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Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: The Mummy (2017)

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mummy posterHonestly, there is no reason this movie should be given a spotlight on this blog-a-thon. However, it does tie into the theme of “cult classics” (somehow) and the Universal Studio Monsters franchise is normally watched around Halloween. On top of that, I’m certain EVERYONE had something to say about this dusty turkey. And yet, if I had to toss my two cents in, The Mummy is without a doubt, on my roster, for being the worst movie of 2017.

Let’s back up a little and talk about some history. Universal Studios has been desperate in every way to try and bring new life to their horror themed franchise. Back in the 1930s, movies about Dracula, Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera and many others are what put the studio on the map.  These are iconic pictures that leave a lasting impact upon the public, regardless if one doesn’t like black and white features. There is a glowing haunting impact that is still left from the ideas and building atmosphere.

Universal Studios has been toying with their creature features for a long time. I can’t tell you how many times they tried to get a Creature from the Black Lagoon remake off the ground. Even John Carpenter nearly got the chance to helm it; that is if a certain Invisible Man movie with Chevy Chase didn’t bomb at the box-office. Bottom line, this studio has been trying. They tried a new Wolfman in 2010, it didn’t do very well. They tried to give Dracula an origin story, it did moderately well, yet critics put a stake right into it.

Now, the new plan was to reboot everything and create a shared universe along the lines of Marvel Studios. Not a bad idea, but there is one crucial problem. In order to achieve it, you need to introduce your monsters individual first. Give Marvel some credit, it took time and effort to establish who their superheros were and why are they all connected. It made the debut of The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble in International waters) the more satisfying seeing characters we already saw. The concept of a shared universe seemed not needed when you consider there already exists a movie with all the monsters meeting (more on that later in the month).

Come the summer of 2017, a string of sequels and reboots that never seemed to catch on with some exceptions. Arriving to the big screen is The Mummy, a movie Universal Studios is confident will be a huge hit and ignite a massive interest in making a shared universe. And let me tell you, for a movie called The Mummy, it’s sad to see it plays out more like a 2 hour trailer for a franchise as opposed to a standalone feature.

the-mummy3Every problem can be summed up in the opening. First, there is a 30-second flashback to Medieval Times were knights hide a powerful ruby. Cut to modern times where a group of FBI-like agents find a tomb carrying said ruby. Then, it flashes back to show the origin of the mummy and how she came to be. What should be a simple introduction is really a massive exposition dump. There is too much being addressed and it doesn’t know what information is crucial to the narrative. It literally throws everything at you and expects a sense of understanding.

So, now your probably asking how is the rest of the movie? Well, here’s a hint. Notice how the focus of this article is about Universal’s choice to make a franchise. When you boil down to it, there isn’t much of a movie, or a story, to discuss. Tom Cruise is a treasure raider who finds a mummy, mummy curses him in a weird set up that sounds stolen from Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, Russell Crowe shows up as Dr. Jekyll to talk about a set of agents who prevent monsters from going loose and that’s it.

the-mummy-russell-crowe-dr-jekyllEverything I summed up in that small paragraph is all you need to know. Sure there are things I didn’t talk about like the performances, a subplot involving a dead friend that is taken from An American Werewolf In London, the complex origins of the mummy that make no sense, the rampage on London near the end and the obvious tie-ins to “future entries.” Honestly, who cares? If Mummy just stuck to one story line, it would have been fine. Instead, it feels like different scripts were bunch into one and then hacked down with a chainsaw. All we get is a set of shreds that don’t add up. Stuff happens, but there is rarely any connection.

I tried to think of anything positive about this movie and I could only come up with two things. Tom Cruise plays the lead and, regardless of ego, he tries to be entertaining. His performance goes for a very goofy-action hero tone that matches Brendan Fraser, but it feels weird knowing he’s more equipped when it comes to spy movies. And for what little we see of Sofia Boutella, she tries to bring a sense of menace to her take of the mummy. Under all the poor CGI effects they paint over her face, she is really trying to stand out. Unfortunately, her presence is literally buried under Cruise’s rampant ego and “too many cooks” trying to steer this popcorn flick.

la-et-film-title-the-mummy-20161205I really can’t even do much justice to recommend this train wreck. Your better off seeing the original 1932 Mummy with Boris Karloff. That one was more scary in atmosphere and selling the concept of reincarnation. Why can’t we have a movie like that anymore? A horror film that sells on scaring you with atmospheric tone and concept as opposed to jump scares. I’m certain there are some out there, but I can only imagine how few there are. This movie is pure proof that certain executives can’t keep up with the times on what audiences want. A lesson that is learned again and again as time goes on. Just when Hollywood thinks they know what people want, they come out with a movie too late once that previous obsession has died down. We are pass the bar of shared universes. Some can work, but this one doesn’t.

Avoid at all costs.

 

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Munster, Go Home!

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Welcome to a fresh new year with your personal Halloween movie guide! This year, we intend to look at some cult favorites that span from the odd, bizarre and trashy. And what better place to start, but with a childhood favorite…

munster-go-home-1966-519-800x1200The Munsters is a television show I grew up with. The concept about a bunch of monsters living as the ideal mundane family is nothing too new, but leads to some funny ideas. It’s ironic to note this series aired concurrently the same time as The Addams Family and how the two differed in their comedic styles. While Addams Family was to the witty word play of the Marx Brothers, the Munsters were more grounded in Stooges slapstick. With a continuing fan base, you would think a big-budgeted movie adaptation would happen at some point today. Surprisingly enough, there was one theatrical feature which arrived not too long after the show’s end.

Munster, Go Home! is the closest thing to a perfect representation of the TV series in every way. 90% of the original cast reprise their roles (which the exception of Debbie Watson filling for Marilyn), four of the writers from the show created the script and the feature tries to stick close to the original goofy spirit of the series. When creating a big screen adaptation, you have the option to stick close to the source and repeat certain things or go drastic and move in new direction. Munster, Go Home! tries to go beyond the limits of it’s charming black and white sitcom, but at times plays itself a little too safe.

munster-go-home-5-600x323The plot is so easy to follow that you don’t need to be a fortunate teller to figure out the “twists.” The Munsters inherit an English manor overseas and decide to live there once the patriarch Herman is given the title “Lord.” Already, this setup sounds ideal for an episode of the TV show, but it gives the chance for our characters to move out of the suburbs. We are treated to some scenes on their trip to England accompanied with Herman getting sea sick, their son Eddie getting adjusted to the new crawl space he sleeps in and Grandpa facing a dilemma after he transforms into a wolf by accident. This very much sets up the way things are paced in this movie. So much stuff is thrown in that it serves as more of a vignette instead of a narrative.

While that goes on, their inheritance starts to cause a riff with other greedy British cousins who are after the fortune and family title. As excepted, they scheme their way to reclaim the estate by any means necessary. This would be fine if it wasn’t for one problem; the British Munster relatives are normal people and not monsters. I know the series had a running gag with average citizens would view the Munsters as raging monsters, but this presents a missed opportunity. Why not have the British cousins be other monsters? It was customary in the series to have other ‘Munsters’ appear like the Wolfman and even, at one point, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It extends the joke to how the Munsters are related to the Universal Studio Monsters, which makes the “in-joke” more humorous to fans.

munster-go-home-2Still, for a trade up, the Cousins are played by English comedians  like Terry-Thomas (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the voice of Sir Hiss in Disney’s Robin Hood) and Hermione Gingold (1962’s The Music Man). They do a  good job being entertaining, but I don’t recall anything interesting about them. It’s funny to see their characters lament like a bunch of big kids over how they are loosing their fortune to a bunch of outsiders. But outside of their schemes and a money counterfeit plan, I can’t recall anything interesting happening with them. They are your average stock villains and nothing more.

On the bright side, the actors and actress reprising the Munster family have a lot of fun. You can tell they love the characters each one perform giving as much respect to which they portrayed in the TV series. Of course, these are characters that don’t have a complex narrative and are simply defined. You have the goofy father, the mother who acts like a referee, the grandfather with the zany solutions and the next of kin who are nice folks. Everyone works together and easily slips into their TV counterparts without much fault.

What holds the movie together is the Munsters and their ‘fish out of water’ comedy throughout. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The idea of a family made of monsters (Frankenstein monster is the father, the mother and grandfather are vampires, the son is a werewolf while the eldest daughter is the normal one) is a unique concept. To see this strange batch do mundane sitcom storytelling is what gave the show its charm. In the attempt of keeping the running time long, new material is scarce seeing almost every single joke and plot is recycled from the show.

Munster-Go-Home-1966-4However,  we do get to see the make-up job in Technicolor and newcomers, unaware of the series, will be able to adjust with the goofy tone. Die hard fans will be disappointed to notice a lot of recycled material from the show ranging from the Grandpa turning into a wolf, the English cousins dressing up as ghosts to scare the Munsters out (which was done in one episode with some thieves) and so forth. The only reused element I feel is welcomed revolves around a country side race wtih the Drag-u-la. A drag racing car shaped like a coffin that gets a lot of fast millage. This recycled element can be excused, because it was a famous trademark from the series. Everything else is very debatable for fans on the quality of “freshness.”

It should be noted a lot of the “recycling” was done, because this movie was made with only one soul purpose in mind; to sell the show to international audiences. This is something not entirely new. The Monty Python group did the same thing with And Now For Something Completely Different to gain American audience interest. Unfortunately, I don’t think this idea worked entirely. Munster, Go Home! wasn’t a smash hit at the domestic box office and it didn’t make much sense considering the Munsters series debuted a little after the film’s theatrical run. I don’t mind the idea of having a Munsters movie, but this was clearly done with the intention to sell for foreign audiences. Something clearly seen considering the use of famed English celebrities hired on to gain recognition.

Munster, Go Home! is not a bad movie, but it’s nothing special either. The correct term would have to be harmless. This is just harmless fun meant for entertainment and nothing else. I admit, there are moments between Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster) and Al Lewis (Grandpa)  that are funny and a running gag with Marilyn romancing a local is sort of cute. On the surface, this is an adaptation that probably would have worked better as a one-hour TV special or a standard episode of the series. It’s not terrible by any means and can serve as an introduction for those new to the show. Die hard fans might be disappointed to see this is a rerun of sorts stitched together and opt to have the entire series better recommended. Personally, I’d take this over the painfully unfunny Munsters’ Revenge (1981) and an adequate sequel series called The Munsters Today. I do feel the original 1960s series is superior in comparison, but it’s nice to see they tried something even if it didn’t work all the way.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Monster on the Campus

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Universal's Sci-Fi didn't go out on a high note...but a tolerable one

Universal’s Sci-Fi didn’t go out on a high note…but a tolerable one

During the 1950s run of B-movies at Universal Pictures, Jack Arnold was a very big name back then in science fiction. Well known for titles like The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tarantula, It Came from Outer Space and the famous Creature from the Black Lagoon, Jack could take any outlandish premise and just turn it into gold. Unlike today’s directors of pure crappy schlock, hew the concepts to his movies were not meant to be taken serious. And yet somehow he approached them like big budgeted A-list movies treating them with such care in story and believably. So its very fitting this film he directed would make the last time Universal would ever work on a science fiction monster film, at least till 1966. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Monster on the Campus is truly a step up from The Land Unknown because there is a lot of promise and imagination for such a simple story. Again, Jack Arnold could take any idea and make it pure entertainment. Not to mention the script was written by David Duncan who would be best remembered for his screenplay work on The Time Machine and Fantastic Voyage. These two talents are a true match made in heaven who know what kind of material they are deal with. And it was very coincidental for their sci-fi talents to cross here and bring something fun and entertaining to the table.

