Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Ghost of Frankenstein

1942 brought us The Ghost of Frankenstein, the fourth entry in the saga and a turning point for the series as a whole. It is the first film in which Boris Karloff does not play the monster, lumbering duties being taken up by Lon Chaney Jr. But the major change was this - whereas the first three films has been unashamedly 'A' list pictures, Ghost of Frankenstein was the first to be produced for as a 'B' movie, meaning a quicker production on a smaller budget.

Despite the slashed funds, Ghost of Frankenstein still features decent sets and camerawork, and Erle C Kenton's direction is competent though somewhat uninspired compared to to Whale and Lee's efforts. But where the budget begins to bite is in the script.

On the plus side, the bones of the plot are actually quite good, featuring the continuing tale of Ygor's partnership with the monster. It features strong continuity with the previous films, something that the following three films would largely jettison to their detriment. However there are some niggles here. Firstly how did the monster survive immersion in the sulphur pit which Inspector Krough states is hot enough to broil a man to the bone. Secondly why had Ludwig Frankenstein been living in a neighbouring village, when Son of Frankenstein states that the Frankensteins fled to America? And why was they second son not mentioned before? And why does Ludwig have a basement lab full of monster reviving electrical apparatus? Were these Ken Strickfadden gizmos standard issue for medical practioners at the time? One wonders if the village chiropodist has a cellar full of sparking Ken Strickfaden gear too. On the more serious side though, one wonders why on earth the monster seems to agree to having his brain removed. And furthermore why the hell does he want the little girl's brain transplanted into his bonce?

Of course it doesn't often pay to expect high degrees of sense and logic in monster movie. But these plot holes aside, the real weakness of the script is that it has a truly 'B' movie sensibility. Whereas the previous films had character-driven dynamics, Ghost of Frankenstein emphaises the monster's exploits and the ghoulish thrills of mad science, with characters being plot devices to further this rather than creating any dramatic tension.

This is most clearly highlighted in Ygor. Bela Lugosi's performance of the character doesn't slip in quality but he has a good deal less to do. Much of his dialogue serves as exposition rather than character building. And Ygor lacks a Wolf or Krough to match wits against.

Similarly Lionel Atwill's Bomar is much underused. His subplot is actually quite intriguing. Apparently he was originally Ludwig's mentor, until a surgical accident ruined his standing in the medical community and now he finds himself relegated to assisting his former pupil. Naturally he is somewhat bitter and harbours a degree of resentment to Frankenstein - something that Ygor uses to ensure that he will get his brain trnasplanted into the monster's body against Ludwig's wishes. However at the film's climax, the new Ygor/monster discovers his body and senses are failing, as Bomar as blundered again; he's overlooked that fact that there is a tissue incompatibility between Ygor and the monster.

Now on paper this appears a solid backbone to build the story around, and finishes with a neat ironic twist. However in the actual film it falls flat as the script has not developed the characters of Ygor, Bomar or Ludwig enough to give it the necessary dramatic weight. Which is a real pity as from their performance in Son of Frankenstein, Atwill and Lugosi could have really carried this off. The final twist comes across as a last minute deus ex machina to foil the Ygor/monster hybrid rather than being the satisfying conclusion of the character's interweaving stories.

Aside from the script, the film does have one other major weak link - the loss of Boris Karloff. Creighton Chaney, bless him, performs well enough but lacks the pathos Karloff imbued the monster with. Chaney's monster is alot more stiff and robotic than Karloff's, but ironically his performance has the stereotypical movements we associate with the monster today. And in fairness, the script doesn't exactly call for much other than alot of lurching about. But acting styles aside, Chaney just doesn't look right in the Pierce makeup - his monster sadly is more chubby than cadaverous.

Despite being a definite step down from the previous films, Ghost of Frankenstein is still an enjoyable watch. Though you can't help feeling there's was a better film lurking in the material that a more developed script could have delivered. In many ways, it's a bit of an oddity. Despite it's continuity it doesn't quite fit in with the first three films due to the lower brow scripting. But it also doesn't fit with the following sequels as after this continity went out the window, and this was to be the last time the monster appeared on his own. The later three films were to be 'monster rallies' where Frankenstein's creature would have to share the screen with the Wolfman and the Count...

Friday, 26 September 2008


So this year, in place of Robin Hood the BBC are offering us a new series Merlin. Now while I applaud Auntie Beeb for going the whole hog and making further adventure series for what's now being refered to as the Doctor Who slot, I never really got into their Robin Hood series.

Overall I found the modernist dialogue jarring and it's grip on its historical setting a bit shaky. I felt that it was trying so hard to be hip and relevant, it was undermining the whole flavour of the Robin Hood mythos. Though in fairness, I should point out that I'd recent rewatched all the 1980's Robin of Sherwood - a series which to my mind is the pinnacle of Hood on screen. So with that series fresh in the memory, naturally the new BBC series was always going to seem a very poor cousin in comparison.

So when I sat down last Saturday to check out Merlin, my main concern wsa that it would fall into the same modernist pitfalls as its predecessor in this slot. However although it shares much of the same hip polish of Robin Hood, I felt it worked a good deal better. Perhap this is due to the fact that unlike the tales of Robin Hood, the Arthurian mythos is not so rooted actual history and consequently I'm apt to be alot more forgiving of anachronisms.

Also another key difference is that Merlin is telling new stories set in the Arthurian universe; in setting up a saga about Merlin's early years and breaking new story telling ground, this series is steering clear of unfavourable comparisons. For example, if the show was going to be a retelling of the classic Camlot legends, then inevitably we'd be measuring it up against John Boorman's Excalibur.

The first episode of the series introduces us to a fresh perspective of the mythos, setting out to tell the untold tales of Merlin's youth. It's Camelot via Smallville if you will. And it's an interesting approach, opening the door to a good rich vein of potential plots playing with the viewers' knowledge of what the characters eventually will grow up to be. The series opener chucks out two great curve balls - firstly that Arthur and Merlin don't actually like each other, and secondly the romantic frisson between Merlin and Guinevere.

In addition to this, we are also given a similar twist on the setting. Merlin is set during the reign of Uther Pendragon who has brought peace to the land after very dark troubled times. And part of maintaining that peace, is that the practice of magic has been outlawed. All in all, these elements open the way for a very interesting spin on Arthurian mythology and great scope for the series in terms of story arcs and character development.

The cast is also very strong - a rea lboon if they plan on taking the character's down the type of epic emotional arcs that Smallville and Buffy The Vampire Slayer did. Tony Head and Richard Wilson are as every bit as good as you'd imagine them to be, and Bradley James and Angel Coulby play great versions of the young Arthur and Guinvere. James in particular hits the right balance of arrogance and nobility for the teenage king-to-be. However the real stand out is Colin Morgan's Merlin who is an instantly likeable character - Morgan's performance is naturalistic and with subtle depths and proves he can more than carry this series.

Another piece of great casting is John Hurt as the voice of the Great Dragon. However here we hit the one down point - I really didn't like the CGI dragon. It wasn't that it was badly animated, it was more that I didn't like the creature design. To me the dragon's head appeared slightly too large for its body at some points, reminding me of one of the nodding dogs that haunt the back window ledges of cars.

However this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent opening episode. The series shows great promise and potential. Whether it will live up to this remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see what elements of the existing stories they work into the mix. However for now, I'll round off by saying that I've looking forward all week to see what tomorrow's episode brings ... A good result for any series opener.


Just added 4 more designs to the store. This quartet of woodcuts are from the long lost John Dee translation of the Necronomicion, and scholars believe they were created by an ancestor of the notorious Boston artist Richard Upton Pickman...


by H. P. Lovecraft
Out of what crypt they crawl, I cannot tell,
But every night I see the rubbery things,
Black, horned, and slender, with membraneous wings,
And tails that bear the bifid barb of hell.
They come in legions on the north wind's swell,
With obscene clutch that titillates and stings,
Snatching me off on monstrous voyagings
To grey worlds hidden deep in nightmare's well.

Over the jagged peaks of Thok they sweep,
Heedless of all the cries I try to make,
And down the nether pits to that foul lake
Where the puffed shoggoths splash in doubtful sleep.
But oh! If only they would make some sound,
Or wear a face where faces should be found!


The Offering


Ghoul Feeding


The Truth About Mermaids


Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Holmes vs Frankenstein?

After a sucessful revival of Dracula and Frankenstein in a double bill, Universal decided to it was high time to revive the monster once again. However the sequel was to be done without many of the series' stalwarts, with only Karloff returning . But could new boy Rowland V. Lee match the heights of James Whale's direction?

The first thing to note about his production is that the script was being constantly rewritten during shooting. However to Lee's credit, the finished film shows little of this behind the scenes turmoil. Certainly the the movie wanders a little in the middle section, but in fairness this is nitpicking. After all, a tendency to lose a little pace around the halfway mark is a common affliction in most movies, and when watching Son of Frankenstein you wouldn't guess that new pages of script were often turning up on set on a daily basis! And that's an impressive feat for any director. Alot of films which suffer this end up as Alan Smithee productions.

However Lee's accomplishments don't just end with making a coherent movie from a hydra-headed script. Firstly there's the fantastic casting and the performances he got from them. Bela Lugosi excels as Igor, the villainous graverobber. Lugosi often gets accused of being a terrible ham, but his portrayal of Ygor shows great depth and subtlety, and quite possibly tops his genre-defining performance of the Count. Indeed it's worth noting that due to this film, Ygor will always be the name associated with a mad doctor's deformed assistant in the popular imagination. Therefore, at the very least, Lugosi's Ygor has proved to be an iconic performance equal to his Dracula.

Equally impressive is Ygor's nemesis, Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krough. Despite having an arm ripped of by the monster in his youth, Krough is a more complex character than the usual monster-chasing hero. He tries to keep the peace between the new Baron Frankenstein and the anxious populace, rather than lead a torch and pitchfork wielding mob. While Ygor is the sinister schemer, manipulating both Frankenstein and the monster, Krough is very much his reflection, icarrying out counterpoint string pulling. He attempts to keep the villagers at peace, investigates the monster's murders and tries to discover the extent of Frankenstein's involvement. The interplay between Atwill and Rathbone is also great. Krough rightly suspects that Wolf is following in his father's footsteps but still tries to gain his confidence.

Atwill imbues Krough with a calculating intelligence and deep integrity and honour. And he achieves this with his character having one of the most bizarre character traits in movie history. Krough's missing arm has been replaced by a wooden one, which he manipulates to give himself the use of two arms. Now this could have easily been used to comedic effect (as Mel Brooks did in 'Young Frankenstein'), but Atwill and Lee carefully ensure that never happens. Whenever Krough is moving his replacement arm, it underlines not just the threat of the monster but the strength and virtues of Krough. Here is a man who by rights should be first in line to lead the mob against Wolf Frankenstein as soon as he alits from the train, yet he does the opposite and welcomes the new Frankensteins and tries to avert the villagers' hostility. Moreover the way he uses his arm suggests a man who in the face of adversity as chosen to calmly carry on regardless; his affliction may have precluded him from fulfilling his ambition to become a solider but he will be the best, most committed police inspector possible.

The last newcomer to look at is Basil Rathbone. Most famous for his performances as Sherlock Holmes (the first two films in the long running series would appear in the same year as Son of Frankenstein), he proves he can create a Frankenstein distinct from Colin Clive yet just as memorable. As Wolf Frankenstein, he portrays a man who wishes to escape his father's monster-making shadow but ultimately catches his father's scientific fervour when he discovers the survival of the monster. Indeed as the film progresses, he gradually begins to develop nervous tics that cleverly echo Clive's performance. He convincingly depicts a man who is not only trapped between the pull of Ygor and Krough, but also between his own family life and his father's legacy. All in all, Rathbone's Wolf Frankenstein proves to be a more complex and believeably character than Clive's Henry.

Needless to say, Karloff is still excellent as the monster. After the events of the last film, the monster is once more mute and seems a little less intelligent now - presumably either due to damaged suffered or the 'sickness' he is suffering from when Ygor first reveals him. Although the monster is a good deal more evil under the bidding of Ygor, there is still pathos and depth in Karloff's performance. The scene where the revived monster confronts Wolf is particularly memorable.

In addition to these three great turns, Lee has other aces up his sleeve. This film boasts beautiful cinematography and fantastic sets. Now the Frankenstein home has become an Expressionist labyrinth of jutting angles and twisted architecture, with Lee's camera work and light making the most of harsh lines and deep shadows. The film has great visual flair, creating a rich and atmospheric world for the drama to unfold in. Jeremy Dyson in Bright Darkness notes that many subsequent directors have borrowed shots from this film - most strikingly Orson Welles' Citizen Kane; as Dyson points out Welles borrows Lee's opening sequence practically shot for shot.

Son of Frankenstein is a fine film. It not only delivers the expected chills but also continues to intelligently explore wider themes. Lee wisely focuses the action through the character's relationships rather mere monster mayhem, and in doing so creates genuine drama and tension. It is a worthy sucessor to the Whale films and in my view comfortably equals them, forming a very solid trilogy of Frankenstein movies. It's actually my favourite of the Universal sequels - though it's a very close call between Son of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.

However this was to be the last outing for Karloff as the monster, and the following films of the series would not maintain the high standards of the first three...

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Proudly Presenting...

...The art of HYPNOGORIA. Posted below is a series featuring the icons from the silent horror era. We hope you like 'em!


And you can buy stuff with them printed on! We've just opened the UK store, and fret not, as a US/world store is coming very soon.
The link for the store is

Also check out the new 'Benighted Places' link list, which features among other things some of my favourite podcasts which help while away the hours spent sweating in Photoshop and Dreamweaver.





The Bells


"And the Red Death held illimitable dominon over all"


Big Ben At Midnight


Sunday, 21 September 2008

Here Comes The Bride!

As far back as 1933 Universal were looking to develop a sequel to Frankenstein. Several scripts were produced over the next 2 years which ranged from a scifi-style tale of Frankenstein developing a death ray to a bizarre saga with Henry and Elizabeth running away to join the circus and posing as puppeteers. However none of these found favor with the studio heads or James Whale who they were keen to get back for directing duties.

However despite the lack of a decent treatment for the proposed film, then titled 'The Return of Frankenstein', Universal managed to secure Whale's services. His first action was to junk all the previously developed concepts and comission John L. Balderston to dream up a completely new plot...

Bearing in mind our conclusions on the original, it is somewhat ironic that the fresh finished script created by Balderston and William Hurlburt (and no doubt polished by Whale himself) actually draws more heavily from Shelley's original work. We now get a monster who speaks (though admittedly not as verbose as in the book); scenes detailing his education and of course the whole plot of the monster blackmailing Frankenstein into creating a mate for him. It even flags up it's credentials with a nifty prologue featuring Lord Bryon and Shelley asking Mary about the monster's fate. Naturally these elements are more reworked than accurately recreated but we still have a film that is nearer to the novel than the original.

However the script's great strength is that it is a smooth continuation of the first film. This is no lazy rehash of the first outing, it picks up directly from the close of Frankenstein and then carries on with logical progressing both the story and it's themes. Actually this is so deftly done, one who think that a second film had been planned alongside the original. Furthermore with adding more of Shelley's elements it feels like the second half novel filtered onto the screen. And if you consider the movies as two halves of one film, the result would be arguably the closest adaption of the novel ever filmed.

Of course there are a few niggles with sitting down and watching both films back to back. Firstly Elizabeth is recast. Valerie Hobson replaces Mae Clark - but in all fairness she gives a far better performance. Secondly the Frankenstein home is now gloomy and gothic than pleasantly summery as in the first film.

Finally though, the third niggle is the extra added humour. Don't panic, Bride of Frankenstein doesn't go all out into out and out horror comedy territory (it would be a good few more years before this happens at the hands of Abbott & Costello). In the main it's a case of the black humour present in the 1931 film has been polished and sharpened. Ernest Thesiger's arch Doctor Pretorius has a great many witty lines but none which undercut his villainy or the atmosphere of horror.

However, in all fairness there are two scenes where the comedy arguably oversteps this mark. One is the scene where Pretorius unveils his creations, who turn out to be little hommunculi in belljars which have been dressed in satirical costumes. But what tips this scene is not so much the antics of the King who escapes from his jar, but the high pitched squeaking voices of Pretorius' creations - it's hard for the modern viewer to watch this without being reminded of Alvin & the chipmonks/the Smurfs/Pinky & Perky/insert suitable helium-voiced pop culture reference.

Similiarly it's hard not to keep a straight face when the monster starts drinking and puffing on cigars with the blind hermit. When I rewatched this, all Karloff's shouts of 'Smoke!" and "Drink good!" made me wonder if this performance was an inspiration for Father Jack in Father Ted.
And there's further comedy in that due to the lighting the cigar the monster happily smokes looks very like a monstrous reefer! (Presumably this is unintentional, but with Whale's flamboyant private life one never knows).

However neither of these broadly humorous vignettes harm either the atmosphere or the film overall in my opinion. Pretorius' hommunculi ultimately underline the madness and perversity of his character, and the monster enjoying the hospitality of the blind hermit, though amusing are at the same time quite touching. They also form a key point in the plot in that the subsequent shattering of this idyll propells the monster into further villainy.

Niggles aside and whether you watch it as a sequel or a 'Part 2', this film is a classic in every sense equal to it's predecessor. Clive and Karloff turn in accomplished performances, Dwight Frye returns as an unscrupulous graverobber from the Burke & Hare school, and Ernest Thesiger excels as the corrupting Pretorius. Whale's actually manages to out-direct himself, creating a film filled with iconic shots and resonant images. He also manages to subvert the audiences' expectations at every turn - the crowning example of this being the actual Bride herself.

After her animation in a scene that tops the original in both tension and Ken Strickfaden-created sparking apparatus, the reveal of the monster's mate was a surprise in itself. Rather slowly peeling away the bandages, Whale opts for a dissolve to the Bride dressed in suitably nuptial robes and after some hair dressing. Instead of a hulking female Karloff clone, we have a rather glamourous if not attractive girl.

Now when I first saw the Bride in a still reproduced in Alan Frank's fabled Horror Movies back in my much younger days, I must admit I was somewhat disappointed that Jack Pierce hadn't delivered a squared headed, scar festooned harpy. But it was a very different matter when I got to see the movie. The first impression still jars the expectations, but then she moves. Firstly Elsa Lanchester gives the Bride a sinister doll-like body language, moving in almost clockwork actions which given the character a truly uncanny nature. But the real kicker is when she turns and we see the intersecting stitching where they attached her head. Whereas Karloff's sutures had a patchwork feel, the Bride's scars have horrible fresh out of car wreck surgery feel to them.

Pierce apparently spent a great deal of time on creating the stitching, much to Elsa Lanchester's displeasure. However the time and care did really pay off; the Bride's perfect porcelain complexion is truly corrupted by the bristling threads. The design in itself is inspired - the stitching is all the more horrid for the way the two lines form a 'V' shape, hinting at a very messy assembly job and leaving the audience wondering how well Henry and Pretorius have put her together - that gown she's wearing probably has long sleeves and hemline for a very good reasons...

Bride of Frankenstein is often claimed to be that rarest of beasts - a sequel that actually improves upon the original. Whether you concur with this, I suspect will largely come to down to how you react to the touchs of humour, black or otherwise. Certainly it at least equals the first film and deserves it's status as a classic in it's own right.

Bride of Frankenstein definitely can be held up as the perfect example of how to contruct as a sequel. Of course this begs the question, would Universal follow it's lead when they came to Son of Frankenstein?

Saturday, 20 September 2008

It's alive! IT'S ALIVE!

Yes it's been a while but we're back! Back I tell you! And armed to the teeth with thoughts on the Universal Frankenstein saga! Multiple posts imminent!

But enough of the Colin Clive ranting ... let us consider the first entry in the cycle - James Whale's Frankenstein (1931). What can one say about this movie? It's not just a horror classic but it's also a genuine giant in the annals of cinema greats. Whale's direction is accomplished, the lighting and sets truly evocative, Jack Pierce's astonishing conception of the creature, and a trio of stellar performances from Karloff, Clive, and Frye.

It's a historic film and still packs a punch today. So taking a glowing review as read, let's move on the more intriguing matter of the film's influence. Something both Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula have in common is that neither has been terribly faithfully adapted for the screen. However the reason for this comes from differing causes.

In Dracula adaptions, subplots are lost and characters enjoy a wide variety of role swaps and name changes but the essence of the novel is there. And though the Count usually differs from his appearance in the novel, particularly his rejuvenation throughout the tale, a screen Dracula can be relied upon to deliver whole lines from the book and and behave in the much the same manner as his literary antecedent.

However Frankenstein adaptions are a markedly different kettle of corpses. Very little of the novel remains bar the very bones of the plot. It's often quite a surprise for the reader to find how wildly different the book is. The major shock is the positively garrulous monster who is given to philosophical debating and could no doubt hold his own on University Challege. Other surprises include the vagueness of the creation, the monster learning English from Paradise Lost, and the fact that the whole business of the bride wasn't something dreamed up by sequel-hungry movie men.

What becomes very apparent is that screen Frankensteins are not really adaptions of this book - rather they are remakes of Universal's 1931 film. Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein took it's lead from the Universal film and but for threats of legal action would have featured a monster which looked like Jack Pierce's vision. Frankenstein - The True Story does borrow more elements from the book than most but largely does so within a Whale template. And 1992's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (as mendaciously titled as Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula) was more Cuddly Ken's Remix Of Jimmy Whale's Frankenstein Flicks.

Nearly all the elements we associate with the Frankenstein story - lightning, brain transplants, hunchback assistant, mute lumbering monster, scars, bolts through neck - originate from Whale's movie rather Shelley's text. (The only major exception is the monster's trademark arms outstretched lurching - this doesn't begin until 1942's Ghost of Frankenstein which we'll get to later).

That's how iconic this film really is - it has supplanted the book as the 'real' version of the tale in pop culture. A rare feat indeed. And that's somehow fitting too - as people are still wont to think that 'Frankenstein' is the name of the monster, this is some what mirrored by the fact that when we think of the mad doctor and his creature, we're thinking of the version made by Whale not Shelley.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

She Gives You That Weird Feeling!

Yes, it's Universal chiller time again folks! And now we look at 1936's Dracula's Daughter. The idea of a sequel had been kicking around since 1933 and various treatments had been developed. At one stage the great James Whale was attached to the project and for quite a while Lugosi was slated to reurn as the Count. Lugosi got as far as appearing in publicity stills for the movie and was even paid for the role. However neither made to the final project, leaving us to wonder at what could have been...

But enough preamble and on to the movie that was actually made. Dracula's Daughter is more of a full-blooded sequel than the later Son of Dracula, Edward Van Sloan returns in the role and the last reel of the movie see a return to Dracula's Transylvanian castle, complete with it's famous cobweb wreathed stairs.

The action begining minutes after the close of the first film, with Van Helsing being arrested for the murder of the Count. And pleasingly we get something lacking in the first film - a shot of the staked vampire. After his arrest, the good doctor enlists a former student Dr Garth to aid his defence. And shortly after this, Dr Garth encounters Countess Marya Zaleska, who turns out to be ... well I'm sure you can guess.

Although strongly rooted in the original movie's mythos, Dracula's Daughter is closer to the moody chills of a Val Lewton picture than the gothic thrills of the other Universal horrors. (Indeed art director Albert S. D'Agostini when on to work on Lewton's series of RKO films). It focuses on the psychological rather than the supernatural, creating a very different kind of vampire movie. It presents the vampire in a sympathetic light; the Countess seeks to free herself from the curse of vampirism, firstly by burning her father's body and when this fails by turning to psychiatric treatment from Dr Garth.

Gloria Holden puts in a great performance as a tortured soul, torn between trying to honour her heritage but wishing for freedom from vampirism. On one hand there is the promise of salvation with Dr Garth, and on the other, the temptations of the dark side embodied by her servant Sandor (played with sinister aplomb by Irving Pichel).

The film is also notable for the possible first appearance of sapphic vampirism - the love that dares not spell its name. In a scene where the Countess surrenders to her needs, she preys upon a young girl Sandor has lured to her home. Watching this today, there definitely seems to lesbian overtones, however whether this is intentional is debatable. Apart from the problems this would cause for the film in the time it was made, in the context of the film it doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. Her previous victim is male, and though later in the film she kidnaps Dr Garth's amour, here her intentions are merely to use the girl as bait to snare the dashing doctor who she sees as a potential partner to share eternity with. However implied lesbianism aside, the scene is one of the most powerful in the movie.

Overall Dracula's Daughter is a classy little film. Although it has been seen as one of the weaker Universal horrors, it's subtle chills make for rewarding viewing. If you want more typical supernatural vampire antics, procede directly to Son of Dracula. But if you are a fan of the RKO Lewton pictures, which this film can be considered an precursor to, Dracula's Daughter delivers the same kind of artfully shot and character based horror.

One final though to round off this look at Dracula's time at Universal. It's interesting to note that the first trio of Universal Dracula movies all feature a good deal of romance. Lugosi's Dracula is a seductress of 'strange passion', Countess Zaleska is looking for a soulmate and Count Alucard is the foreign interloper in a young couple's relationship. Possibly this is due to the nascent horror movie having less well defined conventions or maybe the studios were seeking to broaden the appeal of the films (which would also explain the inclusion of comedy orderlies and policemen ). Whatever the origin, this theme distinguishes them from the pack of following vampire films, giving them a flavour of their own.

And when will I be looking at the Count's next Universal outing? Not for a while yet. First I intend on revisiting the Frankenstein films and in due course we'll reach the all-star monster rally House of Frankenstein where Dracula hooks up with not only Larry Talbot and Frankenstein's Monster but a mad scientist and his obligatory hunchback assistant...

Another Kind Of Monster

The other night Roadhawk rocked over to my place armed with booze and Some Kind of Monster. The former was Southern Comfort and Schnapps, and the latter was a DVD of the 2004 Metallica documentary, recently snapped up for a song from Mr Morrison's cavernous bargain bins.

Now we'd both heard about this flick - and what we'd heard was this "it's kinda like Spinal Tap come to life". And to be fair, that's what we got. But like Marty DeBergi, we got alot more. A whole lot more.

Although there are some very funny scenes in the film, on the whole these are just a side order to the main course. What the movie actually delivers is a 'warts and all' picture into the life and times of one of the world's biggest rock bands. Covering the difficult circumstances surrounding the recording of the 'St Anger' LP, Some Kind of Monster unflinchingly charts the arguments and tensions of a band close to collapse. As Roadhawk observed afterwards, although some of this could be viewed as comedy in the main the situations are actually too serious to be really funny. For example some of the bickering taken in insolation would play like Tap, in the context of the film you see them as genuine arguments between real human beings.

Now that isn't to say that there isn't humour in the film. Lars Ulrich is a very funny man, a veritable king of dead pan delivery, and new bassist Ron Trujillio does an uncanny impersonation of Ozzy Osbourne. And when James Hetfield returns from rehab sporting a sensible beard and glasses, he did remind me of Red Dwarf's Rimmer in the episode 'Polymorph' after he's had all the anger sucked out of him.

But Metallica don't come across as buffoons in the St Hubbins/Tufnel/Smalls mold. And inspite of all the serious interpersonal chaos, they don't come off as pompous, self indulgent bloated rockstars either. Something of an albatross around the band's neck is the infamous Napster controversy, which made alot of music fans see them as the above. However Some Kind of Monster addresses this very frankly, and without being an exercise in white washing, if you watch this film you will understand how and why this little storm kicked off and, you will even understand the band's reasons for kicking it all off.

It definitely isn't a real life Spinal Tap; if there is a movie comparison to be made then Some Kind of Monster is the Lord of the Rings of rockumentaries. The DVD extras are very much Rings style in length and depth. The deleted scenes alone add almost a whole second movie.

Whether you are a Metallica fan or not, this is a fascinating insight into the workings of a rock band. And if like me, you aren't a big fan of the band, after watching this revealing film there's a good chance you will be. I'm off now to listen to 'Master of Puppets'...

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Son of Dracula

Yes, I 've been at that Monster Legacy boxed set again ... Now technically, I should have watched Dracula's Daughter next, being chronologically the next film in the Universal cycle but I skipped ahead as I'd not seen Son of Dracula since a BBC 2 late night double bill. (See post "Through a Glass Darkly" for more details). Also I thought it a more fitting follow-up to Spanish Dracula as they both have George Robinson on camera duties.

This movie finds a Count Dracula coming over to persent day America to ply his trade. Note that's 'a' Count Dracula - the script claims he is "probably a descendant" of the original and never claims him to be the son of Lugosi (unlike Marya in Dracula's Daughter who is definitely Bela's little girl). This doesn't harm the plot of the film any, in fact it gives the character a mysterious background more pleasing than any hamfisted exposition of the Dracula family tree.

The other thing to note is that he's travelling under the name of "Count Alucard" - which is the first time the Count uses the old reverse-your-name routine. Of course this ruse has been done to death now, but this is the original outing and in fairness, the film doesn't attempt to build any mystery around this. In the opening scene, we see the family crest on the Count's luggage and and a character traces the name backwards.

So down to the movie itself. Overall it's a far better film than it's misleading title suggests. Curt Siodmak crafts an intelligent script that subverts the viewer's expectations. If you've seen any other "Son of" films from this era, you'd be well within your rights to assume that the plot will merely rehash the parent movie. Yes, it's true the Count's aims are the usual come to a fresh young country to hunt a la Stoker, but Siodmak doesn't make this the wellspring of the action. I'll not go into spoiler territory here, as if you've not seen it I'd like to preserve the suprise of the plot twists. I think they warrant the secrecy as the story actually offers an original new direction for a vampire movie.

Visually the movie makes good use of it's Deep South setting. The spooky swamp sets look fantastic and the interior shots are beautifully shot and lit with a deft use of light and shadows.
There's a much talked of scene where the Count's coffin surfaces from the bayou which he then pilots across the murky waters.

The movie also doesn't stint on the special effects. The Count shifts into bat form on numerous occasion with a nifty use of subtle animation. On the whole there's a wealth of good bat work here. Sure they flap in a fashion that screams 'hey I'm mechanical and on wires" to a modern CGI-bloated audience but they are very well realised effects for its day. Like alot of old-time FX creature, these bats have a ton more charm and character than more realistic swarms flittermice that turn up at the drop of hat in today's blockbusters.

Even better though, and still looking impressive today, are sequences with the film's vampires transforming into mist. These effects looks simple gorgeous and genuinely eerie. And you do wonder "How the hell did they do that?" - smoky, drifting tendrils of fog not being the easiest things to matte on top of another scene. And certainly not on to the atmospheric sets lit with an interplay of light and dark.

The cast all perform well, though my favorite was J. Edward Bromberg's Professor Lazlo - this movie's resident vampire expert - played with a confident twinkle in his eye. Interestingly he sports the same type of round spectacles favored by both previous Van Helsings - is this traditional vampire hunter's dress? The good guy's equivalent of an opera cape and evening dress?

Now Creighton Chaney gets alot of stick for his portrayl of Dracula in this movie. I don't think he's "excruciatingly miscast" as David J. Skal puts it, but I do understand the criticisms of his performance. Indeed when I orginally saw this movie, I was unimpressed. But watching it again, I quite warmed to him in the role. In all fairness, he looks great - he cuts an imposingly tall figure and moves with the expected poise without lapsing into overexaggerated hissing and miming. However I think the problem many viewers over the years have had with him in the role is his voice - he doesn't have the sardonic charm of a Lee or the baroque speech patterns of a Lugosi. Also Chaney is so associated with Larry Talbot it's easy to start reading a pathos in his delivery that isn't really there. In terms of the movie though, it's important to remember he's only a Dracula not the Dracula, and if you think of the character in this light, I think he works well.
In the final scenes, where the Count is shown at his most monstrous, Chaney really knocks it out of the park.

So in conclusion then, this is a great little film. Far better than it's title would have you believe, and containing some very memorable scenes. Certainly I think it's had somewhat of a short shrift over the years but that's something that hopefully this rambling review may help to rectify.

Next stop on this tour of Universal horrors will be Dracula's Daughter. But if you're lucky I may get my act together and look at a few other things before continuing with the old school chillers. Or maybe not. Who knows? Not me...