Monday, October 29, 2012

179. FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

I have a complicated relationship with James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN and that relationship is further complicated by Universal's new Blu-ray restoration. Not that there is anything wrong or unsatisfying about the stellar restoration itself, but that the film doesn't gain as much by being restored as the other films in the UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTERS box set. This is a film that showcases a lot of stonework, a flashy high-ceilinged laboratory, some dull drawing rooms and an immense background cyclorama of sky that was visibly puckered since the days I used to see it on commercial television. Unlike DRACULA, which looks reinvented by its restoration, FRANKENSTEIN looks much the same, just clearer; in fact, the restoration shows up additional paint dribbles on the cyclorama and exposes some matte lines, causing us to become more aware of the mechanics underlying its illusions rather than enhancing them.

I came to FRANKENSTEIN late, when I was about eight years old, by which time I had already seen and enjoyed all the Universal sequels and built up the promise of the original a great deal in my mind. Karloff's performance here is at times frightening (never moreso than its unforgettable reveal of the Monster's face and dead stare) but is altogether less humane than in BRIDE; the portrayal is indeed full of pathos, but hardly so complex as to need so much restatement and discussion as it's had. Also, and the older I get, the more I find myself resenting the film's arrogant disregard, indeed its cheapening, of so much of Mary Shelley's novel. There is marvelous work in the film by Karloff, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye and Edward van Sloan, but Mae Clarke and John Bowles are tedious and flat, and Frederick Kerr as Baron Frankenstein (sporting a humungous boil or tumor on the back of his neck, now more noticeable than ever) strikes an eccentric fuddy-duddy note that I sometimes love and sometimes feel is terribly self-indulgent for such a short film. Do the film's classic moments hold up as they used to? I suppose that depends how one feels about Henry's victorious exclamation "In the name of God, now I know how it feels to be God!" or the sight of the Monster actually hurling little Maria (Marilyn Harris) into the lake with the other pretty flowers... neither of which were part of the film for most of its first 68 years of public availability. The version I grew up with, which is inextricably tied to my feelings about it, hasn't been available on home video in almost 15 years.

I write about the film at greater length in the next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG, #171.

Viewed as part of Universal's UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTERS - THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION Blu-ray box set.    

Sunday, October 28, 2012

178. DRACULA (1931)

Universal's new Blu-ray restoration of Tod Browning's DRACULA is one of the most revelatory refurbishings of a black-and-white film I've seen. It's possible that no other film has become more identified and confused with the facts of its own slow sliding into deterioration; over the years, people have commended its murkiness, its moldiness, its creakiness, comparing its groaning starch to ballet. The new 1080p presentation lifts all of this away, leaving behind only what was intended. The matte paintings and matte shots are now more beautiful, recalling the hand of Gustave Doré, and the hiss has been stripped from a much creepier quietude that hangs over the film like the hush of baited breath. All of the performances are enhanced, and Browning's auteuristic connections with the film also become clearer. I was moved to write about the film at length for the next VIDEO WATCHDOG (#171), so I must reserve my fuller thoughts for there and then.



This engaging documentary by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray profiles the Center for Cartoon Studies, the first academic environment to be exclusively devoted to the various disciplines of graphic storytelling, based in White River Junction, Vermont. Each year, twenty new applicants are selected from a larger number and invited to learn from the resident staff (which includes Stephen R. Bissette of SWAMP THING, TABOO and TYRANT fame) and various visiting masters in the field of comic art over a two-year course. This film focuses on a group of first and second year students as they experience a variety of challenges and growth pains as they struggle toward graduation and the hope of a Master of Fine Arts degree.

Luck of the draw (no pun intended) dealt the filmmakers a charismatic group of students, each with their own special abilities and wacky style and sensibility. They keep the film afloat with personality as various expert friends of CCS are brought forward to annotate and editorialize: Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Jason Lutes, James Sturm, Kim Deitch, Scott McCloud, Françoise Mouly, R. Sikoryak, Art Spiegelman and the aformentioned Steve Bissette. I had the good fortune to see this film at a lecture presented by Steve; it's not yet on DVD, but here is the contact information for the production, where you should be able to find out how and where you might see it:

Josh Melrod
Cartoon College Movie, LLC
P.O. Box 221
Woodstock, VT, 05091
Phone 1: (802) 457-3465


This second Bond film is where the franchise comes into focus: Sean Connery is visibly more confident, Blofeld (not yet named) is stroking the cat, Desmond Llewellyn is in place as Q, the main theme is woven throughout the score as a leitmotif, the gadgets are still more utilitarian than comic, the romance between Bond and the singularly charming Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi, a uniquely classy yet tender presence among the Bond girls) is believably surprising and sweet, and the action is truly international in scope, building to a thrilling fistfight between Bond and Robert Shaw's proto-Jaws Red Grant aboard the night-shuttling Trans-Siberian Express. It's reportedly the favorite Bond films of Connery, Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig, perhaps because it feels closest to the spirit of the Fleming novels, being serious and romantic and full of worldly adventure not entirely without a twinkle. That twinkle runs the full gamut from Bond's double entendres and ironic asides to the spirited companionship of Kerim Bey (Pedro Almandariz) to the knife built into the shoe of the evil Soviet agent Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya). It all ends, in the classic Bond style, with the friendly merging, so to speak, of East and West as Matt Monro vocalizes the theme we've heard throughout, giving us the first bonafide Bond theme.

Viewed as part of the BOND 50 Blu-ray set from MGM. 

175. DR. NO (1962)

Like JAWS, Terence Young's DR. NO -- based on the sixth of Ian Fleming's best-selling James Bond novels -- was one of those films that changed everything. There had been sequels before, but this film was cinema's first step toward franchise thinking; and yet, more importantly, it was a film that changed the way adults thought about themselves, giving them a mirror image against which to gauge and extend their personal senses of sophistication, liberation and worldliness. Looking back at it now, that's a lot to have sprung from such a humble seed, but this was a visionary film -- a voluptuous elaboration, you might say, of what Bernard Borderie had done in France with the Lemmy Caution thrillers starring Eddie Constantine. Whereas Lemmy was a two-fisted, scotch-drinking American living and loving in foreign ports, he seemed to play with loaded dice and was seldom shown at a serious disadvantage; those films (especially La môme vert-de-gris (aka POISON IVY, 1953) may have been the template of the Bond films, but DR NO jumps past them with a truly handsome and resourceful hero (Sean Connery's James Bond), a larger-than-life villain (Joseph Wiseman's Dr. No), drier comedy, deft action sequences, and a genuine sense of the value of fine things, from Bollinger champagne to Ursula Andress' Honey Ryder -- the value of pleasure in a career fraught with danger and death. For a film saddled with the responsibility of setting the ground rules while also telling an engaging story, DR. NO holds up very well indeed, even though Jamaica now seems a cut-rate exotic locale, the series' later musical personality isn't yet wholly present, and the film, as a whole, seems a bit too careful. It can't seriously be blamed if Dr. No's world-challenging lab looks somewhat less impressive than the super meth lab in Season Three of BREAKING BAD; it's 50 years old. Imagine what it means, after half a century, that a remake is still unthinkable.

Viewed as part of MGM's BOND 50 Blu-ray box set.   

174. JAWS (1975)

To the best of my knowledge, I was the first critic to review JAWS for publication. I had the good fortune to attend a preview screening here in Cincinnati in the spring before it opened, which I look back upon as one of the most thrilling screenings of my life. Afterwards, I immediately phoned Fred Clarke of CINEFANTASTIQUE and spent at least half an hour persuading him that this perceived adventure film, based on a fairly crummy bestseller, was actually a great horror film worthy of substantial coverage. Though only half persuaded, he held the issue for me and my review appeared in CFQ Vol 4 No 2 (Summer 1975), which I received in the mail a week or so before the film opened. It was buried between reviews of THE LITTLE PRINCE and STEPPENWOLF, two films now largely forgotten. In my effusive review, I noted that Universal's JAWS was "one of the best horror films ever" and played like a proper descendant of Universal-International films of the 1950s, like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. And so it does -- not only for their shared menaces of the deep, but because Steven Spielberg shared with director Jack Arnold a command of manipulative framing and presentation of information in depth. (Arnold did this because he was working in 3D; Spielberg wisely knew the same principles could be adapted to flat visual storytelling.) Both films take advantage of hands that suddenly reach in from the periphery, or that pop out from a black or blank background. Somehow -- I frankly think it had a lot to do with John Williams' score and even more to do with Verna Fields' editing -- Spielberg used his film to define a new slap-and-tickle way of addressing films to audiences. The underpinnings of the amusement park ride are here in full force.

Almost 40 years later, JAWS continues to look remarkably contemporary and masterful as a piece of suspenseful entertainment. It's undoubtedly best seen with a full house, but it is no less captivating when watched alone in a room; if anything, solitary viewing lends itself to a clearer appreciation of the film's construction, which is cold-bloodedly manipulative but, hey, why argue with a winning recipe?

When I saw the film that first time, it had me deconstructing it on the first pass. I remember noticing that a lot of it utilized sleight of hand techniques, that it would draw the eye here so that something could jump out from there, etc.  When the three remarkably well-cast, complementary leads (Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss) were shown comparing their scars and singing shanties at full throttle, I expected from the film's past history of misdirection that the shark was probably going to ram the hull at any moment and send the audience once again up into the rafters... but it didn't. Instead, Spielberg cut outside the Orca to a distance from the ship as the floats attached to the shark resurfaced and began moving purposefully in its direction. It showed the ram coming. What I loved then, and still love now about that moment, is that Spielberg was using it to say in effect, "Okay, wise guys, I know a few of you may be expecting this, so tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm going to show you what you're expecting, and you'll know that the only reason I can afford to do this is because I have something even better up my sleeve, which you can't guess. So stop trying to anticipate me; just sit back and enjoy this." I did then, and I do now.

Universal's new Blu-ray remastering of this title takes me right back to that spring evening when JAWS changed everything.

Viewed on Universal Blu-ray.  


173. BLONDE VENUS (1932)

Josef von Sternberg's follow-up to SHANGHAI EXPRESS casts his raven-plumed Shanghai Lil (Marlene Dietrich) in a much homier setting, eschewing exotic pulp in favor of melodrama as he chronicles the perils of domesticating a rare bird. Playing the fêted stage entertainer Helen Jones (!), Dietrich falls in love with chemist Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall, one of the most compelling voices of the early sound era) and retires from performing to become a wife and mother. Domestic bliss takes a turn for tragedy when poor but hard-working Ned is diagnosed with radium poisoning, caught on the job, which can only be treated in Germany and at great cost. To raise the money, Helen returns to work and agrees to a paid fling with millionaire admirer Nick Townsend (a young, not fully polished Cary Grant). During Ned's long absence, Helen continues to work and cohabitates with Townsend to provide for her son Johnny (Dickie Moore); when Ned finally returns, he learns of the sacrifice that paid for his health and, feeling betrayed and kept, determines to separate his son from his "unfit" mother --  the only stability he's ever known.

Though perhaps not as consistently impressive a confection as its predecessor, BLONDE VENUS is nevertheless a warmer and more poignant experience, despite a script that feels like the grandmother of Sirkian melodrama, with Dietrich literally withering and growing threadbare as she is uprooted from and deprived of the nurturing love of her family. It is also buoyed by passages of audacity (the celebrated "Hot Voodoo" number, in which renowned ape impersonator Charlie Gemora strips down from his gorilla costume to reveal Dietrich underneath) and moments of breathtaking visual beauty, courtesy of DP Bert Glennon (STAGECOACH, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, HOUSE OF WAX). All this, plus the songs are great, performed live by Dietrich over prerecorded music -- a technical flaw in this early stage of motion picture sound recording that sometimes renders the wit of the lyrics a little unclear.

Viewed via Universal Vault Series DVD-R.


Robert Flemyng, erstwhile star of Riccardo Freda's THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK (1962), returned to the horror genre and his home turf in this wobbly Tigon British film production, balancing the scales against an uncomfortable-looking Peter Cushing, cast against type as a snippy police detective. Kim Newman has cleverly noticed that the plot of this Vernon Sewell-directed film mirrors that of an earlier, superior Hammer film, John Gilling's THE REPTILE (1965) -- both are about men who return to rural England from exotic locales in the company of alluring young women with deadly transformative powers. In this case, Flemyng is a Victorian geneticist who uses a rare form of deathshead moth to generate a vampiric human mutation (Wanda Ventham) he introduces as his daughter. The script is by Peter Bryan, who in fact scripted THE REPTILE's companion feature, Gilling's THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1965); as told, the story is both confused and confusing, which, combined with some appallingly shoddy flying effects for the moth girl, make this arguably the worst British horror film of the 1960s. (Most of that argument comes from THE PROJECTED MAN, another film Bryan wrote around this time. Did this guy really write THE BRIDES OF DRACULA?) That said, Redemption's recent DVD and Blu-ray submit the picture to a glorious restoration and sometimes it's enough to bask for 90 minutes in a different time and place in good, if slumming, company. Originally given theatrical release here in the US as THE VAMPIRE BEAST CRAVES BLOOD.

Viewed via Redemption Blu-ray

171. CABIN IN THE WOODS (2011)

The trailer for this film proposes another teenage trot through rote horrors, but this collaboration of Joss Whedon (producer, co-writer) and Drew Goddard (director, co-writer) has several tricks up its sleeve that make it worth seeing. There is not a horror trope from the last twenty years that it doesn't use to its own sly advantage, so that, in the end, it embodies not only the smarter-than-thou ethic SCREAM aspired to in a more retarded way, but a testament of sorts to the Horror Genre, post-Romero. A likeable, non-obnoxious cast headed by Kristen Connolly and Chris Hemsworth helps enormously, as does the sheer variety of nightmare situations they tap into. I plan to write more about this one.

Viewed via Amazon Instant Video, but available on Lionsgate DVD and Blu-ray.