Arthur Franz with his catch of the day! As long as he doesn't throw it back, I think we'll be fine

Arthur Franz with his catch of the day! As long as he doesn’t throw it back, I think we’ll be fine

Arthur Franz is a college professor that acquires a frozen prehistoric fish for pure study. But as it turns out, the blood was infected with radiation as anything it comes into contact becomes de-evolved. This includes a dog that gets ridiculous saber tooth jaws, a giant dragonfly and our lead who turns into a Neanderthal monster with tons of hair. And very much the whole movie deals with him trying to understand the workings of the fish as the police try to investigate some small murders that might have a link with the campus teacher.

Right off the bat, we have no idea what to expect on first watch. The idea already feels like something taken from an EC Comic but obviously executed in less gory fashion. I do like the premise and how they play around with what happens when things like bugs or other animals get in contact with the fish’s blood. It leaves the door open for many possibilities even if we don’t see every creature get infected. Unfortunately, there are ground rules here as any creature that gets infected with the irradiated blood has the prehistoric effects for only a short time. But still, when we see a dragonfly become big as a falcon, we still believe. In fact, the special effects for the scene when the de-evolved dragonfly runs about the classroom are not half bad. Again, Jack Arnold always paid attention to detail even when the special effects get cheesy.

I've heard of fly fishing but this is ridiculous!

I’ve heard of fly fishing but this is ridiculous!

If there is one problem (nitpick) I do have with the movie, its a certain plot element. Apparently, the effects of the fish’s blood work for a short time. And after the effects wear off, the being returns to its civilized self. Yet the professor keeps claiming the monster within him won’t go away even when he’s already back to normal with the blood possibly out of his system. If he keeps whining about how he doesn’t want to be a killer creature, then why does he keep injecting himself with the irradiated blood? I know for one point its for study but there really isn’t too much of a inner struggle. If he just stopped altogether and starting having temptations, it would make sense. Then again, this movie is already a revamp of the Jekyll and Hyde story but even in that story, Jekyll wasn’t constantly taking the potion. If I remember correctly, the potion was so deeply embedded that Jekyll could transform without the use of the serum. I could be wrong but if the potion is the case, then why keep having it around when its poisonous to your moral ethnics.

The Monster is ready for his close-up, Mr. Arnold!

The Monster is ready for his close-up, Mr. Arnold!

Aside from that, the rest of the movie holds up fine. I can’t remember a performance that was terrible or a special effect that was too goofy to take seriously. The make-up job on the monster when the professor transforms is actually not bad. Sort of a primate version of the Wolf Man in a sense. Then again, some might be put off by the Jekyll and Hide parallels of the story while others might look at this with an open mind. I still say its harmless fun either way. While its not a grand outing (in fact, the ending very much just ends without a big finale), it was still nice to see some effort placed in. I can only imagine what it would have been like if Monster on the Campus was placed in different hands. It would have been cheaper and done in a very schlocky manner. But thanks to a good writer and a director that knows his footing, we get a movie that is not half bad and at least brings some entertainment that knows not to take itself too seriously. Overall, its a decent flick that’s worth checking out.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Dracula Untold

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Marvel Comic's Dracula...I mean the reboot that does something new....yeah, its that kind of movie

Marvel Comic’s Dracula…I mean the reboot that does something new….yeah, its that kind of movie

As I thought more about Dracula Untold, I kept thinking about how the well embedded Bram Stoker’s novel was into the public conscious. You think films would stay true to the source but there happens to be a small amount of Dracula adaptations that stay true to the original book. Even the 1931 Universal classic had its roots taken from a stage play giving a different take. But for all the different takes, each Dracula had one thing in common; they were scary. This variation we are looking at today is not meant to be horror based which is rather unfortunate. But hey, maybe there is something salvageable?

Luke Evans plays Vlad III Tepes, who looks nothing like Vlad the Imapler if you look at his portraits. As opposed to a long haired Romanian that looks like a Sultan, we get a young and innocent Prince with a couple of shirtless scenes to please the YA crowd. But hey, let’s give the movie a chance. And besides, Luke’s performance is not bad. He can be intimidating when he channels his vampire powers and presents his character as a tortured soul much more than the blood suckers in Twilight. True, he doesn’t care the menace that Lugosi or Christopher Lee left seeing they are playing this Drac to be more heroic. But hey, there’s over 100 Dracula movies out there so no worries.

The story to say the least is a creative mixed bag. I say that because there are some things I do like about it but some stuff that I feel iffy about. Apparently, Prince Vlad is under force by a Turk army to cough up 1,000 boys to be trained as soldiers in debt for some missing scouts. An Ottoman from the army thinks Vlad killed the scouts but its revealed that a nearby vampire in a cave took them as a midnight snack. Even more ironic seeing Vlad pays a visit to this vampire to ask for his powers to save his family and people before they are slaughtered by the Turks.

Luke Evans worries about the monster within him

Luke Evans worries about the monster within him

I like part of this idea despite it being a “Game of Thrones” variation. There is some interesting mythos to the Dracula story like his origin and the world itself is very grimy but appeasing to the eye. Again, this is not meant to diminish the original in any shape and does this new take. But unfortunately, there are some limits we have to accept when donning a new version of a story that has been told before again and again.

