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New “Beauty and the Beast”dazzles despite having “too many notes”

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As expected, it wouldn’t be too long until Disney did a live-action retelling of their 1991 animated classic. There are factors as to why they would do such a thing considering its one of their popular titles. It was well-loved, the songs are still hummed and it got a Best Picture nomination. It’s never easy to fix something that isn’t broken and that was the case here. I’m pleased to say there are plenty of things that keep it far removed from the original (even going as far to give nods to the 1946 Jean Cocteau version). At the same time, I couldn’t help but question why go the great lengths to recapture the magic and spirit when all the time could have been used for a more unique variation.

In no way I am saying this is a horrible version. Dare I say, far from it. There are things I liked about Bill Condon’s live-action take, scenes and images I will take away from as a moment of beauty and will have the appreciation to watch it again when the feeling is there. There is effort in this one, everyone is trying their best and having fun with their roles. I am glad to say there are no fart jokes or dumbing down of the source. But part of me wonders why there is something more to the 1991 animated film in comparison to this one.

For the most part, the performances are fine. Emma Watson is no Paige O’Hara, but she tires to give the character Belle something. She does stand by her decisions like her reason to trade her freedom for her father’s imprisonment (Kevin Kline) and shows she is more than a girl with basic curiosity. A backstory is tossed on where she wishes to know the mystery of her mother and to be fair, the execution is fine. Yet, what kills it for me is her singing abilities. There are moments when I couldn’t help but compare her voice to the others around her during the opening number. I don’t know if it was the sound system, but something felt flat or “auto-tuned” when she was in the numbers. There was an electronic sense to her voice which made me wonder if any post-production work as done on her vocals. Her interactions with the other characters are fine and there’s even some nice scenes between her and Maurice that I found touching. But when your lead character can’t belt a tune that makes you feel for the character’s dreams and feelings, your just left with a rather mediocre performance lost in a sea of people who are trying.

Take Dan Stevens who is gives as much heart and soul to the Beast. While he’s no Robbie Benson or Jean Marais, Stevens’ portrayal does show what years of isolation and a heartless nature can do. Despite the beckoning of his servants, he sees no sign of hope and knows the curse is forever even if he tries. There’s a scene when he is looking at Belle from the magic mirror and feels there is no connection. As another petal from the rose falls, parts of the castle crumble as we feel a part of his heart did. Even surprisingly Stevens can carry an emotional tune as his solo before the climax speaks the heartfelt and tragedy of the character. While I wish some makeup work was involved, the CGI at times isn’t too bad on this furry Scrooge.

Other standout performances include Luke Evans as the cocky Gaston, who will go to the ends of the Earth in order to get what he wants. Evans really chews out the scenery as this famed Disney villain with fancy footwork and an overly conceited manner that was part of the original character. You can tell he’s having a lot of fun as much as Josh Gad is as LeFou. I admit, I was worried for a bit as having the lovable snowman as a comedic sidekick, but I’m pleased to say Gad didn’t disappoint. And for those worried about his “big moment,” I assure mommies and daddies everywhere that its not big to the story and played in a subtle manner. In short, there’s a movie with a girl falling for an enchanted prince and a candlestick doing a big Broadway number with flying dishes. I think you will be fine.

I’d go down the list and check off who did a great job, but I can say mostly everyone did their part (aside from Watson but she tires.) Kevin Kline is sweet as Maurice hinting a tragic moment in life, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen have humorous chemistry and so forth. But when it comes to altering the story, that’s a different case. There are moments when this “Beast” adds elements from the original fairy tale (Maurice is held prisoner by the Beast for getting a rose from his garden as requested by Belle) and again some subtle nods to other versions like candelabra hands from the Cocteau version.

But when new story beats appear to explain why the Beast got so cold hearten, Belle wondering about this hidden family secret or have Gaston be a famed war captain, this is when it starts to drag. The focus starts to become more on these new additions and less how the story is being told well. Dare I say, these moments do distract but then you have little details used to fill in some plot holes like what would be left of the castle and its inhabitants if the Beast fails to lift the curse. It’s a double edge sword and some of works. But then you have small additions that can change the nature of a scene. Without giving too much away, let’s just say during a big fight scene near the end, a gun is involved. No blade, no fists and no impalement. Just a bunch of bullets and nothing more. There is no sense of intensity as the action in question is by something mechanical as opposed to a blade. It left me wishing it was more intense, but Disney has banned impalement for a while so why bother changing it something more deadly? Nitpick aside, it makes an intense moment less intense.

The songs themselves are fine as Alan Menken returns with old numbers and some new material by Menken and Tim Rice of “Lion King” fame. Some of the songs like “Gaston” and the showstopper “Be Our Guest” contain some new lyrics that don’t diminish why we love these songs. But the new dance breaks and added beats nearly kill the enjoyment of the rhythm. “Be Our Guest” goes from a showstopper into too long of a showstopper as dinner plates sail in the air like kites and Lumiere stops to pay an homage for “Singin’ In the Rain.” The new numbers try to add some new form of substance and they work for the most part. Belle’s father has a nice number at the beginning, the Beast has a powerful song as he scales the lonesome towers of his castle and a sequence with the servants pondering of their fate is interesting. Even if they don’t overpower the others, they are a nice addition for the most part.

I can’t really say I hated this “Beast.” There are moments I did enjoy and some that did get me teary. Will it be memorable as the original? Probably not. This is just part of trend Disney is doing because they want to see what sticks and what doesn’t. While I’m against the idea of doing a live-action take of this one, it was nice to see an attempt. It delivered when it needed to despite having a few flaws. Had the animated movie not exist, it would be difficult to picture if this would stand on its own better. In a sense, maybe but the flaws in story and some performances would still be there. In retrospect, this is very much how I feel about Ron Howard’s “Grinch.” While nowhere near as powerful as the original, it was a good try.

“Pete’s” dull and generic “Dragon”

dvnxj5nde6cjj-hzmo4lodtu15ulbzdj-largeThere were many things I questioned when watching the 2016 update of “Pete’s Dragon.” I was well aware director David Lowery wanted this take to be far removed from the 1977 musical. Honestly, I don’t blame him. I have a huge soft spot for the original, but will admit it does have flaws. The 1977 version is bloated and too goofy in certain spots. But perhaps, there is where the entertaining aspect came from. As I tried to accept the new version, I found myself at least appreciating it tried, but found myself hard to be engaged with it. Seeing it did get heavy praise from critics, is there something they missed or is there something wrong with me?

The plot for this new version takes the spine of the original and adds more meat to it. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is now a feral child that lost his family and seeks refuge with the green dragon. I give credit due to Fegley’s acting. His performance is going for a wild child take and it does work. But there was something problematic about it to me. For a kid that is lost in the woods for six years and goes “Tarzan,” chances are his vocabulary will either be limited or his speech will be underdeveloped. Having taken up psychology in college, I read up on cases where kids would be treated and lived like animals to the point they act like primitive; most notable is Victor of Aveyron. For if a child like Pete can’t understand what a balloon is or even the purpose of a sandwich, then why have him speak at all?

The reason for his survival is under the wing of a giant dragon he names Elliot. Much like the original, Elliot is big, green and the ability to turn invisible. What’s different this time around is that he’s all CGI and covered in fur. I guess someone had Falkor from NeverEnding Story in mind when designing him, but it goes against the idea of Elliot’s original design. Not only did Don Bluth animate the 1977 version, but he was also modeled after a Chinese dragon in respect for how good they are. There’s a sense of innocence and mischievous personality that feels lost in the new take. Despite the good efforts of WETA Digital, this new Elliot doesn’t have much personality and takes on the feel of a big dog. Again, I know the intent was to make this akin to being cute, but this Elliot was anything but interesting as the story expects us to know his relationship with Pete and not see it develop. I think it would have been wiser to see their relationship much like how Tarzan grew with the apes in 1984’s “Greystoke” instead of just expecting us to accept it.

The new incarnation is also treated to an array of new elements that are either there to distinguish itself or try and improve things. Gone is the fishing town Passamaquoddy, and we get an unnamed town with a logging industry. Bryce Dallas Howard replaces the character of the lighthouse keeper with a forest ranger that takes Pete in and tries to understand his survival. Robert Redford is underused as a man who claims to have seen the same dragon in comparison to the overzealous town drunk Mickey Rooney played. A scheming medicine doctor is replaced with a hunter (Karl Urban) that seeks to capture the dragon. And the list goes on.

As I watched this new version, I kept wondering just how these different elements work or even pay off in this version. Some of it does have a sense of good set up like a subtle environmental message which disappears once it gets introduced. Even character motives are lost in the group showing perhaps this version should have been thought out more. Once Urban’s character captures the dragon, he claims to have big plans when he honestly just spitballs a few ideas and claims to own the dragon. There is no real motive outside of just existing for the sake of being a conflict here. I even hoped there would be more purpose to things added in like the logging company playing a part or even Redford’s character. But most of is minimally used or gets abandoned upon first sight.

