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‘Shaken, not Stirred’ - Live and Let Die (1973)

Live and Let Die posterFor Live and Let Die, they took the entirely usual step of trying to bribe Sean Connery back into Bond’s tuxedo. An unprecedented fee was offered, but for once the Scot turned them down and ensured a new face as 007. American actors were strongly considered. Robert Redford and Paul Newman both figured. Burt Reynolds was a rather unlikely frontrunner, before the producers resolved to go British and returned to a previously shelved option. Roger Moore had been in the frame when both Connery and George Lazenby won the role. A veteran of television thrillers and with nearly thirty years of screen acting behind him, Moore got a haircut, lost some weight (that was real champagne he drank with Tony Curtis on The Pretenders; much was quaffed) and strolled into the part.

Considering the direction taken by the franchise with Diamonds are Forever, ‘Rog’ was an eminently suitable choice. Arch, knowing and with his tongue permanently wedged in cheek, 007 and he were perfect bedfellows. Even the name Roger Moore is an innuendo – how much more appropriate could he be? Over the years, Moore would come to spend far too long in the part and was present for some of the series’ weakest entries, but he was the Bond I grew up with. He was my Bond, in the same way that Tom Baker was, and always will be, my Doctor Who.

Back in the day when televised film premieres counted for something, Live and Let Die’s UK network debut in 1980 was a big deal. 23.5m watched it and the new Bond. Moore brought a light touch to the role. He explained that he deliberately tried to distance himself from Connery’s interpretation, and this wasn’t just down to his choice of alcoholic beverage or a preference for neckties. There was his more comedic, mock-deferential attitude to M, the increased jokey flirtiness with Miss Moneypenny (which seems mutual, whereas I got the impression she would have jumped Connery in a heartbeat). Whereas the old Bond brought a sadistic touch to the way he dealt with his foes, Moore looked as though he found the whole killing business slightly distasteful. He’d do it, for Queen and country of course, but he didn’t have to like it.

All tied upLive and Let Die is a better film than Diamonds are Forever, and that’s because Moore fits more easily within the overall tone. The serious spycraft of older entries had long gone by this stage. All the film offers is a thrill ride – jump on and have fun! There are stunts, crocodiles, sharks, a speedboat chase, girls, Voodoo… what’s not to like? Moore is good at this sort of chicanery. The raised eyebrow from his Saint days might be kept in check here, but it twitches as his agent floats through the action, placed in perilous situations but always clear he isn’t going to suffer any serious harm.

Scraps remain from Fleming’s source novel, and the character of San Monique dictator, Dr Kananga, is an invention of Tom Mankiewicz’s screenplay. As it turned out, Kananga was born as the production team scouted for locations. Coming across a crocodile farm in Jamaica, they learned it was owned by a certain Ross Kananga, who not only lent his name to the film’s main baddie but also performed the famous crocodile jump stunt. The gate to his crocodile farm carried an ominous warning – ‘All Trespassers will be Eaten’ – which makes an appearance in the film because it’s so darn cool.

Live and Let Die was made at the height of Blaxploitation. At one point, Bond enters Harlem and, while the very appearance of a well dressed English gentleman in Manhattan’s ‘black’ district would be sensational enough, is subjected to a slew of jive talk, some of which is jaw droppingly awful and horribly dated. Amidst all the honky catcalls, he comes across the picture’s main love interest, Solitaire, who’s played by Jane Seymour. Dr Quinn and endless appearances in TV movies and mini series were still some way off, and Seymour is virginal loveliness, indeed her ability to read the Tarot is linked to her maidenhood. This is before Bond enters her life, of course, and ends all that nonsense via a ridiculously easy card trick. Julius Harris plays Tee Hee, the now traditional henchman with a quirk (in his instance, a robotic pincer that is naturally used for nastiness), and then there’s Mr Big (Yaphet Kotto), the underworld kingpin who has minions on every corner. A fantastic sense of danger follows Bond as soon as he sets foot in the States. His every move is relayed to Mr Big by walkie talkie carrying drones on each street corner. The driver taking him to Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is shot while the car is still moving. He sits in a bar alcove, only to find it’s a trap! It’s a shame the threat of Mr Big turns out to be so limited, no match for 007’s skills, yet the implication is quite thrilling.

Solitaire meets the snakeLess so is the film’s set piece special, a speedboat pursuit on the Louisiana bayou. Bond pulls every trick in the book to elude his pursuers, leading to a stunt-packed ride for viewers, yet it’s actually a little dull and lasts far too long. The whole thing is soured further when a local sheriff gets involved. J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) is the stereotypical Deep Souther, hauling a pot belly in his fruitless efforts to catch up with Bond. Poor old J.W.. Clearly inserted into the plot for nothing more than comic relief, his casual bigotry and evident stupidity are held up as reasons to dislike Live and Let Die (he also features in the ill-starred follow-up). On the plus side, in a film where the bad guys are all black, there’s some credit in making a white man the butt of the joke.

The worst thing about the boat chase is that it seems the film has a Louisiana sequence just to showcase it. Far better is Live and Let Die’s other pursuit scene, as Bond and Solitaire escape in a rundown double-decker bus, which becomes a single-decker after colliding with a low bridge. Better again is the voodoo business, just for its sheer daftness and fun with snakes. Rosie Carver (Blaxploitation veteran, Gloria Hendry) turns up as a treacherous CIA agent. Bond is on to her from the start, in his usual more ways than one (Queen and country again), yet she meets her maker via a bullet shot from one of Kananga’s scarecrows, superb and scary devices that can be used either for spying or assassination.

Live and Let Die enjoyed massive box office success and sealed Moore’s future as Bond. It also guaranteed the steer of the franchise, locked in spiralling levels of silliness as the aim was to provide fun and thrills, moving 007 along to the next action scene as briskly as the exposition would allow. It works here, just about, though later entries would demonstrate that the balance between entertainment and plain daftness was fine indeed. As Moore makes quips about ‘A genuine Felix Leiter’ to his CIA liaison’s voice emanating from a car lighter, and agents are offed during ingeniously double-edged jazz funerals, it’s enough of a ride to forget the absence of John Barry. Perhaps it helps that Live and Let Die features one of the series’ best theme songs, performed by Paul McCartney and Wings, which is referenced frequently in the funked up score.

 

Posted on 25th January 2011
Under: Uncategorized, 007 | 2 Comments »

‘Good evening’ - Dracula (1979)

In an unfortunate coincidence of release dates, John Badham’s take on Dracula hit USA theatres three months after Love at First Bite. The George Hamilton romp, a playful yarn about the Count finding love in modern New York, was a box office hit, grossing more than $43m in 1979 and placing vampire comedies very much in vogue. What the world didn’t demand was a sober adaptation of material from both the book and the Broadway stage show, which starred Frank Langella as Dracula, but that’s what it got when the Badham movie premiered in July 1979. While it didn’t exactly bomb, the film took around half the gross of Love at First Bite and was considered a commercial failure. Dracula gained ground during the following decade, becoming a massive hit in the VHS rentals market. It remained the most recent screen version of Bram Stoker’s novel until Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish adaptation, which came out in 1992.

'Good evening'Badham’s edition broke with the tradition of Dracula films by concentrating far more on the Count’s sensual qualities. Up to that point, most releases suggested he had a hold over women, but the emphasis had been on his evil, his ability to draw female victims towards him via an ill-defined supernatural hypnosis. Not here. Langella, reprising his stage role for the film, is a highly sexual being. Charismatic and charming, he steals away with the fiance of Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), who never stands a chance. Once the Count takes an interest in her, Lucy (Kate Nelligan) doesn’t look back. The virtuous Jonathan has lost any allure. The film spends some time dwelling on their courtship, one where Dracula is established as being in a league above those around him. You understand why he captivates Lucy. Various perfectly intoned ‘Good evening’s from him and she’s lost to Jonathan for good. Even when the Count dies and Harker believes his power over Lucy has ended, it’s clear from the look in her eyes that the truth is quite different. She’s Dracula’s, and not through the process of turning her into a vampire but via sex. In the film’s solitary sex scene, an abstract, suggestive piece of swirling reds and silhouetted lovers that’s dated rather badly, it’s made clear that he has shown her a good time. How can Jonathan, a slightly ridiculous figure in his Toad-esque Hispano-Suiza, possibly compare?

As with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a great deal of money was invested in this version, disconnecting it from the TV adaptations and Hammer’s cost-cutting offerings that came earlier. Dracula might have lost its Transylvanian opening, but little expense has been spared in recreating pre-World War One England. The production values are from the top drawer, as is the pedigree cast, and the film is topped off with a lustrous score from John Williams. The composer clearly enjoyed providing the music for Dracula, taking as his inspiration Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and riffing on the theme of everlasting love.

The story is rooted in Whitby, North Yorkshire, though the filming was all done in various locations around Cornwall. St Austell doubled as the coastline where the doomed ship carrying Dracula to England is beached. Camelot Castle in Tintagel serves as the Seward residence and mental hospital. Carfax Abbey is in fact the beautiful St Michael’s Mount. The Count gets to work as soon as he’s set foot in England. First, he bewitches the wan and sickly Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis) seemingly because he can, before quickly seeing her off and moving onto Lucy. Poor Mina is little more than starters. In this version, she’s the daughter of Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier, complete with a thick Dutch accent - Francis’s comes and goes, presumably to give the impression of her settling into English society), who arrives at the scene after her death and is the only one with any real inkling of what really befell her.

Van Helsing and Harker wield the crossIn the film’s best scene, and by some distance its scariest, Van Helsing ventures to Mina’s grave to dispatch his daughter, who is now terrorising the community as a vampire. And what a vampire she makes! The Professor comes across an empty coffin, but one that has been ripped apart from within, leading to the labyrinth of mining tunnels below. Van Helsing descends, and in the cramped darkness drops his crucifix in a puddle. As he ferrets for the cross, the waters clear and reveal a nightmare vision of white looking down on him. It’s Mina, returning to her resting place and still wearing the tattered funereal dress she was buried in. He looks up, the full horror of what has become of her dawning on him, and the camera similarly tilts, gradually revealing a putrid, broken skinned demon with black eyes, matted hair, reddened mouth and bloodlust. Between them, Dr Seward (Donald Pleasance) and the Professor put Mina out of her misery, but the pain has told on her father. By all accounts, Olivier was a fan of Peter Cushing’s work in the Hammer Dracula franchise, and the emotional investment his tortured character puts in here gives him the advantage. It’s in his dealings with Langella where the ‘Cushing’ in his performance shines through. These are clever men, natural adversaries, and whilst you get the impression Dracula has some respect for the cross-wielding Professor all he gets in return is academic revulsion.

For audiences, the fate of Mina is proof of Dracula’s evil. He may be a good looking bloke with great hair who wears a cape well, but that’s where his lovemaking gets you, wandering the lonely night as a repellent living corpse. The race is now on to save Lucy from the same end, even as Miss Seward is succumbing to the Count’s seduction. His is a different vampire from the doomed hero played by Gary Oldman. Less openly demonic than Christopher Lee’s Dracula, Langella is nevertheless an empty individual, boasting to Van Helsing and Harker of his power and heritage whilst murdering the unfortunate Renfield (a superb Tony Haygarth) with a contemptuous neck break.

Papa...If there is a fault with Dracula, it is that there are few frights to be had. Apart from the scene detailed above (one I could barely watch when I first saw the film as a child), and the moment where he appears at Mina’s window (upside down, eyes glowing, after crawling down the wall outside), the scariest bits are those depicting Seward’s chaotic hospital, a real home for the mentally broken where screams are commonplace and inmates wander the stairways wearing pigs’ heads and wailing pitifully. I read a comment that Langella was just too handsome to make for an effectively creepy Dracula, and in fairness it wasn’t his brief to terrify the viewers. Though he takes Lucy and Mina, this vampire never bares his teeth, instead upping the smoulder value and leaving it to his brides to do the rest.

Is it even supposed to be scary? What we now savour is the brilliant cast, led by Olivier’s pained Van Helsing and the suffering etched on Eve’s face as he appreciates both what he’s up against and what he’s lost. This is an underrated adaptation, even in the colour-saturated version that has been ubiquitous since the film’s release on laserdisc in 1991. Apparently, Badham had initially intended his movie to be in black and white, in honour of the Universal classic from 1931, and it was only here that he had an opportunity to produce an edition that came close to his vision. Those who recall the warm colours of Dracula’s theatrical release and appearances in the 1980s - the studio (Universal again) deliberately overruling Badham in an attempt to showcase the film’s production values - demand a return to its original form, though there are no plans for a restored version and indeed my copy - the R2/4 DVD produced without a lot of love in 2006 - is as desaturated as they come. But does that really matter, as long as I still have visions of the undead Mina approaching, arms outstretched and the words ‘Papa, komme mit mir’ escaping her broken lips in that little, lost girl’s voice..?

Posted on 30th November 2009
Under: Uncategorized, Horror | 2 Comments »

Hammer Time! The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Revenge posterGiven the choice between Hammer’s two giant franchises - Dracula and Frankenstein - it’s the ‘good’ Baron who gets my vote. No disrespect to Christopher Lee’s Count. He’s still my favourite incarnation of the chalk-faced Transylvanian. But in the case of Frankenstein, Hammer appear to have mined a richer vein of storytelling. These movies, invariably starring Peter Cushing, produce the same basic yarn with each release, but it’s how they get from ‘A’ to ‘B’ that never fails to entertain. The Revenge of Frankenstein, the sequel to Hammer’s box office smash original, could have been a rehash of familiar material. The Curse of Franksentein loosely followed Universal’s 1931 classic, Frankenstein, and nobody would have blamed the studio for simply taking James Whales’s follow-up, The Bride, as its inspiration. Instead, writer Jimmy Sangster comes up with something entirely original, leading the plot in an unexpected direction.

Perhaps it’s the Cush’s playing of the Baron that makes the production hang together so well. This site has made no secret of its admiration for the Hammer veteran, and he’s clearly in his element with this meatiest of roles. What makes it so good is that Frankenstein is broadly portrayed as a villain, a body-snatching wrong ‘un who tampers with the stuff of life at the cost of others, yet in Cushing’s hands things aren’t so simple. His Baron is capable of showing great kindness to others, not least with his physically disabled assistant, Karl, to whom he offers a new, working body as a favour for saving his neck from the guillotine. He runs a clinic for the poor, yet it becomes clear this is a front for his favoured work and his patients are in fact the unwitting donors of the body parts he needs. That said, his aim is to cure the afflicted, albeit via a grotesque transplant of the brain into new quarters. However you choose to read him, what’s clear is that Cushing’s protagonist is a morally ambiguous character, and it’s to the actor’s credit that he slips neither into outright evil or pure goodness.

Karl starts losing itAs usual, The Revenge was filmed at  Hammer’s Bray Studios, and for fans the movie can become a case of spotting the sets as they appeared in many other productions. The graveyard in which the Baron is supposedly buried has served as a cemetery on numerous occasions. Frankenstein’s cellar-based laboratory doubled as Dracula’s crypt. The latter, the centrepiece to any good offering about life made from dead flesh, is a riot of flashing lights and electricity sound effects. In an early scene, Frankenstein reveals an experiment to his new assistant, Dr Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews). It’s a pair of eyes and a disembodied arm, both of which are attached to an artificial brain powered by electricity. The Baron wishes to prove how complicated the human brain is by demonstrating the reactions of the arm and eyes to fire, and sure enough both get excited as he approaches with a lit bunsen burner. Played for dark laughs it may be, but Cushing and director, Terence Fisher, wear straight faces. They realise all this is ridiculous fare, but never make the mistake of being too knowing about it.

Once the business of Frankenstein’s latest escape from justice is dealt with, we’re into a familiar groove. Renaming himself Dr Stein (he later pops up in London’s Harley Street as Dr Franck), the Baron is up to his old tricks in Carlsbruck, Germany, getting up the noses of the medical establishment by making a success of his little practice whilst working on Karl’s new body. With the help of Kleve, his transplant is an apparent success. Karl wakes up in a fresh body, that of jobbing actor Michael Gwynne (best known perhaps as the duplicitous Lord Melbury in Fawlty Towers, but in ownership of a lengthy CV containing appearances in the likes of Cleopatra and The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire). As Karl recovers, the doctors toast their success. But there are warning signs. An earlier experiment carried out on a chimpanzee caused it to turn cannibalistic and eat its mate, but Stein believes he has overcome that obstacle.

The BaronSoon enough, Karl starts going wrong. He’s impressed initially with his handsome new face and fully functioning body, but he then begins to show psychotic tendencies, as well as the physical limitations of his old self manifesting themselves once again. As his face collapses alongside his mind, Karl turns to mindless murder. He then unwittingly reveals who Dr Stein really is, putting the Baron’s life in jeapordy. As the guillotine looms again, Frankenstein is reminded that he’s suddenly a long way from a moment earlier in the film where he treated his medical peers with utter scorn by making them wait for him in his ward, next to all those grubby, working class patients.

