Friday, 25 May 2018

Bride of Frankenstein

Taking some elements of the book that were originally left out of Frankenstein (1931), the 1935 sequel continues directly from the conclusion of the first film extending the story into something a little more complex.  Clearly the major omission from the 1931 adaptation was the creation of a mate for the abomination that had become a burden to its creator - a ploy on the part of Victor (here called Henry) to dispense of the creature once and for all from his life whilst simultaneously making amends, if such as thing were possible.  After the believed-dead Henry has been dragged back to his home and wife Elizabeth, his revival comes as a shock to all.  An old acquaintance visits the recovering man (bedridden partly because actor Colin Clive had actually broken a leg in real life at the time) with the intention of teaming up to continue experimenting with the creation of life, much to Elizabeth’s disapproval.  It seems the man, announced as Dr. Pretorius, has been developing in his laboratory a few miniature automatons of his own, something that seems borne out of a morally devoid mindset of obsessive, sadistic tinkering akin more so to that of a child than a scientist attempting to evolve mankind’s knowledge.  Initially defiant, Henry’s involvement is egged along by Pretorius bringing in the now obedient monster, something Henry thought to be dead after the windmill fire.  Elizabeth is kidnapped by the monster and Henry is forced to work with Pretorius to build a female, granting it life by similar means to the birth of his first ‘child’.  The monster himself is quite aroused at the prospect of a new friend after his first and only one, a wood-dwelling blind man, was taken from him by strangers.  Of course, the results of the female’s awakening are not predictable and her arrival is destined to bring doom to those around her.
Apart from filling in some literary gaps in Universal’s Frankenstein franchise the studio put together what some have since deemed to be the greatest horror movie ever made.  Yet this label often came from those who rarely watch genre products, and it can never live up to such heights.  Aside from that the film was certainly ahead of its era in many ways.  Englishman James Whale was nothing like the usual director employed to shoot mainstream films back in the golden age; he brought personality and style to his projects and was one of cinema’s earliest auteurs.  Look at any of his genre films and they stand out from the crowd: Frankenstein and the sequel reviewed here, The Invisible Man, and The Old Dark House.  In contrast to most directors of the period, Whale was not simply another employee on the film set.  One thing he brought to these darker outings, including Bride…, was a grimly humorous edge, something that was probably lost to the comprehension of studio executives in the thirties.  Much more pronounced here than in the first film it can take a while to get accustomed to nowadays (the squawking old woman who seems omnipresent still grates a little with me after many viewings), but it’s at least memorable, for example the monster puffing on cigarettes and acquiring a taste for wine is something that embeds itself in memory.  And then there’s that inexplicable laboratory lever…

Continuity is maintained with the first film quite well, bringing Colin Clive back as Henry, removing the monster’s burnt eyebrows as a result of the fire it had survived, the watchtower production design, etc.  Unfortunately, Mae Clarke would not return as Henry’s wife, however, she was replaced by the overly dramatic but innately beautiful Valerie Hobson.  Dwight Frye also returned despite his character being killed in the first film, this time in a role as a different person with almost identical functionality (that of an assistant). The increased budget (nearly half a million dollars) is reflected in an amazing laboratory sequence, the film’s pinnacle - a lovely marathon of drama, great shots and editing, culminating in the eponymous woman’s birth (or rebirth).  The combined motivations of Henry, Pretorius, and the monster itself all direct to this one event, their actions throughout propelled towards a singularity.  The monster simply desires a friend (though is innocently unaware of any reproductive urge that probably survives in his blood), Pretorius has a morbid, amoral fascination with experimentation in life engineering, while Henry wants his wife back, although it’s clear his own scientific intrigue is piqued once work begins on the bride.  Like the monster, the bride herself is a gorgeous, iconic piece of design, thanks to Jack Pierce once again I believe.  She doesn’t speak but clearly displays disgust as she first sees her predetermined mate, this in turn fuelling the monster’s anger that seals fate.  It was a small masterstroke to cast Elsa Lanchester as both the bride, and Mary Shelley herself in the film’s prologue (almost suggesting that Shelley identified with the bride when she wrote the story).  There was a similar epilogue shot eventually removed along with quite a few other scenes after test screenings; these are probably lost forever.

Certainly not the ‘greatest’ but a standout entry from Universal’s monster cycle and the genre as a whole when considering the thirties and forties.  James Whale did not return to the Frankenstein series again but Boris Karloff was to make one more appearance as the monster, several years later in Son of Frankenstein

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Frankenstein (1931)

While an eminent vampire was crawling out of his crypt-bound coffin somewhere in Eastern Europe, a devout but possibly unhinged scientist was discovering the secret of granting life to that which has never lived…  Somewhat abbreviating Mary Shelley’s early nineteenth century novel, Universal’s first version of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus warns us via prologue through an onscreen narrator of the ghastliness we’re about to witness (a tool Ed Wood would later naïvely employ in similar fashion with Criswell), before introducing Henry (though he was actually called Victor in the book) and his deformed servant Fritz as lurking body snatchers waiting for a recently deceased corpse to be buried over so they can exhume it in order to take it back to their laboratory.  Assembling a makeshift body from other people’s parts the scientist's last component required is a brain, but the imbecilic Fritz accidentally takes a damaged specimen from the nearby medical school after he drops the only good one.  This of course forms the catalyst for Henry’s eventual failure in creating a Nietzschean ‘superman’.  Using electricity provided by a storm the hulking monster is ’granted’ life but it proves to be sporadically violent, lacking observable intelligence and the means to integrate socially, unpredictable, and a moral burden to its creator.  Soon Henry is persuaded to go home and marry Elizabeth but he’s unaware that the creature has broken free of its prison and is now roaming the countryside.  The innocent murder of a child sparks a mob congregation, partly led by Henry himself, intent on tracking the wayward monster and destroying it.
Jack Pierce unwittingly developed one of the most iconic characters in cinema history with his creature design, painstakingly applied to Boris Karloff over a period of hours.  The bolts in the neck, the flattened cranium, darkened fingernails - all possibly thought of as clichéd nowadays but innovative at the time, and certainly possessing everlasting longevity.  The first proper appearance of the monster is strange, and partly achieved with a lovely piece of editing: footsteps as it approaches (and a verbal warning offered by Henry himself so our anticipation is heightened), the door creaking open, and the monster facing… backwards?  Yes, it actually walks into the room backwards before slowly turning for our first full view of it, a series of three or four cuts that progressively bring us closer to the distorted, morbid face.  This was the movie that really launched Boris Karloff’s career and seeing him in other films tends to bring it home how great this performance is; it’s an easy thing to forget through years of repeat viewings.  In fact I tend to prefer his portrayal of the monster here over his work in the sequel.  Bela Lugosi was famously offered the role, declining to become involved due to what he felt was an apparent lack of talent required.  This misjudgement is sometimes blamed on his later vocational misfortune but to be fair he’d already received plentiful recognition with Dracula and I doubt his future would have been significantly improved by taking on the role of the monster, firstly because his versatility as an actor would have inhibited his progression one way or another and secondly because he finally got his chance to play the monster a couple of films later for one of the sequels and it didn’t shake the world.  Having said that it’s impossible for anyone to predict what might have happened.

Henry’s dedication to his work is quite heavy handed, however, there is an omnipresent duality to his motivations: is his work that of a man who wishes to master science to create life through manipulating naturally evolving cells, thereby offering evidence that there is no God, or is he seeking to emulate the God that he believes exists (signified by his most famous line, “…now I know what it feels like to be God.”) so as to reinforce either his admiration or competitive contempt?  In fact, the name ‘Victor’ (the character's name in the book) itself may not have been chosen randomly in this light of theistic questioning: as indicated by the use of a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost at the end of her book, Shelley was influenced by the poet and it is in this book that Milton refers to God as ‘the Victor’.  This possible allegory is unfortunately lost in the Universal film by their renaming the scientist as Henry.  Further characterisation of the protagonist comes when the monster is on the loose and we see Henry craftily lock his wife in her room - is this to protect her or because he doesn’t want her interfering, something which she has already done enough of.  Probably the former in this case but throughout the film there are thoughts in Henry’s brain we feel are remaining unspoken and this makes his character much more interesting.  Mention must also go to the castle/watchtower where Henry performs his experiments as it’s an incredible gothic design of twisted angles, warped walls and shadows, echoing some of the German silents that preceded it years before.  As a film it’s much better in many ways than its brother project, Dracula, released the same year, similarly successful and revolutionary.

Friday, 2 March 2018

The Wolf Man (1941)

Taking a slightly more original approach than what could be considered typical of the time, Universal had this story wrote afresh rather than adapting a piece of existing literature. Of course the werewolf myth itself was not their concoction and neither was this the first time they had wrestled with the legend - 1935's preceding Werewolf of London is a great film and quite different from the Larry Talbot series, of which The Wolf Man is the first (though subsequent offerings would always join him up with other monsters). Returning from America to Welsh soil to ultimately take up a hereditary role as squire (following his brother’s unexpected death) Larry Talbot - a mechanically gifted man but hardly qualifying as intellectual - becomes almost immediately besotted with local girl Gwen who helps run a small shop. Persuading the already engaged woman to go out for the evening they (along with a 'gooseberry') wander into the carnival of a passing gypsy camp where Gwen’s friend is gorged to death by what may be a wolf, though is in fact one of the gypsies, Bela, who has transformed under full moon into a werewolf. Talbot himself is also attacked though manages to kill it with the silver-tipped cane he bought from Gwen’s shop, however, some confusion ensues when the police find the dead gypsy Bela instead of the wolf carcass Talbot claims should be there. Offering the benefit of doubt some of those around him reason that it was dark and foggy and Talbot couldn’t actually see what or who he was killing, but he’s already attracted the hostile attentions of some of the townsfolk who’ve had their moral strings yanked upon hearing that Talbot was out with an engaged woman. Additionally her friend ending up brutally slaughtered is something that wouldn‘t have happened if it weren‘t for him. Talbot’s own version of things loses weight as he goes to show the authorities a bite received in the attack, but finds that it has inexplicably healed prematurely. His problems seem to be getting no rosier when one of the gypsies warns him that he’s due to transform into a wolf himself as soon as the full moon reappears.
1941's The Wolf Man moves along at a brisk pace using a few conventional cinematic tricks to characterise Talbot quickly, helped by a notably able cast - Bela Lugosi is, er, Bela the gypsy and quite fantastic in what is essentially a bit part.  Bela’s presence is the pivot that changes Talbot’s fate forever and the curse the latter acquires almost seems to be nature’s condemnation of his actions as he endeavours to woo Gwen, a girl already in line to marry the strapping gamekeeper.  Up until the point he is bitten everything seems quite optimistic for the carefree foreigner.  Lon Chaney Jr. exhibits better thespian skills here than he later would in Son of Dracula and Ghost of Frankenstein - the doomed Larry Talbot suiting his naturally melancholic appearance while taking advantage of his persistently sorrowful expressions in effort to induce sympathy.  I’m sure Universal were happy to employ him here because the name itself was a commodity that could bring in audiences thanks to his very famous father - the fact that his father’s name was effectively forced on Chaney Junior by the studios (his first name was Creighton and this is originally how he was credited in films) smacks of marketing amorality and couldn‘t have done the man's morale much good.  Of course the ever reliable Claude Rains as Talbot senior is great in a calm and collected performance - John Talbot and some of his contemporaries are responsible for a number of intriguing discussions regarding the mechanics of the human mind as they pass opinion on how it might be possible for a man to realistically believe himself to be a werewolf, whilst naturally denying that a corresponding physical transformation could also be possible.  In fact in this light it could be a great ambiguous study of either abnormal human psychology or supernatural metamorphosis depending on how you wanted to look at it, if it weren’t for the fact that Chaney transforms into a wolf on screen...  Supporting this possibility is the reported fact that the first draft of the script contained no such transformation and could have resulted in a movie similar in approach to some of those Val Lewton later produced for RKO - this ambiguity would have been preferable in my opinion.  The wolf man himself is eventually displayed without a shadow of either physical or conceptual obscurity and, while this is probably one of the film’s very few faults, it is understandable from the perspective of wanting to push cinematic boundaries for the sake of popularity.

The actual effigy of the wolf man (in this incarnation) has never been something I’ve admired personally, looking odd whilst simultaneously out of synch with the kind of creature that attacked and infected him in the first place (i.e. he walks on two legs while Bela’s wolf was on all fours).  Having said that, it’s quite an accomplishment from a special effects angle (courtesy of Jack Pearce), taking several hours to both apply and remove.  The most adept aspect of the film must surely be Curt Siodmark’s script itself, featuring entrancing dialogue for the most part and plenty of good ideas that have become highly influential for this particular sub-genre.  The tragic status of the infected man formulated here has since become a staple of the werewolf movie for example, and Paul Naschy’s later creation, Waldemar Daninsky (appearing in over ten films from the sixties onwards), is clearly inspired by Larry Talbot.  The sign of the pentagram being visible on the wolf man’s victims is also a smart metaphor for the symbol that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany (i.e. those marked with the five pointed star will die) - Siodmark himself was a Jew who departed Germany as the new political regime was taking force.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Werewolf of London

After the success of Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris Universal missed the opportunity to hire the author as a screenwriter (MGM beat them to it - he went on to work on Mark of the Vampire, Mad Love, and Devil Doll for them), so they set about putting together their own wolf-man story, 1935's Werewolf of London. Appearing several years before the more commercially viable The Wolf Man the first real lycanthrope outing for the studio brought in Cornish actor Henry Hull as botanist Wilfred Glendon in search of a rare moonlight driven plant in Tibet. The scientist is mauled in an attack that occurs during an excursion through a valley that’s populated, as locally hypothesised, by demons - actually people that turn into wolves under moonlight. Having brought the plant back to England and now recovered from the vicious attack with only scars apparently remaining, everything seems back to normal as he goes about studying the nature of his unusual find. Soon London is in the grip of terror as a series of murders and monster sightings threaten the safety of its inhabitants - Wilfred himself is afflicted with the Tibetan curse, transforming into a homicidal wolf-like man under full moon.