In a nutshell, “Pete’s Dragon” tries to be more like the typical fantasy family film without a drop of edge, but falls into an unfortunate trap. Instead of giving characters with interesting motives and despite doing different things, it falls into the category of boy or family gets a unique creature and does something with it. I can’t tell you how many variations I have seen of this story line ranging from “Harry and the Hendersons” to “*batteries not included” to even “D.A.R.Y.L.” It’s hard to tell if director Lowery’s intentions were to pay homage to these kind of movies, but I can say what sets itself apart from those is a lack of darkness. “Pete’s Dragon” plays itself so safe, that you can very much predict what will happen before the end credits roll. And even then, the samples I just mentioned are FAR more creditable than this one.

This one is certainly harder to recommend simply because it feels more like an outline for a “Pete’s Dragon” reboot and less like an actual fleshed out story. I found myself nearly nodding off at times due to the slow pace and had a hard time trying to keep focus for what was meant to be a simple story. I guess kids might be ok with this movie. And yet after the theatrical experience I had, my thoughts are starting to question that. Midway through the movie, a family actually walked out of the theater as wrapped in their arms was a sleeping kid. Even near the trash cans, a little girl was more fascinated with the garbage instead of the “wonder” on the screen. And she was gone right before the end credits even began. I argue that little kids might be bored or even grow tiresome about midway after how slow and plodding things are. If I walked out on this movie, I wouldn’t have regretted it. But my honest regret about this new “Pete’s Dragon” was not walking out on it.

New “Ghostbusters” underwhelms with unfunny humor and dull spirits

ghostbusters2016Prior to seeing Paul Feig’s new film, I read an article from the daughter of Harold Ramis. I enjoyed with delight seeing Violet share moments with her father and how much she appreciated the cult phenomenon he created. There were two parts in that piece that got my attention. One where she goes on to say how disappointing it was to see her dad’s likeness not used for “The Real Ghostbusters” cartoon. To which Harold replied, “It’s fine. …The cartoon is its own thing.The same way you used to ask if the fans knew I wasn’t really Egon? Well, I’m not. It’s a character. There was a different Superman when I was a kid. Things change. ”

The second part that got my attention was near the end when she mentions the backlash of the new Ghostbusters movie with the principal characters gender swapped. At first she was mad, until the negativity came in. In a response, Violet pleaded to stop using the death of her father as a reason to hate the movie. To which I agree. Because a creator is gone and unable to make his vision, doesn’t give reason to use it as a purpose to hate another’s interpretation. Consider this a public service that just because someone decides to make their version, doesn’t mean it must be shunned. Call this contradicting considering my thoughts of the movie to come later, but if you don’t want to see or bother with this movie, then don’t. But when you criticize and claim you saw something before you have seen it, doesn’t give it the satisfaction it deserves. And while I admit this is not a good movie, its not one to really hate over. Because right now, right across from the laptop I am typing at are two copies of the first movie. One on Blu-ray and the other on DVD. They are on my shelf unharmed and untouched. And even if this new movie tries to erase the continuity of the original, it still exists in the minds of those who love it. Now that I am off my soapbox, let’s break into this.

Even as I type this, I feel really bad for saying that I didn’t find myself enjoying Paul Feig’s take. And personally, there’s a lot of factors to blame here. I could point my finger at Sony for how they tried to make another franchise after losing Spider-Man to Marvel Studios. Its quite clear in the advertising and marketing that they want this to be a big thing. But the problem is that the original 1984 film wasn’t destined to be a huge cultural hit. There was no planned franchise at the time. It was like lightening in a bottle. Once it comes it, it makes a strike on the big screen that can’t be duplicated. They sure tried here, but it falls pale in comparison. Even on its own, I can’t help but pick apart certain plot points and things that really bugged me which I talk about later in.

Another problem I could say is the casting, but even that’s not it. These are all really funny and talented people. I’ve seen Melissa McCarthy in movies like The Heat and she can be really funny. Even thought I wasn’t a fan of Bridesmaids, I admit she was the funniest thing in that movie from her twisted attitude and loud personality. But even here, I felt like she was struggling a bit considering the PG-13 tone this movie is mean to have and the relationships with the characters. The only break out was Kate McKinnon who had this mad scientist personality which was delightful to watch. Kate felt way more animated and seemed like she having way more fun. When Kristen Wigg and Melissa are together, there is more banter than playing off each other. Almost like arguing and that’s in part to what the characters do to each other early on. Nothing said to me, “oh, these two are close friends and I can see them getting along.” The performances were sort of dull and not very interesting. To which I personally blame more the script as opposed to the effort going into it.

The big take away is that the cast and crew really wanted to make a good movie, but it feels like they knew nothing worked because how weak the story was. Basically, it does feel like a rehash of the first movie with similar beats. There are differences here and there to keep it far apart from the original, but nothing stands out. For example, in the first movie, the original crew captures their first ghost and immediately they find the business they created booming greatly. Instead here, once they capture their first ghost, our heroines  get an immediate scolding for no reason. We want to root for these underdogs and see them succeed. That’s what made the first film work, because you felt success was on their side. In this new film, reality intervenes and prevents you from enjoying their success. Now they are being told to keep this supernatural stuff under warps and avoid public panic, when clearly its not even sending a panic. That never made any sense to me.

Another thing that bothered me was the constant use of negative male stereotypes. When watching this new take, I barley remember a point when I recall a male character that actually did some good justice for the girls. In a way, I felt more sorry for them to be surrounded by a cavalcade of jerks, morons and (without giving too much away) delirious fanboys. A prime example is Chris Hemsworth who joins in as their secretary and all he does is just act dumb to them. He doesn’t provide any help and just goes about like a buffoon.  It kept aggravating me because I felt like some better use could have been made out of this character and it didn’t. It was a one note joke that went on for way too long.

Without giving too much away, the villain is certainly the most weakest part of the movie. Neil Casey plays this creepy janitor that plans to bring an end to the world and they try to make it fit into this whole message about bullying. But it doesn’t feel blended in right. I feel its due to how there is no justification for the Ghostbusters crew and how unfairly they get treated. All Neil’s character does is go about and try to motivate the plot, but his moments are so little they could have been cut and replaced with something different. The motivation is not big enough to care for as he mucks his way to the big finale which tries way too hard to please.

The finale in particular tries to be overblown with much effects and spooks, but it goes on for too long. Its like they throw one thing after another just to please viewers of old and new with new monsters and appearances by old faces. However, there is no build up to this big climax. Ghosts come out and start to tear up New York like a giant cookie. Even the choice in ghost designs are uninteresting. In the original, they had these abstract and deformed designs that looked other worldly. In the new version, they feel like floating pedestrians crossed with rejected designs from The Haunted Mansion ride.

This new movie really tries to win fans of the old with Easter eggs and even cameos from characters who were in the original film. But it tries way too hard. Its trapped between trying to do something new for a different generation and appease fans of the old. And a good example are these cameos by the stars from the first film. Some I did find a little cute like Annie Potts and maybe Ernie Hudson. But others suffer either from feeling forced or going against what their original characters represented. One in particular plays this scientists that tries to debunk the girls, but the person who plays him doesn’t fit it. It completely goes against what the original role intended from the first film for someone who believes in paranormal activity.

I’m certain this movie might have it fans and I know really well, this will be an easy movie to hate on. But at the end of day, all these cast and crew members wanted to do was make a good movie. However, a troubled script can’t save the day. I feel really bad for not liking this because I wanted to give this new incarnation a chance. I wanted to walk out of the theater and admit I was wrong about the whole affair. Sadly, that is not that day. Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” is so flawed that I found myself being emotionally taken out of the movie a lot. I wanted to accept what was on screen, but nothing clicked. The jokes were unfunny, the effects were not memorable and the overall experience was just dull and boring. I literally sat there in my seat trying to find a good joke throughout the whole affair. In the end, I only laughed three times. So far, this has been a dull crop of summer blockbusters and I keep hoping something will come along to break the dullness. To which I am sad to say “Ghostbusters” didn’t answer the call very well here.

 

P. S. If you are curious about Violet Ramis’ article, click the link below. I really recommend it. It helped me out.

http://splitsider.com/2016/07/on-my-dad-harold-ramis-and-passing-the-ghostbusters-torch-to-a-new-generation-of-fans/

“Jungle Book” marvels with effects and fun

MV5BMTc3NTUzNTI4MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjU0NjU5NzE@._V1_SX640_SY720_The expectations for Jon Favreau’s live-action take of “The Jungle Book” were relatively low. Within the past weeks, I found myself researching and watching as many adaptations under the sun ranging from the 1942 classic with Sabu to Disney’s attempts with the famed 1967 animated classic along with its subsequent live-action take courtesy of Stephen Sommers. At this time, I’m welcome to variety. If a play we know can be re-performed many times with different actors, why not a movie? That’s because there is only one version of that certain take we either grow up on or enjoy. And after seeing the Jungle Book be formed into things like a “Ten Commandments”-style sweeping epic to an Indiana Jones/Tarzan adventure, I’m actually more thankful to see another version take center stage.

Let me get the obvious out of the way. I expected there to be digital effects, but surprised to see how much care was taken to make an actual environment out of it. Truly we are in the day when we can digitally craft a rain-forest from a green screen set. And sadly, it looks convincing. All the while, I felt like I was looking at a full-living and breathing jungle. From watering holes to ancient ruins, it has become apparent that the will to make authentic sets out of a computer and studio space has improved greater than James Cameron’s “Avatar”.

videothumbnail_thejunglebook2016_disney_eb5a3208The upgrades to the characters are a nice welcome. We get more of Mogawii’s wolf family and see how much the pack means to them. There’s even a bigger motive behind why Shere Khan (voiced menacingly by Idris Elba) wants to kill the man-cub other than seeing him as a midnight snack. The reason for this tiger’s means of revenge is simple but does hold weight. It almost reminded me of when Don Ciccio wanted to go after little Vito in “Godfather Part II.” When the threat is young, the villain wants to ax him off when he has the right chance.

The source of the material being used is what nearly bugs me. What we get is a hybrid  of things ranging from the 1967 animated film being the source. However, they were kind enough to add more material from the Kipling novel. Instead of a weightless adventure, we are treated to a poetic coming of age story while looking at the light and dark views of life. Baloo (voiced hilariously by Bill Murray) envisions a carefree lifestyle while others seek to take control and order like Shere Khan or King Louie. The plot element of “man’s red flower” is given a bigger character here. Instead of a random deus ex machina as in the 1967 version, this version gives more breathing room to see how dangerous this thing can be.

jungle-book-2016-posters-mowgli-balooBut, wait you cry! What about the story and performances? Weren’t those the most important thing? Well, notice how I tossed around “1967 version” and “some of Kipling’s text” previously. The plot is basically from the original animated tale with Bagheera trying to convince the little man-cub to return to the village. But instead of neglect, it seems the journey keeps getting interrupted by creatures that want to devour Mogawii or use them for their own measures. I actually think this improves over the other take where the two-dimensional Mogawii from the cartoon was more stubborn and keeps wanting to stay. There is a bigger threat at play in this version as the more Mogwaii stays, the more dangerous things become.

Speaking of which, Neel Sethi is a surprisingly good choice for the little man-cub. Not only is he in-tune with nature, but also innovative. There are times when he uses the means of the jungle for simple tasks almost like a mini-MacGyver. Its a welcome character trait that shows he is clever and intelligent. When it comes to obtaining something like a honey comb, we see how the wheels turn in his head while gathering tools from the world around him. It’s almost like Mogawii sees the jungle as his own resource and not of destruction.

THE JUNGLE BOOK

The other choices in casting is good too. Bill Murray gives a memorable performance as everyone’s favorite jungle bum, Ben Kinglsey presents a powerful voice to the wise panther, Scarlett Johansson is bone-chilling as Kaa and Idris Elba blew me away owning the role of Shere Khan. The only performance I’m a little iffy on is Christopher Walken as King Louie, an extinct ape that acts like he runs a mafia business. Walken does give a fun performance but it just feels weird seeing his likeness on a monkey.

I guess the final thing to ask is did we really need this version in the first place? Well, at times I did get a vibe where it was trying to pay homage to the 1967 animated classic as the opening logo felt designed much like that version and the movie does end with a book-ending shot (literally) of the same book from the animated version. One can argue it could be a remake of the Disney classic, but there were times when I felt like the improvements did work better than the original. And don’t worry, its still there. As long as you have a copy of the old version on DVD or VHS, it won’t fade away. I can’t say this was a necessary version that demanded to be done. However, I’m surprised to say it was a great improvement.

It can be nice to have another variation of a famed classic as long as it gets done right. In the case of Jon Faveau’s version, it’s a welcome entry. Though, I will admit some things do get glanced over like Kaa’s appearance and some character relationships. But for something that has the charm of the 1967 classic and the beautiful cinematography of the 1942 version, this is one jungle I will visit just as much as the original. On a side note, mothers be warned. Some scenes might be too intense for younger viewers considering this is a much darker take as some animals get killed while others come out of battle with minor injury. I’d say kids 5 and up might be fine but anyone younger are better off with the Disney cartoon. At least when they are older, they will be able to accept the darker version a little better. Hell, it worked for me with the Stephen Sommers version.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: House of Wax (1953)

Horror-wood

 

Not the first but THE movie to but 3D on the map

Not the first but THE movie to but 3D on the map

Vincent Price is a not just a big name but an iconic staple of horror movies. There’s something about him that is interesting yet memorable. The sly and ghoulish yet humorous tone in his voice and the way he acts sinister while a noble gentleman at the same time. There’s just no justice I can do to explain how great he is. But would you believe that he was nearly blacklisted at one point. Truth be told, the McCarthy era was not a good time as many writers, directors and even actors were questioned to see if they were communists. Thankfully, Vincent was safe but he had two options. Either take part in a play or go back into some film work but nothing too major. Well, the play in question got great reviews but if it wasn’t for him, House of Wax wouldn’t be what it is today.

Now in order to understand the plot, I might have to go into some deeper details and it might result in some major spoilers. So I’ll try to maintain the bigger ones but just saying, read with caution. Set in 1890s New York, Vincent Price plays a wax sculptor named Henry Jarrod who is very talented and deeply invested in bring historical figures to live with his own two hands. And you can’t blame him seeing how much detail and spectacle is placed into each one. Unfortunately, his business partner played by Roy Roberts is not pleased with the mere measly earnings from Jarrod’s wax museum and sets it on fire to get the insurance money.

Jarrod (Vincent Price) watches in horror as his work goes up in smoke. One of the best scenes in House of Wax

Jarrod (Vincent Price) watches in horror as his work goes up in smoke. One of the best scenes in House of Wax

Jarrod somehow survives with his hands burned and attempts to recreate his lost work with a new wax museum. However, unlike focusing on the craft and beauty, this particular museum is more shock and less awe with crimes and murder of the past and present. From the guillotine to the first man to sit in the electric chair, he pertains to public taste and less art. I guess I should also mention Charles Bronson plays his mute assistant named Igor that does the sculpting. Its interesting to see a gunslinger be a lackey to a prince of horror films. Meanwhile, a disfigured man goes around and starts killing people one by one. His first victim is Jarrod’s business partner who gets strangled and then hanged from an elevator shaft. The first kill along is very eerie and well shot. There’s question to who this mysterious killer truly is but nothing is explained until the very end.

I probably should address that House of Wax has one major flaw. The opening scene is so well done that it really feels like the climax. As Jarrod’s wax museum goes up in flames, we see one figure burn after another and it becomes exciting, intense and unnerving at the same time. And to top it off, a fight between Jarrod and his business partner that really raises the stakes. It so tight and well shot that everything else after that feels laid back. The climax is nail-biting as well but the middle portion feels very laid back and quiet. But personally, that is a good thing. You start with a bang and then end it with something on the edge of your seat. Its a nice idea but I wish there something big in the middle to bring up the pace a bit. Also with the death of his business partner, it feels the film should already be satisfied seeing it was the only kill that served justice. But unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.

The Wax Museum from the 1933 movie which is available on the same DVD as House of Wax

The Wax Museum from the 1933 movie which is available on the same DVD as House of Wax

I should probably bring up that this film is actually a remake of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum which was more noir and comical while less horror based. I took the opportunity to view both versions and while Wax Museum was good too, I felt House of Wax had more improvements. Wax Museum does explain a few plot holes like how the new wax museum was able to be re-built but it also feels lacking in spots. Its set in 1933 (with the exception of a prologue set in 1921 London) and has a very metropolis feel to it in the shape of the buildings and how twisted and bent the wax figure workshop looks. But the biggest thing that keeps more coming back to House of Wax and not Wax Museum is the wax sculptor himself. Lionel Atwill plays the sculptor Ivan Igor with a more tense and angry feel. You really don’t have much sympathy with him and easily you have a certain dislike toward his attitude.

Vincent Price’s take is given more time to build sympathy even though we know he is that crazy. That was the magic of his acting. He knew how to make villainous characters but the kind you want to love. You really do feel sorry for him but at the same time, a bit disturbed about his intentions. But still, Vincent always knew when to put in his effort and loved every minute of it. While Wax Museum relied on certain characters for comic relief, Vincent provides the laughs dropping a comment line that is darkly funny and subtle at the same time.