As stated, this new Dracula movie is not meant to shock or frighten. Instead, it has the pace of a Marvel comic book movie and this is where some of the problems begin to surface. Vlad is giving vampire powers for three days to help save his people. The catch is that he has to resist feasting on human blood or else doomed to be a vampire for eternity. A little fairy tale-ish but I can buy it. I am use to dark and brooding fairy tales like something along the lines of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. But where Henson’s Storyteller knew when to be adult and smart, Dracula Untold feels like something crafted from the mind of a teenager that just inhaled glitter up their nose. The powers Vlad gets from this transformation really seem odd. Who knew a vampire could get super strength, the ability to see warm blooded figures and super sonic hearing.

Does he turn into a bat? No but a whole flock of bats. Its insane. The idea of Dracula and his entire body (along with his clothing) turning into a small bat is understandable but a whole gang of flying rodents? That’s just nuts. I guess each bat is a part of him and in one scene we see Vlad control a huge array of bats to vanquish an army much like in 1999’s The Mummy when Imhotep controls a sandstorm. So yeah, this is very much a Marvel Comics version of Dracula. I can’t say it doesn’t have any creative liberties seeing it is doing creative stuff and clearly there is a lot of effort thrown at it. But at the end of the day, your just looking at a Dracula movie to cash in with the younger crowd who love brooding and tortured souls and superhuman people with problems like Thor or Captain America.

On the other hand, there are some drops of Stoker’s novel here and there but its far and few between. There is this Renfield style character but he only gets one small scene and doesn’t show up until the very end of the movie. The idea of someone assisting a young Vlad could have been interesting and does raise tension when we see him try and avoid biting another one’s neck. But with only so few moments tossed in, it makes the story feel rushed as it builds to the big climax between Vlad and the Turk army while wrapping everything in a matter of minutes than let the story flow naturally. It irks me when little scenes here and there could have been played to be big and plot moving when they really feel more like a small drop of water. There is a good moment when Vlad’s people realize the monster he is and try to destroy him. Its great scene that could lead to some interesting character depth with the citizens he gave a home to and where Vlad stands with his decision. But then we have to focus on this big battle next making everything before that a small road block that could have added something.

At least the effects are decent seen here with the make-up work on the vampire that transforms Vlad into a creature of the night

At least the effects are decent seen here with the make-up work on the vampire that transforms Vlad into a creature of the night

Supposedly, Dracula Untold is meant to be part of this reboot of the Universal Monster franchise and it does feel like it. The ending clearly sets up a possible shared universe much like what the films of Marvel Comics are doing which is not a bad idea. Why not have a movie with Dracula teaming up with the Wolf Man? Or have the Mummy try and play off the Frankenstein Monster? Would the Phantom of the Opera be there? And what about the Invisible Man? Does Gill-Man (Creature from the Black Lagoon) have a bad-ass appearance like he did in The Monster Squad? We will never know. But after hearing that these new movies would be more action-adventure and less horror, it has my eyebrows raising in caution. What made the originals work was the horror and the shock aspect. Trying to image say the Wolf Man being set up as something like Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk feels very double edged sword to me. Are these monsters now superheroes or just anti-heroes?

Perhaps this idea of a shared universe is not fully throughout that much. On the other hand, Dracula Untold is a the first start of this “reboot franchise.” And if this is how each movie will be planned to be, I’m curious but at the same time part of me is disappointed. I do like the new stuff in this movie even if it gets a little over the top and out there. And the performances are trying to make this a good movie overall. On the other hand, maybe I’m too hard. This is meant to be more dark fantasy with curses and knights. I don’t think this is a bad movie none the less but the recommendation is difficult. I say see it as a rental just for caution. But fans who are looking for this faithful retelling of the Dracula myth might be biased and disappointed. I once again stress this is not meant to be a horror movie in anyway but more of a comic book movie which is interesting but also unfortunate. I am glad to see there are different variations of the Dracula tale out there and keeping the vampire fresh in the public’s minds. But I’m positive this harmless flick won’t do much damage to those who love the bloodsucking favorite but I’m positive this outing won’t be as memorable either. Not 100% bad by any means but not good either. Then again, as they always say, it could have been a lot worse….

Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: The Mummy (1932)

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Boris Karloff showed off a lot of his body language in Frankenstein. Now, it was time to see what he could as an actor all together. Bela Lugosi was able to combine his hypnotic motion with his haunting delivery in Dracula and that’s what Karloff needed. Enter 1932’s The Mummy.

A much different mummy than you imaged...

A much different mummy than you imaged…

Universal Studios was hot off their heels with a vampire and a monster so now it was time to expand the monster library and see what they could do. Inspired by the opening of Titankhamun and the Curse of the Pharaohs, the story centers around an ancient priest named Imhotep (Karloff) that is discovered by an archaeological find. Unfortunately, someone happens to read an ancient life-giving scroll that brings the mummified being back from the dead.

You see, Imhotep was buried alive for attempting to resurrect a dead princess that he was forbiddingly in love with. The thought alone of that priest wrapped in bandages and squirming about in its tomb is just disturbing of an idea. Imhotep later masquerades as a normal Egyptian named Ardath Bey and interestingly enough he goes from a corpse to a human with some wrinkles. We can tell its the mummy from the way the face feels pressed by the bandages. Again, I have to give credit for Jack Pierce in the make-up. Seeing Karloff’s character go from wrapped in bandages to a normal human with some less elaborate appliances is interesting. I especially love the detail on the lips where we can see some bandage marks that give the impression that not all of him heals.