This is quite a different beast (excuse the pun) compared to Universal’s Larry Talbot series. It didn’t have any major stars, though reportedly there was to be a werewolf film around this time starring Karloff - something that was ultimately abandoned. Hull had the opportunity to wear make-up similar to what Chaney would later adopt in The Wolf Man, but found the process arduous and too uncomfortable to endure so a modified version was developed by make-up artist Jack Pierce. The creature as a result is quite unusual, sort of a less monstrous cousin of Oliver Reed’s titular monster in Curse of the Werewolf. One thing that’s quite unique to this film is the fact that the transformed beast actually resembles its human alias to a point where it can be recognised by those who know him, such is the similarity of facial features. Also, the werewolf here is less animal-like than is often the case: this creature doesn’t so much as shed clothing as he does actually getting dressed up to go out - leaving home after one transformation the werewolf grabs his hat and coat on the way out! At a glance the roaming monster could be mistaken for Mr Hyde and even utters some words later on during the film’s closing sequence. One nifty little idea comes when Wilfred begins realising there’s a problem: experimenting with simulated moonlight in attempts to stimulate the Tibetan plant into growth his hand gets caught under the lamp and promptly begins growing hair.
It’s difficult to say whether Hull’s monster would have been more effective with Pierce’s full blown make-up as I never thought Chaney’s equivalent looked exactly threatening, but neither is Hull the most ferocious werewolf to be put on screen. He is, however, quite an eccentric creation and very eloquent along the way. A nice plus is the presence of the beautiful Valerie Hobson as his wife. She played alongside Colin Clive as the baron’s wife in Bride of Frankenstein and a notably different character too - while in Whale’s film she was of a slightly melancholic disposition here she is bubbly and perpetually effervescent. She brings some unwanted complexity to Wilfred’s life when she begins flirting and going out with an old flame, a situation that possibly evokes some of the darker feelings that reside within Wilfred. The engendering anger beneath the surface of his personality seeps through, bringing an air of tragedy to the character as his wife finds something 'better'. The werewolf myth has always seemed like an expression of the cathartic manifestation of man’s less desirable emotions and thoughts - the literal revelation of the primordial animal that’s buried beneath evolutionary layers to the point of almost complete suppression, at least in those of us that generally abide by the law. Thus there is much going on underneath Wilfred’s uptight exterior that can be contributing towards the creation of a beast.  Werewolf of London is well written, competently acted, and features some unique ideas that elevate its value as a movie, despite the fact that it’s not especially frightening or challenging.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Son of Dracula

Yes, not only did Dracula have a daughter, but apparently a son too…  Disregarding any potential continuation of a story from Dracula’s Daughter this 1943 sequel introduces us to Count Alucard (please!) who appears on the scene somewhere in the deep south to sweep a young woman, hot Katherine, off her feet, one who also happens to be engaged to somebody else.  She’s immediately ensnared by the count’s mystical nature, a man who seems to have ulterior economic motivations for his infiltration of the family who owns a plantation - the father of said family becomes deceased almost immediately upon the Hungarian man’s arrival.  Katherine’s fiancée Frank wonders what activities are going on between the count and the woman he loves so he traces her to a house where the residing count reveals that they’ve just married each other.  In anger Frank attempts to shoot Alucard, but the bullets inexplicably seem to pass right through him killing Katherine instead, who was standing behind Alucard under the misconception that she would be shielded.  A distraught Frank breaks free of the house and makes a run for it but Alucard transforms into a bat to follow him with the intention of permanently resolving any issues between them, only to be thwarted by the silhouette of the cross cast by a gravestone as the chase ends in a cemetery.  Elsewhere a couple of scientists turned amateur sleuths begin to suspect that Alucard is a descendent of Dracula and set about destroying the undead man.
The plot kicks off in quite a feeble manner with little justification for Katherine’s initial fixation with the count and his arrival.  Generally what follows is what seems like simply an excuse to continue the series whilst taking advantage of Universal’s newfound star or terror, Lon Chaney’s son (this genre stardom arising primarily as a result of The Wolfman but his most acclaimed role overall was Of Mice and Men prior to that).  One of the most prominent problems is that, aside from a Hungarian with an American accent, Chaney Junior doesn’t make a particularly good count, though I did like the way he handled the sequence where he’s being shot at.  One scene where things get a little silly occurs when some woman brings in her blood-drained boy to the doctor: already aware of Alucard’s local vampiric threat the doctor immediately treats the neck bite by painting two small crosses over the wounds and promising that the boy will make a full recovery - first time I’ve seen that one!  The score is very typical of how a composer of the period would define genre music and is likable and corny in almost equal measure.  As far as special effects are concerned, the bouncing bat has improved marginally since the 1931 Dracula and there’s also a little animation helping Chaney transform from human to bat and back again.

Black levels on the now quite old DVD transfer are very good, as is detail and sharpness, however the image is sometimes plagued by flickering and contrast instability which slightly spoils what would otherwise have been an excellent picture.  Audio is fine.  Whilst not complete rubbish, Son of Dracula is not an exceptional film in any sense and its creation seems to have been derived almost purely from commercial decision-making.  Having said that, the film’s downbeat conclusion is quite surprising.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Dracula's Daughter

I‘ve heard varying stories about Lugosi‘s meagre involvement with the first sequel to Dracula, which hails from 1936 and was directed by Lambert Hillyer.  One suggests that he was paid several thousand pounds to appear in publicity stills following the film’s completion, while another reports that he was actually drafted in to star until script revisions excluded his presence but contractual obligations required him to be paid anyway.  Either way, it’s not that Lugosi probably minded too much but his absence here is a shame (depending on whether you enjoyed him in the first movie or not!), and dragging someone else to ‘stand in’ for his dead body was a bit pointless (it actually looks like a dummy to me anyway).  Dracula’s Daughter takes up directly from the end of the first film, with Van (here entitled ‘Von’ in the credits) Helsing emerging from the tomb having staked the vampire, while Renfield lies dead at the foot of the stairs.  Two policemen apprehend the homicidal professor and bring him in for questioning.  After the body of Dracula is shipped back to a secure unit a mysterious Hungarian woman called Countess Zaleska appears, hypnotises the guard and minutes later the dead count’s body has vanished.  Revealing herself to be under the same curse as Dracula she cremates the corpse to altruistically release his soul, but her own soul remains tortured as she spends the remainder of the story attempting to convince the eminent Doctor Jeffrey Garth to help her overcome her major hindrance.  Meanwhile ‘Von’ Helsing maintains his innocence (argument: you can’t kill someone that’s already technically dead) to sceptical ears as the same Doctor Garth steps up to defend him, having been one of the professor’s most prized students years earlier.  Then people start showing up drained of blood…
Surprisingly this went way over budget though that probably wasn’t helped by the action quite suddenly shifting to Transylvania for the last eight minutes of the film (up until that point everything had taken place in England), requiring different sets, costumes, actors, etc.  A spattering of scenes throughout the film rely a little on typical comedy of the period but once the story gets going, alternating between V. Helsing’s legal predicament and Zaleska’s fight against the vampire curse it becomes quite interesting, if a little low-key.  There’s not a great deal of terror going on here though a few injections of gothic overtones remind us that we’re watching a genre film.  One touch I liked was the reiteration of one of Lugosi’s beautifully executed lines from the first film - “I never drink… wine” - this time spoken by Zaleska.  Zaleska herself is a confused character: impelled to carry out the horrific deeds of her bloodline whilst simultaneously begging for help to be released from her existential prison before finally resigning herself to eternal torment.  A fairly fascinating psychological dichotomy results.  Whilst I’m not one to jump on homosexuality bandwagons there’s a good chance she’s also bisexual due to her apparent disregard for someone’s gender when showing them interest (for example, at one point her servant brings back a woman to pose semi-nude for the countess).  The man she wants to settle for is clearly attracted to another woman so even when craving a normal life Zaleska seems doomed.  It’s nice that Edward Van Sloan returning to reprise his role as V. Helsing from the first film, offering cohesive narrative continuity, though he seems a little less energetic here despite a retained eloquence.

Looking a little better on DVD than the preceding film, the image from the Monster Legacy set is quite pleasing taking its antiquity into consideration - there‘s a fair amount of detail. Sound comes across well though there are no modern alterations to be had here. Despite not qualifying itself as a great movie I found Dracula’s Daughter ticked away an hour or so quite comfortably.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Dracula (1931)

Taking the theatrical play of the late twenties (of which Lugosi himself was also the star) as a template Universal Studios put together a script that was more faithful to the stage version than it was Stoker’s book.  Nevertheless, it was their biggest financial success of the year and really was to change the future as it almost single-handedly sparked a whole generation of films, primarily from the studio itself but also from those influenced by their output, whether directly or indirectly.  From the opening it’s clear that there are liberal differences to the original literature as Renfield (yes, Renfield) is travelling with a group of passengers with the intention of making his way to the count’s castle in Transylvania, the objective being to offer him property in London.  Parting company with the group he is taken by carriage to the rather derelict castle which is occupied by an offbeat count (who is revealed to sleep in a coffin from the opening scenes) and three mysterious women.  Dracula soon enslaves the estate agent, turning him mad and using him as a servant.  Both of them return via ship to London where Renfield is imprisoned for his insanity and Dracula continues his quest to ensnare a woman who has attracted his attention: Mina.  John Harker does make an appearance but it’s later on in London, his position in the film being much less prominent than in the book (or, indeed, other filmed versions).  On to the scene comes Van Helsing, naturally, the man who recognises that several of the people in the vicinity are in the grip of a vampire curse, the cause of which is the count himself.  From there onwards Van Helsing attempts to persuade the most relevant people of the count’s true undead nature in order to despatch him forever, although such proposals are not unanimously welcomed of course.

The feel of this movie compared to Universal’s subsequent chillers is closer to that of silent cinema, despite it being quite talky - I’m really thinking about Browning’s filming techniques, plus Dwight Frye’s very old-fashioned performance of Renfield.  His exaggerated expressions and movements remind me of something from the silent era (though, aside from a small appearance in one film, Frye’s only work was in ‘talkies’, whereas Browning was very experienced with the silents), however his distinctively insane laugh is something of a spectacle.  There are two actors that really strengthen the proceedings: Edward Van Sloan is captivating as Van Helsing, his recital of lines being emphatic, deliberate, and authoritative.  He could feasibly convince anyone that vampires exist, so serious and articulate is his delivery of words.  Then of course there is Bela Lugosi as the count.  Aside from hinting at a possible lack of versatility his portrayal is quite domineering thanks to his incredible accent and odd way of expressing vocal emphasis; it’s difficult to take your eyes (and ears) away from him.  The other actors are generally quite conventional and service the picture adequately without standing out (though really, it’s difficult to stand out next to the likes of Van Sloan and Lugosi).  The first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film features Renfield’s trip to the castle, the introduction of the count, and Renfield’s succumbing to madness, and this is the best segment of the whole film.  The creepiness is laid on quite effectively and the ruined castle is an incredible piece of gloomy, ancient architecture, its huge stones broken with massive cobwebs ubiquitous.  Actually, there is one nice little sequence involving a cobweb where Dracula appears to walk right through it (much to Renfield’s understandable shock), something achieved with no special effects whatsoever and all the more potent for it.  The three brides make a brief appearance, almost token but welcome they are nonetheless.
After the return to England things become very dialogue driven and not as gripping as the Transylvania-bound act, with the exception of certain sequences generally involving Lugosi and Van Sloan.  For the final segment the movie gets back to great production design with a beautiful underground crypt and what must be one of the stunning gothic staircases ever seen.  Speaking of crypts, I love the introduction of the count at the beginning where we see first him climb from his coffin, followed by his bride climbing from hers, then a cockroach crawling out of its own small box - nice touch.  Another humorous aspect is Renfield’s persistent ability to escape from his cell, even turning up at one point to engage in a discussion with Van Helsing in Dr Seward’s office - they can’t seem to keep the slippery man imprisoned long before he finds a way of wandering off somewhere.  The use of bats in this film is pretty hopeless with them bouncing up and down remarkably like rubber on string (indeed, on the discs you can actually see the string in at least one scene).  Unfortunately Hammer were insistent on using this same effect some forty years later - surely it didn’t convince audiences even in 1931?  So, Dracula is of course a classic; it was highly successful, formed the catalyst for a whole sub-genre and was generally influential, but it’s not wall-to-wall excitement, more so an average film with a number of high points that make it worth watching. Tod Browning himself was to go on to much more notoriety a year later with Freaks.

Universal get some mileage out of these films, with several DVD incarnations across the globe having been in existence hitherto, followed by various Blu-rays.  From the beautiful Monster Legacy collection containing carefully painted busts of the three main creatures, the DVD I have features a transfer that fluctuates between very good in some shots, to very awful in others.  The 75th anniversary disc (later released in the US) is reportedly an improvement.  A couple of instances of censored audio exist in my print unfortunately (again, corrected for the 75th anniversary): Dracula’s death moans, and some screams from Renfield. There’s a choice between two soundtracks on the DVD - the original mono track of course and a score composed a few years ago by Philip Glass, presented in surround while the dialogue and effects remain centred.  It’s something that purists probably can’t accept (the original track is almost completely music-less) but it’s a great score and very reminiscent of the period (possibly earlier) so it fits well.  It is a little overly present but there are occasions when it enhances the film just like any great score should, my favourite being the scene where Dracula almost hypnotises Van Helsing - the music here embellishes the moment exquisitely.  Despite the rough print used the package (including commentary and documentary) is a very good one.  I do intend to upgrade at some stage to the Blu-ray of course.

