‘Children of the Night’ — Celluloid Creatures and Other Movie Monsters

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The Count (Bela Lugosi) welcomes Renfield to his castle in Dracula (1931)

The Fear Factor

Like many individuals of my generation both before and after me, I grew up with movie monsters. Horrifyingly repulsive creatures (or so I thought), as well as fantastically winged dragons and unidentified flying objects — all of them, thank goodness, brought to our family’s living room courtesy of the medium of television.

Since I wasn’t given much of a spending allowance to go to the local cinema, I was forced to gratify my precocious urges for the bizarre and the unconventional, not to mention those elaborate special effects, through old movies and first- and second-run TV shows.

Credit for keeping my probing eyes under the bed covers was due to such local programming as Million Dollar Movie, Creature Features, and The 4:30 Movie. They provided sufficient grist for my movie-mania mill. These and other programs, i.e., The Late Show, The Outer Limits, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, The Twilight Zone, and The Time Tunnel, kept my natural curiosity about the supposedly grotesque world around me at full tilt.

My older cousin and his friends, knowing of my fascination with movie monsters (and my equal fear and loathing of said beasties), had the nasty habit of flashing monster playing cards at me — one more outrageous and disturbing than the other. They would get a tremendous kick out of my revulsion at the black-and-white images of despicable demons, eerie human skulls, and maniacally cackling witches. ARGH!!!!

Not satisfied with that, I remember pleading with my mother to buy those outlandish Aurora Monster Model kits, where, in the safety and comfort of our apartment I could exorcise those personal demons by creating my own fleet of sinister fiends.

As I matured, I realized these photographs and model kits were nothing more than mere advertisements; that “reel” monsters and their ilk were not “real” after all, only figments of some eccentric filmmaker’s wild-eyed imagination. Only then did I realize that horror was rooted in the psyche — a psychological explanation for the unrealized fears buried deep inside our subconscious thoughts. There was no logical rationalization for them.

Consequently, therein lay the reasons for why we fear the unknown: one, as a projection of real-life issues and concerns; and two, as the underlying cause for those same fears. If we could but confront and conquer our fears, they will be removed (or so the theory goes).

Years later, while still in high school, I came across one of the qualified classics of the academic genre, Carlos Clarens’ An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, a superbly written survey of movies from the late nineteenth century up to the mid-1960s (the so-called “classic” period) covering this same aspect. It was this very book, with its concisely edited and elaborately conveyed text, that finally brought me out of the darkened room of my qualms and into the light of discovery.

Carlos Clarens’ classic study An Illustrated History of the Horror Film

Clarens’ cogent yet discerning commentary convinced me that horror, fantasy, and science fiction were a viable art form, one to be closely studied and admired, but never from a distance. The genre could be tailored and shaped to aptness and precision by a talented team of dedicated artisans and supremely skilled craftsmen of the highest order.

With this newly-acquired awareness in hand, I set out with a slight degree of unease — a holdover from my youthful trepidations, I suppose — to revisit as many of the films that had once fueled my dreams and nightmares; to face my childhood fears, and by facing them, to end them. The experience of watching these vintage motion pictures with a fresh outlook and perspective, and in an entirely new light (sorry, Count!), was one I had long wished to share with likeminded readers.

Though not necessarily in strict chronological order, I have modified this list to contain films that have exuded a profound influence and sway on me personally. There is no conceivable way this list can be as all-inclusive as I would like, or encompass the full range of cinematic possibilities that are available to film buffs.

Therefore, with that caveat in mind please accept my apologies beforehand to those films that could not be reviewed.

Bites and Howls

One of the most popular and trendiest of the many horror-movie categories that have captivated viewers, and the one with the longest so-called “lifespan” (vide the Twilight, Blade, and Harry Potter series, to mention only a few), is the vampire and werewolf genre.

