Monday, November 06, 2006

Leftover candy, and what's in the box?

I don't even have to tell you that Horror Month was a smashing success, and will surely rise from the dead next year as well. But there's been a little overflow from the horror cauldron with one feature I dearly tried to get up before the month ended. In October I really got into the Universal monsters and have now seen all of the initial installments in their respective series. I had hoped to rank each of these monsters, and now have the chance. Universal's monster age helped install these characters in pop culture forever and really launched American horror as we know it. Note that Universal's Legacy Series is still in print, offering all the sequels of a series for around $20 each.


6. The Mummy
This was the biggest surprise for me, 'The Mummy' was a huge disappointment for me and has probably aged the worst out of the six. Even though there's lots of potential on the table with 'The Mummy' (Karloff in the title role, Egyptian imagery and popular mythology), the biggest problem I found was with the mummy monster itself. With the other monsters on this list, you have iconic characters who are unmistakable in their guise -- with the mummy you have Boris Karloff in a robe. We all picture a mummy as bandaged up, but Karloff is only briefly seen in that get-up, for the rest of the movie he just looks like an old man wearing a gown -- not too memorable. The plot is the same as any other mummy movie, with explorers unintentionally waking a mummy, then suffering the consequences. In this version Imhotep is revived, then for years takes on the role of an Egyptian society man named Ardath Bey, who then tries to convince a woman that she's the reincarnation of his ancient love . . . and there's hypnosis . . . and archaeologists talking . . . The End. What really hurts this movie is that despite the fact that it is set entirely in Egypt, most of the scenes take place in living rooms and a museum. Imhotep is never frightening and the suspense at the end is completely forced. I've heard that the sequels for this series are the worst of the lot and it doesn't surprise me.

5. The Creature from the Black Lagoon

This is actually less of a movie than 'The Mummy,' but what makes it more watchable is the title character, which remains one of the best-imagined and crafted monsters in history. The creature is essentially a man-fish, but it never looks campy -- always terrifying and completely menacing. Unfortunately, it's stuck in a boilerplate early monster movie (scientists find monster, monster attacks, scientists attack monster, monster returns, monster takes girl, monster is blown up by scientists). There's aboslutely nothing noteworthy or original going on here except for the monster, which at times is more than enough. Another aspect I like about this series are the names -- The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature (Clint Eastwood's acting debut) and The Creature Walks Among Us (as Burt Reynolds would say in 'Boogie Nights' -- 'Those are great names!'). Finally, if you have a chance seek out the pinball game based on this movie, one of my all-time favorites (the Universal-licensed Monster Bash is another good one).

4. The Invisible Man
Probably the most forgotten of the Universal monster lineup, 'The Invisible Man' has astounding special effects for its era and an endless supply of plot gimmicks. One of the first chances for America to 'see' actor Claude Raines, whose classic voice was perfect for the cackling title character, he is usually wrapped in bandages with sunglasses -- his condition the result of an experiment that slowly drives him insane. There are plenty of morality issues at play here, most prominent being what you would do if you couldn't be caught, and the psychological effects of not being able to interact with anyone. Like most of Universal's monster movies, the title character is easy to root for, and the special effects still hold up well.

3. The Wolf Man
Of all the entries on this list, 'The Wolf Man' exceeded my expectations the most. Wildly entertaining, it reminded me in some ways of a horror version of 'The Third Man,' with an American in a foreign country who quickly finds himself in trouble with just about everyone. Universal appeared to go all out on this one, with huge sets and prominent talent (Raines again, with Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi and even Ralph Bellamy in a small role) to go along with groundbreaking creature effects. After returning to his family's English estate, expatriate Larry Talbot soon hears a folk rhyme being repeated about a wolf man, and after defending a woman from a wolf attack he is told that he may fall under the fateful spell himself. Chaney is perfect as the intellectual, non-believing American, with a towering stature that makes him stick out from the locals (including his father, played by Raines, who appears to be at least a foot shorter). What must have made this movie unique in 1941 was the fact that it was essentially the first werewolf movie, introducing America to a piece of little-known old world mythology. Universal also added to the lore with devices such as a werewolf being able to see a pentagram on the hand of his next victim. What might disappoint viewers now however, is the first crack at what a werewolf should look like -- a sometimes goofy creature covered in hair who tries to walk like a wolf would on two legs.

2. Frankenstein
It's hard to put 'Frankenstein' below anything, but it's also unquestionably overshadowed by its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Like the No. 1 entry on this list, it delivers on all the praise and hype it gets, and is unique in the fact that the sequel really is a 'part 2' -- taken together it feels like one complete story. There are so many moments in 'Frankenstein' that set the foundation for future horror movies, the plot playing on the public's distrust of science and medicine and a number of religious and existential commentaries. In some ways, 'Bride' can be considered the perfect sequel, picking up right where the original left off and adding new conflicts, essential characters and an even better ending.

1. Dracula
After finally seeing this masterpiece, I don't know how I put it off for so long -- maybe I thought I knew the story well enough after seeing other versions? Nevertheless, this is a movie that defines the era with a perfect combination of acting, direction and source material. What stands out even more than Lugosi's seminal performance is the job by director Tod Browning, who combined his expertise in silent horror to create a near-opera. Browning's boldest decision was with the score -- a pulsing, varied rhythm which is played seemingly through the whole running time. At some point it stops becoming a score and feels more like the musical accompanyment that were used with silent films. Even in dialogue-heavy scenes, the strings never stop, which heightens the creepy mood. And then of course there's Lugosi, whose every nerve ending is never less than full throttle. An actor who made his mark in plays, Lugosi adds a stage element to his performance, and his small knowledge of English even helps this -- since he had to learn his lines phonetically, they end up sounding all the more creepy. Those familiar with the Bram Stoker's novel will get a kick out of how much it is compressed, with almost all of the count's backstory cut out. I must say, that although I recommended against buying the new 75th Anniversary DVD of 'Dracula' (in favor of the Legacy series), I now have to say it's an essential upgrade. I had to pick it up after further inspection, which revealed that it does contain the technically-superior Spanish version, as well as a new 5.1 recording of the score by Phillip Glass (an oddly generous feature which sounds terrific).


Maybe the world does need all those Superman discs

Some time ago I trashed the notion of a mega Superman box set, featuring no less than 17 discs. Well, after seeing the official specs, I now have to take back those words. Now checking in at only 13 discs, the Superman Ultimate Collectors Edition will cost you only $70 at Amazon and give you all four original Superman movies (including two versions of 'Superman: The Movie' and 'Superman II'), 'Superman Returns,' eight vintage Superman cartoons, the 1951 movie 'Superman vs. the Mole Men' starring George Reeves and the extensive documentary 'Look Up in the Sky!: The Amazing Story of Superman,' which was released on a standalone DVD earlier this year. There are just too many goodies in this set, but what makes me happy is that they're including both of the new 'Superman II' releases. Both Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (check out that cover art!) and a new two disc version (containing extras not found on the Donner Cut) of the theatrical cut will be for sale individually, but Warner Bros. thankfully tossed them both in this lavish set. I'm also pumped that this isn't simply a bunch of DVDs crammed in a new display box, take a look at the presentation above. Warner Bros. again shows why it produces probably the best DVDs out of all the major studios.

1 comment:

Evan Waters said...

The first werewolf movie was actually "The Werewolf of London" in 1934 (I think), but WOLF MAN was definitely the one that popularized the concept.