The Revenge really is good stuff. These were the days of Hammer’s early forays into horror, back when it was young, thrusting and in demand. The budgetary limitations only extend as far as some familiar shooting locations. Elsewhere, it’s a lavish affair, featuring great effects, make-up and costumes, all of which add up to the dark fairytale territory that Hammer aimed for. At its heart is Cushing, still some years away from the sense of repetition that came with making another schlock Frankenstein caper (though I have a soft spot for the 1967 offering, Frankenstein Created Woman) and enjoying himself thoroughly. The film may be over fifty years old, but it’s sprightly for its age and gives every impression of coming from a studio that was at its creative peak.

Posted on 14th November 2009
Under: Uncategorized, Hammer | 5 Comments »

‘To a new world of gods and monsters!’

WARNING - THIS ARTICLE PRETTY MUCH GIVES AWAY THE ENTIRE PLOT OF THE MOVIES!

One of the many Bride postersIronically, I bought The Bride of Frankenstein in a DVD pack alongside Frankenstein for £4.99, as a promotional effort geared towards Van Helsing. With the latter serving as an homage to the classic Universal monster movies, rereleasing the old things in cheap, accessible double bills was a great thing to do, only they happen to be far superior to the Hugh Jackman affair, which by most standards was somewhat underwhelming. Not only could Helsing’s director, Stephen Sommers, have learned something from watching these movies again, but their budget price availability brought them home to a new generation of viewers. Whether you find the horror flicks of the 1930s to be defined by their tameness or their contemporary power, you can’t really call yourselves fans of the genre if you haven’t soaked them up at some point. Alongside the likes of Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman and their mates, ‘Franky’ stands as a template for most horror movies that have followed. You can see its influence in nearly everything, from the cheapest nasty through to £100m blockbusters. And of those classic monsters, Frankenstein’s monster remains the most powerful.

Both movies were based on Mary Shelley’s novel, the gothic bestseller that has its mythical roots in a contest between Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and herself whilst holidaying, an attempt to see who could come up with the scariest yarn. Mary’s tale, about the moral horrors of dabbling with creation, effortlessly beat the lads, and went on to become a favourite not only of readers, but also those looking for a good story to be adapted for the theatre. By the time James Whale made the now definitive 1931 version, it had been doing its rounds on the stage for some years, and various silent efforts for the screen were already gathering dust.

Yet for all that, Frankenstein the novel is hardly an obvious source for all this attention. It’s a good read, but the scares take some time to arrive, and in fact it works much better as a philosophical poser than as straight horror. In the book, the creature is most certainly not the real monster. Reviled by its maker almost as soon as he brings it to life, the luckless thing finds itself shunned and wandering the local forests, scaring everyone who comes across its path until by chance it is taken in by a blind hermit desperate for company. As a result, it learns to speak, and eventually confronts Frankenstein to demand from him a mate. With the threat of danger to his own fiance hanging over him, the scientist returns to his research and indeed creates a woman, only the thought of these creatures propagating detests him to the extent that he destroys it before it gets a chance to live. The fiance then dies at the hands of the creature, exactly as he grimly promised. What follows is a spiral of self-destruction as both creator and creation dance around each other, one demanding the other’s obliteration, the second unable to understand its own existence.

The immediate loathing that strikes every character who sees the monster seems to have been the reason for all the plays and films. Everyone loves a good scare and make-up maestros worked their socks off to knock out creations that could inspire ever greater degrees of revulsion. Quite often however, the aim of the producers was simply to frighten their audiences, to turn the monster into a mindless killing machine. Whale’s film was the first to take a different approach.

The big man himselfIt was released in 1931, on the back of the box office winner, Dracula. That movie’s star, Bela Lugosi, was originally scheduled to play the monster, but turned down the role because of the lashings of make-up involved. It instead went to little-known English actor, Boris Karloff, whose gaunt, angular features were perfect for bringing out the deathly, pallid visage of the monster. In the movie, he doesn’t put in an appearance for thirty minutes or so. Until that point, the narrative concerns itself with Henry (Victor in the novel - no idea why it’s changed) Frankenstein, a brilliant young scientist who has been shunned by the community for his blasphemous belief in the ability to produce artificial life. Played by stage star Colin Clive, he’s a study in barely suppressed dementia, a genius who is forced to rob graves to provide body parts for his creation. Eventually, he strikes gold. On a visually stunning stormy night, the monster lies under sheets and bandages, waiting for the final spark of life. A burst of lightning is the key, the sudden electrical energy that is the secret of animation. Amidst Frankenstein’s laboratory, a playground of machinery, flashing lights and crackles and hums, the monster’s fingers move, and with a triumphant cry the doctor declares he knows what it’s like to be God.

The next we see of Henry, he’s having a satisfied smoke and looking decidedly pleased with himself. Confronted with his former University professor, he reveals his creation for the very first time. Painfully slowly, wringing out every last knot of tension, the monster enters the room, shuffling in backwards, so that the camera can linger on him as it turns around to face us. We all know what we’re going to see, but imagine it’s 1931 and you don’t have all those other horror movie precedents to cushion the shock. Lifeless eyes stare out from a heavy brow, thin lips stark against pale, alabaster skin, and above the scar running along its forehead is the flat head, mottled with limp black hair that barely covers the stitches. It’s a horrific sight, designed to repulse, and later the monster’s attitude seems to match its cruel visage by killing Frankenstein’s assistant and going on the rampage. It turns out the same assistant had been teasing it with fire before it turned on him. And then we see Frankenstein’s look of terror as he is informed the prized brain he stole for the monster is that of a sub-intelligent criminal. Oh dear…

But the monster itself is an innocent. It plays with a little girl for a moment, tossing flowers into a lake with her, before it unwittingly throws her in after them, not knowing what’s going on as she drowns. The scene was considered so hard going by the censors of the time that it was cut out, only being restored much later. In the original edit, we see the monster and girl larking around in one scene; the next shows her father carrying her dead body through the streets. It’s enough to assemble an angry mob of villagers, wielding the vintage pitchforks and torches and determined for retribution. It’s joined by Frankenstein himself, who’s just as keen to destroy his creation. He has seen the monster almost kill his own bride, Elizabeth, and is thus persuaded it has to go. The crowds pursue it to an old mill, but not before it captures the doctor himself. In a final act of pathos, as the mill is being burned to the ground it throws Frankenstein to a fiery death and then falls itself, presumably gone for good.

Or has it? The success of Frankenstein brought demands for a sequel, though Whale himself was far from enthusiastic to be involved again. The same was true for Karloff, who didn’t miss the hours of preparation before each day’s filming. His was a painful experience, partly from having to act in weighed down boots to give him a lumbering gait, also after a scene in which he had to carry Frankenstein and damaged his back. Money however talked the loudest. The production team were handed a considerably larger budget to come up with the follow-up, a sequel that would fly in the face of conventional wisdom by being far superior to its predecessor.

The 1931 original remains a true classic, and much imitated in later years, but it’s by no means perfect. For one thing, it moves slowly, taking as much time as possible before revealing the monster, which increased the anticipation at the time, but surely has current viewers watching the clock. It’s clear also that the first sight of the monster - artfully done, with successive shots moving in closer to Karloff’s dead face - is its biggest treat. Once that’s out of the way, the narrative moves to a quite obvious conclusion, whilst it’s never fully clear why the doctor doesn’t take a more protective role over his creation. He’s persuaded quickly enough that it’s a bad thing and that he must abandon it, despite all that work putting it together in the first place. Like everyone else, by the end he wants nothing more than its destruction.

All the same, it’s a masterly work in terms of technical production. The lighting is superb, the acting consistently good. Frankenstein’s laboratory looks great, and of course the amazing make-up work done to create the monster itself is the stuff of legend. What Bride does is take these elements, throws in a gripping story and adds humour to produce what may be the great horror film of them all.

It opens by taking us back to the moment after the novel was first written. Byron and Shelley are both spellbound by Mary’s work, and make a big fuss over the fact that - in their terms - such a pretty thing can conjure up a book as frightful as Frankenstein. She explains that the story doesn’t end with the twin deaths of creator and creation. Taking us through a brief recap of earlier events, she begins the story at the very point the last one ended. Frankenstein’s supposedly dead body is pulled from the wreckage and carted off to his stately home. In the meantime, the parents of the first movie’s murdered girl determine to ensure the monster is gone. It hasn’t. As luck would have it, the creature dropped into an underground cavern, and makes short work of both mother and father before shuffling off into the wild once again.

Pretorius's little freakshowWe don’t see much of the monster for a while. The story picks up with Henry, who recovers from his near death experience, and nobly vows to Elizabeth that this is the end of all his experiments. He should be so lucky. Enter Doctor Pretorios, played with a unique combination of sinister campness by Ernest Thesiger. Pretorios has been working along similar lines to Frankenstein, and now wants to collaborate with him on creating a mate for the monster. At first, the Baron wants nothing to do with it, but Pretorios persuades him with a mixture of threats and tapping into his desires to improve on his work. There’s a comic moment where Pretorios demonstrates the results of his own science, as a number of miniature humans are revealed, living in jars and dressed up as kings, queens and wizards. At one point, the king escapes from his bottle and attempts to woo the queen, before he’s picked up and dumped unceremoniously back.

At first, Frankenstein is willing to share his knowledge, and the pair work together on a new creation. They’re assisted by two grisly heavies (as opposed to hunchback Fritz who worked alone in part one), whose duties consist of finding bodies to be used. This mainly involves robbing graves, but they’re not averse to killing the odd citizen themselves if needs be.

We then cut back to the monster, who is wandering through a lush forest. The music joining it is light and cheery, like it’s the start of a new and better chapter for the misunderstood creature. In a marked contrast to the first episode, the monster discovers a young woman drowning, and pulls her out of the water to safety. Her reaction? The usual abject horror. Her cries bring the mob back, and this time they catch the monster, tying it to a stake and later locking it up in a prison cell. But normal bars can’t hold a monster such as this. Within moments, it has broken free, torn through the village and returns to the wild.

Is there any hope for the monster, who by now could be forgiven for developing a complex? Clearly, it’s a ‘he’ by now, as it takes on greater human attributes, and at one point comes close to knowing happiness. Chancing across a house in the thick of the forest, the monster learns it belongs to a blind old man living by himself. By chance, the man wants exactly the same things as the creature - companionship, and pretty soon, they’re shacked up together, enjoying food, wine, and what looks to me like a decent-sized spliff. The reaction to smoking on the monster’s face suggests as much, in any case. Most importantly, ‘he’ learns speech, something Karloff was quite opposed to, though he was wrong - the monster is suddenly even more human, an important element to his character as he remains a fugitive. His bliss can’t last. Hunters arrive at the cottage, and upon sight of the monster chase him back into the woods. Alone again, he stumbles through what else but a graveyard shrouded in mist. One gravestone is a crucifix, which carries enough obvious images for the viewer, but the more revealing one is a grim figure of Death. However much the creature wants peace and friendship, he will always be associated with death, and we see him disappear in a catacomb.

But he isn’t alone. Pretorios and the henchmen are removing corpses, and as the latter take their coffins away, the doctor remains, enjoying lunch on top of a sarcophagus. Enticed by the sight of wine and the smell of cigar smoke, the monster is lured out. Pretorios doesn’t shrink. He shows not the mildest concern as he shares his table. These unlikely allies are about to learn that working together is very good for them, as meanwhile Frankenstein is having big doubts. His initial enthusiasm for the scheme has passed, and his own morals are telling him that once is enough, twice quite ridiculous. Unfortunately, he isn’t given the chance to turn aside. Pretorios kidnaps Elizabeth with the monster’s help, and they both force Frankenstein to complete his work… or else.

Don't fancy yours muchWe then move back to the laboratory. As before, everything happens in a Gothic tower, somewhere on a remote hilltop. In a mirror of the first movie, the doctors go through the routine of bringing the bride to life, amidst equipment that is spectacular enough to suggest the process of doing so is well beyond the average human mind. And give her life they do. Frankenstein and Pretorios prepare the bride, fitting a white dress around her, letting her totter around a little. Unlike the monster, she actually looks like a piece of work. Elsa Lanchester played her, in a curious parallel to her other role in the film, that of Mary Shelley herself. Despite her now famous jerky head movements and wild black hair pouring from her head, complete with white streak, she’s very nearly a vision, and a clear inspiration for Marge Simpson. She makes a step towards Frankenstein, as though he’s the one she’s intended for, but life isn’t that perfect. The monster comes into view. He’s attracted. She, like nearly everyone else he’s come across, is revolted, letting out a clipped cry of horror as he approaches. In one of the film’s best moments, he tries to sit with her, and stroke her hand. It’s not going to happen. The bride stares at what is holding her, lets out another wail and at that point the monster seems to know that whatever else might happen, he isn’t going to find a female companion. In his eyes, it’s better to die than live alone, hunted and despised. He allows Frankenstein to escape, but sends Pretorios and his bride - who hisses at him, catlike, as though he hasn’t endured enough of her disgust - to hell by destroying the laboratory. The last we see is Henry and Elizabeth running away as the tower collapses in on itself.

The film’s production is superb. With his lavish budget, Whale was able to create a much larger world for his story than in the first movie, and we never see where the money goes better than in the climax, in Pretorios’s funfair of a laboratory. In terms of effects, it’s a world away from the rest of the era. The scene with the miniatures is smooth, beautifully conceived and doesn’t clash too jarringly when superimposed against the lifesize actors. However, it’s the story and the acting that really sell it. Compared with Frankenstein, Bride is a real thriller, peeling back its revelations with every scene. If the mere sight of the monster did the business earlier, the need for upping the ante this time around is felt clearly. Giving us a second manmade creature isn’t enough. There are subplots running throughout, from the occasional focus on Frankenstein’s maid, played with hammy hysteria by Una O’Connor, to the more important bit about Elizabeth being kidnapped. It’s worth remembering that this is a 75-minute film - so much is crammed into it that there’s no chance of flabbiness. At no point does it feel ponderous and worthy.

As far as the acting is concerned, it’s difficult to see past Boris Karloff, who is billed simply as KARLOFF in the credits. That’s an improvement on part one, where a stark question mark sits in the ‘Players’ column next to the Monster, as if we may believe for a moment it really might have been created from spare parts. Here, Karloff rules. He fills every scene with a combination of pathos and menace. It’s a tough job to do, but despite the 40-odd pounds of make-up, prosthetics and weights, he pulls it off, making us both fear and feel sympathy for his creature. The scenes in which he is supposed to provide the laughs work equally well. The expression on the monster’s face as he tries cigarettes and alcohol for the first time is a picture - we’ve all been there, mate. Ernest Thesiger as Pretorios provides fine support, turning out to be one of the campest villians in horror movie history, a bit like watching a malevolent Charles Hawtrey. Thesiger can silence his opponents with a stare; he can also reduce us to hysterics with his pithy asides and black comedy. As in the first film, Colin Clive walks the line between sanity and madness suitably well, and there’s also great support from Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth. She was 17 when she appeared in this picture, but you wouldn’t know it. Franz Waxman’s luxurious score is a real thing of beauty, the music accompanying both the monster and his mate a sublime mixture of strangeness and doomed romance.

The Bride of Frankenstein does what every really good sequel ought to - it expands its own universe, offering something new in the spirit of the original, whilst not being a simple retread. It’s also a subversive film, in the sense that lashings of camp humour are allowed to float past the censors and onto the screen, hidden within the plot but noticeable to the modern viewer. This may be the best horror film of all time though like most movies from the 1930s it has inevitably dated. Scenes that might have put contemporary audiences in shock are so mimicked and parodied to our well trained eyes that its effects have no chance of remaining as powerful. But then, true horror is about more than being simply scary. When done properly, it should force us to run a gamut of emotions, particularly empathy for the monsters therein so that unlike, say Freddy Krueger, we can appreciate why they’re the twisted things they are, why they are a menace. Bride achieves that perfectly. From the opening through to Frankenstein’s ‘She’s alive! Alive!’ cry, Karloff makes us see what being a monster is all about, and indeed is the most human of all the characters by the end.

Posted on 29th January 2009
Under: Uncategorized, Horror, Classics | 8 Comments »

Live from th’Oscars

1.00 am (GMT) - Well, from the sofa, at any rate. There’s no sleep for me tonight, so I might as well spend my insomniac hours in front of the telly, following Sky TV’s coverage of the Academy Awards.

Not much going on at the moment. Claudia Winkelman and her girlie buddies are discussing the dresses in some detail. Jennifer Garner looks great, apparently. Tilda Swinton appears to be wearing a bin liner, I’m told. Sadly, the point is lost on me.

Of this year’s big hitters, I’ve seen all but There will be Blood, thanks mainly to the fact it isn’t showing anywhere. That means when I’m thinking about who or what I want to win, it’s without one of the favourites in mind. My feeling is that Michael Clayton, whilst not bad, is there more or less to make up the numbers. Juno is the ‘hip’ choice that shows the Academy is still in touch with all ages (yeah, right). I loved it. It’s mainly my Britishness that makes me want good things for Atonement. Again, a very, very good film, though impossibly worthy and over-earnest, and I thought the first thirty minutes or so dragged in the much same way as Ian McEwan’s novel. Still, the second half of the movie is simply superb, building up to one of the best and most logical twists I have seen since the climax of The Sixth Sense. Oh yes, and the beach scenes were filmed in my home town, Redcar, which adds kudos from the very start.

For me, though, all entries pale in comparison with the utterly monumental No Country for Old Men. I caught it very recently, and was pummelled into submission by its gut-wrenching tension that was somehow mixed in with melancholy. Just when I figured all the Coen brothers’ best ideas had been used up, back they come with this. It’s an amazing experience, and instantly hushed my previous opinion that they could have given Sweeney Todd more of a look in.

I’m off to make a brew, and hope that something happens shortly. I don’t expect that many people will stumble across this page whilst I update it through the night (tiredness permitting), but if you do please feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think. Please. Don’t let me feel I’m all alone here…

1.34 - Hmm, Jon Stewart doesn’t seem to be as funny as Jonathan Ross (and that’s not saying a lot), but at least we can hear him.

1.43 - The award for best costumery goes to Elizabeth: The Golden Age. A dreadful movie, but it did look good so no arguments from this quarter. Surely, the Academy could have done more with this one - in days of yore, they’d have spent some time wheeling out displays of costumes for us all to coo over. Did anyone think to ask the winner why one of Queen Bess’s dresses had what looks like kites on its rear?

Talking of crap films for a moment, I went to see Rambo at the weekend. It was awful, a definite step backwards for Sly after he had rehabilitated Rocky so successfully. Cardboard cutout characters, uneasy (at best) morals, terrible dialogue, and so much violence that by the end, I hardly batted an eyelid when someone lost an arm/throat/legs, etc. Worst of all was the starring role for a baffled looking Julie Benz. Darla deserves better!

Oh god, Clooney’s on, and he sounds like he’s settled in.

1.54 - Ratatouille can’t lose to a flick about penguins on surfboards, can it? Thankfully, no it can’t. Best animated feature, and speaking as someone who thought the ‘Anton Ego scene’ to be the single best celluloid moment last year, I approve.

1.59 - Norbit was nominated for an Oscar? Say it ain’t so. Thankfully, La Vie En Rose wins for Best Make-Up, and sounds like a worthy victor. I’ll really have to catch it sometime.

I like the way that if the winner talks for more than thirty seconds, music starts piping in - a clearer way of telling someone to get off the stage I’m yet to find. Only in America, huh?

2.14 - The Rock sounds like a good laugh, doesn’t he? Hey, I mean it; I once had the dubious pleasure of reviewing Be Cool for DVD Times, and he was by some distance the finest thing in it.

The Golden Compass gets a statue for Best Visual Effects, beating Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean. Watching the brief clips about how they put the effects together, I didn’t see much difference in any of the examples. They could, for all the world, have been for the same movie, so similar were the techniques. Rubbish film, mind. I didn’t think any of them were that much cop, but I should like to have seen the Transformers people getting something for bringing those robots to life so superbly.

Art Direction goes to Sweeney Todd - loved it.

2.20 - Crumbs! Jennifer Hudson’s dress doesn’t leave much to the imagination!

We’re in Best Supporting Actor territory, the award preceded by a backslapping montage of past winners. This includes Cuba Gooding Jr making a complete tit of himself - no change there, then. There are actually some sterling performances being bigged up here, but inevitably Javier Bardem is chosen. Don’t act surprised, Javier. I wish he sounded in real life like he does in the movie. Like the Kurgen, in other words.

2.42 - Knickers! I was making another cup of decaff and missed Le Mozart des pickpockets being named as Best Live Action Short Film. Peter and the Wolf follows for Best Animated Short, which seems fair enough, though I quite liked the look of the one about John Lennon.

Needless to say, I’m enough of a philistine not to have seen any of them, but oh look! Here comes the award for Best Supporting Actress. I understand this is more or less Cate Blanchett’s for the taking. La Blanche seems to be one of those Oscar-friendly actresses who looks the part but isn’t afraid to do some chameleonic stuff (e.g. playing Bob Dylan) so that the lack of subtlety in her performance is masked by pretending to be a bloke. In any case, Tilda Swinton wins, to general surprise. A good call. Not only is her performance in Michael Clayton outstanding (bet it doesn’t get one more award all evening), but she’s fantastic full stop. Her turn in Young Adam took my breath away, and she even manages to do the obvious, bread winning fare (Narnia, The Beach) and come away with some dignity. Call me sniffy, but I didn’t think her dress looked that bad. Just shows what you can do with a bin liner, really.

2.50 - The Coen Brothers win Best Adapted Screenplay for No Country for Old Men. I quite like the gag about how selective they are with their sources, only choosing from Cormac McCarthy and Homer.

Really though, what’s the business with Jack Nicholson all about? Has he turned into some sort of Oscar mascot, so often do they refer to him, and sure enough there he is, bizarrely wearing sunglasses whilst indoors, and mouthing to the camera? It all seems very sad and undignified, this geezer in his seventies who is still talked of as though he ‘has it.’

3.09 - There’s an excruciating gag about pregnant actresses from Jon Stewart, before the evening’s first good joke shows up in the form of Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, who are announced as Dame Judi Dench and Halle Berry! They could be brothers, and their ongoing routine about which actress they most resemble is done in good jest. What they’re actually here to do is present a pair of awards for Sound. Both go to The Bourne Ultimatum, a rip-roaring flick that actually used its audio to maximum effect. But…

Though I didn’t think an awful lot of Transformers, I find myself arguing in its defence. Technically, the film was ahead of just about everything else in 2007. The sound of the robots ‘transforming’ remains in my mind even now. A case of it deserving better, perhaps, though I have no argument with some recognition for Bourne.

3.13 - Hell’s bells, Marion Cotillard is Best Actress for La Vie en Rose. She’s adorable, and I think I preferred her speech over the sort of dignified and restrained verbiage we might have expected from Julie Christie. I really will have to see that film.

3.20 - Colin Farrell nearly slips over as he introduces another song. I hope in the midst of this over-choreographed nonsense that we might get an abrupt ‘Shu-ite!’ from Faz, but he composes himself in time.

I’m starting to feel fatigued now. Keeping up this blog and following the comments on other sites isn’t easy, and I remember I have to go to a parent governors’ meeting at The Boy’s school in sixteen hours’ time. I hope they don’t expect much a contribution from me - perhaps I should consider wearing shades, for obvious reasons, and start to wonder if this is Jack Nicholson’s secret.

3.30 - Christopher Rouse collects the award for Best Editing, thanks to his work on The Bourne Ultimatum. A perfectly judged Oscar, in my opinion. I know the critical cachet went to Paul Greengrass, but the work done in the editing suite was flawlessly slick. Good call.

We also get to enjoy an extended look at all the previous winners - how A Beautiful Mind won is utterly beyond me.

3.35 - Art Director Robert Boyle picks up an Honourary Oscar. We get some clips of North by Northwest, which are of course worth the seconds of anyone’s life. Boyle’s eulogy to Hitchcock is a reminder of some of the true greats who the Academy somehow manages to forget.

3.43 - Die Falscher wins the statuette for Best Foreign Language Film, though oddly enough the award is announced as going to Austria, like the entire country was involved in its production. Of course, I haven’t seen any of the nominated features. They don’t tend to go for many foreign language affairs at the Odeon in Rochdale, though I could watch Rambo virtually every hour. Speaking of which, the bloke I went to see it with is a massive fan. Halfway through, I was about to make some caustic comment when he turned to me and whispered ‘This is fantastic’ in tones that suggested real awe. I mean, WTF?

3.50 - It’s time for Best Original Song - what’s going on with Travolta’s so called hair? Once wins this one (co-writer Glen Hansard makes a lovely, humble speech), and apparently it’s a good film. Certainly, I can’t argue with the absence of Disney, and more importantly no Elton John, who at one point seemed ever to be hovering on the fringes of this award.

4.00 - Three hours in, and still going strong(ish). There will be Blood gets the Cinematography award in a field that looked very, very good. I’m slightly surprised that Atonement didn’t snag it, but oh well. Presumably this Oscar is the build-up to Daniel Day-Lewis’s obvious victory in the acting stakes. I don’t want to suggest I’ve sneaked a look at the winners before the event, but come on…

4.11 - We’ve had the ‘Death List’ (no Roy Scheider?) and now it’s on to Best Score, which I guess won’t be won by No Country. In fact it’s Atonement, which managed the marvellous achievement of placing a typewriter within its orchestra. Fantastic.

4.19 - Time for the Best Documentary, Short Subject gong. I don’t understand why but the Academy chooses not to show us any clips from the nominees, instead making a big song and dance of getting some of America’s brave soldiers who are currently serving to announce the… oh right, I get it now. Freeheld picks up the award, but I’ve no idea what it’s all about.

Clearly, we’re rushing through these. Tom Hanks races from this Oscar to Best Documentary. I’ve seen Sicko, and wonder if we’re in for another controversial Michael Moore speech to spoil the saccharine. Maybe they’ll just cut in the music before he has a chance to say anything.

Phew, it doesn’t matter. Taxi to the Dark Side wins, and by all accounts is a must-see feature made by a film maker who looks as though he could Moore in his place in terms of uneasy subject matter. Alex Gibney gets good applause for his slightly angry speech, which gives some idea of the Stateside mood right now.

4.26 - Did the Academy get most of its inspiration from BAFTA this year? I’m talking about Diablo Cody (superb name - sounds like a supervillain) getting the award for Original Screenplay, in favour of Juno. Just like at the BAFTAs. I suspect the similarities won’t extend to the Best Film Oscar.

I thought Juno was excellent, perky and really good fun, and wish it only well. Maybe I’m seeing things (starting to flag now), but I’m convinced that IMDB’s homepage is being updated with the winners before they’re actually announced.

4.31 - Here we are then. Best Actor time. Dame Helen is out to make the announcement. I. Wonder. Who. It. Will. Be…

4.34 - No surprise for us. Daniel Day-Lewis it is, and clearly I’m going to have to get my butt down to the nearest theatre that’s showing There will be Blood. I might even have to venture to Manchester’s Cornerhouse, which is a bit scary as I’m ’small town’ these days. Heck, Day-Lewis is full of it, isn’t he? Personally, I feel sorry for Viggo Mortensen, who was magnificent in Eastern Promises, but even as his name was read out his resigned wave to the camera kinda said it all.

4.45 - Nice to see Martin Scorcese’s pithy speech from last year in advance of this year’s Best Director Oscar. My money’s on Joel and Ethan… and I’m right! It’s incredible to think this is the first time they’ve won it, though. Their body of work contains so few duds. Good speech too - that might guarantee them a return visit.

4.46 - No Country for Old Men is 2007’s Best Picture. And rightly so.

4.56 - Thanks to typing and flicking around the web to visit other sites’ reactions, this has been a breezy four hours. Thanks for the wit to the people burning the midnight oil at DVD Times forums.

I’m off to bed (preferable to some bonus Claudia on Sky any day). Overall, I’m quite happy with the awards. I was blown away by No Country for Old Men, not always pleasantly so but sufficiently to agree wholeheartedly with the verdict. I appreciate that so often, the awards go to people for their life’s work and not what they’re nominated for (Scorcese being a case in point). Not so with the Coens. Though their previous achievements deserve more than the one Oscar for Fargo’s screenplay, No Country was quite simply the year’s best movie. That is unless I eventually get to see There will be Blood and change my mind completely.

I hope anyone who has chanced across this page (er, anyone?) enjoyed my frazzled quippage, and if I’m a very lucky boy will pass their considerations on to me via the ‘Comment’ box below. Go on. I worked very hard on this. Good night.

Posted on 25th February 2008
Under: Uncategorized, Award Fodder | 1 Comment »

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