The first documented mention of vampirism in literature came from writer and physician John Polidori’s work of fictional prose, The Vampyre, published in 1819. This lurid tale’s cast of protagonists concentrated on a mysterious Lord Ruthven, a minor aristocrat of dubious ancestry (modeled after the poet Lord Byron), and his traveling companion Aubrey, based on the author himself. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Ruthven is one of the undead: a ruthless creature with an unquenchable thirst for human blood.

Left to right: Mary Godwin Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron & John Polidori

This was one of several yarns to have emerged from the vivid imaginations of a June 1816 gathering at Villa Diodati, a stately mansion off Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It was here that Byron and Polidori, along with English romantic poet Percy Shelley and his betrothed, the eighteen-year-old Mary Wolstonecraft Godwin (soon to be Shelley), reputedly passed the time by reading ghost stories and telling one another fantastical tales of the unnatural.

Among the stories spun over a three-night-period were the rudiments of Mary Shelley’s classic science-fiction/horror novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), a work that itself has fueled countless permutations and movie spinoffs.

From this beginning, other vampire potboilers began to circulate, including the serialized “penny dreadful” Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood  by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest (1845-47); and especially Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (published in serial form in 1871-72), about a lusty female vampire who preys upon “lonely young women” that served as inspiration for another fellow Irishman, the Dublin-born theater manager, writer, and lawyer Bram Stoker.

Told in a combination of letters, journals, diaries, newspaper articles, ships’ logs, and individual accounts, the Gothic novel Dracula (1897), while not an immediate publishing sensation, nevertheless met with critical favor. The book eventually took off just as the advent of silent cinema came into being.

Count Orlock (right) in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922)

Stirred by the success of Stoker’s Dracula, German-born film director Friedrich Wilhelm (F.W.) Murnau decided, in 1922, to make Nosferatu (“The Undead”). This first recorded vampire flick has stood the test of time as an undisputed masterpiece of peculiarity, and of horrifically bone-chilling sequences; a veritable sonata of scary moments filmed in naturalistic surroundings near the German port city of Wismar. Since the original title happened to have been Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (“A Symphony of Horrors”), this description is more than apt.

Some may find the movie silly or quaint, or even old-fashioned and out of style. But seen in its proper element — i.e., on a large screen and in a darkened theater — the picture’s ability to shock and provoke audience reaction is still very much alive. Although Murnau failed to secure the rights to Stoker’s book (the author’s widow sued him for copyright infringement), he was still able to transmit the key ingredients to the silver screen that made the figure of Count Dracula so menacing. This silent film remains a work of mesmerizing potency.

Renamed Count Orlock and played by German actor Max Schreck (whose surname in English means “fear”), that repulsive rat-shaped head, those gloomy sunken eyes, and claw-like appendages that serve as fingernails (sometimes seen in shadowy silhouette) pummeled early movie audiences into frightened submission.

Count Orlock creeping up the stairs in Nosferatu (1922)

The style of the film has been described as expressionistic, which isn’t entirely accurate since the term itself is supposed to eschew realism in favor of a projection of intense inner emotions or feelings. Still, that look of unvarnished evil, the accelerated time-lapsed cinematography, and the final image of Orlock slowly fading away to nothingness as the sun rises will remain in viewers’ minds for a long time to come.

There was nothing inherently sexy about this beast, of that we are certain, even though the object of his bloodlust, Nina (a variant on Stoker’s Minna Harker), a pure and “virtuous woman,” sacrifices herself to this monster in order to destroy him, thus saving the city from an infestation. In addition, this was the first indication that the vampire’s blood could be the cause of a countrywide plague.

Call Me Dracula

When Universal Pictures finally decided to film the sound version of Dracula in 1930 (itself based on a successful Broadway theater adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston), the studio contracted with director Tod Browning to assume the project after their first choice, German filmmaker Paul Leni, had died. It was also rumored at the time that famed silent horror-movie alumnus Lon Chaney would be tapped to star as the lead, which made sense from a practical standpoint.

Chaney and Browning had previously worked together on a variety of features, including such macabre outings as The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927) with Joan Crawford, and the long-lost London After Midnight (1927), Browning’s initial attempt at a hybrid vampire-cum-murder mystery. Incidentally, the film was remade by MGM in 1935 as a talkie and re-titled Mark of the Vampire. Headlined by Lionel Barrymore, it co-starred a heavily-accented Hungarian stage and film veteran named Bela Lugosi.

With Chaney’s unexpected passing to cancer in August 1930, the way was cleared for other actors to assume the mantle of Universal’s king of horror. After the Broadway run of Dracula, the play went on tour with its principal performer intact. Bela Lugosi, whose real name was Béla Ferenc Dezso Blaskó, just happened to have been born in the city of Lugos, not far from the same rural Transylvanian district and Carpathian mountain range as the bloodthirsty Count (how’s that for a coincidence?).

Publicity photo for Dracula (1931) with Helen Chandler & Bela Lugosi

After two years on the road, Bela decided to put down stakes (no pun intended) in California where he started appearing in early silent and sound productions. Lugosi even co-starred in a Tod Browning picture, The Thirteenth Chair (1929), with Conrad Nagel and Leslie Hyams, which may have kept him in the director’s mind once the Dracula project took flight.

I can’t tell you what made this early sound venture so shocking to audiences of the time, except to say that it grabbed startled viewers from the outset. To our modern-day sensibilities, Dracula seems hopelessly stilted and outdated, especially in its stagier second half. Released in February 1931, it’s a labored, slow-moving effort, ponderous in spots and overly talkative, with some of the acting clearly belonging to the theater.

Despite these lulls, the film comes “alive” (so to speak) anytime the formidable figure of Count Dracula, played by Lugosi, is on the prowl — quite apart from that of his predecessor, Max Schreck. Bela’s darkly sinister mien, unblinking stare, and imposing aristocratic bearing and height (he stood six feet and one inch tall) were his most prominent features. And contrary to what most producers might have imagined, his thick, deliberately-paced Hungarian accent was an added bonus in defining the character’s “other-worldliness.”

One of my favorite scenes is the clash of wills between Dracula and Professor Van Helsing (whose lines are woodenly but sternly delivered by character actor Edward Van Sloan). As the two arch-enemies glare at each other in defiance, Dracula breaks the silence with the enigmatic words, “Your vill is strong, Van—Hel—zing!”

Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) “reflects” on the situation with Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi)

Another memorable episode occurs early on in Castle Dracula, where the lugubrious Count greets the unsuspecting Mr. Renfield (played by the pop-eyed Dwight Frye): “I—am—Drac-ula,” Lugosi pronounces. “I bid you—welcome.”

Then, as they slowly mount the massive staircase, the howling of wolves interrupts their upward motion.

“Listen to them. Children of the night!” Dracula’s voice cracks momentarily. “What mu—sic they make!” As Dracula reaches the top of the stairs, he walks straight through the cobwebs — without disturbing them in the least! Talk about creepy; this sequence will chill you to the bone.

Other scenes involving Dracula’s stalking of his female victims were said to have driven ladies in the movie theater to distraction. This brings up a question I’ve always wanted to ask: What made Dracula so attractive to women?

Writer James V. Hart, who was responsible for the screenplay to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation Bram Stoker’s Dracula, found that one scene in Stoker’s book was so “intensely erotic and diabolically evil that I passed out right in my foie gras … Eventually, I caught up with … the Bela Lugosi standard that caused people to faint in the aisles.” Hart was “also impressed with Frank Langella’s interpretation on Broadway, which brought a sexual energy to the character never before seen.”

In addition to which, Hart hinted that “Women more than men have tended to read Dracula and other vampire stories, and to understand the vampire’s attraction. Vampires,” he went on, “offer a delectable alternative to the drudgery of mortal life and the promises of religion.”

Artist, animator, and film director Tim Burton may have gotten it right when the late Martin Landau, in his Oscar-winning performance as the older Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood (1994), voiced a casual aside to maverick eager-beaver filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp). As the two walk up to his broken-down apartment, Lugosi makes the following observation:

“The women … the women preferred the traditional monsters. The pure horror, it both repels, and attracts them, because in their collective unconsciousness, they have the agony of childbirth. The blood. The blood is the horror” (Ed Wood, from the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski).

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) listens to Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) expound on vampirism in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994)

This hokey diagnosis may have been nothing more than armchair analysis, but it nonetheless helped to explain the vampire’s enduring legacy and popularity. On a side note, it may also have been an indication of Lugosi’s libidinous attitude toward women, as documented in his five recorded marriages.

The excellent camera work in Dracula was provided by Bohemian-born émigré Karl Freund, who was Fritz Lang’s principal photographer on the science-fiction screen epic Metropolis (1927) and who also went on to direct several stylish productions of his own, including Universal’s The Mummy (1932) with Boris Karloff, and MGM’s Mad Love, aka The Hands of Orlac (1935), with Peter Lorre, as well as numerous episodes of I Love Lucy in the 1950s.

The misty atmosphere no doubt heightened the Gothic mood, at least in the film’s first half. The original plot was modified somewhat, however, in that the young clerk Jonathan Harker (stiffly enacted by David Manners) was the fellow who visited the Count at the start of the novel, not Renfield. As far as we are concerned, the only thing missing was a decent music score. Unfortunately, the opening snippet, derived from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, along with wisps of the Overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony are about all we get.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes


Boo 2, the Sequel — Fabulous Fright Flicks for Halloween Night and a Delightful Day of the Dead

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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)

Gary Oldman as Count Dracula
Gary Oldman as Count Dracula

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)

Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Frankenstein
Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Frankenstein

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)

The Mummy (1999)
Rachel Weisz & Brendan Fraser

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)

Kevin Bacon is the Hollow Man
Kevin Bacon is the Hollow Man

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)

Hugh Jackman (right) as Van Helsing
Hugh Jackman (right) as Van Helsing

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)

Benicio Del Toro as The Wolf Man
Benicio Del Toro as The Wolfman

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)

Herbert Lom in The Phantom of the Opera
Herbert Lom in The Phantom of the Opera

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)

Cast of The Monster Squad
Cast of The Monster Squad

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

Fun Flicks for a Fabulous Fright Night: Universal’s ‘Classic Monsters — The Essential Collection’

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Universal’s Classic Monsters Collection (amazon.com)

Boo!!! It’s that time of the year again, folks, when all we want out of life is to be frightened out of our wits at Halloween (Well… some of us do, anyway). And Universal Pictures has heeded the call. Yay! They’ve re-released their “Classic Monsters — The Essential Collection” on Blu-ray disc. Yikes!!

This is a not-to-be-missed assortment of fun (tongue planted firmly in cheek) fright flicks, guaranteed to make your hair stand on end. All right, maybe they’re not as frightening as they once were — and over the years, the majority of these creature features have lost a good deal of their shock value and “bite.” Nevertheless, they’re always worth a second or third look, mostly for their well-founded status as undeniable screen classics.

Packed with trivia, memorabilia, insights, interviews, making of’s, and beaucoup bonus material, this collection will have you up nights (!) as you wade through the treasure trove of extras. Just don’t drive any stakes through that classy packaging art, okay?

As an added enticement, I’ve provided brief write-ups of the individual items included in this truly worthy set. As Edward Van Sloan once told curious audience members, in the spoken introduction to James Whale’s Frankenstein, “I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you.”

Huh! Now that’s an understatement. (It’s okay to cover your eyes during the scary parts, friends. But don’t worry, I won’t tell…)

Dracula (1931)

Bela Lugosi as Dracula (blu-ray.com)

The first of Universal’s Monster Classics is this Tod Browning-directed picture, based on a Broadway stage production of Bram Stoker’s novel. Starring Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi, who just happened to have been born in the same Transylvanian district as the bloodthirsty Count Dracula (how’s that for a coincidence?), it’s a labored, slow-moving effort, ponderous in spots and overly talkative, with some of the acting clearly belonging to another era entirely. Despite the lulls, the film comes “alive” (so to speak) anytime Lugosi is on screen. His darkly sinister stare and imposing presence and height are his most prominent features. But the best emoting of all comes from supporting player (and Universal staple) Dwight Frye as the crazed, fly-eating Mr. Renfield. Excellent camera work by Karl Freund, the misty atmosphere no doubt heightens the Gothic mood. The only thing missing is a decent film score. That said, the opening snippet from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is about all we get. The collection also features an alternate score by Philip Glass with the Kronos String Quartet, as well as a Spanish-language edition. With David Manners, Helen Chandler, Herbert Bunston, and Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing.

Frankenstein (1931)

Boris Karloff as The Monster (Universal)

Having scored a direct hit with Dracula, Universal offered the part of Frankenstein’s Monster to Lugosi. He turned it down flat (“There’s no dialogue!” he was reputed to have cried). In his place, contract player Boris Karloff (real name: William Henry Pratt) was tapped for the role that forever changed the course of his life and career. Certainly Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup lent a huge helping hand in securing this picture’s place among the immortals. Colin Clive is the anxious Dr. Frankenstein, our modern-day Prometheus, who flawlessly captures the scientist’s mad obsession with creating life from dead bodies (his resemblance to comic Jim Carrey is uncanny). Clive was a chronic alcoholic who died prematurely in 1937, only two years after Bride of Frankenstein was released. The flick is a tad “livelier” than Dracula, lacking a memorable score to enliven the proceedings (that would be taken care of with the next two installments, Bride and Son of Frankenstein). Fortunately, this version restores previously cut footage of the Monster throwing little Maria into the lake. With Edward Van Sloan, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Frederick Kerr, Lionel Belmore, and Dwight Frye as Fritz.

The Mummy (1932)

Karloff as Imhotep (moviemail.com)

Karl Freund went from cinematographer to film director with this stylish, Art Deco-derived fright flick. When the movie was originally released, it had only been a mere ten years since the incredible discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb (along with its highly publicized “curse”), so the novelty of the find was still very much on audiences’ minds. Contrary to popular belief, Boris Karloff (as Imhotep, the resurrected Mummy of the title), appears in only one scene wearing the dead man’s bandages, but for a precious few seconds. His piercing gaze, as well as his slow loping gait, were emblematic of Karloff’s acting style, which would take hold in subsequent fright features. It’s another slow one, we’re sorry to add, but the chilly atmosphere compensates somewhat for the lack of action. With the Universal stock company of players, including the ubiquitous Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, along with Zita Johann, Leonard Mudie, Arthur Byron, and Noble Johnson (the Native Chief in King Kong) as a Nubian Slave.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Claude Rains & Gloria Stuart (highbrowmagazine.com)

Claude Rains made his first motion picture “appearance” (in a manner of speaking) with this fascinating film version of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novella. This is the ultimate mad-scientist-on-the-loose epic to end all epics, with enough megalo-maniacal dialogue (“Power to make men grovel at my feet!”) and ironic twists of dark humor (“Here we go gathering nuts in May”) to satisfy any sci-fi fan. What made this feature so great, after all, were the astounding special effects for the period, painstakingly done with plaster models, process photography and double exposures. When Rains, as Dr. Jack Griffin, takes off the bandages that bind his head, he reveals… absolutely nothing. Top that, Industrial Light and Magic! Directed by James Whale, who also did the previous year’s Frankenstein. With lovely Gloria Stuart (The Old Lady in Titanic), William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O’Connor, Holmes Herbert, and E.E. Clive (Colin’s dad) as Constable Jaffers.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Elsa Lanchester & Boris Karloff (moviediva.com)

It’s been called the greatest horror picture ever made – no faint praise for British director James Whale, whose iconic monster movie this is: a first-rate, and far superior, sequel to his earlier Frankenstein. Yes, it’s sentimental in spots, even downright cloying in its manipulation of the audience’s feelings for and identification with Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Yet, for the last 80 years it cannot help but wipe the floor of the competition. Colin Clive repeats his role as the restless Henry Frankenstein, who is threatened and cajoled by the eccentric Dr. Pretorius, a wild-eyed Ernest Thesiger (a fey stand-in for the director), into creating a mate for the lonely Boris Karloff. Jack Pierce’s superb makeup job for both the Monster and his titular Bride (Elsa Lanchester, in a dual role, as author Mary Shelley as well) has passed into screen legend. Expressionistic sets, bizarre camera angles, and eerily comical secondary characters – in particular, the whiny-voiced Una O’Connor, the slow-witted E.E. Clive, and the sympathetic Blind Hermit (charmingly played by O.P. Heggie) – add up to a smashing good time for all. Featuring Valerie Hobson, Gavin Gordon, Reginald Barlow, Mary Gordon, and the ever dependable Dwight Frye as Karl.

The Wolf Man (1941)

Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man (Universal)

“Even a man who’s pure in heart and says his prayers by night / May become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” A medieval ode of Eastern European origin? Not exactly: this catchy little poem was the invention of screenwriter and author (turned director) Curt Siodmak. But it set the right tone for one of the 1940’s favorite film monsters: the Wolf Man, played with anguish as well as charm by the young Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney had the added advantage of having had a father who practically thrived on his long association with the horror genre (not for nothing was dad known as the “Man of a Thousand Faces”). Junior, whose given name was Creighton, was also the only actor to have played the Wolf Man, a.k.a. Lawrence Talbot, in all of Universal’s subsequent sequels. Directed by George Waggner, and makeup by (you guessed it) Jack Pierce, with Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Patrick Knowles, and Bela Lugosi as (who else?) Bela the Gypsy.

The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Claude Rains as The Phantom (monsters4ever.com)

Proving that Technicolor was no guarantee of box-office success, this sound version of Gaston Leroux’s Gothic tale (first filmed as a silent with the inimitable Lon Chaney as the ghostly apparition) features Claude Rains again as a rather kindly Phantom. His makeup is the weakest of Jack Pierce’s monster get-ups, though, and a big letdown for fans familiar with Chaney’s earlier death’s head figure. There’s decidedly more opera here than phantom, too, as the movie spends an inordinate amount of screen time on a silly romance between baritone Nelson Eddy (in solid voice), beauteous Susana Foster (his vocal equal – and then some!), and jealous police inspector Edgar Barrier. The opera scenes are excellent nonetheless, and provide a colorful backdrop to the secondary plot line involving poor old Claudin (couldn’t they have given Rains a better name than that?) as an aging violinist put out to pasture before his time. No wonder, what with all the comic relief among the scene-stealing supporting cast of Leo Carrillo, Hume Cronyn, J. Edward Bromberg, Fritz Feld, Steven Geray, and Fritz Leiber as composer Franz Liszt.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature from the Black Lagoon (wizardworlddigital.com)

Though not part of Universal’s original monster contingent, the titular Creature (alternately played on land by Ben Chapman, and in water by champion swimmer Ricou Browning) became part of the new generation of screen demons with this tightly scripted, expertly executed sci-fi shocker. Filmed in simultaneous 3-D and flat versions, the story takes place in an uncharted region of the Amazon (the so-called Black Lagoon), where scientists Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and Julia Adams (in a white bathing suit, no less) have dropped anchor, in full research regalia, in order to study the fossilized remains of the supposedly extinct Gill Man. Little do they realize that the Creature is very much alive and well, and has set his sights (and claws) on the luscious Ms. Adams. It’s not quite Beauty and the Beast, but this will do for now. Great underwater photography and a terrific film score by Hans J. Salter, who was Universal’s resident composer of science-fiction and horror thrillers. Jack Arnold (It Came From Outer Space) directed, with veterans Antonio Moreno, Whit Bissell, Perry Lopez, and Nestor Paiva as Lucas.

Happy Halloween, everybody!!!

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes