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

Sleepy Hollow


Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

(1999) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Steven Waddington, Claire Skinner, Christopher Lee, Alun Armstrong, Mark Spalding, Jessica Oyelowo. Directed by Tim Burton

Whenever Tim Burton concocts a new movie, critics everywhere go into a lather coming up with new hosannas in praise of his stuff. Generally, they’re right. By the time his interpretation of the Washington Irving classic came out the paroxysms of praise had become almost scary in their effusiveness. Which was – and is – fine by me.

Sleepy Hollow, after all, is supposed to be scary. However, those bookish moviegoers who have actually read the Washington Irving story and still remember it may find the liberties taken here with the source material a bit off-putting.

Ichabod Crane (Crane) is a foppish New York City constable who has been a bit of a gadfly in the NYPD of 1799. While the judges of the period are content with brute force and intimidation to solve their crimes, Crane is all for using scientific method and deductive reasoning to come to the truth. For his troubles, he is exiled to a small Dutch community in the Hudson Valley called Sleepy Hollow to solve a trio of ghoulish murders.

It seems that several prominent citizens of the Hollow have lost their heads. The trouble is their quite dead torsos are rather upsetting to those townspeople who stumble upon them. When Crane arrives, he encounters the plucky young daughter (Ricci) of a local farmer (Gambon), who imparts the story of the Headless Horseman: A somewhat rabid, bloodthirsty Hessian mercenary (Walken in essentially a cameo but still perfectly cast role) meets a bitter end in the woods near Sleepy Hollow, betrayed by a pair of wood-gathering little girls. The townspeople, who include a self-righteous priest (Jones), a timid notary (Gough), a lusty doctor (McDiarmid), a brave and burly farmer (Van Dien) and a corpulent burgomaster (Griffith) are all of the belief that the Horseman is responsible for the unspeakable crimes. Crane, of course, believes that the murderer is flesh and blood.

The game changes when Crane personally witnesses a murder, sending his faith in science and reason spinning into doubt. Unfortunately for the movie, he resolves this rather quickly; I thought it would have made for an interesting subplot to see Crane struggling between the evidence of his senses and his own rationality. Instead,  Crane and the plucky young farmer’s daughter go on a ghoul hunt, with all the violence, gore and spookiness that goes with it.

There are a lot of fairly impressive names behind the camera including Francis Ford Coppola, Larry Franco, Scott Rudin and Kevin Yagher, with Danny Elfman producing a suitably spooky score. While many of Burton’s key personnel are also in place, this seems less of a typical Tim Burton movie and more of a mainstream action/horror flick. There are a lot of missed opportunities here to bring some credible subplots into play that wouldn’t burden the plot as much as the ones that writers Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker decided to leave in.

Burton is wise enough to leave enough atmosphere in to make for some genuinely creepy moments, but his leitmotif of announcing the Horseman’s presence with lightning and thunder effects is a bit over-the-top. Depp makes an interesting Crane, retaining much of the bumbling fright of Irving’s Crane while giving him a heroic bent for the modern moviegoing audience to identify with. Ricci is lustrous in her ingénue role.

There’s some great work in Sleepy Hollow, enough that you’ll be talking about it well after the final credits have concluded. However, with a bit more of Burton and a bit less of Hollywood, this would have been a much more hellacious ride.

WHY RENT THIS: Tim Burton loveliness. Deep and Ricci make a fine couple. Genuinely spooky.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit more mainstream than we’re used to with Burton. Over-the-top in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: The horror, gore and violence is fairly graphic. There’s some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was one of the last two films released on Laser Disc (the other was Bringing Out the Dead).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $206.1M on a $100M production budget; the movie broke even during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: World War Z

Frankenweenie


Frankenweenie

Good doggie!

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Conchatta Ferrell, James Hiroyuki Liao, Tom Kenny, Christopher Lee, Frank Welker, Dee Bradley Baker. Directed by Tim Burton

 

The bond between a boy and his dog is something that ranks right up there with the closest relationships that we know of. Lonely boys, in particular, seem to become more attached to their canine companions. It is that feeling of unconditional love that is reciprocated; the dog can do no wrong, whether they bark at passing cars or leave an indiscretion on the living room carpet. These same boys as men will rarely love anyone or anything as much as they love their childhood dog.

Victor Frankenstein (Tahan) lives in the quiet suburban neighborhood of New Holland with his parents (O’Hara, Short). He is a smart kid, a science whiz who is something of a loner. He doesn’t have friends and doesn’t want any. In fact, he doesn’t need any – he has Sparky (Welker), an affectionate dog of indeterminate breed. Sparky goes everywhere with him, although he sometimes annoys the neighbor, the Mayor (Short again) by tearing up the flowers and marking the territory (ahem).

The mayor’s niece – Elsa (Ryder) is staying with her uncle, along with her poodle Persephone (Baker). She and Victor are in science class together at school, being taught by the somewhat haughty Mr. Rzykruski (Landau), a sinister looking soul but one who loves science with a passion. Along with Victor and Elsa are Edgar (Shaffer), an unlovely hunchback who can’t keep a secret; Bob (Capron) a rotund young boy with an easy-going nature and an insatiable appetite and Toshiaki (Liao), an Asian boy with ambitions of winning the science fair that go well on the road to obsession.

Tragedy strikes however when Sparky is killed. Victor is inconsolable, despite his mom and dad’s best efforts to cheer him up. He misses his dog terribly – his only companion. Victor watches a film that he made with his dog over and over again, unable to let go. Then, a lecture by Mr. Rzykruski that involved stimulating a dead frog’s muscle with an electric charge suddenly turns a light on in Victor’s brain. He would bring Sparky back to life.

He digs up his beloved dog from the local pet cemetery and turns his attic into a lab using whatever he can scrounge from around the house. There are lightning storms in New Holland regularly and that very night he uses one to revivify Sparky, whom he’s had to patch together with sewing thread. Still, the dog seems no worse for the wear (with an occasional ear or tail being thrown off when he gets excited) but Victor realizes most people will fear what he’s done and certainly nobody will understand it. Sparky needs to remain hidden but there’s not much chance a dog as rambunctious as Sparky will remain cooped up in an attic for long.

This is more or less an “old home week” kind of project for Burton. Way back in 1984 he did a “Frankenweenie” short which this comes from, albeit far more involved and expanded upon both from a cinematic and story standpoint. This is stop-motion animation just like The Corpse Bride was and has a similar spindly pipe cleaner leg oversized head saucer eyes kind of look to it, kind of like a gringo Day of the Dead look.

SCTV vets Short and O’Hara work nicely together as the parents while Tahan, whose Victor resembles Burton facially (and is likely meant to be his surrogate) doesn’t overplay, which sometimes happens in animated features. Landau does an excellent job with the science teacher who looks like a kind of cadaverous Vincent Price. The Eastern European accent also brings Bela Lugosi to mind.

There is a definite love letter to classic horror films here (as mentioned below), with appearances by Frankenstein, Dracula, Ghiderah and the Mummy. There is also a good deal of heart here, particularly when it comes to a boy’s devotion to his dog. I cried twice during the movie (no points if you can guess when) which takes some doing. There is also a certain amount of quirkiness that you would come to expect with a Tim Burton movie – his trademark, I’d say. It’s different from indie quirkiness in that it has a more ’50s suburban feel as interpreted by Roger Corman.

While the movie seems to have a difficult time deciding what era it’s in (at one point there are references to home computers but the look and feel is definitely more 1950s Americana), there is no doubt that this is a movie that knows its own roots and sticks to them. I hadn’t expected much from Frankenweenie after Burton’s misfire with Dark Shadows earlier this year but I should have known better. This is certainly one of his best movies in the last 10 years.

REASONS TO GO: Hits some powerful emotions. A return to form for Burton after his last misstep.

REASONS TO STAY: A little mannered in places. Some era confusion.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that might be a tad scary for younger tots. The theme of losing a beloved pet might also be too much for sensitive kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Tim Burton-directed movie not to feature Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter since 1996.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The reviews have been strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nightmare Before Christmas

CLASSIC HORROR LOVERS: There are homages throughout the film to various classic horror films and genres from the obvious Frankenstein to Vincent Price, the Toho giant lizard films, gothic Hammer horror and Gremlins among others.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Taken 2

War Horse


War Horse

Joey takes it to the trenches

(2011) War Drama (Touchstone/DreamWorks) Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Patrick Kennedy, Leonard Carow, David Kross, Eddie Marsan, Liam Cunningham. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

The bond between man and horse rivals that between man and dog. For horse lovers, it is an almost mystical connection, one that exists at the very base of the soul. It is a connection that doesn’t break easily, even when divided by distance, time…and war.

Joey is a horse that is born in the bucolic countryside of Devon in England. He is more racing stock than the plough horse that the sensible farmers of Devonshire tend to prefer. But then, nobody ever accused Ted Narracott (Mullan) of being sensible. A veteran of the Boer War, he returned home a shattered man, his leg a mess and turns to alcohol for solace. When he spots Joey at an auction, for reasons even he couldn’t articulate he gets into a bidding war with his own landlord, Lyons (Thewlis) for the beast and winds up spending his monthly rent money on the horse who is clearly not suitable for farm work.

Nonetheless Ted’s son Albert (Irvine) takes to Joey like a duck to water and the two become inseparable. Albert teaches Joey to wear a harness and gets him to plough a particularly rocky and infertile patch of land for Ted to plant turnips in. Albert’s mother Rose (Watson) chides her son gently afterwards when Albert’s pride at accomplishing the impossible moves towards contempt for his own father who had put him in a position of having to save the family bacon. Rose shows Albert the medals and regimental pennant that Ted had wanted thrown out but Rose had saved.

But a new war is on the horizon, one that will bring more horrors than any that had ever preceded it – the Great War, the War to End All Wars but one which today in America is little remembered as The First World War. Today most Americans look at it as little more than a dress rehearsal for the USA’s brightest moment in the Second World War, which is revered here.

Then again, America was a latecomer to the dance when it came to the Great War. It was fought in European fields and decimated the countryside; it also decimated the population. Nearly every family in France, Germany and Great Britain has a tale about that war involving a great-grandfather or relative who went off to war and never returned, or if they did return, did so with missing limbs, respiratory problems from mustard gas, or with a shattered psyche.

Joey is sold to the British army as a cavalry horse, much to Albert’s sorrow. He promises Joey that they’ll find each other, even as the kindly captain (Hiddleston) who takes the horse as his own mount has his doubts. Joey impulsively ties his dad’s pennant to Joey’s bridle and off Joey and the captain go to war.

The movie’s focus shifts from the Narracotts to Joey as he passes from hand to hand and side to side. He becomes the means for a couple of German deserters to escape, the hope for a dying French farm girl, a means of moving gigantic guns from one place to another and a reason for a temporary truce in No Man’s Land between the British and the Germans.

Spielberg has been more visible as a studio mogul these days than as a director, but here he  once again proves why he is the greatest director of our generation. This is visual poetry, thanks largely to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who in my opinion is the Oscar frontrunner) as well as composer John Williams who provides a score that alternates martial beats with heart-tugging strings.

In fact, this is a movie that leaves not a single dry eye in the house by its conclusion. This is based on a book by Michael Mopurgo which in turn became a stage play that is enjoying great success in London and New York City where it is running even as we speak; be warned that the movie hews closer to the book and less to the play which shifts the point of view from Joey to Albert by necessity. The play also includes a puppet horse who, while life-like, is still no match for the real horse (or horses) that is Joey in the film.

Irvine is guileless in the lead, a very typical Spielbergian hero who does the right thing motivated by love and is a stolid member of the working class. Irvine brings to life the heart that screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis provide the character and makes that heart real. His relationship with his father and his mother is occasionally rocky but there is clearly love there.

Of additional note is Arestrup as a French grandfather who is watching the war take everything from him. Arestrup who was amazing as a gangster in A Prophet is wonderful here as well, becoming a kind of archetype for how most of us view French country life and those who live it. There is an inner sorrow inside him as loss after loss piles up until he has nothing left but memories. It’s an amazing, affecting performance and is to me the one human performance you’ll remember most.

But of course this is Joey’s story and Joey is indeed a stand-in for the millions of horses that were butchered during the war, sometimes literally. Spielberg has stated that in most of the movies he’s directed, the horse was just something the lead character rode; here he has to get audiences to watch the horse and not the rider, something that he accomplishes for the most part.

Now, I have to admit that while I’m generally willing to stretch my disbelief for a movie, the final scenes in the movie really made that stretch mighty thin, almost to the breaking point. The very final scenes are poignant but over-the-top with a Western sunset worthy of John Ford but perhaps not so appropriate for Devon. A little more subtlety would have gone a long way here gentlemen.

Still, this is a movie that has gotten much praise and justifiably so – it’s certainly one of the best movies of the Holiday season and while it hasn’t gotten the box office attention of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, there are those who think it has an outside shot at the Best Picture Oscar; certainly it will get a great deal of nomination votes in that category.

This is a movie that is cathartic and thrilling in equal measures. Horse lovers will be appalled at the depictions of animal cruelty here (although please do keep in mind that the Humane Society was on hand closely monitoring the situation to make sure no animals were harmed in the making of the movie and from all accounts had glowing reports of how well the horses and other animals in the movie including a rather ill-tempered goose were treated). Military buffs will be impressed by the depiction of the trench warfare – a couple of scenes rivaled Saving Private Ryan as among the best depictions of war ever filmed. History buffs will appreciate that an era rarely visited by American filmmakers is finally getting its due by one of the greatest American filmmakers.

While the movie has plenty to recommend it to kids, I’d think twice about bringing the younger kids to the film as some of the wartime scenes are pretty intense with casualties among both men and horses. However for older kids and adults, this is a return to form by Spielberg and certainly one of his best works of the 21st century. Just be sure to bring plenty of hankies along with your popcorn and soda.

REASONS TO GO: The trench warfare scenes are amazing. Not a dry eye in the house by the end of the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: A little far-fetched in places. Final sunset-lit scenes are a bit too over-the-top.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some war-time violence and some graphic depictions of animal suffering.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were fourteen horses used to play Joey, each doing their own specific action but the horse used most often in close-ups is Finder’s Key, the same horse that played the title role in Seabiscuit.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Black Stallion

ARTILLERY LOVERS: Very accurate portrayals of the moving of big German guns and how devastating they were once they got into position.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy