Archive for February, 2008

The Incredibles

2004, US, Directed by Brad Bird

Animation, Running Time: 111 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Disney, Video: Anamorphic 2.40:1, Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX

Like Tim Burton Brad Bird spent a small initiation period into the film world with Disney reportedly doing some work on The Fox and The Hound, and later on becoming consultant on such intuitive TV series as The Simpsons and King of the Hill. He established himself as a smart creative force in animation and this was compounded when he took up his feature-length directorial debut for Warner Bros., The Iron Giant, the enjoyably old fashioned animated tale of an alien robot that befriends an earthbound boy. Becoming mates with John Lasseter back in the California Arts Institute days it was probably destiny that they should end up working together under the Pixar banner at some point, thus eventually Lasseter asked Bird to come over and shake up the company’s well earned complacency a bit and The Incredibles was born. Executive produced by Lasseter, the film was written from ideas going back several years and directed by Bird (who also voices the fashion designer Edna), ultimately to possibly revive belief that Pixar are world leaders when it comes to 3D computer animation. Following an introduction where we learn that superheroes became victimised by the public years previously (people suing them for rescues that resulted in injuries, etc.; actually quite believable these days!) and pushed into hiding as ‘normal’ citizens, the story focuses on one particular family - the Parrs - who’ve taken up roles in society as any other average family might: getting jobs, rearing offspring, contributing to governmental wealth, etc. Father/husband Bob Parr is clearly unhappy with his mundane existence and yearns for the old days of ‘saving the world’ so much that he and old hero pal Frozone (think Ice Man) actually go out weekly wearing masks to save people from fires, etc. When Bob gets the opportunity to work as a real superhero - his old alter-ego Mr Incredible - for what appears to be a secret organisation he jumps at the chance. After being fired from his office job he’s able to slip out pretending to go to work without his wife catching on… for a while. But when he’s captured by an old nemesis (actually a pseudo boy hero who he snubbed years before) his wife is forced to take up her old role as Elastigirl to rescue him, along with the two children who’ve tagged along, themselves boasting some useful powers.

Incredibles1

Watching The Incredibles you’re confronted with a relentless barrage of brilliant ideas, from the script’s dialogue to visual design to technical wizardry. The main concept is something that most working class people (with a brain) can relate to as they plod along maintaining a life of mediocrity with no means of escaping to something better. Bob Parr/Mr Incredible feels like this: he’s an exceptional person who’s been forced to retreat into a secret life of normality where standing out from the crowd is no longer a possibility thanks to the persecutions perpetrated by the narrow-minded public years before. His wife has been forced into the same retreat but she’s managed to accept her fate, probably as a result of producing offspring and having her maternal instincts satisfied, but each day she battles to prevent her children, genetically inclined towards super-heroism, from exhibiting their powers and using them to their (or anybody else’s) advantage. Thus most of the family are really in conflict with themselves, on one hand attempting to lead a life outlined as acceptable by others, on the other fighting to hold back talents that overwhelmingly threaten others in the sense that they might realise there’s someone else actually ‘better’ than they are (even though the heroes want to use their talents for the benefit of those that feel threatened). I suppose in some respects there are elements of The X Men in there as superhumans are forced into hiding, but where the film excels is in creating characters that we can identify with and, perhaps more importantly, sympathise with. I think this is where The Incredibles also helped to shake up Pixar a little - a relationship between the viewer and the characters is cemented much more so than their preceding film, though a commercial hit, Finding Nemo, plus the 2004 movie comes across as something less aimed at children specifically. While Pixar had managed to attain consistent quality they were in danger of falling into the same trap that Disney did - becoming formulaic and playing it safe (this probably not being helped by forming distribution partnerships with the granddaddy of feature film animation). In light of that, The Incredibles is just what Pixar needed. It’s worth pointing out also that the vocal providers on this film don’t seem to swamp the production with their larger than life personalities as they so often do on today’s bigger budget animation features - I remember seeing a poster for Shrek (if I remember correctly) years ago where the names of the primary actors were actually larger than the title of the film itself. On a technical level it goes without saying that the film is close to perfection, exhibiting animation qualities of a world class standard. The models are simple but attractive designs whilst the overall appearance suggests a stylistic yet realistic approach that works superbly on aesthetic as well as practical levels. Despite revolutionary 3D animation The Incredibles most importantly functions as a comedy, an introspective drama, an action movie, and a great story. Brad Bird’s already got an ego the size of Hollywood Hills but there’s no denying his innate brilliance as a film-maker.

