Wow, is it that time of the year already? You betcha! And do we have a bad case of déjà vu all over again! This season, we’re going to pay tribute to Halloween, along with a salute to All Soul’s Day — more commonly known as the Day of the Dead — by making critical offerings to the classic Universal monsters… Reborn, that is!
You will recall that last October 2012, we started the celebration off with a review of the Blu-ray® Disc release of original fright flicks from Universal Studio’s vaunted archives. Such vintage attractions as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon were the so-called attractions, belatedly so, and feted with the deluxe-package treatment they deserved.
But what’s become of these “universally” touted bogeymen (or should I say the “undead”)? Where have they been since their initial release lo these many moons ago? Could they have been hibernating, lying dormant in a state of suspended animation, in anticipation of that fateful day when Blu-ray and DVD would awaken them from their slumber, to walk among us like the bad sequels they were intended to be?
To answer that question, let’s look at what Hollywood has been up to in those intervening years, shall we? Then we will see if the dead are truly dead. First up is that bloody ghoul fellow himself, the Count (and I don’t mean the Sesame Street variety).
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
The conceit of inserting the name of its original author into this film’s title might have led viewers to assume a more faithful rendering of this oft-filmed tale. Except that it, too, includes more than a few embellishments to Irish author Stoker’s Gothic romance (the prologue and battle with Moslem Turks, for one) that do not appear in the novel. Be that as it may, Gary Oldman is the long-lived Count Dracula, here disguised as Romanian Prince Vlad. He’s no Bela Lugosi, but then who is? With his long hair parted down the middle, wistful expression, and tinted blue eye-shades, Gary’s a dead ringer for Ozzy Osbourne (and just as acerbic)! At the opposite acting end, we have Anthony Hopkins as that old vampire slayer, Professor Van Helsing. Hopkins plays him to the hysterical hilt, as if he’s in a constant state of flux. Winona Ryder is Minna Harker, and she’s the best thing in the picture. Her youthful radiance and dark looks contrast markedly with that of Lucy Westenra, played by sexy redhead Sadie Frost. Keanu Reeves strives mightily to maintain his British accent throughout, but manages to imbue Jonathan Harker with a high degree of detachment, as well as varying shades of hair color — an egregious performance. A real Brit, Richard E. Grant is terrific (as always) in the smaller but no less showy part of Dr. Jack Seward, expanded from the book. Bill Campbell is fine as the Texan Quincy Morris (the one with the Bowie knife), as is Cary Elwes as Lucy’s betrothed, Lord Arthur Holmwood. Both characters are customarily eliminated in most versions, but here they’ve been given their appointed task to seek out and destroy the evil vampire before he drives all of London to drink. Tom Waits plays an even loonier Renfield than Dwight Frye ever did: he takes the art of insect-eating to new heights, while longtime character actor Jay Robinson (The Robe) has a bit part as his boss. Francis Ford Coppola directs, using every conceivable film artifice imaginable to convey the story in purely cinematic terms. It’s quite impressive — both visually and aurally — with excellent Foley effects, art direction, sound, and costumes (by Eiko Ishioka). Hard to believe it was all filmed on a sound stage. All the FX were done “in camera,” but the drama lacks thrust at key moments and tends to drag a bit before the wham-bam finale, done as a fast-paced horse chase. The powerful, romantic score by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, which alternates his orchestra with choral and percussive effects, aids immeasurably. This remake is recommended for horror-film buffs, but with reservations: despite the A-list cast the shudders never materialize, a letdown in that department.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
Trying to do for Mary Shelley what he did for Bram Stoker, Francis Coppola gave up the directorial reins to actor-director Kenneth Branagh (Coppola produced instead) in the hope that Ken could bring a baroque majesty to this tawdry remake of Frankenstein. That he did, but the results are more on the level of a non-stop MTV video than a midnight matinee. Giving it the old college try, this version (much like its predecessor Dracula above), is much closer to the original novel than any of the previous films ever were. Why, there’s nary an electrical wire or flash of lightning to be found. Instead, we get an old-fashioned laboratory circa the late 18th century. Does the gimmick work? Well…yes and no. The monster, a biologically conceived aberration with a good deal of facial stitching and two mismatched eyeballs, is oddly played by a low-key Robert De Niro (Brooklyn accent intact). He’s poetic to a fault, but not nearly as frightening as he ought to be. In compensation, there’s an excellent supporting cast, with fine turns by Tom Hulce as Branagh’s best pal, Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, Ian Holm as Poppa Frankenstein, Aidan Quinn as Captain Walton (another of those roles eliminated from most versions), and especially former Monty Python regular John Cleese as Frankie’s mentor Professor Waldman, a rather unpleasant chap who, ahem, “contributes” the brains to his star pupil’s failed experiment. The ending is right out of Shelley, which may turn many fans off; but, hey, that’s the story, folks! I only wish this big-budget version were better than it turned out to be. Some of the more horrific elements, such as a bit of chest-ripping and bloody splatters, could have been dispensed with, to the betterment of all concerned. Less is definitely more when it comes to these types of features. In Branagh’s case, more is decidedly more, and then some – and that damn camera never stops moving! Egad, Igor!!! It’s soooo distracting, and that’s about the best one can say for this modern Prometheus.
