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Saturday, 15 July 2017

300 Words on "Death Proof" (2007)


Death Proof is a film which constantly subverted expectations. It’s a film, like Psycho, comprised of two distinct halves with two distinct casts of characters. Just when you think that you have foreseen where the plot is going to go, the movie throws you for a loop. And, like Psycho, Death Proof is ostensibly a horror movie. However, I’m not sure if I can rightfully say that it is all that scary. Even the climatic car chase wasn’t what I was expecting, feeling less like a great, kinetic set-piece and more like a game of tag…in cars…and where the loser dies.

Though director Quentin Tarantino has, himself, admitted that Death Proof is the weakest film in his filmography, it is not without its positive points. Death Proof’s very existence is worth applauding. It was created as the second-half of a double-bill with director Robert Rodriguez for their homage epic, Grindhouse, which saw their films screened back to back and accompanied by original trailers for fake coming attractions directed by the likes of Eli Roth and Edgar Wright. The lengths which Tarantino went to in order to give his film that authentic grindhouse look – right down to scratching the film negative itself – is nothing short of a masterly feat of style over substance.

As one expects of any Tarantino film, though, the dialogue and characters are excellent, even if this is, undoubtedly, his weakest screenplay. A viewer with a morbid sense of humor and tongue planted firmly in cheek shall have lots to chuckle at. And that car chase, despite its unconventional nature, is exciting, and Tarantino handles the action very well.

To some, Death Proof is the low point of Tarantino’s career. To others, it is an underrated gem. Either way, Death Proof promises its viewer one wild ride in the fast lane.

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For those who follow this blog and recall my ranking of the films of Quentin Tarantino (link here), I have included my revised list below. Though Death Proof doesn’t shake up the list any, for the sake of completion, I thought I would include it. As I consider none of Tarantino’s films bad per se, I have ordered the list from Best to Least Best:

Pulp Fiction (1994)
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Django Unchained (2012)
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Jackie Brown (1997)
Kill Bill (2003, 2004)
Death Proof (2007)

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Top 25

To a true movie fan, answering the question “What is your favorite movie” can feel like a Herculean feat. Responding to a single question may not be as tough a situation as vanquishing the Hydra, but I have always found myself stymied in the face of it. So, in an effort to finally come up with a list, I took a few hours – it really did take two hours – and came up with a list of what (currently) are my Top 25 Favorite Movies.

Those 25 films are listed below accompanied by a brief overview of my thoughts. I should acknowledge now that this list is destined to be very fluid and, chances are, this list will be different this time next year. Or perhaps next month. Maybe even tomorrow. In addition, I have chosen to organize this list in chronological order based on each film’s date-of-release.

Before plunging into the list proper, I have decided to include five Honorable Mentions: films which just missed the cut. These films include: Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Batman (1989), Cape Fear (1991), The King’s Speech (2010), and The Hateful Eight (2015). Each are brilliant films which I love. So, without further ado, let’s jump right in…

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1. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – The Golden Age of Hollywood produced many epics, but none have the same sense of fun and adventure that this, the definitive version of the Robin Hood myth, has. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone lead a stellar cast in this Technicolor spectacle which boasts the finest sword fight ever put to film.


2. 12 Angry Men (1957) – Another bona fide classic which truly needs no introduction, 12 Angry Men is truly the greatest character study ever put to film. Henry Fonda is enthralling as the forgiving juror, but Lee J. Cobb steals the show. This one is considered one of the finest court room dramas for a reason.


3. Witness for the Prosecution (1958) – Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic courtroom whodunit stage-play is an exciting and engaging watch. Few things are as they seem in this masterfully-acted thriller starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester at her comedic best.


4. North by Northwest (1959) – Hitchcock’s epic cross-country adventure is a darkly comedic thriller featuring many edge-of-your-seat set-pieces. Cary Grant evades the police by train, runs for his life from a deadly crop duster, and scales the faces of Mount Rushmore with Eva Marie Saint at his side. James Mason and Martin Landau are at their creepy best as the sophisticated villains.


5. Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcock’s follow-up to North by Northwest couldn’t be more different than predecessor, emerging as a dark, unnerving horror film. The infamous shower scene has, of course, become a cultural icon on its own, but the entire film is steeped in atmosphere, generated in no small part by Bernard Hermann’s haunting string score.


6. The Birds (1963) – The closest thing that the Master of Suspense made to a monster movie, The Birds subverts its genre conventions in favor of Hitchcock’s signature suspense. The scene set at the playground is truly one of the greatest set-pieces in Hitchcock’s filmography.


7. Wait Until Dark (1967) – Audrey Hepburn isn’t associated with thrillers, but the star has rarely been better on screen than here, playing a blind woman terrorized by a gang of ruthless criminals. The entirety of Wait Until Dark is a brilliant exercise in suspense, but it’s the film’s finale – more-or-less creating the jump scare – which brings the whole film to a horrifying fever pitch and leaves me – and audiences everywhere – no longer on the edge of their seats, but on the floor.


8. What’s Up Doc (1972) – This, an open love letter by Peter Bogdanovich to the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. From its delightful farce in Act One, to comedic car chase in Act Two, the Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal-starring comedy still feels as fresh and as fun as it did when it first premiered.


9. The Sting (1973) – The heist movie has become an institution in film today and, though The Sting does not purport to be the first heist film, few movies which share its genre can say that they told their story as charmingly. Paul Newman and Robert Redford simply scintillate as the wizened con and his protégé, and Robert Shaw is incredibly watchable (as always) as the gangster who their out to con. There are too many great moments to outline, but I have always found the poker game on the train to be a particular delight.


10. The Exorcist (1973) – Hands down one the scariest films ever made, William Friedkin’s no-holds-barred exercise in making audiences scream is, at times, liable to make your skin crawl. Its horrific set pieces have gone down in cinema history, but the film’s foreboding atmosphere is simply palpable. Once seen, The Exorcist is not easily forgotten.


11. Young Frankenstein (1974) – Like What’s Up Doc, Mel Brooks’ send-up of classic horror has aged well. Perhaps, even better. I defy anyone to think of a comedy which is more quotable than this one. One need only look to the classic exchange regarding “Abby someone…Abby normal” to prove my point. Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, and Peter Boyle (to name a few) effortlessly provide laugh after laugh after laugh…


12. Jaws (1975) – Steven Spielberg’s movie about a shark is so much more than a foreboding dorsal fin. It’s the story of an unlikely partnership formed by Roy Scheider’s police chief, Robert Shaw’s grizzled fisherman, and Richard Dreyfuss’ shark expert. It’s yet another brilliant example of suspenseful filmmaking, and character-driven storytelling. The famous U.S.S. Indianapolis speech is a chilling highlight. Launching the summer blockbuster, even after so many years, Jaws still makes us afraid to go in the water.


13. Halloween (1978) – I have already written at length about the merits of John Carpenter’s genre-defining slasher, so I will be brief in an effort not to repeat myself too much. Halloween still has the ability to scare: Michael Myers having, rightfully, become one of the most spine-chilling figures of horror cinema. Donald Pleasence as the determined doctor and Jamie Lee Curtis as the equally determined babysitter lead the cast in this cheaply-made but profoundly effective thriller.


14. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) – It’s become a tradition to watch this movie every Thanksgiving, and John Hughes’ comedy warrants its revisiting. Steve Martin and John Candy have impeccable on-screen chemistry and line-after-line and scene-after-scene is memorable and quotable. Even after all these years, Martin’s tirade at the car rental agency can make me laugh until I cry.


15. Die Hard (1988) – It’s easy to call Die Hard the greatest action film ever made, but why? Perhaps it’s the incredible tension generated by having one man take on a group of terrorists in one building. Perhaps, it’s those terrorists: a group of villains led by Alan Rickman’s perversely likable Hans Gruber. For my money, though, it’s Bruce Willis’ John McClane: a hardened NYPD officer who finds himself in over his head very quickly. Willis’ McClane is such an identifiable hero, constantly wisecracking, and fun to watch, that we cannot help but cheer him on from the very start.


16. GoodFellas (1990) – As you begin to watch Martin Scorsese’s hands-down masterpiece, you can understand why you might want always want to be a gangster. GoodFellas is engaging on both a storytelling and technical level: its long-take through the Copacabana is rightfully lauded, as are the performances by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and, of course, Joe Pesci. But, as GoodFellas progresses, you become witness to a fascinating fall-from-grace all accompanied by what has to be the finest soundtrack ever assembled for one film. Honestly, I can take or leave The Godfather, but GoodFellas will capture my attention each and every time.


17. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Based on the Thomas Harris thriller, Silence of the Lambs was not the first film to feature Dr. Hannibal Lector, but it is certainly the most famous. Despite having only about 16 minutes of screen-time, Anthony Hopkins is simply mesmerizing. Jodi Foster also positively shines as the heroic Clarice Starling and her story of rising to prominence in a male-dominated industry is a poignant one to be found amidst the horror and thrills, but adds weight to the pulpy storyline. Lector’s escape is also one of the best scenes of suspense ever filmed.


18. JFK (1991) – As I have written elsewhere, Oliver Stone’s conspiracy thriller ceases to be a movie at one point and becomes an experience. The film is so well acted, and edited that the combination of news footage, recreation, and original material can become dizzying. Running more than three hours, JFK can feel daunting, but it is just as epic. The scene between Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland’s unnamed informant is one of the most riveting pieces of film I have ever watched.


19. A Few Good Men (1992) – Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama features his usual hallmarks of wise-cracking characters and incredibly memorable dialogue. Elevated by performances from Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and, of course, Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men manages to pose fascinating questions as well. When it’s all said and done, one has to wonder if you can handle the truth.


20. Pulp Fiction (1994) – Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece is an engaging, quirky, and off-kilter crime thriller. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Uma Thurman shine as they deliver Tarantino’s brilliant dialogue. Pulp Fiction is such a unique and one-of-a-kind film that even Tarantino’s other films cannot compare to it.


21. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Based on the short story by Stephen King, this behind-bars character study is the highest-rated film on IMDb and boasts critical praise on all fronts, so there is little new that I think I can add aside from saying that I too – like so many others – am always moved with each new viewing. And, it’s twist-ending of sorts, is truly brilliant. How it wasn’t spoiled for me, I’ll never know.


22. The Usual Suspects (1995) – Speaking of twist endings…I don’t want to say too much other than this one floored me too. The Usual Suspects is surely one of the most original crime thrillers ever put to film and its central performances are hard to match. The verbal game of cat-and-mouse between Kevin Spacey and Chazz Palminteri, which makes up the heart of the film, is truly an exhilarating watch.


23. Catch Me If You Can (2002) – In Steven Spielberg’s hands, this stranger-than-fiction but real-life account starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks warrants revisiting again and again. Spielberg manages to balance the frivolity of the story with its darker undertones, and the performances from the leads – including Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, and Amy Adams – make their characters feel real and engaging. Catch Me If You Can is one of those movies which has the honor of being worthy of a re-watch almost as soon as it’s over.


24. Inglorious Basterds (2009) – Tarantino’s epic World War II film is just as much a movie about movies as it is about war. Despite its bleak subject matter – and grisly violence – Inglorious Basterds remains a fun, likable film. Christoph Waltz is the obvious highlight, but Brad Pitt’s ludicrous Nazi hunter is a comic highlight, and Mélanie Laurent’s vengeful cinema-owner is a fascinating study in obsession.


25. The Social Network (2010) – A brilliant collaboration between director David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, the story of the creation of Facebook is both a treat for the eyes and the ears. Sorkin’s dialogue and Fincher’s aesthetic complement each other beautifully, and Jesse Eisenburg delivers a powerhouse performance as the cold Zuckerberg. It’s a film worthy of being called a modern classic.

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That is that, then. Generating a list of even 25 was not easy at all. I couldn’t imagine trying to cherry-pick these, narrowing the list down to 10…or heaven forbid, five…or one! I have included a few statistics which I found of interest below.

Including Honorable Mentions:

1 film prior to 1950, 4 films from the ‘50s, 3 films from the ‘60s, 6 films from the ‘70s, 3 films from the ‘80s, 8 films from the ‘90s, 5 films post 2000

3 films by Alfred Hitchcock, 3 films by Quentin Tarantino, 2 films by Steven Spielberg, and 2 films by Martin Scorsese

4 court-room dramas, 6 horror films, 4 comedies, 5 movies based on real-life events

Average run-time: 2 hours 6 minutes

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Way More Than 300 Words on "Baby Driver" (2017)


(Spoiler Free)

Anyone who is reviewing Baby Driver needs to address the car chases. They are, undoubtedly, some of the finest put to film. They’re fast-paced, exciting, and genuinely get the blood pumping. They feel real and intense, and rightly so. Director Edgar Wright ensured that all of the driving effects were practical and in-camera. This is not a CGI extravaganza and Baby Driver is made all the better because it feels so genuine.

Anyone who is reviewing Baby Driver needs to address its cast. Ansel Elgort is the eponymous criminal chauffeur. He’s an incredibly likable character; his geniality made all the more interesting when one takes notice of just how little Baby speaks throughout much of the film. Nowadays, the action film genre is dominated by loud and brassy heroes and Elgort’s Baby is the exact antithesis. In short, a wonderful breath of fresh air. Lily James is just as likable as the love interest, and her on-screen chemistry with Elgort too feel effortless and real. Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Eiza González round out the handsome cast, though it is Jamie Foxx who walks away with top honors. His psychotic criminal truly steals the film.

So far I have written of the realism and all around genuine nature which Baby Driver generates, but as this is a film by Edgar Wright, it should be expected that the whole movie is stylized in the extreme. The film's script is exciting and incredibly witty but the style all starts with the soundtrack. Hardly a scene goes by without use of some music and, right from the start, the soundtrack becomes an integral part of the film. Set pieces and action scenes alike are virtually choreographed in time to the music: the action set to “Tequila” is one of the best things I have seen on the screen in a long time.

Wright’s penchant for fast-paced and stylized editing is also on full display, and while the editing is perhaps not as frenzied and in-your-face as some of Wright’s other films like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, or The World’s End, it will not take a sharp-eyed viewer to pick up on the long takes and brilliant scene transitions which are utilized throughout.

Baby Driver may, on the surface, be light-weight summer entertainment, but its stylized nature speaks to a true master behind the camera, cementing Wright’s status as one of the most original and exciting filmmakers of the day. And, it got me thinking. Why, I wondered, do I go to the movies in the first place? Though the experience of being moved by a film is oftentimes the surest sign of a masterpiece, above all, I go to the movies to be entertained. To have fun.

Anyone who is reviewing Baby Driver needs to address its sense of fun. It is nearly impossible to walk away from this one-of-a-kind adventure without a smile on your face.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

300 Words on "Henry V" (1989)


This review comes as the first in an informal look back on the work of Sir Kenneth Branagh in preparation for the release of his Murder on the Orient Express. That’s not until November, but what’s the harm in starting early?

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Kenneth Branagh is one of my favorite directors. While he may not inhabit the inner-circle of greats, he is surely standing outside easily holding court with the likes of David Fincher, Oliver Stone, and even the much-loved Stanley Kubrick. Each of Branagh’s productions harkens back to a day of by-gone epic cinema, and while some may argue that his films are examples of style over substance, one need only look at brilliant acting in both Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations and mainstream films to refute that statement.

And, it all started with Henry V, an adaptation of one of The Bard’s most popular historical plays. Done by that other master of Shakespearean film, Sir Laurence Olivier, in 1944, Branagh’s version of the story came four decades later, and put a darker, bleaker, and more modern sensibility to Shakespeare’s words. Even the moments in Shakespeare’s play which would have been traditionally played for laughs are somber and sincere under Branagh’s hand. Branagh, who made his directorial debut with the film, utilized the filmmaking techniques which had been perfected by other directors in their presentation of war films to give his Henry V a harder edge and, indeed, the climactic Battle of Agincourt pulls few punches and presents the violence and bloodshed with the utmost sincerity emphasizing the tragedy and grimness of war.

As is standard with a Kenneth Branagh film, the cast is filled with notable faces. Special mention must be made of Branagh’s frequent collaborator Sir Derek Jacobi, here who is simply mesmerizing as the Chorus, who acts as our guide and leads the viewer through the historical intricacies. Ian Holm, Robert Stephens, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, and a plethora of others round out the ensemble.

Henry V may lack the opulence of Branagh’s other beloved Shakespeare adaptations, but its true-to-life presentation and fine performances make the film just as lofty as his others: each presenting the works of history’s greatest writer as they were intended to be seen.

Monday, 19 June 2017

300 Words on "Bullitt" (1968)


Some movies are so linked to one particular scene or set-piece that it’s nearly impossible to separate the two. For Pulp Fiction, it’s the dance scene. In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s Luke learning that Darth Vader is his father. And for Bullitt, it’s the car chase.

Oftentimes lauded as the finest car chase ever put to film, the one in Bullitt is impressive, to say the very least. Filmed in a kinetic, frantic style, the camera oftentimes very nearly approximates Steve McQueen’s view from behind the wheel making the viewer feel as if he or she is in the driver’s seat bouncing along the streets of San Francisco. The car chase in Bullitt is exciting and tense. Everything that a good car chase should be.  

Due no doubt to the chase’s sheer brilliance, the remainder of the film has a lot of work to do to live up to a high standard. It does this with mixed results. Performances are good from McQueen, Robert Vaughan, Jacqueline Bisset, and others, and the entire movie is steeped in a realistic, grim and gritty tone which lends weight to the by-the-book police procedurals on display. Despite these positives, the film is rather slow and – unfortunately – at times, lacking in tension; an always necessary component of a good action film.

Those criticisms aside, however, Bullitt still manages to be an engaging film; a motion picture certainly ahead of its time. Its single set piece would give rise to entire films structured around brilliant car chases, but few have pulled them off with the conviction and forthrightness that Bullitt does. While the sum of its parts may not equal a total breathless, heart-pounding success, when those components are looked at individually, then there is much good to be found in Bullitt.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

300 Words on "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962)


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is a strange, strange film. Its storyline is at times meandering and repetitive. The characters – even the normal ones – seem just a bit off. Its camera setups can be peculiar, and its musical score is frenzied, hurtling between scary melodious. It’s a film where the opening credits don’t start until the twelve-minute mark and the stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, don’t show up for another eight.

However, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is a fascinating film to watch. Davis and Crawford, who were real-life rivals, give performances filled with so much latent hate that it’s almost palpable. In fact, Davis’ Oscar-nominated performance as Jane is nothing short of brilliant. Once seen her song-and-dance performance as she tries to recapture her youth is haunting. Crawford, as the invalided Blanche may have less to do but she is nevertheless excellent as the sympathetic sister.

Much like the old house in which the two sisters reside, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane feels dirty and old. It’s the kind of movie where its unrelentingly grim atmosphere gets under your skin and is liable to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. It’s a film which was ahead of its time, and you’re left wondering if all of those strange choices enumerated above might have been deliberate; an effort to make the movie feel even more otherworldly and intangible. Though classified today as a horror film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane might not elicit the kind of shocks that its contemporary horror films did, but it is a evocative, creepy picture nevertheless.

Today, one may recoil at the out-and-out over-acting from both Davis and Crawford, and the sheer weirdness of character actor Victor Buono is a curiosity in itself, but What Ever Happened to Baby Jane succeeds wonderfully in the end. It’s a film that – despite its downbeat nature – you end up enjoying.

And that may be the strangest part of all. 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Slightly More Than 300 Words on "Wonder Woman" (2017)


(Possible, Mild Spoilers)

I think my biggest complaint with superhero movies today is despite the fact that they are marketed as action-adventure movies, superhero films give us not exciting, gritty set-pieces (the like that you’d find in your standard Bond film or Die Hard), but elect instead to present a CGI extravaganza robbing the film of any inherent reality. It’s become the norm for the genre today, so I found myself much surprised when, following just such a computer-generated battle early on in Wonder Woman, the film slow itself down, took itself a little more seriously, and presented an interesting story instead of one fake-looking scene one after the other.

What surprised me even further was that Wonder Woman – though the latest installment in DC’s extended universe franchise – is for all intents and purposes a superhero film; the movie is, at its core, a World War I spy thriller. Its narrative, which played out like one part All Quiet on the Western Front and one part 1940s serial, was really interesting and, at times, quite poignant. The film’s characters were unique and relatable, and the film’s period setting made Wonder Woman’s fish-out-of-water story feel understandable, and further justified the typical presentation of Edwardian British men’s flabbergasted reactions towards liberated women.

For much its runtime, Wonder Woman presented itself as a very well-made action-adventure film. While the film was compared to The Dark Knight (2008) in early reviews as DC’s finest movie, I don’t think I would go so far as to say that. The film’s final act sadly brought the whole down; introducing a neatly-executed but unnecessary twist which made the final half hour feel as generic and standard as every other superhero film out there.

But, Wonder Woman is nevertheless a very important film. It proves what so many people already knew: that a female-centric superhero film can be a great success. While far from flawless, Wonder Woman should hopefully herald in an entirely new breed of superhero flicks to add new life to male-dominated and – by now – tired genre. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Universal's "Dark Universe" - A Future for Classic Monsters?


If there is one thing which I have come to learn about the film industry as an interested observer, it’s that movies are constantly – constantly – looking at what’s popular and trying to capitalize off of that. Movies are a reflection of culture, and the period in which they were made. Take, for example, the James Bond franchise which has probably changed its tone more than any other franchise in film. The series started out as taut, spy thrillers; series entries like From Russia From Love and the criminally underrated Thunderball owing something to slick spy thrillers like North By Northwest and Charade. By the ‘70s, the series was trying to find new footing and drew upon the Blaxploitation movement for Live and Let Die, and kung-fu films for The Man With the Golden Gun. Later in the decade, after the success of Star Wars, Bond went to space in Moonraker.

That is not to say that the Bond films should be faulted for this – each one has a special place in my heart – and they all managed to be entertaining and exciting on their own. But, the trend has certainly continued today. Movie executives are continuing to follow the money towards box office success and, what has cornered the market today? Superhero films.

Well, to be more precise, Marvel superhero films.


I should say upfront that I am not a big fan of the Marvel franchise. I have seen only a handful of them, to be honest – Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Guardians of the Galaxy (Volumes 1 and 2), and Doctor Strange, to be exact – and while each stands on their own as decent (and sometimes above average) films, I have never felt myself compelled to seek out the missing links which forge the epic chain that makes up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Today those two words “Cinematic Universe” seem to loom like a great 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith in the public consciousness; films which inhabit the same shared space with characters who can easily meet and interact with each other across movies. It is an interesting and profitable idea, which every major studio in Hollywood is now attempting to cash-in on.  

Curiously, the idea of a shared universe of films is not a new concept. Director Quentin Tarantino has asserted for years that his films exist in two worlds of interconnected characters and histories. But, before him, Universal Studios, producing horror films in the Golden Age of Hollywood, more-or-less created the cinematic universe. Their monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, and assorted others – all, it transpired, lived in the same world and, as the studio continued to churn out monster sequel after monster sequel, it became inevitable that their paths would cross. Now, with word that Universal is officially rebooting their monster series to contend with Marvel and DC, I am forced to ask myself two questions: 1) How do I feel about this, and 2) Can this work?

Following an admittedly pretty epic-looking launch trailer (see below), I decided to take to Microsoft Word in an effort to ruminate on those two questions and work some things out for myself. It’ll prove to be a journey for sure, but a fascinating one as we prepare to enter a new world of gods and monsters.


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Part 1: How Do I Feel About This?

When two movies buffs are in a room together, the topic of conversation is inevitable. Some time ago, I found myself discussing movies with a friend of mine and the question was posed to me, “What is your favorite film genre?” I cheated and responded, “Thrillers.” But the more I thought about it, and the more that we discussed film together, I discovered that I am the foremost champion of horror films I know. I suppose, in retrospect, this is not a surprising fact. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, at the age of six I was taken to see the 1931 Dracula and that got me interested in not only Universal Monster Movies, but eventually classic film, which broadened my horizons to the medium on a whole. While I am perfectly content to discuss the merits of a drama, a comedy, or (once in a blue moon) a romance, I will find myself in my proper atmosphere when it comes to films which deal with all things that go bump in the night.


So, I have a deep-seeded love for horror films – the Universal movies, especially. Though, today, I am more inclined to revisit and sing the praises of Hammer Studio’s run of horror classics from the ‘50s through the mid-‘70s, the Universal films will also be something very special to me. I can still think back on the thrill which ran through me when I first borrowed House of Frankenstein from the local library on VHS, the excitement which came with watching Son of Dracula for the first time after years of only hearing about the sequel, and how I felt like I had gotten away with something by watching The Black Cat (1934) during a road trip; the plot summary on the box of the VHS told of its climax featuring a black mass and how Boris Karloff had chosen Jaqueline Wells to be the Devil’s bride and my Mother wisely refused to allow me to borrow that one.

When word came that Universal was going to reboot their monster franchise, I think to call my reaction a hesitant one would be most apt. Surely, I thought, this is simply a cash-grab in an effort to copy every other Hollywood studio that are pushing for cinematic universes in the style of Marvel Studios (now owned by media juggernaut Disney). And, following the release of the initial trailer for The Mummy (2017) – which opens on June 9 and will be the first installment in the franchise – I found myself suppressing an audible groan. The trailer had fallen into the mire which seems to be consuming nearly every movie trailer these days: giving away too much of your plot and/or giving away your film’s biggest set-piece, and I was left unimpressed.

But, then something weird happened. The second Mummy trailer was released and, because I have too much of a vested interest in the old Monster movies to not watch, I pulled it up on IMDb and watched as an augmented version of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” began to play over sepia-toned images of an archaeological excavation. And, I actually got excited. Legitimately excited. By the time that I went with my friends to go see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in theaters and saw that same Mummy trailer play before the film, I actually leaned over to one of them and said, “This looks pretty good.”


Maybe, I figured, I too had fallen under the ancient pharaoh’s curse. More likely, the marketing campaign managed to do its job and win over this stubborn fan. (The inclusion of classic rock in any film trailer cannot hurt my chances of going to see a movie; the first trailer for Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok also played before Guardians and its use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” got me very excited.) But, now, at the time of this writing a little more than two weeks out from The Mummy’s opening, I’m actually looking forward to it.

So, in an attempt to answer the question above: I’ve come to terms with the idea of a “Dark Universe.” It, at least, gives the Universal Monsters a future again; something I daresay that they haven’t really had since the late 1930s. And, the star caliber behind the series so far – Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, and Javier Bardem – is nothing to sneeze at either. However, the real question is: can the monsters still survive today?

Stakes and sunlight haven’t vanquished Dracula yet and fire, sulfur, floods, and quicksand have yet to destroy the Frankenstein Monster, but can audience’s tastes finally lay the monsters to rest for good?

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Part 2: Can This Work?

What differentiates the Marvel Cinematics Universe and the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe from Universal’s “Dark Universe” is its very subject matter. For all of their tonal differences, both Marvel and DC are making superhero films. While a film like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is worlds away from Guardians of the Galaxy, both films are – at their heart – action-adventure films featuring powerful, heroic characters. The keyword here, I think, is the word heroic. It’s easy to rally beyond the central characters of these cinematic universes because we inherently want to see good triumph over evil when it comes to the kind of popcorn entertainment that these movies are.

By contrast, the Universal Monsters are not heroic. They have taken on the sort of status that heroic characters tend to get and are beloved by fans of all ages, but we cannot forget that the Monsters are, well, Monsters. Dracula drains the blood of his victims to extend his eternal life. Frankenstein’s Monster corners his creator atop a rickety windmill to exact his revenge. The Wolf Man tears out the throats of the unsuspecting townspeople. Luckily, from what we can judge from The Mummy trailers, the Mummy does not appear to be a heroic figure. If anything, she seems like the gold, old-fashioned, bloodthirsty piece-of-work that makes for the best kind of blockbuster movie villains.

The new faces of your nightmares?

This isn’t really a point of concern for me as a Monster movie fan, but it will be something to keep in mind as Universal progresses with this franchise. If horror movie sequels are anything to base a supposition on, then there is nothing to fear for audiences seem to like seeing the same monster/killer/thing return again and again to off as new cast of characters.

What is a point of concern is the tone that these films will adopt. Back when the rumors began to circulate that Universal had intentions of rebooting their Monster franchise, it was said from the get-go that the films would be more “action-adventure based than horror.” It is true: the Universal Monster movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s no-longer have the ability to scare audiences today, but reimagining them as adventure stories seems a little wrong. Universal has already seen what an action-adventure take on their films can emerge as: Van Helsing, directed by Stephen Sommers, may have been a nice homage in places to the old Monsters, but its presentation seemed to please no-one (aside from maybe myself: I liked it as a kid and it’s still kind of a guilty pleasure film for me). Van Helsing (2004) currently holds a 23% on Rotten Tomatoes and features such glowing praise as: “There isn’t a single nourishing, non-synthetic sequence in the entire movie. Not a scene. Not a line. Not a look,” “This moronic abomination is not a movie,” and “This is one of the dopiest movies of the year.”

But, maybe Universal has learned from their past mistakes. Dracula Untold (2014) was originally conceived as the jumping-off point for the franchise, but its critical and box office failure scrapped those plans. Perhaps, Universal saw what their first attempt at an action-adventure film based around one of their most famous properties produced and have altered course accordingly. However, even if that is the case, there is one thing which is troublesome about the franchise: forward-thinking.

Usually, I am all for preplanning (when it comes to anything, really), but as it stands, Universal has officially announced five further films to follow 2017’s Mummy movie. The next is a reimaging of Bride of Frankenstein (starring Javier Bardem as the Monster) to be released in 2019 followed by a Creature from the Black Lagoon film, an Invisible Man film (starring Johnny Depp), a Van Helsing film (possibly starring Tom Cruise again), and then a Wolf Man film. While I don’t want to doom the franchise, I feel as if this is a textbook case of putting the wagon in front of the horse.

Part of what made the Marvel universe work was the time it took in crafting each film before culminating in each thread of their superhero tapestry being woven together in The Avengers (2012). When DC tried to copy the Marvel formula for success, they skipped that time ingredient and jumped straight into Batman v. Superman which tried to set up the culminating story all too quickly. They only shot themselves in the foot with Suicide Squad (2016), and I believe have done themselves no favors by slating their Justice League film for November of 2017. I have spent more time than I’d probably care to admit in the past year discussing how DC could have handled their cinematic universe or how they should handle it in the future. (DC people, if you’re reading this, drop me a line and I’d be happy to pass along a few ideas.)


While Universal doesn’t seem intent on trying to get to that culminating film yet – back in the ‘40s they were the “Monster Rally” films of Frankenstein meets The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula, all of which saw one or more of the studio’s monsters battling it out come the final reel – but the forward planning seems a bit presumptuous. Giving them the benefit of the doubt like I suggested above and thinking that Universal has been fixing their mistakes from the past, the tight schedule which they have given themselves with these releases doesn’t really give them the time to do that sort of thing anymore. For all of the flack I may give Marvel, they do have some sense of story in mind, and they’re not simply rushing ahead churning out movie after movie with little idea where they intend to go.

I’m not afraid to cheer on team Universal though. As I said, I am genuinely looking forward to The Mummy and Bride of Frankenstein – oftentimes considered to be the studio’s best Monster movie – seems to be in good hands; director Bill Condon helmed the 1998 biopic Gods and Monsters about Frankenstein director, James Whale (Condon was also that film’s screenwriter and won an Oscar) which suggests that he’s an obvious fan of the material, and his work on other films, particularly Mr. Holmes (2015) is evocative, striking, and moving.

I am left to wonder, though, if these new “Dark Universe” films will have the staying power of their originals. Will some young fan many years down the line be borrowing them from the local library and reveling in them the way I did with the originals so many moons ago?

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The original 1932 The Mummy features a striking scene in which Boris Karloff’s Imhotep leads Zita Johann’s Helen to a reflecting pool which swirls with white vapor. Peering into the pool, Imhotep is able to reverse the sands of time and show Helen her past, proving she is the reincarnation of his lost love, Ankh-es-en-Amon.

Oh, how I wish I had a pool such as his now, only one which worked in the opposite direction. One which, when peering through the swirling white vapor shows visions of the future. Though I would want to check out a few other things about my immediate future, if there was time, I’d like to see just how well the “Dark Universe” franchise fares. I wish it only the best.

Hopefully, it will introduce a new audience to not only a new world of gods and monsters, the original one as well. 

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Best Dracula of Them All?

I submit this piece as an early celebration of International Dracula Day “celebrated” by all those with a predilection for the creepy on May 26 – the publication date of Bram Stoker’s immortal original classic.

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I met Dracula when I was six years old.

According to Hollywood lore, before shooting began each day for Universal’s Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi, who was playing the Count, would stand in front of a full-length mirror (for a vampire uncharacteristically casting a reflection), throw his cape over his shoulder, and bellow at the mirror: “I AM Dracula” in an effort to hypnotize himself into delivering the perfect performance as the vampire. While co-star David Manners attests to this, the story may very well be apocryphal, though mention of it is made in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Whether it’s true or not, Lugosi’s performance as Dracula is one for the ages. Today, it’s impossible not to imagine a tall, dark, Hungarian man in evening wear when one thinks of Dracula. Or simply vampires for that matter.

And, even if Lugosi did not succeed in casting a spell over himself, then certainly on his audiences. Purportedly when the star took the stage in the late 1920s playing the Count for the first time, women swooned and fainted. Nurses were on call armed with smelling salts to attend to those audience members with nervous dispositions, and in doing so; Dracula became a fixture of Broadway in the early days of the Great Depression. A film version was inevitable. Universal Studios – who had made a profit hand-over-fist in the 1920s with their adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera – bought the rights to both Bram Stoker’s novel and the successful play with the intent of casting “The Man of a Thousand Faces” himself, Lon Chaney, as the eponymous vampire. Chaney died before production could begin and Bela Lugosi stepped in front of the film camera to extend his spell over a whole new audience…




…Myself included. At the age of six, my Mother and I went to a screening of the 1931 classic at the local library as the Halloween season swiftly came upon us. Though I cannot remember every detail of that evening, I’m told many years later that I was enraptured by the film. Dracula (1931) may not hold up today as one of the greatest horror films of all time, but its influence cannot be overestimated. Without it – it is easy to argue – the modern horror film would not exist. Dracula proved to Universal that horror films were truly profitable and soon the Count gave way to Frankenstein’s Monster (and his Bride), the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and a myriad of others.

Today, 120 years since the initial publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula continues to have a hold on popular culture. In the wake of Bela Lugosi, countless other Draculas have graced the screen both big and small: Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Louis Jourdan, Gary Oldman, and George Hamilton to name just a few. However, I believe that the finest Dracula film is the oftentimes overlooked 1979 Universal remake starring Frank Langella as Dracula. It is a film version which I believe does not receive the praise it truly deserves, as it may well be the Count’s finest hour on film. I suggest that we take a closer look.

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Like Lugosi before him, Frank Langella began the role of Dracula on the stage. The production was a revival of the play from the ‘20s which had been penned by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Deane’s original, which had opened in England, had enough cheese to fill a French fromagerie - complete with thunder and lightning cues and bats dangling on the ends of fishing poles - but its success was enough to make it cross the pond and, after being polished up by writer and former journalist Balderston, proved to be just as commercially successful in the states.


Langella's Dracula surrounded by Gothic sets designed by
illustrator Edward Gorey

Langella’s performance in the revival was lauded widely at the time. His performance was nominated for a Tony and writer Gregory William Mank writes on his website reflecting on the experience of seeing Langella on Broadway in 1978: “It was amazing to watch Langella’s Count, capering before the Edward Gorey sets, skillfully playing Act I for comedy (to bait the audience), Act II as a mix of comedy and drama (to keep the audience guessing), and Act III as raw, red meat melodrama (which had the audience in near-hysteria).”

The success of the Dracula revival was surely enough to spawn a remake – or, perhaps, a reimagining – of the 1931 classic. I use the word reimagining as the 1979 film has little in common with the Bela Lugosi original or the Deane/Balderston play. True, there are scenes which are lifted from both sources (the confrontation between Dracula and Laurence Olivier’s Van Helsing being the most obvious example and one of the film’s genuine highlights), but for much its run, 1979’s Dracula feels very much like its own entity. Its plot feels original and unpredictable, partially down to the reshuffling of the cast of characters. Lucy is the central figure of this drama. As most ardent Dracula fans now, it was Lucy in the novel and most adaptations who is victimized by Dracula first and turned into a vampire. However, herein it is Mina who befalls that fate. And, to top it all off, Mina is now the daughter of Professor Van Helsing which adds extra gravitas to the vampire hunter’s hunt for the vampire.

To a Dracula purist, one may balk at all these changes. Furthermore, knowing that the plot never sets foot outside of England (Dracula was originally a sweeping novel beginning and ending in continental Europe), is set nearly a decade into the twentieth century, and knowing that the film features a sub-title proclaiming it to be a love story may very well put fans of the Count off of this film. However, for all its cosmetic changes to the plot and characters of the original, Dracula remains a fascinating film to watch. The very nature of its reorganized cast of characters and storyline lends the film an air of unpredictability which even some of the other finest Dracula films cannot avoid. Hammer’s 1958 Dracula starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee may have dispensed with its source material almost from the word go, but throughout the film one never doubts the idea that good will triumph over evil and Dracula will be vanquished. Dracula ’79 casts doubt upon the very essence of the story; something which cannot be said for many adaptations of the generations-old tale.




And, to address that point about the film being a love story, it’s hardly true. Though it’s obvious that Kate Nelligan’s Lucy is slowly falling for Langella’s Dracula, it is hard to sympathize with the Count. He never becomes a pathetic, sad figure in a way which robs him of his inherent scariness and evil. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for all its amazing in-camera special effects, costumes, and occasional bits of inspired acting, is guilty of this for sure; Dracula is supposed to be scary and by turning him into a romantic figure, he is robbed of what makes him so terrifying. Langella’s Dracula is quietly evil and, to be frank, his performance is liable to send a shiver or two up and down your spine.
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Laurence Olivier as Prof. Van Helsing

The supporting cast helps to round out the film in no small measure and support Langella all the way through. Of special note is Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing. Though I am biased by my admiration for all things even tangentially-related to Peter Cushing, I assert it as a fact that Cushing’s Van Helsing is the finest ever committed to screen. But, Olivier puts his own fascinating spin on the character. His sensitive, sad nature is at times quite brilliant, and the scene in which he is confronted by his vampirized daughter is both heartbreaking and scary all-at-once.

To provide some comic relief is Donald Pleasance as a sweets-chewing Dr. Seward, but Pleasance – the brilliant actor that he is – never allows his comic bits of business to overwhelm his character. As mentioned above, Kate Nelligan shines as Lucy. Her close-up in the film’s final shot is chilling in its ambiguity. (Oh, and eagle-eyed Doctor Who fans will spot Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy as the asylum attendant, Walter.)

The cast on a whole does a brilliant job of elevating the story from what – at its heart, like the original Deane play, is a rather cheesy story – to being something with some depth and intrigue. As mentioned above, the scene of the vampire Mina is genuinely frightening even today, and the film’s finale is shocking in both its bold plot decisions, but for the open-ended nature of the conclusion. I would be doing anyone who has not seen the film a disservice by speaking about it more.

And, like any film which is scored by John Williams, the film’s score is fantastic. Its central theme is surely one of Williams’ most underrated compositions.

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Even today, opinion is still divided on 1979’s Dracula. Roger Ebert spoke to the film’s elegance and how it “restores the character to the purity of its first film appearances,” but many have written the film off for some of its more dated aspects (and it is true – though it objectively looks good, there is little use in defending the “vampire wedding” scene as designed by James Bond title-sequence guru, Maurice Binder), and for Langella’s subtle Dracula.

While I think that the film on a whole is perhaps not the classical milestone of the Hammer Dracula film, or perhaps even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is an underrated gem to be sure. It’s a Dracula film which is interested in more than just fangs, stakes, and garlic wreaths. It’s a Dracula film with a brain and a heart.

It’s a film which proves that Dracula shall continue to be able to cast a spell over me.