Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Top 5 Science Run Amok Movies



Growing up in the 1970s, I had a healthy skepticism about the awesome power of science. I lived in a town in Texas that was, at the time, developing the stealth bomber at the local air force base. It’s common knowledge now, but obviously, no one knew anything about it at the time. They just had all of the elementary schools practice “disaster drills.” Yeah.

So, thanks to The Cold War and my fear of a Nuclear Holocaust, watching old monster movies from the fifties with mad scientists made perfect sense. Here’s what happens when you fully fund a guy for his research without doing your due diligence. Pretty soon, they are teleporting their own head onto insects and unleashing giant insects on an unsuspecting public. And for what, I ask you?

Science is still scary to people. Instead of irradiated mutants, we’re concerned about genetically-modified organisms. Science keeps trying (at least, in our fevered imaginations) to improve upon nature, and in doing so, usually bungs it up so badly that dinosaurs get loose in San Diego, or people come back to life as whackjob zombies, or any number of Worst Case Scenarios.

I tend to watch mad science movies with my disbelief mostly already suspended. It’s mostly because these films trend science fiction-y to begin with, and years of bad Star Trek and worse Doctor Who have taught me to just swallow the Kool-Aid and go along with it, because the trip is not as important as the destination. And with one noteworthy exception on this list, deal with personal consequences rather than public ones. In attempting to control something beyond their grasp, these tortured geniuses lose control over their lives, their bodies, their sanity. Thus the moral of these stories is always something along the lines of “Dare to Dream, but for God’s Sake, Quit Toying With Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.”

5. Altered States (1981)
William Hurt plays a scientist who is convinced that our place in consciousness is subjective and capricious. He goes from studying schizophrenia to chasing down native hallucinogens and combines everything into a sensory deprivation tank, and, well, guess what? It works. It works a little too well.

There’s some really creepy imagery, circa early 1980s and a clearly-alcoholic but still on the rails Ken Russell in the director’s chair. In fact, this is the most watchable Ken Russell movie out there. Everything else was downhill from this one. Newcomer (at the time) William Hurt does a great job of being fascinated by his own work and put off by everyone and everything around him, including his family.

Dick Smith was brought in to help with the make-up sequences, and as usual, his work is so subtle you don’t even realize you’re looking at it. There’s some wicked, interesting ideas in Altered States that helps elevate the film past its uneven screenplay and pacing problems. When the crazy stuff finally starts breaking out, the film gets very interesting and more than somewhat disturbing.

4. The Brood (1979)
You had to know that director David Cronenberg was going to make the list. Well, this is the first of two movies in the Top 5, because Cronenberg is a creepy guy and his movies are almost all about the corruption of the body and the loss of control over same. Big theme in Cronenberg’s work, and here he bends it into a terrifying allegory about his own divorce.

I know, it sounds like a car crash, but it’s truly a freaked out car crash. Oliver Reed plays a psychologist who runs a clinic for mentally disturbed people and his methods involve changing their bodies to help heal their minds. Our hero’s ex-wife is one of the good doctor’s patients, and they are using their five-year old daughter like a hockey puck between them. As dad starts investigating Dr. Raglan’s practice, he leaves his daughter with his mother. And that’s when the creepy killer monster kid shows up and kills the grandmother.

Things go downhill from there very quickly. Everyone doubles down on their position, which only cranks up the tension, and when you find out what the creepy killer monster child really is, you’re going to freak out. It’s messed up. So very messed up. But that’s Cronenberg, man. None of his scientists and doctors ever come to a good end. He loves change, but for Cronenberg, it’s a violent, hostile process that always leaves scars.

3. Re-Animator (1985)
Herbert West really has the best of intentions: he wants to conquer brain death—the time at which the brain, without oxygen, expires. In the movie, this is a six to twelve minute window of time. Plenty of time, in fact, for West to shoot up a fresh corpse with his bioluminescent green goo and turn them into mindless, thrashing super zombies.

That’s the basic premise of Re-Animator, a film that is as faithful to the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name as Conan the Barbarian resembles the collected works of Robert E. Howard. That both movies are cheerfully irreverent towards their literary roots doesn’t make them any less enjoyable, however. Re-Animator single-handedly jump started the new movement to get more Lovecraft movies made. That the director and producers were still the only people doing it for years afterward is beside the point.

West’s failing as a scientist is his inability to back up and see the moral and ethical implications of his experiments. He also refuses to back off of his initial successes with the formula. Sure, the subjects come back from the dead mindless, but hey, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, am I right?

Some people find this movie hilarious, and I think it’s funny in a darkly unintentional way. The actors and director are on record as saying they weren’t trying to be funny, but some things just developed organically throughout the course of the movie, such as the wonderful scene involving a freshly hewn-off head and a letter holder. This film introduced us to Jeffrey Combs and his quirky delivery and squirrelly intensity certainly helped the Wham-O-bouncing-ball tone of the film. One of my favorite mad scientists of all time.

2. Godzilla (1954)
Before Kaiju movies were a thing, and while the genre was flailing around trying to define itself, there was the first, original Godzilla movie, a film that personifies the wrath of a planet scarred by radioactive bombs and testing; our own technology revisited upon us in the form of a mutated dinosaur that wantonly destroys without conscience or consequences.

The fledgling effort, even with American actors inserted, is a sobering denouncement of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. There’s no guesswork, no subtlety to the message of the movie; it clearly spells out, “This is happening because we played God.” So, while there’s not one specific mad scientist responsible, the movie is still an accounting of science run amok.

The suit and the miniature work is good in the movie, and Godzilla moves in darkness for several scenes, which adds to the believability. Of course, we get to see all of the old standbys, such as the atomic breath, but in this movie, it was the first time for everyone. Still an effective film, very different in tone from the Godzilla movies most of us grew up with.

1. The Fly (1987)
The remake of the 1958 sci-fi classic The Fly may have well been the critical apex of David Cronenberg’s obsession with body/personal control. It’s certainly one of his best, most watchable films, and yet, it pulls no punches in the script or in the horrific visual effects.

Seth Brundle, played with his usual quirky flair by Jeff Goldblum, is working on teleportation. He’s almost got it licked, except that the computer isn’t so good with living tissue. Geena Davis is the science reporter covering the story—and quickly enough, the scientist, too—as they knock boots and send stuff across the room with the telepods.

Of course, Brundle gets impatient for results and teleports himself. And it would have worked perfectly, too, except for the pesky fly that gets into the pod with him at the last moment. Soon thereafter, the changes start to occur.

The original movie was based on a short story by George Langelaan, and the movie is pretty faithful. The scientist gets a fly head and a fly hand. That’s it, that’s all, nothing else. A quintessential 1950’s idea. Cronenberg makes the fly DNA more invasive, more sinister. Brundle’s speech about “insect politics” and his concluding statement are horrible to comprehend, especially from Geena Davis’ point of view, as she is now carrying Brundle’s unborn child. Truly disturbing implications abound throughout this effective and influential film.

(bonus) The Invisible Man (1933)
Ah, the Invisible Man...one of the early Universal monsters who is frequently (if not ironically) overlooked because he’s not monstrous enough, I suppose. The movie, varying more than somewhat from the H.G. Wells story of the same name, contends that the process of invisibility is what makes Griffin insane. Wells was still alive at the time and thought the ending was rot, but we’ve had a cackling, insane Invisible Man ever since, and that is a frightening concept because we all know what we would do if we could turn invisible.

That’s how the movie gets you. There’s freedom in invisibility, but also the urge to stop behaving like a civilized person. Who wouldn’t, right? It’s a weird thing to consider, and also, fairly easy to address, so I don’t know quite how “amok” an invisible man could run.

However, Griffin is one of the great movie mad scientists, and this early sci-fi thriller still has some creepy bits to it, including some still impressive special effects for the time. The Invisible Man makes a good “intro to mad science” movie to spring on people who don’t like a lot of grossness and goo in their horror movies.  You’ll be able to appreciate it even though it’s not particularly scary.
 

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This is one small part of a much larger series of articles, the entirety of which are listed below. Enjoy!
My Top Five Horror-Comedy Movies
My Top 5 Monsters on the Loose Movies  
My Top 5 When Animals Attack Movies
My Top 5 Mummy Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Frankenstein Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Creatures from the Deep Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer Doll Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology movies
My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies
My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Top 5 Horror-Comedy Films




Humor and Fear look a lot alike, as far as the body reactions go. Laughter is an expression of surprise. So, too, is a scream. The difference? Watching Curly hit Moe with a shovel, and watching a cat jump out of a darkened recess in the space ship when everyone is looking for the alien. Those two scenarios are considered miles apart. But something really interesting happens when you start moving them closer together.

The Horror-Comedy movie (or, if you prefer, the Comedy-Horror movie) is one of those special snowflake kind of movies that is very tricky to pull off without tipping the scales one way or the other. It takes only a nudge to turn a comedic horror movie into parody, or worse, a self-referential meta movie. Likewise, if you’re not funny enough, the laughs will be more of the nervous variety than the knee-slapping kind. Not that there’s ever any real belly laughs in a Horror-Comedy movie. It’s more of a sensibility; not quite a slice-of-life motif, but the best of their kind manage to use a combination of setting and dialogue to keep you rooted in the story, rather than overwhelm you with gags.

So, obviously, for this list, we’re not doing any of the Scary Movie-type films, or Mel Brooks movies, or anything like that. Those are comedies that make fun of the horror genre. Not the same thing. Ideally, the movies should be built on a framework or horror and then leavened with comedy. That’s my criteria, and you’re probably not going to agree with me much here, as comedy is perhaps the most subjective of all the dramatic forms. What’s funny to you will probably not be so funny to me, as we will no doubt see.

5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
This is the only incarnation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I actually like. Christy Swanson is the Slayer, and she’s trained by Donald Sutherland, The Watcher, to kill the Master Vampire, played by Rutger Hauer. You know all of this, right? Or, maybe you know about the show, right? Well, this was the movie where it all started, and nothing against the Buffy fans of the world, but this movie could have been a stand-alone project and done just fine.

What’s funny about the movie is, well, the Joss Whedon dialogue. That’s about all he liked regarding the movie, and if you want to see what he would have done from the get-go, there’s the TV series for you to get lost in. As a stand-alone project, it’s a sly commentary on vampire movies without nodding and winking at the audience every ten seconds. There are some legitimately funny lines and scenes in the movie that echo other films and vampire stories—on purpose—but never really as homage. That cheerful irreverence is what allows the movie to keep its comedic edge.

This is probably the last movie were Luke Perry looked like a teenager—meaning, 19 and eleven twelfths if you squint really hard and think about Beverly Hills 90210. Davis Arquette is in the film, being funny, as is Paul Reubens in a rare turn sans Pee Wee Herman suit. The scary scenes are at least played straight, and there are a couple that genuinely chill the blood, if you’ve never seen Salem’s Lot before. I’m not a fan of the TV series, but as a one-and-done project, the re-watchability factor is quite high.

4. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Diablo Cody’s sophomore offering after she won the Oscar for Juno for Best Original Screenplay was Jennifer’s Body, a “high school is hell” allegory that starred Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox. Of the mixed reviews it received, there were complaints that it didn’t go far enough in any direction. Whatever. Jennifer’s Body drips sarcasm as often as it flings blood, and it’s a great reversal on the standard Male Monster Hunting Helpless Female Victims trope.

Megan Fox may have been typecast as Jennifer, the cheerleader who is sacrificed to a demon in the woods and walks out of it as a succubus, but she makes the most of the role, both in physical sexuality and a kind of ravenous promiscuity that does not end well for the guys, ever. Her best friend, the “wallflower” Seyfried, says to her, “You’re killing people.” Fox’s reply is, “No, I’m killing boys.” It’s nice to be on the other end of the objectification stick for once.

Cody’s humor is razor-sharp and rooted in pop culture references and witty dialogue, the very thing that made Juno such a hit. I think this kind of humor translates well into the horror genre. There are also a ton of cameos by great character actors to fill out the minutes between the time that Seyfried and Fox exploitatively make out onscreen.

If you don’t like black comedy, and if the very sight of Megan Fox is anathema to you, feel free to give this one a pass. For the rest of you, give this one another look. It’s a darker, more sinister Heathers for the Millennial generation.

3. Slither (2006)
James Gunn’s biggest movie prior to Guardians of the Galaxy was this gross-fest he wrote and directed, set in a small southern town and starring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry, and several other character actors who end up playing rednecks in movies set in small southern towns.

Gunn, a Troma films alumnus, knows what we want, and he’s smart enough to recognize the absurdity of things coming out of downed meteorites that mutate humans and turn them into breeding pods for mind-controlling blood slugs that infect other humans and turn them into hive-mind zombies that spit digestive acid. There’s a lot going on in Slither, y’all. And thankfully, the cast is fast with the quips and the really quotable one-liners. Fillion is his usual likeable self, as is Banks, who is very comfortable with the B-Movie subject matter.

There are a few jump scares, naturally, but it’s the creep-out factor that’s cranked up to eleven. The implications of what the monsters can do to the human body makes you go “blargh” and if you don’t like films where the people have no control, then this one is going to bother you more than somewhat. Add to that a lot of phallic, intrusive, violating kinds of imagery, and you may need to ask someone to tell you when the gross parts are over so you can go back to watching the movie.

What saves the film is the bevy of local rednecks, spouting aphorisms, platitudes, and cutting through the unbelievable creepiness to deliver certain in-the-moment truths. Gunn’s Slither takes itself seriously, but it’s the reactions of the characters that allow us to laugh, even if it’s just a tension breaker.

2. Vamp (1986)
What do Long Duck Dong from Sixteen Candles, Rudy from Meatballs, and the other dickhead bully that wasn’t Robert Downey, Jr. from Weird Science have in common? They all starred in Vamp, a quirky little vampire story that wears its 80’s-ness like an ill-fitting pair of parachute pants. Based on its premise, there’s no way it could be made today. It’s a carbon-dated artifact, and that makes it a little more amusing in the re-watching.

Two frat house pledges have to procure a stripper for the big frat party, and so they travel, with the help (and borrowed car) of the campus rich nerd, to the Big City, where they find themselves in the Bad Part of Town, at this strip club called the After Sundown Club. I’m positive you can pick up the narrative cues from here.

There are some wonderfully weird moments, such as anytime Grace Jones is onscreen. Her initial transformation and feeding scene is gross, creepy, and really freaked me out when I first saw it. The guys run afoul of some local freaks early on, and they become a secondary source of tension as the gang separates and tries to get back together again and just survive the night.

The script holds up, again, in that 80s banter, quip a minute kind of way. And the guys are smart, and stay smart, even as they are making bad choices. I would not go so far as to call this a cult classic, but I think it’s an under-watched and under-appreciated film, precisely because it looks scary and ends up being pretty funny.

1. The Frighteners (1996)
It’s always fun remembering that Peter Jackson was considered a horror director for ten years before anyone slapped rubber feet on Elijah Wood and called him a hobbit. The Frighteners is, I think, one of Jackson’s best movies; a fully-realized world with several layers of story that unravel as the movie progresses, and it delivers some great laughs as well as disturbing, creepy images that really do stick with you afterward.

Jackson assembled an all-star cast for the movie, including Michael J. Fox as the guy who walks away from an automobile accident with the power to see ghosts and talk to them. This is how he now makes his living, actually working with two spirits that help him to solve these otherworldly exterminator problems. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Old hands like John Aston get to play bit parts, and cult-favorite actors like Jeffrey Combs get to chew the scenery in these whackjob character parts that you have to see to believe. Jake Busey makes a great psychopath, too, from the second he appears onscreen.

The story is pretty rich in detail, but not too complicated. There’s a lot going on in the movie and that’s part of what makes it such a satisfying film to watch.  Weta Workshop turned in a bunch of special effects for the film, some of them still a little clunky by modern standards, but don’t let that throw you out of the movie. Emotionally-speaking, the plot is equal parts Ghostbusters and Hell House, so strap yourself in for a unique movie that feels at times like other things, but ultimately is its own story, and moreover, stamped in Jackson’s signature kinetic style.

(bonus) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
I am only really including this here because of the hew and cry that would erupt from me having left it off of the list entirely. Let me state for the record that I love Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Zombie movies with no caveats. And while I think that Shaun of the Dead is a good Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg project, it’s not my favorite horror comedy. I’ll state this again: As a commentary on the Zombie film, this is one of my favorite meta-movies. But it’s not perfect.

It’s funny, sure, but it’s not very scary. The zombies are pretty lame, even for being Romero-esque zombies. Shaun’s more scared of life than the undead. He’s more scared of making commitments, changing his situation, losing people, etc. and he’s so self-absorbed that he misses all of the scary stuff. And that’s what the movie is really about. The zombies are a big inconvenience for him for most of the movie. It’s not until they are trapped in the pub that he begins dealing with the here and now. Meta-horror? Definitely. Funny? Sure. Great Edgar Wright film? Uh huh. Scary? Pfft. Not even. Not once, really. At best, it gets a little tense.

But you can’t ignore the fact that this little naval gaze happens amidst the zombie apocalypse, and so, rather than argue with the masses, I’ll list it as a bonus.
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This is one small part of a much larger series of articles, the entirety of which are listed below. Enjoy!

My Top 5 Monsters on the Loose Movies  
My Top 5 When Animals Attack Movies
My Top 5 Mummy Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Frankenstein Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Creatures from the Deep Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer Doll Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology movies
My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies
My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies

Monday, October 19, 2015

My Top 5 Monsters on the Loose Movies



It’s a tale as old as the movies itself. Man does something stupid, or brilliant, or brilliantly stupid, and finds/discovers/invents/stumbles across a monster, and then spends the rest of the movie trying not to get eaten.

I’m not talking about Japanese Kaiju movies, although they are certainly a part of the larger discussion (and, FYI, will get their own Top 5 List at a later date). I’m referring to the things that are larger than humans, but smaller than Godzilla. Or, optionally, man-sized, but far from man-like. The monster in question doesn’t have to be a giant animal; indeed, the best of this type of movie are monster that never were, or thought to have been myths, or just plain aliens.

There’s also a hunter versus hunted component to this kind of movie. Whatever is chasing us for food triggers these primal fears within us that we typically suppress. As a country that is mythically saturated by a fear of the unknown, the Other, the Outer Darkness, these movies are at their biggest and best the every thing our ancestors feared when they huddled in their cabins for warmth. Our cabins are way better now, with wi-fi and air conditioning, but the fear never really goes away. 

Those of you over the age of 40 will doubtless notice a lack of movies over 40 years old. Here’s why: as cool, as classic, as interesting, and as cinematically important as those movies are to the development of horror as a viable genre, in this day and age, they just aren’t very scary. And most of them, in fact, kinda suck. That we enjoy them anyway is beside the point; my love for the movie Robot Monster is well documented, but I don’t even pretend for a nanosecond that it’s very good, or has merit, or is something other good people should watch. It’s like being a Mr. Pibb fan. Enjoy it all you want, but don’t try to convince the rest of us that it’s not low-grade Dr. Pepper, all right?

5. Q (1982)
Director Larry Cohen is known for doing quirky, left-of-center character-driven movies. Q, or the Winged Serpent, is one of those movies that you either love or hate. There is no middle ground. I love it, but then again, I’m a nut for this kind of movie.

The New York City police are baffled by a series of rooftop murders involving grisly decapitations. There’s no connection between the victims and the city is in a panic. One guy actually knows what’s going on; a low-life con-man who sees the “murderer” and spends a good portion of the movie trying to make it work to his advantage.

I know, it’s not the usual thing, but that’s really what I like about it. Oh, and the creature design, which is stop-motion animated by Dave Allen. The few scenes featuring the full monster are well-done (well, as well-done as you can get in 1982 without using Ray Harryhausen, and I really do mean that in the nicest possible way). David Carradine stars in one of the weirdest monster movies you’ll ever see.

4. Tremors (1990)
If Kevin Bacon was only famous for being in Tremors, it would still be enough. Everyone likes Tremors. Everyone. Whether you think it’s a better-than-average B-movie, or you think it’s a brilliant post-modern examination of our environmental policies literally collapsing beneath our feet, or maybe you just like the Sand Worms in Dune and think they didn’t get enough screen time, Tremors is kind of like the everyman of Post-Modern B-Movie Monster/Political Allegory films.

The action takes place in Nevada, in a former mining town. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward stumble across a dead body on top of an electrical tower and afterwards, they find an old sheep farmer’s head and conclude there’s a killer on the loose. The town is, of course, overrun and soon a small band of intrepid survivors has to stay alive and get out of town and then when those options dry up, kill the monsters. The usual rate of attrition applies, here, as people do stupid or daring or brave things and get eaten.

The script is very much a Paint-By-Numbers endeavor, but the cast and crew take it seriously, and so you do, as well. That’s not to say that Bacon and Ward aren’t having a grand time. The movie is very quotable, too. You can, and probably should, avoid all of the direct-to-video sequels. Tremors became a franchise, with each successive release pulling the first movie down just a little bit, as most horror sequels do. Oh, don’t listen to me; I’m sure the whole “saga” would make an excellent afternoon binge-fest, provided there was enough beer and chicken wings.

3. Attack the Block (2011)
You’ve probably heard of this modern cult-classic, which was a darling on the genre festival circuit a few years ago. Now lead thug, played by John Boyega, who was discovered for this movie is one of the new faces of Star Wars for Episode 7: The Force Awakens. Best to try and watch this now, so you can say you saw Attack the Block before it came out.

What happens during an alien invasion when the creatures touch ground in the bad part of town? Good question. In Attack the Block, a routine mugging by a bunch of penny-ante teenage gangsters is interrupted by glowing meteors falling out of the sky. The kids come across some creepy extraterrestrial life forms, and so, of course, they kill it, thinking it’ll be something they can sell later on. But when more monsters, bigger monsters, start falling out of the sky, the pack of juvenile delinquents have to navigate between the real, actual, gun-toting gangsters on their low income housing block, and these terrifying alien beasts who relentlessly chase the kids all over the place.

There are some things about Attack the Block that will leave you conflicted. The least-unlikeable person in the movie is the hero, and you won’t like Moses for most, if not all, of the film. The chuckleheads he surrounds himself with are no better. And only his mugging victim at the beginning of the film engenders any real sympathy. All the same, as bad as the little hoodlums are, the monsters are far worse.

Speaking of monsters...wow. The alien creatures in Attack the Block are some of the most visually impressive monsters I’ve ever seen. You’ll dig them, guaranteed. They are truly alien, and truly terrifying.

The whole movie reminds me of early Walter Hill films, full of anti-heroes, penny-ante criminals with delusions of grandeur, and a streetwise sensibility made all the more strange by the British cockney slang and South London setting. Attack the Block is like The Warriors Meets Aliens, if that’s not too bizarre a reference for you, and well worth seeing.

2. The Host (2006)
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, and from those wacky Asians, no less, there comes this incredibly cool monster movie from Korea, proving that your irradiated and mutated marine life need not be 300 feet tall to be creepy and scary and destructive.

Check out this plot: some kids spot the monster hanging out under a bridge. It fall off, swims ashore, and starts eating people and stepping on them and chasing them hither and yon. I young man and his family have to figure out how to survive. Simple, elegant, and leaving plenty of room for the standard “we’re killing the planet” message to go with it.

The creature is fully CGI, and integrated into most of the shots with great care, so you really get a sense of this thing running amok, chasing humans the way a cocker spaniel chases squirrels in the park. The results, by the way, are about the same. There’s a lot of good tension and even a few jump scares to go with the edge-of-your-seat chase sequences.

1. The Relic (1997)
Based on the book by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, this movie of the same name does an admirable job of embracing the subject matter and splitting the difference between a police procedural and a monster rampage. Tom Sizemore plays the part of what would have been the first Agent Pendergast appearance on film (our loss, really) and Penelope Ann Miller plays the plucky scientist who knows all about the tribal boogum that’s cutting people up in the museum.

The location was switched to Chicago from New York City, and this meant that the Field Museum, one of my favorite museums in the world, is the major set piece in the movie. Despite Sizemore (pre-rehab, if I remember correctly) and Miller doing a bang-up job selling the story and getting their jump-scare on, the star of the show is the creature itself, an amazing blend of practical effects and CGI that is perfectly balanced so as to be fast, large, and terrifying. For that we have Stan Winston to thank.

This is, I think, an exemplary version of the monster-rampage plot, with just enough “keep it in the shadows” and jump scares that are not diminished when you finally get a good look at the thing. Plot-wise, it breaks very little new ground, but technically, it’s a textbook on how to deliver a good, old-fashioned, by the numbers monster on the loose movie. That’s important, I think, in this day and age. We finally have the technology and know-how to deliver a monster that should allow us to willingly suspend our disbelief. Consider this one of the first ones to do that from start to finish.

 (bonus) Cloverfield (2008)
You might be tempted to call this a Kaiju film, and sure, the Cloverfield monster is a big ‘un, to be sure. But what’s missing from this J.J. Abrams/Bad Robot one-hit wonder is all of the other things that go into Kaiju movies. So, Cloverfield isn’t really fish or fowl, but somewhere in the middle.

One of the last gasp iterations of the “found footage” trope, Cloverfield is about a group of friends trapped in the city when a giant space monster hits town—literally—and starts stepping on and eating a bunch of people.

This is another film where the monster is a stand-in for the forces of nature as the people run and run and can never quite get free of this lumbering, capricious entity. The found footage actually adds to the suspense and helps sell the idea that these people are about to be killed.

The monster itself is pretty impressive, too, as it lumbers through the narrow streets, at times disappearing behind the massive skyscrapers until it hits an open patch of night sky and then, Whoa, look out, it’s monster time. This idea was used, terribly, in the Dean Devlin travesty that was Godzilla. Here, the idea is reclaimed and works much better, thanks. If you missed this in the theater, give it a shot on DVD.
 

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This is one small part of a much larger series of articles, the entirety of which are listed below. Enjoy!

My Top 5 When Animals Attack Movies
My Top 5 Mummy Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Frankenstein Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Creatures from the Deep Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer Doll Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology movies
My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies
My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies

Thursday, October 15, 2015

My Top 5 Favorite When Animals Attack Movies

Sometimes, the reasons for why movies scare us are not so complicated and tied up with our unconscious. Sometimes, it’s right out in the open, a “Duh!” moment for everyone to pick up on. One of our most deeply held convictions is the idea that we’re at the top of the food chain in every respect. Granted, there’s not much we can say about shark attacks, and other run-ins with wild animals, because usually, it’s our fault, right?

What’s worse is when trusted domesticated animals turn on us. That’s a betrayal that cuts at the heart, as well as the throat. But let’s face it; when animals attack, it’s always a reminder that we’re not the kings of the world. We’re not in control of things, and you know, we never were. In fact, under the right circumstances, we’re nothing more than food...

This is where you cue the music for one of the many Bert I. Gordon giant insect films from the 1950s, or worse, one of the many “they used to be furry and cuddly, but now they are giant and horrible” movies from the 1970s. To call them formulaic B-movies is overstating the obvious. Still, there are some effective, creepy downright skin-crawling critter movies that will have you butt-walking back up your favorite chair. As with most of these older horror movies, you may have to work a little harder to suspend your disbelief.

5. Them! (1954)
Them! has the distinction of being one of the first “radiation-makes-things-bigger” movies and the first Giant Insect movie and I have to say, they got this one more right than not, and nothing that came along after it was quite as good. The plot is pretty basic: early atomic testing was done in New Mexico. Those tests resulted in irradiating a colony of giant ants in the desert. Mayhem ensues.

Why does this one work so well? For starters, director Gordon Douglas knew the first rule of monster movies—don’t show the monster until you absolutely have to. Instead, play this creepy, high-pitched squeal every time they are nearby, and have a shell-shocked little girl say “THEM!” in a horror-choked voice when asked to describe the monsters. Really effective stuff.

Of course, once the monsters do show up, it’s giant prop ants on wheels. Sigh. But the build-up is still very effective and the movie is quite entertaining in the way you think it ought to be: Serious with a side of schlock.

4. Razorback (1984)
Australia gets it done in ways we just can’t. Whether it’s gun control, dark beer, or Mad Max movies, you have to hand it to our mates from Down Under. That would include their plucky, punchy film industry, and this little overlooked shriekfest from the blood-soaked 1980s.

Join us on the outback as our intrepid band of regular people battle a giant-ass razorback hog. That’s it. That’s the movie. I know, simple and brilliant, right?

Well, there’s a little more than that. It’s cleverly filmed, and everyone does a great job of reacting to the giant hog head. Pigs are fast and mean, and so there’s no reason to think a cow-sized pig wouldn’t be faster and meaner than ever. We buy it because we know this.

Special effects? Come on, it’s an 80s flick. But the tension is good, and there are even a few jump scares. A diamond in the rough, to be sure.


3. Mimic (1997)
Is there anything creepier than a cockroach, he asked rhetorically? Yes, in fact there is. Cockroaches that are supersized and can collectively band together to take on the vague shape of a human wearing a long coat that live in the New York subway tunnels and eat people. Exponentially more creepy by a factor of eleven.

Who’s to blame for that waking nightmare? My old friend Guillermo Del Toro, of course. There’s not many directors working that I like all of their films. Del Toro is one of those guys. He just gets spooky stuff, and he’s really good about hiding his influences and scaring the bejeezus out of you with them.

Most of the time, that is. There’s a lot of Cronenberg in this film, but honestly, I say, more people could take a page or two out of his book in the first place. The insects are handled like real things run amok, and when you watch the director’s cut of the film, some of the character interactions make more sense. If you ever ran out of the room after seeing a bug on the floor, this movie will send you into system shock.

2. Cujo (1983)
Boy, this one really bothers me. I didn’t like it when it first came out, and now I hate it as a dog owner. The idea that the family pet could turn on you is a lot more scary in the Internet Age, when the same “Stray Dog Kills Old Person” story can be forwarded around and around, so that you can literally see it a dozen times in a week, and if you’re not paying attention, you might think that there’s packs of stray dogs killing innocent people.

Nevertheless, this movie stars Dee Wallace, the most understated Scream Queen to ever bear the title, and her creepy little kid, and we have to care about them even as the family’s Saint Bernard succumbs to a case of good old fashioned rabies. The idea being, according to Stephen King, that anything can be a monster in the right circumstances. So we see big, loveable Cujo turn into this ginormous, ugly, rabid thing.

I still felt sorry for the dog. It wasn’t his fault. But I still wanted someone to do something during the attack scenes. That conflict is part of what makes this movie so intense for me. The scene where Cujo is trying to tear the car apart to get at the mother and child is a relentless, harrowing thing. Don’t watch this movie if you’re sensitive to animal violence.

1. The Birds (1963)
Cliché’ choice for number one? Pfft. Come on. There’s a reason why we call some movies “classics” and directors like Hitchcock “genius.” By the time this movie was made, there had been ten years’ worth of animal attacks movies, some giant and mutated, others  not so much. Hitchcock had a clutch of bad examples to work against, and it’s because of the bad movies that this one is so good.

For starters, Hitchcock never tells you why this is happening. It just happens. Also, he never lets you off the hook. When the movie ends, it just...ends. There’s no resolution, save for the idea that the story is far from over. That’s really effective.

I know the special effects at the time were pretty good, but now they are as dated as anything else. It doesn’t make the movie any less effective, however, because of the performances he gets from his actors. Birds are kinda creepy, and the images in The Birds are so iconic, we still shudder to this very day when we see a bunch of grackles on an electric wire. That’s why this movie is number one with no apologies.


(Bonus!) Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
This movie really belongs higher up on the list, but I could not pass up the chance to talk about Sheriff Shatner and his tarantula problem. The spider sequences are very creepy, unless you recognize that particular species of spider as the ones that don’t bite people. Then the movie just becomes a little silly. 

The number of practical effects shots in the movie are impressive, as is the glory of William Shatner as the small time sheriff with a big ass spider problem. Clearly this role paved the way for his later turn as T.J. Hooker.And apparently, the money was good enough on this film that the actors let the bug wranglers put spiders all over their face. Blargh. I'm not sure what dollar amount you'd need to offer me to get me to do that, but I am positive it's more than scale, which is undoubtedly what some of these folks took away from the film. 

Kingdom of the Spiders isn't bad enough to make fun of it, nor good enough to watch it un-ironically. My suggestion is this: put on your skinny jeans and your lumberjack shirts and watch the movie whilst drinking locally-brewed craft beer (or the cheap local swill, depending on your hipster polarity setting) and have a meta-discussion about Shatner's career. Be sure to mention Esperanto for the win.


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This is one small part of a much larger series of articles, the entirety of which are listed below. Enjoy!

My Top 5 Mummy Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Frankenstein Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Creatures from the Deep Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer Doll Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology movies
My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies
My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies

Friday, October 9, 2015

My Top 5 Mummy Movies


I’m including this category only for the sake of completeness; otherwise, it would have looked conspicuous by its absence. Mummies are my least favorite movie monster. I mean, I still like them and will watch them, but I’m always disappointed in the execution; I don’t think we’ve yet seen the Citizen Kane of Mummy movies.

The problem with mummies is that we’ve moved past its cultural relevance. During the heyday, when Orientalism and Egyptology were in vogue, and new grave robbing—excuse me, archeological expeditions—yielded weekly finds in the newspapers, at a time when Egypt might as well have been Mars for all the common man knew, and these British plunderers were all too happy to ignore the warnings about disturbing the dead and cracking open tombs, well, sure, mummies were the shit.

Think about it: Empirical Britain, with its indulgent, institutionalized Colonialism, with its foot still on the neck of the British Raj in India, and now encroaching into Egypt to show the turban-wearing desert folk a thing or two about their five thousand year old culture. All too eager to overwrite Egyptian history through a British lens. What better way to punish these stiff-upper-lip-having, upper crust professors and their landed gentry friends than by having something from another culture’s history throttle the life out of them? The thing you pooh-poohed as being a silly superstition isn’t so silly when it’s crashing through your door, now, is it?

As a kid, of course, the strangeness of the Mummy and the crazed people who can’t believe their eyes as it lumbers...slowly...oh so slowly...to kill them was cool. What’s not great about the walking dead, I ask you? As I’ve aged, much like cheese, the specificity of the setting has limited somewhat my enjoyment of the same-old, same old. There are other mummies, after all, than are found in Egypt. Mummification is a condition not specific to the Fertile Crescent. It’s too bad that the Azetc Mummy movies are so laughably horrible. But I digress. If you must watch a Mummy movie, here’s my Top 5 with the usual caveats in place.

5. The Mummy (1932)
Universal Studios, flush with success from Dracula (1930) and Frankenstein (1931), needed another monster to field. Ostensibly looking for a literary property (see, even back then, Hollywood wasn’t taking a chance), they eventually settled on a story based on the rumors of a Pharoah’s curse that struck archeologist Howard Carter's team and other prominent visitors to the tomb shortly after they opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, and kicked off the big Egyptology craze of the Gilded Age.

The movie is a mish-mash of popular reportage of real Egyptian archeology, invented Orientalism, and of course, star-crossed lovers. What sells the film is the incomparable Boris Karloff as Imhotep, initially entombed alive and without undergoing the mummification ritual where the organs are removed. This makes it much easier to come back to life, since all of his junk is not sitting around in canopic jars.

Revenge, modern look-alikes for ancient lovers, and Karloff at his most gaunt and sinister, rocking the fez, no less. I don’t think you’ll be truly scared once, but the Mummy presents a number of plot points that have been adopted into the standard operating procedure manual and it’s good to see the origins of these things for yourself. And Karloff. Always bet on Karloff.

4. The Mummy (1959)
Hammer’s take on the Universal Mummy movie is one of their better efforts. Before the mummy dries out, there’s a lot of wetwork that takes place, and it’s poor Christopher Lee that winds up under the gunk, his mouth sealed, one eye covered, wrapped in aged bandages. This time, the curse is on him for daring to love outside his social caste. Oh, and for trying to bring his beloved back from the dead. Something of a taboo in their culture, and so Kharis is entombed with his dead beloved, set up as a guardian for her in the afterlife.

I did mention this was British, right? This blend of gothic colonialism works about as well as can be expected. The unknowing archeologists end up right in the middle of Kharis’ tale of woe. That doesn’t keep Kharis from wreaking a terrible vengeance on them for picking on his girlfriend.

This movie borrows several plot points from Universal’s mummy sequels, The Mummy’s Hand and the Mummy’s Tomb. They aren’t very good, but this movie is, mostly because it mashes everything up into a more concentrated story. Veteran Hammer director Terence Fisher set the pace for these films and typically knew how to get the best out of Christopher Lee.

3. “Lot 249” from Tales from the Darkside: the Movie  (1990)
I’m cheating by including this segment from the Tales of the Darkside movie, but it’s an adaptation of a classic short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, and moreover, it’s a good one. And like most good literature in the 20th century, it’s always the basis, never the heart, of the adaptation into film. The example here is apt.

The Tales from the Darkside movie is fun anyway, because it’s a horror anthology. “Lot 249” is, without a doubt, the strongest story of the bunch. It’s got a fairly unique premise of using the mummy strictly as a murder weapon, a supernatural hit man that could get away with murder because, well, who’s going to charge a mummy with homicide?

Not quite yet veteran actors Steve Buscemi, Christian Slater, and Julianne Moore play these parts with relish, especially Buscemi and Slater, who both go way over the top in the service of the script. There is, of course, a twist ending that puts this film into the Creepshow/E.C. Comics category, but I suspect you’ll be all right with it. I sure was.

2. The Mummy (1999)
 Okay, this one isn’t even remotely on the fear chart. It’s an action-adventure romp with some wry comedy thrown in. But as far as movies with a mummy go, it’s pretty awesome.
Brendon Fraser stars in the movie, along with Rachel Weisz, and it’s written and directed by Stephen Sommers before he ruined Van Helsing. Plot-wise, it has all of the original elements of Universal’s original outing (after all, this was supposed to be the sexy update), but there’s a lot more going on in this version of the story. That’s a good thing, as the film is padded out with action sequences and CGI to produce a much more active mummy. Imhotep is more of a lich, for those of you who ever played Dungeons & Dragons, with a vast array of magical powers and the forces of darkness at his beck and call. It certainly raises the stakes.

The best thing about this film is that its backstory is very deep; if you like it, you can watch the sequel and then start all of the Scorpion King spin-offs, which are, on the whole, not bad dark fantasy/sword and sorcery movies. Again: none of them are scary. But the story is engaging and Sommers does a great job of building this much larger world out of these few spare parts.

1. Bubba Ho-Tep (2003)
You love Don Coscarelli’s movies, even if you don’t know who Don Coscarelli is; a quirky, kinetic director who loves to tackle unfilmable stories with crazy visuals. You can always spot a Coscarelli movie a mile away. Two great examples are Phantasm and The Beastmaster. You may add to that list Bubba Ho-Tep.

Based on a short story written by Joe Lansdale, we find Elvis Presley, convalescing in an East Texas nursing home under an assumed name. He has bedsores and regrets, and he’s just about given up. His best friend is JFK, who had his brain transplanted into a the body of a black man in a wheelchair by the CIA in 1963. They are the only two people in the nursing home who are trying to stop an ancient mummy from sucking the souls out of the old people in order to bring itself back to life.

This is the most original mummy movie that you can actually sit through that you’ll ever see. It’s chock-full of quirkiness, and weirdness, and oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Bruce Campbell plays the aging King of Rock and Roll in a spot-on performance. It’s glorious, really.

(Bonus) The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy (1958)
See, I want movies like this to be good. And I don’t mean, “good if you’re drunk” or “great if you’re stoned.” I mean good right out of the gate and with no apologies. Sadly, this is not the case. 

There are a number of Aztec Mummy movies out there, and they are all pretty lame in both plot and execution. Therefore, I’m recommending this only if you watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of the movie. It’s pretty early in the show, but you’ll be more entertained than if you tried to watch it straight, with no witty quips and asides.



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This is one small part of a much larger series of articles, the entirety of which are listed below. Enjoy!

My Top 5 Favorite Frankenstein Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Creatures from the Deep Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Killer Doll Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology movies

My Top 5 Favorite TV Horror Shows

My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies

My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

My Top 5 Frankenstein Movies


Mary Shelly got the shaft, historically speaking. A smart, literate, talented writer and editor, on top of being the only woman in her peer group, and what is she best remembered for? Only the first science fiction novel, ever, and when it’s mentioned, trust me, it’s with much grousing and grumbling and caveats from the science fiction community.

Of course, I’m talking about Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, a decent, if somewhat by-the-numbers piece of Victorian melodrama, written in 1818, that inadvertently grapples with the concept of the soul, what makes us human, and asks the question of whether or not science should meddle with the forces of nature. Heavy stuff, don’tcha know. But those hard SF guys, the graybeards, over in the corner, will shake their heads, and say, “Well, sure, some of the ideas are there, but really...”

How do you top that kind of back-handed compliment, I wonder? Oh, I’ve got it! Make a movie out of an extremely successful stage play and overwrite all of the conceits and concepts of the novel into its most reductive form, and turn a brilliant allegory into a grotesque caricature that is parodied and copied ad infinitum, well into the 21st century. Talk about “No Respect.”

As with the Dracula movies, it’s probably best to look at Frankenstein movies from the baseline question, “how close to the book do they get?” To do otherwise is to invite madness and perfidy into this house, and I’ll not be a party to it. To say that there’s some great portrayals of Pop Culture Frankenstein—that lumbering creature based on Boris Karloff’s most famous role—is a given. After all, we're talking about one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century. And whether we’re watching Herman Munster or reading Marvel Comics’ Frankenstein as drawn by Mike Ploog, or looking at any of the hundreds of other versions—they are all great, for what they are: Pop Culture Frankenstein. Not literary Frankenstein.

With that in mind, here are my top five favorite Frankenstein movies. It’s a motley assortment, to be sure. What I’d like to do is take my favorite parts from each movie and sort of, I don’t know, stitch them all together to make one giant, killer, dead-on movie. I’d call it my Frankenstein Frankenstein cut. 


6. Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943)
Okay, remember what I said about Pop Culture Frankenstein above? Yeah, this is exactly what I’m talking about. It made the list because it’s got a better than average script by SF writer Curt Siodmak, picking up where The Wolfman (1941) and Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) left off. Larry Talbot, the Wolfman, is resurrected when grave robbers remove the wolfsbane from his coffin. He makes his way to Frankenstein’s castle and while kicking around the ruins, stumbles across Frankenstein in the frozen waters.  And then, much like in real life, the poop hits the fan when Talbot tries to reconstruct the good doctor’s work.

Bela Lugosi played Frankenstein in the movie opposite Lon Chaney Jr.’s role as Talbot. It’s hard to believe that Lugosi was pushing sixty at the time, and as a result, he couldn’t do some of the really physical stuff, like the wrestlemania fight at the end of the movie, and so Lugosi’s stunt double filled in. Still, you can clearly see Lugosi under the Jack Pierce make-up in the close-up shots.

This movie was the beginning of the “more monsters is better” Universal formula, and it’s the best one because there’s a sincere effort to make the story coherent. Not so much so with later outings. Because this movie established that the Universal monsters were all living in the same universe, this is also the birthplace of Pop Culture Frankenstein.

5. Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Normally, I would never say this about Christopher Lee, but he’s not the main reason to watch this movie. He’s just not. His heart wasn’t in it, and it’s obvious, because that Frankenstein make-up sucked. It just sucked. It’s messy, crude, and yeah, I know, they were trying to get away from the now-iconic Jack Pierce design, but they went the wrong way.

The real reason to watch this movie is Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein. He’s the man; driven, obsessed, chilling, relentless. Nothing will keep him from his dream of bringing the dead back to life. He’ll even kill to get what he wants. That’s focus.

Despite the heartbreak that is Christopher Lee with lumpy pancake make-up on his face, the movie is really watchable. It’s made abundantly clear throughout the movie that Cushing’s mad scientist is the real monster, but Lee manages to get some mayhem done on his own, and also in the service to his master.

If none of the above sounds like Mary Shelly’s book, that’s not an accident. The movie was Hammer Studio’s first foray into updating and re-imagining the old Universal movies. I think this is one of their better efforts, and the only thing that keeps it from being everyone’s favorite is the terrible make-up job on Lee—something they fixed in later films. So, you know, it’s not just me that thinks that.

4. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1994)
This could have been, and probably should have been, the corrective it was advertised to be. Kenneth Branagh, fresh from doing all of that Shakespeare stuff, sets out to adapt, direct, and star in a lavish do-over of Frankenstein—and do it right, as we can see by the addition of Mary Shelly’s name to the title. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola. A screenplay by Frank Darabont. Filmed on location in actual castles, with sumptuous sets, a huge budget, and a lengthy running time to get it all in, and yet, this film is a hell of a near miss. What happened?

I’ll tell you what happened. Branagh cast Robert De Niro as the monster.

Yep, you heard me. Terrible, terrible stunt casting that takes you completely out of the movie every time you see him in his subdued make-up. Don’t get me wrong—they tried, they really did, to get it right. But instead of asking those big picture questions about the meaning of life and whether or not Victor should be meddling with the powers of creation, the film centers around Dr. Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation and the monster’s anger at his “father” for being abandoned. Lots of victimization, and not a lot of villany. Oh, and no scares. I don’t know that there should be a lot of scares when you’re doing Frankenstein from the novel, but there’s audience expectations to manage, and this film drops the ball.

Not completely, mind you. There are some scenes that made it to the screen that have never been in a Frankenstein movie up until that time—like Victor’s and the Monster’s final confrontation in the frozen North. Straight out of Shelly. And while De Niro does give a good acting performance, it’s still not what the movie needs. It’s a good thing that Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter are pretty to look at.

3. Frankenstein (1931)
It’s hard to discuss literary Frankenstein without mentioning this movie, a nearly exact copy of the stage play of the same name (hey, it worked out well for Dracula, right?) And Universal hit upon something with their portrayal; the idea of the grotesque nature of the monster being a source of horror and tragedy.

Make-up man Jack Pierce loved to tell the story of his idea for Boris Karloff’s now-legendary make-up. He figured that the good doctor wasn’t a skilled surgeon and that he’d take a lot of short cuts, such as lopping the top of the head off and sewing the top of the skin over, like a flap, with clamps for easy access. Creepy, right? Also, kind of genius. And the bolts are in the neck because, of course, the monster runs on direct current, like a battery. But the stitches in the face, neck, and hands, and the dazed, disfigured look, stirred audience members up more than they may have realized. So many of the people in the theaters had to deal with the soldiers coming home from The Great War in Europe with horrible disfigurements—missing arms and legs, noses and ears, scars that no make up could conceal, and worse. These veterans were walking reminders of the horror of war, and Frankenstein was the stand-in for a nation’s reaction to those veterans. The movie made it okay to scream and shudder when Karloff lumbered into the light, a living reminder that War is Hell.

Accuracy be damned. This film modernizes the setting, for what that’s worth—everything is still in the backwater countryside of Europe. It’s fitting that, despite the 20th century trappings, it’s still torches and pitchforks for the movie’s monster-hunters. It’s enjoyable now for what it is, but what it isn’t is Mary Shelly’s Novel.

2. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Much ado has been made over this film—the sequel to the smash hit, and in some weird way, a very personal statement for director James Whale. I think the movie has a lot of hubris in it—the notion of “playing God” and creating life is pushed even farther, and with more disastrous results, in this film. If anything, the themes are closer to what Shelly seemed to be driving at in her novel.

Whale must have thought so too, because he opens the film with Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelly, knitting on the divan whilst her husband Percy and Lord Byron men roll their R’s and pose and preen while they talk about how neato it was that a mere slip of a girl could write so wonderfully wicked a story. Lovely. She eventually tells them there’s more to the story, and then we dissolve to the end of the first film, implying that everything that follows in the film was somehow or another straight from the author’s mouth.

Clearly this is not the case, but if you want watch a well-shot, bizarre, whackadoo black and white camp-fest, this is your movie. It’s a beautifully told, messed up morality play based on a subplot from the original novel, teased into a feature-length film, and featuring the sexiest Universal Monster to ever spurn a creature’s tentative advances. Thematically, the movie is worth your time, but you have to make it past Dr. Pretorius’ collection of homunculi first.

1.Frankenstein (1973)
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when the best horror stories could be found on daytime television, but let’s face it, Dark Shadows was a saving grace. Not so much for the show itself, because it was still a soap opera, vampires and werewolves notwithstanding. But rather, because it was so successful that producer Dan Curtis got the go-ahead to adapt some classic novels into made-for-television movies. In addition to Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde and Dracula, he also managed to crank out a fine version of Frankenstein starring Bo Svenson as the monster.

No, I’m not kidding.

The production is claustrophobic, shot on a shoestring budget, with video lighting and no sense of scale to any of the shots. The whole thing feels like you’re watching a theatrical production, and that makes the suspension of disbelief hard to overcome. But Curtis stuck to the book, much in the same way he did with Dracula and Dr. Jeckyl. I know you don’t believe me. But if you’re looking for Literary Frankenstein, this is about as close as you’re going to come until someone comes along and shoots the novel as a mini-series, which is honestly what needs to happen.

(bonus) Young Frankenstein (1975)
You can’t talk about Frankenstein without talking about Young Frankenstein. This is Mel Brook’s greatest achievement, and certainly a high point in his collaboration with Gene Wilder. Their working together was like catching lighting in a bottle. Yeah, a FRANKENSTEIN-SHAPED BOTTLE! Boom! They got to use Universal's original sets and props, and that alone lent a lot of weight to this gag-a-minute movie that more or less keeps the general ideas set forth in the original Karloff movie.

Everyone in the film is funny in their own way, from Marty Feldman to Madelyn Kahn and all points in between. And the film is nearly as quotable as The Big Lebowski. If you haven’t seen this movie, you simply must. Don’t believe anyone who tells you Space Balls or Robin Hood: Men in Tights or even Blazing Saddles is a better Mel Brooks  movie. It’s not. They are all wrong and I can prove it with math. Young Frankenstein is better than all of the others and is required viewing for horror and comedy fans.