The Mummy (1999)
Having nothing in particular to do with the classic Boris Karloff/Karl Freund version, The Mummy is far superior technically to most films of the genre, but devoid of the requisite chills the story demands. After a terrific prologue, it’s strictly tongue-in-cheek all the way, and played mostly for laughs. Many of the gags are in the spirit of silly slapstick, or a Saturday-afternoon kiddie caper, than a grisly horror tale — but that’s okay with us! The film stars Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) as Evelyn, a bumbling British archeologist in search of the City of the Dead; John Hannah as her ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan; and goofball Brendan Fraser (George of the Jungle) as Rick O’Connell, a down-on-his-luck soldier of fortune who sweet-talks them both into taking him on their excursion. The dead come back to life in this action-packed spoof of Mummy movies, which went on to spawn several sequels of its own. Kevin J. O’Connor plays the hapless servant Beni, Israeli actor Oded Fehr displays his matinee-idol looks as Ardeth Bey, a defender of the dead, and Arnold Vosloo is the proto-wrestling incarnation of Imhotep. Also in the cast are veteran character actor Bernard Fox as forlorn English pilot Winston (!) and Jonathan Hyde (Titanic) as a condescending Egyptologist. As an adventure yarn, it’s better than the misguided The Phantom of a few years back, or the underrated The Shadow, but not by much. Along with the latter film, it shares an exotic film score by the late Jerry Goldsmith, the resident dean of movie composers. Good computer graphics and miraculous transformations, however, does not a horror-movie make! There’s a feeling this whole show will play better at home, where the warm, sunset colors and sweeping romantic vistas can be savored at one’s leisure. Still, there’s something amiable, in a slapdash sort of way, about this picture, due primarily to the flair for fun and mischief shown by an energetic cast. The premise is suspect even in our cynical TV age, but please don’t take any of it seriously. I’d place this remake in the “hokey but tolerable” category. It’s certainly better than Hammer Studio’s moth-eaten attempt from 1959, which starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. A hollow compliment by any means!
Hollow Man (2000)
Talk about hollow! This modern-day updating of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man is, for lack of a better word, atrocious. I say this despite the Oscar-nominated state-of-the-art effects. The mad-scientist-gone-amok theme is taken to absurd levels with this unnecessarily violent offshoot. In the end, it gets downright mean and vicious, with lead scientist Kevin Bacon (yes, that Kevin Bacon, all six degrees of him) left to his own devious devices. Hollow Man purports to be a modern retelling (kinda, sorta) of Wells’ novella, but what we have instead is an intensely leaden fable with no morals whatsoever, whose overwrought main protagonist experiences an insatiable lust for power, sex and control — with a survival-of-the-filthiest mentality to boot — that gets worse as the movie trips along from crisis to crisis. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, a master of over-the-top features such as RoboCop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers and Total Recall, is exactly that. This leaves the viewer with little to no redeeming characters or values to root for — with the possible exception of the superior FX display, but that’s not saying much. Elizabeth Shue as Bacon’s unattainable love interest; Josh Brolin as the monkey man in the middle; and poor Rhona Mitra as a helpless victim of mad scientist Bacon’s erotic fantasies, do their best with what they get to work with. However, it’s grade Z material from start to finish, unworthy even of a slasher film (a la those Friday the 13th monstrosities), which this one tries to copy. Will someone please make this picture disappear, once and for all? You’d be doing the sci-fi world a favor. And next time an action director wants to try his hand at an Invisible Man redux, have him sit through several screenings of a real classic: James Whale’s fabulous original (he may change his mind after that).