The famous paddleball scene. This looked more better in 3D

The famous paddleball scene. This looked more better in 3D

I also have to give props to director André de Toth for making this movie. House of Wax has a grand yet simple comic-book tone to it that feels like a living EC comic right down to the cinematography and great use of sets. The foggy New York streets are eerie while the wax museum in the second half of the movie looks fascinating as it does when it needs to look menacing. I should also address this film is best remembered for being filmed and screened in polarized 3-D and at times, you can tell when its doing its tricks like a paddle ball to the viewer or close-ups of the killer. But even without the 3-D, it still looks like a well-shot movie. Director André de Toth was unfortunately blind in one eye and couldn’t see the 3-D. So when everyone was seeing the dailies and marveling at how great the 3-D effect looked, André was left feeling puzzled over why it would get THAT great of a reception.

While I can’t say House of Wax is a dead on masterpiece, I do stress that this is a really good movie. 3-D or 2-D, the eye-popping effect is in the production, Vincent Price and the overall film in general. It has a tongue-in-cheek approach that is neither too self aware of itself or even too cheesy. Its a perfect blend that balances out the comic-book horror tone that would later be used for other films like Army of Darkness or Creepshow. To best describe the effect this movie had on viewers back then and today, let me refer to a humorous story. Vincent Price was seeing a screening of the movie when he just happened to be behind two teenagers who were jumping and dodging from the horrors that were popping out of the screen. When the movie was over and the lights went up, Vincent leaned in-between their faces and asked ghoulishly, “Did you two enjoy my movie?” Their response was something he would never forget. The two teens could do nothing but scream of fright.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: The Wolf Man (1941)

Horror-wood

 

Even a man who is pure in heart

and says his prayers by night

may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

and the autumn moon is bright….

A classic battle between man and monster

A classic battle between man and monster

This poem is the center of Universal’s The Wolf Man that adds on to the supernatural and superstitious feel. If Dracula questioned the existence of the unknown and Frankenstein had us venture into it, The Wolf Man is more of a reflection of superstition and beliefs which I feel is a big part of this one. The story centers around Larry Talbort (Lon Chaney Jr.) who returns to his home in Wales to spend some quality time with his estranged father. The first half is developed really well as we get an idea of who Larry is. A common everyday man that isn’t too concerned about basic fear of something silly like a villager’s poem or black magic. He just views it as a common fear that keeps everyone at bay. Its long till he gets attacked by a wolf but gets injured in the struggle. Even after killing the beast, he starts to become aware that perhaps the things others fear the most is not that far from being real as he finds out the wolf that bit him was a werewolf and soon enough, he too becomes one.

The selling point of this movie is not Jack Pierce’s make up or even the eerie atmosphere. This time its the character of Larry Talbort and Lon Chaney Jr’s performance. Lon really makes you feel sympathetic off the bat. He is visiting his father after hearing his brother died, he wants to have a relationship with his dad that he probably hasn’t seen in years and on top of that he starts to get romantically involved with an antique shop owner who just happens to be one of his next victims later in the movie. You can feel the struggle between man and beast here and really wish he gets a happy ending. Lon Chaney Jr. does a great job emoting that fear we all have of the creature inside us and how we wish the horrors and fears we hear about weren’t real. This is what sets Wolf Man apart from the other Universal Monsters. Sure we sympathize with the Frankenstein monster for how it wants to be loved and accepted. Here, we feel sorry because its a man trying to avoid becoming a monster even if he is good of heart. I’d say that is much more scarier in comparison.

The rest of the movie holds up really well. There’s a certain charm and eerie feeling with the forest sets even if they do look studio shot and full of fake fog. Something about it really adds on to the chill. Maria Ouspenskaya plays a gypsy fortuneteller who comes off as both sincere and frightening. She knows what Larry is going through and can only express sympathy while

Lon Chaney Jr and Evelyn Ankers hope the noise they hear is just in their head...

Lon Chaney Jr and Evelyn Ankers hope the noise they hear is just in their head…

seeing him being tortured. This would start the long running cliche of the resourceful old woman that knows all and sees all. But here, its used well enough to bring light to what a werewolf is and the modern mythos. In fact, its strange this wasn’t the first movie about werewolf-ism seeing Universal tried it before with Werewolf of London where a botanist tries to find a rare flower to cure his inner monster. However, what differs is that Werewolf of London was more of a Jekyll and Hide stylized story than rather one close to humble tradition. While the Wolf Man itself doesn’t run about on all fours, it does get the beastly personality nailed. The sniveling snarl, the clutching claws and the way he looks about the place like a territorial dog is sure enough to increase some intensity.

