Saturday, November 30, 2013

A cool video by way of apology

Hey, everyone! It's been months since I last updated, and I'm not sure when I'll next be able to carve out enough time to make a proper entry as recompense. But I thought I'd remind you of all that I love with a video mashup of horrible/wonderful B-horror movies set to a Jonathan Coulton song with vocals by the Sara half of Tegan and Sara. Just so you'd remember what this blog is all about.

Believe me, I am still alive.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon: Witness to Murder, 1954

**Me humble contribution to the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon (July 16-22) hosted by that effervescent nut Aubyn Eli at The Girl With The White Parasol.**

 My first thought watching Roy Rowland's 1954 thriller noir Witness to Murder was that it toted a proto-feminist message of the trials and tribulations that befall a smart, capable woman who is slapped down by a patriarchal society for insisting on expressing herself. In the case of Barbara Stanwyck's interior decorator turned amateur sleuth Cheryl Draper, expressing that the murder she saw actually happened and not in her dream leads to a whole heap of humiliation and isolation.

My father acknowledged this theme, then pointed out another: Witness to Murder is an allegory of the period after WWI and before WWII when no one took the threat of rising Nazism seriously. The exploits of the Kaiser had been so grossly exaggerated by the propaganda machine that complacent Americans were hesitant to take Hitler seriously as a threat until they had to.

Witness to Murder is both these things, allegory of war ignorance and feminine oppression. But what it isn't is particularly great.

The cinematography bathes the beginning in the noirest shades of noir; first the outline of the branches over Stanwyck's fitfully sleeping face, and then plunging George Sanders's oily rat "ex"-Nazi Albert Richter in blackness as he waits with bated breath for an elevator to reach his level, possibly carrying policemen--which would be unfortunate, since he's dragging down the hall the body of the woman that Stanwyck saw him murder from across the street in her apartment, in the dead of night.

My dad is disdainful that George couldn't bother to carry the body.

The film keeps up this heart-pounding noir rhythm, and it mixes well with some of the more leisurely paced scenes. I've become so used to break-neck camera cuts in recent movies that it was rather a sigh of relief when Rowland would take time to show Cheryl enter her home, walk across to her room, pick up the phone, and dial. Little scenes like that do much to make us feel at home with a character.

Of course, that's not hard with an actress like Stanwyck. Her Cheryl Draper is a thankfully unromantic creation, free of soft focus dewyness or even that much sex appeal (one of the most unflattering hair-dos I've ever seen on an actress doesn't hurt). She and Sanders are, unsurprisingly, the principal reason to see this movie. Sanders is at his most perfectly Sandersish here, not even trying for a hint of sympathy. And Cheryl is his match, at least in force of personality.

He explicitly acknowledges this in one of the climactic scenes, trudging out the age-old "we are not so different, you and I; in a different life, we could have even been friends" villain/hero exchange. What's refreshing is that the heroic half is not some Harrison Ford or James Bond or Captain Kirk or Phillip Marlowe gumshoe, but a worn-out, prickly, beaten but not beat woman bordering on middle age. 

Rowland and screenwriter Chester Erskine (with uncredited work from Nunnally Johnson) go to great lengths to demonstrate how, well, single Cheryl is. The next we see of her after the beginning sequence when she witnesses the murder is her mailbox from the policemen's point of view:

The "miss" is scrawled on in someone's (presumably Cheryl's) hand, sticking out largely from the typed out names surrounding her. She wears her single status and her age like a scarlet letter that spells out "Anything She Says Must Be Filtered Through Crazy Spinster Speak." And it's this unfortunate label that keeps her from being similar to Sanders's Richter in ways that would be to her advantage in the story.

Once she calls the police, Gary Merrill as Detective Larry Mathews and Jesse White as his wisecracking rabbity partner Eddie enter the scene. A slower pair of policemen you'll seldom meet again, and Merrill is the male lead, for crying out loud. If you go by the war ignorance angle, Merrill is the stand-in for the Perfect American: willing at first to give the baddie the benefit of the doubt without evidence to back up Cheryl's claim, but is at last the one to step in and realize what's up.

From a feminist standpoint, he's...problematic. At best.

"You just dreamed it," he coos right away to Cheryl after a cursory sweep of suave Richter's apartment reveals nothing--and Larry himself didn't even glance around at all. He takes away Cheryl's power by downsizing the problem from something that actually happened to something just inside her head. But beyond any contextual study of his character, he's just not a very good judge of people. He thinks Richter is an all right guy (how casually he mentions Richter's an ex-Nazi!), he dismisses the murder victim as the "wrong kind of girl", and he's surprised that casually mentioning that Cheryl's fiance was killed in an air raid "still hurts." He means well in the end, but plenty of well-meaning lunks have said and done terrible, terrible things. 

His relationship with Cheryl is ill-defined. Their characters have zero romantic chemistry, yet she's obviously his primary concern throughout, even if to point out that she's hysterical and wrong. Sometimes I wonder if they're even supposed to be romantic interests--maybe, just maybe, he's able to chip away through his sexist blind spots and simply find her interesting--a good friend. I doubt a movie even as ahead of its time in a lot of ways as this one would go that outrageously far, but who knows.

Cheryl seems swayed at first by his dream line, but quickly smells bullshit. She knows, deep down, what she saw.

Like Richter, she's a quick thinker and crafty liar, up to a point. She manipulates her way into his apartment (what kind of landlord does Richter have? I'm sorry, that can't be legal), snoops around subtly, and unwisely swipes a piece of jewelry she figures must belong to the victim. 

And here's where her similarity to Richter ends: they are both dangerously impetuous, but whereas Richter has the uncanny ability to wear the mask, and create an affable persona to trick the world, Cheryl is incapable of lying about herself, about what kind of person she is. And this combined with her powerless position as a woman gives Richter the upper hand through most of the movie.

He is able to convince the head of the L.A. police department she's insane, helped by the fact he's smooth and collected and she's unable to convince those assembled she believes Richter innocent, because of course she doesn't. Once she realizes her freedom is at stake she loses all composure, disbelieving that an innocent person trying to do right would be the one taken away. Her hurried "I realize now you're not guilty I'm sorry" is delivered too quickly, too desperately, and she comes across as the perfect image of the hysterical older woman not able to separate fantasy from reality.

The scene in the sanitarium is an interesting glance into the world of downtrodden femmes driven mad by their own labels. Claire Carleton as May is particularly effective as a seemingly "hey, sister, listen here" moll type, until slowly the camera reveals the crazed desperation in her eyes, and she speaks about all the men in love with her, including the doctor keeping her prisoner here. Juanita Moore (credited as "Negress" here, stay classy, 1950s Hollywood) also makes an impression as the patient who finally pushes May too far singing bitterly of love lost.

While there's realism a-plenty in this scene, I can't say there's a lot of human sympathy, particularly when Cheryl shudders thinking about her companions a few days later when she's freed: "It was should have seen the ones I've been living with the past two days." There's much more sympathy for Cheryl's plight (after all, despite everything, she is not the "wrong kind of girl"). The scene before she's released when she has an interview with the clinically detached sanitarium doctor is the most realistic, chilling, and somehow heart-rending scene.

The spacious, sterile room the doctor meets her in is filmed with her entering from far away; she's isolated from the doctor, from this world she finds herself in. The bars outside the window are silhouetted over the chair meant for her.

Again Rowland wisely takes his time with this scene, though nothing of great shock or import occurs. Still our hearts are a little bit in our throats for Cheryl. She presents herself better here than in the police station, but you see the paralyzed nerves in her face and awkward stance as she looks for a reaction, any kind of reaction from the cold and emotionless doctor (well played by Lewis Martin). He simply recites his questions at a rapid-fire, probing pace, never making eye contact.

What's so unnerving is the sense that there must have been some real research (or even real experience) packed into this scene; it's so lacking in any physical drama that this sort of visceral suspense must have happened on a regular basis to mental patients under review--probably still happens.

The entire sanitarium sequence is a strange interlude, interrupting the action but heightening our sympathy and rage on Cheryl's behalf. The sequence also illustrates what it must have been like for mentally unstable people trying to get back on their feet, and how that process is even more psychologically grueling than any initial breakdown.

Unfortunately, once Cheryl returns the movie devolves straight into a cliche thriller melodrama. The climax is idiotic, with this heretofore intelligent heroine sacrificing what we know about her character for the ludicrous machinations of the plot--leaving the safety of a policewoman escort when Richter tries to throw her out her window and running the top of a construction site, with Richter right behind her (followed by an old-timey mob of befuddled townfolk! "Some crazy dame's tryin' to kill herself!").

However, this grab bag of camp and noir is perfect for Sanders to really sink his tiger fangs into. He's Hannibal Lecter without the cannibalism--classy, into the finer things, digs murder and thinks it's great, and totally cuckoo. The most ridiculous yet soul-satisfying scene, and one where Sanders is at his finest playing his stock villain type, is when Cheryl confronts him in his apartment. He knows she can't harm him now that she has a recorded history of mental illness with an established "idee fixe" on him. So he revels in telling her that, yes, he killed the Stewart woman because she was probably mucking up his marriage plans to a rich widow and because, y'know, as a fascist he likes killing inferior specimens. 

As his rambling monologue rapidly uncovers the depths of his insanity, the camera approaches him from a low angle, emphasizing Sanders's looming height and crazy eyes. He at last breaks into German and kisses Cheryl, in love with the "hate" in her eyes.

Sanders relishes this trash, and makes the whole nonsense come alive in the most deliciously hammy way conceivable.

His and Stanwyck's teamwork, along with the surprisingly progressive messages hidden here and there, makes Witness to Murder definitely worth seeing. That the movie shifts away from a psychoanalytical take on the Rear Window plot and nosedives into standard action mode, and that some of these progressive themes are either ham-handed or made null by the poor execution or lack of real sympathy, keeps it from being a truly memorable or good movie.

But just take a look at George Sanders's crazy eyes and tell me you don't want to see this movie. You can't, can you? I knew it.

Thanks for this opportunity to yak about Babs and weird film noir, Aubyn! I have a packed rest of this week ahead of me, but come the weekend, I hope to sit down, read the rest of the surely wonderful posts about Missy, and comment away.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Of Gods and Monsters: Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013

My dad's a graphic artist. In 1992, his company sent him down to the Portland Creative Conference, when people had money and could do stuff like that. While there, he met a number of artsy folk both mainstream and cult--Chuck Jones, Joe Dante--and among them was Ray Harryhausen.

My dad couldn't help but ask: "how long did it take to do just a few movements on some of those monsters, anyhow?"

Harryhausen shrugged. "I have no idea. Had I thought about it, I never would have done it."

Time doesn't exist even in the most complicated of tasks, if you're really, really into what you're doing. We should all be so blessed.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Now, Voyager (1942)


This is my second Davis-Rains-Henreid vehicle, having seen 1946's Deception not too long ago. Despite this one being more well-known and beloved--apparently the biggest hit of Bette Davis's career--I much prefer the former.

Deception had the nerve to let its stars be mean, which is what they excelled at, particularly Davis and Rains. The operatic bitchiness of Deception is far more enjoyable and believable (from the actors) than the muddled soap that is Now, Voyager.

It's of course gorgeously shot by director Irving Rapper, and the stars give the material their all. Davis has moments of genius. Her breakdown in the opening scenes as the dowdy spinster are startlingly vital, overbrimming with pent-up rage, first in her room with Rains and then when she lashes out at her provoking niece. Though Davis was often an uneven performer (for every iconic Margo Channing there's a tone-deaf attempt at classy camp in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte), she's never not magnetic. She's at her prettiest here once she has her magical Hollywood makeover, and her outfits, particularly the white cocktail gown on the ship, are breathtaking.

Why I can't find a decent shot of it, I'll never know.

 Paul Henreid as her martyred married lover is broodingly attractive, with dreamy eyes and oh that accent. They have good romantic chemistry. His dark warmth combined with her neurotic sensuality complement each other well.

And you've got to give Now, Voyager this: it crams in all the ingredients to make up your perfect '40s Freudian Psychodrama/Troubled Woman's Picture. Like I said, there's the Cinderella story of the spinster aunt turned world weary beautiful siren, the beyond belief monster mother (played to icy precision by Gladys Cooper), the sad extramarital affair set against the backdrop of exotic locales, smoking, impeccable hairstyles, self-sacrifice, florid dialogue ranging from confrontational speeches ("I didn't want to be born, you didn't want me to be born. It's been a calamity on both sides") to exchanges that sound profound and romantic but don't hold up under too much scrutiny ("Don't let's ask for the moon, we have the stars": wait, what? Are they the moon? Is Tina the stars? Are emotions the...galaxy?)

And believe me, it's fun seeing all these ingredients play out, but I wish Rapper could've found a smoother, more narratively concise way to gel them together. I felt like I was watching three separate movies, particularly because we don't see enough of the process that turned Charlotte from the moody bespectacled introvert to the lovely lady of mystery, or how she got from Point A. Sanitarium to Point B. Cruise ship. There was a disconnect at play that I never really recovered from, and watched the proceeding romance and foster parenting unfold like it were all a fantasy of Charlotte's. Apparently the plot follows Olive Higgins Prouty's novel unusually closely, possibly to a fault. Often the movie tries too hard to hit all the beats in the book, sacrificing a lot of coherence.

But really, again, the biggest crime is that we see our actors do and say things we don't particularly want them to say or do. Claude Rains's Dr. Jaquith is paper thin, frustrating because we sense Rains itching to chew up a little scenery. I kept waiting for his sinister ulterior motives, or for him to maybe become obsessed with Davis, dastardly in love with his Galatea that he broke out of her shell with his black magic psychiatry. That would of course be all messed up, and Rains certainly played that type of role over and over, such as in Deception, and pigeon-holing is never fun. But there's no denying he was so good at that type of refined smarm. It's somehow creepier watching him play an avuncular guy with good intentions. I will admit, he is tremendously affecting comforting Davis in her initial freakout scenes, but the action drops once his character fades from view and is relegated to the slightly concerned background player.

Davis does herself well in the cruise scenes when she falls in love with Henreid's character. She's in her element playing cynical, hardbitten elegant types who frighten even themselves with the depths of their passions.  Yet just as it seems there are three different movies going on, she plays three different characters, and she seems lost in the other two. She captures the simmering resentment in her dowdy scenes, but cannot capture the mousy insecurity, not with that brashly brittle voice of hers. Her third role, that of the unofficial caregiver of Henreid's daughter, requires her to be maternal and all-understanding. Davis hits too many false notes here, because maternal understanding is not her forte. She'd be more convincing were she allowed to employ some tough love and dispense nuggets of wisdom wrapped in wisecracking snark. But her scenes with the somewhat inept young actress Janis Wilson are leached of any humor, and too heavy-handed to be any fun. The two share some genuinely moving moments, yet I can't help but think I was watching the wrong leading lady for that particular job. Give me Baby Jane's screeching, sure, but don't give me a saccharine Bette Davis.

Therefore, the whole thing with Tina comes off as kinda creepy. Without Henreid's knowledge, Davis insinuates herself into her lover's daughter's life, becoming the child's sole support system. That is some bad psychiatry on Jaquith's part allowing her to take over so fully. Going camping with a child who's not yours like that, just the two of you, ain't legal, I don't think. And then you turn around and take her home with you. Y'know, after an okay from Jaquith. Yup.

(Again with the Doctor Macro)

Obviously I'm willing to cut a movie like this some slack; '40s psychodramas weren't particularly well known for their realistic grip on mental healthcare. But the Charlotte/Tina development is a little too rapidly jumbled over, with no real closure. So what, Tina just lives there now? I guess? And Charlotte and Jerry are gonna raise her together, but not stay romantically involved? And Tina's mom (another MONSTER but one we never see because screw her perspective) is totally fine with this because Tina was an accident anyways? Um.

I haven't posted here for awhile, and I'm actually kinda hesitant to make this my comeback review. I understand and appreciate that this is a favorite, and I don't want to come across like I'm ragging on an old standby. After all, Now, Voyager does have its truly enjoyable moments. On a visceral level, of course I got a thrill watching Davis stand up (with such classic Davis flair) to her wretched mother, and who doesn't love Davis's beautifully made up face that not even a cloud of smoke or glistening tears could disfigure, as she makes crazy eyeball love to Henreid? These moments are golden and shouldn't be callously passed over. Still, I wish the movie had more bite, more consistency. Dark Victory is next on my list, and who knows, it might be the perfect marriage of Davis's talent and high-class camp that I'm looking for.

P.S. The sooner I can forget the ham-handed attempt at humor with the Portuguese cab driver? The better.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Wodehouse Itch

I go through kicks with things, as you well know. I get stuck on an actor, a director, or, most relevant to this post, an author.

I'm of the generation that obsessively steamrolls through whole series on Netflix. I perseverate. I devour.

And nothing, nothing is more addictive than when I get the P.G. Wodehouse Itch.

Remember in my last monster movie post when I expounded on the various TV/movie media that I frequently while away my blues with? Wodehouse is that in literary form. "From the very first sentence of my very first Wodehouse story," Jeeves & Wooster star Hugh Laurie says in his article Wodehouse Saved My Life, "life appeared to grow somehow larger. There had always been height, depth, width and time, and in these prosaic dimensions I had hitherto snarled, cursed, and not washed my hair. But now, suddenly, there was Wodehouse, and the discovery seemed to make me gentler every day."

Laurie started out with Blandings, but I began with Jeeves, the best of the best, and I've been always cautious to tread outside that comfortable little zone. Like Bertie Wooster, I'm helpless without that gentleman's personal gentleman whose head bulges in the back. Yet I finally decided it was time to stop fooling around and see what more there was to life. I took a plunge.

Well, my friend did. She purchased The Most of P.G. Wodehouse for me, essentially a sumptuous samples platter of Wodehouse's array of works.

I'd of course tried to read Wodehouse stories that weren't Jeeves-centric in the past, but maybe I wasn't ready for them yet. The Adventures of Sally was a little too cute. I never finished Damsel in Distress because it was a little too twee. Ukridge just plain didn't grip me. So I had shrugged in a grotesque nonchalant way and simply buried myself in the Jeeves Omnibus again.

But recently--before my friend's present--I picked up Wodehouse's biography Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum. I learned that although I could probably not agree less with the master on subjects of politics and taxation, he was a very amiable bird who stumbled almost Wooster-like into his WWII broadcasting downfall. Yet more importantly I learned that there was probably never an author whose life was so consumed by writing.

There was little else for him. His social life, his marriage, his continent hopping, his daily dozens, all of his life had to adjust to his writing schedule, which--each day--took up most hours. Get up at six, daily dozens. Write to lunch. Swim. Write. Walk dogs. Write. Dinner. Write. Bed. He wrote as a bank teller. He wrote in internment camps. He wrote in hospitals. He wrote, wrote, wrote.

And what makes this so absolutely amazing was that he wasn't set on fire by some fervent revolutionary cause, some vital social or political topic that he felt must be shot to the masses before it's too late.

He wrote farces about fops in late Edwardian English country houses and London clubs. The biggest conflicts never surmount escaping unwanted marriages or purloining cow creamers from the local magistrate. The only political figure of note is a caricature of British fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, a character who secretly designs women's underclothing. The biggest menace is the specter of the disapproving and pushy aunt.

Yet these characters, this universe, consumed Wodehouse's thoughts, so much so that visitors often recalled that he was not truly present, but off inhabiting the next story hatching in his hare-brained brain. He wrote his characters in their late 1910s-roaring '20s setting until 1975, the year he died. The doctor found him hunched over his typewriter.

And so, of course, it's only appropriate McCrum includes hundreds of excerpts of these writings--the centers of Wodehouse's existence--throughout the biography. It was eye-opening for me to read samples from non-Jeeves stories, stories that made Wodehouse so much of what he is, and that I had hardly delved in.

So my friend was very, very kind in her gift.

I've barely made a dent in the book. It's huge. Wodehouse basically wrote non-stop once his career started, save for a dry spell in the early '50s as he was recovering from his war scandal and the shifting tastes in his post-war audience. As for myself, while I happily concede that Wodehouse's Jeeves stories really are the cream of the crop, I've finally come around to the fact that Wodehouse tales can exist without J&W, and be quite damn good at that.

He's been called the most asexual of writers, and while the down and dirty act is indeed hardly ever alluded to, that's not to say there is no romance. His stuff is chock-full of romantic love. I'd been so used to Bertie's devoted bachelordom in the Jeeves stories that I was a bit taken aback by the way Wodehouse's other Drones fall to pieces for their femmes.

True, Wodehouse romances are often fleeting and superficial, but sometimes the divine pash proves to be the real thing. The couples in question may be frivolous down to the bone, the situations they find themselves immersed in ludicrous, and their volcanic arguments about hat sizes hilarious, yet what really sells them is the loving, poetic touch Wodehouse lends these ridiculous scenarios.

For example, let me spoil "The Reverent Wooing of Archibald" for you. Archibald Mulliner, nephew to the eternal narrator Mr. Mulliner, is besotted at first sight by the regal, statuesque, and brilliantly dignified-looking Aurelia Cammarleigh. Yet what keeps Archibald from professing his admiration is the fact that, according to his loving uncle, "had [Archibald's] brain been constructed of silk, he would have been hard put to find sufficient material to make a canary a pair of cami-knickers." Like the majority of male Wodehouse protagonists, he's a thoughtless, amiable chump. Meanwhile, from his sight of her across the street, Mulliner believes Aurelia's haughty gaze and upright demeanor a sign she'd turn down the advances of a frivolous goof like him.

