The Wolfman (1941) and The Wolfman (2010)

February 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

The original Wolfman is one of the Universal horror classics that arrived a full ten years after the original Dracula, Frankenstein and most of the rest of the gang. Starring Lon Chaney (and with Bela Lugosi as the character that passes the curse on to Chaney) it isn’t my favourite of the old classics. While Chaney is suitably forlorn for a doomed character, he’s also not a remarkable actor, and the way his character pursues a woman who declares she isn’t interested borders on stalking. The special effects also date the film much more so than any of the predecessors, because they can’t manage the transformation smoothly, or much more than a slow-moving, particularly hairy man. More than anything else, the Wolfman feels closer to an abrasive punk on his way home from a bad night at the local pub. Still, it’s an enjoyable enough film for managing a straightforward narrative and a solid atmosphere. And it isn’t every film that doesn’t allow a fairly likeable central character to survive.

What’s frustrating about the only direct remake so many decades later is that all it needed was some of the restraint of the first film. The effects are certainly impressive, though I’d agree with Roger Ebert that the werewolf could’ve used a little more weight — it looks a little cartoonish. And the atmosphere is there too. I thought it had a promising start when we only caught glimpses of the monster. For the first half-hour or so victims are suddenly carried off, or suddenly wounded, and the level of suspense is higher than expected. It takes about twenty-eight minutes for the film to decide it needs to show a close-up of a policeman with his face half-torn off, and suddenly the film has all the style and taste of Friday the 13th, part 8.

It’s unfortunate, because there was certainly a lot of potential here, and there’s a film in here somewhere that’s making the effort to be a lot more subtle — you can literally pick out those moments in the film — before somebody apparently went through the script and demanded five more decapitations. As Lawrence Talbot, Benicio del Toro is appropriately brooding and dark, and Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt are certainly solid supporting cast members. Hugo Weaving is fine as the inspector, but really should’ve been required to do something other than his Agent Smith drawl from the Matrix. There’s nothing wrong with having a lighter character to provide contrast.

As for the script, the setting bounces back and forth between London and the town of Blackmoor far too frequently, even as characters suffer wild mood swings that either have Talbot as an apologetic gentleman, or down at the pub throwing a drink in someone’s face. Weaving has a good line when he sits back and declares that while we hate rules, “They’re all that keep us from a dog eat dog world.” But it’s the only line he gets that tells us anything about his character, and he spends the rest of the film narrowing his eyes and aiming a pistol. I won’t ruin the end, except to say it’s a whole set of scenes that sometimes feel quite well-handled, and sometimes feel like sudden lurches in the plot to satisfy the need for another fight. And having watched the extended cut, it’s hard to forgive the decision to drop an early scene with the great Max von Sydow, just for the sake of getting to the action sooner. After all, anything that enhances your understanding of the characters only adds to the impact later on.

I know I’m being picky here. As a remake, it’s an entertaining enough film. It’s just unfortunate we’ll never see the more subtle, ultimately more effective film trying to get out. It might be pushing it a little to say on one level it’s a film about fathers and sons, and finding your own way despite having been gifted with a particular set of instincts. But that’s certainly a film I’d like to see.

The Night Stalker (1972)

October 23, 2010 § 1 Comment

“Sherman Duffy of the Chicago Globe once described a reporter as follows: socially, he fits in somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually, he stands beside Galileo, because he knows the world is round. Not that it does much good when his editor knows it’s flat.”

Vegas reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) predates the X-Files by a few decades (and undoubtedly helped pave the way for it, and similar shows) as a man struggling with officials, and determined to let the world know a serial killer is actually a vampire. With a screenplay by Richard Matheson (based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice), The Night Stalker is B-movie TV that manages to be memorably good fun. In fact, promotional spots must have created a buzz before it was shown, because it became the highest rated TV-movie up to that point, inspiring a second TV-movie and brief TV series.

It certainly does have some memorable, stylish moments — one stuntman is required to leap out of the way as a crashing police motorbike comes unexpectedly sliding straight for him — that I think would’ve been quite bold for TV in 1972, and good performances from a number of American character actors like Claude Akins and Elisha Cook Sr, most of whom seem to recognize that taking any material seriously helps to elevate it. In particular, Darren McGavin as Kolchak rails against his editor for “suppressing” the truth and interrupts news conferences with important questions like he’s in a Shakespeare play, clearly relishing the role. On a certain level the scenes with Kolchak and his editor literally yelling at each other (which is every scene they’re in together, it seems) should be absurd, but somehow it works, maybe as some kind of weird physical manifestation of some of the themes, or the conflict between revealing the truth and editing it, so the public won’t panic. It might also be the first appearance of a particular kind of genre-crossing, considering it’s a vampire story with narration typical of film noir and hard-boiled detective stories (the above quote is from the film).

If the film has a fault, it’s that it doesn’t include women, except to have them around as potential victims. In a scene where one woman is stalked in a parking lot, they don’t even appear to have arranged a professional actor, and her caricature of a terrified person turns the scene into parody. Kolchak has a girlfriend, but by the end of the film city officials have told her to leave him, so she does. Aside from that, they said to leave town, so she does. It certainly dates the film. It ain’t just a world with vampires, it’s a man’s world with vampires. Otherwise, The Night Stalker is an above-average vampire film, because aside from a suspenseful vampire hunt, there’s a lot implied about the importance of checks and balances, and plucky individuals who demand the truth. If it were remade today, it would probably be about the most determined blogger in the world.

The Last Winter (2007)

January 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Horror films are rampant with shallow but still relevant metaphors: a zombie pounding on a mall door is a mindless consumer, a vampire is a power-hungry man. The Last Winter is technically a horror film (if it must have a label), but takes this idea to a new level in an initially subtle film that’s ecologically-minded and in one of the final moments, even poetic. Set almost entirely at a small outpost in Alaska, the film doesn’t have a clear-cut villain as much as the idea that things are off-balance. Maybe climate change and melting permafrost are releasing something we’ve never experienced and weren’t meant to know. Maybe the spirit of the land itself is upset. Maybe the earth is beginning to treat humanity like a virus it needs to fight off.

Directory Larry Fessenden understands that less is more, and sets a remarkably creepy tone using subtlety until the very end, when it finally becomes appropriate to drive his point home. I watched the end twice, for its emotional weight as well as a beautiful, surreal poetic touch involving a character remembering his childhood (though the moment could be taken to represent other things — I won’t explain too much and spoil it).

At first glance, it might seem like an odd choice to make an environmentally themed horror film, but it works well, with a cast of actors that naturally and comfortably handle any explanatory dialogue that might have been awkward. I was already impressed with Fessenden for Habit (1997), a thoughtful vampire film grounded in reality. But this is more than the most relevant horror film ever made, it’s a genre defying film, and remarkably important for giving headlines and warnings that punch-in-the-gut feel they so desperately need. The film was shot partly in Iceland where it rained in the dead of winter, exactly as the characters experience and observe. Personally, that’s enough to give me a chill.

Count Dracula (1977)

December 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

If younger filmgoers know French actor Louis Jourdan at all, it might be from his role as the villain in Octopussy (1983), an entertaining but somewhat cartoonish Bond film, or a few daft adaptations of Swamp Thing in the eighties, the comic that was actually quite good when written by Alan Moore. Anyone delving a little deeper into his career will find he was in some notable films previous to that (including a Hitchcock film, The Paradine Case) and this, a made-for-TV BBC adaptation of Dracula, apparently broadcast on Halloween night. It must almost certainly be the first film to be quite faithful to the novel, which is enough to make it notable, never mind some impressive surrealistic touches that include blended images and amplified, distorted sounds that don’t quite match the visuals — the vampire women advance, but the sound of their footsteps carries on even after they stop. And for a TV film, it certainly doesn’t shrink from showing blood, or the scene where Dracula provides his vampire brides with a baby to consume. In fact, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) produces a handful of scenes exactly the same way, including the climactic chase at the end between Van Helsing’s gang and the villagers loyally trying to get Dracula back to safety. Any changes from the novel are fairly subtle, I think. It has been a while since I read the book, but I believe Mina and poor doomed Lucy aren’t sisters in the book.

Jourdan is an impressive Dracula — understated and arrogant. Other actors in the role have made a first appearance descending a flight of cobwebbed stairs, but Jourdan simply answers the door, appearing to be a fairly normal man, if perhaps extremely confident and somewhat eccentric. He later argues with Van Helsing when they burst into the room, saying something along the lines of “We all take life to live — blood for me, a cooked bird for you. What’s the difference?” The obvious difference is that Dracula takes human life, but it’s interesting that this particular villain is defeated at least partly because he seems surprised and irritated to discover he’s loathed. Between Jourdan and Frank Finlay as a charming rather than self-righteous Van Helsing, the performances more than make up for some video effects that really haven’t managed to stand the test of time. And a willingness to overlook an older set of production values is really all that’s required to enjoy a film that manages to be one of the more memorable adaptations.

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

September 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

John Carpenter has made some impressive films. Halloween (1978) is simply a flawless chiller, still remembered and emulated. I’ve already reviewed The Thing (1982), which is both suspenseful and has an alien that’s truly alien — a rarity for film and TV, which generally prefers putting a bumpy forehead on an actor. Starman (1984) is a warm-hearted and inventive science-fiction film, and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) an unpredictable, tremendously fun popcorn action film, provided you don’t want it to meet many expectations — it’s a bit of a unique mix.

That last film took a beating from critics who declined to get caught up in the fun. It did fairly poorly at the box office, and reportedly resulted in Carpenter deciding he’d no longer make films for Hollywood studios.  They Live (1988) takes a somewhat bitter but pointed stab at the money-hungry, suggesting that the greedy capitalists out to put profit ahead of the planet are in fact heartless aliens in disguise, and you can find them out simply by looking around with specially treated sunglasses. The main character puts a monkey wrench in the works but is shot in the process and lies back to relish giving the aliens the finger as he dies. The film would be heavy-handed, but it manages to be a lot of fun along the way.

In the Mouth of Madness suffers from taking itself a little too seriously, by contrast, as well as not deciding what it wants to be about. Sam Neill plays John Trent, an insurance fraud investigator hired by a publisher to find out what happened to Sutter Kane, an immensely popular horror author — he disappeared and so did his latest manuscript. It’s an intriguing beginning. And there’s no need to spell out the comparison to Stephen King, though unfortunately one character does. A flashback to Trent making a man squirm because of a fraudulent claim has little connection to anything, and feels oddly situated in the film. There’s one (that’s one, folks) effective scene, as Trent drives to the obscure New England town where he might find Cane — we see a young man on a bicycle ahead in the middle of the road, but at first can only make out the flash of the headlights on his reflectors. The car passes the man, and Carpenter captures the second that the man and car are next to each other, the boy looking over with a strange, disconnected expression before fading into the darkness and glow of the tail-lights.

Not long after this, the madness presented begins to have only one form: seeing everyone as a demon, from police officers to charming little old ladies.  A demon with an axe (they’re oh-so fond of the axes) runs out into the street to stop, look at Trent and say “Fuck you!” It’s hard to imagine who wrote that and then sat back to say excellent, good dialogue. Trent finds Cane (sort-of) as the madness and chaos increase, and it’s either that Cane has written a new manuscript that drives people mad, or Cane now writes the entire world through the sheer force of fandom and popular belief, or demons have possessed Cane and are using him as a doorway, or… something. Maybe the demons just wanted access to this dimension for all the axes lying around. Trent tries to drive out of town but suddenly finds himself driving back into town, and we’re treated to this about four times. There are a few lines of pseudo-intellectual dialogue, such as the suggestion that if many more people were mad, sane people would be in the minority. Well, yes — sure. Finally, in the last few moments the film seems to throw out everything done up to that point, in favour of something that maybe kind of supports one theory, but could also be a whole new one.

In a way, it’s a film loaded with ideas, but given the jerky nature of the narrative, it feels like the film simply can’t decide which one it wants to pursue. In subtler moments there’s a lot of potential, but it’s thrown away in favour of someone trying to get through a doorway with an axe, or something meant to be similarly alarming. And a flashback to something more than Trent making another man squirm might have helped me care about the character. I really don’t think I’m declining to be caught up in the fun, as some critics have done with Carpenter (and by fun I mean suspense, the development of an idea), it’s more that there simply isn’t that much fun in this particular runaround.

The Thing (1982) and Pontypool (2009)

September 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

John Carpenter’s The Thing was inspired by both a film and a novella: as a youth he saw The Thing from Another World (1951), a film inspired by Who Goes There, a science fiction novella by John W. Campbell. In telling the story of an isolated outpost in Antarctica that discovers a buried alien organism, the 1951 film opted for a guy in a suit as the monster, and it’s perhaps fair to say they had no other options available at that time. Carpenter apparently loved the film, but wanted to return to the original idea about a shape-changing organism that, given time, could imitate any living creature through a hideous process of absorption — and even the smallest particle of it could strike out. If the organism were to succeed in getting away from the outpost to infect a city, the rest of the world would follow from there. Needless to say, this heightens the tension considerably, compared to a tall guy in a suit lumbering around smashing things.

Beginning with a heartbeat-imitation score by Ennio Morricone, the 1982 film is an excellent production: tightly written, with good performances from both the supporting cast, and lead actor Kurt Russell. Years before CGI effects, the wildly imaginative stuff invented for the film scared the living daylights out of me as a child, and remains etched in my brain. Time has dated the film a little, in terms of how shocking it is, and it’s fair to say the film puts little or no time aside for characterisation, but a solid supporting cast helps immensely here, and insures a certain level of believability. Quite simply, audiences had never seen anything like it in 1982, and it remains a solid and chilling suspense film. The imaginative and shocking effects may have threatened to become the centrepiece of the film decades ago, but today viewers are more likely to notice other details, like the careful shots set up by Carpenter that imply someone else might be watching the character on display.

The Canadian film Pontypool may have arrived decades later, and after dozens of films have made it increasingly difficult to shock audiences, but it neatly sidesteps the entire issue — what’s wildly original here isn’t the effects, but the ideas behind this psychologically gripping film. And again, solid performances give the whole thing a credibility it would not otherwise have. Tony Burgess adapted his original and hugely enjoyable novel Pontypool Changes Everything into a screenplay for director Bruce McDonald, who handles it in a skillful, understated way. At a radio station in Pontypool, Ontario, DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and assistant Laurel (Georgina Reilly) begin getting conflicted, increasingly strange and horrific reports about local disturbances.

There’s enough left to the imagination here that it could be theatre, or radio drama, but as a film it also works remarkably well. I don’t want to give away the original and utterly creepy directions the film eventually goes, but I’ll say that it’s another epidemic film, and though it’s something of a zombie film, it doesn’t even really need the z-word. Highly recommended, but avoid online reviews that gleefully give away far too much. I only hope more Canadian films will be produced that make budget nearly irrelevant, in favour of  highly original scripts.

Watch a teaser clip here.

At the Earth’s Core (1976) and The Creeping Flesh (1972)

August 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

“You cannot mesmerize me, I’m British!”  It’s a little hard not to enjoy Peter Cushing in this low-budget but fun adaptation of At the Earth’s Core. And while the story by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950) is yet another thinly veiled older story about white people parachuted into a situation to set it straight, or naturally dominate somehow (much like Tarzan of the Apes), some of the humor manages to offset this antiquated idea. In a film designed for children, Cushing plays a Victorian scientist who tests out his Iron Mole drilling machine along with his American financier friend, played by Doug McClure. On arrival, they discover a human population that’s too fragmented to form a proper rebellion against enslavement by the Mahars, telepathic vulture-creatures, though on first arrival they’re chased by a tremendous monster which is really just a guy in a chicken suit.  Cushing plays the passionate professor well here, and more or less revives what he did for Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks Invasion of Earth, 2150 A.D. (1966), two films that were produced the previous decade as a result of the immense popularity of Doctor Who, and the brief Dalek craze. But it hardly matters, the important thing is that Cushing is as adept at humour as he is playing less erratic, more dignified characters. His Dr. Who is often overlooked in histories of the program because his stories are bonus remakes of a couple of the TV stories, and they have their own continuity. But it hardly matters when they’re colourful fun as well. Drop any child in front of the second of those two films in particular, and they’ll be… well, mesmerized.

Looking at his career as an actor, Cushing is a rare actor — a little like that person in high school that was popular and talented, but didn’t care much what crowd he hung around with. He was talented enough for anything, but in decades of horror and fantasy films (beginning with films like Horror of Dracula (1959) never turned in a performance that made it appear he was bored or doing anything less than trying to create a believable character. The same can be said for Christopher Lee, reunited with Cushing for The Creeping Flesh. In fact, the two actors made over twenty films together. Here they play brothers competing for prestige and financial success — Lee runs an asylum, and Cushing is a scientist who brings a remarkable skeleton back from an expedition. Not only is the skeleton unique in appearance, it appears to be  able to grow flesh and regenerate when something as simple as water is poured on it. The Cushing character is likeable, but not perfect, and it is revealed that when he reluctantly sent his wife to the asylum, he hid it from his daughter, telling her instead that her mother was dead. The character repeatedly states that he only wanted to protect his daughter, but remains resolutely stubborn about it, and after a few more misguided decisions the retribution the creature brings makes a certain amount of sense, though only in the unforgiving context of horror films. The Lee character is worse, but predictably enough by the end the creature is revived and walking the earth, and though it’s open-ended as to exactly what this will mean for humanity, maybe that’s all the creature does wherever it goes — tip the balance in favour of a morally unsatisfying result.

These aren’t even career highlights for Cushing. In the 1970s, he’d go on to play a supporting role as a villain in Star Wars (1977) and introduce himself to a whole new audience, and a new generation.

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