Thursday 30 April 2020

Bride Of Frankenstein

Harbinger Of Groom

Bride Of Frankenstein
USA 1935 Directed by James Whale
Universal Blu Ray Zone B

Time to revisit one of the great classics finally on Blu Ray.

You know, whenever I watch Bride Of Frankenstein (also known as The Bride Of Frankenstein on most posters but without the 'definite article' on the actual title card of the movie), I always think that this is my favourite of the Universal Frankenstein movies. Then, whenever I watch the next sequel, Son Of Frankenstein, I always think that is. It’s a thin line because they both have a very different atmosphere to them but, for now, I’lll say just on the strength of the blindingly cool score, I’ll have to go with Bride Of Frankenstein as the best of these Universal Monster Classics. Well... until I get around to rewatching and reviewing the next one in the sequence, at any rate.

After a cast list which bills, like the end credits, the titular character of The Bride as being played by ‘?’ (much like Karloff in the original, to preserve the mystery) we get a camera moving in to an establishing shot via a model building where we get a quite wonderful (and heavily pre-cut due to sexual implications of both a verbal and visual nature), prologue featuring Lord Byron, Percy Shelley
and, of course, the character of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who wrote the original novel Frankenstein and who is played here by the ‘button cute’ Elsa Lanchester. It is for this role, relatively near the top of the cast list, that Lanchester is credited for, as opposed to her iconic dual role as the Bride Of Frankenstein. Also, since her first character is only on screen for five minutes at the start and her classic monster character only for about five minutes (without bandages) at the end, I think many audience members probably don’t put two and two together in regards to this fact the first time they see it... especially since the make-up is quite different.

Towards the end of the prologue is a montage of scenes from the first film (where Franz Waxman’s amazing score really drives the edits together as a unified whole and which, if memory serves, might even include alternate or unused snippets from Whale’s previous Frankenstein movie too) and then Mary is coaxed into telling Byron and Shelley the rest of the ‘continuing story’ (despite the fact that a tombstone in the film has a death date many decades after Mary died in real life).

And the rest of the film is half some unused parts from the original Frankenstein novel dressed up in new clothes (the book does, indeed, deal with the creation of a ‘bride’ too), along with the usual Hollywood nonsense, some successful and some not so, which can be completely credited to director James Whale who, at this time in his career at least, had complete control of the film.

It’s an interesting film and uses some great lighting effects too (if you watch the films of Ridley Scott, there’s a certain kind of lighting he uses in a lot of his movies... the name of which escapes me... and certain scenes like the interiors of Baron Frankenstein’s home use the same effect) and there’s also the odd hint of German Expressionism again which grows organically from the sets... not as much as it would become a dominating factor as it does in Son Of Frankenstein, perhaps but... it’s definitely in here.

There’s some wonderful acting in this one. Much to Boris Karloff’s dismay, the monster learns to talk this time around, due to his investigation of the siren call of the violin played by an old, blind hermit (played by O.P. Heggie) who befriends him and teaches him rudimentary speaking skills... as well as teaching him how to smoke (can never quite work out how that’s ‘a thing’ to teach anyone but what do I know?). Karloff is absolutely electric in these scenes though, never once going into comedy mode although, you can tell that certain elements of Fred Gwynne's Herman Munster must have come from studying his performance in this film.

Then there’s the somewhat campy Ernest Thesiger playing the equally campy Doctor Pretorious, helping to push the less than hidden ‘gay subtext’ of the movie, which would quite possibly have gone over many of its audiences’ heads at the time. Alas, he also dominates in the one scene which seems completely out of place in the film, where he shows Frankenstein the collection of miniature people he’s grown in bottles. This is the one scene in the movie I almost can’t bear to look at because it’s so off kilter with the rest of the film (but at least Waxman’s music is appropriate... it’s also out of place with the rest of the score in this scene). In fact, going to skip quickly over the memory of this sequence now, thanks.

One of Whale’s favourite ‘doom laden comedy hystrionics’ actresses, Una O' Connor, who had provided similar laughs in the director’s The Invisible Man (reviewed here) also has lots of screaming to do, along with such dialogue nuggets as, when talking about the probable burning of the Frankenstein monster under the mill (wrecked at the climax of the last film)... “Insides is always the last to be consumed”. She also gets the first of the ‘He’s alive!’ lines when talking about the ‘presumed dead’ character of Henry Frankenstein, who has been removed to his and his fiance’s home, in relation to when he first moves his arm and indicates he’s alive. Of course, this completely contradicts the happy ending added on to the film at the end of the last one against Whale’s wishes but, I guess he was happy to ignore it here. Frankenstein is once again played by Colin Clive (two years before his alcoholism fuelled death at the age of 37) but his fiance is played by the then 17 year old Valerie Hobson, who really gives her all in the role.

And, though he had already been killed by Karloff in the last one, we have wonderful character actor Dwight Frye returning as a very similar character called Glutz. It’s always good to see Frye in any Universal movie, to be honest. Even a young John Carradine turns up briefly as a woodsman, foreshadowing his involvement, perhaps, with The Mummy films and also his turns as Dracula for the studio in two of the Frankenstein sequels.

The film was quite heavily trimmed before general release for scenes of religious inappropriateness and sexuality (such as cutting out various sequences which included close ups of Mary Shelley’s cleavage in the prologue and, originally, in an epilogue which also didn’t make it into the final cut) and... I just wish the footage had survived today. Even now, where the script had been censored, you can see where Whale ‘got away with it’ in certain scenes. There’s a great line by Dr. Pretorius where he tells Henry...

“Leave the charnel house and follow the lead of nature... or of God, if you like your bible stories”.

This second part of the line is said with great sarcasm and it’s pretty apparent what Whale’s stance on religion is. What I’d forgotten until rewatching the documentary which has been ported over from some of the DVD releases onto the new Blu Ray, is that the original line before the censors got a hold of it finished... “... or of God, if you like your fairy tales.” It doesn’t really matter though because Thesgiger’s line reading leaves you in absolutely no doubt of his religious standing.

And then there’s the music by composer Franz Waxman. This is what I was always drawn to with this movie, not because of its brilliance here but because I was familiar with it from the many times it was recycled by Universal into other things, like many of their serials. I first heard this score in the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials and, whenever I would go out into the back garden and play at being one of these two iconic heroes, I would be constantly whistling the score from Bride Of Frankenstein as I played, even though I didn’t know that at the time. It’s very much in the leitmotif style which was becoming increasingly popular in Hollywood and it’s just wonderful. LaLaLand Records managed to resurrect and restore the long thought lost master tapes of the majority of this score last year for a limited edition CD release, which sounds surprisingly great for the age of the recording. You can still, at time of writing, purchase a copy from them in the US here. It’s not only been used in numerous Universal films and serials contemporary to this, it’s also been used in terms of film referencing over the years... perhaps the most blatant being the use of the ‘creation’ music in a parody sequence in Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers. If you’ve never heard it before, well... it’s just wonderful. What I hadnt noticed before is the moment in the opening credits where it says it’s conducted by Bakaleinikoff, who did a number of scores such as those for Val Lewton, whose ‘antidote’ to Universal Horror’ movies for RKO are also very much respected.

And there you have it. Bride Of Frankenstein is one of those rare movies where the sequel actually is superior to the original work... in this case by the same director. And I say that with all due respect to Frankenstein (reviewed by me here) which is a truly great movie too. Definitely this and the two Frankenstein films either side of it are required viewing for all those in love with the art of cinema. And very entertaining they are too. Give them a watch.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Pirates Of The Caribbean - At World’s End

Depp-reciating Returns

Pirates Of The Caribbean
At World’s End

USA 2007 Directed by Gore Verbinski
Disney Blu Ray Zone B

Wow... this is not a good movie. I’m kinda surprised this one got the box office it did after the second movie was not so great. You’d think it would be a case of once bitten, twice shy but, then again, in order to get good box office, Hollywood relies on repeat viewings of a film from the same audience... I just can’t imagine anyone wanting to watch this thing again after they’ve just had to sit through the interminably long (almost three hours) running time of Pirates Of The Caribbean - At Worlds End.

To be fair, there are one or two good moments in this but they all seem to be front loaded within the first half an hour. The film opens strongly with what can only be described as a musical number set to a hanging. The song a little boy sings before he is executed with various other pirates is a nice opening set piece from Hans Zimmer and it’s quite striking but, the reason for the song and the comments made by onlookers makes absolutely no sense and it’s only briefly touched upon later in the most vague and confusing way. In other words, it’s a completely pointless scene which, honestly, works very well as such but, for some reason, the filmmakers try to justify its inclusion into the narrative space of the film (you wouldn’t catch someone like Fellini trying to rationalise what he wanted to do like this) and this kind of dilutes the effectiveness of the scene to some extent. Throwing in a sense of logic where none is required (film is art and art doesn’t have to mirror reality, people!).

This is followed by another strong sequence of stealth followed by action as the various pirate crew members from the last movie team up with the newly resurrected Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) and go to Singapore, to the stronghold of infamous pirate villain Sao Feng (played by Asian superstar Chow Yun-Fat) to retrieve a map to a place in the afterlife. This is a pretty promising sequence which, maybe, loses something on home video but I remember it being quite a spectacle at the cinema. And then we get some assorted plot snippets thrown into the mix as Keira Knightley’s Elisabeth Swann and Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner, plus assorted regulars, go off to find Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in order to bring him back from his own, personal space in Hell.

And, surprisingly, this is where this film suddenly falls flat. I find it ironic that the original, classic Pirates Of The Caribbean movie (reviewed here) only came alive once Johnny Depp made his memorable entrance but this time around, the whole first half an hour of the movie, which is Depp-less, is the strongest part of the film. Things really begin to flag by the time Jack Sparrow is introduced... in a curiously surreal but bewilderingly boring sequence with multiple versions of the character occupying the same space. I don’t know why the film never really recovers from here on out but I understand the script was still incomplete when filming commenced on this one so, yeah, maybe not the most ideal conditions to make a piece of movie art under, for sure.

Once again there are strange creatures at large (most of them seen in the last film, as the Flying Dutchman and its crew return to add drama to the proceedings) and big set pieces with cannons and crossed swords but, without really having any good filler for the calm moments to allow contrast and highlight the ferocity of the action sequences (not to mention the confusing editing in these scenes) the whole swashbuckling yarn seems a bit bland and... well... less swashing and more ‘let’s all go and have a sleep on the sofa until this monstrosity of a movie passes by’ it seemed to me.

The one ray of light in this film comes in the form of Hans Zimmer’s excellent score. Using the same musical language of the previous installments we have some cracking tunes that, while ultimately failing to break through the lethargy of the finished product, does at least support this bloated behemoth appropriately and, to boot, is an enjoyable stand alone listen away from the movie. Of special note, asides from the opening song (which is curiously truncated on the CD soundtrack) we have a stand out piece of score which Zimmer excerpts in his live concerts for the scene where Jack gets everyone to topple his ship upside down, called Up Is Down on the accompanying soundtrack album. It’s moments like this which, at least, had me tapping my feet along to the music while I tried to find something visually interesting on the director’s canvass.

And there you have it. An extremely short review for a movie that, as far as I’m concerned, joins its sequels in proving that the original film was a bit of a fluke in terms of being a truly great movie (although I also liked Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, against all the odds, which I reviewed here). Honestly, though, I can’t really recommend any of these films to a movie lover barring the first one and, by this third go round, it really did seem like all involved were flogging a dead sea turtle, truth be told.

Sunday 26 April 2020

Godzilla Raids Again

Fisherman’s Foe

Godzilla Raids Again
aka Gojira no gyakushû
aka Gigantis The Fire Monster
Japan 1955 Directed by Motoyoshi Oda
Toho/Criterion Collection Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Very minor spoilers not worth worrying about.

Okay, so on to the second main feature of the new Godzilla - The Showa Era Blu Ray box set from Criterion (more like ‘book’ set, actually) and a film which used to be one of my favourites from the series, Godzilla Raids Again. Now, I’ve seen this a few times in the past, just not recently and, I have to say, this is so not the film I remember. There’s stuff in here I didn’t recall at all and I remembered my favourite of the two main ‘pilot’ protagonists, played by Minoru Chiaki, surviving at the end and somehow saving the day. Instead, the last quarter of an hour or so plays without him because he dies before the film’s final resolution. I just don’t remember this at all.

Chiaki, of course, will be remembered by fans of the great director Akira Kurosawa as he’s in a lot of his films (such as Seven Samurai, Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress and much more) and, here, he plays comic relief to the other romantic lead played by Hiroshi Koizumi, who was in a lot of Japanese keiju eiga including some more Godzilla movies... just not playing the same character in any of them. Here, the two play pilots for a fishing company and they go out in their small seaplanes to spot schools of fish out at sea and then lead their big fishing vessels to those locations. Of course, it isn’t that long into the story before they spot something much bigger than fish, when Chiaki’s character has to go down on an island and wait to be rescued by Hiroshi. When the two are on the island, they come across Godzilla having a fight with this movie’s first guest monster, an ankylosaurus named Anguirus.

Anguirus would, of course, later star in a number of Godzilla films over various era franchises, including the recent American films (during the corona virus era, it’s uncertain now if the new Godzilla/Kong film will actually be released this year or not but, if it is, he’s scheduled to appear in this one too). This film marks not only his first appearance on film but it also makes this the first film in which Godzilla has to fight another monster. A tradition which would continue in, not quite all but certainly most other Godzilla films which came after it.

This film starts off really strongly with a series of establishing shots setting up the character of the main romantic lead... a long shot of the shadow of the seaplane on the water before cutting to a shot of the plane in the air (which I believe, like most shots of this ilk in the movie, is a model shot), followed by a studio shot looking in through the window of the cockpit where the live action inside the plane takes place. It’s nicely done, as is the second and final fight between Godzilla and Anguirus around about halfway through the movie... which amounts to a 'building obliterating' wrestling match where Godzilla kills Anguirus by biting into his neck in a dead spit of Christopher Lee doing much the same thing in the Hammer Dracula movies.

However, even though this is more 'story based' in terms of human characters, there really isn’t enough monster action in the movie and also, compared to the first movie, the special effects seem to look really ropy throughout... especially on the bits of film where they’re trying to fuse live action with inserts of the bigger effects in the same shot. In fact, this film was rush released and hit Japanese cinemas six months after the phenomenal success of the first film... so I’m guessing the deadlines were a hindrance here. Everything looks a bit cheap and underdone. The wires can clearly be seen on a lot of the fighter planes (especially on this new Blu Ray edition... the format is not kind to old special effects in general anyway) and there’s even a shot where a plane pulls up and does a kind of loop the loop but... the clouds in the sky loop with it, indicating that the camera operator is just twisting the camera around to get the effect. Hmm.

The rushed schedule and the lack of major monster action might also explain, perhaps, the one scene in this movie where a character from the first film returns. Kurosawa alumnus Takashi Shimura (one of my all time favourite actors) reappears in what amounts to a cameo scene as Dr. Yamane, the paleontologist geezah from Godzilla. Although, it’s almost an embarrassing cameo because it seems to be there only to serve two functions...

The first being to remind the audience that Godzilla actually died at the end of the last film, due to Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Detroyer and that, as Yamane had prophesised at the close of the last movie, there are probably other Godzillas around somewhere (and I really don’t like Godzilla being used as a plural like that but, what can you do?). So yeah, people often forget that this is a second Godzilla who went on to shoulder the rest of the Showa era and not the original.

Secondly, the good doctor brings a silent cine camera film of Godzilla causing destruction in Tokyo to remind the audience where this story is set and show the authorities just what they’re up against. This amounts to an extended sequence of compiled ‘highlights’ from the first movie which are left to play out in silence for a few minutes. I got quite a bit outraged that the ‘footage’ actually included a shot inside a train hurtling towards ‘destruction by The Big G’ because, of course, they couldn’t possibly have that shot in a POV movie surviving this. I suspect this whole extended sequence is merely in here because the producers probably recognised that they didn’t have enough monster action in the movie and needed to get a little extra spectacle in there somehow.

Just in case you forgot, Godzilla is still very much the villain in this at this point in the cycle. Indeed, one of the characters refers to him as “The bastard spawn of the hydrogen bomb.” The shift from destroyer of Japan to defender would not come until a few more films down the line.

Masaru Satô’s score is fine but there’s not much of it. Of course, it doesn’t gel musically at all with Ikira Ifukube’s majestic scores for Gojira but Satô did do some great scores for the series, kind of alternating on an almost film to film basis with Ifikube for a while. However, like I said, there’s not a heck of a lot of it and it’s even more sparsely spotted than the first film. Which is a shame because there are some sequences in this which could really benefit from some kind of musical lift, for sure.

This film as it’s presented here also shows up a bit of a disappointment with this new Criterion set. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a truly astonishing set and we are incredibly lucky to have it but it would have been really nice to also get the terrible, bastardised Gigantis The Fire Monster, dubbed American version as an extra... with voices by the likes of George (Mr. Sulu) Takei and Keye (Number One Son) Luke. After all, they included the American version of the first film on the previous disc.

Either way, if you’re a fan of Godzilla then Godzilla Raids Again is certainly a necessary entry in the series because it bridges the eight year gap between this film, the last in the series to be in black and white and in a standard, non-widescreen aspect ratio... and all that comes after, in that Godzilla himself is more or less where they left him at the end of this movie. So, you know, an inferior but invaluable film in the history of the series.

Friday 24 April 2020

UFO Flying Saucers

Close Encounters
Of The Gold Key

Flying Saucers (Dell)
5 issues April 1967 - October 1969

UFO Flying Saucers (Gold Key)
13 issues October 1968 - January 1977 continuing as...

UFO And Outer Space (Gold Key)
12 issues June 1978 - February 1980

I thought there used to be a TV show which was on reruns in the very early 1970s, when I was a kid, about Project Blue Book. I’m pretty sure it was a 1960s TV programme but, looking up the info on both the shows Project Blue Book and Project UFO gives me listings on productions which aired in the late 1970s. So I’m really not sure which show I was thinking of, to be honest.

Either way, I was very interested in UFOs as a kid but never saw any of the comics I’m going to talk about today. Starting with DELL Comics’ five issues of Flying Saucers which were basically short stories telling tales which seemed to be a fusion of reported UFO incidents and flights of fancy. These aren’t great and I only found out about this run halfway through reading the Gold Key comics resurrection of the title. When their partnership with Western Publishing finished, Western formed Gold Key Comics and somehow managed to take a load of DELL’s licensed characters and comics with them. Once such was, kind of, their Flying Saucers comic, which was transformed into UFO Flying Saucers. The first four issues of the DELL version are all original tales and the fifth issue, which was published much later during the same time as the Gold Key run, which is surprising in itself, is composed entirely of reprints of one of the earlier issues. I’ll confine my thoughts about the DELL title to the Gold Key version because it’s all pretty much two similar sides of the same coin.

The things that weren’t quite the same for the majority of the Gold Key title was that a) the stories were all much shorter, usually ranging between one and three pages each (so there were obviously a lot more stories per issue) and b) they were mostly presented as real life case reports and I do believe that they were trying to present what they saw in a serious and respectful way, at least when the comic first started, as illustrated versions of actual incidents. And it’s kind of scary in some ways because each is presented with it’s own specific time stamp and you’ll get modern incidents within the same issues as things like the prophet Ezekiel witnessing early alien spacecraft in the 6th century and, I don’t know, something about the mechanism departing the Earth with a sound of powerful running water (like a waterfall) seems to me to come off as something really eerily similar to what one of our modern rockets sound like if described back then. Kind of hard to imagine something terrestrial like this in the 6th Century, I reckon.

At first, stuff like this was keeping me fairly interested and there was some scary or, more often, just intriguing stuff culled from real life case files (some of which I recognised from my own research into the phenomenon more than a couple of decades ago... until I decided to give it up as sleepless nights no longer appealed to me). However, it has to be said, after a while this was getting boring precisely because of those limitations. An average story has various witnesses seeing either a UFO or an alien creature, nothing much really happening and then having said craft or creature departing and nobody believing the various witnesses except, sometimes, those ‘in the know’ who work for the government. There’s no real excitement in these things other than something sighted, something draining power or, occasionally, some human interaction which might or might not result in the death of said human or an animal. And that’s basically it.

Also, it looks like the idea was getting increasingly difficult for Gold Key to sustain by the time they got less than half way into their run. The stories already seemed exactly the same due to, you know, being based on what little they could grab of real life incidents... so they decided to go the whole hog and start asking readers for their true encounters with UFOs or aliens, the best ones sent in getting an adaptation in the comic. So, yeah, I can’t imagine how many people they got writing in and spinning them a yarn just to see their name in print. However, after a few issues of advertising this feature, they started doing exactly that. The readers’ stories are all pretty much just one page long but they are in abundance and, just like the slightly longer stories, they are all pretty much saying the same thing.

I’m guessing, in an effort to at least make some attempt to have some stories lasting longer than about three pages (you know... like five), some of the reported case studies are, I suspect, montaged together by what the writer at the time thought was a common denominator in certain tales... at least I’m pretty sure that’s what happened because, sometimes, some of the dates quoted in the stories seem completely contradictory. For example, in a story linking the deaths of various astronauts, at least one of the recorded deaths is from a fair few years ahead of the time zone of the guy telling his colleagues about them so... yeah, they seem to screw up sometimes.

And I don’t know what was happening in an issue from 1975 when the narrative talks about the ‘late’ famous astrophysicist and extraterrestrial researcher Carl Sagan... since he didn’t die actually for over 20 years later. No idea.

Another thing the writers did to hold interest was to introduce a ‘back up’ feature, which is a strange concept in a comic which would hold maybe ten ‘stories’ anyway, much as the successful Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom (which I reviewed here) had a Professor Harbinger strip. The back up in UFO Flying Saucers was called The Hoaxmaster and this top hatted fellow would talk directly to the audience and tell them the stupid tricks people have resorted to in order to get people to believe in UFOs. I guess it was the production team’s way of holding up the hoaxes to lend veracity to the other stories found in each issue. However, stuff like this was not enough and the magazine stopped publication for a while with issue 13 in January 1977.

However, the magazine returned with a slight name change in June 1978, continuing from issue 14 as UFO & Outer Space... the first two issues of which seem to consist entirely of reprints of stories from earlier issues. So what happened here to give Gold Key the idea to rush the magazine back onto the market after an almost a year and a half hiatus? Well, I can only speculate but I don’t think I’d be far wrong in suggesting that Steven Spielberg happened. December 1977 saw the release in America of his UFO movie Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and it was really popular (and sort of terrifying in some ways). It wasn’t as popular as Star Wars had been earlier in the year, of course but, it was taking the world by storm (we got it in the UK in 1978 and if I ever get around to reviewing it for this blog, I’ll tell of my terrifying experience after seeing that movie).

So my guess is that Gold Key saw the opportunity in the market and put the comic back out, filling it with selected reprints while the writers and artists, whoever these unsung folk were, beavered away on creating new material to capture the lightning in a bottle that was Spielberg’s film before the next trend came along. So before long we had... all the usual stuff again but also two new features. One was a two page text story each issue... the first two or three of which seem to be concentrating on paranormal investigation rather than anything else, so I suspect the first couple were filler reprinted from one of Gold Key’s horror titles. The other thing was a ‘What If...?’ story each month. The plus points on those stories were the fact that the stories could be both a little longer and, since they were being presented as a fiction, go a little further in terms of the various alien encounters in each tale. The minus points were... most of them were still pretty dull and dismal, perhaps to add to the authenticity. Oh... and there was also an attempt to have a running serial about a funny alien for light relief but... I suspect that wasn’t very well received because it vanished mid story after two or three issues (it just wasn’t funny).

By the end of the comic’s run in February 1980, reprints were once more beginning to creep in and the stories, as intriguing and worthy of exploration in real life, still seemed really dull in comic strip form... or at least they did to me. The very last issue looks like it was printed to fulfil some kind of contractual obligation and, once again, consists entirely of reprints. I suspect the comic wasn’t that much missed by anyone when it finally stopped publication.

That being said, although it felt like I was reading more or less the same stories over and over again in each issue, the comic book is something of a curio and it does hold a certain appeal... especially if you have an interest in the subject matter in the first place. It’s not really a comic I could recommend to anyone but some people would probably get a kick out of it and, as per usual with the Gold Key and DELL comics, the painted artwork covers for these things are absolutely superb. It’s just a shame the stories within those covers never really lived up to the spectacle on the front.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Room 237

Overlooking The Obvious

Room 237
USA 2012 Directed by Rodney Ascher
101 Films  Blu Ray Zone B

It’s funny, I thought Room 237 was only a couple of years old at the most. I remember there being a lot of fuss about it on Twitter around about that time and so I was somewhat disappointed I didn’t catch a cinema release. I think I finally got this one a couple of months ago in a 101 Films sale or some such thing and, frankly, this wasn’t quite the film I’d hoped it would be. That being said, it’s technically quite well put together if the visual equivalent of ‘needle drop’ is your kind of thing.

The documentary, if you can call it such, explores some of the less usual fan theories about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece, his loose adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. Now I was prepared to keep an open mind going in here because I’d heard good things about it and I wanted to see if I could follow some of the lines of thought which make up the basis of these separate theories, from five very different people who I think I shall keep as nameless here so I don’t actually have to ridicule a specific person. So I went in open minded and... honestly... didn’t stay that way for all that long, it has to be said.

The format of the film is probably the most interesting thing about it. None of the people explaining their theories (voices crosscut with one another over the course of the film in chaptered sections) are ever shown. Instead, the director has used found footage from old newsreels and some fairly famous high profile movies like The Brain From Planet Arous, All The President’s Men or The Thief of Bagdad cut against each other to metaphorically illustrate what’s going on in the minds of the people talking. Quite often the footage is further digitally manipulated, such as the many shots of Tom Cruise from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut where he walks by and contemplates posters of The Shining in the street as he passes. Similarly, in the many times footage from The Shining itself is played, at various speeds ranging from very slow to normal to very fast (and even backwards and forwards simultaneously superimposed)... the director will use things like big digital arrows to point out the specific area of the screen which is being talked about from a particular ‘guest’. It’s all quite skillfully put together and that, along with the synthesised musical version of the Dies Irae invoking the Wendy Carlos opening of The Shining, are pretty much the only saving graces of this movie... for me, at least.

Now, it’s interesting that one of the people talking in this film says something which actually rings quite true in some respects. Frankly, it’s a very pertinent statement, even if it half feels like it’s being used in defence of what the person is saying because they suspect they might sound like they’re being unreasonable in their conclusions. It is this...

“Author intent is only part of the story of any work of art.”

Yeah, absolutely. I can get behind that statement. The identity of the artist and their cultural, religious and political upbringing are obviously going to seep into an artist’s work, whether they are conscious of this or not. Totally get this and believe it completely... a wise statement. However, there are extremes of conclusions that people can make which are, frankly, outside of the remit of even this simple, scattergun statement and, frankly, when all is said and done and the arguments for and against whichever theory is being explored have run their course, I was forced to conclude, as I had suspected within the first ten to fifteen minutes of this movie, that all of the people being interviewed for this film are, in fact, total nutters.

And it’s a shame because I love The Shining and I wanted to learn something new about it. Not 'new and completely, balls to the wall, fruit loop crazy' which, quite a lot of this is. I mean, the placement of cans of baking soda with an Indian head on them and other cumulative imagery from the movie do not, honestly, make for a movie which is actually about man’s betrayal of the Native American Indian and their mistreatment. Similarly, the numerology all pointing to sevens and forty two.... such as the numerals of the famous Overlook Hotel room number multiplied out - 2 X 3 X 7 giving us the ‘magic number’... do not constitute yet another in a line of similarly misconstrued ‘clues’ laid down by Kubrick that the film is about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany in 1942 etc. Neither does Barry Nelson’s hips lining up with the side of an in-tray and looking momentarily like a pseudo erection while he’s shaking Jack Nicholson’s hand turn us on to the fact that The Shining is a movie about sex and the sex demons that live in Room 237. Nor does the disappearance of a sticker of Dopey from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs signify that Danny, after his first vision, is no longer ‘a dope’ and understands everything that is going on around him. Seriously people, this is some advanced level of insanity creeping in behind the normal sounding voices of the people narrating this.

For a while there it gets like people are actually making sense in the film... especially when you compare the levels of craziness of each new theory. For example, when you follow with the camera, the path into the room where Jack has his interview, the woman narrating seems absolutely right that the window showing the view outside really could not exist... it’s in the middle of the building. So yeah, points to her here and also to the person who notices that the two shots of Danny and the ball on the carpet don’t match in terms of pattern... so they were obviously filmed in different places is what that means, not that something sinister has occurred.

Similarly, the ‘apparently false’ fact that the Earth is 237 miles from the moon plus the fact that Danny is wearing a moon landing sweater when he walks to Room 237 does sound like it almost could be a metaphor for a trip to the moon but, honestly, it doesn’t mean that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings for the government and I don’t believe, as this guy does, that the whole of the film is Kubrick trying to signify to mankind that he did it. Of course, it doesn’t help that Kubrick himself gave an interview which I heard once that he'd faked the moon landings but, you know, he was a bit of a wind up merchant when it came to people aiming crazy theories at him, I suspect.

Actually, that’s one of the things that bothered me most about the people in these interviews. The ‘author intent’ get out clause I quoted above does not excuse the fact that they are quite often picking up on some, admittedly insane and disturbingly lax continuity errors... such as the disappearing ‘Dopey’ or a chair going completely missing behind Jack Nicholson’s head in one shot between cuts or the changing carpet pattern... and making so much more of them than they need to. Do I think Kubrick... an admittedly meticulous director... was doing this on purpose. No, I do not. I just think he liked some parts of takes better than parts of others and edited them all together from multiple sources to get the best and most consistent performance out of the actors... and there’s nothing much more to it than that.

So, there you go. Room 237 is, ultimately a somewhat intriguing film in the odd ‘clue’ to the overall ‘mystery’ of The Shining (a mystery which I’m sure doesn’t exist outside of the heads of these people) but, I have to say that, even though there were a few shiny coins laying among the pebbles, it’s a pretty dull affair. The excellent execution of the way the ‘evidence’ is unpeeled and portrayed by the filmmakers doesn’t detract from the less than mesmerising stretches of tedium as various enthusiastic but quite possibly unhinged individuals try to convince you that their insane theory, which they obviously totally believe is so obvious once they’ve explained it, is anything like an arrival at some form of truth. Proceed with caution.

Sunday 19 April 2020

The Invisible Man (1933)

Gauze To The Wall

The Invisible Man
USA 1933 Directed by James Whale
Universal Blu Ray Zone A

The Invisible Man
is the fourth of the big Universal monster movies of the 1930s, following on from Dracula (1931, reviewed here), Frankenstein (1931, reviewed here) and The Mummy (1932, reviewed here). Director James Whale, who had already directed Frankenstein, was offered a sequel to that film but turned it down to do The Invisible Man instead, based on the H. G. Wells novel of the same title. It would be another couple of years before he made his ‘superior to the original’ sequel to Frankenstein.

This is actually a groundbreaking film for Universal in terms of special effects and pretty much all the invisibility stuff you see in this picture was being done for the first time. So the film sparked lots of curiosity and, like the three Universal horror movies before it, was a box office smash, spawning many sequels... although it has to be said that some of the sequels in The Invisible Man series are a little more creative in terms of the direction they take.

The film is, as you would expect from the work of this director, both extremely atmospheric while at the same time having sharp stabs of humour throughout. The film starts off quite strongly with the antagonist of the title, Jack Griffin (played by Claude Rains in his first big break in Hollywood), arriving at an inn for a room, covered in bandages and the dark, wraparound glasses which are somewhat iconic in their use in Gothic style horror movies... Vincent Price, who also played The Invisible Man twice, uses very similar ones in Tomb Of Ligeia. It’s ironic that he plays the film either totally swathed in gauze bandages or stark naked (and therefore invisible)... even the shot of him at the end, when his face becomes visible, finally, due to circumstances I won’t reveal here, is a shot of a live cast of him rather than the actor himself. Boris Karloff was earmarked for the role originally but personal differences between him and Whale meant that Rains, who does have a remarkably unmistakeable voice, got his big break, despite a truly terrible screen test he had once done for Hollywood.

The atmosphere is intense as Griffin’s experiments to make himself visible again (we never get to see the experiment which causes his affliction), constantly loses his temper and causes unrest in the inn, to the point where they try and throw him out. These scenes are wonderful, especially in the histrionic, comic relief screams of one of James Whale’s favourite actresses, Una O’Connor, as she reacts to the shenanigans going on around her. By this point, though, the chemical which Griffin has taken has began to make him mad and he hatches a new plan of world domination and murder... indeed, out of all the Universal monster characters (and it’s arguable that this is a science fiction film rather than horror but, I’m not getting into that again here) he has a huge body count in this movie, even destroying a passenger filled train at one point.

Asides from O’ Connor and Rains, there are some great actors in this. For instance, Dr. Cranley, Griffins boss, is played by Henry Travers, who film enthusiasts will probably best remember for his turn as Clarance the angel in It’s A Wonderful Life. And the former Renfield and Fritz from Dracula and Frankenstein, the brilliant character actor Dwight Frye, has a tiny part in this movie too. We also have Gloria Stuart, who was nominated for an Oscar for James Cameron’s Titanic many, many decades later, as the love interest in this movie.

And it’s a good solid film, quite pacey and with, actually, a lot of moving camera work... as the cameraman seems to incessantly follow everyone around when they enter and exit a scene, before being punctuated with the occasional static shot. It’s very dynamic though and never gets dull... even though the camera goes through vacant spaces on sets to drift from one room through the next, leaving you wondering why some of the characters feel the need to go through the connecting door.

Strangely though, it doesn’t do what a lot of the ‘invisible’ movies do and have the camera looking around at empty sets so the audience can try and spot the invisible man... something which the recent reboot (reviewed here) played with to great effect.

The film opens with a bit of scoring by Heinz Roemheld and lovers of the first of the three Flash Gordon theatrical serials will immediately recognise it (and, of course, that first Flash Gordon serial also had a few episodes where the hero turns himself invisible... picking up on some of the effects developed here). Now, this film was released a fair few months after King Kong (reviewed here), the film that allegedly brought back the art of scoring motion pictures with non-source music but, after Roemheld’s opening piece, which continues just a little way into the film for a minute or two, the majority of the rest of the film is silent in terms of music and it’s like watching an experiment progress because, after an hour and four minutes of the film has played out, the music comes back... this time as proper incidental music. And doesn’t stop until the end of the film, seven minutes later. It’s like the producers still weren’t too confident of all this ‘scoring’ malarkey when it came to ‘talking pictures’ so they figured they would only run the risk of alienating their audience towards the end of the movie. It’s good stuff though and, of course, when Whale directed The Bride Of Frankenstein, Franz Waxman’s iconic score was in full effect throughout the majority of the movie.

The Blu Ray from Universal, which comes as part of the six film box set making up their Invisible Man Legacy Collection, is well made and has all the usual extras you are probably already familiar with from previous DVD releases of the movie. The film looks absolutely brilliant and this set even has the Abbot and Costello invisible man film in it, which I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen or not. Of course, The Invisible Man himself also has a cameo in Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein but, you know, that’s another story and, of course, another review. Whichever way you cut it, though, the Blu Ray box set, like all the classic Universal Horror Legacy sets, is an absolutely ‘must have’ purchase for cinephiles and casual viewers alike. James Whale would, of course, return to direct The Bride Of Frankenstein in 1935 and that will be the next of the Universal Horror reviews I will be putting up on this blog at some point soon.

Thursday 16 April 2020

The Black Hole

In Cygnus And In Health

The Black Hole
USA 1979 Directed by Gary Nelson
Walt Disney Club 30th Anniversary Edition 
Blu Ray Zone A/B/C

Warning: Some slight spoilers in this.

I loved The Black Hole as a kid and, dated as it might seem in certain aspects today... I still love it.

I remember thinking nothing of the details of the story and the way it plays out at the time (I would have been 11 years old when I first saw this at my local cinema) but, looking back on it now, it seems to be a little grim and ambiguous for what was perceived at the time as a ‘kid friendly’ family film. I just read that, despite the ‘cute’ robots in this, it wasn’t necessarily made for kids at all and it was being made with adults in mind as much as the youngsters. Although, if memory serves, it wasn’t exactly marketed like that.

Okay so, first things first, the film has a tremendous cast. You have the main heroic leads played by Robert Forster as Captain Dan Holland, Yvette Mimieux as Dr. Kate McCrae (she was the main female lead in the original version of The Time Machine, you might remember), Joseph Bottoms as Charles Pizer and Anthony Perkins as Dr. Alex Durant. Also joining our heroes is the mighty Ernest Borgnine as reporter Harry Booth (who is a little more ambiguous in his actions towards the end of the movie) and the uncredited voice of Roddy McDowall as the cute robot V.I.N.CENT. They comprise the crew of the Palomino spaceship and later on in their adventure, they are joined by another cute robot, Old B.O.B, voiced, again uncredited, by Slim Pickens.

And the plot is a simple one... they find a black hole in space and when they go in for a closer look they discover the great, lost starship the Cygnus ‘parked’ just outside of the full pull of the hole. It seems deserted but, when they explore it, they find themselves guests of the mad tyrant scientist Dr. Hans Reinhardt, played by Maximilian Schell, along with his giant robot Maximilian. Plus a crew of sentry robots and also... well, there’s a crew of some kind but I don’t want to spoil the movie if you haven’t already seen it.

And, yes, if you are wondering if this sounds a little like the plot of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea relocated to deep space with Maximilian Schell as the Captain Nemo figure, you’re absolutely right and there are a few parallels with Disney’s earlier adaptation of that novel thrown into the mix too. Ultimately though, the plot involves Reinhardt wanting to move into the black hole ‘and beyond’ while the crew of the Palomino are racing to fix their crippled ship and get off the Cygnus before this happens... and, due to some trouble they have later in the story, getting into all kinds of laser gun shoot outs with the various sentry robots as they try to get somewhere safe as Reinhardt steers everyone into the black hole.

It’s a nice looking film, full of colour and action. I well remember the Topps Bubble Gum cards (these days called ‘trading cards’) from the film which hit the newsagents at the same time... still got my set from back then, all in a presentation album now. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of acting and effects though.

The effects work wasn’t farmed out to dedicated houses (as was just about becoming the normal procedure since the invention of Industrial Light and Magic a few years earlier) and so they were done totally in-house by Disney. So some of it, where the various crew members are floating around in various states of anti-gravity, looks quite extraordinary to this day and I would give myself a headache if I could figure out how they did it and make it look so natural with everyone on a different ‘flight path’. There must be some wire work in there but it really is quite special. Unfortunately, the matte lines around the various characters later and the pedestrian, cartoony looking laser gun bursts don’t do the film any favours. They didn’t look great then and, now the film has been restored for this limited Disney Club USA Blu Ray, they look even worse... the film looks especially grainy still where several shots are overlaid so, this didn’t really feel like a great restoration job, if I’m being honest.

And then there’s the acting/tone of the movie too. They really need V.I.N.CENT the robot as comic relief here because absolutely everyone else in the movie is deadly serious. There are very few smiling faces through most of the film and there may not be a lot of gravity in some scenes but there’s an overabundance of gravitas, that’s for sure. Also, for a film which was perceived as a kid friendly movie and was basically one of many space operas which came out riding the Star Wars bandwagon, it’s got some really questionable content.

For instance, you don’t expect the first of the death of three of the main protagonists, Anthony Perkins’ character, who is the only one who thinks what Reinhardt is doing is a good idea, to have his chest and stomach drilled open by the whirling blades of the Maximilian robot and falling to an electrical death (if he isn’t already dead after having his intestines churned in his tummy)... you don’t see stuff like this in a Disney movie for kids that often. Ditto for the unbelievably WTF ending where the heroes totally fail their mission and everyone goes through the black hole, which is when the movie really starts to get like the end of 2001 - A Space Odyssey, with bizarre, religious imagery as everyone, including Maximillian Schell who clambers inside the continuity challenged shell of the Maximilian robot (Schell within a shell!), are transported to a land of skull faced followers around volcanic pits and an angel floating through an endless corridor. And absolutely no comments from anyone in the cast by this point... the heroes lost their roll of the dice and are in some strange, abstract vision of heaven and hell and that’s the end, deal with it! It’s not exactly a fun looking vision (if you’re stuck in the middle of it)... it’s pretty dark and grim, to be honest.

So yeah, I just loved that ambiguous ending as a kid but I remember some of the other kids at school having a problem with it, now that I think of it.

Another great thing is the musical score by the late, great John Barry. I believe it was the first film to have its score recorded on digital equipment and also one of the last two movies to feature an overture of the music in cinemas before the film started (the other being Star Trek The Motion Picture). Now I believe Barry didn’t actually like the absolutely brilliant and upbeat ‘overture/heroic things happening’ theme he was asked to write for this because it was in the romantic adventure mode just being re-popularised by John Williams at the time (and possibly felt inappropriate to him?) but, honestly, it’s a fantastic piece of music. As is his totally hypnotic and repetitive, swirling opening title music, which really makes you feel the presence of the antagonistic title element. And, yeah, the whole score does just sound like Bond in space, more so than even Moonraker (which is a far lesser score in comparison to this one)... and what’s wrong with that? Easily one of Barry’s greatest scores from this period and another CD I could listen to on repeat when required.

So yeah, there you have it. Well performed but sombre characters, a mixture of staggeringly good and unbelievably ropey effects, some impressively colourful scenes, a thunderously cool score and some comedy robots... what more could you want from a movie. I know it has its detractors but I still, after all these years, love The Black Hole and would recommend it to those movie watchers who are interested in seeking out films which are... I dunno... just a little bit wrong or off-kilter for their marketed target audience. I don’t think you could really get away with delivering this movie in the current political and cultural climate but I would absolutely welcome a remake/reboot of this if anyone had anything interesting to add in the way of ideas to infuse into this template. I’ll definitely be watching this one again at some point over the next few years.

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Kong Unmade

Ape Expectations

Kong Unmade -
The Lost Films Of Skull Island

Written by John Lemay
Bicep Books ISBN: 9781798077993

I’m guessing that not many of my readers will remember the Batman VS Godzilla movie, where Adam West’s character is shown footage from King Kong Vs Godzilla to learn how to defeat The Big G. Or the 1934 Tarzan VS King Kong motion picture? Or how about the couple of King Kong movies that England’s famous Hammer studios tried to make?

Not to worry if you don’t. These films obviously never happened but are certainly among the many attractions in John Lemay’s entertaining resource, Kong Unmade - The Lost Films Of Skull Island.

This epic tome, like the other ‘lost films’ book I reviewed relatively recently, Harryhausen - The Lost Movies (you can read my review here) doesn’t just tackle the ‘completely lost’ films of the expected subject matter. In the case of Lemay’s book, we also get reviews and development stories for existing Kong related features including, of course, the original film and its direct remakes but, also, classic rip offs like The Mighty Peking Man and Konga.

There are, of course, a far amount of lost films in here too... the main meat, so to speak and, I suspect it’s the inclusion of all of these that will be of most interest to people compelled to pick this one up. And it is, to be clear, a fairly entertaining and informative romp through the beloved ape’s vanished film career.

The book starts off with the lost film Creation, which fans of the cinema and animation of Willis O’ Brien will no doubt already be aware of. This, of course, along with his finished version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World as a direct result of this failed project, would lead to the original motion picture King Kong. Creation itself was, it seems, half cribbed from the first of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Caspak trilogy, The Land That Time Forgot (which was also made into a film, along with its first sequel, in the 1970s of course). Where relevant, Lemay points out where scenes from various lost projects have been reworked by either the original creators or other producers into movies which did see the light of day, albeit not necessarily having anything to do with King Kong by the time they did. This in itself makes for some interesting reading... as do the various copyright issues regarding both the movie and the separate copyright status of Edgar Wallace’s novelisation (which actually pre-dated the movie in terms of release to the world at large) and the consequences for ‘would be’ directors down through the decades.

It also includes films like the puppet Kong remake The Lost Island, which would have had Mae West voicing Ann Darrow and Groucho Marx voicing Carl Denham. This production was abandoned due to rising costs but some photos still survive and, what was probably the most famous one (even I can remember it from books from the 1970s) is used as the cover to this edition of Kong Unmade. Like the cover shot, I’ve only ever seen black and white stills from this half finished production but if it had been finished it would have been the first 'one reel' movie to be shot in Technicolour so... yeah, would have liked to have seen that one.

Among the many surprising revelations Lemay nonchalantly drops into his book is the fate of a proposed 1940s movie, Abbot and Costello Meet King Kong. This would have been awesome but was eventually abandoned and, instead, became two other Abbot and Costello films, one which did indeed have an ape in one scene and the other being Abbot and Costello Meet Captain Kidd which, apparently, still features Skull Island in the finished film but, alas, it isn’t populated by either dinosaurs or Kong himself.

Another interesting production is the one which was trying to beat Dino De Laurentis’ 1976 remake into cinemas but eventually got called off before shooting had actually started. This was to be called The Legend Of King Kong and was due to star Robert Redford (or Nick Nolte if Redford walked) in the Jack Driscoll role and Peter Falk as a much less sympathetic version of Carl Denham. There’s a quite long chapter which summarises the full script and it really does make for some interesting reading.

Other items of note might be the inclusion of some of the Italian posters for the Godzilla movie Destroy All Monsters, which all seemed to somehow break copyright law and depict King Kong on them... he certainly isn’t anywhere to be found in the film itself although Toho Studios did try and make some other King Kong movies asides from their existing King Kong Versus Godzilla and its sequel King Kong Escapes. Not to mention the 1958 stab at King Kong VS Frankenstein.

There’s also a truly great section on an aborted TV animated project called Kid Kong reproducing loads of Robert Lamb’s original sketches for the proposed show, which has some nice work in it.

In addition, some of the history behind some of the famous, released ‘inspired by’ films that did make it to the silver screen is also very welcome and entertaining. Take the ‘British King Kong’ movie Konga, for example. I learned from this book that a few nights shooting in Croydon culminated with the last night which the director had earmarked for all the gunplay and explosions, after he’d bribed the local chief of police to secure permission. This last night’s shoot resulted in 300 or so emergency phone calls to the police from the general public but the director managed to smooth things over from being prosecuted by sending flowers and chocolates to all of the people who had called in. So that’s an interesting story... I should probably get around to rewatching that one for this blog sometime soon. It’s been well over four decades since I last saw it and I think I bought a Blu Ray in a sale at some point.

So anyway... not much else to say here other than John Lemay makes the whole thing very entertaining and goes into a lot of detail on various productions where he’s able to. I could have happily heard a lot more about the Batman Vs Godzilla project, to tell you the truth, like how come it was 1965 when the show didn’t come out until 1966? I guess it must have been mooted fairly early on in the show’s development but there’s obviously not enough material and, due to it being more about Godzilla than the little bit of Kong footage, it’s been placed in one of the book's four appendix sections instead. Still, Kong Unmade - The Lost Films Of Skull Island is another great treasure of a book for any cineastes or even casual film fans who I’m assuming know the importance and influence of the 1933 King Kong (reviewed by me here) and the huge footprints it made in the annals of cinema. Definitely one for the film lover’s book shelves, for sure.

Sunday 12 April 2020

Ben Hur - A Tale Of The Christ (1925)

Ju-Dah Man!

Ben Hur - A Tale Of The Christ
USA 1925
Directed by Fred Niblo
MGM  Blu Ray Box Zone A/B

I’ve been meaning to watch the 1925 version of Ben Hur for a while now and this recent-ish Thames Television restoration, which includes the original two strip technicolour sequences which were rediscovered... not to mention topless slave girls (many of whom, I suspect, went on to become famous Hollywood actresses but this was when they were extras)... is included as a bonus feature in the 2009 50th Anniversary box set celebrating the 1959 remake by William Wyler, which starred Charlton Heston and is reviewed by me here. If you look carefully in the chariot race, you’ll see one of many assistant cameramen racing towards camera in one shot trying to warn another camera crew to get out of the way of an approaching chariot which was going too fast... that man was future remake director William Wyler.

Costing a whopping 3.9 million dollars to make, this was the most expensive picture of the ‘silent’ era of cinema and I’m glad I finally caught up to it. It’s also the first ‘feature length film’ to be based on Lew Wallace’s best selling novel although, there was a short, 15 min version shot in 1907.

Now, I’ve read the book in a nice edition from Wordsworth Classics (you can see details of their latest imprint of this here) but it’s been a couple of decades now and I don’t remember it all that well. However, I do remember it’s quite different to the 1959 film which I was more familiar with and, although the 1959 version obviously harkens back to this version, I would say this 1925 go at the material is just a little closer to the book.

For instance, the books subtitle, A Tale Of The Christ is much more highlighted than on the 1959 version and the religious back drop which frames main protagonist Judah Ben Hur’s story, from Jesus’ birth at the start of the picture to his death at the end, is quite a bit more prominent in this version, I think. Also, the whole bit about Ben Hur building an army of warriors to fight for Jesus against the Romans, which was quite a dominant theme in the original story, also makes it into this version and is explored a little more after the outcome of the famous chariot race. In the 1959 version it doesn’t turn up as a sub-plot at all.

There’s much more made of the birth of Christ at the start with a big build up as Joseph and Mary look for somewhere to stay. This and pretty much all the main religious sequences are shot in two strip technicolour. At first, people’s reactions to Mary are hostile or indifferent but a casual look of her features touched by a holy spirit are all the swooning people need to be complicit to her wishes, it appears. It seems a bit much at first but that’s nothing compared to the first encounter between Judah (played by Ramon Novarro) and love interest Esther (played by May McAvoy). Here, he returns a lost pigeon to her after chasing it around Judea and, as they talk, their eyes and gestures are telling you a lot more about how sexified up they are as opposed to the words they are saying on the inter-titles.

There seems to be a lot of this style of acting in this one, where everything in the subtext is quite blatantly spelled out by the performers using eyes, hand gestures and expressions. It’s a little over the top and it’s what I always used to think silent movie acting was, as opposed to what I’ve actually seen of it in other movies of the era, which often have a more naturalistic approach to the performances. So this was kind of interesting to me. Indeed, during the galley sequence, where Judah is rowing with all the other slaves, Ramon Novarro looks like a complete maniac all the way through the scene... there’s no way I’d want to be pulling an oar anywhere near this guy, that’s for sure.

The film also stars leading screen actor Francis X. Bushman as the main antagonist Messala and Nigel De Brulier as Simonides, who would later go on to give Billy Batson his magical powers as the wizard SHAZAM in The Adventures Of Captain Marvel (reviewed by me here).

The film starts off with a very strong opening shot of a figure looking down into a valley at the town of Judea and, indeed, it does a lot of nice things along the same skeleton of the story differently than the 1959 version, although, I would have to say that the later version does improve a fair few of the scenes, especially in terms of what motivates various characters, than this 1925 version... for the most part. Although, here, it’s much more easy to see the accident which propels the story, where a loose tile comes crashing down when the new chief Roman is riding into Judea in a welcome procession, as something which could, actually, be seen as the assassination attempt Messala uses as an excuse to be rid of Judah at the start of the picture. In this version, the tile quite definitely bonks the head Roman in the head and causes him some serious damage.

The other main set pieces of the film such as the battle between the Roman galley and the pirate ships or that infamous chariot race which killed a lot of horses, apparently, is all pretty spectacular for the time. I didn’t expect to see pirates filling glass globes with poisonous snakes to throw at their enemy, for example. I also loved that, during the battle, for one shot inside the galley slaves deck, the camera operators were moving the camera very violently this way and that to give a sense of chaos and unease, much like you’d see when modern directors apply camera shake for the same reason. Bearing in mind how big, heavy and unwieldy those cameras were back then... this is no mean feat.

Another thing I enjoyed was Messala’s sexed up love spy Iras, played by Carmel Myers, who wasn’t in the 1959 version at all but here is played as some kind of Egyptian sex worker for hire and who wears this big, bejeweled lizard in her hair. She’s pretty cool.

I also got a kick out of the way that, like the 1959 version, we never see the face of the actor playing Jesus Christ but, since he has a more prominent role here... not too mention mostly being shot in two strip technicolour for his scenes... it’s quite enthralling to see what distances the director goes to placing objects or people in front of his face to keep him hidden. There’s one scene where he is on trial before Pontius Pilate where he’s the centre of the shot and the light from outside the building is creating a big shining, holy spirited beam to light him with... only to have the silhouette of a watching Roman centurion standing in front of him. Honestly, it all gets quite strange as the picture goes on.

At the end of the chariot race, the director focuses in on the victor, Judah Ben Hur, by placing him in a circle in the centre of the screen, just in case the audience were in any doubt that this is the big hero moment of the picture. Also, towards the end of the film, where his mother and sister are cured of leprosy by Christ, in a much more direct and ‘hands on’ way than in the Golgotha sequence at the end of the 1959 version, the director has obviously applied the same colour filter trick to change their appearance that Rouben Mamoulian used in his 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A trick that Mario Bava would later use in his ‘official’ directorial debut Black Sunday (which I reviewed here).

This presentation of the film has a contemporary score written by modern ‘silents’ composer Carl Davis which is not bad and quite appropriate to the on screen shenanigans, although I was surprised by the amount of ‘Mickey Mousing’ in some of it and especially disliked the way he uses the non-diegetic score to suddenly jump and fill in for diegetic moments on screen such as the sound of a horn, trumpet, whip cracks or the drum beats on the galley. Indeed, although Miklos Rozsa’s glorious score for the 1959 version of the galley slave sequence can hardly be called subtle, it seems a lot more sophisticated in comparison to what Davis does here. Still, an interesting piece of scoring and I think I’ll try and pick up the CD at some point so I can hear it through a set of decent speakers and get to know it a little better.

So, yeah, I finally got to see the 1925 version of Ben Hur - A Tale Of The Christ and it was never once dull and, regarding some of the shots the various cameramen managed to get away with (and mostly live to tell the tale), often quite spectacular. Definitely something film lovers should probably take the time to check out but, I have to say, the 1959 version of Ben Hur is still my favourite of the ones I’ve seen, although that one’s a little further from the content of the book compared with this one. Pleased I finally got around to this and a good film to see Easter in with this year, I believe.

Ben Hur At NUTS4R2

Ben Hur - A Tale Of The Christ

Ben Hur (1959)

Ben Hur (2016)

Wednesday 8 April 2020

The Mummy

Of Human Bandage

The Mummy
USA 1932 Directed by Karl Freund
Universal  Blu Ray Zone B

After the surprise success of Dracula (reviewed here) and Frankenstein (reviewed here), Universal embarked on the next of their big horror franchises, once more using their star Boris Karloff (who was by now being billed as Karloff The Uncanny) in the title role of Imhotep, The Mummy who was buried alive for breaking the holy codes of his people and attempting to bring his great love, Ankh-es-en-Amon, back from the dead.

This film was obviously made as a response to Howard Carter’s ‘Tutankhamun’ expedition which had finally struck lucky in 1922 (read more of the whole Egyptian invasion of popular culture around the world in my review of Eyptomania Goes To The Movies right here). One of the news reporters sent to cover that discovery was none other than John L. Balderston, who had of course written the screenplay of Dracula and the stage adaptation which gave rise to that movie.

Here, he writes a mummy movie for Universal but, really, it’s... how can I put this diplomatically... it’s pretty much a stealth rewrite of Dracula in all but name. Several elements which were in Dracula feature here, such as the pseudo-romantic pull of the titular monster on the leading lady, played here by exotic beauty Zita Johann, who is the living embodiment of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. To further seal the deal in terms of trying to capitalise on the success of their earlier pictures (not to mention casting the Frankenstein’s monster actor himself as the main antagonist) we also have David Manners reprising his role as the lover of the leading lady who is trying to save her from 'the monster who wants to have his way with her' and Edward Van Sloan, who played Van Helsing in the two Dracula films before and after this, as Dr. Muller, a similar ‘enemy of the monster, knowledgeable in the ways of destroying him’ kind of character.

And every time I watch this film I remember I really liked it and thought I remembered it well, only to find myself seeing it with fresh eyes and having forgotten most of it. It is quite a gripping watch, though and we have Karloff in two different make-ups by Jack Pearce. The bandaged mummy version of Imhotep is quite striking and effective but you only see Karloff in this in one close up shot as he opens his eyes and moves his hand... what a shot though, completely effective with Karloffs inky black whirlpools of eyes slowly imbibing life (the bandaged up ‘dummy version’ of the mummy in his sarcophagus in the long shots never quite matches the close up, sadly). And we see his hand reaching out for the scroll which brought him to life, as we also admire Bramwell Fletcher’s brief appearance as the man who is sent mad by witnessing the wanderings of this reincarnated, bandaged Boris. There were obviously some full mummy sequences shot for this scene in this make up because there is photographic evidence and one shot even made it to one of the lobby cards but, alas, that's it for the bandaged version of Karloff in this movie.

The other make up we see Karloff in, is that of his ‘alter ego’ character Ardeth Bay, once he has assimilated himself into the modern Egyptian landscape of 1932 (ten years after he is resurrected in the opening scenes of the movie). This is absolutely brilliant make up where his skin has completely wrinkled over (goodness knows why nobody in the movie notices this) and it’s helped by some wonderful lighting on some shots, where his black eyes are lit up to become piercing, hypnotic beacons. Of course, in the 1999 version of The Mummy and its sequel, The Mummy Returns, Ardeth Bay is not the same character as Imhotep at all and is one of the ‘good guys’.

The film is, as I said, pretty much a rerun of Dracula in a lot of ways but it works really well in terms of ‘slightly less original’ entertainment and the chemistry between Karloff and Johann is amazing. Actually, a lot of unused stuff was shot for this movie as we were supposed to see Johann’s Helen Grovesnor/Ankh-es-en-Amon reincarnated over several historical periods such as Ancient Rome and the times of the Saxons, for example. Photographic stills exist for these scenes but they were removed from the movie before release (never to be seen again, alas) and that may be why, compared to the two previous Universal movies, The Mummy is about a quarter of an hour shorter than what we’d expect from these specific ‘monster pictures’ at this period of their history.

Director Freund, who famously got on very badly with his leading lady here, does some amazing work and his German Expressionist cinematography skills are certainly in evidence. The film looks fantastic, it has to be said. This new Blu Ray from Universal certainly does justice to the visual richness of the shots and is definitely a necessary purchase, as far as I’m concerned.

One thing which doesn’t seem to be discussed much... and it really should be... is the use of music in the film. There really shouldn’t be a score here because, after all, we all know that the film which brought the musical score back to talking pictures was Max Steiner’s score for King Kong in 1933 (reviewed by me here), right? Even though he also provided a score for The Most Dangerous Game the year before. Well, whatever you believe, The Mummy certainly has a fair few ‘scored’ passages in it... although I think Kong can certainly be credited with the film that gave Hollywood filmmakers the confidence to reintroduce music properly into their films once more.

So, after going into the music from Swan Lake again during the opening titles, attempting to tie it in with Dracula as a branded Universal horror picture, no doubt... we actually get some sections introduced with underscore, as the titles finish and the music doesn’t stop. It’s not an abundant score by any means but James Dietrich’s compositions are used in a few scenes in the movie as proper underscore as opposed to just standing in for source music, perhaps most notably in what remains of the flashback sequence, where Imhotep shows Helen Grovesnor her past life and again in the sequence where Inhotep causes Arthur Byron, playing the father of David Manners’ character, to have a deadly heart attack by remote control, as it were.    

Unlike the sequels to Dracula and Frankenstein which were soon to be unleashed into the world, the sequels to The Mummy would feature a completely different central character (Kharis the mummy) and have not much to do with this one at all... although the back story to Kharis is pretty much the same as Imhotep and the flashbacks utilise long shots of Karloff from this movie mixed in with Tom Tyler for the close ups during the first one.

If you like your Universal monsters, well this is the first entry in the franchise of one of the big five (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman and the Creature From The Black Lagoon) and its importance in the history of the series can’t be overlooked. Also, the 1999 version was pretty much an adventure reboot of this film. But beyond all that, it’s a well made movie which is always entertaining and fun... although a lot seems to be unsaid or possibly just cut from the running time. And Karloff, without moving much and understating his lines, still has such screen presence that he’s... well... ‘uncannily good’, I guess. Definitely one that every film lover should take a look at some time.

Monday 6 April 2020

Gojira 1954/Godzilla King Of The Monsters (1956)

Radioactive Tokyo Calling!

Gojira (aka Godzilla)
Japan 1954
Directed by Ishirô Honda

Godzilla - King Of The Monsters (1956)
Japan/USA 1956
Directed by Ishirô Honda and Terry O. Morse

Criterion Collection - Godzilla - The Showa Era Box Set  Blu Ray Zone B

This Big G Criterion Collection box set of The Showa Era wave of Godzilla films is probably one of my more pricier Blu Ray box set purchases of recent years. It’s kind of worth it though because, for this specific wave of films lasting between 1954 and 1975, it’s very nearly the Holy Grail of Godzilla releases that fans and admirers of the movies have been waiting for over the years. Not quite the release we wanted, for sure and... I’ll explain one of the reasons why that's so in my review of the second and third films in the series but... well, it’s damn near to being the perfect set of these films and, in addition to some beautiful Blu Ray transfers, the packaging of an oversized hardback book with absolutely beautiful new commissioned illustrations for each title is nothing short of being an absolute work of art. Yes, it’s an expensive set but Criterion have really lived up to their usually exemplary standard with this release.

 Gojira is, of course, a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira), which is how the creature was originally conceived, gaining a more dinosaur-like appearance as pre-production continued. It was apparently the first Japanese film to be properly storyboarded but, knowing Kurosawa’s attention to details on his own films for Toho (he was doing Seven Samurai with one of the main cast members of this, somehow, while this was being shot), I’m not one hundred percent that the storyboard thing is true, to be honest.

The original Japanese version of the film is definitely one of the highlights of the series. Unlike many of the later movies, Gojira is not Japan’s defender against attacks by other giant monsters or alien invaders. Here’s he’s definitely the antagonist of the movie and the film starts with a scene inspired by a real life disaster (where a Japanese fishing boat strayed into an American testing zone for nuclear bombs and the crew were irradiated) but with the light and heat of the ‘as yet unseen’ Gojira boiling the water around a full crewed ship and sinking it... pretty much killing everyone.

After a couple more downed ships and a subplot involving an ancient Gojira legend, with some folks living on an island who are attacked in the night by the titular creature, it is up to my favourite actor Takashi Shimura, as palaeontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane, to advise the military of just what to do as Gojira, a supposedly Jurassic era beast reawakened by H-Bomb testing, starts tearing down Tokyo and generally having a ‘gorilla-whale’ of a time. He is aided by the three who make up the love triangle of other main protagonists of the film... his daughter Emiko, played by Momoko Kôchi (who would return to this role in the 1980s in her last film appearance), her new almost-boyfriend Hideto, played by Akira Takarada and her fiance, the self sacrificing Dr. Serizawa who, played by Akihiko Hirata, invents the ‘oxygen destroyer’ that kills Gojira and which would make an appearance in some of the later films in the other two waves (heck, the oxygen destroyer was still being used as a narrative device in last year’s big  budget US production, Godzilla - King Of The Monsters, which I reviewed here).

The film starts strongly with the footsteps and roars of the creature playing over the long opening titles, even obscuring Akira Ifikube’s tremendous score as the opening plays out and then into the terrifying nautical scene described above. There’s some great stuff where Dr. Yamane finds a trilobite in the radioactive footprint of Gojira and some nice details such as how, just like the corona virus, the appearance of The Big G also affects the local economy when the fishermen find their nets empty as all the fish in the area have been eaten or scared off by this behemoth.

The film is quite grimly told with no punches pulled. Gojira’s ‘heat breath’, here depicted as steam when, as in later incarnations, the fins on his back light up, is saved until almost an hour into the 96 minute film but the grimness comes not from his rampages, which are few in number... but from little details such as the radioactive poisoning of all the kids in a hospital. Or the moment where we see a mother sitting by a soon to be destroyed building, clutching her three infant girls to her and telling them they will be joining their, presumably very dead, daddy where he is very soon now.

And the tone holds. Yes, there are some silly bits too, like when Serizawa reveals the horrors of his ‘oxygen destroyer’ and Emiko asks him what would happen if his discovery is used for some awful purpose but, mostly it's quite dark. It’s at this point in the proceedings that I have to question what the heck positive, 'non-awful purpose' there could possibly be for a substance that destroys all the oxygen in a body of water, disintegrating all life there. This is a weapon, despite the protests of its troubled creator.

It’s perhaps not always noted but Honda has some nice shot compositions in here too, when he’s not having to deal with ‘man in suit’ destruction of miniatures, such as a wonderful moment when four characters are seen in a multilayered set with a dining room as the middle layer from the camera and another room in the background, all the actors framed with an almost square box made up of multiple verticals and horizontals thrown up by the different depths of the rooms we are looking at. Nice stuff.

For the record, some of the effects work is still quite impressive, with some almost seamless blending between the shots of people fleeing Tokyo stitched together with the same shots as Gojira wrecking the miniature Tokyo above them. Quite spectacular for its time, no doubt and... still holding up very well by today’s standards, as far as I’m concerned.

And, of course, there’s the ‘Japanese John Williams’, composer Akira Ifukube, who worked on several Godzilla scores and whose themes from this series are still being used today (again, check out Bear McCreary’s use of them in last year’s Godzilla - King Of The Monsters release). The score is a mixture of ‘terror cues’ which play like extended stingers and strident, jaunty marches which are full of melody and charm. The film is well ‘spotted’ too, with long passages with no music and some of Ifikube’s memorable melodies being held back until just the right moment to let loose, the main Gojira march re-occurring when the military mobilise, for example. A great score which has been reissued many times over the years.

Courtesy of this new Criterion box, I was also able to revisit this movie in the very first version I would have seen it in, when I was five or six, on early 1970s British TV. This is the famous... or possibly infamous... 1956 recut intended for American audiences. Lots of new footage was shot with Parry Mason actor Raymond Burr (his footage was all shot in six days) playing reporter Steve Martin. Even though a lot of footage is added, the US version still manages to play a quarter of an hour shorter than the original cut and... well it’s not the same film at all. It’s a lot faster and somehow very clumsy while at the same time having some very creative, if often hilarious, ‘solves’ to re-pitch the story in a form the distributors obviously thought would play better in the US.

It starts off quite dramatically with Burr pulling himself out from under a collapsed building, covered in blood, as he begins narrating the story and often integrating with.... the back of other peoples heads who speak the lines before cutting to a face on view of the actor from the original version. The American dubs are often quite hilarious and quite often reminded me of a clumsier version of the movie Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, where the real life comedian Steve Martin (not to be confused with the character of the same name who Burr plays here) is inserted into old film noirs.

And it’s amazing the lengths they go to in order to make Burr look like he belongs in the film. He always seems to be waiting on the sidelines of any particular scene, on replica scenery, with his Japanese friend who can translate for Burr and the audience just what is going on when all the actors are speaking a different language. He even rings up his ‘old mate’ Dr. Serizawa and when we see Serizawa, who wears an eyepatch on his right eye, pick up the phone... it’s obviously another completely different actor in profile, with his eye patch towards the camera in the hopes the audience won’t notice this, perhaps less than blindingly clever, deception.

It’s an interesting version too because scenes are literally deployed in a completely different order, with scenes from towards the end of the picture coming in very early and vice versa. They even split one scene in half and run the second half later as if it’s taking place days or weeks after the first half of the sequence. And even Ifikube’s score is sometimes clumsily redeployed, scoring different scenes to those it was written for.

The result... a different film which, despite the grim and somber expression on Burr’s watching face for most of the movie, never gets close to having the gravitas or impact of the original Japanese cut, which is easily the best version of the movie and the one it should be remembered by. Burr would, of course, reprise his Steve Martin role for a similar bit of recutting tomfoolery on the first of the 1980s Godzilla films when it was released in US theatres.

So, yeah, not much else to say on either of the cuts other than, you can probably, quite happily ignore the American version unless you are curious. If you want to watch Gojira as it should be seen... and that should frankly apply to anyone who is in love with the art of cinema... then the original Japanese cut is the way to go and it’s still a pretty great film.

The Criterion version also has commentaries for both cuts and interviews with some of the key cast and crew, including an almost hour long interview with Ifikube about the music which I haven’t had time to watch yet. The new Showa Era set from Criterion looks beautiful and so do the films in it. This is a very special set and lovers of cinema will want to grab this before it sells out for good. It’s not quite a perfect set but... it’s probably as close as we’ll ever get, I think.