Frankenstein (1931)


One of the most iconic images in horror movie history.

(1931) Horror (UniversalColin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris, Francis Ford, Michael Mark, Mae Bruce, Jack Curtis, Paul Panzer, William Dyer, Cecil Reynolds, Cecilia Parker, Ellinor Vanderveer, Soledad Jiménez, Mary Gordon, Carmencita Johnson, Pauline Moore, Arletta Duncan. Directed by James Whale

Perhaps the most iconic horror film of all time is James Whale’s 1931 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the latter of whom is listed in the credit as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” – ah, misogyny). It is in many ways the perfect storm of Gothic imagery, gruesome subtexts, pathos, terror and a truly mind-blowing performance by Boris Karloff as the monster.

Most everyone knows the story, or at least bits of it; medical student Henry Frankenstein (Clive) who was renamed from Victor in the book and most subsequent films, is obsessed with the big questions of life; why does one child turn out to be the pillar of the community, the other a criminal? Where does life begin? Can a man bring life to the lifeless?

To discover the latter, he and his faithful servant Fritz (Frye) – renamed Igor in most subsequent productions – dig up bodies for their parts to create a perfect being. Utilizing a violent thunderstorm, lightning strikes buffet his creation until, as Frankenstein notably exclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

However, Frankenstein eventually has cause to regret his experiment as he loses control of the monster which goes on a murderous rampage, not always out of malice (in a particularly famous scene he inadvertently drowns a little girl while throwing flowers into a lake).

Many of the tropes that have characterized horror films in the 88 years since this movie was made originated or was refined here; the angry mob with torches and pitchforks, the sweet maiden menaced by an ugly monster, the imposing castle, the thunderstorm, the grunting of the inarticulate monster and so much more.

Karloff’s sad eyes and stiff gait made the monster so memorable that it was called thenceforth Frankenstein, even though the monster is never given a name in the film. Karloff, to that point a journeyman actor who generally played the heavy in B movies, would go on to a lucrative and acclaimed career as one of the greatest horror specialists of all time. Frankenstein is so iconic that many identify the genre with this movie; often the scowling visage as the monster is used to represent the genre.

While the scares are tame by modern standards, I think the film holds up extraordinarily well even today. This is how horror films were done before excessive gore was used as a crutch by many filmmakers in the genre; Whale knew just about how much to leave to the imagination and our imaginations are often more gruesome than reality. I think that these days, it gets lost in the shuffle a little bit but if you haven’t seen it – or haven’t seen it in a while – you owe it to yourself to watch it once again or for the first time.

REASONS TO SEE: A classic in every sense of the word. Karloff’s performance is a career maker. Still pretty scary even now. Still the best adaptation of the iconic Mary Shelley tale. The standard by which other horror movies are judged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Quite tame by modern standards.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scary images and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The monster isn’t seen until 30 minutes into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bride of Frankenstein
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Saudi Women’s Driving School

Depraved (2019)


Give yourself a hand

(2019) Horror (IFC MidnightDavid Call, Joshua Leonard, Alex Breaux, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia, Chloe Levine, Owen Campbell, Addison Timlin, Chris O’Connor, Alice Barrett, Andrew Lasky, Jack Fessenden, James Tam, Zilong Zee, Noah Le Gros, John Speredakos, Stormi Maya, Hope Blackstock, Rev Love, Hannah Townsend. Directed by Larry Fessenden

 

The classic novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was originally the result of a competition between herself, her husband poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Romantic poet Lord Byron to write a ghost story. Only the tale of a man reanimated, reconstructed from the body parts of other men has withstood the test of time.

Alex (Campbell) is having an argument with his girlfriend Lucy (Levine) whose only crime was to compliment him on what a good father he’d make. Alex sees it as putting undue pressure on him to become a husband and father, neither of which he’s ready for. He grabs his hipster beret and stalks out into the night – only to run into a murderous mugger. Face to black, Alex.

Only Alex isn’t completely gone. Adam (Breaux) wakes up on an operating table in a Brooklyn loft, not knowing who he is or even what he is. He is literally a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Henry (Call), an Army doctor who served in Iraq and came back home with a massive case of PTSD for his trouble, calms the confused Adam down. Eventually he begins to teach him the basics of motor skills and human speech, which eventually Adam begins to develop as a self-aware human being.

Covered in scars, Adam doesn’t understand why he is different than other people nor does he know that he is a pawn in a game being played by Polidori (Leonard), a would-be pharmaceutical billionaire who is eager to market the drug that aided Henry in the revivication process. As Adam grows more self-aware, some of his memories as Alex begin to resurface, confusing him further. As anyone who has ever seen a Frankenstein movie or read the book will tell you, the path for Adam will lead inexorably towards bloodshed.

Fessenden, who has carved a niche in indie horror with strong, character-driven films, utilizes camera effects to give audiences a sense of the confusion Adam is feeling and how his memories as Alex begin to overlap with his own. There isn’t an awful lot of gore in the film other than some in the initial going as Alex meets his fate, and as with most Frankenstein adaptations, most of the blood flows in the final reel. Horror fans who crave lots of gore might be disappointed with this one, although there is plenty for my own taste.

While some have labeled this an update of the original Shelley novel, I think it’s far more accurate to call this a deconstruction, taking the elements of Shelley’s novel, updating the location and time and then creating something entirely new with it. This is much more of a psychological horror piece than a gothic one.

There is an awful lot of dialogue here – maybe too much. There are some moments in the film that drag a bit too much and the movie would have benefited, in the immortal words of Elvis, with “a little less talk and a little more action.” Still, the movie is much smarter than the average horror film and looks in a meaningful way with out own fear of mortality, much as Shelley’s original novel did but putting it in terms that are more modern and understandable.

This isn’t destined to be a horror classic. For one thing, most people familiar with the story of Frankenstein are going to find the plot somewhat predictable despite the updated setting; Depraved is essentially in that sense an updated remake. It’s in the places where it strays from the source material that the movie has its best moments. Many movie critics will tell you that we are currently experiencing a renaissance of the horror genre; while this movie isn’t on the leading edge of that wave, it certainly is a solid entry into the genre as an early entry into the Halloween sweepstakes for 2019.

REASONS TO SEE: A deconstruction of the Frankenstein mythos, set in Brooklyn.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit tedious in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, sexuality, some violence and horrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fessenden has a cameo in the film as Ratso.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frankenstein (1931)
FINAL RATING: 6,5.10
NEXT:
Ant-Man and the Wasp

Death Race 2050


Marci Miller makes her point to Manu Bennett.

(2016) Science Fiction (Universal) Manu Bennett, Malcolm McDowell, Marci Miller, Burt Grinstead, Folake Olowofoyeku, Anessa Ramsey, Yancy Butler, Charlie Farrell, Shanna Olson, D.C Douglas (voice), Sebastian Llosa, Emilio Montero, Mark Doran, Karl Muse, Alberto Osterling, Robert Slattery, Daniela Vargas, Jonathan Fisher, Helen Loris, Hailey Livingston. Directed by G.J. Echternkamp

 

In all the annals of filmdom there hasn’t been anyone quite like Roger Corman. His oeuvre of cheap special effects and low budget with a dash of social satire and a low-brow tone has been with him through a nearly six decade career. The original Death Race 2000, made in 1975, was one of his biggest hits, starring David Carradine and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. In many ways a live action version of the Saturday morning cartoon Wacky Races, it has been considered a cult classic for decades. In 2008, a remake entitled Death Race was made with Jason Statham starring. Eschewing the light-hearted satire of the original, it was a darker hued straight action movie that was successful enough to spawn three direct-to-home-video sequels, all without Statham.

This one, with Corman’s presence as a producer, is not so much a remake as a reboot. It returns to the slightly off-kilter feel of the original as well as the approximate plot. The Chairman (McDowell) of the United Corporations of America convenes the annual Death Race, the biggest sports event in the world. In it, five racers with souped up vehicles weaponized to the teeth race from Nuevo York to New Los Angeles. It’s not about who gets there first; it’s about who kills the most pedestrians along the way.

=You see, robots have replaced human workers in nearly every job and consequently there’s 99% unemployment and overpopulation. The Death Race thins the herd so to speak. To placate the masses, the Race also offers a Virtual Reality version in which viewers can be in the cockpit of the car of their favorite drivers through proxies who carry cameras and microphones, periodically interviewing their heroes.

The drivers are Minerva Jefferson (Olowofoyeku), a hip-hop artist; Tammy the Terrorist (Ramsey) whose name is self-explanatory; A.B.E., a robotic entry not unlike Knight Rider; Jed Perfectus (Grinstead), a buff sexually ambiguous genetically engineered athlete and the favorite, Frankenstein (Bennett) who is the reigning champion.

Curiously, fans of the drivers line up in an attempt to sacrifice themselves for their favorite drivers. And drivers steal these easy group kills from one another. As they make their way across the country big rivalries develop between Minerva and Tammy and especially between Perfectus and Frankenstein.

There is also a resistance out there who aim to disrupt and destroy the Death Race by any means necessary. They are led by former network executive Alexis Hamilton (Butler) who has a mole; Frankenstein’s proxy, Annie Sullivan (Miller). However the further they get into the race, the deeper the corruption becomes until Annie, whom Frankenstein appears ambivalent towards – he only wants to win – is unsure of what side she’s really on.

The humor here is dark and over the top as is the violence and gore. This is for sure a throwback to Corman’s heyday both in tone and in execution and for that the filmmakers are to be commended. I’m not sure how involved Corman himself was with this but his name is in the credits and in some cases on the title. I’m guessing that if he didn’t have his hands directly in it, they are there in spirit. Certainly the filmmakers understood his style.

The acting is about what you’d expect it to be, but a special shout-out has to go to Bennett. He proves that his work as the smoldering Slade Wilson in Arrow was no fluke. The man has a bright future ahead of him if he gets a few breaks and the right role. He’s got the presence.

The special effects and CGI are bargain basement and that can be an acquired taste. Modern audiences may not tolerate it when they are used to big budget effects. Admirers of classic B-movies will likely be more tolerant but these days that seems to be pretty much a niche group. I also found the soundtrack to be a bit overbearing. It became noticeable on quite a few occasions.

This isn’t for everybody but I suspect those who can appreciate the satire (the Chairman is certainly based on Donald Trump) and the humor, not to mention the gore will find this entertaining. The cheapness of the production which is an art in itself will further endear some. However – and I can’t stress this enough – those that don’t appreciate the art of B-movies will probably find this anachronistic and boring. Keep that in mind as you select it for streaming.

REASONS TO GO: The film is surprisingly satirical. It’s a throwback to Corman’s 70s and 80s films.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects may be too cheesy for some. The soundtrack is actually annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a butt load of violence and gore, some sexuality, some brief nudity and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sneakers Jed Perfectus wears are Converse All-Star Hi-Tops.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cannonball Run
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The LEGO Movie: Batman

Transcendence


Johnny Depp's salary for the film is displayed behind him.

Johnny Depp’s salary for the film is displayed behind him.

(2014) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Cory Hardrict, Falk Hentschel, Josh Stewart, Luce Rains, Fernando Chien, Steven Liu, Xander Berkeley, Lukas Haas, Wallace Langham, James Burnett, Sam Quinn, Olivia Dudley. Directed by Wally Pfister

Our attitudes towards technology tend to be split down the middle. On the one hand, we appreciate the wonders of it and become addicted to our laptops, our cell phones, our microwaves and our GPS devices. We eagerly speculate as to what amazing discoveries will be a part of our daily lives ten or twenty years down the line,

On the other hand, technology terrifies us. We tremble at the thought of atomic bombs, killer drones and artificial intelligence deciding that humanity is superfluous and wiping us all out like Skynet and Judgment Day. It isn’t hard to imagine our own hubris creating the seeds of our extinction.

Will Caster (Depp) is one of the planet’s most brilliant minds, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence. He and his wife and lab partner Evelyn (Hall) are on the verge of a major breakthrough, creating a machine that  will not only think analytically but feel emotions, thus having more brainpower than the combined intelligence of every human that ever lived. Scary stuff.

A little too scary for some. A group of what I guess you’d call technoterrorists – a group of angry young people out to stop technology from taking over our lives at all costs – launch a coordinated attack on artificial intelligence labs all over the country. Decades of research is wiped out in the space of hours and the possibility that the scientists will never reach their goal looms large. Worse still, Will was shot – well, grazed – but the bullet that grazed him was coated with a radioactive isotope that will kill him in a matter of weeks. You can’t say these terrorists didn’t learn well from the KGB.

Evelyn kind of loses it. She wants to save her husband but knows his body is doomed. After reading some research from a scientist who was killed in the attack, she realizes that consciousness can be uploaded into a computer – he had done it with a rhesus monkey. With no other option, she determines to follow this course. She needs help and recruits Max (Bettany), a fellow scientist and close friend to both Will and herself.

Because this untested research would never be sanctioned in any reputable lab, particularly with FBI Agent Buchanan (Murphy) keeping a close eye on things. Their mentor, Dr. Tagger (Freeman) is unlikely to be supportive either. As Will’s body deteriorates, the attempt is made. Eventually, Will’s body dies. Did his soul?

At first, it seems the effort went to naught but a single line of text – Is Anybody There? – tells them that their experiment was a success. In fact, better than; Evelyn is convinced that everything that was the essence of what Will Caster was lives on in this machine. In a sense, she has become a modern Frankenstein.

But is this really Will? When circumstances force her to upload Will to the Internet, things begin to take a sideways step. Will manipulates bank accounts and stock, allowing Evelyn to create a kind of data fortress in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. Will has started making breakthroughs in cell regeneration, allowing those who are infirm to be healed. However, the down side is that Will’s source code is also uploaded into these recipients of his generosity, making them in essence worker bees with greatly enhanced strength and speed.

Evelyn watches this with horror despite the apparently benign intentions of the new Will machine. However, if he is making fundamental changes to the DNA of the people of this town, will he use this ability to control them? And if so, will there be any true humans left?

Depp has had a string of missteps on the big screen lately and this one, according to the box office figures, isn’t going to break that string although in terms of quality it is certainly an improvement over his last couple of films. This is intelligent sci-fi, raising questions about our increasing reliance on technology as well as how much we’re willing to give up for comfort and safety. These aren’t easy questions to answer nor do the filmmakers make much of an attempt to give you any.

This is one of Depp’s most low-key performances in ages. Caster talks in a kind of monotone, probably because he’s so busy thinking. We rarely see any emotion out of Depp and therein lies the problem; Caster is already robotic by the time he becomes a machine. The change isn’t terribly noticeable. Hall, with a Cambridge education, seems overly hysterical here in playing a rational scientist although if I’d seen the love of my life waste away after being shot by terrorists, I might be a bit hysterical too.

Only Bettany acquits himself nicely here, although Murphy and Freeman are solid in small roles. The acting here doesn’t really stand out but the special effects and set design do. There is a sleek futuristic look to the Caster compound and the digital effects, while not breakthroughs, are at least wow-inducing for the most part.

I do like the concept although the film isn’t always true to its inner logic and at the end of the day, falls just shy of being a much better film than just merely entertaining. There is a lot to digest here and while it’s no 2001: A Space Odyssey it is at least better than some of the more visceral sci-fi entries of recent years.

REASONS TO GO: Great effects. Nice concept. Keeps you guessing.

REASONS TO STAY: Misses the mark. Occasional overuse of technobabble.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and violence (some of it bloody), a bit of sensuality and occasional foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Pfister’s debut as a director. Previously he has been a renowned cinematographer working for such directors as Christopher Nolan and Kevin MacDonald.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lawnmower Man

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Heaven is For Real