting from beyond the grave, maybe somehow it's both. 

Also starring Susan Denberg, Thorley Walters (last seen in "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother"), Robert Morris, Duncan Lamont (last seen in "Mutiny on the Bounty"), Peter Blythe, Barry Warren, Derek Fowlds, Alan MacNaughtan (last seen in "Patton"), Peter Madden (last seen in "Doctor Zhivago"), Philip Ray, Ivan Beavis, Colin Jeavons (last seen in "The French Lieutenant's Woman"), Alec Mango (last seen in "Lust for Life").

RATING:  3 out of 10 spilled glasses of wine

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Revenge of Frankenstein

Year 9, Day 285 - 10/12/17 - Movie #2,750                     

BEFORE: We were out late last night, we went to see "Sweeney Todd" in an off-off-Broadway production at the Barrow Street Theater in Manhattan's West Village - it was the Sondheim musical, but presented in an innovative way, with minimal props and a small 3-piece orchestra, and within a relatively small space made up to look like Mrs. Lovett's pie shop, with serving tables (that the actors frequently walked and danced on) and benches for seats, and the actors walking around in the aisles, occasionally interacting with the audience.  Forget theater in the round, this was a completely immersive experience, and for an extra charge, guests could arrive early and eat a genuine meat pie with mashed potatoes and a beverage.  (If you've seen the play, you know why it's probably better to eat the meat pie BEFORE and not after.  The real meat pie contained chicken, but still.)

While there were many things that this stage play was forced to compromise on - like having most of the killing performed off-stage, and having no mechanical barber's chair or complicated method of delivering bodies from the barber shop to the bake-house - the creepiness factor was amped up by the possibility of having the actors performing only inches away, even making direct eye contact.  I had the actor playing Sweeney Todd swinging his razor very close to me, and though I knew the razor was a prop and therefore probably not very sharp, there was still a part of the lizard brain that activated the "fight or flight" danger response.  This was a lot like virtual reality, only more real somehow - I guess that would be close to "reality", right?

But it got me thinking about Sweeney Todd (I'll probably try to re-watch the film version with Johnny Depp before Halloween, just for comparative purposes...) and how he stands in contrast with Victor Frankenstein - they're like opposite sides of the same coin, even though they're both Europeans from that Gothic/Victorian era (Frankenstein was set in 1818 and Sweeney Todd in 1846).  And both were madmen, but one was a surgeon who saw a bunch of dead bodies in Germany and tried to bring them back to life, while the other was a barber who saw a bunch of living people in London and thought they'd be better off dead.  When you put it that way, Dr. Frankenstein doesn't seem so bad, now, does he?

Peter Cushing carries over from "The Curse of Frankenstein", somehow...


THE PLOT: Baron Frankenstein escapes from the guillotine and goes to Germany, where he renames himself Dr. Stein and plans to restart his experiments by using parts of dead bodies.

AFTER: We don't really find out until about halfway through this film EXACTLY how Dr. Frankenstein got out of his execution - and even then, the details are sketchy, we know WHO helped him, but not so much with the HOW.  I find this hard to believe, that he could have cheated death this way, but if he didn't, then we wouldn't have a story. Then it's pretty hilarious that he moves to Germany and just changes his name to "Victor Stein", like that's going to do the trick.  Why not call himself "Frank N. Stein", if he's going to go hide in plain sight?

And why stick with the body-snatching and body-assembling bit?  Isn't it enough to be a doctor to the wealthy, having cheated death once, why press his luck?  But no, the compulsion to resurrect dead tissue is powerful indeed - remember, this guy PERFECTED the formula that could bring a dead person back, you'd think that there would be some rich families in Germany willing to pay top dollar to have a beloved family member resurrected.  But no, Dr. Stein persists in feeling like he has to build his own person from the ground up.  Imagine that someone found the cure for cancer or heart disease, and then decided that he wasn't going to release it until he cracked the genetic code to prevent aging or something.  Because what's the point in saving someone's life, or bringing them back from death's door, if they're only going to get old and die again someday?  Medicine is like all-or-nothing with this guy, I swear.

There's a hunchbacked assistant in the lab (isn't there always?) named Karl, and the plan here is to build a new body and put Karl's brain inside - somehow that's easier than fixing Karl's original body, which is probably a debatable point.  But this hearkens back to "The Ghost of Frankenstein", which I watched last year, where they kept putting different brains inside the Creature's body - first one of the assistant doctors, and then the brain of Ygor, the deformed assistant.  I think we know now that once you remove a human brain, like cut the brain stem or whatever, it's really not any good any more.  I mean, we can transplant just about any human organ except the brain, right? 

The poster's a bit misleading, because the "Creature" here doesn't have green skin, or look like the old Universal version, with bolts coming out of his neck and everything.  He's essentially the "perfect" body here, and that sort of leads to questions about Dr. F. and why he's so obsessed with achieving this, and also exactly what his standards are when it comes to "perfect" men's bodies.  Like, size obviously matters because Frankenstein's Monster is usually portrayed as a giant - some films in the series have explained that delicate surgery is probably made easier when the body is larger, but now I wonder if that's a bit of a dodge.

