The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XX – I Halloween the 80s

I did it again. Some 80s horror treasures in here. Not all the films on this list are horror and I realize it may be unfair to rank mostly 80s horror movies—with their oh-so-specific aesthetic—against whatever else I’ve been watching, but here it is.

No to Meh:

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Hard Rock Zombies (1985) directed by Krishna Shah. Was it trying to be funny? I think so. That makes it worse. Because it wasn’t not funny. For a movie with a zombie rock band, Nazis, and a demon puppet(?) that eats himself for no discernible reason, it’s an extremely boring affair even for the schlock I knew it would be. Bonus: it won’t be too hard to get wasted playing a drinking game with this one.

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Curtains (1983) directed by Richard Ciupka. Actresses auditioning for a sleazy director in his mansion, but there’s a killer who wears an old lady mask who picks them off. Who is it? Doesn’t really matter. It has one or two decent scenes (one pictured above to give you an idea what we’re working with) and it had the weird temerity to use stage curtains for scene transitions. Bonus: creepy doll.

More Fun:

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*NOT HORROR* 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park (2011) directed by Arthur Bradford. I love what Trey Parker and Matt Stone do. Seeing the insane process of how they make it work and how quickly they turnaround a new product was just a fun little treat. Trifling, but passably informative. [Made for TV documentary.] Bonus: Wait…Bill Hader?

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Night of the Comet (1984) directed by Thom Eberhardt. There is enough to enjoy here and, scene to scene, I was never sure where we were ultimately going. Catherine Mary Stewart plays Regina, one of the remaining Earth survivors following a mysterious comet that kills everyone (either disintegrating them or turning them into zombies because CONSISTENCY). It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is really its best asset. How many other post apocalyptic horror movies feature wacky shopping montages? More odd than great, but worth a look. Bonus: Danny Mason Keener, a.k.a. DMK.

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The Monster Squad (1987) directed by Fred Dekker. It’s a cult classic and I’m sure had I watched it when I was a kid I’d be more about this. It’s like The Goonies but with the classic Universal monster lineup attacking the town. I like the kids for the most part (and their old Holocaust survivor neighbor) and it has a few good jokes, but I just didn’t like this movie’s portrayal of my favorite monsters. It feels like an homage to Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Mummy as Halloween costumes rather than their infamous silver screen personas. Not a bad little film and I get the cult status, but it not my favorite. Bonus: settles what qualifies as a virgin for magical incantation.

Higher Ground:

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Lifeforce (1985) directed by Tobe Hooper. The weirdest vampire movie ever? Possibly. Soul-sucking giant bat aliens, pretty good special effects, plenty of nudity (I felt so bad for actress Mathilda May since she’s completely naked for nearly the entire film), and a young Patrick Stewart. For a Cannon Films production, this one is actually pretty high quality. Bonus: co-stars Frank Finlay.

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*NOT HORROR* Fletch (1985) directed by Michael Ritchie. Bad New Bears director puts Chevy Chase in the role of loose, beach detective, Irwin ‘Fletch’ Fletcher. He’s a fairly unscrupulous Philip Marlowe type, but also a master of disguise. The mystery is low key, the humor is subtle, and the musical score is wildly 80s. It gets by largely on slacker coolness and sarcasm. Bonus: Chevy is a dick to everyone. Double bonus: Harold Faltermeyer’s score https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8cLJcm_RoU

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Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) directed by Tommy Lee Wallace. Tom Atkins stars as a lecherous doctor who stumbles upon a convoluted witch conspiracy to destroy the human race through television and haunted Halloween masks. There’s also robots and a magic rock. It’s silly, but it’s also sumptuously Halloween-y. Maybe not technically as good or iconic as the original Halloween with Michael Myers, but I found the departure from teen-targeting pseudo-supernatural serial killer trope rather refreshing. Kinda loved it. Bonus: kid’s face turns into snakes.

More!:

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Night of the Creeps (1986) directed by Fred Dekker. This is the campy horror throwback I wanted. Monster Squad director nails the 50s teen horror feel and updates it with gross special effects that only the 80s could deliver. Brain-eating slugs are jettisoned off an alien spaceship and wreak havoc on college housing. It knows exactly what it is. Dekker certainly has a knack for balancing tongue-in-cheek humor with fun scares. Bonus: Tom Atkins plays another badass.

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*NOT HORROR* Casanova (1976) directed by Federico Fellini. More Fellini grandiosity, this time staring Donald Sutherland as the infamous Italian ladies’ man. The film wrestles with what Casanova wanted his identity to be and juxtaposes it alongside his wild libertine escapades. More sad and grotesque than sexy, which is sort of the point. Bonus: a very young Daniel Emilfork (The City of Lost Children) makes a brief appearance.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) directed by Don Siegel. I’ve been a fan of the 1978 remake for some time, and it’s somewhat embarrassing it took me this long to get to the original classic. The sense of hopelessness and increasing paranoia marked a lot of 50s horror-sci fi and this may be one of the best examples of it. Is it communism? Is it conformity? Whatever it is, it’s coming and it’s taking over…everyone. Bonus: reminds you that you really can’t trust anyone. Because they could be alien duplicates.

Better and better:

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The Entity (1982) directed by Sidney J. Furie. This was an upsetting film. It’s like The Exorcist but instead of Pazuzu, it’s a nameless rape demon out to get Barbara Hershey. Some genuinely disturbing and scary scenes and overall sense of dread, especially when no one believes her. I don’t want to give away too much, but if you felt The Babadook was too on the nose, maybe give this one a look. Bonus: ice death cannon of science.

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*NOT HORROR* Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) directed by Travis Knight. Laika studios strikes again with another gorgeous looking stop-motion feature film. More beautiful, technically impressive, and emotional than anything else, this adventure simply warmed my cockles. Bonus: any stop-motion is a bonus unto itself.

Greatness:

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*NOT HORROR* Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) directed by Richard Linklater. A soul sequel to Dazed and Confused, the pointless saga of a college freshman in a rowdy frat house a few days before school starts in 1980 is immediately engaging. The characters are wonderfully written and funny in that hey-I-know-that-guy kind of way. It’s not a raunchy bro comedy. It’s simply a slice of life. I’m not even a jock and I loved it. Bonus: let Blake Jenner melt you with his smile.

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*Technically NOT HORROR* Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) directed by Todd Solondz. Remember Napoleon Dynamite? If you felt it was too quirky and twee then this uber dark comedy about the life of one 7th grade misfit girl is for you. Heather Matarazzo plays Dawn Wiener, a poor girl who can’t catch a break between her horrible life at home and her horrible life at school. Happiness director will make you cringe again and again with this hopelessly real portrayal of American suburbia. Bonus: not Napoleon Dynamite.

Fantastic:

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*NOT HORROR* Song of the Sea (2014) directed by Tomm Moore. Basically, if you liked Secret of the Kells you’ll probably be into this. If you can picture Irish folklore told with an almost Miyazaki-esque sense of magic then you have a decent idea of what you’re in for. The animation is unique and elegant and the story is beautiful and touching. It’s a splendidly magical fantasy with loads of sumptuous hand-drawn visuals to tantalize you. Bonus: I love the owl lady.

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The Gate (1987) directed by Tibor Takács. I loved this way more than I expected to. Some kids discover an ancient portal to hell in their backyard and have to figure out how to seal it up before countless demons get out. It’s a perfect family horror flick with enough clever special effects and creepy atmosphere to whet your appetite for Halloween. Bonus: best friend Terry (Louis Tripp) is the best kid punk nerd ever. #KillerDwarfs

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The Dead Zone (1983) directed by David Cronenberg. Christopher Walken stars as a quaint, conservative teacher gets in a car accident. When he awakes from his coma years later, he discovers that he’s lost a lot in the time he’s been unconscious, but he also discovers a strange psychic power that transports him into traumatic events in people’s lives—past, present, and future. Revelations about the future, put him in the dilemma of whether or not he should act on his visions. Also stars Herbert Lom, Brooke Adams, and Martin Sheen. Bonus: fake bad politicians still more believable than real ones.

Modern classics:

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Attack the Block (2011) directed by Joe Cornish. John Boyega stars in this fantastic sci-fi action horror comedy. Weird, furry, gorilla-wolf alien monsters start landing in a low income British neighborhood, making a small gang of teen scofflaws and stoners the only thing fighting back against the creatures taking over the block. All the action takes place over one night and the choice of protagonists gives it a very different feel. The design of the monsters is also pretty great. Bonus: this proved to be a perfect film to double feature with The World’s End.

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*NOT exactly HORROR* Spring Breakers (2012) directed by Harmony Korine. Gummo director turns “Girls Gone Wild” into a dark art-house piece. Perhaps a glib satire on social privilege, but seamlessly also a bleak, spiraling descent into the depths of crime. Entitlement, desperation, and ultimately depravity, this psychedelic tailspin is truly hypnotic. Bonus: Selena Gomez and James Franco and maybe not the way you expect them.