While the Wolf Man is well shot and has great performances, there’s a few nitpicks I do have with it. The make-up job is impressive (after all, it is Jack Pierce) but some reason the nose reminds me a bit more of a pig design and less canine. Again, there are some wolfish features in the fangs and hair but I find it weird that the only thing I seem to be bothered by is the design in the nose but its minor. For those hoping for a full transformation scene might be disappointed. There is a bit where we see his legs transform through a series of fades and a bit in the final ten minutes when we see Larry go from wolf to human. The later incarnations would feature the infamous cross-dissolve transformation while this one doesn’t as much.

But overall, its a classic struggle between man and monster this is truly iconic. I can’t think of any really problems I had with it other than the mentioned. Its rich in atmosphere and has a plot that neither drags or feels too fast. Its just one of those movies you can sit back during lunch and just really get into easily. I should address that The Wolf Man never had a direct sequel or even a franchise and probably that is for the best. It ends on a spot so tight that is no way it can be open to continue the story. You could probably count Frankenstein meets The Wolf Man as it does have some continuity in the first half but I wouldn’t count it seeing it does crossover with the Frankenstein saga. But as it stands, its a good movie hands down.

Is it really that bad as everyone makes it out to be?

Is it really that bad as everyone makes it out to be?

Now I am aware that there is a remake that was done back in 2010. I wanted to somehow talk about this one but I never had the full advantage to really sit down and revisit it in time. I won’t go too in-depth about my thoughts on it seeing I might review it next year. So this is just from what I can remember and some vivid memory. Its my current opinion but it might change.In the early times of the 2000’s, there were talks and plans to bring back the Universal Monsters in different ways. This was done before with The Mummy and Van Helsing but didn’t seem to take off that big despite being box-office hits. The Wolfman remake would prove to be a bigger challenge as it somehow went from one writer to the next, one director after another, one reshoot here and there and sure enough the result didn’t come off as successful as the studio hoped. It failed to bring back its budget and was savagely labeled by critics as being mediocre or poor. Even the president of Universal Studios went as far to say it was “one of the worst movies we ever made.”

While I understand The Wolfman had problems, I wouldn’t go as far to say its that bad. I remember enjoying it when I first saw it in theaters thought the idea it was being screened on actual film might have had something to do with it giving a nice grindhouse feel with small scratches and cigarette burns. I just think with the hampered and troubled production that more was focused on the chaos being produced and less on how the final product came. Personally, I think it gets too much of a bad rep and overall feel its a decent movie. It was directed by Joe Johnston who is well known for making action/adventure comic book stylized movies like Captain America, The Rocketeer, Jumanji and many more. I fell Joe’s direction lends better to the action scenes when the Wolfman is on the loose in the city or fighting another creature. He knows the beats to a fight and how to bring on a good adrenaline rush. That is when the movie is stronger to me. But when it tries to add some character development, it starts to get rocky as certain motives are made unclear like the town’s hate for the Talbots or even Larry’s feelings toward his own folks..

This wolf may have bite but it lacks....bark?

This wolf may have bite but it lacks….bark?

Speaking of which, Benicio del Toro does a good job playing a menacing Larry Talbort but what is missing is the sympathy. I can easily see him being a villainous version of the Wolfman if the direction was in the right place with it. When he’s trying to be sympathetic, it doesn’t come off as convincing. We want him as the wolf more than the human as we don’t see much torture at play with his character. Anthony Hopkins is a delight as his father because its Anthony Hopkins. No matter what he will be, Hopkins always his this crazy charm in his performance that is hard not to like. The make up effects by Rick Baker is a notable highlight seeing he was a big fan of the original Wolf Man and its clear his design was meant to pay homage to Jack Pierce’s original look. Its a shame he wasn’t able to do a practical version of the transformation scenes much like what he did for An American Werewolf In London but at least the Oscar he got for this film and it shouldn’t go unnoticed.

The Blu Ray and DVD offer an extended version that is surprisingly better than the theatrical cut. I actually recommend checking this version out as it adds pace to the movie and even adds some character depth that was missing. The most notable is a cameo by Max Von Sydow who meets with Lawrence earlier in the movie and explores most of the questionable supernatural elements that relfects the message of the original on questioning superstitious beliefs. There’s also a lot more violence and more time is spent knowing who the Talbots are before the first transformation. In short, this cut is a better movie which fixes some problems but it still doesn’t trump the lasting power the original had. While I still think the remake is a decent flick and I do recommend checking it out, there is only one Wolf Man and his name is Lon Chaney Jr.