But there's really no "perfect" in the world of medicine, right?  The new improved Karl soon shows signs of being the old, deformed Karl, and I don't know if that's one of those nature vs. nurture things, or just karma catching up with him for having his brain put into a new body.  Either way, things don't go well for Karl, and we're never really sure why.  The monkey who got a brain transplant didn't do well either, and theories range from him being frightened too soon after the surgery, or from eating meat.  Well, I guess that's good to know - if you find your brain has been put in a new body, you'd better become a vegetarian right away.

But the Creature manages to "out" Dr. Stein for who he really is, and then nearly everyone turns on him, especially the poor people in his hospital, the ones he's been taking body parts from.  Come to think of it, we never really find out who Dr. Frankenstein wanted to get his "revenge" on, or whether he achieved that this time around.  Maybe we'll get some understanding in the next installment, but I kinda doubt it. 

Also starring Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson (last seen in "From Russia With Love"), Michael Gwynn (last seen in "Cleopatra"), John Welsh (last seen in "Indiscreet"), Lionel Jeffries (last seen in "Lust for Life"), Oscar Quitak, Charles Lloyd Pack (last seen in "Bedazzled"), George Woodbridge, Michael Ripper, Arnold Diamond, John Stuart (last seen in "Number 17"), Marjorie Gresley, Anna Walmsley, Alex Gallier (also carrying over from "The Curse of Frankenstein"), Michael Mulcaster (ditto).

RATING: 4 out of 10 medical council members

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Curse of Frankenstein

Year 9, Day 284 - 10/11/17 - Movie #2,749  

BEFORE: OK, enough with Dracula - I'm going to transition over to remakes of that OTHER Gothic horror tale, the one from Mary Shelley.  Christopher Lee carries over from "Count Dracula" making that both easy and logical.  (Though in retrospect maybe I should have connected to the remake of "Nosferatu" via Klaus Kinski.  Oh, well...)

Last October, TCM ran four of these Frankenstein films made by Hammer Films in the 1950's & 60's, starring Peter Cushing - but I didn't have room for them last year, and they got pushed forward into 2017.  But I did watch "Victor Frankenstein" last year, along with three older Universal Frankenstein films - four seems to be my limit on the number of films about each monster that I can watch in a year.  Soon all of the channels will be airing horror films, and I may be forced to prioritize.  I've got a ton of movies coming in right now, and not enough slots unless I'm willing to allow the Watchlist to get bigger.


THE PLOT: Victor Frankenstein builds a creature and brings it to life, but it behaves not as he intended.

AFTER:  I tend to complain a lot about the use of framing devices, like the current trend of starting a film with the single most exciting moment in the story's action, and then snapping back to explain how we all got there.  I tend to think of this as a device similar to the opening "splash page" in comic books, and mostly I consider it a cheap way to grab people's attention, as well as covering up a host of other potential drawbacks, most notably it's an admission that telling the story in the proper sequence would be very boring, and therefore it's usually a giant red flag.  But thinking about the novel "Frankenstein", which framed the story with a sequence of a ship exploring the North Pole region which comes across both the fleeing Creature and the pursuing Dr. Frankenstein - that makes me realize that this literary device has been around for a very long time.

Now, this 1957 film from Hammer Studios didn't use exactly that framing, instead they started with Victor in a prison, incarcerated for murder, and then telling his entire story to a visiting priest.  Clearly you need a big budget to film on a ship stuck in an ice floe, and with a limited budget, some concessions must be made.  But this also prompts me to go back to the original novel to see where the film deviates from Shelley's story.  In the novel, Victor falls in love with his adopted sister, Elizabeth, and in this film, Elizabeth is his cousin.  (In the 1950's as well as in Victorian times, I'm betting it was more proper to marry one's cousin than one's sister...)  In the novel Victor's friend and confidante is named henry, here it's Paul Krempe.

Those seem to be minor details, but the bigger differences concern the creation of the Creature, and his portrayal.  In the novel, the creation of the man, the re-animation of dead tissue, happens quite quickly.  Perhaps it's movies that made this into a long, arduous process, with flashing lights and bolts of electricity in the lab, which are very photogenic.  In the novel it's more like a school project, Victor just builds a creature while at university, with about as much difficulty as a teenager would have while writing a book report.  The bulk of the story, the real heart of the philosophical debate comes after this, when the Creature spends a few months living behind the cottage of a poor family in the woods, during which time he also learns to read and write.  (Umm, that doesn't end well, and soon the Creature returns to get revenge on Victor, for creating him in the first place.)

My point is, the Creature in the novel is able to speak, and to have philosophical debates with Victor, and then make demands and threaten him when the debating doesn't work.  But in "The Curse of Frankenstein", just like with Renfield yesterday, we never hear the Creature say anything, which seems a bit odd not only because it's important to the story, but also because film is a medium of sound as well as picture, and this therefore seems like a bloody waste.  On the other hand, a Creature that can't talk can't be reasoned with, and therefore there's something scarier about him, he's just a force of strength and violence.

The weird thing is that when Victor and Henry begin their experiments, we see them pouring various chemicals over a dead puppy, and once they land on the exact combination, they're able to bring that puppy back to life.  The next logical experiment would be to pour those chemicals on a human corpse, to see if they can replicate their success - but no, Victor insists on putting together the perfect specimen first, which means assembling the body of a hanged thief, the hands of a sculptor, and the brain of a professor.  NITPICK POINT: We see Victor cut off the thief corpse's head, and dissolve it in the acid bath, but whose head does he then put the professor's brain into?

It's a nice theory, that if you took the best parts of different people, you might be able to make the best possible person.  But I think we can all safely predict that things don't always work out the way that the mad scientist wants them to.  So little was known at the time about how quickly dead tissue deteriorates, or like I said, maybe they should have focused on reviving ONE person who was already in one whole piece, instead of dealing with all the complexities of assembling a patchwork person as a test subject.  Because what they get here is akin to a mindless, suffering killing machine.

Now, in the novel the Creature is quite crafty, he even frames the nanny Justine for his murder of Victor's brother, just by planting a locket on her.  So that's pre-meditated murder, planting evidence - not bad for a re-animated corpse.  Things are quite different in this film, where Victor digs up the Creature after Paul buries him, to kill Justine, the maid Victor's been having an affair with.  Hey, it's almost like a soap opera with monsters!  But really, isn't Victor the REAL monster here, I mean, tampering with the forces of life and death, robbing graves, and killing anyone who doesn't agree with him?  But then we find out whose murder Victor is charged with, and damn it if what comes around doesn't go around in the end.  See ya later, Baron.

Also starring Peter Cushing (last seen in "Rogue One", sort of...), Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart, Melvyn Hayes, Valerie Gaunt, Paul Hardtmuth (last seen in "I Was a Male War Bride"), Anne Blake, Raymond Ray, Noel Hood, Claude Kingston, Alex Gallier, Michael Mulcaster, Andrew Leigh, Sally Walsh.

RATING: 5 out of 10 black-market eyeballs

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Count Dracula (1970)

Year 9, Day 283 - 10/10/17 - Movie #2,748  

BEFORE: I spent most of yesterday in bed, dealing with a combination of exhaustion from loading everything out of NY Comic Con and a cold, no doubt obtained by spending four days in a convention center with a closed air supply and over 100,000 nerds in a confined space.  Thankfully it was Columbus Day, so much less pressure to go in to the office on a federal holiday.  I slept most of the day away in 3-hour blocks, waking up only to have some soup and change the tape on my DVD burner, since I have to put THIS year's Dracula films on DVD to get ready for NEXT year.  TCM went and made Dracula their "Monster of the Month", but I can't work those new films into my chain because they won't be done airing them until the end of October, and I can't wait that long, I've got other monsters and creatures I want to cover.

But my last version of "Dracula" for this year comes from 1970, directed by Jesus Franco, who also seems to be referred to as either Jesse Franco or Jess Franco.  So there's a little confusion here, also over the title of the film, which is "Count Dracula" on the IMDB, but "Bram Stoker's Count Dracula" on the poster.  It seems we may finally get in a Dracula film this month that was based on the original novel, and not the stage-play from the 1920's.

The poster below also has a confusing tagline in "Finally! The original version!"  Well, since original usually means "first", and "Finally!" seems to be a poke at those OTHER Dracula films, especially the famous one with Bela Lugosi, you can't really say this film is "original" because it had so many predecessors, right?  But I know what they were trying to say, taking credit for being the first film to really go back to the source, but they clouded it up with contradictory grammar.


THE PLOT: This version of the Bram Stoker classic has Count Dracula as an old man who grows younger whenever he dines on the blood of young maidens.

AFTER: Apparently this fact was mentioned in the novel, that Count Dracula would appear to get more vital, or "younger" the more blood he drank - so they gave him gray hair at the start of this film, and he makes references to being old and in need of a change when he rents the property in England from Jonathan Harker's firm, but by the end his hair is darker and he appears younger.  (Again, language problems, he can't "become" younger, that's impossible without reversing time, he can only appear to do so.).

We're back to Harker traveling to Transylvania, but Harker's really dumb here - he doesn't pick up on the fact that the villagers are all afraid of the Count, and even when he's seduced by the three female vampires, who Dracula distracts with a live baby for them to eat, he convinces himself that it's all a dream.  At least he doesn't think those two puncture wounds on his neck come from mosquito bites, but since he doesn't offer up any other possible explanation, he just might as well have.

What about those three female vampires in Dracula's castle, anyway?  After seeing several versions of this story now, some call them "the sisters" and others "the Brides of Dracula", I'm wondering why they were such under-utilized characters.  We see them seduce Harker, and then we never see them again.  Why introduce them into the story if they serve no other purpose?  Did everyone, including Bram Stoker, forget to use them in the latter part of the story?  Why does Dracula want so desperately to move to the U.K. if he's got three wives?  (Wait, that question maybe sort of answers itself...)

Harker escapes from Dracula's castle in this one, and is found in a river in Budapest.  But he wakes up in a psychiatric clinic in London. NITPICK POINT: How did anyone in Budapest know that he was from London, and who had the knowledge and resources to send him home?  Shouldn't someone in a coma not be moved across such a great distance?  This seems like just a cheap way to get all the relevant characters - Mina (Jonathan's fiancée), Lucy (Mina's friend), Dr. Seward, and Van Helsing, who coincidentally owns the clinic, even though he's not any kind of doctor.  I suppose it's not as cheap as making Mina the daughter of Van Helsing, but it's close.

They shoehorned Quincey Morris in here too, as Lucy's fiancé, and Renfield (referred to as "Reinferd" in the credits for some strange reason) is just an inmate at the asylum who eats bugs, and I don't think we ever hear him say any dialogue in this whole film, despite LONG sequences where the doctors are begging him to talk.  "Come on, Renfield, you can say it.  Just tell me.  Come on, you can tell me now..." and so on.  Renfield serves an important function to the story, not only helping Dracula move into his new castle but also giving the audience the important details about who Dracula is and what he does, even if no one in the story believes it.  Removing his power of speech completely not only slows the story down, it makes him a completely tangential, useless character. I'd say that Klaus Kinski did the best job he could playing a catatonic mental patient, but that seems like a backhanded compliment.

After you watch a few of these Dracula films, like I have, you realize that Dracula spends a lot of time boxing himself up and shipping himself across Europe, along with his spare coffins.  What kind of rate did he get for this, while he slept in the coffin for what, 2 weeks?  And what courier did he use for this, was it UPS UnderGround?  Undead-Ex?  Or maybe DH-Hell? 

There are other problems here, like that fact that much of the dialogue seems like it was dubbed in later, or perhaps the audio was not synched up properly, and that gives this the overall feel of a cheap foreign film.  Dracula crawling down the walls of the asylum upside-down is a neat effect, but a fake bat still looks like a fake bat, so not as much changed in 40 years of filmmaking as one would have hoped.  And if you are familiar with the novel, they still left a LOT of stuff out here, so the claim to be the first film based on the novel seems a bit toothless since they ended up jettisoning half of the details anyway.  Maybe the decision to base the other films on the stage-play wasn't such a bad one after all.

Starring Christopher Lee (last seen in "Gremlins 2: The New Batch"), Herbert Lom, Klaus Kinski (last seen in "Doctor Zhivago"), Maria Rohm, Fred Williams (last seen in "A Bridge Too Far"), Soledad Miranda (last seen in "100 Rifles"), Paul Muller, Jack Taylor.

RATING: 4 out of 10 Gypsy servants

Monday, October 9, 2017

Dracula (1979)

Year 9, Day 282 - 10/9/17 -  Movie #2,747

BEFORE: I'm done with another Comic-Con, at least this one was in New York and I didn't have to travel - but now I'm exhausted and I have a cold and I just want to sleep through all of Columbus Day.  But with a little help from DayQuil and Mountain Dew I can stay up for a movie (after a little nap, of course) and thus stay on track.

I've got one more Dracula film tomorrow, made in 1970.  This one was released in 1979, so I'm not going chronologically - but the 1970 film links to the next block, so it's got to come last.  Anyway that puts this one next to the more famous 1931 film with Bela Lugosi, and both films were based on the stage version of "Dracula" rather than from the novel, so this should make for a logical side-by-side comparison.


THE PLOT: In 1913 the charming, seductive and sinister vampire Count Dracula travels to England in search of an immortal bride.

AFTER: While it's definitely the same plot as the 1931 film - Dracula hires a ship to take him and his many coffins to the U.K. - there are still some notable differences.  For example, this film starts out on that ship, with Drac's voyage already in progress.  Why waste time dicking around with exposition in his Transylvanian castle when we can get right to the action and the imminent threat of a vampire heading for a crowded, industrialized nation?  The Count can catch up with Jonathan Harker in England when he moves into Carfax Abbey, the prime real estate that comes with its own cobwebs, so he should feel right at home.

This moves Renfield back to being introduced later in the story, just like in the novel.  But he still ends up in the asylum that's run by Dr. Seward.  Only here Dr. Seward is Lucy's father (in the book she's Lucy Westenra, which was always an odd last name, I thought) and to further simplify things, Mina Murray (later Mina Harker in most versions) becomes Van Helsing's daughter for this film.  You have to remember that the 1931 film was made during very cheaply during the Depression, and there was also a notable recession during the 1970's, so it seems that the production company tried to save some money here by reducing the number of last names.  For a story that only had about a dozen characters to begin with, they whittled the story down here to just about 7 or 8 major roles.

This does give both Dr. Seward and Prof. Van Helsing good reason to take an active role in battling Count Dracula - because their daughters are not safe when there's a horny vampire on the prowl.  And even if they can't save their daughter's lives, they can at least save their souls with a stake through the heart.  But in most of the versions I've seen so far, Lucy is Dracula's first victim and Mina is romantically involved with Jonathan Harker, but they flipped the script here and made Mina the first woman Dracula attacks, and Lucy Seward is engaged to Jonathan.  I'm not sure why this changed, maybe some focus group responded better to the name Lucy, so they gave her the bigger role?

I'm also a little disappointed that they chose to set the action in 1913, where the 1931 film seemed to be set in the present - at least the scenes in London depicted a modern city of the 1930's.  When I imagined the type of Dracula film that could be made in the late 1970's, I pictured Dracula grooving down a NYC sidewalk, like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" - it's not a big leap from that cape he wears to a disco outfit from that time.  (And this film was directed by John Badham, who also directed "Saturday Night Fever"...)

But it's good to see that production values and special effects were much better in this later remake, at least compared with that 1931 version.  Unfortunately a fake flying bat still looks like a fake flying bat, but at least there's some gore when Dracula bites a neck or tears open a throat, where the Bela Lugosi film had all that take place just out of shot.  And it looked like they shot the sailing scenes on a real working ship, and not just a set.

Starring Frank Langella (last heard in "The Prophet"), Laurence Olivier (last seen in "A Bridge Too Far"), Donald Pleasance (last seen in "Shadows and Fog"), Kate Nelligan (ditto), Trevor Eve, Jan Francis, Tony Haygarth, Teddy Turner.

RATING: 5 out of 10 communion wafers

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Dracula (1931)

Year 9, Day 278 - 10/5/17 - Movie #2,746           

BEFORE: I'm going to squeeze one more film in before New York Comic-Con really gets rolling, because I've got an eye on the calendar and how many days there are until our vacation, and I know how many films I want to cross off the list before that.  We'll be in Nashville on the weekend before Halloween, so we may do something holiday-related like go on a spooky pub crawl.  Also, I've got to remember to buy all my candy next week, because if I wait until after the vacation, it will be way too late to get the best treats.

Nosferatu aside, the last time I saw the Dracula character, he was mixed up with some crazy business with Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man - it was the tail end of the Universal horror mash-up craze, where they threw all their monsters together ("Monster Mash-Up", get it?) in the futile hope of making something that was greater than the sum of its parts.  But over the course of 13 or 14 years, the convoluted history of what happened when Dracula met the other monsters, who played whom in which film, and so on pretty much imploded in on itself. I know I sure couldn't keep track of whose brain was inside the Monster's head on any given day, or which hunchbacked lab assistant was working for which mad scientist.

As I've stated before this year, my new policy is to allow films to link together based on shared characters, if actor linking is not available.  So for my purposes, I'm considering Nosferatu/Count Orlov to be essentially the same character as Count Dracula, since the Germans ripped off Bram Stoker's book to make that film.  But Hollywood based the more famous 1931 Bela Lugosi film on the 1924 stage play of "Dracula", not directly on the novel.  So there are bound to be some differences.  Oddly, although I've seen some of the later Universal sequels with Dracula in them, I've never seen the original - I rectify that tonight, though it seems like a bit of a fait accompli at this point.


FOLLOW-UP TO: "House of Frankenstein" (Movie #2,473)

THE PLOT: The ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and begins to prey upon the virtuous young Mina.

AFTER: Yeah, they definitely shuffled the deck here in terms of the characters and their roles - the Bram Stoker novel has Jonathan Harker traveling to Transylvania to do business with Count Dracula, and even "Nosferatu" sent the Harker stand-in, Hutter, to do the same.  But this film (again, based on the stage play) sends Mr. Renfield out to meet the Count in his castle, and that's another way to get Renfield to become Dracula's servant and fixer, which does happen in the novel but much later in the story.  And both this film and "Nosferatu" then arrange for Dracula and his coffins to travel by boat from Romania to a new land, only it's Germany in "Nosferatu" and the U.K. here (and in the novel).

You see, it gets confusing really fast - all of the classic Dracula stories have the same elements, but they each throw them together in their own way.  I don't think any of the films had much interest in being faithful to the novel until that one in 1992 that Coppola directed - and even then, I'm not sure that one completely followed the same story track either.

But my point is that Renfield is given a much larger part here - whereas he didn't even make it to "Nosferatu" at all, Count Orlok acted pretty independently, except for a coachman.  And Renfield seems like the character who's the most fun, at least the actor seemed like he had a real ball playing a crazy man who eats bugs and spiders and warns all of the other humans that there is a vampire in their midst, while at the same time he's working for Dracula and trying not to get into trouble with his master.  If you notice, we never see Dracula bite Renfield, instead he only gets hypnotized into serving the Count, because a studio executive thought that Dracula should only bite women.  Hollywood, apparently, felt the audience was not ready for a vampire that bites both ways.

Lugosi, on the other hand, didn't seem like he was doing any heavy lifting, from an actor's perspective anyway, all he had to do was act charming in some scenes and then stare into the camera in others, with his supposed hypnotic glare.  So many acting choices to make, and yet the default position seemed to be a blank stare, it's an odd decision on the part of the director.  But we're talking about something that was done very, very early in the history of horror films, in the history of cinema even, and at the time there just wasn't a road map on how to make a horror film, so every decision was a ground-breaking one, in a way.

We all know the rules about vampires now, of course, thanks to movies, like how they hypnotize women to drink their blood, they can't be seen in mirrors, or how they can turn into bats and wolves (though that wolf-thing has been downplayed over the years, I think, to avoid confusion with werewolves).  You have to remember that this was mostly new to audiences in 1931, so this film really hammers home that mirror thing - we see Van Helsing looking at the mirror about four or five times, comparing the mirror image to what he sees in the room, just to insure the audience really GETS IT.  And the flying bat that is allegedly Dracula is so fake that it's not even funny - it just looks like a plastic toy on a fishing line that some poor gaffer had to dangle at the top of the frame while standing on a ladder.

Similarly, every time that Dracula bites someone in the neck, it happens behind a tree, or just out of frame, or even completely off-screen.  We never even get to see him turn into a wolf, or even see Lugosi with FANGS, for cripes sake. What's a vampire without fangs, or I should say with just implied fangs and not visible ones?  Pretty darn toothless, it turns out.  This is really the charming, suave, sophisticated Dracula, the one who dressed really well (compared to Nosferatu's rather shabby clothing) and while it really set the standard for future movie vampires for a good long time, there's really not much horror in this horror film, not by today's standards, anyway.  My score below is really given more out of respect than anything else.

The decision to base this film on the stage play rather than the novel was apparently one made for financial considerations - fewer locations in a stage play, plus they probably re-used the Transylvanian castle set to double as the British abbey set.  Bear in mind this was made during the Great Depression, so there you go.

NITPICK POINT: To introduce Dracula as a vampire who has an appetite for blood, Renfield is shown to have cut himself - not with a knife, but with a paper clip, while doing paperwork.  How is that even possible?  Were paper clips different in 1930, like were they super-sharp or something?  As far as I know, they've always been the familiar rounded metal "trombone" shape - and it's essentially impossible to draw blood with a paper clip under normal usage, or even accidentally.  Wouldn't a letter opener or a sharp pair of scissors been more believable?

Starring Bela Lugosi (last seen in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man"), Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye (also last seen in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man"), Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Frances Dade, Joan Standing, Charles K. Gerrard.

RATING: 4 out of 10 sprigs of wolfsbane

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Nosferatu (1922)

Year 9, Day 277 - 10/4/17 - Movie #2,745        

BEFORE: Today is load-in day for the New York Comic-Con.  So I feel like I just got back after my break, and it's almost time to shut down again for a few more days.  There's no way I can stay up late to watch movies if I have to be at the booth every morning by 9.  OK, 9:15.  But I have been catching up on TV lately, during my time off I binged the final season of "Mad Men" on Netflix, since waiting for AMC to post the episodes On Demand was taking way too long.  What a disappointing final episode, but I guess maybe there was no satisfying way to end such a long-running, complicated show. Since I finished that I've been focused on clearing my tapes of July shows, and then the other night I started watching "Stranger Things".  Appropriate for Halloween month, plus the 2nd season is starting at the end of the month, so I might as well get Season 1 watched.  It's too much a part of pop culture for me to avoid it any longer - when the MAD Magazine parody comes out, I feel I should probably watch the damn show.  But I feel like maybe I've read too much about it to fully enjoy it.

Today I'm finishing up my three-film exploration of early horror films that were part of the German Expressionist Movement - hey, it's high time we had some class around here, right?  I admit, TCM ran these three films together about 2 years ago, as part of their "From Caligari to Hitler" programming, based off the 1947 book by Siegfried Kracauer that was a psychological history of pre-World War II Germany.  Apparently the films of the Wiemar Republic provided insight to the unconscious motivations of the German people, so really, anyone who watched these last three films should have seen Hitler coming, right?

Ah, if only it were that easy.  That's a bit like saying that anyone who watched "Zoolander", "The Associate" and "Home Alone 2" should have known that Donald Trump would be elected President and screw up the whole country.  It's just too pat of an answer.


THE PLOT: Vampire Count Orlok expresses interest in a new residence and real estate agent Hutter's wife.

AFTER: If this plot seems very familiar to you, there's a very good reason - it's basically Bram Stoker's "Dracula", with all the character names changed.  But it got filmed first in Germany, so when Universal made the famous 1931 film "Dracula", there might have been a few people who thought the plot was too derivative of "Nosferatu".  Now I'm not sure what the copyright laws were like back in 1922, but this represents typical German behavior, taking another person's story and changing the title - they basically pulled the same sort of thing in World War II, taking over Poland and Austria and changing those countries' names to "Germany".

But I digress.  Enough about Hitler, and for that matter, enough about Twitler, aka Orange Hitler, aka Donald Drumpf.  He's got nothing to do with Nosferatu/Dracula, right?  I mean, one of them is a parasite that drains people of their resources, lives in a castle and seduces young, beautiful women - and the other one, of course, is Nosferatu.  Seriously, though, in this film Nosferatu wants to buy some real estate (uh oh...) in Germany and contacts an agent named Knock about some depressed properties across the street.  Presumably he wants to tear them down and build a casino (seriously, like THE BEST casino, it's going to be yuuuuge.)  So Knock sends his man Hutter to Trumpsylvania to meet with Count Orlov.

