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

The Monster (2016)


It was a dark and stormy night...

It was a dark and stormy night…

(2016) Horror (A24) Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Scott Speedman, Aaron Douglas, Chris Webb, Marc Hickox, Christine Ebadi. Directed by Bryan Bertino

 

The things that scare us are often those that hide in the shadows, that dwell in the dark but they aren’t always the most dangerous things. Sometimes what is most threatening is that which is right in front of us.

Lizzie (Ballentine) is entering her teen years with a bigger burden than most. Her mother Kathy (Kazan) is a raging alcoholic with appropriately awful taste in men. Lizzie yearns for a normal life but that is not likely to happen with Kathy who is far from a candidate for the Mother of the Year award. Lizzie just wants Kathy to drop her off at school so she can appear in the school play but the two get into a massive fight which ends up with Kathy essentially telling her daughter to go straight to Hell.

The two simply can’t co-exist any longer so Kathy decides to take Lizzie to live with her father (Speedman) who may or may not be much better, but whatever – Kathy is going to take her daughter in the middle of a rainy night through a lonely wooded road. When a wolf runs out into the road, Kathy spins out the car and wrecks it. However, thank goodness there is a cell signal and she calls for an ambulance and a tow truck.

When the two ladies investigate, they realize that the wolf was in the process of being eaten before they hit it. And when the tow truck driver (Douglas) arrives, it soon becomes crystal clear that they’re being stalked by something that is not anything anyone has ever seen before but there is one thing that is absolutely for certain about it – it’s hungry.

There is room here for a really nifty horror film but unfortunately we don’t get it. The constant bickering between Lizzie and Kathy gets irritating after awhile. Also the backstory is largely told through flashbacks which have a tendency to stop the movie dead in its tracks and interrupt the goings on. These also get irritating after awhile.

Kazan has a very youthful face which is perfect for this role; she barely looks old enough to have graduated from high school herself. She has a pretty thankless role; Kathy isn’t what you’d call admirable although when push comes to shove, she finally reacts like an actual mother but most of the movie tells us that she isn’t really much of a mother to begin with. Why she suddenly becomes one doesn’t feel very organic to me.

There are a lot of things that I call horror movie shortcuts; actions taken by the characters that defy logic. Even when panicked, most people aren’t going to continually venture past the streetlight that seems to be their only protection just to see what’s going on. However, the women’s actions serve to advance the plot but not necessarily the characters. That is some lazy writing right there.

The creature effects are nifty (and non-CGI, refreshing in this day and age) and the filmmakers wisely choose not to reveal too much about the monster. They are undoubtedly familiar with the adage that the imagination is far scarier than anything any filmmaker can come up with in general and the filmmakers use that to their advantage.

There are a few moments here and there that are generally scary and the dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamic might have made for an interesting background for the film, but in the end it’s just another monster hunt and not a particularly innovative one. Generally, I’d wait on this until it becomes available at a bargain streaming fee, or on a service you already subscribe to. It’s nothing to seek out intentionally though.

REASONS TO GO: The creature work is pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic and realism spoil the plot. The mother-daughter bickering eventually got on my nerves. The flashbacks are rather intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a surfeit of profanity as well as some violence and bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was previously titled There Are Monsters.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cujo
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

The Babadook


Not your average bedtime story.

Not your average bedtime story.

(2014) Horror (IFC Midnight) Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell, Hayley McElhinney, Cathy Adamek, Benjamin Winspear, Barbara West, Craig Behenna, Carmel Johnson, Terence Crawford, Chloe Hurn, Jacqy Phillips, Bridget Walters, Tony Mack, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Peta Shannon. Directed by Jennifer Kent

I like Australians. They are such a genial people, laid-back and with a quick smile and a terrific sense of humor. I love hanging out with them. They drink like fish, love to eat and are the sort of friends that are loyal forever or until you piss ’em off, whichever comes first. Based on what great folks they are, I wouldn’t think of them as makers of great horror movies. Comedies, yes. But horror movies?

Yes. One of the most talked-about horror movies of the year comes from Down Under, and has quietly been sweeping through the Festival circuit bringing audience and critical raves. Now it’s out and about on limited release, not to mention on VOD.

Amelia (Davis) has that look. The kind where you know she’s hanging on by the skin of her teeth. Sure, she can be all smiles and helpful and generous at the nursing home where she works as a nurse (appropriately enough) but when you look closely at her, you can see that smile is frozen in place with duct tape and Elmer’s glue. The look in her eyes tells it all.

You see, Amelia’s life hasn’t turned out the way she planned. She was happily married, expecting their first child. In fact, she was on the way to the hospital to give birth but there was an accident – her husband died. Both she and the child lived. Now a rambunctious seven-year-old, Samuel (Wiseman) isn’t an easy child to raise by any standard. One moment affectionate and loving, the next screaming at the top of his lungs and being violent, Amelia’s sister Claire (McElhinney) no longer wants Samuel around especially after he pushed her out of a treehouse, breaking her nose. Of course, the other side of that is that the bitch told him that his dad wasn’t around because he didn’t want him. Ouch.

Samuel also sees monsters. Nasty, nightmare-inducing ones that terrorize him so much he sleeps in her bed nearly every night and wakes her up in the process. He builds home made weapons to smash the monsters, vowing to protect his mum and begging her to protect him. Just you and me against the world, kid.

She’s beginning to wonder if her kid needs therapy until a pop-up book shows up mysteriously. She didn’t buy it for him and he doesn’t remember where it came from but the book is vaguely menacing, outright creepy and informs them that you can’t get rid of the Babadook and that essentially it’s coming to kill them.

At first she thinks it’s just a prank, albeit one in poor taste but as unexplainable things begin to plague them, she begins to wonder if Samuel has been telling her the truth all this time. But is this monster truly real, or a figment of her imagination – a sign of her own madness? She has to figure it out fast because it’s already getting to be just shy of too late.

One of the things I adore about this movie is that they don’t make things clear-cut until near the end and even then there’s some ambiguity. Amelia literally unravels as we watch and pretty soon you wonder if there is really a monster or if the monster has been Amelia all along. There are signs pointing to the latter. She has problems connecting with her own son, blaming him for the death of her husband and she feels tremendous guilt because of it. She never once during the movie (although I think she might have at the very end) says “I love you” to her son. His issues are at least obvious and easy to read; hers less so but if you know where to look, she’s as deeply wounded as her son is.

Wiseman does a pretty credible job in a difficult role for any child actor. His outbursts seem genuine and when he shrieks at the top of his lungs, any parent with an ADHD kid will wince in sympathy. We’ve all been there when our child loses it, no? He has to play every gamut of the emotional range of kids and while at times he has that wooden quality that most child actors has, he acquits himself very well.

There are other decent performances in smaller roles, including veteran Aussie actor Henshall as a workplace romance for Amelia and West as Amelia’s next door neighbor who is, I think, her mother-in-law. At the very least she’s a concerned friend.

The Babadook itself, played by Tim Purcell, mostly sticks to the shadows and the audience rarely gets a good look at it. Its silhouette, seen on the movie’s poster, is menacing and chilling to say the least and this is one of the most well-realized movie monsters of the past decade.

This is the stuff of nightmares by cracky and while it doesn’t have the gore that some horror fans seem to require, it does have the right nightmarish atmosphere and the terror in the mundane that Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg used to such great effect in Poltergeist. While the low budget horror of The Babadook might not hold up to the big budget terrors in that film, it nonetheless holds its own and will be swimming around your brain months after you see it for the first time. This has all the earmarks of a cult classic and you’ll want to get in on the ground floor for it.

REASONS TO GO: Hits all the right notes. Fine performance from Davis. Keeps audience guessing. Some truly scary moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Watching a kid act out can be unpleasant. Dog lovers may want to skip this one.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, plenty of scenes of terror and suspense, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babadook” is an anagram of “A bad book.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Red Riding Hood
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Graduate

Beowulf (2007)


If I saw Angelina Jolie rising naked out of a cave pool, I'd draw my sword too - but it would likely be a different sword.

If I saw Angelina Jolie rising naked out of a cave pool, I’d draw my sword too – but it would likely be a different sword.

(2007) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Dominic Keating, Alison Lohman, Crispin Glover, Costas Mandylor, Chris Coppola, Charlotte Salt, Julene Renee, Sebastian Roche, Chris Coppola, Sonja Fortag, Jacquie Barnbrook. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

We are in the midst of a cinematic superhero golden age. However, even before comic books there were heroes. Gilgamesh, Hercules, Theseus – all names that were spoken of with honor in ancient days. The legend of Beowulf is one of the oldest examples of heroic literature but today, few know his story – and it is a mighty one.

King Hrothgar (Hopkins) of Denmark and his much younger queen Wealthow (Penn) are celebrating their grand new meadhall in fine drunken fashion. The aging king may lament the lack of a son and heir but he has a full life of heroic deeds to sing of. He is drunk to the disgust of his queen, but to the praise of his warriors. The noise reaches the ears of the monster Grendel (Glover). Being a monster, he reacts predictably. None of the drunken Danes can stand up to the misshapen creature, as the smarmy adviser Unferth (Malkovich) cowers in a cistern. The carnage is considerable.

Fully aware that none of his people have the strength or courage to defeat the monster, Hrothgar sends word to all the nations of the earth that a hero is required. His desperate cry is answered by Beowulf (Winstone) of the Geats, a vain swaggering man who can thankfully back up his boasts. Although his trusted right hand man Wiglaf (Gleason) has reservations about the whole situation, he has his friend’s back.

Beowulf is greeted less than enthusiastically by the suspicious Danes, who find his stories a tad tall. Wealthow, for her part, finds the studly Geat intriguing, while Beowulf does the same. Hrothgar, who was friends with Beowulf’s father, is grateful to have him there to rid him of his curse. He orders a great celebration in the Meadhall, which is sure to attract Grendel’s notice.

True to form, Grendel arrives and again wreaks great havoc. The cocky Beowulf, who is fully naked since Grendel wears no armor nor carries any sword, watches his men get bounced around the room like ping pong balls, but soon sees Grendel’s weakness and exploits it. At length, he manages to chain the creature up so that it is half in, half out of the doorway and uses the chain to rip the arm off of the beast, which limps home to mama (Jolie). His killer’s name is the last word on his lips.

 

The grieving and furious mom (she has no name either in the movie nor the story it is based on) takes out her fury on Beowulf’s men. Only Wiglaf escapes the slaughter being down by the boat preparing it for the trip home. Beowulf is also spared by the demon, but only because she has plans for him. Beowulf has been given a beautiful dragon horn as a gift by Hrothgar, who has also promised Beowulf the throne of Denmark when Hrothgar dies, but with the demon still loose in the land, Beowulf knows he must kill the mother of the monster before he can truly call himself a hero, but he will face his greatest challenge; his own vanity and pride. Will he be hero enough to overcome them?

Yes, this is the same motion capture animation Zemeckis utilized in The Polar Express, but this is far more than the one-man show that movie was. Zemeckis hired a very impressive group of actors, led by Winstone – one of the finest character actors of his generation – and Hopkins, one of the finest actors period. They roar with the best of them here. Although you get a sense of the faces of the actors, they are altered enough so that they don’t quite look the same. Still, how can you go wrong with a cast that includes Gleason, Penn, Malkovich, Jolie and Lohman?

The animation here was stunning in its day – seven years ago While they are going for an almost photo-realistic style, it is still obviously animation and the characters have that lifeless expression that came with 3D photorealism in its earliest stages. Still, there are times when you forget that it isn’t live action, and that’s saying something. I saw this in a 2-D version which spared me the headaches of 3-D animation, but judging from what I saw, the 3-D version would probably be terrifying. The music is suitably heroic and martial. Not many are familiar with Beowulf’s story, one of the oldest heroic epics we are aware of.

As I said earlier, the cast is first-rate. There is quite a bit of entertainment to be had here. Winstone’s take on Beowulf makes him a big-time blowhard, but noble nonetheless – a tough trick to pull off.

There’s quite a bit of shouting and chest-beating here. The testosterone levels are abundant to say the least, even among the women in the cast. However, Neil Gaiman wrote the script which should tell you all you need to know about the quality of the writing.

Da Queen was not interested at all in catching this, so I didn’t see it until it hit On Demand. I would have liked to see this on a big screen – the visuals are worth it. Even on a small screen, it’s impressive. I wouldn’t say it’s up with Polar Express or the Back to the Future series in Zemeckis’ resume, but this is solid nonetheless.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive visuals. Even in motion capture Winstone, Gleeson and Hopkins are terrific actors.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Curiously lifeless. An over-abundance of testosterone.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some animated nudity and quite a bit of carnage. The monsters can be awfully frightening, This PG-13 could easily have wound up being R-rated without too much of a stretch.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Glover previously worked with Zemeckis on Back to the Future.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are featurettes on the history of the story of Beowulf, and how it made it from story to screen. The making-of featurettes are also unusually interesting given the demands of motion capture and the larger-than-life nature of the actors involved.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $196.4M on a $150M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Arthur

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Wish I Was Here

Priest


Priest

Amtrack announces new economy seating for those unwilling to pay full fare.

(2011) Sci-Fi Horror (Screen Gems) Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Maggie Q, Cam Gigandet, Lily Collins, Steven Moyer, Brad Dourif, Christopher Plummer, Alan Dale, Madchen Amick, Dave Florek, Joel Polinsky, Josh Wingate. Directed by Scott Stewart

Conscience can be a tricky thing. We are often called to do what our conscience demands and that can be at odds with what those around us say is right. The person following their conscience is either a hero or a sociopath, depending on your point of view.

The world is at peace. The great Vampire War is at last over, thanks to the Church and its warrior Priests. The surviving vamps and their human familiars have been exiled to heavily guarded reservations, their great hives deserted. The Church is in charge de facto, making productivity and work an article of faith. There is no need of the Priests any longer.

That is, until one such Priest (Bettany) gets a visit from Sheriff Hicks (Gigandet) from the frontier outpost near where the Priest’s brother Owen Pace (Moyer) was working at reclaiming the desert and making it fertile again. He and his family were attacked by vampires, the first such attack in ages. His sister-in-law Shannon (Amick) died in the attack and their daughter Lucy (Collins) kidnapped. The Priest asks permission to leave the city and deal with this but Monsignor Orelas (Plummer) forbids it. The Church’s authority and ultimate control derives from the population believing they’re safe from the vampire threat. Should the Priest leave it could erode the Church’s mandate.

Nonetheless the Priest leaves, travelling to the Outpost on one of the Church’s high tech motorcycles. He arrives to find his brother on death’s door, begging the Priest to rescue Lucy. The Priest hangs around long enough to bury his brother, then takes off with the Sheriff, who is sweet on Lucy, to find the missing girl.

In the meantime, Monsignor Orelas has assigned the Priest’s former crew including a Priestess (Q) who may have a case of hero worship evolving into romantic feelings for him, to find the Priest and bring him back dead or alive. The Priest heads to a nearby reservation to find the vampires missing and guards dead. Only a few familiar and weaker vampires remain. The remaining vamps attack at nightfall and the Priest dispatches them but it’s obvious something very sinister is afoot.

The Priestess catches up with the Priest and Sheriff in an abandoned hive but they are all surprised to find a Hive Guardian – a kind of vampire-infected dog – still guarding the Hive. The Priestess confesses that she’s not there to take the Priest back but to join him instead. The trio discovers that the Hive was recently populated and signs point to a train that is headed into a nearby town.

Behind all the chaos is Black Hat (Urban), a former priest infected by the vampires. He kidnapped Lucy mainly to draw out the Priest – the Black Hat blames Priest for his fall from humanity. The two are going to go mano a vampo before the end, the train headed on a collision course for the unsuspecting city and the corrupt church that rules it.

Stewart’s last movie was Legion and that was another CGI-heavy movie with spiritual overtones that starred Bettany. There the similarities end – in fact, this film has more in common with the John Wayne classic The Searchers (whose plot it pilfered virtually verbatim) than with his last picture. Stewart has a tremendous visual sense; the cityscape is dreary, visually influenced by Blade Runner with its dreary aesthetic. Outside the city are gigantic statues a la Lord of the Rings. The outer frontier is barren wastelands straight out of the westerns of John Ford with a little bit of Mad Max thrown in.

Bettany goes the Clint Eastwood – what is it about would-be action stars that they think they have to grunt their lines through a larynx as squinted as their eyes – route and is at least credible, although I don’t think Vin Diesel or Jason Statham have anything to worry about for now. Maggie Q has a pretty decent action pedigree of her own and while she’s no Michelle Yeoh, she holds her own.

Karl Urban is one of those actors that doesn’t come to mind when thinking of great character actors, but when you think about his most recent performances you realize you can’t think of a bad one. This isn’t one of his finest moments but it still resonates; even the campy one where he conducts the invisible orchestra as his vampires wipe out a town; like most of the best moments in the movie, it’s seen on the trailer.

There are some pretty nice action sequences, particularly the fight in the hive and the climactic battle aboard a moving train. Unfortunately, the movie is played so flat it actually lacks energy; you walk out of it feeling curiously numb, as if you’d just taken a sedative. That’s not a feeling you want to leave an action movie with.

There’s enough to give the movie a bit of a recommendation, but not to urge you to go out of your way to seek it out. The visuals are great and although Bettany’s Eastwood impression doesn’t do the movie any favors, he is at least visually a presence. There is far worse out there and probably much worse to come. There is also much better out there and certainly much better to come.

REASONS TO GO: Some very nicely realized action sequences. Art direction is magnificent; the setting is imposing and combines the Wild West and science fiction genres nicely

REASONS TO STAY: Bettany’s channeling of Eastwood is distracting. For all the grand settings the film is curiously passionless.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images as well as some scenes of violence and ghoulishness.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gerard Butler was originally cast in the lead role.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the grand vistas are more effective on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Something Borrowed