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Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Shape of Water (2017) – Review

Do you like monster movies? How about films about outcasts? Perhaps cold war thrillers are more your bag or maybe it’s a fun caper films that hits you in the sweet spot. If any of those genres intrigue you than Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a must see because not only is it all of those things but it's also at its heart one of the best films I’ve seen about love and friendship.


One of the things I love about going to see a Guillermo del Toro movie is that you can never be sure if he’s going to give us a big action spectacle like Hellboy or Pacific Rim or a gothic faerie tale like Pan’s Labyrinth or Crimson Peak. In the case of The Shape of Water it is a bit harder to characterize because though its romance aspect is definitely in the faerie tale area there is a lot more going on in this movie.

The story follows the adventures of this sweet mute woman Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who along with her friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) work as a janitors at a secret government facility in the early 1960s, a place that probably has you sign nine nondisclosure agreements and prefer that you don't mind cleaning up after torture. One day evil government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives with a new “asset” that he obtained (i.e. captured) and tortured in South America. This man is a violent intruder into this world and is a counterpoint to our heroine as a key element of this film is the feeling of being ostracized.  Elisa is mute while Zelda is an African American and they are both women in the 60s and then there is Elisa’s next door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) who is a closeted gay man, and all this makes her becoming attached to a being that is possibly the loneliest creature she has ever met feel absolutely natural.


To say this film is beautiful would be a gross understatement as del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen have not only created a visionary color palette, they easily use ever shade of green out there and then invented some more, but they also managed to turn the bleak world of the 1960s into a place where you could believe a magical love story between a humanoid amphibian and a woman was not only possible but darn right necessary.

I always wondered what the Gill Man from The Creature of the Black Lagoon saw in Julie Adams, sure she was a very beautiful woman but would busty brunettes be something a creature with scales would find attractive? On the other hand in The Shape of Water the relationship that develops between the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) and this sweet but sexually mature woman seems completely natural.


It’s the silent love story between these two lonely souls that makes the film such a beautiful and lyrical fairy tale but one cannot overlook the fantastic supporting cast with Octavia Spence and Richard Jenkins doing their best to steal any scene they are in with Jenkins' random nonsequiturs being a particular highlight, “Cornflakes were created to stop masturbation. It didn’t work” and the two of them bring much of the humor to balance out some of the film's dark moments. The other stand out character would be Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) as the one scientist in the facility who finds the Amphibian Man to be wondrous being that maybe shouldn't be vivisected so that America can gain edge in the Space Race. It’s of course Michael Shannon’s repressed and angry government villain that is pro-vivisection and thus we get our third act “caper” portion that is somehow both believable and preposterous at the same time.


The film’s faerie tale feel let’s slide such questionable elements that in another film may have bothered me, such as why would a creature from the fresh water rivers of South America would need a salt water tank or the feasibility and structural integrity of flooded bathrooms, and thus I didn’t have the same problems that I felt harmed del Toro’s previous outing Crimson Peak even though it too had an equally heightened reality but its basic story structure was weak and was harmed by less than believable characters.  While on the other hand the cast of characters of The Shape of Water never once felt less than authentic no matter what bizarre events were unfolding.


If any film deserved all the Oscar buzz it’s getting than it would be Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and not only is this a must see but one I recommend you try and catch it on the big screen because it is a visual masterpiece.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Man-Thing (2005) From Comic Book to Screen


One of the great mysteries in the history of film is how and why Marvel put into production a film based on the comic book monster Man-Thing, a character with almost no name recognition outside of comic book fans and as a title it hadn't been in publication for years, but even more mysterious was in the way they went about making it. With the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films it seems strange that Marvel Entertainment would have teamed up with Artisan Entertainment (which was purchased by Lionsgate) to crank out a bunch of live-action films, television series, direct-to-video films based on their comic book properties as previous low budget adaptations such as the 1989 Dolph Lundgren led Punisher film and the 1990 Matt Salinger Captain America bombed so badly that they ended up being Direct-to-Video releases. So did anybody at Marvel expect this film to be any good?


Created by Editor Stan Lee and writer Roy Thomas in the early 70s Man-Thing was one of those weird creations that was more in the vein of the horror tales of EC Comics than what was filling up the pages of most Marvel comics of the time, Man-Thing wasn’t wearing tights or fighting costumed villains, and it even took a while for him to get his own comic as he spent his early years appearing in such titles as Savage Tales, Astonishing Tales, and Adventure Into Fear. Now Man-Thing would occasionally bump into likes of Kazar, Daredevil and Iron Man but The Man-Thing comic was about as far from its superhero brethren as one could be.


In Savage Tales #1 we were introduced to scientist Ted Sallis who was working in the Florida Everglades on secret government project to replicate the super soldier formula that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America, unfortunately Ted’s choice of girlfriends was rather poor and she ratted him out to agents of the criminal organization known as A.I.M (Advanced Idea Mechanics). Ted managed to destroy his notes and flee with the only sample of his serum but after injecting himself with the serum, in the hopes this would result in turning him into a superhero and help him survive against the A.I.M agents but instead he crashed his car into the swamp. The combination of the serum, the swamp, and magical forces inherit in the area transformed Ted Sallis into the shambling monstrosity known as the Man-Thing.


If some of that origin sounds vaguely familiar it’s probably because you either saw the movie Swamp Thing or read the comics based on it, and back in the day there were rumblings about a lawsuit between Marvel and Swamp Thing owner DC, but being both Swamp Thing and Man-Thing also share similarities to a 1940s comic book called The Heap neither company thought it worth getting into a pissing match over. And aside from their swamp based origins the two characters are quite dissimilar; Swamp Thing retained the intellect of Alec Holland while Man-Thing is an almost mindless creature that only occasionally has flashbacks of his former life as Ted Sallis, and where Swamp Thing traveled the world fighting villains and arcane forces Man-Thing mostly hung around his swamp with the odd trip to other dimensions.

