Thursday, February 14, 2013

Werewolf Bar Mitzvah! Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection Overview



"Spooky, scary. Boys becoming men. Men becoming wolves." 

The fabled "Happy Place" that insecure, downtrodden folks retreat to in times of stress very often takes cinematic form, not just eating form. When I was a wee shrub of eighteen and alone at college some years back, away from home for the first time and possessing the well-adjusted social skills of your average dark-dwelling cave fish, mine were full episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000  scrapped together from various YouTube channels. Then during one of my unemployed stints following graduation, I turned to old episodes of Hey! Arnold. Helga G. Pataki understands existential angst better than any Saturday morning cartoon character. In my  discombobulated teen years, The Big Lebowski was my mainstay.

I still turn to all of these various outlets on different occasions, sometimes when I'm blue, and other times when I'm simply in the mood for them because they're great.

One cinematic outlet--or series of outlets, I should say--that has pretty much always been there for me intermittently over the years, from very early pre-adolescence on, are the Universal Classic Monsters. They're misfits, like we all think we are especially when outgrowing childhood, but they're misfits with style, and with power. And in those very early '30s flicks, they seemed to exist in an otherworldly plane all their own, with a mish-mash of time and setting. You could ride a horse-drawn carriage through gothic 18th Century terrain, but still wear the saucy bobs and shorter skirts we associate with the '30s.

And so while suffering bravely through my current bout of unemployment, I decided the logical course of action was blowing almost $90 on the new Blu-Ray collection of the eight essential Classic Monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Phantom of the Opera, and Creature From The Black Lagoon.

I have no regrets.

(I've also been watching a lot of Roseanne.)

Inbetween my busy schedule of staring at the computer screen with my mouth open hoping jobs would magically appear and deciding between hot fudge sundaes or dignity, I watched all the movies in the set, and most (but not all) of the bonus features on each disc. I've seen these flicks all before, of course, but wanted them fresh in my mind before reviewing. Plus I spent a lot of money with my non-existent budget, so I better watch 'em all, at least once. I'm going to try gazing critically at these movies through the prism of my childhood idolatry, and see if I can be objective about these lumbering, psychopathic friends of mine.

First things first, the packaging sorta sucks. I hate the slidey-pocket deal, since I think it's easier for the discs to scratch and fall out (that's already happened a couple times. Is there no place for a budding film critic with butter fingers?).

As for the features on the discs, well...they're okay. I enjoyed most of them, but the problem is, they're almost all from Universal Home Studio's programs made some twenty years ago, and they feel a little dated in ways that, oddly, the movies themselves don't. I wish with the new collection we could get some new infotainment. I'll try going into more specifics with some of the features when I actually review the separate movies...this very instant!

DRACULA (1931)
dir. Tod Browning
Starring Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler, Edward Van Sloan, David Manners




This was only my second viewing of Dracula, and although I was of course taken with Lugosi's Count, I realized for the first time how thoroughly Dwight Frye dominates the movie. Save for Frye and Lugosi, Dracula is not as thrilling as the other '30s movies here. The opening scenes at the castle are of course terrifically moody (although, why the armadillos? Why the tiny bee in its tiny bee-coffin?). The eerie, languorous pacing that matches the cadences to Lugosi's accented speech possess a unique courtly terror. Save for the scenes on the storm-ridden ship and Karl Freund's long tracking shot of Dr. Seward's asylum that culminates in Renfield's screams, no other sections of the movie match that early introduction to Dracula and his brides.

That isn't to say the rest of the movie is bad, and Carfax Abbey's set is mind-boggling, but this more than any of the other classic monster movies has the feel of the stage work that precedes it. Too much takes place in the stuffy drawing room in the Seward estate, and the useless buffoonery of David Manners as Jonathan Harker doesn't help. Manners, lord love 'im, was usually counted on as the biggest disappointment in the Universal Horror movies he was in. Perhaps he was useful for subversive directors like Browning and Freund to subtly hint that the ingenue--be it delicate Helen Chandler here or mysterious Zita Johann in The Mummy--isn't exactly rewarded with a life of sexy excitement for escaping the lustful paws of their monsters. It was either one way or the other: a degraded life of sensual slavery with the baddie, or an eternity of blandness with barely-there Davy. Hardly a fair choice.

Luckily, I don't think Manners was ever quite so insufferable again, and I was more charmed this time around by Chandler's ethereal spaciness than in my first viewing (where I tended to agree with Pauline Kael that Chandler's "too anemic" to attract a vampire). Edward Van Sloan makes a good, dependable Van Helsing, Herbert Bunson is an indifferent, stuffy Dr. Seward, and I enjoyed the outsized cockney caricature that was Charles Gerrard's Martin, up to a point.

But back to Frye: like I said, he dominates. He really pulls off something remarkable. His performance is immense, showstopping, and overwrought, yet he sells it so convincingly. At least to my untrained eye, there are no subtle tricks or shades he gives Renfield's madness, it's all played on a large, broad scale. Yet it's a heart-wrenching and giddy experience watching him, and there will never be another Renfield that touches him.

I do wish we could have had an early scene of Mina tending to Renfield at her father's asylum. That way she could have generated a little more interest in her character from the audience, and it would establish why Renfield is so preoccupied with protecting her in particular.

Dracula's disc has perhaps the best bonus feature, the Spanish version of the movie filmed at the same time on the same lot, but at night and with a Hispanic cast. I have to concur with critics that this is superior to the American version in dialogue and characterization, though it truly does not deviate too much from the original. However, save for Jose Soriano Voisca's more sensitive Dr. Seward (he seems actually concerned about his daughter, by Jove!) and the beautiful Lupita Tovar's more explicitly animalistic Eva, the casting falls a bit short. If only it were Lugosi in this version instead of the hammy Carlos Villarias, whose chief crime is a distinct lack of presence. Pablo Alvarez Rubio does a very respectable job as Renfield (his character is fleshed out far more satisfactorily here), but again, no one can touch Frye. And boy, oh boy, something about poor Jonathan Harker spells trouble. Barry Norton's Juan Harker is just about as helpless and foppish as Manners's.

The other features include, like on all the discs, little mini-documentaries on the making of the movie and interviews with actors like Tovar (still beautiful some twenty years ago, and presumably still beautiful now for a 103-year old). However, I haven't the heart yet to watch Lugosi: The Dark Prince. I'm sort of scared of falling into a deep depression if I do.

FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
dir. James Whale
Starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Frederic Kerr




There's still a bit of a stagy feel to James Whale's first foray into Universal Horror, but I think that can be blamed mainly on the lack of score, which makes some of the action come off overly stage-bound (Dracula might suffer similarly, though I haven't watched with Philip Glass's new orchestrations yet). However, because we are more often taken place to place, from Frankenstein's laboratory to the countryside, to the Frankenstein's rambling estate, to mountain rocks and windmills, Frankenstein feels more spacious and cinematic than Dracula.

The ensemble cast is, by and large, superior to Dracula's. True, not much can be done with John Boles or Mae Clarke, but they are the goody-goody, luckless exceptions. For Clarke, I think the problem lies mostly with the bland way Elizabeth's written. Clarke could act, as evidenced by her performance as Myra in Whale's version of Waterloo Bridge released the same year. For all Valerie Hobson's performance as Elizabeth in Bride of Frankenstein hinges mostly on switching back-and-forth from hysteria to haughtiness, at least the script gives her something to chew on; no such luck for Clarke here.

Sexy, sexy Colin Clive is smoulderingly intense as Frankenstein, far more alert and sinister than the more watered-down and battered version of Henry we get in Bride (part of why Henry might seem so tired and overwrought in the sequel was Clive's ever-deteriorating health and descent into alcoholism). While Frye is absorbing and entertaining in the role of the hunchbacked Fritz, he is not around long enough or given enough depth or sympathy to be as compelling as his Renfield. However, the shot of him pulling up his sock before heading upstairs is a delightful example of James Whale's idiosyncratic attention to character detail.

To accurately gauge the effect of Karloff in this film, try to place yourself as an audience member in 1931. There had never been anything like him on the screen before. Lon Chaney and Conrad Veidt brought heart to their monsters, but the silent medium provided a healthy distance between audience and character. While many cite Karloff's original monster as the last truly great silent monster due to his lack of speech, I disagree. It's in the muted whimpers, conveying such disoriented longing, combined with those fathomless eyes and sunken cheeks, that makes the Monster such a grotesque yet accurate depiction of our own inner monster-children.

Despite some all-round excellent yet sometimes static camera work from Arthur Edeson and Paul Ivano, and a vaguely cheeky script (fortelling the all-out cheekiness of Bride) by John L. Balderston, the success of Frankenstein can largely be attributed to three mad geniuses: James Whale, Boris Karloff, and the grim man who basically wore surgeon's smocks and would eviscerate you if you showed up late: Jack B. Pierce and his make-up. However, one of the features on Wolf Man is dedicated to Pierce, so I'll expound on him in a couple movies.

THE MUMMY (1932)
dir. Karl Freund
Starring Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, Edward Van Sloan, David Manners, Arthur Byron



This could in fact be technically the best movie of the bunch. Taking into account plot, mood, cinematography, and writing, Mummy really is superior, even in this decade when the genre was still considered somewhat serious art, and not childish B-Movie fare. The pacing is disarmingly sleepy, which historians Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns, and Brent Armstrong claim on the commentary track can bore a modern audience. Yet the tension and eroticism builds.

I've written extensively on the Mummy's character here, but I really want to re-emphasize the stoic romanticism in Karloff's portrayal of a mummy brought back to life, obsessed with bringing back his lost love Princess. Karloff's second Universal Monster is much more lyrical, romantic, intelligent, well-spoken, and deliberately cruel than his first, and you know watching that the Monster was not a fluke, and Karloff is a star.

The mini-docs reveal what a truly fascinating character Zita Johann was. I knew, of course, she had great presence and was incredibly beautiful, although a trifle owlish-looking at some angles--but, y'know, a beautiful owl. And I had read, of course, of her belief in reincarnation and that she would pray in her dressing room before each performance, willing the spirit of her character to possess her.

But she was also a ballsy dame. Karl Freund, for all that he creates such a spooky atmosphere, was apparently a bit of a pill. As this was his first time directing, he tried making relative newcomer Johann his scapegoat if anything went wrong. Thus on the first day of filming, he told her they would begin by shooting her nude from the waist up, telling her so in hopes she would fly off the handle and he could blame any mishaps on her diva-like behavior.

Instead, Johann shrugged and said, "Okay. If you can get it past the censors, I'm game." She also didn't hesitate to tell him to "move the damn camera" when he informed her the camera was in the wrong spot for the angle she wanted to be filmed in. She also once called on Irving Thalberg, asking "why he made such trash." His answer: "For the money, Zita."

Her confidence really shines through in the dual role of Helen and the revived spirit of Anck-es-en-Amon. She's one of the only horror heroines I can think of who saves her own damn self, and articulates just why she doesn't want to go along with her undead lover's plans. Johann's performance has a lot of weight, and a lot of mysticism that has nothing to do with acting; according to the featurettes, once or twice throughout she had out-of-body experiences, believing herself truly the long-dead fictional princess. One time she passed out and came to to the sight of Karloff's thickly wrinkled face looming over her, but the deep eyes with the charcoal lines around them were concerned, not mesmerizing: "Zita, darling, are you all right?"

Manners is still pretty dunderheaded, but I reiterate, nothing's more hysterical than his Jonathan Harker, goofing about in knickers.

THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)
dir. James Whale
Starring Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O'Connor, E.E. Clive




James Whale really lets his wit fly this time, with generous help from his screenwriter, R.C. Sherriff (who also contributed to Whale's macabre comedy Old Dark House from the previous year). Invisible Man is in many ways a prelude to what Whale would bring to Bride of Frankenstein two years later, in its mix of comedy, light horror, and his usual British color. In Una O'Connor's hysterical crone wife of the innkeeper we see shadows of her hamtastic Minnie in Bride, and blustering E.E. Clive is on hand as, yet again, another incompetent, pompous constable. The exception to the fun is Henry Travers as Dr. Cranley. He's dreadfully wooden and ineffectual.

This is also the first Universal Monster movie that lacks that stagy feel, as the gimmick of an invisible man demands that we get to see him commit his evil hi-jinks in all sorts of different settings: an inn, a village, a country road, a field, a house, a barn in the snow, etc. The stable of aforementioned character actors, with their wildly varying social positions and dialects, also contributes to the feeling that more of England is involved than a lab and a drawing room.

Yet for all that Invisible Man is a wonderfully cohesive and respected picture, perhaps it is not as beloved on as wide a scale as Whale's two Frankenstein movies because at the center of its cynical charade of biting dialogue and idiotic villagers, the monster is not a misunderstood giant with the mind of a child, but really just a colossal dick. Sort of like Dracula! This certainly isn't a drawback or flaw, since Rains is so endlessly entertaining for a man we can't see, but we do lose some pathos when the persecuted monster is gleefully malicious and deserving of punishment.

Not that there aren't attempts to give him sympathy, and they don't all fail. So we don't think he's just a homicidal maniac who struck out with the greatest cover a crook ever chanced upon, we're told that the chemicals he used have the unfortunate side-effect of insanity, and he was overall a pretty amiable man of science before the unfortunate transparence business. We're also given luminously beautiful Gloria Stuart as his misty-eyed fiancee, his one soft spot. Although Stuart's character is a little wet, Rains is at his most moving and sympathetic when with her, while still maintaining his creeping insanity.

It's a shame Invisible Man isn't quite in the same pantheon of immortality as Frankenstein or Dracula, because Rains gives a performance just as worthy of note. With only his voice he conveys malevolent cunning and believable madness, yet touches such sensitive shades when in the scenes I've mentioned with Stuart. He's having a madcap ball, yet never forgets the intense evil that's been thrust into him by his own character's thoughtless ambition. All in all, due in great part to Rains's urbane monster and Sherriff's intelligent script, this is certainly the most sophisticated of the movies here, rivaled only by Mummy.

Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed is the best mini-doc in the set, combining biographical info on Whale with further details about his career and insight into the truly remarkable effects that went into turning Rains invisible (psst: lots of it involved standing in front of the set with everything covered in a black velvet).

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
dir. James Whale
Starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Valerie Hobson




While Dr. Praetorius is certainly urbane wit personified, I don't include Bride of Frankenstein in that tie between Invisible Man and Mummy for most sophisticated. It's too madcap, too campy, too parodic, too wildly disjointed and damn weird to be exactly sophisticated, per se.

Yet Bride works, doesn't it?

You could say no wrong about this movie to me in my early years. This was my movie. Just read my review here of the 1986 Bride with Sting and Jennifer Beals if you don't believe me. However, even though I still flinch when I hear it criticized (just as we do when even our most eccentric family member is ragged on by an outsider), I admit now that Bride of Frankenstein is not flawless. In fact, when it comes to coherent storyline and consistent characterization, I'd venture to say The Mummy and Invisible Man are the technically superior movies.

The varying settings are wonderful, including that forest the historians in the documentaries are infatuated with, those great, long branchless telephone pole trees and the light show on the tower's rooftop toward the end. But like I said, all the flurrying action and locations give the film a disoriented feel. Sometimes--though rarely--the humor falls a trifle flat. An early example of what modern moviemakers still haven't figured out, just because you have the ability for a certain special effect doesn't mean you should use that special effect; I speak obviously of Praetorius's little people in their jars, which I think is a total misfire. Embarrassingly bad humor and, again, disjointed.

Yet all in all, this is the most sheerly entertaining movie of its monster genre; possibly one of the most entertaining movies of all time.

Like Invisible Man, Bride escapes the confines of early monster movie staginess not only through a variety of sets and colorful townfolk, but through the magnificent score by Franz Waxman running through the entire movie. No one who watches forgets the Bali Hai-esque refrain for the eponymous Bride, and the haunting buoyancy it gives the action.

Very few could argue that the best scenes, maybe apart from the Monster's rehabilitation with the blind man, are those of the Bride's creation. In the original Frankenstein, the limited budget gave only a glimpse of the process creating the Monster, though the glimpse we got was effective enough. But here we feast on all sorts of ridiculous doo-dads, including but not limited to the cosmic diffusors, cosmic rays, and the bandaged Bride on her platform in the sky as kites explode around her, Waxman's heartbeat score pounding throughout. The lighting on Clive and Thesiger  as they watch from below in the lab gives them hollowed, ghoulish shadows under the cheekbones, highlighting their mutual descent into devilish god-like mania.

Bride also has the advantage of the most fluid ensemble acting of the movies thus far, slightly ahead of Invisible Man even. Gone is any stuffy staginess; even Gavin Gordon's R-rolling Lord Byron is hammy in a less stage-bound and more all-out operatic fashion. And you know what? Screw all you detractors, I love the hell out of Una O'Connor's Minnie. Maybe she just touches that soft spot I have for hysterical morbid old bats, but I adore her. "Insides is always the lahst to be consyewmed."

The three performers that truly elevate this movie to heights far above ordinary camp and ordinary horror are Karloff as a now haltingly speaking Monster, Thesiger as Praetorius, and Elsa Lanchester as The Bride. They each symbolize the different emotional aspects at play throughout: Theisiger evil, campy flamboyance, Karloff poignancy and heart, and Lanchester stylistic romanticism.

They're each slightly askew: Karloff may be the heart of the film, but he murders and growls like a beast; Theisiger may be a mad scientist, but he's awfully urbane and sarcastically detached for someone driving the plot, and Lanchester is beautiful, but in an unconventional, unearthly, elfin way, with Nefertiti'd lightning hair and long upward slashes for eyebrows. Obviously Lanchester is my personal live-through-her fixation (read more on that here), and I admit that's probably because she's the only major monster female we have to relate to in this early genre--although keep in mind, I haven't yet seen Dracula's Daughter. Though on screen for a pitifully short amount of time, even with her cameo as Mary Shelley in the beginning, Lanchester's bright, jerky performance helped cement this movie permanently into my consciousness, and that's why Bride of Frankenstein remains one of the best.

Not much stands out in the features, save for another mini-doc about the making of the film in question. I really wish Miss L. could have gotten a mini-doc all her own like the other monster actors, but limited screen time does that to you, no matter how great those eight minutes are.

THE WOLF MAN (1941)
dir. George Waggner
Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Evelyn Ankers, Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi




I had a bit of a hard time truly warming to this one for awhile, partly because I consider Werewolf in London a far superior and overlooked film. I've also had my share of objections to Lon Chaney Jr.'s schlubbiness as lead Larry Talbot, though the fact he resembles Huckleberry Hound does sound appropriate for the role. However, I've been able to reconcile that my issue lies not really with Chaney as an actor--he does have some fine, touching moments here, and gets even better in the sequels--but instead with what his Average Joe unexcitement symbolizes: the loss of stylized enthrallment found in monster movies of the '30s to the more hokey B-Picture mentality going into the '40s and onward. Wolf Man is a rather transitional film in this regard.

The setting and cinematography are still fantastic, the thick fog machines memorably drowning the forest scenes in a sense of dread as the black trees stand ominously throughout. So the mood and look are right, but overall the casting is Hollywood at its blandest. No one's really bad, but save for Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi in his short but pivotal scenes, there's no one to bring anything of weight to the proceedings. Ralph Bellamy as a British constable? Ralph Bellamy? Evelyn Ankers is certainly something to look at with her soft-focused features, shiny lips, eyes, and jewelry, but while competent, she too lacks excitement. And although Claude Rains's presence is always welcome and he does class up the joint, he looks as if he knows he doesn't have much to do and doesn't quite know what to do with that knowledge.

Chaney's casting as everyman Larry Talbot signifies that American producers and audiences were willing to relate to foreigners like Karloff up to a point, so long as Karloff plays a foreign monster to begin with. But for someone normal who trips unknowingly into an uncontrollable trap that ruins his average, harmless life, Americans want someone unfailingly, well, American in the role. Thus Larry, though born to an important, titled family in England, is conveniently abroad through most of his life, and is returning as much a Yank as any apple pie.

Despite that we're meant to relate to Larry as a good man before his tragic lupine encounter, I can't quite get over my initial repugnance to how he's introduced to us. He leers at Ankers through a telescope, pushes his presence on her, and really doesn't give a crap she's engaged, and it's all supposed to be charming and macho, especially in the twee English setting. However, this gives way to another reading of the plot, a reading I like better than the simplistic, Hitchcockian "sometimes bad things happen to good people" trope: Larry's already got the behavior of a wolf, and this is what comes of it (Bela Lugosi's werewolf howls and attacks a woman just as Chaney leans in for a kiss with Ankers).

So certainly there are many elements that work here, and I don't want to sound like I'm ragging on Wolf Man. Ouspenskaya in particular is spectacular as the gypsy mother of Lugosi, so battered down over the years with grief she's numb to it. Her otherworldly tones speak her sorrow far more than a million recitations of the "wolfbane" poem could. And Jack B. Pierce's makeup was never more effective. His Wolf Man face is a triumph. He perfected what he wasn't allowed to fully do in Werewolf of London thanks to star Henry Hull's vain reticence. The jutting lower jaw with its protruding fangs, combined with the fur-covered face and narrow snout transform Chaney so completely it really is terrifying. The snout is so obviously unreal with its button nose that it should jar, but instead it adds such a grotesque flourish we're convinced that out of all the monsters, the Wolf Man would evoke the most visceral terror if encountered in those woods in the deep of night.

As I mentioned earlier, in his featurette we learn more about Pierce's career, which sadly went downhill eventually. So devoted was he to the old-fashioned elbow-grease approach that he didn't take to the modern habit of prosthetics and special effects; thus he was booted out unceremoniously, relegated to less prestigious work on Mister Ed and such wretched Z-Movies as The Brute Man (why was he needed for that one? Poor Rando Hatton really didn't need makeup, did he?). Still, what a legacy, and Wolf Man to me is his crowning achievement.

The other major fact I learned from the featurettes was that Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak basically invented our modern understanding of the werewolf. He not only wrote the original Wolf Man, but the sequels Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Frankenstein, expanding on a mythology we take for granted as lore but that he actually created: the full moon, the silver bullets, the entire wolfbane poetics. There's some theory that as a persecuted Jew who fled from Nazi Germany, Siodmak wrote in the ever-present pentagram on a werewolf victim's hand as a symbol for the Star of David that forever had to be visible on Jewish citizens in the Ghettos. The descent of ordinary men like Larry Talbot into a bestial mania mirrored the ordinary youth of Germany suddenly transformed and brainwashed into Hitler Youth. Another interesting reading, though how conscious Siodmak himself was of his real-life terror seeping into his screenplays about wolf monsters is unknown (maybe this is where Rob Zombie got his inspiration for his faux-trailer Werewolf Women of the S.S. in Grindhouse?).

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943)
dir. Arthur Lubin
Starring Claude Rains, Susanna Foster, Nelson Eddy, Edgar Barrier



It goes without saying that Phantom feels the least like a Universal Monster movie, and is rightly dwarfed by the far superior '20s version with Chaney, Sr. The movie is entertaining, but certainly not in the bracing, tightly compelling way Bride of Frankenstein is. Phantom is an oddity because it doesn't fit neatly into either category of the other movies in this set: the auterish '30s nightmare-scapes, or the less mature but more boisterous B-fare of the '40s on. By focusing more on the music, the opulent Opera House set from the original Chaney movie, the weak comedy, and the blazing technicolor, Phantom feels much more like a big-budget, all-expense MGM costume extravaganza than a Universal horror movie.

Like Wolf Man, Phantom suffers from a uniformly unexciting cast. Nelson Eddy certainly has presence as the heroic but fatuous baritone, but is so wholesome yet somehow skeezy you feel a little icky watching him and equally wholesome-yet-somehow-skeezy Edgar Barrier ogle fresh-faced, eighteen-year-old Susanna Foster's Christine. Foster herself has an impressive set of pipes and I like the level-headed, career-oriented spunk writers Samuel Hoffenstein, Eric Taylor, Hans Jacoby and John Jacoby give her character, which is rare for most Christines. Foster has carriage and is likable in a Glinda the Good Witch way, but she was obviously moulded in the Deanna Durbin/Jeannette MacDonald nice-girl school of actress singers, so we get none of the breathless, haunted mania that the ethereally frizzy-haired Mary Philbin lent Christine in the Chaney Phantom. We feel no terror or possession from Foster, since she is never under the Phantom's spell and is only in peril in the film's last minutes.

So again, as in many a supporting role throughout his career, Claude Rains steps in as the Phantom to carry the thing. Rains is enormously effective, and brings a sickly realism to his Erique Claudin's madness. Unfortunately Rains pulled some Hull-esque nonsense, dictating he did not want a full treatment of makeup. So poor Pierce had to settle on something that looked like a half-cooked steak covering one portion of Rains's face in the big reveal.

If the dynamic between the Phantom and Christine here seems ickier than usual--even ickier than Eddy and Barrier's attentions--that's because in the original scenario the writers wanted Christine to be Claudin's long-lost daughter he's been caring for from afar. Studio execs ultimately and rightly judged this inclusion too incestuous, yet wrongly directed the writers to simply take out this revelation while leaving the rest of the screenplay intact. What remains is definitely a fatherly vibe from Rains as he speaks mad words of what we can now only interpret as romantic love to young, apple-cheeked Foster.

Because of the war muddling copyright laws, many of the "operas" we see are cobbled together from works by Tchaikovsky and the like. Marta is a real opera, though, so don't worry. I know that was troubling you.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)
dir. Jack Arnold
Starring Julie Adams, Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Nestor Paiva, Whit Bissell, Ricou Browning (uncredited), Ben Chapman (uncredited)




Full-on sci-fi B-Movie. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but boy, does this one drag in long stretches. Creature has the feel of an MST3K episode, since the majority is pompous, self-righteous white scientists expounding on the morals and ethics of science vs. men wanting to kill the shit out of things. That's just what MST3K movies at unfortunately their best often are. We also have present  MST3K vets like Richard Denning as the mean blond guy and Nestor Paiva, of the Load from Mole People fame. And I know I've heard that damned musical sting that accompanies almost every shot of the Gill Man--bwah-bwah-bwaaaaaaah!--in more than one Universal-International movie MST3K showcased. In fact, the sequel Return of the Creature actually was an episode.

The direction by Jack Arnold is mostly static, and perhaps appropriately the only big thrills go on underwater. The first time we see the Gill Man full-on, suddenly shooting up from the bottom of the screen watching the divers explore his watery domain, is pretty classic. And the shots of his scaly legs as he wanders silently around the boat are pretty chilling--you're uncomfortable and frightened on behalf of injured Whit Bissell when he sees the Gill Man's face through the porthole, Bissell helplessly trapped in bed and wrapped in bandages.

Yet there's no getting away from the fact the movie feels too episodic. We're basically watching the long process of concerned milky-white guys in swim trunks come up with faux-scientific ways to trap the monster, escape from him, and engage in testy debates about whether they should just go ahead and kill ol' Fish Face. Oh, and every once in a while Julie Adams is in peril.

If I sound too down on this movie, it's because this episodic, plodding pace seems stitched together too lazily, which Universal started doing too often around this time. Their philosophy apparently became, why bother creating something truly new when there are so many unique tidbits from earlier films we can pick and choose from? Why compose an original score when there's a whole library of monster music at our disposal? Why not pad out the scenes with a few innocuous shots from previous movies (I noticed this last night when I watched The Invisible Ray for the first time--many of the laboratory shots are taken from The Bride of Frankenstein. So I guess they'd been doing this since 1936.)? It all feels too hacked together, with no interest in character development. This was the first movie where I really had absolutely zero interest in the characters other than the monster, and even the Gill Man fails to generate nearly as much interest as the Frankenstein Monster, Wolf Man, and the like, save for his bitchin' costume.

And that costume is pretty ridiculously fabulous. Gill Man is the only monster in this set not created by Jack B. Pierce, and in a way the suit symbolizes everything Pierce rejected that got him canned: rubber and prosthetics that take away any human aspect to the face. And while they should have taken out the fake eyes in the land shots and allowed an eerie human gaze to peek out, the new makeup/costuming department creates a truly unique, disturbing, and still sympathetic monster in the Gill Man suit.

The featurettes were interesting enough, especially hearing about the uncredited Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman  who played the Gill Man in water and on land, respectively. A lot of time is devoted to the sequels, that got tawdrier yet more sympathetic to the Gill Man as they went along.

******

Like I said, I have no regrets purchasing this set.  I wish the features were more up-to-date, and I hope that someday Blu-Ray's quality can be more compatible with other lowly DVD players. Yet I love my monsters; I love the fantastical figures plopped down into a stylized, art deco reality, with the fog machines, brassy scores, and iconic performances therein. You can read as many socially framed schools of theory you'd like into these twisted tales, but at the end of the day, it's fun form of escapism. Always.

While late 2012/early 2013 hasn't been great  for me employment-wise, it's been pretty cool where monsters are concerned. I had a blast in October when I won tickets from the very generous Millie at ClassicForever to the Frankenstein/Bride of Frankenstein double feature TCM hosted in theaters nationwide. Hope they do that again this year. When all else fails, there are monsters.

So let me conclude this tribute with a relevant nod to the dearly departed 30 Rock:



 Play us out with the full version, Tracy and Donald Glover:




Happy Valentine's Day, I guess? Too bad I can't find that "Monster Mash"/Valentine's Day Simpsons clip! Can't have everything, unfortunately. But monster movies will do for now.

10 comments:

  1. Wow, Laura, you outdid yourself this Valentine's Day! This is such a beautiful, well-thought-out post that I hardly know how to comment on it--it deserves a proper response for each review.

    I think Mae Clarke was an underrated actress. Her scenes with Cagney in The Public Enemy prior to the whole grapefruit-in-the-face thing are great. She really sketches out the character (hopeful, ordinary, a little whiny) in just a few brief moments. Way more than Jean Harlow does with her character although to be fair, I do love Jean and she was still learning the craft.

    "It's in the muted whimpers, conveying such disoriented longing, combined with those fathomless eyes and sunken cheeks, that makes the Monster such a grotesque yet accurate depiction of our own inner monster-children." I'm going to take that sentence and find a frame for it.

    I love your description of Zita Johann in The Mummy (which I still haven't seen, shame on me).

    Of the films you review here, The Wolf Man is the one I've seen most recently and thus, the one I have the most thoughts about. I feel like Chaney Jr is just so much the big lug that it's hard for me to feel very much for him until the end. Though I'll admit, his final scene with Ankers where he sees the sign in her palm and whimpers, "I'm afraid"...that gets to me. But the film wastes Claude Rains in what should be a great tragic part because every time you see him, your mind just short-circuits at the thought of him and Chaney Jr being related. Hell, even the thought of them occupying the same universe is enough of a stretch. In my alternate Universal universe, I nominate Laird Cregar for the part since he was big, American (but with a beautiful voice), and able to tap into tragically monstrous characters with ease.

    And I know people have fond memories of The Creature from the Black Lagoon but I agree with you, I just can't get into the darn thing. It's too plodding and those scientists are so boring. Julie Adams may look great in that swimsuit but the script gives her nothing. Gill Man looks fantastic but pales in comparison to say, the far more expressive and heartbreaking King Kong.

    Again, great review, Laura, and I'm glad you decided to spend the money on this set so we could hear your thoughts. Happy Valentine's!

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Aubyn! I took a long time with this post, since I really wanted to do right by dem monsters, so I'm glad you think it paid off.

      Clarke was very sympathetic in The Public Enemy for her limited screen time. Harlow, bless her, came off a little...strange somehow. Gorgeous, but strange.

      Ironically, most of the movies in the set are currently streaming on Netflix, so if you have an account, Mummy's available. I forgot to mention there's a featurette on my disc promoting the 2000 Mummy film, and the onslaught of special effects made me appreciate all the more the "less is more" approach the original took in creating that creepy atmosphere.

      Hot damn, Cregar would have rocked Wolf Man. He'd probably have made Larry Talbot awkward yet compelling, admiring Ankers from afar, and right when he gets a chance to smooch 'er, he gets bitten--and boy, would he have sold hard Talbot's inner-torment. Oh, alternate reality time machine, where are you??

      Glad you agree with me on Creature from the Black Lagoon. More than a decade had passed since Phantom, and in the interim, monster movies just ain't what they used to be. There was still some great fun stuff going on, and I have a weakness for some of the better productions that showed up on MST3K, but I can't say Creature was one of them. I saw it for the first time only about a year ago, so maybe that has something to do with it. I don't have that idealized nostalgia surrounding it.

      Thank you again for your fascinating review, Aubyn! A happy V.Day to you, too!

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  2. Great post, Laura!

    I must be pretty crummy at being a film fan, because I still havent seen most of these eight classics!

    30 Rock's ended?! NNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

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    1. 30 Rock's ended?! NNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

      I know, right?! Nothing is the same now! Nothing!

      Thanks for the comment, Chris! Don't feel bad, if I had a penny for every classic I haven't seen, I'd, well, be super rich but a pretty terrible film buff.

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    2. Hmm, strange, the spaces in my comment are REALLY long! I wonder why Blogger does that to some comments. It's weird and kinda annoying!

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    3. That's all right, I just assumed you were really emphasizing your angst at 30 Rock ending, which would have been totally appropriate.

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  3. Very entertaining review of this boxed set! I love your description of the Universal monsters as "misfits." I never really found them scary...not like Chris Lee in the Hammer Dracula films. But while I still tend to favor Hammer, I enjoy the Universal films--warts and all (DRACULA is v-e-r-y slow). My favorite of this set is easily THE INVISIBLE MAN--Rains is great, Whale is quirkly, and some of the visuals are haunting.

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    1. Exactly! The Universal pics certainly didn't carry the scary wallop Lee's Dracula did, but it's hard to beat their moody atmosphere. Invisible Man is definitely one of the best, I really need to check out the sequel with Vincent Price.

      Thanks for your review, Rick!

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  4. The Invisible Man is among my very favorite films. I think that it might not be as well-known today as it once was because nobody ever made a kid's cereal out of it.

    I'm kind of irked at Universal for leaving Son of Frankenstein out of this set--not that I need it, though I do dream of upgrading to blu one of these days. Son of Frankenstein is so much better than the remake of the Phantom, Claude Rains not withstanding.

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  5. Yeah, Invisible Man dodged a lot of commercialization, aside from an Abbott and Costello movie and a goofy Invisible Woman comedy with John Barrymore (!). The fact he's, well, invisible probably makes him not as media-friendly as the Monster, Wolf Man, Dracula, etc.

    Son of Frankenstein obviously lacks that James Whale feel, but has so many classic moments I find it far more tolerable than the sequels that came after. And I can't help but love Basil Rathbone's almost comedic take on the frantic titular son.

    I'm pissed the Phantom remake made it onto the set instead of the original with Chaney. I already have that one on a separate DVD, so this is probably a better deal for me, but what gives?

    Thanks for your comment, Vulnavia!

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