Incredibles2

Supplied on DVD with reference quality presentation you’ll enjoy a detailed, perfectly coloured image combined with amazingly aggressive sound guaranteed to give your home cinema system a workout while putting your friend’s smiles on the other side of their heads. There’s a fairly comprehensive array of extras including a couple of short films, one of which details the story of the Parr baby after the rest of his family head off to save Mr Incredible. Over an hour of documentary material gives good insight into the animation process without becoming boring whether you’re familiar with it or not, though I think I could only stand putting up working next to some of Pixar’s zany employees for a few hours without resorting to homicide or unemployment. One of the greatest animation films of all time receives fantastic treatment on DVD and should be picked up by just about anybody.

Posted on 27th February 2008
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House of Dracula

1945, US, Directed by Erle C Kenton

Black & White, Running Time: 64 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Universal, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

The trailer for this one followed almost exactly the same format as the previous year’s House of Frankenstein which, aside from hinting that the success of the 1944 movie had temporarily breathed a few hours extra life into the series, almost certainly proved that Universal had virtually no idea where to take horror at that time. Much of the film’s meagre running time revolves around the house of a doctor renowned for curing the incurable, a place where Dracula himself shows up hoping to rid himself of the bloodsucking curse, and also coincidentally Larry Talbot, who isn’t entirely happy that he spends many nights roaming moors in search of flesh rather than drinking beer down the local. Not only that but the doctor’s assistant is herself a hunchback waiting to be corrected as he perfects his medical procedures. Dracula goes through a series of blood transfusions every other night while Talbot has to wait for the doctor to grow a certain kind of plant whose vapours can soften the cranium bone, allowing careful manipulation that will theoretically permit remoulding thereby reducing pressure on areas that are causing the hormonal instability that in turn initiates physical transformation. The vampire however turns the tables on the doctor, reversing the blood transfusion one night and infecting the amiable man, causing a Jekyll-like alteration in his physical and mental make-up and creating a very new monster. This fresh abomination causes more havoc in Visaria than any of the others resulting in murder and a subsequent mob chase back to the house where a post-operation Talbot is almost implicated for the crime. As the doctor’s sanity deteriorates he reinvigorates the Frankenstein monster (having been found beneath the grounds in quicksand) with electricity bringing about one final climax of destructive mayhem.

Who you staring at?!?

It was nice to have many of the actors from the previous film return here; Carradine as the count, Glenn Strange as a barely used monster, Chaney as the wolf man of course, and even Lionel Atwill popping up as yet another figure of authority. The creepy Skelton Knaggs, notable for his eerie portrait of a mute sailor in Val Lewton’s Ghost Ship, also appears as one of the angry villagers. There’s no attempt to explain how Talbot and Dracula both return from their personal demises at the end of the last film but continuity is once again retained when it comes to the monster - this time found in quicksand underground, still with the skeletal remains of Niemann in his arms. It’s a real shame though that the creature has almost nothing to do except almost exactly the same as what his role entailed last time around: be found, be revived, destroy everything in the last couple of minutes. While the previous film was comparatively epic in its geographical scope this one limits the majority of action to the house with some occurrences taking place in the village. One aspect that I believe works quite well, and could have shaped an entire movie in its own right, is the metamorphosis of the doctor into a sort of human-vampire hybrid following Dracula’s malicious reverse transfusion. Probably taking influence from the Robert Louis Stevenson story this created one of the chilling images that I remember from childhood, the actual occurrence almost living up to that recollection. The transformed character is distinctly more evil than any of the famous monsters, most evident as he playfully torments Siegfried before killing him. The actor himself (Onslow Stevens) is also amazingly agile as he bounds through the sets in near athletic manner. As a footnote, the effect used to remove his reflection from the mirror is extremely well executed for the period.

 

Taking almost science fiction principles as explanatory factors as this film does perhaps this alone was evidence that Universal had no more faith in the unexplained supernatural. As a snapshot of a virtual madhouse in the middle of an alternate reality this movie almost works - it’s never boring at the very least - but that lack of innovation rears its head to hinder appreciation and considered as a finale to the Dracula/Frankenstein/Wolf Man series House of Dracula is slightly dissatisfying, then again perhaps it wasn’t quite the end… Now, I think I’m off to watch something in colour and widescreen.