 

“Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!”

As superpowers go Man-Thing has easily one of the weirdest and darkest of powers; Man-Thing is an empathetic creature and strong emotions like rage, anger, hatred, and fear, cause him great discomfort and he relieves this discomfort by reaching out and taking hold of the offender in a very unpleasant manner.  Turns out that his body secretes highly concentrated acid that can burn human beings to ashes within a matter of seconds and now whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing's touch. One important thing to understand is that he isn’t completely deprived of intellect, he once saved a baby that was tossed off a bridge by bringing it to a local doctor, but you won’t find him trading quips with any super villains as he is completely mute. His only real “job” is that of protecting this particular portion of the Everglades that just so happens to be the Nexus of all Realities. How much of awareness of this job exists in his muck filled head is up for debate but more than likely it’s an instinctual thing created in him at the time of his transformation.


Man-Thing sits along Swamp Thing as one of my favorite comic book creations but where I could see a Swamp Thing movie working (if handled properly) the idea of translating the pages of Man-Thing to a live action movie seemed all but inconceivable. How do you take a mute and somewhat mindless title character and hang a major motion picture on him? Well clearly giving a low budget production house a $30 million dollars and letting them run off to Australia to shoot it was not the way to go.


Like 1982's Swamp Thing the 2005 adaptation of Man-Thing was another case of a comic book movie being made where the filmmakers may have briefly glanced at the source material, throwing in a few names and references to assumingly placate the fans, but then completely abandoned almost every other aspect of its comic book origins. Now I know that a one-for-one translation of a comic book to the screen is impossible, they are two different mediums after all, but in this case director Brett Leonard and screenwriter Hans Rodionoff unmistakably threw out the baby with the bathwater. How bad and how far does this go off the mark? Well the film opens, after a brief shot of something monstrous rising out of the swamp, with a bunch of teenagers partying around a campfire, a boy and girl run off to have sex in a canoe, and then Man-Thing brutally murders the dude mid-coitus. Is this a comic book movie or a slasher film?

 

“KI KI KI, MA MA MA…MAN-THING, MAN-THING.”

I will not dispute the fact that at its core the Man-Thing comic book is more horror based than anything else but in this movie he may as well just be wearing a bloody hockey mask. The film’s 97 minute running time mostly consists of people wandering around the swamp until they bump into Man-Thing and who are then viciously murdered, and due to this formula the movie gives us a large roster of characters to knock off. We have evil oil tycoon Fred Schist (Jack Thompson) who is drilling on ground sacred to the local Native Americans, his idiot son Jake (Patrick Thompson) who is in charge of security, Steve Gerber (William Zappa) as Jake’s racist underling, Wayne and Rodney Thibadeaux (John Batchelor/Ian Bliss) as alligator hunting rednecks who look like rejects from Deliverance, and then there is Mike Ploog (Robert Mammone) a photographer/bigfoot hunter who thinks this swamp monster is his big break. And in what manner exactly does this Man-Thing dispatch his prey? It seems that he uses his writhing vine/tentacles to explode his victims from within.

 

It’s messy but very effective.

The problem I have with this part of the movie is that, and not put too fine a point on it, where the fuck is the “Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch?” Anyone with even the slightest notion of who Man-Thing is knows that he kills by burning his prey and not exploding them from within via plant attacks. This is a complete failure in translating a character’s most notable trait, that’s like making a Batman movie and having the caped crusader murdering people with gunfire. It’s ridiculous. The interesting thing here is that there is a swamp creature that uses that type of attack…Swamp Thing!

 

Did the filmmakers pick up the wrong comic?

In the mid-80s writer Alan Moore was brought onto the then failing Swamp Thing series and with his story “The Anatomy Lesson” shook the foundation of the character by revealing that Alec Holland actually died back in that fiery lab explosion and that Swamp Thing was a creature birthed when the local swamp vegetation had absorbed Alec's mind, knowledge, memories, and skills and created a new sentient being that only believed itself to be Alec Holland. With this new knowledge, and no longer bound by human morality, Swamp Thing went on a revenge fueled rampage where those responsible for his “death” met rather horrifying fates.  In one instance a guy ate a BLT and Swamp Thing made the lettuce explode to tree size from within the dudes stomach. So yeah, this movie version of Man-Thing not only dropped the key ability he was known for but lifted a completely different one from his competitor.  I’m only surprised that Alan Moore didn’t sue them, but then again I guess he’s kind of gotten use to being screwed over in the movies.

 

"You got a purty lawsuit there, boy."

So just what is the plot of this movie you ask? Well as far as plots go this film doesn’t have much of one.  Kyle Williams (Matthew Le Nevez) arrives in town as the new sheriff, the previous one having gone missing in the swamp, and his first task is to handle the environmental protestors over at Schist Petroleum, and it’s there that he meets Teri Richards (Rachael Taylor) a school teacher and environmental activist and this movie’s completely unnecessary and useless love interest. Between making witty banter with Teri and dealing with the redneck locals the new sheriff has to track down Rene LaRoque (Steve Bastoni) an eco-terrorist who just may be responsible for Schist getting his mitts on the Native American land. He’s also pretty bad at eco-terrorism.

 

Blowing up an oil rig in the middle of your sacred swamp seems like a bad idea.

But what about scientist Ted Sallis who is tragically transformed into the monstrous Man-Thing? Well the origin story from the comic book is completely jettisoned in favor of turning Ted Sallis into the local shaman and Seminole chieftain who we learn disappeared, sometime before the movie started, and is accused of selling the sacred land to Schist and then running off with the money. Of course it turns out that LaRoque was responsible for the sale and that Schist murdered Sallis for trying to stop the deal, but now LaRoque is all about sabotaging Schist’s company because the Guardian Spirit of the swamp will keep on murdering until Schist stops desecrating the sacred swamp. That someone handed this script in and was paid for it is the most startling thing about this whole production. There isn’t a single believable character in this movie, they are either two dimensional stereotypes or simply too idiotic for us viewers to care about.

 

That these two survive is the biggest insult.

Not only is this movie a complete departure from the source material but even if you ignore everything they got wrong (which is pretty much everything) the film is also guilty of being incredibly boring as most of the film’s running time has us stuck with these group of morons as they wander and paddle endlessly through the swamp in the fucking dark. Visually it’s about as exciting as camping in your backyard, and the gory action that was added to get this thing an “R” rating only highlights how little this film has to offer.  When the film eventually comes to its stultifying conclusion we are only grateful that we can now do our best to forget we ever saw it.

 

"Whatever knows despair burns at the viewing of this movie."

Stray Thoughts:

• The two teens who exit the campfire to fool around is an obvious and sad nod to the opening scene in Steven Spielberg's Jaws.
• This new sheriff decides that his best option for finding LaRoque was to hunt for him at night in the swamp, which no sane person would ever do.
• Man-Thing kills innocent as well as guilty people in this movie so they took a tortured complex creature from the comics and just made him into a moss covered Jason Vorhees.
• One character is named after Man-Thing writer Steve Gerber and another after artist Mike Ploog but neither of these characters are all that flattering to these comic book legends.
• Most of the swamp locations are sets that look about as convincing as a high school production of Deliverance.

 

I’m not sure where that $30 million dollar budget went but certainly not here.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Swamp Thing (1982) From Comic Book to Screen

In 1971 writer Len Wein and legendary artist Bernie Wrightson created one of the most iconic and more interesting creations to ever grace the pages of DC Comics, Swamp Thing. Originally just a stand-alone horror story that appeared in an issue of House of Secrets it told the story of scientist Alex Olsen who is murdered by his jealous partner in a lab explosion because the man had the hots for Alex’s wife. Later a shambling muck encrusted mockery of a man would rise out of the swamp to get his revenge and save his dear wife from the clutches of the real monster. Much in the way of the classic EC Comics this story struck a chord with readers and DC wanted to capitalize on it quickly with a continuing story but neither Wein nor Wrightson were interested. Lucky for us the two eventually decided they didn’t have to continue with the character of Alex Olsen and his muck encrusted life but could instead create a new swamp monster to be an ongoing star.

Issue one of the new Swamp Thing hit newsstands in late 1972 where it kept a little of the origin from the House of Secrets issue but dumped the nasty love triangle and replaced it with corporate espionage. Alec Holland and his lovely wife Linda are scientists working in an out-of-the-way lab deep within the Louisiana swamps on a secret bio-restorative that could end world hunger by making plants that could grow in even the most hostile environment. A trio of corporate goons led by a man named Ferret show up at Holland’s door requesting to buy his formula for a private organization run by ruthless man known simply as Mister E.  Alex of course refuses and the goons leave as a patrol car approaches, but when the nefarious trio return and Alex again refuses their offer the men knock him unconscious and plant a bomb in the lab, he wakes up just in time to catch the full force of the blast and the mixture of chemicals that made up his formula, and wreathed in flames the poor scientist runs into the cool embrace of the swamp.


Linda is later shot and killed by Ferret as Alex, in his new form as Swamp Thing, arrives too late to save her, but the bigger failure in this tale is that of the character Matt Cable who was the government agent in charge of keeping the project top secret and the Holland’s safe. To say he dropped the ball on this one would be a colossal understatement. Cable quickly becomes this comic’s version Inspector Gerard as he wrongly blames Swamp Thing for the death of Alec and Linda and pursues the creature across the globe. Those familiar with the late 70s television version of The Incredible Hulk will remember the reporter McGee basically falling for that same assumption as for five seasons he tried to catch the Hulk who he believed was responsible for the death of David Banner and his wife.


What made Swamp Thing standout amongst all the superhero mags of the time was that though he could cross paths with Batman this title was very much a “monster magazine” and Swamp Thing spent his first dozen issues battling the likes of a Frankenstein monster, werewolves, witches and even an ancient evil right out of the pages of H.P. Lovecraft, but his most notorious and long-lasting nemesis was the vile mad scientist/sorcerer Anton Arcane. In a bid to achieve immortality Arcane spent years creating "synthetic men" in his Balkan castle, these Un-Men as he called them also worked as his servants/slaves and when Arcane became aware of the existence of Swamp Thing he sent these minions to retrieve the muck monster. Arcane’s plan was to give Alec back his human body while taking the Swamp Thing body for himself, and at first this seemed like a great idea to Alec until he overheard the madman planning to use the power of Swamp Thing to take over the world. Needless to say things don’t go all that well for Arcane as Alec gets his body back and the evil sorcerer ended up falling from the parapets of his castle to the gorge far below. Of course that isn’t the end of Arcane who would later return in a grotesque body that was cobbled together and resurrected by his Un-Men.


Swamp Thing is one of my all-time favorite characters and when I heard a major motion picture was being produced about him I was thrilled to death, but alas the final result didn’t quite capture the magic that oozed off the pages found in the work by Wein and Wrightson. I’m not sure what I was expecting but a movie about a globetrotting swamp monster battling supernatural forces would have been a hard sell to any studio and even harder to realize practically, especially if the studio behind it was Embassy Pictures which was most known for such low budget productions as The Manitou, Phantasm and The Fog. Enter director Wes Craven the man who at the time had brought the world The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, a talented man to be sure but not an obvious choice to helm a movie based on a comic book.

 

Regardless of the end product the poster was pretty nifty.

The 1982 movie called Swamp Thing could be classified as a prime example of an comic book adaptation where the filmmakers most likely flipped through some issues of the comics, taking a few notes and character names, and then kind of went off in their own direction paying little to no heed to the source material. Now the movie does hit the key points of the Swamp Thing origin story; scientist Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is caught in a fiery explosion in his lab when unscrupulous characters try to steal his formula and his burning body falls into the swamp only later to be reborn as moss encrusted mockery of a man.

A couple of character names from the comic books are referenced but they are so far off model to be hardly recognizable but one of the biggest changes, and actually a pretty interesting one, is the turning of the gender of Matt Cable into that of female government agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau). By turning Cable into a woman (the character of Linda Holland (Nannette Brown) is now Alec’s sister) the story is allowed to move quickly towards a nice Beauty and the Beast motif. Of course the Beauty and the Beast aspect did crop up in the comic books but that came much later and dealt with Abigail Arcane, the niece of the villainous Anton Arcane.

 

“A tale as old as time.”

As big as the change of Cable’s sex may be from the source material it's not as radical as movie's the depiction of Anton Arcane who in the comics was a decrepit looking old man, a scientist and master of the dark arts, whose goal for immortality led him to create various monsters until he set his sights on taking Swamp Things body for his own.  The version we get in the movie has Arcane (Louis Jourdan) depicted as being a cultured European, and rather handsome looking for an older gentleman, who is after Holland’s formula strictly for it profitability. So basically the filmmakers have taken the character of Mister E from the comic, who ran the mysterious organization knows as The Covenant and had hired Ferret to get the formula, and then stuck that motive onto Arcane. Gone is the medieval castle atop a dark Balkan mountain to be replaced by an antebellum plantation house located in the selfsame swamp.

 

Anton Arcane, the suave villain of the movie.

Note: One of Arcane’s mercenaries in the movie is named Ferret (David Hess) just so that we have some more evidence that Wes Craven or somebody involved at least looked at the comic.
The combining of Mister E and Anton Arcane is completely understandable as the first one is important to the creation of the hero while the second one is easily a more interesting villain.  I do miss Arcane’s more mystic roots but these are the kind changes one must expect when adapting a long running comic book series into a ninety minute movie.

The other key factor behind some of the changes made from the source material is of course the filmmakers limited budget. According to actress Adrienne Barbeau the original script she was offered differed greatly from the finished product and Wes Craven has made no secret that the Completion Bond people road him like a rented mule to keep the film on schedule and under budget.  Apparently the whole finale of the film was to take place in an underwater grotto which was quickly axed by the men in suits, but that is the nature of the beast when working on a low budget genre film.

As a director you may hope to end up with something wonderful like Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires but more often than not the result is going to end up closer to something like From Hell It Came. At a quick glance the first and most obvious example of the film’s low budget has to be the suit. The Swamp Thing suit built by the effects and make-up team was made out of simple rubber and wrinkled and folded noticeably whenever stunt actor Dick Durock moved, and gone is the massive broad chested figure of the Swamp Thing in its place is this…

 

Not the most imposing or striking figure in the world.

Changes due to budgetary reasons aside one of the more serious alterations from the source material is the nature of Alec Holland’s formula; in both the comic and in the movie its purpose was to end world hunger by making plants that could survive in adverse conditions (the movie did tweak things a bit by updated it from a bio-restorative formula to one that dealt with recombinant DNA), but in the movie the formula not only makes an orchid grow into the size of a bush and wooden floorboard sprout new branches it also turn people into monsters. In the comic it was being doused with the formula and his burning immersion in the swamp that changed Alec Holland into a vegetation based creature, but in this movie apparently just drinking the formula will turn you into a monster. Arcane gives a taste of the formula to his lumbering henchman Bruno (Nicholas Worth) and quickly the once giant brute turns into a rodent faced dwarf.  It is only later that Arcane learns from Holland why this is the case, “What Bruno took was what changed me; it only amplifies your essence. It simply makes you more of what you already are.” So Bruno being a bit of a simpleton his outer appearance changed to match his inner self.

 

Bruno looking like an outcast from The Island of Doctor Moreau.

What makes little to no sense is that Arcane than deduces that with his evil genius intellect the formula will make him into a creature even more powerful than Holland and so he drinks some of the formula himself. This guys was supposed to be a genius?  What an idiot, has he never heard of control tests? He has no idea if Holland’s “amplify your essence” theory is right, and far as anyone knows the swamp water that incubated Holland may have been a key ingredient thus Arcane’s decision to immediately try it on himself moves him out of the evil genius category into one composed of complete morons.

Now let’s go with the best case scenario and the formula somehow turns you into a big and powerful creature and not a rodent dwarf, you’re still a monster and not one who is going to be invited to many fancy dress parties.  In the comic book Arcane was in a frail dying body and his plan involved moving into Swamp Thing's body, a powerful figure that he realized could use to great effect in taking over the world, or at least the Balkans, and not just some role of the dice formula that could turn him into a boar…literally.


 

Is this better than looking like Louis Jourdan?

As plot points go not only is this out of character for a supposedly intelligent person but it also goes against his original motives of stealing the plant formula to become even richer. Sure a character can see new opportunities and change his goals but I can’t see being turned into a slavering beast being anyone’s endgame. Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing is not a terrible movie, and has certainly garnered some nice cult status over the years, but as an adaptation of the Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson comic book it falls drastically short. What would the end product have been if Craven had a bigger budget and full script control? We may never know what that version of the the film would have been like but though flawed the one we got is still worth checking if you are fans of either the genre or Wes Craven.


Note: A few years later director Jim Wynorski gave us The Return of the Swamp Thing and though it had a better suit for Swamp Thing it was a decidedly campier outing

Monday, January 8, 2018

Hammer Horror 8-Film Collection - Mini Reviews

With modern horror films like The Woman in Black and The Quiet Ones Hammer Films has begun quite the resurgence in the horror movie genre but for me the name Hammer Films will always be synonymous with the Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee films of the 60s and 70s, and though this collection released by Universal Studios Home Entertainment doesn’t contain any films by Lee it does include some gems you may not have heard of.

 

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur), a young French schoolteacher en route to take up a position in Transylvania at an all-girls school, is lured to Castle Meinster where the Countess tells Marianna (Martita Hunt) about her insane son (David Peel) that she keeps locked up. Of course the son is a vampire and the Countess has been luring single women to the castle to feed her evil spawn, but unfortunately for the Countess the school teacher frees the dude who then quickly "murders" his mom. Lucky for all concerned that the local priest had called for the renowned vampire hunter Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to investigate these evil shenanigans.

This was sequel to Hammer Film's Dracula but as Christopher Lee turned it down we got stuck with lite weight David Peel whose bloodshot contact lenses and goofy vampire teeth do not help in turning him into a threatening image.

• Marianne is not so much naive as she is rock stupid. After escaping the house, where her last image was of a cackling mad housekeeper and the dead Countess, she agrees to marry the Baron as if nothing had ever happened.
• Van Helsing is pretty inept in this outing. He only ever brings one cross with him, which he constantly loses, and this is not helped by the fact that he's always bloody late to stop a rising vampire.
• Van Helsing stakes the vampire turned Countess about two inches below where he heart would be.
• The realistic model bat created for the movie was lost so we are subjected to one that would have fit better in an episode of The Munsters.
• Van Helsing loses both fights he had with the Baron and even gets bitten. Why the vampire didn't drain him is bizarre and we must assume was because the idiot wanted to taunt the good doctor with his new bride, but this of course allows Van Helsing time to cauterize the bite with a hot poker and some holy water. This is a pretty badass moment but I don't quite understand why the holy water healed the bites as well as the burns.
• The vampire is defeated when Van Helsing turns the blades of windmill so that they throw the shadow of a cross onto the Baron. I'll admit that is pretty cool.
This is definitely not one of the better Hammer Dracula films but it's always a delight to watch Peter Cushing at work and like most of these movies it is beautifully shot

 

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

I'm a fan of the werewolf subgenre of horror films and this one is certainly unique as it has the most unusual origin story for the werewolf that I've ever seen.  A beggar (Richard Woodsworth) knocks on the door of the home of the cruel Marquis Siniestro (Anthony Dawson) on the day of the marquis's wedding, the sadistic marquis makes the beggar dance for his food and then has the fellow imprisoned for supposed "lude remarks" about the bride (Josephine Llewellyn). The beggar is basically forgotten by all and his only sole human contact is the mute severing girl (Yvonne Romain) who brings food to his cell. One night the aged and decrepit marquis makes advances on the poor mute girl and when she rebuffs him he has her thrown into the same prison that the old beggar still occupies. Unfortunately by this point the beggar has become more animal than man and he savagely rapes the girl.

It's at this point one must wonder "Am I watching a werewolf film?" You will go on wondering for a while longer as the girl survives the rape, murders the marquis, and flees into the woods where she is eventually found by a kindly gentleman-scholar (Ewen Solon) who takes her in. The housekeeper soon discovers the girl is pregnant and nine months later on Christmas Day little baby Leon is born.
Still no werewolves in sight.

The little boy grows up and after tasting the blood of a squirrel shot by the local hunter he starts having nightmares, and also the village’s goats and family pets start turning up savagely killed. Could this be the acts of a werewolf?

The village priest (John Gabriel) informs the scholar that only love can keep the beast contained and for a while this seems to be the case. A father's love for his adopted son seems to be the saving grace here but once Leon becomes a man and leaves home there is no nearby love to shield him from the full moon.

Oliver Reed plays adult Leon but he appears at about the hour mark in what is roughly a ninety minute movie, the werewolf make-up is pretty good and was certainly inspired by Jack Pierce's Wolfman make up, but we don't get any real good transformation scenes and the attacks mostly happen in shadow or we just see some furry hands.

The Curse of the Werewolf is Oliver Reed's first credit screen role and he is quite good as the tortured man begging to be murdered for the things he's done, and damn he was one handsome looking dude back in the day.

This may not be the best example of a werewolf film but its bizarre origin story and excellent cast make this one worth checking out.

Note: The beggar was supposed to have been a werewolf but the censor had problems with the notion of a werewolf/rapist so that idea was jettisoned.  Censorship is just bizarre.

 

Captain Clegg (1962)

Also known as Night Creatures this Hammer film features Peter Cushing as a village parson who along with the squire's son Harry (Oliver Reed) runs a smuggling operation that moves alcohol from France to England without paying duty or taxes. They use the legend of the "Marsh Phantoms" as a nice smokescreen, think of your typical Scooby-Doo scam, but things start to unravel when a regiment of the King's men arrive to investigate rumors of this smuggling operation.

This is a great little mystery with Peter Cushing's brilliant parson Dr Blyss at the center of things, who is a man with a mysterious path, and Oliver Reed is once again a striking leading man who will do anything to win the hand of the woman he loves.

Unlike many Hammer films this one has no real supernatural menace but instead is simply a taught and well-acted period drama and well worth checking out.

 

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

In 1962 Hammer Films decided to take a crack at the Gaston Leroux classic with actor Herbert Lom as the title character after Cary Grant backed out of the project. That the script was written for Grant in mind is film's biggest problem as it completely removed the Phantom as being any kind of threat.

• For some reason the Phantom has an Igor like henchman (Ian Wilson) that does all the killing, and not even killings directed by the Phantom but just random ones because the little hunchback is nuts.
• The Phantom has the hunchback kidnap Christine (Heather Sears) so he can give her singing lessons, and the Phantom slaps Christine and throws water in her face whenever she gets tired, and this tosses out any sympathy the film may try to develop for the character.
• The Phantom's mask looks like a kid's paper mache project that got left out in the rain.
• Like the 1943 version from Universal the Phantom is given a tragic backstory where his music was being stolen from him and while trying to get it back he is horrible disfigured.
• When the hero (Edward de Souza) tracks down the Phantom in his subterranean lair the confrontation is basically the Phantom telling his backstory and falling to his knees and begging for the chance to continue to teach Christine. Both the hero and Christine are surprisingly cool with that idea.
• The classic moment of the chandelier falling is now at the end of the movie and is accidentally caused by the hunchback; as the chandelier plummets towards Christine, and not the audience over which such a chandelier would be located, the Phantom must swing down to knock her out of the way and thus it is he who is hit by the chandelier and dies.

This version has a really pathetic Phantom who does almost nothing to drive the plot forward, if it wasn't for Michael Gough as the casting couch villain the movie would barely have any conflict at all, and both the hero and the heroine are rather bland. This is a version to miss.

 

Paranoiac (1963)

The wealthy Ashby family has had a bit of a rough go over the years, the parents died in a plane crash and the oldest son, Anthony, committed suicide by jumping off a cliff into the sea when he was 15. The second son, Simon (Oliver Reed) is now a sadistic, spendthrift alcoholic who trying to drive his sister Eleanor (Janette Scott) insane. A wrinkle develops when a young man arrives one day claiming to be the long lost and presumed dead Anthony (Alexander Davion).

• Is poor Eleanor actually insane?
• What exactly is Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell) covering up?
• What of the embezzling son (Maurice Denham) of the family attorney?
• Who is that masked creature that Simon plays his music for?
• And is that young man the real Anthony?
As a twisted mystery Paranoiac has a lot going for it as the cast is spectacular, Oliver Reed is the standout here as the cruel brother with a dark secret, and the final showdown brings a nice ending to the proceedings. Well worth checking out.

 

The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)

Honeymoon couple Gerald (Edward de Souza) and Marianne Harcourt (Jennifer Daniel) run out of petrol while driving through the Bavarian countryside and our forced to stay at a local inn until some gas can be sent for. The two are invited to dine with the local bigwig Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) and they are both charmed by him and his two adult children.

The minute the couple ran out of gas you knew trouble was in the offing and then when they stay at the inn where no one stays, that is except drunken Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) who has his own agenda, well it all goes downhill from there. Turns out Dr. Ravna is the head of some kind of vampire cult and they have their sites set on Marianne joining their little family.

• Great use of a masquerade party to separate the lovebirds.
• Dr. Ravna and is his son Carl (Barry Warren) are both creepily seductive.
• Marianne looks incredible in that red gown.
• First time seeing the "Van Helsing" type character use black magic to take on vampires.
• As fake as the horde of vampire bats looked the attack scene was very effective.

 

Nightmare (1964)

Janet (Jennie Linden) a girl at finishing school has been plagued by nightmares ever since she was eleven years old and walked in on her mother murdering her father, now she is terrified that she's going mad and will end up in the same asylum as her mother. When she visits home midterm she starts to envision a woman standing over her bed, a white-shrouded woman who roams the corridors and when tracked down by Janet is repeatedly found stabbed to death.

Turns out Janet is being gaslighted her guardian Henry Baxter (David Knight) and her supposed nurse Grace Maddox (Moira Redmond) that Baxter hired to look after her. It's the nurse dressed in white and this was all orchestrated so that when Baxter's wife visited Janet would mistake her for the woman in white and stab her thus freeing Baxter to marry Grace and get his wife's money. The plan works beautifully, and poor Janet is bundled off to the asylum, but things don't go all that well for Grace who shortly after marrying Henry starts to suspect that he is trying to driver her crazy as well.
This is one of those great psychological thrillers that keep you at the edge of your seat, beautifully shot in black and white and artfully directed by Freddie Francis.

 

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

"Why can't they ever leave me alone?" is the lament of Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) after being chased out of another town for body snatching and practicing mad science. Now in need of money to further his experiments the Baron and his partner Hans (Sandor Elès) are forced to return to the Baron's hometown of Karlstaad in the hopes of selling off some of his family treasures. Unfortunately the corrupt Burgomeister (David Hutcheson) had "confiscated" anything of value and the Baron and Hans are once again chased into the hills.

Lucky for them they run into a deaf-mute beggar girl (Katy Wild) who leads them to cave where they find the original monster trapped in a glacier. The Baron is able to revive the monster's body (Kiwi Kingston) but not his mind so he resorts to getting the aid of a carnival hypnotist to awaken the creature's mind. This does not work as well as he had hoped.

• The make-up for the monster is the classic flat head and moon boots version from Jack Pierce's Universal monster that Boris Karloff made famous but with the addition of what looks like grey oatmeal plastered over the face.
• The red headed deaf-mute girl helps them because the Baron and Hans didn't run her over. That girl has some serious inferiority issues.
• In the movies all hypnotists are evil.
• The Monster is not defeated by an angry mob this time but instead by a drunken bender.

Though Peter Cushing is back the film breaks continuity with the previous entry as we get a flashback origin story that does not match the last Hammer Frankenstein film. Though considered the worst of the Frankenstein series it does have some interesting ideas, and the film is well shot and acted, but the Monster will certainly never be comparable to the Karloff version.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) – Review

In 1764 France a creature that would be later called "The Beast of Gévaudan" terrorized the populace for several years, racking up over a hundred kills and even more injuries, until King Louis XV sent two professional wolf-hunters to take care of the problem. This is one of those true stories that is so incredible that one immediately thinks how awesome a movie of this would be.  Lucky for us director Christoph Gans had the same sentiment so in 2001 he brought to the screen Brotherhood of the Wolf a spectacularly beautiful version of the story only his take on the tale would have an added bonus in that his account would tell the "never before told true story" behind the events of this 18th century legend.  And just how can one improve on such a tale?  Well for starters you include kung fu heroes, a conspiracy to undermine the crown, Vatican spies, and a menacing monster straight of a Brothers Grimm story.  What's not to love?


Taking place a few years prior to the French Revolution Brotherhood of the Wolf introduces us to Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a knight and royal naturalist to King Louis XV, and his Native American companion Mani (Mark Dacascos), an Iroquois warrior/priest who is basically Kato to Fronsac’s Green Hornet, who have been sent by the King to capture or kill a beast that has been plaguing Gévaudan and the surrounding town.  To establish our heroes as badasses the film has them encounter a group of men beating up an old man and his daughter, so Mani dismounts and proceeds to kick the living crap out of these guys.

 

It’s your standard Kung Fu hero introduction.

This opening action scene may lead viewers to believe that they are about to watch a period action film but that is not really the case, though the film does have several amazing fight sequences it’s really more a period mystery piece than it is an action film. Much of the film’s two and a half hour running time deals with Fronsac and Mani going to lavish dinner engagements, joining hunting parties to find the wolf that though useless in finding the beast does allow Fronsac time to flirt with the beautiful and innocent Marianne de Morangias (Émilie Dequenne) the daughter of a local count.  And when he's not chatting up young innocent girls he's hanging out at the local brothel where he finds himself intrigued by the mysterious Sylvia (Monica Bellucci) who is an Italian courtesan that may know more of what’s going on than anybody else.

 

A clear case of the female of the species being deadlier than the male.

Director Christoph Gans creates a bleak and oppressive atmosphere as our heroes try to uncover the truth behind these supposed wolf attacks; Fronsac initially being skeptical about the beast's existence because the few survivors describe it as much larger than any wolf he has ever seen, and a metal claw being found at one of the scenes of carnage also lends credence that it may not be an animal they are looking for at all.

But the creature is not the only threat Fronsac faces as he must also deal with Jean-François (Vincent Cassel) the jealous brother of Marianne who lost his arm to a lion attack while hunting in Africa, and then there is Father Henri Sardis (Jean-François Stévenin) who is suspicious of Mani’s savage practices.  When the hunt and Fronsac fail to provide results the King sends in weapons master, a cold calculating bastard by the name of Lord de Beauterne (Johan Leysen) who isn’t actually there to catch the beast but instead orders Fronsac to use his taxidermy skills to create a feasible beast to show off in Paris. It turns out that the King is getting a lot of heat because of an anonymously published book that claims the beast’s attacks are God’s punishment for the King’s indulgence in philosophers and his modern embrace of science over religion.

 

It's the standard idea of "If the truth won’t work make your own."

The film is a visual feast with cinematographer Dan Laustsen and production designs by Guy-Claude François giving us a French countryside that is both at once beautiful as it is dark and dangerous with the scenes of Fronsac, Mani and the young Marquis d'Apcher (Hans Meyer) tracking the beast through the dense forests of Gévaudan does at times seem something straight out of a Gustave Doré illustration. Brotherhood of the Wolf also include one of the best optical dissolve in the history of film as we go from Monica Belluci’s naked breasts to the rolling snow covered hills of France. The action sequences are also just good; from Fronsac and Mani’s brilliant traps, sadly none quite good enough to stop the monster, to Fronsac’s finally showdown with those truly behind the trail of death and terror in a simply spectacular fashion.

 

In this showdown Fronsac reveals that he’s more than just a naturalist.

I don’t want to get any further into spoiler territory, this being a mystery and I’d hate to ruin any of the surprises for you, but I will say that though some of the villains here are less surprising than others the nature of the beast is quite ingenious. The biggest criticism I have towards the film is that when we finally get clear shots of said beast the animatronic version of it looks great, the live action puppet is brilliant, but when we get the CGI rendered version of the monster it looks less than convincing even by 2001 standards.

 

Jurassic Park this is not.

Christoph Gan’s Brotherhood of the Wolf is an amazing film on multiple levels, as mentioned the look of the film is simply gorgeous, with costuming ranging from damn cool to simply exquisite, the fight choreography is fantastic and the cast across the board all give great performances. This movie may not be the “true” story of The Beast of Gévaudan but after watching it you will most likely wish it was.


Note: The film’s first kill is a young woman being savaged by the beast as she tries to escape up a rock is a clear homage (or rip-off) of Chrissy’s death in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Mist (2017) Season One: Review

Adapting a novel to the big screen is never going to be easy, time constraints alone limit you a lot, but when doing it as a television show you can put as much or as little from the book as you'd like, case in point the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist for Spike TV with its ten episode first season. Most know The Mist for having previously been adapted by Frank Darabont back in 2007 which though quite similar to the source material it radically deviated at the end to piss off hard-core fans, so with the ability of an ongoing series what would series developer Christian Torpe do with his take on the story? Would it be more or less faithful to the source material?


In both Stephen King’s novella and this television adaptation of said story there is a strange mist that rolls in over a small town…and that’s about where the similarities end. This series takes no characters from the novella, and the monsters that inhabited this strange mist are missing completely in this small screen version, instead the mist itself is the threat as people coming in contact with it are driven mad by visions that it somehow is able to rip from their minds.

 

Though body parts do get ripped off from time to time.

This is a pretty big departure and tad dangerous as the variety of strange monsters besieging the supermarket in the original is what many viewers would be tuning in to see, and though the film does deliver a fair amount of gore the threat is mostly psychological with most of the threats coming from the people trapped in the mist and not the creepy crawlies that come out of it.  Sure both the novella and this series have a religious zealot wanting to sacrifice people to creatures in the mist but for this show the threat from zealots, paranoiacs, and random assholes is the primary focus as the “mist” seems just fuel to the fire of these people’s ingrained stupidity, and boy are the people in this town stupid.

 

Enter The Three Stooges

This show is chock full of characters, which I guess gives the writers more people to kill off in horrible ways, but none of them really come off as more than two dimensional stereotypes; we have Keven Copeland (Morgan Spector) the dad who will do anything to protect his family, Eve Copeland (Aylssa Sutherland) the overprotective mom, Alex Copeland (Gus Birney) the daughter who just wants to have fun, Adrian (Russell Posner) her gay best friend, Jay Hiesel (Luke Cosgrove) the town star quarterback who Alex is crushing on until she is date raped and Jay is the accused of the crime.  Then we have asshole Sheriff Heisel (Darren Pettie) father of the accused rapist and someone who has definite history with Eve, and that is just the tip of the iceberg of characters you will learn not to care about. The first episode had me wondering if somehow I’d accidentally turned on a soap opera instead of a horror series, sure it’s important to build characters so that we can either root for them or wish them dead but much of this seemed vastly unnecessary, we even later find out the homophobic bully is actually gay as if that cliché hasn’t been used enough. Do all homophobes have to be secretly gay? Can’t they just be assholes?

 

This is a show about a terrifying mist, right?

Aside from the lack of monsters and radically different characters the big difference this show has over the novella is that the originally mostly took place in the confines of a supermarket with our protagonist trying to survive a siege of terrifying creatures, as well as a religious nut, but in this series we have the mom and daughter trapped with a group of people in the local mall, along with Alex’s accused rapist which is all kinds of awkward, while her dad and Adriane start out at the police station but end up running all across town in attempt to make it to the mall to save Eve and Alex. Along for the rescue are two prisoners liberated from the jail; Mia Lambert (Danica Curcic) a junkie with a mysterious criminal past and Bryan Hunt (Okezie Morro) a soldier with amnesia who got tossed in jail for ranting about something in the mist that killed his dog. The mystery behind Bryan’s amnesia is going to be the key thread that will carry on to the next season (if the show had been picked up that is) as we learn he was stationed at the Arrowhead military installation and that it is most likely the cause of the mist. In the novella there was something called The Arrowhead Project, and it was floated that it could responsible for the mist and two soldiers do kill themselves in both the book and this show, but it’s clear for this to continue as a series the military/government was going to be the real big bad.

 

Or maybe it will be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

This show is populated with some fantastic actors; Frances Conroy, as the zealot who believes that the mist is an act of Mother Nature, is especially good and her moments facing off against the local parish priest played by Dan Butler are quite good, but the characters of Eve and Kevin are so monumentally annoying at times it tends to undercut the tension and horror the show is trying to build. Eve is supposed to be this overprotective mother but she constantly lets her daughter wander around the mall alone, despite the fact they are trapped by a killer mist and sharing accommodations with her possible rapist, and good ole Kevin bumbles from one moment of incompetence to another.

 

He even gets caught by a would be Doctor Mengele.

All that said the show isn’t really that bad, sure there is way too much padding to fill up the ten episode season but I will give the creators credit for taking the germ of an idea from Stephen King’s novella and then practically running in the opposite direction with it.  Gone is the claustrophobic nature of the novella's supermarket, gone are the Lovecraftian monsters and instead of just one group of people led by a religious zealot we get two with the survivors in the mall blaming Alex for the mist, and quick to nominate him for a lynching, while over at the local church Frances Conroy is preaching her “Circle of Life” philosophy to another gullible group.

Some of this really works while some of it decidedly doesn’t, the asshat Sherriff drinks the Kool aide way to quickly to be believable, but overall once the terror starts and anarchy begins to explode the show kind of works despite its flaws. The changes from the source material are so radical that one can't honestly say if it’s better or worse than the novella, it’s just too different.  There was enough interesting stuff going on in this show that despite the problems I had with it I would most likely have visited it for the next season but as the series was not picked up by Spike TV it has become one less show for me to worry about.

 

Damn it, we'll never know what was up with those fucking moths!