And so he endeavors to improve his image. He cozies up to her eccentric and studious aunt, engaging in complicated and dithering mathematical discussions about how Bacon really wrote Shakespeare's plays. Archibald pretends not to drink or smoke. He scoffs at the rumor (which is true) that he is the best imitator of a hen laying an egg in London.

Yet he's shocked by a revelation. He visits the aunt's country house, and at night as he eavesdrops on a conversation Aurelia has with her girlfriend, he learns his refined image is actually putting her off; even though she's "rather an outsize and modeled on the lines of Cleopatra" she's in reality the giddy flapper type whose ideal man is, ironically, someone who can do the best imitation of a hen laying an egg in London.

Archibald gets his chance to do what he will with this information when she sneaks onto his balcony to place her chronically snoring bulldog within his hearing, for a laugh.

And here is a golden example of not only a fine non-Jeeves work by Wodehouse, but a fine slice of writing no matter how you take it. Archibald knows how to woo his Black Bottom dancing Cleopatra.

Archibald's imitation of a hen laying an egg was conceived on broad and sympathetic lines. Less violent than Salvini's Othello, it had in it something of the poignant wistfulness of Mrs. Siddons in the sleep-walking scene of Macbeth. The rendition started quietly, almost inaudibly, with a sort of soft, liquid crooning--the joyful yet half-incredulous murmur of a mother who can scarcely believe as yet that her union has really been blessed, and that it is indeed she who is responsible for that oval mixture of chalk and albumen which she sees lying beside her in the straw.
Then, gradually, conviction comes.
"It looks like an egg," one seems to hear her say. "It feels like an egg. It's shaped like an egg. Damme, it is an egg!"
And at that, all doubting resolved, the crooning changes; takes on a firmer note; soars into the upper register; and finally swells into a maternal paean of joy--a "Charawk-chawk-chawk-chawk" of such a caliber that few had ever been able to listen to it dry-eyed. Following which, it was Archibald's custom to run round the room, flapping the sides of his coat, and then, leaping onto a sofa or some convenient chair, to stand there with his arms at right angles, crowing himself purple in the face.
All these things he had done many a time for the idle entertainment of fellow members in the smoking room of the Drones, but never with the gusto, the brio, with which he performed them now. Essentially a modest man, like all the Mulliners, he was compelled, nevertheless, to recognize that tonight he was surpassing himself. Every artist knows when the authentic divine fire is within him, and an inner voice told Archibald Mulliner that he was at the top of his form and giving the performance of a lifetime. Love thrilled through every "Brt-t't-t' t" that he uttered, animated each flap of his arms. Indeed, so deeply did Love drive in its spur that he tells me that, instead of the customary once, he actually made the circle of the room three times before coming to rest on top of the chest of drawers.
When at length he did so he glanced toward the window and saw that through the curtains the loveliest face in the world was peering. And in Aurelia Cammarleigh's glorious eyes there was a look he had never seen before, the sort of look Kreisler or somebody like that beholds in the eyes of the front row as he lowers his violin and brushes his forehead with the back of his hand. A look of worship.
There was a long silence. Then she spoke.

"Do it again!" she said.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Werewolf Bar Mitzvah! Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection Overview

"Spooky, scary. Boys becoming men. Men becoming wolves." 

The fabled "Happy Place" that insecure, downtrodden folks retreat to in times of stress very often takes cinematic form, not just eating form. When I was a wee shrub of eighteen and alone at college some years back, away from home for the first time and possessing the well-adjusted social skills of your average dark-dwelling cave fish, mine were full episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000  scrapped together from various YouTube channels. Then during one of my unemployed stints following graduation, I turned to old episodes of Hey! Arnold. Helga G. Pataki understands existential angst better than any Saturday morning cartoon character. In my  discombobulated teen years, The Big Lebowski was my mainstay.

I still turn to all of these various outlets on different occasions, sometimes when I'm blue, and other times when I'm simply in the mood for them because they're great.

One cinematic outlet--or series of outlets, I should say--that has pretty much always been there for me intermittently over the years, from very early pre-adolescence on, are the Universal Classic Monsters. They're misfits, like we all think we are especially when outgrowing childhood, but they're misfits with style, and with power. And in those very early '30s flicks, they seemed to exist in an otherworldly plane all their own, with a mish-mash of time and setting. You could ride a horse-drawn carriage through gothic 18th Century terrain, but still wear the saucy bobs and shorter skirts we associate with the '30s.

And so while suffering bravely through my current bout of unemployment, I decided the logical course of action was blowing almost $90 on the new Blu-Ray collection of the eight essential Classic Monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Phantom of the Opera, and Creature From The Black Lagoon.

I have no regrets.

(I've also been watching a lot of Roseanne.)

Inbetween my busy schedule of staring at the computer screen with my mouth open hoping jobs would magically appear and deciding between hot fudge sundaes or dignity, I watched all the movies in the set, and most (but not all) of the bonus features on each disc. I've seen these flicks all before, of course, but wanted them fresh in my mind before reviewing. Plus I spent a lot of money with my non-existent budget, so I better watch 'em all, at least once. I'm going to try gazing critically at these movies through the prism of my childhood idolatry, and see if I can be objective about these lumbering, psychopathic friends of mine.

First things first, the packaging sorta sucks. I hate the slidey-pocket deal, since I think it's easier for the discs to scratch and fall out (that's already happened a couple times. Is there no place for a budding film critic with butter fingers?).

As for the features on the discs, well...they're okay. I enjoyed most of them, but the problem is, they're almost all from Universal Home Studio's programs made some twenty years ago, and they feel a little dated in ways that, oddly, the movies themselves don't. I wish with the new collection we could get some new infotainment. I'll try going into more specifics with some of the features when I actually review the separate movies...this very instant!

DRACULA (1931)
dir. Tod Browning
Starring Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler, Edward Van Sloan, David Manners

This was only my second viewing of Dracula, and although I was of course taken with Lugosi's Count, I realized for the first time how thoroughly Dwight Frye dominates the movie. Save for Frye and Lugosi, Dracula is not as thrilling as the other '30s movies here. The opening scenes at the castle are of course terrifically moody (although, why the armadillos? Why the tiny bee in its tiny bee-coffin?). The eerie, languorous pacing that matches the cadences to Lugosi's accented speech possess a unique courtly terror. Save for the scenes on the storm-ridden ship and Karl Freund's long tracking shot of Dr. Seward's asylum that culminates in Renfield's screams, no other sections of the movie match that early introduction to Dracula and his brides.

That isn't to say the rest of the movie is bad, and Carfax Abbey's set is mind-boggling, but this more than any of the other classic monster movies has the feel of the stage work that precedes it. Too much takes place in the stuffy drawing room in the Seward estate, and the useless buffoonery of David Manners as Jonathan Harker doesn't help. Manners, lord love 'im, was usually counted on as the biggest disappointment in the Universal Horror movies he was in. Perhaps he was useful for subversive directors like Browning and Freund to subtly hint that the ingenue--be it delicate Helen Chandler here or mysterious Zita Johann in The Mummy--isn't exactly rewarded with a life of sexy excitement for escaping the lustful paws of their monsters. It was either one way or the other: a degraded life of sensual slavery with the baddie, or an eternity of blandness with barely-there Davy. Hardly a fair choice.

Luckily, I don't think Manners was ever quite so insufferable again, and I was more charmed this time around by Chandler's ethereal spaciness than in my first viewing (where I tended to agree with Pauline Kael that Chandler's "too anemic" to attract a vampire). Edward Van Sloan makes a good, dependable Van Helsing, Herbert Bunson is an indifferent, stuffy Dr. Seward, and I enjoyed the outsized cockney caricature that was Charles Gerrard's Martin, up to a point.

But back to Frye: like I said, he dominates. He really pulls off something remarkable. His performance is immense, showstopping, and overwrought, yet he sells it so convincingly. At least to my untrained eye, there are no subtle tricks or shades he gives Renfield's madness, it's all played on a large, broad scale. Yet it's a heart-wrenching and giddy experience watching him, and there will never be another Renfield that touches him.

I do wish we could have had an early scene of Mina tending to Renfield at her father's asylum. That way she could have generated a little more interest in her character from the audience, and it would establish why Renfield is so preoccupied with protecting her in particular.

Dracula's disc has perhaps the best bonus feature, the Spanish version of the movie filmed at the same time on the same lot, but at night and with a Hispanic cast. I have to concur with critics that this is superior to the American version in dialogue and characterization, though it truly does not deviate too much from the original. However, save for Jose Soriano Voisca's more sensitive Dr. Seward (he seems actually concerned about his daughter, by Jove!) and the beautiful Lupita Tovar's more explicitly animalistic Eva, the casting falls a bit short. If only it were Lugosi in this version instead of the hammy Carlos Villarias, whose chief crime is a distinct lack of presence. Pablo Alvarez Rubio does a very respectable job as Renfield (his character is fleshed out far more satisfactorily here), but again, no one can touch Frye. And boy, oh boy, something about poor Jonathan Harker spells trouble. Barry Norton's Juan Harker is just about as helpless and foppish as Manners's.

The other features include, like on all the discs, little mini-documentaries on the making of the movie and interviews with actors like Tovar (still beautiful some twenty years ago, and presumably still beautiful now for a 103-year old). However, I haven't the heart yet to watch Lugosi: The Dark Prince. I'm sort of scared of falling into a deep depression if I do.

dir. James Whale
Starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Frederic Kerr

There's still a bit of a stagy feel to James Whale's first foray into Universal Horror, but I think that can be blamed mainly on the lack of score, which makes some of the action come off overly stage-bound (Dracula might suffer similarly, though I haven't watched with Philip Glass's new orchestrations yet). However, because we are more often taken place to place, from Frankenstein's laboratory to the countryside, to the Frankenstein's rambling estate, to mountain rocks and windmills, Frankenstein feels more spacious and cinematic than Dracula.

The ensemble cast is, by and large, superior to Dracula's. True, not much can be done with John Boles or Mae Clarke, but they are the goody-goody, luckless exceptions. For Clarke, I think the problem lies mostly with the bland way Elizabeth's written. Clarke could act, as evidenced by her performance as Myra in Whale's version of Waterloo Bridge released the same year. For all Valerie Hobson's performance as Elizabeth in Bride of Frankenstein hinges mostly on switching back-and-forth from hysteria to haughtiness, at least the script gives her something to chew on; no such luck for Clarke here.

Sexy, sexy Colin Clive is smoulderingly intense as Frankenstein, far more alert and sinister than the more watered-down and battered version of Henry we get in Bride (part of why Henry might seem so tired and overwrought in the sequel was Clive's ever-deteriorating health and descent into alcoholism). While Frye is absorbing and entertaining in the role of the hunchbacked Fritz, he is not around long enough or given enough depth or sympathy to be as compelling as his Renfield. However, the shot of him pulling up his sock before heading upstairs is a delightful example of James Whale's idiosyncratic attention to character detail.

To accurately gauge the effect of Karloff in this film, try to place yourself as an audience member in 1931. There had never been anything like him on the screen before. Lon Chaney and Conrad Veidt brought heart to their monsters, but the silent medium provided a healthy distance between audience and character. While many cite Karloff's original monster as the last truly great silent monster due to his lack of speech, I disagree. It's in the muted whimpers, conveying such disoriented longing, combined with those fathomless eyes and sunken cheeks, that makes the Monster such a grotesque yet accurate depiction of our own inner monster-children.

Despite some all-round excellent yet sometimes static camera work from Arthur Edeson and Paul Ivano, and a vaguely cheeky script (fortelling the all-out cheekiness of Bride) by John L. Balderston, the success of Frankenstein can largely be attributed to three mad geniuses: James Whale, Boris Karloff, and the grim man who basically wore surgeon's smocks and would eviscerate you if you showed up late: Jack B. Pierce and his make-up. However, one of the features on Wolf Man is dedicated to Pierce, so I'll expound on him in a couple movies.

THE MUMMY (1932)
dir. Karl Freund
Starring Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, Edward Van Sloan, David Manners, Arthur Byron

This could in fact be technically the best movie of the bunch. Taking into account plot, mood, cinematography, and writing, Mummy really is superior, even in this decade when the genre was still considered somewhat serious art, and not childish B-Movie fare. The pacing is disarmingly sleepy, which historians Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns, and Brent Armstrong claim on the commentary track can bore a modern audience. Yet the tension and eroticism builds.

I've written extensively on the Mummy's character here, but I really want to re-emphasize the stoic romanticism in Karloff's portrayal of a mummy brought back to life, obsessed with bringing back his lost love Princess. Karloff's second Universal Monster is much more lyrical, romantic, intelligent, well-spoken, and deliberately cruel than his first, and you know watching that the Monster was not a fluke, and Karloff is a star.

The mini-docs reveal what a truly fascinating character Zita Johann was. I knew, of course, she had great presence and was incredibly beautiful, although a trifle owlish-looking at some angles--but, y'know, a beautiful owl. And I had read, of course, of her belief in reincarnation and that she would pray in her dressing room before each performance, willing the spirit of her character to possess her.

But she was also a ballsy dame. Karl Freund, for all that he creates such a spooky atmosphere, was apparently a bit of a pill. As this was his first time directing, he tried making relative newcomer Johann his scapegoat if anything went wrong. Thus on the first day of filming, he told her they would begin by shooting her nude from the waist up, telling her so in hopes she would fly off the handle and he could blame any mishaps on her diva-like behavior.

Instead, Johann shrugged and said, "Okay. If you can get it past the censors, I'm game." She also didn't hesitate to tell him to "move the damn camera" when he informed her the camera was in the wrong spot for the angle she wanted to be filmed in. She also once called on Irving Thalberg, asking "why he made such trash." His answer: "For the money, Zita."

Her confidence really shines through in the dual role of Helen and the revived spirit of Anck-es-en-Amon. She's one of the only horror heroines I can think of who saves her own damn self, and articulates just why she doesn't want to go along with her undead lover's plans. Johann's performance has a lot of weight, and a lot of mysticism that has nothing to do with acting; according to the featurettes, once or twice throughout she had out-of-body experiences, believing herself truly the long-dead fictional princess. One time she passed out and came to to the sight of Karloff's thickly wrinkled face looming over her, but the deep eyes with the charcoal lines around them were concerned, not mesmerizing: "Zita, darling, are you all right?"

Manners is still pretty dunderheaded, but I reiterate, nothing's more hysterical than his Jonathan Harker, goofing about in knickers.

dir. James Whale
Starring Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O'Connor, E.E. Clive

James Whale really lets his wit fly this time, with generous help from his screenwriter, R.C. Sherriff (who also contributed to Whale's macabre comedy Old Dark House from the previous year). Invisible Man is in many ways a prelude to what Whale would bring to Bride of Frankenstein two years later, in its mix of comedy, light horror, and his usual British color. In Una O'Connor's hysterical crone wife of the innkeeper we see shadows of her hamtastic Minnie in Bride, and blustering E.E. Clive is on hand as, yet again, another incompetent, pompous constable. The exception to the fun is Henry Travers as Dr. Cranley. He's dreadfully wooden and ineffectual.

This is also the first Universal Monster movie that lacks that stagy feel, as the gimmick of an invisible man demands that we get to see him commit his evil hi-jinks in all sorts of different settings: an inn, a village, a country road, a field, a house, a barn in the snow, etc. The stable of aforementioned character actors, with their wildly varying social positions and dialects, also contributes to the feeling that more of England is involved than a lab and a drawing room.

Yet for all that Invisible Man is a wonderfully cohesive and respected picture, perhaps it is not as beloved on as wide a scale as Whale's two Frankenstein movies because at the center of its cynical charade of biting dialogue and idiotic villagers, the monster is not a misunderstood giant with the mind of a child, but really just a colossal dick. Sort of like Dracula! This certainly isn't a drawback or flaw, since Rains is so endlessly entertaining for a man we can't see, but we do lose some pathos when the persecuted monster is gleefully malicious and deserving of punishment.

Not that there aren't attempts to give him sympathy, and they don't all fail. So we don't think he's just a homicidal maniac who struck out with the greatest cover a crook ever chanced upon, we're told that the chemicals he used have the unfortunate side-effect of insanity, and he was overall a pretty amiable man of science before the unfortunate transparence business. We're also given luminously beautiful Gloria Stuart as his misty-eyed fiancee, his one soft spot. Although Stuart's character is a little wet, Rains is at his most moving and sympathetic when with her, while still maintaining his creeping insanity.

It's a shame Invisible Man isn't quite in the same pantheon of immortality as Frankenstein or Dracula, because Rains gives a performance just as worthy of note. With only his voice he conveys malevolent cunning and believable madness, yet touches such sensitive shades when in the scenes I've mentioned with Stuart. He's having a madcap ball, yet never forgets the intense evil that's been thrust into him by his own character's thoughtless ambition. All in all, due in great part to Rains's urbane monster and Sherriff's intelligent script, this is certainly the most sophisticated of the movies here, rivaled only by Mummy.

Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed is the best mini-doc in the set, combining biographical info on Whale with further details about his career and insight into the truly remarkable effects that went into turning Rains invisible (psst: lots of it involved standing in front of the set with everything covered in a black velvet).

dir. James Whale
Starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Valerie Hobson

While Dr. Praetorius is certainly urbane wit personified, I don't include Bride of Frankenstein in that tie between Invisible Man and Mummy for most sophisticated. It's too madcap, too campy, too parodic, too wildly disjointed and damn weird to be exactly sophisticated, per se.

Yet Bride works, doesn't it?

You could say no wrong about this movie to me in my early years. This was my movie. Just read my review here of the 1986 Bride with Sting and Jennifer Beals if you don't believe me. However, even though I still flinch when I hear it criticized (just as we do when even our most eccentric family member is ragged on by an outsider), I admit now that Bride of Frankenstein is not flawless. In fact, when it comes to coherent storyline and consistent characterization, I'd venture to say The Mummy and Invisible Man are the technically superior movies.

The varying settings are wonderful, including that forest the historians in the documentaries are infatuated with, those great, long branchless telephone pole trees and the light show on the tower's rooftop toward the end. But like I said, all the flurrying action and locations give the film a disoriented feel. Sometimes--though rarely--the humor falls a trifle flat. An early example of what modern moviemakers still haven't figured out, just because you have the ability for a certain special effect doesn't mean you should use that special effect; I speak obviously of Praetorius's little people in their jars, which I think is a total misfire. Embarrassingly bad humor and, again, disjointed.

Yet all in all, this is the most sheerly entertaining movie of its monster genre; possibly one of the most entertaining movies of all time.

Like Invisible Man, Bride escapes the confines of early monster movie staginess not only through a variety of sets and colorful townfolk, but through the magnificent score by Franz Waxman running through the entire movie. No one who watches forgets the Bali Hai-esque refrain for the eponymous Bride, and the haunting buoyancy it gives the action.

Very few could argue that the best scenes, maybe apart from the Monster's rehabilitation with the blind man, are those of the Bride's creation. In the original Frankenstein, the limited budget gave only a glimpse of the process creating the Monster, though the glimpse we got was effective enough. But here we feast on all sorts of ridiculous doo-dads, including but not limited to the cosmic diffusors, cosmic rays, and the bandaged Bride on her platform in the sky as kites explode around her, Waxman's heartbeat score pounding throughout. The lighting on Clive and Thesiger  as they watch from below in the lab gives them hollowed, ghoulish shadows under the cheekbones, highlighting their mutual descent into devilish god-like mania.

Bride also has the advantage of the most fluid ensemble acting of the movies thus far, slightly ahead of Invisible Man even. Gone is any stuffy staginess; even Gavin Gordon's R-rolling Lord Byron is hammy in a less stage-bound and more all-out operatic fashion. And you know what? Screw all you detractors, I love the hell out of Una O'Connor's Minnie. Maybe she just touches that soft spot I have for hysterical morbid old bats, but I adore her. "Insides is always the lahst to be consyewmed."

The three performers that truly elevate this movie to heights far above ordinary camp and ordinary horror are Karloff as a now haltingly speaking Monster, Thesiger as Praetorius, and Elsa Lanchester as The Bride. They each symbolize the different emotional aspects at play throughout: Theisiger evil, campy flamboyance, Karloff poignancy and heart, and Lanchester stylistic romanticism.

They're each slightly askew: Karloff may be the heart of the film, but he murders and growls like a beast; Theisiger may be a mad scientist, but he's awfully urbane and sarcastically detached for someone driving the plot, and Lanchester is beautiful, but in an unconventional, unearthly, elfin way, with Nefertiti'd lightning hair and long upward slashes for eyebrows. Obviously Lanchester is my personal live-through-her fixation (read more on that here), and I admit that's probably because she's the only major monster female we have to relate to in this early genre--although keep in mind, I haven't yet seen Dracula's Daughter. Though on screen for a pitifully short amount of time, even with her cameo as Mary Shelley in the beginning, Lanchester's bright, jerky performance helped cement this movie permanently into my consciousness, and that's why Bride of Frankenstein remains one of the best.

Not much stands out in the features, save for another mini-doc about the making of the film in question. I really wish Miss L. could have gotten a mini-doc all her own like the other monster actors, but limited screen time does that to you, no matter how great those eight minutes are.

dir. George Waggner
Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Evelyn Ankers, Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi

I had a bit of a hard time truly warming to this one for awhile, partly because I consider Werewolf in London a far superior and overlooked film. I've also had my share of objections to Lon Chaney Jr.'s schlubbiness as lead Larry Talbot, though the fact he resembles Huckleberry Hound does sound appropriate for the role. However, I've been able to reconcile that my issue lies not really with Chaney as an actor--he does have some fine, touching moments here, and gets even better in the sequels--but instead with what his Average Joe unexcitement symbolizes: the loss of stylized enthrallment found in monster movies of the '30s to the more hokey B-Picture mentality going into the '40s and onward. Wolf Man is a rather transitional film in this regard.

The setting and cinematography are still fantastic, the thick fog machines memorably drowning the forest scenes in a sense of dread as the black trees stand ominously throughout. So the mood and look are right, but overall the casting is Hollywood at its blandest. No one's really bad, but save for Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi in his short but pivotal scenes, there's no one to bring anything of weight to the proceedings. Ralph Bellamy as a British constable? Ralph Bellamy? Evelyn Ankers is certainly something to look at with her soft-focused features, shiny lips, eyes, and jewelry, but while competent, she too lacks excitement. And although Claude Rains's presence is always welcome and he does class up the joint, he looks as if he knows he doesn't have much to do and doesn't quite know what to do with that knowledge.

Chaney's casting as everyman Larry Talbot signifies that American producers and audiences were willing to relate to foreigners like Karloff up to a point, so long as Karloff plays a foreign monster to begin with. But for someone normal who trips unknowingly into an uncontrollable trap that ruins his average, harmless life, Americans want someone unfailingly, well, American in the role. Thus Larry, though born to an important, titled family in England, is conveniently abroad through most of his life, and is returning as much a Yank as any apple pie.

Despite that we're meant to relate to Larry as a good man before his tragic lupine encounter, I can't quite get over my initial repugnance to how he's introduced to us. He leers at Ankers through a telescope, pushes his presence on her, and really doesn't give a crap she's engaged, and it's all supposed to be charming and macho, especially in the twee English setting. However, this gives way to another reading of the plot, a reading I like better than the simplistic, Hitchcockian "sometimes bad things happen to good people" trope: Larry's already got the behavior of a wolf, and this is what comes of it (Bela Lugosi's werewolf howls and attacks a woman just as Chaney leans in for a kiss with Ankers).

So certainly there are many elements that work here, and I don't want to sound like I'm ragging on Wolf Man. Ouspenskaya in particular is spectacular as the gypsy mother of Lugosi, so battered down over the years with grief she's numb to it. Her otherworldly tones speak her sorrow far more than a million recitations of the "wolfbane" poem could. And Jack B. Pierce's makeup was never more effective. His Wolf Man face is a triumph. He perfected what he wasn't allowed to fully do in Werewolf of London thanks to star Henry Hull's vain reticence. The jutting lower jaw with its protruding fangs, combined with the fur-covered face and narrow snout transform Chaney so completely it really is terrifying. The snout is so obviously unreal with its button nose that it should jar, but instead it adds such a grotesque flourish we're convinced that out of all the monsters, the Wolf Man would evoke the most visceral terror if encountered in those woods in the deep of night.

As I mentioned earlier, in his featurette we learn more about Pierce's career, which sadly went downhill eventually. So devoted was he to the old-fashioned elbow-grease approach that he didn't take to the modern habit of prosthetics and special effects; thus he was booted out unceremoniously, relegated to less prestigious work on Mister Ed and such wretched Z-Movies as The Brute Man (why was he needed for that one? Poor Rando Hatton really didn't need makeup, did he?). Still, what a legacy, and Wolf Man to me is his crowning achievement.

The other major fact I learned from the featurettes was that Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak basically invented our modern understanding of the werewolf. He not only wrote the original Wolf Man, but the sequels Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Frankenstein, expanding on a mythology we take for granted as lore but that he actually created: the full moon, the silver bullets, the entire wolfbane poetics. There's some theory that as a persecuted Jew who fled from Nazi Germany, Siodmak wrote in the ever-present pentagram on a werewolf victim's hand as a symbol for the Star of David that forever had to be visible on Jewish citizens in the Ghettos. The descent of ordinary men like Larry Talbot into a bestial mania mirrored the ordinary youth of Germany suddenly transformed and brainwashed into Hitler Youth. Another interesting reading, though how conscious Siodmak himself was of his real-life terror seeping into his screenplays about wolf monsters is unknown (maybe this is where Rob Zombie got his inspiration for his faux-trailer Werewolf Women of the S.S. in Grindhouse?).

dir. Arthur Lubin
Starring Claude Rains, Susanna Foster, Nelson Eddy, Edgar Barrier

It goes without saying that Phantom feels the least like a Universal Monster movie, and is rightly dwarfed by the far superior '20s version with Chaney, Sr. The movie is entertaining, but certainly not in the bracing, tightly compelling way Bride of Frankenstein is. Phantom is an oddity because it doesn't fit neatly into either category of the other movies in this set: the auterish '30s nightmare-scapes, or the less mature but more boisterous B-fare of the '40s on. By focusing more on the music, the opulent Opera House set from the original Chaney movie, the weak comedy, and the blazing technicolor, Phantom feels much more like a big-budget, all-expense MGM costume extravaganza than a Universal horror movie.

Like Wolf Man, Phantom suffers from a uniformly unexciting cast. Nelson Eddy certainly has presence as the heroic but fatuous baritone, but is so wholesome yet somehow skeezy you feel a little icky watching him and equally wholesome-yet-somehow-skeezy Edgar Barrier ogle fresh-faced, eighteen-year-old Susanna Foster's Christine. Foster herself has an impressive set of pipes and I like the level-headed, career-oriented spunk writers Samuel Hoffenstein, Eric Taylor, Hans Jacoby and John Jacoby give her character, which is rare for most Christines. Foster has carriage and is likable in a Glinda the Good Witch way, but she was obviously moulded in the Deanna Durbin/Jeannette MacDonald nice-girl school of actress singers, so we get none of the breathless, haunted mania that the ethereally frizzy-haired Mary Philbin lent Christine in the Chaney Phantom. We feel no terror or possession from Foster, since she is never under the Phantom's spell and is only in peril in the film's last minutes.

So again, as in many a supporting role throughout his career, Claude Rains steps in as the Phantom to carry the thing. Rains is enormously effective, and brings a sickly realism to his Erique Claudin's madness. Unfortunately Rains pulled some Hull-esque nonsense, dictating he did not want a full treatment of makeup. So poor Pierce had to settle on something that looked like a half-cooked steak covering one portion of Rains's face in the big reveal.

If the dynamic between the Phantom and Christine here seems ickier than usual--even ickier than Eddy and Barrier's attentions--that's because in the original scenario the writers wanted Christine to be Claudin's long-lost daughter he's been caring for from afar. Studio execs ultimately and rightly judged this inclusion too incestuous, yet wrongly directed the writers to simply take out this revelation while leaving the rest of the screenplay intact. What remains is definitely a fatherly vibe from Rains as he speaks mad words of what we can now only interpret as romantic love to young, apple-cheeked Foster.

Because of the war muddling copyright laws, many of the "operas" we see are cobbled together from works by Tchaikovsky and the like. Marta is a real opera, though, so don't worry. I know that was troubling you.

dir. Jack Arnold
Starring Julie Adams, Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Nestor Paiva, Whit Bissell, Ricou Browning (uncredited), Ben Chapman (uncredited)

Full-on sci-fi B-Movie. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but boy, does this one drag in long stretches. Creature has the feel of an MST3K episode, since the majority is pompous, self-righteous white scientists expounding on the morals and ethics of science vs. men wanting to kill the shit out of things. That's just what MST3K movies at unfortunately their best often are. We also have present  MST3K vets like Richard Denning as the mean blond guy and Nestor Paiva, of the Load from Mole People fame. And I know I've heard that damned musical sting that accompanies almost every shot of the Gill Man--bwah-bwah-bwaaaaaaah!--in more than one Universal-International movie MST3K showcased. In fact, the sequel Return of the Creature actually was an episode.

The direction by Jack Arnold is mostly static, and perhaps appropriately the only big thrills go on underwater. The first time we see the Gill Man full-on, suddenly shooting up from the bottom of the screen watching the divers explore his watery domain, is pretty classic. And the shots of his scaly legs as he wanders silently around the boat are pretty chilling--you're uncomfortable and frightened on behalf of injured Whit Bissell when he sees the Gill Man's face through the porthole, Bissell helplessly trapped in bed and wrapped in bandages.

Yet there's no getting away from the fact the movie feels too episodic. We're basically watching the long process of concerned milky-white guys in swim trunks come up with faux-scientific ways to trap the monster, escape from him, and engage in testy debates about whether they should just go ahead and kill ol' Fish Face. Oh, and every once in a while Julie Adams is in peril.

If I sound too down on this movie, it's because this episodic, plodding pace seems stitched together too lazily, which Universal started doing too often around this time. Their philosophy apparently became, why bother creating something truly new when there are so many unique tidbits from earlier films we can pick and choose from? Why compose an original score when there's a whole library of monster music at our disposal? Why not pad out the scenes with a few innocuous shots from previous movies (I noticed this last night when I watched The Invisible Ray for the first time--many of the laboratory shots are taken from The Bride of Frankenstein. So I guess they'd been doing this since 1936.)? It all feels too hacked together, with no interest in character development. This was the first movie where I really had absolutely zero interest in the characters other than the monster, and even the Gill Man fails to generate nearly as much interest as the Frankenstein Monster, Wolf Man, and the like, save for his bitchin' costume.

And that costume is pretty ridiculously fabulous. Gill Man is the only monster in this set not created by Jack B. Pierce, and in a way the suit symbolizes everything Pierce rejected that got him canned: rubber and prosthetics that take away any human aspect to the face. And while they should have taken out the fake eyes in the land shots and allowed an eerie human gaze to peek out, the new makeup/costuming department creates a truly unique, disturbing, and still sympathetic monster in the Gill Man suit.

The featurettes were interesting enough, especially hearing about the uncredited Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman  who played the Gill Man in water and on land, respectively. A lot of time is devoted to the sequels, that got tawdrier yet more sympathetic to the Gill Man as they went along.


Like I said, I have no regrets purchasing this set.  I wish the features were more up-to-date, and I hope that someday Blu-Ray's quality can be more compatible with other lowly DVD players. Yet I love my monsters; I love the fantastical figures plopped down into a stylized, art deco reality, with the fog machines, brassy scores, and iconic performances therein. You can read as many socially framed schools of theory you'd like into these twisted tales, but at the end of the day, it's fun form of escapism. Always.

While late 2012/early 2013 hasn't been great  for me employment-wise, it's been pretty cool where monsters are concerned. I had a blast in October when I won tickets from the very generous Millie at ClassicForever to the Frankenstein/Bride of Frankenstein double feature TCM hosted in theaters nationwide. Hope they do that again this year. When all else fails, there are monsters.

So let me conclude this tribute with a relevant nod to the dearly departed 30 Rock:

 Play us out with the full version, Tracy and Donald Glover:

Happy Valentine's Day, I guess? Too bad I can't find that "Monster Mash"/Valentine's Day Simpsons clip! Can't have everything, unfortunately. But monster movies will do for now.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)

What places this film for me slightly above director Jacques Demy's other frothy musical, 1964's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is that nothing, absolutely nothing, is taken seriously here. Otherwise, how could we stand it?

The sheer shallow weightlessness gives Rochefort a beauty all its own. Perhaps this is the most aesthetically beautiful satire ever made. And what else could it be but a satire of French pop film when a seemingly kindly old family friend is arrested for the brutal dismemberment of an old woman and it is treated merely as a nonchalant punchline?

As stunning as Umbrellas is in many ways, I argue that Rochefort is far more enjoyable in its loosey-goosey pace and in the small fact that there are moments of spoken dialogue; we're given a chance to breathe in-between musical takes.

And because no one takes any of the romances seriously, Catherine Deneuve is allowed to have a zanier, freer character than in Umbrellas, where she essentially played a petulant Juliet, a symbol of Young Wuv Lost. She (and everyone else) is outfitted gorgeously--save for an unfortunate poofy blue dressing gown Deneuve wears which epitomizes the horrific side of late '60s fashion--and she and her sister are charmingly clunky dancers. Deneuve really seems to be having fun here, with her sly glances and big smiles.

It helps that she's cast opposite her lovely sister Francoise Dorleac. With her heavy red hair, chestnut eyes, freckled face, and even gaze, she is both physically and characteristically the earthier, franker, and more grounded version of her sister. She is the one with the more tangible aspirations, ambitions beyond romance for the sake of romance. She is the steadfast composer, her sister the dreamer. So therefore, we end up far more invested in Dorleac's love story than Deneuve's, who we know, deep down, will be all right because she's ding-a-ling, lovable Catherine Deneuve.

It's sobering that this is one of Dorleac's last films before dying at the age of twenty-five in a violent car wreck. Still, it's nice that one of the final images we have of her is dancing happily next to her sister, standing out as her own distinct and beautiful personality.

The rest of the cast is spot-on. Danielle Darrieux as the twins' mother was the only cast member who sang all her own stuff. Is there anything she can't do? George Chakiris and Grover Dale as Etienne and Bill, the pair of carnies who enjoy nothing but frivolity, are a fun though ill-defined pair; what the hell is their function again? But again, such questions are entirely out of place here. No one has a particular place she needs to be, no particular role he needs to play, and so, everyone is free to let loose and have some fun. Ridiculously blond Jacques Perrin is perfect as dreamy, romantic, artistic sailor Maxence, so swallowed up in his pursuit of his ideal he himself is unreal, making him perfect for Deneuve's flighty ditz.

Dorleac's Solange is paired up with The American. And the sound you hear at The American's entrance is a thousand surprised fangirlish squeals ringing 'round the world.

Gene Kelly fits so well into this world because Demy is in equal parts unapologetically cornball and sleazy, truly sentimental and truly careless. Thus, his sets and songs evoke that nonchalant yet romantic vibe Kelly thrives in. Kelly is undeniably a star, and even though some of the singing isn't his, he owns his presence. His too few scenes with Dorleac are magnetically romantic, pleasantly fizzy and syrupy like a Shirley Temple drink.

Everything ends as it should in Demoiselles de Rochefort. More importantly, it ends as we want it to end, though you might have to stay to the very end to make sure. That we do want it to end in particular ways for particular characters is the movie's surprising strength, since we're not all that emotionally invested in any of the characters. They're likable, but they're paper-thin.

Yet Demy infuses his own obvious enthusiasm into the shallow material until you can almost feel him beaming absentmindedly just off-camera. And that's infectious, in a casual sort of way you barely notice.