Hutter is warned by the townspeople not to travel the countryside at night, because of the "werewolf", but that's a different film, right?  They really should have warned him about Orlov, who welcomes Hutter to his castle and then feeds him dinner and gives him a really sharp knife to cut his meat.  Hutter manages to cut himself with the dinner knife (Seriously? Who does that? I've been cutting my food with knives for at least 45 years and I've never drawn blood...) and Orlov offers to clean up the blood with his tongue, which for some reason is not any kind of red flag.  Later on, Hutter wonders why he's got two giant mosquito bites on his neck, since he doesn't recall being bitten.  NITPICK POINT: Hutter says these two puncture marks are on "both sides" of his neck, but given the placement of most vampires' fangs, that's darn near impossible.

Some strange behavior is acceptable on Hutter's part, because Orlov/Nosferatu probably has him under his sway at this point.  But to see a bunch of coffins loading themselves on to a coach and NOT say anything?  Way to not take a stand, Hutter.  Even when Hutter sees that Nosferatu sleeps in a coffin, and we all know now that's the time that a vampire is most vulnerable, he does nothing but run back to his room and hide.  Germans, am I right?  They just can't stand up to authority...

Nosferatu also seems able to entrance Hutter's lady, Ellen, from a distance, even though he's never met her and has no idea where she lives.  I think in other versions of the "Dracula" story, Mina Harker comes to Dracula's castle with her husband, and this seems more believable when she gets entranced. Most hypnosis, even vampire hypnosis, probably requires that the subject be in the same room at some point.

Nosferatu's coffins are then shipped by boat to Germany (NITPICK POINT: Why so many coffins?  Does he sleep in several of them, or is he bringing along some vampire pals?) and Nosferatu manages to find something to eat along the way by drinking the blood of the ship's crew, so by the time the ship lands in port at Wisborg, he's the sole passenger - because that's not suspicious at all.   He enjoys the German food in town (Germans, of course) and the citizens start to believe that a plague has hit town.  Turns out that when the Transylvanians come to town, they're not sending their best people - they're sending vampires, rapists - and some, I assume, are good people.  But you can't build a wall to keep out vampires if they're going to come to town by boat.  Anyway, I think a vampire could probably just turn into a bat and fly over a wall, right?

There are some differences between "Nosferatu" and Bram Stoker's novel, most notably the ending, and the fact that Nosferatu drinks blood but does not turn other people into vampires - what is a vampire without his cult following?  Still, Bram Stoker's widow ended up suing the company that made this film, and as a result all known prints and negatives were destroyed.  However, there were unknown prints in other countries, so the film survived.  And then in a display of karmic irony, "Nosferatu" itself fell out of copyright protection and into the public domain.  So Werner Herzog was able to direct a remake in 1979.  Just like vampires themselves, this film was notoriously hard to kill.

Starring Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Georg H. Schnell, Ruth Landshoff, Gustav Botz, Alexander Granach (last seen in "For Whom the Bell Tolls"), John Gottowt, Max Nemetz, Wolfgang Heinz, Guido Herzfeld.

RATING: 4 out of 10 swarming rats

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Faust

Year 9, Day 276 - 10/3/17 - Movie #2,744

BEFORE: There's a lot that happened while my blog was dark for three weeks.  Some things were minor changes, like finally getting a new driveway - the old one's bugged us since we bought the house in 2004, especially when it came time to shovel the sidewalk each winter, a process made nearly impossible by its uneven surface.  More importantly, my father-in-law passed away, and though my wife wasn't speaking to him often, it's still significant when a family member is no longer part of one's life.  Even though I tend not to believe in things like the afterlife and final judgements, I was raised Catholic so those beliefs, mistaken as they may be, are still a part of my programming.  So I feel conflicted when I go to a funeral and people talk about the deceased being in a better place, because that sort of goes against what I believe, unless they mean that things are so bad right now on Spaceship Earth that it's better to not exist at all than to be alive.

I'm always the one saying, "Well, we don't know for SURE what happens after we die..." and that's a statement that cuts both ways.  Maybe nothing happens, maybe corporeal non-existence is just an eternal blank void, but isn't that nothing then technically something?  Maybe it's like the movies, where your consciousness floats up (or sinks down) and you meet angels or devils and they've got a whole record of what you've done and what it adds up to.  Or maybe religion's just a crutch, an antiquated belief system to keep the masses in line - that's my current belief, but if there is an eternal, long dark tea-time of the soul, that's not something I should be gambling with, right?  How do I react as an agnostic in a way that also hedges my bets?

I'm sticking with German expressionist films tonight, and while this may not be a straight-out "horror" movie in the vein of last night's film, it's about the devil, right?  Or at least a demon, so I think that qualifies.  Actor linking is suspended for a few days, but I should be able to get back to it shortly.  At least tonight's director will appear again tomorrow.


THE PLOT: The demon Mephisto wagers with God that he can corrupt a mortal man's soul.

AFTER: "Faust" is a classic story, rooted in German legend, which may be an off-shoot of the Biblical parable about Job, who suffers greatly but refuses to give up his faith.  (Umm, I think, it's been a while...).  There are several versions of "Faust", but this 1926 film is partially based on Goethe's re-working of the story in the early 1800's, as opposed to Christopher Marlowe's version from the 1500's.  But this is the root of the "Devil temptation" story, which later manifested in works like "Damn Yankees", "Bedazzled", "Needful Things" and so on.

In this version, Faust is an aged scholar and alchemist, who is unable to help when a plague falls across his land - and this was back in the day when illness was believed to come from the Devil, not from germs or parasites or lack of sanitation.  So when the plague hits, it's clearly the work of Satan, and since God created Satan, and doesn't seem to be taking a hand to stop the plague, then God is ultimately at fault. I mean, come on, God works in mysterious ways and all that, but help out some sick people once in a while, would it kill you, God?  So Faust realizes that his learning is all for naught, and simultaneously loses his faith.

However, since the agents of the Devil do seem to play a more active role in the fates of Man, Faust contacts Mephisto, here an agent of Satan or some form of lesser demon, who agrees to serve Faust for 24 hours, granting him the power to save his people.  Though the people shun his help, simply because his power comes from evil - OK, that's a hard lesson to learn.  But soon the 24 hours are up, and that should be the end of the story, right?  Faust goes to hell, we all learn not to make deals with the devil, case closed.

Only here in this version, that's NOT the end - Mephisto keeps tempting Faust for some reason, even though by my reasoning, he's already fulfilled the terms of the agreement, he gave Faust power, it didn't work out, so pack your bags, Faust, we're off to the netherworld.  Mephisto then gives Faust back his youth, and takes him to a wedding feast in Italy, where Faust seduces the bride, a duchess, and Mephisto kills the groom.  In order to make love to the Duchess, Faust has to sign over his soul.  (Hey, we've all been there, am I right?)  OK, game over, Faust gives up his soul, gets his freak on, and then he goes to Hell, end of story.

Only that's not the end either - these Germans LOVE to drag out a good temptation story, apparently. Faust returns home and Mephisto's dating service (like a netherworld Tinder, maybe it's called "Cinder") sets him up with another young beauty named Gretchen, and Mephisto gives her a golden chain so she'll fall in love with Faust.  Faust sleeping with Gretchen causes Gretchen's mother to die from shock, and her brother Valentin dies in a duel with Faust, defending her honor.  (Mephisto totally sucker-stabs him, but we should expect no less from the devil, right?).

It doesn't end well for Gretchen, either - she ends up in the stocks and then gives birth to Faust's baby (man, a lot happens during this 24-hour bet, right?) and I can only assume that Mephisto kept Faust on the hook all this time - after winning his soul, like THREE times over - because doing so caused so much chaos in the world.  God may work in mysterious ways, but the devil's plans are a lot easier to figure out, I suspect.  Faust loses his regained youth, and returns to her just as she is about to be burned at the stake - so really, this is a happy kind of German story, all things considered.

But if last night's film was really about post-WWI Germany, and the inability of the German people to rebel against authority, which set the stage for Hitler, then by extension, Faust is similarly about those citizens who are helpless to rise up against a tyrant, just as Faust is merely a pawn in the chess game between God and Satan.  That seems to be the underlying fear here, that humans are not really in control, we think we have free will and control, but we're constantly surrounded by temptation, shortcuts to power or financial gain, or powerful figures making empty promises that will cost us more in the long run than we realize.  And that's what Hitler took advantage of, promising to make the trains run on time, making Germany great again, just don't think about what happened to those Jewish neighbors you used to have.

I think you may realize where I'm going with this, because since Nazis are (apparently) fashionable again in our country, anything that's about Hitler is now about Trump by extension.  The Devil comes along and offers you riches, power, even your lost youth, and all you have to do is sign this contract in blood, don't bother to read it.  And Trump comes along and says he's going to cut taxes, fix healthcare, re-build our infrastructure, and there's going to be so much winning that you may get tired of winning, just don't think about what happened to all those immigrant neighbors that you used to have.  And enough people fell for it, even though he might as well have been wearing a red suit with horns and forked tail.  Damn it, people, if an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

But sure, keep on believing that climate change isn't real, and doing nothing to fix the problem - just stop for a second and think about who benefits when next summer, it's hot as Hades. Coincidence?

NITPICK POINT: The whole side storyline with Gretchen's aunt goes absolutely nowhere - Gretchen visits her to bring her Satan's necklace - why?  We're told that Gretchen's aunt makes love potions for the villagers - so what?  Mephisto makes her a drink and makes goo-goo eyes at her - for what purpose?  These seem like they could be important story elements, like maybe a love potion will be important, but none of these things turn out to be relevant, so why introduce them?  This is 10 minutes of the story that could have been excised with no effect, it's just time-filler, right?

Starring Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn, Frida Richard, William Dieterle, Yvette Guilbert, Eric Barclay, Hanna Ralph, Werner Fuetterer

RATING: 4 out of 10 archangels