Posted on 24th February 2008
Under: Horror | 10 Comments »

House of Frankenstein

1944, US, Directed by Erle C Kenton

Black & White, Running Time: 67 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Universal, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

The badly edited trailer promised us not three, not four, but five times the terror this time around: aside from Frankenstein‘s creation, the wolf man, and Dracula (Glenn Strange, Lon Chaney, John Carradine respectively) being brought together there was also a ‘mad scientist’ (Boris Karloff as Niemann) and assisting ‘hunchback’ (Carroll Naish), though the latter wasn’t really abominable, just a little mixed up and easily influenced. It’s almost like an anthology film of two halves rather than one complete movie, the first half even boasting its own climactic chase and miniature happy ending. A distantly related associate of the Baron, Dr Niemann, is rotting in prison when a violent storm allows him and devoted hunchback Daniel to escape. Concealing themselves by hijacking a travelling horror show (the owner claiming that he has Dracula’s skeletal remains inside) and killing its owner they head off to reap revenge on those that helped convict Niemann. He decides to enlist Dracula’s help and extracts the stake that was rammed into the vampire’s heart aeons before. Dracula does his bidding but is betrayed by Niemann and Daniel while attempting to make his way back to his coffin, thus sunlight destroys him. Travelling to ‘Visaria’ (an altered spelling on the previous entry) to sort out the others Niemann also sees his chance to satisfy a long term interest in furthering Frankenstein’s experiments when they find the monster frozen in ice beneath some ruins, along with the body of the wolf man. Having picked up a gypsy girl the besotted Daniel is interested in having his brain inserted into the body of Talbot, who the gypsy girl quite fancies, while Talbot wants his brain put into another body so he doesn’t have to suffer eternal nights of hairy rambling and killing, but Niemann wants to implant the brains of his adversaries into the monster and wolf man to punish them, so it gets a little complicated with whose brain is supposed to be going where! Needless to say, it ends with an angry mob of villagers as well as complete demolition of any stone structure within close proximity.

C'mon smile, Wolfie!

It’s hard to believe they cram so much into sixty seven minutes, particularly when the monster and werewolf have yet to make an appearance by the half hour mark. Dracula doesn’t actually encounter the other two as his presence occupies the first segment before Niemann and Daniel make way to Visaria to free the others. I do find it strange that the monster is found in exactly the same state as he was in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (frozen in ice) and is broken free for exactly the same reason (to help someone find the baron’s scientifically revelatory notes) - either exceedingly coincidental or just plain unimaginative. As expected, Larry Talbot is not happy about being woken from limbo once again. In fact he’s not happy about anything but it only takes a woman to put a smile on his face (with great effort admittedly) and the gypsy girl is it this time around, much to Daniel’s chagrin. Hunchback Daniel is really a touching character, managing to elicit a surprising degree of sympathy as he foolishly attempts to befriend the gypsy girl only for her to realise he’s deformed as he moves into view, later on becoming jealous as the girl and Talbot spend increasing amounts of time together. Though good looking the girl is hardly mature and a coquette by nature, becoming quite cruel to Daniel when angered that he’s revealed Talbot’s curse to her. Carradine’s debut as the count is good; he certainly makes a better Dracula than Chaney himself did a year or so before. The eloquent actor has such an oddly narrow face that he almost demonstrates a bewitching physical presence which itself is part of the count’s own essence. I much prefer Strange’s rendition of the monster compared to the preceding attempts too (the exception being Karloff of course).

 

By combining existing creations in this fashion and exhuming some already tired ideas that had been previously explored by themselves on numerous occasions, Universal’s film-makers were boasting little imagination or understanding of how to push the genre forward. However, they still managed to produce an entertaining movie and this fast paced ensemble with trappings and clichés intact provides a good time for the viewer, hence it’s difficult to complain.

Posted on 20th February 2008
Under: Horror | 5 Comments »

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man

1943, US, Directed by Roy William Neill

Black & White, Running Time: 70 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Universal, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

George Waggner returned from directing The Wolf Man to produce this combined continuation of both the Larry Talbot and Frankenstein series, amalgamating the two to supposedly offer the audience twice the terror (so the marketing campaign would claim). Siodmark also wrote the script once again while Lon Chaney Junior would reprise Talbot, the cursed werewolf, with Bela Lugosi taking up the role of the monster itself, this potentially making some sense considering his character’s brain was inserted into the monster at the end of Ghost… However the monster’s inconsistent ability to speak prevails here as it just grunts and snarls despite last time uttering a few words following Ygor’s cerebral take over, though dialogue reportedly existed in the first cut of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man prior to last minute tinkering. Siodmark’s story has the wolf man revived when grave robbers disturb his tomb under full moon light, and a disorientated Larry Talbot is later found unconscious in the street by an officer. Taken to hospital they begin to doubt his sanity when he offers the name of a certified dead man as his own while claiming to change into a wolf under the moon. Of course nobody really believes him until some positive identification confirms his story, by which time Talbot has given them the slip to seek out Maleva, the old gypsy woman from the previous chapter. She tells him of a man that she thinks can help end his undying state, someone who mastered the secrets of life and death: Doctor Frankenstein. Travelling to ‘Vasaria’ they find the ruins where the scientist last conducted experiments in hope that the notes of the deceased man will provide them with the answers for ending Talbot’s life. Talbot finds the monster frozen in ice and breaks him free believing that the blind, dumb creature can aid him. The doctor that nursed him to health back at the hospital shows up only for Talbot to encourage him to take Frankenstein’s notes and conduct an experiment to absorb the energy from his immortal body, but a few deliberate miscalculations on the doctor’s part ensure both wolf man and monster are returned to full strength, setting the scene for the final conflict between them.

That's NOT Bela Lugosi as the monster.

I’ve never understood what Talbot thinks Frankenstein’s findings will do to help him - the logic is nonexistent and transparently a contrived device to bring together the two famous monsters. It doesn’t actually matter a great deal in the end, that particular aspect coming across more like one of Hitchcock’s notorious macguffins, because the end result is quite enjoyable as we’re tagged along with Talbot’s quest for self-destruction. The emphasis on his threat to others, present in the first film, is shifted to his personal drive to cease his own pitiful existence, something which seems impossible given the fact that he’s already been revived from death once and conventional damage to his body heals rapidly. Consequently Talbot is from this film on shrouded in a near constant melancholic state, though he still evidently possesses an eye for the women (this time, the daughter of the great scientist - how come her brothers never mentioned her?). At one stage they’re enjoying the local festivities together and his face is like he’s going for world’s most miserable bugger contest - what a date! Anyway, Bela Lugosi finally took on the role of the monster here after turning it down years before, inadvertently providing the catalyst that would shoot Boris Karloff to stardom. Aside from the actor just not having the right shape of head (he looks strangely disproportionate), Lugosi’s performance is almost universally maligned and, despite the fact that the creature was pronounced blind at the end of Ghost… therefore giving good reason for it to stumble about, it’s difficult to warm to his take on Shelley’s abomination. He staggers about with all four limbs clumsily protruding in various directions as if his creator never gave him joints - it’s not nice. The partial saving grace is the fact that the creature doesn’t appear until half way into the movie and is then only taking back seat to Talbot’s suicidal obsession. Actually some of the monster’s takes had one of the stunt men in make up rather than Lugosi, including the creature’s initial shots in the ice grave - with his creepier appearance, could he have done a better job all round? There are some great scenes, including the opening graveyard sequence - taking place on a masterful set - where Talbot is awakened from deathly slumber by a couple of rather surprised grave robbers, the panic that ensues at the festival when the monster appears, and of course the climactic showdown between the two monsters which is a little too short but quite rousing nonetheless.

 

Supported by a sumptuous transfer on DVD (if a little bright) Universal’s first teaming of monsters is, aside from lapses in logic and Lugosi’s awful interpretation of the monster, a well paced adventure leading via a nice story to a cool concluding act.

Posted on 16th February 2008
Under: Horror | 7 Comments »

The Wolf Man

1941, US, Directed by George Waggner

Black & White, Running Time: 67 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Universal; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: DD Mono

Taking a slightly more original approach than what could be considered usual at the time, Universal had this story wrote afresh rather than adapting a piece of existing literature. Of course the werewolf myth itself was not their concoction and neither was this the first time they had wrestled with the legend - the preceding Werewolf of London is a nice little film and quite different from the Larry Talbot series, of which The Wolf Man is the first (though subsequent offerings would always join him up with other monsters). Returning from America to Welsh soil to ultimately take up a hereditary role as squire (following his brother’s unexpected death) Larry Talbot - a mechanically gifted man but hardly qualifying as intellectual - becomes almost immediately besotted with local girl Gwen who helps run a small shop. Persuading the already engaged woman to go out for the evening they wander into the carnival of a passing gypsy camp where Gwen’s friend is gorged to death by what may be a wolf, though is in fact one of the gypsies, Bela, who has transformed under full moon into a werewolf. Talbot himself is also attacked though manages to kill it with the silver-tipped cane he bought from Gwen’s shop, however some confusion ensues when the police find no wolf carcass, but the dead gypsy Bela. Offering the benefit of doubt some of those around him reason that it was dark and foggy and Talbot couldn’t actually see what he was killing, but he’s already attracted the hostile attentions of some of the townsfolk who’ve had their moral strings yanked upon hearing that Talbot was out with an engaged woman, plus her friend ending up brutally slaughtered is something that wouldn‘t have happened if it weren‘t for him. Talbot’s own version of things loses weight as he goes to show the authorities a bite received in the attack, but finds that it has inexplicably healed prematurely. His problems seem to be getting no rosier when one of the gypsies warns him that he’s due to transform into a wolf himself as soon as the full moon materialises.

Hey, what you got in here, a dead body or something?!?

The Wolf Man moves along at a rapid pace using a few conventional cinematic tricks to characterise quickly, helped by a notably able cast - Bela Lugosi is, er, Bela the gypsy and quite fantastic in what is essentially a bit part. Bela’s presence is the pivot that changes Talbot’s fate forever and the curse the latter acquires almost seems to be nature’s condemnation of his actions as he endeavours to woo Gwen, a girl already in line to marry the strapping gamekeeper. Up until the point he is bitten everything seems quite optimistic for the carefree foreigner. Lon Chaney exhibits better thespian skills here than he later would in Son of Dracula and Ghost of Frankenstein - the doomed Larry Talbot suiting his naturally melancholic appearance while taking advantage of his persistently sorrowful expressions in effort to induce sympathy. I’m sure Universal were happy to employ him here because the name itself was a commodity that could bring in audiences thanks to his very famous father - the fact that his father’s name was effectively forced on Chaney Junior by the studios (his first name was Creighton and this is originally how he was credited in films) smacks of marketing amorality and couldn‘t have done the man‘s morale much good. Of course the ever reliable Claude Rains as Talbot senior is great in a calm and collected performance - John Talbot and some of his contemporaries are responsible for a number of intriguing discussions regarding the mechanics of the human mind as they pass opinion on how it might be possible for a man to realistically believe himself to be a werewolf, whilst naturally denying that a corresponding physical transformation could also be possible. In fact in this light it could be a great ambiguous study of either abnormal human psychology or supernatural metamorphosis depending on how you wanted to look at it, if it weren’t for the fact that Chaney transforms into a wolf on screen that is. Supporting this possibility is the reported fact that the first draft of the script contained no such transformation and could have resulted in a movie similar in approach to some of those Val Lewton later produced for RKO - this ambiguity would have been preferable in my opinion. The wolf man himself is eventually displayed without a shadow of either physical or conceptual obscurity and while this is probably one of the film’s very few faults, it is understandable from the perspective of wanting to push cinematic boundaries for the sake of popularity. The actual effigy of the wolf man has never been something I’ve admired personally, looking odd whilst simultaneously out of synch with the kind of creature that attacked and infected him in the first place (i.e. he walks on two legs while Bela’s wolf was on all fours). Having said that, it’s quite an accomplishment from a special effects angle (courtesy of Jack Pearce), taking several hours to both apply and remove. The most adept aspect of the film must surely be Curt Siodmark’s script itself, featuring entrancing dialogue for the most part and plenty of good ideas that have become highly influential for this particular sub-genre. The tragic status of the infected man formulated here has since become a staple of the werewolf movie for example, and Paul Naschy’s later creation, Waldemar Daninsky (appearing in over ten films from the sixties onwards), is clearly inspired by Larry Talbot. The sign of the pentagram being visible on the wolf man’s victims is also a smart metaphor for the symbol that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany (i.e. those marked with the five pointed star will die) - Siodmark himself was a Jew who departed Germany as the new political regime was taking force.

 

The DVD transfer is very smooth featuring excellent greyscales with large amounts of visual information, overall aping the film medium nicely - it stands up really well to larger screen projection and generally looks very attractive. A great screenplay, influential ideas, ripping pace - The Wolf Man is never boring and one of classic-era Universal’s highlights.

Posted on 12th February 2008
Under: Horror | 1 Comment »

Ghost of Frankenstein

1942, US, Directed by Erle C Kenton

Black & White, Running Time: 65 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Universal, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

After watching this film you can almost imagine somebody at Universal coming up with a great title and then trying to figure out how it could be justified in the screenplay, hence the suspiciously token appearance at one point of Henry’s apparition giving out some post-mortem advice to Ludwig, his son (the other one; Basil Rathbone is nowhere to be seen here). Looking at the running time it might be easy to begin worrying - while the third film was one of Universal’s longest of the period the first couple of films are hardly epics, but now at a meagre sixty five minutes had the monster run out of steam? While Son of… carefully constructs a build up over a thirty minute period to the monster’s reawakening, this film barely wastes a few minutes as the now obligatory mob of angry villagers (don’t these people ever move on?) take it on themselves to blow up the castle where the monster’s remains lie buried in solidified sulphur, while a surviving Ygor still roams the vicinity. Of course the very actions that are intended to destroy actually result in the release of the thing they detest - Ygor manages to get the stumbling creature out as the castle is razed. The odd couple make their way to another town where their exploits are less likely to be known but it’s hard to maintain stealth when one is accompanied by a seven foot green man with a flat head (not to mention being a hunchback with a broken neck oneself), so upon attempting to rescue the toy of a young girl the creature is rapidly apprehended and imprisoned. Brought to court the monster is angered by the appearance of someone it thinks it recognises: Ludwig, the brother of the son of the man (the family ties are starting to get a little longwinded here…) who gave him life in the first place. The monster breaks free of its chains into the hands of the ever-present Ygor. Deciding to make amends for the chaos caused by the inadvertent implantation of an abnormal brain into the monster Ludwig reasons that a normal brain will make the monster rational. But the sharper-than-you’d-expect Ygor decides that it’s his brain that should go in the monster thus bringing them together forever, and so formulates a plan to execute his idea.

Say CHEESE, little girl

Again the continuity is nice though not always accurate - Ludwig claims that the monster drove his brother into exile but Wolf looked happy enough at the end of the last film and the monster had been trapped in sulphur since then. Ygor just isn’t going to die any time soon either, having apparently been wiped out in the previous film he’s back (though that neck hasn’t healed up yet) and still carrying that bloody horn. Boris Karloff is gone forever, wisely avoiding continuation with the series - in his place staggers Universal’s latest star of fright, Lon Chaney Junior. Problem is, just as with Son of Dracula, Chaney just doesn’t seem to be very good in this role, blundering around like an imbecile with little of the talent that Karloff managed to display in the same role. Of course it doesn’t really help that the direction and script are of little worth - you can’t polish manure and I suppose even Karloff contributing couldn’t have made this film much better. It was reported that Chaney repeatedly complained about the prosthetic on his forehead to the point of eventually losing his temper with it and ripping it off (along with a large slice of skin). Pretty ironic considering the torment his father used to put himself through for the sake of authentic characterisation. Perhaps hinting at the real nature of the monster, as with a couple of the other films there’s the prominent presence of a child - she almost brings a little hope when it looks like she may be able to communicate with the creature at the courtroom, and later it kidnaps her once realising that it’s going to be on the receiving end of a new brain, the intention being to have hers (her facial expression here is priceless - see JPEG above). If the film has anything at all going for it, it occurs with the realisation that Ludwig has not implanted the brain he thought but that of Ygor, i.e. the monster finally speaks but with Ygor’s voice - it’s almost a chilling moment. The fact that Ygor realises he’s now blind also helps to set up elements of next chapter. Other than that this film is completely pedestrian and can safely be considered the nadir of the whole series.

 

It was once, years ago, a known DVD irony that the worst films often fare the best and that’s the case here, at least as far as the transfer’s concerned. The image is better than any of the previous films, exhibiting a near perfect contrast balance and large amounts of detail. Ghost of Frankenstein is a pure cash-in if ever there was one but does contain one functional narrative idea that works well and is of some relevance to the series (the insertion of Ygor’s brain into the monster), but it’s not enough to rescue a bad film. Thankfully there was much better to come as the monster’s ultimate conflict loomed just around the corner…

Posted on 9th February 2008
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Son of Frankenstein

1938, US, Directed by Rowland V Lee

Black & White, Running Time: 95 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Universal, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

Several decades following the events of Bride of Frankenstein, Henry’s son Wolf returns with his wife and child to the town on a stormy night to claim his inheritance. Rather than greeting him as a baron the villagers and council are displeased to see him, making no attempt to hide their disapproval. The problem lies in their expectations: they fear a repeat of the terror that the baron’s father brought to their locale with the creation of the monster that everyone now believes to be dead. What they don’t realise is that local grave robber Ygor, who should be dead thanks to being hanged some time previous, lives in the ruins of the destroyed watchtower and is keeping the dormant - but not destroyed - body of the monster a secret. Once Ygor hears of Wolf’s arrival he approaches him hoping that the baron and the notes written by his father will enable work to begin on returning the monster to its full strength. Quite intrigued but also desiring to bring some balance to his family name Wolf sets about reinvigorating the monster, but he doesn’t realise Ygor is primarily interested in knocking off those who convicted him for his body-snatching exploits. Of course when the monster is granted full strength again Ygor manipulates him to do his bidding and the murders begin.

Now how are we going to wake up this great lumox?

It was quite a task to follow up the preceding two films but I’m not so sure Universal were too concerned considering the money they had brought in. It’s an imaginative outing but also one that gives birth to a number of clichés along the way. I like the way the story unfolds, revealing a number of odd characters and quite a sinister bunch of narrow-minded villagers who judge all too quickly (possibly understandably but let’s not forget that the problems would have happened several decades before). The police inspector had his army career put on permanent hold by the removal of an arm at the hands of the monster when he was a boy, giving him some personal emotional investment in the return of the Frankensteins. The one-armed inspector now has to move the immobile false limb around with his real one in order to make any use out of it. The new baron is played eloquently by Basil Rathbone just prior to his long running stint as Sherlock Holmes but his motivations I’m unsure of - he is desperate to rid the family of a bad name but sets about bringing potency back to the very thing that ruined it in the first place. Surely easier to destroy it there and then? Plus he seems to go a little potty at one point only to return to complete amicable sanity for the film’s conclusion. Boris Karloff’s personality is subdued somewhat compared to Bride…, his learned ability to talk now gone again while a generally darker and less sympathetic presence prevails. Then there’s Ygor, the bane of horror film clichés… Bela Lugosi is quite unrecognisable in this role and I like the way he plays it. Aside from a ridiculous hairdo that has since been popularised by one or two boy bands, Ygor is a nasty individual with purely hostile intentions. The fact that he’s been hanged and survived adds to both the creepiness plus the humour - at one point the village courtroom attendees are arguing about whether he is technically dead and if he can be tried again. His bone protrudes from his neck, his teeth are almost vampiric, and he’s generally a mess both externally and internally. The monster’s make-up seems a little less meticulous here though it was apparently the result of Jack Pierce’s application once again. Clothed for the first time in that famous fleece body warmer his eventual appearance involves an enjoyably creepy build up to his reawakening as Ygor and Wolf set to work on him using Henry‘s notes. Two areas that deserve commendation: some of the set designs and the cinematography itself, both creating a warped, unique feel to the most significant locations, notably the baron’s house interiors and the entrance to the old derelict grounds. The stormy train journey sets up quite a nice atmosphere of foreboding unease and this is compounded when Wolf and his family arrive to hordes of villagers ominously standing waiting to witness his arrival, their faces hidden by soaked umbrellas.

 

The DVD visuals contain plenty of detail though there are instances of combing. Along the leftmost side of the image there’s a thin but strong blue electronic line present throughout, however this is not noticeable on equipment that overscans (either automatically or by volition). The classiness of the first two films is kind of absent with Son of Frankenstein but, clichés aside, I like the way they continued the story, maintaining continuity to an extent as well as injecting the original concept with a few new narrative ideas, thus there’s plenty to enjoy here.

Posted on 5th February 2008
Under: Horror | 2 Comments »

Bride of Frankenstein

1935, US, Directed by James Whale

Black & White, Running Time: 71 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Universal; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: DD Mono

Taking some of the elements of the book that were originally left out of Frankenstein the sequel continues directly from the conclusion of the first film extending the story into something a little more complex. Clearly the major omission from the 1931 adaptation was the creation of a mate for the abomination that had become a burden to its creator - a ploy on the part of Victor (here called Henry) to dispense of the creature once and for all from the his life whilst simultaneously making amends, if such as thing were possible. After the believed-dead Henry has been dragged back to his home and wife Elizabeth his revival comes as a shock to all. An old acquaintance visits the recovering man (bedridden partly because actor Colin Clive had actually broken a leg in real life at the time) with the intention of teaming up to continue experimenting with the creation of life, much to Elizabeth’s disapproval. It seems the man, announced as Dr Pretorius, has been developing in his laboratory a few miniature automatons of his own, something that seems borne out of a morally devoid mindset of obsessive, sadistic tinkering akin more so to that of a child than a scientist attempting to evolve mankind’s knowledge. Initially defiant, Henry’s involvement is egged along by Pretorius bringing in the now obedient monster, something Henry thought to be dead after the windmill fire. Elizabeth is kidnapped by the monster and Henry is forced to work with Pretorius to build a female, granting it life by similar means as his first ‘child’. The monster itself is quite aroused at the prospect of a new friend after his first and only one, a wood-dwelling blind man, was taken from him by strangers. Of course, the results of the female’s birth are not predictable and her arrival is destined to bring doom to those around her.

Ernest Thesiger

Apart from filling in some literary gaps in Universal’s Frankenstein franchise the studio put together what some have since deemed to be the greatest horror movie ever made. This label tends to come from those who rarely watch genre products however, and it can never live up to such heights. Aside from that the film was certainly ahead of its era in many ways. Englishman James Whale was nothing like the usual director employed to shoot films back in the golden age; he brought personality and style to his projects and was one of cinema’s earliest auteurs. Look at any of his genre films and they stand out from the crowd: Frankenstein and its sequel, The Invisible Man, and The Old Dark House. In contrast to most directors of the period, Whale was not simply another employee on the film set. One thing he brought to his darker outings, including Bride…, was a grimly humorous edge, something that was probably lost to the comprehension of studio executives in the thirties. Much more pronounced here than in the first film it can take a while to get accustomed to nowadays (the squawking old woman who seems omnipresent still grates with me after many viewings), but it’s at least memorable, for example the monster puffing on cigarettes and acquiring a taste for wine is something that embeds itself on the brain. And then there’s that inexplicable lever… Continuity is maintained with the first film quite well, bringing Colin Clive back as Henry, removing the monster’s burnt eyebrows as a result of the fire it had survived, the watchtower production design, etc. Unfortunately Mae Clarke would not return as Henry’s wife, however she was replaced by the overly dramatic but innately beautiful Valerie Hobson. Dwight Frye also returned despite his character being killed in the first film, this time in a role as a different person with almost identical functionality (that of an assistant). The increased budget (nearly half a million dollars) is reflected in an amazing laboratory sequence, the film’s pinnacle - a lovely marathon of drama, great shots and editing, culminating in the eponymous woman’s birth (or rebirth). The combined motivations of Henry, Pretorius, and the monster itself all direct to this one event, their actions throughout propelled towards a singularity. The monster simply desires a friend (though is innocently unaware of any reproductive urge that probably survives in its blood), Pretorius has a morbid, amoral fascination with experimentation in life engineering, while Henry wants his wife back, although it’s clear his own scientific intrigue is piqued once work begins on the bride. Like the monster the bride herself is a gorgeous, iconic piece of design, thanks to Jack Pierce once again I believe. She doesn’t speak but clearly displays disgust as she first sees her predetermined mate, this in turn fuelling the monster’s anger that seals fate. It was a small masterstroke to cast Elsa Lanchester as both the bride and Mary Shelley herself in the film’s prologue (almost suggesting that Shelley identified with the bride when she wrote the story). There was a similar epilogue shot but eventually removed along with quite a few other scenes after test screenings; these are probably lost forever.

Elsa Lanchester

Fairly well served on DVD by Universal we have a good image, solid sound, a half hour documentary and commentary from Scott MacQueen. Certainly not the ‘greatest’ but a standout entry from Universal’s monster cycle and the genre as a whole when considering the thirties and forties. James Whale did not return to the Frankenstein series again but Boris Karloff was to make one more appearance as the monster, several years later in Son of Frankenstein

Posted on 2nd February 2008
Under: Horror | 4 Comments »

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