Oct 312019
  October 31, 2019

elsa lanchesterUnusual both on and off screen, Elsa Lanchester was a skilled and artistic actress, and Hollywood never figured out what to do with her. She could have made a great leading lady, with her unconventional beauty and dancer’s body, but was only given leading parts twice (both mentioned below). Most often she was relegated to support status, often in quite small parts as maids and housekeepers, where her quirkiness was an asset. But this suited her as she was more interested in live performances, particularly of the music hall variety.

Besides being the Bride of Frankenstein, she is probably best known as the wife of Charles Laughton. They appeared together in twelve films.

An honorable mention to Mystery Street (1950), a solid B&W police procedural, where she’s a landlady who thinks that blackmailing a murderer is a good idea, and to the rat-filled horror film Willard, which was in tight competition for 8th place below. Additionally, a couple of honorable mentions for bit parts opposite Laughton, in the anthology film Tales of Manhattan (1942) and The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), as well as one for her cameo in Mary Poppins (1964)—the part is too small to count for her list.

On to her top 8:

#8 – Passport to Destiny (1944) — Lanchester finally gets a leading part and top billing in this strange little wartime comedy. The first part is charming; she believes she’s invulnerable due to a magic eye, so waltzes into Germany with the intention of assassinating Hitler. The second half takes it a bit too seriously, but as a whole it’s fun and worth seeking out.

#7 – The Beachcomber (1938) — An African Queen-like tale, though lighter, with Lanchester in her only other leading role, as a prim and prissy missionary’s sister, and Charles Laughton as a boozy reprobate. Robert Newton is the bored magistrate who envies the wild life. Lanchester is superb and is the reason to watch. The rest is good, but she’s superb.

#6 – The Spiral Starcase (1946) — A tense Old Dark House mystery filmed in luscious, deep focus B&W, in which a killer is hunting “imperfect” women. Unfortunately Lanchester’s part is small as the housekeeper, but as always, she’s memorable. (My review)

#5 – Bell Book and Candle (1958) — This should be on everyone’s Halloween viewing list, or Christmas. Jimmy Stewart is a bit gray for his starring role in a supernatural romantic comedy, but Kim Novak is breathtaking as a powerful, sexy witch and Ernie Kovacs, Jack Lemmon, and Lanchester are all marvelous. [Also on the Jack Lemmon list and the James Stewart list]

#4 – The Big Clock (1948) — One of the great Film Noirs; Ray Milland is placed in charge of an investigation to find a man who turns out to be himself. Lanchester plays an avant-garde artist who knows something odd is going on with the search. Remade in ’87 as No Way Out with Kevin Costner. [Also on the Ray Milland list] (Full Critique)

#3 – The Bishop’s Wife (1947) — A Christmas classic. David Niven is a bishop who has lost his way and Cary Grant is the angel who comes to help, but also makes things uncomfortable. Once again, Lanchester is in a supporting role. [Also on the David Niven list]

#2 – Witness for the Prosecution (1957) — A courtroom thriller, it’s the best adaptation of an Agatha Christie story, and is often mistaken for a Hitchcock film. It’s Marlene Dietrich’s best film, and arguably Laughton’s. Lanchester was nominated for an Oscar for Supporting Actress for her role as the greatly put upon nurse. The dialog is fast and funny, and the mystery is solid, with one of the great film twists. [Also on the Great Director’s List for Billy Wilder]

#1 – Bride of Frankenstein (1935) — Arguably the greatest horror film of all time, and the greatest sequel of all time. It is weird and wild. Sure it’s horror, but it’s also black comedy and satire. Lanchester plays duel roles, as Mary Shelley and The Bride, and is dark, sexy, and engaging. Her screen time is brief, but in it she became an icon. [Also on The Boris Karloff List and on the Great Director’s List for James Whale] (My review)

Oct 292019
three reels

Another new future, another antagonistic AI, another protector sent to the past, another terminator popping up a few minutes later. The specifics this time around: Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is an “augmented” soldier from the future, sent back to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), who will become humanity’s savior. Out to assassinate Dani is the Rev-9 (Gabrel Luna), which is more or less the T2, but he’s black liquid instead of silver and he can separate out a skeleton. When the initial fight starts going wrong for the good guys, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) shows up to keep everyone fighting for another day. Our heroes run. The Rev-9 chases, and eventually they run into a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), so they can fight some more.

Terminator movies have never gone wildly off the path. Terminators 1, 2, and 3 were essentially the same movie. They were all “chosen one + protector(s) run from unstoppable killing machine until they run into a way to stop it. Terminator 4 & 5 swapped things up a bit—not much, but a bit—and that didn’t go well, so Terminator 6 returns to that the center of the path. How much you enjoy it will be based on how keen you are on seeing the same thing again. If you like that structure, and have watched Judgment Day so often that you’d like to see it with different actors (as well as the same ones), then Dark Fate will be fine. If you want something new, you are out of luck.

There’s a lot of gun fire, a lot of explosions, a lot of crashes, and a lot of heavy objects smashing into faces. It all looks good, and it looks familiar. But then most car chases look familiar. There’s a few adrenaline-rush moments, though I wasn’t sitting on the edge of my seat. I expected the action to be good, and it is. It’s isn’t special or revolutionary, or memorable, at least for anyone who’s seen T1T3, but it’s professional. Likewise the FX do their job. Again, nothing special, but professional.

There’s a few rough spots with a script, leaving a few too-visible plot holes, but it isn’t as if Judgment Day could stand up to substantial scrutiny (it was just less likely you’d go looking). And things slow down for too long in the middle, but then they had to put some character development in somewhere.

As for those characters, Machenzie Davis’s amped up warrior is the high point. I can’t say I cared about her backstory, but Davis had a way of projecting both toughness and vulnerability simultaneously that makes Grace sympathetic without a lot of talk. Dani isn’t terribly interesting, but she’s less annoying than several of the past saviors-needing-saving in the franchise, so grading on a curve, she’s pretty good. I was distracted by her age. At 32, she’s at least a decade too old for the innocent target, and unless Dani invents some anti-aging drugs, the new judgment day has to be sometime in 2020. I liked the idea of bringing Sarah Connor back to the franchise, but the character has little to offer this story. I’m sure they thought they had a good emotional story for her, but it doesn’t resonate, and you could yank her out of the movie and change nothing. Hamilton’s performance is a little shaky too. She’s best when she’s shooting a gun, not when she’s talking. Arnold’s T-800 is better, and does bring some life to the proceedings, but I can’t help thinking that he too was unnecessary, and they’d have been better sticking with a new cast. On the other hand, none of the film was necessary, and if I’m asking for changes I’d be better off asking for a new story.

James Cameron has said that this is the true sequel to T2: Judgment Day. It certainly is a sequel, in the sense like so many sequels, it’s just doing it all again, and there’s an extra problem when you copy something twenty-seven years later: The world has changed. T2 was playing off of a particular set of societal fears: nuclear war and computerization. Those aren’t today’s fears, but Dark Fate pretends they are. Social media, the rise of fascism, racial unrest, and climate destruction are more pertinent today, and while a trip through a boarder crossing had the potential to mine current issues, Cameron and director Tim Miller don’t do anything with it. Well, if you watch T2 you aren’t going to dig into our current national psychoses either.

Dark Fate is fine if you feel like an action film. I prefer T3: Rise of the Machines as the sequel to T2 and as a franchise finish if I’m allowed only one of them. But I’d put this above Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys, which few people will take as a ringing enforcement. To make it even less so, while I’m giving it 3-Reels, it’s a weak 3, and that just means that if you want to see it, the bigger the screen, the better.

Oct 252019

(Opening to Friday night’s Creature Features, where I originally saw all of the classic Universal monsters)

The one problem with making a Classic Horror list is that so much of it will be obvious. Half of my choices will be on any top 10 list and most will be on all. But Classic Horror contains more of the greatest horror films of all time than any other subgroup, so it’s worth examining again.

I’m using “classic” to refer to the horror films that started the sound era and created the monsters that we know today. These are B&W films, often with a German expressionistic style, and made primarily by Universal Pictures, RKO, and Poverty Row studios. The Classic period was the 1930s and ’40s, fading away in the ’50s.


#10: Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature From the Black Lagoon is included as a “classic” because the Gill Man was the last of the great Universal Pictures monsters, but otherwise, it has more to do with ’50s filmmaking; it’s less stylized, non-gothic, with lower contrast photography. It looks very much like the atomic monster films that would soon become popular.

The monster is sympathetic, and has a fantastic design. He’s often described as Kong in water. Greed is the human motivating factor and leads to the tragedy. Even with the stereotypical characters, uninspired dialog, and uneven acting, this is a good version of the monster-wants-girl story. (My review)



#9: Son of Frankenstein (1939)

The last of the great Frankenstein films, and the last with Boris Karloff as the monster, Son of Frankenstein brings in Basil Rathbone as a new protagonist, with his legendary purring voice, and also Bela Lugosi as Ygor in what is probably his best role. But the real star is the German expressionistic art design: a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a surreal nightmare castle, and high contrast lighting. It’s beautiful.

This is the film Mel Brooks parodied in Young Frankenstein. The parody is good. The original is better. (My review)



#8: Island of Lost Souls (1932)

The first, and best adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel, the film shifts the tone of the tale away from science fiction and toward horror. In doing so, the story is given greater power. The leads are generic, but Charles Laughton makes a real impression as a suave, clever, domineering, and evil scientist.

There’s so much to bite into. You can spend the entire film dwelling on the philosophy and sociology it brings up, but if that’s too much thinking, you can just dwell on the more sensational aspects, like the house of pain.

This is the first of three non-Universal films on this list. (My Review)



#7: The Invisible Man (1933)

With The Invisible Man, director James Whale really cut loose, filling it with his dark humor. It’s horror, and actually has the highest body count of any of the classic Universal monster movies, but it’s also funny. And like all of Whale’s work, it’s beautiful.

Karloff was originally planned to star, but a spat between the actor and director lead to the casting of Claude Rains. It was inspired. Since the lead is invisible, it’s all about the voice, and Rains’s voice is magnificent. The combination of Whale, amazing special effects, and Rains produces a gloriously unhinged performance.



#6: I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

The second leg of Classic Horror is the Val Lewton produced RKO films. While Universal put the monsters front and center, Lewton was more subtle, often leaving it open if there’s a monster at all. It was cheaper that way. This is his masterpiece, a version Jane Eyre. He kept the gothic romance, but instead of a mad wife in the attic, there’s an undead one.

Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create a world where magic merges with nature, which is beautiful and dreadful simultaneously. It isn’t filled with big scares, but an eeriness and that stays with the viewer long after the film is over. This is clearly the best voodoo film, and arguable the best zombie one. (My review)



#5: Dracula (1931)

The first sound Universal monster movie, Dracula still has one foot in silent pictures. There’s a lot of pantomime and no musical track (as the studio though audiences would object without an in-film source). It’s a transitional film, and takes a bit of patience for modern viewers.

It succeeds less as a modern narrative film than as a series of visual poems. Moments of this film are absolutely wonderful and have become part of our culture. And then there’s Bela Lugosi; his expressions, piercing eyes (enhanced by lighting) and stylized voice combined death and sensuality in a way that had never been done before and has seldom been approached since. (My review)



#4: Frankenstein (1931)

This is the most influential horror film (talkie) of all time. It created the mad scientist sub-genre, massively expanded the use of German expressionism in film, created the iconic flat-headed, bolt-necked monster, and along with Dracula, brought horror films to mainstream audiences.

James Whale (he’s on this list a lot) created a strange gothic world, with a graveyard that looks like it exploded, a purposely artificial sky, and a tower designed by a mad man. It’s often said that the moral is not to mess with the laws of God, but that’s not message. Rather Whale suggests that new, bold steps are what makes us human and worthwhile, and our failure to act responsibly with the results of such steps is what makes us fools. (My review)



#3: The Wolf Man (1941)

This is probably my favorite horror film. Yes, it’s tragic, but it’s also fun, and exceedingly fast paced. Lon Chaney Jr. puts in the best performance of his career and it made him a star, at least of monster movies. The supporting cast is excellent as well: Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers.

This is where werewolves, as we know them, began, not in novels or myths. Silver kills them because this film said so. Full moon? This film. Universal had tried out a few ideas with Werewolf of London in ’35, but it hadn’t gotten the public’s attention. This did. (My review)



#2: The Uninvited (1944)

A Paramount production, The Uninvited is the first Hollywood talkie that dealt with a haunting in a horror context. Before this ghosts showed up in comedies. And it’s been copied over and over again. If you’ve seen any horror ghost movies, you’ll recognize the structure: One or more people enter a haunted house, people who seem to have no connection to previous events, and they find themselves at risk. The supernatural activity starts slowly and builds, with one person being more of a target. They set out to uncover the secret that created the ghost and then confront the ghost with events of the past. No film has done it better. It is subtle, but not slow. Frightening, but at times light.

The cinematography is superb  and the piano piece, “Stella by Starlight,” became a hit. (My review)



#1: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein takes what was good in Frankenstein, and improves it. The amazing art design is even more breathtaking. Karloff, now a speaking monster, will tear your heart out. Elsa Lanchester is sexy and playful as both the Bride and Mary Shelley. And there’s a stirring and emotional score by Franz Waxman. But the big addition is James Whales’s dark humor, presented mostly through Ernest Thesiger’s theatrical Doctor Pretorius. He’s wickedly funny and dominates the movie.

There’s so much going on in the film, with dozens of intertwined messages you can come away with, involving birth, class, religion, and gay life to name a few. It’s strongest with its thoughts on the outsider: It’s always those society brands as monsters who suffer, and they deserve better. I choose Bride of Frankenstein not only as the best Classic Horror film, but the best horror films of any kind. (My review)

Oct 212019
  October 21, 2019

LonChaneyjrThe third of the Big Three icons of classic horror (Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr.), Chaney may have come on the scene last, but he was born for it. Lon Chaney Sr. had been the lone icon of silent horror and Creighton Chaney spent much of his career chasing his father’s star, though the name change to Lon Jr. was not his idea. He was king of the Universal monster films of the 1940s, playing The Wolf Man five time, Dracula (in Son of Dracula), Frankenstein’s Monster (in The Ghost of Frankenstein), and The Mummy Kharis in three films. He died, never knowing the heights he had attained, or that new generations would know him better than his father.

He was more often a character actor. When he was the lead it was normally a B-picture. In later years, he ended up in what I call C & D-pictures, hired just for his name. His alcoholism didn’t help.

An honorable mention to Chaney’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th appearances as Larry Talbot, The Wolf Man, in the monster mashes Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Each is a little weaker than it’s predecessor, but the films are still fun and The Wolf Man is good in all of them.

8 — The Defiant Ones (1958) – The first of Stanley Kramer’s socially conscious message pictures. It made a strong statement on racism and had a major part in destroying the black list. It’s also shot well, but the theme overwhelms the picture, giving us speeches instead of conversations. Chaney has a small but important role as an ex-con that helps our escaping convicts.

7 — The Haunted Palace (1963) – A Lovecraft film (though marketed as Poe) starring Vincent Price as a man being possessed by his ancestor. Chaney acts as the evil man’s assistant. There’s little new here, but what’s old is quite good. (My review)

6 — Of Mice and Men (1939) – This is a good adaptation of a good novel and Chaney is…good. Certainly the film has had a noticeable effect upon pop culture (“Let me pet the rabbit George”) but it’s a bit too simple to be that interesting. If this was a list of my favorites, I’d rank The Haunted Palace and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man above it, but this is a “best” list.

5 — High Noon (1952) – It’s aged poorly, with uneven acting, slight characters. and dialog that’s hard to take seriously, but it was a metaphor for the communist witch hunt of the House Un-American Activities Committee at a time when such a metaphor was needed. Chaney plays a retired lawman and his is the best performance in the film. As with my 6th place film, it would be lower on a favorites list.

4 — My Favorite Brunette (1947) – Bob Hope teams with his Road picture co-star Dorothy Lamour in a Noir spoof that has him battling Peter Lorre and Chaney. [Also on the Bob Hope list]

3 — Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told (1967) – This weird cult films acts as a bridge between the old dark house movies of the ‘30s & ‘40s and the degenerate family gore-fests of the ‘70s and later. It’s darkly comedic, and reasonably messed up. Chaney gives his best performance in at least 20 years.

2 — Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) – One of the top horror comedies ever made, and surprisingly, one of the better Universal Horror films, and by far their best monster mashup. It’s only the second time Bela Lugosi played Dracula on screen and it is a welcome return. Chaney is good as The Wolf Man, the plot works, and Abbott and Costello are at their best.

1 — The Wolf Man (1941) – This is the movie that created everything that has become part of the modern view of werewolves. Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, and Evelyn Ankers are fantastic in this masterpiece while Chaney puts in the performance of his lifetime. It’s romantic, exciting, scary, and tragic. [Also on the Bela Lugosi list] (Quick review)