Van Helsing (2004)
This is what happens when video game technology and graphic novels collide, creating an amalgam of genres that clash in the most outrageous fashion. But there’s one thing this likeable film’s got going for it that others don’t: it’s fast and furious, with non-stop action and a biggest-bang-for-the-buck mindset that grows on you after repeated viewings. Written and directed by Stephen Sommers (who did the Mummy remake mentioned above), Van Helsing’s got a similar tongue-in-cheek tone (no pun intended). It certainly goes for the throat (now that pun was intended) almost every time. The premise turns the rugged and fairly youngish Van Helsing (a stalwart, leather-clad Hugh Jackman) into a roving Clint Eastwood, a lone gunman-type who tries his best to keep a sharp eye out for werewolves, split personalities, flying vampire babes, treacherous hunchbacks, and wisecracking friars, while at the same time falling for luscious Anna Valerious (slickly played by Kate Beckinsale). If ever there was a man born to play these larger than life characters (think Wolverine from the X-Men series), Hugh Jackman is that man. The prologue, in high contract black-and-white, is just the opening salvo, where Dr. Frankenstein puts in a guest appearance prior to his handy disposal by an ersatz Count Dracula (tongue-tied Richard Roxburgh). Dracula’s not bad, just lacking in charisma. The Frankenstein monster (a hulking Shuler Hensley) isn’t too bad either, although he looks like a walking erector set with a glow-in-the-dark dome for a brain. The Wolfman is here, too (uh, several of them, to be exact) and boy, does he get an extreme makeover! Another aspect I liked is its downbeat ending. No last-minute cavalry to the rescue here, but instead the story sticks basically within the confines of its comic book origins. And maybe that’s how it should be (just waxing philosophical). Robbie Coltrane provides the gelatinous voice of a monstrously-conceived CGI Mr. Hyde, in the London prologue. It seems to me that life back then wasn’t nearly as fast-paced as it’s depicted in this flick, but whatever.
The Wolfman (2010)
This technically superior remake, redux, or whatever you want to call it, has an intriguing plot line. It’s based on the old Lon Chaney Jr. version, but goes in a completely and unexpectedly eerie direction. The Wolfman, in this case Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro, is Lawrence Talbot, a Shakespearean lead who looks and sounds about as Shakespearean as I do. Then again, Chaney Jr. didn’t seem quite so British either, nor did he have any physical resemblance to Claude Rains, who played his father in 1941, which is where this edition makes good headway. It’s miles and away the best in terms of special FX, for which it won an Academy Award for Best Makeup (Rick Baker, take a bow). After the death of his brother Ben, Talbot is coaxed by Ben’s fiancée (Emily Blunt) to come back to his ancestral home at Blackmoor, where he learns all about those nasty skeletons in the family closet, courtesy of dear old deranged dad, mischievously portrayed by a real thespian, Sir Anthony Hopkins. From there we’re led on a wild chase through dark forests, gothic interiors, and gypsy camp sites, with the full moon casting its baleful light on a fiercely determined Del Toro — determined, that is, to kill and maim his victims to a bloody pulp. The transformations are spectacular, with the resultant beast looking about as convincing as any we’ve seen (Benicio, is that you under there?). The killings are all-too real as well. Poor Wolfman dies in the end, of course, and that’s to be expected. But the howl continues nevertheless (you’ll see what I mean). The strong supporting cast is headed by Hugo Weaving as Inspector Aberline, perennial fall-guy Art Malik as family servant Singh, Antony Sher as non-believing Dr. Hoenneger, and lending a touch of class is Geraldine Chaplin as the gypsy woman Maleva. Veteran director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) took over the helm when several of his predecessors bowed out (lucky them). At first Danny Elfman’s atmospheric score was rejected, then substituted with a rival composer’s, only to be reinstated in the end. The whole trouble-laden production was filmed in England, at Pinewood Studios and on actual locations, which gave it an authentic look and feel.
The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
There has been no – let me repeat that – no viable modern film depiction of the old Gaston Leroux gothic-horror tale for many generations, unless you count the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (which we don’t — and it isn’t very scary, either, so there!). The two most frequently screened versions are, of course, Lon Chaney Sr.’s silent classic from 1925 and Universal’s Technicolor sound remake (from 1943) starring Claude Rains. Chaney’s death-head skull makeup went down in movie history as one of the most horrific ever seen, while Rains’ lamer characterization was nowhere near as shocking — there was more opera than phantom in that one, anyway, than most people cared for, despite the proficiency involved in its making. So where do we go from here? Why, there’s Hammer Studio’s veddy British take, naturally, which stars some hefty players and boasts a modernist music score! And it’s pretty frightening, too, a decent little shocker that will remind viewers of the heyday of Hammer horror. While there’s no Lee or Cushing to push us around, we do have a worthy enough pretender in Herbert Lom as kindly Professor Petrie, a.k.a. the Phantom. His story is told in flashback, revealing that a pompous, no-talent bastard named Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (played with a sneer and a smile by the lugubrious Michael Gough) stole his best work, among which is a complete opera based on Joan of Arc, thus leading poor Prof. Petrie to seek revenge on this miscreant. Unfortunately for Petrie (but fortunately for fans), he gets disfigured and takes up residence in the sewers underneath the opera house, whereby his mysterious appearances and disembodied voice strike terror into the hearts of all within. Now that’s a horror flick! Bravos to all concerned, especially director Terence Fisher, adapter John Elder, cinematographer Arthur Grant, and composer Edwin Astley. The story picks up steam from this point on, and ends up pretty much as we expect it (watch out for that chandelier!). The sterling cast features Lom (in grisly makeup), Heather Sears as the opera singer Christine, stalwart Edward de Souza as the curious Police Inspector Harry Hunter, and the inimitable Mr. Gough. Three cheers!
The Monster Squad (1987)
This is the only picture of the seven above that features nearly all of Universal’s classic monsters (no Invisible Man, sorry), along with the first and, to date, only reappearance of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, here dubbed the Gill-Man. But it isn’t the original Gill-Man, people — far from it! Because of authorship rights and a plethora of legal/copyright issues, the iconic Creature getup is banished from this geeky, mostly kid-point-of-view fright flick that owes much to Richard Donner’s The Goonies from two years prior. It undoubtedly influenced J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg to shoot Super 8 (Spielberg executive produced Goonies as well). As far as the story goes, Monster Squad is now considered a cult favorite among you fully-grown former yuppies out there. The plot: having come into possession of Abraham Van Helsing’s diary (oh, brother!), the kids of Monster Squad seek out “that old German guy” (Leonardo Cimino) to help read the contents —which, as you may have guessed, is written in German (oh, really?). Anybody out there speak German? Oh, and by the way, is there a virgin around to read it? Well, maybe, maybe not. You see, once every hundred years, someone’s got to read those words from Van Helsing’s diary, which will then open up a portal that will transport … Uh, never mind, just watch the movie. A hilarious take on horror flicks in toto, and kid-friendly matinee features in general, ya gotta love a film that packs more mayhem, dry jokes, foul language, and schlocky effects into its 82-minute running time than most. The stereotypical kiddies, including the fatty, the nerd, the hottie, the know-it-all, the smoker, et al., share a wonderful rapport with each other. Dracula is the hammiest he can be, but what did you expect when he’s played by tall, handsome, smarmy-looking Duncan Regehr? Not-so handsome Tom Noonan is well cast as Frankenstein’s monster (who turns out to be the good guy in this version), along with Carl Thibault as the Wolfman, Michael MacKay as the Mummy, and Tom Woodruff Jr. as the bogus Gill-Man. With the exception of Drac and Frankie, and possibly Wolfie too, the other monsters are just walk-ons (or foot draggers, as the case may be). After a poor opening day in 1987, and a brief two-week run at most theaters, fans of this fun flick will be happy to know it’s available on a deluxe DVD by popular demand, as well as an anniversary Blu-ray Disc edition. And with that, my friends, we come full circle. Hope to see you next time when the undead sequel returns. Trick or treat everybody!
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes