Dracula (1931)


Look into my eyes…

(1931) Horror (Universal) Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Frances Dade, Joan Standing, Charles Gerrard, Moon Carroll, Josephine Velez, Michael Visaroff, Cornelia Thaw, Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, Barbara Bozoky, Anna Bakacs, Tod Browning (voice), John George, Wyndham Standing, Bunny Beatty. Directed by Tod Browning

As the silent era drew to a close and talkies became the “in” thing, Dracula – based on a stage play and not directly on Bram Stoker’s novel, although the play certainly used it as a starting point – became for Universal, the beginning of the studio’s long tenure as the monster studio. Together with Frankenstein which appeared later the same year, it became part of the one-two punch that would land legendary movie monsters like the Mummy, the Invisible Man and the Wolf Man at the studio and terrify generations of moviegoers and kids watching creature feature TV shows.

Real estate agent Renfield (Frye) goes to Transylvania to meet up with a client to close a leasing of property in London. The superstitious villagers warn him not to go to the Castle Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains, but he fails to heed their warnings and takes an unusual coach trip – a coach with no driver. Once at the castle, he meets Count Dracula (Lugosi) who turns out to be a man with a supernaturally intense gaze and a dislike of wine, which he never drinks. But the Count turns out to be more than a man – he is a vampire, the undead, as Renfield discovers too late – being driven mad and becoming the Count’s servant.

When the ship Renfield booked passage on returns to London, the horrible discovery is that the crew is all dead, there are a number of coffins aboard and only one survivor – Renfield, who is locked away in the asylum of Dr. Seward (Bunston). Seward’s daughter Mina (Chandler) is engaged to the handsome John Harker (Manners) and is close friends with Lucy Weston (Dade), a neighbor of the property the Count has leased. But the Count recognizes Lucy as a potential meal, and transforms her into a fellow vampire.

Fortunately, professional vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Van Sloan) arrives, in hot pursuit of the Count. He knows Dracula for what he is, and knows how to kill him. But can he and Harker possibly defeat a nearly immortal creature that has 500 years of experience in defeating foolish mortals like themselves?

This is a movie that is a classic in every sense of the word. The brooding, gothic sets; the wonderfully atmospheric cinematographer of Karl Freund, a German cinematographer who worked with F.W. Murnau on Metropolis and The Last Laugh and whom some credit with co-directing the movie, so important were his contributions. Browning chose to release the film without a score; music has since been added, but if you’ve ever seen a version without music, you’ve seen it as the director intended.

But what makes the movie is Lugosi. A Hungarian émigré, his English is heavily accented which would dog Lugosi throughout his career; however, the Eastern European lilt is perfect for the role as are Lugosi’s expressive eyes. Lugosi came from a theatrical background and often uses grand gestures in his performance here, a product of that background. That kind of thing was less noticeable back in the early sound era, when many stage actors were recruited for the talkies as silent actors often had voices that didn’t reproduce well (as with John Gilbert) or who gave stiff readings of their dialogue. The intensity of Lugosi’s performance here, though, is unquestioned and for nearly a century since the movie was released, is the performance most associated with the role, Christopher Lee and Frank Langella notwithstanding.

There are strong elements of melodrama in the screenplay, and Browning’s direction is often stiff and stagey, and for those reasons there are some who feel that the movie doesn’t hold up weel, but I disagree. Freund’s tracking shot as Renfield enters the castle is a breathtaking introduction to the Count, and the terrifying coach ride through the Carpathians is creepy even today. Not only is this a true Halloween classic and perhaps the ultimate Universal monster movie (credited with keeping the studio afloat through near-bankruptcy during the Depression), it is one of the most perfect adaptations of the Dracula legend ever. For all lovers of scary cinema, this is truly a must-see.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully atmospheric. A legendary performance by Lugosi. Classic in every sense of the word. Still spooky even by modern standards. Certain scenes still give me the heebie-jeebies.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might feel a bit quaint and dated for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is implied violence and sexuality, and some mild terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie began life as a Broadway play; Lugosi had originated the title role on the Great White Way and along with Van Sloan and Bunston, are the only actors to transition from the stage version to the screen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Peacock, Redbox, Spectrum, TCM, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; ;Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nosferatu
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Crutch

Splice


Splice

Adrien Brody has a thing for exotic chicks.

(2009) Science Fiction Horror (Warner Brothers) Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chaneac, Brandon McGibbon, Simona Maicanescu, David Hewlett, Abigail Chu, Jonathan Payne.  Directed by Vincenzo Natali

If man is able to create life, what separates men from God? Perhaps that would be hubris, one of man’s great sins but if one is like God, would then there be hubris naturally?

Clive Nicoli (Brody) and Elsa Kast (Polley) are both genetic engineers working for Nucleic Exchange Research and Development (N.E.R.D. – hahaha) as well as a romantic couple. At work they are trying to splice together the DNA of different animals to create unique new species for medical use. When they manage to create a female version of the new creature, the two become eager to add human DNA to an animal DNA in order to revolutionize both science and medicine but their employers, concerned about the P.R. implications of that kind of research, forbid it.

Instead, as all good mad scientists will, the two decide to carry on their research in secret and are able to successfully splice human DNA with animal DNA. They all the resulting organism Dren (Nerd spelled backwards) since Elsa refuses to refer to it as a specimen. She is in fact developing an almost maternal attitude towards the creature, which we eventually learn has Elsa’s DNA within it. The creature begins to learn and grow at an astonishing rate, maturing from child Dren (Chu) to young woman Dren (Chaneac) in weeks. After Dren attacks a lab technician who happens to be Clive’s brother Gavin (McGibon) Clive and Elsa decide to move their creation to the farm that belonged to Elsa’s late mother.

There things go from bad to worse. Dren is continuing to evolve, adding a lethal stinger and wings into her arsenal. She also has shown a tendency towards petulant violence, as well as signs of sexual awakening – and her sexual obsession is turned towards Clive. In the meantime, the previous experiment has ended in catastrophe as the two genetically spliced beings turn on each other in a violent fight that ends in both of the creatures tearing each other apart in front of a shocked audience. Have the two scientists created something beautiful – or a monster?

Director Natali is best known for The Cube (1997), one of the smartest science fiction films of the last decade. This one is no less intelligent, asking questions about scientific hubris and the process of creation as well as the morality of science as we stand on the cusp of human cloning and stem cell research.

He has a couple of fine actors to work with as well. Polley is a tremendously underrated actress who shines here as she usually does. She gives Elsa a certain amount of humanity and although Elsa has a dark past that eventually comes to light (and explains much of her actions), this is a character that could easily have been off-putting. Instead, Polley gives us a rooting interest in her.

One of the irritants of the film is that Clive’s actions become somewhat spineless as the film goes on; that isn’t Brody’s doing, but nonetheless he gives a decent enough performance. Brody always gives his characters a certain amount of intelligence, and while he hasn’t yet gotten a role equal to the part he played in The Pianist (for which he became the youngest Best Actor Oscar winner ever) he still insures a quality performance just about every time out.

Some are going to note the similarities between this film and Species and that has to be acknowledged. However, this movie takes it much further with graphic sexual elements that might disturb some. There is a bit of violence as well, but not as gory as your typical horror film.

The Dren creature is interesting, a cross between a human, a bat and a scorpion. This isn’t necessarily going to haunt to dreams, but the movie might well get under your skin. It asks some tough, provocative questions for which there are few easy answers. Even though the last reel is a bit of a disappointment (with an ending that sets up a potential sequel), the movie is still pretty solid throughout. Maybe it is a bit too smart for its own good; the American movie-going public is not particularly forgiving of movies that might make them think.

WHY RENT THIS: Much smarter than the average sci-fi or horror film. Polley and Brody give impressive performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many similarities to Species. Ludicrous final act.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some very strong sexuality and nudity, some violence and language and some disturbing themes and images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are references to classic Hollywood duos throughout the film. The two spliced organisms shown at the film’s beginning are named Fred and Ginger in reference to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. A vodka bottle in the lab is labeled to have specimens named Bogie and Bacall, named for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Finally, the main characters are named in honor of Colin Clive (who played Dr. Frankenstein) and Elsa Lanchester (who played the Bride) from Bride of Frankenstein.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.9M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

The Wolfman (2010)


The Wolfman

Someone's in need of a manicure...REEEEEEAL bad!

(Universal) Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Nicholas Day, Michael Cronin, David Sterne, David Schofield, Roger Frost, Rob Dixon, Clive Russell. Directed by Joe Johnston

We may carry a civilized veneer, but inside we all carry the soul of the beast. Inside, we are primitive, vicious and impulsive. The beast is never far from the surface, nearer for some than for others.

Laurence Talbot (Del Toro) is summoned to Blackmoor, the country village near Talbot Manor where he grew up. His brother’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Blunt) has written him to inform him that his brother has turned up missing. Laurence is a distinguished actor on the London stage, but he hurries out to his old stomping grounds, from whence he’s been estranged for nearly his entire adult life.

When he arrives there he finds his ancestral home is falling apart at the seams. Fallen leaves and dirt have blown into the main hall, bringing the autumn indoors. Cobwebs adorn the rafters and ghosts roam the hallways. His father, Sir John Talbot (Hopkins) inhabits the house but he doesn’t really live there – it couldn’t possibly be called a life. His faithful servant Singh (Malik) tends to his needs, but Sir John is a shadow of his former self and has been that way since his wife killed herself in full view of young Laurence.

His father greets him with the bleak news that his brother’s body had been found only the day before. The body has been severely mutilated, so much so that nobody’s really sure whether it was the work of an animal or a human lunatic loose on the moors. The suspicious and superstitious townspeople (really, is there a Universal horror picture that doesn’t have suspicious superstitious townspeople?) know what they think – that it’s the work of a group of gypsies that have been in the vicinity at about the time that other bodies similarly mutilated started turning up.

Laurence meets Gwen, whose staying at the house until the funeral and it becomes quickly apparent that there is a very strong bond between them. Laurence’s main concern, however, is to find out what happened to his brother and make sure the guilty party is brought to justice. Although he is warned to stay indoors that night because of a full moon, Laurence decides to go to the gypsy camp. He meets there with an old woman named Maleva (Chaplin) who knows more about the murder than she is letting on. Before she can tell anything, however, a group of angry townspeople burst into the camp, looking for retribution. Just then, the camp comes under attack.

The attacker is incredibly fast, savage. Both gypsy and townsperson are at risk; nobody is safe and people on both sides are maimed and killed with abandon. Laurence himself is viciously wounded in the attack.

He is taken back to the Manor where he is found to be healing unnaturally fast from his wounds. While he is convalescing he is questioned by Inspector Abberline (Weaving) of Scotland Yard, who has been called in to investigate the gruesome murders. It becomes apparent that Abberline regards Laurence as a suspect more than a victim.

Secrets from the Talbot family’s past slowly begin to surface from the bowels of the decrepit mansion and an unspeakable horror is soon unleashed on London. Can Laurence discover a way out of the events that are spiraling to an inevitable conclusion before he is swept under by them?

This is not a faithful remake of the 1941 horror classic of the same name. Director Johnston (Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, The Rocketeer) does an excellent job of creating a gothic atmosphere that is filled with foreboding and grimness. The moors become a palpable presence, shrouded by mist and filled with primeval beauty that comes upon them unexpectedly. Of all his directing efforts (which have been marked with considerable box office success), this is his best work to date.

One of the hardest things to do is remake a classic because if you go with the same elements that worked the first time, you’re accused of ripping off the original and if you try to put your own stamp on it, you are criticized for desecration of the original. It’s a lose-lose situation, and only rarely have these types of remakes succeeded (as The Mummy did). The writers here tend to go more extreme with gore and special effects in order to differentiate itself from the original. I’m not sure that this will completely eliminate unfavorable comparisons with the original.

I will admit this movie resonated with Da Queen much more than it did with me. She found Del Toro’s Laurence Talbot to be understated and subtle, expressing his inner torment on his face without resorting to shouting at the camera. He managed to elicit compassion from Da Queen and, I suspect, much more of the female portion of the audience than the male. She found it a convincing performance.

For me, Del Toro was a bit too understated. I would have liked to see a little more passion from him. I think in many ways he was trying to distance himself from the original Lon Chaney Jr. performance by distancing himself from the audience; in that he is successful. His character was meant to be a tragic romantic hero and in an era when gothic romance means Edward Cullen, the Laurence Talbots of the world get swept aside in a wave of female teenaged hormones. In some ways, Del Toro never had a chance.

He has some support though. Rick Baker was the only name on the short list of make-up effects wizards to pull off the look of the Werewolf, and he does an amazing job. The hirsute look of Del Toro allows him to look bestial and feral while retaining the human emotions that Del Toro is obliged to display. There’s enough difference between the make-up design here and on his seminal An American Werewolf in London that it doesn’t feel like he’s repeating himself.

Effects-wise, the one area that disappoints is the actual transformation from human to werewolf. We’ve seen it done in a variety of ways from the original optical dissolves to the practical effects of The Howling and the aforementioned An American Werewolf in London. What we see here doesn’t really make me forget any of those movies and quite frankly, given today’s digital technology, it should have. I was certainly expecting better.

There is a lot of gore here but not enough of the eye candy that modern audiences have come to expect. There is a terrible misuse of CGI; the scenes of the werewolf bounding through the forest looks patently fake and serves to jar the viewer out of the atmosphere of the film, which is a pity because Johnston and his team worked so hard in creating a good one. I love the classic gothic horror movies, and this one retains enough of the original that I can recommend it, but walk into the multiplex with the expectation that this remains the dark shadow of the original, reflected by flickering candlelight. Which, in its own way, is appropriate.

REASONS TO GO: Johnston really captures the gothic and grim atmosphere of the moors. Rick Baker’s make-up is astonishing.

REASONS TO STAY: Del Toro isn’t particularly scintilating in a role that calls for a romantic lead who’s actually romantic. Transformation sequences aren’t any better than, say, An American Werewolf in London.

FAMILY VALUES: Gruesome, horrific violence and gothic images make this strictly for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Inspector Abberline is a fictionalized version of an actual historical figure. He was, as Laurence alludes to in the film, the man who was a crucial member of the Jack the Ripper investigation for Scotland Yard. Francis was the nickname of the detective, whose real name was Frederick. He would wind up working for the Pinkertons after retiring from Scotland Yard.

HOME OR THEATER: The chilling atmosphere is definitely suitable for the small screen and the intimacy of house and home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: September Dawn