Apr 132020
  April 13, 2020

Explanations, Justifications and Options
My Version
Familiar Spells
Familiar Buffs

 

 Explanations, Justifications, and Options

OK, why mess with Find Familiar? Easy answer: the spell’s fun. It’s always been fun. It’s one of the most fun spells in the history of D&D (when it was a spell; sometimes it was a fun feat). But in 5e, it gets less fun, because it gets weak as you level. At level 1, it is one of the most powerful spells in the game. By 5th, it’s running with the pack and by 10th, it’s in the back of the pack. Higher, it’s trivial. As one person put in on a forum, even if you level up the creature called, at later levels, it’s just an accouterment for a character’s outfit. It just doesn’t scale. Other spells do. It doesn’t.

OK, well, can’t we have fun with a weak spell? In Advanced D&D, 2e, and 3e, absolutely. But with 4e and 5e, not so much. In design, “balance” now means much more than storytelling. So now, yeah, fun things need to be useful. And as I’ve read on the Internet (so it must be true), Find Familiar was de-powered for the same reason that the Ranger class got messed up—that is, the design team was overacting to overpowering summoning in previous versions.

So, it needs to be homebrewed (so that it scales when cast using a higher spell slot). Many people agree as no other spell gets so much homebrew attention. Everyone wants to mess with it. WotC does too as they’ve tried to fix their mistake by adding new spells—Create Homunculus and to a lesser extent Find Greater Steed, and the ridiculous Flock of Familairs. But these and the homebrews I’ve seen don’t fix it and familiars still end up as “accouterments.” The reason is the spell doesn’t call a familiar; it calls a spy-pet. A spy-pet is great at lvl 1. At level 15…nah. Most of the homebrews change the spell to call creatures with higher CRs, but while that isn’t a bad thing, it just gives you a bigger spy-pet, so now you’ve got a wolf instead of a cat. Shrug. The other most common is to allow the familiar to level up–gain hit dice, +2 to abilities, etc. Again, not a terrible idea, but just gives you a stronger spy-pet and high level casters can already summon much stronger things. A familiar is supposed to protect the caster and aid in casting/learning to cast magic. A bit of spying is fine, but it’s primary purpose shouldn’t be spying or using the help action to give your allies advantage. You want a spy-pet? Be the crappy Ranger they’ve designed. I want a familiar.

So, for homebrewing, up-casting Find Familiar should:

1—Allow for slightly “better” creatures, CR-wise.
2—Give some color and flair to the familiar
3—Decrease its use as a spy-pet/meat-shield/ally-helper
4—Make it directly helpful to the caster with magic

Will this all make for a longer and more complex spell? Sure, but anyone who wants to use it will be happy to dwell on this.

#1 is easy. Just allow more creatures, and when Find Familiar is cast with a higher level slot, allow for higher CR. Now I’d stick to Tiny and Small creatures (so it can sit on your shoulder), but, historically (IRL) horses have been familiars, so, up to you, but I like Tiny and small. As for the CR, allow 1/8 CR with a 2nd level slot, ¼ CR with a 4th, etc. If you care about stepping on the toes of the Chainlock (and why would you care about that? Really?), then cut it off at ½ CR, but I’d go to 1, and others online suggest higher. But since it doesn’t actually make much difference, all you really need to do is open it up a bit (so we can get the monkey, raccoon, tressym, and almiraj in!)

#2 is easy as well. First, give the familiar a cantrip. Specifically one of Prestidigitation, Thaumaturgy, or Druidcraft. This will cause zero balance problems as they are 90% for show. But come on, having your cat clean your clothing with Prestidigitation, your Frog let out a super-loud belch with Thaumaturgy, and your Bat lighting a candle when you are reading are all just fun. ABSOLTUELY DO THIS. The other thing is to let players design their familiar. How about a tiny elephant? A hand (The Addams Family’s Thing)? Familars are spirits, not creatures, so they can look like anything. As long as they aren’t given any scores/skills way outside of what the current ones get (nothing faster than the hawk, around 2 skills, etc), it’s fine.

#3 is easy too, but meaner as here I’d take away power from the familiar (so don’t do this unless you are doing #4) by returning an old idea to the game. That is, your familiar dying hurts you. I’m not suggesting anything as extreme as Advanced D&D had, where you lost permanent points. A good option would be the caster taking the familiars hits worth of damage when it dies (a good choice if you choose to allow familiars to level as many homebrewers do—if the familiar has 5 hit dice, you’ll feel that damage). I like the idea of imposing a negative condition when it dies, such as the caster is “mentally” poisoned until it makes a WIL save (incapacitated, stunned, or unconscious also work if you want to be meaner). This will keep the caster from sending the familiar into combat, including for the help action, particularly if the save is at a negative or multiple saves are required. Now, if doing this, the familiar needs to be protected under other circumstances (which I’ll get into in 4), so it doesn’t go dying from every AOL fireball tossed your way. Now you can allow the familiar to have the attack action because they won’t be using it. Not letting them attack was a silly game mechanic that’s main problem is everyone notices it’s a game mechanic. But if the caster is de-buffed when the familiar dies, he’s going to be keeping it away from battle. Which means a cat can scratch a peasant who tries to kick it, which it can’t do now.

#4 is not so easy. The idea is to have familiars protect and aid with casting, so here are a few options. I’m not expecting you to use all of them—just some. Unless you choose the last. Then take them all:

4-1. Give it the Arcana skill. It can help on Arcana checks and/or you get advantage on Arcana checks. IT’S A FAMILIAR! THIS IS WHAT IT SHOULD BE DOING

4-2. A familiar may be used as a focus (Again, IT’S A FAMILIAR! THIS IS WHAT IT SHOULD BE DOING)

4-3. +1 INT for each spell slot lvl above 1st. (IT’S A FAMILIAR! IT’S SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON).

4-4. Fix the gaming mechanic for it casting your touch spells. Move the familiar’s Initiative to always come after the caster’s or wrap their turns together, and drop the requirement of using the caster’s reaction. The way it is currently slows the game. This isn’t a big deal because unless you have healing, you’re not doing this much anyway.

4-5. Allow the “Use their Senses” ability without requiring a standard action (either bonus action or none at all). In reality, this would 90% be used to gain dark vision (Dark vision, that thing that almost all characters have already, and if they don’t have, they buy goggles eventually). But come on, doing a cat-sniff-sense during a battle would be cute.

4-6. Add a “Still Mode” (as in 4e and as used in 5e for the UA Raven Queen Pact). When the familiar is parked on your shoulder (in your arms, etc), it can’t take regular actions/bonus actions/reactions, though it can still “talk” to you. In this state it cannot be targeted, except by you, and is immune to all damage. As a DM, you want this. Speeds up the game.

  • While in Still Mode, it grants you a “buff”- normally Advantage on one skill check based on kind of familiar (since it can’t be taking help actions any more). So, Perception (based on sight) from a Hawk. Stealth from a cat. Perception is the expected from an Owl, but I’d go symbolic and give History. Others have made lists for this—again, comes from 3 & 4e, where it worked if the familiar was up to a mile away. (I’ve listed possible buffs below.)
  • And if you won’t give #4-5’s “use their senses” without using up an action normally, do it when they are in Still Mode.

4-7. Level them. Add 1D4 to hits, +1 to saves, +2 to characteristics for each higher spell slot used. I am dubious on this, mainly because I think it adds complexity without real benefit. But, it’s what everyone suggests, and it shouldn’t hurt as long as you are using #3 (otherwise, it will be a meat-shield). I’d rather give them resistance to all damage and be done with it. Well, that and Immunity to Charm (Do this—no one should be able to take over your familiar).

4-8. Give the familiar spells. This can be done in cool ways without significant balance issues. Such as:

  • Give it only Non-Damage doing cantrips. Look, Spare the Dying sucks. No 5th level Cleric who isn’t a disappointment to his mother will have this thing. He’ll just use Healing Word. Or anyone in your party will use a medical check. But, having your Raven fly down and land on your chest to stabilize you is kinda cool. Also Dancing Lights, because it’s a fun-ish spell that no spell caster would waste concentration on—but imagine a cat casting it to then chasing the lights around. Give it one cantrip per spell level used to call it.
  • Give it low level spells from a list you choose (well, I’ve chosen one listed below). Give it spells that no caster would still have, like Sleep. Sleep is perfect as it’s of little value at high level, but it shouldn’t be completely forgotten. Plus, room for fun roleplay: You are ignoring your cat to talk to some guys in a pub. Cat decides to put them to sleep. Hey, familiar is loyal, but doesn’t mean it can’t be pushy. Sudden Awakening would be another good one. Also, defensive spells with range of Self—so only helps the familiar. Let this happen only when Find Familiar is cast as a 3rd level spell or higher so we know the chosen spells time is past..
  • Give it Detect Magic IT’S A FAMILIAR! THIS IS WHAT IT SHOULD BE DOING. Also other detection spells (Evil and Good).

4-9. Gives a plus to magic casting—either in the from of Disadvantage to your target’s spell saves (generally or for a specific type of spell), or you gain advantage on your spell saves when attacked, or a +1 to your spell DC. OK, this is different. Up to now, most of what I’ve suggested has been minor. This is major. This is the one that makes you keep around a familiar, This is where I’ll get accused of messing up balance and over-powering a spell even if I’m requiring a 5th level spell slot. So, some adjusting has to be done. 1st, I’d suggest this when the familiar is in still mode (so doesn’t work if he’s spying). Second, let’s think—there are things that already give this. Magic Items. And your familiar is magically connected to you. So, have it require an attunement slot. If you have a familiar called using a 4th level spot or higher, it uses up 1 attunement spot. So yes, a powerful ability, but that means no Staff of the Magi. Basically, Call Familiar at high levels becomes a much cooler way of getting a magic item, and yes, getting it via a familiar is cooler than going on a quest for an item because there’s more personality involved. Balance restored, and fun spell.

So – three ways you can go.

If Cautious – Spell Casting Familiar
Just adds some cantrips and a few spells. Very little effect on game or combat, but sparks up the fun a lot.

If Old-School – Buffing Familiar
Just adds Still Mode and skill buffs. Again, very little effect on game or combat, unless you add easy access to its senses, in which case, in practice, darkvision.

If Up for Change – True Familiar
Adds ability to aid spell casting but takes up an attunement slot.

 


My Homebrew Find Familiar

Here’s my version. Add to current spell:

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the familiar called gains the Arcana skill, gains one cantrip chosen from Prestidigitation, Thaumaturgy, or Druidcraft, gains the ability to attack, and gains Still Mode. In Still Mode the caster gains advantage on one skill dependent on the form of the familiar, and can switch to using the familiar’s senses without using an action. If the familiar dies, the caster is “mentally” poisoned until he makes 3 WIL saves.

The familiar gains +1 INT and may choose 1 cantrip (from the Familiar Spell list) for each slot level above 1st. Starting at slot level 3, it may gain a 1st level spell from the list (usable once per short rest) instead of a cantrip.

If you cast the spell using a 5th level slot or above, you may choose one school of magic; when your familiar is in Still Mode, opponents have disadvantage when saving from your spells of that school. This uses one attunement slot.

If you cast the spell using a 7th level slot or above, you may chose a +1 to your spell DC instead of choosing a school of magic.

Familiar Spell List

Cantrips
• Blade Ward
• Control Flames
• Dancing Lights
• Encode Thoughts
• Friends
• Gust
• Mending
• Mold Earth
• Shape Water
• Spare the Dying

1st Level
• Alarm
• Animal Friendship
• Charm Person
• Comprehend Languages
• Detect Evil and Good
• Detect Magic
• Disguise Self
• Expeditious Retreat
• False Life
• Sense Emotion
• Sleep
• Speak with Animals
• Sudden Awakening

Familiar Buffs (in Still Mode)

All Buffs are in addition to one for Arcana. Each buff is advantage on the stated skill check.
Almiraj: Survival
Bat: Perception related to hearing
Cat: Stealth to move silently
Crab: Intimidation
Frog: Nature
Hawk: Perception related to sight
Monkey: Investigation
Lizard: Athletics to climb
Octopus: Stealth to hide
Owl: History
Poisonous snake: Deception
Quipper: Athletics
Rat: Perception related to smell
Rabbit: Acrobatics/Strength for jumping
Raccoon: Slight of Hand
Raven: Performance
Sea horse: Acrobatics in water
Tressym: Acrobatics for balance
Spider: Medicine
Weasel: Perception related to hearing or smell

Apr 122020
  April 12, 2020

I fell into an Easter Youtube Rabbit Hole. Was listening to one version of Heaven On Their Minds (my favorite song from Jesus Christ Superstar), which led to another which led to another. So I ranked 29 of them.

And you can find a lot of them: Broadway Cast; London Cast; Italian; Korean; Swedish. There are more then I’ve listed. I didn’t include any version that was technically too poor to judge with the others (and skipped a few where it was a less professional version that would have rated low as that seemed mean). And then I skipped a few I couldn’t figure out what they were from.

After a while I got lost in them, so I’m sure of the top 3 and bottom 6, but after that it’s confusing. None are bad, and anything above #23 is good. Hey, I’ve got them all here so you can judge for yourself, assuming you’ve got nothing to do. Listen to a few…or twenty.

Heaven On Their Minds (with links):

 

#29 – Queensrÿche (2007)

 

#28- Jodie Steele (2015)

 

#27 – Alírio Netto (2019)

 

#26 – Brandon Victor Dixon (2018)

 

#25 – Stephen Tate (1972)

 

#24 – David Gallegos (2016)

 

#23 – Josh Young (2012)

 

#22 – Jerome Pradon (2000 film)

 

#21 – Drew Sarich (2005)

 

#20 – Peter Johansson (2014?)

 

#19 – Jon English (1972)

 

#18 – Jon Stevens (1992)

 

#17 – Zubin Varla (1996)

 

#16 – Hannah Zazz (2018)

 

#15 – School of Rock (2018)

 

#14 – Traq (2013)

 

#13 – Roger Daltrey (1996)

 

#12 – Fabrizio Angelina (2006) – Italian

 

#11 – Carl Lindquist (2015)

 

#10 – Tim Minchin (2012)

 

#09 -한지상 MV? (2015?) – Korean

 

#08 -Patrick Martinsson (2008?)

 

#07 – Ben Vereen (1971)

 

#06 – Martin van der Starre (2012)

 

#05 – Tyrone Huntley (2016)

 

#04 – 최재림 MV? (2015?) – Korean

 

#03 – Jan Dulles (2005)

 

#02 – Carl Anderson (1973)

 

#01 – Murry Head (1970)

 

And the list again without the links as it might be easier to read:
#28 – Queensrÿche (2007)
#27 – Jodie Steele (2015)
#26 – Alírio Netto (2019)
#25 – Josh Young (2012)
#24 – Brandon Victor Dixon (2018)
#23 – Stephen Tate (1972)
#22 – David Gallegos (2016)
#22 – Jerome Pradon (2000)
#20 – Drew Sarich (2005)
#19 – Peter Johansson (2014?) – Swedish
#18 – Jon English (1972)
#17 – Jon Stevens (1992)
#16 – Zubin Varla (1996)
#15 – Hannah Zazz (2018)
#14 – School of Rock (2018)
#13 – Traq (2013)
#12 – Roger Daltrey (1996)
#11 – Fabrizio Angelina (2006) – Italian
#10 – Carl Lindquist (2015)
#09 – Tim Minchin (2012)
#08 – 한지상 MV? (2015?) – Korean
#07 – Patrick Martinsson (2008?)
#06 – Ben Vereen (1971)
#06 – Martin van der Starre (2012)
#05 – Tyrone Huntley (2016)
#04 – 최재림 MV? (2015?) – Korean
#03 – Jan Dulles (2005)
#02 – Carl Anderson (1973)
#01 – Murry Head (1970)

Apr 122020
  April 12, 2020

Good Easter films are hard to come by. It’s not really a shock as the drama of the story is pretty much over by the time we get to Easter. Still, Hollywood should have been able to do better. Have you tried sitting through The Greatest Story Ever Told? So unless you are a fan of torture porn (ah, that Mel Gibson), you could use a bit of guidance. Enter me, and my list of nine films to watch at Easter.

#9 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – It’s magical fantasy, with a Jesus allegory lion. Yup, there’s even an allegory Crucifixion and rising from the dead.

 

#8 Easter Parade – OK, it actually is a pretty weak Fred Astaire musical, but it is still a Fred Astaire (and Judy Garland) musical, so it has its moments, in particular, they sing the song Easter Parade. Now THAT’s Easter.

 

#7. Chocolat – A chocolate shop may have more than mundane effects on a traditional French village during Lent. Yup, Easter is relevant.

 

#6. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit – As far as quality this one goes higher on the list. It’s charming on every level. You get all the goodness of Wallace and Gromit plus an homage to the old Universal monster movies. It’s connection is a bit tenuous, but bunnies play a big role, so if Easter is all about bunnies, you’re set.

 

#5 Jesus Christ Superstar – More of a pre-Easter film, Jesus Christ Superstar has some great songs and emotional moments, plus politics and religion and philosophy.

 

#4 Harvey – A happy man with a giant invisible rabbit as his best friend upsets his uptight family. This may be Stewart’s best performance. It is certainly his most unusual. Not an Easter film? It has a giant rabbit! What more do you want?

 

#3 The Ten Commandments – So it doesn’t have that much to do with Easter, directly, but somewhere network execs forgot that and it has become an Easter Tradition. It’s the best of the over-the-top Biblical epics. If you like your God movies turned up to 11, this is the one you want.

 

#2 The Life of Brian – Perhaps the smartest comedy ever made. If you are going to make a movie about torturing a guy to death on a cross, this is the way to do it.

 

#1 The Wicker Man – Does any movie have more to say about sacrifice and the importance of religion in society? It’s all about Spring, plus, there’s music. Gather the kids and enjoy. (OK, if you don’t know it, maybe don’t gather the kids.) Note, I’m talking about the ‘70s original, not the horrendous Nickolas Cage remake.

Feb 262020
 

chuck-jonesThis is different from my normal Director’s Lists as Jones is not known for features, but for animated shorts. But then he’s also the greatest director of shorts, and arguably of animations of any length, so definitely a man who needs to be included.

A majority of his career was spent at Warner Bros., working on Loony Tunes/Merrie Melodies. He created Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, as well as Pepé Le Pew, but his greatest achievements were with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, shifting Bugs and wildly changing Daffy away from their chaotic, loony origins. Jones also focused on the music, using it not just for background or emphasis, but using it as the story, and no one did it better. Some of the praise must go to writer Michael Maltese, with whom he often collaborated.

My list is almost all Warner Bros. cartoons (it would be completely so if I didn’t cheat and include one work that didn’t have a theatrical release), but then Jones himself said his best work was for Warners. This list can also be used as a Best of Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies, as my top 10 of those would be the Jones films below with the addition of one Robert McKimson (Hillbilly Hare) to replace the non-WB film, though in a numerically higher slot.

As always, a few Honorable Mentions: Firstly, For Scent-imental Reasons (1949), as I needed one Pepé Le Pew film, and this one won an Academy Award; then one for The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950), an all out Daffy extravaganza; and finally High Note (1960), a musical short where the notes on a sheet of music come alive, and one gets drunk.

And as there are so many films (and as Jones created more masterpieces than any other director of any kind), I’m making this a list of 10 instead of my normal 8.

#10 – Hair-Raising Hare (1946) — “Monster’s are such interesting people.” With a castle, “Peter Lorre,” and Gossamer, this is a must for every Halloween.

#9 – Long-Haired Hare (1949) — The first of three opera-related films on this list, with Bugs declaring war on an unpleasant opera singer. The long-note prank is an all-time classic. And yeah, we get an America v Europe metaphor here.

#8 – Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953) — A parody of Buck Rogers, with Daffy fighting Marvin the Martian. My favorite use of Porky as Daffy’s smarter sidekick. This is a masterwork based on set design alone.

#7 – The Hunting Trilogy (1951-1953) [Rabbit Fire (1951), Rabbit Seasoning (1952), Duck! Rabbit, Duck! (1953)] — “Pronoun trouble.” Is it duck season or rabbit season? This is the iconic Bugs v Daffy conflict, and while Bugs mostly wins, the films belong to Daffy and his reactions. A bit of a cheat, but if I take one of them, I want them all.

#6 – Rabbit of Seville (1950) — The second opera cartoon on this list, with Elmer chasing Bugs onto a stage. It’s non-stop physical comedy combined with some great musical gags. How many kids’ interest in classical music started here?

#5 – Feed the Kitty (1952) — How do you get so much emotion into a 7 min animation? The kitten is adorable, and the dog is relatable. This was Eugie’s favorite cartoon.

#4 – How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) — My second cheat on this list as this is a TV special. It’s also the only version of this story you need to watch. The lines are great, the songs memorable, and Boris Karloff owns it.

#3 – Duck Amuck (1953) — One brilliant joke after another, while also giving us top notch character work, and, if you want it, enough philosophical ponderings to fill a college class. What is reality anyway?

#2 – One Froggy Evening (1955) — A musical animation (though only with a little opera this time) that’s a parable on greed told through a singing and dancing frog. This may be the cruelest of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies.

#1 – What’s Opera, Doc? (1957) — My choice for the pinnacle of animation, it has Elmer hunting Bugs, in full Wagnerian opera-mode, and Wagner has never been better. I can’t choose what works best: the opera(s) parody, the wild gags, or Elmer’s sadness when he finally gets what he’s always wanted. This is perfection.

Feb 182020
 
three reels

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is no longer with the Joker, which means everyone who hates her feels free to try and kill her. Top of this long list is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), also known as Black Mask, a rising crime lord, though he’s even more concerned with picking up a MacGuffin diamond, which has ended up in the stomach of a MacGuffin teen, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Harley wants the diamond, and thus the kid, to get everyone off of her back. Police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) wants both to make a case against Sionis. Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), also known as Black Canary, doesn’t particularly want either, but would prefer if Cain wasn’t killed, and The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is on a revenge quest and just crosses paths with the others. Eventually, these four women will have to team up, though not for a long time.

Margot Robbie is spectacular as Harley Quinn. She was before in Suicide Squad and she is now. She’s funny, sympathetic, and exciting. Get her on screen, and even bits that are scripted dryly become a lot of fun, which is handy as the script could use some punching up. But who cares as long as you’ve got Harley. Ewan McGregor is a hell of a lot of fun as Roman, mixing effete and nerdy and psychotic into a nice ball that is an excellent foil for Harley. Yes, like Robbie, he isn’t given the greatest lines, or the best things to do, but he elevates what he has. Harley v Roman is top flight entertainment, and with solid fight choreography, some nice tunes, and themes worth the time, Birds of Prey is headed toward being topflight entertainment.

Of course it never gets there. This is a DC film; what did you expect? They had an easy win here, but they just couldn’t bring it home. The problem, as an astute reader would have deduced from the previous paragraph, is that sometimes, Harley Quinn and Roman Sionis aren’t on screen. Most of Roman’s dirty deeds are performed by his henchman Zsasz, who is so generic I didn’t include him in my synopsis. He’s as memorable as Henchman #16, yet he get more screen time than Roman. On the other side we have The Birds of Prey, who for 80% of the film are not with Harley, so have to carry their own scenes, and they don’t. They are a void. Black Canary has some charisma though not much personality, which puts her way out front. Huntress is a non-entity, an empty spot where a character should be. And Montoya is a sad ‘80s cop stereotype. Yeah, they realized that and hung a lampshade on it, but pointing out that she’s a rotten character does not make her less of a rotten character. And her scenes take up so much time. The kid is a nothing as well, but she is a walking MacGuffin, so I can let her off the hook. If this was all they were going to do with the three Birds of Prey, why put them in the movie? Harley could have held up her end just fine.

Part of the reason the three are so bland is that they are in a movie with Harley. Most any character is going to look dull next to her, so you need to turn things up, and they didn’t. Sure, the theme here is abused—and therefore damaged—women taking control (not that they do much with that besides saying “Rah! Rah!”), but that doesn’t mean they have to reflect real-world people. Harley isn’t real. She’s amped-up reality, representing someone with trauma, not replicating one. So do that with the others. Montoya is driven to prove herself and is an alcoholic. Fine; raise that to Harley levels so that she’s a drunken master with bottle tossing skills. For Huntress, lets see some wild, cruel, over-the-top, revenge. And for Black Canary… OK, she’s pretty much mentally stable, so who knows. But they needed something. Anything.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn has a so-so script, a clichéd plot, and workman-like direction. There’s nothing special except for Robbie and McGregor. They’re left carrying the entire movie, even the parts that are over-sized anchors, and they do a good job of it. Imagine if they’d gotten some help.

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Feb 152020
 

LeslieHowardHoward was a major star of early film, and a gifted actor, playing romantics, egotists, detectives, scholars, and even a swashbuckler, but he is primarily remembered for his gruesome role as the effete Ashley in Gone With the Wind. His legacy deserves better. Hollywood never quite figured out what to do with him. He was handsome, with a fine clear British accent, but he didn’t fit into the newly developing molds.

He started acting as therapy after he was discharged from the military during WWI. And so his career was framed by the great wars as he died when his plane was shot down by the Germans in WWII.

I’ll give a mention, if not clearly honorable, to Of Human Bondage (1934). It has multiple flaws and Howard is just so-so, but it has a memorable performance by Bette Davis that showed the world that she was an expert at portraying cruelty. An honorable mention to Captured! (1933), a prisoner of war film that slips in melodrama and Film Noir.

The first of two dishonorable mentions goes to Romeo and Juliet (1936), where thirty-four-year-old Howard, thirty-four-year-old Norma Shearer, and fifty-four-year-old John Barrymore prance around pretending to be teenagers. And a larger one goes to Gone With the Wind (1939), a racist and ridiculous melodrama (My critique). To his credit, Howard knew the film was garbage. “I look like that sissy doorman at the Beverly Wilshire, a fine thing at my age.” But the money was good and he had use for it, which I’ll get to below.

His top 8 films:

#8 – Devotion (1931) — The first of two on this list that, upon reading the description, I’d assume to be wild, farcical, romantic comedies, but are played as light romances with only the occasional bit of humor. In this one, a pretty rich girl (Ann Harding) falls at first sight for a barrister (Howard), so puts on an old-lady disguise and gets a job as his son’s nanny.

#7 – ‘Pimpernel’ Smith (1941) — Howard hated working on Gone With the Wind as well as his performance, but he had a good use for his salary. He financed and directed this updating of The Scarlet Pimpernel, swapping the French revolution for Nazi Germany.

#6 – Reserved for Ladies (1932) — This one seems completely forgotten, which is a shame as it is a good deal of fun. A head waiter for the rich and famous (Howard) falls for a high society girl and pursues her. His friendship with a king makes everyone believe he’s royalty. The film’s failing is it doesn’t know if it wants to be a romantic comedy or straight romance, but it is light, good-natured fun. Elizabeth Allen as the love interest is charming and I wished she’d been used better in her career.

#5 – 49th Parallel (1941) — This was the second film made by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, later known as The Archers. It’s a brilliant propaganda piece meant to influence the American public. It follows the survivors of a U-boat in Canada as they work their way toward the safety of the neutral USA. It strangely both humanized the enemy, while showing them as an evil that had to be stopped. Howard is one of multiple stars playing those they run into along the way.

#4 – The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) — It’s a bit slow and stiff, and I barely call it a Swashbuckler, but it’s powerful and memorable, and led to a stream of hero-disguised-as-fop films.

#3 – It’s Love I’m After (1937) — An unfairly forgotten farce, with Howard as a ham actor in a tempestuous relationship with Bette Davis’s equally over-the-top actress; it was their third collaboration. Both are naturals at playing hams. Olivia de Havilland, looking like a teenager, plays a girl obsessed by Howard’s Basil Underwood. [Also on the Olivia de Havilland list]

#2 – Pygmalion (1938) — Howard’s finest performance, he is perfect as the arrogant, elitist, controlling, yet occasionally charming Higgins. No one has come close. Wendy Hiller is also at her best as Eliza.

#1 – The Petrified Forest (1936) — Thematically, a mix of philosophy, crime, and personal searching. Howard’s a wandering poet who ends up in a last-chance diner, with locals, rich folks, and criminals. He was a star and wouldn’t take the part unless a little-known Humphrey Bogart was also cast, giving Bogart his shot. [Also on the Humphrey Bogart list]

 

 

Dec 312019
 
one reel

Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) sends his X-Men—Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee)—on a dangerous mission into space for…reasons…in an airplane that definitely can’t go into space, but does anyway. There, a lot of CGI happens, and afterward, Jean acts like she’d like to have some fun, which makes Cyclops suspicious because… just because. It seems she has absorbed the ultimate power in the universe, or something like that—it isn’t really explained—and that makes her libel to blow up people. After the X-Men get in a fight with her for…reasons…she goes off to see Magneto (Michael Fassbender) for…reasons. Then an alien (Jessica Chastain) comes to chat with Jean because…sure, why not? And then there’s more CGI. So… Yeah, that’s about it.

I expected Dark Phoenix to be bad. The Dark Phoenix storyline from the comics is very long, very convoluted, occasionally goofy, and only works because you have years of Jean being a dull prude, so her breaking free and going wild was an event. Of course they can’t do that with a movie, so they were going to have to chop it to something very simple. They did that before with X-Men: The Last Stand, and it didn’t work out well, and I had no reason to think it would this time. They’d already introduced the phoenix force in a previous movie in a way that suggested they were going to repeat past mistakes, but then I’d heard they were going to just drop that continuity and start over (which they did), and that seemed worse.

The last few X-Men films had put the series on a wrong track, and then Dark Phoenix had substantial production problems before they panicked about similarities with Captain Marvel and reshot the last act. Nothing says quality like ditching the entire direction of your film and replacing it with whatever random thing you could think of in the middle of the night. I saw Sophie Turner hit the talk show circuit only to have the film pulled from the release schedule a few days later. Clearly Fox had no confidence in the picture, nor did its new owner, Disney. I also knew that Jennifer Lawrence, now being a big star, no longer had interest in the project, nor sitting in a makeup chair—the result being the worst makeup in X-Men franchise history, looking like something from a lower budget 1950s film, and Mystique being written out of the story early simply so that Lawrence only had to be on set a few days. I’d also heard that they rewrote the nature of the villain while shooting (and reshooting).

So yeah, I expected it to be bad.

But it wasn’t what I expected. I expect huge, ridiculous moments. I expected something silly. I expected the likes of X-Men Origins: Wolverine or The Last Stand. No, what I got was emptiness. It isn’t bad in the way something is when people make stupid decisions or freak out when their plans fall through. It’s just tired. It’s as if everyone trudged to work each day, moaning softly and longing for bed. It’s as if the writers could barely lift a pencil. It’s like director Simon Kinberg was slumped forward in his chair, whispering “cut” before falling to the floor. Sophie Turner was there, at least it body, no doubt carried by slaves of the pit from set to set, and then left, uncertain of where she was, or even if she was. James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult seem too exhausted to say their lines, or look up. Maybe they were dreaming of a needle and the cold oblivion it brings. I can only assume that Michael Fassbender paused in his daily planned suicides to creep from his trailer to the set, yet, being Michael Fassbender, he’s still pretty good (that’s the only time “good” will be used in reference to this film). I’m not sure Jennifer Lawrence did show up. It seems clear that editing was done, with hundred year old equipment located in limbo, by insomniacs whose eyes no longer focus as they hold heavy rusted blades above the slowly moving film stock that never stops for all of eternity.

Maybe Dark Phoenix wasn’t made by a human-run film company at all. It sits in the shadows between life and death and the wind never blows, where there is no joy, no energy, and no care.

I’m not saying that Dark Phoenix is depressing, or at least much more than other X-Men films. “Depressing” is an attribute, and it has no attributes. There needs to be life for depression. Dark Phoenix doesn’t live. It exists, though I suspect most of those involved don’t care, or perhaps aren’t even aware. It’s not that they wish it didn’t exist—that would suggest some level of engagement. They don’t dislike Dark Phoneix, nor hate it, any more than I do. There is power in hatred, and there’s no power here. There is nothing here. Dark Phoenix is the void outside the realm of cinema.

My 1 star rating says to skip it, but that’s too strong a statement. You should skip bad films. You should see good films. This is neither. See it, or don’t see, but don’t try to do either of those things. No one involved tried to do anything. Why should you?

 Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Dec 202019
 
two reels

All the galaxy knows that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has returned and has a huge fleet at a secret Sith base which he plans to use to conquer the universe. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), with help from Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) hunt down information on the location of that base so they can stop him. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) also wants to stop him as there can be only one supreme leader, and his plans involve Rey. Leia Organa is also around…just because, and Rose occasionally pops her head in

Ah, what the hell, let’s just restart the trilogy. That’s what the poorly titled The Rise of the Skywalker does. The last two movies matter for character, but for story, not at all. We start with new villains, a new threat, a new big bad, and a new quest. We meet new allies, and are given new histories. By “new” I mean re-purposed, but they’re not the ones from the last two films. So we start all over, jump around with multiple climaxes till we reach the grand finale. Yes, it isn’t just a new start, but an entire new trilogy in one flick.

Actually, it plays like a serial. Star Wars was based on ‘30s & ‘40s serials and no Star Wars film has ever been closer to that source. For a good portion of the runtime, its three friends off on adventures. This is also when the film works best. It’s fun and exciting and quite mindless, with some great banter between Poe and Finn. Poe gets the award for most improved as his digs and sarcasm are pure gold. And of course there’s lots of running, fighting, things blowing up, and general action mayhem. But it’s just adventure serial fun. The Last Jedi tried to be more. The Rise of Skywalker puts in real effort to be less.

Where is does rise is in the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. Whatever heart and depth the film has is with them. Their interactions, no matter the form, resonate. Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley have fantastic chemistry together, more than in the previous two films.

Of course this is J.J. Abrams, the man whose main skill as a director is “borrowing” from other directors, and he plies that craft with enthusiasm. As should be a surprise to no one, he starts with a copy of Return of the Jedi as all the new trilogy films have copied the original trilogy ones. But of the three new films, this one resembles its foundation the least—though it is still noticeable. No J.J. isn’t making a remake or a re-imagining. He’s got more swiping to do. He (clearly with the support of Disney) just grabs everything he can from the older films. I’d call it fan service, but is it still fan service if everything is fan service? There are multiple characters who exist in the film only because they existed in earlier films. We have captures like we did before. We have escapes like we did before. We visit planets because we visited them before. J.J. seems scared to death to do something new. This makes the ending disappointing, though it should be expected. In 1977, or 1983, or even 1999 I might have been more excited, but I’ve seen it too many times, and the entire last third of the film is so blatant about everything happening because that’s what happened before. Apparently, Star Wars is always the same.

Funny, I felt it was quite different in 1977.

J.J. also does his best to ignore The Last Jedi. He undoes several important points from that film, and shifts characters’ personalities. Rose is also sidelined, even though she could have easily replaced several of the new characters in scenes. He may have done this in response to fan-boi whining, or just because that wasn’t his story. It doesn’t matter why, though it is annoying. However it is less annoying than it might be if The Rise of Skywalker was a weightier film.

Another problem was forced upon him. The death of Carrie Fisher left a hole, and it is noticeable. Since all of her shots were leftovers from the last two films, for her scenes the script couldn’t be what was best for story or character, but whatever could stitch together the frames they had. The result is underwhelming.

For two-thirds of the way, they had me. Oh, I’d seen it all before but it was fast and fun and engaging, and I can excuse a good deal of pandering. But the last third, particularly the scenes without Rey and Kylo were a bridge too far. Taken piece by piece The Rise of Skywalker is a better film than Rogue One, which was a mess for a full half. But you’ve got to stick the landing.

If my review sounds dire, remember this is a Star Wars film and I’m grading on a curve. It looks great. Not The Last Jedi great, but The Force Awakens great, and that’s a high mark. The music is thrilling. The CGI is stunning. The sound is awe inspiring. And unlike the first six films in the series, the acting isn’t a detriment. It’s cheap, lowest common denominator fun. Who doesn’t like cotton candy?

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)