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*NOT HORROR* Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) directed by Taika Waititi. What We Do in the Shadows director steers this wonderfully funny and heartwarming tale about a troubled orphan and his reluctant foster father on the run in the New Zealand wilds. Sam Neill and young Julian Dennison star, but every single character is fantastically written and perfectly cast. The cinematography is also quite beautiful and clever. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll find better reasons to visit New Zealand than Hobbits. This may be my favorite film of 2016. Bonus: it would make a nice double feature with Moonrise Kingdom plus who doesn’t love a Kiwi accent?

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A Very Bradbury October

Now I know most people don’t equate the Walt Disney studios with classic Halloween fun, but when Ray Bradbury and an evil carnival of damned souls are involved then it might just be the case that Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). Boy, that was a stretch. My pick for this week is the underrated, and oft times overlooked, piece of rare live-action Disney entertainment from the early 80s. Directed by Jack Clayton (The Innocents) and based on the novel by science fiction author Ray Bradbury (who also wrote the screenplay), Something Wicked This Way Comes is not exactly a classic, but sometimes the smaller films deserve a second chance to shine.

Halloween weather is a-comin'.

Halloween weather is a-comin’.

The film has all the rustic feel of a brisk autumn day during the early 1900s in a sleepy American town tucked away from civilization and ensconced in trees turning red and orange. I swear you can almost smell the pumpkins and feel the leaves crunching beneath your shoes.

The story begins when an old lightning rod salesman comes to town. Young Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) recounts the coming-of-age tale to the audience. Will’s best friend, Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), is always eager for exploring danger, but Will is the more cautious type (like his father). Will’s father, Charles Halloway (Jason Robards), is the town’s old librarian and at times feels overwhelming regret and even feels he is too old for his beloved son. It is the relationship between Will and his father that really make this movie something special.

It's coming.

It’s coming.

One day a mysterious carnival arrives in town: Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival. The tall, enigmatic, and poised Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) is the leader of the carnival and seems to grant the fondest wishes of all who are tempted by either his rides or his minions.

I want to see this parade crash into the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.

I want to see this parade crash into the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.

When people start disappearing, Will and Jim venture out to sneak a peek under the carnival tents, choosing to investigate the matter under cover of darkness. After witnessing a sinister magic carousel, the duo discovers some clues as to the fate of the lost townsfolk. Soon the two intrepid boys find themselves fleeing from the forces of evil in the form of Mr. Dark, the Dust Witch (Pam Grier), green clouds, and even a terrifying tarantula attack. Mr. Dark feels the boys know too much and will stop at nothing to catch them. Soon the boys have only one place to turn to: Will’s father. Charles Halloway may be old, but he is still a good father and will stand up to the forces of evil for his son. Maybe you don’t have to be an action hero if you have a pure heart.

Have you seen either of these tattoos?

Have you seen either of these tattoos?

This children’s horror flick is a treat for all ages. At a time when movies like Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981) and Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) were already setting the standard for darker family fair, Disney ended up giving Bradbury much more control over the final product for Something Wicked This Way Comes. The film didn’t do well in its initial release and although not spectacular, it has wonderful atmosphere and some genuine scares and plenty of peril, but beneath all the spookiness, wonderful set design, and magical special effects there beats a real heart and soul.

Don't get ahead of me.

Don’t get ahead of me.

Jason Robards (Once Upon a Time in the West, All The President’s Men, A Boy and His Dog, Magnolia) is pitch perfect as the aging father who aches with the sores of old age and the sorrows of all the things he didn’t do in life. Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Evita, The Brothers Grimm, The Pirates of the Caribbean) is quite good as the chilling form of evil incarnate who gladly sets the price of people’s dreams. The kids are well cast too and Pam Grier (Coffy, Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown) looks great as the phantasmic stately grim specter. The scenes in which Jason Robards stands his ground against the devilish Jonathan Pryce are fantastic and the finale is very satisfying too.

Merry-go-round time machine.

Merry-go-round time machine.

This gently pleasing family horror fantasy film is the perfect Halloween afternoon treat. I recommend it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 5, 2009

One Groovy Bat

Blacula. Still not cornier than Duckula.

Blacula. Still not cornier than Duckula.

As a fan of Dracula (from Lee to Lugosi) and blaxploitation cinema (from Coffy to Dolemite), I have a hard time resisting the nocturnal urban lure of Blacula (1972). By the 1970s Count Dracula had seen countless screen re-imaginings and misrepresentations. The movies were hammering the final nail into the classic icon’s coffin, but there was always the occasional hit that kept him from staying in the grave permanently. Blacula may not be considered a great film, but for what it is—a movie about a black Dracula—it’s actually a really enjoyable romp through the supernatural…and it’s got soul. Sure, it has it’s fair share of cheese and hokiness, but even the immortal Bela Lugosi version from 1931 wasn’t perfect and was certainly not lacking in the melodrama department.

Dracula is a racist.

Dracula is a racist.

The story of Blacula begins exactly as it should: in Transylvania in the year 1780. The African noble, Prince Mamuwalde of the Ebani tribe (played by impeccably William Marshall), is having a little chat with the notorious Count Dracula. Mamuwalde urges the Count to aid him in his efforts to end the slave trade, but the Count evidently likes the slave trade and, additionally, has developed a fancy for Mamuwalde’s wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee). Dracula feels it is perfectly acceptable—nay, even complimentary—to take Luva as a concubine. When Mamuwalde refuses the diabolical insult, the Count reveals his vampiric powers and has his undead minions attack the Prince and his wife. Pay attention to the disappearing and reappearing candles during the scuffle. Biting Mamuwalde on the neck, Count Dracula curses him with an unquenchable lust for human blood and seals him shut in a coffin, leaving Luva to die alone in the stone room with her trapped husband.

Where was Luva's skeleton when the coffin was exhumed again in the 1970s???

Where was Luva’s skeleton when Blacula’s coffin was exhumed again in the 1970s???


Then the awesome animated credits pop up. It’s very Fistful of Dollars, but with a funkier score.

Flash-forward to 1972. Two gay interior decorators are buying stuff in the Count’s old castle and, naturally, just have to have the coffin, unaware of the horror within. While unpacking their Transylvanian bounty they unleash a very cramped Blacula. Bewildered and stiff, Blacula discovers the unstoppable desire to snack on human blood. He makes short work of his first two victims.

Never sass a vampire, lady.

Never sass a vampire, lady.

Blacula wanders the streets of Los Angeles and chances upon Tina (Vornetta McGee again), a dead-ringer for the deceased Luva. The encounter proves incredibly taxing on Tina as she frantically flees the strange man as a chase reminiscent of a Pepé Le Pew cartoon ensues, ending with one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie: Blacula’s pursuit of Tina is punctuated by him getting hit by a taxi cab and a rattled female cabbie berating his apparent lack of intelligence as he casually rises up off the ground, muttering about the collision ruining his reunion with his reincarnated lover. When at last he realizes the cabbie’s antagonism he snaps into vampire mode (developing fangs, some super-gnarly eyebrows, a rather pronounced widow’s peak, and cheek-burns) and bites her. Awesome.

Autopsy.

That’s weird. The deceased is completely drained of blood, clutching a crucifix, and has two small holes on her neck. It must have been a car accident.

Things get more coincidentally complicated when Tina’s sister, Michelle (a very fine Denise Nicholas), is the girlfriend of Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala—easily the coolest name ever) who is investigating the mysterious murders of the gay interior decorators and the cabdriver. The deep holes in the necks and the absence of blood in their bodies seems suspicious, so Dr. Thomas reads up on the occult.

Clubs back in the day.

Clubs back in the day…

At a night club, Tina, Michelle, and Gordon are treated to a special guest. It is Blacula, arrived to return the purse Tina dropped when she ran away. He apologizes for frightening her and joins them for drinks. The sight of this caped, eloquent, and charismatic aristocrat (with the diction of a god!) against these modern settings doesn’t seem to bother anybody. And the stranger’s deep poetic voice with its enchanting cadences (seriously, I want William Marshall to read me bedtime stories) echoing back to time’s long past captivates his new friends. Things are going well, bloody Marys are ordered, Tina is warming up to Mamuwalde, and then someone snaps a picture of them and the gallant ex-prince excuses himself…to kill the photographer just as she’s developing the pictures and discovers that Blaculas don’t show up on film.

No pictures!

No pictures!

The movie goes on with many things happening at once. Blacula courts Tina like a true gentleman while Dr. Thomas digs up corpses and realizes they’ve a vampire epidemic on their hands that the police station will never believe. Also, several characters that Blacula has bitten earlier in the film become vampires themselves and start biting everybody indiscriminately. Apparently you never truly die from a vampire bite, you only become a superhuman vampire with greenish skin (there is one cop and a guy with a hook hand we never see again after they get bitten, but seeing as how every other character survives to be vampires I just bet those two guys are still wandering around somewhere). It almost reminds me of Cannibal Apocalypse (1980) starring John Saxon (Enter the Dragon), a particularly terrible movie where so-called cannibals bite people and then those people in turn become “cannibals” who only desire to bite other people and make them “cannibals” (yeah, nobody ever dies. They just become oppressed minorities with weird nibbling habits fleeing government retaliation. Like Blacula the only characters who truly die are the ones who get killed by normal means).  A highlight of Blacula is the police raid on a warehouse full of vampires bitten by one of the gay guys from the beginning. People get shot, attacked, bitten, and set on fire. Major points for all the full body burns, but I can’t help but wonder about this scene. The gay vampire seems to have bitten (by far!) the most people. Is Blacula making some kind of commentary about promiscuity or the spread of social diseases during the 70s? Should we be offended?

These vampire zombies are fabulous.

These vampire zombies are fabulous.


As Tina falls more and more in love with Blacula/Mamuwalde, Dr. Gordon Thomas and the cops get closer and closer to unmasking the vampire and discovering its daytime coffin hideout. Actually, the romance between Tina and Blacula is the least interesting and least believable part of the movie, but the movie seems to know that and focuses on other things while that stuff is happening. By the time Gordon and the cops find Blacula’s hideout in a chemical plant, Tina has already agreed to be Luva II for the undead Prince Mamuwalde (it’s like The Mummy). Time is running out and cops with spherical helmets—seemingly from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs —fill the chemical plant, putting Blacula on the defensive. Comically, the cops are very easy to kill. Gently bumping their big, stupid helmeted-heads against a wall takes them out in a flash. Something I noticed the second time I watched it; I wonder if Dr. Gordon Thomas is safe from vampire attacks because he’s always wearing a turtleneck.

SPOILER ALERT: skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoiling the epic finale of Blacula.

Will our heroes stop Blacula before he seduces Tina? Tune in next week...

Will our heroes stop Blacula before he seduces Tina? Tune in next week…

One dopey cop catches Blacula and Tina running away down a hallway and discharges his firearm, killing Tina. Blacula dispatches the policeman by gently bopping his helmet head on a pipe and punching him. With no time to lose he bites Tina to ensure she will have eternal undead life as a vampire with him. Angered and vengeful, Blacula storms through the dark chemical plant killing cops left and right. Guys get stuff dropped on them, they get thrashed, and some guys get thrown off ledges, but soon Dr. Gordon gets to the coffin, hands the stake to the police sergeant, opens it up, and the sergeant rams the stake into the body…only to discover it’s Tina! Tina sits up (now with vampire fangs) and claws at her bleeding chest and finally dies. Her sister Michelle screams in horror and cries as Gordon stands off to the side (probably tacitly reflecting on the grim turn of events and thanking God Almighty he gave the stake to the sergeant). Blacula appears and everyone backs away with fear and respect as he steadily approaches Tina’s dead body. A beaten and heart-broken vampire, Blacula announces that he has lived again only to lose Luva twice. With a heavy heart Balcula turns and marches up the stairs and into the dawn’s early light to commit vampire suicide. He stumbles as the sun’s cruel rays burn him and he at last collapses and his flesh melts away revealing a maggot-filled skeleton.

That might take more than a Tums.

That might take more than a Tums.

For the all the questions Blacula raises, the film is kind of awesome. Perhaps Mamuwalde’s acclimation to life in the 20th century was a bit too easy, but maybe they didn’t want to rely on simple fish-out-of-water jokes like the George Hamilton movie Love at First Bite. I do wonder how he innately knew that cameras—an invention he would have never been introduced to beforehand—would not pick up his image, but that’s nit-picking, I guess. There are some continuity errors, but the editing is pretty good for the most part. The plot moves quickly and the characters (with the possible exception of Tina, unless Mamuwalde put some spell on her to make her fall in love with him) have believable motivations and are interesting and engaging. William Marshall takes the role very seriously and commands every scene he is in. Another actor might have tried to bring humor to the part, but Marshall plays it completely straight and, you know something? It works. Any Dracula character needs one essential ingredient: charisma (unless you’re the gnarled Nosferatu type). William Marshall has great charisma and screen presence as Blacula and he elevates the entire film. It’s a fun Halloween movie with classic horror-tragedy and some great action. Unlike the Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee Draculas, Blacula is almost a good guy. He is the victim of Dracula’s evil and is driven more by love than by wrath. He is a compelling character with a life full of tragedy. Maybe Blacula isn’t quite as raucous or ground-breaking as other blaxploitation movies like say Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but for my money it’s pretty entertaining.

There's a distasteful joke concerning my imminent evaporative death right behind me, isn't there.

There’s a distasteful joke concerning my imminent evaporative death right behind me, isn’t there.

The sequel, Scream Blacula Scream (1973) is not as fun. Blacula’s not in it as much and it doesn’t have the same quick pace and much of the magic is gone, but Pam Grier is in it and the last scene in the house is pretty neat. I like the first movie and I hope you will too. For great soul horror this Halloween look for Blacula.

Top 10 Reason to See Blacula

1. Blacula totally sticks it to the Man (by gently bopping their helmeted heads against walls).

2. It’s got a great funky score.

3. Thalmus Rasulala’s mustache.

4. Denise Nicholas is real pretty.

5. William Marshall’s commanding and elegant performance.

6. If we all watch it maybe we can bring back the cape look.

7. People get set on fire.

8. Blacula was the first movie to win the Saturn Award for “Best Horror Film” (to put this in perspective: other great films to win since include The Exorcist, Young Frankenstein, The Wicker Man, The Fly, The Silence of the Lambs, and Army of Darkness).

9. It’s a cherished classic from the blaxploitation genre.

10. Remember Twilight? Me neither, watch Blacula.

Good evening.

Good evening.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 30, 2010

I’d Wear a Turtle-neck if I Were You.

*creeeeeaaaak*

*creeeeeaaaak*

In a previous article, I praised the awesome splendor that is Frankenstein and I mentioned how iconic Boris Karloff’s image as the infamous Monster had become. I also mentioned another, possibly even more iconic character: Dracula. Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi, is practically synonymous with Bram Stoker’s legendary Count. Lugosi (White Zombie, The Black Cat, The Island of Lost Souls, Son of Frankenstein) made a career of playing evil and supernatural villains with an aristocratic air. He played twisted doctors, cursed men, and many other grotesques, but it is his role as the charismatic Count Dracula that keeps him alive in the public’s eye. Bela Lugosi gives a spooktacular performance making Tod Browning’s (Freaks, The Unholy Three) classic film Dracula (1931).

Edward van Sloan as Prof. Van Helsing raises a crucifix to a cringing Lugosi.

Edward van Sloan as Prof. Van Helsing raises a crucifix to a cringing Lugosi.

I love the original Dracula and Bela Lugosi is my favorite Dracula (second would be Christopher Lee), but I am saddened to see this version get crapped on so much. People say it is overrated, hammy, and a clunky transition out of the sound era. Well, it is technically all of these things, but it is so much fun. I admit my bias: I love Tod Browning. Frankenstein is the superior film in many ways simply because it has actual action and complicated character relationships, whereas Dracula is all mood and rich atmosphere with zero action. It’s about watching Lugosi gracefully interact with his unwitting victims and waiting for the moment to strike. The sets, costumes, and wonderful matte paintings are all exquisite as well. Even if you see it as being terribly dated, it is still a charming time capsule and swell pulp.

Matte paintings adorn the background as Renfield makes his way to Castle Dracula. He should have listened to those gypsies. Now it's too late.

Matte paintings adorn the background as Renfield makes his way to Castle Dracula. He should have listened to those gypsies. Now it’s too late.

Before Lugosi donned his famous cape, however, there was another great movie vampire. Haunting up the silent cinemas in 1922 was Max Schreck as Count Orlok in F. W. Murnau’s (Faust, Sunrise) Nosferatu. Orlok does not resemble your average vampire. Unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, which everyone copied from Christopher Lee to George Hamilton, Nosferatu looks bizarrely alien and unfamiliar and—as a result maybe—more unsettling. With his naked skull, pointed ears, high shoulders, tall stature, long spindly arms and fingers, gaunt features, demonic eye-brows, and jagged incisors, Max Schreck’s vampire is in a class all his own. When Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) directed the remake of Nosferatu in 1979 they made up actor Klaus Kinski (Aquirre Wrath of God, For a Few Dollars More) to look exactly like the sinister bloodsucker from the original and it really worked. Both versions of Nosferatu are sure to delight with fright, but I strongly advocate seeing the 1922 version first. So iconic and genuinely chilling. The Nosferatus feel like you’re running in slow-motion in a spiraling uneasy nightmare.

My stars. Monsters are such interesting people.

My stars. Monsters are such interesting people.

Both Dracula (1931) and Nosferatu (1922) follow pretty much the same storyline.  A mysterious aristocrat (a.k.a. Vampire) is visited by a hapless solicitor. By the time the visitor learns the truth it is too late and the Count is soon on a voyage to more urban environs (Renfield is played by horror favorite Dwight Frye in Dracula). Once established in his new home the Count begins to feed. This is pretty much all you need to know for either film. Beyond this there are many differences. Dracula is more outgoing than Orlok for instance. While Dracula mingles with oblivious socialites, Orlok lurks in the shadows. Since Orlok looks more like a malnourished rodent than a human being it makes sense he wouldn’t be as charming and seductive as Dracula. Dracula has a strange sensuality about him that Orlock could never hope to pull off.

Lurk...lurk...

Lurk…lurk…

It has been said that the Spanish version of Dracula that was made using the same sets (they shot at night while the Americans filmed during the day) is a better film from a technical standpoint. I couldn’t disagree, but Carlos Villarías is no Bela Lugosi. I like both versions, but it’s all about the casting of the Count and Lugosi is it for me.

Ya caught me.

Ya caught me.

I hope in 50 years people will still picture these classic characters whenever they hear the word ‘vampire’ uttered around Halloween. What a travesty of tragic proportions if our children should imagine only Edward Cullen. The horror.

Apparently Dracula is Mormon.

Apparently Dracula is Mormon.

I am a big fan of both films. They have the old, spooky castles shrouded in spider webs and that aura of Old World mystery. They have immediately recognizable villains that we catch ourselves rooting for. Both films suck you into their own Gothic fantasy and don’t let go.  Dracula also features the fantastic horror treasure, Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy) as Dr. Van Helsing, an added bonus to be sure. Where monsters like King Kong, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster are all misunderstood outcasts who are never truly evil and may be presented more as victims, it is refreshing to see an unapologetically wicked character that has the world seemingly wrapped around his finger and delights in his sly mayhem. Unlike future vampire movies, which would try to portray vampires as tormented pariahs, Nosferatu and Dracula make no bones about their vampires’ evil nature (not including the Herzog remake). They relish the kill and this is what makes the Count so engaging and horrific. There is only one goal: suck blood. Simple? Yes, but it works.

Screw it.

Screw it.

Herzog’s Nosferatu is more of a tortured soul who sucks blood for survival and he might be falling in love with a human woman. It’s a slightly different approach, but he is in no way sissified. Kinski gives another spookily unhinged performance, but you can tell he’s channeling a lot of Max Schreck.

Come with me if you want to die.

Come with me if you want to die.

Nosferatu and Dracula are two masterful classics of the horror genre with fantastic atmosphere and enchanting performances. Need I bother telling you what a magnificent double-feature they would make? Celebrate Halloween this year with a few awesome Counts.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 20, 2009

It’s STILL Alive…

For anyone who hasn’t been meticulously following my reviews in the past, I am a fan of classic horror. One of my favorites, nay, dare I say two of my favorites (“yes”, quipped he to himself, “let us be greedy today and make it two”) are James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

In the original script the confused Monster was to attempt to rescue the statue of the crucified Jesus thinking it was a living person, but the censors felt it was blasphemous so Whale rewrote it as the Monster toppling over a statue of a bishop.

In the original script the confused Monster was to attempt to rescue the statue of the crucified Jesus thinking it was a living person, but the censors felt it was blasphemous so Whale rewrote it as the Monster toppling over a statue of a bishop.

Whale also directed Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933), which was based on the classic H. G. Wells novel (easily one of Wells’ best), to great effect, as well as the winking Old Dark House (1932), but it is his adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s famous work that remains the more shocking and spectacular—in the humble opinion of this reviewer.

Even people who have never seen a movie that was made prior to 1990 know exactly what the Frankenstein monster looks like (Dracula too, but that will be the subject for another article). All the popular caricatures are based off of Jack Pierce’s amazing makeup from James Whale’s films. When asked to recall a film incarnation, most people—who have not even seen the movie—will have no trouble recalling Boris Karloff in grim makeup. So why am I talking about another movie everybody already knows about? Because I don’t think everyone has seen it, and I wish to change that.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has locked himself away in an old, spooky, castle-like laboratory in the hills (the perfect haunt for any mad scientist). He and his wild-eyed, hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (the ubiquitous Dwight Frye), are hard at work on something Henry was warned about by his professors long ago: playing in God’s domain. In his mad quest to create life, he stitches together bits and pieces of fresh corpses to manufacture a living man. The result is the infamous Monster (Boris Karloff): a physically powerful being with a criminal’s brain, limited communication skills, a longing for love, a short temper, and no understanding of his place in the world. The stitched together corpses of several dead men operating under the consciousness of one villainous but infantile brain realizes all too soon that there is no place for him in this world, and when his creator and father, Dr. Frankenstein, is repulsed by his creation and shuns him in disgust and embarrassment the Monster escapes and roams the countryside looking for human connection…he winds up murdering several people accidentally, obliviously, or purposefully before he decides to punish the real cause of his torment: Dr. Frankenstein.

I liked to show this scene when I was young and my parents were about to leave me with a baby sitter.

I liked to show this scene when I was young and my parents were about to leave me with a baby sitter.

The doctor, however, has decided to forget about his creation and return to his family and marry Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). The Monster eventually finds his creator and his lovely fiancée. The terrified townsfolk band together with pitchforks and torches to go on a monster hunt. The whole night culminates in the grand finale of Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster of his own making battling in a burning windmill.

frankenstein10

Every inch of this film is steeped in classic elements of horror. Expressionistic angles, cock-eyed tombstones, stark skies, tight little village streets, funerals, castles, evil machinery, lightning storms, chases, hunchbacks, dead bodies dangling from gallows, murder, and macabre humor. The infamous scene where the Monster accidentally murders a little girl even inspired a great Spanish art-house film decades later, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). This film has got it all…but, wait, there’s more.

The sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, is one of the best sequels in movie history. Picking up where the original left off—but not before Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) and Lord Byron can summarize the events of the previous film—the angry mob of villagers dwindle down to just one poor, victimized couple waiting by the smoldering ashes of the windmill’s remains…their tragic fate gave me nightmares when I was a kid. As the wounded Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is rushed home with Elizabeth (now played by Valerie Hobson), trouble has already begun to brew. Surprise! The Monster’s not dead. Not only that, another truly evil mad scientist, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), comes to call on the good doctor with a proposition. The gaunt and sinister Dr. Pretorius wants Dr. Frankenstein to join him and perfect the creation of a man-made monster. You guessed it: it’s a woman this time. Frankenstein wants nothing to do with this quack, but this quack doesn’t always play fair.

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James.

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James. We get it.

The Monster (Boris Karloff) meanwhile wanders the countryside once more in search of love and understanding. This time around the film shows him a little more compassion. All of his murders are either accidental or in self-defense. He just wants a friend, but when you look like he does and have the reputation he does, people tend to shoot first and ask questions later.

See no evil, speak no evil.

See no evil, speak no evil.

Drawn to the sad melody of a blind man’s violin the Monster stumbles upon a cabin in the woods. The blind hermit (O. P. Heggie) takes him in without pause or prejudice. We learn that the blind hermit has been praying for a friend and that he believes the Monster to be an answer to prayer. The Monster and the blind hermit do indeed become friends. They share food, smokes, music, and then the blind hermit teaches the Monster how to speak. We learn more about who the Monster really is from these few brief scenes than we might have expected and we learn to really love him and understand him beyond pity or grotesque curiosity. Too bad it doesn’t last because soon enough two hunters (who see with whom the hermit has been hanging out with), take the hermit away and burn down his cabin in the hopes of killing the Monster. (One hunter is played by John Carradine).

Truly broken, forlorn, and alone after coming so close to being truly alive, the Monster, in light of this freshly witnessed cruelty, develops a new outlook: he knows he is dead and hates all things living. Enter the wicked Dr. Pretorius who divulges his plan to create a woman friend like him. So enchanted by this idea, the Monster agrees to kidnap Elizabeth so Pretorius can blackmail Frankenstein into aiding in his evil experiment. The Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lanchester again) is born, but she doesn’t exactly get off on the right foot with Frankenstein’s Monster…that means it’s time for an explosive finale.

Kinky.

Kinky.

Bride has a sharper wit and some kinda surreal special effects, but its horror is no less potent. In many ways Bride is a bit of a parody of its predecessor and it works on multiple levels. Karloff didn’t get to do much in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, and the loopy expressionistic sets are the real stars of the third film, but it’s such a step down after Bride. After Son Karloff stopped playing the Frankenstein Monster and actors like Lon Chaney, Jr. (meh), Glenn Strange (awful), Christopher Lee (pretty good), and Robert De Niro (disappointing) took on the character and some say the Monster lives on today.

Dr. Pretorius is so evil he keeps a miniature Satan in a jar.

Dr. Pretorius is so evil he keeps a miniature Satan in a jar.

The mad scientist sub-genre of horror doesn’t get any better than this. Monstrous men made from dead bodies creating havoc while competing ideologies of what the limits of science should be, all wrapped up in a twisted morality tale of what it means to be human begging questions of humanities’ relation to the divine? Who could ask for anything more? Boris Karloff is really good as the iconic Monster and the rest of the cast does a great job as well. Character actress Una O’Connor makes an appearance in Bride and Thesiger’s Pretorius is one of the most fiendishly memorable mad scientist villains of the silver screen.

Do yourself a favor and host a double feature of these two solid classics. They just don’t make ’em like this no more. Don’t miss horror at it’s finest this Halloween. Hey, you might even understand just what makes Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) is so funny after watching these puppies. See Karloff in the original The Mummy (1932) too while you’re at it. For people interested in James Whale the man, Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf!) played him wonderfully well in Gods and Monsters (1998).

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 13, 2009