Saturday, 23 December 2017


Vinegar Syndrome are specialising in restoring films (horror, exploitation, and sex) that most other labels would not even glance at, and in doing so they occasionally exhume a real gem.  Disconnected is one such product in my mind.  The first feature of Gorman Bechard (VS have also put out another of his early films, Psychos in Love), Disconnected was made in the early 80s for very little money and actors/crew that were largely friends of one another.  I first came across it in the video collection of someone I knew in the 90s, and was quite intrigued with it at the time.  I later saw it again online before being surprised when VS announced they had rescanned the 16mm source in 2K for a Blu-ray release - I never thought I would see this one!

The story, based on a tale by Virginia Gilroy who never appeared to write anything afterwards, concerns a young woman called Alicia (played by Francis Raines who later turned up in The Mutilator) who accepts a date with someone who spotted her in a nightclub, not realising that he has a fetish for butchering his girlfriends.  She is also being plagued by strange phonecalls that appear to be the doing of the nut who will be wanting to bring her life to an end before long, but it doesn't turn out to be quite so 'straightforward'.
Frances Raines is great here, taking on both the role of Alicia and her more glamorous sister.  She is appealing as a person as well as a woman, almost reminding me of a slightly more normal-looking version of the young Jennifer Connelly.  Because Alicia is so appealing, the viewer actually ends up caring about her to some extent, and does not want Franklin to get his murdering mitts on her!  She's also pretty cool in the sense that she's into movies and works in a video store.  The film is clearly super low budget, but manages to conjure up a grindhouse atmosphere that's quite thrilling for those of us into that kind of thing.  The 80s-esque soundtrack is a lot of fun, and there are plenty of amusing segments, whether it is the cheese-fest disco scene early on, or the intercut sequences of the detective on the case who is quite looking forward to a holiday once it's all over.  Not at all a slasher movie, it worms its way almost into Repulsion territory by its final act.  The film does not conclude itself in a conventional fashion, which may frustrate some viewers, but I personally like the surreal edge that wraps things up.

Vinegar Syndrome have yet again hit the ball out of the park with the package.  Available online as a web exclusive, the slipcase edition is beautiful, the case itself very high quality (a non-slip version will possibly be out at some point).  VS have scanned the 16mm elements at 1.85:1, which is probably the director's preferred means of viewing, although part of me does lament the absence of an opened-up 1.33:1 option (it makes an appearance in some of the extras) - a small complaint all told.  Despite the 2K credentials don't expect an exquisite image: this one is very rough, grainy, and frequently obtuse.  The mono audio track, transferred at a massive 96kHz in DTS-HD MA, does well in its own right, the oppressive ticking of the clock in Alicia's room much more pronounced than you will probably remember it from viewing via video cassette.  Quite an important constituent of the feature, the music sounds quite good also.

The pack contains a booklet with an essay by Art Ettinger, alongside reversible cover art for the amaray case itself, while the discs (both Blu-ray and DVD here) include a commentary track, 40 second introduction to the film from Berchard and his associate producer/assistant director Carmine Carpobianco, an interesting 11 minute interview with Berchard, a further 11 minute interview with Carpobianco, a 'short' film called Twenty Questions by the director which he himself thought lost, and a 17 minute Q&A that took place earlier in 2017 during a screening of the piece.  Twenty Questions, shot around 1988, actually runs for an hour, and features non-stop interviews with random people who answered a newspaper ad as they sit alone in a room with video monitors simply providing personal perspectives on such eclectic topics as fur coats, racial slurs, etc.  I thought it was going to be tough viewing, with no variation in technique, but it turns out to be quite a compelling and candid look at the minds of a cross-section of Americans in the late eighties.  As a collector's package and for the main film itself, this release is a must-get for fans of grindhouse American horror.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

House of Wax

Eccentric and slightly obsessed sculpture Henry Jarrod is challenged by his more money-orientated business partner about the lack of profit that their joint venture, a wax museum, is generating.  When the proposition of selling his half of the business falls through, the partner proceeds to burn down the museum for the purposes of acquiring its insurance benefit.  Jarrod is hideously scarred in the fire, but returns some time later to begin again, only this time the bodies of the recently deceased (including his old partner) start disappearing in the area, while Jarrod's models take on an increasingly lifelike nature...

Remaking the 1933 2-strip Technicolor horror movie Mystery of the Wax Museum, House of Wax follows its source quite closely aside from making the lead character (played by Vincent Price) more soulful at the same time as ditching the fast-talking female investigator of the original.  I don't find the film overly interesting unfortunately; it comes across as hokey and padded with cheese - Price of course was a very hammy actor but I'm guessing the motivation for making the film (to cash in on the contemporaneous popularity of 3D) was never going to give rise to great art.
What does make the film more charming is finally being able to see it as audiences would have back in 1953: in 3D with clear stereo soundtrack (DTS-HD MA 2.0).  The Blu-ray contains the now mastered stereoscopic version, released in various places around the world but here in the UK as an HMV-exclusive dual format edition (the DVD contains the standard 2D viewing option of course).  It's grainy and sometimes soft, the technique nowhere near what it was to become post-millennium, but the effect has depth and draws one into the image with plenty of deliberate trickery to enhance the illusion.  As with the original 2003 DVD release, this set contains the film's inspiration, Mystery..., however, the earlier (and possibly better) movie has not been remastered for HD, which is quite a shame.  I enjoy viewing Mystery... for its beautifully unique colour scheme and oddly rapid pace.  There's quite a bit packed onto the Blu-ray, including a newer 49 minute documentary with comments from renowned film-makers, a commentary and several other bits.  Where HMV have made this more collectable than its overseas counterparts is by packing it in a slipcase with artcards - their Premium collection is quite a string to the bow.  So, whilst the main feature is not the best, I do like seeing older 3D films finally back to their intended nature.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

2019: After the Fall of New York

Set in the far distant future year of 2019 we find that nuclear war has ravaged the world, and along with it humankind's prospective longevity - mutated female survivors of the holocaust are infertile.  Two political factions compete to find ways to restore mankind's ability to continue its questionable existence, one (that responsible for the bomb in the first place) sending in military personnel to New York's wasteland in search of survivors to genetically experiment with.  The other have more ambitious plans: to locate and retrieve the sole remaining fertile female, also reported to be alive in New York somewhere, before departing Earth altogether for the nearest inhabitable planet in order to restart the population using her eggs as its beginnings.  For this they acquire the skills of a rogue survivor, making a deal with him to get him off the planet too, if he can bring out the female alive.  With new companions he enters the hostile wasteland of New York in search of mankind's final hope.
Initially looking like it's going to be trash cinema of the highest order, 1983's 2019: After the Fall of New York, whilst unavoidably containing elements of cheese, is pretty good in my opinion, and featuring miniature work that's better than I expected.  It should go without saying that Carpenter's Escape from New York is obviously a huge influence on this, although influences appear to have their origins elsewhere in addition: Death Race 2000 helps to give our hero, Parsifal, his backstory, while Ridley Scott with both Blade Runner and Alien presumably kick-started the idea of human helpers turning out to be androids.  The spirit of Mad Max is also omnipresent.  On its own merits director Sergio Martino gifts the viewer a number of gory and gusto-filled setpieces, of particular note being the chaotic tunnel-bound escape from the city through increasingly threatening traps.  Prolific Italian star George Eastman also manages to make an appearance as an untrustworthy half ape/half man (leading a group of mutated individuals who now resemble cast members of Planet of the Apes).  The easily offended PC squad will want to give this a miss, for example the story's leading 'small person' is known as Shorty...  To digress, when the characters were discussing Parsifal's mission to locate the final hope in the shape of a fertile woman, I momentarily mused over the possibility that she could turn out to be obese and thoroughly undesirable, much to the chagrin of those chosen to impregnate her for the sake of the human race.  On the contrary, she of course proves to be a true Sleeping Beauty in the form of Valentine Monnier, albeit ultimately underused.  The final scenes could easily have led to a new science fiction adventure in a sequel that was never to be.

Unseen in Britain for a long time, 88 Films have blessed us with a Blu-ray that presents the film very nicely indeed in HD and widescreen, substantially outclassing the old Media Blasters DVD.  Soundtrack is English stereo (the old DVD also featured a faux 5.1 mix that is not missed here).  In terms of the package, you get - as is common for 88's Italian Collection - a reversible cover with alternative artwork (and title, which omits the '2019' prefix), an insert containing an interview with the director, and on the disc itself filmed interviews totalling forty minutes.  Code Red have put out an edition in the US with alternative extras.  Overall it's nice to see such a good looking edition of the film appear from 88 uncut (as opposed to its videotape incarnation, which was truncated in accordance with the trends of the times) and easily available to British and European audiences.