So the resurrected Imhotep plans to also brink back his lover by trying to find the reincarnated version which comes in the form of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) who also has a striking resemblance to his dead lover. I also like how the Mummy deals with the idea of reincarnation and ancestry. To think years ago, we were someone else or even a historical figure. It challenges the idea of how much frightening it can be to have a past life. Supposedly, this theme was pushed further in a flashback scene that was much longer. It would have gone from Egypt to Rome, the middle ages  and even in France. Its a shame it was trimmed down as it would have added onto the idea of how far we go as the life of a human being continues on. In the final cut, we see how Imhotep became a mummy and that’s that. But it still hits on the idea of how interesting it can be to trace your roots.

Karloff as the priest Imhotep. Notice how hypnotic his presence is as well as the bandaged marked face

Karloff as the priest Imhotep. Notice how hypnotic his presence is as well as the bandaged marked face

Aside from that, the center of this film is Boris Karloff’s performance. This time, he is given a role that is able to use his voice and show how powerful and commanding it can be. Much like Dracula, we are hypnotized by his voice and his body language. When we see a close-up of his eyes calling someone to do his bidding, we almost feel like we are being sucked into his power. Unlike Frankenstein where he is waving his arms and grunting, Karloff is giving more to do here and actually feels like a pure threat. His plan to resurrect the princess involves not just meeting the reincarnation but also converting her into a mummy as well. The idea alone is just disturbing to think about.

As always, the cast does a great job and the movie itself is at a slick and tight pace. I can’t think of much problems other than the mummy itself. Those who are expecting to see a living bandaged corpse going around are such to be disappointed. This is an entirely different film as its more centered on a love through the ages and how far one life can go. Its neither too slow or too fast. Its a perfect pace knowing when to set in the eerie atmosphere and when to be intense. This is another Universal Monster Classic that is just flawless in every way.

Now I suppose you want me to discuss the sequels but unfortunately, they feature a different mummy and they weren’t connected to the Karloff in any way. Instead, they were more or less reboots that had a B-movie quality to them which started the cliche of a slow moving killer. And of course the 1999 remake is more close with the rebooted sequels than the 1932 film. Arguably, it does center on Imhotep but its more in-line with the B-movie tone seeing how much action and adventure orientated they are. The original is far more different than you can imagine and I’m sure you too will be surprised by how much theoretically engaging it can be.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Frankenstein (1931) & Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

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With Dracula being a huge hit, Universal Studios decided to see if lightening could strike twice with another monster. As said before, Dracula was a big turning point for using the supernatural elements in a realistic light without using any “it was a dream” twist. Thus, they turned to another famous bit of literature written by Mary Shelley which also had its run in the silent era…

The second Monster Hit that turned the year!

The second Monster Hit that turned the year!

If Dracula was the start of Universal’s monster run, then Frankenstein perfected it. A lot of the technical issues with the famed vampire flick would be fixed and even push the boundaries of what dark fantasy was never brushed upon back then. Think about it for a moment. A movie in 1931 that examines the idea of reanimating a dead body and questioning the aspect of wither it would be done in the view of science or attempting to play God. This was very risky for Universal Studios back then to even take such a macabre subject and much like the doctor’s creation, it was set loose on the public and became a run-away hit.

Colin Clive plays Henry Frankenstein who plans on stitching together a batch of body parts in seeing if he can attempt the impossible; bring back life to something dead. You can feel the enthusiasm when he’s bringing his experiment to life and enjoy how much he relishes his success when he shouts “It’s alive!” upon seeing the cold hands twitch and move for the first time. There’s a sympathetic side to Henry as he doesn’t question the morale value of his experiment but more of how much lost he is into his work. He has a fiance on board and his friends deeply show concern for his obsession. But later on, you can see the humanity in him when he starts to wonder what good is to bring a creation to life and if its for the will of good or evil.

Colin Clive eagerly awaits his creation's life signs in a memorable scene

Colin Clive eagerly awaits his creation’s life signs in a memorable scene

Now, its here I should address how much the 1931 movie deviates from its novel. The original story by Mary Shelley had Frankenstein (first name Victor, not Henry) be repulsed by his creation causing the unfortunate being to wonder off into the world. The movie, on the other hand, does something different that I feel is better. Henry instead welcomes glory on his creature and is appreciated to see what he can do regardless of his appearance. It was a minor nitpick I had with the novel seeing it would make sense to be more pleased in your accomplishment than worry about how “ugly and hideous” your creation looks.

Speaking of which, Boris Karloff is a perfect for the Frankenstein monster. Supposedly, Bela Lugosi was intended to play the role but turned it down after a series of disastrous make-up tests. Some say he didn’t want to play the Monster because he would be unrecognizable under mounds of make-up but its up for discussion. Regardless, Karloff doesn’t just play the role but really sells it. He doesn’t have any lines outside of grunting but uses a great amount of body language that keeps us

Boris Karloff as the iconic Monster

Boris Karloff as the iconic Monster

feeling bad for the beast. With an abnormal brain installed, we are aware of what damage he can cause but can’t help ourselves to pity a being with an innocent view. He maybe a monster but sees things in a child-like perspective like when he meets a little girl and she tries to teach him about floating flower petals in the lake. Long story short, it ends in tragedy with the Monster thinking she too can float if a bunch of flowers can. Big mistake. I could go on and talk about how Karloff’s performance swings between an innocent kid to a murderous beast and how iconic it is but I think you get the idea.

Jack Pierce did the make-up work on the iconic look of the Monster. There was never a clear idea of what Mary Shelley intended with her take on the creature so obviously some liberties had to be taken. The flat-top head look is what mostly comes to mind when people like of the Frankenstein Monster. The look itself is such a wonder that its no question why this design is used today. The stitches on the face, the bolts on the neck and of course, the way the hands have a patchwork feel to them. Its a simple yet powerful take,

The other actors do a good job too with Dwight Frye performing a hunchback assistant named Fritz, Edward Van Sloan as Henry’s mentaor Dr. Waldman and Mae Clarke as Elizabeth who acts like the voice of reason. They all do a great performance because of how much they matter to the Frankenstein character. Henry is about as obsessed as ever trying to crack the mystery of life while his friends worry about how much has gone to his head. Even interesting is how Dwight’s Fritz is neither too crazy or too over-the-top. In Dracula, he really had to sell the insanity where else here his performance of Fritz comes off as a quirky character. There’s a moment where he does to answer the door and he stops for a moment to fix his sock. Its a brief but amusing moment considering how a ragged worker wants to be professional to company.

While Frankenstein isn’t a true adaptation of the source material, it does carry a lot of entertainment value and a grand use of set work to keep it enjoyable. I’m amazed to see how much effort went into so much on location shooting and stage work to bring the world to life. From the electronic look of the castle to the rickety and ancient presentation of the windmill at the climax, Frankenstein easily one ups Dracula in the visual department by using a broader use of special effects and scenery. Its not a chilling atmosphere like Dracula but more like an intense adrenaline rush from the creation scene to the very climax when the angry villagers hunt down the Monster.

The infamous scene where the Monster interacts with a little girl. The second half was deemed too uspetting and was cut. Thankfully, it has been restored and still considered a famous moment.

The infamous scene where the Monster interacts with a little girl. The second half was deemed too uspetting and was cut. Thankfully, it has been restored and still considered a famous moment.

Its no wonder why it caught on so fast with so much intense action and drama that wasn’t presented in talkies at the time. And of course, like most horror movies of the time, it was the subject of censorship during the Production Code of 1934. At the time, this movie was breaking new ground by questioning exactly how much can be seen or told. A graphic close-up of a syringe getting injected into the Monster was seen as too intense (even though it does explain how the Monster is stopped after killing Fritz) and shots of Fritz torturing the Monster were considered too frightening. But perhaps the most infamous of all is the scene with the little girl by the lake. When it was first released, certain states like Massachusetts and New York felt the second half of the scene was a bit too upsetting by having the Monster toss the little girl into the lake and having her drown upon thinking she can float. But this caused a problem seeing the father would carry her body in the town later on in the film suggesting a worse fate happened off-screen. I wonder what was the better decision here…

Another controversial edit was a line Frankenstein says after he sees his creation come to life by exclaiming, “In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”This was considered too blasphemous and thus the second portion of the line was edited out to include a thunder bolt to censor it. Thankfully, the following scenes where restored to home video but with the “God” line still edited. From what I could gather, the audio to the infamous line was supposedly missing from the master print until later an audio track with the unedited line was found.  Thankfully, it was restored to DVD along with the other scenes.

The sequel the stooped to conquer and also was a hit

The sequel the stooped to conquer and also was a hit

Considering the huge amount of success it brought, Universal knew they needed a sequel. However, it would take them four years as the film’s director James Whale felt there was nothing else they could do. But after the success of  his work on another Universal Monster hit The Invisible Man, producer Carl Laemmle, Jr felt he was the only one who could deliver such a film. The result was Bride of Frankenstein which James Whales said wouldn’t top the original but turn it into a memorable “hoot.” I honestly disagree seeing how much it easily trumps the original and pushes a lot more on not just the technical work but even elaborate more on the characters as well.

Colin Clive returns as Henry Frankenstein who only wishes to focus on having a normal life and moving away from his dabble in science. Unfortunately, he is roped back in by the demented Doctor Pretorius who hopes to have Henry at his aide to recreate his experiment from the first film. Pretorius goes further to even show a creation of his own by taking dead tissue and making life but in the form of little people in jars. It sounds like a crazy idea by Ernest Thesiger really sells the performance. He doesn’t waste a single frame acting out the mad side and plays off of Henry like a devil on the shoulder. The biggest highlight comes into play later when he is drinking wine in a catacomb with some bones and comes across the Frankenstein monster still alive. Instead of shunning him, he actually welcomes him in and has a drink with him. He doesn’t care about humanity but more about how twisted and dark it is.

Oh, did I forget to mention? The Monster is back, played by Boris Karloff but this time in a bigger role. While the first film was centered on Frankenstein, his Monster takes the spotlight as he wonders the streets in search of understanding. He does come across a blind hermit that teaches him the value of companionship and even the will to speak. This is very crucial as it gives Karloff the opportunity to give the Monster a voice and a personality. No

Karloff's make up in the Bride of Frankenstein that showed more compared to the original

Karloff’s make up in the Bride of Frankenstein that showed more compared to the original

longer is he an object to fear but really sympathize. One of the hardest scenes is when he gets captured by the villagers and is strung up onto a cross-like object with rope while getting pelted with rocks. This time, you really feel sorry for the Monster and see a soul and personality that was never before present. Also, extra kudos to Jack Pierce who returns to do the make-up and pays close attention to continuity here. In the last movie, the Monster is seen during a fire so Jack gives a “burn victim” look that is unique. We see head clamps that weren’t visible in the first film and even some burn marks. Interestingly enough, throughout the sequel we see the wounds and hair grow back as some form of progression. Its a clever idea.

Bride of Frankenstein follows the second half of the novel where the Creation roams the Earth and after much venture, seeks his creator to make a mate. This is the basis for the second half and if I were to give anything away would ruin any interest. I will not elaborate too much but when the “Bride” is made, we do get to see something interesting. Its one of the most iconic monsters that may have appeared for a short time but still gets easily recognized and is popular today. Ella Lanchester dons the role with a curious bird-like and hypnotic look. She too has the child-like acting that Karloff gave in the previous film but for different reasons. I’d go deeper into why but again, it would ruin the ending.

Even though it is a superior sequel, it still has some problems. Once in a while, some comic relief is tossed in that gets a good chuckle or a brief groan. A good example is Una O’Connor as the maid Minnie who really doesn’t layer anything subtle. When she sees the Monster for the first time, she goes haywire on the reaction. Its funny but at the same time irritating and over-the-top.  Even E. E. Clive as the Burgomaster gets a few eye roles. No wonder seeing both actors came from The Invisible Man and deliver the same performance. Dwight Frye also returns as as Pretorius’ assistant named Karl who is demented but feels off to the side at times and underused. Supposedly, his character was meant to have a bigger role with a subplot where he kills his uncle and blames the Monster for it. But I feel this was wisely cut as it doesn’t add too much to the movie seeing how complex it already plays out.

Henry and Dr. Pretorius await the reaction of the two "love birds" in this famous scene

Henry and Dr. Pretorius await the reaction of the two “love birds” in this famous scene

And its no surprise to see it was attacked with censorship; pre-production and post. A line where Pretorius compares the Bible to fairy tales was changed as a scene where the Monster sees a Jesus on a cross figure and tries to “rescue” him was never filmed under objection. Even the opening prologue with Ella Lanchester as Mary Shelley talking about her story was significantly trimmed down. Not because of the dialogue but because it showed a lot of close ups of her and her dress…and the censors rejected to how much of her “cleavage” was present. Talk about strict. Either way, the 15 minutes of cut scenes is considered lost to this day but thankfully the power of the film remains.

Much like the Monster, we too question how accepted we feel by another and strive for the company of another. We sympathize with the Monster much more for how he wants to be something and accepted. Behind that look beats the heart of someone that only wants society to love him like a son. Its this reason only I feel “Bride” is superior but both movies are highly recommended. Sure there was sequel after sequel but I feel the first two are more close together seeing how much gets wrapped up and continued.  Its almost like the Godfather movies of its time with Part I setting up the world of Frankenstein and Part II showing more of his creation. What more can I say but see these two for yourself and you’ll know why there will never be another Frankenstein as good as this.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Dracula (1931)

Horror-wood

 

Welcome at long last, to the first annual Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon. All of October, we are looking at many classic horror movies ranging from the 1930’s to even today. Its 31 days of horror classics and some cult classics on the side. Consider this a personal “Horror Movie Guide” for the perfect scary flick to view for the Halloween season. On the side, I’ll also toss in a film franchise or two and even look at a few remakes as well. So enough dwelling, lets get started with the one that started it all.

The one that started it all

The one that started it all

Almost everyone is aware of the original 1931 version of Dracula. Regardless if you have seen it or heard of it, this is the one that normally comes to mind when someone thinks of the Bram Stoker classic about a vampire set out in London to find a couple of fresh victims and falls in love at the same time. A basic story that has been adapted countless times but this is the one most people tend to remember the most. So the big question is why is that when we got the Hammer version and Coppola’s notorious take?

Directed by Todd Browning of countless and famed silent films, he brings a dark, eerie and grand scale to this take sets that feel like they are taken from an opera that complement the quiet yet chilling atmosphere. Even though they are in the first third, the sets of Dracula’s castle are very impressive even for a 1930’s film that it nearly undermines the rest of the film. For the rest of the movie, we spend time in the Harker household and nothing else on a grand scale as earlier with the exception of the climax.

Thus, if the visuals are not strong, what is? The answer of course is the acting. Bela Lugosi as Dracula is the film’s strongest asset here. Everyone very much is aware of how iconic this portrayal is. The thick Hungarian accent that feels welcoming but yet sinister. The way he moves in a ghost-like by balletic way. The commanding power in his eyes that makes you feel like your being hypnotized. This is what keeps this take on the Count from being swept under with the others. Bela is no stranger to the role as he has done the part of the Count before on a Broadway show and it shows. He knows every step in being charming while carrying a menace.

Bela Lugosi casts a spell on not just his victim but even the audience

Bela Lugosi casts a spell on not just his victim but even the audience

The other actors do a good job as well. Dwight Frye nearly one-ups Bela with his performance of Renfield, a servant of the Count who goes insane and is reduced from a business man to a man serving evil while being rewarded with insects. He goes beyond crazy with a manic expression, wide eyes and a laugh that is neither too over-the-top or soft to be creepy. Dwight is the total opposite of Lugosi who is calm and quiet as Dracula. The best remembered moment has to be his soliloquy about being offered to serve his “Master” with rats to dine on in return. The way he gets excited when he mentions the word “rats” really sends a chill imaging how hungry he is for rodent.

Edward Van Sloan’s take on Van Helsing is also notable in its own right. You can tell he knows so much about the occult and supernatural that he is prepared for what’s coming. You can tell from the way he studies the vampire guest that he knows all the myths and legends to prove just how more of a monster he is. This man is truly determined even the point of putting his life on the line in a famous scene where he comes face to face with the villainous Count but yet the Transylvanian is defeated with a simple cross.

The only negative I can think of it is the depiction of Mina and John Harker. David Manners and Helen Chandler do a decent job as the love interests but nothing really stands out about the two. Perhaps seeing how much attention is focused on the antagonist, crazy lunatic and resourceful professor  so much that we feel more adjusted to them and less of our two love leads. I do want to see Mina be cured from Dracula’s curse and John have his happy ending but the romantic chemistry between the two doesn’t stand out to me. Its nowhere near the comedic yet charming feel of King Kong’s Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot and far from feeling tried and cliched. It just has a standard feeling to it that doesn’t feel like there is much in peril.

The cast of Dracula looking up its source in this publicity still

The cast of Dracula looking up its source in this publicity still

Overall, Dracula may not be strong in the storytelling department but what sets it apart is the performances. There’s an overall quiet feel to the movie that works when we see the Count’s catacombs but at times it drags in spots. Its a slow paced movie that is strong in atmosphere and acting that a strong narrative. I can probably point my finger onto the fact that this “adaption” has more than one source in play. True, it is loosely based from the novel but its blueprints came from a stage play that was Americanized in 1927 for Broadway. It almost feels like your watching a recorded stage performance considering the way the actors are placed and the open living room of Mina’s house and Dracula’s dinning room feels almost like it was built for a stage performance. And to top it off, some of the screenwriters took influence from the 1922 German expressionist film Nosferatu, so there is a lot plugging in here behind this film that doesn’t go credited.

I find it more strange hearing that this movie was marketed as a romance film and yet had some implications of horror in the poster or none at all. Its ironic seeing it did come out Valentine’s Day nationwide and yet on its premier two days before, there was some nervous tension as reports of fainting viewers at the Roxy Theater in New York were being spread. Still Dracula proved to be a huge gamble and it payed off well. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Count, we wouldn’t have other Universal Monster Classics like Frankenstein or the Wolf Man. Of course, this wasn’t the first thriller placed on the market but this was the first straight up horror movie that had no comic relief of twist ending to ensure the supernatural elements where fake and that is where the scares of the time came in. Thanks to its success, it showed you can do horror with natural supernatural elements and none man-made.

If you are curious to see this movie, I highly recommend checking it out. Not just to see where it all started or how important it is in horror history, but because this is a good movie overall. Sure it can be slow in the pacing but seeing it was made when talkies were making a rough transition, exceptions can be made. The silence almost settles in the eerie dark tone and add that with Bela’s haunting delivery and you have one truly memorable picture.

drac18Now, I should address that there exists a couple of different versions of this film for those curious. Originally, Dracula premiered at a length of 85 minutes but later was re-edited in 1936 when the Production Code was being enforced. Many horror movies at this time where being forced to be chopped down or censored to accommodate for certain things they couldn’t allow. Currently, the film runs at 75 minutes with no news on what was cut in terms of major scenes. However, there were two bits of sound that were muted in the 1936 reissued that included Renfield’s screaming as he was being strangled and Dracula’s death groans that were thankfully restored for home video. This “restored” cut with the re-instated sounds is what exists today. And on a stranger tidbit, the 2004 Legacy Collection set has these “infamous sounds” muted but can be heard when selecting different audio options. Talk about a weird DVD Easter Egg.

In 1998, Dracula was give a new score by Philip Glass and conducted by the Kronos Quartet. This version was the first one I saw and I honestly wish it wasn’t. The original was absent of a film score save for two bits of “Swan Lake” music in the opening credits. On its own, the Philip Glass score is interesting to listen to but not as part of the movie. The quiet atmosphere added a unique eerie element to the film and now it was being overpowered by loud violin strings. There are moments when the music fits like when we see Dracula for the first time but then there are moments when it either doesn’t fit the mood or dominates the delivery of one’s lines. It doesn’t even take a break and keeps scoring scenes that feel like they have no intention to have music and thus things like Dracula seducing Lucy or the first carriage scene loose impact. Not a bad score but I still recommend watching the movie without it first.

The Spanish-language version that is surprisingly superior

The Spanish-language version that is surprisingly superior

Lastly, there also exists a Spanish-language version but its talk here is very crucial. Its not really a foreign-language dub but more of “on the set” remake. Back then, it was common for studios to have a crew film a foriegn-language versions on the spot with the same sets and costumes. The day would be reserved for the American crew and the other crew would film their version at night. As it turns out, the crew working on the Spanish version had access to see dailies of the Lugosi version in plans to “top” it. As a result, we got a version of Dracula that was sleeker and even “sexier.” Ok, the dress for the Mia and Lucy characters were more “revealing” exposing some cleavage but you probably get the idea.

Surprisingly, I had the opportunity to view this version in preparation of this blog-a-thon and I have to admit, its marginally superior. The camera angles and the lighting are a vast improvement while also extending the running time for more character development. For example, when we see Dracula for the first time in the Lugosi version, its a simple static shot of him walking down the steps. In the Spanish version, the camera dollies into him up the steps giving more dramatic tension. There’s even some extra shots that make clear of Helsing testing the mirror trick in the Spanish cut while in the Lugosi version, we get the idea but its not clear enough.

The performances are also appropriate for this version with Carlos Villarías’ Dracula being creepy and intense with his wide-eyed stare and Pablo Alvarez Rubio’s Renfield also a delight with his over-the-top manic expression and crazy performance. They both bring the best out of their characters as everyone else has a different take to separate it from the Lugosi version. Its funny seeing both versions share the same script but are executed differently. Even there’s more violence in the final act that I’m sure censors of 1931 wouldn’t allow and elements like vampire Lucy killing kids by offering candy (that is mentioned off-screen via newspaper) that wouldn’t even be used back then. While the original Dracula is highly iconic and memorable, this one is to but in its own right. Blu-Ray purists will be happy to know it has been beautifully restored with the exception of a damaged Reel 2 print cleaned up as good as possible.

To think the monster craze really started with this horror classic even after the run of the silent era with Phantom of the Opera or London After Midnight. It was probably the first horror talkie of its kind to break new ground that no other would do. By bringing the fantasy elements to a real state without the “its a dream” twist really was new in those days and made viewers question just how realistic can a movie like Dracula be. Perhaps it’s best said from the film’s original epilogue (that is unfortunately missing and can be partly seen on the DVD’s documentary) when Edward Van Sloan first stepped out from the curtain telling the audience that if they were to walk on home and find themselves alone in the dark, just remember “there really are such things as … Vampires!”